Author Archives: Steve Backman

Getting Started with Meditation

I just came across How to Meditate again from the New York Times Well section. David Gelles covers the basics in a matter-of-fact, disarming, and generic way. Its a way to test the waters and see if you want to pursue it.

Of the techniques, he touches on, I started with the “body scan” approach he describes. More specifically, I learned and practiced Energy Arts “standing dissolving” for years. Doing this is a form of Qigong. It’s “energy work,” practiced with intention and attention to move on the inside.

Dissolving gradually flowed into sitting, “inner dissolving” and from there exploration of meditation.

Gelles also discusses mindfulness, related and likely more in the Western public mind these days. Also a pathway in and deeper.

Even if you already have a meditation practice, you might take a moment to read, or reread it, and use it to reflect on your own experience. Not a bad reflection to do.

Squatting for Qigong…and life

Learning Tai Chi and Qigong and learning to squat go hand in hand. Cycles of sinking into a squat and releasing out of it develop strength and also pump up your energy. Many people find this a pain at first. Often literally when a sharp pang goes through the knees! And often figuratively a pain as in distraction from the teacher just going through the basic choreography of the movements.

A recent article in the Atlantic caught my eye. Sarah Zhang asked, “Why Can’t Everyone Do the ‘Asian Squat’?” She starts with the nitty, gritty issue of persistant squat toilets in China and elsewhere. To do it right, you need to keep your whole foot on the ground, not just your toes. And that’s the part Westerners find difficult. And yet if you watch babies and young children here in the West, they can bend and release from a deep squats almost endlessly. And they may check out what’s on the ground while in full squat, while their parents might need to sit, bend over, kneel or otherwise get down there without suqatting. In the West, we lose this skill as we grow up. In the East, it persists. You may find this ability useful, whether on a hiking trail or just somewhere you need to be without a chair for a long time.


Zhang describes the “Asian squat” this way:

I do not mean those goofy chairless sits you see at the gym. No, toned glutes will not save you here. I mean the deep squat, where you plop your butt down as far as it can go while staying aloft and balanced on the heels.

Learning Tai Chi and Qigong gives you a good way to regain the naturalness of squatting you had as a child. We have interest in a particular kind of squat called a kwa squat (sometimes, kua squat). Key features include:

  • You protect your needs by starting in a position where the knees are not completely straight, with a slight bend, still allowing you to see the tips of your toes. And as you squat, you don’t bend them any further. That protects your knees.
  • The squatting brings your shoulders more of less straight down, not angling forward or back. The shoulders start lined up with the back of the knees, and as you sink down, they keep that position.
  • You let your backside sink down and back, like the feeling of looking for a bar stool (ok, a kitchen stool also).
  • As Zhang emphasizes, the key to staying fully on your feet, and not lifting the heels, comes from a lot of flexibilty in the ankles. We lose that if we don’t practice it.
  • The “kwa” part refers to the fold in the front of the body, like a bikini cut, the part that folds in when you sit. You sink into the kwa and then release out of it.
  • And this means you think less about dropping down and popping back up and more about absorbing into the kwa, down and back, and then releasing forward and not just up as you come out.  You energize the qua and it gives you strength and power.

Maybe that gives you an idea of what to look for as you watch someone doing Qigong, or maybe it hints as why so much goes into it in a class setting.  I loved Sarah Zhang’s article and the accompanying photos, which bring home what we miss when we don’t practice it.

Appreciating the Art of Peace

The best way to win a war is not to have one in the first place. This precept runs through the famous Chinese text, the Art of War. Except that, as the comment suggests, we might also learn from the book as the Art of Peace.

Scholars attribute the book to military strategist Sunzi (or Sun Tzu). Sunzi advised generals and led armies in the sixth century BCE. He lived during the Spring and Autumn period, when central authority steadily declined into persistent, costly feudal warfare. His teachings enriched the wider Taoist canon of writings and teachings that also underlie Taiji and Qigong.

Art of Peace Workshop

Independent scholar Eva Wong—who also carries forward a rich Qigong tradition—teaches workshops in Sunzi’s Art of Peace.

The class makes use of a practical teaching tool, a set of cards illustrating strategic scenarios from Sunzi. Chapters 10 and 11 of the text focus on terrain–Contested Terrain, Protected Terrain, and so on. Eva Wong created conceptual contour maps and brief commentaries on the cards to inspire wider awareness of and reflection of the physical– and other –terrains of daily life. As a group, we experienced reacting to terrain in exercises inside and on the grounds of the lovely Atlanta Shambhala Center grounds.

In this way, it becomes material to appreciate that awareness and reflection precede strategy. In discussion, we also explored how values or virtue, such as cooperation and negotiation,  also feed strategy.

Terrain influences Strategy

Paying attention to terrain, one might gain a better sense in advance when going to battle would just waste lives and resources, when one might use terrain defensively to avoid conflict, and which arrangements in space could provide conducive to negotiation and peacefulness. Or, worst case, when a terrain might make for the least costly victory.

The one day format did not do justice to participants’ interest in extending lessons about spatial terrain to other realms of culture and timeliness.  Given the state of the country just now, it seems a great moment to explore strategic studies focused on an “art of peace.”

Taking the class makes me want to go back and reread the book. And I might carry the cards with me for a while, as an encouragement to recognize and explore the impact of terrain, in all its meanings, as part of planning and decision-making.








Visiting China to study and tour

I am just back from a visiting China for study and travel. I went with a group led by Frank Allen and Tina Zhang. For some time, they have organized an annual China trip for students and friends. (See for information on Tina and Frank.) We packed in stays in Beijing, Shanghai and Wudang mountain. We saw a lot and studied with four of Frank and Tina’s teachers.

The touring we did made even more meaningful sharing of experiences in the world of Chinese internal arts. Many wonderful dinners together and many long walks on city streets and passages through ancient Taoist and imperial temples and sites.

Please check Facebook for photos from the trip, coming soon. I took over 2000 photos and videos, and it is taking a while to sort through.

Invaluable Reinforcement for Practice

Friends have asked whether I would consider the trip a transformative moment. Did I have a spiritual breakthrough? I would not go that far. I would say instead the trip provided major context and reinforcement for my practice. And eye-opening about change in the world.

We got intense immersion into four sets of practices, Tai chi (Taiji) and qigong, Xing Yi, Ba Gua, and a spear-based form. A lot to deepen now, through my notes and new classes here.

The atmosphere of the classes–outdoors, in beautiful parks and training sites, with other groups nearby doing their own practice–reinforced the content. For example, we practiced Ba Gua at a school near the top of Wudang mountain. Wudang is one of the spiritual home of these practices. We trained surrounded by ever-changing mountain mists and refreshing air. Energizing and inspiring.

As we know from the news headlines, China today bursts at the seams inserting itself on the world stage. Out trip took place just after the national holiday, when many Chinese vacationed. Midway through, the Chinese national Party Congress started. Maybe because of those events we saw things in the best possible light.

Yin and Yang Come to Life?

And yet, with my photographer eye, I saw confidence and a sense of purpose in the faces of people in the street, and people we interacted with casually. The visit provided stark contrasts between the new and the old. If you have visited China yourself, you probably experienced the passage from Tiananmen square into the Forbidden City, from modern, regulated, corporate Chinese life to the preserved past imperial city.

Other experiences also counter-imposed in so many ways. We visited the Great Wall where it meets the sea in the Northeast, in Shanhaiguan. One minute you see the ancient fortified structures of the wall. Then you look across the sea to a line freighters coming in and out of port.

In Wudang mountain, Taoist monks on their cell phones. Tourist stands appealing to local as well as foreign travelers with puzzling signs for “Taoist commodities” and “Characteristics of Snacks.”

In Shanghai, traditional working class blocks and shops abutted modern high rises and luxury car dealers. In the parks, groups doing Tai Chi and martial arts next to other groups learning ball room dancing.

You may find what I’m going to say too pat. I experienced these clashes partly intellectually, analytically, decades after immersive studies of that part of the world. Overlaid on that framework, at a more visceral level, I felt opposites changing from one to the other, interpenetrating, balancing. In a word, I felt something like the presence of the classic Tai Chi symbol (Yin and Yang).

Visiting one scene after another, looking in the faces of the people I passed and seeing these conflicts in their eyes did quite a bit to make real and deeper all the formal training. This too will affect my practice now, and I am grateful.

New York Times Meditation Tutorial

The New York Times “Well” section regularly has interesting and useful posts.  Here ( David Gelles provides in-depth. generic, piratical tutorial on starting a mediation practice.

I like it as a starting point because it makes no assumptions about any existing practice or past experience with meditation, yoga, Tai Chi or anything else.

It focuses on the breath, which makes sense.  For a meditation tool, you always your breathing with you. You don’t need anything extra. And he provides matter-of-fact advice about gently “coming back” when you mind wanders. When thoughts arise, since they surely will.

Body Scan Technique

He also presents the practice of doing a non-judgmental body scan, down the body from the top of the head. This was the practice I started with some twenty years ago, and it really helped me anchor a regular practice. The body scan, at least at first, does invite in thoughts and thinking. When you hit certain spots, physical or emotional triggers may set your mind wandering far and wide.

Over time, it will get easier to come back to just breathing from those thoughts. And in the meanwhile, bringing your awareness systematically down the body can help relax and release those tensions. I was glad to see him introduce this practice.

Gelles provides some sample guided meditations, suggests resources, including apps. (One he mentions, insight timer, I have used for years, and will address it separately.)

Seeing this article and passing it on seems like a great place to begin again to provide thoughts and resources on this website. Please watch for more in the weeks ahead.