Xin Nian Kuai Le!* (Happy Chinese New Year!)

Well, it’s the Year of the Horse, so let’s xing xing. Let’s what?…..

惺惺 (Xing Xing): Depending on the context, this can mean “clears away” problems, or “clears the head” and awakens. Let’s hope we all get to xing xing any problems, and may good fortune and vibrant health lead our way at full gallop in the months to come.

* Thanks to Jian-Yang Rong for correcting my pinyin in the headine above.

A Nice Interview With Dr. Yang Jwing Ming

Dr. Yang Jwing Ming is a highly respected martial artist, teacher, and publisher of martial art and qigong media. Master Yao-Wah Chan has often cited Dr. Yang as a sterling example of someone who openly and generously shares his knowledge of the Chinese arts. In this interview, he talks about growing up in Taiwan and celebrating the Spring Festival (what we here in the U.S. call the Chinese New Year). He also mentions the 10-year martial art teaching program at a retreat location in Northern California, which he founded in order to pass on and keep alive the treasure of Chinese martial art culture.

Interesting Scientific Findings on Tai Chi (courtesy of Michael Greenstein from our Saturday tai chi class — Thanks, Michael!)

In this article, researchers recount their findings on yet another benefit of practicing the best known of the nèijiāquán (内家拳), or internal martial arts. Young people were found to report better attention capabilities after practicing tai chi.

Mini-Lesson in Chinese

As you know, ch’i (or qi) is a Chinese term that is mentioned in regard to qigong, tai chi and bagua walking. In fact, qi-gong uses “qi” for its first two letters.

ch’i (氣/气) — The second character is the simplified Chinese version.

So, we can use the first of these two possible characters in forming the word “qigong”:

qigong (氣功)

The second character in “qigong” is  功 — that is, gong, or work. 氣功, or qigong, is working with the chi. The character  功 is also part of  功夫 (kung fu).  功 refers to something that requires lots of time and practice…lots of work.

Here’s a Chinese character meaning “internal”: 内

This character: 家, jiā, means “families.”

拳 is quán, or “fist.”

Putting those three characters together, we get:

内家拳, nèijiāquán. This means “internal martial arts” or, more literally, internal families fist. (In the martial arts, people often speak of families, e.g., Chen family, Yang family. Here, it’s kind of like saying, “the internal family of arts.” Fighting arts are often represented by the term “fist.”) The most widely known nèijiāquán are taijiquan (太極拳), baguazhang ( 八卦掌) and xingyiquan ( 形意拳). (Do you see the “quan” characters in taijiquan and xingyiquan?) We’re hoping that Master Yao-Wah Chan will once again teach us some xingyiquan when Spring arrives and we can enjoy the Friday class outdoors. We’re also enjoying 八卦, or bagua, circle walking every Sunday morning with Master Chan.

Another Use of the Chinese character meaning “internal”:  内

内庭 is Chinese for the neiting, or “inner courtyard” acupuncture point, located on the outside of the second toe. (See the 内 there? Here it conveys “inner.”)

Master Yao-Wah Chan’s Bagua Walking Class: Session 1

Last Sunday’s class was a beautiful experience. We began with roughly 10 people walking the circle. Over the next two hours, it seemed that new people kept drifting in and joining us. What was interesting was the mix. There’s a Chinese school that is held at White Plains High School on Sundays, and that’s where our bagua walking class was held. We had everyone from Americans, male and female, younger and older; Chinese-American folks, again, very young to somewhat elderly, men and women. Nearby, a shaolin class was under way, with young Chinese-American children learning to punch and kick. The meditative music we listened to as we walked only heightened the aura of peace and calm. Present in the bagua group were members of Master Yao-Wah Chan’s Friday advanced tai chi class, as well as from the Saturday tai chi group. We had people from the Bodhi Meditation group, too. In fact, the class is part of the organization’s meditation and healing efforts here in the New York area.

Some observations on bagua circle walking (taken from the foreword to Baguazhang: Theory and Applications by Master Shou-Yu Liang and Dr. Yang Jwing Ming):

“Baguazhang…if it is practiced often, can strengthen the body and increase longevity.” – Grandmaster Wang Jurong

“I am convinced that through dedicated practice of baguazhang, one can enrich every aspect of daily life, cure many chronic ailments and alleviate the stress that so often shortens life span and fosters the spread of many diseases…At the root of all…practice lies the changing nature of the universe, a concept centered in Daoist philosophy. The baguazhang student…learns to become one with the ever-changing moment, to give up all attachment, static thought patterns and rigid postures, and just go with the flow of the moment.” – Dr. John Painter

The quote above pertain to the martial art, baguazhang, which is based on circle walking. The art takes this practice as its foundation and includes myriad circling, spiraling, rising and descending movements to create fighting techniques. However, the following statement, which author Tom Bisio includes in his new book, Bagua Circle Walking Nei Gong: The Meridian Opening Palms of Baguazhang, says it all about walking the bagua circle. (By the way, there’s that word again: Nei [内]…and the other one, too: Gong [功].)

“Hundreds of exercises are not as good as simply walking: Walking is the master of hundreds of exercises.”

This bit of wisdom is from the great bagua master Li Zi Ming, who lived many years ago.

The Beatles, Meditation and Chanting

“Well, it was [50] years ago today, Sgt. Pepper taught the band to play…”

In 1964, four Liverpudlians found themselves in Florida. As part of a publicity appearance, they met and clowned around with a young boxer named Cassius Clay. Clay was about to fight Sonny Liston in a much-touted match. After clowning with the four Beatles and striking poses for the photographers, Clay stood with one of his crew after the lads were gone. “Who were those sissies?” he’s reported to have asked.

Those four sissies changed the world.

What do meditation and chanting have to do with the Fab Four? Quite a  bit, actually.

Thought Leaders for the Young

In the 1960s, practices such as meditation and chanting gained huge popularity in the West as a result of McCartney, Lennon, Harrison and Starr mentioning them in the popular media of the day. As comedian Robert Klein once quipped about the Mahareshi Mahesh Yogi, “The Beatles mentioned him once, so he became a millionaire.”

Not only would I not be a guitar player had the Beatles never reached our shores. But I probably would never have heard of or tried other Eastern disciplines, such as yoga, meditation, chanting, tai chi, bagua walking or xingyiquan. Think about it. What would have been the mechanism by which we would have become aware of these life-enhancing activities? Well, you might say, in a universe with no Beatles, celebrities such as members of Led Zeppelin or Deep Purple might have brought them to popular awareness. The only catch: There would not have been a Led Zeppelin or Deep Purple without the Beatles. No Rolling Stones (at least, not with the same popularity in the U.S.), no U2, no Nirvana. When you think about it, how many guitar, bass and drum rock groups were around in America before the Beatles — especially ones that crafted their own songs? (O.k… Buddy Holly and the Crickets, who were a major influence on the Beatles)

Nonstop Chanting

There’s an interview with George Harrison in which he speaks about chanting once for several days straight, saying that he started to feel so good, in a subtle way, that he couldn’t stop. I just read an interview with Ringo Starr, in which the interviewer comments on how Ringo could easily be taken for a man 20 years younger. The ex-Beatle attributes his good health and youthfulness to being a vegetarian for many years, working out every day with a personal trainer, and meditating daily. Not bad for someone who was so sickly and in and out of hospitals as a child that doctors had told his mother he’d be dead within a year!

A Terrifying, Nearly Fatal Encounter

Harrison’s wife, Olivia, once told the story of the near-fatal attack they suffered at the hands of deranged man at the time of the millenium (the attack occurred Dec. 30, 1999; it was widely reported on Dec. 31 — almost the couple’s own personal millenial Armageddon). When George came out of their bedroom and saw the psychotic individual holding a spear he had broken off of a sculpture in their yard, the assailant was in the living room below. George began chanting “Hare krishna” loudly, in an effort to pacify him. Unfortunately, it didn’t help. Olivia Harrison and her husband had to fight for their lives in a vicious encounter that left both with serious wounds, especially the former Beatle, who suffered multiple stab wounds and a collapsed lung. “What the hell was that?” Olivia remembered them saying immediately afterward, “I never tried to kill someone before.”

The really sad thing is that Harrison was making a good recover from lung cancer shortly before the attack. Friends say it traumatized him enormously. None of this could have helped in keeping the disease at bay. He passed away in November 2001.

Meditation Fans

Ringo Starr and Paul McCartney have also been active in promoting transcendental meditation over the years. They first learned about it in Rishikesh, India, in 1968.

Thank You, George

As most baby-boomer music fans know, George Harrison was the person who ushered in the late-60s U.S./Europe awareness and popularity of the sitar, an Indian instrument. He studied it seriously for a period with Ravi Shankar, a phenomenal musician of international renown. Once he realized that he could never reach the level he’d seen in scores of Indian sitarists, Harrison eventually drifted back to the guitar and songwriting.

But good old George also opened Western eyes to the wonders of Eastern culture. It was he who prodded the other three Fabs into heading to a lecture being given by the Maharishi on meditation. Beatle George became a life-long adherent of Hare Krishna, although one fellow devotee affectionately called him a closet Hare Krishna because he never shaved his head or otherwise altered his appearance.

Read George’s lyrics below. They’re from his song, “All Things Must Pass.” He must have written them at around the age of 25 or 26. I defy anyone to say that he wasn’t the deepest-thinking, deepest-writing Beatle. Thanks again to the great singer/songwriter/guitarist who also sang, “By chanting the names of the Lord, you’ll be free.”

All things must pass

None of life’s streams can last

So I must be on my way

And face another day

Now the darkness only stays the nighttime

In the morning it will fade away

Daylight is good at arriving at the right time

It’s not always going to be this gray

All things must pass

All things must pass away

Like I’m Five Years Old Again

I plan to celebrate the half-century anniversary of the first glorious night of the British invasion by watching the big special program on the Beatles and their impact, 8 to 10 p.m., Sunday, Feb.9. As Ed Sullivan might say, “For you youngsters out there,” there will be an impressive lineup of younger performers, too. So, at 50 years to the hour, I’ll be doing the same thing I was doing at age 5: watching and listening to the Beatles. How’s that for progress?  At least the music makes me happy. 🙂

To quote Ringo Starr’s favorite greeting…

Peace and Love!

(And remember: All you need is love.)

Placebos and Nocebos

Question: If you have a health problem and someone gives you a placebo, what does it mean if you actually get better? As you know, a placebo is something that is often used in clinical trials or studies to assess the effectiveness of a treatment. The administrator may give one group of patients a bona fide treatment (a drug, for example) and give another group a placebo, that is, a pill or other “treatment” that actually contains no medicine whatsoever. This type of medical study is referred to as “placebo controlled.”

There’s a school of thought that says: Regardless of whether a treatment was a true treatment — one containing ingredients that are generally expected to help patients’ conditions — if it helped, it helped. You may also be familiar with “nocebos.” I found this interesting: A nocebo occurs when a patient thinks she is taking a certain type of treatment, let’s say, a blood pressure medicine. The person giving her the treatment, however, substitutes a placebo instead. A nocebo happens when the patient takes the sham treatment but experiences a common side effect of the real treatment (e.g., she gets dizzy, assuming that’s one of the possible side effects of her perceived treatment).

So What?

So what does all this have to do with tai chi, qigong or bagua? Not much. However, it relates to something that happened to me this past Sunday.

For a few weeks now, when I lie on my back in bed at night, I’ve noticed a little “click” when I inhale. No problem breathing, no pain, no pressure or discomfort. Just a new, weird little click. I was with my wife recently while she was seeing a lung specialist, and one of his first questions to her was, “Any new clicks or pops?” (She didn’t have any.) So, when I noticed my little noise, I thought that maybe I, too, would get my lungs tested. I also had a slight cough at the time.

Well, here’s where you need to bear with me. I’m not generally a willing believer. I’ve never been abducted by aliens; never got a look at big foot. In fact, some might say that I can sometimes be a bit of a poster-child for the term “ye of little faith.” However….

Master Yao-Wah Chan conducted a preview/demo of his upcoming Bagua Circle Walking class this past Sunday, from 9:30 a.m. to about 11:30 a.m. I attended and did a lot of bagua circle walking, along with everyone else. As I said, before this, I had been experiencing some chest congestion and a mild cough. Fast-forward to about mid-afternoon that same day. All of a sudden, I was coughing more than usual. Without being too graphic, suffice it to say there was a whole lot of expectoratin’ going on.

Anyway, here’s the punch line: That night, lying in bed on my back, something was missing. I stayed quiet and listened for that stupid little clicking noise, and I couldn’t hear it. I started to think about what had happened that afternoon. At that time, I remember wondering why I was coughing so much and so suddenly. In addition to that, my voice seemed clearer — not raspy like someone who has congestion or a cough.

After walking the bagua circle for two hours in the preview class, something seems to have happened. A placebo? Could be. I don’t know. This is why I want to take advantage of this opportunity with the new Bagua Walking class: to test for myself whether the practice is something that be of benefit to me.

Why Is This Supposed to Be Good for You?

The unique “mud step” of bagua is a big part of it. Think of walking in such a way that someone behind you can never fully see your heels. Another analogy: Walk as if you’re in mud and you need to ensure your show doesn’t come off as you move. You keep the soles of your feet parallel with the floor or ground as you move. This engages different muscles from those used for regular walking. In the martial art of bagua, or “baguazhang,” the benefit of this is that, if your leading foot is swept or kicked, all your body weight is still on the rear leg and you therefore don’t fall down.

There is also something about how the twisting of the torso as you walk affects the meridians or energy pathways. Here’s a very good book on the “nei gong” or health-promoting aspects:

How Can Walking in a Circle Be Part of a Martial Art?

As the author of this book explains, there is an adage about circle walking and fighting, something to the effect of: “With one step I’m next to my opponent; with two, I’m behind him.” It has also been said that, for martial purposes, the center of your small circle is the point at which you make contact with the adversary. The martial art of bagua features a lot of spiraling, twisting movements, all of which play an important role in the self-defense aspects. Take a look at this:

Notice: They’re all spiraling, twisting movements. Most of the circling movements used are very small, tight ones. It’s amazing when you see the leverage and power it can generate.

Another example (in which an American teacher demonstrates the application of one particular movement):

And one more:

Master Yao-Wah Chan’s Approach: Bodhi Meditation

Master Yao-Wah Chan bases his approach on that created and taught by the Bodhi Meditation Group. A testimonial about one person’s experience, from the group’s site:

Here’s Bodhi Meditation Grandmaster Jin Bodhi teaching bagua walking (sorry, no English):

A New Year, A New Practice

It’s 2014. The Beatles hit the Sullivan show 50 years ago next month (gulp!). We’re 30 years past Orwell’s 1984. The desktop computer is going the way of Betamax and IBM Selectric typewriters. It’s a new day!

If you’re like me, you may occasionally feel like there’s more mass than energy in your body. Master Yao-Wah Chan has said that bagua walking faithfully (every day) increases one’s energy. And that increased energy ameliorates many minor health complaints (headache, backache, etc.). Within the Bodhi Meditation group, there is anecdotal evidence that several significant health improvements have occurred.

Bagua walking is a wonderful compliment to arts like tai chi and qigong. Someone would have to have been living under a rock to be unaware of the latest findings on the many benefits of meditation (cognitive, physical, mental, spiritual, etc.). With bagua walking, you get all those advantages — plus excellent exercise to strengthen your legs and power your energy meridians.

If you feel like you’re stuck, like you want a new direction, why not consider a circular one? It certainly beats being on a treadmill. And you get to meditate, exercise and socialize, all at the same time.

While walking the circle early one evening during Master Yao-Wah Chan’s advanced small-group class, I mentioned some reading I had done regarding the many health benefits attributed to bagua circle walking. Master Chan had commented on his experience with it, saying that when he walked the circle, he felt he had more energy throughout the day. He and Jian had also told us about their experience in Vancouver, where the Bodhi meditation group walks the circle outdoors every morning from 5 a.m. to  7 a.m.

With the little bit of bagua walking I had done, my experience was similar to Master Chan’s, though he had done much more of it than I had. Like tai chi chuan, baguazhang (which, roughly translated, means, “eight diagram palm,”) is many things to many people. Both arts can be practiced as moving meditations. Baguazhang is said to have correspondences with the well-known Chinese classic book, the Yi Jing (I Ching). The founder of the art, Dong Hai Chuan, is thought to have been a highly skilled martial artist who married his vast fighting skill with circle walking methods gleaned from taoist monks. And both tai chi chuan and baguazhang, when studied and practiced seriously, are powerful martial arts.

Keep It Simple

I learned a little about “ding shi,” that is, “fixed-posture” baguazhang, from the publications of a well-known baguazhang teacher, Tom Bisio. Ding shi involves walking the circle while holding the upper body in various fixed positions, e.g., one resembles someone holding a spear overhead, another requires one hand reaching up to the sky and the other reaching down toward the ground. When I mentioned this to Master Chan, his reply was characteristically polite and wise: “Don’t make it too complicated; just do the simple way for now. When it’s complicated, in the beginning you can make yourself crazy.” He recommended building up the stamina by doing the simple walking every day, and increasing the duration of the practice gradually.

Tai Chi Wisdom

Heading home after our Friday 4:30 p.m. class, I noticed again a phenomenon I had picked up on shortly after we started doing a Friday session a few years ago. I always drive more slowly and feel much more calm after leaving class. Part of this, of course, can be attributed to not having to rush to work at this time. But it’s more than that. I’m less tense and more apt to let other drivers “cut in.”  I tend to put on some classical music during this trip, which further enhances the effect.

Try this sometime: Think of tai chi principles while you’re driving somewhere — move more slowly; stay soft (physically relaxed); be ready to respond as soon as you sense what the other drivers are trying to do; don’t get distracted; focus on the process, not on the outcome (i.e., don’t obsess about getting to your destination by a super-specific deadline time).

Now, if I could just incorporate more of this into my midweek trips!

Expert Tai Chi Tip Corner

My latest effort to attain more of the “taste of tai chi,” as Master Chan refers to it, involves doing the form while imagining that I’m submerged in mud. He commented that the movements of the form should sometimes be light and sometimes heavy. Master Chan suggested the mud imagery is an attempt to gain more heaviness. This way of thinking about the form seems to work better for me than another that is sometimes suggested — imagining pushing or pulling something very heavy. I think my problem with this method is that I associate such activity with straining and tensing the muscles. When I think of moving through the form as if submerged in mud, there’s uniform resistance throughout due the viscosity one associates with mud. This seems to slow me down and lend more weight to my movements.

For the Meditationally Minded…

Be sure to check out this nice website — all about meditation!

Finally, Take a Look at Persistence Personified…

It was a brisk, breezy fall day in Hartsdale, New York. A few tai chi students of Master Yao-Wah Chan gathered outside, a bit early for their twice-weekly lesson. Two of them were hoping to conduct class outside in the park, on the grass, beneath the trees — in the traditional way. When Master Chan arrived he beckoned them indoors: “It’s too easy to get sick — winter’s already here.”

The students were very pleasantly surprised when Master Chan and his wife, qigong healer and teacher, Jian-Yang Rong (, had prepared a room for a lesson in bagua circle walking, an ancient Chinese form of moving meditation. The teachers and students were soon walking in a hushed, soothing circular pattern around a large potted tree that had been placed in the center of the room. Jian talked the group through the special posture, hand movements and unique “mud-stepping” patterns of the art. Twenty minutes later, one student commented that his breathing seemed slower and deeper now than when class had begun; another simply reported, “I feel good.”

The next morning, immediately after getting up, I rigged a central focal point in the middle of my living room (alas, I don’t have a tree yet), and walked the circle for more than 20 minutes. It’s a great way to kick off the day.

Tai Chi Wisdom

In his excellent book, Taijiquan: The Art of Nurturing, The Science of Power, Dr. Yang Yang offers this:

Shi ban gong bei, that is, if you study anything in an efficient way, you can master it in a fraction of the time. Literally, the statement translates as “half the work, double the result.” Finding an experienced, knowledgable, caring teacher may be the single most important key to this strategy.

Expert Tai Chi Tip Corner

This tip from tai chi Master Yao-Wah Chan focuses on Play Guitar from the Yang short form.

When your left leg goes out in front of you, you can think of it as a kick to the opponent’s knee or instep. Your rising left hand is going to the opponent’s elbow; the descending right hand is coming down onto the opponent’s wrist/heel of his attacking hand. One benefit of being very relaxed during this movement: Your right hand being in a relaxed, “soft” state as it settles onto his wrist facilitates covering more surface area of his wrist and the heel of his palm. Your relaxed right palm, in effect, enables you to “stick” to the opponent’s  wrist and have more of an effect on him.