Master Moy once told me during a major correction, “You should be able to learn tai chi from anyone, even someone who doesn’t do tai chi.” I was doing dan-yus in front of a group of about 30 people at a Fung Loy Kok Taoism workshop. He also said some things to me which seemed so militant to some onlookers that they left the Taoist Tai Chi Society. However, to me I never had the sense Master Moy was trying to control me. Quite the contrary, I had the experience of trust and attempting to peel my outer layers like an onion and show me what was inside of me. It’s as if he took my hand and showed me around my inner being. After what seemed an eternity of his lecturing me through an interpreter, I felt lighter and was able to do far more of the exercise I could do before we started. I also remember information about the physiology and physics of the exercise.
Many things stick with me from the correction. However, I usually return to his voice and the translation of “You should be able to learn tai chi from anyone, even someone who doesn’t do tai chi.” In the context a tai chi correction, this statement implies we need to be open to the learning all around us. I practiced the Taoist arts for over 15 years in an organized environment and instructed Tai Chi, Lok Hup, Health Recovery and gave classes in Taoism. After my wife and I started our family project, our involvement in the Taoist Tai Chi Society dropped off and faded away. Our interest and practice remains to this day. We continue to learn from each other and from the world around us. Our practice is sporadic which affords us the opportunity to observe and experience the fundamentals of the Taoist Arts in way unavailable to us while heavily integrated into the society.
The external form is just as we taught years ago with a strong foundation in angles reflecting body mechanics. A forty-five degree step is along with proper length of step is critical to the many aspects of the forms as is alignment of knees, hips and an ever shifting center of gravity. Internally, we return to connecting the bubbling spring and tigers mouth as well as dropping the coccyx to open the hips giving the internals freedom to move and connect to the movements. Deeper yet are the connections to the stillness learned in meditation and the non-judgmental awareness of both internal and external environments. Out of this stillness we stay over our emotional, physical and mental centers. We enable ourselves to learn tai chi from anyone and most especially those who do not even do tai chi.
My wife and I have the fantasy of returning in some fashion to the Taoist Tai Chi Society if life affords us the opportunity. If it doesn’t we still continue our quiet cultivation. We connect with ourselves, each other and those who pass through our lives. We learn tai chi from the world around us.
During the Dan-yu there’s a rhythm of movement to be synchronized with our breathing. When we descend, our bodies draw life in. As we ascend our bodies naturally exhale. This drawing in and letting go is the nature of the up and down in the dan-yu.
The dan-yu is integral to the movements of Tai Chi, Lok Hup and Hsing-I. Finding the dan-yu in the movements and listening to our bodies allows us to find the rhythm of drawing in and letting go. With much practice the movement becomes more natural and timed with our particular body and its unique attributes. Using our entire lung capacity, we may find ourselves timing the set of movements slowly. Focusing on the beat of our hearts and flow of our cardiovascular system, we may find ourselves timing the movements more rapidly. The key is not the timing nor the finding of connections with the various parts of our bodies. No matter how “groovy” it may feel to tune into those things, the key to chi kung is simply to listen to the rhythm and let the movement express what’s needed in any given moment. We must listen to our own timing which changes with our situation, environment, our health and age.
Master Moy Lin-Shin talked often of “up down same time.” In classes we would work on the connections between the outer movements of arms and legs and the inner movements of our spines or for those more adapt at chi kung the movement of energy. In the movements of chi kung, we have the capacity of moving both up and down at the same time. Our outer form may be ascending, but our tailbones are already descending. Our arms may be down in the bottom of the movement while our spine is already going up. This internal timing is the following of the internal rhythms of our bodies and energy. It is the flow of the movements if we can simply let go our conscious selves and listen with all of our thoughts, senses and perceptions. Listening with everything we are stills the unnecessary in our experience and connects us with something more than can be explained with a few words on a blog.
Breathing sustains life. Breathing in particular ways can enhance and even prolong life. In the Taoist arts there are different breathing techniques. There’s nostril breathing, mouth and nostril, mouth, natural abdominal, reverse abdominal, perineal, tortoise, fetal and entire body breathing. Dr. Eliott Kravitz a medical advisor to Master Moy once quipped to a small class, “Just don’t stop.” This last one is probably one of the best pieces of advice I’ve heard about breathing.
During some movements like the Dan-yu, if you can breath in and out timed with each cycle of down and up the effects are amazing. One can continue practicing with ease and energy is circulated readily throughout the movement. Breathing can better connect the movements of our forms. There’s regulating the breathe which is breathing without conscious awareness allowing bodily movements to affect our breathing. This is perhaps one of the primary benefits of a well-timed internal martial art. When we move in a regular rhythmic manner our breathing follows. This regulated breathing over time has significant health benefits. On the other hand directed breathing is where we consciously manipulate our breath to control movement and the rate of our breathing. To achieve benefit from directed breathing it is wise to seek guidance from someone with experience. A beneficial approach but fairly benign is the directed breathing technique where you attempt to breath as deeply as you can slowly without stopping. In the middle of stressful situations, this directed breathing can help one relax and recover emotional balance.
What does this have to do with our daily affairs? Our breath is an indicator of our state of mind and body. Many people breath in shallow manners not taking in energy for various reasons like stress or emotional difficulties. This is restricting the exchange of energy with the environment. When we are injured in sparing or other physical activities we hold our breath. The thing is if we can breath deep and allow ourselves to relax, the injury and pain can more readily subside. The same holds true in our stressful lives. Simply being aware of our breathing when confronted with a difficult situation or person can significantly alter our perspective and interaction with our environment.
Breath is life. It is one of the primary ways we exchange energy with our environment. The first step in working with our breath is to be aware of it. Awareness of our breath can enhance our connection with ourselves and what’s happening around us. The second step is to allow our breath to follow the movements in our lives whether we are practicing Tai Chi, a hard form, exercising, having fun with our significant other or just going for a walk. We need not pursue this so directly. Simply being aware and loosening our body to allow our breathing to proceed naturally without interruption is the key to the second step. The third step is to explore how our breathing changes as our movement and emotions change. This is where guidance is beneficial.
No matter what you do, just don’t stop breathing.
For descriptions of different types of Taoist breathing techniques refer to The Shambala Guide to Taoism, A complete introduction to the history, philosophy, and practice of an ancient Chinese spiritual traditions by Eva Wong.
I recently discovered my manuscript I’m working on needed some contextual story or background to help readers connect with it. Having had a couple Tai Chi folk read it and not give feedback, I thought I should relate it to my background in the Taoist Arts. Thus, I’ve added some fictional characters to collaborate within a setting of a Tai Chi class with the result of writing a standard of living based on business called, “Managing the Business of You.” Some of the information from the manuscript is at http://www.bizofyou.com. Here’s an excerpt:
On one particular evening in class Emmet focused on using the same intention in every move. He first explained the acupuncture point called the “Bubbling Spring.” “It’s a point on the Kidney meridian on the center of the sole of the foot, at the base of the ball of the foot, between the pads. Although acupuncture calls it a point, it’s more of an area. When you place your weight in the area that’s one-third of the total foot length from the tip of your toes, the bubbling spring is stimulated.” Emmet went on to show how to use intention to place your weight in a specific area of the foot. He used the squatting type exercise where the practitioner opens the pelvis, bends the knees and lets the center of gravity drop in a straight line that points to a place between the feet. The line where the center of gravity drops can be adjusted. When the weight is spread throughout the feet, the practitioners feel their weight in the bubbling spring throughout the movement. Much of what Emmet showed was non-verbal. He showed it many times as each student sees different things and often has to see movement from many angles in order to learn what is expected of them.
Emmet had the class practice the exercise until most of the students had increased circulation evidenced by breathing deeply, flush faces or perspiration. Emmet is continually amazed at how simple movements can get energies moving. He let them take a break and started explaining how the same intention may be used in more than the 108 movements of the tai chi set. Starting with the bow before the movements he showed moving slowly allows one to focus their center so their weight spreads throughout the foot but remains localized around the bubbling springs. He allowed his spine to curve over like a fishing pole keeping his knees unbending. His hips had to move back as his spine went forward to counterbalance one another all the while keeping the weight centered in the foot. After his hands touched the floor, he reversed the process to return to a standing position. He turned his feet to start the first move of the set while keeping his weight centered appropriately in each foot. He kept going in the second move allowing his spine to stretch easily out. His weight moved from one foot to another as he stepped between moves. With any contact with the floor, his weight was centered around the bubbling spring. He repeated the movements a few times and explained a few key and critical points along the way like dropping the tail bone and maintaining balance between the push from the feet and the expression out through the spine, arms and hand movements.
The intent of the fictional story is to relate the principles of tai chi to our daily activities and principles of managing the business of you. It’s a work in progress so who knows how it will end up after the agents, editors and publisher get a hold of it.