even one word is too much.
Our next public workshop will be on Dec. 1st, 2018 and will focus on Neigong practice. Neigong is an often overlooked aspect of internal training. In many systems, there is sometimes a focus on basic Qigong--if any--and a lot of Taiji form. Other systems may have a much greater focus on Qigong, but never get into the deeper aspect of Neigong. And then there are the systems that actually do teach Neigong but call it Qigong. Of course, I'm not judging any system here, just offering a chance to look at a deeper practice. I don't personally think Neigong is or should be a requirement for anything. I just find it to be a good practice, and in my lineage a nice precursor to understanding the depths of all practice (Taiji, Qigong, Yoga).
A primary requirement for Neigong is physical conditioning. The body needs to be open, flexible, loose, and strong in order to process and develop awareness of energy flow at higher levels. A strong and flexible body doesn't only help with Neigong, but with all internal (and external for that matter) practices. It's just good policy. We want to condition the body and keep it that way. Then we want to move on to nurturing the energetic body. Ultimately, this means understanding the meridian system and the Wu Xing, or five elements. But at a basic level, it means to have an awareness of the three dantien, a few key accu-points, and a sense of how breath connects it all together. Once we have developed an awareness of and have learned to nurture our energetic body, we will find that meditation and the accompanying stillness/silence comes much easier and naturally, thus living into our spiritual body.
In my opinion, Neigong is more something that happens than it is something that is teachable. We can find some literature and some teaching on it, but ultimately it requires a state of mind and intention along with dedicated practice. To that end, I have a few recommended books to accompany this workshop. My foundation is in Hunyuan Neigong. Unfortunately finding solid material on Hunyuan Neigong that is easy for the Western mind is difficult.
For workshop attendees who want a deeper understanding of Hunyuan Qigong/Neigong, I recommend the following books by Wang Fengming: "The Essence of Taoism Qigong" and "Special Taoist Taiji Stick and Ruler Qigong". They can be purchased from his website here: www.worldtaiji.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=6&Itemid=12 Understand, most available writing on Hunyuan is typically esoteric and obscure. The reader has to be patient, but the information is there. The only other book I can recommend at this time is Damo Mitchell's "Daoist Nei Gong". This is a good book and is very informing. This is not a Hunyuan text, so there are some differences in approach that may be noticeable to workshop attendees. However, in the long run these are minor and this book can serve as an excellent foundation for Western minds. Again, we need the basics, something to work with. But from there it is less a system of following and more a system of discovery. Just let it happen.
Back to push hands, the subject of recent past posts. Perhaps the best practice of push hands is when we are not practicing push hands. My teacher says the best solo preparation for push hands practice is Zhang Zhuan, standing Qigong. He also says that out of the totality of all our practice hours, only 10% (+/-) should be dedicated to partner practices. That leaves 90% of our time that can be focused on solo practices. We can obviously share our form, Qigong, meditation, etc... practices with our students and friends, but we don't have to. If practice partners are not available, we can always practice alone
Granted, my previous posts on push hands were very specific and certain concerning my thoughts and preferences about this aspect of practice. But even given that, I still follow my teacher's advice in that the overall majority of my practice is solo practice. In my case, at the time of this writing, the majority of my solo practice is indeed solo due to work, travel, living arrangements, etc... at this time of my life. I practice with others and teach when I get the chance, but the overall day-to-day training is with my shadow. And even this advice should be taken with a grain. If you get the chance for partner practice, take it. It's important. But value the solo practices overall. That is where the difference is made.
The wonder of this practice is the depth found in unexpected places. We learn to do by practicing to be; learn stillness through movement; learn to move by being still; find ourselves by working with others; we discover the Universe by inquiring within our own small, yet infinite, interior; we find the way by not following any way at all.
"Life as it is.
In essence it is already perfect.
Trying to get it right is slavery to ideas.
No one will ever 'get it right' because 'getting it right' is a concept, a belief and no concept is ever a stand alone reality .......and no belief is ever real."
I recently shared a blog post and a couple of videos to my email list sharing my perspective on Taiji Push Hands, basically covering what I consider solid practice and what I consider to be something else. Of course, an email is too brief a format to explain the details and foundation for my perspective, so I thought it deserved a fuller treatment here.
Before I get into it, I should define Taiji, or what Taiji is to me:
Taijiquan is a style of Gongfu, based on the Thirteen Postures, the practice of which serves to build Gong for the practitioner (my definition).
Taijiquan: Grand Extreme Boxing. "A pugilistic art rooted in the Daoist concepts of the interplay and necessary balance of yin and yang." (Yang).
Gongfu: Kung Fu. Acquired Skill. Skillful Work. Dedicated Training.
Thirteen Postures: The Eight Energies plus Five Directions. The Eight Energies are Peng, Lu, Gi, and An. The Five Directions are forward, back, left, right, and central equilibrium.
Gong: "Constant improvements in balance, coordination, agility, and power through the accretion and replenishment of Qi." (Yang).
Now, there are infinite different expressions and "styles" of Taiji practice. I train in, teach, and am only concerned with traditional practice. To be frank, I don't care what others may practice, but for those who train with me I do want to clarify the way we train and why.
Traditional Taijiquan is composed of Qigong, Taiji Form, and Push Hands.
This is the basic formula for practice. We can obviously expand our definitions of the three categories, but this is the basic format. From a traditional perspective, any practice that doesn't emphasize these categories is incomplete.
The foundation of the three aspects of Taijiquan is the Bafa or Eight Energies.
Everything we do in Taiji is in essence a manifestation of the Bafa. Qigong, loosely defined as energy work or energy skill, is a practice of self nurture based on our inherent energy. Taiji form is the expression of this energy, specifically in eight specific ways. In the Chen-Hunyuan lineage under which I train and teach, our main form, The Essential 48, is practiced in such a way that we pay close attention to the essential energies manifested in each movement. There is much wisdom in practicing form in this manner. Further, Push Hands practice is an opportunity to apply these energies as various attacks and defenses in a playful and nurturing context. Of the Eight Energies, the first, Peng, is understood as a directional energy, up and out, and as a quality: the quality of expansion. Thus conceived, Peng should be expressed throughout our Taiji form and partner practices. In Push Hands, the maintenance of Peng quality gives each partner a sense of gentle resistance. In Taiji form, we maintain that expansion and feel the resistance by mentally moving through water. Additionally, every movement from the form is based on an application of the Eight Energies. To really understand form, the practitioner should learn the application of each posture. Each and every posture is based on finding and applying leverage in an interactive encounter.
Traditional Taijiquan is a method for learning to relax under duress.
Anyone can relax after a Qigong or meditation session. But can that same peace of mind be maintained off the mat when we meet the challenges and exigencies of life? Traditional Taijiquan practice offers a great format for that. But it should be kept in mind, the idea is to build gong, not to fight or struggle. When playing Push Hands we want to nurture our partner by challenging our partner. We want to give them something to work with so they can apply the lessons learned in a challenging, interactive encounter. What constitutes challenging depends on the skill of each practitioner. Note, and this is crucially important, it should not depend on the strength of each practitioner, but skill. However, it takes a lot of practice for any of us to get to the level where we rely on skill and not strength. We have to keep this in mind when working with a Push Hands partner. The more skilled partner has an obligation to not overpower the other, to provide enough skill that his/her partner can be challenged and hopefully learn and grow.
Traditional Taiji form and Push Hands should be informed by Qigong and the Bafa. In order to build gong, Push Hands practice should be interactive and challenging.
Less an emphasis on the Eight Energies, Taiji form and Push hands are not much more than choreographed movement. We often find in contemporary Taiji an emphasis on form over and above everything else. Further, we find an emphasis on the aesthetics of form, rather than the meaning, intention, and application behind the individual movements. Such an emphasis may produce a visually appealing form, but one that is empty of essence and gong nonetheless. Much the same can be said for Push Hands. One may find examples of Push Hands practice that don't involve much more than two people rotating their hands together in a circle, or two-person forms and exercises that put more of an emphasis on coordination and cooperation than on the utilization of intentional energy to challenge one's partner.
Interactive and challenging Push Hands practice teaches us to be present, to be aware of the operational situation and mindful of our partner and his/her intentions, to go with the flow and change with the change. Practices that follow a predetermined format teach us to be mindful of the form more than the situation and partner, and, while engaging a sort of flow, have very little to do with change and challenge. Further, practices where one player bounces across the floor or against the wall in response to a no-touch throw or from internal Jing that appears to mysteriously flow out of the the other player's hands are not conducive to Gongfu and are of no interest to me. Such practices are controversial parlor tricks and the arguments used to justify or criticize them are a massive waste of energy and finite moments.
To each his/her own
I started this by noting that I want to clarify what I consider of value and what I don't. This opinion is based on the style of Taiji I practice and my personal approach. There is absolutely nothing new or innovative about my approach. On the other hand, I have always been of the mind that there is no one way to practice Taiji. I have always been opposed to the "my way is right and your way is wrong" approach. I am not concerned at all if anyone disagrees with my points here, and my way of practicing. And I don't care in the least that there are folks who do it differently than I. We are all different and will all find a path that works for us. However, within that framework there will be things that will work and things that won't; things that fit and things that don't. This is my approach.
Taijiquan: The Art of Nurturing, The Science of Power. Yang, 2008. Zhenwu Publications
Photo: From sunrise Qigong, Dare County, NC, October 2017.
One of the best developments in the world of Taiji has been the quantification of the healing benefits of Taiji and Qigong practice. I applaud this work, and admire those doing it, especially that of my teacher, Dr. Yang. We now have verifiable proof based on evidence-based trials, conducted by those with solid familiarity with the practice, of the healing effects of Taiji and Qigong practice. But what isn't always so obvious, especially since it is not so easily measurable, are the deeper psychological and spiritual benefits (1).
To be sure, this aspect of our lives is subjective to a degree. But the extent to which it is affected by Taiji-Qigong practice is notable and similar among various people. Also, in my opinion based on Dr. Yang's premises, such changes being associated with Taiji-Qigong practice are based on a traditional curriculum which includes Qigong, Taiji form and weapons, partner practices, and meditation. Further, such changes are typically based on dedicated, extensive daily practice. The following "benefits" of practice, are based on my own findings and those reported to me by friends and fellow practitioners across the training spectrum. It is not scientific in the least, but I maintain that the number of folks who report these results could warrant a study of some sort, if that is possible and anyone were interested enough to try it.
Following are the psycho-spiritual benefits I have noticed:
Increased confidence. This is often reported by most people who practice martial arts, and for obvious reasons. However, I think there is more to this than confidence in the ability to defend oneself. There is a deeper sense of well-being often reported. Taiji in particular is a difficult art and acquiring some degree of competence is an accomplishment. I am sure this contributes, but even so, there is still that deep sense of peace that tends to settle on the practitioner. This peace seems to be a result of living in a unified mind-body state. I think this unification is as much if not more the source of confidence than any element that can be objectively identified.
Less fear and anxiety. This is obviously related to the above. It is also often reported by meditators and yoga practitioners who do not do Taiji-Qigong. Further, it is also reported by martial artists of all stripes. But this is more than a lack of fear in relation to other people. This is a weakening of phobias and anxiety. Much like increased confidence, I think it is more than anything else related to unification. The dichotomy of mind and body, and/or mind-body and spirit has been a thorn in the side of humanity forever. Bringing it all together is reassuring and induces peace and well-being in the practitioner.
Increased compassion. Again, this is also mentioned by meditators, whether they have a physical practice or not. For me, this is just another extension of the two factors noted above. With an increase in confidence and a decrease in fear we can more easily look beyond ourselves and connect with our fellow humans on a different level. You may notice, non-judgmentally if you can, that those who are not as confident and are more consumed with fear and anxiety may have a harder time being compassionate. Of course this is a generalization and does not apply across the board, but think about the relationship. Better, notice the changes in yourself as you progress in your practice.
Better sleep. OK, this one can be and has been measured. However, I want to include it here because I think sleep is more than a physical process. Our dream state, REM state, and dreamless sleep are holistic events. We heal when we sleep. We also grow psychologically and spiritually in our sleep. Sleep is as much a defining factor in our growth as Taiji, Qigong, or meditation. Some years ago, I took the 100 days of the Chinese New Year to refine and define my practice of the Hao Chuan, or Old Yang Style Taiji Form. I worked on this form extensively everyday for 100 days. Somewhere around 65 days in (+/-) I started experiencing deeper sleep than I have ever had in my life, and REM dreams right before awakening that just did not conform to words very well. Additionally, my digestion and body processes improved in efficiency. However, after the 100 days were over I started dropping the practice some as it is not my primary style and I was deepening my study of Chen Style with Dr. Yang. As I dropped the Hao Chuan from my routine, the experiences began to fall away. Some 6 months later, I started practicing the form again and they came back. I don't make any claims whatsoever as to the cause of this and I am sure it is not quantifiable. I have a theory but it is based on colloquial Chinese understanding of TCM and Qigong, and as such doesn't conform very well to Western philosophy. To that end, I will not include it here so as not to take away from my point. However, the experience was and is very real for me. I consider that form to be one of the most potent expressions of Qigong I have ever practiced and it is a solid component of my training/practice routine that still informs my psycho-spiritual self and my sleep.
Slowed aging. I am sure this one is controversial, and of course can't be measured. However, if you take any given Taiji-Qigong practitioner who has been practicing intensively for over five years or so, chances are good that they don't appear or function at the level of their biological age, and likely appear younger than their age peers. The ancient Daoists considered the Primordial Heaven-Earth Qigong form as a practice for reversing aging, among other things. When I first heard that I thought it was quaint and maybe blown out of proportion. Now, after many years of practice including working with that particular form, I do believe and have experienced a slowing in the aging process. Age reversal may be a bit of hyperbole. However, basic knowledge of the Qigong process is enough to understand how the physical body stays agile and supple over time. I don't make any firm claims, but stand by my experience and observations.
Following the Dao. In essence, dedicated Taiji-Qigong practice tends to make overall life flow easier. We learn to go with the flow and change with the change rather than fighting the inevitable. This is following the Dao. Many report more acute intuition. In push hands, the seasoned practitioner is better able to anticipate his partners actions often before they even happen. All the more so with the ups and downs of life. This effect is often not blatant and may not even be realized by the practitioner for some time. But many find over time that life is easier to navigate and more peaceful overall. The Buddhists say that life is suffering and prescribe a method, The Noble Eightfold Path, for dealing with said suffering. I would say that most so-called suffering in life comes from resisting what happens and living in the past and future. Taiji practice teaches the subconscious mind to go with the flow. Over time this is just what we do. Thus suffering is minimized as we avoid it quite naturally.
It has also been my experience that these added benefits are typically the result of dedicated intensive practice, typically 45 minutes to 2 hours a day on average. When we train more the results are exponential. Twice the training time delivers four to five times the benefit, and that multiplier of results increases over time. Of course any training is better than no training, and we all have lives to live and challenges to negotiate. However, if you really want to transform, you will find the time to train. Once these higher level benefits start kicking in, most people never look back.
(1) Note, my use of the word spiritual here is defined as the deep, holistic, integral life of the individual which includes the higher functioning of consciousness (awareness) and all aspects of personal and social being; in effect, all of our existence, including physical and mental health, social adjustability, and our relationship with our past and future, to the extent they actually affect and/or inform us
Endless debates about the nature of reality, about who is real, what is real, the nature of I am, duality vs. nonduality, here and the hereafter, processes of manifestation, awakening and enlightenment, and on and on are a gigantic waste of time. I consider these things occasionally as a thinking person might, but on reflection I rather think we can find better ways to live into our finite moments.
Consider this: We are here in this manifestation, in these bodies. Despite possibilities of potential illusion or materialist reality, we are experiencing life now, as it is. Despite the potential illusion of time and space, we deal with time and space and the obvious effects. We are born, we live a while, we die. We can debate this but not escape it. In short, we don't really know if we are living in the Matrix or not; what happens after our bodies die; what is "reality" and what is mental construction; the nature of Ultimate Reality, or even if that exists; the full capacity of our brains and the totality of mind; if there are other dimensions, or not. So why waste time preaching and theorizing about any of it? Why not live the life we live hot off the press, as it unfolds for us; value every relationship, every living thing we encounter, every moment we have; optimize our experience through intentional life styles; treat every single thing as sacred; and always be thankful and in awe? I think if we do that Grace happens. And that is all that matters.
We do know what we experience and that we have choices and can act. We may not know any more than that, but we do know those things. So, a good beginning may be to note our experiences, pay attention to life as it unfolds. From there, acknowledge the different possibilities based on different actions, utilize the power of choice. Choose to act differently. For every action there is a reaction. Positive actions provide positive results. If you chose to be intentionally healthy, happy, attentive, and compassionate, your experience of this life will be different than if you made other choices. But don't take my word for it, or anyone else's. Try it.
This, I think, is the ultimate meaning of a "path". Not a road that leads to a specific destination, or end-point. But, rather a "way" to live. Maybe, if we didn't worry about what others do, or about salvation, or reincarnation, or enlightenment, or duality, or spirituality; maybe if we just lived life to the fullest we will be fulfilled. Is a path so defined still spiritual, or religious? I don't know. Does it matter?
Push hands, as a component of Internal Martial Arts, is a very broad practice. Despite what specific teachers may say, there is no one way to do push hands. As a practice, it is very broad and eclectic. It is and can be many things, depending on the intention or training goals of the practitioners.
It can be, and most certainly is a martial practice. However, that has to be understood in a certain light. As a martial practice, push hands is Gongfu. It is a training method for developing Gong. It is not combat application training in and of itself, but rather a methodology of training the mind and body to act and react under certain conditions. One can use push hands to learn how to transition into Chin Na or Dim Mak, and, as is quite the rage in some circles, grappling. It is a practice for learning to listen and pay attention to a partner/opponent, and serves to teach the subconscious mind how to respond reactively in a tense situation that doesn't lend itself to thinking or pre-planning. Combat push hands, and the sticky hands/spinning hands of some arts such as Yiquan and I Liq Chuan are very solid training tools for self defense skills. Given all that, Gongfu is not always combat-oriented. Gongfu means developing skill or the building of essential foundation. According to my teacher, Dr. Yang, “The accumulation of gong refers to constant improvements in balance, coordination, agility, and power through the accretion and replenishment of Qi (Yang, pp15)". So we can see this applies to surfing, singing, and walking down the street as much as it applies to self defense. To that end, the same training we use to develop martial skills also serves to develop basic health and physical durability skills.
Push hands is also an excellent practice for developing stress management skills. Consider the perspective that if we can learn to deal with a person, with whom we are not intimate, intruding in on our personal space and, even gently, trying to disrupt our balance, that we we are developing the necessary skills to deal with an aggressive driver in rush hour traffic, or a disrespectful teenager in our living room. Push hands practice can be seen as a laboratory for inducing minor stress in a controlled environment so that we can learn the best, and for that matter, worst ways to act and react within that situation. Push hands practice is an embodied and applied application of Taiji and meditation training. It is beneficial to be calm, collected, and at peace practicing your form or sitting on a cushion, but can you take that same calm and apply it under duress? While the odds of getting mugged are actually quite low for most of us, the odds of experiencing environmentally-induced stress are quite high. You can not always control the stressor, but you can control your reactions.
Another quite valid and useful construct for push hands practice is as a tool for mindfulness. In a basic playful format where each player is intent on disrupting the other's balance, being mindfully present in each moment is crucial. An obvious challenge for anyone who attempts meditation is dealing with the tendency of the mind to wander and get lost in thought. First of all, that is not necessarily as bad as it is always presented or as it feels, but that is a discussion for another time. The point is there are benefits in calming monkey mind. Sitting meditation is the most common practice for this. And many teachers, myself included, advise folks to learn to be mindful in all waking moments; to be present to life as it happens, to change with the change and go with the flow. Gentle, cooperative push hands is a wonderful tool for further developing this skill. From this perspective the competitive tendency is diminished and it becomes a completely different practice.
Of course this is nowhere near a comprehensive survey of push hands practice, but a couple of considerations I find useful to consider when practicing or teaching. Like all things Neija, the possibilities and potentials are endless. That's what makes it so great.
Taijiquan: The Art of Nurturing, The Science of Power. Yang, 2008. Zhenwu Publications
Rodney J Owen