A year ago, when we were confined to staying in China for the summer holidays, we went to a Taiji retreat on Chongming Island, hosted by the husband of Leping, one of our Mandarin teachers. The exercises and movements resonated with me and after a decade of suffering from Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and its after effects, I found that I was more energized. This was quite miraculous to me and the benefits of the movements encouraged me to continue with classes after school and to keep up my own practice each morning. I would get up half an hour early and do my wake up exercises followed by 10 minutes of meditation to set me up for the day. I found myself bouncing off to school feeling refreshed and ready for work.
There are many different styles of Taiji and we are studying Nei Gong, which means ‘inner energy’ and which focuses on posture, body alignment and working on the joints and tendons to ultimately unblock your meridians. In class we learn our ‘routine’ which has 57 movements and we add to our practice each week with another move. I found that the more movements I learned, the earlier I needed to get up to be able to fit the practice in! I was slowly becoming addicted.
As the year progressed and we still couldn’t travel we had daily classes in the Christmas and Chinese New Year holidays to learn QiGong movements, particulary one developed by Shifu to strengthen the spine.
I am aware that modern living is not good for our posture. We hunch over computers, phones or even books and slump in chairs or on sofas and that this poor posture can contribute to multiple ailments as we get older. Most people don’t even walk properly!! I find myslef watching people with poor gait as they plod down the street ahead of me with their toes turned in or knees splayed out. The worst thing that I see is ladies with shoulder bags. The shoulder with the bag strap on hunches up and the spine twists to the opposite side. Years of abusing our joints like this can lead to knee and hip problems, trapped nerves and aching shoulders.
Pro Tip: always carry backpacks across both shoulders for even weight distribution. Fashion is not more important that your health.
In Taiji, if your bones and joints are correctly aligned and if you do the correct movements then it is the equivalent of having acupressure or acupuncture treatments. Much of Taiji is about self management and prevention of problems by living and moving correctly. Just doing the routine daily has huge health benefits. The shoulder exercises that I have been doing have freed a trapped nerve for instance. Practice does need to be daily though to have the desired effects but if you commit to it the results are worth it. Prevention is ALWAYS better than cure.
There are lots of documented health benefits to practicing Taiji from improved flexibility, balance and agility to greater heart, liver and kidney functions or better sleep. For me, the increased energy and improved posture alone were great.
But the biggest benefit came to me one day in April as I was walking to work early in the morning. I remember it very clearly. I was wearing my work backpack which was reasonably heavy and kept my shoulders back quite nicely. For some months I had been trying to walk intentionally, with a straight back, heel out first and eyes ahead, (walking like a Master). My 12 minute commute to school was good practice time. I arrived at the crossing and was waiting for the lights to turn green when all of a sudden I felt a strange shooting sensation rush down my arms.
When doing the exercises correctly, I had from time to time felt a gentle tingling in my palms and fingers. This I knew was the Qi or energy that we all possess and feeling that sensation gave me a particular buzz. It was like the dopamine that kept me coming back for more. So when the shooting happened in my arms, I recognized it as Qi but boy, this was much stronger than anything that I had experienced before! And it kept on going. I walked over the crossing and on to school marvelling at what was happening in my arms and hands and wondering when it might stop. It was almost like the moment when Peter Parker gets bitten by a radioactive spider. Except that I had to carry on going to work and I didn’t transform into anything remotely super or ‘heroic’
It did feel weird though having unusual sensations shooting like tiny bolts of electricity up and down my arms. I told Shifu and he said that my meridian had unblocked and that the strange sensations were the connections in the meridians being forged. This whole process took several days and during that time my palms felt extremely sensitive, so much so that I wasn’t keen on picking things up. I couldn’t say anything to anyone as no one would understand. Not everyone who feels their Qi has an experience like this.
On day three I remember being in a meeting in my boss’s office when the sparking feelings shot down my legs and the soles of my feet began to feel as though they were alive with electricity. I was amazed and was barely able to concentrate on the ‘budget’ proposals that I was supposed to be listening to. It was all quite distracting and it was certainly the strangest meeting I have ever had!
I am pleased to say that the shooting, sparking sensations eventually calmed down and I was left with a gentle tingling feeling. I feel this all the time now, not just when I am doing the routine and the exercises. I am now used to the feeling and hardly notice it when I am busy with other things. But when I want to, I can circle my wrists and hands and ‘play’ with my Qi. I do this if I am standing waiting anywhere and my hands are free. It is a most extraordinary and beautiful thing.
I suspect that many people may be reading this with a certain amount of skepticism, and I don’t blame you. I would too, if I hadn’t actually experienced this for myself. I know what I can feel but I don’t mind if you don’t entirely believe me, I will still feel it.
In actual fact very few practitioners reach the stage of feeling their Qi all the time. Or at least admit to it, or openly talk about it. It creates jealousy among those who think that they are Masters but who can’t feel their Qi all the time.
I know of only 5 of us, Shifu, me and 3 of his other students. Because of this enhanced feeling I have graduated to the ‘high level’ group. Many people practice Taiji for years and never achieve this deep and lasting connection. Some people doing the other styles of Taiji or Kung Fu have to unlearn their incorrect movements before they can experience this. I have been told that I did a sort of ‘short cut’ and it is probably because I came to the lessons as a blank canvas, never having done any sort of martial arts before and because I have been practicing every single day.
All this is to say that I am well and truely hooked. I now have the ability to move my Qi around my body and to not only do ‘Soong’ which means to relax but also, ‘Fang Xia’ which translates as ‘letting go’. Letting go is so much more than just relaxing muscles, it is about relaxing and releasing everything including, tendons, fascia, bones and internal organs. It is a blissful, peaceful state where you can recharge your whole body.
In August it was time for the annual Milun Traditional School of Kung Fu Summer Camp on Chongming Island. This is a 10 day event when some of the high level students gather together (well those who are currently in China- we missed you Javi). It was great to be able to meet up and chat about our Taiji journeys and to practice together.
One of the opportunities we had was to practice skills such as ‘push hands’ which I had recently been learning. This involves giving and receiving Qi through contact in the arms and wrists. In some forms of Taiji this has been turned into a competition and you look to throw your opponent when their Qi is weak. When we do it though, it is a relaxing exchange and not about who is a ‘winner’. Life is so much more than that.
Every morning we began with exercises in the flower garden at 6.30am. This was the coolest part of the day, although not for very long as even on the island it would reach temeratures in the 30s with extremely high humidity. It was almost a 3 outfits a day experience we got so sweaty!
After a chinese breakfast of congee, eggs and bread we had standing meditation. Being mosquito season we all had to wear these nets which I can testify were VERY HOT! We began with 25 minutes and built up to 50 minutes. I had been practicing but I do find anything over 30 minutes very difficult. My feet go numb and I get a pain behind my left shoulder blade, which we eventually attributed to carrying armsful of books for my entire working life when shelving! A librarian injury!!! I now have some daily exercies to help to loosen that muscle up.
After meditation we had Taiji practice. Mostly Xiao P and I went off to practice doing the routine as slowly as we could. This is actually extremely challenging as it takes 2 hours to complete and you really feel as though you have given your muscles a good work out by the end.
After lunch and a much needed nap we had I Ching lessons in the room by the lake. I Ching is an ancient Chinese philosophy and is quite complex. It is based on the Bagua symbol of elements and on one level can be used for fortune telling but it also has many rich layers of meaning.
We were told the transliteration of ancient chinese characters and had the meaning explained. The native mandarin speakers all wrote this down but I had to figure out what it actually meant and turn that into some sort of sentence that made sense in English! It was all very deep and academic but we had lots of breaks for tea ceremonies.
The centre where we stayed is also a farm so all the food we ate was organic. It was pear season so at every meal we had deliciously juicy Chinese pears. Interestingly, the chinese who eat all sort of parts of animals like chicken feet or organs, never eat fruit with peel or skin on!
After dinner we would do half an hour of walking meditation which involved different types of intentional steps, some slow, some fast and some designed to correct our own individual posture. It was pitch dark by this time and again we had to wear our nets as it was prime mosquito time.
Finally we would take our towels down to the lake and do a seated meditation. I am rubbish at sitting cross legged and had to have a special stool, even then it was uncomfortable! When the bell chimed at the end of the meditation we could all lie back and look up at the stars. It was relaxing to lie outside on the deck in the sultry night air and contemplate nature. We even saw some shooting stars.
I couldn’t stay for the full 10 days of Summer Camp as I needed to be back in Shanghai for my operation. I was sad because I knew that once I had been under the knife then I wouldn’t be able to feel my Qi anymore. It was going to be very busy healing my insides and the anaesthetic would deaden everything.
That is exactly what happened. For four weeks I couldn’t feel my Qi at all. Mind you, I was hobbling around and barely able to walk properly. The surgeons were very keen that I resume walking and gentle Taiji as soon as possible. They don’t want patients developing thrombosis.
I am pleased to say that I can now feel my Qi again. It has come back and is even stronger than it was before. The tumor which has now gone was obviously blocking some of the meridians and impeding the flow of Qi around my body.
I may not be able to spin webs or catch criminals but I know that my Qi helps with healing and that’s a kind of super power. Things happen for a reason that we don’t always understand what they are but maybe I was meant to be here and to learn Taiji so that my Qi could help me to recover from this major operation. I feel better and better each day and I know that my Qi has played a huge part in helping with the healing process.