Why am I surprised when it happens? After all, it was my interest in traditional wushu that sparked my interest in anatomy. My research in anatomy led me to a career as a massage therapist. But, it is still a thrill to have the lights go on in one of those "a-ha" moments as some teaching from wushu takes me to a new level in another area of my life.
One of the first things Taho Yang and Allen (Cherng-Luen) Li taught us in the Texas A&M University Traditional Wushu Club was the Five Essential Principles. These reminders for improving our body structure were passed down from their Wutang Association in Tainan, Taiwan.
- Tuck your chin and lift your head.
- Loosen your shoulders and sink your elbows.
- Hollow your chest and extend your arms.
- Sink your breath to your dan tian.
- Straighten your backbone.
They were straightforward enough. I had seen similar lists before and did not think much more of it. Over the next three years, however, they became indelibly etched in my mind and body. When I became a massage therapist, I discovered they applied to body mechanics in my new vocation.
Recently, I have had further experience with "extend your arms." I was in Kansas City some time ago and visited an acquaintance, Chun Man Sit. He practices Wu style taiji, qigong and a rare internal style from Hong Kong called Six Elbows. During our discussion about qigong, he mentioned having the feeling of flowing and expanding through the fingers or palms when playing taiji and qigong. He defined this as a type of beng jin. I had heard a lot about beng jin, but had thought of other aspects. Often, I had felt something like Mr. Sit described, but I had not focused on this attribute during practice. I began to pay more attention to this sensation in my workouts.
Since I apply postural attributes from my wushu practice to my massage work, it was natural for me to carry this over too. My specialty in massage is called myofascial therapy. Myo is muscle. Fascia is the film-like connective tissue around, within and between the muscles. Fascia is made of fibers suspended in a colloidal gel, a non-Newtonian fluid. This gives it very special properties. For instance, the harder you push against it, the harder it pushes against you. However, light touch is insufficient to change the fibrous components. Finding the right depth and pressure to elicit change has been a tricky business.
Applying my new technique, I began to feel my hands expand and flow as I pressed into my clients' tissue. The result was perfect depth and pressure. Hardened tissue seemed to automatically melt in front of my hands with none of the searching for the right pressure. I had been pleased with the results of my treatments. Doing this made the results even better. A few clients' long-term problems that had reached a plateau began to make new progress. Other clients commented that it felt like I was doing something different, but they were unsure what.
A precautionary footnote here: At this time, I focused only on this energy in my hands. Results with my clients were remarkable. My personal experience, however, gradually became less than satisfactory. First, if I was tired, mentally or physically, I had difficulty using the technique. Second, my energy began to feel scattered, especially while I worked. I felt like I had to put great effort into all I did. This change was gradual over several month and almost imperceptible. I was unaware of the effort I was making. A friend at a massage therapy seminar pointed it out to me and suggested that I appeared top-heavy while I worked. Indeed, I felt as though my center had disappeared, but I was unsure how to correct it.
A few weeks later, while teaching my seniors' taiji class, we reviewed the Five Essential Principles. As we talked in detail about each point, it suddenly hit me that my new technique and my old "extend the arms" were the same thing. I began to think of extension differently as I applied it in wushu and in massage. I had focused mainly on the feeling in my hands, with my hands leading and my body following. I found if I extended my arms beginning at the dan tian, the technique was much easier.
Continuing to experiment, I noticed that dropping my elbows and maintaining relaxed, loosened shoulders had added effects. Soon, I reviewed all five essential principles and applied them to my work with new emphasis. Each contributes something different to my energy. When I bring all of the principles together, the whole seems more than the sum of the parts. It requires less concentration and is less tiring while being more effective with more consistent results. Using all the principles rather than focusing on one, at last, allowed me to regain the equilibrium that I thought I had lost.
Not only have there been merits for my clients, but now, I have enjoyed new benefits for myself. When I use all these principles, there is a clarity or openness in my body. I feel more balanced and centered. Effort and fatigue are greatly reduced, and in their place is a kind of peaceful intensity.
My clients have given me a lot of good feedback. One dramatic example, a client came to me three years after having back surgery to fuse three vertebrae together to repair one shattered in a car wreck. He had returned to work, but he was in so much pain that he was afraid he would have to retire on disability. He thought I might be his last hope. After six to eight months of weekly treatments, a very long treatment program for me, he could work without pain much of the time. However, he was still dependent on weekly treatments for maintenance. I was unable to change that dependency. We continued this way for another eighteen months.
I started sessions using my "new" technique. After three sessions, he was virtually out of pain. He still gets a little sore or stiff at the end of a long day, but what a difference. Now, he comes in regularly for enjoyment rather than needing relief to keep functioning. Wow!
It's marvelous how such simple phrases have such deep meaning. I would like to know exactly how all this works. I use even better body mechanics than before. This allows me to be more sensitive, more focused and smoother, but whether that is key is unclear. Am I manipulating my qi in some way that affects my client? Is it a combination of these or something else? It is hard to say.
What is clear is that it has changed the way I work by changing the response of my client's tissue within my contact. It is a very useful tool. It gives new meaning to the term "usage" in my wushu training.