We've had one New Year - now for another. On February the 8th the Chinese New Year will begin and, this time, it's the turn of the monkey (or the fire monkey to be exact) to host the year. I'm not necessarily a superstitious person, and don't often tie myself to future predictions, but I can't help but be a little enticed by a character such as the monkey - a usually cute, clever, agile and often amusing animal, which often makes me think of very hairy, miniature human being. I mean, how many of us were called 'little monkeys' when we were younger? I admit, I took this a little literally when I was a child and became a gymnast and got to climb things and swing around on things and throw myself about. But that form of exercise had its lifespan. Soon, like many, I ended up with a mashed up lower back and suffered from chronic pain at a young age. That's why I'm here writing this. I arrived at Pineapple Studios over eleven years ago looking for Tai Chi tuition that would help me along the path of healing my lower back. And that's what I got from the Rose Li School. And much much more. I was lucky in that sense and that is why I'm here instructing; because hopefully I can pass on the tuition and the system of movement that has helped me so much.
So don't worry, we won't perform backflips or somersaults, in Tai Chi, Ba Kua, or the other martial arts (though, in Ba Kua there is a walk called the monkey, which still, thankfully, doesn't involve any of the above). In fact, for a martial art, and even for a Tai Chi system, our way of moving is wholly economical and will seem simple and unadorned from the outside. Over time, we aim to cut off the excess of each movement in order to refine it to it's most efficient. In order to do so we need a sustained practice so that we can continue to chip away. Hsing Yi is the greatest reflection of this - an art with forms that are so stripped down that the simplicity of them is very hard to grasp, because, as humans, we love to make things more complex than they need to be. This can be where watching animals in the wild like our monkey can be very useful. Most animals will do what they need to do to survive without any 'learnt' bad habits. That is why you find animal forms cropping up in martial arts. We want to study these unadulterated movements in order to find and efficient, un cluttered way of moving.
This monkey character of the new year seems to be a bit of a trickster from what I've been reading. Apparently, this year, because of him, there will be plenty of insecurity, risk-taking, rebelliousness, but also creativity, ingenuity and activity. As a practitioner of such a settling martial art it's often easy to look past these aspects of human nature and in some cases suppress them. I find a unique approach is needed towards this. I like to practice being with it all. If there is risk, there is risk, sometimes it is the only way. Insecurity. That's a big one - a challenge for most. A scary place. A practice like Tai Chi can, oddly enough, help you with be with insecurity. An art such as this requires you to be present with both your internal and external environment and you can't help but notice how volatile it all is. Everything is moving and in a constant state of flux, including our bodies and minds. What this art does is allow you to be with it. Not even just sitting there with it, watching it. You become that flow that movement that shifting - active in the universe as part of it. One of the five core principles that underlies our whole system of martial arts system of Nei Jia (internal martial arts) is 'motion and stillness are one'. This can manifest in many aspects of our practice, but in this example we could see our minds becoming settled as the stillness and our body moving as the motion. And what you will realise is that our body just does it. As our minds settle further and our thoughts are seen for what they are - empty yet still arising - we can move with the flow of the world and yet be still.
So if there is to be risk, instability and unknown this year (which I'm sure there will be, monkey or not), then through an active practice like Tai Chi or the other internal martial arts, we can learn tools to help us be with these challenges. What we are practicing is being and becoming, not just something else to do.
So embrace it all. Embrace that monkey (I mean, who wouldn't with a cute little face like that?).
For the time being, I have decided to take this blog in a slightly different direction to that which I had originally intended. I have been searching for material to include in these short spaces and it has been difficult to do justice to all of the information and insights that have been handed down to me and that I have discovered through practicing Nei Jia with the Rose Li School. I’d therefore like to loosely follow the course of my own practice in order to inform on Nei Jia, Tai Chi in particular, from the start point as a beginner and onwards.
The reasons why you start practicing any art or craft will, more often than not, be very different to the reasons why you continue to practice. My own motivation for beginning the path of martial arts, specifically Nei Jia, definitely has. Over time, a person will evolve and change into something as they age, learn new things, let go of certain aspects of their past selves and pick up new habits, depending on the internal and external factors that contribute to this development. On the path of the martial arts practitioner in particular, we aspire to simplify our way of being by stripping away the excesses of our overused habitual tendencies and, instead of picking up new habits that we can use in replacement, we seek to find what it is to act from the present moment with spontaneity. Though this begins with the physical and kinesthetic aspects of life, it later evolves into a holistic simplification including the psychological, emotional and psycho-physical. I’m not saying the reasons why I started practicing Tai Chi, Ba Kua and Hsing Yi have left me though. One of the initial factors that brought me to find this fulfilling way of life is something I am still working on and aware of: Lower back pain.
Chronic pain and stubbornness
I first showed symptoms of lower back pain at the age of eighteen, when, one day I stood up from sitting down on a sofa and felt a hot dagger of pain right at the base of my spine. My legs lost their stability for a moment and I buckled at the knees, which forced me to sit back down quick. This pain appeared on and off for a year or so, before finally becoming chronic in my very early twenties, when I was rarely without tightness or an ache at the base of my spine. Being that I was relatively stubborn and perhaps overconfident in my body’s resilience, I thought I’d get over it soon enough and never approached a doctor about it. I have been to see doctors and physiotherapists since and have had many insights into the world of lower back pain, something I am hugely interested in and continuously studying and researching to aid others in their recovery.
Instability from loss of the centre
The pain continued to worsen in those early years of my twenties and not only affected me bodily, but emotionally and mentally too. When the part of your body that links your upper and lower extremities at the centre of your physical being is in reoccurring pain and is constantly tight and on edge, it will make you feel tight and on edge. Also, being that this part of the body is where we gain stability and balance, this can then transfer into how secure you feel - as if loosing your root in life. Such circumstances, combined with other stimulus, lead me to breaking point and pushed me over the edge in terms of physical and emotional stress and pain combined.
Reflecting on flux
After hitting the bottom, I knew I had to start making my way back up, and, thankfully, from what seemed to be my unconscious, arose reflections on change and impermanence, almost like a defence mechanism. I could see, not always, but enough of the time, that life was a flux of things that arose and then faded. The state of my lower back was definitely aligned with these concepts. Sometimes the pain was crippling, at other times a dull ache, often just a short sharp spike. Simply knowing that those painful states of physical and emotional discomfort would change and could not last for an eternity allowed me to be a little more at ease. Along with the concept of impermanence, I began to reflect on the interplay and balance between the two ends of any spectrum (ie black/white, sadness/happiness, empty/full) and how these opposites were dependent on the existence of each other. I often mulled over the thought of how darkness could not exist without the light to illuminate it and therefore compare it to. This led me to see that without a concept and feeling of difficulty I would not have a base to compare ease and release to.
Over a year after these reflections arose, I stumbled upon eastern philosophy, namely the concept of Yin and Yang, and was instantly interested when I saw how it connected to my own experience. My back was still hurting badly too, so I knew I had to carry on investigating ways that could aid my recovery and improve my quality of life.
In my next blog I will write on the subject of searching for a practice to promote health and wellbeing and the importance of seeking the correct teacher.
Everyones’ physical, emotional and mental make-up is different. We all need specific considerations when it comes to our own circumstances in order to help us through difficult times. What I have spoken about in this blog was my own experience and how I found the most skillful means to help me through difficulty. Our unique physical, pychological and emotional make-up colours our lives and the way in which we work with difficulties. My experiences will be similar to those that others have been through, but they will not be the same. Therefore, the theories discussed here will not necessarily be applicable to others in similar circumstances. They aren’t even useful to me in the same way now as they were back then as I too have also changed since the period of my life written about here. I feel as if what I have written is more of a sharing with those reading, who can perhaps see the connections with their own experience, but understand the subtleties of their own conditioning too.
As this blog is a relatively short space to tackle a large period of my life. I’d just like to say thank you to my family, friends and others who have helped me along the way. Though I have written much of this as if I was acting independently through self-discovery, I would not have been able to come up with my discoveries without being interdependent and working with others to help me.
We all have to start from somewhere and we have to learn and evolve with practice in order to reach a certain level of proficiency. Would you want to be instantly proficient at something? Would there be true satisfaction in this? When I learn any skill or craft I find that the early work - the rough, the clumsy, the ugly - provides a useful reference to compare my current ability to. For example, in Tai Chi, if I did not know how a certain piece of form could be performed inefficiently, then I wouldn’t know whether the move was efficient or not. I would have no base to compare my growth to, and practice would stagnate and become one long repetition of the same thing again and again, mistakes included. This repetition is against the nature of the world around us, which is constantly in flux; changing, growing, decaying and shifting. Even something that seems solid and firm is moving, if not visibly, then on a molecular level at least.
Practice should always be moving on many levels. For instance, in terms of the physical form, in our system, we are not concerned with numbering the moves and making sure that we reach a certain amount. There is one ‘move’ and that is the point from the start of the form to the end, whether that be long or short form*. The motion of the whole body never stops to create the separate ‘moves’. In our system - and in Tai Chi especially - one aims to maintain constant motion throughout, which can be achieved by application of spiral motion (one of the key characteristics of our system**) and testing against core principles***. On a higher level of practice, this constant motion is a continuous contraction and expansion of the synchronised body, breath and intention, something that takes a number of years of earnest practice to achieve. Such concepts are difficult to put into words, as it is impossible to capture the essence of something experiential and of the fleeting present in something so fixed. What I speak of can be read about and conceptualised, though, if not experienced or put into a practice that is concrete, the words are worthless. This returns us to the original subject of always moving. These words are, in a way, dead. When such experiential concepts are written down they no longer have the life they had in actual practice. They have stopped moving. Bassui, a 14th Century Rinzai Master, used to add at the end of his letters to his disciples that it was unwise for him to write in such detail, or he would request his disciples to destroy the letters after reading. This shows, perhaps, that what he wrote of could only be perceived in that present moment on the first reading and any rereading would simply lead to over-analysis and confusion. Also it could be seen that what he wrote of was something so simple, refined and incommunicable in words that intellectual rather than experiential analysis would only take the reader further from the truth.
The Present and Growth
I have already written on the subject of the frustrations met by beginners in Tai Chi, especially when finding the body does not perform movements perfectly or as a student wishes. Even when you think you are performing something ‘correct’, it is often your ego or the habitual tendencies of the body telling you that it’s right. That is why you need a good teacher or instructor to guide you in your practice. A good mirror always helps too, though this can be deceiving to most as it only shows the external form, not what is going on beneath in terms of principles. In the here-and-now, the imperfection of movement is the practice. Once you ‘see’ the imperfection, whether that be your own discovery or something pointed out to you by your teacher or instructor, then you have the opportunity to move on. At first this may seem disappointing and frustrating, but then comes the refinement - testing different positions for a foot or a hand, moving a shoulder in the opposite direction to the one you had previously been practicing. You ask yourself questions on how it feels, sensing that something isn’t right in what you’re doing, which, again, can be frustrating, but you continue to scratch that itch until it is alleviated as best in can be. And then you find something else to work on. This process is constantly moving in the present moment and can be seen as a form of growth. If you think that you’ve ‘got it’ or you are finished, you’ve given in to stagnation and no longer have room to grow and evolve in the present. Again, this is a reflection of constant motion, this time in the process of practice.
The Past, Future and Disappointment
As I mentioned at the start of this blog, it is good to know your past as a point of reference to look back on and see where you have been and the pitfalls to be avoided. One major fault with this though, is that many people see the past as having been better than the present and it becomes negative, detrimental and a more than comfortable place to dwell in. This can come about, for instance, when a practitioner has a fleeting glimpse of a certain clarity of mind or some improvement in their physiological state. Some may attach to these moments and experiences, wanting to return to them or remain there. This is an impossibility as those points in time have passed and no longer exist. A similar problem can be seen in terms of the future. In my last blog I wrote about the usefulness of having goals to aim for. I mentioned that always wishing to achieve the next benefit will lead to disappointment. There will always be more to gain once you attain what you think you are looking for. Always focusing on the gain in the future will create a cycle of desire that disconnects you from the appreciation of that which you have here and now, even if it isn’t what you expect or want it to be.
So we can see that telling yourself stories and dreaming of how it could be or how it was can lead to disappointment in practice. It is not as if these stories and thoughts can simply be erased though, as they float about whether we like it or not. One remedy to this lies in practice itself. Commit your focus to the task at hand: the body, the breath, the particular piece of form that you’re working on. Use the physical to ground yourself in the present. You may find those stories and thoughts loosen their grip easier than you imagined. This is one means towards reaching another benefit that comes from practice: A settled mind. Past and future have their uses, as mentioned earlier, but if you can reflect upon them from a standpoint in the present, you may find a certain degree of ease arise as you practice and walk the path. I am not saying the present is concrete either. It too is impossible to hold onto, never resting. Settle into this constantly moving instability and you may find you can ride it like a current.
* Long and short form: In our system we split the form in two. Long and short form. Generally short form is learnt first and practiced for some time, before continuing with the more complicated long form. Complicated is not always better. I would rather practice short form to refine the basics than practice long form, which has its place in throwing up some new challenges, but does not necessarily refine the core of the system more so than short form.
** Key characteristics of our system: Spiral motion is one of the key characteristics of our system, all of which have their affect upon the constant motion spoken about in this article. These characteristics are too extensive subjects to go into detail here and, like many of the concepts spoken about in these articles, are better experienced through proper tuition and practice.
*** Principles: Though practice may seem complex, the core of the art is simple and we aspire to reach that simplicity. In order to do so, Nei-Jia is founded on principles that can be used as sounding board for our practice. A later article will cover this subject.
The First Class
For every beginner the first class is always different and will include a lot of repetition, perhaps on the most basic of levels: learning how to transfer weight by moving from foot to foot or repeating one or two simple movements from the beginning of the form. Instruction will be given in how to move and the basics principles that lie beneath the external form, but still for many this repetition can be dull and arduous in class, let alone practicing at home. This is the first challenge to the ego. Many beginners often want to start off doing the interesting stuff, the complex movements they have perhaps seen on a video on the internet or in a movie. Often though, the more complex the movement looks the more inefficient it can be on a number of levels. Optimal movement is something I wish to talk about in future articles, though.
Refining the Foundations
As with any art, as a beginner, one has to learn the foundations first. Without a foundation there is no support. The refinement of these foundations is the heart of the practice whatever level one is at, no matter how many years one has under one’s belt. Honing the core of the art has a knock-on effect, strengthening all aspects of practice from the base upward. I was always taught that mastery is an understanding of the basics, and that is what I instruct too.
In the first class you learn the basics of how to move. This is far more important than attempting to perform any fancy postures that may look nice on the outside yet, due to lack of experience, have no foundation internally and can be damaging to the body and its systems. We build our practice through layers, one after the other, starting with that foundation and building for a lifetime. That is what we aim for: a system that can strengthen the body and can continue to be performed in the latter part of our life.
One interesting observation of students and my own practice, is how, when the mind focuses on a particular element, one often forgets other elements entirely. For instance if I’m focusing on my footwork, I may forget about what my arms and hands are doing and they may return to a habitual way of moving or something altogether clumsy. This is all fine and part of practice for any student on any level, but for beginners can be frustrating and off-putting. This is another challenge to the ego and often a point where beginners may wish to give up. But this is why we practice: to refine the way we move. We realise that even the most simple of movements is complex, like looking deeply into a form of nature such as a pine-cone, seeing beyond its initial impression and realising the intricacies of each little scale that makes up the whole, how each one protects a paper-thin seed stored within. The refinement of movement never stops. Practice never stops. Everything is moving and dynamic in the world and our practice is part of this subtly changing movement of all phenomenon.
Two Methods of Practice
Once one looses the sense of frustration of the body not doing what one’s ego wants it to do, and overcomes a sense of giving up, practice can continue in one of two ways
The first method of practice has a back and forth manner to it. One concentrates a specific element and, as one does, other elements that you are not paying such keen attention to slip back into habit. Again the example of focusing on the footwork and the hands and arms doing what they want becomes useful here. Later, one may go back and work on the hands and arms and find that the footwork returns back to habit, but perhaps with a slight improvement that has come about through the previous focus paid on honing this element. Take note that in this example, and especially for those beginning to practice Tai Chi, that it is integral to refine the footwork first, as it is through the lower limbs that weight is transferred. The alignment of the joints of the lower limb are integral to a sustainable and healthy practice. The motion of the hands and arms can be tuned-up when one has a greater understanding of how the footwork is affecting the rest of the body.
The second method of practice is a holistic approach. One simply just ‘gets on’ with things and runs through what is known of the form. If something uncomfortable, confusing or of interest arises it is investigated, perhaps adjustments are made, and then the continuous flow of Tai Chi continues. This is a slightly more advanced approach as it does require a certain awareness of the body as a whole, which will arise in time. This holistic method can feel very fruitful as, over a period, one can begin to understand the relationships between the systems of the body as well becoming more aware of the climate of the mind. Further down the road, as the arising and vanishing of thoughts is observed, a settled mind can be achieved leading to a greater sense of presence and equanimity. This is a goal to aim for in time, developing over a number of years.
Benefits of Tai Chi - Improved Coordination
Many people often ask of the benefits of Tai Chi and Nei Jia, and I have hopefully given some in this article already. Using the example of focusing on the footwork and loosing focus on the arms and hands has brought one specific benefit to mind: improved coordination. Utilising the two methods of practice I have mentioned, the arms and hands can become better coordinated with each other and the legs and feet with each other too. Later, the upper limbs can become better coordinated with the lower limbs as the body begins to move as a whole. And that is another goal: to coordinate the whole body as one working unit - not just foot with hand. This subject is something to discuss later, as it is part of a developed practice.
As I mentioned in the section above, these benefits I have spoken about are useful motivation for beginning students. Someone may start their practice knowing that Tai Chi brings such benefits, but, on failing to achieve or discover them straight away, may be put off. Yet again, another challenge to the ego. There is no wrong in wishing to gain benefits from practice, but craving for them can only lead to disappointment. I have found from personal experience that the changes and benefits gained from sustained practice arise subtly rather than occur in large explosive realisations. Sometimes the change may not even settle in until an exploration in practice leads to an observation that some change has occurred. These observations are not only restricted to practice, but can also come about in daily life. One may find that something has changed physically as one goes about some physical task, as simple as washing-up or ironing. Perhaps one realises a greater ease of movement or even, on a mind/body scale, a greater awareness of one’s movements and improved focus and concentration on the task at hand.
I hope you have enjoyed this, my first blog. I am writing it to complement those who have begun practice, though, hopefully, it will be of use to those who are interested in starting Tai Chi classes, those who are interested in the other arts of Nei Jia, and others who are interested in exploring the relationships between body and mind.
Edd started practicing Tai Chi in 2005 and has been practicing Chinese Internal Martial Arts since. For many years, he has been fascinated by the way the human body moves and functions and the connection between body and mind.
© Copyright. All logos and trademarks on this website are copyright to the Rose Li School. All other textual and graphical content on this web site is copyright to Rose Li East. Use or reproduction of content on this web site, other than for the purposes of personal browsing of this site, is expressly prohibited without the written permission of the Rose Li School.