New York Flute Club Newsletter
Tai Ji, Qigong and the Flutist
by Andrew Sterman
Now more than ever before, Westerners are exploring the cultural treasures from other parts of the world. As this interest grows deeper, it changes from a focus on "things we might be able to have" to a focus on "things we might be able to do." Nothing demonstrates this change in a more positive way than the blossoming interest in the West for tai chi and qigong, the ancient movement-based practices of self-cultivation from China. The New York Times [Magazine, 1 April 2001] reported that tens of thousands of people in 80 countries would be participating in the third World Tai Chi and Qigong Day on April 7th. In China, tens of millions practice each day. Research at the National Institute of Health and Johns Hopkins University is underway to explore the proven effectiveness of tai chi in reducing blood pressure and the diseases of aging. What do we know about tai chi? Can an ancient practice really help flutists such as ourselves develop mastery of breath, overcome performance anxiety, protect us from hand injury, and help bring our performances to life? Many musicians are beginning to think so.
Although tai chi (which is now more properly spelled "tai ji," in the same manner that the city formerly called "Peking" is now known as Beijing) is much better known in the West, it is actually a much more recent evolution of the movement and principles developed in qigong (formerly spelled "chi kung"). In fact, qigong is the "grandparent" of all the martial arts, including karate, judo, aikido, tae kwon do, and others, as well as being a main source for the healing practices of acupuncture and many kinds of massage, such as shiatsu, trigger point work or tui na. Qigong is also the foundation for many Chinese styles of meditation. Combining these aspects into one practice, the qigong masters from ancient times to the present have sought to reach their fullest human potential, often leaving behind legends of their nearly superhuman achievements that entertain as well as inspire us, as can be seen in the wonderful Taiwanese movie about a magic sword and qigong masters from Wu Dan mountain, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
Qigong, in fact, is a new name for a wide collection of practices, some of which are still being invented, but most of which are truly ancient, coming to us in an unbroken chain of lineage-holders dating back to the time of legend. The story begins with a Buddhist monk from India named Bodhidharma. He was born in the year 440 C.E., and had flaming red hair and huge, penetrating eyes. Bodhidharma studied with a line of monks whose educational lineage could be traced back to a famous monk named Mahakashyapa, who had studied personally with the Buddha about eight hundred years earlier and was the Buddha's successor, or "Holder of the Teaching." In time, Bodhidharma too, like his teachers before him, achieved a great understanding.
When Bodhidharma was invited to China by the Emperor, he welcomed the chance to carry this thread of wisdom to a new world of people. Bodhidharma left India on a boat with Chinese merchants, and learned Chinese on the voyage. It's hard to imagine how strange this red-haired monk with rudimentary Chinese must have seemed to people unused to foreigners, so long ago. We know from the written records, however, that Bodhidharma was a very tough teacher. When he informed the Emperor of China that the Emperor was not only ignorant, but also very materialistic, the monk was banished from the court and abandoned in the middle of a huge, unknown country. Bodhidharma, for his part, didn't seem to mind at all, and he found himself living high up on Shaolin Mountain, near a famous monastery full of Chinese Buddhist monks. It is here on this mountain that the story of qigong begins. According to the story, the monks were restless. They practiced meditation all day long, under the direction of the head abbot, but they didn't seem to be growing in spirit, knowledge, or warmth of heart. When Bodhidharma offered to teach these monks in the Shaolin monastery, all the monks laughed, because he didn't respect the older monks or any of the traditions of the place. Over and over the monks rejected Bodhidharma's teachings. For nine years he waited, living in a cave high up on the mountain. Once a day a novice monk would carry a little food up to him, and the story was always the same: the master from India seemed perfectly happy and healthy and spent his time doing odd movements or sitting on a stone "cushion."
Of course, a time came when things in the monastery got worse, and the head abbot, having no one to turn to, climbed up the mountain to see the red-haired recluse for advice. In a stunning exchange of a very few words, the abbot achieved full enlightenment. He then brought Bodhidharma down from the cave and asked him to help the community of monks. What Bodhidharma said started a revolution of thought, inspiring to me and to countless others. He told the monks that they were practicing with good discipline, but without the proper spirit; he told them that their bodies were tense and tight, that they weren't breathing fully and naturally; he told them that if they were truly healthy and full of life that everything they applied themselves to would be resonant and beneficial to others, and finally, he began to teach them the strange physical exercises that he had developed from the yoga he had grown up with in India. He had invented qigong, the practice to weave mind, body and spirit together.
"Qi" means breath, but not just breath, it means life-breath, like the breath of spirit which is the difference between alive and not-alive. When you have qi (pronounced "chee") you are healthy; when you have a lot of qi you are really healthy. "Gong" (pronounced "gung") means practice, mastery or method. Qigong is a method to increase your life force, your health, vitality and peace of mind through gentle, elegant, profound movements. But it is not just gentle movement. Bodhidharma understood what practitioners of qigong now call the meridian system of energy in the human body. He understood that a healthy person doesn't just have lots of qi; the qi flows within his or her body, like water flows in rivers, lakes and canals in the body of a country. It is this flow of qi that acupuncture needles help restore, and the exercises of qigong are designed to do that as well. But qigong is done without any needles- without anything at all- except a place to stand and the knowledge passed on by a good teacher.
First, a qigong student works on the level of the physical body, getting a bit stronger, developing better balance and helping all the joints to feel loose and flexible. Gradually, the idea of "qi" becomes a real experience, and you can actually feel something lively and almost bubbly flowing within your organs and limbs. If a practitioner works very deeply, it is possible to heal more quickly from being sick, avoid the illnesses that one might otherwise get, and even improve longstanding conditions. Qigong exercises are brilliantly designed to help the body's qi move in all the different ways to improve vitality. Over the centuries many different special kinds of qigong exercises have developed. Some are short and are repeated a number of times, to stretch the body and build qi, such as "Holding Up The Sky," "Turtle Returns To Its Shell," or "Swimming Dragon"; others are long sequences of special postures, such as the now-famous "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," which is actually the name of a rare and ancient set of qigong movements.
Amazingly, the original qigong taught by Bodhidharma to the Shaolin monks about fifteen hundred years ago can be learned and practiced today. According to their history, the Shaolin monks did finally embrace the qigong practice; by mixing physical practice with meditation, they developed invincible self-defense techniques based on mental clarity, perfected balance and flexibility, and mastery of their qi.
A modern student of qigong, tai ji, or any "martial art" practices for self-development rather than self-defense. In that way we are like the original monks of Shaolin, practicing for the sake of realizing our potential. For musicians, qigong can be a very useful tool for improving the same qualities of interest to the monks: calm, confident clarity of mind, perfect flexibility and coordination, and mastery of breath. Of course, mastery doesn't come in qigong any more quickly than in music, but at each step of the way there are benefits and insights. Just as qigong helps a person stay young while growing wiser, so it can help a musician stay artistically idealistic while growing in ability and experience. Most important to some is the very simple fact that qigong can be of benefit for musicians who may develop pains in their hands, arms, shoulders, back, neck, or jaw. There are wonderful qigong exercises which can help restore health to each area of the body as well as protect a busy musician from any problems that might arise in the future.
As the monks of Shaolin traveled, qigong spread and took root all over China. As with all things, time brought change, and local masters added the influences of their particular local traditions. Some were expert in self-defense, others in healing (or rituals derived from the ancient shamanistic past), navigating by the stars, or divining the future with the I Ching ("Book of Changes"). Some were masters in telling myths through movement, like the contest between the crane and the snake, or the story of Buddha naming Mahakashyapa to be his teaching successor by handing him a flower with a silent smile.
After a thousand years of qigong, all these influences were woven together, gradually, into a form called "tai ji," where "tai" means "great" and "ji" means "universal ultimate." Each movement of tai ji is based on the flow of yin and yang, the constant and universal dance of complementary and opposite forces. Unlike qigong, which is made up of short exercises which can be put into different sequences for the development of different aspects of health, tai ji is a set form which flows without stopping from one movement to another, taking about twenty-five minutes to complete. The tai ji form is a great gift from countless anonymous (and not so anonymous) masters, which includes within its movements a method to perfect what was begun in qigong: balance, flexibility, alert calmness, and above all the flow of one's own life-breath through all the channels of the body.
From the point of view of qigong and tai ji, the way to play the flute to one's fullest potential is to play from the integration of body, mind and spirit. In order for qigong or tai ji to be authentic, every single movement must provide the chance to integrate these three aspects of life. We don't just move an arm or a leg; the physical movement begins in the mind and depends on the breath. Over and over this is woven together. To move in this way is very special, very unusual. At first it comes only once in a while, then more often. At every step of the way, flute playing gets better, more resonant, easier. One day the shoulders feel loose and strong, another time tension in the neck disappears and the sound begins to sing more and more. When the arms are full of qi right out to the fingertips, no tendinitis or carpal tunnel syndrome will have a chance to develop.
Bodhidharma, in fact, was probably only one of many early masters. Ongoing scholarship in the origins of tai ji and qigong show a coming-together of sources wider than reported in the legends. One thing we know is that, from the beginning of these practices, there were women masters practicing on equal footing with the men. While tai ji is suited for nearly everyone, qigong offers different things to practice for different people, or people in different stages of life. There is general qigong for anyone to do, as well as special qigong for men and for women, for strengthening, for overcoming different diseases, for longevity, for the cultivation of healing abilities, for spiritual development, and so forth. All have in common the cultivation of healthy flow of qi through the body and the integration of a person's mind, body and breath. Qigong and tai ji cannot be learned through books or videos, but only through direct introduction by a good teacher. A teacher should be healthy, compassionate and willing to work with each student in an individual way. And as with finding a flute teacher, the student and the teacher must be able to develop a real connection.
Of course, countless great musicians master their instruments without also learning qigong or tai ji. But more and more, musicians are among those around the world who are seeking to explore their vast human potential (and add new depth and confidence to their musicianship) by accepting these living gifts from ancient masters.
Andrew Sterman is working to extend the benefits of qigong/tai ji to flute playing and teaching, and has taught on this topic at music schools in America and at three major universities in Australia. His teachers have included Thomas Nyfenger, Keith Underwood and William Bennett. He teaches music and qigong in Manhattan, and plays flute and piccolo in the Philip Glass Ensemble.