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.
I was doing taiji long before I began studying the more internal, more yin forms of qigong. Indeed, it was through taiji that I discovered “qi,” and even as my focus shifted towards Yi Ren and Taiji Qigong, I continued to practice two different taiji forms.
However, about six months ago, I started spending more time with the forms—and now I have joined the Yang Chengfu Tai Chi Chuan Center in Redmond, across Lake Washington from Seattle.
I should probably note at this point that Yang, written with an upper-case “Y,” is the family name of the man who developed Yang-style taiji, which has become one of the leading taiji styles and the style most likely to be offered at your local senior center or parks department.
Lower-case “yang” is an altogether different matter. In Daoist philosophy yin and yang are opposite, interdependent principles underlying all of nature, with yin being the darker, more passive, more feminine, and yang, the brighter, more active, more masculine. Or hopefully something close to that; I am scarcely a Daoist scholar.
The Yang Chengfu Tai Chi Chuan Center was founded by Master Yang Jun, who is a sixth-generation descendant of Yang Lu-Chan, the man who developed Yang-style taiji, and also the fifth lineage-holder for the style. Yang Jun teaches around the world, but he lives in Seattle, and when he’s in town, he teaches in Redmond.
If you’ve ever tried to do taiji with someone who learned the same form from a different teacher, you know how different “same forms” can be. However, the teachers at the Yang family school don’t make a big deal of their style being the original Yang style, and they don’t claim that theirs is therefore the style that’s correct. Rather, they say, “This is what we do; other people do it differently.” They also acknowledge that it’s difficult to switch from one style to another, even though the principles and movements are basically the same.
And, indeed, I am basically having to relearn the form I’ve been doing for 15 years.
I am finding the Yang Family style to be very clean and precise. Every movement is understood to have a specific application in hand-to-hand combat, and so every movement has to be done just so, or it won’t work. I think this is good for me.
The form I learned from my first teacher focused on flow, with less emphasis on precision. However, after he left for China five years ago and I was on my own in my Yang-style practice, I began developing additional imprecisions. Some of this was due to forgetting; some was related to the fact that as I was losing almost 2 inches in height, I was twisting down along the curve in my spine, which changed my alignment and balance.
Then, too, as I was developing my awareness of qi, I was trying to retrofit my taiji form with that awareness, and I paid less attention to the details of the form and more attention to being in an altered state of consciousness with energy moving throughout my body in a wonderful, new way.
I stopped teaching taiji at my church in part because I felt my form had become rather a mess.
Learning something that is “the same but different” is giving my brain quite a workout. I can almost feel the tug of war going on inside my gray matter as my body slows, awaiting instructions for what it should do next. Sometimes the competing alternatives seem to cancel each other out, and my conscious mind goes blank.
However, the good news is that I’m learning the form with energy awareness and body-alignment awareness that I did not have when I learned it the first time, and doing so is enormously satisfying.
An outsider watching me do the same movements over and over again would probably think I was either simple or nuts. I turn a foot. I move my arms. I step and move my arms again. “So what’s with her? Doesn’t she have something better to do? This is boring and then some!”
Meanwhile, I am thinking, “Oh, my goodness, this is amazing! It is even delicious!” I can feel my body rising and sinking, swelling and contracting, everything connected as in a single-cell organism. One arm rises as the other presses down in a simple, basic ward-off, and I can feel energy being pulled between them and grounding to earth—energy that would, in actual combat, be breaking my opponent’s arm, although that’s not something I’m particularly thinking about. But it does feel strong….
Just now I was outside practicing a move called a right ward-off, which I’d felt I just wasn’t getting right. And then I did it and I could feel the movement happening inside. Where my hand was supposed to be expressing grabbing of my opponent’s arm, I could feel the grabbing happening within my abdomen, in the area of my dantian.
I don’t know if my teacher will notice and say that now I’ve got it right, but I really don’t care. I know that it is right. To be able to experience my body in this way is really quite thrilling. It would probably make me a better fighter, too, if I were so inclined, because it would allow my total body—and my qi—to participate in this move.
So many people sign up for a taiji class because their doctor or Oprah has told them it will be good for them, but so few people stick with it, because it can take a lot of work to get to the cream.
I wish it were possible to wave some sort of magic wand so that they could feel how extraordinary doing taiji can feel, how fascinating repeating a very simple movement over and over will become if only they stick with it, how integrated and how powerful doing taiji can make them feel.
But all I have is words….