Sunday, April 21, 2013

Further Thoughts on Qigongs


By way of caveats, let me state up front that the intersection of martial-arts training to TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine), in its functional, physical sense, is fairly recent (in terms of years) and surprising to me.  I have no expertise in TCM and I would opine, on the other hand, that most westerners (even most Asians, I’d venture) involved in TCM don’t think in the functional terms that I’m using as a perspective in these essays.  The general thrust of my thinking is that the corpus of TCM was derived from a physical, practical basis and because of the aspect of an “etheric” (if you will) aspect of TCM and qi, there’s been some sort of misunderstanding, in many cases, about qi discussions.  It seems highly likely that the theories about strength and qi were the result of a focused interest long, long ago in how the human body worked.
I’ll try to deal, as best I can, with some ideas about the origin of the etheric aspects of “qi” in a future essay, but for now, in this essay, I’ll give my opinions about some further aspects of qigongs that might help a beginner get his foot in the door.  Incidentally, this essay isn’t meant to discount the sensations, etc., associated with various “qi flows”, and so on… it’s just that the topic is tangential to the physical aspects that are the focus in this discussion.

In the immediately previous essay (Breathing Exercises, Yoga, Balloon-Men, etc.), the idea of conditioning of the body fascia, connective-tissues, and so on was prominent.  In the early essays done on Silk-Reeling and Six Harmonies movement (on this blog) there were a lot of opinions about connecting the dantian to the muscle-tendon channels (from which the acupuncture meridians are derived) in order to control the body.  The same principles apply to qigongs as do silk-reeling movement:  control lines from the dantian to the extremities are developed through the muscle-tendon channels and through the “mind-intent” control of forces from gravity and the solidity of the ground.

Qigongs like the Yi Jin Jing are considered the original mechanism from which most other qigongs and martial-systems using the jing-luo theory derive.  Breath, pressure, stretch, and movement connected to the dantian are used to strengthen the body connections delineated by the twelve “channels” or connected tension-lines in the body. 

Qigongs like the Ba Duan Jin, also called the “Eight Pieces of Brocade”, rely on the development and conditioning of the eight extraordinary meridians/channels.  The “Eight Pieces of Brocade” aka “Eight Pieces of Silk” is a metaphor for eight areas/layers/pieces of fascia.

Chinese martial-arts as Qigongs

In a relation to qigongs, almost all Chinese martial-arts make reference to the interplay of their intrinsic postures and the meridians/channels of the body.  So, as an example in Xingyi, one of the primary elemental strikes, p’i chuan, is related to the Lung Meridian and the practice of that strike is supposed to develop areas of the body affected by the Lung Meridian (perhaps by just rubbing one arm on top of the Lung channel in the other arm).  If you think about it, the idea of developing meridians/channels in Xingyi or other Chinese martial-arts is the same basic idea in the movements of almost all qigongs: the various postures and movements relate to the development of specific channels/meridians of the body.    

Yoga’s postures were almost certainly aspects of this same general principles, originally, because there are too many parallels to pass off as coincidence.


Developing a few examples in qigong usage

Knowing what meridians or channels are associated with the various postures or movements in a qigong (or martial-art movement) can help you clarify a qigong-related movement.  So instead of just going through a nice series of “flowing motions” that look particularly fetching and exotic when done in a white silk suit, you can examine how you take a particular meridian/channel and condition it with relaxed stretch, pressure, jin, dantian-movement, and so on.  Developing and working a meridian/channel in this manner is an additive method to needling or tuina/shiatsu manipulation of the channels/meridians.

As has been emphasized before, you have to have a physical connection from the dantian/hara to the hands or feet to control the extremities with the dantian.  However, first some feel for the ‘suit’, through the breathing and stretching and other exercises mentioned in the previous essay, needs to be developed.  It takes a while to develop this kind of connection, so therefore it’s important to always keep a light stretch-connection from the dantian or mingmen to the hands and feet while learning to move with the dantian and practicing your qigong. 

You have to have a physical connection from your dantian/hara to an opponent’s center, in martial-applications, so you have to learn to maintain that connection, also. Think how many times you’ve heard an instructor say “push harder” or “grab tighter”… that’s to help him get a connection through bone (yang qi) or connective-tissue (yin-qi) to your center.

It really only takes a couple of months to begin feeling the connectivity of the ‘suit’, but some parts of the ‘suit’ develop more slowly than others.  The hands and fingers and arms tend to be the first places where ‘suit’ (really, a part of the qi) develops and you can feel the tensile/elastic connection.  The legs tend to be the last places to develop where you can feel the connections, and so on.

As you breathe in, particularly while using reverse-breathing, you can feel a pulling inward from the extremities of the “suit”.  Different channel/meridians (but not all of them) begin or end at the tips of the fingers or toes. Often, you will be “breathing in the qi” from a specific point, but generally, in my opinion, you’ll get satisfactory development of the ‘suit’ and channels by just doing general reverse-breath inhale (keep it light!) while staying slightly stretched out.  Gradually, the defined feeling of the channels will appear.

Specific areas of the body can be conditioned by physically stretching the area prior to the inhale.  For instance, if you’re trying to develop the front of the ‘suit’, arch slightly backward and move the arms backward as you’re breathing in to physically heighten the amount of stretch.  As you exhale, visualize letting the slight stretch from breath and position relaxing toward the dantian (“relaxing” in the sense that a rubber band “relaxes” when you let one end of it go).

If you’re attempting to strengthen the sinus and lungs, to use and example that was mentioned in the previous essay, look upward and elongate the neck slightly during the inhale.  Think of “breathing qi in through the Yintang point”, pulling or stretching the elastic connection from the Yintang point (between the eyebrows) toward the lungs.  Then, on the exhale, let the elongation relax toward and into the dantian.  The visualization and “breathing inward” will quickly develop into a slight tension or pulling feeling.

Another example might be where you exercise the connective tissue within the abdominal cavity by stretching it upward upon inhale, in a health-oriented qigong.  Try to somewhat vertically separate the internal body components of the upper thorax from the abdominal cavity and notice the stretch that you induce in the connective tissues in the abdominal area.

Along the “suit” of the human figure the general rule is that during the inhale the tissues contract/pull in toward the dantian on the inside and lower areas/channels of the limbs as you “breathe the qi in”; then the “qi flow” returns back along the outer/upper/back areas of the limbs as you “exhale the qi”.  There is always an overall feeling of tensile-elasticity relaxing toward the dantian, the central controlling point of the body, upon exhale. 

“Qi flow” and tensile-elastic changes during movement and breathing are strongly related.  The positions and movements that most efficiently coordinate with the overall map of tensile connections and contractions have much to do with the basic logic of the “channel” system that accords with TCM theory.  Discussions about “spiraling” and “winding” also have to do with tracking the “qi flow” as the points of maximum tension move along the spirals caused by the interplay of front- and back-suit on a body with limbs that developed originally from a cylindrical origin.


Static Holding Example

As a last example from which to illustrate a general point about static use and training of channels, let’s use the odd-looking paths of channels/meridians seen on the head.  After you have done a couple of months (or more) of persistent ‘suit’ development with breath and stretch (don’t overdo it; get your physician’s approval; keep it light and quit at the first signs of a headache), you should be able to do a standing posture of the “tree hugging” variety and relax, allowing the tensile connection of the shoulders and arms to be held by the endpoints of the channels on the head.

Slightly elongating the head upward will actually allow the tensile channels on the tops of the arms and shoulders to be held by the tensile channels at the sides of the head.  Two of the channels most frequently coming into play would be Large Intestine and Sanjiao.  The suit along the back and fronts of the body are also aided by lightly keeping the head up (remember that the dantian cannot move the extremities without a connection of some sort).  And of course, the breathing during a statically-held posture is used to constantly tension and release the ‘suit’, while pressure increases and decreases within the “balloon man”.




Two of the holding channels involved in 'tree hugging' posture.
As mentioned in previous essays, the classical perspective of the body’s strength is that it develops largely by converting and using the solidity of the ground and the downward pull of weight.  Extraneous usage of muscle for strength is to be avoided where possible, in the classical view.  The bones propagate the solidity of the ground upward through the configurations of the body’s frame; the muscle-tendon channels control the opening and closing of the frame.  Generally speaking, the tensions of the “closing” (gravity-related) channels is somewhat more than the tensions in the “opening” channels, often at about a 70-30 or a 60-40 ratio. 

As you turn and twist you can feel the various tension lines of the suit come into play as they hold the body against gravity or convey some other necessary tension in order to maintain structural integrity.  Bear in mind that various muscle-tendon meridians work together as needed in order to do something, so often you can feel the tension-play of two or more muscle-tendon channels come into play as you move.  The dantian is the mediator of which channels are used and it is the overall manipulator of the body via the channels and skin of the ‘suit’ (metaphorically like the skin of a Balloon Man).

Stretching, pressure, tensions, contradictory jins, dantian-control, etc., are practiced in qigongs, but the general rule is to relax and not to overly-maintain artificial tensions or contradictions.  In some ‘hard’ versions of occasional arts, you’ll see constantly maintained tensions, but generally these are not following the classical admonitions if they are done with overt tension (“hard qi” development).  There is a difference between muscular tension and jin tensions.  Relax, but stay connected.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Breathing Exercises, Yoga, Balloon-Men, etc.

Basic Information related to qigongs, stretching, packing, etc.


The connective tissue or collagen-based tissues of the body run through everything in the body tissues, except for the teeth (the bones have a lot of collagen in them).  Even muscles have a lot of connective tissue around and within them: think of the idea that if you removed the meat cells from the muscles, you’d have an empty, fine-filament net made out of connective tissue. 

Generally speaking, the main idea in strengthening the connective tissues and tendons is to stretch, stress, and hold them.  In other words, by manipulating (including twisting) various fasciae in the body, you can strengthen them.  Holding a stretched tissue in position helps to strengthen it; this is the core idea of a lot of various standing postures.  You can also strengthen the fascia tissues in and around organs by stretching, stressing with internal pressures, twisting, holding, and so on.

The various Asian breathing and postural methods have a lot to do with the idea of strengthening the connective tissues, for the most part, although there is more to than that, of course.  There are some more sophisticated aspects of breath and posture training, but this essay is simply meant to provide some baseline information on breath-related training and not go into much more than a general overview.  Like other exercises, breath training can be overdone and thus be potentially injurious, so it’s better to have a knowledgeable trainer and regular medical monitoring.


Many Qigongs, but only a few principles

In Asia there are a number of variations on the breathing and conditioning approaches and there are a number of different preferences for the postures that are used.  The general idea in a qigong (including Yoga styles), though, is to condition the body via an approach focused on the fascia (including the fascia contained in muscle) and to use a set of sequential postures that most adequately addresses all of the body areas, internally and externally.  Relaxing physically and mentally is usually a part of these exercises, but not always…. we’ll simply assume the relaxing part of the discussion and limit this essay to an understanding of the basic physical aspects.  An additional aspect of good and complete qigongs is the use of “intent” or jin forces (see previous essays).

Many people think that a qigong (and any good Asian martial-art which is based on qigong principles) is a series of movements which somehow imbue benefits just from the sequence of postures.  In much the same way, many people think that the ‘magic’ of a Taiji form is in the sequence and choreography, as well.  In actuality, the benefits come from how the body is managed during the sequence.  In other words, a qigong, a Taiji form, etc., is a type of workout regimen in which the body is moved and conditioned in specific ways. 

The fact that the actual workout part is difficult to see has led many people to focus on the choreography and to miss what is really going on in qigong-related exercises and martial-arts.  To be fair, the “how-to-do” of the body mechanics, qi, jin, dantian, etc., is often not shared with everyone by the real experts, so focusing on the choreography is an easy mistake to make.

Naturally, every proficient practitioner has a concept of the ideal qigong workout/regimen in terms of conditioning components, efficacy, how things should be done, which areas of the body are conditioned in what order, and so forth… so there are a great number of opinions about the best qigong, yoga set, or similar breath-related exercises.  Some qigongs contain training components that are variations and/or improvements on the components in other qigongs, but an understanding of the basics will help to pick and choose the appropriate one for personal use.  The point to remember is that even though there are many seemingly different breath-related exercises, they all actually revolve around only a few simple principles.  For instance, the Ba Duan Jin, the Yi Jin Jing, and old Yoga exercises are all related, in principle.

You don’t need to learn a lot of forms… one form done correctly can contain all the training methods that are needed.

Two ancient Japanese statues portraying the gods of Inhale and Exhale

Concentrating the Breath and Developing the Suit

The two basic aspects of breath-related exercises to bear in mind are:

 (1.) The stretch/stress training of the tendons and fascia, including holding positions.

(2.) Building up your pressure ability in the dantian.  Gradually both of these conditionings are spread to encompass all of the body, but let’s just leave the discussion at how to get started and the ideas behind the practices.

Many qigongs and neigongs (a neigong is a more focused version of a qigong) first start off by bringing inhaled pressure to various parts of the body and manipulating the body and the pressure.  Quite possibly, though, time can be saved by jumping to first how breath can be used to pull in the areas of the “suit” (see the essay on Silk Reeling and Six Harmonies Movement for a discussion of the ‘suit’ model).  Let’s try to work our way through an example in order feel how the breath pulls in the ‘suit’ and then we’ll discuss pressure.

There are basically two major categories of breathing: Natural Breathing, in which a deep abdominal inhale is allowed to push out the belly/abdomen and kidney area;  Reverse Breathing, in which an inhale is somewhat contained by holding in the abdomen and perineum areas.  Although both types of breathing have conditioning benefits and both are used, reverse-breathing is the classical hallmark of much of the martial breathing exercises.


Preliminary Exercise to feel “Suit”

Stand upright (head pushed lightly upward) with the arms stretched out to the sides, palms to front and slightly up, fingers straight and perhaps even bent slightly backward.  Inhale through the nose while pulling the belly slightly in and try to pressurize the abdominal area, even down to the perineum.  If you pay attention to your finger/hand area, you should feel a slight pull or contraction in that area.  That’s the feeling you’re looking for: a contraction/pull that is related to an inhale.  It is a slight pulling, almost subcutaneous, and ultimately you’d like to lightly do variations of this type of conditioning until you can feel a slight pull all over the body and a slight increase in pressure inside the body with every breath that you take.  Your breath “pulls the qi in” and the type of breathing that uses this slight pull-in of the abdomen is, as mentioned before, “reverse breathing”.

You can garner similar sensations and effects of the ‘suit’ pulling inward by trying these variations:

1.  Standing in the same outstretched position as above, begin your reverse-breathing inhale while slightly pulling in the belly area, but stop actually inhaling air at about 2/3 of a breath and attempt to pull the rest of the air in through the pores in your skin.  You should feel a contraction of the skin from this visualization.  This is elementary “skin breathing” and it causes a contraction that can be felt.

2.  Again, stand in the same outstretched position and use a reverse-breath to inhale about 2/3 of the way, but then try to pull the rest of the breath in through the tips of the fingers, toes, elbows, knees, shoulders, etc.  Again, you should have a similar pulling sensation, but this visualization is just another variation.  A similar variation has you imagining that the inhaled pressure is squeezing your bones.  All of these visualization methods induce a pulling and pressure-like feeling and conditioning of the ‘suit’.

Note that by first stretching the body or an area of the body which you want to condition, it is much easier to effect the pulling sensation.  Therefore, it’s always best to maintain a slightly stretched posture while doing qigongs/yoga/etc., or to bend in such a way as to pre-stretch the area you want to condition with your inhale.

At first only worry about progressing with the goal to spread the ability to pull various areas of the ‘suit’ at will.  Keep the muscles very relaxed in order to work on the suit and not involve any muscle tension.  Later, with some qualified advice, you might add contraction of the suit as a step, or even some judicious muscular tension if your art is more of a Shaolin variety.  Be careful, though, because it’s easy to do things wrong or to go off on a training tangent where you waste a lot of time and you have a difficult time returning to the path.

The pulling sensation (and pressure components), incidentally, is part of the conditioning that results in a skin that is difficult to cut or puncture.  Hence, some of the old qi tricks about spear points on throats, beds of nails, hooks in skin (seen all throughout Asia) as parts of religious and training rites, and so on.  Since the skin actually contracts minutely on the inhale, some people use a well-trained suit in the hand to lift smooth, dry objects like a small mirror, a polished knife blade, etc.  They put their hand on the object and quietly inhale to initiate the adherence.  It’s a form of “sticking” power.  The traveling Beijing Acrobats used to have a guy that demonstrated this trick on a water-cooler bottle laid on its side.

Another example would be the previously-mentioned idea of inhaling while pushing the face upward in order to tension and strengthen the connective tissues between the lungs and the sinuses.  Over a period of time, some sinus conditions can be favorably assisted by this type of “qi” exercise for the sinuses because it effects an actual conditioning of the tissues.

Still another example is the near-titillating qigong/neigong which is famously pictured with some male practitioner hanging a large rock from his genitalia.  The basic idea is the same as the sinus example and many others: a pulling sensation is established via breath-training and then the hold and stretch is practiced until the tissues are conditioned.  To hold a contraction/tension while returning to normal breathing is a skill that comes with time.


Basic Pressure and Tensioning

As you inhale with a reverse breath, pressure builds up in the abdominal area, or in other areas you may choose to focus on after you have some practice and experience behind you.  Gradually, you should also begin inflating the kidney area as part of the inhale.  One of the old, commonly-heard sayings about qigongs was “first, concentrate the qi behind the navel”, or something along those lines.  This is a reference to the abdominal pressure and condition developed from breathing exercises.

The ‘suit’ also contracts slightly with each breath, after it has been trained for a while.  So within the body there are stresses caused by the increase in pressure and by the pulling inward of the suit during inhales.  These stresses condition the connective tissue and also massage the organs and other body tissues.  Because each inhale pulls inward on the body (and the body slightly pressurizes), the bones are also lightly pulled and compressed inward with an inhale. Over time, as has been noted for centuries in Chinese martial lore, the bones tend to become denser because the stressing causes some bone growth.  As your ability to bring the slight tension associated with an inhale (and the resultant slight pressure within the body) increases, you’ll notice that the idea of a “Balloon Man” is fairly good descriptor.



In concert with the “Balloon Man” idea, the slight pressurization and pulling in of the ‘suit’ strengthens and assists the body’s connections.  Naturally a weak spot in a balloon would weaken the overall integrity of the balloon and analogously in the Balloon Man, weak areas in the structure can cause a loss of integrity.   In the human-shaped “balloon”, the two major weak areas are the mouth and the anus.  For this reason, the mouth is normally kept closed (tongue touching palate behind upper front teeth) and the anus/perineum region is normally slightly pulled up in order to counter any bulging and loss of integrity in that area.  So we have three pressure related actions that are done in many/most breathing excercises: pull in/up the perineum/anus area of the pelvic floor in order to keep that area from expanding under pressure, pull in the abdominal area during inhale in order to assist in developing a light pressure, and if you’re doing a pressure-hold in more advanced breathing exercises, tuck the chin as an aid to prevent pressure from building up in the head.  These three movements are the same in Chinese qigongs and Yogic locks (bhandas).  While there are much more exotic-sounding “energy” reasons often attached to descriptions of Yogic bhandas, it seems probable that their origin was based upon the manipulation of pressures while conditioning the body.  A lot of modern yoga seems to be missing an understanding of internal conditioning of the fascia via the pressure methodology.

I know of some groups of people who use fairly high breath-induced pressures to develop an “Iron Shirt”, the ability to withstand blows, and so on.  Some of these people have gone so far into pressure artifacts that they have induced health-related problems.  The point being that there are training cautions; a person should rely on expert advice and common sense in all of the types of training that we do.

Movement as part of Qigongs

Several previous essays have dealt with movement, muscle-tendon channels, dantian usage, etc., and the movement of Open and Close.  A traditional qigong is going to include movements that are based around Open and Close, using the power of Gravity, the use of mind-intent jin, and the use of the dantian to control the body through its ‘suit’ connection.

Usually movement within a qigong begins with the body expanding and opening with the inhale assisting the opening movement.  An exhale accompanies and assists the closing and contraction of the body.  As a person progresses in development, the role of breathing changes somewhat and the focus is more toward pressurizing and tensioning the suit on the inhale and the exhale assists in the closing and contraction associated with the exertion of power.  Exhale when exerting power, although there are some slight modifications to this idea as a person becomes further advanced.  Sometimes the inhale while tensioning the ‘suit’ and exhaling on the exertion of strength goes beyond the usage in the sense of a “qigong” and becomes a more muscular “dynamic tensioning” exercise; the two things should not be confused.

There are traditionally only the two main forces which derive from gravity: upward forces based upon the solidity of the ground being propagated by the body’s structure and downward forces which derive from gravity.  Horizontal forces in the body are actually composed of the Up and Down forces working at angles through the body frame.  Traditionally, then, there are six primary directions: Up, Down, Frontward and Backward from the body, and out and in to the sides of the body.  A good qigong will usually address body movement in those six directions.  Other postures are usually for development and conditioning of tissues within the body and externally, as well.

Here is a good example of a basic qigong; qigongs similar to this are done in many styles:

I'll do a more focused essay soon on specific aspects of breathing-in qi.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Dantians, Centers, Haras: Centers of Power

In the essay on silk-reeling and Six Harmonies movement, there was an odd implication and question that came to light about the muscle-tendon channels.   The muscle-tendon channels are connected lines/channels/groupings of muscles connected by tendons and fascia as functional conveyors of strength and power along which the “Qi of Earth” and “Qi of Heaven” act. 

Strength and qi are always related, so it’s not incorrect to say that strength flows along the muscle-tendon channels and it’s not incorrect to say that “qi” flows along the muscle-tendon channels.  Viewing the muscle-tendon channels from that perspective puts a different light on the acupuncture meridians… which apparently derive from the muscle-tendon channels (Deadman et al, A Manual of Acupuncture).  The point is what has hitherto mostly been viewed as metaphysical “channels” or “meridians”, actually seems to have had a functional origin. 

Along those same lines, many of us on the old Neijia List were somewhat surprised to see Chen-style Taijiquan experts having muscularly-developed “dantians”, when for the most part, we had all viewed the “dantian” as some metaphorical reference to an “area of change” (field of cinnabar).  It was puzzling to find out that the dantian, in expert practitioners, was actually muscular and articulate.  It could be moved/rotated like a separate organ.

One of the first questions in my mind was “which came first… the rhetorical dantian or the functional, muscular dantian?”.  The odds of someone positing a rhetorical dantian first and then by some miracle a muscular dantian was developed later seemed to be absurd, so it seemed unavoidable that the functional, muscular dantian arrived first.  And actually, since there is plenty of literature talking about movement starting at the dantian, it all makes sense.

The dantian, as discussed in the Silk-Reeling essay, controls the muscle-tendon channels; it is the main nexus of power through the human body.  There’s actually a back-side to the dantian at the Mingmen point at L3 of the lumbar vertebrae, so the front muscle-tendon channels are mostly affected by the abdominal dantian and the rear muscle-tendon channels are affected to varying degrees by the Mingmen and by willed control of the “suit” (fascia aspects of the qi).  Generally speaking,  a person who has trained his “qi” uses the dantian to control the body.  The dantian gets its power from the solidity of the ground or the weight from gravity, mostly.  There are two major exceptions to the general power statement, but for purposes of simplicity, we’ll leave those discussions for another time.

Our human bodies are no longer the ancient cylindrical creatures we evolved from, although generally speaking our muscles and connective tissues and bone still reflect the ancient cylindrical origin.   Over time we developed arms and legs (and a tail, but alas we have lost that over time), so the muscles, fascia, and bones adjusted the basically cylindrical shell to accommodate moving the limbs and head.  So it’s logical that there are secondary nexuses of power for the legs and the arms.   The nexus for the legs is the “lower dantian” just inside the perineum area of the pelvic cage.  The nexus for the arms is the chest dantian, on the sternum in front, matched by a corresponding area on the back. 

Naturally, there is also a nexus of power/movement at the hollow of the throat.  The endpoint of the elastic connections through the vertical axis of the body seems to be the sinuses at the uppermost end.  The sinuses are connected to the lungs, in TCM theory, and sure enough you can feel that elastic connection if you inhale deeply and tilt your head upward.

I’ve heard it said that a person’s “kung fu” (accomplishment of skill) hasn’t crossed into excellence until the lower dantian is developed to the point that you’re aware of its functioning as you move.

The main idea of this discussion was to offer once again the idea that the main dantian that controls movement in the “internal strength” sense is a functional thing, but there are other functional dantians in the body which are slaved to the main dantian.  These ideas seems fairly obvious when you think about them, but again there is a nagging question about the relationship between “qi” and strength.  Since qi and strength always go together, in the old qi-paradigm, has there been a slight skewing of perspective when we’ve talked about dantians and chakras as “centers of power”?  What part of that “power” was functional strength and what part was the elusively-defined “qi”?



Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Addendum to Earlier Posts: Dantian as Origin of Forces

During a two-handed push against your partner’s chest there should be a jin path, of course, but a western engineer will see that push differently than a traditional Asian martial-artist that uses a dantian-centric art.   From a western perspective, there is one line from the ground to the hands (in a coherent body), but from a traditional Eastern dantian-centric viewpoint, forces originate from the dantian and go out simultaneously to the legs and hands.

While this perspective doesn’t make a lot of sense, at first, it actually does a lot to help understand the discussion about the muscle-tendon channels, forces, connections, the dantian’s control of the body and so on that are described in the earlier essays on this blog.   Because of a few side questions about this aspect, I decided to add this to the baseline level of knowledge that is helpful for people to understand.



Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Qi, Structure, Connection, Gravity

"Qi" is a sort of generic term that can cover a number of things. A Chinese friend of mine who speaks excellent English said that when he grew up he always thought of qi as meaning contextually something like "the energy in things around us". So air can have qi from oxygen and pressure, as an example. The earth can have qi in gravity (the ground support and the pull downward). Food has energy within it.  A light bulb can use the qi of electricity. And so on.

The human body can use the Qi of the Earth (see the essay on Reeling Silk and Six Harmonies) in the sense that the solidity of the ground can provide a supporting force that can be applied to objects (your computer is being held up by the ground in just that way right now). Downward forces can be effected by harnessing the body's weight through overall connection.  In other words, the notable qi aspect of the earth is gravity and in the classical sense as much use should be made of the ground’s support and gravity’s weight in doing everything.  A simple example might be for a native porter to carry a load on the head by letting the structure of the body convey the ground’s solidity to the load.  Structures and channels along which the qi of the earth and the qi of heaven work are representative aspects of the Qi of Man.  More on that topic later.

If your partner is in a good stance, he can be difficult to tip over and he can probably hit hard from that stance. Assuming your partner is not using a muscular stance, but is instead letting the "qi of the earth" go through his frame, he can be relaxed but solid. On the other hand, if you are facing your partner and twist him into some awkward stance, it is easy to push him over because he “has no qi”. “No qi” in this case doesn't mean that there isn't some mysterious energy flowing through the person’s meridians; it means that the "qi of earth", the solidity of the ground, can't be propagated through an awkward or unconnected body frame.  You “have qi” depending on the way you have developed your body and the way that you use the qi from the earth and the qi from the heavens/air.

The first thing to note in this discussion about qi and body mechanics (there are other issues about qi than just this one) is that without the two primary powers of the solidity of the ground going upward and power of weight/gravity pulling downward there is no power except muscular power.  What if you push sideways off from a wall, by the way?  That wall has no stability if it is not supported by the earth somewhere. So the wall’s strength also derives from the powers of gravity.  Sideways forces from the body can be generated from angled versions of the two primary powers of gravity.  The classical preference is to let the solidity of the ground or the down-weight of gravity do as much work as possible by manipulating the body and the dantian.

The Three Internal Harmonies

Generally speaking, the body’s qi from a structural viewpoint is twofold: the bones/skeleton propagate the support of the ground upward and outward for the “Yang qi”; the connective tissues, tendons, etc., allow for pulling forces, the “Yin qi” in a downward and inward direction. 

The body has a natural ability to adjust alignment directions from weight, weight-shifts, incoming forces, and so on.  For instance, if you are carrying a heavy back-pack, your body will automatically make force compensations for the different and off-center stresses the back-pack’s off-center weight/mass causes.  You can actually learn to voluntarily manipulate the body’s normally involuntary force-compensation mechanisms in order to the direction and origin of the forces of gravity through the body’s frame.  Willfully manipulating the direction and origin of forces is generally referred to as using the “Yi” or “mind intent”. 

But what is being manipulated? The qi involves micro-adjustments, functionally, and those adjustments will involve the muscles, connective tissue, and bones, but on a very small level of movement.  You can get a feel for this aspect of qi by standing in a good, centered stance with one foot in front and one behind.  Weight is in the middle.  Imagine a very strong wind coming into your front and you stand against it by letting the back foot handle the push (don’t tense the body; let the foot hold the wind push).  Then imagine the wind suddenly comes from behind and pushes you so that the front foot is holding the force.  If your body was centered, you shouldn’t have to make any shifts or adjustments.  Now, alternate imagining a front-wind push for a couple of seconds, then a back-wind push, then a front-wind push.  Try not to make any muscle tensions in your body, but just feel as it adapts to the slowly changing wind directions, front then back then front, and so on.  You should feel a slight tingle in the body with each body adjustment to the changing wind.  That tingle is the qi as it prepares for each force change.

The tingle of “qi” preceding a force being readied was noticed by the ancient Chinese and was encapsulated in the old saying about the Internal Three Harmonies: “The heart (“Xin”, the root of “desire”, in the old view) triggers the mind (the “Yi”), the mind triggers the qi to where it is needed, and the qi precedes the strength (the “Li”).  So the saying was “Xin – Yi, Yi – Qi, Qi – Li”.

Using the mental manipulation of qi, we can engage an incoming force in any of a number of directions, blending with it so that the resulting force of the encounter becomes what we wanted for an outcome.  See the first essay in this blog on “Jin” for a slightly more-detailed discussion of the simple interaction of forces using the mind-directed qi. 

Another thing that we can do is mentally manipulate the qi to set up contradictory forces within the body; these forces can create balance (as in the Six Directions) or they can be used to augment force generation.  However, the qi precedes any forces; forces do not generate qi.

The Strange Directions of a Push or Hit
Although it might seem a little bit off-topic, it’s worth noting a further point about the traditional nomenclature and view of the dantian’s relationship to a directed-qi push.

When you push or hit someone with the ground’s solidity that is propagated through the body, it’s easy to think of the force from the ground to the hand (shortest practicable path, please!) as being extended by the joints expanding.  For instance, I could arrange with my “intent” to have a ground-solidity-connection from my foot to my hand and I could simply expand that connection by straightening my knee, my bowed back, my elbow, and so on.  That’s usually the best way to learn, but there is a more sophisticated perspective someone who has developed the dantian’s control of the connected body (see again the discussion on Silk Reeling and Six Harmonies).

In the traditional view, forces originate from the dantian and to push someone, qi is sent simultaneously from the dantian to the ground and to the hand while the dantian rotates.  So, in a way, a push or hit to someone is really a push to the ground using the solidity-of-the-ground, or jin, path.  If you’ll think about this perspective, it means using the strength of the lower body to push with the upper body.  Even to raise your arms, you actually send the qi to the ground first.  You “sink the qi”.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

6H group on Facebook

I've opened a discussion group on Facebook called "6H".  There's one other group by that name, but it's in Chinese, so they're not hard to differentiate.

On 6H there will be some discussion that overlaps essays on this blog, but generally speaking, the longer and more serious essays will be to this blogsite.

6H is viewable to members after they have subscribed and membership is generally open.  Thoughtful additions, comments, critiques, questions, are welcomed.  Ranks, styles, and bickering need to be left at the door, please.
Hard qi; Soft qi

I keep reading and hearing about “Tai Chi teachers” that use Iron Shirt training as part of their Taiji. Always, when I hear this, I wonder if they don’t understand the difference between “hard qi” styles and “soft qi” styles like Taiji. I think what happened was that as Taiji gradually worked its way from northern China to southern China, a lot of people were taught, but they were never shown the intricacies of the internal training, the qigongs of Taiji, and so on, so people began adding training methodologies from the commonly practiced southern Shaolin styles of the South.

Hard qi practice involves the muscles, dynamic tension exercises, pressure buildups, and so on. If they do a standing practice within their style, there will be a deliberate extension of the limbs with some degree of muscular tension. Naturally, the fascia and tendons will be trained in this way, so a person will get strong, but it is not the same method of the softer or “relaxed” styles (like the Fangsong in Taiji). Here’s a video of a hard-style qigong practice that obviously derives from the Yi Jin Jing of Shaolin; there are many common hard-qigong bits on display here and most hard-qigong styles use a lot of the same postures and practices.

Soft qi practice involves more of a focus on allowing the solidity of the ground and the weight of the body to do most of the work. The body’s elasticity is developed and the complete body is manipulated by the dantian, sort of like twirling the arms of a toy octopus by turning and moving the large mass of the head/body in the center of the arms. The mental manipulation of forces (“intent” forces) supplements the movements. Here’s an example of a soft qigong using jin and the body connection and some dantian as used in a “soft” qigong. Note that I don’t think this man is using the dantian as much as, say, someone in Bagua or Taiji, but he’s in the same general category, IMO.

The next time you see someone claiming to teach Taiji, but who also does Iron Shirt training, a question should pop into your mind. ;)

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Addendum to Internal versus External

I noticed the previous blog got mentioned in an ongoing discussion on AikiWeb and I'd like to point out that the essays on this blog are pretty much in the "basic knowledge" arena.  I.e., there are aspects of the internal-versus-external discussion that are not contained in these essays and they add content that would seriously affect the discussions on the forum (or other forums)... if anyone was aware of those factors.

The problems I see with a lot of the discussions on various forums like AikiWeb, Rum Soaked Fist, and others, is that too often the commenters unknowingly betray the fact that there are components of the discussion that they're simply unaware of or they wouldn't have made some telling statement in the first place. 

I might take a thread sometime and highlight some posts by would-be "experts" and then explain some of the areas they just revealed that they don't know.  Not to humiliate anyone particularly, but to show that too many of the 'experts', many of whom are also 'teachers' aren't really beyond the amateurish stage. 

One of the big problems I've had over the years is that I consider myself to be an amateur who has spent a number of years trying to find all the details of "internal strength", but I listen to a lot of self-styled western "experts" chatter away, not knowing that they've just told me they know far less than I do.  

If I'm an amateur, how are these people "experts"?  They're experts "with years of experience" to other neophytes, but they'd never be experts in the eyes of real experts.  I know enough about what I know to understand where I'd rank in the eyes of a real expert... I know enough to know that I'd be pretentious to claim the mantle of 'expert'.  Anyone can impress neophytes; few people can impress real experts.  Think about that when you're reading a lot of the popular web-forums and understand that there's a lot of depth and sophistication that is not brought into the conversations because few people have that information.

Monday, January 21, 2013

“Internal versus External”


This is a slightly different approach to a topic on a previous blog about “internal” and bragging rights, but I’ve been thinking about the way terms are used and how confusing it is for a lot of people to decipher the jargon.

I use the phrase “internal strength” a lot because it is the best or most-convenient translation of the word “Neijin” where “nei” is “internal” and “jin” refers to the trained body usage of the forces from the earth and the air.  That’s the original “internal strength”.  My initial interest was in jin skills when I started doing Taiji around 1982; I didn’t really start investigating or thinking much about the dantien until the late 1980’s.  So it was the “jin” in “neijin” (internal strength) that was my primary interest for a long time.

The problem with jin skills, conditioning skills, real dantien involvement, and so on, is that most of the Chinese martial arts have these things to some degree in one way or the other, but those arts are still divided into “external” and “internal”, regardless.  Over the years I’ve learned to trust the idea that an “internal martial-art” tends to use the dantien more than an “external martial-art”, but there can be overlaps.  It’s a good rule of thumb, though.

As I’ve mentioned before (see the blog on Silk-Reeling), it’s a fairly common Chinese martial perspective that the Six-Harmonies view of movement was predominant at an earlier time.  There are still many arts that have “Liu He” (“Six Harmonies”) in their formal names, but the number of arts now actually using those movement skills has decreased greatly as hand-combat has declined in the face of distance-weapons (pistols, etc.).

The Six-Harmonies type of movement depended a lot on the dantian strength, articulation, and connection to the rest of the body.  Why is that important?  It added power.  If you have felt a room shake from, say, someone demonstrating a powerful p’i chuan (not everyone can do this in Xingyi) or a room shake during a standing one-legged shake from a Chen-style expert, you would better understand that this type of power is unusual.  How does that relate to actual martial-application?  That’s something worth investigating and thinking about on your own.  What are the roles of the dantian in Six-Harmonies movement?  More than most people in the West understand, if you read some of the wild comments on current martial web-forums.  It’s all an interesting puzzle.

Can someone not using Six-Harmonies movement be strong through neigongs (internal exercises, usually involving breath, pressure, beating of the body, and other things)?  Of course they can be strong and hit very hard.  But to focus on just strength is to miss the point and the many factors that make Six-Harmonies movement so complex and interesting. 

Is a different type of training “internal” even though it does not depend on dantian-centered movement.  Well, that’s the common confusion: there is a difference between a style that strengthens the internal membranes, tendons, and so on, and a style that truly moves in the manner of one of the “internal martial arts”.   It’s a common debate with no resolution in sight.

The point, though, is that the old famous Six Harmonies type of movement, using the dantian, was considered the peak of martial-movement styles in the old days and that’s why so many of today’s arts, whether “internal” or “external” still quote from the classical admonitions that were attached to Six-Harmonies movement. 

This type of actual movement (as opposed to someone claiming it, but not actually doing it), is probably the easiest distinguishing mark of what would nominally be the “internal martial-arts” as compared to those that are “external”.  It’s tricky to differentiate all the arts into one category or another, but I’d suggest that actual, not superficial or partial, use of Six-Harmonies movements would be one of the best movement-skills to look at to determine what is “internal”.

Is your style “internal”?  Well, it’s pretty easy to spot in the basic movement, so it shouldn’t be too hard to get an opinion from a real expert.  It’s similar to watching much of the bull-like struggles that amateurs often call “push-hands”… a lot of Chinese experts I’ve seen just shrug and say “that’s not Taijiquan”.  It’s fairly easy for an expert to see what is missing, not just in Taijiquan, but in six-harmonies movement; it’s easy for an amateur to not see what he does not know in the first place.  We all go through that as part of the process.

Many very different types of training resulting in very different types of body conditioning are passed off as being “internal strength”.  In other words, there are so many conflicting stories out there that it’s probably wise to do as much investigation as possible before committing yourself to years of study.


Monday, January 14, 2013

Just Relax?

“From Extreme Softness Comes Great Strength/Hardness”

“These Strengths are not Intuitive; They Must be Learned”

In the early blog on this site about Silk Reeling, there was some discussion about how relaxing allowed the entire length of the muscle-tendon channels and connective tissue to be trained as a whole.  In the blog on Jin there was discussion about how local joint usage diluted the strengths from the support of the ground and from gravity; the idea is to relax local tensions in order to let the ground’s support and gravity do most of the work.

The overarching idea is that in order to learn a new form of movement you have to stay relaxed while learning the new movement… otherwise, old movement habits will be retained and you will make no progress.

Overall, in this series of blogs, there has been discussion about re-training/re-patterning the body to use strength in a very different way than the way we’ve done it since babyhood.  The second italicized quote above says it all: “these strengths are not intuitive; they must be trained”.  Trying to train while at the same time maintaining your old strengths and tensions means that you cannot learn to re-pattern the body in the new way.  It’s for this reason that in early training, many old habits must be unlearned and that often means avoiding movements, etc., that only reinforce the old ways of moving.

For instance, weight-lifting using your old form of strength, doing the same old forms and techniques, applications, and so on, will stop progress into a new form of movement because you will confuse your body doing a little bit of the old movement and a little bit of the new movement. 

Learning to use the power of the earth’s support and gravity, using the dantian, using breath, using the body as a connected unit, etc… that’s a new form of movement.  Or it should be, if you’re not just doing an incomplete assimilation of the new skills.

Learning new skills requires relaxation, for the above reasons.  However, many times a distortion, based on misunderstanding, creeps into some peoples’ martial training.  Some people begin to think that if they just relax, somehow the skills of the internal arts will visit their body.   Occasionally I hear of some martial-school where the instructor has encouraged students to work until they’re completely exhausted and then they will learn to move in a ‘relaxed’ way.  The problem is that no matter how exhausted and ‘relaxed’ someone is, there’s still the question of the basic movement skills.  Those skills take knowledge, information, practice, and some years to learn.  Getting exhausted so that you’re ‘relaxed’ is not going to teach you how to move with dantian, jin, kokyu, etc., any more than getting exhausted and relaxed is going to suddenly imbue you with the ability to play the piano or analyze quantum mechanics.

Another point to make is that a person cannot really relax unless they’re conditioned.  I’ve often seen someone who is physically strong brag about the fact that he is “relaxed”.  Sure, he’s relaxed, but he’s strong, and 99.9% of the time he’s still mostly using normal strength, despite any claims to the contrary.  Being “relaxed” can happen in normal strength or in internal strength, but a limited knowledge of a few jin tricks is not going to ever result in the type of relaxation referred to in the old classics about internal strength.

Let’s look at the example of lifting the two arms upward as is done at the beginning of most Taiji forms.  The average person emulating that movement is going to mainly use shoulder muscles.  They’re never trained any other way to lift the arms, so even if they get exhausted and ‘relaxed’, they’re still going to use those shoulder muscles.  They have no concept of any other way to do it.

A knowledgeable Taiji practitioner is going to use jin, the body connectivity, the dantian, and so on, to lift the arms.  It will look the same (usually) as the other way of lifting the arms, but it’s very different.  To lift the arms with dantian, connectivity, jin, etc., takes a long while to learn and it also takes some amount of practice to become proficient and strong in moving that new way.  Only after that new strength has become conditioned can the practitioner really “relax”.  Working to exhaustion is not the same thing at all.

As the body becomes conditioned and patterned to hit or move with the whole-body, dantien, jin, and other factors, its power becomes great and feels very hard when a hit or application is made.  That’s why there’s the old saying about “Great hardness comes from extreme softness”.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Shun and Ni: the Two Opposing Directions of Twist Inherent in the Body


A lot of the old classical Chinese literature describes functions of the body, the body strength, the importance of some body parts, and so on.  In other words, there is an attempt to describe and analyze the way the body and universe work:  these descriptions should not be confused with directions for doing things.  There is an old Taoist diagram of the body that I’ve always liked, although I’m not sure it’s totally accurate:

There are actually references in the above picture to the kidneys, the lungs, the spine as a channel for energy, the dantian, the liver (those trees), and a number of other things.  The point is that the functions of the body were something carefully defined and delineated in terms of health and strength, but descriptions of functions are not how-to’s.

Some other commonly-seen drawings about the body have to do with the way strength is propagated via generally longitudinal “channels” and acupuncture meridians.  Again the dantian is prominent as a player in the function of body movement via the muscle-tendon channels.

The body naturally bends and winds in ways that are dictated by the skeleton and the natural lay of the muscles, tendons, and connective tissues.  The winding of the body is another item that has been categorized and defined at a basic level.  Essentially, there are two opposite ways the body can wind: one way and the other way.  In other words, the discussions of the body’s spiral-like winding is just another of the basic descriptors like “dantian”, “muscle-tendon channels”, bones, and so on.  The fact that the body twists or spirals in two different directions is a component descriptor of the body’s workings, but it is nothing more than an acknowledged part of an analysis of how the body works.

The two opposing windings affect the way the whole body twists, but we can basically describe the windings as something like “come to” or “Shun” and “go against” or “Ni”.  In other words, if you hold your hand palm-inward in front of your face and then push it out away from your face so that it’s palm-outward, the arm just spiraled in a “Ni” manner.  Bringing your hand back, palm-inward, in front of your face will be spiraling in the “Shun” manner. 

Ni uses the back of the ‘suit’ (see blog on Silk-Reeling) and the ground’s support to expand away; “Shun” uses the front of the suit and gravity to close toward the body.  If we do an arm-wave as described in the Silk-Reeling blog, half of the circle you will be doing Ni winding away and half of the time you will be doing Shun winding toward.  These directions are Yang and Yin, respectively: you go from one into the other in the manner of the Taiji change of Open and Close.

It’s common to include a reference to the basic description of the body’s natural windings as part of the logic of the strength/qi borrowed from the Qi of Earth.  In other words, using the solidity of the ground and the weight from gravity, the body will wind in one of two ways.  A lot of old martial arts used to establish their bona fides by mentioning the dantian/hara, the windings, the breath, and so on.  Here are a few illustrations showing the traditional view of windings in the Six-Harmonies (Reeling Silk) type of movement. 

Note: these natural movements of the body are the two possibilities; just because they’re combined into one drawing doesn’t meant that you do them both at the same time:


The description of the Shun and Ni windings also apply to the secondary dantians at the perineum and at the chest-dantian.  Here’s an example of a drawing showing the two potential directions of windings from the perineum (lower) dantian:


Part of the training of the body-connection/’suit’ is done through relaxed stretching and holding of that stretch.  In the martial-arts that use held postures for training, you’ll see this sort of “antagonistic” (sometimes called “contradictory”) training.  Quite often someone without a lot of knowledge or experience will confuse the “contradictory” winding trainings with isometric training.  They’re not the same thing.  A person has to learn to differentiate between contradiction, isometrics, and jin. 

Another point to bear in mind is that there are many possible permutations of winding patterns, so it is impossible to say there is only one way to wind up, down, in or out, except to note that there will generally be a balance along the lines of “if one side is open, the other side is closed”, but that would be true of any balanced system.

Here’s a picture of an old Chen-style posture, one hand in front and one behind, that uses contradictory training in standing practice:


Baguazhang uses a lot of contradictory winding postures, but they do many of them while walking the circle, etc. 


Of course contradiction and stretch can be done without winding, but the discussion of which is jin, isometrics, or contradiction arises again.   There is a big difference in how things are done in those three choices, even though they might look the same to an inexperienced onlooker.  

Contradiction and holding-postures helps train the body connectivity. The main idea has to do with a correctly-trained holding and stretch, whether done linearly or spirally.  The old Taiji discussions about “pulling silk” (chousijin) and “reeling silk” (chansijin) were about linear and spiraling movement.  Since the Yang-style has publicly stated that they also use reeling-silk movement, there is no longer any disagreement in the correct type of movement that is supposed to be used in the neijia arts.