Stretching with the Mind In Taoist Yoga

By Simon Weir – Qianfeng Daoism UK (ICBI)


Qi Bo answered: ‘The pulse of a normal, healthy individual will beat twice with each inhalation and twice with each exhalation.  With one complete breath, there are four beats.  Occasionally, it is normal to detect five beats per breath, depending on the patient’s lung capacity.’

(The Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Medicine: Translated by Maoshing Ni PhD [1995] – Page 71)

Taoist inner development is a practical affair. There is no way that the mind and body can be developed just by coming into contact with Taoist theory and rhetoric, but only experiences a transformation through a period of highly concentrated training. In fact it is generally the case that once a method has been fully comprehended it must be put into practice with the minimum of interference from external factors. In this respect, Taoist inner transformation resembles its Buddhist cousin in as much as there is usually needed a period of peaceful contemplation free of the anxieties and worries associated with everyday life. In the sense of a lay-practitioner, even if he or she has a family, then a peaceful area of the house, together with a quiet part of the day, must be set aside for self-cultivation. Sometimes a couple can train together (particularly if there are no children living in the house), or if there are children, then one adult looks after the children whilst the other adult retires to a quiet corner and puts the Taoist method into practice. None of this appears in the Qianfeng Taoist manual ‘Taoist Yoga’, as it is comprised of the Taoist path as conveyed by two celibate Ch’an Buddhist monks (who live within a quiet temple), and which are explained by the lay-master Zhao Bichen (1860-1942). No doubt the life of Zhao Bichen was very exciting and inspiring, including the fact that he sired a child in his early sixties! It is also true that he managed to apply the Wuliu lineage teachings of the Longmen Branch (of the Quanzhen School) to his everyday life – and did this very well. Zhao Bichen had the very difficult task of applying what was originally a highly exclusionary set of Taoist teachings not only to his life of ordinary lay concerns, but in such a way that enabled ALL lay people to participate in that application.

Zhao Bichen’s example is that of one who dared to change a set Chinese tradition from one type of manifestation into another, without losing the inherent value of the original teaching. This has left us with a manual that Zhao Bichen wrote in the early 1930’s, that contains the instruction of his two Ch’an Buddhist masters (Liao Ren and Liao Kong), together with examples of Zhao Bichen’s broader Taoist knowledge which he attained from training with many other Taoist teachers. Zhao Bichen also practiced a number of different martial arts, again from various other teachers (his manual makes no mention of him learning martial arts from either Liao Ren or Liao Kong). This demonstrates that ‘Qianfeng’ is a composite system of Taoist self-cultivation that has at its core a centre of Wuliu theory, surrounded by an array of techniques and instructions from various other Taoist traditions (Zhao Bichen talks of training with at least 36 Taoist masters during his lifetime). This obviously means that Qianfeng Taoism came not only from many different (and probably unrelated) Taoist systems, but that Zhao Bichen had to officiate over these systems coming together through his understanding, which included the requirement to abandon the Chinese traditional practice of ‘exclusivity’. This abandoning of exclusivity was probably the greater task, as this idea within Chinese culture was predicated upon the fact that a lineage is stronger and lasts longer when the representatives of that lineage have been properly vetted and trained. This process of strict refinement meant that only those who had proved themselves to possess the correct type of character and moral attitude to life were taught the methods. Ordinary people who did not possess these qualities were considered a liability to the lineage and a waste of time to teach. According to Zhao Bichen it was his Ch’an Buddhist masters (Liao Ren and Liao Kong) who gave him the instruction to break with this tradition, and teach everyone equally the Wuliu lineage (Qianfeng had not yet been developed). The difficult task for Zhao Bichen was to implement this ‘new’ approach and yet keep the standards high and the school’s method effective.

To compose a manual that conveyed the exclusive certainty of the Wuliu lineage, and yet make that lineage effectively free of restrictions, Zhao Bichen had to develop the Qianfeng method which drew many different aspects from other Taoist texts and schools, etc. The implications of this reality is that during its inception, the Qianfeng School was formulated from the wisdom-strands of many different Taoist teachers, although it is true that Zhao Bichen was of the opinion that Liao Ren and Liao Kong were the fully genuine articles with regard to Taoist understanding, Taoist practice and Taoist attainment, but this fact does not necessarily mean that this signifies a ‘pure’ Taoist lineage. It is obvious that Liao Ren and Liao Kong (in Taoist Yoga) emphasise the use of the mind as the primary doorway to realising the Tao. This is probably not surprising, as Liao Ren and Liao Kong were recognised as accomplished upholders of the Ch’an Buddhist tradition. Within Ch’an temples, the monks and nuns often use periods of seated meditation juxtaposed with periods of hard physical agricultural labour (cultivating the fields by planting and harvesting vegetables). Qianfeng Taoism also uses periods of seated meditation and physical exercises (in the form of martial arts and qigong cultivation). Many Ch’an Buddhist temples also allow their monks and nuns to practice martial arts and qigong exercises. The point is that it is acknowledged that mind and body self-cultivation exercises involve a method for ‘stilling’ the mind, and ‘exercising’ the body. The over-all perspective is that ‘stilling’ the mind and ‘activating’ the body are two very important aspects of spiritual self-development for both the Ch’an Buddhist and Taoist methods. Taoist Yoga, it is true, is a mind developmental manual that records and explains what the interior experience of self-cultivation looks like. In other words, although it does not cover the subject of physical exercise, it does very carefully offer what might be explained as a cognitive map, compiled by those who have already and successfully travelled the path. Taoist Yoga shows the path toward unblocking psychological and physical ‘tensions’ residing within the mind and body. Once unblocked, the qi energy flows freely throughout the meridians of the entire body without hindrance. This in turns builds the fundamental essence (jing) which is associated with an enhanced ‘awareness’, and this leads to the realisation of ‘void’ in the mind, body and environment (shen). By stilling the mind and body processes, the mind and body become strong and vibrant. This healthy vibration becomes the basis for further training by moving the body around in a skilful manner (perhaps through qigong and martial arts practice).

If you follow the Taoist Yoga manual and develop a reasonably stable practice, then it is obvious from the example of Zhao Bichen that stationary sitting must be complemented with some form of ‘movement’ activity. In Beijing, China, Zhao Bichen’s great grandson teaches a variety of different internal martial arts as a supplement to seated meditation practice. It certainly seems logical for the health of the mind and body that somekind of physical exercise be engaged as a means to keep the muscles, bones and joints strong and healthy. Moving the outer body in a therapeutic manner is also good for the inner organs that are stimulated by forward, back and twisting motions of the torso. Learning to drop the bodyweight through the bones (into the floor) has the positive effect of strengthening the bones. Charles Luk (my teacher) did not learn any martial arts from Zhao Bichen because there simply was not time, but Zhao Bichen recommended any form of internal martial art that was taught by a competent master. He further clarified that if a person was young and vigorous, they could participate in the practice of one of the external arts, providing they approached the subject with a mind-set that understands that everything external must eventually transition into an internal practice. This idea is premised upon the understanding of the interaction (and integration) of the yin-yang principle. Internal arts emphasis ‘yin’ qi energy to transform ‘yang’ qi energy, whilst external arts concentrate on the ‘yang’ qi energy to transform the ‘yin’ – but in the end it all evens out and the yin and yang – although still distinctive and appropriate to circumstance, now exist in a state of complete and permanent balance. This understanding is a departure from the manual of Taoist Yoga, but it is one that is obvious from a survey of how people in China approach Taoist training. Although many access manuals in the first instance, it is also true that after a while they have to always seek-out a competent teacher. This is because a manual is two-dimensional and Taoist practice in real life is multi-dimensional. Not only this, but it is more or less common sense in China that a Taoist practitioner usually takes-up the practice of a martial art. In China there are many such arts that have never been heard of in the West before, and so there are many to choose from. In the West we are limited by choice, but the more well-known Chinese internal martial arts such as Ba Gua, Xing Yi, and Taijiquan. Within these three arts there are many lineages to choose from. Practicing the movements of these arts requires a certain and sustained meditative mind-set that encourages the qi energy to flow through the mind and body. This supplements the highly condensed and concentrated practice of seated Qianfeng meditation. In the end, movement and stillness must reflect one another with no remaining paradox.

In the West, Indian Yoga is thought as only comprising stretching movements (as in the Hatha System, etc), but in India there is also the Yoga of training the mind. This can be seen in Buddhism, for example, but is also the basis of the Hindu Patanjali System. By and large this involves a seated meditation practice which changes the thought patterns in the mind by an act of will-power. Generally speaking, various concentration techniques are exercised to stop the incessant stream of thoughts (this is also found within Qianfeng Taoism). Many systems of Taoist Yoga in China train the mind by using a number of different standing postures (such as that of the ‘Three Ball Posture’ found within Yang Style Taijiquan). However, the ‘relaxation’ of the muscles and tendons from habitual tension does not always involve the use of the kind of stretching postures found in Indian Yoga. In fact many Taoist Systems use only more or less ‘neutral’ standing positions as a means to transform the mind and body. The idea of relaxation is applied to the muscles and joints by an act of will in the mind and not by the limbs and torso being placed into ‘stretching’ postures. The mind becomes aware of every single inch of the musculature and in so doing is able to locate, assess and relax all unnecessary tension stored in the muscle fibres. This is stage one of traditional Taoist Yoga. After the mind and body has become calm in this manner, then the various postures of different martial arts may be attempted. These postures further develop the relaxation that has already been attained through standing practice. From an assessment of Master Zhao Ming Wang’s training blog (see Qianfeng UK site), it is clear that this is exactly the same methodology that he pursues at his training hall in Beijing. In fact the idea that relaxation is first and foremost an act of mind and not an act of body, is very common in traditional Taoist Yoga thinking in China. This means that Taoist suppleness of mind and body is not necessarily dependent upon the body adopting ‘stretching’ postures as a proof of presence and effectiveness. Of course, Taoists also practice mental relaxation by sitting in a meditational posture – this is exactly the same process that allows for the musculature to relax around the joints because the spinal column is aligned with pelvic and shoulder girdle. It maybe that seated meditation might be an importation into Chinese Taoism of Indian Buddhist methodology. This being the case, it is important to remember that whether sitting or standing, it is the alignment of the skeleton that allows for excessive and unnecessary tension in the muscles to be expelled from the body (and by implication, the mind, as psychic tension is reflective of physical tension). When bones and joints are aligned, the muscle sets surrounding these areas have no reason to habitually ‘tense’. This is the doorway into a greater pliability of the mind and body. For Taoist Yoga this is all dependent upon the development of awareness in the mind, so that this new alertness sweeps through every cell in the body. This achievement is an important step in achieving good health and rejuvenation in the Taoist System.

This article was originally published in the ICBI eJournal Patriarchs Vision (Vol. 1 no. 11, March 2016).