Taiji art honoring Grandmaster Chen Qingzhou

In 2015 when Grandmaster Chen Qingzhou passed away, I knew how I wanted to honor his life: by merging two of his beloved artforms, Taiji and calligraphy painting. After two years, I finally found the right artist. 

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Before his martial arts school, the yet-to-be Grandmaster made his living as a calligrapher, seal carver, and tiger painter. Who at those festivals might have passed by a young Chen Qingzhou and his table of seals, scrolls and paintings without notice? Who stopped to recognize his budding talent? The grandmasters of tomorrow are among us. They are out there, making their living. Just like he did.

Do teachers realize the legacy they leave behind for the generations beyond their lifetime? I never trained with him, yet I was so moved by his story that I wanted a physical reminder of his perseverance and his conviction. If you'd also like a letterpress print, you can order them here

Julia Child's souffles prepared me for taijiquan

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With the holiday feasting lately, I realized that, of all things, souffle-making was part of my childhood "training" that prepped me well for taiji - which I found in my 20s. My mom had a side hustle as a caterer for large, in-home dinner parties. It was a BIG deal whenever she brought out Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking cookbook. I watched her handwhip souffles, and when she felt I was ready, she let me whip and fold on my own.

My mom said that some use an electric beater and mixer, but Julia Child wouldn't, so we wouldn't either. Just like taiji. No short cuts. Handwhipping the egg whites into stiff white peaks was the toughest step. "No stopping! The air will escape!" Too much beating and the egg whites collapse. All joints along the arm - wrist, elbow, shoulder - should remain loose. Gripping the whisk too tightly leads to cramping. Sound familiar? She even overwhipped a set to show me what that meant. The puffed white "melt" back into liquid. A souffle can collapse at any point - during whipping, folding, or baking. It is not a mindless recipe. Lose focus as it bakes and you might miss the peak rise and serve deflated, sunken sponge cakes.

I worked with my mom this way from ten years old through my teenage years. Now, when I read Julia Child's cookbook for myself, I can better appreciate what it must have took for her to document all her pointers so that French cooking would be available to the masses. What touches me about her work is that she did not compromise or water down the cuisine. There is no short cut to a coq au vin or bourguignon. Often in taiji class, new students will might ask about a shorter form (aka 24 postures) or a shorter system of joint rotations (less than 20 min?), and wonder why the Lao Jia "mother form" given to absolute beginners is 75 postures. Julia Child's book believed that readers were capable of complexity and detail. My taiji lineage prides itself on preserving the "Old Frame" of Chen Taijiquan - and also believes "taiji belongs to the world." Julia Child was her own Grandmaster. She wrote a cookbook that transformed American home cooking - one that publishers didn't want to print because it was too big and too expensive. Thankfully, one lucky publisher recognized it's masterpiece. Her story gives me faith in transforming taiji practice for Americans too. ;)

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Relaxing is harder than it looks.

Last week, Chris Burnett of Green Dragon Tai and QiGong in Cleveland, OH visited my teacher's classes and put together a real informative series on taiji martial applications. They review some of the same applications from the spring workshop series - showing how even the smallest movements within the postures have a purpose. My first thought practicing these? This. Must. Not. Die. These pretty much sealed the deal for me, and made me feel like I was part of centuries' worth of wisdom. So I'm so grateful to Chris for capturing these taiji martial applications on tape! Though I wouldn't advocate for video as the primary means of learning any movement based practice, I do think it's perfect for:  

  1. Serving as supplement for current students and help them recall and reinforce what is covered in live class.
  2. Demonstrating the intricacies and sophistication of taijiquan that is not widely known to the "uninitiated" and awaken new curiosity for martial arts. 

The videos highlight a taiji principle that is so essential, yet has been so difficult for me to grasp and perform. My teacher mentions that the quality of high level skill (1:15-5:08) is to be " just like water, energy comes in, it dissolves. Neutralizes." Training to the point where the body has achieved a natural state of fluidity and relaxed movement - martial applications will come out instinctively.

That road to "instinct" is a long one, learning the applications, one by one. We see the applications presented in the videos in "If... , then..." format. If the attacker does "this," then you can do "that." Chris points out not getting too reliant on a "brain bank" of postures for possible responses though. That systematic, intellectual thinking is ineffective and restrictive. Go one way, get stuck. Go another way, get stuck again. It just takes too long. Don't stiffen. Don't force. A common correction my teacher gave - and that I noticed myself giving my students too, "Relax the elbow." 

Unfortunately, relaxing doesn't come as "naturally" as it sounds. Taiji re-wires evolutionary survival instincts. Fight, flight, freeze. Auto-pilot responses meant to keep us safe. Relaxing is not on that list. Relaxing is difficult because it's scary. Relaxing is vulnerable, leaving oneself open to... anything. If your push hands partner is withdrawn or frozen or forceful, let them know gently. They might be scared. You might be scared. Taiji class is our safe simulator. Help them relax and say it's okay. I *still* need to remind myself to breathe. My hands might be doing the round and round push hands motions, but I don't have that essential quality of water. I've probably achieved thawing and dripping to the ground. At best. :)

I try not to stress too much about not relaxing. Haha. I just recall my favorite Yin Yang paradox! If relaxing is vulnerable, it is also just as powerful. To paraphrase my teacher: relaxing opens and frees obstruction; no obstruction means unrestricted; and no restrictions means faster movements! Train until it's natural. That's what makes taiji awesome. If you can throw off your opponents with riddles like this, you won't need to fight at all! ;) 

Train hard to relax!

Why I quit the gym.

Okay, no, not really. Taiji and fitness. I have grappled on whether they are friend or foe. Both are related, yet not completely complementary either. I've just needed to get clear on what I wanted from each, and not conflate the two. For years, my regular gym routine consisted of:

  • Elliptical cardio (15-25 min)
  • Free weights (arm curls)
  • Compound movements (lunge curls, shoulder press squats)
  • Machines (presses, pulls)
  • Basic TRX 
  • Floor exercises (stretches, extensions)

These felt good, and I saw results: weight loss and muscle gain. A few years ago, I couldn't kneel into a proper lunge. Working with a trainer on lunges and squats progressively to proper form then with added weight were instrumental in activating the same muscles in the pelvic/psoas area that make it possible to perform my kua-weight-shifting in taiji. 

However, over the past six months, I've gradually downgraded this gym routine - so that my allocated time for to exercise could be filled with more and more taiji repetitions. Depending on the movement and pacing, I know my body can do anywhere between a 45-90 minute set, and I'd rather have more of those minutes spent on taiji. So now, my taiji "workouts" look like this:

  • Silk-reeling exercises (warm-up for 30 min)
  • Forms (30-60 min)

 So how do these results compare? Ten minutes of one focused form repetition gets my heart rate up. A second 10-minute set will result in needing to wipe sweat from my face. At my best, I've done six 10-minute sets on my own (not including the group taiji marathons at are three, non-stop hours of 15 reps). Taiji reps also improved muscle tone in my thighs and glutes even better than gym exercises. My theory behind this is that taiji requires supporting one's entire body weight on one leg, not two - with constant shifting back and forth between one leg to the other - as opposed to weighted squats in which body weight plus extra free weights are supported by both legs. So, whereas weights allow you to focus a targeted muscle, taiji works them in clumps - depending on the posture. Taiji isn't a practice to achieve a sculpted physique or an efficient method of weight loss because of the length of a thorough practice.

So why does taiji "win" for me enough to cut my gym exercises? Because, for me, taiji works these particular muscles:

  • Awareness
  • Focus / Intention
  • Centeredness / Balance

I'm not completely knocking the gym - nor am I saying that the gym can't work these three areas I've named. It's just that for me, taiji does it better and with elegance. I still keep my gym membership and go on occasion, when I know I'm not in a focused mood or when I'm craving high octane tunes. I consider the gym a supplement, but not the main event. Sometimes you just have to pick. 

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Internal martial art means internal eating

I've been experimenting with my eating. I've gone from a fitness/weight loss orientation to a healing focus. A year ago, I was eating to reduce fat and gain muscle, and it's true: what you give is what you get - because it worked! For three solid months, I snacked strategically to fuel my workouts, counted calories, and portioned my macros (carbs, fats, proteins). I could see a noticeable difference in muscle tone, but I was still disappointed in my lack of taiji progress because this eating regiment was also tied to a gym routine of cardio and weights. I was still prone to migraines and menstrual cramping, and after experiencing one really bad weeklong fever, I returned to my acupuncturist*. Here are the changes I've made. They are based on my body's constitution according to traditional Chinese medicine and based on what I know how to cook and what I like and trial and error (that is all to say that there is no "one size fits all" and that what works for me most likely will not work for you):

  • Green fruit smoothies (sounds healthy) --> Rice porridges, miso soup, kimchee (happy gut)
  • Protein-heavy (muscle gain) --> Seaweeds (Korean birthday beef/seaweed soup especially - enriches blood)
  • Raw fruits and salads (low in calories, "diet" food) --> cooked foods
  • Curries and chilis (because I'm Thai) --> Teriyaki sauces/roasted veggies over baked salmon, steamed fish, poke bowls, roasted chicken, noodle soups (all to mitigate my excess internal "heat" and "dryness"). I only eat spicy "socially" now. 
  • Flash cooking (stir-fries) --> Slow cooking (soups, roasts, bakes)

I am happier about how I feed myself these days. I don't feel deprived, and most importantly, I feel fed. I am not strict about these "rules." They are just guidelines. I know my body simply feels better this way - not too limited, too hungry, or too full. I am seeing noticeable gains in the "offset" of migraines and cramping. If I can decrease my reliance on Tylenol, Exedrin, and Ibuprofen, then yes, no-brainer. Learning from my mom, side effects after decades of even over-the-counter medicines are no joke, and I need my organs stronger, not weaker and wrecked, as I age. Another unexpected benefit of reducing spicy food is that my skin is not as dry as it used to be. ;)

The trade-off: I have gained some weight. But the fact that I was still dissatisfied with my taiji progress despite last year's weight loss (and muscle gain) tells me that weight loss just wasn't all that important to begin with. Now I know I'm out to find my totally-integrated, taiji-supporting lifestyle. My looks or physique will just react accordingly. 

The real lesson is that my new way of eating fits better with my chosen form of movement - the "fitness" way was too far from my natural tastes, and distracted me from my ultimate goal of deepening in taiji. Taiji is an internal martial art (the originating and generating of power from within), so its fitting that my nutritional focus should be internally-focused on my organs as well, rather than external, physique goals. 

 

*Ana Hortillosa, LAc, practices out of Berkeley, CA.

 

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Month of a Thousand Kicks

I have been shifting and refining how I practice quite a bit since the start of 2017 - and I have a backlog of learnings to post in upcoming weeks. Some of the topics will veer away slightly from the actual taiji techniques because I am realizing that in order to make a practice central to one's life, the surrounding lifestyle also impacts the results, for better or worse. Like planets orbiting a sun, or as my teacher puts it, total integration. 

First, I have decided to stop offering my weekly class. I really struggled with this one. Teaching has been an amazing way to learn and cement many taiji breakthroughs of my own. I'm proud of setting up my own class - from finding a venue, working with committed students who complete the form, to making form corrections. However, I am aiming for depth and intensity of my own practice, so that I can make clear and cleaner explanations of each posture for my "future" students. 

This past month, quite spontaneously, I decided to do a Month of a Thousand Kicks. It was inspired by the film title, Valerian and the City of Thousand Planets, which I have yet to see. There is a particular section of the form that contains six kicks - and is easily glossed over. It's easy to just move through that section "not really trying" and half-asked because of the level of balance, control, and precision it requires. Furthermore, the generation of momentum and power is an aspect of taiji that is often "excused" due to the prevailing image of taiji as gentle, low-impact movements for "old people in the park." All this, of course, depends on the practitioner and their reasons for taking up the sport (relaxation, fitness, mindfulness) as well as one's physical condition.

So what did I learn after doing 1,000 kicks? I don't want to stop! These kicks have been an enigma to me, so allowing myself to focus solely on their execution felt luxurious. With each session, the slaps to my kicks were getting louder and louder. The unwanted side effect was the self-inflicted bruising on my feet and ankles, but they were fine with follow-up icing and honestly made me feel pretty bad-ass. I learned a lot about the lead-in and out to kicking: I don't need to exaggerate my transitions or circular movements. These create too much vulnerability (too big a target) and cost me the timing of a precise hand slap to my kick (big circles take too long).

Here is my final session with Po the Kung Fu Panda (mural by Dragon School). Or head to my Instagram feed to see videos of my kick sets.

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Taiji isn't just "nice to have"

This week, I asked a favor of my coworker, "Could you be my taiji photographer during lunch break?" Our office is a couple blocks from Oakland Chinatown - where the Dragon School initiative has some irresistible, powerful dragon murals. 

So as everyone else was headed to lunch or on a grocery run, we were positioned in front of the dragons, as I posed in the, haha, "Ground Hacking Dragon" posture. At our second stop, my photographer was leaning against the door of a parked car in order to frame the shot. Then, an old man approached to put his groceries in his trunk. "Uh oh," I said, thinking that he's about to get irritated by these "youngsters" getting in his way to take their stupid photos! I pushed my luck - maybe he'd be patient so that we wouldn't have to start over - so I quickly got into my pose as my friend took the photo.

"Oh!!!!" the 'uncle' exclaimed. His aloof expression went into utter surprise and delight! He started talking very fast in Cantonese - all I could catch were the words "pretty" and "tai kek." I laughed with him in between photos. My friend and I were both amused at his enthusiasm when just moments ago we thought we were in trouble. He got out his phone, asking my friend to take a photo for him too. 

Moments like this are validation for me. I get discouraged having a practice that friends my age don't share. They get it and support it, but it's certainly not a "trend" like drop-in yoga or the latest fitness craze. My childhood was been full of traditional arts, and I do lose sleep at the thought of what the next generation will lose if these practices don't make it another 30 years. I don't think it will be easy, but I do believe taiji and other "ancient arts" have their place in the modern world, yes, for health and vitality, but also for the real big stuff like world peace.   

So it's moments like this - the unassuming 'uncle' taking joy in watching young folks take pictures of taiji that reminds me why I do it. For him, I was doing something unlikely. No doubt that based on his reaction, it surprised him. I was all too familiar with this (sad) story. For second generation immigrant kids, traditional wisdom and arts aren't a priority. It's "nice to have" if and when you can. Which begs the question, if the wisdom of centuries is just "nice to have," what is the wisdom we are requiring the next generation to master if not THIS? Even without words or too much "intellectual analysis," with just his chuckles, that uncle I met on the street knows. Taiji isn't just nice to have. It's required. And now he knows its going to make it another generation beyond him. ;) 

Taiji is a science

I will say the most recent and final workshop was the most physically and mentally challenging of the four workshops, for me at least. 

What I took away this time is the power of listening for the conditions of any current push hands situation - listening for what is going on in me and in my partner. I realized how far I have to go, and frankly, I got really overwhelmed by the tensions I don't feel in myself, by the spiralling I don't know how to execute, and by how strong my kua isn't. I usually draw diagrams on the pointers I got from the day's postures right when I get home, but this time, I didn't. 

Tony shared a phrase from GM Chen Xiaowang, "Taiji is a science." So it may not be mystical but it is still a mystery for learners like me still on their way. So what is this science of taiji training? We have the basic combo of conditions: A love of taiji. Check. A qualified teacher. Check. Conditions to train without distraction. Check? Maybe not. (Please refer to Tony's teaching philosophy for more about GM Chen Qingzhou's conditions for good training.) Not to mention the full breadth of forms, meditations, and drills.

I know there is a long-tested method to learning that is to be respected, but if I am to get at the core of GM Chen Xiaowang's words, within the science lies the opportunity Tony has taught us to look for during martial applications. Through the workshop, he kept saying "look for the opportunities!" If taiji is a science, then good scientists make new discoveries. GM Chen Xiaowang's legacy will be his "discovery" of an inhuman ability to generate split-second, explosive power. So while some of us may never achieve the same jaw-dropping power of these masters (but who knows?) - there is the possibility that any of us can discover what our masters have not. The timing for taiji science is ripe! Nerdery is very much in fashion these days. ;) 

What I also got from the demos on Sunday is that if the posture you're trying to execute doesn't give you an advantage, then you don't have to stick to that posture - use another one! But following this non-formulaic approach to applications is 1) more difficult because there isn't a step-by-step guide that tells me what to do and let's me be lazy and 2) it's what turns the science back into an art!

I do not believe a tradition survives 20+ generations with a rigid adherence to teaching techniques that resist present-day circumstances and lifestyle - just as we have been taught that rigidity and resistance in our stance is the sure-fire path to defeat. Yes, I pay homage to the generation and wisdom that came before me. I know that Tony's mission is to preserve Laojia unchanged so that practitioners can continue to reap its health and martial benefits. But I guess my antidote to my overwhelm is this new opportunity - the chance to create modern-day training conditions and the opportunity for us to make many many Chen Taijiquan discoveries!!! 

Nothing happens "to spec"

I continue to be floored by the depth and intricacies of taiji. What I walked away with after Sunday's workshop was the idea that there are more directions to maneuver than you think, or expect. From my default perspective, I often assume there are only one or two ways I can go (block or run!), and I don't think too far beyond that. But with every move demonstrated, there is always another direction that I would never think to go. The excitement is in all the possibilities we didn't believe were available that are now within reach. Because who doesn't love having more
options?!

This next round of applications included hand twists, pushes, and FINALLY, the application behind the "shake" posture to release yourself from your opponent's grip!!! For the longest time I wondered if it was a block or strike, and its neither. What I learned from the previous workshop was that each application creates an opening to strike. During this workshop, I learned that a well-designed and executed application also creates a pretty severe jam in your opponent's mobility, and furthermore, most of their attempts to "escape" will intensify the jam you've created in them.

I am also learning to separate the form from the applications. By that I mean that nothing happens "to spec" in applications as it does when we repeat the form in a predicted, choreographed sequence. Tony reminded us these postures are not a script or "storyboard" that we should follow from A to B to C when doing applications. That kind of adherence costs you the adaptability that is required in a real-life, unpredictable conflict. Rather, referring to postures becomes a bank or buffet of options that can be called upon at any given time, but not in sequence.

To be honest, I still get nervous working in pairs - it's really an introvert's nightmare. When I first started taiji and was introduced to push hands, I cringed. I saw taiji practice as a relaxing place to be solitary in my own form - not engage with more people! The idea of working with someone else can be draining when I am already using up my energy correcting my own moves, let alone trying read another person's. These workshops have been a huge turning point. There simply isn't any other way to practice these moves without a partner. And since these applications are just too cool to pass up, I am overcoming my fear and welcoming each new partner I work with. It becomes a fun game. What will the next person be like? What will they teach me about my form? It's somehow poetic that the most combative exercise we do in taiji becomes the most communal and supportive. Whether in words or in felt movement, the practice pairs have allowed for some of the best insights into my own blind spots and improvements in my practice.

Much gratitude to everyone! Until next time!

Inhale and Exhale of Each Posture

Last Sunday was arguably the most fun I've had since I joined the American Chen Taiji Society! The second of four workshop intensives that my teacher is offering to cover martial application of the postures.

There were lots of the questions about transitioning from one posture to another as we reviewed the opening Yilu postures in detail. Tony talked about how students can get too focused on correct placement and movement from point A from point B, but neglect the infusion of tension/relaxation, expansion/contraction. In his demonstration, I could see the "breath" of each posture - how this infused kind of motion is like watching the entire body inhale and exhale as it moves out of one posture and into another.

As I learn more about the Yilu applications, the more shocked and in awe I feel. You mean even *that* tiny move has an application?! I don't even put in that level of thought into my outfit. I imagine the maddening level of practice and development it took to get this level of practicality into a packageable form.

There was a lot of collective positive energy (and laughs) as we practiced in pairs - pushing, deflecting, thumb-locking and head-butting. Push hands and applications is essentially how we respond to conflict and oncoming threats.

For any folks who are conflict-averse (like myself), taiji applications are chipping away at my squeamishness, and I'm learning to approach conflicts with strength and certainty. Otherwise, my default behavior is to laugh my way through - which I did, right before Tony knocked me down with the oblique posture and head butt. ;)

I got repeated feedback that my pushes weren't "real" pushes, just empty ones. Yes, my partners were asking me for a real push! I wasn't giving them enough to work with. Focused intentions from both sides is what allows for successful applications. We also practiced precise timing - the window of opportunity in our partner's move for us to deflect? Waiting to feel the connection of a push, and not rushing my reaction.

From the workshop, I got to see how these applications are defensive and offensive - how the deflections aren't only to block, but open and create that window of opportunity for an offensive move: a split second to remove their guarding arm out of the way to "go in" for a strike. Tony noted that these moments of vulnerability also happen when the opponent is in the midst of their own oncoming offensive move - like when taking a step or storing.

It was this nuanced level of instruction that made it a great morning - especially for those of us waiting for the chance to get into the nitty-gritty of Sifu Tony's "vault" of taiji knowledge. The group was curious and thoughtful - and it was just plain fun.

Long Journeys are Hard to Remember

I love documenting my journey almost as much as I love practicing itself. My intention for making my reflections and learnings public is that I want other practitioners of any art to see another person's journey - the challenges, triumphs, hiccups, breakthroughs. Making a serious commitment to a practice is like getting on a long road - one with a general direction and compass but without a map. Furthermore, the farther you get, the fewer people you find on that road with you. Even with teachers and equally commited peers, there will be stretches you find yourself alone - finding out what you're really made of when no one's watching. I welcome the solitude and self discovery, but I also find solace in writing to connect - especially with others on their own solo stretches of the journey. :)

As I try to be more thoughtful about how I practice, I often look to master resources - their books and tips about what it takes to get to deeper levels of understanding. However, many of these manuals were written *after* these masters and grandmasters were already recognized as taiji authorities. However, it took decades for them to get there, and it's hard to remember decades worth of a-ha moments and what it feels like to be a beginner again. I want to know how they felt in the moment. The excitement of a breakthrough. The frustration of being stuck. Without the tone of mastery.

I can't say how long I'll be on this journey - or how close I will get to mastery.  But I know how I uplifted I feel when I get to compare notes with a "fellow traveller" on the same road. And that's why I take the time to write about my practice - and so that I can remember the pleasant surprises along the way too!

Speaking of which, when this maple bonsai came into my care, let's just say we had a rough start. But here it is - showing off it's new "spring outfit."

Wait Until the Mud Settles (Standing Meditations and Stepping Drills Workshop)

When I first tried standing meditations and training postures in class, I thought they were simply tests of endurance, like some martial arts badge of honor like in the movies: get to the famed 20 minutes, 100 hours, etc. The longer, the better. However, over the years and most recently what we were taught during a recent workshop intensive taught by my teacher, Tony Wong, I am seeing the place of the Wuji, Zhan Zhuang and Santi postures hold in the entirety of taiji practice. 

When I think of my teacher's concept of finding your own "natural equilibrium," I think of this quote from Lao Tzu: "Do you have the patience to wait until the mud settles?" When mud settles, water becomes clear. Now, I know my waters are not clear. What stands between me and masterful execution of the form are obstructions in my body - where I'm tense or where qi gets stuck or jammed. All the moments in my form where I know someone can take me out and knock me off center. But with each tense muscle I can relax or point of blocked qi I can clear, I am getting closer and closer to my own natural equilibrium. 

If brute strength was the sole purpose, the instruction would sound a lot different and full of aggression and force. But of course, that's not it. What do we hear instead? Breathe. Let go. Settle down. Relax. Not the words of a drill sergeant, and yet at the same time, these exercises do help us in combat. "This is what you practice if you want to be good in push hands," Tony said. The Zhan Zhuang and Santi take it even further with more active and martial arm and leg positioning: embrace or ward off, intention and storage. 

I loved getting the chance to take my time with the eight energies and stepping drills too. To me, they are a matter of trust, muscle and timing. I don't trust my left kua to hold me up! So I rush (and wobble) to the next step because it doesn't have the capacity to actually perform the move. But in doing so, I miss out on the chance to truly train the kua. In "taiji speak," this means I am not allowing for complete fullness or emptiness. Oops. The fact of the matter is that my kua needs further strength training to be strong enough to support my bodyweight with ease - so then my mind won't get scared and compensate by shifting weight to the other kua prematurely before I've given myself a chance to experience what fullness/emptiness even feels like. Such is the game. If taiji were easy, it would be no fun. ;)

The training helped me better understand centered postures that are ready for oncoming threats - but only when the mud settles and we have made a felt connection to that natural equilibrium and to particular intention and purpose. No matter how brief or momentary that connection may be, we've at least dipped our toe in to know what it feels like, and over time, and move toward total body and mind integration in stillness and movement. 

It never ceases to amaze me how centuries upon centuries of Chinese thought and practice have resulted in an art that is so elegant and embodied - a bodily state in which all our resources are available and no longer disconnected. What were they doing back then to achieve this?! I wonder (and worry) about future generations when our "patience to wait for the mud to settle" is being eroded away in the modern world of instant gratification... But I also know that young folks are getting "pickier" - in a good way - and learning to appreciate mastery and detailed work. And that gives me fuel to keep practicing so that these lessons will be around long enough for the next generation! 

Open the Year of the Fire Rooster with burning pride

Happy New Year! I think it's great that this is the Year of the Fire Rooster. Roosters are pretty proud creatures to begin with - so that tells me this is the year to stand tall and announce yourself (on time) with fiery confidence. ;)

I started the year with a trip to the motherland - and dedicated several days to practicing at Lumpini Park in Bangkok. The air and heat were so thick that I was breaking a sweat even before I began. Hydration and proper breathing and breaks were necessary. But it was still great fun - practicing solo in a brand new setting. For those of you that haven't been, the Bangkok cityscape is distracting. Lots of bustle, cars, ads, vendors, flashy buildings. It was a great test of focus. I could have stopped because it's either too hot, or the food vendors too tempting, or the pull to sightsee and shop all day. I told myself each morning I would complete my warm-up sequence and at least 2 form repetitions each day, then touch-up on certain moves. 

So was it a "success"? Definitely! I won't say that I made strides in my form execution, but I am certain that I cemented my practice of taiji. It set me up for how I want to practice this year: keep it simple and consistent. Steady weekly repetitions of the same form with a focus on lowering my movements so that they originate from my core - rather than sloppy "surface level" hand sweeps. My teacher always checks if we're "ready," and its this lowering that allows for a broader range of options without losing footing. 

Blessings to you and your loved ones.

My 3 Biggest Taiji Practice Lessons from 2016

I am beginning to wind down as we close 2016. In addition to finishing my first year teaching, I've also made a lot of progress in my own practice this year, so I thought I'd close with my top 3 Taiji Practice Lessons of 2016. I would also like to clarify that by "lesson," I don't mean these are principles that I've mastered. They are learnings that I continue to explore and grapple with, and they have been indispensable to my progress. 

1. Absorption threshold. I have been noticing the kind of practice that is optimal: how frequent before resting, how long before I lose focus, and how many postures to practice to ensure my improvement penetrates down to the essence of the move. My teacher teaches up to 3 empty hand forms, push hands, and a weapon or two, and he knows I will be among the first to say "no" to one or two of those. When the goal is depth, my hypothesis is that if I achieve a richer understanding by limiting to 2-3 forms at a time, when I get tired of those, I will rotate to other forms, and that those same principles will show up there too. It's kind of like watering plants - find the sweet spot, don't starve them and don't over-water.

2. Video playbacks. I videotape myself once a month for each form I'm working on. Video does what a mirror can't - it allows me to observe the moment after it has occurred. Looking in a mirror, I have to do two things at once: perform postures and watch myself. I might be "cheating" by ancient standards, but I believe the body will absorb new learning at its own pace. The video assists in selecting what I work on next and allows me to self-correct before I take it back to my teacher for the course corrections I cannot see on my own. Very efficient.

3. Believing in change. There are many postures I can now perform that looked impossible during my first year of taiji (see below, a recent photo of Ground Hacking Dragon). I ended up surprising myself when the months and years went by, and my body got closer and closer to doing what I thought it couldn't. As that began to happen more frequently, when I now hit a roadblock in a particular move, I remember that with diligence, it will change from what I see now.

Looking forward to new possibilities in the coming year. Wishing you happy holidays, restoration and renewal as we open 2017!

Completing the form!

I am so excited to report that my students have finished learning the "mother form" - Lao Jia Yilu of Chen Taiji. They have practiced and attended class consistently for the past year - and because of our intimate class size, that is a pretty good pace. Cheers with tea! Time for a shut down and reboot. Time for "hibernation" for the winter. It serves to replenish and restore our energy for the spring! 

This month's tip from my "Semi-Secret Manual"
I want to emphasize it is no small feat to have completed the First Form. During my first time learning it, I quit! I don't even think I made it half-way through. I was pulled away by other priorities in my life at the time, but eventually (about seven years later!) - I returned and promised myself that I would finish!!! My second attempt took me about 14 months to complete. 

Completing the form is both the end and beginning of a new phase of learning. As I said to my students, "now that you've finished the form, we can start doing taiji!" Wait, what have we been doing for the past year?! Yes, we have been learning taiji. But now that the form is no longer "unknown," the next steps are to deepen. Teaching this class has allowed me to get re-acquainted and re-energized with the Yilu as if I was learning it again too. As I continue my own practice, I like to see the postures each as friends (75 friends!) I want to know well. What are their quirks? What are the tendencies as my body makes the motions? My teacher always says, "Where's your center? Don't lose your center." Center this and center that. Center, center, center. I get it now. For each of these postures to become a close friend, I will need to find the center within each move, and in doing so, I find my center too.

Embrace hibernation and restoration! Then we can be ready for whatever comes when we awaken... 

When is it good to stop?

The first rain of the season! I welcome the cleanse, but not the inconvenience. :) I have grown to love my tiny class. It is no small feat to commit oneself to a new practice that starts with a 75-posture form. 

This month's tip from my "Semi-Secret Manual"
In my own practice, I am realizing the utility in stopping while learning. I explored a lot of intensity during the summer focusing on my strikes and strength training - and doing so with a pace to match. Three gym visits a week, attending two taiji classes with my teacher, teaching my own class, plus another solo practice session or two. At any given time, I can't practice deeply on more than two forms - even though classes will review up to four over the span of the week. I didn't see this as "too much" either. I was making steady progress with difficult moves, and I had finally found a rhythm that matched my desire to learn. In fact, I was hungry for more and more.

Then something else happened. In my teacher's classes, we practice weapon sets (yes, taiji has weapons!), and work through the straight sword, spear and broadsword, then back again. Circling through all weapons will take about 18 months or so. Spear is toughest for me, but what I noticed is that this time around, my consistent practice and principles learned in all the other forms now shows up in the spear - without having touched it in over a year! 

That is all to say that any form deserves a break. I have way too much FOMO (fear of missing out) if I miss this class or that because "what if my teacher reveals a fundamental teaching tomorrow and I'm not there?!" Getting too hungry and greedy with all the forms and consuming too much just leads to indigestion - and the nutrients (the learning) can't get through. That's no good. This is the value of stopping. Then resuming later. One part moving, another part not. Whatever ground I do cover in this "adventure" of Chen Taijiquan, I know this is what will ensure that depth and quality shine through. My next step, which takes discipline, is to put certain forms on sabbatical, embargo others, and wait for what emerges the next time around. :)

Remembering my teacher's teacher

Fall is here, and with the arrival of autumn, time to slow down - by no means, don't stop moving - just an invitation to transition to a more contemplative season.

This month's tip from my "Semi-Secret Manual"
I want to take a moment to remember Sifu Chen Qingzhou (my teacher's teacher) who passed away this time last year at the age of 81. Although I never met or studied with him directly, I remember spending an afternoon spellbound reading his biography, only to receive news of his passing later that night. He suffered poor health as young child and wasn't expected to live beyond high school. To ease his suffering, his father advised him to practice the family's treasure: Chen Taijiquan. Gradually, his health improved and he completed his studies. Sifu was his own renaissance man: before his Taiji career, he made a living seal-carving, painting tigers and calligraphy posters. It wasn't until years later after starting a family and gaining financial stability, that he returned to Taiji and deep training. I am not doing his story justice here, but I did want to pull out the two themes in his life that struck me:

1) Whatever craft he found, he dove in. Calligraphy in school. Seeing a seal-carver sell at festivals, his reaction was, "I'm going to do that!" He saw tiger paintings sold better, then tried that and gained the attention of a painter who offered to teach him. He was a true self-study. 

2) Nothing was in his way. By that I mean, external circumstances certainly made for tough times and difficulty, but they did not stop him. Sifu lived during the Japanese occupation and Cultural Revolution in China - and not to mention his multiple bouts of illness: fevers and bloody coughing throughout his school years - and his concern was not his own mortality, but all the books he wouldn't be able to finish!

His life was a mix of turbulent and triumphant, and I am inspired by how diligently and fully he lived. Fast forward, and I have heard many stories and seen photos of his US workshops in which he would throw down and joint lock students half his age before they knew what happened to them. It's amazing that this art is what connects me to him - and to a network of worldwide practitioners carrying on the tradition.

Major respect Sifu. Rest in peace. 

Recovery time between practices

This month's tip from my "Semi-Secret Manual"
I took my own advice to turn up the heat with my summer practice. Aside from working on pointers from my teacher, I've needed some supplementary days strength training at the gym to target muscles that allow for "graceful" rising out of deep one-sided squats. Eek! I soon learned (the hard way) the importance of recovery time. In order to show up at the next workout or class able to perform BETTER than last time, my muscles needed adequate rest, recovery and fuel. I've found a good rhythm at two days training (different muscles and postures each day), then one day rest. Furthermore, I've found a new love of foam rolling, the massage roller, and tennis balls. You can see my assistant Rusty demonstrating "proper use" of tennis ball rolling in the photo below. I used to think that soreness = bad-ass. But it was not so bad-ass showing up to practice in pain. So instead, I'm giving my muscles the royal treatment of Kobe cows - but not with the intention of marbling fat! I want my body to have all the love and care to perform optimally without too much damage. 

Wishing you happy recoveries!

Stepping up practice in summer time... even when it's hot outside ;)

Wow. It's July. Summer time is the season of vibrance and bearing fruit. It is also very hot outside, and instead of cultivating the "fruits" of practice, I am also tempted by air conditioning and cool drinks. So I have opted for longer morning and evening practices while I cool down midday with my taiji journal, coconut water and chilled cherries. ;)

A tip from my "Semi-Secret Manual"
Ask questions when you are stuck. I used be nervous about asking questions in front of my classmates, especially when I first started, and it felt like everyone was ahead of me. I was worried that my questions weren't fully cooked or perfectly formed. But I do know the spots where I get stuck. There are plenty of those, and therefore, plenty of questions! I learned to say things like, "I'm having trouble with..." or "I'm not getting XYZ posture..." Think of all the pointers I might have missed had I stayed silent! Students who draw out a teacher's knowledge guide the learning just as much as teachers that make corrections.