Caledonia, Here We Come

As someone who operates as something of a taiji orphan, with no other members of my school in the vicinity, I always look forward to a week at Tai Chi Caledonia, where I can meet and mix with people from many different schools.

This year, I also had the privilege of interviewing Harriet Devlin for the Tai Chi Union magazine. Harriet is the daughter of the legendary Gerda Geddes, who was the first person to bring taiji to the west. Stationed in Shanghai with her husband at the time of the communist takeover, she spotted an old man practising slow, careful moves one morning. As a dancer herself, she was fascinated, but it wasn’t until she escaped to Hong Kong, that she had the opportunity to learn more about the art she had witnessed.

She found a teacher and despite there being a complete language vacuum, “Missy watch, Missy see,” being the extent of verbal tuition and of course a taboo on touch, even for correction, she learnt the long yang form. On returning to England she tried to keep up her practice but had to send for a recording, which she diligently followed until she knew it well.

From there she combined her other skill, psychotherapy, and helped traumatised victims of war, as well as dancers and musicians, to use their bodies to express their emotions. I can not imagine the single mindedness she needed to reach this stage. And then she began to teach taiji for its own sake, though still only the long yang form. She wrote a book called In Search of the Golden Needle, in which she describes the allegorical journey she created to explain the taiji moves. Her biography, by Frank Woods, is called Dancer In The Light and details her truly extraordinary life.

This set me thinking about the contrast between those who have the opportunity to practise with others, either on an equal basis or under a caring teacher and those who have to go it alone. At Tai Chi Caledonia, as well as international teachers, we worked with international students, Italian, Spanish, French, Canadian, German, Dutch, Swedish, Norwegian, Irish and Greek (I think) almost outnumbering the Brits. Do you go with what you know, going deeper into the practice, or do you explore something new, to see what can be applied to broaden your knowledge rather than deepen it?

The weekend offers a dizzy mix of 45 minute taster sessions in a choice of styles, Wu, Chen and Yang, with less well-known variations such as Lihuebafa, from James Carss, to spice things up.

During the week, however, you choose two teachers and subjects to work on in depth. For me there was no hesitation in choosing Paul Silfverstråle, from my style but based in Sweden. Paul was teaching martial arts which normally I avoid because I can’t continue the partner work, but Paul is such a great teacher and applies the teaching to everything, that I went for it. So deeper.

I also chose Chiara Vendettuoli, who taught the Swimming Dragon qigong form. I had no particular desire to learn another qigong form, but the opportunity to work with a student of Franco Mescola who saw the significance of the spiral form in our energy work, was irresistible. And broader.

By the end of the week you feel a peculiar mix of gratitude, rejuvenation and exhaustion, there is much hugging and exchanging of contact details and, usually, determination to keep up the good work.

Sincere thanks to the dynamic duo, Al and Aileen and their army of helpers.

Roll on next year and keep July 12th free.

Is Shibashi Qigong or Taiji?

The honest answer to this question is that it has elements of both. Let’s start by making sure we know the difference between taiji and qigong.

Taiji is a martial art that is recognised for its softness, slow yet powerful movements and therapeutic health building properties.  It can be described as moving meditation and sometimes shadow boxing. Students learn a series of movements known as a form, which can be a hand form or a weapon form. There are several schools, which have variations of the moves, depending on their applications and forms are often known by the number of moves e.g. Long form might have 119 moves while there are shorter 37 step forms or even 18.

Qigong is a system of, literally, energy exercises. There may only be 5 or 8 moves, as these are generally designed to work with the meridians, which work with the organs of the body. These are repeated 4, 5 or 8 times. This makes qigong moves easier to follow, to learn and to practise for those who don’t wish to make a series study or practice. It is often described as health qigong to emphasise the different purpose from the martial element of taiji. Massage and herbal medicine are also associated with qigong exercises.

Shibashi offers a bridge between the two. There are 18 moves, but as these are repeated usually 4 times and as none of them is physically difficult, it is a very accessible short taiji form, suitable for all ages.

As with all qigong forms, the exercise should leave you feeling relaxed, cleansed and energised and with a big smile on your face!

Because the qi energy will be moving through your body, bringing energy and pushing out toxins, we recommend drinking a lot of water to help eliminate the toxins.

What Shibashi Means to Me

I was first introduced to Shibashi by the late great Ronnie Robinson at a taster workshop during Tai Chi Caledonia.

“I’m not going to say anything,” he announced, waving us into a circle on the grass. “Just copy me. I’ll repeat the moves about four times. If I keep going, one of you isn’t doing it right and I’ll keep going until you do it right so pay attention.”

I was intrigued as to how I might learn something that way, but it worked. Not to the point that I could remember all the moves or the order they came in, but I could certainly follow and repeat in a meaningful way. The lack of oral instruction gave me time and space to listen to how it felt in my own body. We all finished with big smiles on our faces.

When I did my two year teacher training course, I was delighted to learn that Shibashi would be on the syllabus and that Ronnie would be teaching it. At that level, naturally, we went into things in greater depth. I have books a DVD and notes galore, but it is the simplicity of the moves that makes it accessible to everyone. I teach it weekly at our over 65s Friendship Club, where some of them regard it as ‘exercises’ and some of them ‘get it’ as qigong or taiji.

When I give a demonstration of qigong at a Women’s Group, School Health Week or whatever, Shibashi is the ideal form to present. Unlike Ronnie, who knew he was teaching people with at least the basics of qigong understanding, I go through each move once. I explain to people that when I ask them to put their hands here, I mean here and not there, because we are activating precise acupuncture points. And I also want to ensure that people don’t try too hard, making big moves. Often western people associate exercise with painful stretching and great effort, whereas eastern exercises are much more gentle and in the case of qigong and taiji, it is internal energy that is being worked.

And then we do go through the moves without instruction, because people are confident enough to follow me and the music. And they pretty well always finish with big smiles on their faces.

When is the next workshop?

There are now nine versions of Shibashi, each with eighteen moves. I shall be teaching this lovely form at Portavadie on Sunday 14th April as part of a me-time day retreat with Di Oliver. Di will be teaching Dru Yoga and when not working in the studio with us, you can enjoy lunch, a glass of bubbly and all the facilities of the Spa.

I will also be teaching a more in depth version on June 8th.

Therapy through the Six Healing Sounds

There is a fascinating world of new (and old) research into the world of sounds and the effects of sound vibration on everything. Sound therapy is an ancient method of healing.
Tibetan monks, for example, have used a method of “overtone chanting” for thousands of years for treating illness. The theory is that since everything in the universe is in a constant state of vibration, including the human body, even the smallest change in frequency can affect the internal organs.

Modern sound therapists consider a natural resonance or “note” that is in harmony for each part of the human body, and for each individual. Therefore, by directing specific sound waves to specific areas, they can affect the frequency of which that part is vibrating and thereby restore it to balance and therefore health.

Shawn Picarsic has been producing beautiful pictures showing the effects of sound on a bowl of water, for example. These aren’t just pretty gimics. Given that the human body is largely composed of water, imagine the effect on a human being of different sounds. 

“One has only one way for inhalation but six for exhalation”
Tau Hongjing of the Southern and Northern Dynasties (420 – 589)

How Qigong Comes Into It
Qi is often described as the vibratory nature of the Universe. The Six Healing Sounds Qigong uses the exhalation of breath to cause vibrations which regulate and control the rise and fall of Qi (vital energy) inside the body through six different sounds. These affect the five organs, the liver, heart, spleen, lungs and kidneys and the triple heater, which balances all the energy systems. 

Enhancing Qigong with Mindfulness

Why Mindfulness? you may ask. It’s the latest thing. Are you just jumping on a bandwagon?

Well, that’s what I’m trying to find out myself. I first came across the term in relation to buddhist studies many years ago, probably as part of yoga. It wasn’t something I ever thought of as a subject on its own. Yet I’ve been intrigued to discover recently that many of my Taiji and Qigong friends and colleagues have qualifications in or teach or practise mindfulness, sorry Mindfulness, since it has now clearly become something in its own right.

I don’t believe it is possible to practise Taiji or Qigong without being mindful – at least as I understand the term – focused and aware of the consequences of one’s actions. Yet if so many people I respect are offering Mindfulness as something of value to clients who are looking for a way of dealing with stress, and getting more out of life, then I have something to learn.

Too many choices?

We have many choices available to us these days in terms of therapies and self-healing practices so how do you choose which one is going to see you through? Do you try them all or concentrate on one?

It partly depends on whether you want something to enhance your lifestyle and ability to get things done well, rather than just survive, or whether you have developed a condition of some kind, say, depression, which needs to be supported. I suspect all these options are beneficial. The choice will be down to the teacher, the availability of classes, and, most significantly, your own self discipline, because, let’s face it, unless you’re going to practise at home, you’re asking an awful lot of an hourly session once a week. So find something you enjoy.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with dabbling until you find something that works for you, but when you do find that something, the benefits of practising in depth and thoroughly, are manifest.  I am looking forward to finding out how Mindfulness can help my Taiji and Qigong .

So I’m joining forces with Amanda Scott on Saturday 12th October to deliver a joint Mindfulness and Qigong workshop.

Mindfulness is designed to show new ways of relating to our experiences that enable us to handle thoughts and feelings differently. Instead of either becoming sucked into problems, or trying to avoid them at all costs, we learn to break free from habitual patterns and see things from a different perspective.

Amanda will take the introductory breathing exercises and close down at the end of the day with a Mindfulness with Compassion Body Scan. I hope that you too will be interested in coming and finding out a bit more.

Shibashi Workshop

I am very sorry to have to announce that the Mindfulness and Shibashi workshop on 23rd April has had to be postponed. Sadly Helen is not able to join us this weekend, though we hope she will be able to come later in the year.

Full refunds will be given through the system to those who had booked. Instead I will be happy to run a half day shibashi workshop, say 10-12 for £20 if anyone would like to do that. Please get in touch with me by Tuesday 19th, so that I can let Stonefield know.

Other than that, the next workshop will be after the summer!

A Change of Plan

Following the recent death of one of my teachers, I’ve decided to make the next workshop on Shi Ba Shi. We’re looking at the 23rd of April at Stonefield Farm Holidays (An Tairbeart) and I’ll post a link to the bookings in due course.

Ronnie taught us this at Tai Chi Caledonia without speaking a word. We just stood in a circle and copied him. Although he appeared to be focused on the grass in front of him, if he repeated the moves more than six times, we knew one of us was not getting it right and he was waiting until we did. To this day I have no idea how he managed to see us all!

Ronnie loved the simplicity and versatility of shi ba shi and taught it at his classes in posh leisure centres, workplaces, cancer centres and prisons. In addition to the first set, which we will be doing, he taught the second set and was pursuing a version of a third set.

When he came to Samye Ling to teach it at the qigongtauk course he did use words, some of them not very p.c. at all. But he made us laugh and he looked after everyone in the class, those who found it easy and those who struggled. 

I’m delighted to say that Helen Davison will be joining me for this workshop. Helen, from Carlisle, is also a mindfulness teacher, so she will be including some mindfulness experiences. We believe this will be a fascinating combination for those wishing to explore the spiritual side of qigong exercises and for those who enjoy the gentle movements.  I hope you’ll join us!


Silk Reeling Practise

The Ten Principles of taiji and qigong, were first mentioned in The Canon of Taiji Chuan.

I studied these with the inspiring Barry McGinlay of the Tai Chi Life School at Tai Chi Caledonia one year. Like most worthwhile exercises, they are easy to say, but not so easy to do. It’s all very well listing the ten principles and talking about them but how do you practise them in a workshop? 

Since they are very much about linking upper and lower, inner and outer and so on, what we need are simple exercises that use the whole body. We want to be able to feel the way energy moves from the earth, through bubbling spring (yong quan) in the foot, up the legs, through the waist, up and through to the fingers. We repeat these exercises (as) many times (as you wish) so that you can explore the effect we are concentrating on.

If you already practise taiji, you already know a number of suitable exercises, such as brush knee twist step and fair lady works the shuttle. In the workshop, I’ll be offering silk reeling exercises.

Silk was and still is an important product in the Chinese economy. The silkworm larva wraps itself in a cocoon. To obtain silk from the cocoon, it has to be drawn out or reeled out extremely carefully. The action must be smooth and consistent without jerking or changing direction sharply. If you go too fast, the silk thread becomes too thin and breaks. If you pull too slowly, it sticks to itself and becomes tangled and lumpy. Thus, silk reeling is a highly skilled art. The movements are continuous, cyclic, spiralling and performed at constant speed – exactly what we are looking for in a taiji exercise.

Silk reeling can be practised single or double handed, solo and with a partner. The movements trace a taijitu (yinyang symbol) pattern using the waist while shifting the weight from leg to leg.

It’s a very popular exercise in Chen style taiji and I also spent a week at Caledonia with Master Wang Hai Jun, who makes them look wonderfully elegant and effortless – here’s a link.