The Student Writes
Every so often the practice of Tai Chi inspires us to write. I encourage my students to put their thoughts and lessons down on paper often and I love it when a student shares their writings with me.
On this page, every once in a while, I’ll post a writing by one of my students (maybe you!). Send me your stories, articles and ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org and with your permission maybe, I’ll post it!
I asked my buddy Art Baner if I could take this from his newsletter this month (after all, I'm the "good friend" in his story). Art has been my classmate and training partner for many years, he and I have taught together many times and now we are in the process of offering a three month long Yang Style Training Intensive in 2010. See www.fullcirclearts.net/2010intensive/ for more info. In the mean time enjoy:
The Magic of Practice - part 2
"Personal practice is ... personal."
A good friend wrote this recently as one of the lessons she had learned from the year just past.
I find her to be a thoughtful and insightful person so I stopped to consider more carefully what she may have meant. A few things occurred to me:
(1) Practice is the key. All the intellectual understanding in the world will not afford us much if we do not apply it. But once we commit to a regular personal practice (outside of class) we create the space for magic.
(2) Make your practice your own. Taking ownership of your practice is essential. Once you learn a thing, it belongs to you. Once you practice it, taking it deep into your bones and awareness, it becomes a part of you. Once it is a part of you, let yourself cultivate and explore and experiment so that your practice becomes as effective and enjoyable for you as possible. In this way, we grow as individuals and evolve our art for the benefit of others as well.
(3) Integrate your practice with your daily life. It is one thing to practice during your established training times, it is yet another to bring the principles more and more into your daily life - in whatever way makes the most sense to you.
Breathe, relax, focus, enjoy... life is beautiful!
By the way, when I asked my friend what she actually meant by her original statement, she answered "... its personal." Cagey taiji people! :)
Wishing you clear minds and happy hearts,
Vanessa studies Tai Chi with my student, Dorian Gregory in western Massachusetts. I just came back from teaching a small and enthusiastic group part of the 88 Attack and Defend form. I always welcome feedback and am touched by this letter. She has given permission to share it. Thanks Vanessa!
That weekend was tremendous! Thank you for the generosity with which you teach.
I was blown away by the Tai-chi-ness of your teaching approach — the way you
could receive us where we were and then sometimes gently, sometimes more
forcefully — but never decentering-ly:
us to Grow,
to go where we'd never gone before
I was blown away to learn so much in such a short time — and the "so much"
includes the exterior — the steps — but most of all the interior — the sense-
making of tai chi. SO COOL!
You mentioned Martha Graham in the workshop during one of your verbal
illustrations/tangents, and it's funny you mentioned her because I had this
image of you teaching us by stepping within us as if we were the stretchy
material Martha Graham choreographed a famous dance with — stepping inside and
showing us: "look, see — you can stretch it out this far." And then a few
moments later, after we explored that new place you would come in again and
reveal: "you can actually go out even further than that..." And then we, some
of us like me, neophytes new to the concept that our bodies could do these
things, responded and explored and went places we had no idea was possible,
exclaiming — hey I can stretch (figuratively, profoundly) into these new realms
-- wow! cool!
And I had so much fun!
I LOVE the 88 — it captured my life force in a totally different way and made
me feel more kid-like than I have in a long time. During Dorian's class the
following Tuesday all I wanted to do was practice the 88, and after each turn I
just had the biggest feeling of "can we do it again?!" Hearing and feeling
myself be all "can we do it again?" was just elementally delightful and also
made me much more appreciative of the way my kids say that ALL the time! I "get"
them so much better on that one now!
So yes, all this to say — many many thanks Shifu Jan and Shifu Dorian!
and let me throw you a punch:
A new student writes here! I met Donna at Special Training (ST), the martial arts camp for the National Women's Martial Arts Federtion. I was delighted to hear from her again and my heart soared when I read this letter. She has given permission to share it. Thanks Donna!
First of all I have been meaning to send you a note for a long time to thank you for Guanqifa Qigong. I have used the CD a lot. In fact, I have used it every day since the day I purchased it at ST 07, beginning after the bazaar in my dorm room that evening, and for at least a year and a half after that. When I came to ST07, I was already experiencing the most challenging healing crisis in a long time, which included a recovery from a very serious viral infection, then major depression and anxiety, like I’ve never experienced before. I have practiced Guanqifa Qigong with you outdoors, in the hot sun, in the cold with my winter coat on and mittens, indoors, in my sunroom, sometimes with tears streaming down my face, sometimes with joy in my heart. I can’t tell you how it became a part of my life, as I healed, then as I grieved the loss of my dog on top of other stuff, as I healed some more, as I found stillness, as I was just being with myself. I want to tell you about my friends, the squirrels, in my yard who would come out because I would toss them peanuts. I would see them as they perched on the picnic table with their paws in front of their little white chests, and imagined that they were doing qigong with me. Connecting to little critters helped ease my loss too. How I would learn little (but really BIG) lessons, after months of practicing, like “allowing”, really allowing, not pushing, forcing, pleading,… just allowing.
Long story shorter, just ………………..thank you. For your classes, for the semi private lesson with Anne and Lauren won in the auction, and your presence at ST, ….for you.
I just finished practicing qigong with you (CD), after not using it for awhile, and thought, it’s time to finally follow through and email you.
So hello and thank you.
And hope our paths do cross again!
Every once in a while I have the great blessing of having someone share with me the joy and change that happens to them because of a qigong practice. Last week I received this email from a women who has been practicing qigong with me each morning for almost a month now. I asked her for permission to share her poem on this site. She gave it to me with the following note.
...Jan, as promised here is the poem I wrote. You should know that the poem was written by me, but I truly believe, would not have come to fruition without you and Qigong. Thank you again. Have a great weekend ~ Maria
Last week we had a poet come in and he asked that we all take 15 minutes to write a poem (he read from Mary Oliver). In the poem the words, "And there is no more...." had to be in the poem somewhere.
A bit of background to my poem is:
During a Qigong session (ancient Chinese movement/energy session I do ekach morning from 8:30-9:00am, really slow movements) I saw me, Maria, at about 10 - 12 months old, I saw me inside me, at that infant/toddler age - crawling, holding on trying to walk around furniture, jumping up & down in my crib, playing on the floor, all those things a toddler would do - And I had/have such a huge smile on my face - all the time, I am happy, happy - I now believe that I truly am worthy of happiness and did have a happy toddler-hood. I don't have any vivid memories before the age of 9... but this image - inside me - I can now call on, at anytime, and it makes me smile.
Qigong helped me find myself - I was adopted at 9 days old, I was given away - I am o.k.!!!
My poem, by Maria Duncan
"And there in no more.....hiding"
You are me, and I am you.
How come we have never met before?
You AMAZE me!
Your smile is endless.
Your being is so bright.
I feel the warmth, my skin tingles when I see you.
You are shining from within.
Each day you greet with excitement and unknowing anticipation.
You AMAZE me!
You AMAZE me!
Why do you not come out from inside? What is stopping you?
You are AMAZING!
I want to get to know you better.
You ARE AMAZING!
And there is no more hiding.......
Why Study - the question comes up all the time - my cohort, Jim Madras (of JanJimJam fame), wrote the following. I think this is a "lesson on a page".
Health? Self Defense?
People come to the internal arts for a variety of reasons. Our school tends to draw folks that are interested in connection - with themselves, their health, each other, and the world they live in.
While it is true that the martial arts of Tai Chi and Aikido have self defense applications in "street" confrontations, I firmly believe that the greatest gifts of these arts go beyond the barroom brawl.
Currently (and thankfully), our attackers are primarily onslaughts of information, traffic, crazy schedules, sitting at the computer... side effects of living in the modern age.
"Taiji can help calm down the mind and relax the body, which are becoming survival skills in today's hectic and stress filled world." Dr. Yang Jwing-Ming
Over the next month, the barrage of political mayhem will most likely be deafening. What better time to focus on centering, grounding, rooting... and connecting with what's real - yourself and your experience in the world.
I passed the question Kim Ivy first asked on to my students —
"What makes Practice, Practice and how is it different from exercise? I
got some great responses. I want to share this particular one
from Hansoo Kim.
Hansoo is from Minneapolis, Minnesota and trains with
the City of Lakes Tai Chi Club. Hansoo is also hugely responsible for
this incredible web site. Thanks Han!
I don’t know if there needs to be a difference between exercise and practice. Certainly exercise may not be practice and a practice may not be exercise but I do also think you can have both at the same time.
For me I think it’s better to look at the nature of practice, as practice seems to be a “bigger” entity than exercise. Practice can encapsulate anything while exercise can only encapsulate a small portion of things we can do.
Sam has said several times that we can do Tai Chi every day and it may not be a practice, just “something we do”, or in these terms we can say exercise. In this vein I feel that a practice is something that is done with some degree of mindfulness. When Tai Chi is referred to as moving meditation, I find that to be an accurate depiction of all practices. The meditation, whether seated or moving, implies inner mindfulness, observation and contemplation.
When we do something 1000 times, like brush the knee and push, if we do it without mindfulness we may indeed have more physically fit bodies/legs,etc. However what have we learned about the movement itself? By applying mindfulness in 10% of the 1000 brush the knee and push exercise, we may notice that we are not comfortable in certain places, or our movement is not smooth, or we are holding tension in areas. We can compare one attempt with the next and see with greater clarity the slightest differences between each attempt because we are repeating the motion and being somewhat mindful.
Deeper mindfulness and more frequent mindfulness can transform this simple exercise into a profound exploration. Breath, intention, energy (yi li chi), application, variation, abstraction, relationships, etc. In many cases my solo practice offers me deeper practice on the internal side than practicing with others. I’ve found with others I tend to have more of a goal in my movement, and that the movement is more self-conscious as the ego wants to look good in class :) I find myself moving ahead as I am anxious and mentally I am not as settled due to the self-consciousness. I tend not to notice this so much while in class, but when I am practicing solo I compare/contrast and find that indeed my internal energetic are quite different.
I think at times we have a practice and don’t realize it. For me this happens when I look at something I do all the time (tai chi, typing, cooking, etc.) and realize that what I am doing now is not what I was doing a year ago. While it’s always good to review fundamentals, it’s rewarding to see that all the struggle that happens when learning something new begin to fall away with practice and leave room for higher level skills. I don’t have to measure everything, I don’t have to think of what goes where, things flow more organically as the entire exercise has become so familiar to my body that the mind can concentrate on other aspects of the movement. I think this is the litmus test of whether or not an action or exercise is a practice or not. If I am doing the same thing I’ve done before, in the same way, with little or no insight, change or evolution, what I am doing is not a practice, it is going through the motions.
I find that many times I want everything to be a practice. Breathing, walking, writing code, sleeping, eating, etc. The problem I face is that it’s too much to ask of where I am as a person. My practices can only evolve as I evolve. In terms of Tai Chi, I look back at the early days getting frustrated that Sam didn’t “just tell us to do it that way” in the beginning. Instead I was taught in foot parts, then ˝ foot parts :) etc. I have often thought “why don’t teachers just explain the theoretical basis for energy work on day one?”. Then I try teaching a beginner internal energy and realize there has to be a linear progression. The path is the path, and traversing it quickly or slowly is not the measure of success or failure. The joy of the practice is not simply the attainment of skill but he awareness of how far we have come and how much effort and love we have put into our practice to have achieved what we have achieved.
Obstacles are OUR obstacles and the big ones take more time to overcome. If it takes 5 years to understand peng, there was something within us that would not allow peng nor accept it nor understand it. But once we do achieve the ability to manifest peng, what a glorious achievement not only for our Tai Chi, but also for ourself and our internal journey. Because we have genuinely practiced while exercising, we have transformed our inner awareness and our ability to accept and realize a deeper understanding of ourselves which allows us to progress. I think this is no small thing, whether it’s how we push, lowering our shoulders or just “standing inside ourselves” (how hard is that one? Yay Jan!).
I think a teacher is important because as insightful as we may be as individuals, sometimes it takes more experience or wisdom to give us a new frame of mind in order to take the next step in our practice. Jo Tsun Hwa always said that “Tai Chi is the teacher” but until I heard that, I did not know that the practice of Tai Chi itself could be a teacher to me. :) Only with this new paradigm can I conceptually grasp the possibility. Master Jo also said the secret of Tai Chi was to “REALLY relax”. Ironically, until I began to trust that this was even possible, I could not understand what he meant. Did he mean relax as much as possible? Did he mean relax the parts that weren’t pushing? What did he mean?! This was high level teaching, too far to jump from where I was. Only now am I barely understanding his meaning and it still seems complex and profound.
Lastly, as our practices progress, we change as individuals. Some may say its is because we are older/wiser, but there are many people who are much older than we are who have not progressed well in life. As for being wiser, wisdom comes from experience and can only be called wisdom if we have learned something from the experience.
Just my $.02
March 4, 2008
This in from Rachel Scherer who practices Tai Chi in Orange, Massachusetts with Dorian Gregory and me! (I really like the last line in this AHA moment) - Janparker
January 11, 2008:
Today's AHA - which has been brewing since the last curriculum study. Component 1: my partner and I had sunk to what felt like a really balanced and comfortable shared energy only to be chided out of it. I couldn't quite figure out why - we had sought comfort, and maintained our contact, and found a place of rest and support and stillness - what was wrong? Component 2: my goal for the workshop was to "learn how to learn" and figure out how to get lessons from the form from the partner work and vice versa.
After trying to calculate with some crankiness how many months it would be till Bruce and the Warwickians were doing enough partner work for me to work on these goals…how many more months before I would have a crack at "getting it"…. my goal for this morning's form practice was to focus on something Dorian reminded us of last night - on the way it felt to have the momentary sense of "set" at the named-shapes, and to see how much was enough, for how long, to keep the flow honest.
If I'm being lazy, when asked if I 'believe in God', I answer "yes". Sometimes the questioner will poke around a little to see if I believe the same as they do, but really what I relish is the conversation with a curious questioning mind. Then the answer I am more comfortable with is , Yes, I believe in thermodynamics. Theres a long and a longer of it, but the short of it is: energy flows form source to sink. The system seeks equilibrium. But the system - the cosmos - is so complex, it never quite gets there; in considering just our tiny fraction of it, this planet - we can see how that path to equlibrium can appear as extremes; so we have the cold near vacuum of the upper atmosphere and the dense boiling magma below the earths surface. And the exchange of energy when that magma reaches the surface, cools, changes its properties, gets eroded, becomes soil, grows plants, emits gases into the atmosphere, create winds and clouds and rain, form rivers, wash sediment into the sea, which sinks to the sea bottom and falls into deep trenches to melt to magma again… see, - I believe in "creation" and "transmogrification" and "reincarnation"….
So then there's Tai Chi. Thermodynamics explained. In all the exercises we enact the equilibrium of the iconic "yin/yang" symbol. So say my teachers, so say the Classics.As a beginner, I find partner work the steep hill even though it is there that the flow of energy form source to sink and back again is most evident. Since then with the Chestnut Hill group practice, and the Warwick group practice, and Bruce starting his own practice, I have been immersed in the first section of the long form. This is one of those amazing gifts the universe brings! On my own lonesome I was maintaining a fulfilling practice but this has been a real widener and deepener; while there's still a lifetime of polish to apply to the mechanics and choreography, its wonderfully starting to feel that while I'm learning it, I'm learning from it.
And what am I learning? Thermodynamics of course! The equilibrium of resting, supporting, seeking comfort, finding structure, and sticking with a partner doesn't mean "coming to rest" until its understood that rest is not stillness, that stillness isn't a cessation of he stop and go of chi unless you're dead! Rest isn't seeking to shut the system down - equilibrium requires flow. Its amazing every time to discover how much semantics counts…until the word equilibrium entered my thoughts, I didn't have the language to feel a sense of understanding; then, voila! And the word in the context of thermodynamics - in the sense that I understand it both spiritually and as a scientist (sad as it may seem to some, the same thing) didn't enter my thoughts till I was practicing the form this morning. But the blessing is that it didnt enter my thoughts from my brain - it entered from the form. It entered from the form!
Its a big thing to have undertaken an understanding of thermodynamics first intellectually, then endeavor in a direct way for 25 years to make that happen spiritually, and now, through tai chi, discover theres another way, internally, which is both and neither...So there's Pouring Chi, Washing Marrow and Reeling Silk, but from here, its all Peeling Onions.
Erica Anderson wrote this poem and I love it.
Gusts of Gravity
A sudden gust of gravity
moves me into center
and then it's gone, as gusts
are wont to be
Will it come back
where do I go now?
Blown on the caprices of winds of chance
gravity settles me here for the time being
a constant struggle
to stay grounded or go
my center moves
my boundaries shift
I am calm and rooted
I breath and have energy
Here comes another gust...