Weakness With A Twist 

Internal Martial Arts, Theatricality, and Daoist Ritual Emptiness


Some More Thoughts on Martial Arts as Dance

Here is the latest promo for my upcoming San Francisco Bay Area workshops Circus Daoyin and Dance as Self-Defense:  

Check it out my new and improved descriptions!  http://eepurl.com/bGNJKD


Because we are social animals, we tend to mistake the social activity of fighting with the self-defense mode of embodying our inner predator.  The moment we are in “fight” mode, we are holding back.  That's because we evolved to use a communicative type of violence for humans within our tribe for establishing social dominance and submission.  It is different from the type of violence we would use for teaching outsiders to fear our tribe, and different again from the clarity of hunting.  

If we list the dangerous places we might encounter young men and women challenging each other for dominance and engaging in the social activity of fighting--the drunken dance-party is near the top of the list.  The dance party is found on every continent, in an astounding variety of forms.  Why does alcohol so often go with dance?  Because they both are about letting go of social and physical inhibitions.  

Since the invention of alchohol, dance parties have likely been an ideal place for evil predators to scout their targets.  

If we think about it this way, it isn't surprising that martial skills would be embedded in dance styles.  

But there are many other reasons.  

Social inhibition often creates a reluctance to dance.  It is also quite common that a person dares to dance but does it in a stiff and inhibited way.  I suspect that in many cases, dances are designed to increase the social stress so that the leap one has to make to get through inhibition is larger.  It separates the men from the boys (no gender bias intended).  To actually get good at dancing, means spending a whole lot of time in this uninhibited state.  

What in the world of self-defense is like this?  For one, there is the "go button" that each of us needs to practice pushing if we are to have any hope of being able to muster martial skills in the instant that we need them.  Pushing through the social terror of asking someone to dance is not the same as neutralizing a violent threat, but there IS a "button" there that has to get pushed.

But even better, think about the difference between what it feels like to be stuck in a social fight, a monkey dance, two goats butting heads.  And think about what it feels like to just execute a martial arts principle without inhibition.  The feeling of dropping the monkey dance, dropping the "fight," is very similar to the feeling of dropping the inhibition to dance.  I think they are similar because they are both social inhibitions made of the same "stuff," hormonally speaking.  

Anyway, this works for me.  And it seems to be working for my students.  If I find myself in goat butting-heads mode, I just start dancing.  If I notice my students are getting into "fight" mode, I just say "Dance, come on, let's dance! Let go, let it go.  Don't believe me, just dance!"  The increase in martial power, balance, and spatial awareness is instantaneous. 

To dance is really to let go of oneself.  

Sadly one of the problems I have had teaching this is that some people have had dance training that isn't about letting go.  It is about control.  This is especially true of fake styles that teach "steps."  Dance does not use steps.  Sorry, that is a mistake.  Dance is about whole body momentum.  Rhythmic patters, defiantly. Spatial patterns, for sure.  (This is hard to explain if you don't already have this experience, so please come to my workshops).  

I hate to sound pedantic, but more people need to learn how to put their foot down.   

Here is another point that I think a lot of people miss.  You may be better at violence than I am because you have extraordinary experience in street gangs or military hand to hand combat, or your are just huge, or whatever, but, if I can kick your butt, I can do it with the waltz.  Yes, I have martial arts training, but I use principles of movement, and those are just as accessible in dance as they are in martial arts--often more accessible.        
People often choose dance vs martial arts for identity reasons.  I guess I never felt that limitation, but I should put it up front that I consider enlightenment the goal of both traditions.  Studying these arts one should expect to experience some challenges to one's identity, because that is where the energy for break-throughs lives.
Stop fighting and start dancing.  

Teaching in San Francisco and other News

Please come to my workshops in San Francisco/Oakland [Nov. 29th and Dec. 2nd]  Read about them and sign up at the Soja website: http://sojamindbody.com/schedule/   (make sure to click on "Adult Workshops").  You can also see Anna Valdiserri's and Rory Miller's workshops there, I highly recommend them.

I would like to spend a little time pitching my workshops here.  The copy text is challenging to write because I'm in uncharted territory.  I'm a cowbody doing my own thing.  

The Circus Daoyin class is my attempt to bust yoga people out of the "prison" of the yoga mat.  But I don't want to say that directly because "prison" sounds negative.  So think about it as yoga in the fifth dimension, breaking out of the limitations of time and space.  Spontaneity driven yoga. Yoga with a muse, or the Chinese version of the muse called Jade Maidens and Golden Lads.  This class was a big hit with the Asian Bodywork community I taught in Chicago, specifically because it zeros in on how health practitioners can use self-cultivation to get better healing outcomes.  But the design of this class is open ended, aimed at giving people new ways of experiencing their bodies in movement.  It doesn't have a beginning and it doesn't have an end, wherever you are you can just jump right in!  

The Dance As Self-Defense class is my new baby.  I've taken all the funnest stuff in martial arts and put it into dance games.  Think: A safe way to work with maximum momentum.  Each game teaches principles of movement and perception.  Since this class was so well received in Portland last year, I have been refining the games and inventing new ones. Whenever the tough guys I teach outside in the park aren't getting something, I've turned class into a dance lesson.  My taijiquan and baguazhang students are all now learning the Waltz as a short-cut into martial arts skills.  One of the beautiful things about this method is it by by-passes the normal emotional identity blocks people have.  By changing the emotional context, it gives students an opportunity to experience the movement in new ways.  

Please, please, please, tell your friends!


In other news, the Indian origins of Yoga are fighting back!  When I was in the UK I got to see a secret family style of martial arts that includes an entire system of spatial-mind breathing, basically the same as Daoist jindan.  And there are banana leaf texts to prove it.  It is not surprising that a defense of the Indian origins of Yoga has been slow to come out.  Hatha Yoga was tainted with performer and other low caste stigmas.  And the secret family stuff usually comes with a prohibition against sharing the material outside of both one's family and one's caste.  The supporting texts are also probably often written in languages that are not easily accessible.  


Now, meet the Cry-Bully!  This article is mediocre, but the term Cry-Bully is a gift from the gods.  Perhaps this god could become the patrion saint of Cry-Bullies?


Now there is an App for people who just want to get in fights more often!  Rumblr is an easy way to document idiocy!  And maybe, just maybe, it could create enough legal cover to bring back legal dueling.  One can hope.  The link has changed since I first looked at it a few days ago, they are upping their game.  Go ahead and sign-in, it is anonymous.  


Check out this cool exhibit which is going to be in London.  And do keep an eye out for everyone's friend, the Cosmic Vagina!


The Journal of Martial Arts Studies

This wonderful publication is now out.  It is free, and I have a review it.  Check it out!  Download it.  Share it.  A new field of study has come into existence.  


The whole thing: The Journal of Martial Arts Studies

The Individual Articles





Acupuncture and the Martial Arts

The martial arts connection to medicine is very weak unless we dive into specific religious notions of medicine and health. That view has long made me a polarizing teacher, some people love me, some hate me.  As my regular readers are aware, connections between theater, religion and martial arts were severed at the beginning of the 20th Century. Because of this, few people can actually see the religious connections between medicine and martial arts.  What we got, almost by a historical fluke, was the valorization of the martial arts school connected to the herbalist and the bone-setter.  This connection is certainly real.  The connections between ways of training the body and massage techniques (bodywork, tuina, etc) are strong in practice.  That is why the Daoyin for bodyworkers program has been successful.  But for this connection to be meaningful, the language has to be correct.  Otherwise it just becomes laying theory on top of practice; an unnecessary burden. 

Countless martial artists have included acupuncture charts in their books. Some have even attempted to link movement patterns to acupuncture meridians, in qigong for example, and even in fighting technique.  I've never been able to make any sense of this stuff.  And I've had a long time to ponder it and experiment with it.  My Daoist teacher was the founder of Five Branches School of Traditional Chinese Medicine, and I taught for five years at the American College of Traditional Chinese Medicine.  

Typically people start with a perfectly good method or practice.  Then they come up with a theory to explain it. And then they tack on the acupuncture meridians.  That's two steps out over the cliff in my book.  That's adding mathematical variables to an equation and hoping it doesn't change the results too much.   

Don't mis-understand me.  I'm not anti-theory.  Even wrong theories can create new ways of looking at a problem.  Or suggest strategies for simplifying a problem.  And yes, sometimes things get so screwed up that adding a mathematical variable and watching the results is a good method.  But if you are going to follow the Road Runner off of the cliff, be prepared for a lot of backpedaling (in mid-air).  

There is a cosmological connection between meridians and martial arts, but it isn't what people think.

A ghost is a weak commitment.  Why?  Because that is usually what happens to a person's commitments when they die.  If your body isn't around to act on a commitment or a desire it tends to weaken and float away into nothingness.  But sometimes the living will try to carry on the will, or the intent, of the dead.  The further a particular intent gets from the body of its inception the weaker it is.  But a living person can catch hold of someone else's desire and preserve it.  It thus becomes a ghost, or a ghostly influence.  We can also create our own ghosts.  For instance, a commitment made as a child, or during a previous relationship, can cling to our body and keep manifesting unconsciously in our actions.  

When an intent or desire (think: imagination) gets stuck in the body, it infuses the body with qi.  In a wuwei (non-intentional) state the imagination is free to roam and qi floats outside the body as a buffer between the imagination and the body.  Normally, we have simple desires, they manifest somehow in our actions, and then they disappear.  No fuss no muss.  But unfulfilled desires can take up residence in our bodies.  In the modern world we think of these as anxiety or stress.  The Chinese thought of them as set patterns of qi: meridians.

The classic Daoist idea of illness has one of three causes.  1) You inherited a ghost from your ancestors, usually a bad habit like drinking whiskey, or hating your neighbors.  2)  You picked up a wandering ghost, some dead person's unresolved desire to harm--usually via revenge, but there are countless other possibilities.   3) You are a screw-up all on your own, your homegrown desires and conflicting emotions lead to self-harming conduct.

All three of the above causes manifest in the same way, first as bad conduct, then as meridians.  Acupuncture is the study of how patterns of inappropriate conduct get stuck in the body.  When a person has all twelve meridians they are dead.  

It is a simplification, but we can think of acupuncture as a form of torture meant to scare away ghosts, and purge the body of stuck patterns of qi.  

Death occurs when all the qi at the surface of the body gets forced by the imagination into the physical body. When the imagination becomes all substance, that is death.  Sickness is when just part of the imagination is stuck in the body.  

The idea that someone would want to use a movement pattern to establish meridians in the body is crazy.  Less crazy is the idea the someone might want to use a movement pattern to clear out the meridians.  But the connection is still weak.  There is little reason to involve the meridians in martial arts at all.  

This is where the demons come out.  Most of the people writing about internal martial arts today are discussing something called jin , usually translated as internal power.  I can assure you, if your whole body becomes jin, you are dead.  

The purpose of jin, from a Daoist point of view, is to chase out the ghosts. Old lingering ghosts in our bodies have established themselves in our behaviors, but more immediately they have established themselves in our unconscious movement habits and patterns.  By establishing a super clear and conscious pattern of movement inside the body, we can overwhelm the weak lingering qi patterns of ghosts. 

But from a Daoist point of view, it is a mistake to leave that super clear conscious movement pattern in the body.  Once the jin has chased away the ghosts, it should be discarded too.  Accumulate too many jin patterns and they will start to fight each other for dominance in your body.  Allow just one to dominate your movement all the time and it will slowly wear down all the soft tissues in the body leaving you crippled.  

There are a lot of different ways things can go.  Daoists thought this through.  You can switch types of jin with the seasons, develop different types of power at different times of year.  Or you can use a divination method to decide what type of power to work on.  But pursuing the same pattern usually leads to a story like this, "I played football until my injuries caught up with me, and I switched to basketball, until my knees gave out, so I started biking, when I couldn't do that anymore I switched to golf, now I just swim and walk."  This is all okay. We don't need to beat death here.  (As I pointed out in my last blog, I'm not into the ghost of "sustainability."  It would not be that easy to use up all our resources even if we tried, but we certainly don't need to leave all this "stuff" for our grandchildren.)

The Daoist view is that jin can be used to clean out the ghosts, but the fruition of "internal power cultivation" is not internal power!  It is no-power stored in the body.  It is pure liquid mass and momentum surrounded and nourished by a wild predator mind.  An immortal rainbow egg; the empty body/jing surrounded by qi, surrounded by spirit/imagination/shen, and then surrounded by emptiness/xu.

Wait, did I just walk myself off of a cliff?  Anyone who has spent time around Traditional Chinese Medicine knows that there are a ton of different theories, and many of them contradict each other.  They can't all be right and they can't all be wrong!    


Images in a Changing World

Monday is my day to post a blog.  I failed to post on time this week because I was trying to come to terms with copyright law, use permissions, and the failed concept of public domain works of art.  (I'm happy to report I'm that far along with both my high quality video productions and my book.)
Most of my readers are decent and upright citizens, and may not be aware of terms like copyright nazis. Consider this.  If one were to re-record a recording of a piece of music by, for example, by putting a microphone in front of a speaker, most people would not consider this a new piece of art.  It certainly wouldn't be copyrightable.  But, in fact, if one takes a purely technical photograph of a photograph, that is considered a new work of art.  Even if a photograph is very old, and is clearly now in the public domain, a person or a corporation, or a museum can take a new picture of it and restart the copyright.  These works can be owned too, creating some incomprehensible process by which I, or you, can be required to pay for permission to use them.  You need to be a lawyer to understand it.
A painting, say from the 13th century, which has been in the public domain for hundreds of years, is technically owned by the Smithsonian, for example.  Which, as a citizen, I own.  But the museum has decided that they want to make money off of anyone who might want to reproduce the image.  So they claim copyright of a documentary photograph they took of it.  And since they can take a photo anytime they please, they claim copyright forever.  Even though these works of art are often available online in high quality resolutions, the rights to publish them in a book or use them in a video have to be licensed for a fee.  If an artist, like me, wants to use a substantial number of images, it costs thousands of dollars and takes months of negotiations. There is a concept called fair use, but this blog for instance, even though I've hardly made any money from it, is a form of marketing and might or might not be considered "fair use."  A judge would have to decide, and that would cost thousands of dollars even if I won.  
Perhaps readers have heard of wiki commons, or Creative Commons licensing agreements.  At first I was excited about this as a possible solution.  Some of the images have been put on Wiki Commons by museums. That is fantastic.  But a great many images are still questionable.  The Creative Commons license isn't a warranty.  You, or I, could still be sued for using them.  And of course in the case of videos, Youtube will simply take the video down if there is a challenge, they don't even care whether the claim is false or not.  
Now I'm seeing the world differently.  When I look at a book I consider whether it would benefit from a few black and white images.  With modern printing, black and white images cost the same as words to print.  Yet, most books which would benefit hugely from a few historic or culturally relevant images have none.  This is a form of censorship.  It is just too much of a hassle to get permissions and figure out copyrights, so most books forgo images. 
This image is clearly old enough to be in the public domain.  The museum who "owns" it charges for high resolution digital files. In economic terms that is call Rent Seeking.  But I was warned that publishers probably will not reproduce it because it is part of the May's Studio Collection which was "dumped" at the museum and there is still a remote possibility that someone will try to make a copyright or ownership claim.  Rant over.
This is the new Martial Arts Studies Book series, which promises to be awesome.  I'm thinking about proposing an alternative history of Baguazhang.
Nunchucks were a portable torture device.  In China and Japan, all criminals had to confess.  The final judgement always required a confession.  So it was standard to torture people until they confessed.  Nunchucks were used to slowly crush bones during interrogations.  They can also be used for minimal force arrests. So I was delighted to see some police departments are adopting them. 
I thought we should try this a few years ago.  It is Brave New World stuff.  Imagine being declared oxytocin-deficient.  At work.  Or by your family.  Or in jail.  Also imagine the creep potential.  "My husband wasn't being nice, so I started putting oxytocin in his Bud Lite and now he loves me...more."


And this is some big news out of China.  http://www.reuters.com/article/2015/10/29/us-china-politics-plenum-idUSKCN0SN16Y20151029


Also, I'm hoping that my blog will become Mobile Compliant soon, stay tuned, and thanks for reading!



Bio-Mechanics of Martial Arts

I live in Boulder, Colorado.  If you get into trouble socially in Boulder, all you have to say is the magic word, "sustainability."  This works for all situations.  If the police are trying to arrest you, just say, "sustainability," and they will let you go.  If you step on someone's foot at the cafe, say "sustainability," and everyone smiles. If your dog barks at someone, if your goats get out of the yard and chew up the seats of your neighbor's convertible, if you forget a friend's birthday, just say "sustainability;" it is the universal safe word for Boulder. All advertising, marketing, education and politics uses the word "sustainability," in all situations. 

In martial arts circles, where English is spoken, I often hear the term "bio-mechanics" used in a similar way. While the term "sustainability" never actually referred to anything real, bio-mechanics is a defunct field of kinesiology.  

Bio-mechanics is the application of principles of engineering to human movement.  In martial arts there are a handful of these principles which everyone should know because they are intuitive.  Long levers are more powerful than short levers.  Move the center of mass off of the base and the person will fall.  To lift someone, get under their center of mass.  Mass times velocity squared equals momentum.  

On the other hand, the expression "bio-mechanics" is invoked by marital artists frequently to justify the use of "structure."  To see if structure is actually involved simply do the technique while someone slowly and gently pokes you with a red-hot branding iron.  If you move suddenly six or eight feet in the opposite direction, structure was not the original mechanism, because structure does not jump into the air and scream when it experiences pain.  

Bio-mechanics has some utility.  It can be used to analyse a javelin throw in two dimensions.  But in three dimensions it is too complex to be practical.  Yes, Usain Bolt, the fastest runner ever, has very short springy achilles tendons.  And bio-mechanics would predict that.  But there are plenty of people with short achilles tendons who are slow runners.  The oddities of statistics and social biases being what they are, having the name "Bolt" is at least partially responsible for his great speed.  He likely got extra positive feed-back and assistance from coaches, friends, and fans, because of his cool name.

The field of bio-mechanics came crashing down when someone wrote an academic paper attempting to analyse the movement of two basketball players dribbling down the court and passing the ball back and forth.  Bio-mechanics could not explain it.  It was too complex.  It required a new theory, the theory of continuous, perception, action loops.  Movement is not mechanical, it syncs with visual flow, predicts patterns and produces dynamic spatial maps.

However, academic fields do not die, people do.  And once people have tenure at a university--they do not die, they become zombies.   So bio-mechanics is still taught at universities.  

Bio-mechanics is also used extensively in elite sports coaching.  Obviously this is not science because it suffers from an extreme case of selection bias.  Put all the best runners in a group and pick their coach competitively and whatever mojo-magic training routines they come up with will be "proven" superior.  Bio-mechanical analysis is just light-weight baggage, verbiage for the experts to toss around.  Meanwhile, already very fast runners practice running even faster.  They use keen observation of the competition, and trial and error.  

Why is this important?  

Because martial arts are not bio-mechanical, they are interpersonal.  The mistakes people make, and then justify by saying the magic word, "bio-mechanics," are errors of perception.  A simple example is the idea of alignment.  

The conventional error of perception is that "good" alignment improves structural power.  This creates an astronomic number of problematic training artifacts.  When people say, "alignment" they imagine they are referring to something purely physical.  But humans communicate our social status through the way we stand. We stand differently in a crowd of athletes than we do in a circle of nerds.  We stand differently on top of a mountain than we do in a shower stall covered with thick fuzzy mold.  It gets weird.  We unconsciously treat inanimate objects and spaces as if they were animate.  That's why trophies are tall and shiny.  We tend to stand up taller next to a trophy, unless we feel we do not deserve it.  

People have tried to argue with me.  Saying, for example, that they do not have social interactions with a tree. This has actually been tested by kinesiologists in Japan.  People breath differently next to trees than they do next to freeways or buildings.  Trees probably make our monkey brains feel safe.  If we need to escape from a predator, we can climb up into the branches in an instant.  

People do become habituated to certain postures, because tension held in the body communicates "character."  This social-origin tension is inefficient for power generation.

I'm trying to point to something here which is hard to put into words.  I can make fun of people in Boulder and their magic words, or academic fields that won't die, or coaching science, but these people all believe in what they are doing.  My comic critique is not likely to change their minds. 

The same is true for martial artists and "bio-mechanics."  This magic word is used as a psychic defense mechanism to deflect people away from noticing the way social tension and competitive monkey dancing influences their movement.  When predators are hunting, they do not fight; fighting is a social dominance activity.  How can I break through this deflection?

A human is a bunch of bones and water in a chewy membrane called skin.  Inside this membrane are other membranes stringing it all together.  This water is mixed with various chemicals and compounds.  All of this amounts to nothing but a chunky blob of mush. When this body is at 98 degrees and has an electrical charge running through it, it suddenly organizes into a cool shape!  But without awareness of space and a dynamic imagination, this body will just lay on the ground shaking.  

The bio-mechanics of alignment is an electrical feed-back loop triggered by the perception of space which organizes our mass so that it balances over our base.  Every part of the body has to be balanced on whatever is beneath it in a continuous fluid electrical flow.  Structure is simply an illusion of frozen time.

However, this "structural" illusion in an attacker is what allows the internal martial arts principle of counterbalancing to work.  All incoming forces and physical resistance can be counterbalanced if the attacker tries to use their body in a structural way to generate power from the ground through their body.  

Discarding the structural illusion also has healing power because without it, body parts tend to move toward the most efficient use of vertical space.   

Physical movement principles are straight forward in the abstract.  In practice they have to overcome all the ways we are socially resistant to freeing our inner predator.  


Weakening into the Void

Weakness is a door for returning to our true, unconditioned, baby-like nature (zhende 真德, yuande).  But weakness itself is not a type of fruition we seek.  The idea of nurturing weakness arose because aggressive intentions preclude subtlety, cover up sensitivity, and obscure awareness.  Focus is aggressive.  Focus limits responsiveness.  Weakness is a way of keeping options open.  

In the early debates between Buddhists and Daoists, both advocated for a kind of potency.  Buddhists argued that a focused mind could be used to break through to clarity, and Daoists countered that clarity was self-arising.  

Daoists also argue that strength is self-arising.  In fact, I have become an advocate of self-arising strength. The problems with strength all come from putting intent into the muscles.  If strength is limited to the physical body, the power of the void will be less accessible.  If this sounds mystical, bring it up with Rory Miller, he is saying similar things.  It isn't mystical, it is the way our bodies work when we drop aggression.  

In order to develop coordination and self-healing, many people find it beneficial to develop the ability to feel every part of the inside of their body.  This is okay, as long as those senses do not become hardened.  The reality is that the inside of our bodies cannot be felt directly, the true feelings are defuse and confusing.  That's why babies need to wiggle their arms and legs for many months before they actually gain control of them.  It is a process of linking up the imagination with felt experience and visual perception.  All that is a function of the imagination, and it should stay imagination, flexible and dynamic.  The interior of the body should not become some hardened notion of truth.  When our imagination becomes hardened truth, Daoists call that death (or the birth of a ghost).    

A key concept of internal martial arts is the idea that the body can feel hollowed out.  This is called tong, sometimes translated "through."  It is the type of emptiness that allows a flute to produce sound, a hollowness that goes all the way through.  I am an advocate of any type of strength which supports the experience of tong

At some point, I noticed that students who do not have much tone in their biceps have trouble keeping their shoulders tong.  This led to my own experiments, and now I advocate keeping the biceps toned all the time as a way of keeping the shoulders tong.  Relaxation is fine as long as the biceps remain toned.  Another way people lose tong, is by pushing their shoulders down, this destroys the open space and commits the arms to a line of power.  This is probably the biggest structural error in the world of martial arts.  It is very common. People with this training will have to pass through a period of feeling weak before they can establish actual strength with tong.  I used to think this period of weakness needed to last months or years, but that was a hook without a worm for most people.   I have since figured out that students can replace strength with shapes of empty vanity by flexing their biceps all the time.  By this method one can drastically cut the time it takes to develop tong shoulders. The key is that strength must stay in the imagination, the biceps must not be used to carry.  If a student picks up a weapon, they must imagine that it is part of their body, not something they are carrying.

So weakening into the void means recognizing the emptiness of all strength, and cultivating it.  The mind does not go into the muscles.  The mind must remain unfocussed and without limitation.  Plastic.  The mind goes into the void.

Naturally, acting skill works the same way.  Strength or image which is committed to the body becomes permanent character.  Theatricality can be built either around a profound change in a person's character, or around a character who refuses to change even while everything around them is changing.  In either case, the actor does not want to become a permanent character, acting skill is the ability to take on new characters and imagine dynamic worlds for them...  Acting requires being weak and unconditioned enough to allow strength to be self-arising.  Daoists call this pacing the void (步虛 buxu).  

 Here is a diagram for the ritual from Michael Saso's website:


What is Qigong?

Since I began teaching qigong around 1990, I have learned, practiced, and taught countless styles.  I think we should change the naming conventions of qigong because they do not match my empirical experience. 

There is one book everyone who practices qigong should read, Qigong Fever, by David Palmer.  It is a history of the politics that created the name "qigong," and the communist political clique that created a vast quantity of junk science claiming qigong was good for everything from curing cancer to re-directing guided missiles (I'm not kidding).

The problem arose because the methods (styles) of practicing qigong were removed from the Golden Elixar (jindan) framework that originally grounded it.  That framework is jing-qi-shen; where jing is everything physical or structural, and shen is everything imaginary including the functional spatial imagination.  In this framework, Qi is the intermediary between these two conceptual-experiential categories.  

Qigong is simply moving with a felt sense of qi around ones body.  With regard to the internal martial arts, that feeling of qi acts as a buffer in between the physical body and the spatial imagination.  The quickest way to develop this feeling is through brush bathing.  

Brush bathing is very simple.  Sit on a bench and pour a bucket of hot water over your head.  Then scrub your whole body with a stiff brush; starting at the top and moving towards the feet, scrubbing the yang meridians before the yin meridians (back before front).  Then pour four buckets of hot water on your head and one cold bucket.  After each bucket visualize (see and feel) the steam as a color permeating your skin and out into space.  The colors should changed from dull to bright, and follow the five element color sequence: green, red, silver, violet, gold.  

Brush bathe everyday for a couple of months until this felt visuallization is easy to conjure.  Meanwhile, learn to dance while maintaining these felt visualizations.  That, in my experience, is the entirety of qigong, the rest is marketing and hand-holding.  

So what are all those other "qigong" type things that people do?  They all fall either into the category of jinggong or shengong.  (The word "gong" means work in modern Chinese, but in a non-communist milieu it means to accumulate merit.)

Jingggong is any specific pattern (or quality) of movement.  (Once you have the pattern, you can add your qigong felt visualizations to it.)  The purpose of jinggong is to change ones physical body through refining ones awareness of it.  That covers a wide range of experiences including: coordination, relaxation, imitation, rhythm, breathing patterns, and ways of connecting or integrating through the body.   

Shengong is the practice of moving the body exclusively with the imagination.  This is how all the internal martial arts work, but it also includes subtle or invisible movements that may happen while practicing visualizations in stillness.  

Jinggong works fine without qigong. And qigong is a wonderful practice on its own too.  They also work well together.  But shengong is not going to work unless one has mastered the qigong practice.  And shengong will not work for martial arts or dance unless the movement patterns (jinggong) are established first.  At the risk of stating the obvious, if one does not know how to kick someone in the head shengong will not help, learn the skill first.  

Colors are a useful way to trick ones mind into experiencing empty space as having substance, so that it becomes easier to manipulate.  There are countless other tricks.  I suspect it will be some time before my naming conventions become conventions.  But calling everything qigong, is not consistent with the basic cosmology of the body or the practice.  Let's change it.


Joan Mankin (aka Jade Mango) Dies at 67

Joan Mankin was a dedicated student of mine and a living treasure in many ways; let me tell you about some of them.  She was an actor, director, physical comedian, teacher, swimmer, pioneer of women's martial arts, and a rabbi.  Most people knew her by her clown name, Queenie Moon, but I will always remember her by her martial arts, hero name--Jade Mango.

Joan attended the University of Chicago in the late 1960s and moved to San Francisco to work with the Mime Troop at a time when they were at the center of hippy counter-culture.  She once did a topless trampoline show in Union Square, the most public space in San Francisco.  Later she worked with the pioneering Pickle Family Circus.  I have fond memories of seeing her perform with both of these groups when I was just a child.  She went on to perform with almost all the major theaters in the San Francisco area.  As a performer she was among the best in the business.  Here is an obituary of her as an performer.

Joan came to my class three mornings a week for more than ten years.  She was my student; however, when someone with high-caliber skills like Joan's comes to study with you, you become their student too.  In class, when something funny was said, she would ask the questions, "Would adding some physical element improve it? A waddle perhaps?  What about the voice, or the phrasing?  What really makes that funny?  Do we understand it? What does it tell us about who we are?  What does it tell us about the human condition?" We all developed the habits of making things more funny.   

But before I go on, I want to tell you how I met Joan.  One night I went on a double-blind date, which involved a Hawiian outrigger-canoe and the four of us paddling on the San Francisco Bay.  It was after midnight and we snuck into the women's bathroom at the South End Rowing club, and since I was there, I posted a flier for my martial arts classes in the sauna.  Joan came to class a couple days later.  I was immediately honored and amazed to have her as a student.  But she kept asking who I knew at the South End Rowing club, and I kept saying I don't know anyone.  Joan was persistent, knowing I had a secret was like an invitation for her.  When I finally told her I had put the flier there myself, she was incredulous, after all, it was in the women's sauna! That made her more animated, forcing me to tell her every lurid detail.  After that when she wanted to give me a hard time, she would say, "Wait, who do you know at the South End Rowing Club?"

She swam in the freezing cold San Francisco Bay several times a week, and her daughter Emma held the record for the youngest person ever to swim underneath the Golden Gate Bridge; she made the crossing at age 10.  

Joan was a pioneer of women's self-defense in the 1970s.  She understood that freedom comes with responsibility.  Below is a picture of her and Laurie Cahn, they both were students of Adam Hsu's, performing a theatrical demonstration about the importance of self-defense.  

Joan was from a long tradition of fighting rabbis.  A rabbi is a well-read person, knowledgeable in multiple realms, who can argue many points-of-view simultaneously.  A rabbi is one who listens carefully and does not hesitate to take a contrary view if she believes it is merited.  This is why you can trust a rabbi.  You know they will tell you what they think.  And you also know that their commitment to you is deeper than anything you can say.  

Several times I had to get in-between Joan and another student she wanted to clobber.  Joan never required anyone to agree with her, but if you dismissed her ideas she would kick your ass.  As it should be; however, as the teacher, it was my job to keep the peace, and in each instance I actually thought Joan was wrong.  But so what, I loved her for that.

Joan's moral authority made it possible for me to run a martial arts class where people could pinch each other's butts, mock each others physical skills, make faces behind my back while I was giving instructions, insert slapstick comedy, and become overwhelmed by shock, insult, love, offense, or a good smell.  

Here is what it was like having Joan around.  We all got martial arts, hero names while making this video.  Her name came to me while I was eating a mango and discussing the sword name, Jade Destiny, from Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon.  Henceforth, she was known as Jade Mango!


On September 11, 2001, Joan and I heard about the first plane hitting the World Trade Center on our way to morning class.  As we practiced together, we knew something big was happening, and it would become a powerful bond for us.  The next day on the beach, no planes in the sky, I talked with a close friend about what had happened, what was happening, and I realized that things could get tough for me.  I decided not to tell anyone what I thought about 9/11 because I could see that I was going to lose friends over it.  And several months later, when I finally decide to speak up, I did lose most of my friends.  But Joan was steadfast.  She understood tragedy and that we were living through one.  

Joan knew that the San Francisco theater scene had become an ideologically rigid world.  She totally agreed with me, for instance, that the San Francisco Mime Troop had been putting on a different show with the same stupid plot for twenty years.  She was shocked by my anti-union positions, but she listened intently.  That kind of thing just made our mutual respect deeper.  Listening is an opportunity to change one's mind, that is what listening is, and she modeled it.  

Joan loved teaching and directing.  The head of the School Of The Arts (SOTA) called her up one day and said, "I've been interviewing people to teach Physical Theater here and everyone so far has had your name on their resume as a teacher, so I thought, why not go directly to the source and see if you want to teach here?"  She did.  She also taught at the San Francisco Circus Center--Clown Conservatory.  Her influence as a teacher is vast.  Whereever you are in the world, there is a good chance you have laughed at something she had a hand in.  She even spent a few months teaching clowning in China.  Teaching was also a big bond between us, we shared problems and successes.  Having someone to talk to regularly about how to be a better teacher is a fantastic gift.  

On a more personal note.  In the aftermath of 9/11, I was having trouble dating.  The problem was that my dates would be going along fine and then, back at the apartment, I would get some question designed to trigger a statement of hatred toward a certain George W. Bush.  If I failed to deliver, my date would suddenly have to go.  The president had become a sort of gateway to women's vaginas.  Of course, I could have lied and gotten all the sex I wanted.  But that made me angry, I didn't want to lie.  Joan understood this and was sympathetic.  One day I told her that I really wanted to whistle at beautiful women.  She was like, "Why would you want to do that?" and I was like, "You, know, it isn't really about them.  It is just a desire to express my own sexuality."  And she was like, "Ooohhh, great, do it!"  So I took her advice, and it helped.  

Joan was someone you could go to the dark side with.  Laugh about it, a lot, and come back stronger.  It was a great honor to know her.






From Further Afield

I wonder if this dancer has been reading my blog.  He is certainly doing some interesting work, check out these two videos:   http://www.pbs.org/newshour/art/japanese-performance-art-celebrates-vulnerability/

Check out this cool project coming out of the Netherlands.  I've been taking a great interest in Nezha stories, this will eventually become a major writing project, but I'm reluctant to spill all the beans here on the blog.  https://vimeo.com/101789329

Speaking of writing, I sent off the "final" draft of the text for my book Possible Origins, to the editor.  I say "final" because I'm moving on to video story-boarding, but there is still work to be done.  I've been exploring all the images in Museum collections because I need quality images for the book, and for the video I'm working on about the hidden origins of Taijiquan.  

By the way, if anyone knows where to find high quality pre-or-early 20th Century images of Zhang Sanfeng (I have three so far from Shiu-hon, Wong (1993) Mortal or Immortal) or Dayu 大禹 (I have only have these two from the Wiki page), I would love to see them.  Images of Nezha are oddly easier to find, but if anyone encounters something great, particularly high quality mural images, let me know.

In reading Journey to the North (Bei Youji), one of the major canonization texts of China, usually called epic novels, I discovered a hidden meaning in the taijiquan form.  I hesitate to call this stuff "hidden" because once the right questions are asked it is all out in the open to see.  The theater traditions of Japan, Indian and China, all use whole body image-mime as a form of sign language; however, it is only "readable" if one has the right cultural background.  So the right question to ask about marital arts movement-postures is, what do they signify as language?  

There is an expression that gets repeated over and over in Journey to the North, which explains the movement in the taijiquan form call Jade Maiden Works the Shuttles. The expression from Journey to the North is: "The sun and moon rose and fell like the shuttles of a weavers loom."  The expression means, "a lot of time passed."  

There is a star constellation called Weaver Girl, that is paired with the Ox Herder-Boy constellation, both of which are associated with a story of love across rigid social strata.  But that was a dead end for trying to figure out the meaning of the movement because the Ox-herder Boy is not in the form, and it didn't seem likely that the Weaver Girl had anything to do with martial arts.

It was more promising to note that Jade Maidens are a form of muse in Daoist alchemy, something akin to Dakinis in Tibetan Buddhism.  And also that the term jade (yu) in Chinese cosmology can mean very old or very slow. The reason for this meaning is that it is possible to see the swirling liquid of qi transformation taking place in a piece of jade.  Jade is thus a window into a cycle of geological time that is too slow for humans to experience directly.  

But the expression from Journey to the North is a much better explanation.  The movement Jade Madien Works the Shuttles, is used as sign language to mean, "At this point in the story, a whole lot of time is passing."  Now we just have to figure out what happens in the taijiquan form right before and after this movement, so that we can identify the change. Is it a man growing old? a child growing up? a series of re-incarnations? a very long fight scene? or is it Zhang Sanfeng re-immerging as an immortal after cultivating the golden elixir (jindan) for several generations?  



Improvisational Theater Class: A Crooked Path to Enlightenment

I'm teaching a new class....

Improvisational Theater Class:  A Crooked Path to Enlightenment

Games, stage scenes, status games, playing with different types of offers, and developing a sense of what blocking is all about.  

Bio:  Scott Park Phillips studied with Keith Johnstone, one of the world’s leading experts on improvisational theater, at the impressionable age of fifteen.  After his encounters with Johnstone, Scott went on to study dance and martial arts, but he considers this time with Johnstone as profoundly influential to his training and teaching style.  Thirty-three years later he wants to return to this wonderfully fun art and share his depth of knowledge and play. 

RSVP and we will send you the address. Space is very limited, but inviting a friend is okay.

Weekly: Wednesday evenings, 7 PM - 9 PM

North Boulder, CO

Donations accepted  


Read Books!

This is a difficult book but helped me think through a bunch of issues around Chinese opera performers as ritual experts, prostitutes, ideal lovers, the worst possible marriage, orphans and fighting masters.  

The Way of the Mask, by Claude Levi-Strauss 


This is a great book by one of my teachers, thoughtful discussions about martial arts and lots of cool weapons drills.

The Liar the Cheat and the Thief: Deception and the Art of Sword Play, by Maija Soderholm 


This is a great collection of essays.

Perfect Bodies: Sports, Medicine and Immortality Ancient and Modern, edited by Vivienne Lo


This is what I'm reading now, Canonization rituals!:

Guo, Xiaoting, active 18th century

Adventures of the Mad Monk Ji

Xu, Zhonglin, 16th century

Feng shen yan yi (Canonization of the Gods)

Journey to the North: An Ethnohistorical Analysis and Annotated Translation of the Chinese Folk Novel Pei-Yu Chi (Bei Youji) translation by Gary Seaman.


Closing the Third Eye

One of the enlightenment goals of Daoism is closing the third eye. Many religious systems actively try to open the third eye because it is associated with intuition and wisdom.  Daoists don't openly reject intuition and wisdom--both are good for party tricks and playing the stock market--but most of the time we don't need them, especially not before I've had my morning coffee.  

In the old days, the third eye had many practical uses, like seeing what was happening far away.  It took a lot of effort and was unreliable, but using it made people feel powerful.  That is why Daoists close the third eye, the two regular eyes are unreliable enough without adding intuition and wisdom into the mix.

Now-a-days, everyone has a smart phone or a computer close at hand.  Using these devices opens the third eye. You can ask any question, create any fantasy, see any event or map, and know what is going on anywhere.  It is not just that you can hear a few voices in your head--you can hear any voice!  

The basic instructions for Daoist meditation can be summarized like this: if the third eye opens, close it.

Closing the third eye used to be easy.  Most people wanted to open their third eye, but it took so much effort, concentration and practice; so most people didn't bother. That's why some religions valorized it.  Historically, Daoism was responding to the excesses of fasting, drug use, and sleep deprivation strongly associated with opening of the third eye.  Daoist doctrine, beginning with the Daodejing, saw this as a waste of life and vitality (qi and jing).  

Today, third eye powers are common, and used for so many different purposes; if someone wants you to believe in their religion, say the Second Coming, global warming, gender indeterminance, or that it is good to marry a piece of furniture--they will show you this with their third eye! See?  Just watch this video or visit this news sight.

The first Daoist precept--explained by the founder of Religious Daoism, Zhang Daoling, the original teacher, in about 50 CE--"Don't interfere with people's direct connection to heaven."  In other words, if people want to believe something, let them.  You just close your third eye and see things as they are.  

Closing the third eye is becoming harder.  Socially people are expected to keep it open as a form of communication, and to stay informed.  Having an open third eye is so easy that most people become addicted to it at some point.  This is extremely draining.  People actually say things like, "Do you remember how you used to find your friends at a crowded public event?"  People now use their third eyes for all sorts of things which their regular eyes are perfectly capable of achieving.  


Now let me explain a Daoist method for closing the third eye.  Use your third eye in reverse, suck in and dissolve the world.  While doing standing meditation, look out into the distance and suck everything into the third eye, send it down to the feet, and merge it with the firmness and darkness of the earth.  The need for the third eye will be eliminated because everything in the environment will be present.  Simply find chaos and embrace "not knowing."

Over time, the effect of closing the third eye is that the body becomes empty of all intent, old injuries resolve, and one's natural (child-like) ability to balance incoming forces is restored.  

Having an open third eye drains the kidneys, injures the lower back, and causes the head to pitch forward. The modern explanation for this problem is that people are spending too much time staring at a screen.  The traditional explanation is that when the third eye is open, you can't see the hungry demons sneaking up to chomp on your kidneys and nibble on your neck.

In closing I would like to say a few words about standing meditation.  I think it is the core of internal martial arts practice.  People often talk about the difficulty they have meditating, the difficulties they have starting or maintaining a practice. I have always found this puzzling.  Perhaps it is because people are trying to open their third eye?  This might explain why people find it difficult.  

My definition of meditation is: pick a time and place to practice.  The time is one hour, the same time of day, everyday.  The place is a quiet place, a space where you won't be disturbed or distracted; the same place everyday.  If a practice has some other characteristics, it might be better to call it something other than meditation so people don't get confused.  

Fun personal note of no particular significance:  I've been standing still since I was 20.  In my 24th year of practice (four years ago) I passed a significant marker: having stood still for the equivalent of a whole year. 


The Darkest Skill

The best skill is the darkest, the most deceitful, the most illusory, the most invisible.  A guy gets stabbed in the back and doesn't even notice until it is too late.

Which is better skill:

  • You know that I uprooted you and you feel my power; or you don't know I uprooted you and you don't feel anything coming?
  • Causing pain; or causing damage without immediate pain?  
  • You feel me attack and you move; or I move you, but you think you moved yourself? 
  • You don't feel me attack so you don't move; or you move yourself, but you think I moved you?

In each case, the latter is better skill.

Technique is amoral, but the use of technique is always moral (good or bad).  That's why the teaching of technique needs moral context.  A dark technique is only dark because we associate it with social deviance, the bad guys; the actual technique itself can be used for righteous action, given the right context.  

Correctly conceptualized, the subject of Internal Martial Arts is the exploration of the interactions between social-dominance reactions and the perception (and misperception) of the underlying physics. The biggest obstacle to learning internal martial arts is the word "internal" itself. Martial techniques don't happen in the body, just like thoughts don't happen in the body.  This odd confusion between inside and outside leads people to look for power generated from inside the body.  It also leads to unproductive modernist discussions of body-mechanics. Perfect body mechanics should follow from purposes, not lead them.  In fact, there are only two powers: gravity and momentum.  Body mechanics basically comes down to one thing, how does it all work together?  

There is a story in the Daoist classic, Zhuangzi, about three thiefs.  The low level thief practices picking the locks on peoples luggage; the master thief steals the whole bag and hopes the luggage holds together during his escape. The true master thief, however, uses charm to take control of the whole country and then just collects taxes.  

If we are the same size and I want you to believe in my superior skills without causing damage, that is going to be a confidence game.  I'm going to need a trick of some kind.  If I have removed the automatic, monkey-dance-I-dominate-you signals out of my movement,  I will have to trick you into submitting.  I think this is the secret history of a lot of internal martial arts stuff.  

If I am using my dark skills, I have the option of causing real damage, but you are not going to know that.  I'm not going to signal it.  By not signaling my capacity to harm, most people will not feel justified in trying to hurt me; they may not believe I have the skills.  

Convincing people of capacity to harm, is a different skill set than actual capacity to harm.  

There is so much deception in the world of martial arts teaching.  

That is why I think theatrical skills are so important.  Fake dominance and submission skills are extremely useful in social conflict.  Is vanity the root of all human problems?  Perhaps.  That's why there are lots of Daoist precepts meant to bring awareness to vanity, so that one can practice discarding it.  But I teach my students to develop maximum explosive vanity!  I want them to be adept at displaying hotness and coolness!  Peppy-le-Pew meets 007.  Strong and heroic on the outside, empty on the inside.  This is what is meant by balancing yin and yang.  Being the master of one's own vanity is one of the keys of self-empowerment.


Reverse Breathing

What exactly is reverse breathing?  Is it actually baby-like breathing?  Do the kidneys actually "grasp" the qi from the lungs? Does the mingmen (lower back) expand to suck air in?  Does the bellybutton go in with the inhale or in with the exhale?  And what does it actually do? Why breath in reverse?

It is actually quite simple.

Normal breathing happens in the lungs, the diaphragm goes down, the ribs open to the sides, and the bellybutton doesn't change much.  When it is conscious, we just think "suck in" and "breath out."

Reverse breathing is when we move the body first, movement forces the breath inward, and then movement forces it outward. The breath begins by expanding the ribs to the sides. Most people can get this far on the first try.  

Cheetahs can run fast because ligament structures connect their diaphragm to the action of their legs, which passively forces huge amounts of air into their lungs.  Humans have this ability too, but it requires a particular engagement of the legs.  It is more than a simple bending of the knees or squatting.  To make this process conscious requires relaxing the legs and sinking downward while paying attention to the passive effects on the breath, and then playing with the result until it can be coordinated with the active-conscious opening of the ribs.  It isn't hard.

What is challenging is the exhale.  Once the lungs are expanded, an autonomic or habitual forcing of the air outward tends to take control.  So the inhale is "reversed," but the exhale is just normal.

To get fully reversed breathing, the spatial mind must initiate the inhale from outside the body.  (Regular readers of this blog will be familiar with this idea.)  In this case a simple way to proceed is to look at the canopy of a tree above one's head.  Imagine that the leaves are breathing, going up and down, and out and in.  The visualization must sync up with the actual movement of the body.  

By this method it is possible to delay the exhale without creating compression.  The spatial mind (outside the body) can easily delay the exhale if it is more than six feet away from one's actual body.  If the spatial mind is too close to the actual body, it will force a compression of the ribs.  Compression involuntarily forces the breath outwards.  

Anyway, that's it, that is reverse breathing.

Why do we want to avoid the involuntary compression of the ribs? There are probably a lot of reasons, I will try to address a few. First, that exhale is used to solidify our identity, and the goal of acting and martial arts (as enlightenment) is to free oneself from any fixed identity--especially identity fixed by rigidity in the physical body.  The second, is that communicative social-methods of communicating power, all tend to rely on this forced compression exhale.  We want simple power, not socially expressive power. Socially expressive power is used for domination and submission.

That is what I have to say on the subject, but I would like to open it up to others who may have something to contribute here.

Here is a wonderful article about, vagal tone and the vagus nerve: http://mosaicscience.com/story/hacking-nervous-system

Vagal tone is measured by the ratio of the heart rate during the inhale over the heart rate during exhale.  A slower heart rate during exhale indicates greater vagal tone.  

Vagal tone is associated with a better functioning immune system. So that is the big question, how does reverse breathing effect vagal tone?  And I'm sure readers can think up all sorts of related questions.

Go for it!


Perhaps a little more contextual explanation will help explain the confusions about reverse breathing.  In the early twentieth century in China, there was a big push to medicalize Chinese healing practices.  Concepts of health were as much about religion as martial arts were; that is, they were a single subject.  Both were squeezed into anatomy and physiology.  The Red Cross and the YMCA were models used in China to make tradition seem more modern.  Reverse breathing was probably connected to Daoism, and Daoism was trying to make itself into a philosophical practice by discarding content related to gods.  This was framed as a search for "essence" or "refinement," this may have made the practices more accessible (especially in the West), but it also diminished them.  

Originally there were two gods, Heng and Ha.  Not a lot of research has been done on them, but I suspect they were weather gods (technically a type of "thunder god"), one who breathed in "heng" and one who breathed out "ha."  Naturally people knew about these two gods because there were comic stage routines based on the hilarity of someone who can only breath in or only breath out. Somehow this relates to reverse breathing--medicalized versions of Heng and Ha as "exercises" can be found in numerous modern qigong books.  


Here is a cool tid bit I just grabbed from Chinese History Forum:

As for the name "General Heng and Ha 哼哈二将", they originated from Ming dynasty novel Fengsheng Yanyi 《封神演义》 (The Investitures of the Gods). The author based them on two Buddhist door guardians. Both of them were fierce and brave. They generally became Chinese folks figures because of this novel [Editor's note: most likely the "novel" is a collection of rituals that already existed].

One was called Zheng Lun 郑伦. He was able to spit out white breath from his nose to kill the enemy. The other was called Chen Qi 陈奇. He was able to spit out yellow breath from the mouth to kill the enemy. [Editor's note: Extreme nose phlegm and halitosis?]

You can see these figures in many Buddhist temples of China [Editor: Most of these were made in the last ten years]. Shown below the figures outside the door of Buddhist temple Eastern Mountain in Beijing 北京東嶽廟 [Editor: A key temple connected to Fengshen Yanyi, and most likely the history of Baguazhang.]

General Heng from Chuxiong temple (楚雄土地庙)General Ha from Chuxiong temple (楚雄土地庙)