Mind and sinew

I’m just back from a yiquan class, and I thought I’d type this while I still have use of my arms: soon my hands and back will start stiffening up, and I may not feel like attacking the keyboard!

I’ll talk more about the vipassana retreat some other time, but there are two things to mention. First, I came down with a bad cold while I was in Singapore which stopped me sleeping so, combining that with the sleep debt accumulated over the past year, I was pretty groggy during most of the retreat. This made it really hard to concentrate during the meditation. Secondly, when you do these courses for the first time, you usually sit in a group in the main meditation hall, or in your room in the dormitory. Towards the end of the course, you are assigned your own windowless meditation cell in the main meditation building, next to the meditation hall. When you have already participated in one retreat, you get your cell from the first day. This was my third retreat.

I struggled. Retreats are always challenging, but because I was so tired going in, after a few days of rising at 4am I was really not keeping a clear or focussed mind! In one of the evening dharma talks, Goenkaji suggested that if you’re tired, you might leave the meditation hall, and try meditating while standing. Aha, thought I.

So, for the rest of the retreat I spent most of my solo meditation sessions in my cell, alternating between sitting and zhan zhuang. I tried not to mix techniques, so I didn’t really use the yiquan visualizations (springs/water/etc) but just held the posture while performing vipassana.

One morning, listening to the tropical dawn chorus, I had something of an epiphany when, for perhaps the first time ever, everything fell absolutely into place, and all my weight was being held and transmitted solely by tendons and ligaments, which creaked and cracked as I swayed gently like a ship under sail with no weight on muscle or bone.

Since I got back, that’s really been a guide for me, and I’ve found that I’ve really been noticing small things that make a big difference to posture. I’ve continued to do most of my meditation practice in a standing pose, often with steel rings on my wrists. I do a lot in my office when I need to take a break from the screen – though since my office has a glass door I don’t doubt that rumours and gossip are now rife in my department!

In class, I find that as my sensitivity to where my weight is being held increases, I’m finding it easier to see how full-body power develops – which is not to say that I’m achieving it but, for example, I’m maintaining my balance much more during some of the exercises. I’m also feeling how small changes in the position of my feet have big effects elsewhere.

Last week, during a tui shou session I really felt everything fall into place; my back formed a perfect bow shape, everything connected and transferred power and weight smoothly, and I was able to really control my partner, who I think has done a fair bit of yiquan training.

Pride comes before a fall, and in today’s class I was totally locked down by three different partners. It was very frustrating. Interestingly, they were all taller than me by at least a head; that’s unusual – I realised that until today I’ve almost always trained with partners who were about my own height or shorter. I came to realize that I now had my arms at completely the wrong angle, so there was no connection to my back and legs. No wonder they were able to overwhelm me! I’m going to have to think about that.

Still, I am more convinced than ever that yiquan training and vipassana meditation go together very well indeed. More on that soon.

Added later:

I think I may have reached the point where I’m ready to start taking an interest in yiquan applications. That may seem a strange thing to write, but it really hasn’t been a focus of mine up until now. Ever since I started blogging, I’ve been complaining about the tightness of my shoulders and lower back, and lack of mobility in certain ways, and I’ve mentioned several times that it’s only the yiquan practice
that has had a significant effect on them. As a result, my focus in my yiquan practice so far has been on the health effects more than anything else. I still have a lot of work to do here, but as you may guess from what I wrote above, I feel I’ve made immense progress, and I think now I can pay more serious attention to the combat side of it – which means getting started on strength and endurance training. More on that soon as well.

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