Welcome to My Blog

Welcome to My Blog

This blog represents my thoughts about me, my business, Oriental Medicine, the profession, T’ai Chi, and Qigong.

I will also be posting more in-depth information  and articles about various topic found in the main pages of my website.  Therefore, my blog also supplements my website.

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Tui Shou Test: A New Beginning

tuishou with Matt

This was my first tui shou (pushing hands) match (more like a test) in over 15 years. It was an non-compliant, yet friendly, freestyle match. Striking was not allowed. The gentleman in the video with me is Matt Stampe from Virginia. I met him for the first time just 2 days prior. This match took place on June 1, 2014. I have included video at the end of the article.

I practiced and competed in taiji and pushing hands in the 1990s when I was also an external stylist, but there was nothing internal about what I was doing then. It has only been the past 4 years that I have revisited a previous teacher of mine and started focusing on internal skills.

So, I took a much different approach with this match than I had done in the past. I had no idea what to expect because I know Matt has a lot of experience, both in taiji and in other arts. My main goal going in was not to try to beat Matt, but rather to see if I could adhere to the principles that I teach.

I wanted to remain upright and relaxed, avoid bracing the ground, and keep resistant tension out of my arms. I know I made some errors in those goals, but overall, I felt pretty good considering the circumstances.

Basically, I took almost no initiative with offense. I decided to just see what Matt was going to do and continue to try to neutralize and follow him. Overall, I was happy with how I managed. There were 3 good times when he took me by complete surprise and I could not neutralize. There were other times when I had him neutralized, and it seemed like he was giving up the attack, so I let up, and he would immediately take advantage with a fast push that would semi-get me, as seen with the occasional “heavy” back steps I had to take rather than me just stepping due to following. Lastly, at times I underestimated what Matt was doing, thinking that I could completely neutralize without turning or stepping and I held my ground a little too long at times, again making me take a heavy step back.

From this I learned several things:

  1. I should not let up. I should always stay “on” the opponent, even in a friendly match.
  2. I should pay attention to match the speed of the opponent even when the rest of the match seems to be kind of a steady speed. I was stuck in that slower mode and foolishly did not adjust when he did those faster attacks.
  3. I need to relax even more so that I can operate even more from awareness. Had I been more aware, I would not have overestimated my neutralizing abilities at times. That shows me that I was a little too much in my own head.
  4. I should definitely take initiative with offense at times.

Though the match was over 11 minutes long, my breathing felt good. I was not tired even though I had just previously finished attending a very physical 6 hour workshop. This is quite a contrast to my experiences from the 1990s when my tui shou was still externally based.

I thought that Matt did an excellent job in this match. He kept it friendly, but he was able to maintain an almost continuous offense, making me work at my skills the entire match. He was able to exploit my gaps and weaknesses fairly regularly throughout the match which shows both his experience and how much he was paying attention. Additionally, even though he tried to “get” me almost continuously, he did well at not exposing himself, giving me little to work with in that regard.

I have been avoiding tui shou in general because I am still working on my basic skills and getting my body proper for the internal work that I do. I did not want all of my “bad” external habits creeping in because of a competitive engagement.

However, I felt comfortable with my level of error in this match, and I want to work more on tui shou given what I have learned from my mistakes in strategy.

It is official. I have caught the tui shou bug.

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Upcoming Workshop on Joint Opening and Loosening Exercises, Saturday 6/28/14

For additional information, please visit the event page for this workshop, and indicate your plans for attendance.

Here Are the Basics:

Topic: Joint Opening and Loosening Exercises
Date: Saturday, June 28, 2014
Time: 10:00 am to 1:00 pm
Location: Oriental Medicine and Health Services, 1201 Philadelphia Pike, Suite D, Wilmington, DE 19809
Cost: $65 for the workshop which includes my instructional DVD on the topic (for details on the DVD, click here)
Registration: You must be registered and paid by Thursday, June 19, 2014. Call me at 302-792-2831 or email me at info@omhs.biz for more information. Space is limited, so it is first come first served.

Workshop Content:

You will learning the set of Joint Opening and Loosening Exercises. Below is a video of me doing the set, but trust me, the movements are not as they appear. During the workshop, you will be given very detailed instructions on how to do the movements. You will find yourself learning a very different way of moving than what you are used to. In addition, you will learn how to pressure test the movements so that you can be certain that you are doing them correctly. Remember, you will also be given my instructional DVD on the topic to serve as a reference for your practice at home.

It is Qìgōng (氣功).

The joint opening and loosening exercise set makes for an excellent daily qìgōng routine. It is relatively simple to perform and only takes between 10 to 15 minutes to complete depending on pace. By opening and loosening the joints, you are also helping to open the acupuncture channels in the body, thereby aiding in the circulation of your and blood. There is a saying in China that roughly translates to “a used door hinge never rots.” Regular practice of this set while working on becoming more correct in how you do the set will bring you many worthwhile benefits.

It is also Jīběngōng (基本功).

Jīběngōng translates roughly as basic exercises. This set of joint opening and loosening exercises serves as a set of basic training exercises for developing foundational skills in tàijí. Having open and loose joints is a requirement in tàijí, and in my opinion is an important part of the “sinking” that is also part of tàijí. Doing this set regularly and correctly will help build part of your martial arts foundation.

Additional Benefits

If done conventionally, this set has value in that is keeps you moving and able to maintain range of motion into your old age if practiced carefully and daily. However, I do these movements in a specific manner driven by awareness. Done this way, this set is a vehicle for discovery of what it means for a joint to be open and how to maintain that openness. Having open joints, in my opinion, is not only a basic requirement for internal martial arts and for allowing forces to pass through the body, but it is also an important part of good qìgōng, allowing for better circulation of the and blood. I feel that if physical forces can get stuck in your body at certain points, then the and blood flow can be negatively affected at those points as well. Therefore, not only will regular correct practice of this set help bring about many health benefits including more freedom of movement, but it can also improve your practice of ANY martial art.

A FREE Bonus

Though the workshop ends at 1:00 pm, we will be breaking for lunch and returning at 2:00 pm to watch a kung fu movie. I have not yet decided which movie to show, but as a workshop attendee, you are welcome to watch the movie with me. If you are a kung fu movie fan, then you know it will be fun.

The Flyer

Click on the flyer for a larger, printable version.

JOLE workshop 140621

Click this link for a PDF file of the flyer.

Video of the Set of Joint Opening and Loosening Exercises

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Thanks for taking to the time to look at all of this. I hope to see you there.

Soft Does Not Mean Weak

soft

In martial arts there are two very different types of systems: soft, internal styles and hard, external styles. There are others as well and those that purport to mix, but I want to focus on those two, and in particular, the soft, internal styles as a contrast to the hard, external styles. The words “soft” and “hard,” as commonly used in English, are opposites, polar opposites in fact, representing a continuum of strong, resistant solidity. I feel this common usage of those terms has clouded the meanings and roused misconceptions, particularly of “soft” as used in internal martial arts. Note that in this article, I will be, for ease of explanation, over-simplifying a bit, but not to the point of error.

There is a common phrase from Chinese philosophy that states that “softness overcomes hardness” or that “the soft overcomes the hard.” People often look at this as philosophical mumbo jumbo. I have listened to someone say that if they took their hard finger and poked someone in their soft eye, the finger would win. That statement says a lot. It pokes (pun intended) fun at ancient wisdom and shows that soft things have a weakness that is ready to be exploited by hard things. It also highlights a major misconception which I will expand on later. As a counterpoint, the classic example of water is given: water erodes rock and creates things such as the Grand Canyon. However, this is not practical in a fight. Am I to drool on someone continuously over centuries, patiently awaiting victory? No.

Is it the case that the phrase should not be taken literally? Is soft weak? No, and no. The phrase is very literal, and soft does not mean weak. In martial arts the term hard is used in the common way. It means solid, strong, powerful. Of course, within the broad category of external martial arts there are styles that are considered hard and those that are considered soft. However, the word “soft” as used in external styles does not have the same meaning as “soft” as used in internal styles or T’ai Chi in particular. Even within internal martial arts, there are styles that are seen as hard and those that are seen as soft. However, “hard” as used in internal styles does not have the same meaning as “hard” as used in external styles. I am not going to cover all of those variations. I will stick to the original contrast.

If soft is not weak, then why is it perceived as such? I feel it is the result of two very closely related issues. One is that people have trouble getting away from the preconceived notion of soft and hard as being polar opposites. The other is widespread incorrect practice of soft, internal martial arts.

Hard is simple to do. It is how we would normally react. I tend to use the phrase “conventional strength” when talking about hard strength as used in external martial arts. Kids fighting in the playground or adults fighting in a bar are examples of hard, though not necessarily trained or skilled hard. External martial arts train hard to become harder, stronger, and faster through use of good structure, strength training, more stamina, and efficient strategies. There is much overt and visible strength in these hard styles.

Let us return to soft now. Hard seems clear and much strength is used. If soft is the polar opposite of hard, then much less strength must be used, right? This is where the problem is and can be seen in bad T’ai Chi all over the world. There is a saying about T’ai Chi that goes something like this: “Done right, T’ai Chi is the best martial art. Done wrong, it is the worst.” Best and worst are both extreme, and I am not going to get into that, especially the idea of T’ai Chi being the best. I do not want to start that kind of argument here. However, done poorly, T’ai Chi is a very, very bad martial art. This is because those people want to be soft without really knowing what soft is. They relax because they know they should relax without really knowing what the right kind of relaxation is. They give up using as much conventional strength as they can because they know they are not supposed to be forceful. So, what happens then? The person ends up being relaxed in a way that still has the joints closed even though the joints should be open. Because they lack clarity as to what soft is and they have tried to give up conventional strength, what they end up doing is using tiny bits of conventional strength in order to move around. Being “relaxed” and using tiny bits of conventional strength may seem radically different than methods employed by hard external martial arts, but it is actually the same, still hard, just much, much less hard. This is why bad T’ai Chi is not effective as a martial art. What we end up having is someone being hard and strong against someone being hard (without knowing it) while at the same time being passive and weak (tiny amounts of conventional strength).

This is not what soft is supposed to be in internal martial arts. The soft of internal martial arts is not the polar opposite of the hard of external martial arts. They are not on a continuum. You cannot get to one from the other. They are different things, even though they both use the human body in similar shapes performing similar techniques. When encountering a force from an opponent, if being hard, there are 2 main possibilities: resist or withdraw. For those not trained or skilled, this can be blatant; resisting becomes hard clashes and withdrawing becomes moving out of the way or even running away. For those with training and skills, it becomes more subtle, resisting and withdrawing are done at angles to the force, and timing becomes very important. However, conventional strength is still being used to either do something to the force or to get away from the force, and because conventional strength is still being used, it is hard and external. What, then, is soft?

In T’ai Chi, it is said that one should neither resist nor withdraw. Those 2 options are so typical and ingrained that it is difficult for people to even fathom that there is a 3rd possibility. However, it is this 3rd possibility that is the realm of softness. When teaching beginners, I refer to it as option 3 or door number 3. Furthermore, it is because option 3 is something very different than the other 2 options that I can say that this kind of soft is not on a continuum with that kind of hard. In fact, engaging in resisting or withdrawing keeps option 3 from happening. So, what is option 3?

Option 3 is allowing the force to pass through your body without it adversely affecting your balance or stability. This cannot happen if you withdraw from the force. If you withdraw, then the force does not enter in order to pass through. This also cannot happen if you resist, even if you use just a tiny bit of conventional force as your resistance. If you resist a force, then the force will land on and / or in you depending on various factors. If the force lands on and / or in you, then, once again, it cannot pass cleanly through you. For instance, if someone strongly grabs you and you hold strongly against it (resisting) so as to remain upright and in control of yourself, then the force of the interaction lands in you and will be felt in the areas of tension in your body. Your muscles would be strongly stabilizing your joints so you could try to be stable, and other muscles would be engaged in order to act out against the force. In this kind of situation, the bigger, stronger, faster person wins because the forces involved have less of an effect on their balance and stability, and therefore, ability to generate power, than the smaller, weaker, slower person. Of course, as I mentioned earlier, hard external training aims at making you stronger and faster, but also teaches strategy involving angles and timing in order to minimize the effect of the strength of the opponent on your stability and balance. However, by neither withdrawing nor resisting (option 3), you allow the force to enter your body and pass cleanly through it without it affecting your stability and balance, thereby preserving your power base and upsetting the power base of your opponent. The opponent’s power base gets upset because in most cases (depending on specifics regarding intention and technique of the soft internal practitioner), the power is returned to the opponent using various methods (depending on the style and branch of soft internal martial art). The harder they are and the more direct force they use, the more force that gets returned to them. It is as if they are fighting themselves. Furthermore, it confuses them to some degree because they are not getting the tactile feedback that they are used to getting.

All throughout life, the norm is using conventional force and either withdrawing from or resisting against forces that your encounter. Your body and mind are conditioned to what that all feels like. It becomes your sense of physical reality. If you are being hard and strong and your opponent is doing option 3, that will feel very different from what you are used to feeling. It is that odd feeling that is labeled as “soft.” That is the meaning of soft, and it is not weak. In fact, ideally it is as strong as whatever force is being manipulated.

So far, I have only touched on using the opponent’s force, but there are various ways of creating a force from the core of your body near your center of gravity (different styles and branches of internal martial arts may use different methods) that do not require you to brace hard and strongly against the ground in order to impact your opponent. When that force you create is “released” it passes cleanly through through your body in the same way that your opponent’s force passes cleanly through your body. This force is in addition to any force that your opponent is unwittingly supplying to the equation. Again, because this released force does not have a background of resisting or withdrawing to it, the way it feels to an opponent does not coincide with his normal sense of feel in a physical contest. It has that same odd feeling that is labeled as “soft.”

Other than feeling odd, what else is soft? The main characteristic seems to be that it is difficult to detect where the force is coming from. The “softer” the practitioner is, meaning the more cleanly the forces can pass through them, the more difficult it is to detect where the force is coming from when they apply it to you. Because your normal sense of physical interactions involve you either resisting or withdrawing from a force, when you encounter a force but cannot feel where the force is coming from, you cannot resist it because you cannot properly align against it. Also, depending on how well the internal martial artist can stick to and follow you, it can be also become very difficult to withdraw from them.

How does one become soft, allowing forces to pass through? That is a different discussion for a different time. However, I hope that I have given you a sense of what soft is and why it feels odd. Furthermore, I hope you now understand that this soft is not the polar opposite of and on a continuum with hard and so should not be considered as weak. It is the internal practitioners who do not enter door number 3 or who do enter but never get sufficiently skilled at it (the overwhelming majority of people who practice internal martial arts) who end up still using tiny bits of conventional strength and evasively withdraw from forces that have allowed the perpetuation of the misconception that soft is weak. Me? I keep working on becoming a clear conduit for forces, stripping away the errors little by little.

Trailer for Joint Opening and Loosening DVD

fb cover photo

Below is the trailer for my DVD on Joint Opening and Loosening Exercises. The release date for the DVD is set for June 1, 2014.

There is also a dedicated Facebook page for the DVD.

Total running time of the DVD is 1 hr 57 min.

The price is $20 plus S&H. It can also be purchased directly at my business location in Delaware.

For ordering information, email me at info@firstchoice-acupuncture.com or call me at 302-792-2831.

Please subscribe to my YouTube channel if you have not done so yet so that you never miss a new video of mine.

 

The Hips and Stretching – 4 Weeks Progress

I have started stretching again recently. I am pleased so far with the results, but I will get to that a little later. Be sure to watch the video at the end. In the past, while doing external martial arts, I was very flexible and strong with my own body. After switching my focus to internal martial arts, I realized that my flexibility and strength were no match for the type of relaxed looseness that my teacher had. During that time period, I never did catch on to how my teacher was able to do those stretches the way that he did, and it took all I had just to try to keep up with him, a pale external imitation. In 2000, going back to school had me change priorities, and stretching took a back seat.

Though I continued to practice t’ai chi and qigong since then and did joint opening and loosening exercises the whole time, because I was not actually stretching, I lost quite a bit of range, especially in stretches that involved my hamstrings. I could no longer do the splits or bend straight down with my body flat to my legs, just to name a few.

About three years ago, I decided to start stretching again. I used the exercises / stretches that I learned from my teacher. I also added a few that I used to do back in my external martial arts days. It was rough going. I was worse off than I thought. I did try a different approach, though, based on my new understandings.

I knew I had to loosen and relax rather than to stabilize and stretch. Stabilizing part of the body and literally stretching another part of the body away from that was how I had always stretched. It seemed to fit in well with my former external martial arts paradigm. However, that method was no longer appropriate for my body, and I needed to find another way.

I had done a lot of work on loosening, relaxing, and extending my spine in my t’ai chi and qigong practice, so I made sure I was doing that while doing the stretch routine. That did help some, and I was able to increase my range, but I was still nowhere close to my former flexibility. Furthermore, my hamstrings never, ever stopped feeling tight. On top of that, the stretching left my hamstrings painful, and I mean painful every day. I was stretching every day for the first few months, then I switched it to every other day. After a while, I tried two times a week. Still, my hamstrings were not recovering between workouts. I finally gave up.

It had been over two years since then with no stretching and losing flexibility and range. For some reason, I decided to undergo the process once again, hoping for better results this time, and better results I got.

About four weeks ago, I decided to start stretching again. I basically went into it with the same mindset of needing to loosen and relax rather than stabilize and stretch. I also decided to do this two to three times maximum per week. The first week was horrible. It was just like my attempts a few years ago, except I had even less range, and my hamstrings hurt even more.

I was discouraged, but I did not give up. On week two, I decided to really slow down the process and listen to my body. I needed to figure out what was going on that was keeping me from getting into these stretches.

I realized that my hips were playing a huge role in my lack of progress. Because I felt relaxed, I assumed that my hips were relaxed when I was trying to bend at the hips. On the contrary, there was a bit of stabilizing going on in my hips that I did not notice until I really paid attention. This kind of stabilizing caused me to fight against myself which amplified the hamstring issue. My remedy was to specifically release the hips while loosening and relaxing into the stretches. This made a notable difference. I instantly gained more range with much, much less hamstring discomfort during the stretches, and I had very little to no lingering hamstring pain between stretch workouts.

I do have to be mindful that releasing the hips once is not going to do it. I have to keep releasing the entire time during a stretch. I have also noticed that even while releasing the hips, my hamstrings can still be problematic at times. When they tighten up and inhibit my movement like that, it means I am fighting myself somehow, and because I am already releasing my hips, it must be somewhere else. What I discovered is that if I place my attention on the front of my thighs while releasing the hips, I can get into the difficult stretches more easily. Very simply put, the muscles on the front of the thighs oppose the muscles on the back of the thighs. So, while releasing the hips, if I also release the front of the thighs, my tight hamstrings behave better.

This is week four now, and I can fairly comfortably get into the splits which I have not been able to do in well over ten years. I filmed myself last night and have included the video below. In watching the video, I can see that I need to do more work on loosening and releasing the low back, but at least now I look forward to stretching, and I am not in constant pain because of the stretching. In just four weeks, I have made a lot of progress stretching only two to three times per week for about 15 minutes per session. I think I am finally on the right path with this.

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My Recent Radio Interview

WDDE me needlingI was recently interviewed by WDDE 91.1 FM, Delaware’s Source for NPR news. The story, which I have as an mp3 file, appeared on air on April 18, 2014 . The article which I have as a PDF file, appeared on the website. Yes, those are my hands in the photo. All three can be accessed below.

Overall, I think it was a positive treatment. I was asked far more than what ended up in the pieces. I understand that the depth that I provided may not have been appropriate for that venue. I am fine with that. However, I do have one complaint. The article attributes the word “energy” to me. I do not use the word “energy” as a substitute for the word qi, and I did not state that “it is more about energy than it is about physicality.”

It has been a few weeks since the broadcast, and so far no one has contacted me as a result of the radio broadcast or website article. Luckily, I had no expectations. I think it is good, however, that these kinds of broadcasts and articles are becoming more frequent and more popular. It does good for the profession as a whole. We need that kind of general marketing.

Click the link to read the Published Article. The article’s links to the audio and video segments no longer work, but I have them both below.

Here is a recording of the Radio Broadcast.  Click the play button to start.

Here is a copy of the video.  Click the play button to start.

Pole Squats

Pole Squat

Below is my video that depicts a variation of an exercise used in internal martial arts referred to as wall squats or face the wall squats. Instead of facing a wall, one faces a pole in order to use the pole for balance. Note that the feet are together, side by side, in this exercise. Therefore, it is more difficult to do a full squat without falling backwards. If the feet were shoulder width apart, this exercise would be much easier in that regard. However, please keep the feet together.

A main goal of this exercise is to help open and loosen the yao, including the lumbar spine, the sacrum, the pelvis, and the hips. Keep relaxed during the exercise, and do not let the buttocks protrude. The head and torso should move together down or up as a single unit with the legs folding and unfolding naturally. Do not bend the legs purposefully, and do not push up from the ground. Try to depend on the pole as little as possible until you are able to do the exercise without using your hands on the pole. At that point, you can just do regular face the wall squats.

Here is the video, and do not forget to subscribe to my channel: