Weakness With A Twist 

Internal Martial Arts, Theatricality, and Daoist Ritual Emptiness


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)


Ghost Month

Just wanted to warn people that ghost month starts tomorrow.


I'm now on a strict blog-every-Monday schedule, mark your calendars accordingly.  

And I got a new MacBook Air.  Old one was making ghost sounds.


What is Power?

People ask me, "Scott, why do you hate power so much?"

I don't actually hate power, but every type of power obscures access to other types of power.  Readers may respond that certain types of power can be added together to create composite powers, so it isn't necessarily true that one type of power obscures access to another.  But even with composite powers, it is smart to separate them into distinct forces, so they can be perfected individually. 

The primary method of Daoist martial arts is to reduce power, or to discard as many types of power as possible.  What is left when power is discarded?  Mass, structure, perception, awareness, balance, the capacity to change, density, fluidity, mobility, pliancy, and expression.  

Daoist martial-theater uses expression to imitate the appearance of power, both as patterns of movement, and as techniques for moving other people's bodies.  But power is not necessary, the techniques and appearances are all illusions of the theater.  I may look tough but I'm actually empty.  My toughness is fake.  I my look wimpy, but my wimpiness is an illusion, I'm actually tough.  (Fake things can still have real world effects.)

A pattern of toughness which is held as stored power, even if it is just a mental strategy, will limit the range of one's expression.   The key is to stop carrying around strategies for domination.  The simple effort of carrying around ideas about power, obscures access to the purest, most innate forms of power.  

Thus, the daily project of Daoist martial-theater becomes the practice of cleaning or clearing out power from the body.  To do this one must fully comprehend each type of power.  At first this seems like a paradox, because one will not be able to fully comprehend any type of power unless he or she practices using it.  In the Taijiquan Classics, this practice is actually called dongjin, literally: comprehending power.

The implication is that once power is fully comprehended it is no longer needed.  This needs further explanation.  

There are countless types of power used in Chinese martial arts, some of them obvious, some hidden. Generally the term jin is used to denote all these types of power, while the term jing is used to denote just the physical body without intent.  So jin are all the ways intent is used to move jing.  

Daoism's golden elixir practice (called jindan) has been a constant of Chinese culture for a couple thousand years.  It uses the idea of qi as the intermediary between shen (the spatial mind) and jing (the physical body). Shen moves jing, but only in directly, qi is like a buffer which is released from jing whenever intent in the body is reduced.

For example, if I slap a student in the face, qi will float off of the student's face.  Whether he or she associates the slap with love, or hate, or a comedy routine, is a process of the imagination, we call that shen.  Theatrical content is created by simultaneously linking the experience of the qi (we call it heat or "a stinging sensation") to the location of the slap and the imagination.  Qi is the intermediary between jing and shen (the "sting" is the intermediary between the physical body and the imagination).  

That is what we call in Daoism jindan, the golden elixir of immortality.  

To develop this, one has to re-learn how to move.   Although cosmo-physiologically speaking, this is our original state, our self-empowered predator state (before we became appendages of our tools).  

The process is different for everyone because we each come to the practice with different types of developed power.

Each type of jin (by definition: using intent within the body) will make the body more dense in some way or other-- if it is practiced as power.   But if a type of jin is simply practiced as a pattern of movement expression, without attempting to accumulate power, it has a cleansing or purifying effect.

So one could say that every type of imaginable power fixes or cleans the physical body in some way, as long as it isn't used as power.

The cleaner the body (jing) becomes, the more readily qi is available as an intermediary.   And thus, the more readily, and expressively, the imagination can move the body. (Rory Miller's crowd is now calling this effect "plastic mind.")  

All those types of power become underlying integrity. This is most obvious with structure training, but is true for all type of power. This is very simple to explain in the case of "good" structure.  Once it is established it simply supports other movement, it does not need to be used in any direct way.

This is why, for instance, I teach the four basic taijiquan powers (peng, ji, lu and an) until students can move with them in a continuous flow; and then I have students drop them. They represent interior structure and efficiency. What I don't do is encourage students to perfect these powers as techniques past the point of being able to simply do them and identify them in themselves and others.

Once a type of power is established it can be used to clean the jing, to purify one's form. This is done by practicing power as movement patterns using only the spatial mind, with no intent in the body.

Actually, the body can be cleaned by simpler movements, like shrinking and expanding.  The golden elixir of immortality (jindan) practice does not consider martial power development essential.  However, students of martial arts who fail to develop power(s) will likely lack the ability to apply advanced spatial mind connections to fighting games or against tricky opponents.

So go ahead and develop power, just practice not using it.  


For reference, see the Daodejing, chapter 28, The Uncarved Block.


From and Emptiness in Art

One of the major obstacles to seeing martial arts as theater and religion is that North Asia and the West have different aesthetic dichotomies.  The West's dichotomies became international during the 20th century, so we often refer to those dichotomies as "modern," rather than Western.*  

The primary aesthetic dichotomy in the West is form and function; in North Asia it is form and emptiness.  The difference is visceral; one is a tool, the other is a cloud.  

Form and function is the notion that there is an organic reciprocal feedback loop between form and function.  Thus, the utility of an object determines its form.  And form changes as utility changes.  The need for an object to perform with variation creates variation in form.

But if we are looking at a "form" for which there are countless affordances, this dichotomy is not a good fit. 

For instance we can look at the use of self-mortification by Tangki in Taiwan and South East Asia. (YouTube Video by Fabian C. Graham)(pay-option by Margret Chen)  Why are they doing it? What is the purpose?  What is the meaning? If that question uses the form and function dichotomy, then we will want to know the function specifically and we will keep looking at the form expecting it to fill that function. But those explanations are often trivial or dismissive, or perhaps romantically reverent.  But that approach makes the Tangki's look crazy or stupid.  

If one asks the same question about purpose and meaning but framed by the aesthetic notion of form and emptiness, the results are quite different. The form is simply empty by default, we don't ask "what is its utility?" we ask, "what kind of meanings and purposes could it possibly fill?"  We look at the meanings all together. Physiology, warfare, entertainment, healing, magical trance---some of it is just labeling, some of it is a weak association which ties it to other cultural forms with stronger resonance, some of it is felt, some of it is fantasy, some of it is emotional, some of it is indeed rational functionality.  But it isn't utility that defines it.  It is defined by it's affordances, preferably infinite affordances, unbounded purposes. This is what the aesthetic of form and emptiness does to art and expression.

If we look at the work of Monet, we see his intentions; he wanted to accurately represent light and was willing to give up figurative accuracy to achieve a specific type of utility. It is utterly clear. It was made with form and function in mind, so it follows that logic.

If we look at his work with the form and emptiness dichotomy in mind, we see something different.  There is automatically religious resonance there--the light of god--nostalgia for farm life and all that implies politically, this water invokes water spirits (hidden nagas), as fengshui the watery image cools the room, and the light's reflections slice through psychic demons or conflicting emotions.

Try looking at form as just form, with no content.  Content can be infinite and utterly transcend form.

Now try thinking about martial arts this way.  


Some credit goes to Sophie Volpp for getting me thinking along these lines.

Hat tip to Douglas Farrer, for the Margret Chan article linked above, and for his discussion of great martial arts movements taught with the wrong application: he calls it "captivation," being stuck in broken logic.  

And thanks to Fabian C. Graham, who has been shooting fantastic documentary footage of Chinese rituals (I met him at the Daoist Conference in Los Angeles in 2008, where he showed a film about how to open the eyes of a god.)

*Note: I'm making an argument about characteristics of culture, not the outer edges of what subgroups or individuals might be thinking.


Self-Defense Dance Styles

 A few hundred years ago, martial arts may have had a self-defense component and it may be recoverable.  But few martial arts classes teach self-defense directly.  Dance can solve this problem.

Self-defense involves situational awareness, scenario training, practice overcoming social-emotional barriers, verbal articulation skills, applying legal knowledge; and context specific movement skills for escaping, scaling force, and neutralizing a threat.

Here is my list of people who teach that: Marc MacYoung, Rory Miller, S.P.E.A.R, IMPACT, and especially check out Protective Offense. There are probably lots of individual martial arts schools that emphasize self-defense as a moral position, but unless they are teaching all the skills I listed above I wouldn't put them on such a list.  (Please feel free to add to the list in the comments below.)

Martial arts as we know them today, did not develop to teach self-defense, certainly not women's self-defense.  I enjoy trying to re-discover and invent self-defense in traditional martial arts.  However, if we want people to develop self-defense skills, martial arts are not the obvious choice.  Martial arts are often a poor choice because they condition complexity. Self-defense should also represent a break from the long training curves of most martial arts classes--self-defense should unleash people from hierarchies of learning and empower them immediately.  

"If he gives you any trouble, Waltz him out the door."  

If the problem is that men or women have been socialized to be nice (or compliant and caring), then the solution is to socialize them to be violent.  The best way to do this is with what I call the "I'm playing" hormones.  The "I'm playing" hormones feel familiar to almost everyone, people say to themselves, "I feel like a kid again!"  

One of the more common forms of violence people encounter is a social situation with a very badly behaved drunk, horny, or angry dominant partner or family member.  It turns out that statistics on domestic abuse are gender equal, just as many men beat women as women beat men (I had heard this from Marc MacYoung, but it was recently verified in a conversation I had at a party with a social worker who works with domestic violence advocacy state-wide in Colorado.)

There are two skill sets that were well known in the 19th century for dealing with this type of violence in many parts of the world:  1)  Improvisational theater, and  2)  social dances like the Waltz and the Samba.  

Good theater skills will teach one how to change the scripts and the social dynamics.

Learning to dance with the assumption that some of the people you dance with are going to be dangerous a--holes, will quickly enable the development of these skills:


  1. breaking holds
  2. striking vulnerable areas with whole body momentum
  3. taking control of momentum for making an escape 
  4. breaking the freeze 
  5. injuring and escaping from a threat who attacks from behind  


There are problems with dance "classes."  Social-dance classes are often about courting, feeling awkward or "doing it right,"  none of which are helpful for self-defense.  But the original movements of these dances were designed from the beginning for self-defense so the only thing that has to change is the intention.  The methods don't need modification the way they do in martial arts, because these historic dances all developed from martial games, they are already designed for self-defense. Just take out the modern inhibitions and add intent.  

Waltz his face into the wall.  Fun.

Two hundred years ago in Europe, if a person wanted martial skills he or she went to a dance master--who also taught etiquette.

The other half of self-defense is improvisational theater; developing, changing, taking control of, breaking, dropping, and re-writing social scripts on the spot.  One version of this I call "meet the Buddha," and involves a lot of personal insults and complements.  I then progress to slapping games, my goal is to make slapping joyful again.  

I got a chance to work with this material during the workshops I taught in Portland, in the UK, and in Amsterdam--and it was awesome.  Video in the works.  


How Fast is the Nervous System?

I just saw this article and I thought I'd post it.  It is about how fast the mind works.  There isn't much there but it serves to get the conversation going.  Many martial arts tricks and high-level techniques work by getting the "dupe" to respond on a slower nerve pathway then the "trickster" who triggered the reaction.  It can also work the other way, get the dupe to respond so fast they don't even realize they have already responded to the trickster creating an illusion of enormous power.  

Here is the wiki page explaining it:  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nerve_conduction_velocity

I also recommend the book The Illusion of Conscious Will, by Daniel Wengner, it covers this and many other similar subjects.  It is directly applicable to martial arts.  


Chicago this Weekend

This weekend, I'm teaching again at an advanced year-long Shiatsu Program in Chicago run by Michael DeAgro.  This is exciting stuff, I get to translate ideas about bodywork into movement training and personal practice.  The conversations, the depth of knowledge, the spontaneous interactions, and the experience base of the students, is inspiring.    

I teach the mornings of July 10th, 11th, and 12th.  If anyone in the Chicago area would like to meet with me for a chat or for a private lesson in the afternoon of one of those days, please send me a message.  


Cardiff Keynotes

Here are some links to the Cardiff Martial Arts Conference Keynotes.


Watching video lectures is hard for me personally, but they are all excellent!  If I had to pick a favorate it is the one by D. S. Farrer on the changes in anthropology.  Farrer has almost single handedly invented the field of Martial Arts Anthropology.  All of the lectures attempt to make bridges between different focuses of inquiry, showing broad possibilities for new ways of thinking about martial arts.