Saturday, April 24, 2010

Tai Chi Gala 2010 Approaches

It’s almost time for the annual Tai Chi Gala in upstate New York, June 4–6. Regrettably, I cannot attend this year, due to funding and other commitments. Instead, my intensive training last month at the Gompa will have to suffice for 2010, and I hope to attend the Gala in 2011.

For students of Jiulong Baguazhang, the Tai Chi Gala is special because:

  • it will host our annual Gathering of the Circle, a full week of intensive training, June 7–11, following the main Gala event;
  • it is descended from the Tai Chi Farm of the late Master Jou Tsung Hwa, a key figure in Daoqiquan’s modern history;
  • it continues to showcase a variety of authentic internal martial arts with undiluted mind/body techniques;
  • it is an ideal place to meet other Jiulong students from all over and to receive top-quality training from senior Jiulong teachers.

Early in Dr. Painter’s career, the late Master Jou Tsung Hwa recognized the value of Daoqiquan as one of the few remaining Chinese martial art systems with its full ancient power still intact. Master Jou encouraged Dr. Painter to make a career of teaching the Daoqiquan arts, and to this day, Dr. Painter recognizes Master Jou’s mentoring as a key force in preserving these arts for a modern audience.

Today, Master Jou’s martial arts lineage is carried on by his student Loretta Wollering. Though the old Tai Chi Farm has closed, Ms. Wollering preserves its tradition by operating the annual Tai Chi Gala.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Private Training at the Gompa, March 26–29, 2010

After eight years of studying Jiulong Bagua, I finally attended a private training session at the Gompa headquarters in Arlignton, TX. Though I had visited three times before, for “Founder’s Day” weekends with dozens of students at all levels, this visit was quite a different experience. This time I was with a group of seven, all at a similar level, for four days of intensive personalized training.

From the moment we arrived, we experienced the Gompa’s unique blend of modest old-school charm and modern international scope. Immediately, we were greeted in person by Dr. John Painter, the lineage holder and most senior teacher of the Daoqiquan system. He showed us to our quarters, a large room with sleeper sofas where three of us had signed up for lodging. Known as “the first bed and breakfast internal arts institute in America,” it also serves as the Gompa’s main indoor training room, complete with a traditional Chinese ancestor shrine commemorating key figures from Daoqiquan’s centuries-old past.

As we began to unpack, Dr. Painter introduced us to Winchester, a striped yellow kitten who seemed to have recently joined the Gompa staff. The three of us students passed the rest of the evening eating dinner at a local restaurant, arranging our gear for the morning, and coordinating with fellow students as they arrived at the airport.

In the morning, we cleared the training room by folding up our beds and stowing our luggage, and the other students joined us for a session of meditation and warmup exercises led by Dr. Painter. Following that was a morning session on Jiulong Baguazhang taught by Shifu Bob Castaldo, with a break for lunch and then another Jiulong session filling the afternoon. The topic was “core pressure,” or a method of deriving power primarily from the muscles in the body’s torso and abdomen, rather than the arms. This concept is familiar to all Jiulong studens, but Shifu Castaldo had new ideas to deepen our understanding and improve our abilities. Throughout Friday’s two sessions, two more Saturday, and a final one Sunday morning, we explored Shifu Castaldo’s exercises, sometimes working solo and sometimes with a partner.

By Sunday afternoon, all of us had noticeably improved. Playing “Willow Bends” with the other students, I felt like I was truly moving according to the principles of Jiulong, not just in brief flashes, but for continuous stretches of time that felt natural and easy. Rather than monitoring specific muscles or limbs, I found myself thinking about higher-level concepts such as “connecting” to my partner’s spine and “rooting” their incoming force to my feet. Again, these were old, familiar concepts, but I was pleased to feel them happening more naturally and intuitively than ever before, powered by that feeling of “core pressure.” I could feel all of my partners improving too, moving more smoothly and powerfully and with less tension.

That afternoon, Dr. Painter showed us around Old Fort Worth, a living historic tribute to the Texas cattle trade and cowboy culture. For me, the most memorable moment was our chance encounter with a Wild Bill Hickock impersonator, during which we learned that Dr. Painter had once performed as Wild Bill at the Six Flags amusement park and was thus a walking encyclopedia of Wild Bill knowledge and trivia. He and the impersonator traded facts and stories, with the latter remaining almost entirely in character despite his growing surprise and admiration. Watching these two interact was quite a sight!

The Old Fort Worth episode was just one of the legendary after-hours treats that seem to come with a Gompa stay. There were many lunches, dinners, and “dorm room” hours filled with special tips and rare stories from Dr. Painter or the senior Shifus.

Monday, our training turned to the health practice of Flying Dragon Qigong. Dr. Painter gave us a fascinating morning lecture on the connections between modern medical science and ancient qigong. Then, he spent the afternoon leading us through the qigong set and helping us each improve.

By Monday night, I was thoroughly exhausted! These sessions were not physically strenuous, in the sense of running a marathon or lifting weights, but they required extreme, sustained mental focus. Plus, learning new patterns of movement means asking our muscles to act in unfamiliar combinations, and they tire quickly. Each night, I found myself more wiped out, and by the fourth evening, I was ready to sleep for a month.

But instead, I boarded a plane Tuesday morning and spent the whole flight adding to my notes, hoping to capture as many lessons and insights as possible. And capture I did, enough to keep me busy for quite a while. If you are looking to take your skills to the next level or to get your first taste of real “internal” martial arts, you can’t go wrong with a visit to the Gompa.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Footprints of a Flying Dragon


Flying Dragon Qigong, a walking meditation

Saturday, January 30, 2010

“Filling”—an amazing technique with many applications

A few years ago, at a Jiulong seminar, I learned a technique called “filling.”

This is another of those things that is very hard to describe in words, but I will try: it means to achieve a balance between your body’s relaxation and tension, while taking a posture that is structurally solid, so that when pressure is applied to any part of your body, it is transmitted evenly throughout. Though this sounds very mechanical, we approach it as a form of meditation, by trying to call up the feeling that occurs when the body is in this state.

Your body then behaves less like a disconnected jumble of limbs and more like a unit, say, a beach ball or an A-frame house. When you fill properly, it feels as if there are no “gaps” in your structure, as if you could, for example, extend your hand just by leaning into your opposite foot.

In martial terms, the applications are obvious: (1) to put the mass of your whole body into any strike, and (2) to absorb force on any part of your body safely throughout your structure and into the ground.

But it turns out that filling has countless other applications too, from enhancing mundane everyday tasks to bolstering confidence, affecting other people’s reactions, and even improving one’s marksmanship.

This summer, I had an experience with the latter.

Central CO mountains

I had gone camping with some friends in the mountains of Colorado, and we were shooting targets in the woods. I am an absolute novice when it comes to shooting, so I was doing my best to follow my friends’ tips on proper grip, trigger pull, sighting, etc. They were very encouraging: I was not bad for a beginner, etc.

At one point, I found myself aiming a .22 rifle at a swinging metal target about 25 yards away—which was proving to be a challenge for me—and the way I happened to be shifting my stance suddenly reminded me of filling.

I thought, “What if I fill from my feet through my whole body, and into the rifle?” In other words, what if I take the rifle as an extension of my arms and fill the entire unit, from my heels all the way to its tip?

Now, this filling business is a very subtle skill, and I am no expert at it. But I did my best, and after a few seconds of concentration, I could really feel that rifle connecting into my entire arm. Both arms, in fact. A little more focus, and I could almost feel a vein of connected matter from the very tip down to my opposite heel.

“Here goes,” I thought, and I could already feel the expectation building, tension sprouting through my body. “No, no. Settle that out and fill again.” I got there once more, pretended I wasn’t really trying to do anything, waited until part of my mind was ready to wander, and then pulled the trigger.

Bulls-eye! The little target spun prettily on its swivel.

This turned out to be repeatable. Not efficient, by any means, but quite repeatable!

There are more filling stories, more odd little situations in which I have found an unexpected use for filling. I will share them in future posts.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Less Mystery, More Power: The New Nine Dragon Curriculum

Shifu Robert Castaldo tells the Jiulong Journal about recent changes to the Nine Dragon Baguazhang curriculum.

The modern “Rolling the Pearl” curriculum removes some of the mystery and the trial-and-error, to make this esoteric art more down-to-earth so students can grasp it more quickly and apply it sooner. Same ancient principles, same techniques, same power; but hey, this is the twenty-first century. We’ve learned a thing or two.


The whole purpose of changing the curriculum is to make it more easily understood by everybody ... There’s less mystery involved ... a more direct approach to our goal of being able to apply these principles in practical application.


From my standpoint, the most complicated thing for students to grasp—not merely to understand intellectually and feed back to you in a question and answer session, but to understand in their daily practice—is the way that the process builds from the simplest skill, which is the Quiet Sitting—quieting the mind—through the standing, which has very specific skill sets and engrams that it begins to develop, and how to carry those into moving. Students were not making all those connections all the way. They were looking at each of these modules, these skill-sets as separate entities. Eventually, somewhere farther down the line than we would like, the light bulb would go off, the epiphany would happen, and the pieces would come together. So, now we’re trying to make it as clear and simple and easy as possible for body and mind to come to understand how the standing translates into the walking and the walking translates into the circling.

... you have to continually look to your standing and incorporate what you learn there into everything else. That’s a key element. When you can do it in standing, take it into shifting. When you can do it shifting, take into walking. ... All the movements are merely physical shells if you don’t have that undifferentiated, whole-body feeling attached to them. So, when I wedge through you with my arm, if I have any feeling that it’s my arm pushing through you, I’m not doing it correctly. I should feel like my whole body’s moving through you. If I do it correctly, it’s effortless. If I feel stress in my deltoids or my back, I’m not doing it correctly. If I’ve engaged all the muscles of my body, if my shifting has provided power and my waist turn has transmitted up through my torso, then where my arm makes contact is irrelevant. I am just easily moving my 200 lb. mass through you, and that’s a key element for the basic program.

But there’s more! So much more. Go ahead, read the whole thing.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

How To Start Training

In the wake of my article on Tibetan energy work, I have been asked how a beginner can get started with this sort of training.

Here are several things you can do:

Learn More

Visit The Gompa online.
The center of Daoqiquan training, with descriptions of the major courses of study. Also see Come To The Gompa.

Read The Jiulong Journal.
Your online portal for the martial art of Jiulong Baguazhang, also called Nine Dragon Baguazhang. Very beginner friendly, including a page on the curriculum and how to start training.

Join the Daoqiquan Yahoo Group.
Covers all aspects of the Daoqiquan system. Follow and contribute to ongoing discussions, search the archives of past discussions. Includes how-to lessons. All are welcome to join and participate.

Join the Jiulong Baguazhang Yahoo Group.
Like the Daoqiquan group, but specific to the martial art of Jiulong Baguazhang, also known as Nine Dragon Baguazhang. All are welcome to join and participate.

Buy the book Combat Baguazhang Nine Dragon System: Forms and Principles, by Dr. John Painter.
The authoritative, unabridged description of this art by its current lineage holder.

Start Quiet Sitting

To get started on your own, buy the book Combat Baguazhang Nine Dragon System: Forms and Principles mentioned above, and read pages 70–74 on Quiet Sitting practice. When you have mastered the breathing technique and posture described, join the Jiulong Baguazhang Yahoo Group and read the post called Challenge of the Nine Dragons.

If you do not own the book, you can probably find equivalent information at either of the Yahoo Groups. Unfortunately, Yahoo’s search facility is not entirely working at the moment, so you will have to hunt through the group’s archives, but full lessons on Quiet Sitting technique have been posted in the past. Once you are a member, you can even post a question asking for help locating these lessons.

Attend a Class or Workshop

If you can visit The Gompa in Arlington, TX, you will be in the heart of the Daoqiquan organization with our most experienced instructors.

For announcements of upcoming workshops at other locations in the U.S. and Canada and in London, England, join either Yahoo Group and watch for announcements.

To find a Jiulong study group near you, review the list of branch schools (see left margin). Contact a school’s leader to ask about workshops and classes.

Find Another Style in Your Area

If you cannot visit a Daoqiquan location, you can probably find other systems of internal martial arts or qigong in your area, even in the Yellow Pages. Look for the following keywords: tai chi, xing-yi, bagua, kung fu, qigong, meditation, internal power, internal martial arts, healing arts.

You will need to be clear about what you want (effective self defense? tournament sparring? relaxation and health?), and ask your prospective instructor whether he or she teaches that. It might be best to ask, “what is the goal of this class?” to get an unbiased answer, before you have said what you are looking for.

Once you start training, watch how the curriculum is presented. A solid system should include general principles that you can understand and apply in a variety of situations, rather than a grab bag of specific techniques to memorize (especially if those techniques seem to embody conflicting principles). A solid system will also pay attention to your breathing and posture. If your instructor teaches you how to sit and stand before anything else, you are definitely on the right track!

Unfortunately, it is very hard, especially for a beginner, to judge the quality of a system or teacher from the outside. There are no “industry standards,” and even words like “kung fu” or “qigong” are extremely general terms that include many, many different systems that can vary greatly. On top of that, you may not be able to clarify your goals until you have begun training and discovered what appeals to you and what doesn’t. In the end, it is simply up to you to use your own judgement and common sense.

Life is short, so if you are drawn to this sort of training, get started! Find something that looks appealing and fits your schedule. If you like it, and it improves your life, and you are not getting hurt, then ... you win!

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Walloped By a Tree!!

My article has been published in Kung Fu Magazine's ezine:

“Lessons Learned From a Passing Tree: a first experience of elemental energy,” by Bernie Jackson

It recounts my experience this past June at the annual Gathering of the Circle workshop in upstate New York. While meditating in front of a tree, something really weird happened to me!