Thursday, March 23, 2017

Climbing ropes, climbing mountains...

Happy Vernal Equinox! It's official--Spring has sprung? Despite the cloudy, dreary, and rainy day here today, it is warmer than it's been in recent weeks. And, the hummingbirds are making an appearance; especially since the feeders have been hung for them. I saw two of them this morning before breakfast. They're truly magical in how they move so quickly and then stop suddenly and hover in the air. Their wing flapping makes such a distinct sound. To my ears, the sound is reminiscent of a sweet didjiridoo drone.

In many cultural traditions, spring is the season for new beginnings, growth, expansion. The Rosicrucians posit that it is the best time to make plans and take actions to promote new projects and ideas; especially for the proceeding fifty-two days. I liken the season to caterpillars emerging from winter's dormancy in their chrysalis's with opportunities to spread their wings to fly...

This is a welcome transition point for me. It marks the near midpoint of the longest semester here training and my first winter on the mountain. Our first semester began last September and lasted sixteen weeks. This semester is twenty-four weeks long. The days and weeks are coming and going by rapidly now and I have a sense of urgency to get it all in because I know that this unique experience will soon be over--June 2019 is 'right around the corner.'

In the past several weeks, I've taken to walking down to the creek which is about a mile away from the Retreat Center--all downhill. Returning is, literally, uphill the entire way and, on average, the climb is on a 40-45 degree incline. I do this on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays after our morning training in the hour before lunch.
The gravel path down to the creek
Photo credit: RJ Woodbine 
It's a training challenge I've added for variety to strengthen my legs, avoid injury to my knees from only doing squats, and to increase my stamina. My short term goal is to match the conditioning standard the Shaolin training group had to achieve their first six months here eight years ago--that is they had to run from the
The path up to the Retreat Center
Photo credit: RJ Woodbine
creek up to the Retreat Center within fifteen minutes--with fifty pounds on their backs! Right now, I'm able to walk back from the creek in seventeen minutes without added weights. Trust me, walking by itself is more than demanding on the legs and the lungs-never mind running. If not by June, I'm shooting for September to run the mountain...

My legs are probably in the best shape they've been in since I ran cross country in high school (1968). The significance of this is no small thing and plays itself out daily for me in our training drills. Whether it's doing the form, White Crane Qigong or our partner drills (Push Hands, Yin-Yang Symbol, Centering, etc.), my body continues to refine its understanding of what it means to be rooted without being stuck. The Taijiquan classics say that "power is generated by the legs, directed by the waist, and manifested in the hands". Understanding it intellectually is one level, but embodying it is quite a different experience. More on that as time passes...

30' rope on a Madrone tree limb
Photo credit: RJ Woodbine
The other day in our weekly discussion with Dr. Yang he mentioned that the rope hanging from the Madrone tree on the path to the gym was originally put there so that each time you walked by you would climb it. No legs, just hands and arms. That was a deliberate strategy to condition upper body and hand grip strength. I'm told the fastest recorded time climbing up the rope to the top is 12 seconds by a student here. So, last week I began climbing the rope. I haven't timed my ascent yet; just working on ensuring I do this safely and consistently each time. The rope is thirty feet up and I've managed to reach the top each time I've climbed it. Once I'm comfortable with it, I'll start timing my climbs with the goal of matching the current record...

Lately, I've thought about how favored my life is. My grandmother and aunt raised me and taught me the meaning and value of love. My father apprenticed me when I was about ten years old and gave me my footing in the healing arts. The Reverend David P. Kern chose me as one of one hundred inner city kids to attend the summer academic enrichment program at the Hotchkiss School (the G.O. Program) in 1965. I subsequently enrolled and graduated from the Hotchkiss School and attended Harvard University through 1973. In 1980, I was blessed to work at Xerox Corporation until I left in 1984 to work for Digital Equipment Corporation until 1992. At that time, I entered naturopathic medical school and completed that training along with a masters in Chinese medicine by 1999. After caring for and treating patients and their families for the past twenty-two years, here I am now at the YMAA Retreat Center further refining my mettle!

Most mornings here I awaken before my alarm goes off at five. There are times when I do not want to get out of the bed at all--tired, cold, achy, maybe even in pain. Yet, I pull myself up and out of my comfortable bed and continue training. My favored life is also one that taught me the importance and value of discipline, diligence, and tenacity. Those three keys that have unlocked my capacity to endure discomfort and maintain my faith even in the face of doubt, opposition, or any visible confirmatory sign that I was close to being successful. Truly, more important than the goal is the journey, the process of moving toward it. That, in of itself, is the gift I think I'll be able to offer when I've completed this program.

For now, I'm going to bed to sleep. Have to be ready to train in the morning...

Thank you to all of you that continue to support my being here morally and financially!

Dr. Woodbine

"What would you do if you knew you would not fail? What would you do if you knew now one was looking or there to encourage you?"

Friday, March 3, 2017

Practice makes perfect or perfect practice makes perfect?

There's a hint of spring in the air. Just last week it was bitter cold for several days to the extent that I had to put makeshift inserts in my sneakers to protect my feet from feeling like they were frozen. This was particularly true during our 7:00am and 9:00-11:00am training periods.

Coupled with the insistent rain, it could feel pretty miserable more often than not even if I were moving about training. We either train outdoors or in the garage. Rarely are we indoors and even when we're in the gym, it isn't heated. If it's raining too much, we'll be in the dining area on the wood floors either barefoot or in socks. Either way, the traction is different than being outdoors in sneakers.

Though challenging, the experience is not a hardship compared to traditional, non-modern martial arts training environments. It does, however, help me truly appreciate a cloudless sky from where the sun shines brightly. A day like this afternoon when my hands and face got tanned in just an hour! Spring is in the air...

We've finished all three chapters of the Yang Family Style Taijiquan form as taught by Dr. Yang. By no means does this mean we've mastered it. Dr. Yang will personally review our progress tomorrow morning at 9:30. His corrections and insights during this review are priceless gems that help clarify our efforts and refocus our practice.

Speaking of practice, I heard many years ago the phrase, "Practice makes perfect." Through my own experiences in a variety of training efforts (basketball, long distance running, Qigong and Tai Chi), I learned what seems to be a more appropriate phrase, "Perfect practice makes perfect." In fact, I don't ascribe to the notion of perfection at all. I believe it's a false aspiration that leads to eventual disillusion. I believe in continual refinement and correction toward a stated goal where the practice itself is the source of true satisfaction.

This is not to say that there is no value in practicing. Quite the contrary. The masters I've admired the most have been those who immersed themselves in the kind of devotional practice and refinement of their craft over time that eventually led them to a pinnacle of achievement--John Coltrane, Eric Dolphy, Malcolm X, Oscar Robertson, Abbey Lincoln, Betty Carter, Moses Powell...After years of practice, they present their craft effortlessly and with grace.

One of my classmates, Javi, shared a TED Talk with us during dinner this evening that I'm confident you'll appreciate. It's on the subject of effective practice.

I hope you find it helpful in your own endeavors.


P.S. Thank you to all those who continue to support my being here 'on the mountain' financially and morally. I appreciate you all!

Executing "Single Whip"
Photo credit: Michelle Lin

Preparing to execute "Press"
Photo credit: Michelle Lin

Preparing to execute "Snake Creeps Down"
Photo credit: Michelle Lin

What would you do if you knew you would not fail?