Throw Away Comments

I recently read The Yoga of the Yogi: The Legacy of T. Krishnamacharya, by Kausthub Kesikachar.  It's not my intention to review it here, I'm not qualified to comment on his organization of Yogic theory and philosophy.  I picked it up to learn more about the founder of modern yoga, who he was, his education, and his training.  It does cover that material in a terse way, but as an American reader of history, I would have benefited from a lot more inclusion of historical context and clues about how his relationships to specific people influenced his decisions to pursue knowledge.  Anyway please don't take my opinion as a review of the book.

The one thing that really caught my attention was that the author maintains a ritual practice of putting his guru's sandals on his head.  He also tells us that the tradition dates all the way back to the time of the Ramayana.  He frames this ritual practice around faith and devotion, but he also says that everything can be transmitted this way--meaning that because the practice is pure revelation, it transcends method.

What's that?  I can learn Yoga from putting sandals on my head?  But who even thinks about questions like this? They just throw these comments away.  Even people who do the sandal practice just talk about faith and devotion.  Only someone of the highest level would even think of suggesting such a practice.  

It just occurred to me that if my students were to put my old shoes on their heads they might learn a lot faster.  I have new found respect for Yoga.  After 30 years of martial arts practice I understand why and how this works, however; 1) none of my students would do it, 2) if I explained it, none of them would understand it, 3) if by chance they did understand it, I would have to kill them.

Which brings me to another book which I am also not going to review:  When the Body Becomes All Eyes: Paradigms, Discourses and Practices of Power in Kalarippayattu, a South Indian Martial Art, by Phillip B. Zarrilli.  I believe I wrote a review of this book some time ago and decided not to publish it.  The two things that interested me about Zarrilli's work, the theater connection and the China connection, don't get worked out in this text.  Too bad.  One thing I loved about the book was that he put everything he had to say about "Paradigms and Discourses" in the first chapter and outright tells the readers to skip that chapter unless they are a disembodied head stuck inside an academic box! Yes.

 On page 45; "[In] playwright Bhasa's version of Karna's story, Karnabhara, which illustrates the divine gift of power (sakti) which requires no attainment from the practitioner.  When a messenger gives Karna Indra's gift of an 'unfailing weapon whose sakti is named Vimala to slay one among the Pandavas', he asks, 'when shall I gain its power (sakti)?'  The messenger responds, 'when you take it in [your] mind, you will [immediately] gain its power.'"

What? No hard work? No training? This is correct, this is the highest level.  Do you really know what it means to put sandals on your head?  Do you really know what it means to put a sword inside your mind?  

Arguing Against Ice

This blog has a great challenge to the whole idea of icing: Motilitywod.

Here is the video, it's long and the sound is a little low but it's good.

I did a bunch of thinking about this issue.  Most of my readers know that Chinese medicine has been against icing but there has been some concession to the idea that inflammation is a problem and improved circulation is part of the solution.  That is now in serious doubt.  

For the last 15 or so years Physical Therapy schools have been teaching that the purpose of icing is to reduce secondary injury from inflammation.  However, there isn't much proof that secondary injury exists in muscular skeletal injuries. It may be a fantasy justification.

The injury is supposed to be caused by hypoxia, lack of oxygen in the cells.  The logic developed such that icing caused blood vessels to constrict but that the warming right after icing caused them to get much fatter via the "hunter" effect, and thus circulation increased.  More circulation, more oxygen available to the cells, less hypoxia.

But things turn out to be a lot more complex.  For one, we don't have a definition of inflammation, this article explains that at the moment we know of 9 different mechanisms that fall under the general heading, inflammation.  I suspect that as this debate continues we will discover there are things ice is great for, burns perhaps, but at the moment it is being way over used.  

The video suggests using compression bands (like Voodoo Bands) or electrical stimulation for muscle skeletal trauma.  I'm a fan of both but I have a different explanation.  When you use electrical stimulation or compression bands with external manipulation, you are making your external body empty (xu) of intent (yi), yet active (ling)!  This frees the mind to go outside the body and also frees the internal body from the external body so that it can move around and make spontaneous adjustments to the whole system.  Qigong and Standing Meditation (Zhanzhuang) can also do the trick.  Lymphatic vessels, which clear out inflammation, do not require impulsive muscle tension to drain, they just require movement.  With practice a student can learn to open and move fluid through the lymphatic vessels very easily.  

Yin Yang

I wouldn't be a martial artist at all if I didn't love the "doi!" moments where I hit my self-on the forehead because I've just realized how wrongly I've been practicing for x number of years.  That's because those moments are transitions to new freedoms.  

Yinyang theory is among the most basic aspects of North Asian cosmology so I'm not going t go into it here because most of my readers already know it.

What got me excited is that I suddenly came to understand the yin and yang meridians in a way I never had before.  Or rather, I put together a bunch of discrete experiences into a coherent whole.  So I'll just make a list.

Zhang Xuexin taught that qi rises up the meridians on the insides and back of the legs, then moves to the yang meridians coming up the the back over the head and out along the tan side of the arms, and then comes from the palms inward along the yin meridians of the arms and down the face and then down the front of the body and then, moves down the yang meridians of legs which are on the outside edges and along the front.  Kumar Frantzis taught the same thing.  And generally this is part of any heaven-earth qigong series.  

Liu Ming expained that meridian flow, like the flow of qi in meditation, happens by itself, of its own accord, effort only inhibits it.

Markus Brinkman, on his roof in Taiwan, explained and demonstrated channel theory as it applies to martial arts using a finger counting system.  He was astonished at how fast I picked it up.  I puzzled on it for awhile and did a bunch of experiments.  The idea is that force is generated, defused/transformed and transmitted along specific groups of meridians in sequence.  The theory is in this book: Applied Channel Theory in Chinese Medicine Wang Ju-Yi's Lectures on Channel Therapeutics

I figured out through my own experiments that the yang meridians are better for defense and yin meridians are better for attacking.  In the language of tai chi, pengjin takes force on the yang meridians, jijin issues force via the yin meridians.  A corollary for this is that yin is gathered when our structure is organized towards the inside edge of the feet, yang is gathered when our structure is organized towards the outside edge of the feet.  

In an attempt to reduce all structural power (jin/jing) in my body I figured out that I could put my foot down during baguazhang walking as if it were a vacuum cleaner, allowing qi to draw inward as my foot takes weight. 

George Xu said to me sometime in the last year, "The yin and yang meridians have different jobs."

Anyway, all this fit together for me recently.  All these things have to happen at once --simultaneously and continuously.  Without this piece, we can not achieve an 'I know you, you don't know me,' situation.  Without the crystal clear differentiation of the roles of the yin and yang meridians, the dantian can not do its job of meeting our opponent before our mass does.  

It wasn't that hard to say, and no doubt, I believed many times over the years that I understood it intellectually and physically.  But until it was happening in my body under the pressure of testing and resistance, it was just words.  

There are so many ways to be wrong, it feels good to get a few more of them out of the way.


• For more background read this article on making a sandwich.  Or for tai chi structure theory read this. For the concept and rationale of reducing jing/jin read here.


Dream Practice

The five practices of orthodox Daoism (Zhengyidao) are zuowang (sitting and forgetting), jindan (the golden elixir), ritual (the spontaneous and routine nourishing and re-balancing of living communities), daoyin (revealing ones true nature through exploring the limits of stillness and wildness), and dreaming.

I'm not sure anyone is really qualified to teach dreaming.  The other name for dream practice is "day and night the same."  In my own practice I have been experiencing a mind-body sensation that feels like dreaming.  It first started in my kua (hip area) and has spread to my entire body.  Sometimes it is intermittent, and sometimes it is only a portion of my body.  So it has become a measure of "good" practice that my entire body feels like it is dreaming.  Perhaps I could describe it as being outside of time.  Another characteristic of this "dream body," is that when I want to move, I move the environment around me.  I just think, "put the house behind you," and my body turns away from the house.  The sensation I get is a sort of short cut to doing what I've already been doing.  In that sense it may simply be the integration of new material.  But it feels deeply familiar.  Dream-like.

(Here is a post I wrote in 2007 on Tai Chi and Dreaming)



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.

Commitment 101

When a person commits to doing a practice the two most important things to define are the time of day the practice will take place and the location of the practice.

I often hear about people "trying" to develop a committed meditation practice.  This has always seemed inexplicable to me.  The only important questions are, do you have a designated time? and do you have a designated place?

Here is a picture of the room I build to practice meditation in:

Quiet Room on a 4 foot high platform with homemade Shoji Quiet Room on a 4 foot high platform with homemade Shoji

Quiet Room: Dedicated space for zuowang and chadao Quiet Room: Dedicated space for zuowang and chadao

Jibengong (Basic Work)

Dr. Ken Fish inspired a very interesting thread on Rum Soaked Fist which I’d like to draw readers attention to. (It takes a little while to get going and is up to 7 pages as I'm posting.) Fortunately, I’ve been banned from posting on the site without explanation. Frankly that’s a good thing because it required a lot of effort to monitor comments from people who regularly misunderstood and therefore freaked-out about comments I made.

Fish’s disturbing premiss is that the training secrets of Chinese martial arts masters are usually withheld at the beginning of a person’s training, not later after many years of study as is often assumed. By withholding certain types of intense, precise, and personally coached training at the beginning, a master can insure that a student stays forever at an intermediate level.

In other words, because of extensive sharing and the ease with which students change masters these days, many high level techniques have actually been written about and it has become quite possible to learn these methods, but without that more basic training these higher level techniques rarely if ever come to fruition.

It’s funny you know, from when I first started studying martial arts all the way into the early 90’s, if you wanted to insult a student from another school or someone else’s master, you would say, “You lack basic training, If you just go back and practice the basics you will have a chance of improving.” The standard retort to this insult was made famous by Bruce Lee, “You have offended my family and the Shaolin Temple, you must have grown weary of living.”

What is most striking about the thread is that Fish gives Jackie Chan as the best example of someone who has unequivocally had this basic training. He explains that the training is performative, it can be seen, and it is unmistakable. He then goes on to say repeatedly that anyone who has had professional level traditional Chinese Theater training has it, unequivocally. And that this basic training, ‘though quite rare in modern teachers of the arts, is widespread among all regional styles of Chinese theater and martial arts. (Which, I might add, should be a clue to understanding it’s origins.)

Naturally, I totally agree with him. But I would go further, I would say that a great number of higher level skills, concepts and training methods are directly accessible only through seeing the martial arts within a matrix of ritual-meditation and theater. Without accessing the original context, our only hope is reverse engineering.

In other words, you can’t just be tough, you have to act tough!

Bing Gong Bing Gong

Let me try to give readers a better idea of what this basic work (jibengong) is like by describing my own experience of learning it and trying to teach it. Kuo Lien-Ying was trained around the turn of the 20th Century in Beijing traditional theater arts, also known as Northern Shaolin. As the vicious mass movement to separate theater, religion and martial arts got underway, he moved into the martial arts camp, where he studied with many of the greatest artist of his time. He fled with the Kuomintang to Taiwan in ’49 and then came to America in the 1960’s where my first teacher, Bing Gong, became his top Shaolin student.

Studying with Bing was a profound experience and we became very close.

Ye Xiaolong Ye Xiaolong

The truth is that Bing, although he spoke very little, had a strong desire to pass on the essence of this art. But sadly, hardly anyone was willing to endure the training. He would have me do very simple movements over and over again in slightly different ways until my body permanently changed.

For instance, while I held the basic monk stance, (see image below) he would order me to make small adjustments or movements while he introduced various forms of resistance. There were many eventual ‘benefits’ to this. So for example, after a time I could move my knee high enough and integrate it into my structure well enough that I could use it to block kicks to my ribs.

Take another example from Shaolin. While doing the second line of Tantui (springy legs), which is a very straight forward punch, punch, punch-kick combination, Bing would have me freeze with my

Paulie Zink Paulie Zink

outstretched leg up above hip level. Then he would have me move it higher and he would test it for connection or integration in various ways. And then we’d do the same on the other side--over and over, day after day, week after week. Again, until the ability was permanent.

Bing also kicked me a lot. He wouldn’t tell me how to get into a stance, he would kick me into it. Although I can point to a lot of different learning methods that I have experienced over the years which could account for the gongfu in my legs, nothing else was really as profound as that.

As I’m sure readers can surmise, these things are not complex to teach or to learn, but actually getting the student to do the work is unusual. I guess I liked it when Bing kicked me because I never asked, “Why are you doing that?” nor did I respond emotionally by making a face as most students do. How do you explain to a student that they are not to make a face? Trying to explain it is like making a problem on top of a problem, it just doesn’t work.
I think anyone who has done professional dance training will understand this instinctively. As one of my dance teachers put it, “Some people know how to take corrections and some people don’t.”

I could say things about all of my teachers in regards to jibengong, but I’m just going to mention two more, the first is Ye Xiaolong. Geroge Xu brought Ye over from Shanghai one Spring in the early 90’s because George himself wanted to learn from him and they both taught class together. But then suddenly in late May, George got his long awaited “Green Card” and shortly there after he flew to Europe to teach. He left Ye by himself to teach classes in San Francisco and arranged for us to get him back and forth from his house to the park. But as there was no translation, only two of us came to class for the whole Summer. He taught us for 100 days, everyday for about 3 hours. We concentrated on about five exercises which we did over and over. Ye constantly had his hands on us, making corrections, pushing, resisting, kicking and saying, “Bu hao,” (no good). We actually did a lot of push hands too, but it was never competitive, it was done as a kind of cooperative power stretch. The effects were permanent.

Paulie Zink deserves a mention here also because I believe he is an international living treasure specifically because he has the worlds largest collection of jibengong. As he put it to me, “I don’t teach martial arts anymore because I have yet to find anyone who is willing to do the preliminary work.”

Monk Clears His Sleeve - stance Monk Clears His Sleeve - stance

The New Definition of Fascia

Josh Leeger turned me on to a series of articles which are using a new definition of Fascia.  This article is particularly worth reading:

Fascial Fitness: Fascia oriented training for bodywork and movement therapies, by Divo G. Müller and Robert Schleip.

Many people I've shown the article to have commented that one of the authors is into a painful type of bodywork called Rolfing, and they have suggested that the authors may have created a Rolfing centric view of fascia.  Strangely no one has pointed out that the other author is into Continuum, which is a very watery type of movement exploration.

You'll get the new definition of fascia by just reading the article, so I'm not going to try to nail it down, but  readers should know that the old definition was a description of the clear or translucent film that surrounds all muscle.  The new definition includes tendon and ligament and sees all that juicy stuff as a single organ.

Whatever, right?  But what is important about this new article, and this new approach, is that it uses clinical language and conforms to kinesiology standards.  Until now there was no clinical explanation of how external martial arts work that any of us could use when talking to a physical therapist.  That's going to be a big change.

Fascia? Fascia?

The article explains that tendons and ligaments themselves can take load and can spring.  What the authors don't seem to understand is that it is through the natural spirals of the body that all of these soft tissues function together.  They don't seem to realize that the reason they are getting these springy dynamic results from slow holistic lengthening is because their method builds on these underlying spirals.  Spirals are there in shortened positions too, as anyone who does whole body tie-up and throw techniques (think: Aikido) can tell you.

So, it's a good start.  It primarily deals with what we call in both internal and external martial arts, "the foundation."  That is the ability to get in and out of a range of deep, long, loaded, and spiraled stances while using smooth (wood), explosive (fire), fluid (water), and hard-solid (metal) movement qualities.  "The foundation" is what I usually refer to in this blog as "jing training," the first level of internal martial arts.  It is also commonly referred to in martial arts lingo as "the benefits of good structure."

The authors lose a few points in my book at the end of the article when they say this training, "should not replace muscular strength work, cardiovascular training, and coordination exercises."  That statement muddies the issue.  All that stuff is just included in basic Shaolin, it's already complete.  If we are building this "foundation" for learning Tai Chi, Bagua, or Xinyi, then we are going to leverage these underlying spirals to allow us to reduce muscular "strength" and discard the torso tension usually associated with "coordination exercises."

The author, however, should get extra credit for hinting at methods for developing higher levels of internal martial arts.  For instance, take the "ninja principle" all the way out, and the body becomes so light and quiet that our experience of the physical body becomes totally empty (xu).  Or take the idea of fluid movement all the way out, and ones habits of coordination and resistance become baby-like, unconditioned (ziran).

The Proprioceptive Refinement section of the article is the most interesting.  They discuss the, "need to limit the filtering function of the reticular formation."  This refers to a part of our brain which we can train to pay attention to certain kinds of nerve stimuli and ignore others.  Muscles transmit information slowly, that's why we need to turn them off and pay attention to other stimuli-- and that's the very mechanism which can make it is so easy to manipulate someone who is, in martial arts lingo, "too stiff."  Eventually we want to turn off most of our 'inside the body sensors' and turn on most of our 'outside the body sensors.'   The authors correctly identify the problems with doing any movement exactly the same way over and over, namely that we become insensitive to small errors which then become habituated.  This is why it is so important that our forms are empty! By cultivating emptiness, our movement is unconditioned by our mind.  On the other hand, always thinking about a specific and exact application of a technique, will turn us into robots.

Qi has no memory!  To practice martial arts with qi is to be continuously spontaneous.

To quote the Daodejing:
To be preserved whole, bend.

Upright, then twisted;

To be full, empty.

What is worn out will be repaired.

Those who have little, have much to be gained.  Having much, you will only be perplexed!


Fascia? Fascia?




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.

Visualizations, Videos and Learning the Sword

In traditional Chinese Internal Martial Arts visualizations are used to help people develop qi and the ability to move it.  The key expression is:  "To make imaginary real, and to make real imaginary."  This is one of the things that annoys me about the whole movement to make martial arts less theatrical and more "real."  Folks, that's level one!  It's only half the job.  Once those fighting skills are perfected and all the applications have clear intent, power, etc, etc, then the task is to make them so natural that whatever the mind does, it is expressed instantly and effortlessly.  The art enters the realm of imagination.

I recently have learned a lot about my Northern Shaolin Sword form (Wuhudao) from playing with Maija.  She's great. What amazed and delighted me the most is that every single move in this old opera form from Kuo Lien-Ying is totally functional.  Even the things that I had thought were artistic flourish turned out to be really useful techniques!

And while we are at it I have a new favorite visualization.  The most common visualizations of qi are clouds, steam, silk, water, fire...etc....   all that old school stuff.  But my new favorite thing to visualize is dry-cleaning plastic!  It puffs up, it floats down slowly, it spins around, it has a mind of it's own.

Dry Cleaning Plastic Dress by Susan Lenz