Category Archives: Qigong

Gods Playing

Screen Shot 2016-04-16 at 3.50.51 PMGods Playing in the Clouds is an attractively named Chi Gung/Qi Gong set, a relatively advanced one that has always been my favorite since learning it in the early 90s. The physical movements, the outer shells, are very elementary but what you do internally with your joints, fascia, ligaments, blood, breath, etc. is a game of a higher order. Consciously directing your energy flow is yet another skill. Finally you could add meditation.  No one ever does it perfectly; there is always something more to fine tune.

The set was developed some 3000 years ago and has not changed significantly in 500 years, so you could say the adepts are happy with it. I find myself wondering about many aspects of it in my daily practice. Perhaps the most intriguing bit is that of the six movements there is one, #3, that’s uniquely different in its outer shell and its energy movement. It’s been said that this advanced set is the bridge to get you into meditation and I’d like to explore here how #3 can take you there. 

The simplest way to describe the energy movements generally is  1) up and down your main channels, left right and center, and  2) from center to periphery and back, from your lower tan tien out to your auric fields and back in. 

This holds true for 5 of the 6. But #3 focuses on your three main energy centers in your head, heart and belly. Furthermore you only bring energy into your head and belly and only send it out your heart. What is going on here? 

Well one of the ways to understand Qigong generally is that you are interacting with the forces of nature, the sky above, the earth beneath, and the biosphere in between. Typically the head relates to the heavens, the belly to the earth and the heart to all the plants, animals and humans in between. So here you might say you can bring in all of heaven and earth but then you open your heart and give it all away. That sounds like a meditation. 

Just what makes something a meditation?  One thing is it addresses the main issues of life and death, questions we all deal with in all times and places.  Another is it implicitly contains many variations, many ways to look at those weighty issues. It opens more doors.  It invites more nuanced explorations.  And as you open those doors you tend to recognize that you’re doing something deeply worthwhile. 

So what do we have here? At its very simplest, stuff comes in to you and stuff leaves you. That’s true of every organism, every entity. Life proceeds by taking in and giving out. Where might you go with that?

You could start with gratitude for the energy that keeps you alive and well. You could appreciate its qualities, the freshness of clean air, the warmth and wet of the sun and rain, the stability of terra firma, the beauty of it all. You might notice that it’s always there, always available, reliably so. That could lead you to trust, to relax. 

When you recognize that the forces of nature will be there you can afford to be less anxious, to worry and fret less, to be non attached, to let go and let God, to give generously and without expectation. Are you hearing the universality as well as the individual world traditions? 

You could just as easily do this with the negatives as we’ll see in a moment.

Here’s how you can do the #3 qigong exercise very simply. Start with your arms bent, parallel, shoulder width, in front of you and a little above your head. Gently try to absorb the energy of the sky into your hands and your head, inhaling easily as you do. Then drop it and your hands down to your heart and let it all go as your arms extend out a little, exhaling easily. Next drop down to the earth and bring its energy and your arms up your legs to your belly, inhaling. From there come up to your heart and let it all go again. Finally return to the sky and repeat the cycle. Pinpoint focus on your energy centers if you’re able. How many times doesn’t matter but sets of 20 are sort of standard. 

Gods green #3A

Gods green #3B

Gods green #3C

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As you do this start thinking about things like abundance in abundance out, beauty in beauty out, love in love out, all you hold dear in and out, etc.  Or if that’s too hokey for you try storminess, trouble and chaos in and out. That’s reliable nature too. But now you might want to contemplate the temporary qualities. Good or bad, all is permanent and all is impermanent. Which brings up equivocation, but let’s stop somewhere.

The significant thing about this type of meditation exercise is that it is much more than just thinking. You are doing it with your body, your breath and your energy, engaging several of your faculties together.  (The more parts of your body you can engage the better.)  There is a synergy. You practice at deeper levels. 

So while qigong per se is not meditation per se this is an example of how the two can become one. With these few suggestions you can take this wherever it resonates with you. 

Generating Heat

There are two general ways to get warm: either you bring in heat from an outside source or you generate it from inside. (Extra clothing just keeps the inside heat from escaping.)  So you could stand next to a stove or do some exercise. Pretty straight forward and not very interesting.

columbia-wim-hofBut now how do those yogi types manage to sit in the snow and melt a circle around themselves?  No movement, no stove. That sounds totally cool.  What is their secret? Some of you esoterica seekers may know of the Tummo method and I’m not sure how Wim Hoff the Iceman does it. 


Well, while I can’t actually melt ice I have learned to generate some heat and can tell you a few ways it’s done.  Whatever the methods, they can all be described rather simply, but their implementation is quite another matter.

Again there are two main ways, internal and external and I’ll start with the inside one which is easier.

Internal. The process is essentially a Yang one where you make the blood go to the surface of your body and heat up your outer layers.  The maxim goes, “The mind moves the energy, the energy moves the blood.”   So you use your mind to expand the blood flow, inflating the body as it were.  But it’s not enough to say it’s only your mind; there are always some critical physical components.

The main one is called “ding” or “press”.  Start by placing your tongue on the roof of your mouth and pressing lightly, just a few ounces, toward the top of your head.  Put your hand on the top of your head and see if you can detect a pressure change in your scalp caused by your tongue.  Turn it on, turn it off until it’s obvious to you, or better yet, to someone else.  It sounds physically impossible and maybe it is.  The change is not directly physical but energetic which then creates physical movement.

Once you can make that happen the next step is to make another part of your head expand a little and then your whole head (not too much now.)  From there you direct the energy into your body, down your arms, torso and legs.  Choose where you want the energy to go and consciously send it there.

I find it also helps to do the yoga trick of relaxing the soft palate and letting it drift upward toward the top of your head.

3 tantiens radiatingIf you’re one who needs to know why the soft palate and “ding” works my best guess is that you are contacting the main energy center in the brain, the upper tantien, the third eye, which disperses energy in any direction quite naturally (as do the middle and lower ones.)

As a regular winter practice I use this method almost exclusively and it works well enough at least in my climate which doesn’t freeze much.  I do it in the context of San Ti, the main Yang standing posture, which amplifies it considerably.  You can read about that here.  San Ti in turn is the energy work, the nei gung, of Xing I, the most Yang of the internal martial arts.

Coincidentally or not, I’m finding that all that Yang energy keeps the winter microbe invaders at bay.  The colds can’t get in because they’re kept out by all that heat radiation, is my theory.

The lower tantien also has the capacity to radiate pressure and heat and it’s in more convenient proximity to inflating the pelvis and legs.  The only sensible physical component here that I know of is compressing your belly when you inhale and letting it expand as you exhale.  But that discussion’s gonna get real complicated real soon and deserves more screen space.

External. You can also bring in heat in from the outside.  These exercises are more Yin.

1. Situate yourself near a source of heat such as the sun or a fire.  Feel it radiating on your skin.  Then very consciously do what you can to absorb and pull it deeply into your body.  This alone will get you warmer than just being in the presence of the heat. Next try to pull it into your lower tantien, the energy center in your belly, and store it there.

2. Now move away from the heat to where you can no longer feel it but still see it. Again do what you can to pull it in from a distance.  Of course this skill is more difficult to develop.  And again try to pull it in with your lower tantien.  When you feel it stored in your belly allow it to radiate out into the rest of your body.  If some place is colder, such as your feet, send it there.

3. Let’s say you have some success there and want a more challenging task, something on the order of psychic abilities.  The center of the earth as far as we know is molten iron which is very hot.  That can also be tapped into.  Let your mind sink deep down until you feel the heavy density, the stronger pull, and the slightly higher temperature.  Then pull it into your energy center just as you did with the visible source of heat and let it disperse throughout your body.  Obviously the degree of difficulty here is greater but so is the reward; my own teacher says had to learn this in order to survive a winter in the Himalayas.

All these tricks are both as simple and as complex as they sound.  As always Practice is the key but I can offer a few more tips.

—Don’t try to learn this when you’re freezing cold shivering.  The tension in your body will make it much more difficult for your blood vessels to open up.  Start when your temperature is relatively comfortable.  Also, read #4 of this yoga post.

—You will need to experiment with the active/passive, yin/yang balance. How much effort v. how much relaxation you only learn through trial and error.  Too much pull or push will reduce your effectiveness.  Yin or Yang, you should not strain yourself in any way.

—About going deep inside the earth, the advice I got here was to approach it like a living being and ask politely of Gaia’s abundance.  Don’t act like your Mother Earth owes you something or you may get nothing at all.

So, as simply as possible,  you develop two skills:
First you learn to radiate heat from your energy centers to your whole body. That’s Yang.
Then you learn to bring it in from outside, even from a very faint source. That’s Yin.
Okay three, Then you mix it up. That’s Yin Yang.

Heart on FireFinally, we’ve mentioned the gathering/dispersing capabilities of the upper and lower tantiens, so what about the middle, the heart center?   It certainly makes perfect sense because your heart pumps your blood.  Indeed it is associated with Fire in Chinese medicine (and the West) and there are practices focusing on just that.  My experience here is limited to other heart practices, (there are only so many hours in a lifetime)  but I welcome any observations any of you may have.

Sacred Grounding

Do you know where your Sacrum lives?  Do you know when it’s hurtin’ or happy?  Could it be important to your health?  Well from the point of view of your physical structure it’s the central bone in your skeleton.  That sounds big.  It is the wedge shaped one at the base of your spine that fits into your pelvic ring, like a keystone in an arch, where the upper and lower body join together.  Without a keystone, in its right place,  you don’t have structural integrity.  

Sacrum-Keystone 2The word means sacred since it was once thought to be the seat of the soul and was closely associated with the organs of reproduction.  To the Taoists it is important for structural and energetic reasons, reasons that often account for a bad back or a wobbly balance or a lack of feeling grounded.

Because your sacrum is the root of your spine, and is flexible, we need to talk about that relationship.  There is some controversy about what a healthy spine is shaped like.  Everyone agrees that it should be vertical as seen from the front or the back and that it should not be twisted.  No one thinks scoliosis or torque is a good idea.  From the side view we have our differences.

1. The current favorite textbook model is a serpentine shape with backward curves at the sacrum and ribs and forward curves in the neck and low back.

2.  Recently another model has emerged,  called a J shape, a relatively straighter spine, especially the lumbar, with a backward curve at the sacrum, which is thought to be a more natural indigenous form, predating our sedentary lifestyle.

3.  A third model is also a J but with the tailbone curve going forward, which you find in the likes of Tai Chi and other martial arts.

3 Spines 2

As you might expect I’m making the case for number three, but I’m not wading into the morass of denigrating the other two.

 

 

Chi Gung/Qigong has a basic premise that your body alignments are important because they set the conditions for your energy to flow freely.  It’s something like water flowing faster in a straight line flume than around curves which diminish the force and speed.  So a straighter, more vertical spine is considered preferable to a curved one.

Consider the efficiency of the physics.  Verticality by definition means aligned with gravity and hence is ironically the one position (except horizontal) where a spinal column can most be at rest.   Tilts and curves require muscular effort to maintain, the bigger the more, so they’re considered to be a waste of energy.  Any muscle/fascia/ tendon tension will inhibit the energy flow.

That’s within your body but we also live between the heavens and the earth which exude their own energies.  These are essentially vertical flows descending down and springing up so a vertical spine has the best chance of being receptive to them.  This is one of the reasons to sit with a straight spine when you meditate.

So what about the forward curve at the bottom?  It’s not much of a curve; the sacrum is still vertical or just slightly tucked under.  This is meant to send the energy from the spine down the legs and into the feet and the ground, so it gets your upper body grounded.  And Grounding is considered to be immensely important.  Connecting to the earth gives you stability, physically and meta-physically.  Physical stability has the effect of amplifying mental and emotional stability and who might like more of that? From a martial arts perspective, say Push Hands, there are practitioners who are so well grounded it feels like you’re pushing against the earth itself.

To achieve this kind of rootedness the tailbone angle has to be just right.  Again, your best indicator is a vertical sacrum but there is some leeway in the angle.  A partner can help you find the tolerances:  Standing, with your knees just slightly bent, have them take hold of your ilia (hip/pelvic bones, your waist) and press straight down toward your feet with 5-10 pounds of pressure.  If the sacrum is too far off vertical the force will go off in that direction and you will start to lose balance.  You want the angle where you feel the force going directly into your feet.

Knuckle sacrumIt helps to drop your sacrum out of your spine.  What does that mean?  It means lengthening the low back downward and creating a little more space in the vertebral joints.  You can get a feel for this by placing one or both of your hands, maybe the knuckles, on your backside just below your waist and letting the weight of your arms weigh down.  Eventually you want to accomplish the drop by just relaxing downward, no hands.

If you can find the exact hinge point of your sacrum and lowest vertebrae (L5/S1 in our lingo) try to drop open right there.

Finding the physical connection from the upper body to the lower, Seamed stockingsfrom the spine to the feet, is relatively easy.  Finding the energetic connection is trickier.  It is largely a mental exercise where you use your mind to feel the pathways, the simplest path being a line down the backs of your legs, like those seamed stockings that are long out of fashion.  

There are degrees of the energetic skill and there are a few ways to develop it.

1.  You can trace the lines with your hands as described at length here.

2.  Dissolving works well.  This is where you relax your physical tension at deeper and deeper levels, effectively removing the impediments to flow.  That’s the Yin way.

3.  The Yang way involves internally pushing down and pulling up your fluids, blood, synovial, and interstitial.  Sounds advanced?  It is.  I say a bit more about it in this yoga post.

It can take a lot of time and practice to your get your sacrum grounded while standing, and that’s one of the reasons so many qigong exercises are done standing in one place;  there are fewer distractions.  Once you get it in your body reliably you can move on to other positions like standing with your weight on one leg, bending over a workbench, squatting down, etc.

Eventually you will want to learn it while moving around.  A simple trick, again, is to walk around with one or both of your hands weighing down on your sacrum.  Walking is one of the best places to get it since it’s probably our single most common activity.  The very least you’ll walk away with is a happier back and better balance & stability.

Equinox Equilibrium

Surfer Hawaii 2This is the time of year when we in the northern hemisphere rush headlong down the wave toward winter, at least in terms of losing our daylight.  At latitude 38 where I live the change is about two minutes per day or one hour in a month.  In that dive there is a very brief moment when day and night are equal all over the earth, hence the term equinox (equal night.)

The other balance points in our orbit around the sun are the solstices where the amount of light stays relatively the same for weeks.  When the  “sun stations”  in the height of summer and the dead of winter the light change is only about 10 minutes in a month’s time.  

sine waveOn a graph this is your classic sine wave which is steep on the rise and fall and nearly flat on the peak and trough.  The top and bottom are sort of natural resting places while the the inclines rush right past the moment of equality.  So we have two kinds of balances, one where you can take your time and one where you’ll miss it if you blink, one of rest and the other of action, one of stillness, one of motion.

A main complaint of our modern life is that it requires so much action we barely have time to rest.  So the general advice we get is to carve out more time for rest & relaxation.   But there is another way, one that sounds impossible to our conditioned minds.  That is to find relaxation and balance while we are in action, to find stillness in motion.   

And just how do you pull off such a contradictory feat?  

1.  Well, let’s say you’re engaged in a physical activity like dancing, running, cycling, doing the housework,  anything really.  What you do is find a place in your body where something can always remains constant, always the same.  You just assign it the job of being a home base, a center around which the universe can revolve.  There’s no particular magic to it;  anywhere can be the center of the cosmos, but certain places lend themselves to it better.  Depending on your personality it could be your brain, your heart, your belly or your feet.  It needs to be a place that makes sense to you since you’ll return to it whenever you you start to feel off kilter.    

Ba Gua ZhangThis trick comes from Ba Gua, a marital art where you walk in circles, constantly changing direction to confront or evade another opponent.  When you do it as meditation you are creating a place of stillness within chaos.  It’s also a part of the art of twirling as in whirling dervishes and belly dancing.  There the obvious constant place would be your central axis, assuming you can find it.  

2.  You can always monitor and change your Breathing, of course.  Anxious breathing is quick, forward moving, and high up in the lungs because anxious energy rises up and rushes forward. Calm breathing is slow,  back, and lower down in the abdomen.  The beauty of breathing is that it’s very easy to control for almost everybody.  Almost anyone can learn to direct their breath to their lower spine and even into their feet.  (from the Tai Chi Classics: “The wise man breathes from his heels.”)  Next time you’re in a crazy place see what this will do to your sense of equilibrium.

3.  Another thing you can do calls for a higher level of awareness. You can tune into the essential underlying flow of whatever it is you’re doing and keep it constantly going in some part of your mind.  For example you could ask something like, “What is the primary purpose in this endeavor?”  It’s a very practical question because it requires you to distill out some basic clarity while dealing with a host of other relevant questions.   Whether you’re preparing a dinner or running a company or cultivating a relationship there is an underlying purpose that can serve as your stability amidst the many particulars that come up.  When you’re in tune with it all your particular activities can go in that direction.  There is a sense of balance in chaos.

By way of exercise examples there are many Tai Chi and Qigong/Chi Gung exercises that move in continuous circles.  Typically there are several elements that go into that basic framework such as grounding, breathing, relaxing, clearing meridians, pumping joints and organs, moving energy in and out, controlling blood flow, etc.  Keeping track of all that can be confusing and chaotic which makes the exercise less effective.  So you could choose as your stability point just Making Smooth Circles. 

Yes, that sounds contradictory in nature but if you can experience motion itself as stillness you will have accomplished something remarkably useful for any season. 

Tao Yoga 2

One could write a dissertation on this subject but here in Part 2 we’ll limit our concerns to just a few more basic parameters that will serve to set the tone for the more extensive exploration you will of course do in your own private practice.

3. Breathing.  I’m not sure exactly why but sooner or later everyone wants to ask about breathing.  To a Taoist breath is one of several vehicles to move energy in your body.  I think they would rather you learn the other more challenging vehicles first and then come to the easier one.  Still, they’ve explored it in as much detail as anyone has, and we can sketch the outlines easily.

In keeping with the primary principle of Relaxing/Dissolving you want your breath to be very soft and quiet.  You want it to help open and expand your body without any force or strain.  In your torso the expansion is obvious and you could spend a lot of time relaxing your abdominal muscles, rib cage and spine.  You’ll be more successful if you continuously scan for tight areas and direct the air pressure there.  

You can take this deeper by directing your breath into your organs and the connective structures that hold them in place.   Your internal parts are like your externals in that they can all develop constrictions that are in need of unraveling.  Clearly this calls for a higher level of awareness and skill but the payoff is higher because your overall health is more a function your organ metabolism than your muscle tone.  The principle is still the same, viz.  pliability and openness make everything vibrant while tension and constriction make everything sluggish. 

Opening up your head, arms and legs is less obvious than your torso because there it’s not the air pressure that does it but the liquid pressures of your blood and synovial fluid.  We’ll get to that later.

The other main Taoist breathing thing is inhaling and exhaling not just air but energy itself.  The idea is to create a feedback loop where you flood your system with energy which then opens up your body which then makes it easier for energy to flow.

There are a few ways to approach this.  One is to just imagine that fresh air and fresh energy are identical and that it all enters your nose and lungs and penetrates your body as you inhale.  On the exhale the path reverses and you expel the stale unusable stuff.  

Next, as you breath air with your lungs imagine breathing energy with your skin. This is a way to discern their different natures by using separate paths.  You can’t willingly pass air through your skin but you can do so with energy.  How are they different on a felt, kinesthetic level?  This is subtle stuff, yes, but with practice humans are capable of perceiving surprisingly fine distinctions. 

Once you have some idea of the feel of energy itself you can bring it in and out your skin independently of your breathing, using only your mind.  Remember the main idea is to make you open and relaxed, so make sure you’re doing that consciously.   If one part of you is especially constricted, say a shoulder, make that your focus.  Ultimately you want to be able to move energy anywhere in your body at will. 

4.  Using Energy to Move Fluid.   Now we’re into it about as deeply as we can get.                        A.  There is a Taoist truism, “The Mind moves the Chi, the Chi moves the Blood.”  There are two general methods for how you pull that off, Yin and Yang.  We’ve already discussed the Yin which is essentially relaxing to the point of opening so that the blood flows naturally.   Besides that very general instruction there is one little trick.   

Can you feel your heart beating?  Good.  Can you feel it beating elsewhere in your body?  Even better.  (If not, try a position that will accentuate it like a forward bend.) This will give you a clear indicator of how well you’re able to open up and let the blood flow.  Try to relax further with every surge.  You could spend all your time in a stretch monitoring only that. 

From here it’s a very short step to Yang. You slightly amplify every surge with a little nudge. You just give the arterial blood flow a small push.  What is doing the push?  It can’t be muscle (unless you can control your heart.)  It’s your mind, your intention that moves the chi that moves the blood.  

Gradually, without strain (that’s important) you can amp it up a fair amount, to the point that your skin gets red and warm.  Your flesh may feel full, wet, saturated.  We sometimes call this Flooding.  It’s the Yang expression of the Water element.  

Pumping large volumes of blood into your tissues is considered excellent for your health, so long as it comes back, of course.  So what you push out you can pull back in.  Just how you activate the return is something like how you drink through a straw.  The vacuum motor does not have an exact location but a common starting point is the energy center in your belly, the lower dantien.  It might make even more sense to start from your heart center, the middle dantien.  And again, it’s your intention that initiates the action, whether it’s inward or outward.

B.  If your head hasn’t exploded yet, there is another fluid whose flow you can influence and that is the thick synovial fluid in your joints.  Your joints expand and contract all the time but it’s such a short distance that most of us are unaware of it, so we’re not talking any significant change in physical stretch.  Rather it’s an energetic opening which can then transfer to other stretchable tissue.  Taoist theory says that the first place your energy gets locked up is the joints so that’s the first place to unlock it.  

You’re using your mind here to feel inside a joint, detect its natural rhythm and amplify its range.  Its rhythm is 4-5 seconds per phase, about the same time as 4-5 heartbeats.  We call this Joint Pulsing.  It was my first Qigong/Chi Gung lesson ever and I’ve spent many a worthwhile hour exploring the permutations of this simple but complex exercise.  Here is another description of Pulsing  

If you put in the time you will eventually discover many mysterious things about Pulsing, for example that your stretches can increase just as much from contraction as from expansion.   

Finally, you can experiment with various ways to combine these four or five techniques, in two and threes, with the goal of eventually doing them all well at the same time.  At this high level of the game it hardly matters if you call it Qigong or Yoga.

Tao Yoga 1

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.

 

 

Water & Spring

In the previous post I wrote about doing your Qigong exercises in communication with the elements of nature, the forces outside ourselves, specifically The Heavens and the Earth.  Here I will discuss two more, Water and the season of Spring.

Kuai Ocean copyWhat is the essence of Water as in rain, lakes, rivers and oceans?   Water has no shape of its own. It is fluid, malleable, adaptable, able to take on the shape of any space it finds. Conversely it is receptive.  It can yield to and envelop whatever comes into it without changing it’s own nature. It also cleans and washes away the dirt we don’t want. These are the qualities of Yin.

We humanoids are 90+% water so what would it mean to exhibit it’s qualities?  The main thing is to make yourself more fluid like, relaxed, flexible, pliable, adaptable, first in your body and also in your emotions and intellect.  It means you develop more flexibility in your thinking and feeling, that you let go of your inflexibilities.  

This is actually the main practice of the original, Water Method, Taoism, and is called Dissolving.  It is one of the main keys to health and longevity.  If this seems counterintuitive it’s because we’ve been taught that strength and assertion are more important  keys.  Water has the patience to move around, erode and outlast the hardness of solid rock.  It moves without effort, without expending energy.  What an easy life.

To really get the sense of any of this you might try swimming in the ocean or a river so you can feel it directly.  More traditionally folks would just go next to a body of water, the ocean if possible, and try to feel it indirectly.  If you have no lake to jump into you could take special note of at least water’s cleansing qualities next time you bathe.

A deeper quality of that big water we call ocean is that it has rhythms, rhythms beyond what we can see and hear but can feel.  My first attempt to feel any of these seven “waves” was hopelessly adrift.  But eventually, several determined visits to the sea yielded better fish and now I go when I need a big rejuvenation.  Your gut, your lower tantien, is the place you get it, and then you can try it with your kidneys which are Water element.  Taoist oceanography is too large for this space so suffice it to say that the rhythms vary from c. 15 seconds to c. 11 minutes each way and correspond to your organs and energy bodies.  If you experiment, let me know what you find!

Onion FlowerWhat about the seasons?  Spring is characterized by a fresh, young, bursting vitality.  It brings an expectant joy, especially after a harsh winter.  In Chinese medicine it is the element of Wood, of vegetation growing out of the Earth.  You could understand Spring as the result of the Gentle Rain coming down from Heaven and the Earth responding upward.

We all know the feelings and the fragrances of a beautiful spring day.  We don’t really have to try to feel them; they make their way into us.  But you can accentuate them by purposely being more open and receptive.  You can consciously absorb that essential spring energy into your body and let it permeate as deeply as you are capable.  What does it feel like to be alive and happy inside your cells?

Ask yourself which areas of your body are happy to be happy and which would rather be grumpy.  Which are wide awake healthy and which are numb or in pain?  Use one to encourage the other.  With a little creativity you can make everything feel more glad to be alive.

You might experiment further by taking the Spring energies into your organs and energy centers.  For example Spring is associated with the liver but the ambience of it might fit more naturally with your heart center (isn’t it our favorite season for love?)

Once you’ve made a little change for the better, stay with it for a while, for ten minutes or and hour.  Keep coming back to it when your mind goes elsewhere.  Treat it like meditation. Let it become part of you.  “Don’t blow off the chi.”

All of nature’s forces are available to us, of course.  These are just two of many,  any of which could keep us busy for a long time.  Internal or External, Qigong skills require lots of practice.  Whatever time you spend working and playing with nature will be rewarding many times over.

 

Heaven & Earth

One day recently after many years of study, it dawned on me that nearly all my time, all the sets I’d learned, had been focused on the energy of the (my) human body and human nature.  But other qigong sets are concerned with the rest of nature, like the ocean, the biosphere, the earth, the sun & moon, and even the planets, stars and outer space.  I felt a little myopic, a bit narcissistic, somewhat shortchanged.   Weren’t Taoists supposed to be connected with everything in the cosmos?

I decided this polarity could be called Internal Gung vs. External Gung.  Truth is you could start from either end and get to the other just fine.  What is outside us is also inside us.  There is no true separation.  Starting from the inside does open up your awareness so that you can better sense the outside, and it makes you very healthy to boot.

Thornton Beach OverlookI have the privilege of living near the Pacific ocean and I regularly practice in a place of great beauty.  But my partner and I usually go down to a grove of trees where we don’t see much of it.  Since beauty can be so wonderful to just about anyone why weren’t we, as multiple year students, incorporating it’s essence into our practice?  So of course we had to shift our orientation.

The presumption here is that we have the ability to discern the essence of any natural entity like an ocean or a volcano or a storm or a season of the year, and interact with it, tap into it, in ways that make us more alive and healthy.  It is something like getting energy from food or rest.  The advantage is that forces of nature are…forces of nature, i.e. they have more power than anything else we can generate as man or machine.   

The main practices sound simple enough. Either you bring the essential qualities of anything into your body and perceive and utilize it here or you project your awareness out into them and get it there.    Both work just as well and it’s largely a matter of whether your abilities and issues are more “down to earth” or more “out there.”   You don’t have to know the exact quality of the energy to benefit from it anymore that you need to know the exact nutritional qualities of different foods, but it does help. 

If that sounds like a complete mystery start closer to home, like with someone or something that you love, that makes you happy and gives you energy.  What is the essence of that?  Words may not describe it but what is the feeling?

 Sky Cumulus 1:27:151.  Let’s look at a few of nature’s phenomena.  What is the nature of the Sky, the Heavens, or if you will the Atmosphere?    It is ethereal, thin, without form, omnipresent around the Earth.  It enters into and nourishes all different life forms with its various elements.  We could also say it is held to, or responds to, the Earth’s gravitational pull.  From the Taoist perspective this means that there is a continuous down flow which they call the Gentle Rain.  That indicates both Air and Water qualities like we find in mist but even more subtle.  The nature of this gentle falling momentum is clearing, cleansing, letting go, opening, softening, dissolving.  These are the qualities of Yin.  

 What would it mean to embody that “heavenly rain”?  I choose this term because I see this force as very close to what Christianity calls Grace.  There is a benevolence to it.

Start by standing or sitting outdoors where you can see and feel the most Sky.  Let your body soften and drop its tension. It may well take some time to tune in to that barely perceptible descending flow from the Sky.  Feel it first in the front, the Yin side of your body down to your feet and into the Earth. Relax and drop your face, chest, belly, pelvis, inner legs and feet.  

Then drop the back, Yang side of your body, especially your shoulder blades down to your sacrum and gluteals and from there down into your heels.  

What you’re looking for is to get the subtle down flow of the Heavens to assist you in dropping your physical tension.   And you want to release your non-physical tension which could be energetic, emotional or mental.   “Sink your chi,” we often say.  Anxious energy goes up.  Calm energy goes down.  

Sinking is actually part of the main practice of the original, Water Method, Taoism,  which we call Dissolving.   It is one of the main keys to health and longevity.  If this seems counterintuitive it’s because we’ve been taught that strength, assertion and “get up and go”  are more important keys.  But our culture does so much of that already it’s making us unhealthy and unhappy and we all feel the need to deeply relax.  

 Bo Ridge 12:28:142. What is the essential quality of Earth, the planet on which we live?  It is solid, stable, strong, supportive, sustaining, life giving.  It contains all elements and holds them in balance.  It constantly receives what is old and dying and transforms it into new forms of life.  

The first time I heard that we could interact with the Earth these were the instructions: First be humble and ask politely.  Gaia is more than willing to give limitlessly to anyone who is grateful but a “gimme” attitude will get you nowhere.   Yes, this sounds like anthropomorphizing but at the very least it will put you in a decent frame of mind.  

To take in Earth’s energy your hands and feet can help.  As you stand on the ground let your feet relax and open.  Try to drop your awareness below your feet like you’re putting down a root.  Try to feel the sustaining nature of Earth.  Then either passively allow the energy to flow up into your body or more actively try to draw it up.  

It helps to very slightly change the shape your feet like you’re pulling up with a suction cup.  The main entry point is the ball of the foot, known as K-1, Bubbling Spring, on the acupuncture charts.  Or you might have better luck by transforming you hands into these little vacuums.  Using your hands and feet in this way are examples of physical movements which activate energetic movement.  Do avoid the temptation to overdo it which will only make your hands and feet tense thus inhibiting the flow.  (There is an inverse relation between physical exertion and energy flow.)

You can also interact with the Earth for the mutual benefit of both it and you.  It can heal you but you can do something to heal it also.  The main key is simply your clear intention to make it mutual.   At the risk of humanizing that relationship, it’s something like putting energy into a friendship; you both benefit. The Earth is a conscious living entity upon which we depend and our health is wrapped up in its health.  Most of us on the globe have some sense that something is currently way out of harmony so anything we can do to change that is time well spent. 

Can you take it to a deeper level?  Drop your awareness deep into the Earth all the way to the core which is molten iron, as far as we can tell.  That means it’s very dense and very hot.  There is a practice where you not only access the denser gravitational pull but also bring the heat up into your body so that you can survive winters in the Himalayas.  

All of nature’s forces are available to us, of course.  I’ve only selected two, either of which could keep us busy for a long time.  Internal or External, Qigong skills require lots of practice.  Whatever time you spend working and playing with nature will be rewarding many times over.

Cheng Man ChingThese thoughts can best be summarized with a quote from the Tai Chi master, Professor Cheng Man Ching, 1902-1975.

“After 40 years of practicing Tai Chi, I have summed up my realization with three sentences:                           Swallow the (precious) air of Heaven (in order to nourish the Qi.)                                                                                  Borrow the (enormous) strength of Earth (in order to grow root.)                                                                            And, Reach longevity through softness.”

A simpler version:  Swallow the heaven’s chi, Tap the earth’s strength, Prolong life through softness.

To Close Is To Open

No it doesn’t make any sense literally and it might make sense in the pairs-of-opposites paradigm but what could it mean in practical terms?

If I had to  name the single most important practice in Taoism and Qigong (Chi Gung) it might be  Opening.  If there’s one message that has always come through it’s Open your body.  Open your mind.  Open your emotions.  Open your energy fields. Open everything.  Problems of all kinds are caused by tension, constriction and closing down,  so the one-size-fits-all solution is to open up.

Now the traditional way to do this is by softening, melting, dissolving, letting go.  It’s the way of Yin but every zealous student will figure out a way to overdo it, to strain, to push and pull, to make it Yang, and I was no exception.   It took about 20 years for the obvious to dawn on me:  Closing is just as important and ironically it’s often the key to Opening. 

Sometimes it’s the lenses of another profession that open your eyes to the obvious in your own field and I have Osteopathy to thank for this.  That discipline uses a number of methods where you use compression in order to produce the opposite effect of release and expansion.  Once I got that little bit of practical insight my Qigong practices suddenly began to open up and flow more naturally.

Before I get into any esoterica, consider what this could mean on an everyday level.  Say you want to expand your business or your influence in the community or your attractiveness to certain people.  Nearly everyone in our society will tell you to put yourself out there, make yourself visible, advertise, network, etc., etc.  Yet we all know that this can be done to the point of wearing yourself thin and making yourself a tiresome bother.  Our culture is very good at both these counterproductive activities.  There are times when it’s best to lie low and let the right people find you,  Closing to Open.

One trick here is knowing how and when to fine tune the lying low, to finesse the backing away, to nudge the yin/yang wheel in another direction.  This comes with experience and intuition.  The same is true of qigong exercises and healing methods.  Let’s look at the Opening/Closing continuum that is so basic to them.

From a Taoist and Traditional Chinese Medicine perspective all health and disease is a result of the balance or imbalance of Yin and Yang life forces.  Every function of our bodies and minds depends on the right balance of Expansion and Contraction.  We sometimes call this Pulsing and it refers to the natural movements of joints,  organs, energy fields, etc.  Most of them proceed on their own and some can be brought under your voluntary control, which is what you want if you’re going to get healthier.  

My very first qigong lesson many years ago was in gaining control over joint pulsations which is surprisingly easy to begin doing but rather difficult to perfect.  Joints are considered critical as the first place energy gets blocked and the first place to free it up.  When pulsing works well palpable waves of energy are released which can be put to practical use, meaning anything from physical labor to deep relaxation.  Making that happen well was frustratingly difficult.

But once I learned to emphasize the compression I was happily surprised at how easily the expansion followed, as easily as a ball bounces.  You could think of it as an air compressor.  The more the air in the container is pressurized the more it wants to expand, and when it’s released all kinds of things get done.  Conversely the more you try to expand, for example creating a vacuum in a vacuum cleaner, the more the air rushes inward and something else gets done.  To Close is to Open.  And to Open is to Close.  

(Theoretically the second ought to work as well as the first but practically I don’t experience it that way.  My best guess why is that when we open too far the nerves sense danger and go on guard, preventing a smooth, even return whereas the nerves are more comfortable with some extra closing.  It’s something like, It’s dangerous out there but safe in here.)

So how do you pull this off?  If you don’t already know how to pulsate your joints you can get a rudimentary version of Open/Close with ordinary muscle action.  Say you want to do a simple forward bend from sitting, standing or lying down.   A experienced yoga or qigong person will likely tell you to extend lengthwise as you bend and reach your normal  limit.   But try shrinking instead and see if that takes you past your  limit.  Then add the lengthwise extension and you might be surprised.  Or try extending your neck and turning your head to the side, marking the limit.  Then let your neck shrink down and you’ll turn further.  Finally re-extend your neck in the new, or a new position.  

These are examples of getting your fascia and ligaments to stretch further by “fooling” them into it.  Opening by Closing.

If you do know joint pulsing try closing them with a fair amount of effort, with yang, and allow them to release without effort, with yin.  The slowly releasing wave permeates your body with a deep relaxation.  If you want more drama put a large effort into closing and release it suddenly–kaboom, like an air rifle. Now you’re in martial arts secrets, where joint action augments your nerve and muscle action.  Just how much you compress and how fast you let go determines what outcome you get.  A true adept can fine tune to the point of relaxing while working or fighting, blending the yin and yang seamlessly.  

I will mention just one Osteopathic technique in this vein.  Sometimes the one trick that will get a neck to let go and lengthen is compression to the point of collapse.   Obviously this can be a little risky in novice hands and the are a few important guidelines:  Use small pressures, Wait for changes, and Make micro adjustments in your vectors.  This can be used throughout the body including the entire spine and torso, but the neck is a good place for an already trained person to start.  While we therapist types have good luck with it, no one has come with a definitive explanation for why it works.

And that brings us back to the mysterious nature of this very basic pair of opposites and indeed all such pairs.  We might be able to make them work but they still might not make any sense! 

 

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. http://qigongtaichimassagesfbay.com/breathing/

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.   http://qigongtaichimassagesfbay.com/standing/  

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.