Atmosphere of Change

word of month character

SL371526Today one of my favorite of my Chinese older kungfu brothers left to try to make his own way outside the kungfu school. Yuan Huailiang is a great young man, the kind of guy I look up to a lot, even though he is years younger than me and has seen less of the world. For one thing, he is an incredibly gifted athlete: his every movement exudes grace and strength that I envy. But more so than that, he is someone I have watched change into a really calm, confident, open person.

When I first came to Wudang and met Huailiang, when he was maybe 17 or 18, he seemed like kind of an angry kid. I remember sitting down at a meal across the table from him. I was already a little in awe of him, having seen his kungfu and how he moved, but as I sat there across from him he fixed me with this stare. He later told me that he had actually practiced that look in  a mirror a bit. It was the look of a predator at a watering hole, incredibly dangerous but for the moment tolerating your presence. I don’t think he wanted me to sit with him 🙂 I thought, “Wow, this is a powerful kid.” But it was also an angry, unhappy kid.

Being in awe of his kungfu and raw attitude was cool, but what is better is how he soon after grew out of that angry phase and seemed to find himself. His emotions calmed down, he became much more focused in his teaching and training, and though he to this day maintains a little of the crazy that I first glimpsed at that lunch table, it is channeled through easy laughter and playfulness. Last summer we were playing hackysack. When we kicked it to him he immediately started volleying it high in the air, letting it drop through the loop of his arms, and kicking it back up time and time again with a completely spontaneous aptitude for the game. He just laughed, a pure expression of joy, as we chased him around trying to get the hackysack back. That light heart does not keep him from his responsibilities, however, and he is one of the best, most capable and thoughtful coaches our school has had.

What I want to illustrate, through my little anecdotes about Huailiang, is the value of having a culture where people are expected to change. Shifu is always encouraging us to develop and grow at a very fundamental emotional level, and of course teaching us techniques to effect that change. That is what I had the pleasure of seeing Huailiang do – completely change his outlook, practically overnight. And I have seen many, many foreign students do the same thing. I really give a lot of credit to that atmosphere of expectation that grants the freedom for us to re-define ourselves. In other places and times of my life, I have felt as though I had to continue to be who I had been because that was what others expected of me. I do not feel that here — the expectation is that I will change, that I will become better and better.

 

Relationship Premises

word of month character

dogcatI’ll tell a little story about life here at the kungfu school. Our dormitories are located in a former hospital, in two buildings with a courtyard between. But when I first came here in early 2008, the kungfu school only occupied the front-most  of the two buildings. Shifu acquired the back building shortly before I started studying here full-time.

The rooms of the former hospital had been being used for residence for a while, and there was one occupant who would not leave when the kungfu school took over. In the spirit goodwill, I imagine, no big fuss was made and that man– an older, retired herbal doctor — has continued to live at one end of the dormitory hallway. As a matter of fact, he is my next-door neighbor.

For various reasons, tensions between the kungfu students and my neighbor escalated. Not the least of these was the intrusion of pervasive Chinese culture shock into our ex-patriot stronghold, the one place in China we hoped to call our own. Also, he did not share our training schedule, so when we desperately needed rest he might be having a loud and alcoholic card game with his friends or stomping down the hallway or loudly and revoltingly clearing his throat and spitting on the floor. For a while we even shared a bathroom with the guy, and finding the remains of his having cleaned fish for dinner in your shower drain is never fun. Things bottomed out with multilingual screaming matches in the hallway and hard feelings all around.

But for me there was a significant turning point where my relationship with the guy stopped getting worse and started getting better. That was the moment when I realized he wasn’t going away. I think subconsciously my fellow students acted on the premiss that they could choose not to have this relationship, that if they antagonized him enough, he would move out. When I accepted that he was not going to move out, and that I didn’t want to be the kind of person who would drive him out, the question became not if I was going to have a relationship with this guy, but what kind of relationship ours would be.

There is a degree of satisfaction to be gained just by committing to a thing, that can’t be found while we withhold acceptance of that thing’s actuality. New people or circumstances are like a new piece of furniture that surprises you by appearing in your living room; if you can’t fit it out the door, it is better to rearrange the furniture and make a place for it than to leave it sitting in the middle of the floor.

As for my neighbor, all I really did was smile at him when I saw him in the hallway and compliment him once in a while if I liked his clothes or something. More than my external behavior, my internal behavior changed. When I started acting on the premiss that he was part of my life here in Wudang, his noise, his smelly cooking, his loud TV, it all stopped annoying me because I acknowledged his right to be there.

2013 Wudang Qigong Seminar

word of month character

I am once again excited to offer a winter Qigong seminar at Balanced Life Skills while I am home in Maryland. I like to teach Qigong while I am home because I feel that it is a health practice that I can offer a student in a fairly short time, and if that student sticks to the practice they will find growth and improvement even without close supervision from a teacher.

What is Qigong? As I said describing it last year, imagine the practice of martial arts as a line. One one end is fighting, and on the other end is purely health oriented exercise. Qigong would fall near one end of the line, and it might look like this:

Literally “Chi Work,” Qigong is a kind of moving meditation. In a series of dynamic poses combining breathing, flexibility, strength, and mental focus, it seeks to nourish the internal health of the body. It is adaptable to the level of the student; a sedentary newcomer and a conditioned athlete will both find challenge and growth.

The goal of this seminar is to provide parents and students in the Balanced Life Skills community and anyone else a balanced and self-contained health practice. Is your kid in Taikwondo class? Come do something for your own health while you wait. All are welcome.

The seminar will be held January 21st through March 5th, on:

Monday 5:15 pm

Tuesday 11:00 am and 5:25 pm

Students should plan to attend at least one hour-long session a week, but are welcome and encouraged to attend additional classes for more guided repetition. Those interested are welcome to try a class in the first week for free. Seminar fee= $20/week. Come try the first week free.

Internal Self-Defense Part II

word of month character

Last year I wrote in this blog about internal self defense, what it means and its importance. I focused on the power of emotion and the need to learn to protect oneself from negative feelings. This is a major thrust of my training here in Wudang, and I thought a little more discussion was in order.

Remember that in Daoist theory, a person is like a bottle filled with water. We are a container of vital energy. When we are born, that container is full. We spend that energy in our everyday activities, sometimes intentionally and more often through habitual leaks. When the bottle is empty, we die.

To continue the water bottle metaphor, this is a bottle that takes a lifetime to empty, so from day to day the change is so minute we might overlook it. Indeed, a person can go for years thinking they are as vital as ever, only to wake up one day to notice that an important reference point has been passed. It’s a quarter empty! It’s HALF EMPTY! But the perception that the water suddenly vanished is wrong: every action of every day effects the level.

I am learning that a big part of my training is sensitizing myself to the effects my actions have on my vitality. The exertion of full-time training, plus my master’s insights about replenishing our energy, means that the level in my bottle drops and rises more noticeably, which with practice is helping me learn to monitor it and make good decisions that fill up the bottle.

I explained that so that I could explain this: I am starting to understand that the vital cost of my actions themselves is not as significant as the vital cost of the emotions engendered by those actions. A training day when I allow myself to be grouchy and negative is many times more draining than an identical day when I stay calm and positive.

This puts me in mind of some of the elderly individuals I have had the honor to know. Many of those who reach a great age and still seem vital and energetic are those whose characters are calm and optimistic. These individuals do not avoid effort in order to spare themselves the expenditure of vitality. But in their industry, they face each task quietly and purposefully. When the task is over, they do not bemoan the effort or overly celebrate it’s completion. They seem calm and gratified.

Other people I have known, of all different ages, seem prematurely dissipated. They seem to have a greater emotional reaction to every new task. If they are working already, they complain of the additional work. If they are resting, they resent the end to their rest. When a task is finished, a celebration is in order, and in this celebratory play they are as excessive as they are in their work. Each action carries an unnecessarily heavy toll on the water in the bottle.

The key here is that the vitality in the bottle is not just sand in an hourglass, measuring out a lifespan. It is the essence that determines the quality of a life as well. Without the toll of negative emotion, there is more energy to spare each day on the things we do and the things we love, without diminishing ourselves.

January Qigong Seminar

word of month character

January 9th through February 14th, I am pleased to be offering a seminar in Qigong at Balanced Life Skills. Qigong has been one of my favorite discoveries in the course of my martial arts education, and I am always excited to share my love of it with others.

What is Qigong? Imagine the practice of martial arts as a line. One one end is fighting, and on the other end is purely health oriented exercise. Qigong would fall near one end of the line, and it might look like this:Literally “Chi Work,” Qigong is a kind of moving meditation. In a series of dynamic poses combining breathing, flexibility, strength, and mental focus, it seeks to nourish the internal health of the body. It is adaptable to the level of the student; a sedentary newcomer and a conditioned athlete will both find challenge and growth.

There are uncountable permutations within this broad category of exercise, each with its own focus, theory, tradition, and practitioners. In Wudang, I have learned a few different Qigong practices. My favorite is Five Element Qigong.

In the seminar this year, I will be focusing on Five Element Qigong, but will range as well into other aspects of my own practice that have informed and enhanced the experience of Qigong.

The seminar will be held, January 9th – February 14th,  on:

Mondays 5:0o PM and 7:00 PM

Tuesdays 11:00 AM

Students should plan to attend at least one hour-long session a week, but are welcome and encouraged to attend additional classes for more guided repetition. Those interested are welcome to try a class in the first week for free. Seminar fee= $10/week

 

Corey Hopp Returns From China and Will Teach Classes at BLS

word of month character
Corey Hopp in Yuxugong Temple

Corey Hopp is a full time student of kung fu.

Eight hours a day, six days a week, ten or eleven months of the year, he can be found punching, kicking, and jumping on the paving stones of Yuxugong temple in rural Wudang Mountain, Hubei Province, China. However, in January and February of 2012, Corey will be at Balanced Life Skills Martial Arts here in Annapolis, sharing some of his experiences with the local community.

Corey is a student of Master Yuan Xiu Gang of the Wudang Daoist Traditional Internal Kungfu Academy. Wudang Mountain has its own special style and tradition of martial arts, emphasizing softness and sensitivity, flexibility and balance. Students of Master Yuan’s school learn a variety of disciplines, including Tai Chi, that are intended to impart not only the ability to defend oneself, but also to protect and nourish one’s spirit and vitality.

Though he had been studying martial arts for a few years beforehand, Corey’s kung fu training truly began in January 2008. He had been teaching English at a small university near Nanjing for the fall semester. During his Chinese New Year holiday, he decided to follow his interest in martial arts and visit one of the ancient homes of Chinese kung fu. That first dark, cold January visit left its mark of snow, sweat, and muscle pain, and the determination to learn more about Wudang’s unique art.

Corey is now part of the traditional program at Master Yuan’s school. It is a rare and demanding opportunity for non-Chinese martial artists to be immersed in the same physical and mental training that has been handed down through many generations of kung fu practitioners.

Having grown up in southern Anne Arundel County, Corey returns here every year to spend the holidays with his friends and family and save money for another year of training. For six weeks in January and February, he will be offering seminars in the basic health practice called Qigong. Qigong combines breathing, stretching, and meditation to strengthen and relax mind and body.

I would like to invite all of our students and others in our community to meet Corey and practice with him for the short time he is here in Annapolis.  You can then follow his studies next year right here on our site.