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Archive for the ‘Tai Chi and Qigong’ Category

So,… There’s a dampness to the air now, not as rich in oxygen, not as energising, and the light of a morning is limping to catch up with the days whose demands of course remain the same as always, regardless of the season. This is Autumn in the already dystopic closing years of the second decade, of the twenty first century.

I take a breath, long and deep, arms rising from my sides to form an arch above my head, legs tense, then relax. Breathe out,…

What?

My arms sink in front of me, as if compressing air, feeling for its springiness with the imagination, and as the body relaxes, there’s a rush to the brain, a moment of light-headedness, a tingle in the shoulders, the forearms, the palms. Don’t panic: it’s blood, and nerve energy, and “stuff”, and beyond this vague rationalisation, I try not to give it much thought.

Qigong is like the I Ching: you sleep better when, as Carl Jung said, you do not bother yourself, with how it works.

Repeat. Four times.

All right,  traditionally it’s eight.

Eight is a lucky number in Chinese, deep stuff, rising from mythology, from numerology. I don’t understand it, but I respect it’s contribution to the global zeitgeist, to which I admit not everyone may be attuned. Anyway, at the weekends, when time’s abundant, sure, it’s eight, but on a workaday morning at seven a.m. we’re conscious the traffic’s already backing up exponentially with respect to time, that the seconds later we are in joining it, the tens of minutes longer we spend sitting in it. Therefore, we make concessions. Four repeats. Obsession is, after all, the mother of pointlessness, while compromise is the father of mutual understanding. (No sexism implied)

Where were we?

Gathering energy from the heavens.

Okay., so,… it’s a flowery term, but then the Chinese, both ancient and modern, are like that. They are admirably fond of their flowery aphorisms. They called their first space station Tiangong – the Heavenly Palace – and why not? It’s due to burn up and crash to earth any time now, by the way. Unhelpful tangent Others, equally well named are planned.

Sorry, where we again?

Heavenly energy?

Right, it’s an opening move to most of the traditional Shaolin Qigong forms I know – or rather knew. I’ve had a long break from this stuff, distracted by the harder aspects of Kung Fu. What’s that? Where to begin? It’s how to dislocate an arm, a finger, break the calivical bone, where the critically debilitating pressure points are, what strike to use for best effect  – Panda or Phoenix Eye – how to release energy with a blow to make it really sting, how to parry, how to handle a sword. How to kill stone dead, and without compromise, or Marquess of Queensbury rules and all that.

Hmm,…

I don’t know how I got into all of that because it’s not my scene at all. It was younger sons, I suppose, for whom Chen style Tai Chi (my first love) was not macho enough. And I enjoyed their company, enjoyed watching them grow and connect with an eclectic miscellany of men, all pretending to be Ninjas, and from there make their own paths.

Don’t get me wrong, the stretching effect of ritual Kung Fu forms upon the body are a tonic, they keep you young and limber, and I am in awe of the Kung Fu greats, but in the end the rigours were becoming too much for a maturing frame, and even in the soft sparring of my little fight club, I was beginning to fear injury.

So, I’m starting from the beginning again, with foundation Qigong forms – breathing, rhythm, visualisation. It’s different for everyone this stuff, and no one can explain how it works. You get the traditionalists all tangled up in their esotericisms and the puzzled rationalists who do it because it feels good – but look blank at the meridian diagrams. And then there are those like me who fell into the esoteric, once, nearly drowned in its nonsense, but are coming back to a point where they can at least tread water.

Qigong isn’t something you can just do, say for an hour a week at a class. That’s where you learn the basics, sure, but it has to be established as part of a daily routine as well, a ritual part of your life. It cured my tinnitus, a decade ago, but the tinnitus is creeping back as the energy fades into late middle age, and the practice has fallen away. So I’m picking up the discipline again, and as I do, the tinnitus fades once more. I’m getting older, but there’s still much to do, much life to be lived, and I have an inkling the secret is simply to keep it moving. Use it or lose it, mate.

I’m coming up to my sixties. But that’s nothing. I’m assured by those who have gone before me there are still rich decades ahead.

Qigong.

It looks weird, but I’ve been here before, and people no longer take the piss when I’m doing it in my PJ’s in the kitchen while the kettle boils. What’s more I no longer care if they do because I find I have more confidence in it, and in myself when I’m doing it than I once did, which is progress of a sort. What does it do? It clears a space in your head, restores calm, extends one’s magnanimity far out into the tempestuousness of the day. If you’re up against a killer like Twister, it gives you a chance. If Twister is your day, it gets you through.

Noon.

It gets me to about noon before the stresses start caving me in, but what the stresses cannot do is take away the core insight that protects the soul, and Ip Man is the protector of my soul – at least when my Kung Fu is strong.

You can probably simulate this feeling with something out of a blister pack but, trust me,  it’s not the real thing. The thing out of the blister pack drugs the soul so it doesn’t mind the insult of the way we live, it doesn’t mind being flattened by the insult of Twister’s blows. Qigong provides the safe space, the stillness, in which the soul remembers itself, and can observe the life we live with a compassionate detachment. Life, as personified by the belligerent, Egoistic, taunting, daunting, Twister,  does not change, rather we remember who we are, and we do not mind the challenge so much any more. Indeed, we disregard it as irrelevant.

Okay, so we’ve gathered the heavenly stuff, so what’s next? Oh,.. right,… it’s that little twisty finger thing.

Breathe, tense the legs,… relax,..

Whoosh!…

Wow!

Okay,… Not sure how long that  header clip will remain on Youtube – hope you found it entertaining. Ip Man 2 is second only to the original Ip Man as my favourite martial art’s movie.

My humble respects to Sifu, Donnie Yen (Ip Man) and Sifu Darren Majian Shahlavi, the magnificently malign whirlwind of a boxer, Twister!
 

 

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meridian systemI was lying on a table in the back room of a two up two down terraced former mill-house in Chorley, pins sticking out of my arms, my legs and my face, and I felt weird, but in a good way. No, this isn’t the opening of a piece of fiction. This was 2007 and the beginning of my journey into the world of Traditional Chinese Medicine, my first consultation with an acupuncturist – though my experience and subsequent journey into the esoteric, did go a long way in informing my romantic story “Push Hands”.

I’d felt I had no choice in trying acupuncture, being afflicted with a ringing ear that western medicine could do nothing about. And you know what? It worked – of a fashion. Over a period my ringing ear didn’t ring so much any more. And the sessions made me feel different in other ways. I was suddenly more relaxed, more clear headed and energetic. In short, I felt better and a good ten years younger.

Acupuncture’s not available on the NHS, and at thirty quid a session, and with anything up to a dozen sessions or more being required, depending on what ails you, you have to be sure you want to use it. But then I found you could maintain that calmness, that clear headed, relaxed feeling by practising Tai Chi and Qigong. And eventually as we practice, we feel unfamiliar sensations in the hands and the arms, and we wonder: is it Qi?

I began, years ago thinking to nail this mysterious business of Qi, because without it, I believed, TCM and all that mind-body stuff didn’t make sense. But I’ve ended with a more pragmatic view, and a greater understanding of western physiology which explains things well enough if you can only be bothered getting to the bottom of it. I still hear Qi talked about in classes, and it grates a little now, but you can approach it from different angles, both from the traditional, and the practical and the secret is not to get hung up on either. Just do the exercises, the meditation; visualise, rationalise it however you want. It doesn’t matter. All that matters is it works.

One of my biggest frustrations with the traditional path is there has never been a consensus among so called masters about what Qi is, at least nothing one can glean from reading their books. With medical science, the more you read, the clearer things become. With Qi, however, the more you read, the less you understand anything at all. I’ve come to the conclusion the whole business is more of a misunderstanding, born partly out of a rejection of science in the west among those largely resistant to or ignorant of it, and in the east a willingness to present concepts in terms of what we apparently want to believe. And what we want to believe in is Qi.

In that acupuncturist’s consulting room there was a dummy with all the acupuncture points indicated as dots, with lines joining them like the map of a railway system. The lines indicate the so called meridians along which Qi is said to flow, an idea that can be traced back to a book by George Soulie de Morant, an early translator of oriental philosophy. But the strange thing is even the most revered founding oriental work on acupuncture, the Yellow Emperor’s Handbook doesn’t mention meridians. The meridian theory appears to have been an early twentieth century, and largely western, invention. It caught on and we’ve been talking rubbish ever since.

The acupuncture points are real enough. They are what we would now call neuro-vascular nodes, areas dense in fine veins and nerves, situated along the routes of the major arteries. These are referred to in early Chinese texts, a link having been found between them and the function of the organs of the body, that stimulating them can bring about certain healing effects – reducing inflammation, pain, sickness. The precise mechanism is complex and not well understood, but appears to be a result of the stimulation of the body’s natural healing mechanisms. In short, TCM works and is very effective, but the meridian theory, the model underpinning it, as presented to the west, and all its talk of Qi, is misleading at best, at worst, plain wrong.

But having said that it’s sometimes still useful to think in terms of Qi, more as a metaphor of physical effects. In practical terms, Qi has two components. One is oxygen, the other is glucose. The oxygen we get by breathing air, while glucose comes from the food in our stomachs. Both are carried by the blood to every part of the body where they combine to produce chemical energy, either for motion, or for healing and regeneration of tissue. Practices like Tai Chi and Qigong encourage deep breathing, boosting the amount of oxygen in the blood – you also get hot and you sweat because the by product of the body’s chemical equation is heat and water. Heat and water are a good sign. The movements during practice stimulate the neuro-vascular nodes, drive the lymph, and the relaxed, mindful attitude encourages a return to homeostasis, a neutral chemical balance essential for a healthy body. To practice Tai Chi or Qigong for an hour a day is to experience a dramatic change in the way you see and feel your body and the world about you.

The problem for westerners has been the gradual erosion of any romantic notions regarding one’s existence. Medical science has reduced life to a series of mechanical functions, an approach that, while advancing our understanding to miraculous levels, has ironically sucked the life out of being, and what we crave is a return to the mysterious. Perhaps in Qi we have been seeking to put the soul back into the machinery, and to revivify belief in the reality of our selves. But the path of the soul is something else, a somewhat longer journey of which the mind-body stuff can be a part, but only in the sense that in calming the mind, in freeing it from the debilitating distractions of the material life, it can then, in quieter times, return more readily to a deeper contemplation of other things.

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Hartsop old wayThe source of our creative energies is a mystery. All I know for sure is it’s not a physical thing. Provided we have sufficient strength at least to draw breath, stay awake and sit down at the work desk, it’s simply a question of opening the valve inside our heads for the creative steam to come gushing out with a vigour untempered even by age and infirmity.

But we can weaken it,…

I’m weakening it now by talking about it. It builds pressure over time and we can either nurture it, then let it out in a sustained, calculated burst and achieve something significant with it – a novel say, or a painting, or an epic poem, or we can be constantly leaking it off in short squeaks until there’s nothing left and we are reduced to a state of creative barrenness.

Bear in mind, once upon a time, words like these would have had no outlet beyond the private diary. In so keeping them within the bounds of a closed personal awareness, they would not deplete the source. Indeed quite the opposite, for maintaining an intimacy with one’s self is both to respect one’s self and also the daemonic forces within us. But now our heads are stuck inside this box and we’re venting words the hyperspatial vacuum, which does nothing but empty us of our creativity.

Listen, we can either do a thing, or we can explain to an imagined audience why we’re doing it – explain it through our blogs, our tweets, our Instagrams. But in explaining it, in chattering about it, and self justifying, we lose the point, the point being the thing itself, rather than the describing of it.

I have talked a lot about Tai Chi on this blog, why I do it, only lately to realise, actually, I don’t do it any more. Meditation – ditto. I talk about it, but I don’t do it. And if I’m talking about writing, I’m not writing. So I guess what I’m thinking about at the moment, what I’m exploring tonight, is the perennial problem of self-justification, of explaining ourselves to the imaginary “other”, when what we’re really doing is comforting our own egos.

We cannot help our insecurities. It’s human nature, this feeling some of us have of being pulled away from the tit too soon, and we assume the other person wasn’t. We assume the other person has no insecurities at all, that they are not the same lost child we feel ourselves to be when we close the door at night and face our selves, alone. Well guess what? They do. The problem then is one of self assurance, of reassurance that what we are is all right, that we need not explain ourselves, nor less try to impress others with how successful, interesting, cool, sexy or even just how extra-specially normal we are. To this end we wear a mask.

Everyone born has ample reason to simply be. It’s just that we aspire to be more than we are. More than what? Well, more than anyone else, perhaps – more cool, more insightful, more intelligent,… and just well,… more! This is what the mask conveys. But if we forget the mask, forget the usual external appearances, the difference between me and you is nothing much. We both arise from the same collective milieu of unconscious potential, like periscopes, each to pierce the surface of this, a somewhat denser and less yielding reality. Our uniqueness lies only in this individual perspective, our singular view of the world.

Knowing what that view is, is one thing, sharing it with others is only useful to point. We are all of us on a personal voyage of discovery, and it’s ultimately our own vision, our own private view that is the essential thing. It is the picture postcard we gift back to the consciousness from which we arise. It’s not important then to capture every thought we’ve ever had, to write it down and self publish it – just because we can do it now, doesn’t mean we should. The importance of the moment has already been captured by the inner eye.

It’s more important then we notice when the sun is shining, important we do not feel the need to take its picture all the time. It’s beautiful, yes, but there’s a limit to the intimacy with which the essence of such beauty can be shared, because beauty is a thing with our unique perception at the centre of it. The urge to share it is the writer’s bane of course, but one should always be mindful that in sharing anything, the essence is always lost, and no matter what our skill with words, no one can ever truly know or see the world the way we do.

So go easy on the media. Take a break from the Blog now and then, don’t feel the need to post on Instagram every day, and don’t you ever go tweeting to the world what you had for breakfast.

Save a little something for yourself. And keep it safe.

Think outside the box from time to time.

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renoir-nude

The unadorned body is something of a rarity these days. Even the male of the species is lately prone to the over-elaborate decoration of the birthday suit. We pierce our ears, pierce our noses, our nipples and even the ends of our willys. And secured within these self inflicted orifices we find an endless variety of  tribal metalwork: hoops, loops, barbs, bars and bells. Some of us progressively disfigure our ear-lobes too, with plastic bobbins. The sight of the latter makes me feel queasy, even more than the thought of a pierced willy, but I’m told it’s all the rage among certain hip males these days. And of course there is an entire industry devoted to the inking of one’s skin. Even undressed, male or female, few of us are truly nude any more.

Defacing, or enhancing? Edgy or just misguided? What are we trying to say with all this self labelling?

As for my own adornments, I restrict myself to just a watch and a wedding ring.  I am far too straight edged for a tat or a nose-stud.

citizen-and-banglesNow, to be honest I did try to wear some wrist bangles once – starting with a copper bracelet – common enough among men of a certain age, then a silver torq, and then a leather – well – bracelet. But after a while I saw this as a form of consumerism, nothing satisfying for very long – also, what with a chunky watch and everything, I must have been carrying two hundred and fifty grams on my wrist.

I also wore a necklace for a while – or at least a piece of silk chord on which I’d strung a couple of pendants – a pair of yin and yang, and a tree of life. I’d gone all mystical shaman, I suppose, but these weren’t really me either. What was I trying to say through these adornments, and to whom was I trying to say it? Was it to myself? But really I should have needed no reminder, unless actually, deep down I was trying to persuade my self of something.

tree of life and yin yangWe all develop fascinations, interests, identities, but we’re not static in our fancies. What we held dear ten years ago we are unlikely to be as enamoured of now. Like the man who has a girl’s name tattooed on his bottom, are we really, all of us, prepared for the implications of such an indelible commitment?

So yes, I’ve gone back to basics: watch and wedding ring. The bangles and beads are consigned to the drawer of experience. But I’m not entirely without affectation  – far from it – because in the mean time something weird has happened to the watch.

A man’s watch is never purely functional, it’s also a statement -like a tattoo, I suppose, but not as permanent. Modern watches are more noticeably narcissistic than they were forty years ago. Telling the time has become only a secondary function, since our telephones do the same job  nowadays. They are more a statement of the kind of man we think, or want others to believe, we are. So what kind of man are you? He-man, fashionista, cool dude, retro, or simply loaded. Me? I was tending towards the outdoor man, expressed through various incarnations of pseudo rugged adventure watch, the watch that would still tell the time at the bottom of the Marinas Trench. And I liked to be technical – lots of dials and buttons,… Look at me: I am a technical, outdoor man!

avia-peseusBut recently my watches have been getting smaller, lighter, simpler – what this says about me, I don’t know but it started with a fifty year old Smith’s Astral I’d undertaken to repair – somewhat recklessly as I’d only cursory knowledge and few tools. But a cautious clean up and re-lubrication did the trick. Also, significant for me, while testing the reliability of this venerable old ticker, I realised it felt good on the wrist: lightweight, small, and above all ticking.

It was the start of an obsession.

I now own several small, inexpensive pieces – gold plated, tending to plainness, and all of them at least forty years old. They arrive from Ebay, mostly still working, still telling the time reliably, accurately, even after having been stashed in a drawer since the advent of Quartz mechanisms. Others are doggedly unreliable even after stripping and cleaning and endless tinkering. These latter I consign to the bit-box of experience. Of the more successful purchases, I’ve noticed it is the Swiss movement that seems the more reliable, the more capable of longevity. In particular I’m favouring AVIA at the moment, an old British import brand with Swiss movements. I have several, including one from the very early sixties, which is my most treasured piece – costing all of fifteen pounds.

avia-olympicMy most recent addition is another AVIA, the Olympic, this one with a black dial, uncommon for the period, and gold markings. A new glass and strap and this is restored immediately to the status of an understated classic – very seventies, but without being too heavy on the funk. Again though: what am I doing here? Because with all adornments we are doing something, saying something. It’s like the psychology of advertising – what attracts us is not the stated function – it tells the time. What really attracts us is the life-style the device, or at least the “style” of it suggests. An old fashioned wind up dress watch is no more “authentic” in this regard than a grand’s worth of designer faux he-man bling. Both tell the time, but each tell also a different story, a different fiction about the wearer.

Am I rejecting the adventure vibe? If so I am embracing a more delicate oeuvre with tickers so leaky you have to take them off before you dare wash your hands. They’re not exactly what I’d want to trust on a mountain in a rain-storm, but I have another watch I can wear for that, and for a more authentic reason. Nor do I seem to need all those dials and clickers any more.

Perhaps with me it’s a hankering after a slower time. We all wore watches like this forty years ago, back when an hour was an ample measure of anything, and a minute’s error by the end of the week was no big deal, unlike now when even a year is the blink of an eye and we are convinced the second must be split in order to cram in everything our Outlook scheduler tells us we need to accomplish by the end of the day. It’s an age thing perhaps. I see the falseness and I call it out. But even this is just a story, and a self crafted one at that – like the salty Sam tattoo, or a ring through the end of your willy.

What am I trying to say?

I have mined this metaphor before. I have observed myself during the scroll of Ebay’s listings, and find the pieces that attract me most are of a period that marks my own beginning. Each new piece acquired is possibly then an attempt at the restoration of an earlier part of myself, a quest for the youth I once was. Or then again perhaps I’m trying to keep myself ticking, trying to associate myself with something that has endured long beyond expectation, in the hope that I shall too. Or like all collecting, is it about not wanting what we’ve got, and instead hankering after that one thing we lack, and which we imagine will complete us? But alas, that thing does not exist.

jldIf we would truly restore our selves to our selves, I’ve a feeling we should be easier in our skins, unmarked and unadorned, and thus more profoundly nude than we seem comfortable being these days. But who among us has the courage to do that?

Here I am we say: we are no more than this, and the rest is just for fancy.

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girl meditatingIt’s a cold winter’s morning in a semi-derelict mill. A small group of middle agers lie silent on their backs on gym mats, their breath vapour rising in the unheated void of the makeshift training hall. They wear overcoats and hats against the chill. This is Qigong, western style, November, somewhere in the North West of England, and the group is exploring a variation on an esoteric Oriental technique called Microcosmic Orbit Meditation.

In the warmth of more conducive surroundings I can raise a tingle from my tummy by imagining I am breathing into it. Here in the mill though I’m getting nothing. It’s just too cold, and I can’t relax. Afterwards, discussion with my fellow adepts reveals I am not alone in this. Even our teacher is unable to claim success. There is also doubt about the precise nature of what it is we’re supposed to be doing.

Our knowledge of Qigong comes from similar sources: books, private practice, personal speculation and of course endless foraging among the online dross. We’re also drawn from a range of rational, technical professions, and we’re struggling to come up with a plausible psychological model for a technique that has for centuries been described in an arcane and very flowery language. On the plus side, I discover I am not such a beginner, that my knowledge is as comprehensive as my fellows’, if not my practice, but this does not alter the fact that none us really knows what we’re doing, and most of our combined knowledge is probably rubbish anyway. Oddly though, groups like this, scattered across the mills and church halls of England, are as good as it gets. This is not to demean such groups – indeed I would never trust a group incapable of doubt, nor a teacher who talks like he knows it all.

The drive home is sluggish with traffic, and there is a sluicing rain that overwhelms the wipers. I have plenty of time to ponder my doubts. Sure, I have always struggled to marry the esoteric language of Qigong with anatomical knowledge. Nor do I believe in “Qi” as a mystical universal energy. But without a rational explanation for the observed effects of Qigong practice I don’t see how there can be any way forward in bringing Qigong – especially the more esoteric forms like the Microcosmic – to a wider audience, let alone establishing any kind of regulation among teachers. And without that we will for ever be at the mercy of charlatans and poseurs.

In the course of a morning then the whole thing unravels and years of study, of practise, of speculation, goes back to square one. It goes back in fact to the dantien. You hear that word a lot in martial arts circles. They call it the centre of being, a powerhouse, a generator of Chi or energy, even a kind of reservoir that one can charge up for future use. It lies a couple of fingers widths below the navel, in the gut. But again most of what we read of the dantien is unsubstantiated nonsense. And yet,…

In Microcosmic Orbit meditation we begin with the dantien. Gentle breathing and focus upon this region in the lower abdomen does indeed give rise to powerful sensations – tingling, fluttering, vibration. What are they? What is their origin? With the effort of imagination one then leads these sensations through various sensitive connections up the spine, to the brain, then back down the chest to the dantien. The full circuit is a difficult thing to achieve, mentally. It requires a relaxed focus, but since the sensations aroused are entirely subjective it’s hard to say if one isn’t merely deluding oneself that something is happening when it isn’t.

Is the dantien real then, or imaginary? Well, recent medical discoveries tell us of a highly energetic nerve centre located in the region of the lower gut – a thing that might indeed be the source of sensation attributed to the dantien. This is the so called Enteric Brain, the centre of a nervous system with a very brain like nexus of neurons. Just as the brain in the head regulates the autonomic nervous system, so the Enteric brain seems to regulate its own processes in the gut. There is also an energetic connection between the two systems, an exchange of information that is not fully understood but appears rooted in the body’s digestive processes.

It’s logical then to work on the premise that it is the nervous activity of the enteric brain we’re feeling when we focus on the Dantien, that such focus may heighten its activity, stimulate it or at the very least relax it into a state where it might function properly. But this is as far as one can state with anything approaching certainty.

Progress in the martial arts – or at least in so far as they have been adapted as health systems in the west – is hard won against an ill wind of misdirection and utter tripe, especially in the popular literature. Sometimes the best we have to go on is that it seems to work, alleviating the symptoms of a variety of otherwise chronic conditions. The western scientist, however, can be scathing in his skepticism, throwing away the cure – not because it does not work, but because he cannot explain it. Thus anyone who tries to take these methods seriously carries also the mantle of being a bit “alternative”.

What brought me to Qigong was stress. Without it I would by now have been a Prozac junkie for the past twenty years. As it was I managed only a few weeks in that selective seratonin uptake inhibited twilight of a world before choosing the path of “alternative” quackery. The body is built to handle short periods of extreme stress. It can generate on demand huge quantities of energy, enabling us to fight or to flee. But the modern lifestyle puts us under stress all the time, while simultaneously denying us any escape. Eventually we forget how to return to a state of relaxed homeostasis, a state in which to carry out repair and recuperation. Mind-body techniques like Qigong are important in reminding the body what it feels like to be relaxed, and, once reminded, it seems capable of returning there of its own accord.

This alone makes lying on my back in a derelict mill in the middle of winter worth the effort, that and discussion with like-minded individuals. As for explaining the Microcosmic Orbit in rational terms, my instinct says the two brain theory is definitely a good starting point. By the time I reach home I realise my morning wasn’t wasted after all. Sometimes in order to find the answer, you have to be asking the right questions.

And two brains are clearly better than one.

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man in garden doing qigong with mouseYesterday closed with a beautiful evening. But I’d had a long and rather tedious shift at the day job and I’m afraid to say I arrived home too tired and grumpy to pay it much attention at first. A weariness and a sense of despondency hung on throughout my evening meal, and overshadowed my chores. Then I stepped out onto the lawn in bare feet and began my practice. The more airy fairy Qigong books talk of going barefoot because it connects you to the earth, and to the Telluric currents, but there’s no sense to be made from any of this, no firm evidence I’m aware of that the body is influenced beneficially in any way by being “grounded”. I do it on warm evenings simply because it feels good to go barefoot on the grass. Everybody know this.

I warmed up slowly, gently, then did a routine called the Eight Brocades. There are thousands of Qigong routines but to my mind the Eight Brocades is an important one, but only because it’s an easy sequence of moves to remember, and it takes about twenty minutes, which for me is about long enough without overdoing it or getting bored.

Breathing deep and in sync with those moves, I became aware of a familiar tingling in the palms, one that by degrees came down my arms and entered my body, until by the end of the practise, I felt my whole self faintly buzzing. You can call this “awakening the energy body” if you want; sometimes I allow myself to imagine it as such, and it does feel good – it feels relaxing and invigorating at the same time – but it’s better to keep your opinions about what it is to yourself because you don’t know for sure, and neither does anyone else.

Then I ran through the Yang 24 Tai Chi form, a little of the Chen Old Frame, then broke into a spontaneous freestyle that was mostly silk reeling. I closed with some Heaven and Earth Qigong, another simple set that’s easy to remember and nice to do. If I don’t close with the Qigong, settling this imaginary energy down, then I can come away not feeling as much of the benefits of practise and with a lightness in the head, rather than a more grounded awareness. Again, there’s nothing scientific here; it’s just a personal observation.

Throughout all these moves the palms were tingling, and at times it felt as if they were vibrating. The arms were also “charged”, though I make no claims for that word either and use it merely in the descriptive sense. During the Eight Brocades specific fingers experience a “fullness” – the index fingers during the second move, the middle and third fingers during the fourth. They feel swollen, they feel “charged”. These experiences are repeatable, but I don’t know what they are. You also feel a heat. It begins in the lower body, in the thighs and, if the posture’s right, it rises to the upper body so you feel an overall glow.

I used to be a ballroom dancer. Any dancer will tell you of the pleasure of movement, of how a sequence of moves can connect with something deep inside of yourself and raise a smile, raise a tingle in your bones that makes you want to do it again and again. Tai Chi and Qigong are like that – they’re slower than your usual dance routine, and there’s this element of control too, of mindful focus, and of measuring, of pacing with the breath. But dancing doesn’t result in the same sensations of heat and tingling. With dancing, the breath is not coordinated, it is the music that drives the pace. With Qigong it seems to be this coordination of breath with movement that is the key.

As I finished up, the sun was setting, and the lawn felt different through the soles of my feet. It felt colder, felt as if it were now drawing heat out of me, rather than raising a tingle up my legs. I stepped onto the patio where the stone flags had retained the heat of the day. I felt comfortably warm again, and sat down. The dusk deepened and the bats came out. I watched them for a while, thinking of nothing in particular, then brewed bush tea and went to bed.

These were are all subjective sensations and mean nothing to anyone else. I might also have appeared slightly ridiculous while I was practicing. And, since I didn’t break a sweat or feel myself getting out of breath, it’s arguable it was a complete waste of time in terms of physical exercise, and did nothing to extend my life expectancy for even a millisecond beyond what fate has already allotted. I did however feel deeply relaxed. I was able to think clearly. I was no longer grumpy, felt myself recharged, and magnanimous about the day’s events, I felt I had transcended them. I felt human enough and decent enough now to be with others.

I slept deeply and dreamed vividly.

This is the practical reality of Qigong and Tai Chi. It raises a feeling one cannot help but describe as “electric”, but seeking any definitive explanation of those sensations in the literature – either modern or traditional – is simply asking for trouble. In looking to deepen one’s practice, there is no substitute for the practice itself. It is a personal journey, a subjective experience gained through a framework of basic moves that are taught differently by every teacher, but this discrepancy is not important because the moves themselves are not the thing. Going deeper into Qigong and Tai Chi is not about “understanding” at the intellectual level. Nor is it about anyone else. It’s about you. And through you, it is about everything.

I feel most confident when speaking about the benefits of Qigong and Tai Chi in terms of the vascular and lymphatic system. Privately, I can speculate as much as anyone else about the electromagnetic effects, about the energy body, about the significance or otherwise of Telluric currents, about the best times for practise, about “chi” and the yin and the yang of it. But I can’t speak with any authority, and neither can anyone else, not yet, and not until the basic research has achieved sufficient momentum to shoulder aside the justifiable caution of the scientific establishment.

There are many who will try to explain it to you; they’ll do so with a straight face and an authoritative tone, while selling books on it at a tenner a time, or inviting you to expensive seminars on it, or selling you gadgets that claim to boost your chi, smooth your wrinkles, grow your hair back and make you live for ever. But their terminology, although it might sound scientific, is never grounded on anything firmer than the dubious claims of long dead researchers or “masters” that have never been independently verified.

Yet the practice of Qigong and Tai Chi persists, and has done so for thousands of years. Why? Well, practiced as a mind-body exercise, the truth is revealed as being at the same time rather more prosaic, yet also more remarkable than any of the claims made for it by its self styled spokespersons, authorities, Masters, and book peddlers.

And it’s this.

It’s not about the body at all. Not about the physical. It’s about the mind, the immaterial, it’s about transcending for a moment our self constructed sense of self, and revealing to us the void that is as much a part of existence as the mess we can see. It is about revealing to us the truth that we are less the atoms of the physical world, the physical body, and more the gaps in between. It’s about showing us that if we can leave off bothering about the physical for a moment and just be content not knowing who we are, the stillness and the calm awareness that is left, that is who we are. From this transcendent perspective everything else becomes trivial, and it puts a bad day at the office firmly in its place.

That the body benefits from practice is something you can only establish for yourself by practising. But this is secondary, a side effect of balancing the mind and the emotions. There are many in the west who are sceptical about Tai Chi and Qigong, and I don’t blame them because the spokespersons for this kind of stuff come across like lunatics and new age flakes. Practicing Tai Chi and Qigong will change your life, but don’t believe half of what you read about it, and never put your trust in anything you cannot experience yourself by simply practising. It should also be fun, never simply “worthy”, or it’s not worth doing.

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mariaTai Chi has been around for a while in the west, Yang style appearing among the Chinese diaspora in the USA as early as the 1940’s. Qigong methods, although much older in origin, appeared more recently in the West, from the 1990’s. As a health system, both are practiced with a slow, mindful intent. The breath is measured and deep. They’re supposed to work, we’re told, by manipulating “chi”.

The literature talks of “chi” as a form of subtle energy that flows around the body. If chi is abundant and free flowing we are healthy. If chi is low or blocked, we become sick. This is where acupuncture comes in, being supposedly a more direct way of intervening in the body’s energy system, unblocking chi and improving its flow by needling a network of points in the subsurface tissues. Claims for the efficacy of Chinese “energy medicine” are impressive, though the research papers thus far translated are said by Western pundits to be of a poor quality, lacking the “blinded” trials and large scale studies one would normally expect. This makes it hard to differentiate between genuine efficacy and placebo. The best we can say is the results, though interesting, are thus far inconclusive. There may be something in it, there may not.

Those researchers who are most sympathetically inclined are at their best when seeking to explain things without using the “Chi” word. They speak instead of oxygen and glucose and bio-chemical energy. These processes are well understood and fit into the more mechanistic western paradigm. From this perspective it’s all about breathing and movement. This boosts the vascular and lymphatic systems, which increases the available energy for healing, for general health, and a sense of well-being. There’s no need to bring “chi” into it. Any claimants who fail this test and insist on using the “chi” word to paper over the cracks of a more rational analysis, risk an ignominious labelling as charlatans, cranks or crackpots. This would include most self proclaimed Qigong Masters, “healers” and unaffiliated researchers of energy medicine operating today.

The problem for me, as a practitioner of Tai Chi and Qigong, as well as an interested student of its background and science, is that it feels like there’s more going on than blood and lymph circulation. It feels like the nervous system is becoming highly active when we practice, that there is an “electrical” component. There is tingling, feelings of fullness, of electricity moving through the body. These are subjective sensations and could be anything, but, as far as I know, they are unique to Qigong and Tai Chi, and I would like to understand them better. However, in my last post on this subject I described having reached the stage where I was persuaded to abandon further enquiry along these lines, having found the literature far too obtuse and contradictory to make any headway with it at all.

I was happy instead to side with the work of Douglas Kendall et al, who present an alternative and convincing body of work that rebuts the Chinese concept of “chi” altogether, exposing it as a kind of Western mistranslation, that what the Chinese actually meant was something else entirely and more closely akin to Western concepts in the first place, though predating them by a few thousand years. Yes, Qigong and Tai Chi work, but not as a result of anything spooky, says Kendall. It’s purely physiological. Adopting this position we find ourselves on safer ground, but as a practitioner it also feels like an unsatisfactory retreat.

There is another large body of work by researchers who represent a hundred year long tradition of energy medicine, this one entirely western. It proposes an electromagnetic “energy body” as a pre-requsite for life, rather than as a by-product, and claims that in maintaining the health of the energy body, we maintain the health of the physical body. This work has many correlations with the concept of “chi” and is generally supportive of the eastern energy system. It began in the early part of the twentieth century, and has rumbled on in various backwaters ever since. It’s very interesting, but delving into it as I have been doing recently doesn’t help to clarify things at all.

As far as I can make out the work has been sidelined by the mainstream because no one has been able to reproduce the key experiments under the rigour of contemporary controls. What surrounds it in fact is the odour of something a bit fishy. It lurks in the shadows rather than under the illumination of a universal revelation. Its commentators are restricted to You Tube, where they appear shoulder to shoulder with the crazy cat videos. This does little for their reputation, but neither has it stopped them from going on to brazenly market gadgets for plugging into the “energy body” – the purpose being to “boost” or “repair” it, thereby arresting the onset of sickness, old age and death. Modern, western energy medicine promises us the elixir of immortality via gadgets with flashing lights. What’s not to like about it?

Now, I’m sure there is a kernel of truth in it, that the electromagnetic field of the body is indeed an integral part of its function. Robert Becker (Body Electric) has done most to establish the foundations of it, showing us how regeneration of tissues and bones following injury are all presaged by fluctuations in the body’s electrical potentials. Injuries that are reluctant to heal can indeed be encouraged to do so by artificially boosting the electrical potentials by external means. This much has been proven and accepted by the mainstream, but it’s a long way from the claims of latter day gurus.

Becker’s work seems not to have led anywhere in more recent times, except as footnotes in a greater mythology whose adherents are to be found quoting and misquoting him. Sadly, I’m unable to find any evidence of reliable science built upon the foundations of his work, and all the contemporary pundits are after is simply selling us stuff.

Energy medicine is not taught at “respectable” universities. Medical students do not emerge with a vocabulary that includes “energy bodies”, “the etheric” or “auras”. They do not talk of the electro magnetic elixirs of immortality. Progress in coming to any firm conclusions about all this stuff therefore is slow, and the answers seem as far away as ever. Is this because researchers are held back for want of funds and fear of ridicule? or is it because the research has already adequately established there is nothing in it but quackery?

So, amidst all this fog where does that leave the humble and more rational practitioners of Qigong, and Tai Chi? Well, in terms of the “energy body”, we’re going to be on shaky ground for a long time to come and must be circumspect in all our dealings with it. We must recognise that whenever we speak of bioelectricity as a more western friendly correlate of “chi” we are still entering a controversial field. We risk deluding ourselves and misleading others when we speak of it, so we’re better holding our tongues. That said, I do find it useful to think of an energy body when practising. Indeed any sensation of the body registered by the mind is the result of processes going on in the nervous system and therefore “energetic” in nature. But to develop a more acute awareness of it is one thing, to extrapolate from it all manner of dubious claims is quite another.

More about Tai Chi and Qigong, in practise, next time.

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