My Year of Discovering How Weird the Mind Gets, Pt. X [Free Movement]

This is month ten in my year of studying altered states of consciousness, and this post will be on movement and the mind.

There are many downsides to being introverted, but one upside (at least in being a kinesthetic-oriented introvert) is that I can get out of my head and in touch with my body quickly and efficiently when I’m in motion. It can be a blissful state when the inner yakking pipes down and my awareness becomes attuned to sensation.

I would differentiate three types of movement that have very different effects on my state of consciousness. First, there are highly repetitive acts of movement such as running. Now, I do run because it’s great exercise, but it doesn’t tend to put me in the state of mind I’m talking about. Your results may vary. I know many people find “runner’s highs” or achieve a quieting of the mind when running. For me, running tends to produce a daydream-centric state of mind. I sometimes counter this by focusing my awareness on my breath, stride, or sensations, but — left to its own inertia — my mind goes into daydream mode.

Second, there are fixed sequence series of movements — preferably with a flow. The best example that I can think of — and which I currently practice — is taiji. I’ve been practicing Yang Style Taiji for a few years now, and find it’s conducive to this state of mind. However, the point that differentiates this type of movement from the next is that it takes some time to get to that point. One has to ingrain the sequence of movements into one’s body, then coordinate the breath, and then correct minute mistakes in the movement. It’s worth it, but it’s not an instant ride to altered consciousness. While you’re getting the fundamental movements down, the conscious mind is necessarily quite active and it’s hard to tune into the movement and the sensations.

Third, this is what I would call free movement. Some people think of it as a kind of dance, but not one with a fixed choreography, which would fit more in the second category. Free movement is just letting your body move (usually to music) with awareness to the body, but without conscious direction. While the feel created is much like that of the second type of movement, mentally it bears more resemblance to free writing, which I discussed last month. That is, one is trying not to direct the body consciously, but rather let the movement come about (perhaps mediated by the music.) Rather than trying to consciously direct the movement, the conscious mind is used to direct and maintain awareness of sensations. Sometimes, I keep my awareness on the soles of my feet, feeling how various movements — subtly or unsubtly — change the distribution of weight on the feet.

In doing this, I find that sensitivity to sensations — external and internal — dials up. While I’m focusing on internal sensation. I often notice tactile sensations that would usually not register. There’s also a more visceral experience of the effect of music, which is another subject in its own right. The blissful effect of music seems to be amplified by the body in motion.

In thinking about the difference between the second and third types of movement experience, I was reminded of the argument that a ritual is an essential element of plumbing the depths of the mind. As the argument goes, there’s something about inggraining a sequence of actions into one’s muscle memory and continually performing them that tunes one into something vaster than the self.

I’m still planning to do two more posts in this series, although I’m bouncing around alternative subjects for November and December, those joining this experience in progress and curious about previous posts can find them:

January – Psilocybin Mushroom

February – Sensory Deprivation  / Float Tank

March – 30 Days of Meditation

April – Hypnosis 

May – EGG Feedback

June  – Breathwork

July – Lucid Dreaming

August – Sleep Deprivation

September  – Free-writing / Poetry

BOOK REVIEW: The Healer Within by Roger Jahnke

The Healer Within: Using Traditional Chinese Techniques To Release Your Body's Own Medicine *Movement *Massage *Meditation *BreathingThe Healer Within: Using Traditional Chinese Techniques To Release Your Body’s Own Medicine *Movement *Massage *Meditation *Breathing by Roger Jahnke
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This book examines how four techniques – movement, massage [specifically, self-applied], breathing exercises, and meditation — can be used to facilitate a robust immune system and to stimulate the body’s innate healing capacities. Jahnke, as a Doctor of Oriental Medicine, specializes in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM,) but he acknowledges that these activities aren’t the exclusive domain of that system. The book is designed to be one-stop shopping for an individual seeking to build their own self-healing practice either as preventive medicine or as a part of one’s treatment regimen for an ailment or infirmity.

The thirteen chapters of the book are divided into five parts. The first two chapters form the book’s first part, and they discuss the body’s innate healing capacity and the literature on the roles of mind and self-applied activities on health outcomes.

Part II forms the heart of the book, and it consists of chapters three through seven. Chapter three offers insight into the process of building a personal practice from the four key activities including guidelines for how to organize disparate parts into a whole and how to fit it into one’s life overall. The other four chapters provide examples and techniques for each of the four components of the system: gentle movement (e.g. qiqong), self-applied massage, breathing exercises, and meditation and deep relaxation techniques.

Part III expands on the issues touched upon in Chapter 3. That is, it explores in greater detail the nature of building and deepening a personal practice.

Part IV, entitled “The Way of Nature,” provides a philosophical context for a global self-healing movement and describes how a community can be built around this endeavor. There are three chapters in this section. The last part consists of only one chapter and it describes a potential future self-healing regime. Throughout the book there is a recognized that, while modern medicine is invaluable, it’s also developed a dysfunction by undervaluing the role of the body’s innate healing factor, while not only removing the patient from of the driver’s seat but also stuffing them in the trunk as a sort of cargo in the health and healing process.

The book has line drawings to help clarify the techniques. There are several pieces of back matter (an appendix, a bibliography, and a resources section) to help make the book more useful. [The appendix is a little strange and unfocused for an Appendix. It’s almost more of a Reader’s Digest Condensed Version for someone who wants to get to brass tacks, but it does offer some interesting insight into how a community built around these ideas has formed.]

I found this book to be informative and believe it offers a great deal of valuable insight into how to not only develop one’s own preventive medicine activities, but also how to situate those activities within a community of like-minded individuals. I thought the author did a good job of presenting scientific evidence for building a self-healing practice while not becoming too bogged down technical detail and offering a way of thinking about it for those who look at such activities in more metaphysical or spiritual terms. I’d recommend this book for anyone who is considered engaging in health enhancing activities.

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5 Reasons to Practice Yang Style 24 Form

With slight variations, this taijiquan (tai chi chuan) sequence is alternatively called: Yang Style 24 Form, the Yang Style Short Form, Beijing Standard Form (occasionally Peking Standard Form), or Simplified 24 Form. Here are some reasons to give it a try.

 

5.) Widespread: It’s the single most popular taiji form in the world. This means, if you’re the gregarious type, you can join groups in parks all over the world.

4.) Balance: It’s good for your balance and you don’t want to fall and break a hip.

3.) Moving Meditation: It’s a great way for fidgety individuals to work up to meditation. All the meditation without having to stay perfectly still.

2.) Scalability: It’s scalable to fitness level. Because taiji is popular with older people, many modifications have been developed for those who aren’t ready for the classical expression of the form.

1.) Gentleness: There’s virtually nothing to go wrong — as long as you “know thyself.” i.e. There are no contraindications, at least for the simplified form.

POEM: Tai Chi

do you know the way it flows

the glide it rides from highs to lows

coiling left to unwind right

weight of water, strong or slight

twisting, turning, a fire burning

riding tides and then returning

do you feel the way it flows

sometimes it speeds, most times it’s slow

BOOK REVIEW: T’ai Chi Classics by Waysun Liao

T'Ai Chi ClassicsT’Ai Chi Classics by Waysun Liao
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon page

 

This book conveys the teachings of three tai chi masters of old: Chang San-feng, Wong Chung-yua, and Wu Yu-hsiang. However, those masters’ treatises take up only a small portion of the book. That’s not a criticism. No doubt the treatises were cryptic and sparse, and so they are presented with commentary embedded rather than as literal translations. The treatises discuss the concepts that each of the masters thought was essential to the art, and the author conveys these complex and ethereal ideas in a way that is as understandable as possible.

Before presenting the three treatises in chapters four through six, the author offers a three chapter background on essential concepts for the tai chi student to understand. Chapter 1 presents historical background on tai chi and differentiates temple style from the family styles of tai chi, as well as giving insight into the philosophical underpinnings of the art. The second chapter offers a primer on chi, the life-force energy that is at the conceptual heart of tai chi. Chapter 3 describes jing and the means by which chi is expanded and transferred.

After the three treatise chapters, there is a final chapter that is intended to take the book from theory to practice. Most of the final chapter is a step-by-step description of a tai chi form, and consists of line drawings of the positions with bullet point descriptions of the movements. However, the chapter begins with some lists of key philosophical concepts as well as clarifying ideas about movement fundamentals.

There are line drawings throughout the book, not only to show physical positions in the practice but also diagrams to help convey the difficult concepts discussed throughout the book as well as Chinese calligraphy characters. Besides the calligraphy, these graphics are crude, looking as one might expect in a notebook. I don’t think the crude form of the graphics is a problem, and the notebook effect it creates may be an intentional aesthetic. As I don’t believe one can learn a martial art or other system of movement from a book, the fact that the graphics don’t offer much detail isn’t a problem.

I found the book to be thought-provoking and would recommend it for students of tai chi and qi gong.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Sensual Body by Lucy Lidell

The Sensual Body: The Ultimate Guide to Body Awareness and Self-FulfilmentThe Sensual Body: The Ultimate Guide to Body Awareness and Self-Fulfilment by Lucy Lidell
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Amazon page

This is a book about body awareness. It explores the subject by presenting tidbits from a range of movement and posture systems.

The book is divided into three parts. The first is a brief overview of the subject of bodily awareness. This section discusses what it means to be aware of the body, how body and mind / emotion are connected, and it sets up the need for the practices described throughout the rest of the book. The second part deals with a series of solitary activities that one can do to improve one’s quality of posture and movement. It forms the bulk of the book. The nine chapters of this portion of the book can themselves be divided in two. Three of them deal in aspects of bodily awareness: breathing / voice-work, grounding, and sensation. These sections borrow and adapt from established systems in a generic sense (e.g. the section on grounding uses a number of techniques drawn from yoga.) The other six chapters each deal with a system of bodywork, including: self-massage, African dance, Tai Chi, Eutony, Kum Nye, and running.

I’ll describe two of these specifically because they aren’t household names. I suspect most readers can imagine what the following look like: self-massage, African dance (even if it’s from a Paul Simon video), Tai Chi (from old folks in the park), and running. However, it’s probably reasonable to assume that some readers will have no idea what Eutony or Kum Nye are. Eutony is a system developed by a Danish teacher, Gerda Alexander, during the 20th century to use explorative movement to work toward more efficient movement. As far as I can discern, the founder is no relation to F. Matthias Alexander who developed–the more famous–Alexander Technique (AT is mostly well-known among actors, actresses, and would-be entertainers.) However, Eutony might be put in the class of techniques like the Alexander Technique and Feldenkrais that were developed last century and work toward improved use of the human body. However, the approach seems much different from Feldenkrais, which is highly structured, while Eutony is apparently not.

Kum Nye isn’t well-known either, but not because it’s a johnny-come-lately, rather because it’s ancient and obscure. Kum Nye is a Tibetan system of yoga. A lot of the techniques shown seem to be designed to help one gain the suppleness needed for extended sitting in meditation, but there are also “flying” techniques and other standing techniques that will help loosen one up, perhaps to free one up for more meditation.

The third part is shorter: three chapters presenting systems of partner-work. The first chapter is on Aikidō. For those unfamiliar, this is a Japanese martial art founded by Morihei Ueshiba that emphasizes harmony and flow. The chapter features a few basic drills from that martial art. The next chapter is on relating to others in a general sort of way, e.g. body language, emotion, etc. The last chapter is about massage.

Graphics are utilized heavily throughout the book. These include color photographs and drawings. Given what the book tries to do–showing these various approaches to movement–the graphics are essential. In the unlikely event that there are any prudes who read my reviews, you may want to make a note that there is a fair amount of nudity throughout the book. It’s not gratuitous or raunchy, but if you’re one of those people freaked out by nudity, this is probably not the book for you (nor the subject to be studying, for that matter.)

The book’s strengths are its valuable subject, its organization, and its use of graphics. Its weakness is in the number of approaches that it examines. There are too many for one to get any great insight into any particular system, but it’s too few if the goal is to give the reader a menu of movement and bodywork systems from which to find on right for them. I guess I wasn’t really clear what the objective was. If it is to show the reader a variety of paths so they can find the one best for them, the menu is too small. However, if it’s to show the reader one path consisting of all these elements, then it’s muddled. Among Western health and fitness purveyors there’s a tendency to think that if you take anything that’s good and ram it together with anything else that’s good, you’ll get something great. This is clearly not true; sometimes you get a pudding sandwich. This book feels a lot like a pudding sandwich.

If you are looking for a limited survey of movement and body awareness systems, and are okay with the list mentioned, you should check this book out. It also has some good general information about body awareness, though it’s a bit pedestrian for experienced practitioners.

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BOOK REVIEW: Applied Tai Chi Chuan by Nigel Sutton

Applied Tai Chi Chuan (Martial Arts)Applied Tai Chi Chuan by Nigel Sutton
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon page

This book distinguishes itself from the pile of books on tai chi chuan sitting on the shelves of your local bookstore. Most tai chi books are large-format, glossy books with full-color photographs of the various moves of the solo forms–usually the Yang-style short form (also called the Beijing Standard Form [or the like.]) Sutton’s book, on the other hand, is mostly text about the history, philosophy, tactics, and lesser-known dimensions of tai chi chuan. In short, while most books give little indication that there’s more to tai chi than the solo form, Sutton builds his niche in focusing on everything other than the solo form. Those who’ve practiced tai chi will be familiar with the on-going debate about whether the art is primarily chi gong (energy work for health purposes) or a martial art. Sutton comes down on the latter side.

The book consists of 32 short chapters (mostly 2 to 4 pages.) It isn’t written as a how-to manual, but rather as a series of meditations on various aspects of tai chi. As I mentioned, the book deals more with “push hands,” the “san shou” fast forms, and weapons than does most books on tai chi. It doesn’t try to teach these methods, but instead tries to offer insight on them. The book would be of most value to someone who has some experience with the art, but who isn’t an expert. The latter might find it boring, but those without minimal knowledge might have trouble visualizing what the author is attempting to convey.

There are some black & white graphics in the book. They are static photos in a section at the middle of the book. The pictures don’t convey a sequence or details of any particular movement, but instead capture various masters within a movement so as to give the reader a taste of the art. There are also a few line drawings used to show items such as weapons and the yin-yang symbol.

The oddest part of the book is the last chapter (which is far longer than the others and is out of character with the rest of the book.) It consists of extended bios on a number of teachers under which the author has trained. I understand the value of paying homage to one’s teachers, but the bios in this section are long and are inconsistent with the general approach of the book. In essence it’s like a 15 page dedication on a 125 page book. The teachers covered seem to have nothing particular in common other than that the author trained with each of them as some point in his life (i.e. they cover different styles and are from different locales.) That said, there are some interesting nuggets about some of these individuals.

I’d recommend this book for anyone wanting to learn more about tai chi. However, if you’re purely interested in learning the solo forms for chi gong (i.e. you don’t want to know about tai chi as a martial art) then one of those other books may serve you better.

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BOOK REVIEW: A Guide to Chinese Martial Arts by Li Tianji & Du Xilian

Guide To Chinese Martial ArtsGuide To Chinese Martial Arts by Li Tianji
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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This is a brief guide to the martial arts of China. The bulk of the book (about 150 pages of the book’s 178 pages) tells the reader about three major branches of Chinese martial arts: Chang Quan, Tai Chi Chuan, and Shaolin Kung fu at a general level. (The book devotes space to those arts in the same order–i.e. the largest number of pages discuss Chang Quan, then Tai Chi, and the smallest number to Shaolin. This may be surprising as your average non-Kungfu practitioner is least likely to have heard of Chang Quan—by name anyway. Chang Quan is a general term that encompasses several Northern Styles—some of which might be more familiar to general readers [of martial arts books.]) The book also has a brief chapter that describes the history of martial arts in China from ancient times through the modern era, and one that talks about the many schools of martial arts of China (in no great detail because there are so many of them) as well as the various strengths and purposes of these arts.

The bulk of the illustrations are line drawings used to show typical sequences for each of the three major branches of martial art mentioned above. However, there are some black and white photographs and copies of relevant art works and documents as well.

I found this book to be interesting and informative. There’s a bit too much space devoted to describing techniques for my taste. However, I realize that I may be in the minority in that regard. I don’t believe that martial arts can be taught via books or media, and, therefore, there’s a diminishing value to detailed descriptions of technique. In this sort of book one only needs to get a feel so as to be able to see how the martial arts compare and contrast with others.

I’d recommend this book for someone who wants to learn a bit about the nature of Chinese martial arts. It may not be of much value for an expert, but for a kungfu neophyte it provides some interesting information about the history, tactics, and training methods of Chinese martial arts. It’s originally published by Foreign Languages Press in Beijing, but I don’t suspect there is any more bias than there would be if it was published by anyone else (i.e. it’s the rare martial arts book that doesn’t present the martial art under discussion as the ultimate fighting art.)

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BOOK REVIEW: The Harvard Medical School Guide to Tai Chi by Peter M. Wayne & Mark Fuerst

The Harvard Medical School Guide to Tai Chi: 12 Weeks to a Healthy Body, Strong Heart, and Sharp MindThe Harvard Medical School Guide to Tai Chi: 12 Weeks to a Healthy Body, Strong Heart, and Sharp Mind by Peter Wayne
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon page

This book provides an overview (and a laymen-friendly literature review) of the scientific findings about tai chi, and it helps a beginner get started in his / her own practice. (Tai chi, short for tai chi chuan, is a Chinese martial art that is called an internal–or soft–style.)

The authors achieve an impressive tightrope act. And they manage to do it in a way that reads sincerely, while at the same time providing useful information for all readers. Often books on the science of Eastern health-enhancing activities (e.g. tai chi, chi gong, or yoga)–even if they are positive on the results of such activities—take digs at people’s beliefs about ideas like chi, prana, meridians, or chakra as the authors attempt to distance themselves from such beliefs. On the other hand, books that cater to the spiritually inclined—even when they are couched in scientific terms—may resort to third-hand anecdotes about the supernatural powers of some ancient master or report methodological train wrecks that support their views alongside sound studies, as long as the latter don’t present any evidence contrary to their belief system. In short, such books often talk in scientific lingo while showing a complete lack of understanding of the scientific method. In this book, Wayne manages to navigate these rocky shores because he’s both a scientist and a longtime tai chi practitioner who genuinely accepts that there may be more at work in the practice than science fully understands. Thus, he knows the importance of testable hypotheses and when a study needs to be validated by more a robust follow-up study, but he also reports on the traditional beliefs and isn’t adverse to writing about studies evaluating the benefits of spirituality (note: showing that being spiritual has benefits doesn’t mean that the benefits result from anything spiritual or supernatural.)

The book has 14 chapters divided into three parts. The first part introduces the reader to tai chi, describes the dimensions along which tai chi has been shown to offer benefits (the authors call these “the 8 active ingredients of Tai Chi,” relating them to pharmacological medicines), and explains how tai chi can be simplified for beginners (even the short form sequences take a while to be memorized—let alone building any grasp of the intricacies of said forms.) The second part consists of six chapters that report the findings of studies on the health effects of tai chi, as well as discussing the possible mechanisms of those benefits. The topics discussed in this section include: increased balance, bone density, pain mitigation, cardiovascular health, mental performance, psychological well-being, and sleep quality. The book’s last part suggests ways in which the reader can build a tai chi practice. The five chapters in this section deal with the interactive practices of tai chi (tai chi isn’t just the solo forms that you’ve seen elderly people do in the park), integrating tai chi with other health and fitness practices, the potential for practicing tai chi at work, the role of tai chi in creative practices, and tai chi as a practice of lifelong learning (this last chapter gives beginners tips about how to start a practice.) There is also an afterword about how tai chi might play a part in building improved health and well-being in the present era.

I found the book to be well-organized to achieve its objective. It’s packed with food for thought. Neophytes will find a lot of benefit in this book, but I suspect even advanced practitioners can glean insights—particularly if said advanced practitioner hasn’t been reading up on the scientific findings. Humor, quotes, and stories are used to lighten the tone and illustrate key points. There are some photos and other graphics where needed (mostly in chapter 3), but they are relatively sparse for a book on a practice like tai chi. (That’s not a complaint. I think there are far too many attempts to teach movement arts through books—an impossible task—and not enough effort put into conveying the kind of ancillary information that is transmissible in book form.)

I’d recommend this book for anyone who’s interested in knowing more about the health benefits of tai chi, and moving beyond the platitudes often heard but seldom evaluated.

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