Saturday, December 13, 2014

The theory of full lungs breathing in tai chi

When your tai chi teacher asks you to breath "naturally" while doing tai chi form, he is, in a way, correct in doing so. Yet he is not telling the whole story, assuming that he knows the whole story in the first place. The trickiness of tai chi breathing is that on the one hand a student has to breath deeply and on the other hand he has to relax his sternum ("Depress the chest and raise the upper back" in 10 tai chi essentials [含胸拔背]). Worse, forcing oneself to "depress one's chest" in years of tai chi training can make one's back hunched! For safety reason, "natural breathing" seems to be the best bet for beginning students, if not for all students.

In the practice of chi kung, one needs at least two stretched or focused points to generate chi. When applying to tai chi's full lungs breathing, it is the muscles around our upper lungs and those around our lower lungs. Muscles around the lower lungs primarily refers to our diaphragm. Its execution in full lungs breathing is abdominal breathing which essentially is focus on Dantian to activate the diaphragm. The tricky part is on our upper lungs.

Chest breathing is an activation of muscles around the upper lungs. The problem is that it will normally involve raising our sternum which is in direct opposition to the requirement of "relaxing your sternum". Because of this dilemma, some tai chi teachers either train their student to breath "naturally" or to do abdominal breathing only (thereby forgetting about the whole idea of full lungs breathing). Those more "eager" teachers in doing the latter face the danger of making their students' back hunched (after years of practice) - a condition to be cured instead of to be trained!

How to solve this dilemma? The method is focus on the points immediately below the middle part of our clavicles. By focusing on these points on the top and the dantian on the bottom, we can visualize our lungs as a bellow. Opening up and down as full lungs breathing in, closing (controlled relaxation) up and down as full lungs breathing out. With this method our sternum can remain relaxed.

This is also the breathing method for Taoist deep meditation or Neidan. Our body is to be visualized as a bellow to start up a small fire, the seedling in jump-starting the practice of Neidan.

Use bellow to start a fire

Saturday, December 6, 2014

How to train our diaphragm

Chi kung literally means the training of breathing. Not just breathing in oxygen and breathing out carbon dioxide. For that we do not need to learn! The training of breathing in chi kung essentially means the training of our breathing muscles. For what purpose and how to do it form the gist of the training of chi kung.

Chi kung practitioners are not the only types of people that need to train up or condition their breathing muscles. Sportsmen in general need to train up their breathing muscles to get enough oxygen during the vigor of their sports. Opera singers need a pair of powerful lungs, and so do windwood or brass instrumentalists. The focus of chi kung practitioners is more direct, and actually can be applied to all of the above, and of course vice versa!

A student of chi king trains his breathing muscles to be the powerhouse to move chi (or an internal sensation) to travel to every single part of his body. To help this formidable task, there are several stages of training, each requires a high-focused mind, focusing on such internal sensation - for pedagogical sake or for the sake of convenience, it is called chi. As Lao Tz spoke of Tao - I have no word for it, let's call it Tao.

One important stage is the opening of our shoulder and pelvic joints. The opening of which can open blockages that may hinder chi flow and they can then act as "pumping" house for more powerful and more manageable chi flow. This stage has many similarities with the training of sportsmen. Hence some chi kung exercises are similar, in form if not in totality, to common stretching exercises and some others to body building exercises of our core.

Another important stage is to better connect our key breathing muscles, our diaphragm to other parts of our body, in particular making our diaphragm the "mind" or "directing organ" of our whole chi kung practice.  This stage has some similarities with the training of singers and windwood/brass instrumentalists. It is interesting to note that a number of chi kung schools include the practice of "voicing" (like sounding the vowel /i/) in their training practice.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Inspired by Tao Te Ching - chapter 45



My rendition of chapter 45 of Tao Te Ching:

Those who have great success look inadequate
Therefore they can continue to contribute (without creating jealousy)
Those who are full look empty
Therefore their creativity will never be exhausted.
A righteous man looks submissive,
A sage looks clumsy,
A great debater appears slow in speech.
Being overly excited is better than cold at heart
But silence is far better than being overheated.
A foundation in everyday life as well as society.

Paul’s comment: It is interesting to note that “Being overly excited is better than cold at heart”, in contrary a popular misconception of Tao as being emptiness or silence without compassion. The same can be applied to a correct conception of Taoist meditation - Cold and silent meditation without Chi is not Taoist meditation – nor Zen meditation, for that matter.

Traditional Chinese cultural is all about pragmatism and solving concrete problems rather than contemplative philosophizing. Tao is multiuse, rather than abstruse.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

The theory of friction walk

Friction walk (摩擦步) is the hallmark of muscles-as-one execution in movement of Master Wang XianZai' system of healing and internal martial art. It is a highly innovation practice in solving the training problem: "how can a student be to learn to keep his chi-filled state during movement" - a more likely mode than stationery standing in combat or daily life!

In traditional practice of internal martial arts, like tai chi, movement often involve raising one's feet before stepping forward. The raised feet will cause the body to lose some chi - if not in very slow focused practice at least in actual normal speed movement.

In my own teaching, I always start with prior training of slow (or very slow) tai chi walk, to open my student's hip joint (Kua) before proceeding with friction walk. Indeed friction walk is more "advanced" in the sense that one can't reap its full benefit without a foundation in tai chi walk. The Kua must be loosened before it can generate powerful chi during friction walk.

What are the important points to note in friction walk, besides prior training in tai chi walk?
  1. There must indeed be friction! The feeling of friction (the concept of internal feeling is of paramount importance in the internal arts) is created through controlled weight to the feet/sole of the advancing leg.
  2. The body must be moving at a fixed horizontal level.
  3. The pair of stretched hands are for body balancing and internal chi balancing.
  4. Weight distribution on feet: about 90/10.
What internal feeling to expect (or to be targeted)?


Friction steps

Friday, November 21, 2014

Biased towards action

Chinese are pragmatic and they are biased towards action rather than enjoy arguing and philosophizing, for good and for bad. So much so, some people said there is no such thing as philosophy in the Western sense in classic Chinese philosophical texts as they are taught in local Universities. Although this saying might be going a bit extreme, take Tao Te Ching as an example, this text does look more like a narrative to guide action rather than a meticulously argued analytical text. Moreover, Tao Te Ching is an open text. The openness of the text lies on its usefulness as a text that can guide actions in different domains, as differently read by different readers. It has been regarded as a text to guide the Emperor to run his country (a political text), as secret text with hidden alchemical instructions (a sacred text), a day-to-day guidebook of Tao for...the modern man (!) (a self-help text), a book on chi kung (a mind-body text), an important text for religious Taoism (a religious text) etc. The same for the Book of Change I-Ching, a seemingly oracle book with different "hidden" meaning or agenda.

Recently I read Chomsky's Occupy (Occupy Central is still running in full steam in Hong Kong with more campers added daily and escalating grievances from the public). Not surprisingly, Chomsky is a man of action when his persona is an activist. He avoided unnecessary argument (or avoid being dragged into fruitless arguments). Not by evasion, but through reasoned argument. Here is a good example from a Q&A session. Good food for learning:

Q: The late British philosopher, Martin Hollis, worked extensively on questions of human action, the philosophy of social science and rationality. One of the claims he made was that any anarchist vision of a society rests upon an idea of human nature that is too optimistic. In short, he argued that anarchism is only viable if humans by nature are good. He says that history shows us that humans cannot be trusted to this degree; thus, anarchism is too idealistic. Would you mind responding to this objection very quickly, given your commitment to some of the ideals of anarchism?

A: It's possible to respond to arguments. It is not possible to respond to opinions. If someone makes an assertion saying, "Here's what I believe," that's fine -- he can say what he believes, but you can't respond to it. You can ask, what is the basis for your belief? Or, can you provide me with some evidence? What do you know about human nature? Actually, we don't know very much about human nature. So yes, that's an expression of his belief, and he's entitled to make it. We have no idea, nor does he have any idea, if it's true or false. But it doesn't really matter; whatever the truth turns out to be, we will follow the same policies, namely, trying to optimize and maximize freedom, justice, participation, democracy. Those are goals that we'll attempt to realize. Maybe human beings are such that there's a limit to how far they can be realized; okay, we'll still follow the same policies. So whatever one's un-argued assertions may be, it has very little effect on the policy and choices [66-7].

Paul's comment: the questioner does seem to have presented an argument:

If anarchism is to work, human nature must be good.
Since human nature is bad.
Therefore anarchism does not seem to work
And therefore one should give up the route of anarchism

In actual fact, it is an opinion that one (Chomsky) should give up the route of anarchism because it is not guaranteed to work. The Chomsky's answer is that anarchism is one's best available action-option and one should therefore try one's best to achieve the maximum results that anarchism can deliver, and let human nature, if counter-productive/reactionary to a certain degree, serve as a limiting constraint (like limited capital is always a constraint for any entrepreneur).  Chomsky is definitely biased towards action.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

The unnatural way of being natural

  1. Is Tai chi and chi kung the most natural way to promote physical fitness and health?
  2. Should tai chi and chi kung therefore be practiced in natural slow movement?
The answer to the first question is yes, while the answer to the second question is no, or a qualified no.

The practice of tai chi and chi kung indeed should be (and are seen to be) practiced in a slow way whenever there is movement. Yet it is not moving slowly in a natural way, like casual strolling in the park. If THAT be the case, there is nothing exciting about the practice of tai chi and chi kung.

The way to practice tai chi and chi kung is far from natural. Take an example. In the practice of standing meditation (zhan zhuang), the most important requirement is "points stretched and body relaxed" and NOT total relaxation. Incidentally this is the same requirement for seated meditation of the Zen type or the Taoist type.  Those who practice seated meditation with total relaxation (even with listening to meditation music) are either practicing day-dreaming or sleep-dreaming.  They might be a bit refreshed after the session, but it is NOT meditation, in the proper sense of the word as practice.

In zhan zhuang, the points (in the beginning stage) are always the fingers and hands (and the toes and feet if one is more sensitive; for those less sensitive students, their toes and feet will be stretching anyway without their conscious effort due to the requirement of "half-asleep while standing"). Now comes the key concept. When a student consciously prepares himself towards the "points stretched and body relaxed" condition, his chi will naturally flow around his body. And with more practice, he can actually feel such flow. In order words, "points stretched and body relaxed" results from a unnatural conscious effort (plus other requirements such as a half-asleep mental state") while the chi flow is the resulting natural process of healing.

I have only used zhan zhuang as an example here. The concept cover (almost) everything in the practice of tai chi and chi kung. In a future post, I shall discuss how the "unnatural way" is practiced during movements.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Haruki Murakami 村上 春樹

A world without walls can be created “in the quiet but sustained effort to keep on singing, to keep on telling stories, stories about a better and freer world to come, without losing heart,” he said.

“We can see [a world without walls] with our own eyes – we can even touch it with our own hands if we try hard.

“I’d like to send this message to the young people in Hong Kong who are struggling against their wall right now at this moment.”

(Murakami is the first Japanese author awarded the Welt Literature Prize by German daily newspaper Die Welt since the 10,000-euro prize was established in 1999.)

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