Today is the final day of my sixty-sixth year on the planet. This time last year, having completed the testing period phase (the previous October) of the application process to be accepted into the YMAA Retreat Center's 3-Year Training Program, I had a pretty good sense I would now be here on 'the mountain.' The reality is, nevertheless, sobering.
Me at six years old on St. Nicholas Avenue, Harlem, NY
Photo credit: Peter A. Woodbine/Rose A. Woodbine
It's been five weeks since the second semester of our training began. The current training experience has been nothing short of immersive now that I have a clearer sense of the overall additional communal routines and expectations. The current period is our longest (five and a half months) before a break at the end of June. I now know how to pace myself.
Last semester, one of the biggest challenges for me was carving out a sense of privacy to restore myself emotionally, psychically, and physically. Our daily training schedule is very demanding and when you include communal responsibilities along with minimal private time and space, it can be a formula for fatigue of a different sort, if not irritability. Sundays off become precious sanctuaries for self-care. I treasure my solitude...
We've covered a lot of training territory in five short weeks. Where do I begin? On the Qigong side of the experience, we are focused on experiencing the 4 Seasons Qigong routine in real time. That is to say, we are doing the winter set (Kidneys) concurrently with the spring set (Liver and Spleen) as it is designed to be practiced. Come spring, we'll continue the spring set and add the summer set midway. We layer these with practicing the All Seasons set as well. By the end of this calendar year, we will have the full experience of the 4 Seasons Qigong routines to be able to teach others with authority and confidence.
Additionally, we are regularly now practicing the standing set of the 8 Pieces of Brocade Qigong routine with increased repetitions of each of the patterns. We continue to also practice the White Crane Qigong routine patterns to condition the tendons and ligaments. The latest additions to this routine are using hand weights, increased walking with the patterns, and doing the patterns on bricks. All of these ultimately translate into cultivating a level of self-awareness and physical conditioning executable in whole body spiraling and coiling movements with a root. Most recently, a group of us have chosen to begin exploring the fundamentals of Iron Shirt Qigong with a preliminary focus on Turtle Breathing Qigong. More about this at a later date... Sometime this spring, we'll begin studying the Five Animal Sports Qigong starting with the Tiger sequence.
With Taijiquan, we are moving on several fronts simultaneously: the form itself, applications, Push Hands, Qin Na, Taiji Ball Qigong, Yin-Yang Symbol (vertical and horizontal Yang side), and weapons basics (Saber and Bo Staff). It's demanding and rewarding... For the form, we are now nearly finished with the third chapter. Although it will always require refinements, the first chapter sequence is pretty solid for most of us in terms of memorizing the sequence. The second chapter has improved greatly and the third is getting there. Dr. Yang has reviewed our progress and offered invaluable corrections and Frank tirelessly drills and teaches us the deeper nuances of the patterns. He provides a practical context for the movements that motivates us to go beyond the 'static' patterns. For me, the key here is conditioning of my body and attitude so that they can better comply with my intent to execute. A habit I've begun in any of the training sequences which helps with this is to always begin the patterns with my non-dominant side and then translate that to my stronger, familiar dominant side. I also include walking backwards with the patterns when it's relevant (this mostly applies to the short and long weapons routines).
We've progressed from stationary Single (four patterns) to Double Push Hands (6 patterns) training. It requires lots of polishing still. The fifth pattern of the double Push Hands against the forward leg's hip requires increased flexibility of the hips, ankles, lumbar spine. Doing the Taiji Ball Qigong and White Crane Qigong patterns is helping to re-pattern tendons, ligaments, and muscles in the groin (inner and outer Kua) and pelvic cavities. My feet, ankles, and pelvic bowl are more flexible and stronger than they've ever been. However, I still have a ways to go to be where I desire to be...
The applications and Qin Na (joint locking/immobilization) drills have been an eye opener for me. It's not the first time I've been exposed to Qin Na. In fact, part of the first weekend workshop with Dr. Yang I attended with my youngest son in Boston in 2001 was a Qin Na workshop. The difference now is that there is a context for its use along with applications tied to the execution of the form itself. By no means do I have any of this 'done pat.' However, I'm thrilled and confident that I will because of how it's being taught in an integrated fashion. Here again, the role of proper and consistent conditioning is paramount. The focus for me is the hands/arms and lower body. I'm grateful for Arnold Tobin's Thenar Gloves and my daily two hundred squats. About conditioning, I'm still doing my two a week High Intensity Interval Training sessions with the seventy pound kettlebell intermingled with dead lifting two hundred and twenty-five pounds (personal best recently) during the last four sets.
We've explored applications from the form including the opening of the sequence, several from Single Whip, Grasp the Sparrow's Tail (left and right), Lift Hands to the Up Posture, Play the Guitar, Wave Hands in the Clouds, Brush Knee, Roll Back, and others. Coupled with the Qin Na, these are potent options that are not readily visible when you're just learning the form. We've also recently begun to add foot and leg Qin Na and exploring angling footwork. Again, this requires conditioning and resilience to be able to actually move with the WHOLE body as one unit. We continue to practice, refine, practice, refine, practice...
My favorite weapon basics training is the Bo staff. The Saber/Sword drills are also demanding, but challenge my shoulders from the 1999 motor vehicle accident I experienced that forced me to withdraw from Chinese medical school for six months before I could resume to graduate. Both the staff and Saber routines are new to me and require a different kind and level of conditioning; especially my hands, arms, core and back. I've recently started using the aluminum staff as a conditioning tool prior to using the wooden staff to train with and it's making an appreciable difference in my stamina. The partner drills we're learning are fun, yet require our full attention and focus to avoid injuries. Can't train when you're hurting...
There's probably much more that I could say, but it's not coming to mind at the moment. I'll stop here to get my laundry out of the dryer, make another cup of coffee to savor while I listen to some more classical jazz tunes, and ponder my good fortune to have made it this far this long. I had a good conversation earlier in the week with my life-long friend of fifty-six years, Smitty, about how blessed we've been. So many of our friends died young or ae not healthy now. We've been given opportunities and taken advantage of them and find ourselves still able to make contributions to others by our lived examples of tenacity, diligence, and discipline. Coming from the neighborhoods we grew up in and given the tenor of the culture and society we continue to find ourselves in, that says a lot. I am blessed...
Tomorrow is the first day of my sixty-seventh year. I marvel at all that I have experienced and the rest that is to come. I'll continue to share my insights with you and hope that it inspires you to be at your very best in all things.
To those of you who continue to support my efforts, I sincerely thank you for; especially you who have sponsored my being able to explore this 3-Year Training Program. If you are moved to do so, please send your tax-deductible donations on my behalf via PayPal to:
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Peace and Blessings!
"What would you do if you knew you would not fail? What would you do if no one knew you were doing it? Follow your heart's passion and live you life fully!"