Saturday, April 27, 2013

Feeling in My Eyes: Journal Notes #110

Notes from my March 2013 Zhan Zhuang Training Journal. I train with The School of Cultivation and Practice which practices Wujifa zhan zhuang. (My current reflections are added in italics.) There are no journal notes for February due to a combination of a class cancellation and my not attending due to working on my first book.

* Let me lead by saying that at the beginning of March I engaged an area of life I had long denied engaging. When I first decided to "go for it", I argued myself out of it. Interestingly, one conversation changed my mind and suddenly it was OK and I simply approached that area with curiosity and just like that, something noticeably shifted in my practice.

* I discovered through doing a squatting exercise (moving the torso up and down like a piston) that I still have tightness in my hips. The hip joint should be free so the pelvis can move freely up and down while maintaining the posterior of the pelvis on a vertical plane. In my case, I reach a point where the pelvis locks with the femur and tilts which then effectively transforms the lower back into the hip joint. A method to remedy this is to do mini-squats with a focus on keeping the pelvis vertical and gain control over the points where currently getting stuck.

* Really isolate the hip. Don't lift with the chest or back. Push the knees forward or backward. Exhale on down and inhale on up. The head will naturally rotate on a point under the ears according to the movement of the pelvis. Tucking means the abdominal muscles are contracting. If you tense the back to counter a tense front (to keep the torso straight), then you're locking and this kills the ability to feel into this area.


* Referring to pelvic movement, looking for a specific movement creates fascial stretch. If you can't get that movement, then you can't get that stretch.

* Question: Regarding the mini-squatting exercise, where I visualize myself as a piston and pelvis moves up and down pivoting on the hip joint...
Answer: Stop! Using a mechanistic model will help you understand points of structure but it will not help you understand connection. You are not a piston. Connective tissues don't function as rigidly as a machine.


* Hold a wooden dowel out in front of you with one hand and close your eyes. How long is the dowel? What sensory points are used to get a feel for its length? With a second person tapping the dowel further and closer to your hand, how do you determine if the tapping is further or closer? Next, the second person extends arm, palm facing  near end of dowel. Close eyes, touch dowel to your leg then try to touch other person's hand with end of dowel.
Are you able to do this? (Got close - touched the forearm, not the hand.)
What was the data you used to determine this? (Feeling, sensory).
What was the point of doing this exercise? (To use feeling data to figure out a goal.)
The principle is to use what you have and apply to your purpose without being distracted to get in the ballpark and refine from there.

* Think about building a house. Do you have a hammer? If not, then get a hammer. When you have a hammer can you build a house? No. You only have a hammer. Just because you have one tool doesn't mean you have the tools to build a house. With a hammer, you could build a boat dock. The same applies to other tools that are used to create structure. Let's say you get all the tools and build a structure, a house. Is this a home? No. A home is where life is. A home functions differently than a house. A structure is not a home until life is lived in it.

* Methods are like tools. They help you build and refine your structure. Through structure you add feeling, connection, and how your connective system responds to your intention. Feeling muscle stretch with structure is a first step. It's OK to feel muscle stretch because fascial stretch is kind of like this.

* Of course, fascia stretches with muscle but if your focus is on the muscle then you are only noticing a small section of fascial stretch.

* People hold onto too many tools (methods) and need to discern which tool to use and when as well as when to set the tool down.

* If you are now living in your home and you want to make an omelet, do you use your hammer? If your purpose is to enjoy cooking and eating breakfast, then the methods used to build structure are not useful. You need a new method. Understanding your purpose at the time helps you understand which methods to apply at that time.

* Consider the bigger frame but work in a small area.

* How do you assemble a jigsaw puzzle? First, look at the picture. Then from the jumble of pieces, look for recognizable pieces; corners and edges. You don't need the whole picture to assemble the edges, to construct the framework. After you got the frame, then you can divide or categorize pieces according to an area, for example, sky, water, shoreline, trees. Later you may realize you confused some sky and water pieces. As you refine your discernment, the differences between the similarities become more apparent. This discernment develops over time from working on solving that area of the puzzle.

* If you follow the principle, eventually you will connect all the pieces.

* Use structure to make structure clearer; to allow feeling through structure. Clear the blockages to feel the stretch. After you get the feeling of stretch, then you can play with structure. You can see modern architecture that diverges from normal, typical structures and yet are structurally sound.

* Do you see how scientific principles apply to developing internal connectedness? (Yes.)
Do you apply them in your practice? (No.)
Does this give you any ideas of what to apply? (Yes.)

* Compare the feeling in your eyes when you do the piston exercise (eyes are lifeless) to when you feel the stretch (eyes are open and alive).

* To achieve ease is not easy. You have to work hard to achieve ease.

* I tend to shut down (divorce myself from feeling) when I encounter emotional hurt and pain instead of staying alive and present and arguing and crying or whatever the body's response is in that situation. This is an area of the jigsaw puzzle I don't like to work on.

* From an electronics point of view, think of the signal to noise ratio. When the muscles are either too limp or too tense, this represents the noise (the unwanted or useless information) that is drowning out the signal (the useful information), the feeling of fascial stretch. You engage different circuits (methods) to reduce the noise and amplify the signal.

* I discovered my process at this point. I begin with structure (piston mini-squatting exercise), and then coordinate with breathing and pushing feet down and extending upward. I recognized where thinking kicks in. The feeling in my eyes changes. It's a subtle distinction yet, obvious. I discovered that I can use the feeling in my eyes as a bio-feedback device. I can use the feeling of body fullness as a bio-feedback device.

* What is different this time is that I "got it" with only verbal coaching; no manual adjustment! And I felt the difference and how I created the difference. Very exciting!

* I tend to rush to the method. How do I recognize where disassociated thinking kicks in? There's a different sensation when I'm feeling full in the movement vs when I'm trying to dissect and analyze what is happening. The feeling is there before the words form. It's pre-thought.

* I focus on defending against things I can't feel. This doesn't mean I don't want to feel. When I simply "do" and then run into a blockage and if I defend that blockage, then I'm protecting from something. For example, if I cry in stance, this is simply a reaction. It is what it is. It doesn't mean the emotion is associated with a cause or event. There's no need to search for a reason. It's OK to simply experience the emotion and let it pass.

* I discovered for myself an answer to a question I had asked long ago which was, "Can I practice feeling connection while doing other exercises?" The answer then was "No" but I didn't understand. One night while practicing, I had a "a-ha" moment and I understood why. The way I now understand it is that the process to develop feeling and connection requires attention to something very subtle that cannot be noticed when the intention and attention is on doing something else. So if I want to lift weights, then just lift weights. If I want to punch the heavy bag, then just punch the heavy bag. When I want to practice feeling connection, then practice that.

Further reading:
Introductory article explaining this "Journal Notes" series: Zhan Zhuang Training Journal
Previous article in this series: Submitting to the Experience: Journal Notes #109
Next article in this series: - Too Tense for the Next Level: Journal Notes #111

Make sure to visit Wujifa.com and the Wujifa blog.
And stop by The School of Cultivation and Practice.   

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Internal Martial Arts Lineages and Psychosomatic Genealogy

Internal martial art lineages are much more than styles, names and photos on a family tree. Although many people engage in polarized debates about these elements of lineages, this level of discourse completely misses the most fundamental component of lineages; the psychosomatic genealogy.

Of course, internal martial art styles, names and photos are the mainstay of historians and biographers. These elements also provide teachers with fodder to persuade would-be students to join their school. However, this level of martial art genealogy is not worth much past this point.

I've always enjoyed "people watching" whether I'm at a shopping mall, airport, college campus, family gatherings, or wherever. What is especially fascinating is noticing resemblances between fathers and sons, and mothers and daughters. And then sometimes there are resemblances where there is no known relation. These can be fascinating curiosities waiting to be revealed!

Seeing three generations; grandparents, parents, and children, provides another dimension into how various traits are combined, "passed down" and "picked up" by the third generation. Some traits like height or facial structure may be passed down. Some traits like psychosomatic characteristics are picked up via conscious or unconscious mimicry. In the martial arts, a teacher's psychosomatic traits are both passed down and picked up by the student.

By way of example, let's consider one very obvious element in the student-becomes-teacher cycle; hunching in the shoulders and the head jutting forward. This complex is one example of violating a basic principle: Relax! And in the relax, find homeostatic balance.

If a teacher is not aware that he hunches and carries his head forward and does not work on resolving the life-habits or tensions that result in hunching and head jutting forward, then this element of body work will likely never become conscious to the teacher and so it will remain "invisible". Similarly, if this aspect of structure was naturally correct and never needed to consciously be addressed, then too, it will remain "invisible". Never having addressed this structural issue in himself, he is less likely to notice or address this in his students. And this "trait" (not "seeing" hunch/head forward) is passed on.

Most students of the internal martial arts are already adults with their emotional-muscular traumas and psychosomatic patterns firmly in place. I speak from experience! If the student "naturally" has a hunch and head forward posture and the teacher doesn't correct it (for reasons mentioned above), then conscious and unconscious mimicking of the teacher will reinforce this trait in the student. And this "trait" is picked up.


This is but one very gross example of the typically unrecognized or dark side of lineages. When students mimic their teachers, they are likely not aware themselves of what they mis-mimicked or missed altogether. And through practice, this bad habit grows deeper and deeper roots. Later, if this student teaches, then he will teach what he thinks he remembers mimicking not even aware of what he got, got wrong or didn't get at all. This is the level where dilution and corruption of the internal art is unconsciously introduced. How many generations of student-becomes-teacher does it take to dilute and corrupt the original internal art? One generation.

Now, let's look at how this genealogical example played out in the early days of Tai-chi Chuan in the United States. A handful of practitioners who came from Taiwan became instrumental in modeling the physical "look" of Tai-chi Chuan for generations of American students. When we consider in what context and how these practitioners were taught, their level of development, the cultural and language barriers encountered in the U.S., and the orientation and virginal naivete of their American students, this mileau presents a fascinating study in psychosomatic genealogy; noticing what got modeled, mimicked and passed on in the name of Tai-chi Chuan.

We are extremely lucky to have videos of two of the earliest practitioners responsible for modeling Tai-chi Chuan in the U.S. Seeing these practitioners together is hugely instructive if you can see what you are looking at! In this first video is Zheng Man-qing (郑曼青). Watch a few minutes. Notice the slight hunch and head forward in his posture.

Cheng Man-Ch'ing Tai Chi Form




Now watch a few minutes of this video of  William Chen Chih-Cheng (陳至誠) who was one of Zheng Man-qing's students. William was 30 years young when this video was made in 1975. Again, pay particular attention to the pronounced hunch and head forward in his posture.

Tai-chi Grandmaster William Chen discusses Tai-chi and Demonstrates his Form




We've all heard the phrase,  "What you don't know can hurt you." This is also true in learning the internal martial arts. When I was a "child" learning Tai-chi Chuan in the 1980s, I had a naive faith that the physicality that William modeled was what I should embody. I didn't know any different and I learned my lessons well.

When I view these videos now with fresh eyes after clearing out much of those embodied patterns, I now see practitioners who are hunched, whose torsos are rigid and stiff, who have tension across the shoulders, whose hips are stiff and don''t have a lot of root or whole-body connection. I did not see this when I began my first Tai-chi class.

Viewing these old movies from the point of view of "people watching" shines a light on a usually hidden aspect of internal martial art lineages; the psychosomatic genealogy. And just as an art can be diluted and corrupted in one generation, so too can the art be re-invigorated in one generation when there is a singular focus to return to the principles and figure out how to embody the principles.

As a footnote, I am not singling out this teacher-student pair as being a better or worse example of what can occur between any other teacher-student pair. I chose these videos because, A) I knew about these practitioners, B) Their videos are easy to access. C) They are performing the same training routine. D) It is easy to see the trait in question. I did look for other teacher-student pairs of videos (that I knew of) but could not find a duo performing a similar training routine. If you know of another pair of videos you'd like me to post, please let me know.



Saturday, April 13, 2013

Submitting to the Experience: Journal Notes #109

Notes from my December 2012 and January 2013 Zhan Zhuang Training Journal. I train with The School of Cultivation and Practice which practices Wujifa zhan zhuang. (My current reflections are added in italics.)

December 2012
* It occurred to me in the two weeks since Victor's visit in November (Journal Notes #108) that Victor's approach to developing internal strength seems more "mechanical", not concerned with integrating the emotional aspect, whereas the Wujifa approach involves both physical and emotional. I brought this up in class and the way I would summarize our conversation is that Victor follows more of a traditional Chinese teaching style. And while it's not his style to talk about his personal life in a class setting, one of his close training partners observed that he made a lot of progress developing internal connectedness after going through a difficult situation in his personal life.

* Tim Ferris has a new book out called, The Four Hour Chef. We listened to a reading of a list of questions that we should ask in class that were gleaned from or inspired by this book. While it was pretty boring listening to a huge list of questions, it was also interesting in that the kinds of questions revealed a particular perspective or way to approach training.

* December was a rough, tumultuous month for me. I'm struggling with trying to understand how my one instructor developed internal connectedness while still maintaining what I am now seeing as points where he is emotionally stuck in his life. Whereas I believed I had to let go ALL my physical-emotional holding patterns, I'm wondering now if this is not entirely accurate. Maybe I'm fixated on my resistances and surrounding fears and so I'm not noticing-feeling the areas where I have relaxed and let go; where I can feel! Maybe the mind-body only needs to let go to the degree which allows feeling into those areas? I'm curious, confused and angry over this discovery. Is this really true or not?  What if I accepted where I'm stuck, stop fixating on the fear and simply work with where I am now? I've done a lot of work. Do I have to be 100% free of holding patterns to feel 1% connected?  Maybe not. I don't know. Maybe, fixating on where I'm stuck is keeping me stuck. Can I let go of this?

January 2013
* We had a long discussion about defining co-dependency and how behavior patterns in relationships show up as emotional-muscular patterns in stance practice; rigidity, flaccidity and unwillingness to look at and work on what others can plainly see.

* My school brother, Mr. L. brought a side photo of himself from a Rolfing session. While his ear to ankle line was fairly straight and perpendicular to the floor, how this was achieved was with many twists and compressions through his body. This was not initially obvious until we analyzed the position of each part of the body; head, torso, shoulder, and pelvis. Seeing how each part was tilted forward or backward and how tension pulled this part into alignment with another revealed just how much tension there still was to let go of. The alignment was not achieved from homeostatic relax but was held in place with tension.

* We talked about my upcoming book which looks at the pelvis as an arch bridge, the sacrum as the keystone, and the difference between bracing and arch. In an arch bridge, no matter where the downward force is applied, the force is transmitted to the abutments, the feet. With a brace, there is strength only in line with the brace.

* Question: If tension determines the limits to which I am able to relax, then can stretching, like in yoga or physical therapy, increase the extent to which I can allow relax?
Answer: No, because stretching stretches the healthy belly of the muscle and does not necessarily result in relaxing the full length of the muscle. A tense muscle doesn't necessarily mean that the entire length of the muscle is tense. Areas can get bunched. Stretching may hyper-stretch that part of the muscle that can stretch while the injured or tense part remains stuck. It's better to work to the functional movement desired and the muscle will naturally respond as it can.

* A stance practice for me. Take three breaths and with each exhale say, "It's Ohhhhh Kaaaa-eeeee. (O.K. - acceptance)" Continue until I feel the "in-body" feeling. When I did this in class, I get a soft, relaxed, present, feeling. Feeling without words to describe what I don't know. Not knowing and accepting. Feeling. Experiencing. Submitting to the experience as I did in class today without thinking, analyzing, critiquing is a huge change for me! Being soft and relaxed in the lower belly makes it easier to notice.

* I'm noticing that there's a difference between: Belly tight. Belly relaxing tightness. Belly relaxed-soft. The latter two look the same externally but internally the feeling is completely different. Belly-tight is the "six pack abs" look. It's kind of like tense muscles can relax but they can't be soft and in finding softness, muscles can be strong without being tense.

Further reading:
Introductory article explaining this "Journal Notes" series: Zhan Zhuang Training Journal
Previous article in this series: Habits, Patterns, Blockages: Journal  Notes #108
Next article in this series: - Feeling in My Eyes: Journal Notes #110

Make sure to visit Wujifa.com and the Wujifa blog.
And stop by The School of Cultivation and Practice.   

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Levels of Feeling for Internal Martial Arts

A typical mistake in internal martial arts training is not realizing that there are many "levels" of feeling beyond which one is currently able to feel. The transition from one level to another can range from the imperceptible to the dramatic. Experiencing a new level of feeling that is not your “normal” level of feeling does not guarantee that you will remain at that new level. The gong-fu is to make that new level “normal”. Welcome to the process.

My Wujifa instructor used to tell a story he called, "Now I know what the Qi is." It's a great analogy of where and how practitioners get stuck. The essence of the story involves a student who upon experiencing a level of feeling not previously experienced exclaims, “Now I know what the qi is!” to which the teacher replies, “Go practice more.” Repeatedly the student returns with ever deepening levels of feeling exclaiming, “Now I know what the qi is!” and each time the teacher replies, “Go practice more.”

While the story seems simple enough, it expresses a very fundamental training directive: relax, feel, notice, repeat… It’s easy to get stuck where you think that’s all there is. This is particularly true, as I discovered, when there is a conditioned degree of disassociation from feeling. The initial surge of feeling can be a shock to the system and create the illusion that I am feeling all there is to feel. “Now I know what the qi is!” And what is amazing is that this "initial" surge and shock to the system can occur repeatedly throughout the integration process as internal kinesthetic experiences that were previously beyond my ability to feel are either suddenly or eventually grasped and capable of being developed.

Let’s look at another story, another analogy that goes into a little more detail of the process. Picture yourself arriving at the bank of a gently flowing stream. The stream is a few meters wide and upstream from you are a tangle of rocks, logs and branches and clumps of leaves of various sizes obstructing the free flow of the current.

To get an initial experience of feeling the stream's current I may "test the water" by dipping my fingers into the stream. If I never felt water before, this could be an amazing feeling even if I were on the side of the stream that did not have much or any current at all due the the upstream blockages! If the feeling is disturbing, jarring, or surprising for whatever reason, I will probably quickly pull my hand out of the water. If I find the feeling of water to be enjoyable, I may move my fingers and play with the water. (In the beginning, there are too many variables to predict how I will react. Over time, these variables are identified.)

As I get comfortable with the feeling of water, I may practice wading barefooted across the stream. Because I never waded in a stream before, I continually lose my balance as I slip on the moss covered rocks or lose my footing on the uneven, soft, sandy bottom. If my intention is to maintain control, to follow the rule to wade across the river (and my own rule about not falling and getting wet - to me, wading does not include falling), then I might not really notice nuances of how the stream is flowing. It could take some time to get comfortable at this level. My intention can both focus and limit what I am aware of.

As I get comfortable wading in the stream, I may begin to notice the flow or lack of flow. I may begin to notice obstructions. Maybe I don't recognize what I see as being obstructions until someone else points this out to me. It all seems, well, just "normal". At this point I can begin working on removing these obstructions. So I work diligently at this for years and in the process I learn about the nature of blockages, how blockages affect the flow, how the current adjusts to the blockages, how the surrounding landscape is altered by these blockages, and I make a great many discoveries regarding nuances of how the current shifts and changes with each blockage being removed. I start to get “a feel” for the flow of the stream.

After I remove a number of blockages, I may notice the stream is flowing differently than before. I also have a level of comfort with wading in the stream. My footing is more sure. I'm more stable. I have a better understanding. Now it is easier for me to simply enter the stream and feel the flow of the stream. I am beginning to discern where there is flow and where there is not. I am developing connection.

And when I "master" this level of stream, then I am ready to move onto a different stream or larger stream where I repeat the process.

After working through several streams, I start to get a feel for the process and when it comes time to "test the water" of a new level, I have some familiarity of how I react to a new feeling based on my history.

Guiding a less advanced practitioner (who either has no experience with internal feeling or does not feel the more advanced levels) to feel beyond his/her normal levels of feeling will likely be "eye opening" if not an overwhelming experience. From the perspective of the advanced practitioner, the less advanced practitioner's experiencing a new level of feeling may appear to be like that student is "dipping fingers" but to the practitioner experiencing this new feeling, the feeling may feel like total immersion! Feeling at a level outside one's comfort level may result in a pulling back, or withdrawal... and maybe not. The reaction is wholly individual. The point to keep in mind is that experiencing any level of "Now I know what the Qi is!" or feeling at all or feeling of connection is but a level of development. The point is to keep working at it. There is even more.

With proper guidance and practice, the invisible becomes subtle. With proper guidance and more practice, the subtle becomes obvious.

Happy training everyone!