Saturday, December 10, 2016

Off the Mountain...

As I write, I'm listening to "Wise One" by John Coltrane on his Impulse album, Crescent, with the famous John Coltrane Quartet. The next tune up is his Impulse recording of A Love Supreme...

This week was remarkably intense for a variety of reasons. The one most pertinent is the daily testing we all experienced since Monday. Both the new 3-Year Tai Chi & Qigong Training Program students (the group I'm in) and the existing 5 and 10-Year Shaolin, White Crane, etc. Training Program students were put through a combination of physical and oral exams. When our group was not being tested, we sat in to view the more experienced group's tests.

As a result, there was very little training in the schedule. In fact, today was the first day we returned to a routine resembling what we've done daily since September 1st. I have to share that it was challenging to get back into the flow of moving my body (gracefully and with ease) after literally sitting around most of each day this week. I was surprised at the difference and it made me aware of how easy it can be to slip out from a high level of physical intensity and refinement; especially at my age.

Beginning in the afternoon on Monday, our group began the physical part of testing. We performed and were evaluated in front of and by Dr. Yang and our primary teacher, Frank, either solo or in pairs (in partner drills) for approximately 3 hours in the following areas:

1. The first two chapters of the Classical Yang Family Style Taijiquan Form
2. Single Push Hands patterns 1-4 (right and left hand)
3. Coiling drills- solo and partner  (right and left hand)
4. Soft White Crane Qiqong- solo and all 12 patterns
5. Taiji Ball Qigong- solo without the ball
6. Yin-Yang Symbol- solo and partner (right and left hand)
7. Long Weapons Basics- Bo staff
8. Short Weapons Basics- Sword
9. 8 Pieces of Brocade- demo of form and Q&A

On Tuesday, for five hours (two in the morning and three in the afternoon), we had group oral exams with Dr. Yang asking us questions about General Qigong topics and Embryonic Breathing. On Wednesday, we spent another five hours in oral exams finishing up the Embryonic Breathing topic and beginning the subject of Medical Qigong (8 Pieces of Brocade; Four Seasons Qigong). Finally, yesterday, we concluded with Medical Qigong and a bit of Tai Chi Theory.

The process was exhaustive and intensive and helped reveal my strengths and areas that need additional attention. Observing the senior students go through their testing was invaluable in providing insight for where our group is heading. Altogether, in retrospect, this week's testing experience was helpful though going through it was arduous. Now, I at least have a sense of how to prepare to meet those demands in the future as well as how to refine my personal training regimen to meet my goals for being here.

Where has the time gone to? It's almost (not completely) unimaginable that sixteen weeks have come and gone, seemingly, so quickly! This time next week I'll be heading down "Off the Mountain" for my first break. I am so looking forward to being with family and seeing friends and students for the Holidays! While life here is physically isolated from the mundane rhythms of urban living, it is not absent of the challenges inherently present in what we as individuals bring with us to the mountain. There's that old saying that wherever you go, there you are...

While I'm still in the midst of being up here in the mists, I haven't fully digested all of my experiences. Being away for a month will provide me some distance and space to reflect more easily. I still feel so very fortunate to be here and appreciate all the support I've been given both morally and financially to realize this dream. Thank you!

If I set up my Instagram account correctly, you may be able to see several pictures I uploaded there. It's under the name: urbanqi. I plan to do some videotaping of my training with a GoPro camera during this coming semester. As that happens, I'll share those with you as well.

I wish you and your families the very best for the upcoming Holidays. May you be blessed with robust health and well-being and may you truly know unconditional love and happiness.


Sunday, November 13, 2016

Why I Am Here...

Photo credit: RJ Woodbine
In four short weeks, this first semester here will end. I have experienced so much in a relatively short time period. All of my learning has been rewarding. In the past two weeks, we've accelerated our focus on the Taijiquan form itself. Today, we completed the first set of kicks after "Search High for the Horse" in the second chapter. Along the way, we've learned the basic application(s) associated with the patterns and it's made executing the form much more relevant than what I would have studied independently.

One of the revelations I experienced about ten days ago is how to have the hands and legs arrive at the same time (i.e., when doing Brush Knee, Step Forward). The rear leg is the source of the power that is directed by the waist and ultimately expressed through the torso and then the arm-hand. However, when stepping forward, my tendency was to lead with that leg/knee and invariably my arm/hand would arrive after my hips had squared and settled. What I discovered is the necessity to plant the heel and foot of the leg stepping forward and establish that root first as the rear leg gradually transfers the momentum upward and forward through the hips and waist, torso, arms and hand until all settle the wrist as one cohesive body movement. A beautiful sensation to experience and much easier on the forward stepping knee.
I thought I was sufficiently prepared for the physical demands of the daily training schedule; especially given the investment I made in conditioning for the ten months prior to starting in September. I was off a little in my estimation...I've had to learn to pace myself and modify my short-term training goals accordingly.

Two weeks ago, I also had an unexpected physical challenge with an unknown source of exposure to Poison Oak. I strongly suspect the vector was the dog who often runs through the woods chasing who knows what. I had been in the habit of massaging his ailing left hind hip/leg. I was exposed to Poison Ivy in 2015 (source unknown) and needed medical intervention then because I was having a systemic inflammatory reaction that would not abate. Here, again, my response was severe enough that I had to go to the emergency room after three days of treating it myself.

The medication I was prescribed eventually controlled my systemic reaction, but took a toll on my system along with the severity of the Poison Oak itself. Partner training was challenging; especially on those days when we had to have contact on my forearm (it was covered at all times and there was no threat of exposure to anyone). My arm was swollen, painful, and acutely sensitive to touch. My sleep was affected as well as my energy and emotions. I am just now feeling physically like myself though two days ago I was exquisitely fatigued from the training schedule, my personal conditioning routine, the aftermath of the medication and the Poison Oak slowly resolving.

Then, there was the emotionally stressful result of Tuesday's presidential election. I've never bought into the notion that as citizens we actually have freedom of choice in an historically two-party system that vigorously only offers two options-Republican or Democrat. Typically, this always leads to selecting the lesser of two evils rather than addressing the actual needs that may be voiced by non-traditional parties and platforms. And it's clear to me that when it comes to the presidential election process, the popular vote is one without teeth in representing the will of the people. However, the illusion of inclusion is a necessary strategic device to minimize anarchy.

That this country elected a man to its most powerful office who openly and blatantly espouses and encourages both personal and institutional racism, misogyny, and who is a pathological liar speaks loudly to both the gullibility (the president-elect is quoted as having once said he thought Republicans are very stupid and easily led) of a vast majority of people and an intrinsic and inherent dissonance of spirit in America. Many have now been given license to exercise their tirade of hatred (and fear) of the 'Other' without concern of reprisal or need to hide underneath hooded white sheets. The threat of fatal bodily harm is a real one and, unfortunately, is nothing new historically in America (genocide of so-called Indians, slavery of Africans, Japanese internment, the Tuskegee experiment, etc.).
However, in my estimation, the challenge is much deeper than the mundane, albeit dangerous, practice of institutionalized racism. It is a spiritual struggle between Light and Darkness, not white and blackness. The more people can be distracted by the prestidigitation of race, gender, class, etc., the less likely it is that they will respond en masse to the root causes that affect even those that believe they are privileged.

Ultimately, that is why I am here on "the mountain." These disciplines of Taijiquan and Qigong are an avenue of spiritual cultivation to learn to "be in the world, but not of it." It is not a strategy of disengaging from the world, but rather one of engagement based on spiritual clarity and empowerment that widens the aperture of Light to shine brightly on the darkness. It is an investment in the cultivation of self-reliance, self-sufficiency, and respectful interdependency that honors the spiritual Light in each of us without the fear of or need to profit at the expense of the other.

Character is what you do when no one knows you're doing it.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

"On the Mountain"


We seem to have officially entered rainy season early here. Most days it's a downpour with minor breaks where the clouds give way to the sun that's always shining above it all. On those days, we scurry about squeezing in doing our laundry to have enough clothes to wear in case there's a string of overcast and wet days. There is a washing machine, but the emphasis is on being very conservative and mindful of managing living off the grid. One of the benefits I appreciate about experiencing these aspects of this model of living independently (though communally) is observing how it's managed in preparation for designing mine one day.

Today marks my two months of being "on the mountain" training! For the past two weeks, the days now seem to move by more quickly than the first six weeks. I relish my Sundays off to maximize focus on my personal time to devote to what is needed to feel whole: I indulge in listening to my jazz music, practice and play my didgeridoo and vocal overtoning, write my memoirs more consistently, wear my favorite colors rather than workout clothing, read a little more of what I prefer rather than what is required, think about and call family to talk, ponder, envision, and plan what the next phases of my life will be, and now I've added sipping a cup or two of coffee while I write.

My primary concern about being "on the mountain" was not what you might expect. This is a very small community of people with varied backgrounds, experiences, and personalities. While we have in common that we're here studying the classical Chinese martial arts and culture in a very intensive daily structured training and living model, each person has their own reasons for having decided to participate. Being this close to people on an hourly basis within the regimented training schedule requires strong and agile personalities with clear boundaries that allow you to take care of your mental, emotional, and psychic needs appropriately. I know how to do that so the challenge for me, I thought, was going to be the sameness of the terrain.

As beautiful as the southern valley on the property is, I used to think that it would be daunting to wake up each day to see the same thing; especially since we do not have access to being off the mountain readily. Well, to my pleasant surprise, my trepidations were completely unfounded. Each day that I look southward at the same topography the constancy of the trees and land reveals unexpected change. This is especially true when I'm eating in the dining area and looking out through the huge three windows facing the south. Whether it's the interplay of sunlight and the verdant colors of the landscape or how the misty clouds hover and slowly glide easterly, or the variety of life that flies or strolls by (hawks, crows, humming birds, deer, wild turkeys, the hens and roosters), there is always a feeling of something new to view and experience that leaves me feeling uplifted. And as far as coming off the mountain, I truly prefer to be here rather than going back and forth. The mundane world is heavy enough and not about to change. Being here for extended periods of time is a relished respite from the density of the modern world and all its distractions. Regardless of how elegantly I've  had to learn to negotiate urban living, it takes its toll on the spirit-- "...concrete bruises the ego, spurs us inside to use the creative I..." is a line from a poem in my memoirs.

My training and personal conditioning regimen has been exquisite and this body is responding in ways I could not have imagined. The investment I've made to do 200 squats daily (except Sundays) has paid off handsomely in that my ability to do the training sequences and the Taijiquan form has radically shifted to a state of great ease with moving this body through space. This is similar to the ease I experienced when I was an avid long distance and x-country runner 46-51 years ago! One of the remarkable experiences I had recently was feeling  connected to the earth through my feet in a way I've never experienced before. It was effortless and unexpected and happened while we were doing a White Crane Qigong routine and practicing our coiling patterns as well. And for the first time in many years, I feel able to move lightly on my feet to the extent that I was spontaneously doing some box jumping and speed shuffling to and fro, side to side recently. So, all continues well with my training.

I've recently added doing a daily series of 5 minute elbow planks, mixed with one minute iron bar crunch, panther walks, pull-ups/chin ups, and inclined push-ups. Frank has introduced us to circuit training routines using coiling and heavy bags with selected patterns from the form. We've concluded all of the first chapter of the Taijiquan form and have begun the second chapter through 'Beware of the Fist Under the Elbow' up to just before 'Pick Up the Needle from the Sea Bottom'. My form has completely changed because of the emphasis on coiling, my new found freedom of movement, and the understanding of the inherent applications associated with the patterns. We've also spent more time on the basics of Taiji Staff training and a little more time on the basics of Taiji Sword.

On the Qigong side of the ledger, we've completed the Eight Pieces of Brocade, The Twelve patterns of White Crane Qigong, and the eight patterns of Four Seasons Qigong (for all seasons) and have begun learning the four patterns for the winter sequence of Four Seasons Qigong. As a study group, we've finished Dr. Yang's Roots Of Chinese Qigong and will begin studying together the Embryonic Breathing Qigong book for the next six weeks.

Well, that's my latest update from here "on the mountain". Be well and be true to you...

Blessings to you and your families,

Dr. Robert J. Woodbine

"Character is what you do when no one knows you're doing it."      

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Zones of Discomfort...

It's been six and half weeks since I arrived here and four weeks since my last post. It's Sunday--my day off from any formal training. Looking northward out my window, the trees are literally swaying in the high winds and heavy rain. It's been raining for the past two days and forecasted to continue through this coming Tuesday. Surprisingly, it isn't really cold though there is a chill in the air.

I'm told this is the type of weather to expect when winter finally arrives--high winds, constant rain, and cold. Fortunately, I'm used to at least the rain and damp coldness having lived in Portland, Oregon for eight years in the 90's. A couple of days ago, there was a momentary pause in the downpour- long enough for several of the hens to mill about the parking area outside my window. For some reason, they like to scrounge around the car tires. This is the same path where the deer (a family of buck, doe and three fawns) and wild turkeys (a family of at least six) walk.  At any rate, it was a funny site to see them all scramble and cackle back to the henhouse when the rain suddenly resumed. I didn't know hens could move that quickly!

I had a powerful and interesting experience about two-three weeks ago. My body has been feeling exquisitely strong from the training; especially my legs. Except for Sunday, I'm doing two hundred squats daily in addition to the regular training that demands  a lot of leg work. When I really thought about it one day, I realized that during Monday through Saturday, the only time we actually sit down is for an hour meditation in the morning, at lunch, at dinner, and when we sleep. Other than those times, we are always on our feet and moving.

Two weeks ago, I felt so good that the inspiration to run washed over me. You have to understand that I haven't run in any serious fashion since the mid eighties when I first began studying Qigong as a substitute for running and playing basketball. Back then, running was my primary love and basketball a close second. Even when I used to do the hill runs in St. Nicholas Park with my students several years ago, it was tempered by the constant pain I experienced in my right hip at that time.

Well, I followed the inspiration and ran two days in a row just about a half mile each time. I also included some hill runs along with my two hundred squats each day. I was so happy because I had absolutely no pain or discomfort and, for the first time in many years, I enjoyed the exhilaration of moving my body through space the way only running can for me! And then, it happened.

The third day after my runs, my left hip and lower back seemed to lock up with pain. This was reminiscent of my body periodically and unexpectedly experiencing this during the past 30 years or so. It was emotionally difficult for me to go through this again because (1) for the first time in fifty plus years, my right hip pain had been resolved with surgery three years ago, and (2) I had diligently prepared to be here to train consistently for the next three years. The prospect of having to try to do that while in pain reminded me of how limiting my training experiences had been up until the recent surgery. I was feeling despondent and afraid that perhaps I had blown my once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to get deep into training Taijiquan and Qigong...

Hence, my title for this blog entry- Zones of Discomfort. The adage, "The cobbler has no shoes" seemed to momentarily fit me. I was trying to figure out what I was going to do and if it were possible to get away from my pain yet maintain the daily demands of the training schedule here. As I began doing those things I typically recommend for others (Castor Oil pack, Far Infra Red Heat lamp therapy, Reflexology, taking Arnica 20c, hydrating, etc.), it dawned on me that I, in fact, had not screwed up, but that my body was adjusting to the demands of the training itself. Particularly,  the intense focus on using the lower abdomen, hip girdle, and legs to generate the movements (rear wheel drive, as it were) of the upper extremities. I believe what affected me most was the correction on executing Grasp the Sparrow's Tail to the Left which, when done correctly, requires you have a root from which to turn the upper torso to the left before you move your rear (right foot) to  kick. It's a subtle difference from what I used to do before Dr. Yang corrected me, but powerful enough to cause a shift in the patterning of the fascia and muscles in my lower back.

Additionally, there is the fascial restriction from internal scarring on the right from my emergency appendectomy as well as the right hip procedure. When I accepted those as my Zones of Discomfort being revealed precisely because of the deep training and remodeling of my body, I was able to let go of my fear emotionally. Physically, I still had to go through the process and the time to allow this body to reorganize itself. I still trained every day and did all those things (see above) to help the healing process. It took about ten to twelve days and I'm now feeling rather strong internally and externally. And, my body has radically changed; especially my back, legs and feet.

Prior to arriving here, I thought it would be sufficient to have prepared  the way I did for the ten months prior. I could not have anticipated my recent experience and am so glad to have had it. It gives me a guage for how to continue henceforth to still accomplish my goals. Zones of Discomfort--those unexpected detours that are part of the territory you traverse that cannot be seen on the map when you lay out your plans to go on a journey...

Our teacher, Frank, is, simply put, a master teacher. We are steadily progressing on building blocks he's set out for us in the Taijiquan and Qigong practices. For Taijiquan, the emphasis has been on lower body stability (solo and partner stationary and stepping sequences with balance), power generation (solo and partner stationary and stepping drills using coiling [Yang and Yin]). We've begun exploring the very basics of weapons training (staff and sabre) as well as Qin Na (joint locks). He has a clear vision of how all this ties into actual application rather than just a focus on how to do the form. We just completed the first twenty-two movements of the form, but with mindful attention to all the inherent basics that one does not get from reading or studying the DVD's, as useful as those tools continue to be. We are going through what I like to call the 'John Coltrane Effect': paying rigorous attention to the scales and practicing them diligently so that improvisation later is not only possible, but automatic because of the tenacious and correct practice that forms the foundation for functional flights of creativity.

In Qigong, we have learned and practice daily the standing Eight Pieces of Brocade as well as the Four Seasons Qigong (the sequence for all seasons). Additionally, we are still learning the twelve patterns for White Crane Qigong which forms the basis for the internal mechanics Dr. Yang incorporates in his Taijiquan form. We do our daily one-hour morning sitting Embryonic Breathing meditation with recovery sequence. We are almost done reading, analyzing and discussing Dr. Yang's 30 year old book, The Root of Chinese Qigong. We meet with him twice weekly to discuss our questions and express/exchange our opinions. Our goal is to finish this book by early November and then proceed to focus on the Embryonic Breathing book and practice in more detail. We recently revamped our schedule to include a group practice period for Qigong with the hopes that it may evolve into a study group to research, document, and publish the affects of Qigong practice.

Now that most of us have acclimated to the written schedule and the other demands of living communally (cooking, chores, etc.), time seems to be moving faster. Although our winter break is nine weeks away and it seems like I've been here far longer than just six weeks, I feel that time approaching quickly. The next couple of months will continue to lay a foundation for how the three years will be. I still pinch myself when I realize how fortunate I am to be here. It's a Blessing!

Unfortunately, I'm unable to post photos for you in this blog. Our internet connection is tightly regulated and difficult to up/download at times. Last month, Dr. Yang's family came to visit him for several days and the senior students put on a demonstration for them. I'll either include photos next blog entry or send you a separate email directing you to where you can log into to just see photos and/or the video that was taken that day. Watching them perform was very inspiring for me to see such grace and control of body, mind, emotions, and spirit. We're told that somewhere along the way of our training in the 3-Year Program, we will be called upon to demonstrate our skills as well.

Dr. Woodbine

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Update No. 2: 9/19/2016

Had I posted this entry this past Friday, I would have told you it's been two weeks since I've been here, but it feels like more than a month! My body was tired and my mind full with all that I've learned and experienced in such a short period of time. It's been intense and I'm so glad I invested in the hours of conditioning for the ten months prior to arriving here. Added to that has been the real process of acclimating to a new lifestyle, other peoples' energies, and the time change as well.

However, today is the first day of my third week here and having enjoyed a real day's physical rest yesterday, I feel like I've finally begun to find my own rhythm amidst the busy training schedule we have. Oh, and then there are the scheduled chores and responsibilities we all have: caring for and feeding the numerous hens that provide us with at least thirty fresh eggs every day; harvesting the vegetables from the raised garden beds (you name it, Dr. Yang is growing it); maintaining the property and facilities; weekly cooking duties (e each pair up and cook lunch and dinner once weekly for everyone).

In the 3-Year Training Program, I am the most senior member. Close in age is Jamie from New Zealand. Then there is Declan in his mid forties from Canada, Colin from Ohio, Collin from Oregon, and Nona from California all in their thirties. We're an interesting and diverse group with various levels of exposure in the martial arts, Qigong, and life experience. Jamie owned and operated a small family farm and is the go to person for all things green here. He and Nona also are avid bakers making zucchini bread and sourdough breads and Jamie has twice made everyone ice cream (vanilla and strawberry) from scratch.

Our group is primarily taught by Frank who is from Switzerland and an excellent and patient teacher. I truly respect his Taijiquan skills and ability to transmit those to each person at their level of understanding. And the training has been intense. Were it not for my conditioning, it would be challenging to keep up with the daily demands physically. Not so much because it's arduous, but more because the fundamentals of learning Taijiquan correctly require a unique awareness and use of one's joints, tendons, and muscles; especially the spine, hips, legs, ankles, and feet.

You know, it's always interesting to me to be at the stage of learning something as if for the first time even though I may have maple previous experience. In that sense, my training experience these past nineteen days have been at one and the same time exhilarating and frustrating. Exhilarating when I've experienced breakthroughs in how my body finally 'gets it'. Frustrating when my body and mind don't seem to cooperate with one another. It's short lived and requires woodshedding which is a time honored formula for being on the road to self mastery...

Monday and Friday mornings at 7:10 are "Squat Days" where we focus on strengthening the legs using just your body weight before continuing the remainder of the training schedule. I made a personal commitment two weeks ago to do two hundred squats every day in addition to whatever other routines and conditioning. To date, I've been able to keep that commitment and have experienced a radical shift in strength, mobility, and flexibility.

The most notable experience I've had in my training so far has been the keen awareness of how much tension I carry in my body. That's relevant from my growing understanding of what's required to execute Taijiquan effectively at it's highest level where it is said, "If you move, I move first." The ability to transition in the face of pressure from an opponent, without thinking about doing so, between the substantial and insubstantial is a major KEY in effectively executing applications. Given my long history of accommodating to physical pain as well as emotional tension, it shows up in many of the drills we do every day. I can say that with continued practice I'm confident I can learn to let go and dissolve those habitual patterns...

Each day here is a blessing. The weather is typically cold at night and early morning, but sunny during late morning and afternoon. Aside from the hens that have the run of the property during the day, there are families of deer, and wild turkeys that come and go as they please during the day. Each morning, both roosters awaken everyone and strut with their proud chests ahead of themselves.

Let me not forget to mention Dr. Yang. He supervises the training mostly in late morning and early afternoon. He looks and looks and when it's needed, says a sentence or two and might even demonstrate. In that brief exchange, their is an encyclopedia of wisdom he transfers to you. He's mentioned three things to me that have made a dramatic change in my form and application. After he speaks, he typically goes to the garden to pick veggies...

Eggs I gathered from the chicken coop tonight; zucchini flower from a garden bed near the main house
Photo credit: RJ Woodbine

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Thank you!

I finally arrived at the YMAA Retreat Center ( this past Tuesday! I sincerely thank each of you who made this opportunity possible for me to take advantage of through your financial and/or moral support. Being here is truly a once-in-a lifetime experience--to study under the daily guidance of an acknowledged Grandmaster, Dr. Yang, Jwing-Ming. I dreamed of this type of training for so long in my life and now, in my senior years, I've been blessed with this gift.

Of the 16 candidates that applied for the 3-Year Program, 6 of us were selected (5 men and 1 woman). Our training officially began on Thursday at 6am with an hour of meditation. The 3 days since then have been full with physical training, discussions and reading, and chores. It's only the beginning of a long journey of self-discovery and cultivation, but I'm clear that this is where I needed to be for this stage of my development in the healing arts that my father introduced me to so many years ago.

I will keep you apprised of my experiences through periodic posts in this blog. You can check in whenever you desire and post your comments and insights or questions. Our training schedule is very robust and most days it appears Ill be ready to call it a night by 9pm. If it takes me a minute to reply to your posts or questions, I hope you'll be patient with me.

Be well,

Meditation Gazebo southwest slope
Photo credit: RJ Woodbine