Breathe!

Breathing is a big topic in the Da Xuan tradition. When we look at the view that the tradition takes of the human being, we see it split into thirds. One third is the physical aspect (Jing), which is all about the cultivation of the body. As the body is material and manifested, we consider it to be more Yin in nature. Another third is the mental aspect, which we call the Shen, which is all about cultivating the mind and spirit. As the mind and spirit are non-manifested and intangible, we consider it to be more Yang in nature. 

The last third is the energetic aspect, which we call the Qi. It is all about the circulation and exchange between Yin and Yang; the point at which these opposites meet, interact and change from one to the other. We say thoughts are completely non-manifest, but the moment a thought (Yang) meets the physical body (Yin) and creates a reaction by friction, we call it an emotion (Yin + Yang). The breath is at the center of this exchange, as it is a nexus for the inhalation and exhalation, and a very obvious point where the conscious and unconscious get to take turns at running the show. 

When we take some time to turn our conscious attention to our breath each day rather than always letting the unconscious manage the breathing, Yin and Yang move towards a state of balance, and pretty quickly a couple of things start to happen. The first thing that happens is that we simply bring in more air, and by extension more energy. If we are doing nothing else besides just sitting there while we pay attention to our breath, our energetic input will increase quite significantly without the output increasing much. In other words, we suddenly have an excess of energy. The second thing that tends to happen is that when we have built enough excess, our unconscious will start to use this spare energy to process and digest emotions that have been stored and are waiting for us to have enough energy for their resolution. Pragmatically speaking, this means you will start to have an emotional response during and sometimes after your breathing practice. It is really common that people will experience all kinds of emotions when embarking on a regular breathing practice: anxiety, a feeling of choking, grief, anger and plenty of others.

I want to remind you all that having these emotions bubble into conscious awareness is good news for you. While it may be uncomfortable at the time, there is no danger in continuing your practice as best you can amidst the rising emotions. The amount of energy it takes to keep these things pent up in the unconscious is significant. They are coming to the surface because you finally have enough energy to finish processing them (thanks to your breathing practice!). If we stop each time they arise, they will never get a chance to find resolution. On the other hand, when they are fully and completely processed, the energy that was being used to keep them locked away is now free to be used for day to day activities. This leaves you with more vitality to go about your business and making sure you have enough juice ready to confront challenges in your life without having to constantly throw them into quarantine because you “can’t even” at the moment.  Having an ongoing regular breathing practice will ensure you are helping the emotions that arise from whatever is happening during your day to complete their cycle, and will also help you progressively work through the backlog of stuff stored in the unconscious. 

If you’ve never done a breathing practice before, a good place to start is with the exercise below. Sit down, make sure you are relaxed, upright and comfortable (slouching closes the airways!), and then spend 10 – 20 minutes following the little animation below. It can take a bit of time for changes to appear depending on your circumstances, so try to go for 30 days straight without missing a day and see what happens!

A View of Health

Health and wellbeing are interesting words. We tend to throw them around assuming we are all meaning the same thing, but upon closer consideration it becomes clear that they are entirely dependent on the context of what that individual considers to be important. Some people think being healthy means to be able to do a lot of sports, run marathons, do exercises without becoming puffed, or maybe looking lean with toned muscles. Others will think it has to do with having a good diet and work life balance, or that you simply don’t go to the doctors often or ever. Get into more nuanced circles and they will have more specific ideas. The Movement Culture that I was once very heavily involved in, for example, places high value on being able to physically move in a myriad of different complex ways. If you talk to a Buddhist they might say that health and wellbeing is entirely about the clarity of the mind. There are probably countless more examples with slightly different emphasis depending on who you talk to in which circles. Typically they all have an undercurrent of “if I do that thing, I will feel better about and in myself”.

In Da Xuan we also have a specific view. Traditionally they would say it’s all about circulation – if everything in our being is perfectly circulating then we cannot be in disease. We include in this view the physical body, the breath/energy, and the mind/spirit. 

In the physical body, it means that all the organic fluids are moving through all corners of the body, bringing in new and fresh (oxygen, blood, nutrients, hormones, whatever) and removing the old and stale. Physical tension stops this circulation from moving effectively and also prevents the mind from having clarity about what the body is doing. Essentially this means that we want to resolve all chronic tension in the body which involves addressing and resolving all the weak points. Practically speaking, when a body has this quality it is both strong and relaxed, coordinated and very grounded.

In the breathing and energetic realm it means that we have a full and complete exchange of air with the outside, and that there is a strong and clear feeling moving through all parts of the body which creates a strong general feeling of vitality – as if we have enough resources to confront all aspects of our lives.

In the mind it means that our thoughts are able to run their course without us getting stuck going over and over them. They simply appear, pass through our minds and then vanish again. When we aren’t stuck on our thoughts and belief structures, our mind is free to focus on the task at hand, whether that be listening to someone or focusing on a single task without distraction. 

We also consider that each of these aspects is intricately linked, and to create balance we do not want to treat one as being more important than the other. 

This view of health is obviously quite different from the others I mentioned and it brings an orientation which means things that are considered very healthy from another point of view are very unhealthy from this perspective, and also that things that we find very important other people won’t give a damn about. It’s not that one orientation is any more correct than another, plenty of people lead very full and long lives using all sorts of different orientations towards health. But the orientation will determine what you do with your time, so I think it’s worth clarifying which view you have and why you value that view, and whether or not the view is helping you to achieve what is important to you in your life. 

Plugging the Holes

The concept of balancing Yin and Yang is central to Daoist thought. It’s this idea that orients us in our practice, asking us to not give one side of the coin more importance than the other. The Yin is more manifested, but more limited. It is the structure, the physical body, the unconscious, the closed and the hidden. Most importantly, it’s slow. The yang is less manifested, and so is also less limited. It’s the process, the intention, the conscious, the open and the exposed. If we look at ourselves through this lens, we can see that the body is the Yin, the Mind is the Yang, and the breath (or the qi) is the point of exchange where Yin and Yang mix. 

A simple analogy that my teacher likes is one of the bucket and the hose. The mind points the hose at things, and those things receive energy (represented by water coming from the hose in this analogy). The bucket represents our physical body, which is the structure  that stores the energy so we can use it in our lives. This is where we have the problem of the leaky bucket:

“There’s no point in having immortal water if your bucket is full of holes”

~Serge Augier 
 

Our modern culture does not like to hear about our problems, and we certainly don’t want to hear that they take a long time to sort out. But if we want to keep our energy and vitality all the time, that’s exactly what we need to attend to. In the beginning, when we go out and have a good practice we might feel great for 30 mins or an hour after practice, but we find that we quickly return to our pre-practice level of energy (or worse!). It’s like topping our bucket up and it slowly drains out. To plug the holes in the bucket, we have to train the physical. Specifically, we have to train to fix the holes – which are more or less weak links surrounded by tension. These weak links are like the yin of the yin, the hidden parts of the body, and generally we cannot find them unless we put ourselves through a specific process. This is part of the task in training the physical body in Da Xuan, revealing the hidden tension and allowing it to relax by strengthening the associated weak links. When we repair these leaks, we find our body can hold our energy much more effectively, allowing us to keep the nice feeling from training throughout the day or longer. 

When we are full of our own energy, we are protected from the elements, from other people’s shitty moods, and from being bothered by whatever the environmental situation is – busy shopping center full of stressed people? No problems! What does full of energy mean though? It’s easy enough to go into fantasy with grand ideas as soon as we hear the word ‘energy’, but let’s keep things simple and down to earth: when you do exercise and you’re nice and warm and you go outside in the cold, you can feel that the air is really cold, but the cold is stopped at your skin, or even just a little outside your skin, like you’re wrapped in a nice fuzzy warmth. If you stay in the cold too long, the feeling dies and slowly the cold creeps in, hopefully not all the way to the bones or you’re going to be cold for quite a while! This is what I’m talking about, it’s a feeling I’m sure everyone is familiar and not quite as fancy as the shield Gandalf uses to stop the Balrog with – but the interesting part is keeping it all the time. It’s particularly interesting when the feeling fills all the parts of the body we usually cannot feel. Being able to feel the back, the legs, the feet, or even better the internal organs with as much clarity as we can feel our hands with is completely possible. 

When we hear about this, it’s easy to want to go straight to the fancy and advanced internal alchemy practices that we presume are responsible for such things. They can certainly bring a lot of energy in, but you better have a good bucket to keep it otherwise it will go as fast as it came. If you want to keep it, at some point training the simple, basic physical exercises is unavoidable. It’s not terribly fun or pretty, but it certainly works well!

Clarifying the Limits

The simplicity of our training in Da Xuan is a key principle to our evolution. When you look at the creation idea that the Daoists of the past wrote about, they talked about an unlimited potential (called the Dao) which separates itself into many things until it becomes manifested as the expression of this given moment (called De, the manifestation). The Dao is non-tangible, without form or structure, and unlimited, and it slowly divides until it becomes the structure and makeup of this moment – very tangible, with a precise form and structure, and quite limited to only the possibilities of this moment at this time. In the classic Daoist text, called the Dao De Jing, the sage Lao Zi talks about the path of Daoism being a return. If the world was made starting with the non-manifest unlimited (yang) and arriving at the manifested moment limited in time and space (yin), then our return path must go in the other direction, starting with the limited yin and returning to the unlimited yang. The order here is important, we cannot start with the unstructured or the unlimited.

Enter the concept of simplicity. To confront our limitations properly, we need to see them clearly and be able to refine them so we may transform ourselves. When things are too complex, it offers far too many opportunities for us to escape the confrontation of our limits, which leaves them vague and misunderstood. If we allow ourselves freedom to do whatever we want, we will inevitably follow our unconscious grooves and stay in our comfort zones, steering well clear of the limits, leaving them forever shrouded and leaving us unable to follow our path of return.

If, on the other hand, we take a simple exercise – let’s say, moving the hands on a very limited up and down pathway, without the freedom to go left or right, without the freedom to go forward and backwards, and without the freedom to stop our exercise when it gets a bit uncomfortable, we will find ourselves immediately exposed to the discomfort of our limitations with no choice of escape. We see straight away that even if we thought we knew what ‘up and down’ meant, we can’t actually stick to it. We don’t know how to keep our hands stuck to up and down, we find all the weak points in the arms and legs and body, and our mind rebels against the boredom (actually it rebels at being shown its limitations).

When we stick to our training and confront the discomfort of the limitations, we slowly bring clarity to them. We find we can actually go a bit further than we thought, or that we were going too far, and slowly but surely the limits become apparent and we can understand them. The Yin becomes clarified and within clarity, we have precise distinction. Having a really precise understanding of the limitations of, say, up and down, we can let go of it, sure that if we need it again we can find it in a snap. But we can’t let go of what we don’t have, so there’s no escaping the need for time spent in the simple exercises. There’s no way to cue yourself into perfection in the first go, and no way to shortcut it – all of these things are in fact attempts to avoid the confrontation with the limited in the first place. There’s no way to arrive at Yang without going through the Yin first, and we can also remember that the Yin is slow. We must go through the slow part first. It will take some time.

Trust in the Process

One of the more difficult aspects of training in the Da Xuan tradition, especially for beginners, is the idea that we want to be oriented towards the process rather than towards the results of the process. When you get into the training deeply enough, you start to realize that the results of the training are never quite what you imagined they would be before they arrived. We tend to project ideas of what it might be like to be relaxed or stronger or have a good feeling of circulation. Even worse is when we step into esoteric territory and things get more fantastic, our ideas of energy or enlightenment or perfection or whatever never end up being anything close to what the actual experience is like (in my experience, they are usually far more mundane and simple than we expect, in a good way).

These ideas that we project not only use an incredible amount of our energy to maintain, but they also often prevent the actual result from appearing or conceal it. By turning ourselves towards tending to the process rather than tending to the results of the process, we leave room for the results to be different to what we expect. The unexpected results, in my experience, are always the more interesting ones! The more you get into operating like this, the less you are inclined to spend your time predicting what might come. I’ve had many occasions where the result had already actually appeared, but I was so convinced by my prediction that it must appear in some other way, that I had missed the fact that it was already there and therefore had lost many opportunities to nurture the quality and help it grow even more.

The issue is that to have this orientation established effectively, we have to trust the process. Even as a beginner we can be so excited by the process and have a strong desire to be a good student, that we can tell ourselves we consciously trust the process. The unconscious, however, will still be unconvinced. It does not give a damn about any of the ideas we have about how much we trust the process and like it, it trusts the results. But the results are something received, not something that you actively go out and get, and they take time. So we must disregard them and focus on the process, not expecting transformation or progress, and simply practicing for the sake of practice itself. By turning all of our attention to the process, we can leave the results to arrive as they may, being happy with whatever we receive. Sooner or later, we become so trusting of the process and knowing that we’ve tended to it the best we can in that moment, that we can just relax about the whole thing, enjoying our life as it unfolds. And we can do it with a real and deep understanding that the relationship to the process can only improve and the results are left to arrive unencumbered. 

Unfortunately, there is no way to really trust the process without doing it. There are plenty of people out there who use this concept to dupe people into spending a lot of time and resources simply so they can make some money or have a feeling of power over others, and this makes taking leaps of faith to engage with this practice in this way all the more difficult. How can you be sure it’s not just another dupe? You can’t, and if you don’t feel that it’s the right thing for you to do then it’s best to not do it.

Practice Every Day

Building a daily routine of practice is no easy task, but in the Da Xuan tradition it is very necessary. We have a saying in the school that I’m sure you have heard many times, but I’m going to repeat it once more to really… *ahem* hammer… it home:

“The pot that’s regularly taken off the stove never boils”

It means that if you’re regularly missing days of training, many of the changes one might expect from practice might never occur, particularly those that are unique to our tradition. Take it from someone who learned this the hard way by constantly missing training days for about 10 or so years. It was quite confronting for me the first time I did some work with people in Da Xuan who had only been practicing 3 or 4 years, but whose grounding and relaxation were far superior to my own, despite my 12 or so years of experience at the time.

In a world that is so fast paced, we leave little time for ourselves. A daily practice is an appointment that we make with ourselves, for ourselves, that gives us some much needed time to simply take care of ourselves. It also confronts us to many, many moments of imperfection. As soon as you have a daily practice going, you pretty quickly and regularly run into days that don’t pan out quite as you planned, and you need to find a way to do practice in the most inhospitable conditions – with less time than you wanted, being tired and unable to concentrate, doing it at 2 in the morning when everyone else is asleep, and so on. In these moments, it is so easy to quit and find the comfort of the bed. But a little push to do even 5 or 10 minutes of practice does 2 things: it gets us used to doing things not-quite-perfectly, and it trains our willpower.

After enough time doing this, you find that your willpower has increased quite considerably, bringing with it a resilience and a capacity to do that is quite formidable, and teaching you to work well in less-than-ideal circumstances. Being so tired that you “can’t even anymore” – a mood you will likely find yourself in if you’re practicing every day – also has it’s benefits. Practicing in this kind of mood can sometimes be the key to letting go of the need for everything to be perfect, which can unlock the doorway to many things that cannot be forced on contrived no matter how technically brilliant you are.

It is also a super wonderful feeling to stay committed to something over a long term. The feeling of not having missed practice for 6 months, a year, 3 years, 5 years and so on is quite remarkable, and far, far superior to many of the quick fix hits of elation that our society is so enamoured with these days.

Am I Doing It Right?

One of the most common questions I get when teaching people new to the Da Xuan approach (and in fact prior to this as well) is “am I doing it right?” While perfectly understandable in a modern world that encourages us all to not ever feel like we’re good enough (the honest answer “no, it’s terrible because you’re a beginner and you’ve never done this before” would likely cause deep offence in some people, which is a little counter productive), it is still a pretty strange question when we take a second to look at it closely. Where does this desire to be immediately perfect at something we didn’t even know existed the day before come from? If it could be done ‘right’ after such a meagre amount of time and attention invested in it, then it’s worth considering that you could already do that thing, and that you haven’t actually learnt anything new, denying yourself an opportunity for growth. 

In the Daoist view, we are interested in ongoing growth and evolution, and it’s not a place we ever arrive at or ever get ‘right’, but we are always getting a little better at it. The idea of arriving at perfection is not desirable as the world is always undergoing cycles of change. If you’re at the top and in the moment of perfection, it’s nice, but it must change. There’s only one way to go from the top, and that’s down. The perfect hexagram in the Yi Jing, 63 – Reaching the Summit*, reflects this notion. Starting with Yang, then alternating nicely to Yin and perfectly back and forth from there, it appears to be ideal. But the advice of 63 comes with a warning:  “It is a grace period that will go south, a danger following an accomplishment”. 

Rather than arriving at perfection already, the Daoist approach is much more interested, especially at the beginning, in following the advice of  46 – Swelling*, which talks about progression and great possibility even if we are unaware that it is happening. It warns against thinking of the end result and trying to take the whole thing in at once, and instead asks us to cut it into steps to have a clear vision of progression, go slowly, and take advice from those who know the topic better than we do. 

We don’t want to assume we have arrived or try to be in the “final” result straight away because we cut off our possibility of growth. Rather than looking at the results (yin), we want to be looking to see if we’re in the process (yang) or not. To be in the process, we only have to do our best to follow the cues, and after this all that’s necessary is a continuation of these same efforts – a process, after all, is an ongoing thing. In Chinese medicine theory, they say that you can’t directly alter the yin, you can only alter the yin by altering the yang. Chasing the result is not a good process. For those practicing a while already, we see this easily and at times quite regularly. We have a process (practice and cues) that we follow, and one day something interesting and unexpected happens as a result. The mistake is to try the next day to replicate that result and go searching for the phenomenon that occurred, even though the original process that actually caused the phenomenon had nothing to do with that.

It’s the same with our life in general. Happiness is a result, a result caused by life being in a good process. You don’t have to focus at all on “being happy”, but rather focus on improving the process of your life – changing the things you can change and learning to accept those you can’t. When life is going well and we are happy, we don’t want to stop the process that caused the happiness and chase the happiness itself, we simply want to keep up our process and let the happiness arrive on its own, feed back into our process and make it even better. Remember, our process (which is Yang, and quick, and leading) started before the results (which are Yin, and slow, and following) appeared. Eventually we might be able to see that a good process is the result, and the practice we do can be for its own sake rather than for some imagined fantasy of perfection that never arrives. 

Confronting the Shadows

The Corona Virus pandemic has hit most corners of the world, and I read somewhere that now more than a billion people are in isolation. To quote Keanu Reeves on the matter: “woah!”

For a lot of people this means life just got a little or a lot more difficult. Being forced into isolation is really going to reveal the kind of relationship many people have with themselves and the people they might be stuck with. Those who have routinely found escapes from spending time with themselves – whether it be through working, in person or digital socializing, or escaping into a good book or show – may be in for a bit of a shock. Being human, we all have very ugly, depressing, weak, violent and dark sides to ourselves and it’s always difficult and uncomfortable to confront these shadows of our personality – isolation is likely to bring these aspects into the foreground.

The Daoist view is not at all about escaping the difficulties of the world and our humanity, but confronting them. The practices from Da Xuan that I do and teach are pretty well designed to expose us to all of these shadows and weaknesses, to deal with the ones that we can do something about and go into a better relationship with the ones that we cannot. It is a systematic process that takes years, starting with the easiest aspects and slowly working our way into the horror of the depths, all the while progressively gathering resources that will help us have enough vitality to confront the deeper and ever more uncomfortable parts of ourselves (as well as wonders we did not know we contained! Balance in all things 😉 ). Even with the aid of a tradition that specializes in this kind of thing and the experience of all the people who went through this process for many generations before us, it is still an extremely difficult thing to engage with. I do not envy those who have suddenly been thrown in the deep end with no preparation or support in a time where the rest of the world is also getting messy really quickly.

Still, despite the unfavourable circumstances (or perhaps because of them), it is not too late to actively get into it. The world has just shown us that our modern life, with all of it’s frantic accumulations, is built on fragile foundations. We might recover from this, but it also might all fall apart. We need to start preparing, and better late than never, as they say. We cannot really do anything else if the relationship we have with ourselves is shaky. Start a daily practice, work on the simple stuff. It’s not useful to aim for enlightenment, or the ultimate accumulation of the ‘best’ skills. We must confront the mundane. The ‘you’ 5 or 10 years from now will thank you for your efforts today.

I am reminded of my teacher’s story about taking out the garbage: when the garbage starts to fill up you can take it out now by your own choice, while it is still manageable and has not begun to overflow everywhere. It’s not necessarily the most interesting thing to do right now, but when it’s done you’ll feel better that it’s out of the house and things are tidy. Or you can leave it for later, and it will build and build and build until it stinks and it’s overflowing everywhere and bin juice is leaking all over the floor and you’re forced to take it out. Either way the garbage gets taken out, but one way is by your own choice and relatively simple, and the other way is a nightmare that takes forever to get cleaned up and leaves you stinking of bin juice.

Tension

My studies in self development have been long and varied, spanning (so far) over 16 years and including forays into traditional Chinese martial arts, gymnastic strength training, flexibility and mobility of many kinds, natural movement, parkour, dance, movement culture, and the more popularized forms of strength and conditioning training. In the last 5 years this has all mostly been discarded in favour of my Daoist tradition, Da Xuan, and the main reason for this is that it does what I’m interested in far more effectively than any of the former arts. The very first question that one might respond to such a statement should be: “What exactly *are* you interested in?”

Good question!

Besides the various spiritual and self development aspects I’m pursuing (which are mostly individual – who am I really, what is my path and purpose in this incarnation, am I doing this stuff because I want to or because someone else told me I should, and so on), one of the central and simple things I have been investigating for a long time is the relationship between tension, strength, weakness, and relaxation. In other words, how relaxed can I be while still remaining usefully strong? Having been lucky enough to have studied with some exceptionally bright people who are themselves leaders in this field, I have learned quite a few things about the topic which might be useful to others.

My fascination began, as far as I can recall, upon feeling the tissue quality of my first teacher, Dapeng. His soft tissue (the red muscles and white connective tissue) did not feel like any adult I had felt at the time. The quality was much more like that of a baby or a cat. It was kind of squeegy and I could palpate straight to the bone at many points on his body and by all appearances the parts I did not palpate held this quality too. The kicker was that, unlike many noodle-esque people I had met who are soft-but-not-in-the-good-way, this suppleness was matched by his way more than reasonable strength. He had strength and relaxation, and most importantly could express these two qualities simultaneously. An embodied union of opposites if I ever saw one! He could also, at will, flex the squeeginess away and his skin would feel something like hardwood to the touch.  It is very strange to feel such things in an adult and I can count on one hand the amount of people I have met besides him who have these qualities since then.

The cat-like tissue idea also appeared for me around the same time in the book "Way of the Peaceful Warrior"

At some point the idea arose in me: “could I train this body to be of such quality that a massage therapist could not find anything to work on?” It’s a lofty ideal that is probably unattainable, but that has not prevented me from trying and making some serious inroads into the matter. Along the way I have come across a number of principles that I feel should be understood if someone wants to pursue this. Let’s have a look at them now.

First up we have some of the broad principles that will help us operate and explore:

      • Tension blocks circulation and by extension our capacity to feel
      • Tension protects weakness
      • Long term (chronic) tension falls away from conscious awareness
Circulation

Circulation is pretty important. New and fresh in, old and stale out. We eat fresh food and breathe in fresh air, and excrete the used/stale food and breathe out the stale air. The various organic fluids bring fresh nutrients and oxygen to the far corners of the body, removing the waste products. Keeping these fluids moving through *all* corners of the body is crucial to health. In fact, in many traditional systems of medicine they have the idea that if everything is perfectly circulating then you are free of disease. It’s an ideal that we can move closer and closer towards, and in my experience doing so has an accelerating and cumulative effect on feeling and relaxation.

So we want to improve our circulation. I’ll use the image of a sponge to give an impression of the relationship we have between tension in the soft tissues and circulation. If you held a sponge in a running river it would slowly fill up with water, and new water would be moving through the entire sponge. Squeeze the sponge and the new water is blocked from going inside, instead it would go around the tight parts of the sponge. Inside the tight parts would either dry up or contain trapped water which starts to go stale. Release the squeeze and the relaxation of the sponge would drag fresh and new water through its interior and clean out the water that was trapped inside. So tension itself is not a problem and in fact very beneficial used in the right way. 

Keeping tension on the other hand is not so good. If the sponge were to remain squeezed indefinitely, the trapped water would slowly become stagnant and stale, various little lifeforms that enjoy swamp like conditions would begin to party and multiply and sooner or later (read: sooner) this part of the sponge is going to end up being either gross and sludgy or dry and crusty in the situation where there is no water. Using this image to consider the soft tissues of our body we can see that it is in our best interests to keep all of the muscles undulating between a contracted and a deeply relaxed state. In other words, get rid of all of the chronic/held tension.

Weakness

This is where we run into a bit of a conundrum. Tension is a mechanism in the body used by some kind of amazing unconscious biological intelligence to protect damaged and weakened parts of our system – parts that are not capable of producing or receiving much force. Another image to give you an impression of how this functions: when the body is damaged in some way, the tension that arises is akin to a host of guards that are called in. Their job is to make a 300-esque Spartan shield wall that surround the weak point and take all the hits of force that come through that area until the weakness is strong once more. This is a wonderful response that allows us not to be crippled for months after a small injury – if it didn’t happen the weak point would just be torn apart and mutilated the next time a significant force comes through the area.

The body gains strength from exposure to the right amount of stress and force. This force must occur within a goldilocks-like spectrum:  Too little and nothing changes (actually, it will atrophy and get worse), too much and it will break. So weak areas need to be gradually exposed to more and more force, and for them to be exposed they need the guarding tension to progressively stand down. If you put too much force through the area too soon, or by some method convince too many of the guards to stand down thereby exposing and overwhelming the weak point, the body is going to (properly) respond by re-deploying the protective tension and possibly even doubling or tripling the guard. Repeat this too many times and you dramatically increase the strength of the guards (tension) and simultaneously reduce the likelihood of getting the guards to stand down at all (relaxing). The body remembers that last time it stood the guard down things went horribly wrong and doesn’t want a repeat mistake – fair enough too!

AWARENESS AND FEELING

Our minds are being bombarded at any point by what is basically way-too-much information. To organise it so it doesn’t overwhelm us, it will push things that don’t change out of conscious awareness and into the realm of the unconscious – business as usual. Things that are changing regularly then have space to come to the forefront of our awareness so we can consider the change and adapt as necessary. Circulation is a thing that is changing regularly: new in, old out. Change, change, change of a constant but shifting kind. This means it brings feeling and awareness of what’s going on. Worse circulation: less feeling; better circulation: more feeling. You can try this for yourself, just slap your hand hard on the table and then look at it and feel it. The new stimulus makes the hand go red from new blood and various other bodily substances (increased circulation), and you can feel it a lot more clearly (increased awareness).

The issue of tension is not that it exists, but that the guards can end up permanently on duty. This not only takes a significant amount of personal resources to maintain, but as we also saw cuts off the weak links from circulation. It just kind of stays there out of sight and mind, sucking up resources – more resources if the guard has been tripled a few times. Except that it’s not out of sight at all, it is likely contributing directly and indirectly to many problems faced that are common amongst our chronically over tensioned population. The amount of times I’ve accidentally and indirectly sorted out my own, or someone else’s, problems by simply focusing on removal of seemingly-unrelated excessive tension and strengthening the weak links is high.

Strength

My strategy for freeing myself of this tension has necessarily been a two-fold approach:

      1. Convince the guards to stand down (unsqueeze the sponge)
      2. Progressively and gradually strengthen all of the weak links until such time as a maximal force through the area doesn’t invite the guards back

So we have to work on strength *and* relaxation at the same time. Here’s my reasoning for why: If you only work on relaxation techniques you convince the guards to stand down but you won’t bring enough, or any, force through the weak link to stimulate it to become strong again. This means that as soon as force – especially chaotic force – is re-introduced to the area, the tension guard is re-established. Inversely, if you work only on traditional strengthening techniques, the body will (rightfully) select the strongest pathways to perform the task and reinforce them further, which will route the force via the outside of the shield wall rather than through the weak link.  Basically you turn your guard into The Mountain from Game of Thrones (definitely the undead version from the later seasons), and, well, you’ll have about as much luck convincing him to stand down as Qyburn did.

Now, this does not mean you can’t get super strong by normal strengthening techniques, it’s just that by doing so you will progressively make it more difficult to access and repair the weak points that get buried under loads of very strong tension deep in the system somewhere. Depending how much you do it slows or completely stops the process – the body really has an incredible capacity to avoid using these weak points so the method used to expose them must have a way of cornering the weak link and leaving it no other choice but to gradually strengthen. If you have The Mountain there, like Cersei (who is herself quite weak), you have another choice.

Relaxation techniques can provide very useful temporary relief. Training strength in the already-strong pathways appears to make one strong at the cost of hiding the tension and weak links more thoroughly. Strength training will stop being counter-productive to our process here only once the most effective pathways of the bodily structure have been cleared of weak links, i.e. you have a good structure and the good structural pathways are also the strongest so get chosen by default, i.e. you are free of compensation patterns, i.e. the body operates as a reasonably efficient single unit that doesn’t fight itself or gravity. To accomplish this, I’ve found it best to work at things in a specific order: strengthen weak links and unite the system *first* – which is a slow, somewhat boring task that takes between 5 and 10 years as best I can see – and only after this is done work on the ‘big strength’.

Structure

The concept of the structure that I’ve mentioned here is layered. A strong structure is a frame that will hold the body up with minimal need for tension in the soft tissue to act as guy-wires. It is the strength of the well-aligned skeleton combined with reinforced joints that allows the soft tissues to relax. It needs to be particularly aligned to gravity, which is a constant force, and respond accordingly to any other external force, reorganising as needed to be a good conductor of the multiple vectors of incoming force (i.e., gravity + other). Hidden tension caused by weak links distorts this alignment, *increasing* the amount of strength/tension you need to do any given activity.

Alignment of 'blocks' concept by Ida Rolf

The vision from Ida Rolf shown above is pretty much spot on from the perspective of gravity, although unlike rolfing I am also interested in progressively strengthening this good alignment so it works in increasingly complex and demanding situations, against other incoming forces, and making it dynamic so that even as I move about it maintains integrity. Experientially this means that the effort is perceived more and more as ‘coming from the centre’, and as previously mentioned in another article , the centre is a funhouse of all kinds of paradox – so it makes sense that the simultaneous expression of strength and relaxation comes from there too.

A United Approach

The most effective way I’ve found of working at this puzzle is the previously mentioned ‘doing it at the same time’. Some guidelines to look for exercises that do this are in order:

Firstly, the exercises need to be done for a long enough period of time that they can provoke the guarding tension to stand down. The simple way to do this is to exhaust the tension with the exercise. Work until the tension is felt (which is usually the point that people *stop* the exercise because it gets pretty uncomfortable), keep working until the protective tension relaxes and exposes the weak point (advanced practitioners can sometimes skip this whole step with an intentional command to relax), keep working some more to strengthen the weak point. This process can be done in some cases in a single session, in others over a number of sessions – but sustained, uninterrupted effort is a must, less the area revert to its ‘known’ format with the guards and such. The exercises(s) used must be both gentle enough so as not to further irritate the weak link and invite the guarding tension back, and strong enough or done for long enough in a single go that it will actually exhaust the guarding tension and strengthen the link. The more gentle the exercise, the longer it needs to be sustained to produce the desirable effect. Conversely, too strong and either the guard won’t stand down or if it does you’ll damage the weak link and invite the guard back. As a general guide, any exercises that require significant rest periods (days between sessions or seconds/minutes between sets & reps) to recover are not useful for this process.

Secondly, the exercises should generally be backed by a strong intention to maintain whatever the  movement and structural/postural points of the exercises are, and simultaneously relax as completely as possible. This skill will always involve a little bit of back and forthing between being too relaxed where the desired posture collapses a little or you lose the motion, and being too tense. It is something that gets refined over time and more precision is necessary to find some of the deeper tensions that hang around the organs, nervous system, or deep in the emotional and mental landscapes.

Next, we want to work in both a specific way with exercises that target known weak links, and in a general way with exercises that globally target the entire system at once so that the elusive tensions and subtle compensation patterns that hide out in the shadows and escape detection can be resolved too. The very best exercises will target the specific and the global simultaneously.

Finally, over-thinking and over-analysis also create their own kind of mental tension and in bad cases can make you neurotic about something. Analysis and intellectual consideration create the structure of our training so are necessary to stop our training becoming noodle-like. Taken too far though, and it makes our minds excessively rigid – a condition that is rife in the modern world. To prevent unnecessary tension in the mental space, we need times in our practice where we don’t think, ask ‘why’, correct or analyze, but rather relax the mind as much as we can while we train.  In other words, we need to spend about half our practice time following the wise words of Shia Labeouf:

Intense Sensation

We have to remind ourselves here that to get to a state of deep relaxation, we must address the weak points and that is not generally going to be a ‘fun’ experience. Often, revealing the weak link can make things feel worse than they were prior to not knowing about it. How bad the original issue was, the related emotional states, and the length of time it has been quarantined, are all factors that affect both the sensory experience and the duration needed to resolve the issue. The discovery of a previously unknown weak link can often be paired with some kind of intense and noxious sensation.

I want to take a moment to really reinforce this next point: to strengthen this weak link does not mean that we make the noxious sensations disappear, it means that we want to transform the sensation from noxious to something more managable.

Ignorance is not bliss. If the sensation disappears then you have simply reinstated (or in some cases strengthened) the guard and plunged the weak link back into the shadows of the unconscious. Once a noxious link is discovered, our aim should not be to get the rather intense, uncomfortable sensation to ‘go away’.

Noxious sensation is superior to no sensation!!!

We want to keep the sensation around and get it to participate as much as possible in what’s going on without further irritating it, until it resolves. This is a fine line to walk. A mistake that would plunge one suddenly into the wrong side of the equation can drag you back to the beginning or an even worse position. Hence, exercises that achieve this in a slower but less risky fashion are preferable. Light or medium intensity motions that are regularly repeated are ideal here. A long, slow ‘juicing’ of the weak link of all of its accumulated sludge until it’s back to fresh and full capacity is what we’re after. To go back to the image of the swampish sponge, we want to continuously squeeze and release it until it is clear of all swamp-like materials and only fresh water is moving through. The felt sensation at the point of resolution is really very close to the feeling of a clean river running through the affected area. The transformation of the noxious sensations into this clean and fresh sensation is one of the good signs of successful resolution, the disappearance of the noxious without this (or another) new sensation is not desirable. We must then rinse and repeat this process with the next hidden tension and weak link (pun intended).

As the great sage Nisargadatta Maharaj once said: And soon you will see your mistake. And it is in the very nature of a mistake to cease to be, when seen.” Literally all we need to do is ‘see’ the weak point for enough time that it is thoroughly ‘seen’/known.

Nisargadatta Maharaj

As you might imagine this is quite like going down the rabbit hole. Resolution of one tension and weak link can reveal more tension and weakness that was hidden deeper in the system. I will remind the reader again that this is viewed as a positive in this approach. To clean it all out we must go right down to the very centre – literally all the small tensions near the bones, organs, nervous system sheaths and so on. It’s a long process and if you want to do any more than a superficial job it becomes quite necessary to put down many activities that would go against it, or risk stretching the process out by decades and decades. The good news is that when it’s done it’s pretty much done – even in the case of re-injury, being armed with the skills to start resolving it immediately means things don’t really get stuck in the system again. In my personal experience the (progressively more) united expression of effortless, relaxed strength has been infinitely more interesting and wonderful to live with and have readily available than the raw strength I had worked on in the past.

How to Start

So this is what I’m interested in and if your interest is now sufficiently piqued and you are wanting some exercises to get started with this mammoth task, I might remind you of what I actually do for a living: teach people to resolve this tension. I have plenty of stuff available for the task too!

The teachings that I now offer, and the themes in this article, are all based on what I’ve learned in Da Xuan. Most are either directly and strictly from Da Xuan or are exercises from other modern and traditional systems that I am showing in a specific way congruent with this model and approach. When I’ve posted these exercises I’ve always included the ‘how to’ in terms of the cues and needed timing, but rarely included the ‘why should I’ part. If you’re a person that needs a ‘why’ to begin doing something then hopefully this article serves that purpose. As for the exercises themselves, you can find a selection of options below:

Of course if you’re curious or have questions about any of the topics of this article feel free to shoot me an email or contact me in any other way.

Happy training!

Refining the Center

Being good Daoists, us practitioners of Da Xuan do lots of work on the refining of the center, or becoming centered. Centered is a term that is used in many schools of practice, particularly in martial arts and dance. In my experience, most of the time it is taught in an incredibly vague way with instructions like “try to be more centered”. Some people get it, some people don’t. I was in the camp of nod and smile and hope they don’t notice that you have no idea what they mean when I heard such cues. I suspect I am not the only one who has experienced this, so a bit more clarity on what exactly being centered means appears to be in order.

To understand the center it is necessary to take a look at the bigger picture. Our relative experience of the world is governed by opposing forces. The ebb and flow of the opposites are the very movement of life itself. It is impossible for one extreme to exist without the other and so in any given element exists a seed or potential of its opposite. This concept is most famously realized by the symbol of the tàijítú, more colloquially known as the ‘Yin and Yang’ symbol:

The more modern version on the left, an older rendition on the right

Here we see the opposites represented by the colours black (on the right and bottom, Yin) and white (on the left and top, Yang). The curves of the symbol give the impression of movement, and the whole thing encompassed within a circle shows the cyclical nature of the opposites. Yin Yang theory is an incredibly deep study on its own and I do not want to go into that here. What is relevant to this article and what is not made apparent by the symbol (although it is obviously there) is the center – the point around which the opposites turn.

The center in this sense is not polarized. It is neither yin nor yang but it is in the middle of both. Another way I like to phrase it is that it is in-between the opposites. It has a spacious, non-fixed quality about it;  as if at any moment it could easily go towards either of the opposites. It is full of the potential of the opposites without being bound by them and so in a certain sense it fully contains both of the opposites. It is a position of open potential.

The problem with what I’ve explained is that it’s a nice idea but ideas don’t help anyone unless it can somehow become manifest in reality. To take this idea as a belief or concept that you hold on to in your mind is to do the very thing that every good spiritual tradition warns against. To make it appear in reality, we need something to do. Not just thinking about it a lot but actually engaging in a practice to bring the idea to life. The best way I have found is to explore this on the physical level first. The physical is much more tangible and obvious than the emotional or mental realms and so it’s much easier to confront the reality of it without deceiving ourselves. 

Let’s use this concept to look at our posture, and we will start at our feet. It’s useful to gauge the physical opposites so we have a working point to find that which is in between the opposites. We can have the feet internally and externally rotated, the weight forward on the toes or back on the heels, pronation (collapsing inwards) and supination (rolling outwards) of the ankle, and we can have the feet close together or wide apart. The in-betweens are feet parallel with toes pointing forward (between internal and external rotation), the weight in the middle of the foot (between forward and backwards, and between pronated and supinated) and the feet shoulder width apart (somewhere between too close together and too far apart). Our knees want to be  on top of the feet and pointing in the same direction in the toes, which is related to the pronation and supination of the ankle, and between being too straight and too bent. Our hips must hang relaxed, neither posteriorly or anteriorly tilted. The glutes and lower abdominals must be relaxed so the effort goes into the center of the leg nearer to the bone.  Our torsos are straight, the spine is neither in flexion, extension, lateral flexion or rotation at any point. The arms are hanging by the side, the shoulders are between protraction and retraction. The neck is neither too far forward (poke neck/upper crossed syndrome) or too far back (military posture), the head is lifted gently to balance the hanging hips and create space in between each of the vertebrae.

A typical postural image, the left image is a projected ideal but has not accounted for the need to sink in the hips and relax the knees

What I’ve described above is not really rocket science or anything new, most physiotherapists will talk about this kind of posture in some way or another. But we need to practice regularly to understand and dare I say embody it, then we can use this understanding of being in-between to refine it even further. Most people when asked to take such a posture will not be able to take it without torquing and tensing just about every muscle in their body. A good therapist can possibly massage some of this tension out but it will return in a day or two.

Tension is the opposite of relaxation and so winding ourselves up with heavy tension to achieve this ideal posture is counter productive, as is going completely slack and relaxed which will collapse the posture. If we recall our idea of spaciousness at the center we can use this to direct our position. The set up is a way of arranging the body so there is space in each joint.  To encourage this we need to find a way to be neither overly tensed or overly relaxed. In other words, we need to be as open in the joints as possible while simultaneously being as relaxed as possible. If I use the hand to demonstrate you can get the feel of it pretty easily: Open the hand as wide as you can and you see it invites a lot of tension into the hand.  Relax it as much as possible (just go floppy!) and you see the hand’s structure collapses and the fingers roll closed. Try instead opening the hand as much as you can while simultaneously being as relaxed as you can. If you get it dialed well, you can sometimes find in that the hand starts to vibrate or shudder.

Hand open but tense; hand relaxed but collapsed; and the 'goldilocks' expression that is both open and very relaxed.

This vibration is a very typical response when nearing any of the in-betweens mentioned. It’s a confusion of sorts as the body leaves habitual fixation on a particular opposite and starts shifting from one opposite to the other in very quick succession. As you get to a more refined center position, this vibration will be experienced less on the surface but more deeply in the body. It eventually creates a paradoxical relaxed tension. The body has structure but is deeply relaxed. This conjoining of the opposites is one of the main signs that you are truly in the center and not just hanging out in an opposite nearby to it.

Unfortunately there is no quick fix to becoming suddenly perfectly centered. What you can do today though is orient yourself towards becoming more centered and refining your lived experience of this, particularly in the physical body.  To begin, just take 10 minutes a day and practice setting yourself up in the most centered posture you can, then stay there. It is important to remember that to be in between tense and relaxed means that on any given day, your most centered posture for that day will be different to what it was on another day depending on what your hidden tension and stress is doing on that day. In fact, the best current expression of the center will change as you practice. Of course we move towards an ideal, but to not acknowledge the tensions of the given day orients us towards the extremes and away from the center. The orientation in this sense is more important than the current expression.

We also see that it’s not useful to only hang out in the center. We can’t truly know that we are in the center if we aren’t intimate with the extremes, but we do want to have the center as a home base of sorts that we regularly return to to recuperate. To understand the center as precisely as possible, we must explore the extremes. If we’ve seen all of the white but only half of the black, then our center is going to be incorrectly set up a little on the white side. Again, this is a nice idea to entertain but we need a practice to understand and live it.

A simple but powerful example: Take our standing posture from the video above. Without changing the posture, shift the weight as far forward onto the toes as you can. Feel that the more you go towards the extremes of the toes, the more tension is necessary to hold you up. Return as precisely as you can to the center. Feel that as you return to the center the whole body can relax (keep your posture though!). Then we take it backwards onto the heels and we see again that the more you go towards the extreme of the heel, the more tension is needed. Once again we return to the center and we can relax. Having explored the other opposite now, we also have an opportunity to see if we over or undershoot the center. Every time we return from the extremes, we have an opportunity to be more refined with where we settle in between. You can further refine this exercise by progressively reducing how far towards either extreme you venture: you can go half way to the toes, then return, then half way to the heels, then return, or 2 centimeters towards the toe, back to the center, then 2 centimeters towards the heel, then back. The smaller the distance, the more precisely you have to be at the center upon your return, otherwise you’re just wobbling around in one of the extremes. The amount you can deeply relax will be reflective of how close you are. To confront this to reality you can do this exercise until you’re as precise as you can be and then stand for a long time (30 – 60 minutes should be enough). If you have any sense of pressure anywhere on the foot, parts of your leg falling asleep, or any other points of pressure like this it means you’re not quite there yet. No problem, just keep practicing!

This particular exercise going forward and back is a staple in Da Xuan, but it can be easily translated to other areas of the body such as bending the knees too much then straightening them too much, or hinging the hips (as if you were sitting in a chair) vs standing extremely upright (which would require significant glute activation!), or moving the head between poke neck and military neck. Whatever the case, the key ingredients are to notice the tension increasing as you approach whichever extreme, and to make a point of returning to the center as precisely as you can and noticing the relaxation.

As I mentioned earlier in the piece, establishing the center is a way of fusing the opposites by bringing awareness to that which is in between and connecting them. You will find in the beginning that the center is really vague, kind of like a big abyss and you can’t quite find it. Having it out of awareness like this is what leads to conflict between opposites and fixation on one extreme or the other. To be truly centered is to fuse the opposites and thus open the potential for either or both to occur at any given moment. Start with the physical, a few minutes a day is enough to begin with. Living in a body that is centered and thus whole is a deeply relaxing, rich and rewarding experience that is well worth the investment of daily practice. And you might just make the world a better place by letting go of your fixations on extremes.