Yin/Yang and the Olympics

I love the Olympics. As a somatic explorer, I am fascinated by the pursuit of embodied excellence, where humans challenge gravity to explore the myriad possible ways the human body can gracefully move through space. And the addition of danger adds a lot to the ‘wow’ness of the moment. The extraordinary discipline, precision and will power these athletes display raises the bar for all of us in our own personal pursuit of excellence in whatever our passions may be. And, at this level of embodied presence, the Yin/Yang relationship is so clearly obvious that the Olympics are a great teaching tool for us somanauts.

Winter Olympics: Ice, snow, cold, very yin. How to use yang heat to warm up, expand, burst out into space without losing a sense of where you are in relationship to Mother Earth. Gravity is the stage. The powerful attractive pull of Mother Earth, the Yin, is relentless. But so is the attraction of the Father Sky, up into the sun, into the light, into the unknown mystery awaiting us. How do we respond to both of these opposing forces in way that is integrated, creative, artistic, beautiful, elegant and delightful?  When we feel yin/yang as two aspects of a single urge to grow, they nurture and support each other.

When the movement brain, the organizing intelligence of the nervous system that facilitates all movements through space is awake and engaged, there are endless possibilities. As yoga students, we often tend to be unaware of the movement brain and rely on thought and will power to control the body. We have to be able to feel what is already alive and moving inside us, nurturing this flow of sensation/perception and intelligence. B.K.S. Iyengar described this perfectly in his description of samyama in asana, where the organs of action, the yang/karmindryas, have to listen to the organs of perception, the yin/jnanindryas) as the intelligence (buddhi) merges with them to create a single conscious flow of aliveness. (Click on the samyama link and read/listen to this with a yin/yang framework.)

(If you read the rather dense yet simplified description of the movement brain by clicking the link above, amazingly enough, you will discover the brain operates, at its core, within the yin/yang model. Neurons can inhibit/turn off (yin) or activate (turn on) (yang) other neurons to send information through the system. From this binary core, incredible complexity can arise. This is samyama, or Yin/Yang at a cellular level).

Somethings to watch for with a Yin/Yang lens. Activate your mirror neuron system to really feel the energy flow.

Pre-movements: In the intense flow of a race or dynamic performance, subtle adjustments to change directions require pre-movements that come from the subtlety of the flow. We can call this effortless effort. When there is overcompensation, there is a break in the flow, and you lose precious time, or crash. Find the ever-present subtle flow in your own body, even as you are just sitting. In your personal practice, any time you transition in and/or out of a pose, let the effortless flow lead you.

Tail energy: Crucial in balance and landing from jumps and aerials, but in every action you will see. Watch/feel the relationship between the tail enegy (rooting/root chakra/grounding) and the feet, whether on skates, skis or snowboards. Feel it in your own body. Go beyond being a spectator.

In the jumps and aerials: Feel in your own body the Yield (yin) loading, followed by the and Push (Yang) take-off, various upper body/lower body actions, with right/left and head/tail rotations in the air, and then the landing yin yield with a yang fluid flow out. See how the relationship between upper and lower body creates powerful rotations, and how they can rotate around more than one axis at a time while in the air.

When on the ground: Feel the power from the yin lower dantien through the legs into the ground to generate movement. The skiiers, snowboarders and skaters all have strong roots and legs. Feel how the upper yang torso floats lightly, remaining in balance, steering the body with eyes and subtle adjustments of the flow through the feet.

Figure Skating: My wife Kate was a competitive figure skater in her youth, so she can tell the difference between a triple loop and a triple flip. I see the power in the jumps that comes from loading/yielding weight into the skate blade edges, followed by a burst up into a spiraling twist. Feel the effortless transition yin/yang transitions when they switch from moving backward to forward and vice versa. In the spins, feel the center axis ( yin thrusting vessel) and the use of arms and legs to create horizontal stability (yang girdle vessel.)

Skiing: Notice the use of edges and how that grounds the body at steep angles (hopefully). In the wide leg standing poses, the same edge action applies energetically. It is not about the separate parts of the feet, but how the energy flows through the whole body through the feet into the ground.

Luge: going tail first really awakens the root intelligence. Talk about a moving meditation! Very subtle inner adjustments help steer. amazing balance of stability and movement.

Speed Skating: Right/left, up/down, holding the edges on the curves; feel the power, speed and balance in action.

Intense practice (yang) needs to be balanced with rest and recovery (yin.) There are many injuries that accompany such intense practice in pushing the edge of possibility. Finding balance is challenging. The risk/reward ratio changes as we get older. Know where you are on the spectrum and use wisdom as it grows to keep you healthy and creative simultaneously.

A very small percentage of the athletes win a medal. Winning is a transient phenomena, exhilarating for sure. But is the in the act of practicing and participating, in ‘just doing it’ that the embodied learning, the emotional maturing and the life long skills emerge. In the long run, we learn far more from ‘falling down’ and making ‘mistakes’ than we do from our successes. Again, there is a balance. It feels great to ‘get it right’ to ‘nail it’, to accomplish a goal. But life is a continuous flow, and the flow is life. We grow by developing emotional and psychological resilience, not winning or losing, so as we flow through life, life flows through us.

Many of the athletes have described how they were inspired by watching others when they were very young, and deciding to go for it themselves. We all should be so inspired!

Notes from Detroit, 1/ 2018

Yin/Yang and Yoga: On the Nature of Movement and Stillness

“The tao that can be spoken is not the true Tao,
The name that can be named is not the eternal Name.”

In the opening lines to the Tao Te Ching, Lao-tzu immediately points out the impossibility of describing the indescribable. Spiritual revelation is beyond words, ideas and concepts, but is realizable and knowable, through direct experience. But Lao-tzu continues anyway, using poetry to point to mystery, inviting us to jump in and discover the Tao for ourselves. Spiritual practices are like the poetry, inviting us to make the plunge of direct experience of the mysteries of life.

imgresTaoism presents a non-dual model of reality, using the interplay two fundamental and complementary ‘forces’ to create entire universes. By non-dual we the two forces or perspectives, while radically different, are actually mutually inclusive expressions of a singular wholeness. The Taoism uses the terms Yin and Yang, which while very different in nature, are inseparable. There is no pure yin, no pure yang. Distill yin 10,000 fold and still yang will be found. Distill yang 10,000 fold, still there will be yin. Always both in an eternal dance. as shown in the well known image above.  Our journey is to feel, explore and express these fundamental qualities in as many ways and dimensions as possible and discover the nature of love and creativity, of compassion and healing, of wisdom and stillness. Later in this post we will look more deeply at some of the nuances of yin and yang in our embodied asana explorations.

Our Non-Dual Vision: A Context for Practice:
Most spiritual traditions, in their mature phase, have a non-dual vision. The realization is that there are two clearly different but fundamental perspectives on life, that, like yin and yang, may be differentiated, but are innately inseparable. At the most primary level, these two perspectives are: the experience of ‘Stillness’; and the experience of ‘Movement’. Taoism, as noticed by Lao-tzu, doesn’t offer a word for ‘Stillness’. Tao implies ‘Stillness plus yin/yang as Movement. Other traditions have used words to point to “Stillness” and “Movement’ to help us in our own self-realization and these include: Presence and Love, The Seer and The Seen, Pure Awareness and What Arises in Awareness, Luminous Emptiness or Buddha Nature and Impermanence,  Purusha and Prakriiti, Now and ClockTime, Formless and the World of Forms. Beyond words these two Cosmic Views need to be felt, integrated and known intimately to live a fulfilling and spiritual life. For our purposes here, we will call them the masculine, or Presence and the feminine or Love.

From our first perspective, we experience life as continuous change, as non-stop movement. This perspective is the feminine, often called the ‘Seen’, as our sense organs tune into, perceive and respond from this realm. In the Shaiva tradition of India, the goddess Parvati represents this realm as the Divine Mother, the nurturing and loving link that connects all beings and creation through Unconditional Love. All that arises is an expression of Divine Love. Ojai’s own Byron Katie uses this as her primary teaching theme and the title of her first book, “Loving What Is”. When there is harmony and coherence in our lives, this flow is experienced as the infinite expressions of love, including health, well-being, creativity, joy, delight and bliss.

This level is also ‘the flow of time’, of birth and death, of learning and forgetting.  Buddhists call this the experience of impermanence. Our survival instincts demand we pay attention to change, so for most, this is the perspective that dominates our attention. Because of our spiritual immaturity it tends to be driven by fear, anxiety and insecurity, and not love and compassion. Then we over-react to life, endlessly chasing pleasure and desperately trying to avoid pain. The slightest inconvenience can begin a seemingly non-stop cascade of negative thoughts and emotions. This is suffering. When integrated with and grounded in the Divine Masculine “Seer’, the feminine love and compassion flow freely and can heal fear, insecurity and anxiety. We can stop, feel the deep stillness of presence and feel the divine love. We can then realize that each moment offers us exactly what we need to keep growing and healing.

The complementary masculine perspective is Stillness, aka absolute stability or the ‘Seer”. This perspective is often completely missed as it can’t be ‘seen’, just as the eyes cannot see themselves, (except with a mirror, which is the metaphor Vedanta uses for its teaching, helping the ‘Seer to recognize itself.’) Represented by Shiva, sitting alone on a mountain top, absorbed in stillness, this masculine point of view offers wisdom as its gift as well as a stable anchor to support us in navigating the challenges of living in a human body. It is unchanging, unbounded and timeless, holding all in infinite stillness. But without the integration with the feminine love and compassion, the wisdom and stability can be cold, heartless and empty. We always need both. This is the non-dual vision, masculine and feminine in an integral embrace of movement and stillness.

We all need to feel stable to function, but our spiritual vehicle, the body-mind-sense complex is in constant flux. In a spiritually immature, non-integrated state, we try to create stability by trying to freeze or fixate a stable ‘self’ or ‘me’ out of the continuous changing world. We do not recognize that we are also, always, grounded in the Absolute Stability of the ‘Seer’. We get con-fused. We forget. This forgetting is the metaphorical fall from the Garden of Eden, the ‘Original Sin” of the Catholics and is the root of all suffering. Life can be painful. There is sickness, pain and death as part of the spiritual journey, but these are not suffering described by the Buddha. Suffering is the forgetting that, in spite of the challenges, we are infinite light, love, compassion and wisdom. Thus we can say yoga is about ‘remembering’ our ‘true nature’ and reminding ourselves again and again when we forget.

If and when we are not grounded in the Timeless, we create unstable identities/small selves/egoic selves/personalities out of bits and pieces of our experience in the world of changing forms and believe them to be the ‘self’ . That is, we ‘identify with’ our thoughts, our bodies, ideas, and beliefs and spend vast amounts of psychic energy battling to keepunknown these unstable structures solid, defending them against other similar, ego driven structures. This is easy to see in others, not so much in ourselves. (Sutra I-4) The concept of no-self in Buddhism points to the fallacy of believing in a fixed sense of ‘self’ constructed by the mind. Sitting practice opens the door to observing this process of ‘selfing’, so it becomes a living reality and not just an idea. We do it all the time. And we can step outside the process, as a silent witness, and watch the show. And learn. And wake up.

Practicing Stillness: The best and most universally acknowledged way to deeply open and stabilize ourselves in the Timeless is through sitting in silence. My first spiritual practice, from the book “Three Pillars of Zen” by Philip Kapleau, was ‘just sitting’, or shikantaza. Roshi Kapleau introduced me to Zen in a class I was taking at MIT in 1971 and I was inspired to give it a try. I hung with it for as long as possible, but it didn’t really take hold. It wasn’t until I came across the Iyengar style of yoga in 1978 that I developed a disciplined daily practice. There were so many fascinating things in the world of form to discover and explore that ‘just sitting’, with no agenda other than just ‘being’ was put on the back burner of my practice regimen. Now that I am ‘just sitting’ again every day, I have rediscovered how important this is and highly recommend that if you do not already have a sitting practice, jump in and get started.

SBK_17010761-85Although sitting in silence is much more powerful in a group, tremendous insight can come from sitting on your own. Feel free to use a chair if  need be, as there are no bonus points for sitting on the floor. If you do sit on the floor, use a cushion, bolster or something to lift your pelvis up off the floor and help keep your legs and hips from compressing. Space in the hips makes for much easier sitting. An uncomfortable body is a primary distraction. Any seated pose that works for you is fine.

Once the body is comfortable, then the mind needs to be addressed. The mind generates thoughts. That’s what it does and you cannot stop this. What you can do is give it something to do that is both focusing and relaxing and eventually the mind may learn to rest. This of course is to focus your attention on the breath.

In the Vibhuti Pada, (chapter 3) Patanjali describes samyama, the three fold process of bringing the attention to one place, keeping it there with discipline, and then staying there effortlessly, as dharana, dhyana and samadhi, and then acknowledges that you often have to start all over again as the attention will drift away. It’s a game or process. The intention is to sit with awareness, manage the moment as best possible, and be playful with your self. It is very easy to get frustrated when we realize just how restless the mind actually is. You can count the breaths, going to 10 and then starting over. Or, you can let each breath come and go, so every breath is ‘1’. Or you can recite a simple mantra over and over.

In sutras I-33 through I-39, Patanjali lists several other options for developing steadiness of mind. In I-33 Patanjali introduces ‘Loving Kindness’ meditation, known a maitri in Sanskrit, metta in Pali, where we begin to recognize Love and the primary expression of all that arises. One of my favorite sutras is I-39, where he says you can try anything that might work for you.

Just sit. Start with 10 minutes and work you way into longer sessions. You may begin to notice the background stillness, especially at the end of the exhalations, where the breath temporarily rests. As the body relaxes these pauses may get longer. You may also notice a pause between thoughts. As the mind relaxes, it still generates thoughts, just not as many, and they don’t crash into each other. Practice is really a form of impulse control, like you might teach a child. We don’t have to react to every thought or feeling that arises. We can just let them come and go, like clouds floating across the sky. We become an objective witness to them, and then even the witness drops away leaving awareness itself. Presence or Stillness is ‘ever present’, always. We just tend to not notice.

Embodying Impermanence Through Yin and Yang

Along with ‘resting in Stillness’, yoga students and somatic practitioners also explore the world of impermanence as Love, as it is expressed in creation, especially through the living body, in all of its dimensions and modes of expression. What does Love ‘feel’ like? We know, intuitively, but often forget. Freely moving qi can be a great reminder.

The Tao’sts of old were masters of exploring the inner realms of aliveness and Traditional Chinese Medicine, Qi Gong and Tai Qi and explicit examples of their discoveries. As mentioned above, the key principle is that all forms are composed of two fundamental qualities, Yin and Yang, which are different from, but not separate from each other. There is no Pure Yin or Pure Yang. Yin always contains some yang and yang always contains some yin. Refine either 10,000 times and still the same. They are “complementary opposites that combine, interact and mutually transform each other”.

Their relationship is cyclical and spiralic. As yin increases, yang decreases until a natural pause, like in the breathing, arises and the cycle reverses, with yin decreasing as yang increases until it reaches its maximum. Another pause, and the cycle shifts again. Because of time and the dynamic nature of reality, every cycle is unique. As westerners, raised in a strongly dualistic, Judeo-Christian-Islamic world, where there is right and wrong or God and the devil, the inseparable nature of yin and yang  is challenging at first. We want tangible stable ‘truths’ to hold onto, but they can never be found by holding on to anything. But we can find stability by ‘letting go’ and noticing how the universe flows along quite effortlessly without our intervention. Then we allow our selves to flow with the Universe, the Tao, practicing ‘wu wei’ effortless effort, or doing by non-doing. This is “Ishvara Pranidhana of Patanjali’s  Yoga Sutras.

Some Clues to explore Yin and Yang

Yin: water, earth, down, body, blood, emotions, storing, restoring, resting, yielding, receiving, cooling, condensing, centripetal force, introversion/introspection, endoderm, gut body, front body,

Yang: fire, heaven/sky, up, qi, thoughts, using, acting, moving, initiating, heating, expanding, centrifugal force, extroversion, ectoderm, nerves/skin/back body

From Sitting to Standing and the Principle of ‘Pre-Movements’

Sitting is fundamentally yin. It is a ‘grounded’ pose, root chakra planted on the earth, designed to ‘not move’ the physical body, but to help it find stillness. But there is also ‘yang’. The embodied state always has the non-stop movements of circulation, breathing, peristalsis, and muscle tone, but when there is balance, the gross body can sustain a level of stillness that frees the mind to further let go. Yin grounds the body in Mother Earth, and a subtle yang keeps you upright and awake. Not enough yang (or too much yin) and your pose collapses or your mind becomes dull and sleepy. Not enough yin (or too much yang) and the body/mind becomes fidgety and restless.

When transitioning from sitting to standing, a predominantly moving pose, we are shifting from a yin dominant to a yang dominant position and smooth transitions are important for IMG_7947safety as well as staying fluid (sattvic) and light. This is when being able to feel the ‘pre-movement is essential. If I am still and have an intention to move, my body will, usually totally unconsciously, prepare some stabilizing action so that my movements don’t knock me off balance. This is the ‘pre-movement’. If I observe this carefully, I may notice the pre-movement is often a muscular contraction somewhere, a grasping or grabbing on to brace the body. We want to change this pattern by using the flow of qi between yin and yang for all of our pre-movements.

When you are ready to transition from sitting to standing, first feel the yang/uplifting energy already waiting to grow further and allow it to extend it out through your legs to open the knees, ankles and hips. The joints need the space of yang. Awaken the arms in a similar manner and then feel the weight of the pelvis and root of the body. As the weight yields (yin) into the floor, let the responding yang begin to rotate the body, right or left,and then lean over to place the hands on the floor as if you are ready to crawl. There is continuous flow. This is actually the first moving pose after sitting. Grow your hands down into the floor with your hands as the next pre-movement to spiral again to one knee and then finally to standing. Notice the relationship to pushing down and rising up. This is the spiral dance of yin and yang. The Pre-movements are the yielding yin, connecting to gravity as the stabilizing action which leads to an effortless yang movement.

Standing is the beginning of the dominant form of human movement, walking or running. This is easily forgotten in ‘tadasana’ when the tendency is to ‘hold’ the body in place. It is certainly possible to stand in ‘stillness’, as the military often demands, but this is not the body’s first choice from this pose. Sitting is down, grounded and yin, where as standing is up, rising, expanding, moving into the world. However, standing absolutely requires the grounding yin support. Think of this as a continuous pre-movement. You feel this in surfing and skiing, where the body is ‘relatively’ upright, but the yielding to the gravitational glue provides the stability and there is no collapse or unnecessary contraction. (Healthy muscle tone is not contraction, as I use the term. It is vibrant and dynamic. contraction is blocking the flow of qi.)

Yin/yang of Standing

In tadasana, notice the up energy (yang) extends up to the heavens and then re-discover your weight as down/yin and let your ankles, knees and hips yield to gravity by flexing slightly. Yin is flexion, yang is extension. Imagine you are on skis or s surf board, so as you relax down, there is a corresponding release up into slight extension. Let the flexing/extending dance continue as if you are riding a very subtle wave. It is like floating. Notice if you hang out on one side more than the other. Most of us do. Is the down/yin blocked, or is it the up/yang, or both? Because of the uniqueness of the human upright posture, far more yang than other creatures, most of us have lost a lot of grounding/yin. This results in tension in the feet, strain through the knees and a lot of tightness in the hips and lower back. (And most of the rest of the body as well!) All signs of faulty pre-movements.

Walking Meditation as Yoga Practice

IMG_7948To release the yin down, we have to learn how to walk all over again, one step at a time. When the yin is blocked, we lift our leg, drag it forward and then land on it again further compressing or straining the tissue. In the image to the right, I have exaggerated the first step, but the principle is to put the weight on one foot and release down slightly, yielding to the K-1 point (kidneys are the ‘yinnest’ of the organs, governing the movement of water in the body) yin and mother earth. I place the left heel on the floor in front of me before I shift my weight, still yielding (yin).

The weight shift (yang) comes by pressing down and back through K-1, lifting the heel, while simultaneously rolling onto K-1 of the left foot. Remain vertical, gliding forward without leaning forward. (That becomes running.) Back to ‘yin’. With the next step the left foot yields to the weight, right foot lifts effortlessly and heel descends and the cycle repeats.
This “Yield and Push”, pre-movement and action, is a fundamental movement pattern and if you can slow down and really feel the smooth transitions, the whole body softens and opens.

Tadasana is really a ‘yang’ pose for movement, and the standing poses that follow are all images-10poses that enhance and liberate pour capacity to move. If we feel yin as grounding, we can use our work imagining tails as deeper yin. I moving from tadasana to uttanasana, I first feel grounded through root chakra, pelvis, legs and feet (yin/yielding. I then engage the tail to extend back and through the pelvis, without losing the grounding through the legs. This opening and deepening of the ‘yielding to earth’ yin getPart-1is a reflex known as anal rooting, as seen in the baby to the right. The easiest way to feel this is in a chair forward bend.

We take the same action and move back and up (a little yang) to come into uttanasana, the standing forward bend. No need the straighten the legs too quickly. Extension (yang) has to flow from the release of flexion (yin). Keep the spine soft and let the hips and knees extending slowly, when ready. No force, no effort. In a forward bend, the yang back body yields or releases, but the yin front has to expand to receive this. Most students collapse the front and the pose stalls in conflict. Keep the core lengthening to allow the back to release more and more.

We can use the microcosmic orbit to help us feel this process. The back body/yang andgetPart-3 the front body/yin combine in a circle, crown chakra on top (yang), root chakra on the bottom (yin). Tadasana is a neutral pose for the core, neither flexed/yin, or extended/yang.  In either a forward bend or backbend the circle of energy should remain flowing, even as the gross body structures are challenged. In uttanasa, the back opens and yields as the front condenses without contracting. In a backbend, the front opens and yields as the back body condenses, without contracting. Feel this to know the limits of your body. The role of practice is to restore balance and increase vitality, not to aggressively force openings.

pisayogaA similar process is involved in moving into triangle pose. The yang action of moving into the pose engages the yin/tail/pelvis to elongate away from the head. The body flows into the pose because the root is lengthening, through the front hip socket, tail and inner back leg.

fish bodyIn these ‘lateral space creating’ poses such as tikonasana, parsvakonasana, ardha chandrasana, and anantasana we can also visualize rotating our micro-cosmic orbit into the lateral plane to feel our wingsSBK_17010761-8 opening like a bird in flight. This action creates space in the center channel, as right and left sides expand away.


Side Body Interlude: Blood Breathing

This breathing exploration can be done in any comfortable position, sitting or lying supported. I also play with it while doing my swimming meditation. The premise is to imagine the expanding chest cavity is drawing blood into the lungs from the rest of the body, but especially the lower body, below the diaphragm. We know that inhalation draws air into the lungs, but the vaccuum created by expanding the chest volume also helps in circulation. On the inhale, expand the chest slowly and gradually and feel the blood coming from your feet up your core, through your heart and into the lungs. On the slow even exhalation, visualize the blood flowing through the heart and out into the body. Rest between cycles. As the lungs expand sideways, away from the heart, like the branches and leaves of a large oak tree, feel the lateral space and the quiet sensation of the head. Over time allow the expanded chest to stay open during the exhalation as the lungs and diaphragm take care of the out breath.

The Yin/Yang of twisting: Twisting poses rotate around the core axis, an action that helps define human movement. We love spiralic movments and twisting, whether in dance, throwing a frisbee, of swing a bat, golf club or tennis raquet, power is generated in twisting. See it as a coiling (yin) to store SBK_1711254-4energy, and then uncoiling to release the energy (yang). As there are many joints, the movement has to be fluid and sequencial. In this photo, there is abalance of yin and yang which leaves me in a dynamically stable pose. The hoop helps me to keep right and left sides working together. Otherwise, one side will race ahead,leading to a breakdown in the flow of qi. If I were to mimic the throwing of a frisbee, I would trace the yin grounding through K-1, creating a rebounding yang lift spiraling up through legs, hips, spine, ribs, shoulders and flowing out through my throwing hand, at each step on the way the coiled flexors releasing into extension until the frisbee leaves my fingertips.

From lying to standing: the awakening of movement in babies as a spiral









1.Lying down: very yin. Play here as happy baby/seaweed pose. 2. Using your fluid body only, no limbs, roll over to the reptile pose. Early yang. Use can move about form here, using limbs. Feel the spiral that gets you here. 3. Loading the arms, feel the floor and push to sitting. Another spiral to a yin pose. 4. Reverse the spiral direction to come to the yang crawling position. 5. another reverse spiral to come to this intermediary yin pose. Helpful if you need a chair or desk to help you up to the next step. 6. Load the front leg and push up to walking yang. Youv’e made it! ready to explore the world. 7. Reestablish ground, coming back to tadasana, where yin and yang can rest in balance, until you are ready to move again.

Microcosmic orbit in hip opening poses;

Bony-Surfaces-of-the-Hip-Joint-Head-of-Femur-and-Acetabulum.If we understand the double action of the microcosmic orbit, that is, sending energy in both directions at the same time to open root and crown chakras, we can apply that same principle to challenging hip issues. To truly open the hips, energetically speaking, both directions must be clear. In other words, the femur and pelvis need to move in opposite directions, and when the physicl movement stops, the energetic one has to keep going or else the qi stops. Many students hit a wall in their poses because they do not keep the qi moving when they are at their edge. Slow down, as you near you edge, feel space getPartbetween the bones and the two energies pass through the joint. In the chair forward bend, the pelvis has to lift (yang) and the femurs drop (yin) to sustain space for the qi. If they both lift or both drop, you get stuck. If the chair inhibits the dropping, lift up a tiny bit off the chair and then sit by dropping the femurs onto the chair, not the sitting bones.getPart-1Then extend the dropped femurs out through the heels, lift the pelvis up, and elongate through the body to go deeper.



Tao’ist Healing

Happy New Year, 2018

The Thomas Fire, which devastated a large area in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties, sent Kate and myself on a four week journey away from the fire and smoke, and our last stop was a week at the Upaya Zen Center in Santa Fe, where Kate had spent a weekend in November. Zen has, in many interesting ways, woven its way through my life, but I had never formally sat zazen in a zendo. The main teacher at Upaya, Roshii Joan Halifax, had lived in Ojai for many years, and is an amazing woman with a small but deeply engaged group, so it was energizing and inspiring to sit with them and be so graciously welcomed into their community.

One one of the evenings there has a dharma talk and the primary focus centered around a painting by a famous Japanese Zen master and painter, Hakuin. The name was familiar to me, but I wanted to know more about him and came upon the following story. Three things jumped out at me.  The first is the awesomeness of synchronicity, where multiple levels and layers and questions and answers come together spontaneously in the moment. Secondly, Hakuin’s journey of healing felt like the path of healing trauma, and the fire had induced and evoked quite a lot of trauma in my own nervous system. And finally, the guidance offered Hakuin was straight from the Tao’ist principles we have been exploring for the past year or so. I have been using the meditation and it has helped me tremendously in getting through some challenging nights.

This story and the accompanying notes come from the web site Buddism Now.

Hakuin Zenji (1689-1769)  describes the “Zen sickness” he contracted in his latter twenties and the methods he learned from the recluse Hakuyu in the mountains outside Kyoto that enabled him to cure the ailment.

Virtue, by Hakuin Ekaku. www.metmuseum.orgOn the day I first committed myself to a life of Zen practice, I pledged to summon all the faith and courage at my command and dedicate myself with steadfast resolve to the pursuit of the Buddha Way. I embarked on a regimen of rigorous austerities, which I continued for several years, pushing myself relentlessly.

Then one night, everything suddenly fell away, and I crossed the threshold into enlightenment. All the doubts and uncertaint­ies that had burdened me all those years suddenly vanished, roots and all—just like melted ice. Deep-rooted karma that had bound me for endless kalpas to the cycle of birth-and-death vanished like foam on the water.

It’s true, I thought to myself: the Way is not far from man. Those stories about the ancient masters taking twenty or even thirty years to attain it—someone must have made them all up. For the next several months, I was waltzing on air, flagging my arms and stamping my feet in a kind of witless rapture.

Afterwards, however, as I began reflecting upon my everyday behaviour, I could see that the two aspects of my life—the active and the meditative—were totally out of balance. No matter what I was doing, I never felt free or completely at ease. I realised I would have to rekindle a fearless resolve and once again throw myself life and limb together into the Dharma struggle. With my teeth clenched tightly and eyes focused straight ahead, I began devoting myself single-mindedly to my practice, forsaking food and sleep altogether.

Before the month was out, my heart fire began to rise up­ward against the natural course, parching my lungs of their essen­tial fluids.[1] My feet and legs were always ice-cold: they felt as though they were immersed in tubs of snow. There was a constant buzzing in my ears, as if I were walking beside a raging mountain torrent. I became abnormally weak and timid, shrinking and fear­ful in whatever I did. I felt totally drained, physically and mentally exhausted. Strange visions appeared to me during waking and sleeping hours alike. My armpits were always wet with perspira­tion. My eyes watered constantly. I travelled far and wide, visiting wise Zen teachers, seeking out noted physicians. But none of the remedies they offered brought me any relief.

Master Hakuyu

Then I happened to meet someone who told me about a hermit named Master Hakuyu, who lived inside a cave high in the mountains of the Shirakawa District of Kyoto. He was reputed to be three hundred and seventy years old. His cave dwelling was two or three leagues from any human habitation. He didn’t like seeing people, and whenever someone approached, he would run off and hide. From the look of him, it was hard to tell whether he was a man of great wisdom or merely a fool, but the people in the surrounding villages venerated him as a sage. Rumour had it he had been the teacher of Ishikawa Jozan [2] and that he was well versed in astrology and deeply learned in the medical arts as well. People who had approached him and requested his teaching in the proper manner, observing the proprieties, had on rare occa­sions been known to elicit a remark or two of enigmatic import from him. After leaving and giving the words deeper thought, the people would generally discover them to be very beneficial.

In the middle of the first month in the seventh year of the Hoei era [1710], I shouldered my travel pack, slipped quietly out of the temple in eastern Mino where I was staying, and headed for Kyoto. On reaching the capital, I bent my steps northward, crossing over the hills at Black Valley [Kurodani] and making my way to the small hamlet at White River [Shirakawa]. I dropped my pack off at a teahouse and went to make inquiries about Mas­ter Hakuyu’s cave. One of the villagers pointed his finger toward a thin thread of rushing water high above in the hills.

『東坡笠屐図』 Su Shi (Dongpo) in a Straw Hat and Sandals © The Metropolitan Museum of ArtUsing the sound of the water as my guide, I struck up into the mountains, hiking on until I came to the stream. I made my way along the bank for another league or so until the stream and the trail both petered out. There was not so much as a woodcut­ters’ trail to indicate the way. At this point, I lost my bearings completely and was unable to proceed another step. Not knowing what else to do, I sat down on a nearby rock, closed my eyes, placed my palms before me in gassho, and began chanting a sutra. Presently, as if by magic, I heard in the distance the faint sounds of someone chopping at a tree. After pushing my way deeper through the forest trees in the direction of the sound, I spotted a woodcutter. He directed my gaze far above to a distant site among the swirling clouds and mist at the crest of the mountains. I could just make out a small yellowish patch, not more than an inch square, appearing and disappearing in the eddying mountain vapours. He told me it was a rushwork blind that hung over the entrance to Master Hakuyu’s cave. Hitching the bottom of my robe up into my sash, I began the final ascent to Hakuyu’s dwell­ing. Clambering over jagged rocks, pushing through heavy vines and clinging underbrush, the snow and frost gnawed into my straw sandals, the damp clouds thrust against my robe. It was very hard going, and by the time I reached the spot where I had seen the blind, I was covered with a thick, oily sweat.

I now stood at the entrance to the cave. It commanded a prospect of unsurpassed beauty, completely above the vulgar dust of the world. My heart trembling with fear, my skin prickling with gooseflesh, I leaned against some rocks for a while and counted out several hundred breaths.

After shaking off the dirt and dust and straightening my robe to make myself presentable, I bowed down, hesitantly pushed the blind aside, and peered into the cave. I could make out the figure of Master Hakuyu in the darkness. He was sitting perfectly erect, his eyes shut. A wonderful head of black hair flecked with bits of white reached down over his knees. He had a fine, youthful complexion, ruddy in hue like a Chinese date. He was seated on a soft mat made of grasses and wore a large jacket of coarsely woven cloth. The interior of the cave was small, not more than five feet square, and, except for a small desk, there was no sign of household articles or other furnishings of any kind. On top of the desk, I could see three scrolls of writing—The Doctrine of the Mean, Lao Tzu, and the Diamond Sutra.[3]

I introduced myself as politely as I could, explained the symptoms and causes of my illness in some detail, and appealed to the master for his help.


After a while, Hakuyu opened his eyes and gave me a good hard look. Then, speaking slowly and deliberately, he explained that he was only a useless, worn-out old man—”more dead than alive.” He dwelled among these mountains living on such nuts and wild mountain fruit as he could gather. He passed the nights together with the mountain deer and other wild creatures. He professed to be completely ignorant of anything else and said he was acutely embarrassed that such an important Buddhist priest had made a long trip expressly to see him.

But I persisted, begging repeatedly for his help. At last, he reached out with an easy, almost offhand gesture and grasped my hand. He proceeded to examine my five bodily organs, taking my pulses at nine vital points. His fingernails, I noticed, were almost an inch long.

Furrowing his brow, he said with a voice tinged with pity, “Not much can be done. You have developed a serious illness. By pushing yourself too hard, you forgot the cardinal rule of religious training. You are suffering from meditation sickness, which is extremely difficult to cure by medical means. If you attempt to treat it by using acupuncture, moxacautery, or medicines, you will find they have no effect—not even if they were administered by a P’ien Ch’iao, Ts’ang Kung, or Hua T’o.[4] You came to this grievous pass as a result of meditation. You will never regain your health unless you are able to master the techniques of Introspective Meditation. Just as the old saying goes, ‘When a person falls to the earth, it is from the earth that he must raise himself up.’”

“Please,” I said, “teach me the secret technique of Introspec­tive Meditation. I want to begin practising it, and learn how it’s done.”

With a demeanour that was now solemn and majestic, Master Hakuyu softly and quietly replied, “Ah, you are determined to find an answer to your problem, aren’t you, young man? All right, I suppose I can tell you a few things about Introspective Medita­tion that I learned many years ago. It is a secret method for sus­taining life known to very few people. Practised diligently, it is sure to yield remarkable results. It will enable you to look forward to a long life as well.”

“What you must do is to cut back on words and devote yourself solely to sustaining your primal energy.[5] Hence, it is said, “Those who wish to strengthen their sight keep their eyes closed. Those who wish to strengthen their hearing avoid sounds. Those who wish to sustain their heart-energy maintain silence.”

The Soft-Butter Method

“You [Hakuin] mentioned a method in which butter is used,” I said. “May I ask you about that?”

Master Hakuyu replied, “When a student engaged in medi­tation finds that he is exhausted in body and mind because the four constituent elements of his body are in a state of disharmony, he should gird up his spirit and perform the following visualisation:

近代 王震 佛祖圖 軸 Buddhist Sage. Wang Zhen (Chinese, 1867–1938) © The Metropolitan Museum of Art“Imagine that a lump of soft butter, pure in colour and fra­grance and the size and shape of a duck egg, is suddenly placed on the top of your head. As it begins to slowly melt, it imparts an exquisite sensation, moistening and saturating your head within and without. It continues to ooze down, moistening your shoul­ders, elbows, and chest; permeating lungs, diaphragm, liver, stomach, and bowels; moving down the spine through the hips, pelvis, and buttocks.

“At that point, all the congestions that have accumulated within the five organs and six viscera, all the aches and pains in the abdomen and other affected parts, will follow the heart as it sinks downward into the lower body. As it does, you will dis­tinctly hear a sound like that of water trickling from a higher to a lower place. It will move lower down through the lower body, suffusing the legs with beneficial warmth, until it reaches the soles of the feet, where it stops.

“The student should then repeat the contemplation. As his vital energy flows downward, it gradually fills the lower region of the body, suffusing it with penetrating warmth, making him feel as if he were sitting up to his navel in a hot bath filled with a decoction of rare and fragrant medicinal herbs that have been gathered and infused by a skilled physician.

“Inasmuch as all things are created by the mind, when you engage in this contemplation, the nose will actually smell the marvellous scent of pure, soft butter; your body will feel the exqui­site sensation of its melting touch. Your body and mind will be in perfect peace and harmony. You will feel better and enjoy greater health than you did as a youth of twenty or thirty. At this time, all the undesirable accumulations in your vital organs and viscera will melt away. Stomach and bowels will function perfectly. Be­fore you know it, your skin will glow with health. If you continue to practise the contemplation with diligence, there is no illness that cannot be cured, no virtue that cannot be acquired, no level of sagehood that cannot be reached, no religious practice that cannot be mastered. Whether such results appear swiftly or slowly depends only upon how scrupulously you apply yourself.

“I was a sickly youth, in much worse shape than you are now. I experienced ten times the suffering you have endured. The doctors finally gave up on me. I explored hundreds of cures on my own, but none of them brought me any relief. I turned to the gods for help. Prayed to the deities of both heaven and earth, begging them for their subtle, imperceptible assistance. I was marvellously blessed. They extended me their support and protec­tion. I came upon this wonderful method of soft-butter contem­plation. My joy knew no bounds. I immediately set about practising it with total and single-minded determination. Before even a month was out, my troubles had almost totally vanished. Since that time, I’ve never been the least bit bothered by any complaint, physical or mental.

“I became like an ignoramus, mindless and utterly free of care. I was oblivious to the passage of time. I never knew what day or month it was, even whether it was a leap year or not. I gradually lost interest in the things the world holds dear, soon forgot completely about the hopes and desires and customs of ordinary men and women. In my middle years, I was compelled by circumstance to leave Kyoto and take refuge in the mountains of Wakasa Province. I lived there nearly thirty years, unknown to my fellow men. Looking back on that period of my life, it seems as fleeting and unreal as the dream-life that flashed through Lu-sheng’s slumbering brain.[6]

“Now I live here in this solitary spot in the hills of Shira­kawa, far from all human habitation. I have a layer or two of clothing to wrap around my withered old carcass. But even in midwinter, on nights when the cold bites through the thin cotton, I don’t freeze. Even during the months when there are no moun­tain fruits or nuts for me to gather, and I have no grain to eat, I don’t starve. It is all thanks to this contemplation.

“Young man, you have just learned a secret that you could not use up in a whole lifetime. What more could I teach you?”


1. This was a basic notion in Chinese medical lore. Cf. the statement in the encyclopaedic compilation Wu tsa tsu (Five Assorted Offerings, the section on “Man”), by the Ming scholar Hsieh Chao-che: “When a person is engaged in too much intellection, the heart fire burns excessively and mounts upward.” Torei’s Biography (1710, Age 25) lists twelve morbid symptoms that appeared: firelike burning in the head; loins and legs ice-cold; eyes constantly watering; ringing in the ears; instinctive shrinking from sunlight; irrepressible sadness in darkness or shade; thinking an intolerable burden; recurrent bad dreams sapping his strength; emission of semen during sleep; restlessness and nervousness during waking hours; difficulty digesting food; cold chills unrelieved by heavy clothing.

2. The samurai Ishikawa Jozan (1583-1672) retired to the hills northeast of Kyoto in 1641. His residence, the Shisendo (Hall of Poetry Immortals), is located on a hillside overlooking the northern part of Kyoto. See Thomas Rimer, Shisendo (New York: Weatherhill, 1991). There are several caves Hakuyu is said to have inhabited located in the hills behind the Shisendo.

3. The three books are intended to show Hakuyu’s roots in the three traditions: Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism.

4. P’ien Ch’iao, Ts’ang Kung, and Hua T’o are three celebrated physicians of ancient China.

5. Vital energy translates the term ki (Chinese, ch’i), a key concept in traditional Chinese thought and medical theory. It has been rendered into English in various ways—for example, vital energy, primal energy, breath, vital breath, spirit. Ki-energy, circulating through the human body, is vital to the preservation of health and sustenance of life and plays a prominent part in the methods of Introspective Meditation that Hakuin learned from Master Hakuyu. The “external” alchemy of the Taoist tradition involved the search for a “pill” or “elixir” of immortality, the most important element of which was a mercury compound (cinnabar). Once found and taken into the body, it was supposed to assure immortality and ascent to heaven, commonly on the back of a crane.

Hakuyu’s instruction is concerned rather with the internal ramifications of this tradition, in which the “elixir” is cultivated in the area of the lower tanden, the “elixir field” or “cinnabar field,” also called the kikai tanden, “the ocean of ki-energy,” the centre of breathing or centre of strength, located slightly below the navel. Hakuin describes the terms in Orategama: “Although the tanden is located in the three places in the body, the one to which I refer is the lower tanden. The kikai and the tanden, which are virtually identical, are both located below the navel. The tanden is two inches below the navel, the kikai an inch and a half below it. It is in this area that the true ki-energy always accumulates.”

(tanden = dantien or elixir field)