This Christmas holiday I have had the pleasure of attending a winter Taiji retreat on Chonming Island once more. It is my happy place as here I can both relax and feel energized at the same time. With covid sweeping the land our numbers were depleated (only 3 of us) but it made for a small intimate group with many opportunities for learning.
The weather was freezing cold but in the winter sunshine we had some bracing but enjoyable outdoor training sessions. We do all resemble the michelin man as we layered up!
I loved the early morning practices. It was so invigorating to do my early wake up exercise as the sun rose across the lake.
On this retreat we completed the Qi Gong (working the energy) exercises that we began in October. We also did some early evening Zen meditation walks (in the dark so no photos). This started off being very hard as I discovered a weakness in my left ankle which made me wobble and lose balance whenever I stepped out on that side. This weakness on my left side is actually an industrial injury! From the library!!
From years and years of shelving books, with a heavy pile in my left hand I would take a book from the top of the pile and twist slightly on my left knee and ankle to put it in the right place on the shelves. I had no idea that this twisting was happening but it has resulted in my joints being out of alignment and the meniscus in my knee becoming worn. As a result I find that some of the movement I need to do are difficult because of this weakness. Amazingly, the Zen walking for half an hour each evening had a noticable strengthening effect. I am going to keep it up now that I am back home.
In the afternoons we used the little house by the lake for theory and philosophy talks. This time we learned about the 5 Elements theory of Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal and Water and how they are inter-related with supporting benefits and limitations and how they are used in Traditional Chinese Medicine.
We also unpacked this interesting ancient chinese picture:
It is mounted here on royal yellow to show that it is a special and significant image. The drawing was made many thousands of years ago before modern science but it depicts how the energy (qi) moves around the body, to which organs and in which order. When people have emotional problems such as fear it is the result of an inbalance or blockage on one of the organs (or systems of organs) and conversely, if there is too much of a certain emotion it can cause damage to that organ. Anger, for instance is associated with the liver and spleen. Fear in the heart and Lungs.
We practiced some different stances for our daily meditation. This one is called Fu Yang where the hands rest below the navel over the ‘Qi Ocean’. This position helps the energy to circulate.
We also did some excruciatingly difficulty kneeling meditation. This is where I was painfully aware of my injured knee and could only manage 7 minutes tops (and even that was with a support like a cushion between my bottom and my heels). The kneeling position stretches out the damaged area of the knee and is a good way to help it to heal. I need to build that up and do ore of it regularly at home. That will be a good New Year’s resolution for me.
It was very very cold so some days we practiced inside the little house by the lake. Used mostly for local Party meetings we are allowed to use the space because we don’t disturb it too much. It does make for a meeting room with glorious views.
One of the benefits of advanced level Taiji is that you can understand your own body better and use your qi to help heal yourself or correct imbalances and as a result of this retreat, I know that I need to do more work on my lower body. If you can do it, using your own Qi is the most powerful and effective way of healing, much better than pumping the body full of drugs as we are used to in western medicine. They might be a quick fix but they cause other side effects or problems too. One of the Milun students based in Beijing has recently had COVID with extremely bad headaches. She used the Qi Gong breathing exercises to help manage the pain. She was able to make the headache disappear for a short while and when it came back it was reduced. Another Taiji student with COVID was able to direct the Qi to her throat to help ease the discomfort from coughing.
In my weekly lessons I have learned the full 57 movement Taiji routine to quite a high level and feel confident in moving the energy anywhere around my body. I can do the movements quickly and slickly or super slowly (which surprisingly is quite a work out) I have now moved on to learning The Fan.
This is a whole new ball game and I am back to beginner level. This routine is a lot more energetic with kicks, spins, balances and deep stretches. AT THE SAME TIME you have to manipulate the fan (& not drop it!) It is not easy! For many weeks I dropped or threw my fan around the room as I attempted to flick it open. I abused my first fan so much that it broke and I had to buy another one! I was a complete novice again. It was very humbling.
In the olden days the fan was in fact a weapon. Made of bamboo struts and silk, each spoke could have a sharpened point behind the fabric which when opened could be used to slice someone’s throat open. A skilled practitioner would look respectful at the court as no one could tell if his fan was weaponized, but be able to defend himself if needed or mount a surprise attack.
I am getting the hang of the new routine now so Shifu used his creative photography skills to make a little video of some of the beginning moves.
I wobbled a LOT on my leg lift in the beginning but my right knee has strengthened with the practice. The fan makes a wonderful noise when you flick it open which you can’t really tell on the video but it is like a whip crack in the air. We were blessed with glorious sunshine that day for the filming.
In other news I am taking an online Traditional Chinese Medicine course so that I can get certificated in some of the therapies. This means that I will be qualified to practice back in the UK when I return home. The first module I am taking is a threapy called GuaSha. You use a board to scrape or ‘comb’ along the meridians and this can help improve circulation and assist the lymphatic drainage system to move along to improve health. Sometimes if there is a problem deep red marks or Sha show up which usually disappear in a couple of days. By the end of the course I hope to be able to spot simple diagnosis and you can refer people to be seen by their doctor.
So far I have learned beauty treatments for the face and therapy for the head, neck and shoulders. Being an online course I need volunteers to practice on at home. Under Shifu’s guidance I was able to improve my skills in these areas on the other delegates.
We always eat extremely well on retreat but it is all organically grown, whole foods so I didn’t mind treating myself.
All too soon it came to an end but I do benefit from these intensive retreat days and feel that I have grown and developed my skills by the end. The more I learn the better I will be able to teach when I return.
My journey continues…