Friday, June 26, 2009

Side to Side - Beginner Observations and Tips

Recently, the Wujifaliangong blog posted an excellent video and article on the side-to-side exercise. See "Keys for Developing the Inguinal Crease, aka Kua, with Wujifa Side to Side Practice. Of all the videos available, and there aren't a lot, this is the first I've seen that focuses at this level of detail on developing feeling in the kua.

"The process of side to side allows a very specific focus to guide people in making progress towards understanding the inguinal creases which is so very helpful in deeper discoveries of full-body movement and practice."

Watching this video, you might think, "Oh, all they're doing is shifting weight. So what? I can do that." Or, you may think, there's something there, and try to imitate what you see.

After practicing side to side (on and off) over the last few years and seeing new students in class learning this exercise, I offer a couple observations and training tips which are my own and not part of the Wujifa curriculum.

If you've been exposed to any of the Structural Integration bodywork therapies, for example, Rolfing Massage, you know that over time, your body develops certain muscular holding patterns and fascial adhesions which "twist" your structure; defining patterns of movement and certain ranges of motion.

When you first come to the side to side practice, you will "naturally" perform side to side with your own unique structural twist. Part of the beauty of this exercise is that it provides a benchmark against which you can gauge and relax through your particular holding patterns.

Notice in the video how the students demonstrate moving as if sliding on a pole. If no one is watching you (caveat, someone who knows what to look for) to observe if you are keeping your hips level on both the horizontal and vertical plane as you move, and keeping the knees in place, then how do you know if you are doing side to side at this beginning level? How do you work on / relax through your internal structural twist?

When I started practicing side to side at home, in between classes, I used the following to help me notice what my body was doing. And I still go back to these from time to time.

1. Stand facing a wall with your feet a little more than shoulder length apart and your toes an inch or two away from the wall. Now, bend your knees so the knees touch the wall. Glue your knees to those spots. Now shift side to side. (I do this at the kitchen sink with my knees against the cabinet door so I don't look like such a nerd.) This helped me develop a feel for the kua opening and closing. If there is any pain, move the feet closer together and don't bend at the knees so much.

2. Find something, a countertop, the back of a sofa, a table, that is about your butt height when you slightly bend your knees. Lightly back into a tabletop or whatever, and keeping the knees in place from #1, slide back and forth paying attention to maintaining a light contact between your butt and the tabletop, noticing if there are any differences in pressure between your butt and table. Smooth those out to keep the pressure light and constant. This helped me develop a feel for if I was twisting my hips or keeping them level.

Keep in mind though that the aim is to develop a kinesthetic sense or feeling of what is moving under the skin, a.k.a internally. You want to learn to rely on your feeling, not rely on walls and tables. If you are like me, your body will want to twist and turn all over the place. Side to side is a pretty tough exercise to get. I am still learning.

Now even after practicing side to side the last few years, and even after working out some of my courser structural twists, I continue to discover deeper and more subtle holding patterns. What was once called 'subtle' has become obvious and then there is a new level of 'subtle' which in time will become obvious and then there will be a new level of subtle... and... this rabbit hole goes very deep...

I hope this gives you a little insight into how I started. Of course, even following this method is only a rough first step. It is always best to get some "hands on" time with someone who can point out to you what you cannot see and point out those subtle, yet obvious kinesthetic feelings.

And of course, I make the same disclaimer:
"As with any exercise, make sure you are in good enough physical health before attempting this. Ask a doctor if in doubt. "

Monday, June 22, 2009

Practicing Embodiment

I grew up with a religion and culture which dissociated the corporeal from the spiritual. My undergrad Religious Studies and Philosophy coursework re-iterated this corporeal-spiritual dichotomy. (At least, according to my understanding at that time.) When I started Tai-chi and Qi-Gong, I began with this perspective.

The evolution that occurred in those early years was a blending of the disembodied spiritual notion with an embodied notion; imagining a ball of white, cosmic, Qi energy between my hands, imagining moving Qi through my body; the small circulation.

However, even this so called "embodied" experience was an un-embodied experience because I was imagining intangible, "spiritual" qualities in my body. I was not noticing areas that were relaxed or tensed. I was not noticing ever more subtle muscular movements. I was not noticing subtleties of bodily structure.

Now, I am not saying that Qi does not exist nor am I denying that one may feel or control Qi. However, when I began Tai-chi years ago, I did not make progress developing internal strength through visualizing and imagining the feeling of Qi in my body.

Through the Wujifa approach to developing internal strength, of getting "down to earth" and getting grounded in-the-body, of practicing embodiment, and developing my ability to notice and feel, I am now progressing in developing internal strength.

For an excellent introductory article on the kinesthetics of zhan zhuang, see the Wujifaliangong site "Basic Tips for Zhan Zhuang".

Sunday, June 7, 2009

"The Feeling" Is Not What I Expected

Here's a fun little commercial. Even after learning all the drills, all the techniques, there was still the unanswered question, until...

Monday, June 1, 2009

The Language of Internal Strength

This post describes my experience (so far) with the language referencing the internal strength for which the martial arts of Tai-chi chuan, Ba-gua Chuan and Xing-yi Chuan are known.

During a typical Wujifa class, the instructor makes hands-on physical adjustments to my Zhan Zhuang stance. The following conversation typically ensues:

Instructor: "How's that?" or "How does that feel?"
Student: It's different.
Instructor: "Different how?"
Student: Uh... Well.... Not the same as before the adjustment.
Instructor: OK. What do you mean?
Student: Uh... Well... I don't know. It's... Like.... Before the adjustment is a “1” and now this is a “2”.

When I started FEELING the kinesthetic feeling from which internal strength develops, I realized that I do not have words in my English lexicon to describe these new kinesthetic feelings. I soon discovered that there is no vocabulary unique to describing the internal kinesthetic feelings as the body mind develops its "internal strength" perception/kinesthetic paradigm from its customary and habitual "external strength" perception/kinesthetic paradigm.

In traditional Chinese martial arts, the word Qi or Chi and Qi flow or Chi flow are used. The problem, as a “westerner” not growing up in Chinese culture, is that I have no cultural context for these concepts. The best I could do was ascribe a kind of second-hand, intellectual understanding to these words/concepts based on reading about and attending workshops on Qi, Qi-gong, and internal martial arts.

This approach led to developing an imaginary notion of what Qi feels like and my trying to create the feeling intellectually. In this way, Qi and qi flow became “loaded” words/concepts with no foundation in nor relation to my kinesthetic reality. This road led me to a dead-end.

I had to jettison all mental constructs, all my data (which was a long, arduous process) and focus on developing my own internal kinesthetic FEEL. Later I developed the ability to FEEL the distinction between the “before adjustment” and “after adjustment”.

For me, the process of developing internal strength has been one of slowly noticing subtle kinesthetic feelings until these became obvious, then noticing more subtle feelings until these became obvious and on and on…

In my most recent class, I was able to articulate that yes, the kinesthetic feeling that I am now feeling could be labeled “open” or “stretch” however, the kinesthetic feeling underlying these words/concepts is completely different than the feeling underlying these words as they are typically used in an "external strength", kinesthetic paradigm. I’m borrowing "western" words grounded in a different experience to describe a different experience.

This then opens up the problem of using words such as “stretch” and “open” to describe the feeling of developing internal strength. For example, if I say, “The feeling of developing internal strength feels like stretch or open.” and if you read this and haven’t yet experienced the kinesthetic experience that I’m referencing, then you may think, "Oh, I need to stretch more to develop internal strength." Nothing could be further from the truth.

I appreciate the Wujifa approach because the focus is on developing the kinesthetic FEELING and avoiding the use of loaded words like Qi and Qi flow. Western words like connection, or fascial connection, or open, or gaps, or sticky points, or blocks, or blockages, are used instead. However, these western words also present a koan: What is the feeling of fascial connection? What is the feeling of loading or distributing a chin-na force throughout the fascial system? How do you create the feeling of open between all your joints?

After I felt something that could be described as open, stretch, connection, then I saw the problem of how to talk about the internal aspect of the internal martial arts. Our words can communicate and guide us in a shared experience or our words may unintentionally mislead when there is no common experience.