Saturday, April 25, 2015

What is qi? This question seems to haunt the study of the internal martial arts.  Some practitioners take the view that the mention of qi in traditional training methods is a quaint and antiquated concept with no practical application. I disagree. The masters of old were often sparse in their instruction - they did not throw out useless concepts.

My own introduction to qi came through Chen style TaiChi and Qigong, pressure point fighting in Ryukyu Kempo and from the study of several holistic healing modalities based on TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine). Because my initial exposure to internal healing and martial arts was nearly simultaneous, they have served to support each other and have provided a better perspective in understanding qi. That is the perspective I want to share here.

The first thing to understand about TCM is that it is based on the holistic philosophy of Taoism. And, that modern quantum physics finds a great deal in common with Taoism. At the root of both is the common principle that “everything is energy”. This single concept unites matter and energy for the physicist (E=MC2) and the “ten thousand things” of creation for the Taoist. Everything that exists, - solid, liquid or gas – thought, feeling and emotion – alive or not, is ultimately understood through the atomic and subatomic energy states. Everything is energy, and energy and its expressions are the language of both TCM and the internal martial arts. We are either restoring energy balance (healing) or creating an energy imbalance (martial).

In TCM the term “qi” is used to define a very broad range of energy and information combinations. Basically, qi is a communication medium. It has two major parts – energy (wave form) and information (data / instructions carried on/in/by the wave form). It is “life force”? Yes, because it carries energy and information between the body’s organs and cells that sustain life. This sounds like the body’s central nervous system doesn’t it? It is. TCM sees no separation between the digital central nervous system and the analog “current of injury / repair” that flows through the meridian system. The general term “qi” is holistic as it relates to all the body’s energy systems.

Specific to TCM the overall term qi may describe the body’s three treasures (jing, qi, shen) as different qi states and at the same time be descriptive of the central qi state associated with the middle dantian. Qi can be prenatal (yuan qi) or post natal (zheng qi). Post natal qi could be food qi (gu qi) or “air qi”. There is also meridian qi (jing luo qi) and organ qi (zang fu qi) and so it goes, with many divisions and types of qi. Each type of qi represents different combinations of energy and information specific to their function.

As the body’s communication medium, qi is an indicator of what occurs within. This means that qi is an invaluable tool for the internal healer and martial artist, providing insight into all that goes on in his / her body as well as the body of the patient / opponent. We all have the innate ability to both sense (see and feel) and manipulate qi. We do this constantly at the subconscious level as a part of the body’s autonomic functions. The subconscious mind monitors literally millions of bits of information per second. Through awareness training, the internal healer / martial artist can selectively monitor the information contained in the qi medium. This is a matter of using awareness and intention to bring the conscious / logical mind into sync with the subconscious. In the martial arts, one aspect of this is called “listening (ting) jin”. In Western terms this is probably best expressed as a combination of interoception and exteroception.

There is an axiom in internal studies that goes as follows. “The body leads the mind, the mind leads the qi and the qi leads the body.” This axiom reflects how qi is woven into and utilized by the internal arts. Based on this axiom, qi skills are at the heart of all internal training. The ability to manipulate qi comes from the relationship between thought and qi. Simply put, thought is qi - both are energy and information. The energy of the mind can link directly to the qi energy of the body – body and mind are one, not separate. An example of qi in internal training is seen in meditation.

The Wild Goose system seated and standing meditations (jing gongs) begin with the “open awareness” meditation. Open awareness is an observational meditation, where one sits quietly and observes the thoughts and energy flows of the body. We do not attach to what we observe, but allow the observation to continue unimpeded. If we find we have allowed the logical mind to pursue a thought or energy sensation, we then allow our attention to return to just observing. This cycling between observation and following a thought or energy, represents the meditation cycle. When our observation takes in these thoughts and energy flows, we are working with qi.

When our observations find disturbances in the qi, this is evidence of a blockage - some retained stress from an injury, illness or emotional trauma. When we can observe such blockages, the observational method shifts to one of dissolving the blockage and directing it out of the body. As these blockages are cleared, our thought process is refined. (In the Wild Goose system, there are multiple meditations that work on qi balancing, circulation and clearing.)

Consider the evolution of a thought as a bubble rising from the bottom of a lake. Think of the bottom of the lake as pure consciousness - the source of all thought. As the thought is born, the bubble rises and its size and clarity are affected by the surrounding water. Think of the surrounding water of the lake as the ego or individual personality. The ego is constructed of all the positive and negative life experiences that combine to color our thoughts. When the bubble breaks the surface it explodes – in the case of the thought it has been colored by the ego before it bursts onto the conscious mind.

When we use qi to clear the blockages caused by previous stressors, it is like turning the waters of our imaginary lake crystal clear. This clearing results in a more efficient process where a “true thought” emerges into the conscious mind, unencumbered by the individual ego. This moves us toward the goal of the internal arts which is to operate from this unencumbered state of pure consciousness.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

I had a comment related to class about “belief”. The comment held the idea that a certain “level of belief” was necessary in order to be successful in class. This touches on many points that are critical to internal arts practice, so I wanted to take the opportunity to explain and expand on the original comment. The implication of the comment was that the internal practices would only work and/or be effective if a certain level of “belief” could be generated. As if the benefits of practice were somehow “all in your head” and “belief” was the only way to make them real. This is not accurate.

Here are some of my thoughts on belief and how it relates to the work we do in the Wild Goose system. These thoughts apply to everything we do – qigong, meditation, healing and partner work.

Starting with a definition - Merriam-Webster states the following:
be•lief \bə-ˈlēf\
1: a state or habit of mind in which trust or confidence is placed in some person or thing
2: something believed; especially : a tenet or body of tenets held by a group
3: conviction of the truth of some statement or the reality of some being or phenomenon especially when based on examination of evidence

I hope that as an instructor I inspire at least some level of trust and confidence, so that aspect of belief toward the instructor and the material presented is reflective of our class environment. That is why I deliberately work with seeing and feeling the effects of internal work, so that it becomes a tangible thing – a real experience. However, the context of the comment was along the lines of “belief” more as an act of faith. This view of belief strays from truth and reality – this a place we do not want to go in our practice. Our practice needs to be based on sound principles and fed by the results of our own experience. To move further here, we need to look at the broader foundations of the internal arts.

The foundations of the internal arts are based on the principle that “everything is energy”. There is a 5000 year positive history that backs this approach. And just as important, this principle is consistent with modern quantum physics. If we look at Einstein’s famous equation E=MC2, we can see both energy and mass on opposite sides of the equal sign. Again, everything is energy. What is “everything”? It is literally everything. You, me ceiling, floor, sky, animals, buildings – you name it, and it’s energy in some form. The essence of illness / disease is as an energetic imbalance. This fact is recognized in all forms of medicine – Eastern or Western it makes no difference. (Likewise, the essence of all martial arts is to create an energetic imbalance.)

What is unique about the approach of Eastern and Traditional Chinese Medicine is that it includes a direct approach to energetic balance, right at the energetic level. It is not just physical (massage, chiropractic, surgery) and not just molecular (herbs, prescription drugs), but it directly accesses the energetic flows in the body. How does it do this? - By using the mind with awareness and intention. And this brings us to a place where belief does matter. When it comes to using the mind, if you believe you can’t do something you are correct, and if you believe you can do something you are also correct. Belief does effect what you can accomplish mentally.

So, while belief may help us exercise the laws of quantum physics, it does not alter them. Each of us has the innate ability to impact the energy balances in our body and in our environment. To effectively use any internal system you must have an open mind to both the historical and scientific evidence of energy work. With an open minded approach, you build your own experience and “belief” through your practice.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Students sometimes ask – “Can you give me just one thing I could do to improve myself and my health?” My answer is meditation. It lowers stress levels and improves virtually every area of personal health. And, perhaps more importantly, it can open doors to new behavior patterns.

We covered meditation this week in class – specifically we discussed “open awareness” meditation. In Taoist systems like Wild Goose, there is a progression of meditations that clear stress and balance energy flows. The starting point for all these meditations is awareness.

“Open awareness” meditation is very easy. Sit in a quiet spot and observe your thoughts. When a thought comes, don’t attach to it. Simply watch it come and allow it to pass. Don’t follow or attach to it. As you keep this regimen for 15 to 20 minutes, you will begin to notice occasional periods of silence – i.e., no thoughts. During these quiet periods, just observe. As you observe, allow your awareness to expand through your body. After 15 to 20 minutes, slowly open your eyes. That’s it. It’s that simple. Meditate regularly; twice each day for 15 – 20 minutes is optimal. Morning and afternoon / evening are typical meditation times. It can be done with eyes either open or closed, but it’s best to start with eyes closed to limit distractions.

Here are some additional tips –
1. Keep your posture relaxed, but aligned.
2. As you meditate, continue to relax areas of tension.
3. Place the tip of the tongue on the roof of the mouth.
4. Breathe in and out through the nose if possible.
5. Don’t meditate after a meal. Allow an hour for food to digest.
6. Don’t force any part of meditation. Take it as it comes.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

About breathing – abdominal and reverse abdominal

I read some Internet posts recently along with several magazine articles that were all directed at the methods of breathing used in meditation, qigong and TaiChi Chuan. Most of the focus of these articles is on defining the differences between abdominal, reverse-abdominal and chest breathing. Here’s my take on the topic and from my conversations with Shane, I understand what I present here to be consistent with Grand Master Chen’s view of using the breath in the Wild Goose (Dayan) system.

First is “chest breathing”, which is characterized by a reduced air volume because of limited use of the diaphragm and an increased reliance on the chest and back muscles. In “chest breathing” you can see and feel the breathing movement coming from the upper chest. It is associated with stimulation of the sympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system and with the “fight or flight” response. Chest breathing’s inefficiency and its stimulation of the sympathetic nervous system make it undesirable for any internal meditative or martial disciplines. It is however a pattern which is often seen as people age (i.e. it may be “natural” but not desirable) and as such it is one of the things we would like to correct with practices such as qigong.

Next is “abdominal breathing”, sometimes called “baby breathing” because it is the way we breathe at birth. In abdominal breathing the emphasis is on the use of the diaphragm as well as the intercostals in order to create the maximum space for the lungs to expand into. It is important to keep in mind that efficient breathing sets up the area around and below the lungs as if it were an open cylinder. In this regard, an upright posture (correct structure) is also critical to maintaining the cylinder. The diaphragm and intercostal muscles then draw the lungs into the empty space in the cylinder to create a more efficient breath. This logic applies to both abdominal and reverse-abdominal breathing.

To better differentiate the two terms I’ll state them as “relaxed abdominal” and “reverse abdominal”. In the relaxed abdominal breath, the core muscles are relaxed and when the diaphragm draws down, it creates the “bulging tire” around the midsection that gives relaxed abdominal breathing its name. In reverse abdominal breathing the core muscles are under tension, creating the “flat belly” look during the inhale – i.e. the “reverse” of what happens during the relaxed abdominal breath. Now the really important part – why is one breath with the core relaxed, and the other with the core tense (activated)? This goes directly to the natural function of the body during the breath. If the body structure is still (as in seated or some standing meditations) the core muscles may remain relaxed – i.e. there is no need to activate the core since there is no need to enhance the energetic connection between the lower and upper body. And, if the body structure is moving, (as in actively absorbing or projecting energy), then the core muscles are activated to facilitate the energy transfer between the lower and upper body. The selection of a relaxed or activated core is a natural process that requires no conscious intervention. You do not need to “think” about tensing your core muscles when your are actively absorbing or projecting energy. This response occurs automatically – for example if you have to push an automobile or lift a heavy weight, you will automatically activate (tense) your core. Remember that in the internal arts we only use those muscles necessary to get the job done – relaxation (song) is always the key. Another way to say this is that you should always use diaphragmatic breathing, be as relaxed as the application will allow, and whether or not the core is activated is dependent on how the body structure is being used.

For Wild Goose practitioners this follows the admonition to relax and breathe naturally. All you need do is breathe with the diaphragm and maintain a correct and relaxed structure and the rest takes care of itself – relaxed abdominal or reverse abdominal – the body decides automatically.

Taking this a step further, it may be better all around to forget the labels of “abdominal” and “reverse abdominal” and simply understand that diaphragmatic breathing is the way to go and the core will take care of itself naturally.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Energy in the Internal Arts

We just released our fourth book – Wild Goose System, Volume IV – Healing Methods.

I had the opportunity to respond to several questions about the book – one of those was related to understanding how Traditional Chinese Medicine principles are embedded in the movements of the Wild Goose forms. I wanted to give this a bit more attention in the blog. The information here is a reflection of topics covered in our Wild Goose books, Volume III (Martial) and Volume IV (Healing). It’s too much to cover fully in the blog, but here’s an abbreviated version.

If you are doing either a healing (qigong) form or you are doing a martial form as a part of any internal system, then you should expect to find energetic alignments in those forms. If these are not evident (i.e. no one is teaching them in your system), then your system is not an “internal” one. “Internal” systems are inclusive of qi energy and by that definition, must engage the qi transport system.

Energetic engagements are created in multiple ways.

  1. Aligning and/or joining acupuncture points on the feet and hands with other body points – example: Laogong [Pericardium 8] in the palm facing inward toward Qihu [Stomach 13] on the chest.
  2. Creating structural alignments by using the relative positions of points that are located at or near the body’s joints – example: elbow joint held above the knee joint.

 Enhancements to energy flow will also be present.

  1.  Feet will break / make contact with the earth, resulting in energy surges through the body
  2. Rotational movement about the body’s central axis will raise and lower energy – Clockwise rotation lowers energy and Counterclockwise rotation raises energy
  3.  Rubbing, clapping, touching, projection – i.e. massage and acupressure techniques
  4. Specific structural alignments of the hands (commonly called mudras) will enhance / alter energy flow

 And, mental intent and awareness will also play a role in energy engagement.

These methods of energetic alignment and enhancement are present in both internal healing and internal martial forms and applications. In healing applications they are use to promote balance in both the healer and the patient. In the martial applications they promote imbalance in the opponent (create a disability). A short hand for this engagement is that we engage our own energy system first to heal ourselves. We can then engage the energy systems of others to either heal or hurt.

If you are practicing what should be an internal system and do not have access to the energetic methods of your forms, it is certainly possible for you to begin to unravel what’s going on for yourself. This is not an easy task, but there is substantial supportive information available via TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine). On the martial side, the TCM offshoots of Dim Mak (kyusho-jitsu [Japanese]) also offer supporting information. TCM principles have formed the basis of the internal arts for thousands of years – you can tap into that resource to enhance your understanding of your own forms. When you enhance your understanding of how the forms work, you also enhance your experience and the benefits you receive from the forms.

Here is an example of an energetic connection that is used in the Wild Goose system’s 1st 64 action form. The movement is called “Hand circles of the foot” and is number 18 in the sequence of 64 actions. The images are of Wild Goose system, 28th Generation Lineage Holder, Grand Master Chen Chuan Gang.

First, here’s the move as it is being set up. Note the toes are raised on the right foot and also note that the fingers of the right hand are held together in a Plum Claw formation (four fingers surrounding the thumb) at Quepen (Stomach 12) point.

Next as the movement is fully formed, the left hand grasps the big toe. Note that it is the thumb and first finger that do the grasping. The toe is then rotated counterclockwise. 

This is an interesting movement because there is a lot going on here. Here is an explanation of what’s happening energetically.

  1. Beginning at the ground, the toes of the right foot are raised. This breaks the connection to the earth, primarily at the Yongquan (Kidney 1) point. This causes a brief surge of energy up the anterior portion of the right leg.
  2. The rotation of the big toe moves energy through the joint. A simultaneous body rotation at the hips and shoulders moves energy through the mid and upper body.
  3. The toe is grasped with the thumb and first finger. This creates a wood-element mudra. The specific grasping point is at Yinbai (Spleen 1), which is the origin of the Spleen Meridian (yin). A connection across the top of the foot runs to the Stomach Meridian (yang). The wood-mudra grasp at Spleen 1 effectively connects the left hand to both the Spleen(yin) and Stomach (yang) meridians, which are Earth element. In five-phase theory the Wood element (the hand mudra) is controlling the Earth element meridians Spleen and Stomach.
  4. The right hand is formed in the Plum Claw which is a five-element mudra, bringing all five energetic phases (Metal, Water, Wood, Fire, Earth)  to the Quepen (Stomach 12) point. This completes the connection, forming a circuit of the yin-yang Spleen-Stomach meridian pair. Because of the inter meridian connections provided by the Quepen point, the Large Intestine, Small Intestine, Triple Warmer and Gallbladder meridians are also activated.

In summary we have the energy surging up the front of the leg from the raised foot, along with the controlling action of the Wood mudra and the Five-phase energy input of the Plum Claw mudra which are accessing the yin-yang circuit of the Spleen and Stomach meridians. The inner connectivity of the Stomach 12 point provides a bonus of accessing four additional meridians / organ sets.

Overall, this movement results in a clearing and recharging of the Spleen and Stomach meridians as well as activation of the Large Intestine, Small Intestine, Triple Warmer and Gallbladder meridians. The primary effect of this action is on the Spleen and Stomach organs, which results in improved digestion and immune function with secondary effects on Large Intestine, Small Intestine, Triple Warmer and Gallbladder. A more in depth view of the effects can be seen by referring to an acupuncture text (or the book :) and examining the range of physical and energetic responsibilities of the organ systems that receive primary and secondary benefit from this action.

Having some understanding of the impact of the energetic engagement methods is empowering. Knowing that your hand configurations have elemental properties and that a single point on you body can connect to multiple organ sets gives new perspective to your practice. It might seem to an outside observer that simply touching a hand to the body would be insignificant. However a skilled internal arts practitioner who understands energetics, knows that a simple touch has the potential to heal a patient or disable an opponent.

For more about the Wild Goose system and books, DVDs and instruction please visit