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