Sunday, June 27, 2010

Ba Duan Jin – Eight Silk Brocades

I teach tai chi and qigong at the prestigious Heartland Spa, in Gilman, IL. This is one of the qigong routines I teach.

Qigong is part of Traditional Chinese Medicine. There are thousands of exercises and routines that have been used for centuries to promote wellness. Ba Duan Jin is one of the oldest traditional Qigong routines. It is translated variously as Eight Pieces of Silk Brocades, Eight Section Brocade, Eight Fine Exercises, and many other names.

The eight exercises focus on different areas of the body and different qi meridians. The eight sections consist of progressive stretches (yang) from the ground and relaxations (yin) to the ground. The alternation between stretch and relaxation is called “high peaks and low valleys” and is intended to improve the flow of qi through your body.

1. Support the Heavens – This improves the flow of qi in the triple warmer.
Start in Wu Ji. Inhale slowly and circle your arms overhead. At the crown of your head, turn your hands with the palms up. Exhale and stretch your hands up as if holding up the sky. Inhale slowly and lower your hands to your head, turning them so they are palm down. Exhaling and circle your hands out and back to your sides.
2. Drawing the Bow – This improves the flow of qi in the lower back near the kidneys.
Start in horse stance. Cross your hands in front of your chest with your left hand outside. Inhale slowly, bring your right hand back toward your right shoulder in a fist, and extend your left hand out to the left. Turn your head to the left and look at your left hand. Exhale and release the fingers of your right hand, imagining that you are releasing the string of a bow. Bring your hands back to your chest with your left hand outside. Repeat to the other side.
3. Separating Heaven and Earth – This increases the flow of qi in the stomach and spleen.
Start in Wu Ji with your feet a little wider than normal. Hold your hands in front of your chest with your palms facing down and your fingers pointing to each other. Shift your weight to the right, inhale, raise your right hand overhead, and turn your palm up. Press your left hand down with your palm down. Exhale and return. Repeat to the other side.
4. Looking Backwards to Amend Five Strains and Seven Impairments – This improves the flow of qi in the neck and head.
Start in Wu Ji with your eyes closed. Inhale and slowly turn your head to the left, slowly opening your eyes. Optionally, lean back and look over your shoulder down at your opposite heel. Exhale and return. Repeat to the other side.
5. Head and Tail Swaying to Get Rid of Heart Fire – This pushes qi from the middle dan tien and out through any obstructions.
Start in horse stance, your hands on your thighs with your thumbs pointing out. Slowly wave your head side-to-side a total of four times. Bend left and rotate your upper body down and around to the right. At the same time, sway your buttocks towards the left. Continue rotation around to the beginning position. Exhale as you bend down and inhale as you stand up again.
6. Pulling Toes to Strengthen Kidneys and Waist – This improves the flow of qi in the kidney meridians.
Start in Wu Ji. Inhale and lean back, raising your arms sideways with palms facing up until your hands are overhead. Exhale and bend forward to reach toward your toes, or ankles if you cannot reach your toes. Pull your toes (or ankles) for a second, then release, inhale, and resume the beginning position. Place your hands at your lower back, bend back gently, and massage your kidneys.
7. Punch Slowly with Intense Gaze – This moves stagnant qi to the skin where it can be removed from the body.
Start in horse stance. Inhale and slowly punch your right fist forward. Exert all your force, with an intense gaze as if staring down an opponent. Exhale suddenly and draw your hand back. Repeat with your left hand. Inhale and punch your right hand to the right, exhale and draw your hand back. Repeat to your left. Inhale and punch both fists forward. Exhale and draw your hands back. Inhale and push both palms forward. Exhale and draw your hands back. Keep your body facing forward but watch your hands during all punches.
8. Seven Jolts Prevent All the Ailments – This stimulates six of the main qi meridians and balances the flow of qi.
Start in Wu Ji. inhale and raise up on your toes, lifting your heels as high as you can. Draw your shoulders back and expand your chest. Exhale suddenly, drop your heels to the floor and relax your entire body. Come back to the beginning position. Optionally, clasp your hands behind your back as you raise your heels.

Note: I have greatly expanded the descriptions of the 8 forms of the Ba Duan Jin. You can begin here to read Ba Duan Jin (Part 1 of 8) - Support the Heavens.

© 2010 Eric Borreson

Saturday, June 26, 2010

The Nature of Reality

From the web site,

“The great Taoist master Chuang Tzu once dreamed that he was a butterfly fluttering here and there. In the dream he had no awareness of his individuality as a person. He was only a butterfly. Suddenly, he awoke and found himself laying there, a person once again. But then he thought to himself, " ‘Was I before a man who dreamed about being a butterfly, or am I now a butterfly who dreams about being a man?’ "
Take a moment to think about what that means. Reread that paragraph and really think about it. I’ll wait. Then continue reading below for my thoughts on it.

How do we really know if we are awake or dreaming? What is this reality that we perceive? Do we believe in what our senses tell us? That’s risky. Our senses can be fooled in so many ways. My eyes tell me the world is flat. I know that isn’t true. My sense of balance tells me that the ground is stable. I know that isn’t true. The earth is rotating on its axis at over 1000 mph.

Do we believe in what scientists and doctors tell us? That’s risky, too. Doctors tell us that our body is a collection of chemicals that react together to give us awareness. Scientists are unable to detect the presence of qi. I know from personal experience that qi exists. These same scientists have shown that acupuncture works but they can’t explain why. Their view of the nature of reality is very incomplete.

Reality should be the same for the scientist, philosopher, Buddhist, Christian, Muslim, magician, atheist, or any other observer. Unfortunately, this doesn’t seem to be true, either. In the Tibetan traditions, reincarnation is a fundamental principle of reality. To an enlightened person, there is personal experience in the form of memories of past lives that justifies this view of reality. In the Christian traditions, God as a creator is a fundamental principle of reality. There is personal experience in the form of prayer and conversations with God that justifies this view of reality.

According to Buddhist traditions, Vipassana meditation gives us a better understanding of the nature of relative reality. From the web site,
“Although Vipassana does not introduce us to the absolute, it is designed to help us see much that must be seen, and in my view (and that of most Buddhist teachers) it is the place to start. We first need to learn to quiet the mind and look with detachment at the relative reality into which we are heavily immersed and identified. The Tibetan Buddhist practice of Dzogchen and the Advaita Vedanta of Nisargadatta, on the other hand, seek to introduce us to the absolute. Yes, underlying the relative world of mental information, and allowing it to exist, is that enabling something we usually call awareness.”

So where do we go with this? I have no idea. It looks like I have a lot of work in front of me.

© 2010 Eric Borreson


During a momentous battle, a Japanese general decided to attack even though his army was greatly outnumbered. He was confident they would win, but his men were filled with doubt. On the way to the battle, they stopped at a religious shrine. After praying with the men, the general took out a coin and said, "I shall now toss this coin. If it is heads, we shall win. If tails, we shall lose. Destiny will now reveal itself."

He threw the coin into the air and all watched intently as it landed. It was heads. The soldiers were so overjoyed and filled with confidence that they vigorously attacked the enemy and were victorious. After the battle, a lieutenant remarked to the general, "No one can change destiny."

"Quite right," the general replied as he showed the lieutenant the coin, which had heads on both sides.

The Theory of Provided Conditions
“If you want to create a certain result, you must first create the conditions that will absolutely force that result to occur.”
Kazuma Tateisi
CEO, Omron Tateisi Electronics

© 2010 Eric Borreson

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Breath Counting Meditation

This breath counting meditation is designed to improve your ability to hold the mind steady, without wandering. It is not very elegant or spiritual, but it does strengthen your "concentration muscles." Breath counting can be part of a regular routine of meditation.

Counting your breaths gives your mind something to focus on so. When distracting thoughts arise, you can come back to your counting. The method is easier to understand than it to do. The goal is to do this meditation with full mindfulness. Success comes from repetition.

1. Find a quiet place, calm yourself, and try to get rid of distracting thoughts from your mind.
2. Start in a sitting position, either in a chair or on the floor. Gently close your eyes.
3. Take slow, deep breaths and count each breath, one on the in-breath, two on the out-breath, three on the next in-breath, etc., up to ten.
4. After reaching ten, start over.

This is much more difficult than it seems. What’s going to happen is that your mind will begin to wander. If that happens and you lose count, begin the count again at one. Sometimes your mind will want and you will count past ten. When you realize you have drifted, begin at one again. This difficulty is so common that it has a name. It is called "monkey mind", where your mind jumps from one idea to another like a monkey jumping from one branch to another.

The goal is to learn how to notice when your mind begins to wander so that you can bring it back to the meditation again. The counting is a feedback to help you know when your mind has drifted off. When your mind wanders off and you return to your counting, you are improving your ability to focus. Every time your mind wanders and you bring it back to the meditation, it is like exercising. Your “concentration muscles” get a little bit stronger.

© 2010 Eric Borreson

What is Meditation?

This is the first of a series of essays on meditation.

Meditation is a mental practice used to get beyond the thinking mind into a deeper state of awareness. It is more important to meditate regularly than to follow a rigid schedule. According to Wikipedia,

“Different meditative disciplines encompass a wide range of spiritual and/or psychophysical practices which may emphasize different goals -- from achievement of a higher state of consciousness, to greater focus, creativity or self-awareness, or simply a more relaxed and peaceful frame of mind.”
A common form of meditation is concentration meditation. This is the easiest for beginners to do. Part of the idea of meditation is to develop concentration so that you can control distractions. The meditator tries to keep one’s mind on a single point of focus. The point of focus could be a short repetitive prayer, one’s breath, a breath count, qi energy flows, or anything else.

Meditation has a long history. It has been part of Buddhist culture for thousands of years. The two common types of Buddhist meditation are shamatha and vipassana. Shamatha consists of types of concentration meditations used to develop focus. Vipassana consists of practices to develop insight into the true nature of reality.

Step eight of the eight-fold path of Buddhism refers to “Right Concentration”, referring to meditation. In this context, concentration refers to a mental state where the entire mind is directed toward a single object. Through meditation, people develop the ability to concentrate on focus in everyday situations.

Christians have practiced meditation for almost as long, although they prefer the term "contemplation" nowadays. Some Catholics use the rosary to practice meditation. There are many biblical references to meditation among the prophets. Many scholars and religious officials of the Middle Ages wrote guides to meditation. In addition, there are many secular meditation practices.

Regardless of our motivation or background in meditation, our first efforts at meditation are difficult. Before we even notice it, our mind has wandered away. We find that our mind bounces around from one idea to another and it seems that there is nothing we can do to stop it. Some people describe it as your “monkey mind”, where your mind jumps around like a monkey jumping from one branch to another.

Continued practice develops better mental focus. Exercise develops your muscular strength or endurance. Meditation develops your “concentration muscles” and helps us learn how to maintain focus. When the mind wanders, all that is necessary is to bring the mind back to that point of focus. Do not allow recriminations or frustrations to develop.

I will discuss specific meditation techniques in future writings.

© 2010 Eric Borreson

Right Effort

One of the steps on the eight-fold path is “Right Effort.” Nothing can be achieved without effort. However, misguided effort distracts us from our right efforts. The energy put into misguided efforts, such as envy, aggression, greed, and violence, could be channeled to right efforts, such as self-discipline, generosity, love, and kindness.

Here is a story about Nasrudin. Nasrudin is a character in many tales and parables. He lived in the Middle East many hundreds of years ago.

The town's richest man had died. The next morning, another rich, and particularly miserly, old man said to Nasrudin, "I wonder how much he left."

Nasrudin said, "Every cent of it, sir."
There is nothing in Buddhism that opposes accumulating wealth. In fact, there are many passages in Buddhist writings that encourage people to seek and amass wealth in “rightful ways.” What is wrong is to accumulate wealth in unlawful ways or to allow wealth to enslave us with greed, possessiveness, and miserliness.

Here is a quote from
“In opposition to contemporary urban values, Buddhism does not measure a person's or nation's worth by material wealth. Nor does it go to the opposite extreme, as do Marxist thinkers, and condemn the accumulation of wealth as an evil in and of itself. Instead, Buddhism judges the ethical value of wealth by the ways in which it is obtained, and the uses to which it is put.”
None of us are likely to ever be considered wealthy, but being miserly means much more than money. Are you hoarding your time instead of giving it? Are you hoarding your love because of fear that it won’t be reciprocated?

Someday, every one of us will pass. It’s not something we like to think about, but it may be worthwhile to give it a little thought. Think about how you will be remembered. Will you be remembered as a kind, generous, loving person? Or will you be remembered as a miser?

© 2010 Eric Borreson

Finding Success in Life

Everyone wants to be successful in their life. Success is different for everyone, so only you can define it for yourself. It doesn’t matter much what you choose to do in your life. If you want to be good at it, you must spend time learning something about it and how to do it the best.

Do you have the willingness to work hard to reach your goals? Maybe you talk about doing it. Maybe you talk about planning on how to do it. Maybe you don’t even do that. What stops you from doing more? Do you keep running into a wall?

Knowing how to do something well only happens when you struggle to find your way. It doesn’t come from reading someone’s blog. It doesn’t come from listening to a talk. Those things can give guidance, but you need to do the work. The Chinese have a saying: “To learn how to do something, do it 10,000 times.”

Look at your circle of friends. Are they doing interesting things and working hard? Are they partying all night and sleeping all day? Which kind of friend do you think will help you reach your goals?

Surround yourself with your sangha, your virtuous community, of successful, positive people. Ask several of them to help you plan. Talk about your options for the future. Ask for crazy ideas to help you come up with unconventional ways to get things done.

Nasrudin is a character in many tales and parables. He lived in the Middle East many hundreds of years ago. Here is a story about Nasrudin from

One day, while staying at a friend's house, Nasrudin peered over the wall into the neighbor's yard and saw the most wonderful garden he had ever seen. He noticed an old man patiently weeding a flower-bed and asked, “This is a beautiful garden. I'd like to have one just like it. How do you make a garden like this?”

“Twenty years hard work.”

“Never mind,” said Nasrudin.

Do you want to create a great garden of your life? The time to start is now. Enjoy the journey because it’s a long trip.

© 2010 Eric Borreson

Thinking about Priorities

The following is from YMAA News, Issue 54, June 15, 2000 (available at

One day an expert in time management was speaking to a group of business students and, to drive home a point, used an illustration those students will never forget.

As he stood in front of this group of high-powered overachievers he said, “Okay, time for a quiz.” He pulled out a large wide-mouthed jar and set it on the table in front of him. Then he produced about a dozen fist sized rocks and carefully placed them, one at a time, into the jar. When the jar was filled to the top and no more would fit inside, he asked, “Is the jar full?”

Everyone in the class agreed, “Yes!”

“Really?” he teased. He reached under the table and pulled out a bucket of gravel. Then he dumped some gravel in and shook the jar, causing the gravel to work itself down into the space between the rocks.

Then he asked the group once more, “Is the jar full?”

“Probably not,” one brave student ventured.

“Good!” he replied. He reached under the table and brought out a bucket of sand. He started dumping the sand in the jar and it filled the spaces left between the rocks and the gravel.

Once more he asked, “Is the jar full?”

Now the whole class was on to him. No!” they shouted.

Once again he said, “Good!” Then he grabbed a pitcher and began to pour water in until the jar was filled to the brim. Then he looked at the class and asked, “What is the point of this illustration?”

One eager student raised his hand and said, “The point is: no matter how full your schedule is, if you try really hard you can always fit some more things in!”

“No!” the speaker replied, “that’s not the point. The truth this illustration teaches us is: If you don’t put the big rocks in first, you will never get them in at all.”

Friends, what are the “big rocks” in your life? Your priorities, the most important things in your life, which only you can decide? You must put these “big rocks” in first or you’ll never get them in at all. If you sweat the little stuff, then you’ll fill your life with worry over little things that don’t really matter; and you’ll never have the real quality time you need to spend on the big, important stuff.

© 2010 Eric Borreson

The Frog and the Scorpion

There are many variations on this story. Here is one I like.

Once upon a time, there was a scorpion that wanted to cross a river. Since scorpions do not swim, he needed help. There was a frog nearby so the scorpion asked the frog to carry him across the river on its back. The frog refused and said, “If I carry you on my back, you will sting me and I will die. That is what scorpions do.”

The scorpion replied, “If I were to sting you, I would drown in the river. That would be suicide.”

The frog considered this. Being a trusting soul, the frog accepted and carried the scorpion on its back out into the river. Halfway across the river, the scorpion stung the frog. As the frog was dying, it asked the scorpion, “Why did you do this? Now we both will die.”

As the scorpion was sinking into the water along with the dying frog, it replied, “That is what scorpions do. It is my nature.”

Of course, the story isn’t really about frogs and scorpions. It is about human nature.

Do you know someone that drives you crazy? My boss is that one for me. He refuses to allow anyone to make any meaningful decisions without his prior approval. He micromanages the tiniest details of every project, but I can’t get him to take care of the important things that I need him to do.

There is a good description of a micromanager at

When someone believes he is the only one competent to make decisions, he creates suffering (stress) for others. His leadership is not trustworthy. His mind is telling him that what he does is coming from his greater knowledge. It is actually a delusion of the ego. However, my boss is not going to change. He is acting out of his true nature. He believes that his actions are correct. His lack of leadership and management skill is affecting everyone around him. It’s not because he is acting wrongly. He simply does not trust anyone else to do a job as well as he thinks he can do that job.

I have worked for many years to reduce the stress in my life. He has been working just as hard at putting the stress back into my life. Being angry with him for acting according to his nature gets me nowhere. I cannot easily walk away from this job. I need the income.

We have beliefs about who we are. We act in accordance to our beliefs, even if it hurts us. As humans, we have the ability to choose how we act. Bruce Lee once said, “As you think, so shall you become.” It’s up to me to think that I can find positive ways to use this situation. I need to find a way to choose actions that allow me to take care of my family.

As Shantideva says in Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life,

There is no evil like hatred,
And no fortitude like patience.
Thus I should strive in various ways
To meditate on patience.

© 2010 Eric Borreson

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Nonviolence, Yoga, and a Government that Works (Part 3)

In the last essay, I discussed some ways that yoga addresses nonviolence. This essay adds some follow-up thoughts related to that theme. I want to continue discussing ways to apply ahimsa in our everyday lives.

Here are two translations of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, book 2, Sutra 35:
o When one is established in harmlessness (ahimsa), those near are at peace.
o Where non-injury is perfected, all enmity ceases in the presence of him who possesses it.

This says that when someone develops an inner peace, then that peace influences those around him. If I practice ahimsa, it may influence people who are predisposed to agree with me. I certainly try to do this in my everyday life.

I don’t understand how to apply this idea beyond my own scale, though. In my last essay, I discussed some of the root causes of violence. Even if I am a peaceful person, it does not affect people who are benefiting from violence. Any actions to stop widespread violence and oppression must extend beyond one person practicing nonviolence. Violent people must be confronted in order to make change.

A classic example of accepting confrontation while remaining nonviolent is Gandhi. The British occupied and ruled India. Gandhi was one of the leaders of a resistance movement called satyagraha. Gandhi translated satyagraha as the “force (or firmness) that is born of truth and love (nonviolence).” Satyagraha involved much more than practicing nonviolence and hoping that it would influence others. Satyagraha involved constant confrontation without physical violence. He preferred to avoid the use of the English term “passive resistance” because that implied it was a weapon of the weak.

However, nonviolence against a government or government policy only works when the government is at least somewhat accountable to the people. Gandhi was successful because the ruling British empire was influenced by public opinion. How successful would Gandhi have been if he had tried to face down Stalinist Russia or Nazi Germany, regimes that were willing to kill millions of their own people? How successful would he have been in facing a government that was willing to use tanks against their own people, as happened in 1989 in China? In spite of this, Gandhi did not accept the idea of “any means necessary” to convert the British to the Indian way of thinking.

Where do we go with this discussion? I am not sure how to reconcile my belief that nonviolence has limits with Gandhi’s belief that the use of force in resisting oppression institutionalized the use of force. I would love to get some comments from anyone who has more knowledge or experience in dealing with issues like these.

© 2010 Eric Borreson

Nonviolence, Yoga, and a Government that Works (Part 2)

In my last essay, I discussed some of the root causes of violence. This essay discusses ways yoga can alleviate some of these causes. Conflict is fueled by many causes, such as greed, envy, or fear. Conflict is triggered when a fuel is present and there is an expectation that things will be better, or at least no worse, after the conflict is over. Nonviolence can only prevail when the triggers that fuel violence are removed.

In yoga, the term avidya is used to mean ignorance or delusion that clouds our perception of reality. Avidya is often illustrated with a blind man. It causes us to fail to see our true spiritual connection with others. People without any connection to other people do not behave in ways that respect those people.

Yoga promotes the idea of “cultivating the right attitude.” We sometimes feel jealous when we see someone with something we want. It may be material things we are jealous of. It may be because they are joyful and we are not. To become more peaceful, we need to be happy with other’s good fortune and compassionate for those in need. These practices reduce our desire for conflict by reducing our own fuels for violence. Yoga also promotes the idea of “practicing constructive behavior.” To become more satisfied in our own lives and to improve our interactions with others, we should follow the yamas of the Yoga Sutra, starting with nonviolence (ahimsa).

There are many people in the world that believe that violence can get them what they want. Aggression works for them. It gets them power, prestige, and all the other comforts of life that they desire. These people cannot be persuaded by argument or discussion. Buckminster Fuller said, “To change something, build a new model that makes the old model obsolete.”

Opposing violence does not mean that we sit in lotus and meditate all day. Yoga helps us transform our own perceptions by teaching us that we are all interconnected and that what hurts others hurts us as well. Our own new model of reality must be pacifist and nonviolent, but it must not be passive. In order to cause someone else to change, we must demonstrate that another way exists and is effective in achieving the same goals that violence tries to achieve.

On a local scale, we can reduce violence by practicing compassion and volunteering to help out where needed. It can mean getting involved in other local causes that promote nonviolence to people, animals, and the environment. Keep in mind that a protest against violence is not very effective without at the same time proposing a new model that makes violence obsolete. Wishing for violence to go away doesn’t make it so.

On a state or national level, we need institutions that can help promote social justice so that people can find hope for the future. People and nations know from experience that violence and aggression work. They need to be shown that peace also works. Most of all, we need a government that works for everyone. Support political institutions and elected officials that work for peace.

Find something you care about. Do something about it. Please post your thoughts here on other ideas on how to reduce violence.

Some of the ideas in this essay are from Yoga Journal article, Transforming Aggression: Yoga and World Peace, by Dennis McGuire 10/28/2005. I have extensively rewritten this article and added much new information.

For more on what yoga says about nonviolence, see my next essay, Nonviolence, Yoga, and a Government that Works (Part 3).

NOTE: Illustration from

© 2010 Eric Borreson

Nonviolence, Yoga, and a Government that Works (Part 1)

In my last essay, I discussed how the goddess Kali represents the archetype of wildness and destruction. We can use Kali to help us become free and liberated by learning how to stand up to others and say no. However, many people try to avoid saying no to other people because they interpret any confrontation to be an act of violence.

Modern schools of yoga have 10 yamas, or “shall not” restraints. The first of these is ahimsa, or nonviolence. Translations vary, but ahimsa tells us that we “shall not” kill or injure living beings. For many people, this means that any violence is unacceptable. For others, violence in self defense and war are permitted when opposing an evil that would cause harm to others.

Regardless of the exact interpretation, this brings us back to the first point. Is it acceptable to allow people to take advantage of us to avoid a confrontation with someone else? Take it a step further. Is it acceptable to allow an attack on us or others because resisting that attack would be an act of violence? Clearly the answer is no. I think that avoiding all confrontation is an act of selfish cowardice. It allows people to claim they are practicing ahimsa while allowing violence to happen.

However, the way that you confront people is important. If an infant hits you, are you, as an adult, justified in hitting back? If someone cuts you off in traffic, are you justified in running him or her off the road? If an angry man in a foreign country sends people to destroy a building and kill us, are we justified in mobilizing an army and endangering millions of innocent civilians? Again, the answer is no. It is the responsibility of the person in the more powerful position to find a better way.

There has to be a middle ground between complete nonviolence and excessive violence in self defense. Every situation is different and I’m not smart enough to solve the problems of the world, but collectively we are smart enough and creative enough.

In the book, The World is Flat, by Thomas Friedman, there is a statement that says, “Where people have hope, you have a middle class.” If people believe that they can get ahead by hard work and that their children will be better off in the future, they are not likely to resort to violence.

Much of the violence in the world today is coming from people living in situations where autocratic or despotic rule has prevented people from improving themselves. Poor government, oppressive rule, poverty, or an inability to see justice in their lives can cause people to lose hope and resort to violence. This can happen in Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, or in the projects in Chicago or Los Angeles.

A government that works for all the people promotes justice for the people and accountability for the government officials. Osama bin Laden hates the United States for supporting the government of Saudia Arabia, among other things. He criticizes the government of Saudi Arabia because it is not accountable to the people. Referring to the rulers of Saudi Arabia, he said, “… there is no accountability or punishment, but there is only obedience to the rulers and prayers of long life for them.” When leaders are not accountable, there is no hope that things will get better. When hope is gone, people lash out and seek revenge. They try to use violence to achieve their aims because they see no other way.

A very similar situation exists in the inner cities in the United States. Many people living there feel that they can never see justice. In Los Angeles, there were riots in the streets after a mostly-white jury acquitted the police who beat Rodney King. In recent years, there have been innumerable problems in the streets of Chicago based on a perception of police brutality against poor African Americans.

Compare that to the record turnout in the 2008 presidential election. Did you see the reactions of people at Grant Park in Chicago when Barack Obama gave his acceptance speech after being elected president? Dozens of African Americans were interviewed for the television news and said variations of, “I never thought I would see this in my life.” There is hope.

For more on how yoga can help prevent violence, see my next essay, Nonviolence, Yoga, and a Government that Works (Part 2).

© 2010 Eric Borreson

Goddess Kali

I recently read an article in Yoga Journal that discussed the goddess Kali. Many people mistakenly think that yoga always represents serenity, peacefulness, and nonviolence. However, there are times when we need to find the goddess Kali in ourselves. Archetypes are symbols that personify qualities that are within each of us. Deities are archetypes of the higher forces of nature. The goddess Kali is the form of Devi that represents the archetype of wildness and destruction, while at the same time she symbolizes spiritual liberation.

Kali is often shown in art with wild hair, a sword, and either a necklace of enemy skulls around her neck or a pile of skulls near her. She usually is shown sticking out her tongue. In orthodox Hindu religion, Kali Ma is a loving source of blessings. In traditional rural areas of India, Kali is a forest goddess that protects the people and represents the rebirth cycle that is always present.

Part of what Kali represents for us is the power to release us from conditioned beliefs and false personal identities that we put up as a social front. We can become as Kali and stand up to the demons within ourselves. Kali gives us permission to become free and liberated by knowing how to stand up for what we need and to say no to what we do not need or want.

There are unending distractions in life. I am looking to Kali to guide me and help me to say no to many of the distractions that are keeping me from deepening my practice. We will see how that works.

I have been working on developing a writeup and set of exercises to teach students how to use spiral force in tai chi. Too many distractions lately. We'll see how that goes in the near future.

NOTE: Image from

© 2010 Eric Borreson

In the Flow with Tai Chi

Recently, I wrote about how taiji is learned through plateaus and steep rises. In other words, you need to practice regularly at a certain level of skill. Suddenly, something new becomes clear and your practice advances to a new level.

Now I want to tell you about “Flow”. Flow is the feeling you get when you get lost in the moment. This is when you don’t even notice anything going on around you. This is sometimes called being in the zone. People perform their best at everything and have the most enjoyment when they are “in the flow”.

When someone is in flow, their emotions become energized and aligned with the task at hand. Agitation and anxiety prevent you from getting in the flow.

Let’s talk about how you can increase your flow while practicing taiji. According to Dr. Paul Lam, there are 3 main factors that can induce flow. First, have a clear short-term goal for each practice. Second, it is important to receive immediate and relevant feedback. Third, match your goals to your skills. You want an achievable challenge.

When you are beginning to learn taiji, your goal may be to remember how to remember the movement. Your feedback comes from knowing that you completed the movement correctly. For a more advanced movement, your goal may be to focus on the substantial and insubstantial weight shifts during the form. In this case, your feedback, comes from you knowing that you completed the form or set and were aware of your weight at all times. In both cases, you are selecting an appropriate goal for your skill level.

Every time you practice, have these 3 factors in mind to help you develop flow. As your taiji improves, you will be in the flow more and more often. This improves your enjoyment and encourages you to practice more often. Taiji follows the rhythms of nature, so flow should also help you feel in tune with nature.

© 2010 Eric Borreson

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Tai Chi and Plateaus

When people begin learning something new, they often learn at a good rate. Their minds become engaged in the learning. However, when learning taiji, learning quickly is not necessarily better than learning slowly and deeply. Taiji has many subtle details that take time to learn. You have to “digest” taiji. It takes time for it to get into your body and your mind. With each lesson, it is important to practice regularly until that lesson becomes part of you.

Even with deliberate practice and slow and steady learning, learners often reach a plateau where it seems that improvement is not happening. A practitioner can seem to stay at the same level for some time until one day something new becomes obvious. This is a sudden, steep rise in growth and learning. Then the learner works at this new level for some time until something new becomes obvious.

Plateaus and steep rises are yin and yang. The plateaus are yin where energy is stored before it can be delivered in the steep rises of yang. Some students can get bored during the necessary plateaus. This causes some students to drop out and miss out on the benefits of long-term taiji practice. It is the teacher’s responsibility to discuss this with students so that they know what to expect.

Enjoy your practice during the plateaus. Know that eventually plateaus become steep rises that bring new depth and enjoyment to your practice.

© 2010 Eric Borreson

Wu Ji (Wu Chi) (Part 2)

This blog posting has been extensively updated. See here for the updated version.

My last essay discussed the concept of wu ji. It symbolically represents the “great emptiness” of the original universal void. It is the point of balance between yin and yang. This essay discusses some of the inner aspects of wu ji.

The first step is to relax in the posture for a few moments. Stand as still as a tree and pay attention to any sensations you feel. Do not try to change anything. Just pay attention to the sensations. Progressively relax your body from the top down. Look forward and relax your eyes without focusing on anything. Relax your jaw, neck, and shoulders. Relax your arms and hands, allowing them to hang loosely. Allow your breathing to deepen gradually and expand your diaphragm.

Use your breathing as a point of focus. If your mind wanders, bring it back to your breathing. Empty your mind. An empty mind can better sense the flow of qi. Be aware of any feelings of comfort or discomfort. Be aware of any muscular tension. Do not be judgmental. The goal is to develop your ability to sense what is happening in your body. Awareness of your body develops your self-awareness.

Standing in wu ji is the ideal posture for the balanced flow of qi. All the places where qi is not flowing become apparent. Areas of poor qi flow become uncomfortable or even painful. Discomfort during standing reveals places where your body is not functioning properly. Your natural instincts are to move when you are uncomfortable. Move your body to eliminate painful postures, but try to maintain the posture when you are merely uncomfortable.

One method to eliminate the discomfort is to imagine your breath moving to the area of discomfort. Imagine your breath entering and leaving your body at that area. With every inhale, bring healing qi into your body. With every exhale, expel stagnant qi. Allow the healing qi to eliminate the discomfort.

Another method to eliminate the discomfort is to image the discomfort dropping through your body toward the ground. Allow it to fall through your feet and into the ground. When the discomfort leaves your body, it should be replaced by a feeling of comfort.

Try to stand in wu ji for a few moments every day. It seems very simple, but it will be very difficult the first few times you try this. The time will drag on seemingly forever. Boredom will drive you crazy. Be persistent and these feelings will pass. Over a period of several weeks, gradually increase the amount of time you spend standing. Remember though, quality is more important than quantity. Do not force yourself to stand when you are distracted.

© 2010 Eric Borreson

Wu Ji (Wu Chi) (Part 1)

This blog posting has been extensively updated. See here for the updated version.

A foundation of traditional Chinese thought is a belief in a single, cosmic universe full of energy called qi or chi. In the beginning, the universe was an endless void known as Wu Ji. From this void arose activity expressed as yin and yang. Yin and yang are sometimes thought of as aspects of female and male, but this is incorrect. It’s the other way around. Yin and yang are the all, representing the opposites that exist throughout the universe. All opposites are aspects of yin and yang. Light and dark, day and night, earth and sky, water and fire, and female and male are typical aspects. Yin and yang are represented by the double fish symbol.

In traditional qi gong and tai chi practice, the wu ji posture is used as a resting position before beginning exercise and sometimes placed between other movements. It symbolically represents the “great emptiness” of the original universal void. To stand in wu ji, begin with your feet about shoulder width apart. Your weight should be evenly distributed on the three balance points of your foot, the ball of the foot, the point at the base of the little toe, and at the heel.

Relax your entire body. Be sure that your knees are loose. Do not lock any joints. Visualize a string connecting the top of your head with the heavens, lifting you and stretching your spine. Let your mind travel throughout your body. Bring your breath to any point of tension or pain and imagine your breath entering and leaving your body at that point, carrying away the tension and pain. Continue with deep breaths for several minutes.

The tai chi classics say that wu chi gives birth to tai chi, where emptiness transforms into activity. We practice tai chi to develop our ability to understand and use the energy of the universe. A key component of tai chi practice is focus. The shorter forms develop our understanding of the movements and develop our understanding of qi. The longer forms develop our focus by requiring us to concentrate for several minutes at a time in order to do the form correctly. The longer concentration develops our ability to use the universal qi.

A comparable concept exists in yoga practice. In Hatha yoga, the asana called tadasana is very similar. We stand like a mountain, still and aloof, apart from the activity around us.

NOTE: The word “chi” of “wu chi” and “tai chi” should really be translated as ji. It is a word that means ultimate or best. However, “tai chi” has entered the English language and I will use that form of the word. This word is not the same as “chi” (usually spelled “qi”), which approximately translates as “the energy of the universe.” I make no promises that I have been consistent in my usage.

© 2010 Eric Borreson