The stone man flows; the snake creeps down - arm becoming viper. It's slow, but silently it flows, stealthy as a sniper. And though he's stone, I feel him go via sympathetic flow. Mirror neurons fire in my brain, taking me high to low... or so it feels.
The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) has put out a new edition (dated 2019) of its pamphlet (about 50 pages) about how useful various complementary practices are in helping patients reduce, or cope with, pain. The NCCIH is a center in the National Institutes of Health (NIH) that serves as a clearinghouse for information about how alternative and complementary practices perform in treatment of various ailments. While alternative (instead of mainstream medicine) and complementary (in conjunction with mainstream medicine) are quite different, in almost all cases this work herein is reporting on the latter basis. The complementary practices in question include: yoga, taiji, meditation and mindfulness, massage, acupuncture, chiropractic manipulation, relaxation methods, and others.
Complementary approaches to treatment of pain is a particularly salient topic these days as the mainstream medical approach (giving patients pills to gobble down) has resulted in what many have called a “crisis” of opiate addiction. So, if it’s possible to reduce the grip of pain with practices that at best have numerous other health benefits and at worst do no harm, than that’s a pretty good outcome.
Chapters three through eleven form the pamphlet’s core, and all but the last of those look at one complementary practice each, including (in order): acupuncture, massage, meditation, relaxation techniques, spinal manipulation, taiji (a.k.a. tai chi, or tai chi chuan), yoga, and dietary supplements and herbs. Chapter 11 discusses a few additional (less popular) practices. These chapters follow a three-prong approach: 1.) is it safe? 2.) does it help mitigate pain? and 3.) where can I find more information? [Spoiler alert: In almost all cases the answer to #1 is roughly “Yes, for most people, but possibly not for you. Check with your doctor,” and to #2 is usually something like: “there is some preliminary evidence that in certain cases certain people may have benefited.”] The chapters before (ch. 1 & 2) and after (ch. 12 to 14) provide background context and additional information.
On the positive side, it’s great that this information has been gathered together and packaged into a readable format with pictures and easy to read text.
On the down side, this was clearly a document put together by a committee of bureaucrats in consultation with lawyers. It is so laden with qualifiers and spongy speak that it’s impossible to discern how strong the evidence is for the various practices or how one compares to another. I felt that they could have given the same information in a three-column table in which the first column is the practice, the second column is “can’t hurt to try*” [*provided your physician concurs,] and the third column would be “nah, this stuff is fake.” [Spoiler alert: almost everything besides homeopathy would have the first column checked, but the consensus seems to be that homeopathy is pseudo-scientific quackery designed to sell water at medicinal prices.]
This booklet is available on the web for free, so if you’re interested, check it out. But don’t expect to come away with any profound insights. It’s not that kind of booklet.
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
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.
This book is one stop shopping for students of the Yang Style Tai Chi Chuan Long Form (i.e. 108 forms.) That’s not to suggest that it only describes the sequence of that form. It does that, but it also offers lessons in the history of the art, explanations of chi and qigong, and elucidation of the fundamentals of the art.
The book is divided into four parts. Chapter one examines the history of this martial art and places Tai chi chuan in the context of Chinese martial arts as well as the Yang Style within the context of Tai chi chuan. The nine sections of the first chapter also explore Tai chi chuan as a means to healthy living, and provide guidance to students on how to go about taking up the practice.
Chapter two consists of five parts that delve into the concept of chi (qi), or energy. This section mixes together mythology of traditional Chinese theory on chi with scientific explanations where science has something to say on the matter.
The third chapter describes the 13 postures of Tai chi chuan, which are a set of fundamentals that feature prominently in the martial art. This is a relatively brief section and is where the book becomes photo intensive.
The fourth chapter offers students guidance about the unarmed element of Yang Style of Tai chi chuan. While the capstone of the chapter is a systematic walk through the Long Form, there’s also coverage of some Yang Style fundamental movements as well as presentation of meditation practices taught in the system. It should be noted that this book doesn’t cover the sequence of the Yang Style Short Form (a.k.a. 24 Forms, or the Beijing Standard Form.) (I mention that because that’s the most popular form in the world and many students may want to learn about it specifically. This book offers many insights into the minutiae of the component forms, but doesn’t describe it as a sequence.) There is a fifth chapter, but it’s only a brief conclusion.
With respect to ancillary matter, like most martial arts books, it’s graphic-intensive. The bulk of the graphics are photos that are used in chapters 3 and 4 to clarify the movements and postures. Said photos have arrows and other figures drawn onto them to help clarify the movement involve. There are also a few line diagrams and maps, and chapter 2 has a many scientific photos, diagrams, and anatomical drawings.
There are three Appendices. The first provides a list of the forms of the Yang Style Long Form. The second is a glossary of the many Chinese terms mentioned in the book. The final Appendix provides information about the DVDs that are available to be used in conjunction with the book (there are markers throughout the book to provide suggestions of when students should turn to the video lessons.) There are end-notes of cited material, but I read the Kindle edition, and most of these were unavailable because Chinese characters didn’t convert to the electronic format. This was no big deal for me because I couldn’t read the Chinese reference material anyway, but if you read Chinese, you might opt for the hard copy of the book.
I learned the Yang Style short and long forms several years ago, and bought this book to provide some background and technical guidance. I found the book to be interesting and informative, and would recommend it—particularly if you’ve learned the Yang Style (but one may find the early chapters interesting even if one hasn’t.) The author uses a number of entertaining and educational stories and the book is readable and insightful for students of all levels.