Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Grip Strength and Various Health and Aging Correlates

HERE is a brief, but interesting, article on the health and healthy aging correlates of having a 'powerful handshake' (aka. grip strength).  The research of most interest is the million or so Swedish military recruits, who have their grip measured - then are followed throughout life.  Not too definitive, but interesting none-the-less. 


Saturday, May 17, 2014

Guest Blog #2 - Craig Mallet [ARCtraining] on Zhan Zhuang [Standing Meditation] practice

Guest Blog #2 - Craig Mallet [ARCtraining] on Zhan Zhuang [Standing Meditation] practice

About a thousand years ago I was having a conversation with my good friend Dave about my standing meditation practice. I don’t entirely remember what we talked about specifically, but I do remember saying that I’d write an article on the subject for Dave to use as a guest post on his website.  Despite best intentions, I promptly forgot about it for a long time and ended up writing a bunch of other articles and guest posts for other people and left Dave crying himself to sleep every night (at least I like to think that’s what happened). Dry your imagined tears Dave, it’s time for me to finally make good on my promise!

Standing meditation appears in quite a number of traditions. Yoga, Buddhism, Zen, Daoism and I’m sure many other traditions that I am not so educated on, contain variations of meditation practices; typically some variety of lying, seated, standing and walking/moving meditations.  

Each method and tradition has different purposes and different outcomes. My particular practice is drawn from the arts of Xin Yi Liu He, Yang Tai Ji, Cha Quan and Qi Gong, all of which for the most part are built on philosophies drawn from Daoism (with a hint of Buddhist). From what I’ve seen, the Chinese traditions seem to have a lot more detail in the standing practice compared to other traditions, although this is more than likely just a case of the details of the other traditions not being as readily available, or that I haven’t learned them yet.

At any rate, I’m going to keep this article reasonably confined to the methods I have learned from the Chinese martial arts. Let’s start with some terminology. In mandarin, standing meditation is called zhàn zhuāng. Zhàn means to be stationed or to stand and 樁 zhuāng is a post, stump, stake or pole, so common translations are usually “standing like a post” or “standing like a pole”. It is often shortened to standing post or standing pole. The idea is not only that you are standing, but that you are fixed in the ground like a stake or stump. Often imagery of being buried up to the waist line is used during practise to invoke this feeling of sturdiness.

Zhàn zhuāng acts as the core of most of the internal Chinese traditions, and is considered fundamental to proper understanding of internal skills. It is such an effective practice, that there is an entire style that practises zhàn zhuāng almost exclusively to great effect, called Yì Quán (意拳 - ‘Intent Boxing). It might be important now to note that there is more than one standing posture, each which has a slightly different focus.  

One posture might be used for general health; others help with generation of whipping power, and others again that cultivate the feeling of   There are endless variations, as basically any posture that you move through in any of the forms or movement practices can also be practiced as a post.

The most common zhuāng that is practiced and generally found across all of the styles, is called hún yuán zhuāng (圓樁 completely circular post, often also called embracing post, or embracing the tree post. NB: different characters appear to be used by different people, sometimes the second character used is yuán 元, which would make the meaning something like complete primary/basic post). There are other common stances too, such as sān tǐ shì (三體勢) and jí zhuāng (無極), but I’m not going to go into any detail on those specific practises in this article.  Instead, I will simply provide some global queues that can be used across all standing practises. If you are a beginner and wish to try this for the first time, use the hún yuán zhuāng.

To set up:
  • Stand with the feet shoulder width apart and the knees softly bent (nb: foot position might be different for other zhuāngs).
  • Lift the crown of the head and sink the hips.  My favourite imagery for this is imagining the head is a helium balloon, the pelvis is a weight, and the spine is a string connecting the two. So the head is floating up, the pelvis is sinking downwards and spine is drawn into a lengthened position. You can also imagine that this causes a gap between each vertebrae to form, as if the spine were a slinky being pulled apart. It is important to note here that for the spine to get longer and the vertebrae in the neck to separate, the chin must tuck in; pointing the chin towards the sky will actually compress the neck.
  • Let everything else soften and hang from the lengthened spine structure.  Even the spine itself is soft and pliable just like the string connecting the balloon and the weight.
  • Relax and soften the point between the eyebrows, inducing a feeling of the eyebrows moving further away from each other, and the wrinkles in the forehead and the bridge of the nose flatten out.
  • Let this feeling of softening and relaxation cascade backwards into the face. First the eyes, then the eye sockets and superficial muscles in the face, next the sinuses above and below the eye sockets, and then the top back of the nasal passage, the back of the throat, then softening the deeper tissues of the head and neck, where the top of the spine meets the base of the skull.
  • Continue cascading the softening and relaxation down through the shoulders, arms, hands, ribcage, waistline, hips, upper legs, lower legs, ankles and feet.
  • Imagine that a rope is connected to the end of each finger tip, and is being drawn away from the arms in the same direction as the fingers are pointing creating a feeling that the hands are being suspended and therefore don’t need to be held up by the shoulders. Let the shoulders relax and sink, as if they could go totally limp without affecting the position of the hands.
  • As the hips soften, they should open up, as if they were a set of jaws swallowing the torso whole, or as if they were a sack that was being opened to envelope the torso.
  • The knees should not feel like they are holding any weight. They should feel like a load transferring joint, rather than a load bearing joint, simply directing the weight through the lower legs and feet and into the ground.
  • The centre of the bottom of the feet should feel like they are the centre of a suction pad, being drawn or sucked up into the legs.
  • Finally, take notice of the fact that you are 80% water, invoking the feeling of all of the bones, muscles and organs suspended and floating in liquid wrapped in a semi permeable membrane.

Points of attention after set up:
  • The most basic thing to do once the set up is complete is to simply continually return to the first point and scan your way down through the body again, re-cuing everything that was queued initially in the same order as above.  Often you will find that as you return to the crown, for example, it is no longer lifted and you need to do it again, or that you can somehow find a deeper level of softness. This can be continued for the full length of practice and I highly recommend beginners stick to this method for at least a few months before experimenting with anything else below. This will ensure that the structure is strong and stable.
  • Once the structure is reasonably secure, you can bring your attention and awareness to the abdominal region between the belly button and the spine (called the Lower dān tián). Simply see if you can be aware of all the happenings down here.  After time you may start experiencing strong feelings of buzzing and warmth, as well as a deep and strong feeling of relaxation that starts to radiate outwards from this area.  Simply stay with this feeling, without trying to force it.  If it’s not there, just watch what is there.
  • You could also explore single pointed attention.  See if you can keep your attention on one particular point for extended periods of time such as the tip of the nose. Any point will work here, and it doesn't matter which point you use so long as you can keep the attention there.
  • Finally, in any meditation, exploration of the breath is always a fantastic idea [See Here:]

Before I wrap this article up, I want to mention a very important point in this practice.  There is some variety of cascading effect that happens when you practice standing pole every day that allows progress not available to those who do not practice daily. It’s as if you build up a particular momentum doing daily practice, and if you stop, you must then expend more energy to build it up again.  My teacher would always say “miss one day, and you will need three days to catch up”.  In fact I’m reasonably certain this is a paraphrase of one or more of the classical texts surrounding these topics. At any rate, I have definitely found it to be the case, as it appears all of the fun exploration parts of the practice are only accessible to me after 2 - 4 weeks of constant practise, despite my 10 years of experience. 

It’s also probably a good time to mention now that initial practice is very uncomfortable. To begin with, your body is going to tell you where your problem areas.  It will tell you this by making them become incredibly uncomfortable, possibly by trembling and shaking, and more than likely by burning.  You are going to want to give up, and your mind will make up every excuse in the world as to why you should.  Here’s the interesting bit, you’re not in any real danger, and the body is more than capable of continuing (with the only exception being the knees, do not go too far into a deep posture unless you are definitely totally relaxed in the legs and hips!). It will be an exercise in persistence for quite some time until eventually, those points will relax and open up and become very comfortable. Sooner or later, the entire body will be engulfed in this feeling of deep relaxation and it will eventually get so comfortable that you won’t want to get up - a very different experience to pushing through discomfort to some preconceived end point.  If you don’t persist, or practice consistently, this will never happen.

Finally, I would like to finish this article with a link to some very classical views on this kind of practise.  If you read these and they don’t make sense, then perhaps its time to do some serious practise.  You can read them HERE and HERE.   Happy practice!

Monday, May 5, 2014

Great Steve Maxwell Clip - Reflecting on his method and life

Check out this CLIP of Steve Maxwell, featuring a lot of footage from Steve at the place I train Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (Jiu Jitsu Kingdom)  - from Steve's most recent trip to Australia.  The clip is a snapshot of Steve and his methods as they stand at the moment, and a bit of a trip down memory lane it terms of the methods and systems that have been most influential to the formulation of his approach.

The clip is a refreshingly honest look at a man in his 60's and still loving Life (maybe even more than ever..); and contains some quotes on the simplicity needed for happiness through life.  I class Steve as one of my primary mentors in the physical cultivation methods I employ, and this clip showcases (again) a number of the reasons I like his approach so much.  Steve is truly one of the happiest humans I have met.

You might also want to check out Steve being Steve on the Joe Rogan Experience Podcast recently:

I recently attended two of Steve's Mobility Conditioning Workshops - and highly recommend anyone interested in physical cultivation and movement to check them out. 

There are a number of great quotes from the clip (and a nice soundtrack), including this one: 

"I guess if there is a secret to youth; it's play" Steve Maxwell. 

The whole clip very much reminds me of another great quote:

"Happiness is not achieved by the conscious pursuit of happiness; it is generally the by-product of other activities." Aldous Huxley

I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.