What is Qigong?

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.

The Body We Feel

Failure to adequately answer the question, what is qi? Is a seemingly never ending problem in the Martial arts. The core of the problem is that historically qi is consistently described as being both inside the body and outside the body.  In the modern era there are two dominant schools of thought for dealing with this problem. The first school says there is no physical force that exists both inside the body and outside the body, therefore Chinese masters before the 20th Century must have been delusional.  The second school agrees that there is no physical force both inside and outside the body, but since the Chinese masters of the past were so brilliant in other realms, we must have misunderstood them.

The insistence that qi be explainable in modern terms is something we can work with, the insistence that qi have a direct modern corollary is simply beyond the pale.  

The correct question to ask is, how is it possible to have a felt experience which is both inside the body and outside the body?  This is a big problem for (modern) Traditional Chinese Medicine practitioners too, because most 20th Century texts focus on describing qi as being inside the body. That is not entirely fair, 20th Century texts all describe weiqi (guarding qi) which floats about 2 to 5 inches off the surface of the skin. However weiqi is usually interpreted as radiant heat (or the capacity to distribute it) around the surface of the body.  The texts rarely deal with qi out beyond 10 inches.  I would argue that qi is never just inside the body, and that thinking of it as such is a modern idea.  

I recommend the book The Expressiveness of the Body and the Divergence of Greek and Chinese Medicine  because it tells the history of feeling the body from a Chinese cosmological perspective and from an Ancient Greek perspective and then shows how we got where we are today through looking at both art and medicine.  

Also on this topic I recently found an essay by Daoist scholar Stephen Bokenkamp, in which he draws on the work of linguist George Lakoff to discuss perception of the self as an experience of body.  Lakoff is a Tai Chi guy and his practice has had a big effect on his theories about language.  The idea in the essay is that Daoists had an implicit notion of self embedded in the language that exists as a continous background to constituents of self, such as jing, qi and shen or hun and pö, or the infinite array of visualized deities. Lakoff's book is called Philosophy in the Flesh: the Embodied Mind & its Challenge to Western Thought, the essay by Bokenkamp is titled, "What Daoist Body?" in a book called Purposes, Means and Convictions in Daoism: A Berlin Symposium .

Bokenkamp like many scholars of Daoist religion are asking good questions about what early Daoists thought the body was. Here is my question, how did those Daoists experience their bodies such that they thought visualizing deities would be efficacious?   Or the reverse corrolarry, where did modern people get the wacko idea that visualization in and around the body isn't efficacious?

The notion that the specific body we feel is an experience of material reality is a modern conceit. When Shakespeare writes, "Mine own flesh and blood," he isn't talking about the material body, he is talking about imagined ownership and connection.  Experiencing flesh and blood wasn't a static truth, and it still isn't.

We define our self, who and what we are, as a specific material experience of our body.  I don't know how universal that is.  But I do know that it isn't permanent or static.  We only have to consider what happens to us when we are dreaming to know this can not possibly be true.  There are a lot of tricks (call them methods if you prefer) in martial arts, designed to get us to drop our specific material experience of our body.  But even when students understand the purpose of these tricks, such methods are hard to pull off because our specific material experience of the body snaps back like a rubber-band.

The notion that perception and action can be separated has been demonstrated to be false in countless kinesiological studies.  If you doubt what I'm saying, go to Google Scholar, type in "perception action," then add a word like "matrix" or "integration," or "loop," hit return and start reading.

A few of the key terms kinesiology has come up with to describe this are, proprioception (sense of body in motion), peripreception (sense of space within arms reach), extra-periperception (sense of space beyond one's reach), and tactile perception.  There are also various terms for interior perception.  I tend to use the general term spatial perception which covers all of these.  There are many other terms that have been created to distinguish between the many ways we feel and sense in action.  

The felt body and felt space are absolutely key to all movement capacity.  That is a demonstrable fact.  As is the postulate that different felt experiences enhance or disrupt movement capacity.

The crazy idea that the term qi refers to something inside the body probably dates from the late 1800's.  When people were trying to find a Chinese (rather than foreign) justification for the end of foot-binding, they hit on the Modern notion of "circulating qi" as a metaphor for everything good, i.e. medicine, technology, new ideas and commerce...all of which circulate around. Unbinding womens' feet was simply another way to increase circulation!  China had the "qi circulation" expression earlier, but it never referred exclusively to inside the body.  Before the late 1800's qi always referred to both inside and outside the body simultaneously.  Chinese pre-Nationalist reformers of the late 1800's were trying to find Chinese origins or precedents for Modernity, a big part of which entailed seeing the body as a biological lump of flesh.

Whenever we are changing the way we move we are changing the ways we feel our body and space.  One of the biggest obstacles to conditioning new ways of feeling is that how we feel is linked to who we believe we are.  Both have to change.

For example, the idea that our body is made up of muscles is a function of the spatial imagination.  It is not innate.  It is not even historically coherent, people in the past didn't think of themselves this way.  To have a body of muscles is to have trained one's body to feel them.  Most of us learned this as children in our society (it is refined and reinforced in school), but functionally there is enormous variation between individuals.  None the less, the body as muscles can be unlearned.

The idea that we can experience our body as emptiness is a core concept for all traditional Chinese movement practices, including: martial, ritual, and theatrical.  However there are many different concepts of emptiness.  Emptiness is understood in multiple ways.

The idea of emptiness used in Iron-Shirt practices is different from the idea used for fighting while possessed.  In the case of possession, the person possessed by a deity has no memory of the experience.  That is the definition of possession in China.  And the understanding is based on the idea that a person's body can be an empty vessel that the deity occupies temporarily.  In Iron-Shirt the body is trained to feel diffuse or numb so that it does not feel pain, this is also described as emptiness. 

In one form of Daoist ritual training, adepts first establish emptiness in a part of the body, like an empty room or an office called a guan.  This takes anywhere from two of weeks to two years.  Then a deity is visualized in the empty space.  These deities are always moving, not in the sense of running around, but in the sense that they are visualized in clouds or with flowing silk clothing.  Such a deity is then referred to as an officer, also guan (one who occupies an office).  In ritual perception-action a deity is moved outside the body so the experience of interior space (the office) is also outside the body.  

This Daoist ritual perception-action practice is the way internal martial arts were created.  The movement in the imagined empty space does not have to be a deity, it can be anything felt with the imagination.  It could perhaps be a giant muscle, an ocean wave, or infinite darkness.  The conventions are not important to understanding the mechanism.

The concepts of healing, exercise, exorcism, talisman, education, and beauty, are tied to the way we feel, in every culture.  The insight that Daoism brings to all of these is that we have access to an experience of zero. This zero is part of the basic cosmology of ritual and is found in the Daodejing, "Dao gives birth to One, One gives birth to Two... etc...."  In simpler English renewal is possible.  


Editor's Note:  Okay, that is the end of this short essay.  What follows is a tail that readers may use as additional food for thought...

 I don't know if most people are ignoring how they feel their bodies, or if most people simply tend to use language as if how we feel our bodies is set in stone (or bone?).  I don't know if I'm living in a land of ghosts, or if we are all just truly alone?  

I have been thinking about early Daoism and I suspect that early Daoist rituals were created to give people a shared sense of being able to change how we feel our bodies.  The rituals they created were heavy on group visualizations that altered one's sense of body.  And learning to read too, the early Daoists taught everyone to read and write, it was a 2nd Century literacy drive.  



Grizzly_Giant_Mariposa_GroveI love trees. Trees are part of what make us humans human. We have evolved with them.  Trees to climb, trees to shelter us, trees to hide us, trees to help us stand up and look around, trees as lookout posts, trees to build with, trees for fire to keep warm and sing and dance and party, trees for sticks to cook, hunt, and fight with, trees to cross rivers, trees to make boats, trees to make tools. And on and on.

I've looked over a few scientific studies showing that people breath better around trees. (Which if you've been reading this blog you know, supports my view that we don’t really have control over our breathing--the environment itself trumps our intentions.)

I've recently started doing tree practices. Before I describe those, I’ll describe the internal martial arts practices related to trees that many people already know about.

First off is from Yiquan. While standing still hold your arms out in front of you and wrap them around an imaginary tree. Imagine the tree growing, first up, then fatter, then imagine it sinking while you hold it up, then shrinking, then swaying while you hold on to it, then imagine yourself moving it. This is all done invisibly from the hugging-the-tree posture (zhanzhuang).

Next you can practice gathering qi from a real tree. This exercise can be found in many qigong books and was first taught to me as part of Chen style taijiquan. Stand facing the tree with one foot back and do a circular gathering exercise (there are many) as if pulling in a fishing net, or pulling sheets off of a line. (Follow the peng-ji-lu-an sequence if you know it, as in ‘grasping the birds tail.’) While doing this, feel qi coming down the tree into the roots and then rising up behind you into the canopy and then down the tree again in a large circular vertical orbit.

I learned those exercises over 20 years ago, and long ago they became second nature.  But they are important.

The new exercises come from George Xu and involve getting right up to a tree and touching it:

Put your hands on the tree and while keeping your spine vertical and your pelvis level rise up, sink down, move in and move out (kua squats if you know them). Next do the same thing but with absolutely no pressure from the hands on the tree nor any lifting off. Then use your feet to do the same thing you are doing with your hands, allow no force or pressure from the feet. This is a method for ridding ones body of jin, structural power. Once your structural power is turned off, and it’s absence is well established, practice melting all tension and internal body sensation down the front of your body to the ground. If you do this correctly a sensation of steam will begin to rise up from the ground. Practice this until it is a continuous sensation, like rain hitting warm ground and creating steam. Next use only this (neidan) feeling to try and pull the tree down, up, in, out, to the side and...twist.

Discarding Yes and No

Bored-Girl2-1If you've ever been around teens or tweens, or were one yourself at some point, then you are familiar with 'discarding yes and no.'  It is a look they give you that tells you they aren't listening, don't really care to be listening, and many not even be aware that you exist at all. Or as we use to say in Australia, 'I just couldn't be bothered.'

So what do you think happens when I tell my adult students that I expect them to 'discard yes and no?'  That's right! they all look at me quizzically, bring their faces forward a bit, sometimes tilting a little to one side, and nod 'yes'  --Thereby demonstrating that they have no idea what I'm talking about.

If someone I know is walking alone in the distance and I call over to them to get their attention, as they turn they will look first, and then direct an 'I recognize you' face in my direction.  With normal vision one can recognize this face from 100 yards away.  And even if one has very poor vision, he or she will still display the 'I recognize you' face in return.

Comic Ellen Degeneres has a bit where she waves and shouts to get someone's attention and then realizes it isn't them.  It's funny because she reveals how much socially stimulated pain this causes.

The effort it takes to communicate with our faces is usually completely unconscious.  But I would suggest to my readers that normal social communication using the head and face requires enormous strength and torso tension.  That's why teens and tweens sometimes just drop it.  You never actually know if they are listening unless you quiz them afterwards, and even then they may decide not to participate.  And the same is actually true for adults, they may be nodding 'yes' without hearing a single thing you've said.  It could even happen with a loved one on Valentines day!

At about 6 months of age, babies can lift their head and they are capable of a lot of communicative facial expressions.  However, their heads are so big relative to the rest of their bodies that they have to move their chest underneath their head in order hold it up.  At some point they also learn to nod 'yes' and 'no,'  but if you hang out with 5 year olds you'll see that, although they will give a very attentive 'I'm listening face,' they are often reluctant to nod 'yes' and 'no.'  When they do stoop to this adult mode of communication they often exaggerate it with a whole body movement-- undulating with a slack jaw for 'yes,' and shaking horizontally for 'no.'

So.  What's the point?

In martial arts and qigong, the head must be included in whole body movement for it to actually be whole body movement.  If we are using our head for communication, it is very likely that we are exerting enormous torso tension in order to keep it in that state.  As adults, stress is our default position in social situations.

I want to make a distinction here between structural integrity and whole body liquid mass.  A person can be holding their head in an 'I'm ready to nod yes or no' position and still have structural integrity.  As people age, the quality of the structural integrity tends to diminish, but it may still be there.  However, it is not possible to have whole body liquid mass and hold ones head in such a stressful position at the same time.

I suspect that until a student figures out how to get their feet inside their dantian, inside their perception of space, this awareness of the head may be fleeting if it is possible to experience at all.  When the whole body is inside the spacial mind it automatically includes the feet and head.  It is by looking at the relationship between the torso and the head that, as a teacher, or a dude watching too many sub-standard 'masters' on Youtube, I can tell if a persons body is inside their mind--or not.

The head weighs a lot.  Holding it in positions of dominance or submission is a major source of tension.  Holding it in positions of dominance or submission is an obstacle to whole body power.

The Glorious Kidneys

alg_kidneys[1]Autumn is the season for clearing heat from the lungs and refining technique.  One of the best foods for clearing heat from the lungs is the pear. The skin of the pear is used if the condition is medical.  So eat pears raw or lightly stewed with a dribble of honey.  The Classic of Medicine (Neijing) says clearing heat from the lungs protects against fevers in Winter.  Not sure what the mechanism is there, but I love pears so I'm sharing.  The suggestion to refine technique is a message about efficiency, the Autumn is about toning it down and taking time to integrate all the wild experimentation of the past two seasons.

And if you've been doing that, in about four weeks you will be ready to start transitioning into Winter practiceIn Winter we store Qi, water the root, and nourish the kidneys. So what does this mean?  In the days before industrial commerce made food cheap and plentiful, to the average peasant it probably meant eat whatever rich foods you can find.  The best way to do that in our era is with nutrient rich bone stock that you make yourself.  If you want organic stock bones, in my part of the country, you are in direct competition with the massive pampered dog population.  However, if you buy bones in bulk it's a little more reasonable.  We filled up our freezer with bones for the Winter for about $60.  'Watering the root' basically means drinking nutrient rich broth the way most of our ancestors did.  Think stews.

The Daodejing says, "to be full, hollow out," thus in order to store Qi one must first cultivate emptiness.  Once emptiness is established, storing Qi is automatic.

Well, not totally automatic.  You must also nourish the kidneys.  How does one do that?  Hold that thought.

Hopefully none of my readers were paying attention last year when I had an argument on the insane internal martial arts discussion website Rum Soaked Fist about whether the terms jin 勁 and jing 精 actually mean the same thing.  As my Indian Dance teacher used to say, "A little learning is a dangerous thing."

Jin is translated by Louis Swaim (I'm doing this from memory) as 'power which resembles the flowing of underground streams.'  Jin is an expression used in compound forms like pengjin (wardoff), mingjin (obvious power), or tingjin (skillful sensitivity), to mean a specific type of power which requires skill and time to develop.

Jing on the other hand is a much bigger and harder to explain key concept in Chinese cosmology.  It is usually translated 'essence,' because of it's association with purification.  But it generally refers to stuff that reproduces itself.  In quasi-medical terms it is sperm and eggs, scabs, what clots the blood, and when it is strong in the body--a full head of hair and strong finger nails.  In Daoism Jing is the most solid and substantial form of Qi. If we posit that the entire cosmos is one giant mind form, then jing is its memory function.  Stay with me...

Any first year Chinese Medicine student will tell you that Jing is stored in the kidneys.  They will also tell you that sex, drugs and rock'n'roll will deplete it.  Daoism has a precept against wasting jing or qi.  The term is pretty amorphous as you may have deduced by now.  In is particular Daoist precept the distinction is that qi wasting is unnecessary effort, while jing wasting is depletion to the point of injury.  So to damage ones body is to damage ones jing.  Why? because the moment injury happens, the kidneys start to release jing-- jing is released from the kidneys because it is what repairs us.

Obviously, jing is one of those concepts which, as Roger T. Ames might put it, offends against the most basic  notions of Western categorical thinking--it is simultaneously an event, a substance, a trend, and an action.  Jing repairs (verb), it is what repairs (noun), it is visible only indirectly and is measured by that which it repairs so to some degree it is the substantive aspect of our bodies.  Jing is the shape of our eye, and the dark circles that accumulate around them after years of not enough sleep.  Jing is the markings of age.  Jing as a substance decreases in either quantity or quality as we age.  But as a substance it remains pure.

Tension in our bodies is simply qi concentrated by the mind.  Disperse the qi and the tension will be gone.  But chronic tension is qi concentrated in the same location day after day.  Qi is pure and has no memory function, the tension's location is remembered by jing.  So chronic tension is regularly drawing jing out of the kidneys where the mind mixes it with qi.  Because jing and qi are both pure, they naturally separate, like oil and water.  For chronic tension to happen at all takes considerable and regular effort.

I would never have gotten into the argument at Rum Soaked Fist if I hadn't been repeating what I heard from George Xu: "Jing and jin are the same."

"What?" I asked, "How could that be, they are different characters in Chinese?"  (精 and 勁)

"It doesn't matter," he said, "They were once the same term and the same character."

Remember way up at the top of this post I asked the question, "How does one nourish the kidneys?"  We're getting there.  The kidneys love sleep.  They love sleep because they love stillness.  The kidneys are like a very fine instrument measuring vibration, shock, tension and fatigue.  If we can feel our kidneys they will indicate when we are exerting effort or experiencing strain.  And...They will tell us when we are using power. Ah hah! You say, power, you mean jin right?  Yes, young Skywalker, any trained or refined gathering of power or release of force is called jin, in Modern Chinese.  The kidneys experience all jin as stress, as a loss of jing.

Thus pure internal (martial arts) should be defined as not using jin/jing.  If an art uses jin, then it is mixing jing and qi.  It is exerting some strain on the kidneys.  The basic Tai Chi adage goes:  "The body follows the qi and the qi follows the mind."  If the mind causes jing to be released from the kidneys, qi will mix with jing in the body, and the mind will move the three all at once--thus destroying the mind-then-qi-then-body order of movement.  On the other hand, if the body is totally quiet, as measured by no loss of jing from the kidneys, then the qi will automatically float off of the body and the mind will easily lead it.  If the whole torso is also empty, it will naturally fill with qi.

And that is what it means to nourish the glorious kidneys.

pebble in water

Stuff on my Mind

Here is a woman in Australia who, like me, understands that "core strength" is a big mistake:  Edgecliff Physiotherapy.

I learned about her from Josh Leeger who also turned me on to Exuberant Animal.

Also from Josh I got to Philip Beach's site describing Meridians as Emergent Lines of Shape Control.  Here is a pdf of a paper which explains the theory.  This made me think that meridians don't really "exist" they are trained reactions which disappear the better your internal practice gets.  Which explains why Medical Qigong is the lowest level of qigong, the meridians are most apparent in sick or dying people.  It also corresponds well with the Daoist notion that the meridians are lines of fate, lines (and points) which provide a window into either freedom, or robot-zombie-like predictability.

Speaking of fate, here is a rationalist approach to Astrological Horoscopes!  I think the author nails it in his own quirky way.  My own experience following a Daoist Auspices Calendar for several years taught me a whole bunch of unexpected lessons.  Like that their is a lot of freedom in letting an external force (in this case words on a page) decide for me whether to go out and party or to stay home and study.  When you're free, you can waste a lot of time and brain power trying to pick a day and time to get a hair cut, or buy new shoes, or work in the garden.  Just looking at the Daoist Calender externalized all that strategizing and weighing of options--which freed up a lot of time and energy.

I've been reading Gustavo Thomas' blog and watching his videos, great stuff!

Look at all the stuff canceled in Tokyo.  We have found lots of stuff to do here anyway and people are happy to see us.  I had very fresh raw pork liver the other night, with beer, yum.  I'm happy to report that Tokyo is still full of great deals on delicious food, especially lunch.  For example at a sushi boat restaurant, if I eat as much as I possibly can it only costs about 8 dollars US.

We went to a Kabuki show.  My main comment is that the actors have to practice a whole lot of stillness!  How anyone could miss the connection between stillness in the theater and stillness in martial arts I do not know.  Oh, and the costumes are amazing.

Check out Akira Hino, Jazz Drummer, martial arts teacher, dancer.  Here is his Video Channel.

Japan is so fashion conscious, it is impossible to be here and not think a lot about clothes and shoes.  I hope I can find some time to work on making my own because that seems like the only really satisfying way to stick my head down that well.

Daniel Mroz published a book on martial arts and theater, check it out!  Now I really have to work on getting mine in to print.

I got the book Impro to Rory Miller at Chiron and he loved it.  We are still awaiting a review.

Check out Tokyo Probe. Beer.

Kung Fu: The Hard Way

I just watch the first part of this 4 part video made by the BBC in 1983.  It's quite good, it's asks most of the right questions, sometimes it's answers are too brief and too general, but if we started from this very good basic explanation, how did we get side tracked?  The basics are here, Kung Fu was a devotional and exorcistic religious practice, a highly developed form of actual fighting skill, it played a roll in social cohesion, children's moral and physical education, triad organizations, rebellion, theater, dance, medicine, health and music.  The well established ties between Indian and Chinese civilization during the Han and Tang dynasties likely played some roll in it's development, especially in the realm of meditation and yogic action.

In answer to the above question I've come up with five reasons that the nascent field of Kung Fu studies has been so retarded.

  1. When Qigong fever got out of mainland China it really confused the issues of Kung Fu's origins with a false narrative.

  2. This particular BBC documentary focuses on Hong Kong, and manages to avoid getting caught up on the propaganda narrative of Chinese Nationalism dominant in both mainland China and Taiwan.

  3. The Western ideas of mystical energy, self-defense, moralistic non-violence, and the belief that categories must be clear and distinct-- all have played a roll in inflating, diminishing or obscuring some aspect of the actual history of Kung Fu.

  4. Buddhism exploded in the West, which amplified the 'Shaolin comes from Bodhidharma' narrative and tinted the glasses through which we look at everything Chinese.

  5. The traditional Chinese distinction between Orthodox and Heterodox religion was so 'foreign' to Western notions of religion that it took over 100 years of scholarship and cultural exchange to become comprehensible.  (See here,... here,... here ... and here.)


Does Yoga Mean "To Yoke?"

Side stepping the debate about where modern yoga came from and what it is, I'd like to dig into the history of the basic concept-- yoga.

Wikipedia offers a nice overview.  Here are the important quotes:
The Sanskrit word yoga has many meanings, and is derived from the Sanskrit root "yuj," meaning "to control," "to yoke" or "to unite." Translations include "joining," "uniting," "union," "conjunction," and "means." The word yoga may also derive from the root "yujir samadhau," which means "contemplation" or "absorption."

[Patanjali gives this terse definition] "Yoga is the inhibition (nirodha?) of the modifications (vrtti) of the mind (citta)".

Hatha Yoga is a particular system of Yoga described by Yogi Swatmarama compiler of the Hatha Yoga Pradipika in 15th century India. Hatha Yoga differs substantially from the Raja Yoga of Patanjali in that it focuses on shatkarma," the purification of the physical body as leading to the purification of the mind ("ha"), and "prana," or vital energy.

If this is accurate, there is a strong possibility that Yoga and the Daoyin--Tai Chi--Shaolin matrix have a common origin, or that at least they all stem from a common notion of what a human being is.  I would summarize the method of Daoyin as--- "yoking" a purified physical body to "that stuff which animates us" (qi or prana) and then "yoking" that to a larger active spacial mind.  ---The use of the word purification here could also mean distillation or total differentiation.

The jing and qi must be purified or distinguished, they can not be mixed.  If the physical body (jing) is mixed with prana/qi the result will be gross motor or fine motor movement.  All three types of movement are controlled by the spacial mind, however in the case of "yoking" or Daoyin the spacial mind does not effect the body directly it must first unify with the qi/prana which then acts as an intermediary pulling (or pushing) the whole physical body along.  So fine motor movement, like typing, is almost impossible to do because it requires direct mental control of the fingers.

Pantanjali's "inhibition of the modifications of the mind," may simply be describing the discarding of all fine and gross motor control.   Perhaps it also includes the discarding of artifice, effort, and the maintenance of fantasies.  That would put it pretty close to an early definition of Laozi's  key concept: wuwei (not doing, or non-aggressive intentionality).

A quick scan of blogs dealing with the question of "yoking" turned up this:
Importantly, yoga did not mean “yoke” or “union” in its classical usage, despite what most yoga teachers and popular writers on yoga say today. But, as many contemporary scholars of Indian philosophy will point out, it would indeed be odd for yoga to mean something like “yoke” or “union” since the objective of Patanjali’s yoga, as it is laid out in the Yoga-Sutra, is for the yogi to recognize and realize the true nature of the universe – i.e. that pure consciousness (purusa) is distinct from mere matter (prakrti), which includes our minds and our thoughts. In other words, the yogi does not seek union or oneness with the world; rather, he seeks to liberate himself from his attachment to the worldly.

And I would respond that to distinguish consciousness (spacial mind and qi) from matter (body mass and ideas) is simply a returning to our original nature.  I would tend to describe our original nature as a functional order rather than a "union" since "union" is really a matter of perspective--whether we call it one, two (one 'yoked' to one) or three (one yoked to two) really depends where "we" are standing.  Does "our" original nature really have any fixed limits?  Sounds like liberation to me!

The Social Muscles

I've been workshopping the idea of Social Muscles for a few months.  Even after years of blogging I still meet people who are baffled by the idea of cultivating weakness, so I'm trying to find vocabulary that makes this traditional group of ideas more "accessible."

251px-Elwood-just-got-a-bathEveryone is familiar with the idea of social stress.  Social stress happens whenever there is any challenge to a person's preferred status.  There have been a lot of rat studies about social stress (their hair tends to fall out).  There have also been a few studies of British civil servants (their hair falls out too).  Generally the lower you are in the social hierarchy the more stress.  That's probably because the lower you go in a hierarchy, the more people their are competing.  Positions at the top of social hierarchies are generally less stressful, but that depends on how real the challenges are and how often they are coming--the opposite could be true.

I used the word real in the last sentence, but social status is actually mostly about illusory things like who has the most friends or the biggest house, or even more illusory things like, 'do you believe in _____' (insert any group defining marker like: god, unions, aliens, PCB's, barefoot running...)  It's nearly impossible to have a conversation without experiencing some social stress.

chillinOur experience of social dynamics is largely unconscious.  Experiences with improvisational theater, intense conflict, or other dramatic breaks from normal behavior can lift the veil off of social dynamics.  Suddenly you just 'wake up' and notice that every word, glance, sound, or movement is changing peoples status before your eyes.  Most people are status specialists, one person fights to be dominant, another looks around for a strong person to be number two to, others show their top row of teeth and nod "yes" a lot-- they are happy subordinates.  There are infinite degrees of social status and it can change in the blink of an eye, or rather, it always changes in the blink of an eye.  Most people have a preferred status but status is constantly in flux, changes happen in quantum leaps.  Good teachers are masters of changing from low to high status in a flash, one moment the students find themselves cheerfully interacting with each other, helpful, and cooperative, the next moment they are frozen listening to the teacher's instructions with bated breath.

All of these status expressions are physical.  They come from deep inside the body and they are effected by our perception of personal and architectural space and ownership.  (See my blog post on Body Mapping.)    These largely unconscious movements and expressions arise from torso movement in and around the organs.  You can consciously activate them, but once they are active they are hard to control.  You can decide to get angry, but then deciding to calm yourself back down ain't that easy.  It's a lot of work to fake being happy--try doing it for an extended period of time and the stress will become debilitating.

Social Muscles are all the muscles of the torso that create, control, assert, and manage social status.  When we practice internal martial arts we want to let-go (tou kai = dissolve outward) all our social muscles.  We want to discard the impulse to control our status with physical expressions of dominance and submission.  If this sounds easy, perhaps I'm not being clear.  If you are home by yourself reading a book, or watching Chopped on the Food Network, you are reacting to stress cues of dominance and submission.  Any time you think, "I liiiiiike," or "Sexy-time," or "Really?" you are activating your Social Muscles.  Some experiences are obviously more stressful than others (I find watching Chopped really stressful).

Readers may be thinking, "But dude, it's relaxing talking with friends or curling up on the couch with the latest Bed Bath & Beyond catalog!"  It doesn't matter.  One part of your experience is relaxing, and probably being stimulated by happy chemicals too, another part is actively, unconsciously, reacting to social stress.  Facing my own demons, my happy chemicals are clearly triggered when I get in an argument, I love it, and perhaps it is less stressful for me than for other people, but it's still stressful, my Social Muscles are still working overtime!

What often passes for "relaxing" is actually just people hanging out in their preferred status.  I love soaking in hot water and breathing fresh air.  Visiting a spa can certainly be a real break from social stress, but sometimes the people at spas are down right freaky.  When hanging out at a spa becomes your preferred status, you have entered a weird zone.

My guess is that beginning as infants we spontaneously make faces and change body shapes.  Our internal organs just move around and do random stuff in response to stimulation.  But our parents give us consistent feedback for specific expressions, gestures, sounds, and whole body movements.  Through this consistent feedback we learn to interact socially.  In the beginning I doubt it is stressful, a baby can cry loudly for 4 hours straight.  What makes it stressful is the attempt to constrain impulses.  If you just get angry, it's not stressful.  But hardly anyone does that.  We start to get angry and then we check ourselves, or wonder why, or attempt to assert dominance and fail, or restrain ourselves, distract ourselves, simmer, or just "walk away."  That stuff is all really stressful.  Social Muscles work to contain spontaneous reactions. ¹

It seems to me that most "displays" of emotion are attempts to change our social status.  I remember being in India in a post office.  After the 4th hour of waiting in lines to mail some books back home, and getting turned away from a counter for about the sixth time, because I hadn't wrapped the books properly, I just started crying.  I willed it.  In America I would have done something differently, something more on "script," but in India my dominance/submission messages weren't working anyway so I chose to throw all caution to the wind.  The tears were a satisfying release for me, but the people around me started looking enormously upset.  Suddenly everyone was helping me.  There were a lot of young people sending letters to Harvard and MIT, and they all stopped to help me.  About 20 of them pulled me outside and listened to my problem and then they started helping me solve it, they found me a guy who sews up books (really, in plastic and canvas) and another person who writes out addresses and sews on labels and one who affixes wax seals.  It was weird.  Anyway my point is that because I was in another culture and had been pushed to the brink, I was able to discarded who I am.  I could have a pure, baby like, expression of emotion, a non-stressful expression of emotion, and just watch the reactions. That never happens at home, I know my place, we all know our place and we work hard to keep it.

The practice of internal martial arts is about completely letting go of the social USE of the muscles. This is especially true of the abdominal muscles and the ways these muscles connect to the face, hands and feet.  The Social Muscles are extraordinarily powerful, when we drop all social constraints we can become angelic, monstrous, predator-like, or to use traditional Daoist terminology-- immortal.²


¹I use the word spontaneous here with some trepidation because, I think, the impulse to contain or control social situations seems spontaneous to the extent that it is unconscious.   Perhaps primal urge would be a better choice of words, or maybe something Chinese like yuande, original nature.

²The Chinese character for immortal, xian, is made up of a mountain and a person.  So as a literal image it means: mountain man.  AKA, big foot, sasquatch, & yeti.

Xian = Immortal = mountain+person Xian = Immortal = mountain+person