Friday, April 10, 2015

Hatha Yoga vs. Chi Kung

Yoga in Hong Kong is almost equivalent to yoga-asana of hatha yoga, considered to be stretching exercises, no more and no less. Building flexibility and elegance, most welcoming to office ladies and female executives of all ages. Chi kung (including tai chi chi-kung, or tai chi practised as chi kung) is more like healing exercises for the middle-aged+ and recovering patients. How do their compared in terms of techniques and effectiveness? And can they be complementary to each other?

Many people who practice yoga in Hong Kong do not know Hatha yoga consists of eight different stages or concepts.
  1. Yatna  - Conduct of life in relation to others – avoiding untruth, theft, injury to others, sensuality and greed.
  2. Niyama - Conduct towards oneself – cleanliness, tranquillity, austerity, study and devotion.
  3. Asana - Stretching, bending, balancing and sitting exercises. These exercises are nowadays collectively known as hatha yoga.
  4. Pranayama - Breathing exercises which aim to control the mind.
  5. Pratyahara - Withdrawing the attention from the body and the senses.
  6. Dharana - Concentration of the mind.
  7. Dhyana - Meditation.
  8. Samadhi - Uninterrupted contemplation of reality.
Two specific concepts define Hatha yoga apart from spiritual, chi and mind-body systems. They are asana and pranayama.

Asana: the practice of asana, as I can observe it being practised in Hong Kong, is practised in a way that relaxation is emphasized to hold a stance in position. With such holds, our tendons will be lengthened and aligned to the stance or structure, with minimal activation of chi (at least it is not explicitly taught). With more practice, the stance or structure will approach the "perfect form". Without chi generation means that there will not be an effective feedback mechanism as to when stretching is approaching its limit. As such, yoga-asana, when compared to chi kung, can more easily lead to body injuries like torn ligaments and loosened joints.

Chi Kung forms: whether it is stationery forms or movement forms, chi generation to opening blockages (mainly muscles and joint blockages) is the primary focus. The tendons and muscles will be strengthened and lengthened at the same time. The lengthening benefit will however be not as effective as doing yoga-asana. In terms of structural alignment, yoga-asana also scores better, in particular its seated forms in which part of the body is fixed. The benefit of chi kung on the other hand is that chi can be consciously moved towards the inner-most parts and extremities of our body. With this feature, chi kung is most beneficial for healing, including structural, muscular and internal organs. In addition, one can consciously feel where one is going, avoidance of injury can be more easily attained.

Pranayama is controlled breathing exercises aiming at calming and controlling the mind. Yoga has a most complete set of breathing exercises that is not found in chi kung. Practitioners of chi kung can benefit from these breathing exercises.

Oftentimes chi kung students neglect the importance of breathing. Some teachers even maintain that only natural breathing is needed for practicing chi kung (and tai chi chi-kung). With some good training of our breathing muscles (with chi kung's abdominal deep breathing training and selected techniques from the more complex system of pranayama), a chi kung student will be able to consciously drive more and stronger chi to the areas, like inner areas or extremities, to achieve good healing and training objectives. In addition, some of the pranayama techniques can be very useful for chi channel opening, such as alternate nostril breathing (Nadi Shodhan Pranayama).


Monday, April 6, 2015

The concept of Song in tai chi

The practice of tai chi can be made to jump start easily in a matter of weeks, or it can be very difficult to jump start irrespective of years of experience. Firstly, of foremost importance, it depends on the attitude of a student, and secondly it depends on whether or not one has a good teacher. Sometimes when I made this assertion,  I would be responded with this saying, "Is it not that many people, in particular old folks, just imitate daily their sifu's movements of standard tai chi forms and got good benefit out of it?" My reply is yes. Indeed imitation of the outer form of a seasoned practitioner can deliver some good results, provided firstly that he spends time diligently to imitate every morning, like many middle-aged plus students learning the art in the public park of Hong Kong; but then a student truly needs to imitatively practising the form daily, which unfortunately is not always possible for most people unless they are retired. And secondly he needs also to satisfy himself always be at the elementary level.

For an eager student, the correct attitude is very important. And this attitude is simple to understand if not to actually hold and practise: treating any minute internal changes/feelings inside one's body as a progress. The old saying goes: always treat your cup of tea as half full instead of half empty. If you consider any minute changes as value you will increase it, and if you consider any minute change as useless "noise", you will throw it away. In the latter case, you will always be at square one.

For example, when I teach a student the concept of Song. The good student will always say, I can feel just a little bit, but I will practise more at home to increase that feeling. The mediocre student will say: Sifu, I don't feel anything, perhaps I don't have the talent for tai chi like other fellow students who have. Empirically speaking, both might have felt just the same amount of internal chi during the lesson!

Let me talk about the concept of Song, which afterall is the title of this article. Song is one of the most common requirement of tai chi. What is Song? Song is Open 松开, instead of total relaxation 松懈. And Song should primarily be applied to opening the major joints (shoulder and pelvic). The feeling is half-Song/half-tight, a condition of dynamic equilibrium under which chi can be generated (the classic explanation is:  Like Song not song and like tight not tight 似松非松,似紧非紧)。During zhan zhuang, the state of Song can generate substantial chi at the joints that can be directed by Yi (mind 意) to guide the chi thus generated to move towards the extremities of the limbs. Doing standard tai chi form, the ability of Song is fundamentally essential to doing the round form in which the ball and socket joints are required to float inside the sockets.

What is required for a good learning of Song and other concepts? Focused study and practice to increase the little droplets of water to a full glass. For a beginning student, both of the following attitudes are wrong: (1) I feel nothing and (2) Thank you sifu, I am there already! To the first, I will say:  You won't learn anything if you continue to say you are not feeling anything at all, for the second I will say: Don't be overjoyed, you just happened to be standing at the starting point!

Practice is everything - even for the bright and eager student.

Opening and floating in ball and socket joints

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Zhan zhuang as cultural exchange

Helpers from the Philippines and Indonesia is a key domestic manpower for Hong Kong families. In particular Indonesians helpers who are more empathetic towards old people and willing to spend extra efforts to needy people. With the aging population, their services have become vital to the population. We thank them a lot. Their kind attitude towards the elderly, I reckon, is partly due to their religious devotion, though I can't claim myself to have more than a surface understanding of Islamism. One thing for sure, they are more religious than more cosmopolitan Hong Kong citizens.

The exercise of zhan zhuang and tai chi is getting more and more popular in Hong Kong. Unlike doing yoga that you need to go to a gym to practice, students of zhan zhuang and tai chi usually practise in a public park under the tutelage of a teacher or sifu. Those are classes-for-the-general-public 普及班 which essential means for an average student regardless of level. An average class will have some 20 students doing the routines after their sifu. Individual coaching is seldom, due to the large size of the class. Imitation is the key method of training. With 1 - 7 lessons per week, a student will find no problem in picking up the routine within a short period of time. For more serious students, a private, or at least small group of 2-4, under a sifu is required. Some of these private students later will become sifus themselves. However, one must not lightly discredit the method of imitation. I shall explain more in a future post, suffice to say here that the famous Indian guru Sri Ramana Maharshi primarily used this method for his spiritual training, and he believed it to be the best method. I agree with the guru. More on that in the future.

In addition to local Chinese, the number of foreigners practising the art is increasing. The picture below was taken by my Indonesian helper who, as I explained in some previous posts, has taken lessons from me with very good progress. The lady sifu depicted is an Indonesian helper and the students are fellow Indonesian helpers. According to my helper, the lady sifu has been trained privately under a Chinese sifu in Hong Kong for a number of years. And that "she really knows the internal tricks of zhan zhuang", my helper told me.

I am glad to see the art of zhan zhuang is being served as a means of cultural exchange. The helpers can get good mind-body relaxation and conditioning after a week of labour in their employers' respective houses.  In time, I trust that we can expect to see many Indonesians practising the art in Indonesia, when the helpers get the benefits and go home after their contracts in Hong Kong.

Indonesian helpers doing zhan zhuang in Hong Kong

Monday, March 23, 2015

"Holding golden urn"

"Holding golden urn" is one of the 24 styles tai chi nei gung.  In tai chi nei gung, sometimes a student can judge the training objective from the style or exercise's name, sometimes he can't. This is the one he can.

If you are an experienced practitioner or one who has read some literature on the subject, probably you have the experience or vicarious experience to know that chi kung practice can result in a student able to lift up a heavy object. An object of such heaviness that the student can't possibly lift with such ease by looking at his outer physique. Is he playing magic? Is the power of chi that allows him to lift such object up with ease? He himself may not know the answer. Without a good explanation, it will not be a surprise that people will cast a skeptical eye upon chi kung - are those guys cheating?

Chi kung is a form of internal mind-body art. It trains directly the internals of a practitioner's body. Going to the gym (or for that matter any regular sport) is an external physical art. It trains the externals and which then will filter into the internal, but without the practitioner having a conscious control of the filtering process. An internal practitioner on the other hand can, if he does himself correctly, consciously control and therefore train his internal part. The strength of an external artist can be seen from his outward appearance, while the strength of an internal artist cannot be seen from his outward appearance. Of course, the best young practitioner can be trained in both disciplines. A middle-aged student however is advised to train himself solely on the internal art only.

Look at a crane. It is a steel structure that can move heavy objects around. In the internal art, the training method is to directly train the internal muscle-cum-bone structure, like tightening and strengthening the connecting joints of the structure of the crane.

The logic is simple (and therefore can be understood by seasoned practitioners who are reading this post). The most important joints are our shoulder and pelvic joints. To tighten the joints, we rotate it in one direction with connectedness (as perceived by internal chi-flow) and then rotate it in the opposite direction with connectedness (sometimes with different focus, like one in shoulder the opposite in wrist), and stop there! Your joints will be locked. You can then start strengthening (and tightening) your joints using stationery zhan zhuang form, like "holding golden urn". After such training you can start with slow sluggish movements to "test" your connectedness and strength during motion. In Master Wang Xiangzai's logo, it is called "testing Li" 試力, literally meaning testing the continuity of strength and tightness in your joints during movement.

In "Holding golden urn", a student doesn't just hold the stance without prior preparations. He has to turn his shoulder joints one direction and then turn back the opposite direction and fix it there to achieve the required chi. He should then do the same for his hip joints. I didn't see any sifu talking about 24 styles tai chi nei gung explain this training method. I have no idea why. Recently I browsed some Japanese books on "traditional martial arts". They don't have 24 styles, but they have their systems of joint-tightening training - and they explain it so clearly without hiding the technique of the art. So, my dear advanced readers who know the art - don't blame me for disclosing any secret of yours - it has already been there in Japanese texts, and for so many years. Why should anybody hide?

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Zen meditation and zhan zhuang

Zhan zhuang is sometimes called standing meditation (and tai chi moving meditation). Meditation has different meanings in different disciplines, in Tibetan and most Hindu traditions, it is at-oneness with a spiritual figure, in most cases one suggested by a student's teacher according to the personality of a student, this is serious meditation. Or meditation can mean the modern mindfulness meditation tailoring to today's busy company executives looking for an easy way to rejuvenate one's tired body and mind. This is a kind of watered-down Zen meditation focusing on the here-and-now however one defines it.

Zhan zhuang is also about internal focusing or mindfulness. It focuses our attention to the internal dynamics of our chi cultivation, growth and balancing. In particular it focuses on our muscles and tendons, and the connectivity of these to deliver power, in tai chi lingo, such power is called Jing 勁。An internal perception of chi is crucial to the activation of Jing because its activation runs a route (chi channel) connecting our core to our peripherals. Delivery of power at peripheral (e.g. fist) is transmitted from the core (e.g. feet and pelvis) through an internally perceivable running route, the chi channel.

Many practitioners of zhan zhuang will have a good mental side-effect. His or her personality will become calmer. Most do not know why and therefore do not know how to manage it to get better results. This aspect actually has been promoted in the tradition of the art. Master Wang XiangZai was said to have conned the term "Martial art and Zen as one" 禪拳合一。

The essence of Zen meditation according to the Six Patriarch Hui Neng is "find one's true self" (明心見性)。How to find one's true self? A self which is not influenced by external events. For example, when  we are frustrated by our spouse, this is not our true self.  What is you? A common question in Zen Buddhism. Answers are very simple: for example, if you got a mirror, your can look at it to see your self; if you got people around looking at you (e.g when you are talking to them), you can infer your self from their facial expressions etc. Finding your self in a meditative state should be logically as simple as the above.

When you are doing Zen meditation, you are not distracted by colors and movements (your close your eyes), not distracted by the weather (you keep not warm and not cold), not distracted by smell (no tasty meals around and certainly you are not eating while doing meditation!) and not distracted by sound (no music and no sweet voice from your wife or whoever).  You are then (forced to be) mindful to your internal sensation. With little meditative experience, your internal sensation will be close to zero and your mind will wonder around (this by the way is a psychological fact), and you fail your mission! With continual practice, say after a period of hourly-sessions, you begin to feel a different internal world.

With zhan zhuang, you have already created a condition ready with lots of internal sensations. In intermediate or advanced level, you have trained to control your breathing muscles, you have trained to open your shoulder joints and pelvic joints and you have trained to connect your muscles and tendons. While doing meditative zhan zhuang, you should forget about everything, including your training together with the fact that you are undergoing training. You breath calmly. And your breathing starts to move internals, a whole new world of internal experience opens. Gradually you can feel the tiniest bits of your internal happenings. In time you become your internals. You are your internal sensation. You are at-one with your self. You are onto true Zen meditation. And you will love it!

Master Yu YongNian

Thursday, March 12, 2015

The importance of muscle memory in zhan zhuang

Initially zhan zhuang is just standing there. In the intermediate stage, it is not just standing there. Other things have to be learned and then the be incorporated back to the basic zhan zhuang stand. The other things to be learned include things like tai chi movements of the standard forms or nei-gong forms (like the Wu-style 24 styles tai chi nei-gong that I am more familiarized with), all intending to tune up our body to experientially understand important concepts through the process of training. Muscle memory is one of these important concepts.

The concept of muscle memory in the internal arts is not the same as a concept of the same name as used in sports in which like once a person has learned how to ride a bicycle, his muscles will never forget the experience. Muscle memory in zhan zhuang (and chi-kung in general) refers to memory of minute muscular movements in different directions in a 3D environment. The basic concept is easy to understand: Using XYZ axis as example, all minute movements. You do +d along x-axis, back to zero, do -d along x-axis, back to zero. Follow by Y-axis and then Z-axis. Do it a few times minutely and slowly and then stay back at zhan zhuang stance and you can feel the result of a noticeable surge in chi energy. With meditative minute (or nano) movements, your muscles will memorize chi movement in each direction. When you move back to a stationery zhan zhuang, chi will flow in all directions at the same time because of such memory, and internally you can feel a massive surge of chi energy.

This is an advanced concept with some prior training in standard zhan zhuang or other internal disciplines as prerequisite for understanding (when I say understanding it always mean experiential understanding together with rational understanding). It can best be practised using combat stance. The above is also the essence of master Wang Xiangzai's six directions tug-of-force (六面争力). Intelligent advanced students can realize immediately that it should better be 3D spherical rather than three 2D planes. In addition, the particular conditions of the internal body structure of a student will also affect how this concept can best be executed, and hence affecting the effectiveness of the training process. Needless to say, further explanations will go beyond the coverage of a simple article. Moreover it will be quite unnecessary for an intelligent advanced student who can infer adequately from the above explanations, though at the same time, no matter how detail I might try to explain, it will be quite incomprehensible to a beginning student lacking the foundation internal sensation which needs to be cultivated with practice first.

Combat stance of a master - a famous student of grandmaster Wang

Friday, February 27, 2015

The path of enlightenment according to Carl Jung

As an academic discipline, Carl Jung's analytical psychology is a study of the psyche. His individuation process as a development process that combine or complete a person's psyche into wholeness, or that enlightens it, with insight or wisdom. According to Jung, the three parts of our psyche consists of
  1. Ego, our conscious mind;
  2. The personal unconscious, forgotten or suppressed memories from our own personal lives;
  3. The collective unconscious, the collective memory of human thought and experience, from ancient to modern times. This includes the basic human instincts and the archetypes.
The above is academic. The practical question is: How can we facilitate the process of individuation and how does it compare with Eastern methods of enlightenment?

Concerning method, for his patients, Jung used psychoanalysis; for himself, he used meditation and his own dreams (the subject of meditator's vivid dreams I shall tackle in a future post). What is interesting to me is that his three-part construct of human psyche was empirically (in the nature of psychological perception) determined. It was true to him and apparently cross-referenced to be true to his students and/or fellow practitioners or inquirers of the subject matter (perhaps including Zen master Charles Luk, translator of Taoist Yoga, whom Jung knew personally). Such details however had not be documented, i.e. these are only my own reasoned analysis or speculation.

More interesting is that such construct can be used (and apparently was/is being used) by students of the subject as a facilitative tool to guide their inner quest through meditation (and vivid dream analysis too, for some). My contention is that Jung's method is also relevant to Taoist and Zen practitioners, for them tools are just transient objects that need to be thrown away after the next stage of Tao/Zen enlightenment is achieved.  Besides for an average educated intelligent modern man, a belief in a psyche construct (like Jung's) of good academic standing looks more palatable to his (conscious) mind than accepting the existence of mythical beings of the some Hindi tradition or colorful Lamaist mandalas, not to mention the seemingly unapproachability of some gurus in trance states!

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