Stretching the Bones

Embracing Horse

or Virtue Pursued

It’s Wednesday, fast day, the day to break from prevailing cares and do something different. I was going to go back to the drawing that hangs fire, but weather moving through central Texas deposited light less conducive to drawing than reflecting. As I type, the sun has moved far enough west to gild the air beneath the storm.

It was raining when I woke this morning, hard enough that construction sites in the vicinity were stilled. The world was noticeably quiet. No dump trucks, diggers or cranes. Not much traffic. The light was a kind that admits it is later than it seems but says also that it is okay, the world has paused.

Even when I ran the morning’s errands, Austin, at least, seemed to take a breather. Rain fell intermittently, letting up each time I had to leave the car. It was early, but even so, the two big box stores I had to visit were empty of patrons. I made my purchases, hit the p.o. and returned to base. The main storm didn’t let loose until I stood watching through the sliding door. There are sights delightful to see.

So this Wednesday, fast day, today, has been restful. But rest, to quote Nod’s Way, is not the same as idleness. Light and rain conspired to massage my mind, but the light has also been excellent for movement.

By inclination, I am the laziest of bones. My default, as anyone with experience knows, is lolled back staring into space, thoughts outside the room. Hours pass that way when I slip my grown-up collar. Life would pass that way if there were no consequences, but, of course, there are. This is important when one lacks discipline.

Lazy bones unchained, one consequence is that movement is difficult and uncomfortable when it comes time to get up. Complications with joints and tendons mean too much inactivity blows out quality of life. Eventually, sitting still becomes painful, and moving out of stillness is equally painful. The struggle back to activity hurts. Better (and lazier) to avoid the unpleasantness by staying in motion.

I do not call what I do a workout. This may be a mind game to trick the bones into exercise—because they are the laziest, you see. The term I prefer is ” practice.” Mine has two parts, “morning practice” and “evening practice.” I call morning practice “morning,” even though it sometimes pushes into early afternoon. What the two parts have in common is that they focus on coordinating posture, movement and breath to the benefit of body and mind.

In terms of huffing and puffing, morning practice is the more demanding. It opens with a qigong exercise, Clear Mind, in three steps:

  • Clear Mind.
  • Open Heart.
  • Push Out the Walls.

The term, “qigong,” is often translated as “energy work.” As a system, it centers on breath and balance, but it also builds strength and opens the joints. I repeat this exercise after each set in the practice, including at the end.

From Clear Mind I move without pause into two Sun Salutations. Hatha Yoga is a system about which I know little. At some time in the deep past I learned the Sun Salutation, and have practiced it since, but I have no idea of the framework in which it fits. The exercise provides important upper body work and also stretches the soles of the feet. It builds strength and opens the joints, guides the body toward correct posture and promotes conscious breathing.

I come out of the second salutation into Clear Mind. Settling into the basic stance, I raise hands slowly, imagining they draw energy up through my feet into my body.

  • Clear Mind.
  • Open Heart.
  • Push Out the Walls.

This is not an ending but a transition. Push Out the Walls flows into a stance called Embracing Horse.

Embracing Horse is an apparently static pose that must date to ancient days, because it has a place in many systems of physical development originating in China. I had both a qigong teacher and a taijiquan teacher who began class sessions with the stance. I heard one teacher tell a class that if they wanted to impress someone with appearance show them Strike the Tiger (see below), but to share an exercise that builds real power show them Embracing Horse.

Here is how to do it: with feet about shoulder-width apart and each knee over its foot, raise the arms so the hands are held palms-in at throat level. Relax the lower back, the hips, the knees and the ankles, settling with each relaxation. Hold the head erect, imagining that one hangs from a cord attached to the crown. Breathe slowly and hold the stance as long as possible.

To other eyes the aim may seem to stand still, but the pose is dynamic. However long I hold it, I constantly adjust a little more, relax a little more, settle a little more. The settling allows more relaxing, and more relaxing allows more adjustment. Most of the strain is in the soles of the feet, the thighs and the upper arms. Curiously, as those parts tire, possibility flexes everywhere else in the body.

The reason I Embrace Horse at this point is because it’s the first of ten exercises in a set devised by the late C. K. Chu. Master Chu was a teacher of taijiquan, although this set is from a related system called neigong, or “internal work.” Taijiquan is itself internal work, so this set is double-down get bad for serious students. For lazier bones, it works all the body parts worked by a Sun Salutation, but in a different way. It also works some parts that minimalist yoga doesn’t. The set is a mix of slow movement and static stances. Each step has a name, the names together evoking a mythic space of exercise:

  • Embracing Horse is done in the same basic stance as Clear Mind. That basic stance is also the starting position for Yang style taijiquan.
  • Ride the Wild Horse dives and rises three times, the feet changing position.
  • Play the Pipa is a static pose done twice, leading right/leading left.
  • The Compass sweeps circling from the waist, then repeats in reverse.
  • Double Dragon Leaps from the Sea is done with right foot leading, and then left.
  • Rhinoceros Gazes at the Moon is part movement and part static, bending forward from the waist to look back over one’s shoulder, first right and then left.
  • Ride the Tiger slides to stretch the groin, right leg out in front, and then left.
  • Phoenix Spreads its Wings crouches and rises while sweeping arms, three times forward and three times reversed.
  • Strike the Tiger moves the feet as far apart as possible, and shifts to balance first over the right foot, then the left.
  • Owl Wakes moves back into basic stance and looks right, then left.

From Owl Wakes I move directly to Clear Mind, and from Clear Mind into a third Sun Salutation. Morning practice closes with a final Clear Mind. The entire sequence takes about thirty-five minutes.

I look forward to evening practice as a relative piece of cake. It’s a little shorter, not easy but less strenuous, and in the wake of morning practice I move easier the rest of the day. That’s a leg up when the sun goes down.

Evening practice begins like morning practice:

  • Clear Mind.
  • Open Heart.
  • Push Out the Walls.

In the evening, Clear Mind segues seamlessly into an eight-step qigong set called Ba Duan Jin, or Eight Brocades. From pushing out walls, I settle into the first “brocade,” Two Hands Lift up the Sky.

Like other qigong, Eight Brocades centers on breath and balance. Like other qigong, it also builds strength and flexibility. Note also that the distinctions between these systems are not hard and fast. One aim of neigong practice is to cultivate a “neigong awareness” that informs qigong and taijiquan. Similarly, qigong builds qigong awareness to inform neigong and taijiquan. Neigong and qigong ultimately become taijiquan practice as the awarenesses converge into one. Unlike the neigong set, every step of Eight Brocades moves, but as with the neigong set, each step has a name and the names call forth a mythic space.

  • Two Hands Lift up the Sky starts with a squat and rise.
  • Bend the Bow, sometimes called The Archer, stretches right, then left.
  • Part Earth and Sky stands tall and moves the arms in opposite directions.
  • Waking Owl Spreads its Wings repeats Waking Owl from the neigong set, but also involves spreading the arms.
  • Sway Head and Raise Tail circles right to left, then reverses.
  • Strike with an Angry Face involves slow punches with heavy breathing, right then left.
  • Brush the Sky, Brush the Earth sweeps the hands overhead and then along the ground before drawing them up the insides of the legs.
  • Owl Takes Flight rises onto the toes and then settles back into the basic stance.

Again, transition:

  • Clear Mind.
  • Open Heart.
  • Push Out the Walls.

At this point, I pull my feet together, hitch my britches, adjust my hips and check heart and attitude. Releasing breath, I begin the only set of taijiquan that I know all the way through, the Yang style short form.

What Yang refers to is the lineage of the form. Yang style, the most widely known of the several taijiquan lineages, was developed within the Yang family over three or four generations. I once dreamed of mastering the Yang style, learning all its forms and earning a black sash. That broke on the rocks of inaptitude and ineptitude. It wasn’t a matter of will. I have issues with joints and tendons that proved insurmountable. The photo above documents crooked hips. Bad body would not cooperate to chase a black sash; however, it did cooperate in other ways. I made enough progress to realize that even if I can never be Kwai Chang Caine, the simple repetition of the form helps tremendously with issues of joints and tendons.

Taijiquan gets translated several ways. Most often I have seen, “Supreme Ultimate,” though I suspect the English overstates an idea less brash in the original. When I first started learning, a younger acquaintance studying a Japanese system dismissed it as “slow motion kung fu for old people.” Except for the disparagement, he wasn’t entirely wrong. Every authority I trust on the subject has said, “Kung fu is taijiquan. Taijiquan is kung fu.” As the forms are generally distinguished, kung fu focuses on external development, taijiquan on inner. Every master of kung fu has studied taijiquan, and vice versa. The reason taijiquan is performed slowly is so that one may perfect the movements. Masters practice both very slowly and very fast. I saw a teacher demo the Yang long form at high speed, and it looked pretty much like blazing kung fu. Weapons training in taijiquan is also rarely slow.

To my regret, I never completed long form training. The Yang long form has 103 or 108 steps, depending on who counts. What I practice is the Yang short form, which I learned to count with twenty-four steps. It is this short form that forms the larger part of evening practice.

  • Holding out the hands at pelvis level, one settles into the form’s starting position, Return to Mountain.
  • Commence raises the hands to chest height and lets them fall as though through water.
  • Turning, one steps left and separates the hands to Part the Horse’s Mane, steps right and Parts the Horse’s Mane, steps left and Parts the Horse’s Mane,
  • then shifts weight to stand on one leg and raise arms in White Crane.
  • From White Crane, one steps to Brush Knee, Push left, right, left
  • then shifts weight and settles on the right leg to Play the Pipa.
  • Repulse Monkey backs four steps, which is handy for exiting a tight corner but also refuses the monkey mind always lurking within.
  • Grasp the Sparrow’s Tail is a complex sequence that I would have counted as several  separate parts, but no one asked me. Step left, block with left arm, press with right, draw back, press and ward off, draw back, push with both hands, turn 180 degrees, step right and do it all again.
  • Single Whip reverses direction and lifts the hands to defensive positions.
  • Move Hands like Clouds sidesteps three times
  • to another Single Whip.
  • High Pat on the Horse’s Neck balances on the right leg while raising and lowering the left.
  • Kick with Right Heel is never slow. It is always a rapid strike.
  • Smite the Tiger’s Ears is a slow forward lunge from which one draws back and reverses direction.
  • Kick with Left Heel is another rapid strike.
  • Magic Bird Stands on One Leg right, then left.
  • Fair Maiden Works Her Shuttles steps forward and wide, raising the hands, right and left.
  • Dive for the Golden Needle at the Bottom of the Sea crouches and rises.
  • On rising, the right hand sweeps behind and around in Fan through Back.
  • Reversing slowly, one moves the hands to Hidden Fist and then
  • Punch Low.
  • Drawing back, one shifts forward to Push and Turn,
  • sweeping arms up to Embrace Tiger
  • and letting them sink slowly to Return to Mountain.

After ending the form but before closing practice, I always pause, inhale long and deep, and let it out slowly.

  • Clear Mind.
  • Open Heart.
  • Push Out the Walls.

After closing, I stand away and salute my teachers. Tradition is to salute teachers of the form, but I include all my teachers. It’s all one thing. My high school biology teacher and favorite English professor are present in my practice. So are my parents, and the older kid more than fifty years ago who taught me to tie two half hitches. Once I have kept at it long enough, many times what I have done already, once body and mind have perfected the lessons, it will all be taijiquan. As neigong and qigong become taijiquan, as taijiquan becomes neigong and qigong, so too do writing and drawing and all other work undertaken with presence. Going is slow, but I think I am making progress.