Tai Chi Training with Lee Burkins, Installment #2 – The In and the Out
Reporting back with Installment #2 from two outstanding days of Tai Chi and Qigong training with Energy Arts Senior Instructor Lee Burkins.
Lee is an deeply experienced martial artist and teacher of Tai Chi, Qigong, Bagua, and meditation. A veteran of extensive combat in Vietnam, Lee writes about his wartime and postwar experiences in his memoir Soldier’s Heart, a book I highly recommend.
Installment #1 covers what I call Lee’s Lesson #1 – Putting the Spine in the Feet, an excellent lesson for increasing stability and whole-body connection. For Installment #1, click here.
Now on to I call Lee’s Lesson #2 – The In and The Out.
The In and The Out
Feeling our “Tai Chi Anatomy.” At Enso Tai Chi, we regularly practice the Neutral Posture, establishing our alignments, feeling for tension or blockages, releasing what we can, sinking our energy toward the ground. In doing this, we explore our “internal landscape,” including parts of what I call our “Tai Chi Anatomy.” These areas include:
- The “kwa” (the region around the inguinal fold)
- The midriff
- The “Shoulder’s Nest” (the space just below the clavicle next to the shoulder joint)
- The armpits (lots of space up there)
- The center of each palm (laogong point)
- The “Crown Point” (top of the skull, ba hui point)
- The lower tantien
- The space behind the knee joint
- The center of each foot, just behind the ball of the foot (The Bubbling Well point)
among other points and areas in the body. Our first step in getting to know these places is simply to feel them, particularly the internal space, however small, that may exist in these places. For many of us, “simply to feel” these places may not be so simple. It takes time, quieting the mind, and using the mind to direct what Lee calls our “feeling awareness.” But with practice, most of us get it to some degree, sooner or later. Then comes learning how to open, even to a small degree, those spaces that we feel. For example, opening a collapsed midriff, opening the back of the knees, opening the space inside the armpits. The best resource for learning more about this and related practices is Bruce Frantzis’ book, Opening the Energy Gates of the Body. To check out this outstanding book, click here.
From Opening to The In and The Out. Lee’s Lesson #2 moves beyond opening internal spaces. Lesson #2 involves flowing In to an internal space, then flowing Out from that space. Compared to Opening (and its companion Closing), The In and the Out has a more three dimensional quality to it. With The In, you can begin to gain a sense of the depth into which you can flow internally. And with The Out, you begin to gain a sense of how you can flow outward, expanding from these spaces.
That seems pretty abstract to me! So let’s get concrete, with movement.
The In and The Out and Circling Hands. A relatively simple Qigong movement that Lee teaches is Circling Hands. One version of Circling Hands involves positioning your hands in front, palms facing each other, each hand aligned on the corresponding side channel (tracking a line from the Shoulder’s Nest to the kwa), then making vertical circles. After enough circles to warm up, The In and The Out play begins.
With Circling Hands going, Lee then guides students’ attention, their “feeling awareness,” to a particular area. The kwa is a great place to start. As the hands arc toward the body, students flow in into the kwa, as the hands arc away from the body, students flow out from the kwa. Pretty soon, movements take on a kwa-centered pulsing quality. Watching someone do it, you can see it happen. Doing it, you can feel it happen.
Then Lee guides students’ attention to another area, say the Shoulder’s Nest. So as the hands circle in, the student flows into the kwa and the Shoulder’s Nest. As the hands circle out, the students flows outward, expanding out from those areas.
Under Lee’s guidance, students build up the exercise, adding additional areas to their Ins and Outs. Their Ins become deeper and their Outs expand further. More and more of the body moves with a pulsing quality.
As this happens, exterior movements become more clearly internally driven and connected. Lee demonstrates in the following pictures. In #3, note the clear inward flow of the posture, but Lee remains relaxed and open, not straining to “pull” in. In #5, note the clear outward flow and expansion of the posture, out from the arms, hands, up through the neck through the top of the head, and down through the legs and feet. Again, Lee demonstrates relaxed stability in the posture, not straining to “push” out.
From Circling Hands to Tai Chi. Once you get The In and The Out working in Circling Hands, it is a straightforward transition to Commencement, the first move of the Wu Short Form, or similar first move of other styles. With your awareness touching the area or areas you choose (again, the kwa is an ideal place to start), you flow In as the arms come up, flow Out as the arms extend, flow In as the arms circle back, and flow Out as the arms descend. If you feel a more pulsing quality to your movements, you’re on the right track. If you don’t, that’s fine too. Just keep playing with it, it will come.
Once The In and the Out stabilizes in Commencement, work it into the next move. When that stabilizes, the next. Eventually more and more of your movements will incorporate a more smooth, pulse-like quality. With this, you may perceive your form working its way deeper into your body, moving from places and spaces you have not moved from before, or at least not in a long time.
Remember the 70% rule. As with all our other practices, as you gain greater awareness of an ability to flow in and out, pay heed to the 70% rule. Avoid flowing in or out more than 70% of your maximum. If you perceive any strain or tension, that’s the signal to back off. Then you can continue to work the movements in a relaxed manner, minimizing the tension and risk of strain or injury that can come with pushing it.
Give it a try! Finally, two very cool points about The In and The Out.
First, just like Put Your Spine in Your Feet, you can practice The In and The Out virtually anywhere. No special equipment necessary! Waiting for an appointment? Feel into an area, flow into it, then flow out from it. The sense of movement may be much smaller than if doing Circling Hands or your Tai Chi form, but you can still get it going.
Second, as you work the lesson into your Tai Chi form or Qigong set, you will likely soon feel a notable increase in internal movement, smoothness, and flow.
I encourage you to play around with The In and The Out. Let me know how it goes!
That’s all for Lesson #2 from my time with Lee Burkins. Back soon with #3, The Down and The Up.