Saturday, July 11, 2020

Happy Anniversary...

Today is the anniversary of my Total Hip Replacement (THR) surgical procedure done seven years ago. It was and continues to be a true blessing in my life and I am forever grateful to Dr. Michael Parks, M.D., and the New York Hospital for Special Surgery. Literally, I became a new man free of excruciating and debilitating pain on this day.

Prior to the surgery, I had lived with pain for the majority of my life. I experienced an injury to my knee when I was 14 years old which precipitated a series of physical compensations that eventually resulted in the deterioration of my hip joint 48 years later. The six months just before surgery were the most painful. I found myself unable to sit, stand or lie down for any length of time. I could no longer actively run to say, catch a bus. Walking was very painful and climbing stairs was worse; especially negotiating busy exits from the subways to street level. I avoided sexual intercourse because of the limited mobility during intercourse and the long painful recovery afterwards. The Qigong and other exercises I depended on over the years to give me some relief no longer did so.

Dr. Parks and his staff were all excellent in assuring me that the procedure and outcome would be smooth and effective in relieving my pain. I remember the trepidation I felt entering the cold surgical theatre as the team made final preparations to begin my procedure early that morning seven years ago. I was able to count backwards to 97 I think... 

I'm told that the procedure took about forty-five minutes. When I awakened, I was a bit disoriented initially, but the fog slowly lifted. I was transported by a kind nurse to my shared room and fell asleep. When I woke up again, I realized that there was something missing. I was no longer in the kind of pain I had become accustomed to most of my life. It was gone! Nothing!

Yes, I felt the discomfort of the surgical procedure itself which was masked by the various meds I had been given. However, I knew the difference and it was crystal clear that I was better. Not long after waking up, my nurse had me begin walking with a walker the length of the corridor and around. She had me sit up in a hip-high chair and not long afterwards stroll around the hospital floor again. 

The following day I was using a cane and walking up a set of mock stairs. On my third day, I was discharged and sent home with self-care instructions and an appointment for a home visiting nurse to provide physical therapy for several weeks. Luckily, my home nurse was a former martial artist and understood my recovery goals. She designed a prudent and assertive recovery program for me. I also did physical therapy for several weeks afterwards at a local physical therapy office. 

Seven months after my surgery, I was cleared to resume my normal physical activities with some minor, but important restrictions. A month later I began training with kettlebells doing swings and have never looked back.

Today, I am stronger and more flexible than I ever was in my youth. I was able to begin and successfully complete a 3-year intensive Training Program in Taijiquan and Qigong from 2016-2019. I am fit enough to continue training and exploring my physical boundaries. And, I am pain free! I truly believe that it is never too late and all things are possible with proper support and guidance.

Urban Qi FIT

Tenacity | Diligence | Discipline | Courage | Resilience

The Journey Continues...

From 2016 through 2019, I shared my thoughts under the Blog name of Qi Portals. This was the period when I trained full-time as a martial arts student in the YMAA California Retreat Center's 3-Year Training Program in Taijiquan and Qigong. One purpose of Qi Portals was to document my training experiences to share with those who made it possible for me to participate in the YMAA program. Another goal was to share my exploration of the subtle energies of Qigong and Taijiquan I have had glimpses of since the early 1980s. Being in Northern California in the mountains away from the distractions of modern life, I thought I would have time to delve further into these, but I was mistaken. The demands of the training schedule as well as the community upkeep of the facilities left little time for anything else.

Today, June 30, 2020, marks one year since I graduated from the program and left the Retreat Center to return home. Until today, I had not written anything in Qi Portals since July 2, 2019. My first six months back home was time I needed to rest and heal from my physical injuries as well as from the mental-emotional fatigue of the program. Re-establishing my teaching rhythm with my students and negotiating a radically different personal training regimen has been challenging and immensely rewarding. Unfortunately, the absence of training partners with whom I could continue my progress has slowed down, but not deterred my momentum.

I certainly miss the daily discipline of partner drills that were unveiling the deeper layers of the inherent power and grace of Taijiquan. Whether it is the fundamental nature of such a broad art or the design of the training program itself, there was an imbalance between the Yin and Yang aspects of my training experience on the mountain. While it is clear that Qigong is the root of Taijiquan (Taijiquan is loosely translated as the Grand Ultimate fist of the Mind), the overwhelming emphasis on the mountain was on the Yang side--the body. This makes sense because being physically conditioned to actually regulate one's body to execute the movements (the form, the weapons, the partner drills, etc.) is paramount. However, practicing Embryonic Breathing Qigong once in the morning was insufficient time to cultivate a higher awareness and facility with Qi itself.

Five months ago, the world changed. The COVID-19 pandemic forced me to rethink and revamp how to continue my teaching and training. Now, all of my teaching is online these days and it has been an interesting shift for me and my students. Surprisingly, it's turned out better than I had anticipated. The emphasis of my classes is on the foundations and basics. So, we spend much more time understanding fundamentals and cultivating a clearer relationship with how we govern our bodies and movement.

I have decided to rename my Blog Yin Side Notes. My interest is still in uncovering the hidden foundation(s) for what creates the seemingly facile and effortless treats of power and strength I have personally seen and experienced that are intrinsic to this martial art of Taijiquan. As such, I will share my thoughts and experiences as I explore and journey. My three years on the mountain provided me with some insight, but were insufficient to speak with any degree of authority. One day I know I'll be able to share more clearly.

I hope you are able to join me along the way.

Urban Qi FIT

Tenacity | Diligence | Discipline | Courage | Resilience 

Tuesday, July 2, 2019

Transitions—in “the valley” now...

On my way back to the east coast, I departed from Northern California this past Sunday morning to catch a late morning flight out of Arcata connecting through San Francisco. My three years “on the mountain” were officially over having graduated from the Taijiquan and Qigong program the week before. I was eager to leave.
My flights were uneventful and I got into Newark Liberty International Airport earlier than the scheduled 10:00 o’clock arrival. Worse case, I thought I’d be home in an hour. I didn’t get in until after 1:00am Monday.
The shared ride car service I used at the airport picked me up last and about two hours after I had deplaned. When we finally entered Manhattan via the Lincoln Tunnel, it became clear I had returned to “The Valley”. The intensity of the bright red and green traffic signal lights was exacerbated by the seemingly endless red brake lights as our driver found himself ensnarled in stop and go traffic traveling east along 38th street. He couldn’t make any turns because those streets had been cordoned off by the police in celebration of the Pride Parade.
As we moved along at less than snail’s pace, the overbearing signage from all the storefronts and the digital billboards were overwhelming visually. Consider that for the past six months I primarily looked at verdant scenery and the loudest sound I heard each day was the rooster or the dog barking. At one point, as we made finally made our way uptown, the wailing of an ambulance tracked behind us. And then there were the police car sirens...
My toughest challenges in returning have been the incessant noise and the thickness of the air quality. Whether it’s people constantly talking loud enough to be heard from the 6th floor where I reside, the blaring of rap music, the trucks, police sirens, and fire engines passing by or the revved up engines of cheap motorcycles, the noise never ends. And the air is just thick and heavy making it difficult to breathe easily compared to being on the mountain. Part of it is the heat and humidity for sure, but there is something different that I’m not able to pin point right now. It leaves me feeling tired and heavy like being underwater.
I haven’t been back a full two days yet. This morning I threw out the trash and was ‘welcomed’ by two large rats scurrying around from below the multitude of black trash bags overflowing from the metal bins. On the way to the subway station, the walking dead were shuffling about aimlessly, homeless, disheveled.
Nothing here seems to have fundamentally changed for those who have always lived here these past three years. In fact, nothing seems to have changed since I first became painfully aware of this urban blight of the spirit fifty-four years ago...Gentrification continues at a steady pace and those that have have more and those that do not have have less.
My hope, my prayer, my devotion is that this war of the Spirit can be waged successfully with those who are trained in the ways that promote and uplift the nature of who we truly are as spiritual beings having a temporary material experience. Learning and behaving as if we know how to be in the world, but not of it...

Monday, June 24, 2019

Graduation Day, June 22, 2019..

Dr. Yang, Jing-Ming & Dr. Woodbine
Photo credit: Jonathan Chang

Yesterday, June 22, 2019, my classmate, Nona Ikeda, and I officially graduated from the 3-Year Training Program in Taijiquan & Qigong at the YMAA Retreat Center in Northern California! The training experiences were demanding, arduous, challenging, and rewarding spiritually, emotionally, psychically, mentally, and physically. I gave my best efforts and, while I know how much more I need to refine what I've learned and continue to further explore this art, I am confident in what I learned and gained being here. The graduation marks the conclusion of the program, but it is not the end. Rather, it is a new beginning; a new chapter in my pursuit of being at my best in all ways to help others achieve their best...

All of my YMAA Retreat Center teachers, classmates, and visitors helped me appreciate more deeply these arts of Taijiquan and Qigong these past three years. I am honored to have trained with them. I am profoundly grateful to Dr. Yang, Jwing-Ming for creating this center and for having chosen me to participate in the program. It is truly a lifelong study and practice.

This journey was precipitated by an unusual experience in a Boston Chinatown martial arts training loft in 1984 followed by my first exposure to Qigong and Tai Chi with Mantak Chia in Braintree, Massachusetts a year later. I have wondered about and sought answers to my experience ever since. In addition to the ten years I studied with Mantak Chia, I have been blessed to have had
Dr. Yang, Jing-Ming, Dr. Woodbine & Nona Ikeda
Photo credit: Jonathan Chang 
Dr. Woodbine & Noan Ikeda

training experiences with other notable teachers in these arts thereafter (Master Wang Qingyu, Heiner Fruehauf,  Fabian Maman). However, these past three years broadened and deepened my understanding of the scope of what Taijiquan is as a viable and effective martial art and to Qigong's intrinsic capacity to tap into and connect with the Source of who we are. Dr. Yang's lifelong study, practice and training in the practical use of Shaolin Long Fist, White Crane, and Taijiquan provided insights about Taijiquan I had not received elsewhere.

This day arrived quickly after seemingly taking such a long, long time. I am not without scars both seen and unseen from my time here "on the mountain." These will all heal in time and with proper rest...

I sincerely thank all of you who believed in me and supported me these past three years. I look forward to sharing what I have learned with you.

I believe that each one of us is a physical manifestation of the Light and Source of all. I wish to play my role in assisting those who are like-minded to assist this Light to shine intently to brighten the dark...

With gratitude,
Dr. Woodbine

Sunday, February 3, 2019

This Is It...

I've been back "on the mountain" nineteen days since the winter break which I need so desperately. I enjoyed resting more thoroughly while at home; sleeping in without any self-imposed demands on my schedule or my body. It was great to see and teach many of my students at SAGE and St. Mary's. I spent time with friends, family, and colleagues. Had my annual health check with glowing results. Saw and listened to Kurt Elling live at the Birdland Jazz Club.

The first week back felt like I had been here a month already. Now that it's been almost a month, it feels like I've caught up with myself and the demands of the training schedule. I can honestly say, at this moment, I feel like I'm in the best shape of my life! While I still have so much that I want to refine regarding how I move in space and time (either in solo or partner drills), I've reached an unexpected level of coordination. I had glimpses of this when I was a long distance runner and then a basketball player many years ago.

The rains have returned today after a few days reprieve. It was unseasonably warm last week when the sun was bright. Today it's been a dismal gray all day. We're without heat or hot water once more because there's a problem with the heater again. It's bearable since it's not too cold outside. My room faces North which makes it more challenging to remain warm, but I'm fine. The challenge is mostly at night before going to sleep when I'm sitting at my desk. I may have to fill up my hot water bottle with heated water from the stove tonight to keep my legs warm.

Within the past two hours, we've experienced a couple of tremors from the apparent aftershocks of a nearby quake! The feeling is very unsettling when the seemingly stable room your quietly sitting in begins to shake and you simultaneously feel this deep rumble and vibration through your feet. Both lasted no more than three seconds each, but were disconcerting nevertheless. And, it takes at least one of those three seconds to clearly register in your conscious mind that something is amiss and what that something is--an earthquake aftershock. There is, after all, a dormant volcano southeast of the Retreat Center...

I've been putting in a lot of work with my legs (squats, lunges, hamstring curls, weighted kicks, hip flexor marches with resistance bands) and I resumed doing both forearm planks and reverse planks. My morning panther crawls are faster and less winded. My shoulder and elbow strains are greatly diminished from doing pull-ups on the parallel bars. These and other routines are helping me feel stronger and more stable in movement during partner drills.

We're spending focused time refining the Taiji Sword sequence with a focus on applications. We've added additional parts of the Taiji Spear sequence and continue to refine the medium speed Taijiquan form for the first chapter. We've improved our execution of the Yang side of the Yin-Yang Symbol partner stepping drills and are polishing the Yin side as well. The Taijiquan Fighting Set is steadily improving now that we've learned the sequence and can slow it down to refine the exchanges. We continue to explore executing Applications from stepping Pushing Hands while paying attention to the four elements of Striking, Kicking, Wrestling, and Seizing/Controlling. We recently added doing Applications from Centering as well. We're focused on improving the cross body side of the Peng Lu Ji An partner drill, too. And, we've begun studying the variations for the Large Rollback (Da Lu).

For our Qigong curriculum, we are focused on reviewing and practicing the sequences we've learned (Eight Pieces of Brocade, Five Animal Sports, Four Seasons Qigong, Embryonic Breathing, Small Circulation, Taiji Qigong, White Crane Soft Qigong, Taiji Sword Qigong, Taiji Ball Qigong) and preparing for our final exam. The emphasis will be on case studies and how Qigong might be useful.

Well, this is it! With only eighteen weeks remaining, this 3-Year journey is quickly coming to a close. There remains a lifetime worth of studying and refining to do in these arts of self-defense and personal cultivation which I'll continue after graduation. Graduation is officially on June 22, 2019 here at the Retreat Center! I'm excited to complete my training and return home to teach. It has been a profound learning experience.

I sincerely thank all of you who have and continue to support me through this journey. I hope that these Blog entries have provided you with some level of access to my experiences along the way. It was one of the ways to express my gratitude. As this final semester progresses, I will keep you posted. Stay tuned...



Sunday, December 9, 2018

Tangents and Inflection Points...

I finally have the mental energy to write an entry. It is the final one for this semester as I prepare to finish our training and tests before going on winter break at the end of next week. I have been demanding a lot of myself physically and mentally with the training and not getting sufficient quality rest. I've also been dealing with a consistent nagging shoulder pain which hasn't completely healed. It has interfered with my training and has been an energy drain, too. Nevertheless, I have chosen to persist...

While I have been able to climb the vertical rope on several occasions this semester, my shoulder injury has prevented me from doing it consistently. I haven't gotten to the point where I can climb with speed safely. Therefore, I've chosen to forego that goal for this semester and postpone the effort to beat my previous climbing record until next semester when I'll have 6 months to do it.

The rainy season has finally started. With it has come colder mornings and nights. We now relegate most of our training indoors in the garage and gym. In spite of the rain and cold, I like walking the path between the main building and the gym without an umbrella. The trees along the way provide a good canopy from being drenched. One major drawback, however, is that the vertical climbing rope swells and becomes slick making it unsafe to climb with just my hands and arms.

Of the original six students that began the 3-Year Training Program in 2016, only two of us remain who will graduate next June. With only two of us to train, we've had to adjust our training to accommodate all of the other demands on our time. As a result, it's been an interesting and challenging semester in many other ways...

Midway through the semester, we were told we had to complete the Taiji Sword solo sequence by semester's end. Well, we recently finished the 54 sequence Taiji Sword routine! Now it will take us another 30 years to 'master' it and the sword applications...The Taiji Sword has become my favorite weapon for its grace, beauty, and deceptive power. Next week, when Dr. Yang returns from traveling to the Boston, we will have him check our form for corrections. various partner drills that we practice- stationary and stepping Pushing Hands, Yin-Yang Symbol, and Peng Lu Ji An have taken us from the world of solo practice into a dynamic sphere of interactions with another body in motion. The coordination of muscles, tendons, ligaments, skeletal structure, and breath required to correctly react/respond to an oncoming strike or kick while maintaining personal equilibrium is a fascinating experience.

Several weeks ago, we also were told we had to finish learning the entire Taijiquan Fighting Set by the end of the semester. I'm learning the defensive side of the set and my classmate is learning the offensive side. We are 3/4 of the way through it. Our goal is to finish it by Tuesday and have it checked for corrections by Dr. Yang before we depart next Saturday. Next semester, we'll switch roles and continue to refine the sequence. The objective is for us to know both the offensive and defensive roles of this choreographed fighting sequence in preparation for free-style sparring using Taijiquan principles.
My favorite math subject in High School was Geometry! I loved it. There is a saying in Chinese about the power of Taijiquan being able to use 4 ounces to deflect 1,000 pounds. While I had both an intellectual and experiential about this, it wasn't until I started practicing the Fighting Set that I gained a deeper appreciation for its meaning.

There have been moments; especially in the beginning stages of learning the sequence, when I literally felt stuck in place and unable to coordinate the proper and effective movement of my legs, torso, and arms. The beautiful thing is that one day after many, many repetitions with my classmate and then working alone with the heavy bag in the gym, it finally clicked for me. There is a moment when we make contact, call it a tangent that becomes an inflection point of departure or segue, that leads elegantly to the next movement(s) between us. Therein rests the power, beauty, and seductive mystery of this art for me. The ability to be so well coordinated and calm as to elegantly interact with an oncoming force with the timing to consciously and effortlessly neutralize it. have memories of doing something similar when I played street basketball and would use my defender's body, at just the right time, as the pivot point from which to make my next move toward the basket or to pass the ball to a teammate. Increasingly, I am embodying the clarity about the meaning and value of the first and thirteenth Taijiquan postures- Peng (Ward Off) and Zhong Ding (Central Equilibrium). This experience of being a sphere in dynamic balance with an opponent makes more sense with every practice session we have in the Fighting Set. I'll have more to say about these ideas next semester...

Finally, I'll have Dr. Yang check my progress in the Taijiquan form (first chapter-22 movements) executed at medium speed. Although far from perfect, I've made progress with this. It was challenging to switch from my ingrained reflexes of doing the form at slow speed (4 minutes) to medium speed (40-60 seconds) and still maintain a root throughout the movements. The medium speed progression from slow speed is preparation to do the form with Jing (issuing power with velocity and a firm root without injuring yourself). 

What became obvious to me about my form at medium speed earlier this semester was that I had habituated my movements in favor of my slow twitch muscle fibers. Trying to get all of this mass to move correctly at a faster pace while still being rooted proved to be challenging and highlighted several areas that needed focus. Most important among these was the weakness of my Psoas Muscles. 

I did some research and implemented a daily program of hip flexor marches with Rubberbanditz  latex bands ( followed by squats and then back-to-back repetitions of the first chapter of the form. This strategy helped balance the power relationship between my glutes, sacrum and hip flexors and strengthened my ankles, knees, and hips/waist so that I could accelerate and be still be rooted rather than feeling like my body was ahead of itself and floating when doing the form at medium speed. Gradually, with other drills as well, I've gained the ability to use both my slow and fast twitch fibers in harmony with the joints to move quickly and have the connection from the soles of my feet up and through to my hands without any joint pain below my waist and with less leaning forward of my torso.  The next phase will be to transfer this into moving at fast speed while issuing power...

I'm truly looking forward to being at home during the Holidays! I wish you and your families the very best for the season and the coming year. When I return, it will be for the final semester of this program. We graduate on June 22, 2019!!

Thank you for all of your encouragement and support!


Tenacity | Discipline | Diligence | Resilience | Confidence

Saturday, September 29, 2018

Where did the time go?...

Listening to "Hocus Pocus" from Terell Stafford's album Brotherlee Love-Celebrating Lee Morgan and "Shiva-Loka" from Alice Coltrane's  album Journey in Satchidananda...

It was exactly 4 weeks ago that I returned back here "on the mountain" to resume my training. Like magic, I was transported by the wizards of United Airlines from the hot, humid, and rank city streets of Harlem, New York to this Northern California butte in the dark of night. When I finally arrived ten hours later at the Retreat Center around 1:30 in the morning, the most obvious difference was how exquisitely quiet it was compared to Harlem. I could actually see ALL of the stars in the night sky. And, the air was so fresh and sweet, breathing was like drinking down a cold glass of water every time I inspired.

The first week here felt as if a month had quickly come and gone. Now that a month has passed, the tempo is synchronizing to real time and my body and mind are finding a sane rhythm with which to complete this final year. Can you believe it (ironically, I'm now listening to "I've Known Rivers" by Gary Bartz...)-I'm at the tail end of the program already? Our graduation is tentatively scheduled for June 22, 2019. As I have more details, I'll pass them along to you.

It's my humble opinion that this program should have really been at least 4 years, if not 5 years, long. Three years is not sufficient time to grasp, practice, and embody all of the curriculum qualitatively. This is especially true of the partner-based training drills. Truth be known, this is a lifetime devotion and I will continue to train even after I graduate, still in search of that elusive 'power'. Practice makes progress...

While the graduates of the 10 and 5-year programs are no longer officially here en masse, several have returned as temporary guests focused on polishing up their areas of personal interest. It's good to have them here to answer training questions that come up unexpectedly. Our 3-Year group is down to only 2 active students. We're missing one teammate who will join us sometime this fall. We originally began with six. There are also five new students in the new 3-Year Program group and they are going through those initial pains of accommodating themselves to the daily grind. They are very enthused and dedicated to learning.

At the end of our first week, Dr. Yang strongly recommended my teammate and I do our Centering drills on bricks. This is to help us create a deeper ability to root when we're not standing on them. It's been a great practice to firm up our equilibrium. We are also 3/4 of the way through learning the Taiji Sword sequence. Of all the weapon sequences we have been taught, by far the Taiji Sword is my favorite. Grace and power are intricately woven together in a way absent from the other weapons (Staff, Saber, and Spear). I haven't been taught the White Crane Two Short Rods yet which I'm highly attracted to as well. So, I'll see how they fare against the sword...

We (Nona Ikeda and I) began learning the Taiji Fighting set. It is the extension and integration of the other skills we have been training these past two years: Pushing Hands, Yin-Yang Symbol, Taijiquan Form, Peng-Lu-Ji-An, Qin Na, and Applications. The set is a choreographed sequence that will prepare us to better execute our applications.

Video courtesy of Quentin Lopes

I've begun integrating more of the hard and soft White Crane Qigong and got a sampling of the basic repel and cover drills. In the next 2 weeks, I'll resume practicing the Shan He White Crane sequence and get instruction on the basics of Two Short Rods.

My conditioning is pretty much on target. I'm really happy to be back Panther Crawling up and down the hills at least 3 days weekly. My shoulder has improved considerably even though a slight twinge lingers. Yesterday I climbed up the vertical rope a little a little more than 1/2 way just using my hands and arms. It was a good climb, but didn't include speed yet. I resumed my pull ups, chin ups and dips this afternoon and will continue doing all of the hand and grip strengthening drills. My goal is to make it to the top in 10 seconds or less before the end of this semester which ends in 11 weeks.

On the Qigong front, we are doing the complete sequence of all the animals in the 5 Animal Sports routine. It takes about 45 minutes from start to finish and feels great to transition from the Tiger to Deer to Bear to Monkey and finally to Bird. The most challenging of them is one of the movements in the Monkey routine-combing. That really works the feet, knees, and buttocks!

We'e still doing Four Seasons Qigong and I've been practicing the All Seasons set on the bricks as well. I'm also now standing on 3 bricks doing Central Pole (Embracing the Tree).

With 11 weeks remaining in this first semester, there are several areas that I'm focused on: Qin Na, Applications, Taijiquan Form medium speed, the Fighting Set, and Taiji Sword. I'll keep you updated on how I'm progressing.

Thanks, again, for all of your encouragement and support!