Author Archives: Felipe

Emotion Meditation 1

Whether you have a little or a lot of experience with meditation there are a few simple Taoist meditation tricks that work very well and can do you a world of good.  It’s first helpful to delineate three general meditation categories.  You could make the focus on your Body, your Mind & Thoughts, or your Emotions.  

In this article I’m choosing Emotions, by themselves and as they interact with Mind and Body.   We know intuitively that there is a continuous interaction and what we need to do is experientially understand that process better.  An experiential understanding is what gives us the means to shift everything toward more balance and harmony.

1.  Let’s look at what emotions may arise in a simple everyday situation.  Say you’re in a public place and find yourself in the presence of a complete stranger for whom you have an immediate dislike.  That’s one emotional reaction.  Next you might ask yourself why you were so prejudicial, another emotion.  That may take the form of embarrassment or guilt.  You might then reassess your reaction by feeling acceptance instead, which in turn might make you more comfortable, or proud of yourself.  Or you may say that your first reaction was right because you sensed a good reason to avoid this person, you just have to learn to trust your intuition.    Or it may dawn on you that this person just happened to trigger one of your buttons from way back, something that you need to get over already.  But maybe you can’t deal with that right now. 

It may surprise you to realize that all these emotional reactions, about ten in that example, could come and go in a few seconds, producing a small  “tempest in a teapot”.  Multiply that by a few hundred simple interactions in a day and you might have a big mess brewing just below the surface.  All these emotions will have a direct effect on what you say, think and do in the immediate situation as well as in the long term.  

1.A. The first step in gaining some stability in this possibly turbulent stream is simply to sit quietly and take notice.  Pick a situation which could be emotional but doesn’t require you to interact such as watching the news or listening to an argument.  Or you may want to go internal and examine an emotionally charged circumstance in your life.   Ask what emotions are coming up and what others they lead to.  If you get caught up in them, take note of that and just keep watching.

This perspective, which is found in many traditions,  is sometimes called the Independent Observer.  You could be watching with your intellect but you might also be accessing a part of yourself that is beyond, behind, deeper than, more stable than the vagaries of capricious emotions. 

You will realize that emotions come and go like the breeze and might have about the same importance.   One perspective is that all humans throughout time have had these same emotions all their lives and you are just one of them here in one moment.  To think that yours are all that significant could seem a little ridiculous. 

With practice you will notice that certain patterns repeat themselves, that you have certain habits.  It’s probably less important to know how they developed than to note how they are maintained.  

1.B.  A second method you could try might sound as though it requires a bit more courage:   Take any situation wherein you find yourself, intense or neutral, attractive or repelling, and allow whatever you see and hear to be absorbed into yourself.   Let in the humans, buildings, media, weather, whatever, and then let it all out again.   You could try inhaling and exhaling as you do.  Observe what emotions arise.  Keep this up until something changes, for example becoming more comfortable with what was uncomfortable.  

A refinement of this exercise is to bring the scenes into and out of your three main energy centers, brain, heart, and belly.  There will be a different sensation in each one. What is the nature of each and how do you react differently?   Note that no situation need have any particular effect on you;  you still are who you are.  

2.  That’s dealing with emotions alone, but of course they never exist all alone.  So next you could watch how they interact with your thoughts.  What might be associated with an everyday thought like  “If I’m late I’m late?”  Relief?  Relaxation?  Anticipation? Resignation?  Urgency?  Dread?  Callousness? 

Any of these emotions will lead to another set of thoughts, so if you’re Relieved you might think,  “I could just do some breathing exercises.”  If you reacted Callously you might construct all kinds of ways to blame it all on anyone and anything else.  Watch what emotions are then associated with these thoughts.  It sounds like an endless morass but you’ll soon discover a lot of repetition. 

3.  You can also examine the interplay of your emotions and your body.  In a literal  sense emotions live in your body.  They express themselves through changes in your breathing rate, your heart rate, your nervous system firing, your organ functions, your muscular tension.  Conversely, the condition of your body affects your emotions:   How you feel affects how you feel.  

An easy exercise here is to pick any one emotion, feel it as thoroughly as you can, and see what it does to your body.  Where do you feel Fear or Joy or Depression or Anger?  What happens where you feel it?  

Then pick two emotions, opposites like Courage vs. Fear.   Inhale one and exhale the other, either way, and feel how it changes your insides.   Pick other pairs of opposites like Contentment vs. Desire, Appreciation vs. Disgust, Enthusiasm vs. Depression and amplify them as you breathe in and out.   Notice also the difference when you switch each one from inhale to exhale, e.g. Courage in vs. Courage out, Fear in vs. Fear out.

These exercises will shine a light that enables you to recognize what your usual patterns are.  It will also give you the sense that you can have some direct control over your emotions and your body, an immensely useful ability. 

Once you realize that you can create a more balanced emotional life you can do these Taoist meditation exercises whenever you feel the need.  You will also be able to empathize with other people because you’ll recognize their particular patterns.  There will be a harmonious effect on all your interactions.

Lumbaring Back

This page is a description  of the Low Back exercises found in this 24 minute video.

Low back pain is so frequent in our modern society it has been called epidemic but for the most part it does not have to be this way.  There are several easy exercises you can do to keep your low back in good working order.   The lumbar spine is supported by 3 sets of muscles in the back, sides and front, respectively called the Erector Spinae, the Quadratus Lumborum, and the Ilio-Psoas.   Most lumbar pain is caused by constriction of these muscle groups due to either too much strain or to too little activity.   The general solution is quite simply, to make them more pliable and flexible.

Over many years of practice I have found that three or four exercises at the most do the job very well.  Often only one is adequate. That one is at least as old as belly dancing and two are Osteopathic inventions so far as I can tell.

1.  The first one can be compared to belly dancing in the way it takes your waist through it’s natural range of motion.  Begin by sitting with your spine comfortably vertical.  Slouch your low back backwards creating a curve that protrudes posteriorly.   Then return upright and push your belly forward creating a curve anteriorly.  You can slowly repeat this back and forth movement for a minute or two.  Take care not to push to your full limit but stay within a nice comfortable range of 70-80%.  The reason is that as your body approaches it’s limits the nerves will sense danger and automatically begin to tighten the muscles and you’ll work against yourself.  (For a fuller discussion of this go Here.)

The next piece is to shift your torso to the left and right over your hips, preferably remaining vertical.   And the last piece is to combine the front/back and left/right motions into circles: back, right, front, left, and vice versa.  Make the circles as smooth and as comfortable as you can.  Size is not important; in fact smaller is often better because it carefully addresses the tiny constrictions which would otherwise get overlooked.  Feel for exactly where the constrictions are and slowly smooth them out.

Once your body gets used to this motion a few minutes a day of circling may be all you need.  The circling can also be done standing (where it most resembles belly dancing), or on all fours, or flat on your back with your knees up.  If you’re in so much pain you can’t get out of bed you can carefully and deliberately do the routine flat on your back and with enough time usually alleviate the worst if not all of it.

2.  The next trick comes from Osteopathy and is known Muscle Energy Technique (MET),  but it would be more accurately labeled Muscle Nerve Technique because it is designed to cause the nerves to let go.   I use this for the muscles in front and back of the spine.

2.a.  Starting with the Erector Spinae in the back,  sit comfortably and lean forward until you notice any small amount of pain or any type of small glitch at about 10 pounds of force. Again, we’re after the small restrictions so you don’t want to just blast on through. Stay at that angle and start to return upright with only 10-20% of your effort for about 10 seconds.  Then let go and you should easily lean a few more degrees.  Allow your muscles to adjust and relax into this new length for another 10 seconds.  You can repeat the whole process another 4-5 times before reaching the limits of what the technique can do.

If you prefer you can stand and lean over, or sit on the floor and lean over your extended legs.  The procedure will still be the same.

2.b.  Now we can do the same technique for the Ilio-Psoas in front of the spine, behind your organs where it’s nearly impossible to reach.  Often tension here will by mistaken for a problem on the back side.

For the right side kneel down on your right knee. Have you left leg out front, knee bent 90 degrees,  foot flat on the floor.  Support yourself with one or both arms on a chair or bed. The right knee will be a few inches behind you in a stretch commonly known as a “lunge.”   Move your torso, which is vertical,  forward, thus bending the right leg further back until you feel the first little bit of resistance or pain deep in your belly, at about 10 pounds of pull.  Try to keep your tailbone from extending backward but keep it vertical along with your torso.  A hand on your hip bone will help.

Now you activate the Muscle Energy Technique by curling the tailbone forward with 10-20% of your effort for 10 seconds.  Let go and you should right away get a few more degrees of stretch.  After acclimating for another 10 seconds you can repeat the process 4-5 times.  And of course you would do the same on the left side.

If by chance you’ve pinched anything on your backside you could simply resolve it with another forward bend.  If you have trouble kneeling you could also do the stretch standing, extending one leg behind you.  It’s also possible to lie down on on your back at the edge of a bed and let one leg fall off the edge.  To control the dangle angle, about half of your thigh should be on the bed and half off.

3.  If your issue is only on one side the tension could be in the Quadratus Lumborum.  For this the best technique is called colloquially “Fold and Hold, ” and I’ll skip the other names because they don’t describe it any better.  If you’re addressing pain on the right side lean to the right about 10-20  degrees, supporting yourself with your right arm, and compressing the muscle with the weight of your torso.  Then you could fine tune by turning the torso a little to the right and left and/or tilting the pelvis a little forward and backward.   Once you feel you’ve got just the right spot stay there for 90 seconds or so and if all goes well the muscle will relax and the pain will disappear.

How do you recognize the right spot?   One way is the place it feels most critical, which could mean most painful.   The other way is where it feels most comfortable, the least painful.  Both will work so it’s up to you.  If I can’t find a comfortable niche I go with the pain;  it’s only 90 seconds anyway.

So there we have three simple, surprisingly effective exercise that can be done in less than 15 minutes.  I like to do them every day whether I feel any constrictions or not and I’m always glad I do.   Opening up the musculature also opens the blood vessels, the nerve signals and the energy grid and you feel it right away.

Although muscle pliability alleviates most problems, too many folks in our society have a more serious problem known as bulging or ruptured discs.   These are caused by too much pressure weighing down on the spine which could have the same causes as muscle tension:  excessive strain from lifting (or gaining) too much weight,  or compression from too sedentary a lifestyle, or both.   The solution then is to take the compression off the spine so that the discs can get pulled back in where they belong.

4.  There are many ways to stretch the spine and reverse the compression and I will suggest the simplest and safest, but you’ll need to be creative.  You will need something rigid to lie on and strap your waist onto which can then be placed on a tilt.  Often gyms have a slant board for doing sit-ups which could work.  A bench, a see-saw, or sturdy plank will work.   Find a way to strap yourself onto it at waist level, at the pelvic/hip bones in particular and flatten your back by bending your knees so that your feet are flat on the board.  Then someone else will need to prop up the feet end a few  inches or more, about 10 degrees to start, and you will simple remain there for 5, 10, 15 minutes and let the weight of your upper body stretch the spine.

The appropriate degree of tilt and the optimal time will be determined by how it makes your spine feel so this calls for paying very close attention.  Some chiropractors  have special tables that use 60 pounds of pull so in theory if you weigh 120 lbs. you could safely hang from your mid-section vertically.  However it is very easy to overstretch so always err on the side of caution!  It is quite possible to tear something if you get too enthusiastic.

Finally, a less common but significant cause of lumbar pain is constriction in the abdominal organs or their attachments.   The organs are all attached to the spine through a three dimensional membrane called the peritoneum.   This may not be an issue you can resolve on your own although it is possible to relax the tensions with your own hands and certainly worth a try.  Visceral manipulation is a skill possessed by a relatively small percentage of manual therapists.  I bring it up mainly to make you aware of it.    Sometimes pain indicates an organ requiring medical treatment, for example kidney stones can be felt as low back pain.

This is by no means an exhaustive list of lumbar issues but these simple exercises will successfully treat the majority of them.  You’ll be much happier if you’re not part of this epidemic.

Practicing the Extraordinary

Our modern western culture is obsessed with being stimulated, delighted, awed and amazed.  We have developed such a familiarity and boredom with the everyday that we fail to appreciate the extraordinary nature of the commonplace and seek out ever more stupendous phenomena.  We have long since passed the point of exhaustion but we don’t know it and continue headlong into this unsatisfying, useless, pathological endeavor.  (Okay, you could argue that it keeps the economy going.)

We all know the solution inherently:  Slow down enough to discover and appreciate  the superb nature of whatever  we are in right now.   There are any number of ways to do this and the Taoists invented Qi Gong exercises with this as one of the main goals.  

There is a certain unique satisfaction in immersing oneself in  a discipline so vast and deep that you never run out of new territory to explore.  Yes this is still seeking, consuming perhaps,  but internal discovery and gratification has a way of reverberating into your external life.

Taoist Qigong has standard exercises where the same movements are repeated ad infinitum and might appear to be boring and mindless.  But hidden with the movements are numerous details that promote discovery, awakening, peace of mind and a sharpened sense of being alive, not to mention great health and how good that feels.  

It’s common practice to spend months and years exploring the depths of any one standard exercise.  Every time you practice you have the capacity to discover something new and different, an opportunity to go deeper. 

Students often ask  “How long should I practice?” 

My best answer is  “Until you discover something new.”

All  Qigong exercises are governed by basic principles such as usefulness, efficiency, balance, integrity, relaxation, naturalness, groundedness, clarity, etc. (For a more formal list go here.) Typically you learn the main exercises by breaking them down into multiple sub exercises wherein all the same principles are imbedded.  From there you integrate it all back together and apply it to whatever you need or wish to do.   You might know the phrase “fractal zoom” denoting the repetition of patterns in ever smaller and larger scales. 

Cloud Hands L EvenLet’s take the standard Qigong exercise “Cloud Hands” as an example.  Here you adopt a moderately wide stance and slowly shift your weight from one leg to the other, turn left and right, and raise one arm as you lower the other, all in synchrony.   I recently made a list of 50+ details and sub exercises for Cloud Hands.  One is simply shifting your weight 100% back and forth to each leg repeatedly, smoothly,  maintaining a relaxed, grounded balance.  Sounds simple enough. 

Sub exercise Number 2, Try it with your eyes closed.  Number 3, Try keeping your weight on one leg for a few minutes.  Can you do either of these without generating any tension?  Almost no one can.

 Now a series of leading questions could arise and you’re about to discover something about your human nature.   How When Why and Where did What kind of tension come in?    What are your capacities and limitations here?   You could spend many hours taking an honest stock of yourself, or you might rather focus on one little item like keeping your balance. 

Next you could to take it to another level, to your mind and emotions.   How do you react to your level of ability?   Are you proud, satisfied, embarrassed, frustrated, in denial, neutral?   Suppose that, in good Taoist fashion, you wish to do these extremely simple exercises as perfectly and gracefully as possible for a full hour.   What is your approach?   Do you buck up, get creative, have fun, persevere, get upset, fake it, get lazy, space out, give up?   How do you measure success or failure?   How do you react to either one?

 If you haven’t realized it by now, what we are doing is using a very simple challenge as a microcosm for your life.  How do you typically approach larger challenges?   What are your habits?   How does all this affect your interactions with people and your environment? 

 Whatever you find in the micro will almost certainly reflect the macro.  Sooner or later you’ll have those “Ah ha experiences.”  “Oh I didn’t know that l’d rather fake it than get it right.” ‘”I didn’t realize that I focus so hard I don’t enjoy anything.”  “Why am I so dang proud of myself?”  Most likely you will gain insights into what makes other humans tick also, which might increase your empathy and compassion.

 This is not meditation or psychotherapy per se but it’s close enough for most of us and will accomplish many of the same things.  You certainly could add meditation, if and when you wanted to take on yet more complexity.

Stepping back to the physical exercise, once you have a better picture of how you move and what you’d like to modify you can begin to experiment. 

Sub exercise Number 4:  Say your  point of weight change as you land on one leg and push off toward the other, from Yin to Yang, is very clunky and you’d like to make it smooth and seamless.  Here are three possibilities.

sine wave1.  Slow down near the change point so that it takes longer.  This is on of the natural courses of a sine wave with steep rises and falls between long ebbs and floods.   We see this in the seasons where the light changes very rapidly in spring and fall and very slowly in winter and summer.  

 2. Add a little curve at the end point so that you have a small loop rather than a sharp bounce. 

3. Anticipate the end points by beginning a return before you reach the end.  One way is to have a part of your body pulling back while another part is still stretching out, effectively doing two opposite things simultaneously.

 You might want to consider how these three methods could make other clunky pieces of your life more smooth and natural such as driving, dancing or diplomacy.  Exploring the transition between Yin and Yang is an endless pusuit in Taoism.

 If you go the the beach and watch the ocean waves you’ll see these same three things going on.   1. The distant waves move in sine.  2.  When they break they loop.  3.  At the beach the final inflow merges with the previous outflow.    You’ll see a small sample of how nature creates and adapts to it’s own Yin/Yang fluctuations.  Wherever you look you’ll find another variation.

Taoists love to invent Qi Gong exercises that follow nature.   Which brings us to another point.  When you understand the natural processes experientially from the inside out you can create your own movements, and because of this you will have a deeper appreciation for the whole unfolding.  If find yourself  creating new movement spontaneously it shows that you understand without the need to think about it.  There is a certain joy that comes with this territory. 

So what do we have?   Through repetition and variation, we have continuous discovery of the vast complexity of human nature, which can make you more compassionate.  We have creativity in your capacity to adapt and change.  We have natural spontaneity and joy.  You can’t download this kind of magic.  

You can gain great insight through any field or even by scrutinizing any five minutes of your life.  The genius of the Taoists was in designing natural exercises that promote  insight, change and vitality in your physical body, the energy that governs it, your emotions, your mind and even your spirit.  And that is very gratifying.


Tao of Love

One of my neighbors used to say to her boyfriend, “Honey it’s late, let’s go home and practice,”  explaining  “Just when we think we have it all down perfectly something new happens.”  They were’t the first ones to approach it that way.

The Taoists developed energetic (Qigong) and meditation practices in the context of simple activities such as standing, sitting and walking.  They also saw fit to explore the more intense human activities as vehicles for discovery and  transformation including fighting and love making.   Using fighting as a meditation tool is unique to Taoism but sexuality traditions have existed somewhat openly  as part of Tantra in India and more secretively in western monotheism.   The Taoists societies were often secretive depending on the political climate and it is only in recent years that their practices are coming to light.

Qigong generally is meant to give you more energy and what you do with that extra energy has five traditional applications:  your own health, healing others, martial arts,  sexual arts and meditation.   These categories have considerable overlap, for example the fighting arts can be done in ways that make you very healthy.   It is also possible to use sexual energy therapeutically  both for yourself and your partner, as well as for meditation.

Humans have the understandable drive to seek out pleasure and yet the conflicting tendency to avoid  it, not appreciate it, and keep moving restlessly on to whatever next thing.  What would it be like if you just pursued the pleasure and allowed it to soak in and make you content?  What if you approached this as a meditation?

Perhaps the most obvious reason to do sexual practices is to enhance the experience, to make it more profound or just more fun, to generate more of that wonderful energy.  Most people would be quite happy with that.  It’s also true that many of our issues, our baggage, our stuff shows up around and in our most intimate of expressions in ways that are not particularly enhancing.   For those few who want to do the courageous work of meditation/transformation this means sex presents a unique opportunity.   I will talk about both of these motivations.

Traditionally Taoist couples engaging in “double practice”  also had their separate individual practices in Qigong, which laid the groundwork for coming together.  While this is preferable it is not really necessary.  If only one person is doing the practice the other will still feel the effects just as happens with the other two-person practices of fighting and healing.   Unless one of you is a born natural, the more work you’re willing to put in individually, the  less work, the easier, the deeper it will be when you come together.

So just what do you do?

1.  The possibilities are myriad, but grade one step one is getting the unique quality of sexual energy to be felt anywhere in your body at will.   Some folks have this naturally but most have to put a little effort into it, just as some can naturally sing and dance but most need practice.  Some parts of your body are more responsive and some less. Mouths and hands?  Yes.  Feet and spine?  Maybe.  Liver and kidneys?  Uh, that’s a bit more research.  Start with what’s easy.   Spread the energy nearby at first,  e.g. if you’re kissing wake up the back of your neck.  Or wake up the top your head where all the vertical meridians converge.   Or just go where you’re drawn.

2.  Once you wake up some part of yourself that you like particularly well, try keeping your mind there without wavering.  Or you could choose to focus on one point of contact with your partner, like wherever you kiss.  Keeping your mind focused is a standard meditation practice, but students often let their minds wander to something more interesting like sex,  so there’s a certain ingenious motivation here.  One thing this will do is expand the minutiae into something much larger, amplifying and intensifying the experience.   This can make you more appreciative, more grateful, more fulfilled by it all.   Allow the appreciation to penetrate into your cells and beyond.

3.  One of the things you learn in Qigong work is to project and absorb energy from any part of your body voluntarily.   Yin and Yang is one way to understand this.  Yang expands outward like light from a bulb or a laser.  Yin absorbs inward like the ocean enveloping a diver.

You could try this just holding hands or while in embrace.  A natural pathway is from your heart  out your arms and hands to your partner’s heart and back again.  Or skip the arms and connect directly heart to heart.   Or try it with your whole body.

We know intuitively that each place and each way we physically connect brings out a different quality of energies.  You could take a lot of time and discover what these are and explore what they do for you, for your partner and for your relationship.

Learning to exchange energy is a skill and you’ll get it sooner if you stay relaxed and don’t force it.  It’s one thing to absorb easily and quite another to swallow your partner whole.  It’s one thing to enter gently and another to lumber in all huffin’ an’ a puffin’.  True, some couples like this intensity but if it’s subtlety you’re after too much noise will drown it out.

4.   This brings us to the main practice of the original, Water Tradition Taoists: Dissolving, relaxing, unraveling, letting go, melting, and perhaps the best term here, Opening.  How can you enter into and stay open throughout the experience especially in your physical body and your nervous system which reverberate into your mental and emotional spheres and beyond?

Besides your physical body a natural place to approach dissolving energetically is your heart center.  We generally associate the heart with emotions so it may seem counter intuitive to dissolve them for the occasion.  You do want to dissolve negative emotions, your pains, fears, expectations, and conditionings which often assert themselves and just get in the way.    But you are not trying to create or amplify any particular positive emotions.  Rather it’s about becoming neutral without preconceptions,  opening to what  is present and allowing it to unfold naturally.   It’s creating the empty space out of which springs spontaneity and surprise.  Nothing has to happen but many things will.

Here one could digress a little and wax cosmic:  Creation “ex nihilo”, Something out of Nothing,  Emptiness as the Undifferentiated Source of All Potentiality.   Perhaps you can get some real down home experiential sense of this grand theoretical construct.

Dissolving is Yin and women have a more natural tendency, even a prerequisite to open, to be more Yin.  Men have to work a bit more to find a balance here because Yang is their prerequisite.   It usually takes men longer to find a sweet spot, so to speak.  (Maybe I shouldn’t go there.)  But due to the nature of arousal, everyone must find how to balance it with relaxation.

Dissolving is not the same as denial, stuffing it away somewhere,  and you only learn the difference by lots of practice.  When your issues do come up, at the first hint if you can, keep dissolving.  Keep opening.  Just let all that stuff go.  Out of your body. It’s very simple yet deeply profound.  You won’t learn it all in one lifetime.

Letting go is also a safety mechanism for unloading any disagreeable energy you really don’t want to take in, which could be a risk when you’re mixing yourselves together.     That’s a much larger discussion.  One guiding light for dissolving generally is the words of Lao-tzu,  “When the false leaves, only the true remains”.

The Taoist actually did many years of extensive research on where sexuality as a meditation path could go.  Dissolving is always present at every stage from the moment you step in the water until you become the ocean.

These are a very few of the many exercises and many more variations you could do to enhance what is already one of our greatest pleasures.   We might summarize them as Wake up your Body, Focus, Magnify, Saturate, Exchange and Merge, Stay Relaxed,  Become Content.   The concepts are simple whereas the practice is, well, practice. Whatever you do, don’t let work prevent you from enjoying one of God’s good gifts.

I have left much unsaid in between the lines in this brief introduction to an ancient tradition.   For a very thorough treatment you can read. Taoist Sexual Meditation by Bruce Frantzis.






Lemniscate Ribbon

lemniscateRibbons can be arranged into beautiful symmetrical patterns or they can be allowed to follow their own random meanderings.    The same is true for bodies in motion.  Birds in flight follow relatively random pathways while their wings move in greater symmetry.  The movement patterns generated by pairs of wings, arms, legs, etc. can be called lemniscate (lem’ ni skaht), a word  meaning “decorated with ribbons”  whose sound fails to convey it’s lyricism.  Could there be any special advantage in turning these natural movements into deliberate qigong exercises?

lemniscate torus blueMainly a geometry term, lemniscate is a figure eight which curves back & forth around a central point.  It’s what you get when you cut through a torus (doughnut) at the edge of the hole.   In three dimensions it becomes an hourglass, and in motion natural paired movements become more complex than these simple shapes.  Hard to label or define mathematically, they exist somewhere between regularity and irregularity.


Lemniscate of Gerono hourglass 2In osteopathy, lemniscate has come to mean a treatment principle for restoring movement symmetry to hips, shoulders and other paired structures.  With a little poetic license it can refer to the symmetry between any two bodies in motion such as dancers for example.  Some dancers play off each other so well it seems like they don’t even  rehearse but just flow spontaneously.   When one moves the other reacts in mirror synchrony.

lemniscate yellow 2The pelvis and hip bones trace lemniscate patterns while walking.  The astute observer  will notice, more in women than men, that the hips circle in a complex counter synchrony.   These walking patterns have been studied and graphed and published in textbooks.

What we might call compound lemniscate can be seen in the gait of four legged animals like dogs and cats. The front right and rear left legs move together and vice versa.  In between, the torso undulates in a left/right waveform.  When we primates walk upright our arms swing in the opposite directions of our legs and our torsos rotate left and right, often with a little twist.

As qigong exercise, embodying and accentuating these natural movements is somewhat advanced but not all that difficult.  Such exercise takes your body through its wide ranges of motion while generating a spinning self-sustaining  momentum.

1.  For example the next time you’re on a leisurely walk pretend that your arms have no muscle tone at all and allow them to swing in response to your pace.  You can amplify the movement in your shoulders by lengthening your stride and/or by lowering your torso an inch or so toward the ground.

As you increase the movement in your shoulders and scapulae, the muscles, fascia and other tissues become more flexible and pliable, which is very good for them.  If you keep your head and neck lightly lifted and your shoulders dropped you will create a little stretching and unraveling action in your trapezii, the neck/shoulder muscles we always complain about.

Take your time with this exercise and feel where your restrictions are. What can you do to unwind them?  Are you as relaxed and floppy as possible?  Take note of any left/right  asymmetries.  If and when you decide to  add a little muscle effort, what is just the right amount to apply to encourage more space and fluidity?

2. Here’s a second qigong exercise from Ba Gua (a circle walking practice) meant to put the sense of spherical movement into your body.   Keeping your palms facing each other rotate them around the surface of an imaginary sphere in mirror sync, e.g. when one moves up the other moves down.  Then get the elbows and more importantly the shoulders involved in the rotations.  You can make the ball as large or small as your arms will comfortably allow and you can change it’s location.   Once you get the feeling of fluid circularity and keep it going for a good while you could try changing directions and speeds. Always maintain a connection between your palms, creating a moving central axis.

I once was shown a variation of this where the hands circled wildly around the body with the focal point being the tan tien or hara.   The woman demonstrating it loved the movement without knowing that this point in the lower belly is grand central station for all the energy channels that effect the physical body.

3.  A third exercise involves just the pelvis, not that easy for most of us.  But an easy place to try it is on a bicycle, outdoors or stationary, or perhaps sitting in a soft chair.  This is like the previous exercise but here the outsides of your hips are the surface of the ball.  The range will be quite small.  Picture an hourglass on it’s side rotating clockwise as seen from the right or counter clockwise from the left (or the reverse if you’re pedaling backwards), again in mirror sync.

lemniscate concoidsYou may be able to feel two other dimensions moving:  a) a pendular swing in the sacrum and tailbone, b) a rotating wobble as seen from above, below, front or back. This exercise is good for the health of your reproductive and elimination systems as well as the flexibility of your low back.

So where does the random spontaneity come in?  It’s anytime you change the ongoing pattern, interrupting the symmetry.  In walking it’s  anytime you’re not following a straight consistent  path.  In the Ba Gua ball exercise it’s anytime you change direction, size, location or speed. In Ba Gua proper it’s also anytime you change your walking direction, especially in any of the eight  standard complex patterns.

While random & standard may sound like a contradiction it raises an important qigong principle:  First you learn the rules and only then do you break them.   Really it’s a universal principle:  Once you know a discipline very well (or even a segment of it) you are free to bend  the rules that got you there.

lemniscate purpleAgain, we’re in an undefinable territory here somewhere between framework and freedom.    The advantage of lemniscate exercise is making  yourself learn a balanced complex rhythm that borders on unpredictability.  Since life is inherently unpredictable, and probably becoming more so,  it’s always good to increase your adaptability skills and your ability to be both stable and spontaneous.




Tour de Tao, Bikin’ Gung

Chinese BikeOne of the traditional applications of Qi Gong (energy exercise) and Nei Gong (internal exercise) is the martial arts.   Beyond any training in power, speed, momentum, leverage, etc., the most sophisticated practitioners are able to utilize their own and their opponent’s energies to their advantage.   If this can be done why couldn’t someone use chi practices to enhance sports performance?

I’m not an athlete but I’ve been informally experimenting in this realm for about 15 years, specifically in my main mode of transit: bicycling.  Part of my commute has been the same for that long and I often like to competitively time myself.  On this one route my fastest time was 35 minutes back when I didn’t know qi gong very well and relied mostly on just pushing as fast as possible.  I’d  finish overheated, wet and winded.   15 years later I’m pushing 60 and my best time is under 32 minutes, about 10% better,  and I finish relatively calm and dry.  Older and faster?  What am I doing differently?

I can delineate maybe 4 things,  3 of which are mostly responsible.  I estimate that each of the 3 accounts for one third of the performance increase.  They can be applied to any sport but I’ll only speak from my own cycling experience.

1. Relax, Dissolve. Once again the essential Water practice.   This means using only the least amount of energy needed to perform well,  while generating the least amount of tension, i.e. finding the sweet spot.  Tension uses too much energy.  Relaxation conserves it.   One way to find this art space is explore how it feels to work with gravity:  How can you fall into every action?  If I  get this feeling well only in the downward movements, and a little in the upward, I increase my speed by maybe 3%.

2. Extension, Expansion, Inflation.  Sticking with the the bike theme, let’s imagine the tires as a metaphor for the human body.  If they are under inflated they will flex and deform, distributing the forces unevenly, and efficiency will be lost.  But when properly inflated they are transformed into single cohesive units.  What would it mean to inflate your body?

The simplest piece of this involves extending your legs, making them feel just a little longer.  You do this however you can.  At first you will use muscle though in a slightly different way than just straightening your legs.

The next part is to actually lengthen the joint spaces which have no muscle to speak of.  This sounds mysterious but most folks can get the idea right away if an experienced person shows them how.   For a fuller discussion go here:   Pulsing  You could experiment with both these by sitting in a chair and slowly increasing and decreasing the pressure of your feet on the floor.

The third part is a bit more sophisticated and amounts to flooding the soft tissues with energy and blood.  The maxim goes ” the mind moves the chi, the chi moves the blood.” The feeling is like filling your lungs with air or your stomach with liquid. It is essentially the quality of Yang. The practice of San Ti is where this is traditionally learned.   San Ti

If you can get some manifestation of the first two parts there will be a noticeable increase in your power and speed, say 2%. The third more difficult part will add another 2%, and potentially much more.

3. Twisting, Spiraling. Several fibers together have more strength than do unconnected strands and will have even greater strength when twisted into a coherent bundle. Thread, string and rope are twisted for cohesiveness, resiliency and strength. The parallel action in humans is twisting the muscles around the bones.

The first level of this is just twisting your legs in and out in any way possible. However you want to avoid twisting the joints, especially the knees which are easily damaged. (So long as you don’t fully straighten the knees the risk is lower.) When I first tried this my legs would get cramped and sore, no doubt from using too much force in an unfamiliar action. Go slowly, use less effort and you’ll figure it out sooner.

There is a shortcut: take hold of either leg with both hands and twist the tissue in and out with just a few pounds of pressure for about ten minutes. This will pattern the nerves and get them accustomed to the unusual movement. Toward the end of the session start using you leg muscles a little, maybe 20% as your hands do the other 80%.

The advanced version we call Spiraling, which means twisting in two or more ways at the same time. What? Yes it can be done, in a few different ways. For example imagine that the top of your thigh turns inward while the bottom turns outward and vice versa. You could easily pattern this action with two sets of hands.

Why Spiral? Primarily because it amplifies the strengthening effect of twisting. Practically, it’s useful for addressing injuries and misalignments. Say you have a knee injury and you’ve discovered that it feels better when you twist out just above it and in just below it. This could make all the difference for you. In the medium/long term spiraling imitates the effects of Tui Na Massage by wringing out the tissues, which promotes the evacuation of waste which in turn makes room for the absorption of nutrients.

I estimate that Twisting/Spiraling adds 3% and that taken together with Extension/Expansion it is power in particular that is increased, which makes them appropriate for slower activities like uphill cycling and weight training. Or the power can be converted into speed.

4. Breathing. This is probably the most accessible but still requires practice. The way to avoid getting winded is to breathe more slowly and fully. Most people take a breath every four seconds or so and use only a fraction of their lung capacity. With time you can learn to lengthen your breaths to 30 seconds and more. Taoist breathing also teaches you to increase your lung capacity and to use it to compress and massage your organs which enhances their functioning. I find it doesn’t add much power or speed but does increase stamina.

A longer discussion of Taoist Longevity Breathing can be found here.

So that’s it, a bit oversimplified:  Relax for speed, Inflate and Twist for power, Breathe for stamina.  There are other practices that could be incorporated into common sports to further refine performance.  This is just a short list that I’ve found to be the easiest to implement for the greatest enhancement. The best way to learn each of them is to first practice without any movement at all and slowly add movement, integrating smoothly and surely.


The Joy of Dissolution

Dissolution is the core practice of Taoist Qigong.

What can this possibly mean?

Actually the preferred term is Dissolving but we also use melting, softening, evaporation, dissipation, disintegration, unraveling, disentangling, etc. Probably the most communicative terms for us in the West are deep relaxation or letting go, but these still don’t convey the complete sense.  I will give just a short description here because much has been said about it elsewhere, e.g.  

The practice involves scanning through your body and feeling for any sense of tension, contraction, excess strength, etc. and doing whatever you can to soften and let go.  It’s a deceptively simple yet immensely profound exercise, one which is never fully completed and which continues into even the most advanced practices.  The general theory is that constrictions of all kinds, starting with the body,  block the flow of energy and vitality at all levels and the most efficient solution is to dissolve them into neutrality.

We could say there are two general ways to have better health and well being, the one is to minimize the negatives and the other is to accentuate the positives.  Dissolution of negatives is the main though not the only Taoist way.

Students of the Water Methods where Dissolving is the quintessential practice are taught to stand and dissolve for extended periods, say 30 minutes for starters.  But if you don’t quite get it just right this can be dreary and tiring.   Ideally it’s as effortless as ice melting yet the mental focus should be constant. Too much effort creates more tension and too little spaces you out.  The mind is quite active but the practice is passive. It is the ultimate Yin coupled with lots of Yang.  “Striving toward non-action” is confusing and difficult.  

After maybe a decade of dithering with these dilemmas it dawned on me that I was missing a powerful motivator:   It feels really good!  Pleasure, of course, why didn’t that come up before?  Usually we are taught to move toward neutrality, an absence of pleasure or pain.   As feelings and emotions arise, pleasant or not, we unravel them.  I can think of only one of my colleagues who’s ever said  “I LOVE dissolving,”   and I love him for saying it.

The best analogy is a hot shower, which I think is one of the better inventions of our modern society.  When you really need to let go of some dirt, getting clean feels especially good.  The warmth makes you soft and melty.  The water is gentle and cleansing.  The downward flow carries it all away without effort.   Because it conveys the feeling so well I would do all my water/dissolving practice in a delicious hot shower, but alas there is the need to conserve water and who needs to dissolve more guilt?

Consider how physically good it feels to recover from an illness when the grip of the ailment finally lets you go.  There’s a mental relief when you realize you don’t actually have to learn an upgrade because the old version still works just fine.  We often feel emotional relief, even ecstasy when an apparent tragedy such as death or divorce brings an end to a difficult struggle.

There is a great sense of freedom and liberation when we let go of anything that holds us back, that impedes our flow of life.  One of the joys of aging is, if we’re lucky, maturity which we could also call the casting off of immaturity.   Who would not be happy to be free of the emotional and mental baggage of their earlier years?  What we thought we had to do, what we felt we had to express, who we thought we really were, how we had to present ourselves, what we wanted the world to be, so much that seemed important, can all be rendered dissolute.   Much of what we once considered positive we later see as negative or no longer useful.

Indeed if that’s true of the past isn’t it equally true of the present?  There is a Taoist principle that says once you’ve got it all figured out you’ve begun to solidify, to become inflexible, to put yourself in bondage, to bring on the miseries of getting old and stuck in your ways.  The key to youth and vitality is unraveling all that, or being willing to unravel what doesn’t serve you, making way for flexibility, spontaneity and happiness.

No one who’s tried can claim that letting go is all that easy (although what else could it be?)  but  when a little letting go makes us a little happier it certainly helps.  And it helps that there is a subtle, unseen, cleansing, yin force always descending from the heavens which the Taoists call the “gentle rain.”  In Christendom this is ever-present, benevolent Grace.


Finding the Sweet Spot

How do you know when enough is enough? Enough food, exercise, work, rest, diversion, money, anything. When is it too little? Or too much? How do you know when it’s just right? How do you find the sweet spot? We usually agree that it’s way too subjective, that each situation is different for each person, that we only know by tuning in at the moment.

This is quite true, but the Taoists actually came up with a number: If we define 100% capacity as just short of a breaking point, an injury, an overflow, a failure of some kInd, just right is somewhere around 70%.  In the West we are taught that to accomplish almost anything we need to give 100% almost all the time, so 70% makes no sense. Conversely in the East, to work so close to the edge is way too risky and makes no sense. Some of this cultural difference can be explained in terms of short vs. long term sustainability. It is not possible to sustain anything close to 100% for any great length of time, but at 70 you can go on dang near forever. In China you brag about your old age because it shows that you’ve been able to sustain your vitality for a long time. In the West old age means your vibrancy is gone and you’re nearly finished. 

Let’s take walking as an example of sustainability. Suppose you’d like to walk a mile for exercise. Say your top speed is 15 minutes which will make you tired, sweaty and winded. A lazy pace might take you 25 minutes but you might feel like you haven’t properly exercised. 70% of your top speed is about 20 minutes which should leave you feeling exercised and refreshed, and even ready to go another mile.

Finding this sweet spot is one of the keys of Taoist longevity practices. Part of the idea is not wasting energy unnecessarily but always keeping a significant amount in reserve. This is expressed metaphorically (perhaps) in the maxim that in our lives we are given a finite number of heartbeats, breaths, orgasms, etc. and we can use them up either sooner or later.

But more critical are their observations that as we go beyond 70  toward 100, the body senses increasing danger and prepares itself by holding back and tightening up. The law of diminishing returns kicks in. The closer we get to 100 the less our efficiency. Furthermore the nervous system becomes increasingly tensed up and strained. In all their research the Taoists found no way to override these side effects. 

The most common protest I hear is “But how can you ever increase your 100% if you never even approach it?” Contrary to our conditioned western intuition, the Taoists found that working consistently around 70% is in fact the quickest and safest way to increase your capacity; it happens naturally almost without you realizing it, like an unintended, beneficial side effect.

This idea is immensely difficult for humans in general and westerners in particular to understand and put into practice. When we want to do something well we almost always translate that as applying more effort. Personally, I spent way too many years practicing my Qigong around 85%, and I’m not even Type A. This came partly from being lazy with practice time and then trying hard to make up for it. Eventually I realized that this was impossible. The better strategy would have been more time and less effort, like I was always told.

70 is not an exact figure. Sometimes 80 is okay. Sometimes you have to scale back to 60. If you’re ill or injured you may need to go much lower. For example, years back I had a very important lesson when I had a persistent knot in my back which did not respond to any of the many sophisticated tricks I knew, nor to the treatments of chiropractic, massage, and osteopathy. Months into it I was able to ask my main teacher what to do. All he said was ” scale back everything to 20%” , adding ” which will be very hard for you.” Of course that’s what I did and to my surprise the knot disappeared and I was fine immediately. 

At another time a colleague at a retreat was in such pain she was instructed to not even practice Dissolving, the most benign of all the practices, which meant reducing everything to 0. At the other end of the scale, if you’re in a situation of competition or an emergency, the most appropriate level is probably 100.

The extremes are reserved for special situations. 70 refers to your daily living and practice schedule. And, generally you’re better off erring on the side of caution, or dare I say conservatism. It’s also important to notice that our capacities change from day to day, which means so does our sweet 70.

The whole process is an art. After playing with all the numbers my favorite criterion comes down to “when am I doing the thing well and still feeling perfectly relaxed, at ease and comfortable?” 

How we find the the sweet spots, the golden means, the Goldilocks points, is by a lot of experience and experiment.  Without that it’s just academic exercise, which by itself isn’t all that sweet.