"A feeble body weakens the mind." - Jean-Jacques Rousseau
"Hollow chest, raise back, return to natural." - TaiJi ClassicsI 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.|