Sunday, February 28, 2010

Exploring Qigong IV Continued: More on Standing.

The following is an article by Afshin Mokhtari, an acupuncturist in San Mateo, CA. Afshin offered this as a reply to my last entry on Qigong and I am so impressed I want to share it on this space. This is a very concise explication on the art of standing. The complete article can be accessed on Afshin's website here. In fact, I recommend his website in general. There are some very good articles on Chinese Medicine and healthy lifestyle choices.
And, thanks Afshin!

How to do Standing Qigong

Chen Xiao Wang StandingIn this article I introduce you to one of the most all-around beneficial exercises that you can do. It is a form of qi gong called Standing pole, or just “standing” practice. I’ll give you some background about why its so good for you, and tell you how you can start practicing today!

Standing practice (Zhan Zhuang in mandarin) benefits the whole body. It is effective for the treatment of illness and the development of overall health and fitness, suitable for people of all ages and physical constitution. It is a form of qi gong where the only movement is the natural movement of breathing. To an outsider it looks like you’re practicing to be a statue! Its not really physically demanding, but what makes it hard is cultivating the patience it takes be relaxed and content while doing it, and also the focus it takes to be actively maintaining good posture. It is a complete practice in itself, but also considered a foundational exercise for internal martial arts such as taiji (tai-chi). When done consistently over weeks and months, it provides something that no amount of muscularly oriented exercise can give. Speaking generally, standing practice develops relaxation, focus, and integrated body-mind awareness.

How does it work? From the Western physiological perspective, research has found that the benefits of qi gong come from its effect on the cerebral cortex. As life goes on and we’re faced with various stresses, our bodies build artificial actions and reflexes in response. Such tensions are not easy to get rid of and over time we unconsciously physically hold these stress patterns, to our own detriment. Qi gongs in general give the cerebral cortex a chance to relax and let the body-mind unwind from these chronic stress patterns. When you relax with good posture, all the internal organs settle while all metabolic functions increase, and then the body goes into healing mode.

standing practice

Master Shou-Yu Liang doing his standing practice

From the traditional Chinese medical perspective, free and unobstructed flow of blood and qi around the body is one of the most important elements in the development and maintenance of health. Standing practice trains you to become conscious of the stress patterns you hold and to let them go, thus freeing up the flow. We achieve this with good posture, relaxed breathing, and a calm mind. Its much more than just a power-nap!

Sounds good… but how do we achieve these things? Learn the following guidelines, practice daily, and cultivate patience. The first time, just try it for 30 seconds. As the days go on, you should increase the time you spend. With consistent practice, you’ll start noticing your imbalances.

1. Stand with your feet a shoulder width apart, toes pointing forward, either parallel, or turned slightly outward.

2. Dont stand so straight that you’re locking your knees. Make sure they’re unlocked. Also do not get into a low martial arts horse-stance, you can be standing almost straight up; take a look at the picture above.

3. Let your hands hang loosely by your sides .

There are many standing practice variations where your hands & posture can be in a variety of positions. They’re harder and develop more than what we’re doing here, so for now just let them hang down. For reference, you can see the picture on the right of Mr.Chen Xiao Wang doing a version of standing endearingly referred to as tree-hugging.

4. drop your shoulders

Imagine that, like a puppet, your whole body is hanging, suspended from your head. A string holds your head from a point at the top of your skull, directly in line with the tips of your ears. Feel yourself sinking down, relaxing, as you hang from the string. But dont droop, you want to be relaxed, not limp.

5. Breathe calmly and naturally through the nose. There is no special breathing in this exercise. When relaxed, your breathing should be down in your belly instead of your chest.

6. Look forward and slightly downward, so that chin is not pushed forward

7. Release any tension in your neck. This takes time, at first see if you can tune in to it and you’ll learn how to relax it over time.

8. Relax your hips and belly. Again, relaxed but not limp. Very important also that your lower back is relaxed so that it expands and contracts a little as you breathe. Don’t try to force this, learn to unlock your back if its locked.

9. Straighten your spine, let the bottom of your spine unfold downward so that neither your belly nor your bottom is sticking out.

Different people have different challenges with respect to the above list. Over time you’ll find which problems you tend to exhibit.

A classic description of the posture you’re trying to achieve: “Your center lies 2-4 inches below your navel, one third of the way into your body. It is in line with the suspension point at the top of your head. From below your kneecaps, your roots extend downward. From your knees upward you rise like a tree, resting calmly between the earth and the sky. Your weight is evenly distributed between your left and right feet. These roots sink deep into the earth. The weight of your body rests in the middle of the soles of your feet.”

Rome was not built in a day, and like any skill, this qi gong requires practice and patience. Striving and straining for results will only bring disappointment and tension. This exercise is subtle, and it takes time for you to tune in to yourself. Do not practice when you are full of food, over-tired, over-hungry, or full of alcohol. Its best to pick a practice schedule and stick to it. Wear loose clothes and maybe warm up and stretch a little before, remember the goal is to relax.

During the early stages of practice, you may feel a number of physical reactions, some of them unpleasant! Your hands may tingle or get numb, you might have itches, pain, trembling, and so on. These are the body’s reactions to the unaccustomed use of muscles, physiological changes in metabolism and circulation, and tension release. You will especially start to notice imbalances between your right and left sides. Stay calm and persevere, shake out any tensions you build up. It takes time and some discomfort to work through your chronic tensions. But dont hurt yourself either – be careful if your knees or back start to hurt, these are clues that your posture is not good, make sure you’re not leaning.

Practice daily. Its better to do 5 minutes a day every day than trying to do half an hour once a week. Shoot for 10 minutes in the morning and evening by the end of your first month of practice. If your going to the bathroom schedule is not regular, you’ll find that consistent morning standing practice will help that! Afshin Mokhtari

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Exploring Qigong IV: Stillness in Movement in Stillness

Bu jing bu jian dong zhi qi
If you don't have quiet or tranquility, you will never see the miracle of moving.

While it is hard to categorize and compartmentalize something as fluid and recondite as Qigong, I will divide it into two categories, if for no other reason than to help better explain the various approaches. We can consider Qigong as being either static or moving. As we proceed I will explain my reservations in using these definitions.

Static Qigong is typically standing meditation and or seated meditation. There is an advanced practice of Wujigong that is lying Qigong, practiced flat of one's back. But for now we will consider sitting and standing practice. For some practitioners static Qigong is the totality of their practice. Zhan Zhuang, or standing meditation, is a key practice in Qigong and many internal martial arts. Zhan Zhuang can be conceptualized as the foundation of Qigong and Taiji. While standing we are to focus on body structure and alignment, breathing, and calming the mind--the Three Intentful Corrections. However, rather than proceeding from there into movement, the practice is to hold the posture and focus on the intention. Rather than performing movements that address, or direct Qi to where it is needed, Zhan Zhuang works to settle the mind and body and let the Qi settle where it is needed naturally. Zhan Zhuang is a very simple practice, and yet is extremely powerful, and more complex than it appears.

Sitting Qigong is much the same practice as Zhuan Zhuang, but is practiced in a sitting position. In addition to the mindfulness practice of sitting meditation, focus on reverse breathing and Qigong posture are emphasized as in standing and moving practices. Sitting Qigong can be practiced in a simple cross-legged position, lotus position, or seiza position. Any and all of these positions are beneficial practices and each has a structural component that is unique and has unique benefits.

Once the foundational practices, or Three Intentful Corrections are understood and implemented, movement can be approached. Static Qigong is Wuji practice. Wuji is the void, stillness. Once movement happens, Yin and Yang separate and Wuji becomes Taiji. However, if you look at the Taiji symbol, there is a little Yin in Yang, and a little Yang in Yin. Accordingly, there is always a little movement in stillness and stillness in movement. In fact, this is what we should aim for. And this is where my reservations lie in categorization. I consider Qigong to be both static and dynamic practice at all times. We are dynamic when we are static and static when dynamic. Even if we only practice static Qigong, there is movement. Our minds are active and Qi is moving through our bodies. If we begin and end our moving Qigong sessions with static practice we will transition from Wuji to Taiji and back to Wuji, therefore following Taoist cosmology. Eventually we find it is all the same. It's all Qigong.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Challenges for Now

Rick at Cook Ding's Kitchen has issued his annual Lenten Challenge. Also, the good folks at The Magic Tortoise Taijiquan School have issued their 100 day challenge for the Chinese New Year. My Taiji school is informally participating in the 100 day challenge. The goal for the Lenten Challenge is to focus on something, not necessarily Martial Arts, but some skill, every day of Lent. The goal of the 100 day challenge is to find a seemingly unattainable goal and try to master it in 100 days.

I have committed to the 100 day challenge. By default, since the first half of the 100 days is Lent, I will be participating in both. My challenge is to finally learn, complete, the Er Lu, or Pao Cui--the second routine in the Chen tradition of Taijiquan. I have been slowly working on it, amongst several other things, for the last two years. I have gotten 2/3 of the way over two years. So I don't have a terrible amount to do. But on the other hand, it has taken me two years to get 2/3 down. I not only want to learn it, but I want to learn it with my body so that it comes naturally. So it is do-able, but still a challenge. The 100 day challenge asks that you reach your goal in 100 days. The Lenten Challenge asks that you practice every day of Lent. So as to keep with the Lenten challenge, I am going to try to work on this form every day till Easter. That will give me a big boost in the 100 day challenge. Pao Cui every day for 40 days. That is a challenge in itself, given the rest of life still happens all around me.

I recommend these challenges to any and all. It is a great way to focus and accomplish.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Exploring Qigong III: The Three Intentful Corrections

The Three Intentful Corrections are the foundation of and starting point for Qigong practice. My inspiration and source for this entry is Roger Jahnke's The Healing Promise of Qi(1). My information is derived from Jahnke except where otherwise noted. If you haven't read this book and are in any way interested in Qigong, I highly recommend it. It is a prominent resident of my personal library, and I am rewarded every time I return to it. In it Jahnke quotes the basic and most important rule for practicing Qigong and Taiji: "Mind the body and the breath, and then clear the mind to distill the Heavenly elixir within." This single statement summarizes the whole complex practice of Qigong. It is all premised on the Three Intentful Corrections:
>Adjust and regulate the body posture and movement
>Adjust and regulate the breath
>Adjust and regulate consciousness

In the last entry we defined the four critical points in the body's geography: The Dantian and the Mingmen on the horizontal plane. The Ba Hui point on the top of our heads, and the Huiyin point directly opposite in the vertical plane. Proper Qigong posture works by aligning these points. Essentially what we want to do is straighten our spines by aligning the vertical axis. This is accomplished by what Grandmaster Cai Song Fang calls "the tuck and suck method"(2), wherein we suck in our bellies and expand our mingmen. We do this by sucking and tucking and tilting back our pelvis cavity. At the same time slightly tuck the chin so that is feels as if there is a string attached to the top of your head pulling you upwards. This action straightens out the normally swayed spine. Grandmaster Cai says there is a difference between the natural state of posture and the normal state of posture. In this case the natural is not the norm. The norm for most humans is the swayed back and pot belly. The muscle group associated with this is the iliopsos muscles. These are instrumental in walking and sexual activity. Consequently, the 'normal' posture for most people results in a situation of impaired iliopsoatic function and dysfunctional walking and sexual activity. The suck and tuck method, by tilting the pelvis back and straightening the spine, reverses the common posture of sway back with the guts spilling out the front and the buttocks sticking out the back. It thus restores functionality to the iliopsos, obdurator, and abdominal muscles which are intimately connected to the diaphragm and the breath. A good way to visualize this is to imagine the imaginary string pulling the top of your head up, and imagine the pelvic cavity to be a fruit bowl. Tip the bowl back to prevent anything from spilling out the front. At the same time imagine a line through your body from the top of your head down through the Huiyin point and into the ground. Consequently the horizontal line between the Dantian and the Mingmen will align naturally. This serves to align the three Dantians with heaven and earth, and makes room in the chest cavity for the lungs to operate with less pressure and/or obstruction, therefore making breathing easier.

Breath is the key to life. It is synonymous with the concept of Qi. It is the gateway to focus and the tool of mindfulness. It is the key to mastering Qigong. It is the easiest of the Three Intentful Corrections to adjust, because we are always breathing. We just may not always be aware of it. You can bring your awareness to your breath at any time. Breath serves as a mantra for meditation. In deep meditation our breath becomes very shallow, often to the point of seeming no breath at all. In Qigong breath serves the same mantric purpose, helping to focus the mind. But it is more. It also serves to move Qi and to relax the body. Breath brings health into the body and dispels toxins out. Many Qigong practices focus on an in-breath for one motion, followed by an out-breath for the next in a rhythmic pattern. At advanced levels we practice pre-natal, or reverse breathing. In reverse breathing the abdomen is contracted upon inhalation and expanded during exhalation. This is the way our bodies functioned when we were in the womb breathing through the umbilical cord. Normal breathing operates so that we expand our abdomen during inhalation,and contract in on the exhalation. Reverse breathing is very therapeutic on many levels. However, one should work with an experienced teacher when approaching this practice. On a basic level, all practitioners focus on their breath and use it to regulate their pace and to focus. As in meditation, focusing on the breath in Qigong makes it easier to adjust and regulate the consciousness.

Qigong is a form of meditation. Static, orWuji Qigong is meditation. Dynamic Qigong and Taiji are moving meditations. The same rules of mediation apply to Qigong. The more focused the mind, the deeper the experience. A focused Qigong mind is open to healing and enlightenment. Jahnke defines three states of Qigong mind: Conditioned Mind; Focused Mind; Clarified Mind. Conditioned mind is the everyday, distracted, monkey mind we live with for most of our existence. By managing what the mind is doing, focusing on the breath and the body, and ignoring monkey mind we begin to experience focused mind. Clarified mind is approaching enlightenment. This is full engagement with the light, off the plane of conditioning. This is the same as any enlightened experience in Zen, Yoga, or any contemplative acts. Suffice it to say that Qigong is as much a vessel to this experience as anything. And the mind is where we reside. A focused mind is a powerful force. As our practice deepens we find that we can contribute to our healing and our physical well-being through our minds in concert with our breath and bodies.

Eventually the Three Intentful Corrections become one, as they are infinitely interconnected. Each serves to enhance the other, bringing about the Taiji state of balance and tranquility. And this is what we strive for. This is where we find health, material well-being, tranquility, and transcendence. And once there we find that we have always been there, and will have to return again, because living is just not the same anymore.

(1) Roger Jahnke. The Healing Power of Qi: Creating Extraordinary Wellness Through Qigong and Tai Chi. Contemporary Books, 2002.
(2) Jan Diepersloot. Warriors of Stillness: Meditative Traditions in the Chinese Martial Arts; Volume 1, Qigong of the Center, Essence of Tijiquan: The Teachings of Grandmaster Cai Song Fang. Jan Diepersloot, 1995

Monday, February 1, 2010

Exploring Qigong II: Clarification

As I delve in the art of Qigong I want to clarify some of the terms and concepts we use in association with the art. I think this helps to better understand what we are looking at and what we are doing. I find it beneficial to revisit definitions and basic concepts from time to time. It helps me to clarify what I'm doing, and to ensure I'm keeping everything in place and in proper perspective. I hope to cover most of the terms and concepts we use in the practice of Qigong. I will probably leave some out or take some for granted. But hopefully I can review the basics.

The gong of Qigong and Gong Fu, or Chi Kung and Kung Fu if you will, is the same thing. Gong is essential foundation, it is the essence of the essentials. According to Yang Yang, gong "is not technique--it is the root from which the flower of technique can grow.(1)" The practice of Qigong and of Taiji is the process of accumulating gong. The accumulation of gong, according to Yang refers to "constant improvements in balance, coordination, agility, and power through the accretion and replenishment of Qi.(2)" Qi is the vital energy that not only flows through our bodies, but through all of creation. Qigong is the process of cultivating Qi, of consciously and intentionally working the foundation and the essence. The ancient formula, according to Jahnke is "Practice + Intention = Inner Harmony = Qi Flow = Health and Longevity.(3)" Qi is the stuff, gong is the conscious intention.

Dantian is defined as the Elixir Field. It is the area of the body where the cultivation of Qi is carried out. On a basic level, we define the dantian as the Qihai point, or CV6 along the Conception Vessel meridian. This area is approximately two inches below the navel. Qihai is translated as 'sea of Qi'. This is the area often referred to in Taji as the dantian. However, the art of Qigong recognizes three dantians. The first, the Earth Dantian, is the lower dantian, the one we have located. The second dantian is the Heart Dantian, located in our chest area roughly in the area of our hearts and is associated with the Chinese concept of Xin, or Heart/Mind. The third dantian is the Heaven Dantian, located just below the Bai Hui point, or GV20 on the Governing Vessel meridian. It is just below the soft spot on the top of your head and the area just behind your eyes. It is also associated with the third eye. In a balanced state the Qi of heaven flows toward earth and the Qi of earth flows toward heaven and merge at the Heart Dantian, thus achieving a Taji state, or fully balanced Yin-Yang state of being(4).

CV1: Huiyin and GV4: Mingmen
Huiyin, or CV1 on the Conception Vessel Meridian is located between the legs and between the genitals and the anus. Mingmen, or GV4 on the Governing Vessel Meridian, is known as the Gate of Life. It is located between the second and third lumbar vertebra. Personal geography is important in Qigong. CV1, Huiyin is directly opposite the Bai Hui point on the top of the head in the vertical axis. Mingmen is directly opposite the lower dantian on the horizontal axis. Utilizing the proper body alignment, the intersection of these two axes is the Wuji Point, or Wuji Center. It is what we usually mean when we discuss our "center".

Wuji and Taiji
Wuji means void or nothingness, stillness, or no extreme. Taiji means grand extremes, or Yin and Yang. Wuji is the mother of Taiji. Yang says that in Wuji, "there is no differentiation between yin and yang. It is neither this nor that--it is no thing (nothing)(5)." Qigong meditation is often referred to as Wuji meditation. It is static Qigong. Once movement happens, yin and yang separate from within Wuji to create Taiji. The Wuji point described above is our center. When we meditate on this point we sense the movement of Qi through the body. The Wuji point is a spiritual point of focus, a biological point of Qi generation, and a structural reference point for posture and balance.

The Three Treasures
The Three Treasures are Shen, Qi, and Jing. Shen is spirit and is associated with the spritual realm of our existence. Qi is essential energy or the life force and is associated with with our minds or our heart/minds. Jing is our essence and is associated with earth, and reproduction. There is much that can be said about The Three Treasures. It is a basic concept that builds upon itself and can be quite intricate in the end. I don't expect to reference this concept in my exploration of Qigong any more than what I have defined here. But for the advanced practitioner there is much to learn and to benefit from.

I hope this serves as a decent primer for the following posts on the subject of Qigong. I am sure I haven't covered all the components of Qigong, but I hope I have covered enough so that any further explanations can be dealt with in text. Typically, the more I look at this subject and consider the art, the more I learn, and the more I am reminded I need to learn. But in the end the best way to learn is to let the art teach you. Just do it.

Works Cited:
(1), (2), (5) Yang Yang. Taijiquan: The Art of Nurturing, The Science of Power. Zhenwu Publications, 2005.
(3), (4) Roger Jahnke. The Healing Power of Qi: Creating Extraordinary Wellness Through Qigong and Tai Chi. Contemporary Books, 2002.