Sunday, 26 August 2012

TaiJi & BaGuaZhang

"an alert, open, fluid mind ... allows you to flow from experience to experience without getting fixated or stuck." Meditation for Dummies

"The entire body is so light that a feather will be felt and so pliable that a fly cannot alight on it without setting it in motion." TaiJi Classics

I came across TaiJi (or TaiChi) through my interest in martial arts. I joined my university's TaiJi Society in 1998, later becoming part of the team who ran the Yang Style classes, and enjoyed the relaxing, poetically named and martially mysterious movements. I had practiced TaeKwonDo up to 'red tag' level in my late teens, and TaiJi seemed to be the direct opposite, even though I had heard that it had the potential to be a highly effective martial art.

After finishing university in 2002 and remaining in Bristol, UK, I could no longer continue to attend the classes, so I looked elsewhere in the city for competent teachers. Along with another Taiji fan, I helped to do the administration work for a new TaiJi class we set up with a Yang Style Taiji teacher called Karen. Those classes ran for around 6 months, but then Karen decided to leave the country. Adrift once again, I arrived at Mark Leonard's Chen Style classes - now the Bristol TaiChi Association.

Mark Leonard, Karel Koscuba and Master Chen XiaoWang
Mark Leonard's focus on 'testing' one's progress with push-hands and related activities was new to me. I saw and felt in his movements, as well as in his character, something a lot deeper than I had in previous teachers. The Chen Style masters from Chen Village in China regularly visit Bristol and Mark organises seminars so that his students can have access to the best teachers.

Chen YingJun TaiJi Teacher from Chen Village, China.
Although I had wonderful teachers, I often became frustrated with my lack of progress, joint flexibility, and discipline. One of Mark's classes had a different 'flavour', and that was the YiQuan class - in which we stood for up to 15 minutes in a 'standing post' posture before practicing the TaiJi forms and trying various drills. The YiQuan class gave me a taste of a potentially deeper side to the 'mysterious' internal arts, but the other students in the class were not apparently as interested in practicing YiQuan as they were in practicing TaiJi.

For years I 'flirted' with my TaiJi practice until I arrived at the YiQuan Academy in the countryside north of Beijing. See me YiQuan post for more about that.

I still practice a Chen Style short form and a short staff weapon form for flow and flexibility, and presently rely on YiQuan to give me internal power and conditioning.

The author practicing the TaiJi move'snake creeps down' in a park in China.
Upon arriving in Beijing last year, we were lucky enough to meet the daughter of Cheng BaguaZhang Master Sun ZhiJun. Sun ZhiJun was a student of the late Cheng You Sheng, son of Chen Dian Hua. Chen Dian Hua was brother of Cheng TingHua, who was student of the BaguaZhang founder Dong Haichuan

Sun ZhiJun in BaguaZhang signature posture.
In 1964 Sun ZhiJun became a double Weapon and Empty Handed forms champion in the Beijing Wushu Championships. In1983 at the All China Traditional Wushu Conference Sun won a gold medal and was assessed as All China's outstanding wushu athlete. He now lives in America where he continues to teach.

Sun ZhiJun and student.

Sun ZhiJun's daughter became a China National Wushu Champion at the age of 16 after competing in the BaguaZhang forms section. She has studied WuShu since she was 6 years old under her father and continues to practice TaiJi. She taught my partner and myself the old 8 Mother Palms Cheng BaguaZhang form in private classes for one afternoon every week during the Spring and Summer last year (2011). We were her first ever BaguaZhang students.

The fluidity of Cheng BaguaZhang is amazing to watch and try to emulate, and is something I would really like to devote more training time to in the future. YiQuan derived some of it's exercises from BaguaZhang, and so as my YiQuan competence deepens I am excited about what doors this may open into the deeper side of Bagua.

The joint 'open-ness' and flexibility required for good BaguaZhang and TaiJi is something which can often restrict Westerners, as I mentioned before in my YiQuan post, and it seems the lack of emphasis on static posture yoga exercises in most formally taught serious TaiJi and BaguaZhang can easily lead to physical problems. A BaguaZhang teacher admitted to me that they had a knee problem due to forced flexibility over the years.

A Daoist priest practicing BaguaZhang circle walking at White Cloud Temple (HQ of Daoism), Beijing, China.
Along with TaiJi, BaguaZhang remains more of a 'dynamic yoga' discipline for me at the moment, and yet I love them both for the fluidity and relaxation they bring to my body and mind. Here is a video of myself (and my partner in the final clip) practicing various TaiJi weapons forms and the Cheng BaguaZhang Old 8 Mother Palms form:

Sunday, 19 August 2012

Insight Calligraphy

"There is a vast difference between calligraphers' art and Zen masters' bokuseki [Japanese zen calligraphy]. Basically, both are done on white paper with black ink and red seals; both have good composition, and both are beautiful. But, in general, calligraphers' art is not alive. Bokuseki, on the other hand, has life, because it is created from the samadhi energy of the Zen masters' insight." p.xii Zen Word, Zen Calligraphy
Insight Calligraphy piece by teacher Paul Wang
It seems written chinese characters have always been appealing in the West. Beyond the concepts the characters represent, the abstract symbols appear to often hold an intriguing, mysterious, and aesthetic appeal for those who encounter them.

David Beckham's chinese proverb tattoo in cursive calligraphy.

My family has had a close connection with bold visual art - especially painting and printing. My mother is a watercolour artist and my grandfather on my father's side painted and engraved, and later made stained glass windows. Here are some pictures made by my mother and grandfather:

Watercolour by Catherine Herve-Petts
Wood engraving by John Petts
I feel both my mother's and grandfather's practices influenced my own personal appreciation of, and exploration of visual art, and the talents I honed as a child while following in their footsteps earnt me many prizes won in school drawing and painting competitions. I studied and practiced drawing, painting, and sculpting from 16 to 18 years old, obtaining an A-level in art, and I enjoyed it a lot, but then stopped when I went to university to study archaeology. I remained, however, incredibly interested in chinese and japanese painting and calligraphy - I often pondered over what lay behind the ink symbols and imagery included in some of the zen books I read.

A Song Dynasty Chinese Landscape Painting.
Last year my partner and myself attended a calligraphy class in Beijing to find that the teacher, Paul Wang, was also a zen meditation and taichi practitioner. His apparent serenity and tangible skill when using the brush and ink encouraged us to seek private classes with him. His calligraphy practice, which is different from standard modern chinese calligraphy as taught in universities and schools, is called 'Insight Calligraphy'. He sums up the approach as follows:

"Hands follow brush,
Brush follows mind,
Mind is along with insight,
Flowing together into very next moment." - Paul Wang
The author at a calligraphy class in Beijing China Culture Center with Paul Wang.
We have been attending weekly 1.5 hour classes with him at his apartment since February 2012 and have been practicing at home also. We take our 'homework' to him and he corrects it, and then he teaches us how to practice more correctly. In 7 months we have learnt just over a dozen characters, and we began with the Han dynasty Bamboo Strip style (created when writing had just made a solid transition to ink from bronzeware):
Han Dynasty bamboo strip calligraphy.
The general script development/evolution of Chinese written characters.
We begin each calligraphy session with 5 minutes of seated meditation, and then we get going, occasionally stopping to do some seated 'BaDuanJin' yoga to relax our limbs when tension builds up from the concentration. Paul learnt this yoga from a ShaoLin tradition. He emphasises the requirement for whole body awareness while writing Insight Calligraphy, and so he practices taichi and traditional chinese yoga forms daily, as well as seated meditation. Here are some photos of our teacher:

Paul Wang - Insight Calligraphy Teacher, Beijing.
At the moment I am practicing the cursive style of calligraphy which emerged as a strong style after the Han Bamboo style. It is more relaxed and flowing - emphasising the dynamic movement between solid and empty within the character as one renders it. Paying attention in the moment and with honesty, as the incredibly fluid ink moves into the paper, is essential to repeatedly present anything which will profoundly touch a viewer. As yet I still feel very limited compared to Paul and it seems there are many, many years of practice ahead before I can feel I have achieved anything of comparative merit. Here is my most recent home practice paper - it takes me around 30 minutes to do this:

The author with Insight Calligraphy Teacher Paul Wang at his apartment, Beijing.
One day I hope to produce something which looks like this:
Cursive calligraphy piece by Paul Wang.
The enjoyment of creating a work of art so deeply connected to mindfulness practice and in such a fluid and beautiful way is becoming one of the most positive and rewarding habits in my life. I really hope that some day I can share it with others in the West - by inviting Paul over to the UK, or by being able to teach the basics.
Chinese calligraphy brushes hung up for storage.

Sunday, 12 August 2012

YiQuan: 'Mind Fist' / Chinese Visualisation Yoga

 "A feeble body weakens the mind." - Jean-Jacques Rousseau
"Hollow chest, raise back, return to natural." - TaiJi Classics
I first learnt some taiji (or taichi) at university in 1998 (Yang style), and then went on to study under Mark Leonard of Bristol Taichi Association in 2002 (Chen style), but not very seriously. I could feel the subtle effects on my body, but lacked motivation and inspiration to explore the fundamental principles of internal martial arts. I understood that, beyond the gentle stretching created by the stances, making flowery movements without the internal physical integrity was pointless unless one is just entertaining people with a special dance, so I dropped taichi in favour of meditation.

Meditating while sitting on a normal chair for 45 minutes can create a bit of backache, however, and according to various experienced yoga and martial arts teachers, the reason western people find it difficult to sit in traditional postures on the floor for prolonged periods, even with cushions or small benches, is because we are traditionally kept so far off the ground as soon as we learn to walk, and this limits our bodies.

With few excuses to squat, our hips 'close up' and tighten, and we lose a certain degree of flexibility in our hips when close to the ground. Coupled with the habit of sitting on high chairs, there is a certain stiffness of posture, often with chest out, and a lack of general holistic care for the body as it ages. In the West, we can very easily consider ourselves 'broken' as soon as one of our joints begins to give us serious mobility problems, and so we begin our physical decline - often physically and mentally.

Chinese men playing chess while squatting on the ground

I will never forget the short middle aged chinese man I saw carrying a businessman (smoking a cigarette) up TaiShan mountain on a wicker chair tied to his back, or the chinese old man who tied a 5ft 8" refrigerator to his back using a piece of rope and carried it down 5 flights of stairs. As I stayed in China from 2008 onwards, seeing all the oldies doing their taiji in the park every morning, and feeling my own body begin to seize up when I hit 30, as well as meditation causing my back to ache in various places, I decided to seek a yoga system to help me open my hips and other joints.

I had been warned about the dangers of indian yoga systems - even chinese Shaolin yoga such as the YiJinJing - many teachers' forcefulness and lack of foresight regarding creating hypermobility of the joints tends to damage students. Paul Grilley's Anatomy for Yoga video provides many insights into how yoga industries can damage bodies. Even the basic 'starter' positions often seem instinctively unhealthy for me - I have never been a particularly flexible person. The 2012 article in the New York Times: How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body confirmed these ideas for me again.

It's easy to give oneself hypermobility of the knees and hips while youthful so that one can sit relatively comfortably in full lotus and look like a yogi master, but what will that do for one's mobility as one ages? Dancer's Hip, as a physical problem, isn't named randomly, after all. I like to be able to test the practical integrity of a yoga posture - to know that it is giving me some kind of healthy additional potential, not taking anything away.

My gruelling Zen Dojo experiences sitting through 20 minutes of half-lotus, and the hypermobility of my left ankle that I acquired after a year of weekly repetition, taught me that I needed to be kinder to my body, or my body would not be there to support me for very long - especially when I nearly fell down various flights of stairs on different occasions due to my ankle giving in under my weight.

Luckily, living in Beijing I am close to some of the few, and best, YiQuan schools in the world. YiQuan is a health and martial arts system which is only around 100 years old, but which utilises some of the most ancient traditional chinese methods for taking care of the body. It particularly focuses on what some consider to be the essence of all the internal martial arts.

The core practices involve stretching the body by using static poses, while using visualisations to maintain the correct tensions. This also conditions the body to react appropriately to incoming forces so that the yoga can be tested and applied martially through the use of 'pushing hands' exercises. I had had the good fortune to have studied some YiQuan with Mark Leonard in Bristol before arriving in China, so I was relatively prepared for what was to come.

My partner and I first attended TaoLin YiQuan Academy, in the countryside north of Beijing in July 2011. I was made to stand for 50 minutes in the beginner's posture, after which a senior teacher took a photograph of me, and some of my misalignments became apparent. This is the pic:

Following this we went to stay at TaoLin for a week residential intensive - 6 hours training a day, which included 2 sessions of standing postures which lasted 70 minutes each. While standing, my kneecaps felt like they were going to pop off, and my shoulders felt like they had screwdrivers wedged into them, but under the gentle assurances of the teachers, I decided that this pain was part of a kind of rebirth into the land of the physically healthy, and I wasn't wrong.

Master Cui stands like this for hours looking into the distance

The master at Taolin YiQuan Academy, Mr. Cui Rui Bin, is everything I can imagine a traditional gentleman martial arts master would have been in ancient times - tough, incredibly skilled, knowledgable, polite, and compassionate. Self-defence begins with the mind - defending oneself from negative ideas about the world and one's potential, then one moves onto physical practices - defending oneself from the ravages of the aging process, and then finally from physically aggressive people intent on doing harm to one. YiQuan offers highly effective competence in all these areas. Here is a video of the master (from last year) doing the 'health dance':

Master Cui achieved a lot martially in his youth, and can still apparently defeat the best of his students. The best of his students regularly defeat challengers who arrive at the school to test their famous push-hands. Now Master Cui is further developing his school - with more and more foreigners arriving from one month to the next, he is completing a new 2 storey building with double glazed hostel rooms, and a large heated practice room above, and it will be finished by the Winter of 2012.

I have not learnt the YiQuan push-hands yet - I am still working on opening up my joints and getting the springy 'air friction' feelings generated by the visualizations, although I have been taught some basic martial techniques which can allow me to feel how my postures can be used and tested. This picture shows the senior coach and myself testing my structure last April:

My left shoulder has opened somewhat now, which is a relief, and my knees have stopped feeling painful, which makes standing for 70 minutes at a time a lot more manageable. I have been practicing daily since April 2012 - my practice lapsed somewhat after the initial gruelling experience during the intensive last year, and the Beijing Winter put me off going back until the Spring.

We stayed at TaoLin again for 9 days in April, and that was enough to give us an appetite for daily standing yoga sessions of 70 minutes. We go back every Tuesday for 6 hours training, which means we must get up at 5am and be on the subway by 6:15am. The whole journey takes at least 1.5 hours each way to and from the school.

Standing daily for a prolonged period has now eliminated any physical pain from my seated meditation, and the improved internal physical integrity the visualization yoga creates has been giving me an increased feeling of well-being. It has also been correcting a slight stoop I had been developing from sitting on sofas. Even the knowledge that I am caring for my body in this way seems to give my subconscious an added boost - an upbeat stance on aging.

The author during the 6 day intensive in August 2011.
Here is a video showing my partner and myself  doing some of the moving exercises practiced after standing posture training. The two men doing push-hands half way through are senior students - the one in the red t-shirt has been a SanDa champion. In the last clip the master demonstrates a technique to a long-time student who was trained in his family Shaolin kungfu style from the age of 6 by his father:

Monday, 6 August 2012

Seated Mindfulness Meditation

"For some, turning attention inward can be distressing, because it may tune us into emotions that are not comfortable. However, constantly distracting ourselves through attention turned outwards will not remove those underlying emotions. By learning to engage with them through our dedicated interoceptive awareness, we may experience the first signs of healing." - Decoding the Body Watcher

I first became interested in meditation by reading some zen philosophy at university, and upon looking into where it came from I wanted to have a go.

I received my first formal instruction in Buddhist seated meditation from a Tibetan Longchen Foundation group practicing in Clifton, Bristol in 2001. It was a casual interest at that time and I had no motivation to practice meditation regularly. Still searching for a more 'zen' experience, I later visited Bristol Zen Dojo in 2002 which was a lot more to my liking.

I practiced meditation very sporadically for a few years, but then began to intensify my practice when I met my current partner in 2004, who also expressed a keen interest in meditation and related arts. Seeking the origin of the eastern philosophies which were brightening up our lives, we decided to travel to China to explore the various places and arts that are most famously integrated with zen practices.

Returning to the UK in 2007, we stepped up our seated meditation by attending Bristol Zen Dojo regularly. I went on my first 4 day meditation retreat (sesshin) during this time, which opened my eyes to how a human community can be more integrated when everyone is practicing taking responsibility for their habits and actively caring for one another.

In 2008 we left for China once more, returning to Europe briefly in Feb 2010, and at that time took the chance to spend a week at Vietnamese zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh's Plum Village in France at the end of the Winter retreat. This is a photo of me sitting outside the meditation hall in the Upper Hamlet:

 Sitting with Bristol Zen Dojo in the Japanese Soto Zen tradition after Shikantaza teacher Kodo Sawaki's student Taisen Deshimaru and his European disciples, I found all the seated postures excrutiatingly painful - full lotus was always impossible for me, half lotus seemed intent on dislocating my knee and giving me deep vein thrombosis, the burmese position gave me dead legs, and even seiza position hurt my ankles.

A teacher mentioned during a group meditation session that one should not be enduring unnecessary physical pain, and upon seeing a long-time member of the group sitting on a 'normal' western chair in the zendo, I decided to meditate on a normal chair or bench also. This decision brought more rewards from my sitting, and having visited the largest stone-carved Buddha statue in the world at LeShan, in China, I have conviction that the posture is just fine. Here is a photo I took of the LeShan Buddha during my visit in 2006:

 Apparently the carving of this statue was overseen by a zen monk called HaiTong.

I now physically emulate this statue when sitting mindfully. Since my initial encounters with Buddhist meditation in 2001, I have been consistently reading and discussing a lot of the mainstream modern literature and interpretations, as well as the ancient teachings, and in doing so I came across John Kabat-Zinn's work - Full Catastrophe Living, and Wherever you go, There you are.

JKZ's fresh and extremely simple take on zen practice when presented as MBSR - secularising it and researching it scientifically, interested me deeply, and in recent years the scientific papers and positive results which have followed the explosion in MBSR practice uptake throughout Europe and America has convinced me that JKZ's mindfulness is the new, concentrated and powerful form of zen in the world. Here is a video of JKZ talking about the connection between MBSR and Buddhism:

For years my practice was dotted with periods of procrastination and conflicting interests, but as time has gone on, and the responsibilities and pressures of middle age have approached, I have found myself 'forced' into daily discipline. I now practice seated mindfulness at least once a day every day - always first thing in the morning - sitting for 45 minutes each time. This seated practice is the root of all my mindful activity, and  I feel the results of the practice wherever I find myself and it seems there is no looking back now.

Thursday, 2 August 2012


“We must all suffer from one of two pains: the pain of discipline or the pain of regret. The difference is discipline weighs ounces while regret weighs tons.” - Jim Rohn, Motivational Speaker.
"Researchers have found that just one hour of meditation training can reduce immediate pain by nearly half and have a long lasting effect. The technique appears to work as it calms down pain experiencing areas of the brain while at the same time boosting coping areas". - Meditation stronger than drugs for pain relief
" human beings, we persist in trying to do that which cannot be done: avoiding all pain. “I will plan. I will find the best way. I’ll find out what to do so I can survive and be safe.” We try to transform reality with our thinking so that it can’t get near us, not ever." - American Zen teacher Charlotte Joko Beck, Nothing Special - Living Zen (1995), p228.
It seems the core practice for a healthier, more stress-free life is that of accepting necessary painful experiences. It appears one can easily get lost in anger or desire as a result of not accepting the present moment. The stress of a delayed bus or interacting with a grumpy colleague can cause one to indulge in an inflated ego, numbing intoxication, or fantasising about a rewarding future event. These indulgences can easily open nagging appetites and produce bad habits, which in turn can often bring unhealthy consequences.

Some of the necessary pain humans must experience during life - childbirth, death of loved ones, sickness.
Accepting necessary pain can be difficult because it means we must be OK with it - experience it as a normal part of life, and yet there has not been any traditional way to do this in the West in recent times beyond drowning our sorrows, 'keeping a stiff upper lip', or trying to control the things which bring necessary painful experiences. All of these approaches seem to cause problems for our bodies, relatives, or for broader society in general.

A common traditional Western method of escaping pain.
Mindfulness meditation - placing a continued, relaxed yet aware focus on the reflexive breathing process seems to help one accept the inevitable and unavoidable painful experiences life brings - whether boredom, disappointment or injury. A focus on the breath allows negative psychological propaganda to drift away, calms the nervous system, and brings attention to what is happening right now.

The more one practices, the more accepting one can become. I believe I have felt this in my own life as my own personal mindfulness meditation practice has waxed and waned over the years - the muddy waters clearing the more I practice, and clouding up again when I become distracted and undisciplined.

Lillypads photographed from beneath the water.
The next key factor for me to work on has become the discipline - the discipline of practicing remaining in mindful, awake stillness for at least 45 minutes every day - practicing accepting every moment. Daily discipline, I find, is now the most difficult part of this path, and yet at times, and as time goes on, it becomes effortless when I consider alternative scenarios.

The Chinese seem to have a cultural perspective on daily discipline - deeply integrating contemplative  practices into their lives, so I am often encouraged by those I meet and discuss my activities with. This is because I presently make a living as a teacher, and spend time as a student of various traditional Chinese arts, here in the city of Beijing, China.

All the arts I am studying and practicing have a deep, often very ancient, root in mindful, meditative activity, and so I hope to share my experiences exploring these various disciplines on this blog, as well as sharing and reflecting upon my personal seated 'zen' secular meditation practice along the way and how it integrates into a modern Western lifestyle.