Taoism as a subject is a very old Chinese institution that has no equivalent in Western culture. It is simultaneously a religion, a system of spiritual development, a philosophy, a system of physical development, mental development, emotional development, three detailed systems of martial arts and unnumbered minor variations, traditional Chinese medicine, and other cultural institutions.
The core of Taoism is a relatively small set of perhaps a half-dozen written books and a significant body of material only maintained as oral traditions.
The means of carrying out the cultivation of the individual is through physical action. There is a “library” of about 200 “postures”, as they are called, some of which are static standing, sitting, or reclining positions, and others based on physical motion starting from one position and ending back in the same position, or a different position, with other body configurations in between. The most highly-trained Taoist “priests” learn the entire set of these and then apply them as individual postures aimed at explicit results, like improving spinal flexibility, or strengthening the immune system, or building stamina. They also develop sequences of postures that reinforce each other toward a certain goal.
An example of one such sets of “forms”, as the series of postures is called, is what is known as Tai Chi Chuan, or simply Tai Chi. It is mainly practiced as a system of gaining health, but it is also a martial art.
There are two other sets of “forms” that are martial in nature but which also bring both physical and psychological health benefits. They are less well known.
Tai Chi is considered the “softest” of the forms; Bagua is considered both hard and soft, and the third form, Hsing-I, is considered the hardest.
Together they constitute what are called the “internal” martial arts. These are different in focus than all the other martial arts, in important ways.
They are based on philosophical principles and mindsets and sets of postures and practices. These act on the body, emotions, and mind. The goal of all the work is to understand, experience, and finally to manipulate the subtle energy of the body called “chi”. In this scheme, “chi” is basically a kind of vital energy that one can learn to direct for a variety of uses from attacking an opponent, absorbing the energy of a strike from an opponent, healing damage to the body, rejuvenation of the body, and other tasks.
It takes considerable time and practice to learn first to perceive the presence of chi, then to track the flow of it through the body, then to sense how it is responsible for movement of the blood and lymph and other elemental substances in the body, and finally to learn how to move it from areas that store it to places where it is needed, or even to project it outside the body to hurt or heal.
The sequence goes like this: first, the mind sets the chi into motion by performing standing or moving postures or sets of postures. Then the chi makes the blood and other elements move through the body. In Taoism, free movement of the chi is the single most important event to support overall health. Any blockage of the chi’s flow results in ill health and even pain. Conversely, physical pain indicates blocked or stagnant chi in a given location.
The overall work to develop this kind of relationship with chi, which not only makes the martial applications possible, but creates longevity, superb health, psychological stability and the ability to withstand stress that would disable a normal human being, is called Nei Gong. The subset of postures used in this body of work is called Chi Gong (Qi Gung, Qi Gong, Qigung, etc.).
Chi Gong includes the postures used in the three martial arts, but also others used for specific purposes, such as the group of seven postures called “Dragon and Tiger”. These are simple medical postures that can be performed by most people, even when lying down. They were selected from the library of 200 postures as a set of postures to bring about overall health while being simple to learn and perform.
There are a set of postures used in one of the martial arts, the “hard” Hsing-I Chuan style. These are probably the simplest to learn and perform, though all the postures have very specific body positions called “alignments” that determine how effective they are. These postures are “standing” postures that do not require movement; they consist of taking up a physical position and holding it for a period of time. You start with 5 minutes, if you can do that much, and slowly work your way up to six hours, if you are that committed. It has taken me two months to go from 5 minutes to ten, to give you an idea of how long it takes, with me practicing about 5 times a week.
These postures convert the body into a kind of antenna, rectifying subtle energies from “heaven” and “earth” into some form usable to the body as vital energy of some sort. Despite being the simplest to perform, they are also some of the most effective postures for building general health and physical strength. The Taoists say that the postures first build in health, by clearing out energetic blockages and then introducing increased flows of chi, then they build strength as more chi becomes available. In my case, my overall stamina and strength have increased substantially in two months, and I feel at least ten years younger.
For example, out of curiosity I tried to balance on the balls of my feet, which I have been unable to do for at least 20 years. Not only can I do it now, I can bounce my body weight – 360 pounds – up and down like tossing a tennis ball in my hand.
Last week there was a minor house disaster that required three hours of cleanup. After I finished, Nettie expressed amazement that I had been working on my feet for the whole time without resting. I didn’t notice any fatigue, though later that evening I felt tired.
My libido is also stimulated. Clearly hormonal relationships are enhanced.
In February I am taking a class covering the seven “Dragon and Tiger” medical postures. In China, where they are applied to terminal cancer cases, the exercises add up to ten years to the lives of sufferers.
Over the years I have investigated a lot of fringe science stories. But this promises to be a home run if the effects last and cover the wide spectrum of effects the Taoists claim. No matter what else transpires, I have to find out how about 200 minutes of standing, over a two month period, produces effects like this in my 61-year-old body.
And of course I urge you to try it. The directions are simple, though there are a lot of alignments to remember and feel your way into. On the other hand, I only get about 2/3 of the points right on a routine basis, and the posture still works very well.
- Taoists prefer to stand outdoors on earth or grass if possible. Wood and building materials are good, except for concrete. Indoors on rugs has worked for me though.
- Wear comfortable clothes. Whatever you do, do no more than 70% of what you understand as your capacity. Build up standing time slowly. Some martial arts students stood for two or three years before being taught the martial forms and postures, so that by the time they learned them, their practice would be “full” rather than “empty”, or without chi.
- Stand in a normal fashion with feet parallel to each other, shoulder-width apart.
Bend your knees slightly so that the joint is “unlocked”; this facilitates movement of chi through the joint, an essential process. In no case should the front of the knee be extended so that it bends past the front of the feet. I find that less bending is better as more increases the weight that the knee must support, rather than serving as a weight transfer point.
- The hips should be relaxed and the “kwa” should be “dropped”. The “kwa” is the name for two sets of muscles that I didn’t even know existed, which perform the essential task of tying the femurs to the pelvis, passing from the inside of the thigh through holes in the pelvis to anchor at the top inner pelvic area. I still can’t find my kwa and suspect that the cat took mine out and buried it somewhere.
- Breathe from the diaphragm, by dropping it and pulling the lungs open, and then exhaling by pushing the diaphragm back into place. Done properly, this creates a kind of circular breathing where the air is pulled down and back into the rear of the lungs and is then moved forward and up past the front of the lungs when the diaphragm is retracted.
- Curl the back/hip area “under” by thrusting slightly forwards with the hip joints. The idea is to get the coccyx to point directly down at your feet to align the chi leaving the spine downward with the ground. It does not take much bending to do this; again, less, but enough, is best.
- Let the arms hang freely from the shoulders, slightly curled, palms facing rearward. Relax and drop the shoulders and hunch your shoulders slightly, to round them and bring them closer together on the front of your body. The arms should move freely, but the joints should be open enough “to hold a golf ball in the armpit”. This keeps the shoulder joint open for passage of Chi.
- Hold the head straight on the neck, as if it is suspended by a line tied to the uppermost tip of the skull. I have a hard time with this too.
That’s it. Start with a stand of 5 minutes or less; remember the 70% rule. Increase time slowly. You should be noting the sensations in your body, particularly painful or congested spots. It may be useful keep a diary or notes for your stands to see if patterns emerge and to check the length of your stand.
(See also this blog entry)
I hope you’ll try this, as it was impossible for me to take it seriously until I started doing it instead of writing it off as superstition.