Monday, June 27, 2011

Ordinary and Extra Ordinary: A Secret of Wujifa Training

One of the biggest secrets to successful Wujifa training is this concept of ordinary and extra ordinary. To really understand what’s meant by this, one needs to look deeper into the meaning and spirit behind these concepts. There is more to this than simply getting back to the basics, although that is the bottom line.

Let’s consider for a second the magic of it all. Often you will find people amazed by someone performing an extraordinary feat, hypnotized in a way by the skill or to see the real magic taking place right in front of their very eyes. Yet, knowing the “real” trick to the magic "trick" can change the way you start to view the whole show.

Magic is often just a set of simple procedures, evolved from a state of clumsiness and overlooked details to a state of refinement where the finer details are easily unnoticed by most viewers. Slight of hand, for example, may require hours of  simply flipping a coin from finger to finger and back,  to gain basic dexterity skills. The second step is to plan what you are going to do with the skills (intention) once you start developing them. The same idea is true in gongfu and qigong practices.

What are some of these basic skills found in a Wujifa practice you ask? One of the most fundamental is the concept of “connection” and at a basic level this means working with the body and connective tissues. In Wujifa we believe concepts like "connections" are best explored in the most basic ways over time.  

There are many sayings in the practice of Wujifa to help guide us. One of my favorite Wujifa sayings is “Practice the ordinary until it becomes extra ordinary.” This, in reality, is one of the biggest secrets for successful practice of Wujifa or any art, martial or otherwise.

Let’s take a closer look at a “Seemingly” simple practice like Zhan Zhuang for example. The most basic learning in our Zhan Zhuang practice(s) is to simply stand and relax (AKA functional alignment) and discovering what that really means at the deepest possible level. Another example is the “Side to Side” practices or skill sets. In the most basic “Side to Side” exercises, the key is to discover how the hip joints or Kua can move in concert with those connections. A simple intention of shifting to the right and left “Side to Side” while maintaining good structure and connections is all that’s needed to “start” building new neuro-pathways in the body and the mind. Adhere to basic guidelines found in the Wujifa triangle; Structure, Balance, Relax and you're well on your way.

The fact of the matter is that way to many people end up skipping or glossing over their personal art’s fundamental practices. All to often you find people spending way too many hours learning some complicated and fancy stylistic form(s) or some other seemingly-high-level “Tom Foolery,” when the reality is, the footing or foundation of their home (structure) is built on sand. One will never get to a very high level if you’re foundational skills are weak.

Practice the ordinary and develop the extra-ordinary as a result. Practice the simple things and master those first. Develop fundamental skills before rushing off to learn some seemingly fancy new skill sets. Return to the most basic aspects of your art and spent time there.

As I write this, I notice the once-white wax wood poles I use while practicing one of the Wujifa skill sets, they are dirty from use and the oils from my hands that have stained them. Seemingly ordinary poles stained and dirty, yet they are a sign of the magic that only repeated practice can impart.

The seemingly ordinary tasks are where the extraordinary skills blossom. Remember the Daoist saying, “Hide universe in universe.” In my experience much of the magic and many of the secrets are placed where they remain un-noticed and are often overlooked.  Practice your gongfu and qigong(s) by putting the time into the most fundamental aspects of your practice, you’ll be glad you did.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Five Common Bad Zhan Zhuang Structural Habits

There are many different structural habits a practitioner can build into their Zhan Zhuang practice. A practitioner can often practice alone for years without noticing or worse yet never take the time to validate that they are practicing Zhan Zhuang skill sets correctly. Here are five common bad habits often overlooked by practitioners in their Zhan Zhuang training.

1. Collapsing / Hunching over - The structural problem of hunching is so very common and this habit can take a long time to correct so it’s at the top of the list. I have seen people really make amazing changes in their body over time to the point that they don’t even look like the same person. I’ve heard people say they can breathe better when they lose their hunch. I will say they look much younger and alive after they spent the time to correct this. So, what causes this problem? This problem is often caused by a daily life of working over a keyboard, planting rice, or by keeping your eyes down and not looking into the eyes of the king depending where you live and life style. Being aware and adjusting your posture really helps with bringing about long term change. Like any habit that took years to develop, it may also take a long time to change. Make it one of the things you check often.

2. Ankle alignment - Ankle alignment is so overlooked and is a root cause to many other problems. When people overlook ankle alignment in Zhan Zhuang and Wujifa practices, they end up making a number of other structural adjustments to their posture and that‘s why it’s second on the list of bad habits. There are many causes of poor ankle alignment such as wearing poor fitting shoes over many years to inactivity so that the resulting connective tissues in the foot and ankle become more and more distorted. Many times knee pain is caused by poor ankle alignment and trying to correct it with the hip creates a torque in the knee area as people try to re-align themselves. The best practice is to start with the feet and align them as best as possible (which again can take years, again, if ever). There are some tricks that some people have used. See Wujifa Zhan Zhuang Practice: Tight Calves and Ankles. Also seeing a qualified teacher who understands these things can really help as well.

3. Holding in the lower back and pelvis - Both the lower back and pelvis are included together here as they are rarely seen alone. When holding is found in only one of these two areas, a common response for example to relaxing the pelvis will be to tighten the lower back or vice versa, relaxing the lower back and tightening the pelvic area. Relaxing both are key for better Wujifa Zhan Zhuang practice. One of the big problems is people often store a lot of tension in the lower back and pelvis when they push themselves to hard. Simply taking a break and noticing and stretching throughout the day helps. Over at Internal Gong Fu Blogspot there is a long post about relaxing different areas of the pelvis (See: Relaxing the Pelvic Floor for Tai Chi and Zhan Zhuang). Taking a deep breath and exhale while relaxing those areas while practicing your Zhan Zhuang can help too. I’ll repeat, a simple stretch can aid in making progress and there are a lot of good YouTube videos you can look up (see comment area for suggestions). When practicing Zhan Zhuang, notice the habits of "tightening" and let yourself relax. It will take time to change a habit but it can be achieved pretty quickly (weeks or months) if you take the time and stay with it.

4. Knee Torque - Knee torque was talked about with the ankle alignment above, but there are more causes and knee torque deserves to be number four on this list because it is so common. While practicing Zhan Zhuang people often "lock" themselves into place (See: Is Your Stance Like a Dead Post) to take the weight out of their legs or to make it more tolerable by slightly torque-ing the knees in or out. The answer is to "slowly" build up to standing longer periods of time and change this habit of torque-ing the knee. Also over time the I.T. bands can be shortened and this can cause problems with the knees as well. Hip and lower back alignment as well as ankle alignment are common problems that contribute to knee torque in Zhan Zhuang practices. This is another case where a qualified instructor can really help you notice and make the changes you need to make with changing the habit of knee torque.

5. Chest/upper back and shoulder tension – Chest and shoulder tension are so common that for many it is the number one bad habit of people who practice Zhan Zhuang. You may be asking yourself why chest and shoulder tension/tightness is listed as number five on this list? This issue is listed as number five because many people who train Zhan Zhuang practices know they have this issue. If you visit or train with any high level masters or go to high-quality seminars you will see kind of adjustment being shared over and over again. It is the kind of habit that people change and keep picking back up and so it takes diligent practice to change this habit. If the muscles are chronically tense you may need to stretch often and get some bodywork like Rolfing to help speed you along the way. Most people simply need to pay attention and correct the situation and develop new habits.

I know of some instructors that will adjust the arms to a higher level for tense shoulders. This will cause the shoulder muscles to feel like they are on fire. Please don’t do this at home because you want to wait until the shoulder muscles give up, drop and relax and most people will give up way before that and develop more tightening in the shoulder muscles. A better way is to let the arms drop a little lower so the shoulders don’t have to work so hard to try to support the arms until you can understand what connection is, what relaxed is. Remember in Wujifa we say "Relaxed is not limp" and it may take some people awhile to understand what that means.

Another suggestion for the chest is to breathe deeply and exhale and simply "let the chest fall". Both this and the suggestion above don’t create a long term change directly. Only really paying attention and changing your habits over time will do that. What these two suggestions will do is give you some awareness of what a more relaxed chest and shoulders feel like.

Five Common Bad Zhan Zhuang Structural Habits - Conclusions - 

I hope this was helpful and a reminder to pay close attention to correcting any bad Zhan Zhuang habits you may have. One more quick suggestion that people sometimes find helpful, and please don’t make it a habit, is to tighten a tense area and then relax it quickly. This will also bring some awareness to the possibilities of structural change. Also, remember one of the best pieces of advice I can share, that is see a qualified instructor for assistance and verification. Many of these types of corrections can only really be made in person and hands on.

There are many more bad Zhan Zhuang habits we could add to a list like this such as: zoning out, practicing dead post, letting the mind wander, check the clock every couple minutes, and the worst of the bad habits that didn’t make the Zhan Zhuang bad habits list is not practicing at all! Feel free to share your thoughts and opinions or if I missed any other bad habits you’d like to see included in this or future list. Have a great day!

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Martial Arts Dilemma in solving the Compliance Tensor in Structure and Movement

The idea of solving the compliance tensor equations in connection with mechanical movement, much less solving the expression in real time movements in the internal martial arts, could be very difficult if not almost impossible. Right now you might be asking yourself why would anyone even waste their time trying to explore the complexities of Hooke’s Law of Elasticity with encountering strain and stress (F = -kx) as it relates to Wujifa, Internal Martial Arts, Taiji, or any martial art for that matter? What does this idea of “strain being directly proportional to stress” have to do with getting good at Gongfu? (For a detailed explanation of Hooke’s Law and Compliance Tensor, see the Wikipedia entry.)

Personally I believe that every serious practitioner spends much of their time working and training to kinesthetically solve or resolve issues with the answer to this equation as set forth by the tolerances of the principles of their art form to the compliance tensor equation in real time.

Solving the compliance tensor equations in real time requires you to leave the present moment and this is exactly my point. Yin and Yang, Five Element Theory, so on and so forth are simply gross ambiguities that may only make sense when applied to a very “specific equation” relative to a snap shot in time, I say that because the reality is constantly changing as you move and train.

Yes we can apply a Qin-na technique to a joint and watch it dislocate that joint in real time and say here is your real time answer to the compliance tensor for that joint of that person with that movement. At the same time as a practitioner, how do you notice, develop, refine, and train to make real and reproducible results at the highest level?

The method is not the truth once you get the feeling get rid of the method. At the same time I believe the same mindset, the close attention to details “as if” one were methodically solving the compliance tensor equation could be a good model or method. I would say go read about compliance tensor and Hooke’s Law and see if this doesn’t give you some idea of what the ambiguity of Qi flowing might really mean. Look at the vectors of force and how eccentric muscle movement and connective tissues spring to life. Look into the ways stress and strain can be directed and redirected to distort or load a system. Look back to your practice and see if the compliance tensor equation gives you any depth to how and why you train.