I stepped into the ring, holding my broadsword and feeling butterflies in my stomach. I wanted to do well in my first tournament performance as a black belt.
It was February, 1998 in Cedar Falls, Iowa, and at 45 years old, I had studied different martial arts for 25 years, had been in the internal arts for more than 10 years, and had practiced qigong diligently for more than a decade.
"Just get into the zone," I told myself as I calmed down and prepared to do my broadsword form.
God, there are a lot of people, I thought.
"Settle down," my inner voice said. "Detach. Rise above the pressure."
It was the worst advice I could have given myself.
A few movements into the form, I turned to my right to do a sweeping cut and noticed a young boy was walking across the ring, just a few feet from me.
Within another movement or two, I completely spaced out and forgot where I was in my form. For a flash of a second, I was mentally paralyzed, then I made up some movements, wrapped up the form, and bowed out.
I did not place in weapons forms that day.
I was disappointed at myself. After using qigong in my life so effectively during the past decade, why was I so nervous and unable to hold it together when performing for the first time as a black belt in front of a jury of strangers and a gymnasium full of spectators?
Shouldn't I be a bit more "one" with the universe? Shouldn't I be able to detach my mind?
Last night, a member of my website -- a man who is becoming a friend -- told me how he was very nervous during a recent karate test (which he also studies) and had the same thoughts about how qigong is supposed to help him remain calm in those situations.
But here is the real secret of qigong practice.
It does not prevent you from being human.
Qigong is not intended to prevent the normal human emotions that we all experience. The key to effective qigong is that you do not hold on to emotions like fear, anxiety, greed, and other negative thoughts.
To suppress negative emotions is to give them even more power.
And that is where the mindfulness component of qigong comes into play. It is actually an important part of our quest to calm and center ourselves -- to "be in the moment."
When you are "mindful," you are completely in the moment, giving attention to the people or the situation that needs your attention. Your mind is not wandering, and if it does, you simply bring your attention back to where it needs to be.
The negative feelings, the butterflies in the stomach, the fear of failure -- it's all part of the experience. No one ever brags about doing well when nothing was at stake. We don't sit around in our golden years reminiscing about all the boring times we had.
The best moments in life -- when you are most alive -- happen when you are testing your comfort zone and feeling every sensation.
And so I realized that calming and centering were not enough. I needed to be in it.
Over time, I developed a joy of being in the moment, whether that was a happy moment or whether I was about to perform in front of a panel of judges and a crowd at a tournament, or whether I was going to be grilled in a job interview by a panel of staffers and VPs.
When I was being interviewed by a panel at the University of South Florida in 2007 for the director of media relations position, I sat down, smiled and said, "Take your best shot."
I enjoyed every moment of that interview, fielded all their questions, was honest and let my creative mind flow. I started a month later.
I want to experience it all -- to be in the now and fully feel the experience:
To enjoy demonstrating my arts in a tournament and show martial artists something different.
To enjoy the competition of sparring without being overjoyed or upset about individual point calls by judges.
To enjoy the "competition" of a job interview, and display my experience and knowledge in a creative way.
To be in the moment in a tense personal or job situation, where I can take care of problems without exploding.
Qigong helps us relieve stress, calm our minds and body, and helps us to center ourselves. The goal then should be to recapture that calm, centered feeling in times of tension or crisis.
You should not think of qigong as a way to detach your feelings or your mind from the moment. That is not living.
A key part of qigong is mindfulness: the joy of living and being part of everything; the unpredictable nature of challenges that are thrown at you, then learning from them so perhaps the next time, you can handle them even better.
I got better at tournaments. I still got nervous occasionally, but I felt it fully, I experienced it completely, and I sure did have fun.
Seven years ago today, I had just commemorated Halloween in a drug-induced stupor, in the ICU at Cleveland Clinic, with a breathing tube down my throat and another tube coming out of a hole in my chest. I had to take strong sedatives, because of my gag reflex. I choked and gagged on the breathing tube, so the only way I could handle it was to be doped up.
My condition made the horror movies showing at Halloween on the Chiller network even more bizarre. There was one movie, playing once a day, that I have not been able to find in the years since this happened in 2009. Nancy says I was hallucinating, but it's remarkable how much I remember of this terrible time, despite the sedation I was under.
I went into the hospital on Oct. 22 for what I thought was a one-hour procedure to try to find out why I had been coughing up blood for about 8 months. But when doctors discovered my left pulmonary veins had closed up, causing my terrible breathing difficulties that year, they tried to stent one of the closed veins, tore it, and pierced my heart with the wire.
The cardiologist came out to see Nancy in the waiting room and said, "There is nothing more I can do for your husband."
That isn't the way it was supposed to go. Cleveland Clinic sent a team of doctors into the operating room and they worked to save my life.
Remaining Centered in the Midst of Crisis
So, as I was drowning in blood that kept building in my lungs for the next several days, Nancy and my daughters, and some friends and sisters, were distraught, thinking that I was about to die. They maintained a cheerful attitude around me, but they would go out into the hallway as I was coughing up jet streams of blood, and they would break down in tears.
Meanwhile, I was in bed trying to wrap my mind around it all, remaining determined to push through it, and keeping my mind on my goal of competing in a martial arts tournament that was coming up in five or six months.
I also put part of my mind on my Dan T'ien and continued to center myself through the procedures, the uncertainty over whether I would live or not, whether I would see my grandchildren grow up, see my daughters develop in their lives and careers, continue to laugh and love with Nancy, and whether I would ever practice kung-fu again.
I did not worry about any of that. I used my internal arts and qigong training and I calmed myself. I needed to be ready for that tournament in late March.
"It is what it is," I reminded myself. Just relax, don't fight it, and heal. If I died, I would be the last to know, so it was not something I worried about. And I never once, not for a moment, considered changing my religious views (I am not a believer in invisible beings and was very comfortable with that, thank you very much).
Misguided Ideas about Chi
When I first got sick earlier in the year, the side effect of a medical procedure, I weighed 206 pounds. When I finally hobbled out of Cleveland Clinic late in the first week of Nov. 2009, I weighed 156 pounds and could hardly walk, I had lost so much muscle and so much strength.
Occasionally, I will get an email from someone who tells me that obviously, I was doing Xingyi or Taiji wrong, or I wouldn't have been sick. Obviously, they say, I didn't cultivate enough chi.
I try not to insult their intelligence, although they deserve it, and remind them that perhaps I am alive because I had cultivated strong chi.
That thought usually doesn't occur to them. I wonder what they will think when they grow older and come down with a serious condition or illness. Will they blame a lack of chi cultivation? I don't think so.
As October turned to November in 2009, one doctor after another would come into my room and tell me that I would not be alive if I had not been in the excellent physical shape I was in when I arrived.
By the time I left to make the long drive back to the Quad Cities (against doctor's advice but I wanted to go home), when I arrived home my ankles were swollen. I could hardly walk to the bathroom. I could not walk down to my basement office to work on my website. It was a very long recovery.
Bad News on the Road to Recovery
In the years since, as I have struggled through a loss of muscular strength and a serious diminishing of my breathing capacity, I still have to remain centered and work hard to wrap my head around the fact that I am not as young and strong as I used to be. As a teacher, I can still try to improve, but I can't go toe-to-toe with younger, heavier students and spar or get thrown like I used to. It is occasionally frustrating. I am wrapping my head around the concept of being more of a coach than a fighter.
For a couple of years, the impact of all this left me in heart failure, with a weakening heart that was at 25% of pumping capacity. My cardiologist told me that I could "drop dead at any moment with no warning."
That sort of news will play with your head, no matter how centered you are.
I went to the Mayo Clinic in 2010 for a second opinion. Two doctors told me that my heart would fail within three to five years.
Still teaching and practicing seven years later.
It is now six years later, and thanks to various factors, including medication, my heart is beating normally most of the time, and my EKGs always look normal. I continue to practice, train with my students, and try to improve my internal arts skills.
Iron Wrapped in Cotton
One of my Facebook friends said I should write about how the internal arts and qigong helped me get through all this.
I think the greatest benefit I have obtained from my practice is better physical conditioning and an ability to ride the ups and downs of life. The mental workout you get from doing these arts and from practicing qigong can help you to remain calm in a crisis. Physically, I believe in cross-training, both cardio and weight-training.
The "internal strength" that I teach includes body mechanics that make your internal arts stronger, giving you the "iron wrapped in cotton" that good internal movement is known to possess. You appear relaxed and smooth, but underneath, there is a powerful martial art that can break an opponent.
But those are the physical benefits. There are mental benefits as well.
You cultivate self-discipline when you work to improve at an art over decades, setting small goals and achieving them one by one.
You cultivate an innate calmness when a crisis happens -- the ability to center yourself and remain focused on the problem at hand. You cultivate an ability to ride the crests and troughs of life without being capsized. This happens when qigong becomes more than just exercises you do. It happens when qigong becomes a way of life.
This is the type of internal strength that is even more valuable than the physical strength that comes from good body mechanics. Your mind, your attitude, your ability to maintain humor during the occasional loss or tragedy -- this is the "iron wrapped in cotton" that I have found to be the greatest benefit after 43 years of martial arts practice.
I have not needed to use my self-defense skills since I began studying martial arts, and I may never need to use them, but every day, every single day, I use the internal strength skills that I have gained from my training.
Do you make a habit of practicing Zhan Zhuang -- "Standing Stake?" It can change your life.
This is my little Standing spot, in the corner of a 3-season porch, just a few feet from a tree in my backyard. This morning, light rain was hitting the roof, and I could hear birds and the little shrieks of squirrels as I relaxed, breathed, and felt my energy melt into the floor.
You don't have to believe in the scientific reality of chi to get a lot of benefits out of Zhan Zhuang. The benefits come from calming the mind, relaxing the body, focusing on your breathing, and holding the solid structure of Taiji.
I recommend starting your day this way, even if you only have time for five minutes. Later, as you go through your day, your goal should be to recapture this calm, centered, relaxed feeling when you encounter a stressful moment, as we all do every day. Whether it is someone driving like a crazy person, or an inconsiderate boss or customer, or an angry spouse -- make it your goal to recapture the feeling of Standing instead of reacting with tension or anger.
You will notice a difference, and so will your body.
I love the internal arts and qigong, but I am skeptical about the claims made by Traditional Chinese Medicine.
Being a skeptic means that my mind is open to scientific evidence, but I will not believe something that is not proven through the same scientific method that proves all legitimate medical and scientific discoveries. You don't get a pass just because you practice TCM.
There is no such thing as "Western" science. The rules of science are the same in every country, including China.
So is there a "Western" conspiracy against chi healing, acupuncture, homeopathy, chiropractic, and other alternative medicines?
And what does real scientific research tell us about these practices, particularly those we focus on in the internal arts?
I interviewed Harriet Hall, M.D. for the Internal Fighting Arts podcast. She is a retired family physician and Air Force flight surgeon who now researches and writes about Complimentary and Alternative Medicine (CAM). She writes a blog -- www.sciencebasedmedicine.org -- and she has an incredible series of videos on YouTube that explores science-based medicine and CAM.
Here is the podcast -- you can listen online or download it to your computer. It will be on iTunes in a few hours.
This is the first podcast interview I have done with someone who is described as a Qigong Master.
I became aware of Ken Cohen in the late Nineties, when I saw one of his books in a public library next to Alan Watts' books on Taoism.
Ken's website describes him this way: "...renowned health educator, Qigong GrandMaster, and practitioner of indigenous medicine. He is the author of the critically acclaimed books The Way of Qigong: The Art and Science of Chinese Energy Healing and Honoring the Medicine: The Essential Guide to Native American Healing, as well as numerous Sounds True audio/DVD courses and more than 200 journal articles on spirituality and health. Ken speaks and reads the Chinese language, and his academic training includes graduate study of Taoism and theology."
Ken is also a student of William C.C. Chen and has also studied Chen Taiji and Taoism.
I have practiced Qigong since 1987 and find it to be beneficial, although I am skeptical about some of the "science" used to explain it. But I respect Ken's work and the interview turned out to be informative and thought-provoking.
Do you know what a skeptic is? The word has been given a bad name by people who want you to believe their crap so they can take your money.
A skeptic is someone who simply asks for evidence -- solid evidence -- before believing an extraordinary claim.
I am a skeptic.
If someone wants to sell me a used car, I expect some evidence that the car is not going to break down when I drive it off the lot.
If a doctor wants me to take a medicine, I ask for information on the side effects and exactly why I need the medicine and how it will help me.
If a martial artist or a "chi master" claims that he can knock people down without touching them, or have a push hands partner hopping and bouncing away with the slightest touch, I am going to demand evidence, and video is not evidence.
You will not get evidence from anyone who makes money off of fantasy. You will not get evidence from con artists and swindlers. Here is what you get:
1. You are told "you just don't understand."
2. You are told to have "faith."
3. You are given explanations that sound scientific until you have an actual scientist listen to it.
4. You will get a lot of excuses about why the person cannot put his claim to a real test.
5. If the claim is tested and it fails, you will get excuses about why it failed "this time."
If you do not have critical thinking skills, you can be fooled. You can even fool yourself.
Self-delusion is one of your biggest enemies. When you believe without evidence, you have no one to blame but yourself for wasting money on people who need you to believe their lies.
On the latest Internal Fighting Arts podcast, I interview Stuart Shaw, a martial artist in Australia who -- like me -- is offering $5,000 to any chi master who can demonstrate the ability to do amazing things with their chi, such as knock someone down without touching them or make them hop away by barely touching them in push hands. But the most amazing thing is that Stuart and I are both having trouble getting these chi masters to accept the challenge.
Here are eight questions to ask when anyone -- a chi master, a martial arts teacher, a preacher or priest, a doctor, a salesman -- makes a claim involving a supernatural power, an invisible being, or a product they want you to buy.
Critical Thinking Question 1 -- Is the information coming from someone with a financial interest in you accepting it?
If a martial arts teacher wants you to believe he can knock people down without touching them, is he making money from students who want to study this power?
I am told by a minister or priest that an invisible being loves me and will punish me if I don't love Him back. Is the minister or priest making money, or making a living, off of people who believe what he says?
I am told by a man who rings my doorbell that he was in the neighborhood blacktopping a driveway and he has some leftover material and could blacktop my driveway. I just need to give him $250 upfront.
I am told by a doctor that I need to take the maximum dose of Lipitor, even though I have never been told I have a high cholesterol problem. Is the doctor making money off prescribing this drug?
In each of these cases, the person may very well be misleading you.
Critical Thinking Question 2 -- How does the claim being made compare with what you have seen and experienced about how the world works?
Have you ever had anyone knock you down without touching you? Have you ever been able to bounce anyone away and make them hop and skip backwards across the room when you barely touched them?
Does the demonstration in this video align with the reality you have seen in the world?
Are trained military warriors able to knock down enemy soldiers without touching them or make people fall or jump away by barely touching them?
Are cage fighters able to do this? Has anyone in the history of combat ever been able to do this?
Is an invisible being really watching you? If you do not get into a car wreck today, is it because an invisible angel is protecting you?
Is the claim contrary to everything you know about how nature works?
It is probably false.
Critical Thinking Question 3 -- What would happen if.....?
What would happen if this chi master tried to stop an MMA fighter from hitting him?
Would he be able to knock the MMA fighter down without touching him? Would he be able to bounce him away with a slight touch?
Here is an example of what happened when one chi "master" believed his own lie and took on an MMA fighter.
What would happen if a psychic "healer" got cancer? Would he or she go to a Western doctor or would he simply use psychic healing?
What would happen if this chi master tried to knock me down without touching me?
Critical Thinking Question 4 -- How does the person respond when I express doubts about their claim?
If I tell a chi master that I don't believe his power actually works, does he tell me I simply don't understand?
If I ask a chi master to perform his power on me, does he make an excuse such as, "You do not have sufficient skill to withstand it?" Or does he make another excuse?
If I tell a religious believer that there is no evidence that their invisible being exists, do they tell me that I need to have "faith?"
Does the martial artist, chi master, or religious believer react with sarcasm? I challenged no-touch knockdown artist Richard Mooney, asked if I could come to his school for him to knock me down without touching me, and he reacted with sarcasm. Was that the right response?
Do their comments become personal? Do they criticize you personally? "Something is wrong with you if you don't believe this. Something happened to you in your life to make you a skeptic."
Instead of providing evidence, does the person act as if doubt and a request for evidence is insulting to him? Is doubt considered a negative thing?
He is probably lying to you.
Critical Thinking Question 5 -- What is the simplest and most likely answer to what this person is claiming?
A chi master knocks someone down without touching them.
What is more likely -- that he possesses powers beyond anything you have ever witnessed, or that he and his student are faking?
A tai chi "master" pushes hands with a student. Even though the master barely moves, the student hops away as if jolted with some type of power.
What is more likely -- that the master possesses a near-supernatural ability or is it more likely that the student is performing as the teacher wants and expects?
The simplest and most likely answer is that they are faking. Otherwise, it requires evidence.
You suffer a serious illness and receive medical treatment at a hospital. Friends pray for you. Soon, you recover. Did invisible beings heal you or did the medical treatment heal you?
Which explanation is most likely? That one is probably the truth.
Critical Thinking Question 6 -- If the student does not react as the teacher wants, will the teacher lose face?
I was on stage with The Amazing Kreskin when I was about 19 (around 1972) and in college. He lined up a group of students at Eastern Kentucky University and told us, "When I snap my fingers, you will all begin clapping." He snapped his fingers and we all began clapping. Including me.
But as I was clapping, it dawned on me that I was NOT hypnotized and I could stop clapping if I wanted.
So I stopped. And for a few seconds, I was the only student onstage, in front of a large audience, who was not clapping.
I did not want to look like a jerk and I did not want Kreskin to look bad, so I began clapping again as if I were hypnotized.
Never underestimate the power of peer pressure, the desire to prevent your teacher from losing face, and the desire most people have to "perform" when given permission.
If Kreskin stands you in front of several hundred people and says when he snaps his fingers you are going to cluck like a chicken, the odds are good that when he snaps his fingers, you will cluck like a frikkin' chicken. And when your internal arts teacher says you will fall when he draws a circle of chi in the air, you and the entire class will probably comply.
All of us have invested time, money, hard work, and emotion into our teachers. Most of us are not going to make him look bad in front of outsiders.
Critical Thinking Question 7 -- Is an anecdote the only evidence?
Someone tells you that they were knocked down without being touched by their martial arts instructor or chi master. It felt "like I was hit with an electric jolt," he says.
Is there evidence beyond his memory?
A friend tells you she heard a ghost in the house last night. She swears it was a ghost. There was no one else in the house.
These people are probably exaggerating and "embellishing" the truth.
We all do it. An illness becomes a "near death" experience when we retell it. An ex-spouse was "a real bitch" even though you cheated on her. We saw a ghost down the hallway at night when we were alone.
Human beings exaggerate, and often a memory is not even close to the truth.
A healer who claims to balance his patients' chakras has testimonials on his website from patients who say their illness was healed by his treatments.
Joseph Smith said he was visited by the angel Moroni.
Joseph Smith claimed that on September 21, 1823, the angel Moroni appeared to him and told him of the golden plates that were buried near his home. On those golden plates was what would become the Book of Mormon.
Can you believe Joseph Smith's story? Millions do. And yet a lot of people -- millions upon millions of people who think Joseph Smith was lying believe that Paul spoke to Jesus on the road to Damascus. They believe it completely.
In an internal arts book that I have in my library, a well-known teacher, who does this for a living, tells the story of walking the circle in front of his Bagua master. He begins to feel his legs weighted down, as if sliding through mud. He looks over and his Bagua master is glaring at him intently. The Bagua master is using his mind to slow him down!!
Can you believe this story? I didn't, not for one minute.
People exaggerate for many reasons. They usually gain something, whether power, money, prestige, or some other physical or emotional benefit.
And that's why this statement is true: Anecdotes are not evidence.
Critical Thinking Question 8 -- Can the claim be tested? And in addition, can it be tested in a way that removes the ability for the person making the claim to cheat?
A chi master claims to be able to knock people down without touching them, and he demonstrates it with his students. How can that be tested?
For one thing, you can bring in someone who does not know what the master is going to try to do and see if the master can make them fall without touching them.
In a double blind trial, the person who is brought in to be knocked down has no idea what the "master" is going to do. The encounter is recorded and watched by a judge who also does not know what the master is trying to do. The judge has to describe what he sees happen and make a decision on what was achieved.
A double blind trial is the best way to test a claim by taking away the ability to cheat. It is the "gold standard" in clinical trials.
If there is no way to test something, should it be believed?
A skeptic says no -- an extraordinary claim should not be believed until it can be tested. But one thing that is usually not explained is that a skeptic will believe a claim when it is tested and proven to be true.
The beauty of science is this: when a scientist makes a claim, other scientists try to prove it false. Can a claim stand up to attempts to prove it doesn't work? Can your claim be tested? If it can be tested, and survives the test, it just might be true. If it cannot be tested (like religion) or if it fails the test, it is probably false.
A Mind is a Terrible Thing to Waste
When you do not ask these questions, you set yourself up to be cheated. Whenever you encounter someone making a claim that is unusual, ask these questions and let the truth guide your actions. Do not play along.
Do not believe anything that is not proven beyond a reasonable doubt. When examining any claim, whether it is about chi powers, invisible beings, or the return you will receive on an investment, there is always good reason for doubt.
I received an email last night from a man who has a young daughter and BOTH have been diagnosed with bipolar disorder.
As a parent, I instantly empathized with him.
He asked if Tai Chi and Qigong would help his daughter, and if I thought she would be able to do it. He also asked if the martial aspects would be a problem.
This is not the first time people have asked me for guidance on medical or mental issues, and each time it happens, alarm bells ring in my head.
If you are a martial arts instructor, you should NEVER give guidance on medical or mental issues unless you are also a doctor trained in the field.
Every time someone asks for my input on an issue like this, I tell them that the LAST person they should ask for advice is a martial arts instructor or even an "alternative" medicine practitioner.
Tai Chi and Qigong have benefits that include calming the mind and body. As exercise, and even if you do it for meditation, you can gain valuable benefits, but it takes hard work and mental focus.
But the BEST person -- in fact the ONLY person I would ask for input on an issue related to bipolar disorder would be a mental health professional.
If you are a martial artist or you do some acupuncture or tuina or Reiki or whatever on the side -- if you are going to give people advice on this type of thing you better have a good attorney on retainer.
But most of all, people who are dealing with these serious issues should not ask martial artists or alternative medicine folks for their advice.
Is Tai Chi and Qigong likely to help or hurt his daughter? Well, it probably can't hurt, and it might help, but I am not the person to ask. I can only give a layman's opinion. Serious medical or mental health issues require serious input from a person who is trained in the field.
Zhan Zhuang is also called "Standing Stake" or "Standing Like A Pole." It is the most important exercise in Tai Chi. It can be used for meditation and qigong, but it also will help improve your Tai Chi.
Here are the basics of getting into a Zhan Zhuang stance:
1. Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart.
2. Raise your arms as if hugging a tree with the palms facing you.
3. Relax the knees and let them flex a bit.
4. Relax every muscle in your body - neck, shoulders, chest, abdomen, hips and legs.
5. Keep the head up and the chin slightly tucked.
6. "Sink" your weight -- your "energy" -- and feel as if your weight is sinking into the ground or floor.
7. Calm the mind along with the body.
Here are important things you need to incorporate into your Zhan Zhuang practice:
8. Relax the lower back. We usually keep it tense when we are standing. When you relax the muscles in the lower back, you will feel your buttocks sink and "tuck" slightly. That is a good thing.
9. You should feel your weight centered in the feet between the heel and the ball of the foot, just behind the ball of each foot. You may have to adjust your sinking, or lean slightly forward from the waist to the head to feel your weight reaching this point in the feet.
Usually when we stand up, we are actually leaning backward. By leaning slightly forward from the waist to the head, you may feel like you are leaning too far forward, but usually, that is right where you want to be.
10. Maintain a feeling of ground path and peng jin. Your arms should feel as if there is a gentle pressure pushing outward, as if you are hugging a large balloon that is having air pumped into it. At the same time, you should feel as if someone is pushing gently inward on your arms and you are grounding the push through your feet.
Stand in this position for at least five minutes. If you are a beginner, your legs may start getting tired before then -- they may start shaking.
Every day, your goal is to do a little more time -- perhaps one minute longer. Your goal should be to do Zhan Zhuang for 30 minutes each day.
Here is how Zhan Zhuang helps your Tai Chi:
-- It helps strengthen your legs. Strong legs are crucial to good Tai Chi. By relaxing the legs, relaxing the knees and keeping them flexed as you sink your weight, you are working the muscles. As you get accustomed to standing for five, 10, 15 minutes or more, you will find that when you do a Tai Chi form, you will feel stronger, and your base will feel more stable.
-- It helps you to manage stress. Calm the mind and turn your thoughts away from daily worries such as deadlines at work or school, relationships, bills, and other things. Focus on your breathing and on the mental visualization of energy collecting in the Dan T'ien and growing warmer each time you inhale.
-- It helps teach you to sink and relax. One of the problems many Tai Chi players have is keeping the "chi in the chest." That means their weight is not sunk properly. Zhan Zhuang teaches you to sink and relax the shoulders, chest, arms, hips, and you should carry that into your Tai Chi practice.
-- It teaches you to maintain a "centered stance." In your Tai Chi practice, you need to keep the weight centered in the feet as much as possible. In Tai Chi and in push hands, you are constantly trying to maintain or find your center.
-- It is an outstanding Qigong exercise. Even though I do not think chi is a scientific reality, it is a great mental visualization tool. When I do Zhan Zhuang, I imagine chi entering the body when I inhale and when I exhale, I imagine a ball of chi growing warmer in my Dan T'ien. I also sometimes imagine it flowing through my body. There are many exercises explained in detail on my Qigong DVD and in my Kindle ebook.
Zhan Zhuang can change your life. If you learn to calm the mind and relax the body, and if you recreate those feelings when you find yourself in a tense, stressful situation, you can teach yourself to react to stress with relaxation and calmness rather than tension. That is the most important lesson of all.
It’s impossible to trace the origin of many chi kung exercises. The Chinese people have a military history that dates back thousands of years, and the value of exercise and stretching were probably recognized very early as being beneficial for the success of battlefield troops.
The images at left – and below – were found in the tomb of King Ma, who lived before Christ, died in 103 BC and was buried with many documents, including military training manuals. The documents were discovered when his tomb was found in 1973. Some of the images are very similar to chi kung exercises, including movements from the Eight Pieces of Brocade.
I first learned the Brocade exercises as chi kung, but the more I practiced, the more I came to believe that these were also used as stretching and leg conditioning exercises for Chinese soldiers. It is possible that the chi kung interpretation was added many centuries later.
The Eight Pieces of Brocade is not a mystical or magical routine. Practicing the exercises will not give you special powers. You will gain benefits from the stretching and the leg strength that comes as a benefit from the horse stances, but the main purpose of these exercises is the purpose of all chi kung – calm the mind and body, ease stress, center yourself, and allow your body to become the healing machine that it truly is.
Your goal in all chi kung practice is to recapture the centered and calm feeling when you encounter moments of crisis or tension in “the real world.” I have used this for more than two decades in all types of tense moments, from work to home relationships and even in traffic on city streets and Interstate highways. It can help you ride the ups and downs of life without being capsized.
Here is one of the exercises from the Eight Pieces of Brocade. Begin by standing with your feet shoulder-width apart and your hands in front of you -- palms up and fingertips nearly touching.
Inhale while you are in the first position, then exhale and push one hand up and the other hand down. Put "supporting" energy into the upward hand and "downward" energy in the lower hand.
Exhale as you return the hands to the original position and then reverse hands -- the other one goes upward and the other down. Exhale as you are doing this. Then inhale as your hands return to the original position.
The key is calming your mind and body. You want to be as relaxed as possible through the exercise, although you do want to use supporting and down energy in the hands.
The entire Eight Pieces of Brocade is part of 90 minutes of instruction on my Qigong DVD. The cost of the DVD is $19.99 with free shipping anywhere in the world. It also includes three 5-minute routines, two 10-minute routines, and 36 exercises of the Yi Jing Ching (the Fist Set, the Palm Set, and the Moving Set). All the exercises are described and shown in my Qigong Kindle ebook available on Amazon's Kindle Store worldwide. The ebook costs only $4.99.
Qigong will not make you immortal. After all, every qigong master of the past is dead. But it does help you balance the mind and body, and it can improve your health by managing stress. It is not difficult, but it takes time and practice. It is well worth the effort.
Ken Gullette, feeling centered but vaguely inadequate on Wall Street more than 10 years ago.
My favorite poem comes from a book I bought back in the Seventies, Man of Contrasts, by taekwondo master He Il Cho. Here is the poem:
I can find peace amidst the city's roar
In the dry, frayed face of confusion
the exhausted hour.
My peace is cradled within.
Where does peace come from? I started finding the answer to that question when I began practicing Qigong in 1987, about 14 years after I began studying martial arts and reading about Taoism and Zen Buddhism. Qigong (also spelled Chi Kung) took it to another level. Before long, the ability to center myself in tense situations or moments of crisis began to develop somewhere inside me, and it was noticed, both by me and by others.
Around 1988, when a wall cloud was passing outside the newsroom where I was preparing the 6:00 News (I was the producer), people were racing and shouting in the newsroom, wheeling cameras outside to broadcast it live. I was trying to write some final teases and copy for the 6:00 News. It was total chaos.
Suddenly, I heard someone laugh. I looked over and a sports reporter was laughing at me. "What?" I asked.
"Dr. Chill," he said, pointing at me. "Everyone is going crazy and you're just taking care of business."
At that moment I realized that I had centered myself and had become the calm in the center of the storm. It felt good, and I had done it intentionally after many months of practice, and now it came naturally.
More than a decade later, I found myself in New York City for a conference. I had been wondering if I would be irritated by the crowds on the sidewalks.
As a rubber-necking tourist from the Midwest, I must have walked 20 miles in two days. Making my way through the crowded sidewalks, the poem from Man of Contrasts went through my mind.
I can find peace amidst the city's roar.
I found myself rising emotionally above the crowds of people rushing in both directions on the sidewalk, but even as I relaxed and rose above it, I felt part of it, and watched people with great interest and good will, even when they brushed me as they passed. I heard everything and felt connected to everyone and everything. It was a feeling of peace -- becoming one with strangers and with this amazing, loud, hustling city.
It was one of the most wonderful feelings I had ever experienced.
You do not need to travel to a city like New York to experience this ability to calm yourself and find your center. How many times do you find yourself tense at home and at work? How many times have you found yourself cursing other drivers on the road? How many times have you reacted angrily to a spouse or someone you love?
By practicing Qigong and learning to calm and center yourself, then recapturing that feeling in moments of stress, you can open a door to a better place -- a healthier place, where you control stress and do not let it control you.
This does not mean you never get angry. You do. It does not mean you don't stand up to injustice, bigotry or stupid, destructive people. You can, and you should. It does not mean you will not fight. You will fight to protect yourself, those you love, and those who cannot protect themselves. You may get sad, you may be hurt, but the inner gyroscope will eventually lead you back to center.
But you do not let anger control you. You do not give stress a home. All natural emotions are allowed. When they happen, you seek to find your center. When you find it, the emotions do not linger. But you do not deny them or suppress them. That only gives negativity more power. Expect the unexpected and you will be ready to handle it. It is not easy, and it does take work.
Leaving New York City, a cab driver took me to the airport. I asked where he was from. He talked about Ethiopia. I asked about his country and if he missed his family. He had just visited them for a month. He and I became friends on the way to the airport, and when I got out and handed him his tip, he shook my hand and said, "You are a nice guy."
I wondered how many people he transported every day who showed no interest in connecting with him. He was a wonderful man who loved his family and was working hard. I helped him to smile on a busy, hectic day. As I turned to enter the terminal, it felt as if I had left my mark in New York City, and it felt very good.
Since that trip to New York, my internal gyroscope has seen me through job losses, near-death health disasters, and the typical ups and downs of life. It means a lot more than just handling the roar of a big city. Life has a lot of twists and turns, and the older you get, the harder it gets. I am now 60 and facing a much shorter life expectancy because of a weakening heart and the loss of one lung. But I've rarely been happier and more content with my life. When the end comes, I want to see my children and my wife's face, and I think I'll be smiling.
The quest for peace is universal -- peace on earth, good will toward men. But you do not have to look very far for this, and you do not have to look outside yourself. You do not need to depend on other beings -- spouses, bosses, or invisible beings -- to give it to you. The farther outside yourself you look, the farther away you get. It is right there, cradled within you, ready for you to find it.