Adele and Qi Gong

I’ve just spent the weekend exploring the world of qi gong and nei gong with a lovely group of fellow enthusiasts and have returned re energised and revitalised. Qi gong has recently been in the spotlight, first with Robert Downey Jr extolling the benefits of traditional chinese medicine and qi gong.Then it was revealed that Adele also practised qi gong breathing techniques to help her with stage fright  http://popcrush.com/adele-seeks-help-to-overcome-stage-fright/?trackback=fbshare    So what exactly is the difference between qi gong and nei gong and how can it help you?

Qi literally means ‘energy’ or ‘life force’. In the last 50 years qi gong meaning ‘energy work’ has become an umbrella term to cover all types of oriental energywork exercise. However this energy work was originally divided into two distinct forms.

Qi gong as it was originally used refers to those exercises which stimulate the energy meridians on the surface of the body (wei chi) and through these affect the energy deep inside the body. Qi gong often uses the breath to move the qi and typically works on one or two meridians (energy pathways) at a time.

Nei gong however means ‘internal work’. It focuses on the energy deep within the body which then opens and strengthens the meridians of the body. In nei gong the mind directly connects with and leads the energy or qi, thereby activating all the bodies energy pathways at the same time. Physical movements may be used but are not necessary with standing, sitting, lying and sexual techniques commonly used.

Nei gong is at the root of all internal energy exercise systems including qi gong, tai chi, bagua and hsing yi. It can be seen as the alphabet upon which these arts are based. It has 16 componants which are:

  1. Breathing methods, in increasing complexity.
  2. Feeling, moving, transforming and transmuting internal energies along the descending, ascending and connecting energy channels of the body.
  3. Precise body alignments.
  4. Dissolving physical, emotional and spiritual blockages.
  5. Moving energy through the body’s meridian channels and energy gates.
  6. Bending and stretching the body, from the inside out and the outside in, along the yang and yin meridians.
  7. Opening and closing all parts of the body’s tissues, including the joints, muscles, soft tissues, internal organs, glands, blood vessels, cerebrospinal system and brain, as well as all of the body’s subtle energy anatomy.
  8. Manipulating the energy of the external aura.
  9. Making circles and spirals of energy inside the body, controlling the body’s spiraling energy currents, and moving chi in the body at will.
  10. Absorbing and projecting energy to and from any part of the body.
  11. Controlling energies of the spine.
  12. Controlling the body’s left and right energy channels.
  13. Controlling the body’s central energy channel.
  14. Learning the capabilities and uses of the body’s lower dandien.
  15. Learning the capabilities and uses of the body’s upper and middle dandien.
  16. Connecting every part of the physical body into one unified energy.

At first each componant is learned separately and then incorporated into your energy exercise whether its tai chi or qi gong etc.

Training starts with the physical movements that stretch the body’s soft tissues (muscles, connective tissue, tendons and ligaments) through a range of systematic and progressive techniques. Step two is about learning how to manipulate the body’s fluids which, with practice, can allow practitioners access to the energy that powers the body. In step three, the minds intent can be applied to move this energy at will, and that is where the fun begins. Working in this way allows you to unlock the body’s mechanisms that enable deep relaxation. Releasing both generalised stress and chronic, bound tension at each layer, whilst simultaneously feeling more and more energy and health benefits.

See you soon

Rob

 

 

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Tea, cake and Paganini

I have noticed recently how settled and comfortable I now feel as I start my daily practice routine. It has become as much a part of my day as cleaning my teeth and of course my morning cup of tea. The days when I would get up with a ‘knot’ in my stomach, feeling anxious as soon as I opened my eyes, already worrying about the next exam, audition, ‘getting’ an especially challenging passage in a Paganini caprice absolutely correct, are long gone.

Instead there is a wonderful feeling of open-ended exploration. Although of course I have plenty of goals and a clear idea of where I would like my violin journey to go I am no longer attached to any particular result. I’m no longer emotionally tied to that goal.

What would have made me feel completely at sea sometime ago, now allows complete freedom to explore all paths with openness and joy, with excitement of the unknown treasures to be discovered along the way. And of course I now enjoy every moment along the way far more with that freedom whether in practising in the morning or simply going through life enjoying the moment.

Ironically I do realise now that in releasing this emotional attachment to goals and being more ‘in one’s flow’ that our true self is discovered and as a result one’s true life purpose is revealed, enabling one to actually achieve the original goal one set in  the first place and with greater ease.

This afternoon I am going to help make a cake..it will be interesting to see if I can remain unattached to that result!

It would be great to hear your thoughts

All the best

Rob

Finding our true voice

I feel so fortunate that often during the week I get to drive through some beautiful countryside on the way to my tai chi classes. However it is when i’m wandering through the forest or across the south downs that I feel a strong connection to the surroundings. I like to take my time and really SEE. I love to just sit and contemplate an amazing view.

To often we rush through life at such a pace that we don’t allow ourselves to really, fully experience and take the time to SEE what’s actually around us. It’s amazing when you just sit for a while and look at a view, paying attention to every detail. What we see actually transforms right in front of us, from what we had previously been used to seeing whilst ‘on the run’. Details emerge in trees, different colours appear, contours of landscapes are clearer. We see in more depth, with more clarity.

In much the same way tai chi and qi gong apply this ‘looking’ and paying attention but in a slightly different way. Instead of looking out, we turn our attention inwards, to the ‘inner landscape’ of our bodies and minds. By developing a stronger and deeper connection with our body and also our mind through looking deeply and paying attention to all that is going on in that moment, provides a wonderful opportunity for healing and transformation to occur.

One of the biggest health problems in society at the moment comes from stress. It is the cause of so much suffering. By training ourselves to connect with the body and mind through a series of progressive exercises we can become intimately aware of any reactivity, tension, subtle changes and other ways that stress will manifest itself.

For a violinist or string player these principles from tai chi and other therapies have huge benefits that we can use to improve our playing, to train the body (and mind!) to move in a much more relaxed and aligned way, without any tension building, no matter how tricky the technique or demanding the conditions we are under.

There are many stages to becoming fully aware of the body and at each step we frequently have lightbulb moments when insights appear, revealing much that we previously hadn’t noticed. So how can we apply this for string players? With bowing for example it is a very useful to practice a scale as slowly as possible. Of course we are used to monitoring the tone of each note, position of bow on string etc but there are other aspects to good bowing technique and sound quality.

Try focusing on the shoulder, feeling all the sensations in the shoulder, both physical and non physical as you move. Then work progressively down the arm focusing on each part of the arm in turn. You will become aware of hidden tensions, default patterns of gripping on, tightness that had previously gone unnoticed and it is in these moments of realisation that we are then able to let go. releasing the areas of tension. Notice how the sound you produce changes as you gradually relax more and more. Notice how smoothly your bowing becomes. The more we are able to let go of this tension, the more our own personal sound will be discovered, the more we will be able to express ourselves freely, allowing our soul to shine through our music. In that way our music will have the capacity to connect deeply with the audience.

I strongly believe that music has the capacity to heal. The more we can work on understanding ourselves, becoming aware and processing the tensions and reactivity that we hold, the more our true selves, authentic nature or soul will come through the music we create. That allows for a real healing connection to build between performer and listener.

Thank you for reading..I’m looking forward to your thoughts.

The Journey

I recently spent a really enjoyable few days in Oxford with Bruce Frantzis and a few other tai chi enthusiasts. The retreat focused on the outer dissolving energy work of the taoist system of meditation. There is a wonderful sense of coming home when surrounded by a group of people all with a similar interest and goal. Some of us have been practising for the last twenty years so there was much sharing of ideas and catching up to do as usual.

Bruce is a larger than life character and this is reflected in the way he teaches. I love this honest and down to earth approach but it is not one for the faint hearted!  What I most appreciate is that he ‘walks the talk’. Some years ago Bruce was involved in a serious car accident which left him with a broken back and in severe pain. Doctors thought he would never be able to walk again. Eventually he managed to walk but with great difficulty. However, having tried every conceivable treatment the west had to offer, the agonising pain remained. He resolved to return to China and find a solution through the internal arts such as tai chi, hsing yi and bagua as well as taoist meditation. After remaining there for some years, Bruce returned having achieved his goal.

To me this is testimony to the limitless power of the mind and body when we become fully connected. It shows the enormous depth and vastness of untapped resources that we all possess to heal ourselves when we have the right intention. All it takes is the choice to engage with our inner self and really stay with that connection 24/7, listening to whatever arises in that moment, without judgment and complete openess. This is my homework! What a fascinating journey it will be.

The Joy of Practice

The Joy of Practice

Today I am practising one of my favourite pieces, the Mendelssohn violin concerto E minor. I first had fun learning this in my twenties but it only feels like yesterday! Today I am in a different ‘place’ to where I was then and it is fascinating to discover new and exciting elements that I was unaware of back then. I often find this on re reading a book some months later and seeing it with ‘new eyes’, finding hidden gems leaping out of the pages which went unseen on first reading.

Today I am particularly focusing on releasing tension. Whether it’s physical, mental or emotional tension it will always be reflected in the sound we produce as soon as the bow touches the string. This is where it’s absolutely essential to open up one’s awareness and really listen. In staying connected to the quality of sound, we ‘hear’ the inner tension.

Letting go, releasing tension wherever it might sit in the body/mind and maintaining that state is not a quick or easy task but it is definitely possible to learn through regular practice and application whatever the activity. This is a skill not limited to just playing your violin but can be applied to any other activity such as cleaning your teeth, washing up, walking the dog, literally anything. The more one can introduce the idea into other everyday events the easier it will be to apply when playing the violin.

When we’re in a state of ‘holding on’, our flow of creativity and ability to freely express ourselves through the music is severely squashed and we can be left with just a competent technical performance. But even technique as well can be hampered by excessive tension. So what is the answer?

Over the years I have found tai chi chuan to be incredibly helpful. I have spent a lot of time relearning how to use my body, particularly whilst playing the violin, in an effortless way, without strain. The first step is to become aware of your body, to become aware of how you feel right now. Keeping the connection and remaining present can be challenging at first but it does become easier. The next step is to feel whereabouts you are holding on. This can be done initially just standing still before you start practising. Next we align the body (more detail in future posts). By realigning the body and standing with improved structure a lot of unnecessary physical tension can be released. Then pick up the violin and try the same process whilst playing. Noticing when the body comes out of alignment and tension returns. I have found scales to be a wonderful exercise to practice body alignment as it allows for greater focus due to the simple repetitivity of the exercise and also it gives, what can sometimes become a routine exercise, an interesting twist!

Eventually this new relaxed way of moving will become more and more a part of your natural style, allowing greater freedom to express all you have inside and of course having more joy whilst playing.

This has made such a difference for me. In the early days I suffered badly from a painful neck, mainly due to poor posture but now I’m able to align my body correctly so that it doesn’t put pressure on any one part of the body and I remain loose and relaxed.

Often however tension can come from the emotions and there are many ways to help this too.

Looking forward to reading you comments 

 

Visiting Plum Village

I have always been a bookaholic, as anyone who has been shopping with me will testify. If I   see a bookshop I just have to go in and invariably never come out empty handed. Consequently I have quite a collection of ‘waiting to be read’ books, stacked away for later. One of my favourite authors is the now 87 year old Zen Buddhist master Thich Nhat Hanh. I first discovered him with ‘The Miracle of Mindfulness’, a beautifully written book which explains how to acquire the skills of Mindfulness, slow down our lives and begin to live in the moment. He shows how simple acts as washing the dishes, drinking tea and eating a meal can be transformed into acts of meditation.

A few months ago he came to London and gave a talk at the Royal Festival Hall and it was at this moment that I decided to visit Plum Village. This is where Thay (this is what he is known as) lives, practices and shares his immense wisdom and experience. And so it was I found myself on a plane bound for Bergerac in France at the beginning of August. As the plane touched down I was rather surprised to see a small collection of ramshackled buildings with corrugated iron roofs posing as the airport! As it turned out the arrivals hall was a tiny shed with a hole cut out of the wall through which our luggage was shoved onto a rather dilapidated old conveyor belt which wasn’t working. All in all a rather rustic affair! Fortunately my case arrived swiftly and I made my way hurriedly to find a taxi. Not having spoken French for some years now I was quite surprised at the ease with which I explained where I was going and without more ado we sped through the town to the railway station listening to Serge Gainsbourg on the radio. Hearing his voice I immediately relaxed and felt at home once again, recalling pleasant memories of my years living in Paris.

Upon arriving at the station I bought my ticket and sat down to wait for the train. There weren’t many people around but like me they all seemed preoccupied with where they were going. It suddenly dawned on me that the whole purpose of this journey was to deepen the practice of being in the moment and there I was worrying if I would be in time for the train and if I would catch the right one! I laughed at the irony and relaxed. I then enjoyed every moment of waiting, gave up worrying if I caught the right train…we are always on a journey, always going somewhere but if our thoughts are stuck on the destination, we bring ourselves out of the moment and begin to project ourselves, often our anxiety into the future, we lose the connection with the body & become ill at ease. To be in the flow of life is to experience the present, moment by moment with full awareness not attached to the result or destination. Going with the flow. Being at peace with where we are.

The train came slowly into the station and finding a very comfortable seat, enjoyed the ride to St Foy La Grande, a typical sleepy little French village. As I exited the station it was clear who had come to pick me up! Several serene figures were standing nearby dressed in brown robes with straw hats..unmistakable. There were a few of us on the bus and we chatted happily as we made our way to Son Ha monastery where we would be staying. We arrived late so it wasn’t possible to have a look around so remembering that we had an early start the next day, unpacked and went straight off to sleep.

The wake up bell rang at 5am and rather sleepily I got up, dressed and with torch in hand made my way outside. Our journey up to the meditation hall couldn’t have been more beautiful. It took us first of all through a magical pine forest which at that time was so peaceful and calm you couldn’t help but be absorbed by the forests presence. The vitality, strength and yet tranquillity of the forest would be a constant reminder of the natural beauty all around but also of our own unique inner beauty (revealed through awareness) that is ever present but often goes unseen. After a while we came out into a clearing and continued through some beautiful countryside, passing the statues of the Buddha looking out over the hillside, crossing paths with the local cats, a very friendly pair of ginger cats who seemed more content at watching the world go by than catching mice; until we arrived at the top of the hill.

Everyone filed into the immense hall and sat down for meditation, the monks had already arrived. The large bell sounded, silence filled the hall. This became one of many rituals throughout the day which I always looked forward to. The first few days, however, were a struggle. I had gone there with the intention of finding some peace and solitude. In fact there were around 700 people on this retreat and I couldn’t help but wonder if I had made a mistake. My lovely friend Julia even offered to arrange for a flight home the next day. After much consideration I decided to stay for the whole 21 days and looking back I’m glad I did as it turned out to be an amazing experience.

After the early morning meditation session the monks led us through various exercises. We practiced various qi gong and tai chi routines and an interesting stick form led by an ex gendarme turned monk! This was followed by breakfast and as with all the meals these were held in our ‘family’ groups and were silent. I found this tricky initially and it took me a few days to discover why I was so resistant but after thinking it through it became clear it was my own unresolved ‘stuff’ making an appearance. The learning had begun. Once I had processed this through I began to really look forward to the meals. The silence offered a chance to eat mindfully, something I rarely did. It enabled me to really appreciate and taste the wonderful vegan food that was provided and for the first time in ages actually have time to put my knife and fork down in between each mouthful. Eating in this way over 3 weeks allowed my digestive system to relax in a way it has never done. I began to feel energised and on top of the world. Of course the theme of the retreat was mindful awareness, with the main practices being sitting, eating and walking meditation. However we were encouraged to practice in every activity such as brushing teeth, having a shower, cooking, talking and even cleaning toilets!

At 9.30am everyday Thich Nhat Hanh gave an inspiring talk to the whole retreat. I found it incredible that an 87 year old man could be so full of vitality. He shared his knowledge and wisdom of Buddhist history, psychology, traditions and practices in particular meditation and mindfulness. He wrote and spoke in English, French, Chinese, Vietnamese and even ….Sanskrit! It was quite an experience to witness him delivering his talks over the 21 day retreat being in complete mindfulness of every word.

Thich Nhat Hanh pausing for the mindfulness bell

This was usually followed by a welcome walking meditation, especially if one had been sitting on the floor. Walking in this way, following each breath also became a joyful activity which deepened ones relaxation and connection with the beautiful surroundings, which we often don’t allow ourselves in everyday life.

Lunchtime couldn’t have come soon enough for me. The team of cooks behind the scenes did an amazing job at providing superb vegan meals every day. I admired the imagination & care that went into the preparation of the food and was always a delight for the taste buds. After sitting down in our family groups we were encouraged to wait until all the members of our little group had arrived. The bell would ring and then we started to eat in silence. It was quite amusing to watch the immense struggle from some of the group, not to dive headfirst into their plate of food. It was a good practice in being aware of how attached we are to things and how without that awareness our lives can be led by those attachments.

Being placed in the hills of Bergerac there was little else to do or visit, so spare time often led to wandering around the countryside simply observing and contemplating nature. For some it might have been a struggle but I found it hugely relaxing and exciting to discover and observe things that I otherwise would not have noticed. Both about the countryside but also about myself.

At 4pm the ‘family’ got together for a ‘sharing’ session where everyone got a chance to say what was on their mind and how they felt. For many it was a welcome opportunity to be in such a friendly and safe environment and was clearly a powerful experience. This was a model which we were encouraged to follow in our own towns creating new groups worldwide encouraging people to practice mindfulness on a daily basis.

After supper was working meditation and as luck would have it our group ended up with toilet block cleaning duty. As there were enough people in our group we split up and only had to endure this torment once every 3 days which considering the cooking team were hard at it for several hours a day, was quite a good deal! Although as with the other activities it was meant to be done in a mindful way our group cleaned the toilets and showers amidst much joking and laughter. I guess a release from the intensity of the retreat was necessary. Toilet duty seemed the appropriate opportunity!

There was a little free time afterwards, before the final meditation at 9pm. The vast bell would be struck from across the field in the large pagoda, calling everyone to the meditation hall. The moon would be coming out and the air still. Some crickets would still be sounding. It was a magical time. We entered the hall and sat quietly .Usually it was silent but sometimes we would be lucky enough to be led through a chanting session with the monks. Their voices were amazing and reverberated throughout the hall. A fitting end to the day.

Finally we would make our way back to our rooms, myself retracing my footsteps of the morning. Walking slowly down the hill, through the pine forest, peaceful yet again.
I will never forget the powerful sense of peace and tranquillity that pervaded the whole community at Plum Village. One can’t help but admire the dedication of the monks to work towards a global mindful community and they proved a wonderful example of what the practice can reveal in each of us. There is such a transformational power in a community where everyone has the same goal.

I will be returning soon.

Early Morning Practice

I have always been a morning person. I wake up quite early and like to get going as soon as possible. When I was younger, I would get up and practice my scales for an hour or so before breakfast. That meant the day had got off to a good start. Looking back i’m not sure my brothers would have agreed! They had to endure many many hours of listening to me rehearse endlessly, getting each note just right.

Fortunately we had good neighbours who were very encouraging and loved to listen when I had the windows open during the summer months. During the winter though it was not so easy. The windows would ice up on the inside and because we didn’t have central heating it would be quite chilly.So I wrapped myself up in countless layers of woolly jumpers and gradually thawed out as once again I went through the scale or study routine. Nothing would stand in the way of morning practice.

Nowadays I begin with Tai Chi. The gentle movements of the form awaken the body and mind and allow me to become more centred. I find it a wonderful way of reconnecting my mind and body, to find a state of continual inner listening, coming closer to  the deeper connection to what is within.

Having made this connection, once I take up my violin I can allow all that is within me to come out and express itself through the notes in a completely natural way, effortlessly.

These days it’s my children who still listen to me instead of my brothers. But as I used to play to them before they were born, they’re quite used to hearing the endless scales going up and down..and of course twinkle twinkle little star.