Wednesday, April 28, 2010

How Do I Learn Zhan Zhuang

People learn Zhan Zhuang through either the Mechanical Man Paradigm or the Growing a Seed Paradigm. As a beginning Zhan Zhuang student, my approach to learning Zhan Zhuang tends to be mechanical, focusing on conforming to the rules and hoping "the feeling", internal strength arises from the rules. How is this working for me? Frustratingly slow!

As I develop my ability to feel kinesthetically, I feel isolated feelings in specific body areas; lower back, shoulders, legs, arms. Mechanically, the next step is to connect these isolated feelings and discover…. This is where I am now. But will this approach lead to internal strength? Here we go....
The method for Zhan Zhuang alignment in Wujifa is called “One Two Three Four, One Two Three Four”. The two sets of One Two Three Four are different and complementary sets of alignment points.

The second One Two Three Four of basic standing Zhan Zhuang alignment consists of the following four points:
  1. Inguinal crease "in"
  2. Tailbone and lower back relaxed and sinking "downward"
  3. With the spine straight and the rib heads relaxed, the sternum drops "downward" without hunching the back or shoulders.
  4. The head relaxes "back and upward", maintaining a natural relaxed curve through the cervical vertebrae.
Using the 1,2,3,4 set above as an example, the Mechanical Man learns Zhan Zhuang by considering each alignment point individually which may be illustrated in “building block” fashion as:

An evolution of the Mechanical Man approach is to notice the feeling at each alignment point. How does “1” feel? How does “2’ feel? Etc… Evolving further, the question becomes: How do I connect these isolated, feelings? Instead of feeling “1” then “2” then checking back in on “1”, and then on “2” again, sequentially, how do I feel “1” and “2” together, simultaneously, as its own feeling?

So now I am working on connecting the individual, isolated feelings and noticing maybe a new “combined” feeling. This can be illustrated as:

Finally, I may be able to connect the previous "combined" feelings as illustrated:

Does this approach then result in whole-body internal strength? I’ve got internal connection throughout my entire body, right? Well, maybe and maybe not. Maybe I will develop some initial connections. Maybe I will reach a dead end since there are no more mechanically isolated parts to connect.

Alternatively, consider the Growing a Seed Paradigm. Yes, there are the components, seed, soil, water, air, but there is also a certain sense as to how to nurture the seed given the nature of those components and the forces acting on those components.

A strict mechanistic approach may get a seed to grow but there may come a situation where the rules don't apply. Then what? Do what feels right? The mechanistic approach may be a way to begin to learn Zhan Zhuang however, this method probably has its limits. Stay tuned!

The bridge from the Mechanical Man Paradigm to the Growing the Seed Paradigm is FEELING. The main and independently-validating feelings of “How do I know if I’m doing good Zhan Zhuang?” are: feeling top-light-bottom-heavy, feeling the coin sized burning in the front center of the thigh, feeling fascial stretch, expansion initially in the lower back. Feeling the top-light-bottom-heavy feeling is a good first full-body kinesthetic experience of connection bridging these two paradigms.

When you experience something that someone else has not yet experienced, you explain your experience using examples from the paradigm of the inquiring person, “It’s like…” You explain the experience in terms that others can understand. For example, if you've experienced Wu-chi, you might explain it using the Five Elements or Yin-Yang paradigms. However, if you are at the level of knowing only Yin-Yang or Five Elements, you cannot explain Wu-chi.

And so it is with learning Zhan Zhuang and internal strength. There is the experience and then there are the descriptions to help you get the experience; the Wujifa Triangle (Structure, Balance, Relax), the “It’s like…” the Mechanical Man Paradigm, the Growing the Seed paradigm. To learn Zhan Zhuang mechanically (as I have) has taken me this far. At some point, I’ve got to open to deeper and broader feelings to walk the bridge from the Mechanical Man paradigm to the Growing a Seed paradigm.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Tai chi - Bottom Heavy, Top Light

I was talking with my senior Wujifa school brother and I stumbled upon the realization that the customary American (U.S.) way of teaching "Bottom Heavy, Top Light" in Tai chi is at least not at all helpful to new students and at worst, completely misleading.

The typical American teaching goes something like this: Imagine a string tied to the crown of your head pulling you up. Imagine your weight sinking down like roots growing into the ground. What rubbish!

Unless you are a natural at creating immediate muscular, kinesthetic changes throughout your entire body just from using your imagination, then this method will not work. Sure, over time you can build a belief system where your imaginations "feel" like manifested corporeal reality but you are probably fooling yourself.

So what is bottom heavy, top light? Do I create these kinesthetic experiences from a concept or do I simply notice an experience and describe it this way? Does one feeling occur first or do they arise together? Is it easier to notice one or the other feelings first? Here's my current understanding.

First, you've got to learn how to "sit down" into your legs. See my earlier post Sink the Chi: How to Sit Down While Standing for a quick, seminar-ish trick way to feel this.

AFTER you can feel your weight BURNING in your legs even in a high stance (not a low horse stance) AND you can stay somewhat calm and relaxed with this burn, then you have a beginner's understanding of what I think is called "bottom is heavy".

Just as you need night to recognize day, hot to recognize cold, etc.... (all the Yin-Yang dualities), you need one to distinguish the other, so too in this practice you need to feel one feeling first before you can recognize the other.

Relaxing the upper body creates a feeling which may be described as "sinking" into the legs which results in what may be noticed as "heaviness" in the legs. Then, and only in contrast, since the upper body now does not feel the same way as the legs feel, does not feel "heavy", how then might we describe how the upper body feels in contrast to the legs? Not similarly heavy? Maybe... lighter? Ohhh, bottom is heavy, top is light.

In a philosophical sense, Yin Yang arose together. However, I could not create the simultaneous mutual arising of bottom is heavy, top is light through simple and mere imagination or visualization. I'm just not that good. I had to work and sweat for years on a mundane, corporeal, kinesthetic level to relax and build up the muscles in my legs to carry the weight I was holding in upper body tensions before I could recognize these distinguished feelings.

But wait, is there more? What if I relax more and "sink" more? Maybe my feeling of bottom heavy, top light will change. Maybe there is not just one feeling of bottom heavy, top light but rather just as the day changes from sunrise to sunset, as my view changes as I climb the mountain, so too does the feeling change; bottom heavier, top lighter. Not through imagining but through kinesthetic change.

For a very informative description of how this fits in the larger context of stance practice, listen to the recording Wujifa Basic Zhan Zhuang Practice and Models over on the Wujifa website.