Classes

I'm moving to Colorado April 17th, 2014

When classes start up again:

Beginners always welcome
$20 drop-in
$100 per month
New students are encouraged to ask for a private conversation to discuss goals and basic concepts.

Questions?
Call Scott 415.200.8201
Email: Gongfuguy@gmail.com

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Weakness With A Twist 

A place for qi-jocks & qi-nerds to explore internal martial arts, Daoism, health, performance, shaolin, and inner cultivation.

Saturday
Oct132012

Basic Theory

Mike Sigman has a new blog, check it out.

His basic theory is quite good.  When you read it note that "san waihe" (three external harmonies) is a description of the way the body should be organized not how it should move or be motivated.  The external body he describes needs to be empty (xu) of intent and effort.  The movement of the external body can then become unconscious.  

The internal body (what he calls "san neihe" and will hopefully deal with in future posts) needs to do a different job than the external body.  As I have said many times, the internal body is moved by changes of the spatial mind.  The external body must be completely within the spatial mind and unconscious, any spatial mind inside the body will break the system.  If the internal body does the same movement as the external body it is still possible to have some internal strength, but it is so much cooler if the internal body goes a different direction and moves in a totally different way.  The internal body should attack the opponent directly, not through the external body, not through the limbs.

You can download a video of Mike doing some basic movement here

He embedded this video of Chen Bing doing simple stuff.

Chen Bing Reeling Silk from John Prince on Vimeo.

 

At around 3 minutes he uses the term "tong bu" which is translated as "synchronized." There is another tong 通 (first tone instead of second tone) which refers to emptiness passing through the gates.  I don't think he is making a translation error here, I just don't think "synchronized" is helpful because the dantain is not doing the same job in the same direction, it's doing something quite different.  Tong 通 is implied in his statement that the hand must remain "alive" (ling).  When you have the feeling that the hand is inside the dantian it is much easier to keep the gates (at the shoulders) open.  

I know all this stuff I just said is probably hard to follow, perhaps impossible.  That's why I appreciate Mike's blog post, it is fairly easy to follow, it is a clear beginning.  He suggests that forms should come later, after learning these basics and he has a good argument to back it up.  That's not traditional but it might work better.

The other thing I like is how clear he is about the central importance of up/down power.  He calls it gravity and power from the ground.  Most people, most trained martial artists, can not fully use up/down power because they are in a trance.  They try to replace gravity with strength & control thereby losing whole body mass, they end up carrying themselves instead of making their opponent carry them.  They also loose upward power by arcing it forward through their limbs as vectors into their opponent.  Ahhh, in praise of simple up and down.  

Saturday
Oct062012

A Revisionist History of Footbinding

Cinderella's Sisters: A Revisionist History of Footbinding, by Dorothy Ko.

I don’t know if my readers have much interest in the history of footbinding, but this is certainly a great book to read if you are interested.  I must admit that I didn’t know much about footbinding myself before I read this, it’s been out for about 7 years and I hadn’t gotten around to reading it because I picked up a feminist vibe from the cover the first few times I saw it.

Ko’s premise is that all the histories written to date are actually histories of anti-footbinding.  For the benefit of my readers I will focus on ideas in this book which are important to the hidden history of martial arts.  The first is that she decided to write the history backwards.  Although I had never thought of it, that made a lot of sense to me.  Footbinding like martial arts has so many potential beginnings, reasons for existing, influences from different parts of society and meanings over a thousand years that there is no convincing beginning!  Better to start from the present and work back along the various strands of time.  

Christians have been in China since the Tang Dynasty, but they were minor players fading in and out along the borders.  The Jesuits and Franciscans who spent time in China during the Ming and early Ching Dynasties were minor influences, but the ideas they brought back to Europe changed the rest of the world.  After the Second Opium War Christians including Protestants, started to make large inroads into the Chinese heartland.  These missionaries brought education, medicine, and all the elements of modernity including new ideas, technologies and international commerce.  

Besides medicine and modernity the accommodations of the Second Opium War gave foreign Christian leaders a way to circumvent the old Magistrate Bureaucracy.  Parish leaders could appeal directly to the Imperial Court via their embassies, effectively giving significant advantages to Chinese Christians.  

The period between 1890 and 1910 was intense.  Christian converts stopped attending theater and stopped paying for it too.  Why?  Because as regular readers may already know, the martial arts theater movement tradition known in the west as ‘opera’ was clearly understood as a religious institution.  The local communities that put on these “opera” performances used them to raise money for education, repairing roads, building bridges and stuff like that.  In other words, putting on these religious performances was the context in which local taxes were collected!  This created a lot of resentment and is certainly one of the causes of the Boxer Rebellion (1898-1900), which was a roving mob, dressed as characters from opera like the Monkey King and General Guangong, responsible for killing thousands of Chinese Christians and burning their communities.  

Christian missionaries really disliked footbinding and used it at the center of their critic of Chinese cultural barbarity and backwardness.  However, it was in this twenty year period that Chinese voices against footbinding grew and in a very short time succeeded in ending what had been an extremely widespread practice.  Not that it was a single practice, that is one of the main points of the book, there was a lot of variation in the techniques.  For instance some women may have had good enough mobility to practice martial arts.  One of the origins of footbinding hundreds of years ago was not all that different from the wrapping that ballet dancers do for point shoes.  It also appears that footbinding done early enough (at age 3 or 4) was not painful and probably allowed women to have some ability to run.  Certainly one of the reasons for footbinding was the beauty of the movement it could create.  And obviously, the arguments against footbinding were overwhelmingly convincing.

The dominant metaphor offered by Chinese voices for the elimination of footbinding was that it decreased circulation and that what Chinese needed more than anything was more circulation!  Circulation in women’s feet was paralleled with circulation of modern ideas, commerce and technology around the world.  It sounds funny to our ears today because we think of China as the home of Tai Chi and Traditional Chinese Medicine and Fengshui, all of which center around the metaphor of circulation.  But it is likely that this argument was really China’s way of claiming modernity for itself!  “Modernity with Chinese characteristics!” The project of ‘nationalizing’ modernity absurdly included attempts to claim Chinese origins of the Anti-footbinding movement.  

Think about it, this is the same twenty years in which Tai Chi, Bagua and Xingyi “came out” as public arts to be recognized by the entire population.  Tai Chi eventually became a way to claim ‘generic’ Chinese-ness as opposed to ‘ethnic-minority-Chinese-ness’. 

Unbinding ones feet was a bit of a nightmare.  If you were past the age of puberty there was little chance your feet would be normal.  It took months of slow, careful and painful adjustments to “let out” the feet. Tai Chi may have gotten it’s original reputation as a health practice because it was recommended that women letting their feet out practice Tai Chi as they were learning how to move on their feet in various stages of unboundedness.  It must have been a profound moment in gender integration too.  

The rural regions around Suzhou for some reason did not bind their feet.  Many non-Han ethnic groups did not bind either, the Hakka for instance did not.  However, in most regions, even poor families were likely to bind at least the oldest girl child, the younger daughters being more likely to be sold into servitude were likely to need big feet.  That’s a pretty dark thought all around.  Of course I’m trying to imagine this kind of world and the difficulty I have causes me to have doubts.  

Footbinding started as a status symbol of the elite.  It may have spread inadvertently as an act of rebellion because the Manchu ethnic rulers of the Ching Dynasty made ineffective but widespread attempts to ban it.  Having come across this theory rebelious agency some time ago, along with a poem I came across about the potency of women with bound feet, led me to a thesis about bound feet representing potential power just as relaxed tai chi feet gather potential power by not pushing out the balls of the feet or the heels.  (You can read more of my theory here.)  The book doesn’t offer any direct support for my theory except that it promotes the notion that footbinding has multiple origins, reasons, and methods.

Another sidenote of particular interest is that up until the later part of the Tang Dynasty Chinese were barefoot in formal situations, especially at court.  In less formal situations they wore socks.  Shoes and such were for the outdoors, the way Japan was up until the 1980’s.  During the late Tang Dynasty (around 900 CE) the practice of wearing boots became formal, perhaps because it was the custom of some ethnic generals attending court.  Gradually socks and even small shoes became hidden underwear and bare feet became hidden in darkness.  Ko points out that foot binding is unlikely to have happened until the Song Dynasty when people were sitting in chairs which could display their feet.  

 This change in footwear and thus in peoples relationship to the ground, must have been a necessary step in changing the well documented “seated” Daoyin internal body transformation methods into stand-up Shaolin and the various internal martial arts.  

And finally we have a question.  To what extent did women performers have bound feet?  From what I’ve been able to gather about performers in general, both men and women, where in a moral category which made them available for sex.  I gather that prostitution was understood as a type of entertainment usually coupled with singing and or dancing.  So female prostitutes most likely were able to dance and had bound feet.  As we have learned from other texts women sometimes performed in male troops (for an extra fee) but generally theater troupes were either all male or all female.  In both cases women warrior roles were very popular.  According to Ko’s sources, in Beijing and Shanxi men playing warrior women wore tiny stilts to make it appear that their feet were bound.  Did women who specialized in male martial roles have unbound feet?  Or did they wear fake foot enlargers to play those roles?  In any event we know what we know about this because there were laws written around 1900 in Shanxi banning actors from wearing these tiny stilts. It was thought that they were setting a bad example within the changing standards of femininity.  Warrior femininity that is.  

Here is a dissertation that deals with the same issues: Women in Tianjin, 1898-1911

Christian Missionaries in China, 1891  

Tuesday
Oct022012

Working Backwards

One of my problems as a teacher lately is that I’m having trouble finding the beginning.  I can start a child where I started with Northern Shaolin, that is simple enough, but even with a child I’m doing all kinds of adaptation depending on aptitude and interest.  We can go in a more acrobatic direction, or a more dance-theater way, or we can move toward a kinesthetic-emotional conversation about, identity, change and ethics.  

With adults it is profoundly more challenging.  20 years ago I knew exactly what to teach and how to teach it.  Now there are so many potential jumping off places, each one feels like a beginning.  Choosing a beginning implies choosing a path, a curriculum.  Choosing a beginning is made 10,000 times more difficult because the end result, the fruition of practice, is in contention.  

What will you get out of it?  What will you be at the end?  Is there really an end?  How will you know when you get there?  How could you know?  

If the subject were, “speaking French fluently” we have a pretty good idea what that might mean. You’d be able to talk to people, to get ideas across and understand complexity, perhaps get a job where you speak and write to people in French.  But understanding a language doesn’t guarantee you’ll find anyone worth talking to, or that you’ll be able hear, or think clearly.  It certainly doesn’t mean that you will be comfortable drinking wine and smoking cigarettes while discussing philosophy in the wee hours of the night!  Especially if you hate wine.

Where was I?  Oh yeah, the lost beginning.

So let’s talk about some possible endings.  

I recently read Gavin DeBecker’s The Gift of Fear. I highly recommend it. It has lot’s of good lists to contemplate.  It has a couple  of dark sections and I suspect that is why they put the word fear in the title.  But it is a truly optimistic book about intuition.  It could easily have been titled: ‘Intuition, Your Best Friend.’   

Intuition is an amazingly powerful and instantaneous.  Through intuition we know things before we know how we know them.  Could intuition be the fruition of practice?

The active aspect of intuition is qi, we don’t know where it comes from.  It just happens!  Qi has no pattern or memory.  There is an inactive aspect of intuition too, it is our body's natural ability to heal and reproduce itself, called "jing" in tradtional Chinese terms.  Jing is that unconscious aspect of our body which stores all patterns of growth, healing, injury and change.  Rational actions and rationales are mixed, that is, they mix qi with jing.  By mixing qi with jing, we create a way of storing qi in the body as tension.  All fantasy requires this mixing of jing and qi.  When jing and qi distill, as the result of internal arts practices, memory and fantasy have nothing to cling to, rational thought likewise has noting to build on.

So the “end” of learning internal martial arts is not even a state of consciousness or a trance, it’s movement without body memory which has no intent, no conditioning, and no restraint.  Think about that.  If a movement is unconditioned why would you remember it?  If a movement has no resistance and no restriction, how could it be stored in the body?  

This doesn’t preclude that we might have certain spontaneous creative, destructive or survival oriented ‘drives.’  It also doesn’t preclude perception or awareness.  Our intuition about where the wall is behind us, how many people are in the room, and what can fit inside of a box, are all operative without having to remember them.

Even while fighting you’d have no sense of ‘acting’ or forcing.  That’s the meaning of the Daoist term wuwei.  

So what kind of beginning does this suggest?  What kind of path?  What kind of practice?  Yikes, I’m lost!   

Wait, I have an idea.  Oops, I lost it.  Oh no, there it is again.  

Practice is finding what your body remembers and unraveling it, emptying it, cleaning it.  The more one trains along this path the more etherial our movement memories become.

Monday
Oct012012

Discuss!

Here is the link to the write-up of my meeting with Tabby Cat (featured in the videos above).  I do hope he'll agree to another meeting with me one of these days!  He has a new book out too:

Juice: Radical Taiji Energetics

Please discuss and report below. 

 

Friday
Sep282012

Martial Arts Lifestyle

I often find myself, willingly I suppose, in conversations where the notion of martial arts is limited.  I'm speaking here about the expectations of whom ever I'm conversing with.  If someone where to randomly ask me, "Hey, what do you think martial arts are all about?"  I'd be like, "I could easily give you a satisfying definition of all the elements of martial arts in a 22 hour lecture format."  And after pointing loosely to the theatrical, the actual fighting skills, the religious, the healing, the asocial, the psycho-social, the sensory-somatic-developmental, the intuitive, the improvisational, the heroic, and of course the hermit-culture ways of thinking about the arts--I might elicit this response, "Oh, you mean, like, martial arts lifestyle! yeah, cool."Self-defense Style

Wait a second.  Is that what I mean?  Not to be confused with self-defense lifestyle, I suppose.  Or the tai chi lifestyle.  

In any case, it seems really important to get the fashion correct.  I wonder about the possible usefulness of leggings, explained here, there may be some health benefits, and I would think that wraps made out of leather, silk and chain might be the next big thing in urban armor.  And I came across this umbrella page too, not really my thing but moving in the right direction.

China Beat, the blog, just gave up the scene.  The final post was a bit unfocussed, something about Twitter and social networking having made blogging uncool.  It hurts a bit.  I mean, I don't where we are going!  But the idea that I might be a representative of some kind of lifestyle is intriguing.  

I keep hearing about people who don't have jobs right now, and I'm thinking, what is a job?  Is there such a thing as job lifestyle?  Back in June I moved to the Montclair part of Oakland, California. It is like a Daoist paradise up here.  The gentle fog floats down in the valleys and all I see is a sea of spiralling mists with scattered trees poking up from the abyss.  I can sit out on my luxurious deck and absorb the warm, fresh, quiet air.  It's not that I'm consciously avoiding being busy in my languid effortlessly inspirational purple mist, it's just that the rest of the world is doing something important.  (Even my wife is doing acupuncture and milking goats.)

The idea of "lifestyle," may trigger a bit of ironic caution in me but it is a potent force none-the-less.  I remember living in San Francisco in the 1970's when you couldn't walk anywhere without stepping in dog poo.  It was a constant struggle to survive.  Perhaps we cursed the dogs, or the dog owners, but there was an inevitably about it.  It wasn't until people with a gay lifestyle decided it was cool to pick up dog poo that the average person started to think, "Hey this is a whole group thing we're doing here, we can end this!" And now it's gone.  A change in lifestyle, is a change in the social-mind fabric of spatial rightness and wrongness.

So that's what I'm thinking about, I'm thinking about the martial arts lifestyle, how can I make it happen?  I'm not sure what the elements are yet, but I'll take a jab at it.

Fashion is big, fashion is communication.  People who see us need to know we are living the martial arts lifestyle.  A type of loose fitting but strong pants? A hat that can be manipulated for view obscuring, or to draw fire?  A "business" knife?  A think-twice-about-that pencil? Nearly barefoot shoes?  A swagger? Clothing that rips easily? or perhaps indestructible tyvek?  Short hair or long? a top knot? Stretchy and tight fitting clothes or loose and flowing?  And what kind of bag is best?  Is there a martial arts smell?  Look, it is already obvious to me when a person has a bit of mojo, if we make it into a recognisable look, how far away could consciousness raising be?  

Obviously it isn't just about fashion.  It is about practice.  And practice is about making time.  

Ah time, we all knew it would come to this.  Birth on one side, death on the other.  I have stumbled into a career of sorts, teaching martial arts.  My enthusiasm drives me even more than guilt.  I'm like a kid in a candy shop, an archeologist in a tomb, a mountaineer on an ice waterfall! And yet, teaching ain't easy.  The world changes around us.  I started out as an artist, I did ceramics at the high school of the arts and then I moved into dance.  I started thinking pretty early about how I could get the time to be an artist.  How I could be free to do whatever I wanted whenever I wanted to do it.  In the early 1990's before the Berlin Wall came down, there was a big fuss about the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA).  People were getting government money to make a type of art that was pretty offensive to a large swath of the tax paying public.  There was a lot of protest art being made, in general; I participated in a bunch of "no limits on what gets funded" performance projects.  For instance I danced naked at the LA Arts Festival and the Berkeley Art Museum, did the mud-people thing crawling through the financial district, weird public sex rituals, I'll spare you the details.  Fun stuff, inspired movement, iconic imagery, heck I don't know, whatever; but I came out of it thinking, "You know, I don't really see why people should pay for me to dance naked if they don't want to."  See I'm all for self expression, and breaking boundaries, and cutting edge, and protest, and offending the freaking pants off of people, but it just doesn't follow that government should be leveraged to that effect.  Some people argue that controversial protest art wouldn't get made if the government didn't fund it.  (Cricket sounds.)

Leg WrapsSo to make a long story short, if you want to practice, and have a martial arts lifestyle, you've got to get your money-time-eat-sleep-love-matrix in order.  Most people think they can show up to a martial arts class and just start learning martial arts.  But it doesn't work that way.  This is where I have to admit I have often failed my students.  The students who figure out how to practice on their own, usually have had some experience overcoming a profound obstacle to draw on.  The practice-every-day model that most music teachers try to instill is a good place to start, so is the meditate-for-an-hour-without-fail gig American Buddhists have going.  One would think that all the discipline we encounter in the world of sports and athletics would translate to a practice, but unfortunately these people are often motivated by a team, and even when they are deeply self-motivated they are often so aggressively goal oriented that the idea of practicing without a goal is too much of a leap.  The other problem with people who already have lots of movement training, dancers included, is that they are going to have to un-learn.  Un-learning is identity destroying.  To use George Xu's rather crude analogy, you have to un-pack your sausage.  Sausage, in this case, being a metaphor for muscles and minds conditioned to move in a certain way.  

In this Twitter-text(oid)-chillax moment, private lessons are all the rage.  Once upon a time, private students would get a time slot in my week, but now spontaneous flex-time is the norm.  Hey, I'm cool with it.  I'm thinking of making everything a private lessons.  In a way, I'm already doing it.  I mean, if you are going to a class, no matter what they call it, it's external martial arts.  Internal martial arts is taught one to one, period.  Even if I'm teaching a group, the instruction moves around the room, from person to person.  This, by the way, is another factor which disorients students who think they are doing exercise.  Internal martial arts might make you sweat now and then, but it isn't exercise in the sense of follow me, and now do twenty of these.  That's all a head fake.  Internal martial arts is about spontaneity and spatial mind flow.  

Okay, hold it right there!  I'm admitting I'm near the bottom and I don't know where we are going.  There are some very accomplished teachers out there who have fallen into traps.  Some become bitter, badgering their students for not being smart, or aware, or disciplined enough.  Some teachers of the internal martial arts claim enlightenment.  Some say you must do it their way!  Meaning that they try to make you feel guilty for going on a non-internal hike with your husband over the weekend, or a non-internal swim at the pool.  Yikes, it seems like there is this fence we're walking on, to one side it's all head-fakes and curriculum and goals and on the other side it's exclusive fidelity to a teacher's systematic, precious, transcendent ideology.  

Hey, at least I know where I'm not going!  That's where I got the idea for Martial Arts Cafe!  There are no rules yet.  If you want to come to a meeting of the Martial Arts Cafe send me an email and I'll let you know when it's happening next.  A space to fight, unlearn, drink coffee, and deliberately develop a martial arts lifestyle.

Tuesday
Sep112012

Throw Away Comments

I recently read The Yoga of the Yogi: The Legacy of T. Krishnamacharya, by Kausthub Kesikachar.  It's not my intention to review it here, I'm not qualified to comment on his organization of Yogic theory and philosophy.  I picked it up to learn more about the founder of modern yoga, who he was, his education, and his training.  It does cover that material in a terse way, but as an American reader of history, I would have benefited from a lot more inclusion of historical context and clues about how his relationships to specific people influenced his decisions to pursue knowledge.  Anyway please don't take my opinion as a review of the book.

The one thing that really caught my attention was that the author maintains a ritual practice of putting his guru's sandals on his head.  He also tells us that the tradition dates all the way back to the time of the Ramayana.  He frames this ritual practice around faith and devotion, but he also says that everything can be transmitted this way--meaning that because the practice is pure revelation, it transcends method.

What's that?  I can learn Yoga from putting sandals on my head?  But who even thinks about questions like this? They just throw these comments away.  Even people who do the sandal practice just talk about faith and devotion.  Only someone of the highest level would even think of suggesting such a practice.  

It just occurred to me that if my students were to put my old shoes on their heads they might learn a lot faster.  I have new found respect for Yoga.  After 30 years of martial arts practice I understand why and how this works, however; 1) none of my students would do it, 2) if I explained it, none of them would understand it, 3) if by chance they did understand it, I would have to kill them.

Which brings me to another book which I am also not going to review:  When the Body Becomes All Eyes: Paradigms, Discourses and Practices of Power in Kalarippayattu, a South Indian Martial Art, by Phillip B. Zarrilli.  I believe I wrote a review of this book some time ago and decided not to publish it.  The two things that interested me about Zarrilli's work, the theater connection and the China connection, don't get worked out in this text.  Too bad.  One thing I loved about the book was that he put everything he had to say about "Paradigms and Discourses" in the first chapter and outright tells the readers to skip that chapter unless they are a disembodied head stuck inside an academic box! Yes.

 On page 45; "[In] playwright Bhasa's version of Karna's story, Karnabhara, which illustrates the divine gift of power (sakti) which requires no attainment from the practitioner.  When a messenger gives Karna Indra's gift of an 'unfailing weapon whose sakti is named Vimala to slay one among the Pandavas', he asks, 'when shall I gain its power (sakti)?'  The messenger responds, 'when you take it in [your] mind, you will [immediately] gain its power.'"

What? No hard work? No training? This is correct, this is the highest level.  Do you really know what it means to put sandals on your head?  Do you really know what it means to put a sword inside your mind?  

Tuesday
Sep042012

Muscle and Fat are Two Sides of the Same Coin

It shouldn't be controversial to state that muscle and fat are two sides of the same coin, but people these days are so pro-muscle and so anti-fat that it may cause some cognitive dissonance.

Why?  Because they are both forms of food storage.  They both require a lot of food to produce.  To say that they both result from over eating is obvious, but if you are going into a long Winter without much food, over eating is a very good idea.  Likewise, if you are being sponsored by an Indian Raj to wrestle against other sponsored champions, by all means bulk up!  

Muscle and fat are normal adaptive responses to eating too much food.  In our topsy turvy world people sometimes over eat because they are over working at (stressful?) mental activity-- that tends to become fat.  I suspect if those people got enough sleep, the excess fat would just burn off while they were asleep.  After all, we can't eat and sleep at the same time!   I've never really believed the "just laziness" argument, you have to be lazy and over eat and not get enough sleep.  But it also seems that at some point the system can get so taxed it spirals out of control.

People also over eat and then "need" to exercise.  Meaning they want to interrupt the efficient fat storing mechanism and replace it with the adaptation to stress response which makes food into muscle.

There is a whole conversation about the chemistry of the endocrine system I'm not going to have here, except to say that people like me tend to put on muscle very easily, it's genetic.  But that muscle doesn't happen unless I over eat.  

One of the reasons internal martial arts are "hard" to learn is that active people like me who have the discipline to practice also tend to put on muscle too easily.  That muscle is conditioned strength which obstructs spontaneous whole body integration and whole body liquid unity thus reducing power efficiency and momentum mass transfer.  (Yes, that sentence was a summary of the last 40 blog posts.)

Why are we over eating?  There are a lot of good theories out there.  Coming back from 10 quiet days in the mountains by myself, I was overwhelmed by how much intensely delicious food there was in my refrigerator!  My mind has all sorts of automatic functions which are normally outside of my control.  For instance, when I was living with goats earlier this Summer, I became an expert on what goats like to eat and what they don't like to eat.  It was like I had a pre-loaded observation program in my head that had an intense desire to know and catalog what goats are eating!  Weird right?  My point is that there is a heck of a lot about human motivations we don't understand.

There is also the theory that food corporations have gotten so good at figuring out what we love to eat and selling it to us cheaply that we have become helpless automatons.  No doubt, but we are also helpless against the urge to make fresh plum juice from the trees in my yard, or going out to see the latest Bat Man movie for that matter.  Paradise sucks.  

Well, as you can see by now, this post isn't going anywhere.  But it wouldn't be complete unless I offered the theory that a significant part of the population may be over eating because they are exercising too much.  

Monday
Sep032012

Cooling Gloves

There is some new technology coming our way from Stanford.  They claim it is better than steroids.  The article is excellent, please read the whole thing.  Temperature is the primary limitation on muscle performance and now they think they understand why and how to work around it.  Strength training is about to enter a new era.

In a previous post I outlined my new theory which posits that there are two categories of movement, energy efficient and power efficient.  

Power efficient movement doesn't make us sweat, it doesn't make us over heat, it doesn't give us sore muscles and it doesn't wear down the soft tissues of our bodies.  It can make us very tired, but we'll just want to find a place to lay down and sleep.  Like a cat.

Energy efficient movement allows us to walk or run for long periods of time.  It also allows us to work with our hands, carry things, and multi-task.  All these activities induce fatigue, pain, and stress.  At the risk of over simplifying I will venture that when we build muscle we are almost always doing it within an energy efficient framework.  Personal trainers have identified a long list of different types of muscle training and "conditioning" each requiring different regimes.  But repetition is the key.  We seem to be "made" for fatigue, pain, and stress because we adapt to it very easily.  Not only that, but in concentrated bursts it seems to improve our mood, and plays a significant social role in mate acquisition and status displays.  

The key to power efficient training, is to not trigger this adaptive response!  We still use repetition, but our key purpose is to refine a specific feeling and then take that feeling into more lively dynamic movement.  That "feeling" is a process of refining signals of awareness which allow us to glimpse or encircle that which has no feeling, true effortlessness.  

So we march off into this brave new world with "no limits" on adaptive capacity and with "no limits" imposed by fatigue or heat.  Where will this leave us?  How soon will we bash up against the new limits?  Because they are coming.  I'm not an expert or anything but one of the rules of systems theory is that if you speed up or improve the efficiency of just one part of a complex system, you slow the whole system down.  

I'm excited by the new possibilities, but I'm concerned that the kind of training I've been doing is drifting further away from the mainstream, not closer.  So much for the meeting of East and West.  Non-aggression, returning to stillness, and spontaneous naturalness won't disappear because we are the valley floor, but effort and aggression keep finding ways to climb higher.

 

(hat tip to Geoff)

Monday
Sep032012

Dark Rant Predicting My 45th Birthday

To Be Read Allowed While Banging On A Pot...

Since about the time humans mastered rope making, stick handling, and making stone points, life hasn’t been much of a struggle except the problems we make for each other and the occasional natural disaster.  

Think about that, we are born knowing how to swim, yet a few years later we can drowned from not knowing, ‘though to add irony to mischief, they say most drowning happen in water shallow enough to stand in.

So how best to maintain the cult of our unselfconscious, unstruggling ancestors?  By eating raw fish alla the Japanese?  By dueling and other staged fights for honor and entertainment?  By wild and dangerous sex?  By backpacking a couple of times a year?  Or is there some way to keep up the cult daily?  Shut the doors, close the windows, extinguish all flame?  I see the wonders of this retro primitive movement everywhere among my friends in Oakland.  There are people keeping bees, chickens, rabbits, and goats--I myself went berserk picking blackberries and plums for canning, juicing, liquors, and baking.  As my mother in-law put it, “putting up store!”

As if there were some purpose to these spontaneous rituals?  And I do mean rituals, because like the tatooing craze, none of it has any purpose, these are acts of pure meaning!  ritual acts of communication with our ancestors.  Tribal signals to the future, a Flintstones balance to our Jetsons lives.

I suppose this is what the politics of need is about: a Winchester mystery house of taxes, EBT, subsidies, credit swap leveraged educations, an app to count your footsteps?  

If we separated need from identity, would there be anything left?

As elaborate medical procedures pile on top of each other, drugs on top of drugs, surgeries on top of surgeries, implants inside of implants, new, artificial, gene-thearapized, no expense is too great!  Like Qinshi Huangdi creating an entire world for himself in death, under the earth in Xian.  

Can I just get an astrology reading already?

Did you try walking barefoot?  No, I don’t mean in your living room, I mean all day for a hundred days.  We seek out shamanic healing, alternatives both new and old.  Symbolic rituals of life created and re-created on top of other rituals.  Have you tried just letting go of your hips?  No I don’t mean in yoga class three times a week, I mean all the time, like a junior gangster riding the bus and taking up two seats.  Is that chip on your shoulder just some fundamental need to carry a spear with you everywhere you go?  

These walls, these unconscious limits, these un-seen commitments, can we transcend them or can we just see them and be okay with it?  

And all this just to begin the conversation about why someone might want to try and learn Tai Chi, Bagua, or Daoyin.

A symbolic, and yet physically real return to baby-hood.  To our original nature.  Can you give it all up?  To sit or stand still for just an hour a day?  Tempting fate, challenging life to present some kind of need or purpose outside of preference and constructed identity?  Students demand purpose and healing, exercise, power, strength, transparency, a regime, a curriculum, proof!  They attach meaning willy-nilly like children playing with dolls.  Who am I to interrupt these games?

The arrival of the Goatmilk Cappuccino is a sure sign of the Apocalypse.  (Capriccino?)


Tuesday
Aug282012

Arguing Against Ice

This blog has a great challenge to the whole idea of icing: Motilitywod.

Here is the video, it's long and the sound is a little low but it's good.

I did a bunch of thinking about this issue.  Most of my readers know that Chinese medicine has been against icing but there has been some concession to the idea that inflammation is a problem and improved circulation is part of the solution.  That is now in serious doubt.  

For the last 15 or so years Physical Therapy schools have been teaching that the purpose of icing is to reduce secondary injury from inflammation.  However, there isn't much proof that secondary injury exists in muscular skeletal injuries. It may be a fantasy justification.

The injury is supposed to be caused by hypoxia, lack of oxygen in the cells.  The logic developed such that icing caused blood vessels to constrict but that the warming right after icing caused them to get much fatter via the "hunter" effect, and thus circulation increased.  More circulation, more oxygen available to the cells, less hypoxia.

But things turn out to be a lot more complex.  For one, we don't have a definition of inflammation, this article explains that at the moment we know of 9 different mechanisms that fall under the general heading, inflammation.  I suspect that as this debate continues we will discover there are things ice is great for, burns perhaps, but at the moment it is being way over used.  

The video suggests using compression bands (like Voodoo Bands) or electrical stimulation for muscle skeletal trauma.  I'm a fan of both but I have a different explanation.  When you use electrical stimulation or compression bands with external manipulation, you are making your external body empty (xu) of intent (yi), yet active (ling)!  This frees the mind to go outside the body and also frees the internal body from the external body so that it can move around and make spontaneous adjustments to the whole system.  Qigong and Standing Meditation (Zhanzhuang) can also do the trick.  Lymphatic vessels, which clear out inflammation, do not require impulsive muscle tension to drain, they just require movement.  With practice a student can learn to open and move fluid through the lymphatic vessels very easily.  

Sunday
Aug262012

Rethinking Empty Force Displays

If you do a Youtube search for Empty Force (or Ling Kong jing), you'll see all kinds of crazy looking stuff where people move without being touched.  I think the level of misunderstanding here is a couple of generations deep and I'm not going to dig all that up right now, except to say that what we call 'a magic trick' in the west is sometimes called 'qi' in the east.

A subset of these videos are showing something very real, which is easily misunderstood.  I bring this up now because of a conversation I had with Majia about display which she has turned into a very clear blog post.  If someone whips out a knife and people jump back, nobody says, "Hey, they just got blasted with qi!"  But people generally have an instant and intense sense of the distance they need to be from a razor sharp knife in the hands of a threat.  People will jump back in a lively way even when they are just playing with knives  (Jumping back, by the way, may put you in a worse position.)

Knowing what is really a threat and what isn't comes from training, practicing and playing with others.  Baiting, feinting and small but deadly shifts and changes are invisible to the uninitiated.  

The uninitiated can still be scared, but not by the same stuff as the expert.  This is much more obvious with a knife than with open hand because most of us are at least a little scared of a knife.  It also follows that people who play with knives are likely to be sensitive to the difference between subtle but deadly, and showy but impotent.  

But if you have a teacher whose punches hit with the force of a sledgehammer, and from playing and practice with that teacher you are aware of tiny subtle shifts that signal a real attack, you're going to get out of the way fast.  An outside observer is unlikely to know why you moved.  Then imagine that this powerful teacher uses this ability to get you to move, and then to get you to move again before you've finished moving, and then again!  One of the real possibilities is that the trained student will feel their only choice is to jump backwards and roll away.  And the illusion of "empty force" was born.

Display is obviously part of the "monkey dance" category of fighting that young men are so prone to be possessed by.  But it is also a very real part of self-defense.  There is a whole category of street-level predators who use display in various ways to test whether they can get close enough to make you into an easy victim.  

Friday
Aug242012

Refuge vs. Treasure

Religious Daoism makes a distinction between two experiences of practice.  These two come into existence because our unconscious or aggressive conduct creates a cleave between the way things actually are and the way we imagine them to be.  In the one case, practice is experienced as an absolute treasure because it is a perfect expression of our true nature (de 德) and it permeates everything we do.  In the other case, practice is experienced as an incredible nourishing and inspiring refuge from the stress, fear and passions of our daily lives.  

In the written literature of Daoism, this distinction has sometimes been couched as the reason Daoism is not for everyone.  Religions which encourage practice as a refuge appear to have a big advantage over Daoism.  Practice as a refuge may even be addictive or function as a tool for mental clarity or stress reduction.  A refuge is easy to sell.

When we treat practice as a treasure the results are inseparable from all experience.  A roller derby helmet becomes part of practice, a loose tooth, the smell of a skill-saw cutting plywood.  

We can and do sway back and forth between these two experiences of practice.  Some nights before bed, as we are brushing our teeth we think, “I can’t wait to get up in the morning and practice.”  That’s what treating practice as a refuge feels like.  

Practice as a treasure has no pluses in its camp.  Nothing that can be pointed to.  

This is the conversation I know about practice; the pull of one, the unbounded unnamable quality of the other. 

There really is no conversation I can have of any meaning or significance unless the student already has a practice as solid as stone.

So then I ask the question-- what is the way in?  What is the basis for teaching?  On what ground does it take root?  

In children it is quite obvious that they have potency and access to freedom of movement and openness to learning.  Children have a practice, it just has no form because it is still so open to not-knowing, and not-doing.  As long as they are not over scheduled they can discover practice.

In adults it is obvious too, in the way people can hold their faces in a mask, or accomplish tasks without thinking, or bring energy, skills and ideas forth to solve a problem. We are capable of these things because of our rituals of “practice,” whatever they may be. 

Still, the conversation can not happen until the practice is chosen and one has signed contracts with all their demons to that affect!  The ability to make commitments is the single most defining quality that makes us human.  

I suppose, I could wander here for a moment into the realm of explanation, though I suspect it will leave me dreaming of my refuge.  Practice is another way of saying self-conditioning.  It is making deep grooves in our nature and behavior patterns rather than shallow scratches.  So Daoist practice is un-self-conditioning.  The making of a groove-less groove.  

Beautiful music and delicious food, cause the traveler to stop.  

Words about the Dao are insipid and bland.  

-- Laozi

Monday
Aug202012

Learning

Confusion is the mind’s response to learning, to looking into the unknown and attempting to make sense of it.  It happens when we come to our own experience, our senses, with a pre-conception about the way something should look, sound, taste, smell, feel, or function.  Confusion is the first wave in the process of dropping a pre-conception, or resolving a conflict between multiple pre-conceptions.  

Frustration is the mind’s experience of a type of compressed breathing that arises from combining effort with learning.  It is also used socially to communicate that something yearned for is out of reach.

Enthusiasm is the mind’s response to the likelihood a core human appetite is going to be nourished.  

Among the greatest expressions of happiness in the Jewish tradition is,  “My son’s have surpassed me!”  It means:  I am wrong and you are right.  It expresses the pure delight in learning and changing ones mind by the influence of another.

When I was 14 I bought a plane ticket to Europe and a train pass for the Summer.  It must have been 1981.  I had worked a lot of different jobs by 14, but I made most of the money for the trip selling political t-shirts for a Communist surfer, dude.  I debated international law with the young, beautiful, and articulate while sleeping under beached small boats in the South of France.  I swam in warm Swedish lakes watching the sun come up and down while having mad sex on smooth granite.  I met Krishnamurti in a rural area outside of London.  I remember his light rolling walk.  I remember his talks, always referring to himself as “the speaker,” in a big white tent.  He went on for hours, I fell asleep, snoring.  I remember how he talked about the illusion of memory and the illusion of the senses.  

I suppose it is no surprise that when I came home, high school was beyond boring.  Hah, I’m not writing my memoir yet, but I would like to understand how my ideas about teaching and learning came to be.  I quickly discovered high risk activities and dangerous people, wilderness, and people who fought with baseball bats and dodged bullets.  I also learned how to convince adults to give me responsibility.  Pushing both boundaries at the same time.  I became entranced by improvisation and dance.  

I tried to welcome contradictions and irony.  I tried to be the student my teachers were ecstatic about teaching.  I tried to find pure learning, to transcend the crutches of punishment and reward, to eschew competition.  

I worry that I can’t keep a secret.  I realize that teaching is almost always a ‘head-fake,’ like in football when you look one way and throw the other.  But a little teaching can go a long way, less is more, right?  And yet, I get consumed my own enthusiasm.  A little showing off of my skills or smarts gives me pleasure.  When I sense a student is comprehending something new, I feel compelled to pile on sensory information and ideas.  I’m excited by the challenge of constantly re-defining, re-imagining and re-experiencing what internal martial arts are.  I have no desire to settle down.

Can I, and should I, learn to withhold teachings?  Can I learn to give students some small practice or idea to cling to, and just let them believe they understand for months on end without bursting their bubble?  In the name of “development?”  Can I be convinced to believe in curriculum?  in progress?  in step by step piling up knowledge and experience?  

I suppose the alternative is to get a giant sign to float over my head that says, “If you don’t love being wrong, you can’t learn.”

Saturday
Aug182012

Tai Chi and Healing

 I recently got this question as an email:
Greetings- I really like your blog...innovative, challenging and quirk! It's a great read and always thought provoking..
 
I came across an interesting entry recently: http://www.northstarmartialarts.com/blog1/2012/6/15/yin-yang.html .  It struck me that for some reason, no one seems to deal much with how exactly tai chi - say Yang form- actually helps your health...What I mean by this is, do we have an actual 'index' or list of how each movement affects the meridians in a health enhancing way...eg if Single Whip works on Stomach/Spleen (not saying it does!) then why is this?
 
Also, you mention in that post a hefty tome on Acu-Channels and Lectures which you praise highly- is it worth your average interested tai chi/ ba gua teaher investing in or is it very much for the specialist?
 
Many thanks- J. K.

 

Hi J. K.,

The first thing that ought to be said is no one really knows what Tai Chi was before the Yang and Chen families started teaching it in Beijing.  Looking at the Chen style with an ear to history, dance, and anthropology, it is pretty hard to discern what it was.  There are elements of ritual/exorcism, there are concepts from Daoist cosmology and Daoyin, there are elements of mime and theater, there are many different types of fighting skills suggesting the integration of complex contexts over a long period of time.  
Daoyin is perhaps the largest category of yangsheng (nourishing life) practices.  But it doesn't fit well into any modern notion of "health" or "medicine."  
Whatever tai chi was, seems lost to us now, too many generations have passed without asking the necessary questions.  
But we do know that between 1900 (the Boxer Rebellion) and the 1936 Olympics a great deal of effort went into humiliating and degrading martial artists as superstitious and anti-reason.  In order to defend themselves against this ideological (quasi-fascist) assault martial artists claimed to have completely rid their arts of any semblance of theater or religion.  Sometimes they claimed that hand-to-hand combat had some military basic training value, but mostly they argued that building a strong body with "Chinese Characteristics" was good for the unity and vitality of the nation.  They would even say the "health" of the nation, because China had "earned" the title, 'the sick man of Asia.'  
So when they claimed martial arts were good for health, they were initially just echoing claims that gymnastics, tennis, and basketball were good for health.  While all this is going on Methodist medical colleges were popping up to teach a new generation of doctors, herbs and acupuncture were also ridiculed.  Tai Chi found a unique road to survival as a nationalist art which was more for health than for fighting or show, and which allied itself with people trying to argue for the rational value of native medical traditions. It's fighting reputation didn't evaporate, it floated into the realm of subtle and amazing skills.  
All of this however cut it off from the possibility of explaining 'tai chi healing' in terms of daily ritual, or a talisman for upright conduct, or daoist alchemy (jindan)--healing via returning to simplicity or our original nature--or as a theater skill set that would allow one to perform for hours on end day after day without becoming worn out, or even as a set of skills for emotional healing from traumatic events, starvation, or war.  All of those theories have come out of the west.  Not that they are 'western' just that it was westerners who have made the public claims associating tai chi with these other ways of thinking about healing.
Thus there have been attempts to explain the healing power of tai chi using meridian theory such as this book by Erle Montaigue.  I don't know if Montaigue made this stuff up or he learned it from a particular teacher but it is very detailed about how such and such a posture/movement is good for the gallbladder and thus for healing such and such diseases--- but it is too contrived to be plausible.  I was taught the same sorts of things for Bagua but I've never been able to make any sense of it as treatment.   
The post you reference above is about a simplified notion of meridians.  The 12 meridians are too specific to illness to be of use for movement, instead we have only two meridians-- yin and yang.  These two must always work together.  In most fine motor control actions the yin and yang work against each other, as they do in most athletics--not totally, but enough to reduce power and focus energy on the task at hand.
 
Anyway, healing can be viewed from a lot of different perspectives.  I have a very clear idea about how healing happens but it is idiosyncratic, highly specific and experimental.  I don't present myself as a healer because my methods require people to participate in their own healing, to change their conduct and environment--and that requires a change in the way they see and value human nature.  
I do not recommend you get a bunch of Chinese medicine books and try to milk them for info on marital arts.  At the same time, I would hardly want to discourage you from going really deep in your own way.  The Expressiveness of the Body is a good place to start!  
Best Regards,
Scott

 

 

Monday
Aug132012

Energy vs Power vs Barefoot

Two years ago I wrote a blog post laying down the differences in the way dogs and cats walk.  I haven't changed my thinking on this much but if you don't remember it I recommend a re-read.

The issue of energy efficiency verses power efficiency has been coming up a lot in class lately.  I blame two popularizations of internal arts, the barefoot movement and the standing up desk movement.  The link is not direct but these two movements are allowing people to see and hear things they simply could not see or hear before.  You can hit people over the head with truth or surreptitiously replace their morning coffee with it, and unless something has disrupted their mental force field, nothing will get through.

But when someone tries to stand up at a desk for 5 or 6 hours they start to notice that there are a lot of different ways to stand, each having different consequences for every other function of the body.  

One of the funny things about the barefoot movement is that the minimalist shoes popping up on peoples feet are still enough of a barrier that they limit the unraveling process that true barefoot can bring about.  For one, most of these minimalist shoes squeeze the toes together--a completely ridiculous idea unless you are using them for vertical rock climbing.  Secondly, if you have a barrier to sharp objects you will happily push down the center of your heel and the ball of the big toe, things you would never do on rough uneven ground if you were truly barefoot.  Thirdly, our bodies have superb mechanisms for warming and cooling the feet which are only triggered by the actual changes in shape that happen when our feet are interacting with actual ground in an unmediated-instantaneous way.

I suppose I should disclose at this moment that I just spent 10 days alone at a mountain lake above 9000 feet, barefoot, without books, doing standing, sitting and movement practices.  After a few days my appetite for food got very small, and then I stopped sleeping because I didn't have any thoughts to help me drift off.  But then again I wasn't tired so I didn't need sleep.  This single experience leads me to speculate that the need to sleep is mostly a self-sedation response to social stress, conventionality, and self-restraint.

Anyway, back to the main point.  Humans have developed, evolved, or invented ways of walking and running which are extremely energy efficient.  With each stride, our momentum carries forward with very little whole-body effort or resistance.  This allows us to 1) carry stuff, 2) out-run or out-last animals we are tracking, 3) have the energy to work, labor, and think.  We effect this energy efficiency by using our legs like sticks with bendable joints.  Our torsos continuously re-balance on these hard structures while in motion.  Shoes allow us to use our legs in an even stiffer, more energy efficient way.  When done standing relatively still, internal martial artists call this the flaw of "being on the table."  The implication is that we are using our legs in a rigid way, like table legs.  

Naturally, I am not presenting a good verses bad dichotomy here, just attempting to present things as they actually are.

Contrast all this with power efficiency.  A confusion arises because energy efficiency allows us to be more aggressive about getting where we are going, it allows us to exert lots of effort.  Power efficiency, in contrast, uses a lot more energy which ironically is a disincentive to the exertion of effort.  A fruition of practicing power efficient internal arts is that we discover effortlessness.  Walking barefoot is power efficient.  Standing meditation is power efficient.  People who try to do standing meditation for one hour using energy efficient structures usually give up; often complaining of pain--which of course goes away the second they start moving--or boredom.  Power efficiency is not static, even in stillness it is wildly active.  

If you are in the daily habit of taking a half hour walk with shoes on, when you try to walk barefoot you'll find that not only does it take a lot longer to walk the same distance, but a half hour of barefoot walking will get you really tired--at least until you spontaneously rediscover the whole body effortlessness that babies have.

Energy efficiency is a big part of what makes us human.  When we are young, energy efficient ways of moving are supported by bounciness in the hip joints and lower back, springiness in all the ligaments, and elasticity in all the muscles and fascia.  With age and time those pieces of the puzzle start to fray.  These physiological "systems" start to fall apart.  That's why switching to whole-body power efficient ways of moving, like we use in the internal martial arts, have an apparent ability to heal.

These natural revelations come from Daoism, a relgious tradition which continuously rediscovers and re-establishes itself by returning to simplicity.

 

 

 

 

 

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