Reflections on a Hot Bath #1

12 12 2010

Japanese Macaques

Sitting IN a hot bath–When one stands or sits or moves in meditation, the sensation, the very first hint of the presence of qi is a feeling…in the fingertips. “Your qi is flowing.”

Western science says this sensation is the direct result of extended study. One of the foundations of internal martial arts is relaxation–Song (See “Everybody Wants Peng” When, through diligent practice, the proper amount of relaxation is achieved, a sensation is detected. Tingling or perhaps warmth is felt in the fingertips. This means the very smallest capillaries in the fingers are opening up, perhaps for the first time of years, and blood is filling them.

This is qi. Sublime relaxation.

When one steps into an excrutiatingly hot bath, a similar phenomenon occurs. But this is a sort of capillary rape. The hot water rips them open and blood rushes in. The sensation is a mixture of pain and pleasure and a mild sadness follows once the capillaries have achieved their maximum dialation.

What is qi? There are many answers and probably most of them are right. But be aware the next time you bathe.


意 Yi–Intent

22 08 2009
Pushing Hands

Pushing Hands

This was originally going to be called “moving” or “movement.” After a long period of sloth, continuing to play the tai chi chuan forms but lazily, not pushing myself, I have entered a new era of physical activity. It gets harder as one ages but easier, at the same time because the muscles are there, they just need to be reminded of their purpose.

This morning I arrived at tai chi class and my teacher, Dr. Wang, was standing by himself. He lifted his right hand in invitation and we began to play at pushing hands. Very quickly, my legs started to burn and my shoulder ached. He is a doctor, and he sensed this and we changed sides. Then we began the two handed pushing hands and I was clumsy and somewhat confused, but good old memory came through again and soon we were playing pretty smoothly, considering my under-used muscles.
Pushing Hands from Levande Stillhet

Pushing Hands from Levande Stillhet

Then into the class itself with the 42 Standard International Competition Form with shaking legs, I had to rest, often, and finally the 42 Standard International Competition Sword Form. Trying to stand on one leg with the other knee raised, pointing a sword, well I was pretty pathetic. But in the end I felt really good, more lively. I knew that more oxygen was entering my muscles and my qi was flowing better.

Driving home in the mid-morning coolness, enjoying the late-summer blue skies, I almost glowed with happiness. It feels so good to move and with purpose, and to accomplish goals–we take the glory of our bodies for granted far too often.

Taiji Jian Tai Chi Sword

Taiji Jian Tai Chi Sword

功夫 Gongfu (Kungfu), to achieve, to acquire skill through hard work, what a splendid concept. So, I was moving again and it felt good. Then why Yi, intent? In Chinese martial arts Yi is a primary concept. Simply put, without intent nothing can be accomplished. If you want a drink of water, your intention to pick up a glass must come first before your hand reaches for it. Before we acquire skill at tai chi chuan, we must begin with intent. I have a friend who “intended” on taking this class, but he said he was afraid, it had been so long and now new students and a new teacher…he did not come today. Did he have Yi? Probably not.

Driving home today I passed a young woman. She was clad in comfortable but very nice clothing and she was walking on the sidewalk. The way she carried herself, her stride her posture, her Yi and its culmination told me she was comfortable with physical activity and with her body.

Shortly thereafter, several blocks behind, along came another woman. She was decked out in what I assume is the latest jogging gear, headband, iPod strapped to her bicep, and her shoulders were lifted and tense and her elbows were thrust out and up and her body parts did not work in unison. Each section of her body was singing its own song and it was not harmonious when played together. This woman was obviously not comfortable with her body.

So we have to have the intent and then we must follow through. Just thinking about that drink of water is not enough. Intent and then the appropriate action. Two sayings come to mind: Yi 意, Chi 氣, Li 力. Intent then Internal Energy then strength or power. It all starts with intent.
Dr. John Painter, my Grand Shifu–teacher–says “The mind commands, the body moves, qi (chi) flows.” This makes the most sense to me. Intent then movement and movement produces energy. Of course this means proper movement like the young woman walking.
When I began studying the Yijing (I Ching) many, many years ago, it spoke often of the “Superior Man.” For modern times I change that, and my favorite passage is “The Superior Person stakes the force of life on following the force of will.” Ha! I tried to follow this and was knocked on my ass so many times…I did not understand the most important part, “Superior.” This didn’t work if one was not superior meaning upstanding, honest, gentle, strong…following the four virtues–Honesty, Humility, Patience, Sincerity. So equate “proper” movement with the “superior” person.
This was going to be about the glory of movement, and it still is, but first we must have Yi. Then go forward with the four virtues and celebrate your body and movement. Taijiquan is sometimes called “The Dance of Life.” Regardless of how you move, make it a dance, relax and enjoy yourself.

Dr. Painter on Yi:

Subtle Essenses

18 08 2008

“…close your eyes, and for ten fat seconds, you seem to glimpse the possibility of finer things.” Michael Chabon, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union

 The Chinese word Qi represents a concept essential to understanding Chinese culture. Here is the traditional character: . Qi might be translated as “life force” or “energy.” The character depicts a stove with rice at the center. On top of the stove is a pot and the lid of the pot is being raised by an invisible force (steam). Many years ago, a Chinese tai chi teacher with whom I was studying, asked me to prepare a single sheet describing Qi for a handout to my fellow Caucasian instructor-candidates. As a Chinese joke, I illustrated the page with a photo of a giant bowl of rice. My teacher thought it was hilarious. My fellow students were not amused. Trying to explain rice as a central object in Chinese life and the equation of consuming rice to having Qi kind of killed the joke. “No rice, no Qi! No Qi, you dead.”

I once had a dog, Pretty Maggie, by name, who was the light of my life. At the age of 16, it seemed that her time had come. However, the  veterinarian suggested acupuncture as a last resort. The acupuncturist came in and needled dear Maggie. The needles just barely hung in Maggie’s body, ready to fall out. “I think your dog is a goner,” said the acupuncture doctor with not much bedside manner. “Look, ” she said. “When the body dies, the acupuncture points let go and the needles can even fall out.” Stricken, I stared at the flaccid needles. But, Maggie did not die and the acupuncture brought her along enough for more acupuncture, and the needles began to stand up, and she lived another two years, even sporting like a pup, occasionally. The point being, “No Qi, you dead.” 

Which brings us to tea. “Huh?” You say. Well, tea is brewed with hot water and the heating of the water produces steam, emblematic of Qi. And I really wanted to talk about tea, especially my favorite, Yin Zhen Bai Hao. Also called Silver Needle. The Chinese “Bai Hao” means white hair. The very finest tea, when you look closely at the buds, you see what appears to be a very fine white down, white hair. Yin Zhen Bai Hao is all buds, and these exquisite tea buds, with their coating of white hair, look like little silver needles. So “White Hair Silver Needle.”

This is an authentic and traditional white tea. Snapple runs a TV commercial wherein some young American fool is on an airplane wondering where the white tea he is drinking comes from. He is suddenly transported to a field of tea, probably somewhere in Indonesia where Sir Thomas Lipton and other purveyors of inferior tea chose to grow the sacred plant. Then a wizened Asian man says something about the buds on the top of the plant and “we pick it!” Very cute. But he is really describing green tea. Most tea sold in the United States as white tea is really green. Phooey! Real, traditional white tea is processed in the oolong manner and includes sunshine withering. There are only a handful of, or less, authentic and traditional Chinese white teas, and, for my money, Yin Zhen Bai Hao is the very best! The Indians are now marketing something they call white tea. Tastes like dish water to me. I will stick to Silver Needle and another white tea, White Peony (Bai Mu Dan), thank you very much.

Which brings us to the Chabon quote. This was not referring to white tea, but it should. Yin Zhen Bai Hao, the real stuff, as grown and purveyed by my Chinese Tea Master, from his gardens in Fujian province, is so-o-o-o good, that one sip is all you need. One sip of this tea reaffirms all that is right in life. On my death bed, I want my last memory to be a sip of Yin Zhen Bai Hao.

The Chinese have descriptive words for the flavors of fine tea. Note, I said fine tea, nu, nu? You will not find fine tea in any supermarket, or even in most tea shops. The Chinese keep the good stuff for themselves. Shoot, even a well-respected Chinese Qigong Master in England, says white tea tastes like hot water. Either his palate is over-rated or he never had good Silver Needle.

So, Yin Zhen Bai Hao may be described with words like “bamboo” and “orchid.” I like “orchid.” The first time I tasted Yin Zhen Bai Hao from the gardens of my Cha Shifu, my Tea Master, I got a hint of what I called vanilla. My palate was not ready for such a great tea, but I got a glimpse, like seeing a beautiful woman in the periphery of your vision. You know something fantastic just went by, but what in the heck was it? Of course, vanilla is a member of the orchid family, so I was not that far off.

This tea is so-o-o-o-o good…wait, I already said that. Each time I brew this tea, the first sip confirms my previous opinion and I could just stop right there. One sip, that’s all. You don’t need to stare at paradise, just seeing it once is good enough. Well, maybe two sips…or three. This tea is so fine you can keep on brewing it and even after you think you’ve used up every tiny little bit of tea-ie goodness, you find that you have not. A coffee expert friend of mine, Christophe, a Frenchman, sat with me one day and we drank and drank and drank until we gurgled like a tea pot and there was still that sweetness that comes from oolong processing and from the beauty of a true white tea. So we just stopped. It was either that or drown.

Which brings us back around to Qi. The good things, the great things, the fine things in life all have a whole lot of Qi. “It’s hard to keep a good man down.” It’s hard to find a good tea, but when you do, hang onto it by the ears because you are in for one heck of a ride!

Part of enjoying tea is looking at the leaves, smelling them, viewing the color of the brew and sucking it back along the tongue and feeling the Qi tumble down your throat. But there are other pleasures, too. The Chinese and other cultures have long valued the viewing of the moon. That most Yin of planets, glowing with the reflection of the sun in the coolness of the night. When better to enjoy a cup of Silver Needle than by the silver light? Like invisible Qi, inhale the aromas of a pot of Yin Zhen Bai Hao, gaze at the moon, and understand that all that is good is not visible, but, nevertheless, it is there.

And so this blog will attempt to explore the little-seen, the hidden pleasures…the little pleasures of life, be it a good book, a fine meal, or a simple cup of tea.