Thursday, December 1, 2016

Yang 24 Taiji Form - Setting the record straight

In my years of practicing the Yang long form and its many variations I have often heard disparaging remarks about the short form, Beijing form, or what is sometimes called the public form. Yet when I finally went to China, and visited with teachers and other martial artists I found most people did practice the 24 form, even the really hardcore martial artists! So I dug in, and began learning the form one morning in Nanjing with Shifu Gao Xiu Ming. Luckily, with my long form experience the choreography came very quickly and with just a few adjustments I was playing the Beijing short form.

Over the years I have come to love the form, and this past year I began teaching it. This opened my eyes even further to the beauty of the form - it's complete and relatively compact, and it has become one of my favorites. So how did this form come about, and was it really a conspiracy to remove the martial aspects, the heart and soul from taiji for the masses?

In 1956 the Chinese Sports Committee brought together four taiji teachers - Fu Zhongwen, Zhang Yu, Cai Longyun, and Chu Guiting to create a taiji form that could easily be disseminated throughout China and used in competition. In modern day terms, this is like bringing together Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, Shaq, and Larry Bird to teach the public basketball. These masters shortened the form to 24 postures, the 24 essential forms in the Yang family style, and created a sequence that could be completed in about 5-6 minutes. 1956 - 1960 saw many national martial arts competitions in China, and the Beijing form along with weapons, traditional forms, and what would become wushu were demonstrated. The 24 form has now become the most popular taiji form practiced throughout the world, and while it is practiced by many simply for its meditative aspects, the martial aspects are intact, and taught by many teachers who have this experience.

Taiji 24 or Beijing Form

  1. 起势  Qǐshì - Commencing or Preparation
  2. 左右野马分鬃  Zuoyou Yémǎ Fēnzōng - Parting the Wild Horse’s Mane (left & right)
  3. 白鹤亮翅  Báihè Lìangchì - White Crane Spreads Its Wings
  4. 左右搂膝拗步  Zuoyou Lōuxī Àobù - Brush Knee Palm and Step Forward, Brush Knee Palm and Twist Step (left & right)
  5. 手挥琵琶  Shǒuhūi Pípa - Playing the Pipa or Presenting the Pipa
  6. 左右倒卷肱  Zuoyou Dào juǎn gōng - Step Back and Repulse Monkey (left & right)
  7. 左揽雀尾  Zuo Lǎn Què Wěi - Left Grasp Sparrow’s Tail, Grasp the Bird’s Tail
    1. a. 掤  Peng - Ward Off
    2. b. 捋  Lǚ/Lu - Rollback
    3. c. 擠  Jǐ - Press
    4. d. 按  Àn - Push
  8. 右揽雀尾  You Lǎn què wěi - Right Grasp Sparrow’s Tail
  9. 单鞭  Dān biān - Single Whip
  10. 云手  Yúnshǒu - Wave Hands Like Clouds, Cloudy Hands
  11. 单鞭  Dān biān - Single Whip
  12. 高探马  Gāo tàn mǎ - Snake shows tongue, High Pat on Horse, Step Up to Examine Horse
  13. 右蹬脚  Yòu dēng jiǎo - Right Heel Kick, Separate Right Foot, Kick with Right Foot
  14. 双峰贯耳  Shuāng fēng guàn ěr - Strike to Ears with Both Fists
  15. 转身左蹬脚  Zhuǎnshēn zuǒ dēngjiǎo - Turn Body, Left Heel Kick
  16. 左下势独立  Zuo Xià shì dúlì - Left Lower Body and Stand on One Leg
    1. a. 下 势  Xià shì - Low Single Whip, Snake Creeps Down
    2. b. 左 金 鸡 独 立  Zuo Jin Ji Du Li - Golden Rooster Stands on One Leg
  17. 右下势独立  You Xià shì dúlì - Right Lower Body and Bird Stand on One Leg
  18. 右左玉女穿梭  Yòuzuǒ yùnǚ chuānsuō - Fair Lady Works with Shuttles
  19. 海底针  Hǎidǐ zhēn - Needle to Sea Bottom
  20. 闪通臂  Shǎn tōng bì - Fan Through Back
  21. 转身搬拦捶  Zhuǎnshēn Bānlánchuí - Turn Body, Roll, Parry,step through and Punch
  22. 如封似闭 Rúfēng shìbì - Yield and Push
  23. 十字手  Shízì shǒu - Cross Hands
  24. 收势  Shōushì - Closing

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Is your body in tune with the seasons?

Clouds, rain, falling temperatures - we are definitely headed towards winter here in southern California. Chinese medicine and philosophy stresses the importance of living in harmony with the seasons. Winter is the time of stillness and quiet, a time to rest and recharge. According to Chinese thought, every season corresponds to a pair of organs. The seasons, along with their organ pair, help guide us to alter our habits and diet to better reflect the changes around us. In traditional Chinese philosophy, and according to Five Element theory, winter corresponds to the kidneys and bladder, the water organs.

The kidneys correspond to dark blue or black to reflect their yin nature. They control our birth, growth, and reproduction. They are the gates of vitality, and house our will power. Winter is the time to nourish the kidneys with whole grains, small dark beans, bone broths, seaweeds and other dark leafy green vegetables. Warm foods, steamed veggies, and hearty soups should be the priority in your diet. Even moderate amounts of warm alcohol are encouraged in many cultures. Avoid too much salt, and any excess stress or fear. It's ok to gain a little weight now, and hold off on major fasts or detoxes that place undue stress on the body. Most animals eat a lot in the fall, and rest as much as possible in winter. If possible rise with the sun and go to sleep earlier. 
In your practice, look for deeply restorative asana and meditation. Create warmth, but not in excess. Avoid excess sweating and running right out into the cold. Fill the belly with breath, and be mindful of the lower back which houses the kidneys. Dress warmly, and keep your feet covered as cold enters the body through the feet. It can take longer to get going in the morning. Cold limbs, poor circulation and body pain all seem to increase in the winter. By avoiding cold and wind, avoiding excess sweat, and eating properly your days can begin a little easier. 
Please join us at Yoga NoHo on December 5th @ 5pm 
for further discussion of the 
Five Elements and the basics of Chinese medicine. 

Saturday, October 1, 2016

My teacher's teacher (3) - Kuo Lien Ying

Kuo Lien Ying (1895-1984) was born in Inner Mongolia just before the turn of the 20th century. He is known to have brought Guang Ping Yang taiji to the USA.

Like many internal martial artists of his day, Kuo started with hard or external gongfu styles at a young age. He studied Shaolin and Northern Longfist with Master Li Lin at the age of 12.

Kuo became an indoor student on Wang Jiao-Yu, who was himself a indoor student of Yang Ban-Hou, son of Yang Luchan, founder of the Yang style of taiji. It is said Kuo had to complete the "Chin to Toe" stretch in 100 days before he would be accepted by Wang who was 100 years old at the time.

Kuo went on to study xingyi with Huang Gin Yim and bagua with Chang Xin Zhai and Cheng Ting Hua.

Kuo famously was a bodyguard for gold caravans throughout China. His rope-dart skills were legendary. After serving as a general in the army of Chiang Kai Shek he fled to Taiwan where he married Ein Simmone Kuo. In 1965 Kuo emmigrated to San Francisco, and one year later brought Simmone to the USA.

His American students helped setup a school across from Portsmouth square, and since his passing hold a memorial in the park every year.

Kuo believed that there must be a blend of hard and soft styles for taiji to be effective, and that when "yielding you must be conscious of unyielding, and that is the only way you can take advantage of all things."

Kuo was so confident of his fighting skills that in 1951 he issued a challenge to world boxing champion Joe Louis, to meet him for a fight. In 1972 Kuo claimed to the San Francisco Chronicle, "I could have thrown him." 

Thursday, September 1, 2016

My teacher's teacher (2) - Y.C. Chiang

My taiji teacher Master Nzazi Malonga studied with Y.C. Chiang in the 1990's in Berkley, CA. While we don't practice the Guang Ping style of taiji, lessons from those days are often dispensed in the ways of movement, the 100 day stretch, and Chinese herbalism.

Yun Chun Chiang was born in 1922 and was a very well known master of Guang Ping taiji which he learned from the great Kuo Lien-Ying and Wang Chih Chien. This lineage goes back to Yang Ban Hou who taught Wang Jiao Yu.

From master Kuo he also learned xingyi, bagua and Shaolin gong-fu.

Y.C. Chiang learned painting and calligraphy from Pu Ru, the brother of the last emperor of China!

In 1973 Master Chiang opened the Wen Wu school in Berkley where he taught these arts along with calligraphy and Chinese painting until his passing in 2016.

The video below is Master Chiang at the age of 83!!!

Master Chiang's paintings can be found here:

And a great article about White Crane:

A beautiful article about practicing with Kuo and Chiang:

Monday, August 1, 2016

My teacher's teacher (1) - Sha Guo Zheng

I learned the Sha style of bagua from Shifu Jonathan Wang. This is the master who created the form... 

Sha Guo Zheng was born in 1904 in Shandong, China. He studied many styles of gong fu from an early age, and it is said he became proficient at the spear form called Liu He Jiang (Six Harmony Spear).

His first bagua teacher was Wang Che Cheng who was a student of Wang Li Ti. Wang Li Ti was a student of the famous Dong Hai Chuan, the founder of bagua zhang. Wang Che Cheng was most known for his Lion Style bagua. Sha studied with Wang for 4 years, but in 1924, at the age of 20 he moved to Tianjin where he met Jiang Rong Qiao.  

Jiang is arguably the most important martial arts scholar of the twentieth Century, and Sha became his top student living in Tianjin from 1924 to 1930. It is said Sha also traveled to Beijing frequently where he studied Sun Lu Tang’s bagua and xing yi. 

Sha moved to Korea in 1930 to spend more time studying with Wang Che Cheng who had moved to Inchon. Sha’s reputation grew while living in Inchon when he defeated a Japanese solder in a sword versus spear duel. Sha wielded the sword even though he was already an expert in spear technique, and easily defeated the Japanese soldier. Sha also led the Chinese resistance against the Japanese in Inchon’s Chinatown.

Sha also learned the Eight Immortals sword set, said to have been passed down from Grandmaster Dong who had learned it from a Daoist priest.

Sha returned to China in 1933 after Wang passed away. He studied further with Jiang Rong Qiao in Wuhu for 6 months of intense training and research. In 1949 he was made an official martial arts instructor by the Chinese government, and spent the rest of his life training and improving his art. Sha passed away at the age of 88 in 1992. 

Professor Kang Ge Wu was one of Master Sha's most prominent students and he himself is acknowledged as an important martial arts scholar. 

This is a video of Master Sha at the age of 84:

And early video:


Friday, July 1, 2016

The Sword of Wisdom

Ever since the adepts handed on
The secret of the sword,
The true imperative has been upheld
Completely, truly adamant.

If someone asks me about 
Looking for its origin,
I say it is not ordinary iron.
This lump of iron
Comes from receptive stillness;
When you obtain it, it rises up.

Forging it in a glowing fire,
Through repeated efforts
It is refined
And forged into steel.
When students of the Tao
Know this secret,
The spirit of light is intensely powerful,
And devils of darkness vanish.

The subtle function of spiritual work
Is truly hard to measure;
I now give an explanation for you.
In telling you about it
I divulge the celestial mechanism.

Setting to work when one yang comes back,
First have the six yangs pump the furnace bellows;
Then the six yins work the tongs and hammer.
When the work of firing is complete,
It produces the sword;
When it is first done,
It flashes like lightning.

Brandish it horizontally
And a cold clear breeze arises;
Hold it upright,
And the shining bright moon appears.
Auspicious light illumines heaven and earth;
Sprites and ghosts are distressed.
It stops turbidity, brings out clarity,
Sweeps away weird defilements;
It slays volatility,
Cuts down aggressiveness,
Destroys monsters:
Influences draining away
Vitality, energy and spirit
All vanish in the light of the sword.
Entanglements are cut off, rumination dies down,
And the web of feelings is rent asunder.

Where the spiritual edge is aimed, mountains crumble;
The demon kinds of mundane planes are all routed.
This precious sword fundamentally has no form;
The name is set up because it has spiritual effect.
Learning the Tao and practicing reality
Depend on this sword:
Without this sword,
The Tao cannot be achieved.
Opening up the vast darkness,
Distinguishing heaven and earth,
Dissolving obstructions, transmuting objects -
All is included.
If you ask me to show it to you,
I bring it out before you -
Do you understand or not?

Translated by Thomas Cleary, 1989, p. 115-117

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Chinese Herbs for your first aid kit and medicine cabinet

As an herbalist I get a lot of questions about what herbs I take for various conditions, what I have around the house for emergencies, and what I travel with. We're not all blessed with a complete herbal pharmacy in the house or access to raw herbs growing in the backyard. So I thought I would write about my "go to" formulas and patents.

Without question the number one formula everyone should have around the house and in their travel kit is Yunnan Bai Yao. This legendary Chinese formula stops bleeding, and inhibits inflammation. It is said members of the Chinese army all carry vials in their first aid kits. The formula is a family secret and remains so to this day. It comes in several versions - capsule, powder, and spray. I personally like the powder for healing wounds. This powdered version also comes with a little pill in the cap to stop internal bleeding. Yunnan Bai Yao is also popular for use on pets, so much so that people often use it for pets that are stricken with cancer.

The second formula that I consider essential is Curing Pills or Po Chai Pills. These little round pills come in either pouches or small vials, and can relieve indigestion, and excessive stomach acid. I have used them to combat the effects of overeating, nausea, hangovers, food poisoning, and even at the beginning of a cold or flu when my stomach doesn't quite feel right.

One of my favorites when I have a cough or feel a sore throat coming on is San She Dan Chuan Bei Ye. This liquid comes in little vials with a straw and at one point contained snake bile!! It tastes sweet, soothes the throat, and calms cough. Typically I'll take something like Loquat and Fritillary Syrup every four hours, and in between doses add the San She Dan vials. The loquat syrup is known as Nin Jiom Pei Pa Koa, and also tastes very sweet with a bit of menthol. I typically mix a tablespoon into a cup of green tea when I feel a cold coming on, or when I'm trying to get rid of a lingering cough.

When it comes to muscle soreness, and recovery there are a vast array of products. I generally approach healing muscles with a  pre-workout formula, and a post workout formula. For the pre-workout I always turn to Zheng Gu Shui. It's both cooling and warm, and immediately begins to loosen stiff or painful muscles, while bringing blood flow to the tendons and ligaments. For post-workout I use a variety of dit dar jow, or die da jiu (Mandarin-pinyin). For generations dit dar jow was primarily made by kung fu practitioners and instructors, and was hard to find if you weren't in the know. Today there are many commercial variations. I always have Herbal Science Die Da Yao Jiu on hand, but I also have used X-Jow, and some custom formulas. There are two great resources online for dit dar jow as well, Plum Dragon herbs, and Dale Dugas. Both offer pre-aged formulas, and raw herbs and supplies for you to make your own if you so choose.

When I travel, I take along small packets of everything mentioned above, but I also have a bit of a pre-travel ritual as well. I start about two weeks before taking Dragon Herb's Supreme Protector. All of the ingredients (Reishi, Astragalus, Schizandra, and Cordyceps) help to build the immune system, and aid the adaptability of the body to handle stress. The day I get on the plane, and for the duration of the trip, I switch to another Dragon Herbs formula known as Perilla Clear (Perilla, Ashwaganda, Cordyceps, and Reishi). This formula continues to strengthen the immune system but also helps relieve any phlegm or cough that may be caught on the plane. Perilla (zi su zi in pinyin) is also known to moisten the intestines which can help regulate travel related constipation. Perilla Clear is one of the most adaptogenic formulas you could take, so I also suggested this formula during seasonal change, time change or geography change, and periods of increased stress. It's especially helpful for anyone who suffers from seasonal allergies.

For burns I really like Ching Wan Hung, a traditional patent with dang gui (a blood invigorator), and mo yao (myrrh) which heals flesh. This topical ointment will not only heal burns faster, but can also minimize scarring.

There are many more, but this short list can help you begin to build your own home Chinese herbal pharmacy...

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Nanjing, Day 9 and 10

Day 9

Unfortunately, massive rain this morning. I got the messages on WeChat that everyone was sleeping in. I walked over to the park in the rain at about 7:30am, but it was torrential, and I decided no practice would happen this morning. Lo and behold, the rain let up around 10:30am, and I started to get messages that Shifu would meet us in the park if we wanted to train. A few of us met Shifu, and we got another 2 hours of practice in on the new sword form. One of his students asked how long I had been working on the 42 sword, and I said "since yesterday, with all of you." She looked surprised, and then laughed as she told me they had been working on the form for over 3 weeks. Ah ha, that's why they all looked so good. Well, I was happy I kept up, and didn't feel so terrible any more...

After, Melody met us for another amazing lunch at Li's restaurant. We had lots of food as Shifu explained the intricacies of "second wife" in China, its history, and current practices. Melody was very good humored about it, and a bit surprised at all the drama in Chinese relationships. 

In the afternoon we made our way to Librarie Avant Garde, a very cool bookstore I visited on my last trip that has been built into an old underground parking garage near the People's Stadium. Though most of the books are in Chinese, the vibe is incredible. Every weekend there are signing events and lectures with authors, there is a great coffee shop, and the sheer quantity and quality of books is overwhelming. Every classic title I could think of from the west has been translated into Chinese, and is available here in multiple formats. I found a few TCM books, and a great translation of the Dao de Jing. It was a wet, sloggy day, but we had fun (though by the time we landed in Los Angeles 2 days later the wet and cold took it's toll on Melody).

Day 10

Our final day, and I definitely felt like I needed more time in Nanjing. The sun came out, and I made my way to the park. I saw Gao shifu one more time, and we worked on the Chen form for a bit. He seemed pleased with the corrections, and I'm excited to work them into my own class back in Los Angeles. Even with all my videos, notes and diligent practice little pieces begin to slide, and change shape.

At 7:30am the rest of Da Shifu's class started to roll into the park and we jumped right into the forms. In the park there is rarely any kind of warmup. Sometimes in the beginners class the teacher will lead everyone through some basic drills and qigong, but if you're with a serious teacher its expected that you will arrive early and be ready to work when he gets there.

We worked through another section of the form for a couple hours, and slowly the rest of the class faded away, sad goodbyes, but I promised to return in the fall. By 10:30 it was just me, Shifu, his son, and another student. We worked through each section of the form, and in between gave form demonstrations for the passersby.

At one point a new student came by and showed us a taiji form created by the Red Army. It was painfully long, and full of power, as it was mainly based on Chen movements.

By noon I had the whole form. My hips and knees were tortured from all the low stances, and the desire to impress both Shifu, and the continuous parade of onlookers. There were many photos taken, and video from the audience (I've been told there is video on Youku, the Chinese version of Youtube). Shifu was happy, and I was pleased to get the whole form in such a short time. We said our goodbyes, and I prepared for the long trip home….

Friday, April 29, 2016

Nanjing, Day 8

Day 8

Back to training. I went early to the park to practice the Chen broadsword set I knew I would be tested on later in the day, but then ran into my old teacher Gao Xiao Ming. I had brought him a gift as well, so it was an auspicious meeting. We worked through the forms he had taught me, and he gave me some very detailed corrections. Lots of good information to practice when I get home. His class began to gather just before 7:30, and I went off to practice my other forms. 

My new teacher showed up right on time, but I did get to run through the broadsword form once before he got there. We went through the form a few times, and surprisingly a lot of his students began to show up even though this is not their regular training day. One very nice older woman drove for an hour just to meet and train with the American!! 

After running through a few forms with the class, we started a new sword form, the Combined 42 straight sword form. Most of the class seemed to be working on this for the first time which was nice, everyone at the same level, not so much attention on me. They all picked up the form so fast, I was struggling to keep up. We got through almost half the form in one day!! That's a huge amount of information, but I took video, and notes….

Melody and I spent the rest of the day seeing the sights of Nanjing. A little Fu Zi Miao, shopping for gifts for family and friends, and a delicious lunch at Nanjing Impressions, a chain restaurant in which the staff wear Qin era costumes. It's a bit like Pirates of the Caribbean at Disney World, but the food is surprisingly excellent. Ordering was interesting, as not one person on staff spoke English, and it was kind of the end of the lunch service, so everything was rushed and a bit hectic. 

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Nanjing, Day 7

Day 7

Off to Nanjing today. A peaceful ride to the airport, and then a bit of torture at the Guilin airport. For some reason, Chinese announcements are loud and constant at the airport, not one moment of peace for 2 hours. Arriving in Nanjing we took a taxi to the Sofitel right across the street from the park I meet my teachers in. We settled in and then went out into the city so I could give Melody a general idea of where I practice in the morning, and where all the coffee shops are.

We walked down to the restaurant of one of my fellow students, and he treated us to a great dinner, and a surprise visit from Shifu. Luckily I had the requisite gifts with me just in case. 

We shared lots of pictures of my last trip, and got all of our QQ and WeChat apps in sync so we could easily communicate while in China, and when I get back home to Los Angeles. 

Melody and I finished the night at Fu Zi Miao, the Confuscious Temple, and a prime shopping area in Nanjing.

Yangshuo, Day 5 and 6

Day 5

This morning we woke to another massive thunderstorm. We used a break in the rain to hike up into the valley behind our hotel where we found a beautiful citrus orchard hidden away in the flats of the valley. We also braved the rains to bike ride along the Yulong River for a bit. Soaked to the bone, but still fun!!

Day 6

Last full day in Yangshuo, and we've decided to hike up Moonhill. A relatively short but steep hike with beautiful views of the valley below. 

We then made our way to the Big Banyan Tree which was relatively disappointing after visiting the banyan tree in Guilin. First the Yangshuo tree has an entrance fee, and then it was actually a bit smaller. In typical Chinese fashion it was fenced in and surrounded by so many signs that it was difficult to get a clean picture of it. Also, it was a complete tourist trap, just a zoo. 

We walked across the street to Jianshan buddhist temple, and it also was a disappointment. There was simply no life there at all, a few monks asleep near the altars, no one praying, and awful new age chant music playing loudly throughout the temple. I haven't been to Shaolin or some of the other popular Buddhist temples in China, but the ones I have visited have been a let down. Nowhere hear as vibrant or qi filled as the Daoist temples. 

A taxi ride back to Yangshuo town to run up the shopping street, and a few cafe visits for coffee snacks, and our day was done. 

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Yangshuo, Day 3 and 4

Day 3

Last night there was a brutal storm. huge thunder claps, lightening, and torrential rain. I woke early again for tai ji practice, and it had just about stopped. Making my way to the park I saw how much rain had really fallen. The lake was almost running over its banks. I found a quiet spot on an ornamental dragon boat in the center of the lake, and worked through Yang and Chen forms again. I was alone in the park as there weren't many covered areas. The boat was attached to a very private rock and bamboo garden. If we were staying longer, this would be my practice spot. 

With the help of our hotel in Yangshuo, we made our way to the boat that would take us from Guilin to Yangshuo, 3 hours down river. Normally this would be a 4 hour trip, but the river was running fast due to all the extra water from the nights rain. The scenery was incredible, often appearing as if someone had painted it. The weather went from misty to sunny, couldn't have been better. 

Upon landing we made our way to the Tea Cozy resort outside of Yangshuo, and once again well-rested, we went straight out for an adventure. We walked along the Yulong River for a few kilometers until we reached Da Shi Zhai village. We found a sweet little temple up on a hill devoted to Quanyin and local deities. We said our hallelujah's and lit incense. There aren't a lot of temples here in Guilin county, but I'm hoping we can visit the largest temple, Jianshan, before we leave. 

We walked back to the hotel, took naps, and had an amazing meal at the hotel restaurant before crashed into bed. 

Day 4

I woke before the sunrise and walked down to the local basketball court to practice this morning. No one else was practicing there, and I got some strange looks, but it was fun. We decided to go to Bai Shi town today for the big farmer's market, and it was huge. All manner of food, herbs, kitchen products, and clothes were for sale. The highlight being fresh local herbs for sale. It was a bit of a struggle to identify all of them in their raw, unprocessed state, but a huge learning experience for sure. We bought some tea, and then a quick scooter ride to the Dragon Bridge, where we hopped on bamboo rafts for the ride home. It was a lazy, slow cruise with more beautiful scenery. 

The afternoon brought us to downtown Yangshuo where we shopped, drank tea and coffee, and played tourist. The coolest thing that Yangshuo has to offer, which I have rarely seen in China, are homemade jiu's, Chinese wines and liquor infused with herbs. Some are just for flavor, others for medicinal purposes. We sampled many jiu during the day, but the best jiu came after dinner. We settled on a well reviewed spot called Cloud 9, but none of the reviews we saw mentioned the homemade wines they had here, all from a family recipe, and of course made locally. Melody had a shan zha rice wine said to aid digestion, and I had a snake rice wine for bone and joint health. It had been aged for 6 years, and contained 3 snakes along with other Chinese herbs. It was insanely strong, a lot like grappa, but gave me a pretty good boost of energy. 

After some more nighttime strolling we crashed back at the hotel, and prepared for our next 2 days in Yangshuo….

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Guilin, Day 2

I woke early and struck out for Banyan Tree park where I had read people do tai ji and qigong in the mornings. As I walked the city streets I was reminded that my China is really found in the morning, before the general populace is awake. In the silence of the morning there is an undercurrent, a vibration that is easily tapped into. Walking into the park I immediately saw a few people through the mist practicing qigong amongst the trees. Banyan Tree park is home to a 1000 year old banyan tree, and encompasses three connected lakes. I walked for a bit wanting to find a peaceful spot, but also being careful not to take someone else's regular practice spot. My experience has been that general tai ji classes and dance classes seem to start around 7:30am, more experienced practitioners, and the teachers who are looking for solitude are out between 6:00 and 7:00am. 

I found a spot along the lake, looking out at the karsts shrouded in mist, and not too far away from a qigong practitioner. He appeared to be doing some sort of movement based qigong set combined with a Six Healing Sounds derivative. I began to practice Yang and Chen styles, and listened to his chanting. About halfway through my practice another guy down the way starting singing a Chinese folksong. It echoed across the water, and once again China worked its magic on me. I found my rhythm and worked through my practice sets. 

Returning to the hotel, Melody and I made our way out to find breakfast. I took her back towards the lakes I had just found, searching for some peace, and we found it - at Starbucks. Normally, in China I might run into Starbucks for a chai, or to check my email, but this morning we sat, like good Americans, had our coffee and latte's while we made a plan for the day. It was a nice reset. 

This particular Starbucks was attached to a department store, so I figured a little retail therapy couldn't hurt. We walked through the various floors amazed at how expensive American and European items are in China. As an example, a pair of New Balance sneakers are $225 here, while their fake counterparts New Bailone are $65. Same logo, probably the same factory. Melody was shocked to see that Japanese and American makeup was as expensive and even more expensive here than they are in the U.S. 

The makeup counter also had some Chinese herbs which was cool. They sell reishi spore oil for skin rejuvenation, just as our company does in the states, and it was also more expensive!!

The most fun we had was looking at, and taking pictures of all the crazy t-shirts with poor translations, and seemingly random worlds printed on them. There will be a Facebook and Instagram post as soon as we are free of the Great Firewall. 

The rest of the day was spent quietly walking around the city, eating, drinking, and remembering what it's like not to be studying for school or the state boards...

Monday, April 18, 2016

Guilin, Day 1

I'd never been to Guilin but the pictures I've seen are beautiful, so for Melody's first trip to China i figured this could be the place. After careful planning we arrived in Guilin city on the redeye from Los Angeles, and a long layover in Beijing. Travel was easy, and we were well rested so we went right out into the city after checking into our hotel. 

Heading for the main pedestrian street in Guilin I figured we could easily find food, and some light shopping to ease Melody's initiation into China and Chinese crowds. But we were met with a massive assault of the senses, some of which I had not even seen in my decade of travel to China. The standard overcrowding was present, and the general disregard for other people, but the pedestrian street in Guilin is like all of the bad habits of human race combined with all of the weird Chinese food items westerners have only heard about. 

Right outside our hotel, and all along the main thoroughfare were restaurants known as "wet restaurants." These are places that keep their menu items out front, live in buckets and cages, for you to pick out. All manner of fish, pretty much anything you could catch out of the river (snails, crawfish, clams, and eels), along with snakes, chickens, ducks, frogs, and very fat looking rodents about the size of a small dog. As we were making our way down the street we saw a woman pick out a large fish from the bucket, and slam it on the sidewalk repeatedly to kill it. Now, I eat meat, I grew up hunting, I have no delusions about how our protein gets to the table, but this was unreal. Melody is convinced she will be a vegetarian before we get home. 

Once we got to the pedestrian street we were pummeled by loud electronic music blasting from every store, only to be interrupted by Chinese women screaming on a microphone about whatever sales they were running. Oddly, most of the Chinese seem to ignore the wail of the speakers, which of course causes the salesgirls to scream louder and turn up the music. As we were walking along, the Chinese art of spitting was on fine display, again more than I had ever witnessed. At one point Melody had to jump to avoid getting hit. All manner of meat is grilled on a stick every few meters, and some of these really smell terrible. Imagine this street goes on for about one mile with several intersections also extending out about a half mile each. 

There was a bit of respite from the madness. - a few fine teashops, Chinese herbal pharmacies at each end of the street, art shops, and these homemade spicy, pickled peppers that you could purchase. And we did randomly find one of the best noodle shops in Guilin which we had two nights in a row. 

One of the herb shops had doctors on staff that would recommend herbs, and teas that they made on premises, much like the Dragon Herbs does with retort pouches. We also found Chinese patents to bring home like Yunnan Bai Yao, and Zheng Gu Shui. 

We collapsed into bed that night, exhausted, but thankfully Melody was not deterred. 

Thursday, March 17, 2016


"Not all who wander are lost" - Tolkien

Pilgrimage is a source of inspiration and spirituality for many cultures around the world. Most of the great spiritual teachers throughout history spent time in retreat and traveling, sometimes performing miracles, and aspirants now walk in their footsteps either in honor of the teachers path, or in hope of achieving some bit of miracle for themselves. 

Many pilgrimages are over 1000 years old, and Mount Kailash in Tibet has been a pilgrimage for over 15,000 years. Circling the mountain is said to erase ones sins, and with 108 rotations one may reach enlightenment. As I have found during my own pilgrimages, people often undertake pilgrimage in hopes of erasing some sin or even paying a debt to deceased love one, and many go on these walks hoping to cure an illness either for themselves or a family member.

"Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go." - T. S. Eliot

Whatever the reason, a pilgrimage can be life changing. It gives us a chance to leave behind our crazed, modern, completely connected world, and allows us to refocus, and pay attention to the simple things in life. The act of walking everyday, with no other concern, allows the mind and heart to work through old thoughts, and negative emotions, a moving detox. Pilgrimage can give one a glimpse at their true self, and a chance to hear their true inner voice.

Many pilgrimages involve visiting places where miracles occurred or where there is a long history of worship, and spiritual practice. These holy sites are said to be centers of pure and powerful energy where one can connect to God or the universe. Just being at a location with a long history or spiritual practice is calming, and centering.

While traveling to these holy spots is exciting and adventurous, you don't have to travel far to be on retreat, or pilgrimage. I know several teachers who have annual retreats in their own home. Turn off the phone, television, and internet, alert your friends and family that you will be spending some days in silent retreat, and find a suitable practice to work through. If you've got a special place in town or nearby, make it a place you visit on special occasions to help reconnect to your spiritual self. For me, when I can't travel, I visit the Daoist temple in Los Angeles' Chinatown. During the week it's very quiet, and reminds me of my time in China. I make sure to visit during the week of my birthday, and whenever I need some time to connect. But if you can, I highly recommend a long walk…

If you're at all interested in pilgrimage I highly recommend the following books:

Oliver Statler, Japanese Pilgrimage - a classic book detailing Statler's pilgrimage around Shikoku, a pilgrimage I made in 2009. 

Craig McLachlan, Tales of A Summer Henro - a lighter read about the Shikoku pilgrimage