Yoga, which is from India was introduced in the West at least a century ago and has enjoyed a sustained popularity for the past couple decades. The Chinese developed a similar form of exercise which has gotten the informal name Taoist Yoga but is relatively unknown. Indian yoga evolved with its contact with the British empire and in the US it has continued to change, taking many forms from a gentle inward Yin for therapeutic purposes to a vigorous external Yang that resembles the aerobics of the 1970s.
Taoist Yoga is more closely associated with the softer Yin but turns its focus even more inward. It is not a formal designation per se but is a part of Tai Chi and Qigong/Chi Gung. Essentially it is a certain way of stretching the connective tissues of the body using Qigong principles. What are these principles?
If you follow the Chinese and Indian traditions back far enough you will find that they both have in common the goal of increasing the movement of energy in the human body. In my limited experience Qigong introduces this right away while in Yoga it may take several years.
1. Relaxing, Dissolving. So what does it mean to stretch energetically? First and foremost it means that you only stretch as far as you can relax into it. Then you keep on relaxing at ever deeper levels. This means that your mind is taking the primary role. If you can’t consciously let go of a constricted or painful area you do not force it in any way. Usually forcing actually increases the energetic tension and often causes a micro-tearing of the muscle, or worse, a tendon or ligament. Then you have another problem.
We could deduce then that Taoist yoga always avoids pain. Pain sets your nerves on edge making it even more difficult to relax. It is considered a sign of imminent danger, however small, and you should back off to where it disappears. This means that the stretches can take much longer, several minutes or more, as you gradually let go without pain.
Pain avoidance is sort of a gross criterion and you really need a more refined approach to get the most out of it. Somewhere between no pain and taking out the slack is an area where some finesse is called for. If we were to use numbers where 100% stretch is just at the point of significant injury, 80% stretch is where pain arises and 70% is where the slack is taken out, 70-80% is this gray area. This 10% window may represent less than a pound of pressure variation. You will need to experiment with just ounces to find the most efficient way to open up your connective tissues.
This mind business can prove a bit tricky because first you must train it to feel inside, to locate, a constricted place in your body, especially one that is hidden from your awareness. That’s not too hard especially if you can temporarily create pain there. But then you must actively focus on an inactivity, i.e. letting go. The concentration is Yang but the effort is Yin. One of the classic paradoxical phrases is “Strive for non action.” It’s one of those contradictions that always has another layer. But each layer has another reward.
2. Twisting, Unraveling. Nature rarely follows a straight line but rather courses through curves and spirals. For example, the genetic code at the core of every life form we know takes the shape of a double helix, a sort of twisted ladder. Your bones are comprised of twists and curves and the soft tissues attached to them are similar. The same is true for the energy pathways. The Taoists developed ways to accentuate the natural curvatures to produce both greater strength for martial arts purposes and for our purposes here, greater pliability. The basic goal is to unravel, unwind, untwist the constrictions.
What you do is very gently twist your muscles around your bones so that they relax and open up in three dimensions. The quickest way to learn twisting is to pattern it into your nerves manually. You can start with a leg by sitting on the edge of a chair and holding one thigh between both hands. With your hands, gently twist all the soft stuff inward and outward repeatedly. After about 10 minutes slowly begin to engage your thigh muscles in the twisting and gradually have them do it all.
Next see what the other leg can do; it may have gotten the message. If not it will probably take less time than the first one. The amount of twist you can get your muscles to do will be far less than what your hands can do but no matter. It doesn’t take a lot of movement and you should avoid any temptation to overwork the exercise and create more tension. With time and practice it will smooth out and get easier.
You can go quite deep with this process. Between skin and bone are several layers that can be unraveled. We could say the deepest physical one is the ligaments that hold your bones together. The hip joints are the clearest example. Sit in any lotus type posture (that’s crosslegged for you commoners) and you will feel the hip joints most easily. Try turning the femur bones in and out, just a degree or so. (Here I should warn you that this should not be tried with the knee joints locked straight because it’s very easy to damage the ligaments!)
Since almost no one is symmetrical you will no doubt find find differences between in and out and/or left and right. Just how do you unwind the tight ligaments and restore balance? Ah, would that it were simple! There are two general approaches: you could go in the tight direction, which we call Direct, or the loose direction, which we call Indirect.
Indirect is counterintuitive but we osteopathic types do it all the time and with great success. (You can read more about that here.) What you do is gently turn in the easy direction up to the first natural barrier (just a few ounces or pounds of pressure) and keep it there. Wait patiently until a release occurs, taking you further in that direction. Then you turn around and test the tight direction. With any luck it will have let go a little. You can repeat this several times and add some variations:
A. Turn the easy way and when you hit the natural stopping place back off slightly and then wait patiently for a release. B. Turn to the natural endpoint and rather than waiting just let go and return to neutral. C. Turn continuously, spending c. 75% of your effort in the easy direction and c. 25% in the tight direction. You don’t know what will work until you experiment.
The Direct approach which seems natural is often problematic because you’re using tension on tension which makes it difficult for the nerves to release. But occasionally it’s exactly the right thing to do; sometimes the bigger wrench does the job. Here again, you want to play with creative variations. There are some 200 variations of twisting in classical Tui Na so just by experimenting you will reproduce many of them.
In sum we have just a few basic principles: Relax and Unwind and do it with consciousness, depth and patience. Is that it all there is to Taoist Yoga? Perfecting that much would take most of us half a lifetime but no, there is quite a bit more and we’ll get to it in a month or so.
Or, you can also read about the differences between the Chinese and Indian traditions here.