One Watch and Two Reads…

I regularly receive links to articles and You Tube videos from Damo Mitchell’s Lotus Nei Gong School in the UK and recently received one to a video labeled “Yang Family Taijiquan.”

I clicked on it immediately, as in “Oh, my, goodness, here’s Damo doing the same type of taiji I do,” and I liked it so much that I’ve shown it to everyone I can get to watch it, whether on my cellphone or on a computer—and now I’m putting the link up here.

The video is a sampler of Damo doing a variety of Yang-style taiji practices in the woods in Sweden. He does a bit of “song” practice, where his arms look more liquid than solid, followed by movements from the form. When he does Snake Creeps Down, you see the snake—and I practically weep at how beautifully he performs a movement I can only sort of do. Then there’s “Yang Style Fa Li,” a twitchy sort of upper body practice which I’ve never before encountered, followed by segments of a sword form where Damo is wielding the longest sword I’ve ever seen.

In the course of an online search for the meanings of “song” and “fa li,” I found two excellent articles which I’d like to share as well.

According to Robert Chuckrow, “song,” pronounced “sung,” is a Chinese word that “refers to releasing all contractive muscular tension while maintain optimal structural alignment.” Chuckrow’s article “Taiji and Qigong,”, makes a strong case for practicing qigong as an adjunct to taiji, with more quickly learning to reach a deeper state of song being one.

“Fa li” is explained in “The Concept of Qi, Jing, Li, and Gong-Li,” by Tu-Ky Lam, The word “fa” has to do with releasing or issuing energy; “li” refers to the inborn strength we all have, or to partial force. Li practice involves only the hands and arms, as you’ll see in the Damo video.

However, I especially appreciated Lam’s discussion of what “qi” is—and whether feeling something to which you apply that label matters to your taiji training. Lam concludes that it doesn’t matter—but he points out that just because you may not feel anything doesn’t mean there’s nothing there.


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A Pathway to Balance

Balance has been a problem for me through all the years I have practiced taiji. I simply am not good at sitting the kicks.

When I first started, I thought the problem was my feet, and if I could only get the proper shoes, or the proper arch supports, I’d be fine.

Eventually I realized that the problem wasn’t just my feet. It was pretty much my entire body. It was the way I’d adapted to the curve in my spine. It was the way I’d allowed my head and neck to give in to gravity. It is very difficult to sit a kick when your body parts aren’t aligned.

But now I have a new pathway to balance.

In my last two posts I’ve talked about taking classes at the Yang Chengfu Tai Chi Chuan Center in Redmond. One of these classes is a taiji basics class taught by Master Yang Jun’s wife, Fang Hong. Laoshi (teacher) Hong is patient and kind. She also clearly knows her stuff.

So when she told us at the first class that standing on one leg for 5 minutes per leg per day would give us good balance, I decided to believe her, no ifs, ands or buts, and I made a commitment to myself to do it. Continue reading

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My Saber and Me

saberWhen I said, in my previous post, that I might be on a yangward journey, I did not write about one small, very yang thing:

My saber—and the fact that I am learning a taiji saber form, full of slashing, chopping and thrusts, with the occasional kick and hand blow thrown in.

When I studied the class schedule for the Yang Chengfu Tai Chi Chuan Center in Redmond a couple of months ago, I noticed they were offering a saber form class on a night I was free. I decided to sign up.

I cannot remember why it was that I thought I should take a saber class. Certainly I was forgetting that I had once learned a Chen-style sword form, but had decided to abandon it because I wasn’t spending enough time practicing it to keep it up.

But sign up for saber I did, and I am now perhaps halfway through learning a two-minute form. You wouldn’t think it would take eight weeks to learn one minute of movement, but it has, and I am not good. My moves are sloppy, my balance is poor, and I’m not yet feeling any qi, although that could be because the saber form is faster than the bare-hand form, and I have slow-moving qi. However, I am definitely beginning to feel the form’s potential for yangly fierceness. Continue reading

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A Yangward Way

Taiji Diagram: Yin contains yang, yang contains yin; yin ever becoming yang, yang ever becoming yin

Taiji Diagram: Yin contains yang, yang contains yin; yin ever becoming yang, yang ever becoming yin

My friend Karl is writing a novel titled “A Yinward Way.” Its aging male protagonist believes the world has become so yang-dominant, so overly, aggressively masculine, that it is in peril. He’s seeking to find a way to help the world restore its yin/yang balance, even as he himself is being drawn towards the yin.

The notion that the world has become way too yang for its own good is not unique; I’ve read many discussions of this and believe the argument has merit. A yinward shift might be a good thing.

And yet I find that I, myself, am actually on a yangward path of late, at least in my energy practices.

I don’t know why this is.

It may be that men become softer and more sensitive as they age—i.e., more yin, like the protagonist in my friend’s novel, while women become fiercer and more direct, i.e., more yang. (I’m only partly making this up; I think there’s some science in this area.)

However, it could also be that my internal Daoist pendulum is swinging from the yin-ness of all the Yi Ren Qigong and Taiji Qigong I’ve done so much of over the past five years towards something more yang.

In any event, some months ago I found myself wanting to do more taiji. The many systems of taiji are also systems of qigong, although they don’t generally get referred to as that. But they are particular systems of qigong originally practiced as training for hand-to-hand combat.

My two qigong practices are mostly about moving energy around inside my body to improve my health and well-being. It feels very good to do this, very relaxing, very heart-opening, very bringing-me-back-to-peace. Taiji involves sending energy outwards in a focused manner, whether or not there’s somebody to hit. It’s definitely more yang. Continue reading

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What’s in a Stone?

Stone vs. stone vs. black lingerie

Stone vs. stone vs. black lingerie

I showed my new pendant, a silver-rimmed disc of Brazilian Rainforest jasper, to my friend Donna, who loves gemstones and believes they have healing properties. She cupped it in her hands, held it to her heart and said “Ooo, this has nice energy.”

What did she feel? I know she felt something, because Donna’s not one to make things up. But what was it that she felt? Might I be able to feel it, too?

I like the stone in my pendant. I think it has a certain depth, as well as qualities of both ocean and forest—all for $10 at Ben Franklin. But do I like it because of how it looks or because of some additional property which Donna labeled “nice energy?”

Might the stone’s “nice energy” be helpful to me in some way? I know Donna thinks so.

I own another blue-green pendant, a turquoise pendant that belonged to my mother. In an attempt to develop my “gemstone energy awareness,” I set the two pendants side by each to see if I could observe differences between them. In the jasper pendant, I sensed depth one could lose oneself in, and comfort, and connection to the earth. In the turquoise—well, that’s complicated, because the pendant belonged to my mother. I think, though, that if I were wearing the turquoise pendant I might feel fiercely protected, but not necessarily nourished. It seems rather a cold stone.

Looking for validation of my observations, I went online to see what others have to say about the energetic properties of the two gemstones. I found many sites and a certain amount of agreement among them. Here’s what “Charms of Light” says about my two blue-green pendant stones: Continue reading

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Embodiment: A Different Take on Qigong’s Turf

Aligned book coverMy latest “wow!” book sat in my “To Read” pile for at least five years. Twice I started to read it but quit after a few pages.

But now my copy of Will Johnson’s “Aligned, Relaxed, Resilient: The Physical Foundations of Mindfulness” is stuffed with sticky notes marking exercises I want to try and points I want to remember, and I’m about to give it a second read.

I am blown away by the fact that he seems to be writing about what I consider to be the turf of qigong without ever using the “q” word, and I can see that I will learn a lot from his quite different approach.

Johnson is a practitioner of Buddhist mindfulness meditation. But where some meditators regard the body as a hindrance and a source of little more than knee pain during prolonged sitting practice, Johnson believes not only that any practice of mindfulness must include full awareness of the body, but also that full awareness of the body is a powerful tool in leading you towards that goal of goals which he calls pure awareness.

He has coined the term “embodied mindfulness” for what he teaches and, indeed, is director of the Institute for Embodiment Training, which I would guess is headquartered on Vancouver Island, where his website says he lives.

So let’s look at the three leading words of his book’s title: “aligned,” “relaxed” and “resilient.” Continue reading


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“Iron & Silk”: A Darned Good Read

iron & silkHow is it that after more than 12 years of practicing taiji and qigong and being, therefore, interested in most things Chinese, I’ve only just read Mark Salzman’s “Iron & Silk”?

It is a marvelous book, both illuminating and a darned good read, about his experiences while teaching English at a medical college in Hunan Province from 1982 to 1984.

Of course, Salzman was not your everyday English teacher. He’d started studying kung fu at age 13 and gone on to majoring in Chinese literature at Yale, whence he graduated fluent in Mandarin and Cantonese. Oh, and one more thing about Salzman—he doesn’t travel light: He took his cello with him to China.

Because of his martial arts background, and because he was clearly an engaging, game sort of fellow, friends and colleagues and people he met on the street introduced him via the “I know someone who might know someone who might be willing to teach you” route to some excellent teachers of Chinese martial arts. The styles he studied ranged from such internal-energy-focused, “soft” styles as baguazhang to one style so “hard” that it involved turning one’s fist into a club by beating it against an iron plate to develop tough calluses.

Because of my own interest in martial arts, I found the tales of his martial arts training fascinating—but his stories about other sorts of experiences were just as compelling.

When I tell friends about “Iron & Silk,” the story I relate is about Teacher Wu, a woman who was 70 and a member of the medical college’s English Department staff when Salzman met her. Continue reading

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