Sitting in the back seat of a relative's car, I picked up a copy of Oprah Magazine. The magazine was filled with articles about how to have a happy-go-lucky life. The first article I read was called, "How to Be More Creative." The gist of the article is that creative people cultivate synesthesia. Poets for instance, actually try to feel the sadness in rocks and trees, or the temperature of a rainbow. (I couldn't find that article online, but I did find this excellent one about musician Pharrell Williams and his synesthesia.)Read More
Strengthness with a Twist: A blog about internal martial arts, theatricality and Daoist ritual emptiness
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I've been reading Daoism in the Twentieth Century, Between Eternity and Modernity, by David A. Palmer and Xun Liu. It is excellent and deserves a full review in the coming weeks. For today I have a juicy quote from the introduction which is by Kristofer Schipper:
The linkage between communities that are established and reinforced through the institution of fengxiang[carrying incense ashes from one temple to another creating a network] are important, and many historical networks such as the Mazu temples of maritime merchants are clearly linked to China's commercial expansion. But the economic role of temples was not limited to this function only
The martial arts connection to medicine is very weak unless we dive into specific religious notions of medicine and health. That view has long made me a polarizing teacher, some people love me, some hate me. As my regular readers are aware, connections between theater, religion and martial arts were severed at the beginning of the 20th Century. Because of this, few people can actually see the religious connections between medicine and martial arts. What we got, almost by a historical fluke, was the valorization of the martial arts school connected to the herbalist and the bone-setter. This connection is certainly real. The connections between ways of training the body and massage techniques (bodywork, tuina, etc) are strong in practice. That is why the Daoyin for bodyworkers program has been successful. But for this connection to be meaningful, the language has to be correct. Otherwise it just becomes laying theory on top of practice; an unnecessary burden.Read More
Since I began teaching qigong around 1990, I have learned, practiced, and taught countless styles. I think we should change the naming conventions of qigong because they do not match my empirical experience.
There is one book everyone who practices qigong should read, Qigong Fever, by David Palmer. It is a history of the politics that created the name "qigong," and the communist political clique that created a vast quantity of junk science claiming qigong was good for everything from curing cancer to re-directing guided missiles (I'm not kidding).
The problem arose because the methods (styles) of practicing qigong were removed from the Golden Elixar (jindan) framework that originally grounded it. That framework is jing-qi-shen; where jing is everything physical or structural, and shen is everything imaginary including the functional spatial imagination. In this framework, Qi is the intermediary between these two conceptual-experiential categories.
Qigong is simply moving with a felt sense of qi around ones body. With regard to the internal martial arts, that feeling of qi acts as a buffer in between the physical body and the spatial imagination. The quickest way to develop this feeling is through brush bathing.
Brush bathing is very simple. Sit on a bench and pour a bucket of hot water over your head. Then scrub your whole body with a stiff brush; starting at the top and moving towards the feet, scrubbing the yang meridians before the yin meridians (back before front). Then pour four buckets of hot water on your head and one cold bucket. After each bucket visualize (see and feel) the steam as a color permeating your skin and out into space. The colors should changed from dull to bright, and follow the five element color sequence: green, red, silver, violet, gold.
Brush bathe everyday for a couple of months until this felt visuallization is easy to conjure. Meanwhile, learn to dance while maintaining these felt visualizations. That, in my experience, is the entirety of qigong, the rest is marketing and hand-holding.
So what are all those other "qigong" type things that people do? They all fall either into the category of jinggong or shengong. (The word "gong" means work in modern Chinese, but in a non-communist milieu it means to accumulate merit.)
Jingggong is any specific pattern (or quality) of movement. (Once you have the pattern, you can add your qigong felt visualizations to it.) The purpose of jinggong is to change ones physical body through refining ones awareness of it. That covers a wide range of experiences including: coordination, relaxation, imitation, rhythm, breathing patterns, and ways of connecting or integrating through the body.
Shengong is the practice of moving the body exclusively with the imagination. This is how all the internal martial arts work, but it also includes subtle or invisible movements that may happen while practicing visualizations in stillness.
Jinggong works fine without qigong. And qigong is a wonderful practice on its own too. They also work well together. But shengong is not going to work unless one has mastered the qigong practice. And shengong will not work for martial arts or dance unless the movement patterns (jinggong) are established first. At the risk of stating the obvious, if one does not know how to kick someone in the head shengong will not help, learn the skill first.
Colors are a useful way to trick ones mind into experiencing empty space as having substance, so that it becomes easier to manipulate. There are countless other tricks. I suspect it will be some time before my naming conventions become conventions. But calling everything qigong, is not consistent with the basic cosmology of the body or the practice. Let's change it.
What exactly is reverse breathing? Is it actually baby-like breathing? Do the kidneys actually "grasp" the qi from the lungs? Does the mingmen (lower back) expand to suck air in? Does the bellybutton go in with the inhale or in with the exhale? And what does it actually do? Why breath in reverse?
It is actually quite simple.
Normal breathing happens in the lungs, the diaphragm goes down, the ribs open to the sides, and the bellybutton doesn't change much. When it is conscious, we just think "suck in" and "breath out."
Reverse breathing is when we move the body first, movement forces the breath inward, and then movement forces it outward. The breath begins by expanding the ribs to the sides. Most people can get this far on the first try.
Cheetahs can run fast because ligament structures connect their diaphragm to the action of their legs, which passively forces huge amounts of air into their lungs. Humans have this ability too, but it requires a particular engagement of the legs. It is more than a simple bending of the knees or squatting. To make this process conscious requires relaxing the legs and sinking downward while paying attention to the passive effects on the breath, and then playing with the result until it can be coordinated with the active-conscious opening of the ribs. It isn't hard.
What is challenging is the exhale. Once the lungs are expanded, an autonomic or habitual forcing of the air outward tends to take control. So the inhale is "reversed," but the exhale is just normal.
To get fully reversed breathing, the spatial mind must initiate the inhale from outside the body. (Regular readers of this blog will be familiar with this idea.) In this case a simple way to proceed is to look at the canopy of a tree above one's head. Imagine that the leaves are breathing, going up and down, and out and in. The visualization must sync up with the actual movement of the body.
By this method it is possible to delay the exhale without creating compression. The spatial mind (outside the body) can easily delay the exhale if it is more than six feet away from one's actual body. If the spatial mind is too close to the actual body, it will force a compression of the ribs. Compression involuntarily forces the breath outwards.
Anyway, that's it, that is reverse breathing.
Why do we want to avoid the involuntary compression of the ribs? There are probably a lot of reasons, I will try to address a few. First, that exhale is used to solidify our identity, and the goal of acting and martial arts (as enlightenment) is to free oneself from any fixed identity--especially identity fixed by rigidity in the physical body. The second, is that communicative social-methods of communicating power, all tend to rely on this forced compression exhale. We want simple power, not socially expressive power. Socially expressive power is used for domination and submission.
That is what I have to say on the subject, but I would like to open it up to others who may have something to contribute here.
Here is a wonderful article about, vagal tone and the vagus nerve: http://mosaicscience.com/story/hacking-nervous-system
Vagal tone is measured by the ratio of the heart rate during the inhale over the heart rate during exhale. A slower heart rate during exhale indicates greater vagal tone.
Vagal tone is associated with a better functioning immune system. So that is the big question, how does reverse breathing effect vagal tone? And I'm sure readers can think up all sorts of related questions.
Go for it!
Perhaps a little more contextual explanation will help explain the confusions about reverse breathing. In the early twentieth century in China, there was a big push to medicalize Chinese healing practices. Concepts of health were as much about religion as martial arts were; that is, they were a single subject. Both were squeezed into anatomy and physiology. The Red Cross and the YMCA were models used in China to make tradition seem more modern. Reverse breathing was probably connected to Daoism, and Daoism was trying to make itself into a philosophical practice by discarding content related to gods. This was framed as a search for "essence" or "refinement," this may have made the practices more accessible (especially in the West), but it also diminished them.
Originally there were two gods, Heng and Ha. Not a lot of research has been done on them, but I suspect they were weather gods (technically a type of "thunder god"), one who breathed in "heng" and one who breathed out "ha." Naturally people knew about these two gods because there were comic stage routines based on the hilarity of someone who can only breath in or only breath out. Somehow this relates to reverse breathing--medicalized versions of Heng and Ha as "exercises" can be found in numerous modern qigong books.
Here is a cool tid bit I just grabbed from Chinese History Forum:
As for the name "General Heng and Ha 哼哈二将", they originated from Ming dynasty novel Fengsheng Yanyi 《封神演义》 (The Investitures of the Gods). The author based them on two Buddhist door guardians. Both of them were fierce and brave. They generally became Chinese folks figures because of this novel [Editor's note: most likely the "novel" is a collection of rituals that already existed].
One was called Zheng Lun 郑伦. He was able to spit out white breath from his nose to kill the enemy. The other was called Chen Qi 陈奇. He was able to spit out yellow breath from the mouth to kill the enemy. [Editor's note: Extreme nose phlegm and halitosis?]
You can see these figures in many Buddhist temples of China [Editor: Most of these were made in the last ten years]. Shown below the figures outside the door of Buddhist temple Eastern Mountain in Beijing 北京東嶽廟 [Editor: A key temple connected to Fengshen Yanyi, and most likely the history of Baguazhang.]
Body maps are one of the primary ways the mind organizes sensory data for the purpose of movement. Thinking about perception in terms of body maps is a very powerful intellectual tool. Body maps are also a very powerful tool for kinesthetic learning.
As far as I know, the theory of body maps emerged to explain strange perceptual-action phenomena among people who suffered strokes and other injuries to the brain. For example there were people who could only hold themselves up in a lit room, if you turned off the lights they would fall down. The tension that held their sense of body together was somehow channeled through or embedded in their visual perception. A person can lose the ability to orient and make movement judgements about the space with in their immediate reach, yet maintain that ability for distances of over 15 feet. They call lose movement or orientation components of perception for all, half, or a just a single part of their body. They can lose the ability to use a coffee cup without losing the knowledge of what it is, what’s for, or any other general movement skills. The theory of body maps goes a long way toward explaining the imagination too. It turns out that when we imagine shooting a basket ball all the functions of our brain active when we shoot a basket ball are operative, with the addition of the frontal cortex which acts to suppress that movement. Thus going some way toward explaining people with impulse control problems on the one hand and self-repression on the other. Child developmental problems have contributed to this theory as well. There are children who can crawl perfectly on a single floor pattern or texture but when the pattern changes, say from stripes to checks, they can not cross the line on their own. They just get stuck.
A wide range of body maps for specific aspects of smell, hearing, seeing and touch can be lost, but in a normally functioning person all of these maps are overlapping and interacting. Yet, there are discernible elements of distinct body maps. When you try to drive and park a car you have never driven before, it becomes obvious that your body is mapping what the functional movement and spatial boundaries of the car are.
I imagine that in utero two of our first perceptions are fluid balancing and tactile texture differentiation. I also imagine that these two develop as some sort of base for many body maps which, later on, become essential to moving and seeing. This is weird stuff. It seems likely that these perceptions happen long before any differentiation of a social self, even in the spatial sense. I’m positing here that qi is tactile, it can be understood as a tactile body map, it has a texture which can be differentiated from the texture of air.
So with these explanatory tools I believe we can explain how high level tai chi works. Tai chi functions by bringing to the forefront of consciousness both tactile body maps and liquid rebalancing body maps. Because both of these develop before the self, they are completely asocial. Thus they are a door to certain types of enlightenment where the illusions of social constraint and context turn to dust. Babies put everything in their mouth because lips and tongue are even better amplifiers of texture than finger tips are. When you see the world as texture, as tactile feeling, it becomes something to devour, echoing some creation myths . But I’m not just talking about lips and finger tips, our entire body has the ability to feel out into space. In fact the experience of feeling out into space does not need to include feeling ones own body. When this tactile body map is totally active the sense of ones body loses its boundaries and enters the realm of liquid spatial perception. From there the perception action sequence is marked by feeling the exchange of fluid (yin and yang), the dynamic movement of fluid around the inside of a container. The container is bounded and altered by the size of our active tactile body maps, not our actual body.
When the opponent is fully incorporated into these body maps, there is no social experience of “me” attacking “him,” just an exchange of yin and yang. Thus, I described it in the previous post as “asocial action without an agenda.”
How does this relate to theater or forms?
I often hear martial artists talk about compression as one of the ways of gathering power, particularly in the joints. The idea is that one can compress energy and then release it against an opponent. This technique works. But it has some big flaws that can be exploited, it is fragile. When an opponent compresses themselves they create a moment of rigidity. Whenever an opponent is rigid they are vulnerable to either being broken by a big mass crashing into them, or having their connection to the ground broken by a tiny bit of upward movement. Even more embarrassing, if I can add some weight to an opponent’s self-compression they may tiddlywink themselves backwards or simply collapse.
So one of the reasons all internal marital artists practice shrinking and expanding is to ensure that we can shrink without the slightest bit of compression. This by itself has intrinsic healing ability.
In my experience, compression is painful if practiced a lot, and tends to wear out the joints. It is probably harmful to the internal organs and I suspect it creates a lot of negative emotion.
Yes, compression can be used for generating power but its downside is nearly unlimited while its upside is small and over rated. (Kind of like fruit cake:)
It shouldn't be controversial to state that muscle and fat are two sides of the same coin, but people these days are so pro-muscle and so anti-fat that it may cause some cognitive dissonance.
Why? Because they are both forms of food storage. They both require a lot of food to produce. To say that they both result from over eating is obvious, but if you are going into a long Winter without much food, over eating is a very good idea. Likewise, if you are being sponsored by an Indian Raj to wrestle against other sponsored champions, by all means bulk up!
Muscle and fat are normal adaptive responses to eating too much food. In our topsy turvy world people sometimes over eat because they are over working at (stressful?) mental activity-- that tends to become fat. I suspect if those people got enough sleep, the excess fat would just burn off while they were asleep. After all, we can't eat and sleep at the same time! I've never really believed the "just laziness" argument, you have to be lazy and over eat and not get enough sleep. But it also seems that at some point the system can get so taxed it spirals out of control.
People also over eat and then "need" to exercise. Meaning they want to interrupt the efficient fat storing mechanism and replace it with the adaptation to stress response which makes food into muscle.
There is a whole conversation about the chemistry of the endocrine system I'm not going to have here, except to say that people like me tend to put on muscle very easily, it's genetic. But that muscle doesn't happen unless I over eat.
One of the reasons internal martial arts are "hard" to learn is that active people like me who have the discipline to practice also tend to put on muscle too easily. That muscle is conditioned strength which obstructs spontaneous whole body integration and whole body liquid unity thus reducing power efficiency and momentum mass transfer. (Yes, that sentence was a summary of the last 40 blog posts.)
Why are we over eating? There are a lot of good theories out there. Coming back from 10 quiet days in the mountains by myself, I was overwhelmed by how much intensely delicious food there was in my refrigerator! My mind has all sorts of automatic functions which are normally outside of my control. For instance, when I was living with goats earlier this Summer, I became an expert on what goats like to eat and what they don't like to eat. It was like I had a pre-loaded observation program in my head that had an intense desire to know and catalog what goats are eating! Weird right? My point is that there is a heck of a lot about human motivations we don't understand.
There is also the theory that food corporations have gotten so good at figuring out what we love to eat and selling it to us cheaply that we have become helpless automatons. No doubt, but we are also helpless against the urge to make fresh plum juice from the trees in my yard, or going out to see the latest Bat Man movie for that matter. Paradise sucks.
Well, as you can see by now, this post isn't going anywhere. But it wouldn't be complete unless I offered the theory that a significant part of the population may be over eating because they are exercising too much.