Tuesday, 15 January 2013

Mindful 'Tai Chi' and YiQuan's Shì lì 試力 and Mócā bù 摩擦步 Exercises - Moving with the Air

"When you breathe in, you are like a flower opening to the warm sun. Breathing out, the flower closes." - Vietnamese Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh & Wietske Vriezen, Mindful Movements: Ten Exercises for Well-Being (2008), p36.
"...a meditation that involves moving, like mindful walking, can shift us from one mental mode to another. Tai chi, chi gung, and hatha yoga are all moving meditations." - Mindfulness meditation teacher, Dr Jon Kabat-Zinn, The Mindful Way Through Depression (2007), p90.

Dr Jon Kabat-Zinn, mindfulness teacher and creator of MBSR, describes the way the West is embracing various kinds of yoga in his book Coming To Our Senses (2006) as follows, p274:
"The flowering of yoga in the West is one of the marks of the yearning for and the movement toward a greater consciousness of mind and body, and of a greater commitment to true well-being and health across the life span on the part of millions of people, young and old alike. The same is true for tai chi and chi gung."
Taiji (or tai chi), qigong (or chi gung / chi kung), and related arts, seem to have had the dimension of mindfulness, as a practice, breathed into them around the time of the arrival of the legendary Persian or South Indian Buddhist monk, Bodhidharma, in China - around 6th Century AD.

Bodhidharma is considered to have been the founder of the famous Shaolin Kung Fu, and his statue sits atop SongShan Mountain looking over Shaolin Temple. Taiji and qigong (both of which are still practiced in Shaolin Kung Fu systems as martial arts) are now only two of what were a whole host of Chinese yoga health systems, many of which had powerful martial potential. Some of the other popular, although less famous Chinese 'internal' yoga and martial art systems still practiced today are BaguaZhang and XingYiQuan.

Bodhidharma Statue on top of ShongShan Mountain(s) above Shaolin Temple, Henan Province, China.
This latter art, XingYiQuan, was refined by the late Master Wang XiangZhai (1885 - 1963), by his travelling all over China and competing with as many different martial arts masters as he could find, which included Western boxers, and Japanese and Korean fighters. Even though he says he was defeated only 2.5 times, he incorporated those elements of the arts he encountered; aspects which he felt were supportive of health and practicality, into his discipline, and this new synthesis was termed YiQuan.

Master Wang felt that the art he had refined, in it's basic form, must have borne some resemblance to the yogic arts Bodhidharma had been reputably connected with some 1500 years earlier. In his book The Right Path of YiQuan (Translation, 2001), Master Wang writes, p5:
"In the Liang dynasty (502 - 557 AD), Damo [Bodhidharma] came to the East, and in addition to preaching sermons to his students, he also taught the art of training the physique, which took the strong points of the spirits of the birds and beasts and combined them with the methods of developing the marrow and changing the muscles and tendons. Thus Yiquan (mind boxing), also known as Xinyiquan (heart and mind boxing) was created. The disciples and followers who were well versed in this art were numerous, thus Shaolin's fame spread greatly."
In this video, a Shaolin monk demonstrates a mindful yoga form, the Yìjīnjīng (易筋经), which is most often attributed to Bodhidharma:

In a previous post; YiQuan and Zen, I outlined the running theme between traditional Zen practice and YiQuan. Now, as Zen practice has been stripped of ritual, dogma, and mysticism by Western teachers, and presented as the secular practice of 'Mindfulness Meditation', it seems that the teachings of YiQuan (itself stripped of mysticism and dogma by Chinese Communism) and Mindfulness - especially when it comes to exploring mindful, embodying movements - overlap greatly, as we will be seeing further down.

Dr Jon Kabat-Zinn appears to consider it a modern innovation to incorporate yoga and meditation within a hospital setting, and yet Master Wang XiangZhai's YiQuan system, as a health practice, was incorporated within some Chinese hospitals in Beijing several decades before, not to mention the medical research carried out by Dr. Yu Yong Nian - one of Master Wang's original students - and the book he has written on the topic; Zhan Zhuang and the Search of Wu (2006). Dr. Yu's book provides evidence he gathered which he says proves the medical benefits of YiQuan - mostly using the core practice of standing yoga/meditation (zhan zhuang 站桩 in chinese). This may be unsurprising considering the increasing abundance of peer-reviewed papers hailing the health benefits of mindfulness meditation, and the apparent deeply mindful dimension to YiQuan practice.


Kabat-Zinn emphasises the importance of combining mindfulness meditation with physical care of the body in his book Full Catastrophe Living (2005), with his introduction of the notion of 're-bodying' oneself, p95:
"...it is a little peculiar that the English language doesn't allow us to "rebody" ourselves. It seems on the face of it to be just as necessary and useful a concept as to remind ourselves.
Bodies are subject to inevitable breakdown. But they do seem to break down sooner and to heal less rapidly and less completely if they are not cared for and listened to in some basic ways. For this reason, taking proper care of your body is of great importance in both the prevention of disease and in the work of healing from illness, disease, or injury. Step number one in caring for your body, whether you are sick or injured or healthy, is to practice being "in" it. Tuning in to your breathing and to the sensations that you can feel in your body is one very practical way to work at being in your body. It helps you to stay in close touch with it and then to act on what you learn as you listen to its messages."
Master Wang XiangZhai demonstrating the spirit of YiQuan.
Before looking into what, beyond the stationary postures of Hatha Yoga, Kabat-Zinn recommends in order to mindfully 're-body' oneself by way of dynamically immersing oneself in the 'airscape'; something he refers to as "tai chi", it is worth looking into what the highly accomplished martial artist and health preservationist YiQuan Master Wang XiangZhai has to say about such arts as taiji and qigong. In his book Essence of Combat Science (Translation 2004), Master Wang says, rather bluntly, the following, p4:
"Yang Shaohou and Yang Chengfu brothers were inheritors of taijiquan. They were my friends. So I know that this art contains things reasonable from point of view of mechanics. But among a hundred practitioners not more than one can understand the demands of this art. Even if someone has some skill, it is not complete, because the basic training of practical experiencing was lost long time ago. There is a lack of proper force in lower part of body.
Their way of practice: fist here, palm there, kick to the left, kick to the right, it is funny and pathetic. If talking about using in combat, if opponent has at least some little skill, it is completely useless. Even the famous experts of taijiquan can use their skill only when opponent is stiff and inert. These deviations are so big, that taijiquan became as descriptions of movements from chess manual.
In last 20 years most of taijiquan practitioners are not able to see what is valuable and what is not. Even if some know something, they don't possess practical skill. And students believe some hearsay instead of judging by what they can see themselves. So this art is lost. It's a pity.
As for taijiquan, I dare to say that my knowledge is deep. If someone doesn't agree, he may criticize me, he may blame me. Those who understand combat science will forgive me my harsh words"
An example of a TaijiQuan manual.
Master Wang believed that martial arts and their associated health benefits needed to be assessed carefully and tested in a scientific manner. He spoke of YiQuan and it's relationship to qigong in the same book thus, p15:
"As for force, energy, everything relies on arguing forces, elasticty, using of opening and closing, pulsation of breath, feeling of unity with everything, in mind there is image of unity of air filling whole space of universe. Of course we are not talking here about qi of qigong. When people talk about round lower abdomen, saying that it means qi filling dantian, it is a big mistake."
However, he spoke very highly of the circle-walking yogic martial art of BaguaZhang, p3:
"Baguazhang was originally called chuanzhang. When I was a child, I had opportunity to meet [Baguazhang Master] Cheng Tinghua. I remember that he was like a dragon flying in air, his changes in movement were innumerable and unpredictable. It is difficult to reach this level."

Indeed, Master Wang incorporated elements of BagauZhang - often said to look like dragons swimming - into YiQuan. Within YiQuan, this idea of being immersed in water is a constant theme used for tuning into the body's inherent natural flow and grace. It is also used as a visualization exercise by Kabat-Zinn when he leads mindfulness students into manifesting basic "tai chi" (an apparent broad term for Chinese-style moving yoga). Wang recommends the following way to practice YiQuan exercises in his book ZhanZhuang: A form of health cultivation and therapy (Translation 2004), p18:
"Smiling slightly as if you were playing in water, as if you were a baby again, listening to the nature. In ordinary and usual there is unusual natural pleasure." 
For comparison, Dr. Kabat-Zinn begins his mindful exploration of what he terms the 'airscape', in Coming to Our Senses, as follows, p211:
"Imagine yourself under water, still fully able to breathe. Now try moving. Move just one arm and hand, slowly at first. Can you "feel" how the "water" streams around the arm, between the fingers, across the back of the hand and all around? As I do it now, I feel a fluidity in the movement itself, as if my arm and hand suddenly have a new life to them. They seem drawn to go on their own wherever they can, to flow and undulate anywhere and everywhere, to experiment spontaneously with greater freedom of motion. These slow, inherently elegant movements seem to become more fluid merely by imagining and thereby sensing that they are in a fluid."

This following of the water is exactly what is taught by Wang, in ZhanZhuang, p28:
"Imagine that you are standing in water. Its temperature gives you comfortable feeling. Water is lightly hitting your body from different sides and your body is naturally following the movement of water."
Kabat-Zinn similarly extends the sensation to the whole body, p211-212: 
"If you are doing it now, can you feel how graceful your moving has already become? And how effortless? Linger in this feeling as long as you like while continuing to move. And if you like, gradually let the rest of your body join in. Let yourself become a strand of kelp waving rhythmically in a bed of waving kelp in the ocean near where sea meets land. You might try standing up if you are sitting, and let your whole body, arms, legs, torso, and head, move however it likes, feeling the flowing currents around the body as it is drawn into responding in whatever ways it chooses in the fluid within which it is immersed."
Taking on the movement of the water, like a strand of kelp or a swimming snake, is felt to invigorate the body. Here is Wang, in The Right Path of Yiqan, p1:
"The actions of the body are like those of the divine dragon roaming in the sky or fierce snake swimming in the water. Just like the flow of water, moving in an unfixed way and lively and changing all the time, these are the characteristics belonging to water, and are thus called water strength."

As the sensitivity of the body increases, more subtle feelings of the fluid air in and around one are given attention. Kabat-Zinn continues, p212:
"Actually we do live at the bottom of an ocean - an ocean of air. Letting go of the water image, you might play with seeing if you can actually feel this ocean of air with your skin as you move your arms and hands as slowly as before, feeling the streaming of the air through and around your fingers and hands, bathing in the sensations you are experiencing, whatever they are."
Again Master Wang parallels Kabat-Zinn in his teachings, in ZhanZhuang, p14:
"All pores of your skin are as if opening, there appears feeling as if wind was moving freely through them, through your body, inside and outside. All muscles are becoming as a one empty bag in the air, hanging on a rope, and supported from below. At the same time it is a feeling as if you were lying on a grassland below the vast sky. And as if you were standing in slightly moving water. In this way muscles are exercised, although you are not doing typical exercises. Your mind is also naturally cultivated. These are the basic demands of exercises."
Next Kabat-Zinn refers to the deep awareness of the flowing movement of the body within the ocean of the air as "tai chi", p212:
"As you settle more and more into your body and bring more and more awareness to the body as a whole, allowing it to move on its own, in its own way, perhaps noticing how the felt sense of the body moving can turn amazingly, instantly, into the essence of tai chi - flowing movement within stillness, within an ocean of awareness, an ocean of air."

Wang also emphasizes this need for completely natural movement in relation to the air - no acting or forcing of experience, in ZhanZhuang p15:
"During exercise, you should also have feeling as if there was mutual echoing between muscles and surrounding air. The ability of using body as a whole and using the natural abilities will develop this way. There shouldn't be non-natural, artificial acting. Artificial acting and partial methods are destroying the possibility of using the whole and using natural abilities."
Kabat-Zinn now reduces the movement to stillness with the aim of retaining the sensitivity gained from the visualisation exercise, p212:
"Now allow yourself to come to stillness and sense the air with your whole body. Rather than searching for a particular feeling, let it emerge on its own, as if you were listening with your skin for the air to speak. You do not have to reach out or try to do or feel anything. After all, the air is already all around you and inside you, touching you."
Wang parallels this in ZhanZhuang, p30:
"Unity of man and nature. Imagine that you are standing, sitting or lying in a beautiful place, feeling comfortably. You can feel that the air is embracing your body. Gradually you can feel that body and air are one. You feel extremely comfortably, as if floating in the air, entering the state of forgetting yourself."
The author's YiQuan teacher, Master Cui Rui Bin, practicing zhan zhuang during a trip to France.
This "forgetting yourself" is also encouraged by Kabat-Zinn in the next part, p212: 
"Without trying, sensing how you are already embedded in this fluid, how the ocean of air caresses your skin, envelopes you, embraces you, even when it is hardly moving in a room, even when it is utterly still. Feel how you are mysteriously drawn to draw it into your body over and over again through your nose or mouth, how this happens without your trying, without any forcing, without volition even."
Master Wang says that this situation alone is enough for cultivating health, in ZhanZhuang, p38
"Cultivating health is easiest. It's enough to relax, feel comfortable, naturally, light, not using too much force, as if you start falling asleep, floating in water or in air - these are most of the important demands. If you try anything more, it only disturbs your mind and it's losing time."
From this foundation he says one should then practice movements as part of one's regular discipline, in ZhanZhuang, p15
"When you have learned basics, you can gradually learn movement - only then it will be easy to experience movement in non-movement, movement as non-movement, movement in which movement and non-movement are based on each other. Then it is possible to feel pressure of air on surface of your body, using the force which is result of changes between relax and tension."
The term for this exploration of the body and the subtle friction with the air is called Shì lì 試力 and Mócā bù 摩擦步 (for stepping with legs) in YiQuan. Master Wang gives the following advice for such practices, in Essence of Combat Science, p8:
"In shili there shouldn't be partial, superficial force, especially there shouldn't be unbalanced one directional force. You should observe if the whole body force is round, full or not, if it is possible issuing force at any moment, if there is feeling of mutual reaction between body and surrounding air. Intention shouldn't be broken, spirit shouldn't be dispersed. Light and heavy are ready to be used. If one moves, whole body follows it"
Here is a video of myself demonstrating an initial zhanzhuang (standing post) training posture, following on to shì lì (force testing) exercises using the arms and eventually incorporating stepping with the legs. I was taught these movements over the space of many days' training at Taolin YiQuan Academy in the countryside north of Beijing - practicing each movement for at least 30 mins straight twice a day:

Here is Vietnamese Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh, Mindful Movements: Ten Exercises for Well-Being (2008), p57:
"By bringing one’s body and mind together in the present moment, we can experience peace and a unity with humanity and with all of life."

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