Thursday, March 10, 2016

Golden Rooster Part 2: the Taoist Yang

The second installation of Golden Rooster features a story told by Master T.T. Liang.  He told the story many times, sometimes with great detail, other times in passing reference.  For Master Liang and his own personal learning and quest for the highest levels of Tai Chi, this was the epitome.  It shaped how he practiced,taught, and looked at the amazing art of Tai Chi.  And it all boils down to one posture, golden rooster.

Going back over my notes, searching my memory, and including experiences I've had practicing and teaching, I am here reconstructing what I feel is the fullest and most complete telling of this story about my teacher, and my teacher's teacher.  It takes place in the mountains outside of Taipei, Taiwan in the late 1950s.

In Boston, in the late 1970s as a young Tai Chi student, Master Liang told me about his various teachers, and his study and practice of Tai Chi.  During tea breaks, he would recall many amazing teachers and lessons.One day he told me the story about meeting and studying with a mysterious Taoist who lived in the mountains above Taipei.  Master Liang said,

" Through some connections with fellow martial artists I heard stories of a certain Taoist monk, named Yang, I forget his other name,living in the mountains outside of the city.  Rumor had it that he was an immortal who had fully mastered Tai Chi Chuan.  I learned that he was a retired customs official, like myself, and found out the name of his wife, the only person who knew exactly where he lived. She lived in the city and I got her address from the customs records. On several occasions I went to question her about her husband's whereabouts.  But each time she acted as if she knew nothing.  For about one year thereafter I brought her gifts, clothes and jewelry, trying to win her favor.  Finally one day she told me her husband agreed to meet me and told me to come to the house the next day.

When I went back to the house the wife met me, and introduced me to a young boy about 14 years old.  She said this is my husband's only disciple and he will take you to him.  He led me out the back of the house and we wandered through neighborhoods gradually leaving the city and hiking up into the mountains.  Arriving at our destination, there I saw the Taoist sitting outside his cave.  After introductions he asked me why I wanted to visit such a simple person.  I answered that I wanted to learn Tai Chi from him and he said no need.  After some back and forth, me trying to intimidate him, he finally said OK let me see you do some Tai Chi.

I performed some of the postures for him, which I felt were quite good, and he watched silently.  He said very good you don't need to learn from me.  Knowing that he would show me nothing unless I intimidated him, I've told him that my Tai Chi was the best and much better than his.  His answer?  He asked the 14 year old boy to do some Tai Chi, which was exceptionally good. His postures were low, rooted, and smooth, so much better than mine, or many of the teachers and classmates that I knew!  Now I was hooked.  I needed to learn from this master.  So I tried intimidation again.

I said my Tai Chi is much better than this boy's, let me see you do some of the postures.  The old hermit stepped out and began doing his form.  It was the form he had learned from Yang Pan-hou and it was quite strong and low, using some energy, yet so soft.  He was at a level that I've never seen before, and I really want to learn from him. So I resorted once again to intimidation.

I said I want to try pushing hands with you.  The old Taoist said no need to challenge me, I'll show you my level with one posture.  Then he asked me to stand in Golden Rooster.  When I stood in Golden Rooster, he reached out and squeezed my leg.  He stepped away, shook his head, and softly said one word, "wood."

He then stood on one leg in the posture of Golden Rooster and invited me to feel his leg.  With great astonishment I discovered it felt soft, like cotton.  When I touched his leg it was completely soft!  I worked my way down and his calve and ankle were completely relaxed and soft!  I was amazed! I said where's your energy, where is the tension?  He said in my Bubbling Well Point in the bottom of my foot. He said when all the energy is concentrated at the Bubbling Well Point, you will have complete circulation of ch'i and blood throughout the entire body.This is the enlightenment of the founder of Tai Chi Chuan,Chang San-feng.

As I stood there in amazement, he said, push me.  I've been practicing pushing hands many years with Professor Cheng.  I pushed him a little bit and met resistance, and so immediately withdrew, using the t'i-fang techniques to unbalance him.  But nothing happened. When I pushed again he was still rooted on one leg. This was incredible,unbelievable.

He said "you can always be more relaxed, otherwise there's still some tension in your body." I said how can you reach that stage?  He said he learned from Yang Pan-hou ( no relation) for many years.  Also that he practiced standing and sitting meditation for 40 years.  He said the key is to use the mind intent to direct that ch'i to the Bubbling Well Point.  That was the end of my first and most amazing lesson.  He invited me to come back.

 I went back to my teacher Professor Cheng and asked him to stand in Golden Rooster.  When I felt his leg, his thigh was quite relaxed, but his calve, shin, and ankle were hard.  Then I told him there's someone better, at a higher level than him. He asked who and when I mentioned the Taoist named Yang, he got angry and kicked me out of this school. Now I deeply regret my actions with my teacher. If I could do it over again, I would not have been so disrespectful in front of everybody.

 I went back to the Taoist three more times and each time the old hermit gave me one lesson on how to circulate my energy down to the Bubbling Well Points.  Then, the next time I went , the old Taoist had passed away.Gradually I went back to Professor Cheng, asking forgiveness and being accepted back as a student.  I embraced the teachings of Taoist Yang, incorporating them into my own practice and teaching."

Master Liang showed me the three methods for relaxing down, and sinking the ch'i, to the Bubbling Well Point's.  One is physical, one is mental, and one is energetic, but all have the same goal: acquiring the true meaning of Yang Style Tai Chi summed up in the words, relax and sank.

Next installment, part 3, I will share the three teachings of Taoist Yang, and some of the many ways I practice and exercise Golden Rooster. And the answer to the mystery of  "72!"

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Golden Rooster Part 1: Benefits

Throughout the many generations of Tai Chi teachers, each generation has given special emphasis on certain postures or movements.  Either for its health giving benefits, martial art application, or spiritual awakening abilities, different teachers have stressed or focused upon a particular movement to be practiced over and over again, above and beyond the repetitions that come up in any sequence or solo form.

Some teachers have emphasized "Cloud Hands" for its overall healing abilities.  Professor Cheng Man-ch'ing stressed the importance of "Step Back to Chase the Monkey Away" for its ability to open the leg meridians and energy routes, and release and relax  the muscles in the lower body to experience the full circulation of blood and ch'i , a goal of Taoist Alchemy.  Master T.T. Liang always extolled the virtues of "Parting the Wild Horses Mane" for its health giving benefits, and calming effect to the emotions. Master Liang also emphasizing the practical application of the posture "Roll Back" which he said contained half the mastery of the self defense aspects of Tai Chi.

For me, after two decades of teaching Tai Chi full time, I emphasize the posture "Golden Rooster" in my personal practice as well as in my teaching and sharing.  In this three part blog I hope to share with you the experience, history, lineage, benefits, and insights from not only my own experience, but from previous masters, fellow teachers, and a multitude of students.

Golden Rooster, commonly known as "Golden Rooster Stands on One Leg" has a more complete name which is," the golden rooster stands on one leg to announce the dawn."  In the Western Mystery Traditions the rooster is a metaphor for enlightenment.  When the rooster sees the first rays of light in the morning,he stands on one leg to announce to the world the light has come.  In the Eastern movement and martial arts traditions, all birds are renowned and imitated for their ability to stand on one leg in perfect balance.  Indeed we hear of the"three treasures of balance" which are the head, pelvis, and foot, lined up in a relaxed, perfect manner. These three pieces give many treasures among which are balance, rooting, and the ability to relax muscles as you strengthen bones.

Not only does the constant practiced of golden rooster improve your balance, it gives amazing flexibility and strength to your lower body.  Its practice will help you with all the standing, balancing, stepping, kicking, and rooting which we find throughout all Tai Chi sequences, routines, and solo forms.  But, I learned that it has an even deeper and most important benefit for all of us concerning health.

I have a student, who underwent three breast cancer operations.  I've seen her return to class as soon as she was able to leave the hospital.  Her amazing healing energy, resilience, and belief and knowledge that Tai Chi is beneficial to her, has been an encouragement to us all.  She told me that her Dr. showed her an exercise which he wanted her to do to help circulate and pump out her lymphatic system.  He had her stand on one leg and alternately lift her right hand and a left knee, and then her left hand and  right knee.  He told her this would help pump out the lymph glands in her neck,armpit,and groin.  He said the body is the pump for the lymph system, and gentle, rhythmic movement, expanding and contracting, opening and closing, will assist in this process.  She asked if she could lift the same arm and leg and get the same benefit.  He said yes.  She said good that's the posture golden rooster which I do in my Tai Chi classes all the time!

I have another student, Mike Cain, who teaches Tai Chi in Rochester, Minnesota.  His personal training includes choosing a posture to do 72 times a day, for one year.  Last year he completed one year of golden roosters without missing a single day!  I asked him to make a report of his experience, which he freely shared with me, and with all of you here.( Mike's wife Kim, who helps teach in Rochester, is now three months into her year of golden roosters!) Here is Mike's report:

"The first major observation prior to embarking on a daily ritual of 72 Golden Roosters is: what have I signed up for?!?!

In actuality, it took only about a week or so before it was “relatively” easy to do 72 roosters in a row. The second major observation: after a few days, one realizes that “start together / stop together” is easy to say and hard to do. When it comes to a seemingly easy posture such as the Golden Rooster, there is more than meets the eye. Upon closer inspection, there are many moving parts and variables — not to mention trying to stand on one leg without tensing up or out, and thus tipping over in the process.

Settling into a daily routine, I realized that the rooster has many lessons to share. The first of which is, it makes almost every posture-to-posture transition in the solo form easier, more relaxed and balanced. Another major lesson is that the posture “rooster" has a built in alarm, much like the actual rooster. After a few thousand iterations, it becomes easy to daydream. It’s also is easy to fall over. This in turn immediately reminds the sloppy practitioner that “moving meditation” does not mean sleep walking. The good news is that, while elegant in its motion, the Golden Rooster provides many opportunities to be single minded, which in turn provides a wonderful mental break.

From a physical standpoint, I noticed that performing tens of thousands of roosters have made my old ankles and hips feel more robust and capable, as well as virtually eliminating the morning aches and pains. From a mental perspective, I realized that it was possible to “forgive” a poor iteration of the posture and immediately focus on addressing the issue in the next iteration. A long series of the same posture provides a unique opportunity to fail and fix in a short amount of time. From a spiritual perspective, I had several opportunities to understand why the posture is called “golden rooster”. When performing the rare perfect pose, I felt like a proud and energetic bird.

And finally, it is indeed possible to perform 72 nearly flawless roosters in a Boeing 777 lavatory flying at 35,000 feet over the Pacific ocean!"

Next blog I will introduce you to an amazing story of a Taoist hermit, who was one of Master T. T. Liang's teachers in Taiwan, and our connection to and the teachings from that  accomplished, old Immortal!