USWA Coach Pei's Corner
Willpower, What Is It?
Willpower by definition is the ability to resist short-term temptation in order to meet long-term goals.
The past two years, during the COVID-19 pandemic, was the time to test one’s willpower. I would like to share this true story with you and hope you are as motivated by it as I am.
At the beginning of the pandemic, like everyone else, our classes were forced into the virtual world. Training at home with very limited space, students could only practice techniques that their home environment allowed, which wasn’t a lot. As time went on not being able to practice more dynamic techniques, many students became bored with the more repetitive techniques. They began to drop out of training.
In those days, I kept asking myself how I could thrust strength upon my students to keep them training. I adjusted my teaching methods. I altered my routines to keep them interested, but not very successfully.
I understood that it is not just physical change that makes a person strong. Strength can also come from a psychological reaction to an internal conflict, in this case, the temptation to quit from boredom.
In the past 44 years of my teaching profession, being able to produce world class Wushu champions has been satisfying, but my real happiness comes from shaping and creating students to have compassionate hearts with upright character and unbendable willpower.
I have found that those students who have this unbendable willpower all have these traits in common: they have a clear goal in mind; they keep up with the scheduled routine; and when things get tough, they get more determined to continue with their goal.
This year, Tony Wang, Joanne Li, Anya Crowl, Abby Mintzer and Liam Brown went to Texas for the US Junior Team Trials. This year’s team trials had more than double the number of competitors than previous years. Maybe it was the pandemic. Everyone had been isolated for two years, then suddenly, the door was opened, and everyone rushed to Texas for the team trials. The US National Team consists of three age groups and to be in the US National Team, you have to be one of the top six athletes in your age group. Only the top two athletes in each age group will represent the US in the next international championship.
Two years ago, Tony Wang and Joanne Li were junior team members in the US Wushu Academy. While the more experienced and senior team members dropped out of training, these two persisted and pressed on. Two years is a long time for anyone who doesn’t have willpower. The result was that Tony Wang placed first, and Joanne Li placed second. They are going to represent the US in the 8th World Junior Wushu Championship on December 2-10, 2022 in Indonesia.
I know they will do their best and treasure this once in a lifetime experience.
After the team trial, the perception of the three younger members, Anya Crowl, Abby Mintzer and Liam Brown’s has changed. They now train with much more motivation. I know their consciousness has been opened up. I am grateful and happy.
Maintaining Balance within Constant Change
When we talk about balance, we think of Yin and Yang. The principle seems very simple and easy: You have two energies you want to balance. However, the reality is not that simple. Everything is in a state of constant change and that makes us constantly have to adjust our balance.
When shooting a bow and arrow, we understand that two energies need to be drawn away from each other to create a new energy. When it actually comes to shooting, we must also consider how much physical strength we have in order to pull the bow apart. The strength of the pull will determine how far the arrow can shoot. If a person can only draw 20 pounds, then they can shoot 20 pounds worth of distance. But if they can draw 50 pounds, they will be able to shoot that much further. Is your body a 20-pound bow or are you a 50-pound bow? What can your body do right now? That’s the physical condition that needs to be balanced. Other conditions will also affect the results: How strong is the wind? How far is the target? What are the angle and the elevation of your aim? The arrow’s energy moves in a curved arc, so we have to think about elevation in order to hit the target. There are a lot of varying conditions that we have to consider.
Playing golf is another example. Every time we put our feet on the ground, the grass gives us a different condition. The angle of the swing gives us a different result. The wind affects where the ball goes. The distance of the green affects how we are going to swing. All these are different changing conditions.
We understand that we need to balance the Yin and Yang in our Taiji practice, but every time our frame changes, our condition changes. We have to constantly adjust. We cannot just say “I will balance”. What happens if we only balance individual parts of our bodies? Again, golf is a good metaphor. If I pick up the club and I swing it and I don’t think about where my foot is, how my body is torqued, etc., my shot will not be very successful. Every time we move, our whole body changes. We have to think about where our power is going to come from. Does our power come from the hands or does it come from the center of the body? We say that energy is wave-like because it is always moving from the power source and extends out to the next point and then to the next point. In Chen-style Taiji we call this moving one link at a time.
As soon as one part of the body feels dislocated, then the whole body’s power is affected. If you are about to shoot your bow and someone just flicks you on the elbow, even just a little bit, then your whole body will be affected and you will not hit the target. Focusing does not have a narrow goal. Focusing for us is to become sensitive to every part of the body as it is changing and to maintain that balance.
Continuity: Master of the Pen and the Sword Wén Wŭ Shuāng Quán 文武双全
When we look at the symbols for Yin and Yang, we see that they represent a state of constant change. When we are faced with changes, we have to learn to keep a very clear mind.
In our Taiji practice, if any part of our body changes or a movement is adjusted or the path changes and we don’t pay attention, it will cause an imbalance in our whole body. All changes have to be carefully looked at to determine how we want to adjust ourselves mentally and physically.
Every little change will affect the whole body. If you sit in an airplane in business class it feels different than if you sit in economy class because the chair size affects the body. That’s a physical change because the chair is different. There are also mental changes. If you have a crying baby sitting near you on the plane, you also have to make adjustments. Sometimes the changes that affect us are things that we can do something about. In that case, we can balance ourselves to adapt to the change. Sometimes there are changes that we cannot do anything about, like the baby crying. There’s nothing that can be done about that, so we need to make a mental adjustment to accept that it is part of the world that we have to balance at that moment. That’s the thing about change. Change isn’t always about forcing a difference to happen. Some changes are physical, some mental, some situational, but in all of them we can make adjustments.
This continuity practice is meant to get you away from doing Taiji mechanically. Once the body becomes mechanical, our mind is no longer being used. It really doesn’t achieve the very first goal in our practice, which is to have good spirit. “Lifting the head to raise the spirit” is our first goal in Taiji practice. Doing it mechanically is like running on the treadmill, where you just run without thinking of anything else, like a lab rat.
When you do this practice, you have to think. Your mind thinks, Qi moves, then body moves – that’s the sequence. We don’t just say, “I move the body”. You can move the body, but Qi needs to guide it. Qi can never move where the body wants it to unless you have looseness and tension that pumps the Qi. But it would be better if your mind guided the Qi to say “This is what I want you to do”. The mind has to be awake and alert. The body moves with calm emotions and a clear mind. Clear doesn’t mean that it’s under tension all the time. It’s clear. The mind says. “Okay, we need to take a break”. The mind says, “I need to be sharp”. The mind says, “I need to be sensitive”. The mind says, “Now I would like to see this movement complete”. Everything is in the mind first.
I gave you this exercise to release you from doing the same routine without thinking. We never want to be people who can only use muscle but not use the mind. In Chinese culture, there is an ancient saying: “A person has to be able to pick up a sword to fight, at the same time has to be able to pick up a pen to write”. In Chinese this is called: 文武双全 wén wŭ shuāng quán. That’s the definition of a perfect person. This is someone who can face great dangers, violence and fighting and at the same time can sit down and write poetry. The mind needs to keep active and be sharp all the time. That’s why I gave you this drill. I want you to become better rounded and more alive.
Lifting the Head to Raise the Spirit
The very first of the Ten Essences of Taiji is called “Lifting the Head to Raise the Spirit”. What is so important about the first essence? When we practice Taiji, we are on a journey. Each step we take on a journey gets us closer to the final destination.
Remember that the first five of the essences have to do with physical form and the last five move more and more inward with the ultimate goal of becoming a better person. We make our body strong with a calm mind and then our spirit is heightened. We go from the outward frame and gradually inward into ourselves. The final destination is to have a good spirit. This is the Taiji journey.
We can never forget that we are practicing with this goal of achieving a good spirit. In the Taiji form, the very first move, the “Preparation”, brings the awareness that “I am preparing myself to begin this practice, to begin this journey”. The inhale and exhale are designed to regulate our body, to make our minds calmer and therefore allow us to go inward. Every move we do, we adjust our bodies to balance our body frames so that our spirit is not disturbed and the spirit can continuously rise up.
No matter what we do, we have a destination. We are going through this journey but don’t forget why we started. We all want to be good people with good spirit. So when we practice we practice with that in mind, pure and good spirit is the final destination.
Continuity Level Three: No Pattern, No Set Technique
The first level of Continuity is where you have a set technique and a set pattern of movement. The second level is to have a set technique but with no pattern. The third level is to have no pattern and no set technique. Using all the knowledge that we have, we can choose a technique to get ourselves out of a situation. Once we get out of that problem, we can go back to working on the next technique.
The Art of War and the Taiji Principles are all about dealing with change. The only thing that is constant is change. You might have to do something different to get back to normal or to get back to the way that you wanted to do things. This is in your mindset. Your goal today might be to practice Brush and Push. But now you might find yourself in a bind, so your mind draws on the other things that you know to help you get out of it. Once you’re back on track, you can return to your intended practice.
Life is very tough right now. We might have to do some things differently than we’d like, but our goal is to get ourselves back on track. That’s our goal. I wanted to share this idea of Continuity with you today. Don’t step back. Try to figure it out. Take your time. There is no time limit for self-improvement; we improve ourselves a little bit every day. Every change we make changes us over time. Don’t rush. We must be patient with ourselves.
The Shortest Distance between Two Points is a Curved Line
In school we learned that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line, but this is not the case with the energy that we work with in Taiji practice. If we move in straight lines or sharp angles in Taiji, our movements will be jerky. Energy never moves in a straight line. It always moves in a curved line.
Moving with Taiji energy is more like aiming a satellite. Its path can only be calculated in a curved line. In Yang-style Taiji, we do this in our footwork. In order to move forward, we first have to sit back. In Chen-style this also exists. If we want to move left, we first move right. Both of these use curving, spiral energy. If we want to step out in either Yang or Chen-style forms, we have to spiral down on the supporting leg. If we don’t spiral, we can’t step out very far. So we first spiral down on our supporting leg and that will compress the energy and then extend our moving leg out like a slingshot. Using the curved energy allows us to step out further with longer steps and less strain on our knees.
With spiral energy, the center core energy moves and gradually reaches all the way out to the hands and feet. Create the spiral, compress and release. The energy moves like a wave.
Continuity Level Two: No Pattern
The next level is to have no pattern. What do I mean by no pattern? First we have to look at our feet. In both of these moves, you can change direction depending on the direction you turn your front foot. When you rotate your front foot outward about 45 degrees, you can safely move straight forward. Don’t open more than that or you’ll hurt your knee. If you rotate your front foot inward 45 degrees, you can move your body in a 90-degree turn to your original right side. If you rotate your foot inward 90 degrees, you can move your body to your original back side diagonally. And if you close your foot 135 degrees, you can turn all the way around, in an 180-degree rotation to your back side. First we must understand how to do this. Then we can continue with our freestyle “no pattern” practice.
When you practice with no pattern, your mind becomes sharp and it opens to everything around you while you are still focusing on the move. That’s the second level of practice. You can practice the pattern to improve your technique but with no pattern, you have to see everything. Your sensitivity has to open up. The feeling will be completely different. When you do it with a pattern, your feeling goes inward. When you do it with no pattern, your mind goes inward at the same time as it goes outward. This creates a dual feeling that requires you to find balance.
When we practice this continuity exercise in a limited space, we have to think ahead to do our best to not get stuck in a corner. If that happens, our mind does not grow, our feeling doesn’t grow, and our sensitivity doesn’t grow. If you are forced into a corner, you have to think of how to move yourself out of this situation. Don’t just step back out of the situation. That won’t help you develop your skill of seeing the upcoming path. Think about what options you have before you move and your skill will grow.
Don’t study with a famous teacher; Learn from a teacher who understands.
Look at these two characters:
Xī 夕 = sun down or anything in the evening; kŏu 口 = mouth or an opening or entrance
If you put these two characters together, it refers to something that you have to open your mouth for at night. Why? Because when you walk at night in the dark, your friends can’t see you and don’t know who you are, so you have to announce your name. When these two characters are combined, they create: míng 名 which means “a person’s name, or someone who is well-known, famous”.
Now look at these characters:
rì 日 = the sun, very bright or the time between sunrise to sundown yuè 月 = the moon, a month or darknessWhat happens when you put the sun and the moon together? The meaning changes to “brightness”. When you have both the day and the night, you see everything clearly, so combined, they create: míng 明 which means “brightness, understanding, transparency, good eyesight and good judgement”.
Both these words, míng 名 and míng 明, have the same pronunciation, but they represent two totally different ideas. The first one is “I’m announcing my name in the dark so you know who I am”. The second one is “I understand the dark and the light. I understand Yin and Yang and therefore I have a clear understanding.”
There is a saying that uses these two different meanings of míng:
Bù hé míng shī xué, Zhi hé míng shī xué
“Don’t study with a famous teacher; Learn from a teacher who understands.”
Here is another word that uses the character míng 明: míng baì 明白 = to understand
Míng means “bright” and baì means “white or purity”, so you have day and night and purity together which suggests a very clear understanding. When we practice Taiji, we are seeking understanding of the energies of Yin 阴and Yang 阳, so clearing the mind is the first step to entering into this understanding, into this míng 明. If you can clear your mind, you can find your path and say, “This is the way I want to go”.
Continuity Level One: What Do You See?
Here is another story about archery. A teacher is teaching his pupil how to shoot. The teacher points to a tree and says, “What do you see?” The pupil says, “I see a tree”.
The teacher says, “Focus your mind. Keep looking. You’re not ready yet.” After a few minutes, the teacher asks, “What do you see now?” The pupil says, “I see a branch”. Teacher says, “Not ready yet. Focus”. After a few more minutes, he asks again “What do you see?” The student says, “I see that one leaf”. And the teacher says; “Now you are ready to shoot”. The attention needs to go from very a very general and broad area to a very focused and pinpointed target.
When we do continuity drills, your mind is not focused on doing the whole form. That’s seeing the whole tree. We are not doing the whole section. That would be looking at the branch. For this exercise, you are only looking at one leaf. You think of nothing else but these few moves. When you do these moves in a set pattern, it makes your mind not worry about where you are going to go. That’s the most basic exercise for you to train yourself in continuity. This is level one. It helps to train you to focus.
Moving in Three Dimensions
In the past few classes we have been talking about the twelve directions and how to become three-dimensional in our practice. All our energy is a three-dimensional spiral and we have to keep that in mind as we practice.
The twelve directions are made from six sets of opposing directions. We need the first three sets of opposing directions to create the three-dimensions in one space. These opposing directions are: up, down, front, back, left and right. However, we need three more sets of opposing directions to make the first three come alive. These opposing directions are: expanding, collapsing, moving closer, moving away, clockwise circle and counter-clockwise circle.
To practice with three dimensions, we really have to keep thinking of these opposing twelve directions at one time. We cannot lock our minds to see only one direction at a time. That’s the way I understand it.
Continuity: The Mind is the Vehicle for Moving Qi
Continuity is when the body has completely finished with a move, and the mind thinks on to the next move, and the body continues to follow the mind. This is similar to the relationship of a driver to a car. The driver is the mind, the engine is the body and the gasoline is the Qi. The driver says, “I am going to move the car” and he presses the gas pedal. The pedal regulates the gasoline flow, which ultimately allows the engine to turn to create energy. If you take your foot off the pedal, there isn’t enough gas flowing, and the engine won’t turn. If the engine doesn’t turn, there won’t be enough energy created, and the car will stop moving. We have a similar relationship from our mind to Qi and to body. The flow cannot stop. Once it stops, the movements become disconnected. That’s what we don’t want. The mind controls everything and is extremely important in creating continuity in our practice.
In the past few classes, we have been focusing on individual moves. By doing this, we have gone deeper and bigger in our stances and footwork in order to challenge our bodies. When the body is stronger then you will have more energy, and then you can create more energy to use. But today, I would like you to work on continuity. When we are working on continuity, you might want to make the stance a little bit smaller. The focus is on moving continuously and you have to feel when one move is finished and it continues on to the next move without any hesitation. But the key point is you have to finish each move completely. If you don’t finish and you go on to the next move, then that move was incomplete. What controls whether you finish the move or not? It’s your mind. Your mind needs to be very clear about what you are going to do next.
Keeping Balance in the Midst of Change
The body in nature must remain in balance. If you lose one thing, something else will replace it. For example, if you injure your right hand, it is likely that your ability with your left hand will increase. If someone loses their eyesight, then their hearing might improve. The body compensates by adjusting to its circumstances.
Gaining something is also a change which needs to be kept in balance. One thing we gain as we practice Taiji is sensitivity. As our sensitivity improves, we need to remember that our physical ability also needs to improve. If these are not balanced, then we can never reach our maximum potential. We can use our increased sensitivity to learn to understand our body and use it more efficiently. The more we understand a tool and how it functions, the better we can use it.
The yin and yang of our inner spirit and our physical well-being are in constant adjustment and balance. Right now, we need to practice at home, so we are using new methods to find better balance and make needed corrections to our form. We have been taking this opportunity to practice the individual moves separate from the form.
This gives us more time to feel and understand what our bodies need. If you practice going a little bit lower in your stances, even a quarter of an inch lower, you are going to experience something different in your practice. Challenging ourselves between our physical strength and our inner sensitivity will help us to reach our maximum potential.
Continuity: The Only Thing That is Constant is Change
Many times, you have heard me say that Qi is like water. Water flows where there is the least resistance. The reason why the Daoists treat water as a holy symbol is because water does not distinguish between rich and poor or good and evil. It treats everyone and everything equally. Water benefits all the things on earth equally without discrimination. When we use water correctly, everything grows and is nourished. However, if there is too much of it, everything could drown. When we practice, our main goal is to move Qi. When Qi moves, the body flourishes. But if you try to force it, saying, “I’ve got to have more Qi”, then you lose the whole purpose of why you are doing this. It’s like when you plant a tree. If you give it enough water, the plant will grow. However, if you say, “Since trees need water, I will continuously give it water without stopping”, then the water will likely kill the plant because the water was not used appropriately. The water was not used in a balanced way. When we practice, the first thing that controls our movement is the mind. My teaching for you is always: Mind moves, Qi moves, body moves. So Qi is an energy that helps fill the gap between the mind and the body. Use it properly then both mind and body will benefit.
Yin and Yang
Yīn = 阴 (traditional 陰 )
Yáng = 阳 (traditional 陽)
Today I want to go into more detail about Yīn 阴 and Yáng 阳. We understand that they are two different forces. They need to be balanced because they are opposites. Once they are balanced, they create a new force.
Do you remember first learning to ride a bicycle? In the beginning, you had many chances to fall down. Most of you probably had training wheels or someone running behind you, hanging on to your seat to hold you upright while you learned to keep your balance. These two different styles of learning are very useful in the very beginning. But if you only count on the training wheels or someone running behind you to ride, you will not learn and grow and will be restricted about where you can go. So, there is a time that we need to take off the training wheels. You have to rely on yourself if you want to go places. Once you are on your own, you have to pay attention to your own balance. If you don’t pay attention, you will fall down.
Each time that you fall down, there are only two choices: You can quit or you can get back on the bike. If you quit, you never move forward, but if you try again, you can keep learning even though you might fall down again. That’s pretty much like the current situation we are in now. We need to balance ourselves. We can count on each other for support, but the main thing is we have to balance ourselves.
When we practice Taiji, we are completely counting on ourselves. First of all, we learn to understand the principles of Taiji. The second step is to understand that it’s okay to do it wrong. If you do it wrong, just correct it next time. If you fall down, just get up.
Just get on the bike again. No need to cry over the bruised knees, no need to cry and think, “I cannot do it”. The attitude we need to have is to try again and find balance.
The balance of the Yīn 阴 and Yáng 阳 also controls our breathing. We exhale when it’s Yáng 阳. When it’s Yīn 阴, we inhale. To remember easily, every ending frame has an exhale which is a Yáng 阳 move. So, based on that, you can begin to regulate your breathing and begin to use your heart to listen to yourself.
Build a Good Structure
You might remember that I’ve said before that, initially, learning Chen-style Taiji is easier than learning Yang-style. This is because every physical movement that you see in Chen-style is exactly what’s happening inside of your body and expresses what your mind is thinking. With Yang-style, when Yáng LùChán (杨露禅) began to teach, he changed a lot of the physical movements and in doing so removed a lot of clues, so one has to really understand what’s going on to do well in the Yang-style.
I studied Yang-style for 13 years, but I always felt there was something missing for me in my practice. Like I said before, Yang-style takes away a lot of clues. I just didn’t feel the connection. Then I began to study Chen-style, and it made me understand that what you do physically is exactly what happens inside. Once I understood that feel, my Yang-style changed too. My Yang-style became better because I was able to now understand that feel. My Yang-style became softer, and then my Chen-style became softer too. Many people who practice Chen-style look very physically powerful and do a lot of fā jín 发 劲 but I feel differently. I feel that this tension and looseness, softness and hardness, it’s a balance. If there is too much focus on the hardness and not enough softness, then the yin and yang principle is not correct. Try to show on the outside what’s going on inside. Nurturing this sensitivity is how we grow in our Taiji practice.
The way we practice Taiji is the same as building a house: When we build a house, we build a frame first. After the structure is solid, we put up the walls, the plumbing, the electrical lines, then seal off the walls. Only after the walls are finished can you begin to design the interior and add the paint and furniture. You can’t approach building a house by changing it as you go. Changing the structure is very hard. So before the building begins, we start with the blueprints, so we know in our mind what we want our house to look like.
When we practice Taiji, we should have a very clear idea of what our intentions are. If I want to go inward to become a better person, those are the blueprints. Then I start working on my body and that is my framing. As I work on my body, I begin to go inward to explore my feelings. Those feelings are the plumbing and the electricity. I make the adjustments that make me feel better and get stronger and I begin to understand the moves. I start to understand the technique and begin to make it mine. It’s only once the house has its final paint and furniture that we can begin to really live in the house. Isn’t that easy?
Focus and Intention
When you shoot pool, what is the goal? The cue ball hits a ball and that ball goes into the pocket. What happens to your eyes right before you hit the cue ball? Your eye is on the cue ball, then you look to the other ball and then you shoot. Your eyes are very focused and you visualize where you want the ball to go. In the same way, when we practice, our eyes don’t look all over the place. Focus on exactly what you want and where you want to go. That’s called intent.
Tension and Looseness
Tension = jĭn zhāng 紧张
Looseness = zhāng chí 松弛
The highest good is like water = shàng shàn ruò shuĭ 上善若水
Taiji is based on Yīn 阴 and Yáng 阳, the two opposing forces that balance each other. Yīn and Yáng are concepts from Daoism. The Daoists have a saying: “Shàng shàn ruò shuĭ 上善若水” which means, “Water treats all living things equally. It does not discriminate.” The character of water is that it goes where there is no resistance. If you don’t create resistance for it, it will flow quickly.
Qi is exactly the same. When you don’t resist, qi will flow. We create the tension and softness in our bodies. When we are tense, the Qi is compressed. As soon as we loosen and let go, Qi flows to where we are most loose. The energy goes where there is no tension. Energy is like water; it goes where there is the least resistance.
When we practice, we need to have this tension and looseness, but that tension is always created with two opposing points. It’s not just “holding tense” like a fist but rather like the tension created between two hands facing each other, feeling the tension between them without touching. And looseness is not simply being relaxed.
The whole body has tension and looseness, compression and expansion. During our Taiji practice, we move our body in a way that certain parts of the body are tensing while other parts are loosening and therefore Qi will flow toward the specific loosened part. In Qigong this is called Dăo Yĭn 导引 which means “guiding the energy” to where you want it.
Points of Reference
If we don’t have points of reference, it’s easy to get lost. We have to know where we’ve been in order to plan where we’re going. Without the past, we cannot see where the future is going to be because there is no comparison. Once we have a comparison we can decide whether we want to change or not to change. If there is no need to change, we will not alter our course. If there is an unexpected difference, we need to try to look for the good things that we can bring out in the change.
We regulate ourselves through breathing and we also control our bodies through the calming of the emotions. But most importantly, we aim to have the mind clear. Then regulating the breathing is possible and loosening of the body is possible. When we begin practice, we breathe three times. You have done this so many times by now and every time you do it the feeling of inner calm should get stronger than before.
Quiet your Heart and Regulate your Breathing
A. Quiet Your Heart
xīn jìng 心静 = Make your heart quiet
Xīn jìng 心静 is the idea of calming yourself down. Whatever style of Taiji you practice, the requirement to be “jing 静”, or quiet, is there. In qigong practice, whether you are doing the Buddhist style, the Daoist style or any other style, they all require that your heart has to be “jìng 静”.
When we talk about xīn 心, we are not referring to the physical heart but to the emotions. So xīn jìng 心静 means that your emotions need to be calm and not disturbed. Only when this is achieved, you can go to the next level, which is to regulate your breathing. If your heart is not quiet and your emotions are disturbed; if you are doing one thing while thinking of something else, it is difficult to practice Taiji.
So, xīn jìng 心静 is the first thing that we want to achieve.
B. Regulate Your Breathing
tiáo xī 调息 = Regulate your breath
The second thing we want to do is to regulate our breathing, tiáo xī 调息. In breathing, there are three different levels:
When we practice together, try to breathe so the people near you can’t hear you breathe. When you practice at home, try to do it so you can’t hear yourself breathe. Taiji is not a sitting meditation and we are moving, so the third level is more to visualize than to achieve.
Shallow or tight breaths make noise in the throat, so if you can breathe more deeply, you won’t hear it. That tells us that when we breathe, we need to let go of the tension, so our body can take in more as we inhale and let go more as we exhale. When we are able to do that, we can move our Qi.
The regulation of the breath is not something that we do once, like checking things off a list. It’s more like this: When you do #1 then #2 happens. When you do #2, you go back and it makes #1 deeper. It’s like climbing Huang Shan (黄 山), one of China’s holiest mountains. When you begin to climb the first 100 yards, you see things in one view. When you climb the next 100 yards, the mountain is still the same, but your feeling changes. Every 100 yards you go up, and the way you see things changes.
Breathing and calmness are heavily influenced by each other. If your emotion is not calm, it will affect your breathing. You can try your best to quiet down, but if your mind is disturbed, then your breathing will have little effect on calming your body. If your mind is calm and clear and undisturbed, then your breathing becomes more clear too. Then when your breathing becomes more clear, it makes the mind and the heart more calm. They keep influencing each other.
So, xīn jìng 心静 and tiáo xī 调息 are related to each other. When we are calm as we practice the form, then the mind is clear, like an undisturbed pond. Physically, it’s loosening the tension and emotionally it’s calming down and getting quiet. Heart (xīn 心) and mind (yì 意) are related to each other too. When they are combined, you have shén 神, which is spirit. Focus on calming your emotions and clearing your mind, then you can begin to regulate the breathing to let go of tension.
The Twelve Directions Exist All at Once
We spend a lot of time talking about the Twelve Directions. All twelve directions exist at the same time. Do not try to memorize them. Try to understand them. We forget anything we try to memorize, but if we analyze and understand it, it will always be ours.
With these first six directions alone, we are still predictable because our center is fixed. If I know where your center is, I can hit you, I can move you, and I can disturb you.
So the next six directions become very important:
When we add all twelve together, when we can change shape and distance and create a spiral motion, no one can predict where we are or where we will be next. That’s the Twelve Directions.
Don’t try to memorize it, analyze it. Ask why it is this way. If we analyze it then we can say “Aha, I understand”. Once we understand it, it’s ours forever. Then we can begin to apply this understanding to our practice. If we try to remember the physical movements, the breathing, the yin and yang, and still try to remember the principles all at one time, it’s too much information, and we’re going to forget things. Better that we understand and go from there.
From Conscious to Subconscious
Learning = xué xí 学习
Learning is a journey and a process of growth. There are many levels or steps that we have to go through before we can say, “I understood”.
Before we take on any study, we have no knowledge of the subject.
When we begin our study, we know we don’t have knowledge but have a desire to continue the study. Then, after many years of study, we know that we know the subject. Decades later, we use our knowledge with even knowing that we are using it.
Therefore we say:
You don’t know that you don’t know.
You know that you don’t know.
You know that you know.
You don’t know that you know.
Since the levels of don’t know that we know is the highest level of learning and understanding. The question is how do we go from knowing that we know to the level of not knowing that we know?
When we first started learning to drive, we were very nervous and thought about every detail, but I know today you don’t even think about it when you drive, at least not in the same way you did when you were learning. You just get into the car and you drive. This knowledge became subconsciously, something you do automatically.
How do you change knowledge that is conscious into something that is subconscious? The answer is very simple: If you do it enough times, you will change the conscious to the subconscious. Driving is one example, typing without looking at the keyboard is another example. I had shared with you how raw iron ore becomes steel through high-temperature meltdown. The same process as with a good sword that has to be battered and folded many times to become sharper. All these examples come to one point and that is: repetition.
It is through hardship that we can transform one thing into something else. Taking the iron ore through the high temperature meltdown turns it into liquefied metal which then cools and shapes it into strong steel. The metal of a sword has to be pounded and folded thousands of times, and by going through that torture it becomes a very sharp blade. Same with a flute, which starts as a piece of wood. It has to endure the knife cutting its flesh away, endure that pain to become a flute that helps create beautiful music. Ceramics are more beautiful after going into the thousand-degree heat of the kiln. Everything that we do is polish. When we polish ourselves, we become stronger, better and it always takes time.
A student once commented that her movements were “not like Coach’s” and my answer to that was, “It’s not the right time yet”. If you practice with patience and with time, your movement will be more beautiful than mine because I am giving you all my knowledge. I have spent all my life to become what I am and now I am sharing what I know with you, so you can build on my knowledge. You don’t have to go through the mistakes that I made. Even though I can give you knowledge and encouragement, you are the one that has to go through the physical practice. Just like the sword is pounded, the flute is carved and the pottery is fired, you are the one that has to go through it. I’ve gone through it, I understand. I am leading the way, but you are the one that has to go through the fire and the carving.
We are all going through an extreme time right now. This situation might last more than three months. When something like this happens, we are also given an opportunity to change ourselves. If we don’t, these 3-6 months will be a torture and when we finish, we will come out the same as we were before. We don’t want that. We want to come out like the flute, where we can play even better, more beautiful music than was possible before. We want to become a new person. We practice, we train ourselves, and we better ourselves.
Every day we should practice on our own, no matter how much or how little time we have. We do it for ourselves, to change ourselves. There is no better medicine than having a strong immune system and the only way I know to have a strong immune system is through exercise to make the body stronger. We do Taiji for more than just an exercise though, we do it to clear our thoughts; we do it to get rid of bad habits. To make our good habits enter a subconscious level of not knowing.
This opportunity gives us a chance to reflect on ourselves – What do we want to become?