Mugging attempts are fairly common in New York City. I was cat sitting for some friends on Avenue A in Manhattan’s East Village in the fall of 2002 when someone attempted to rob me as I was walking along 7th Street. I immediately whipped out pepper spray and chased the attacker down the street. Next thing I knew the police had me up against the wall and were on the verge of taking me to jail for having pepper spray in my possession. I said to one of the officers “What am I supposed to do? Get beaten up because some trash thinks he’s going to mug me?” The officer responded by saying “This is New York. You just have to get used to it.” I thought to myself “Okay, fine …I’m going to go out and find the most ruthless master I can find to train with and next time I’m going to paralyze the son of a bitch.”
I stopped by one of the Martial Arts supply store in Chinatown shortly thereafter and asked the man behind the counter if he had any recommendations as to who I should train with. He then referred me to a rack of flyers telling me to take whatever I wanted. I went home with a whole stack of flyers that evening.
Some of the flyers were very attractive and included glossy photos of Shaolin Monks in all kinds of fighting postures. But there was one flyer printed on dingy looking yellow paper that caught my attention. Sifu Li Tai Liang’s flyer was written in very poor English, but it talked about his training in the Internal Martial Arts of Xin Yi Quan and Baguazhang. I had a knowing as I read the description that this is the person I wanted to train with. I called the next day and went later that evening to Li Shifu’s studio in Corona.
Xin Yi Quan and Baguazhang are highly complex systems of martial arts that require many years of disciplined practice to master. I didn’t feel that I was able to fully grasp what Sifu was teaching in the class setting so I began to train with him privately. Sifu has taught me a vast array of forms and practices since that time.
Sifu started talking to me one day about the Taoist belief that much of the soul does not fully incarnate within the physical body. He then said that intensive practice helps to draw more of the soul into the body. I had heard similar things in my early twenties while I was training with Horace Daukei, the last surviving traditional doctor among the Kiowa Indian tribe.
I had shut down on many levels as a means of coping with the traumas of my own childhood and adolescence. Trauma held within prevented me from being fully present in my body. A number of people commented on the fact that I was very dissociated and that I held a lot of anger and rage in my body. All of that pain finally erupted in my mid-twenties as I found myself involved with women who reenacted the past traumas. The debilitating emotional pain made it very difficult for me to function at times.
The heavy, painful and sometimes overwhelming feelings associated with anxiety, depression and emotionally traumatic issues can have a debilitating impact upon us. These stressful energies and emotions can be very hard on the body. These energies and emotions will in many instances express themselves through the body as some form of disease, illness or injury. One of the things I like about doing Chi Gong practice is that it infuses the body with clean vital life force. This life force has a nourishing and soothing quality that helps to offset the painfully debilitating emotions. The cleansing process that takes place as we draw vital life force into our body – mind also makes it easier for us to process our emotions.
Years later I was engaged to an ethnic Tamil woman from Sri Lanka. I was devastated when the relationship ended in the summer of 2007. I couldn’t really do much of anything else at the time other than breathe for hours with my awareness centered amid the painful feelings of loss. I would then do hours of intensive Chi Gong practices. Working with the pain in this way had the effect of opening doorways within. I began to experience a greater sense of connectedness with the higher power and that left me feeling euphoric at times. It was during that time that I came to a place where my sense of wellbeing did not depend upon another person.
Some people reading this chapter will wonder if intensive martial arts and Chi Gong practice alone will heal trauma. No, it will not. It’s common for people who follow the various spiritual traditions to attempt to bypass the emotional and psychological aspects of their development. People who have attained mastery in the Internal Martial Arts, Chi Gong and in various Yogic disciplines have often acted out in various ways because of their failure to do the ground work necessary to address their issues and deal with their own emotions. This failure to build a strong healthy foundation on an emotional level accounts for much of the dysfunction playing out in various spiritual communities.
Chronic stress has an adverse effect on the brain, especially the hippocampus located near the middle of the brain, which plays a major role in our ability to retain information. The hippocampus facilitates the process of converting new information briefly retained in the prefrontal cortex into working memory. The hippocampus is especially vulnerable to ongoing emotional stress, because of the damaging effects of cortisol. The vast majority of the brain’s production of new neurons and the formation of new neural-connections take place within the hippocampus. The hippocampus loses neurons and shrinks in size when the neurons are flooded with cortisol. Cortisol stimulates the amygdala’s fight or flight reaction, while impairing the hippocampus’ reasoning capabilities. We go into self-preservation mode as our attention is redirected to the reactive survival oriented emotions and that impairs our ability to take in new information. That’s why we tend to forget things when we’re stressed out.
Exercise increases the production of the chemical messengers such as norepinephrine that promote healthy cognitive function, learning and positive emotional states. Exercise also helps to balance our physiology by stimulating our heart rate and improving the quality of our sleep.
I can see that lots of people are still holding all kinds of stressful emotions in their body despite the fact that they work out consistently. This unprocessed emotional baggage is clearly evidenced in the high incidence of digestive disorders, TMJ and other stress related health issues. I have also known dancers and yoga practitioners who had a strong presence and aliveness about them, but were totally neurotic because of their failure to deal with their own issues and emotions.
Doing Chi Gong practices doesn’t mean that all the painful and anxious feelings are just going to go away. One of the things I noticed as I began to work consistently with the various Chi Gong practices is that it made it possible for me to draw the life force into the parts of my body I had disconnected from that were holding a lot of painful emotion, trauma or other stresses. In many instances I find that Chi Gong practice brings the emotions held in the body that I hadn’t been able to access up to the surface so that I can process them. I like the fact that it helps me to get in touch with feelings that would otherwise be difficult to access.
Learning all these highly complex forms encourages the development of new neural pathways. These additional neural faculties also facilitate emotional processing and that makes it easier for us to work through our feelings and bring issues to resolution.
It can be very difficult, if not all together impossible, to process our feelings when we are not fully inhabiting our bodies. Training in the Internal Martial Arts has helped me to become more fully present in my physical body and the world in which I live. The changes that have taken place as a result of my practice are making it easier for me to move through the world with a greater sense of resilience and self-assurance.
One of the things I like most about the Internal Martial Arts such as Xin Yi Quan and Baguazhang is that it incorporates Chi Gong into the fighting forms so that the practitioner is always building the life force within the body. I do lots of Chi Gong practice and find that it nourishes and strengthens the internal organs of my body. I feel cleaner, healthier and a greater sense of resilience.
I encourage anyone to learn and practice any of the Internal Martial Arts. People with physical limitations can easily do Chi Gong and Tai Chi. Those who are more physically able that are up for the challenge can experience even greater benefit by training in disciplines such as Xin Yi Quan and Baguazhang.
I find that Chi Gong practice helps me to access my feelings, but it doesn’t facilitate the actual processing of the feelings. Chi Gong can be a highly valuable healing tool and yet there is no one approach that will address all of our needs. I make much greater progress when I combine various healing practices. I make a consistent effort on a daily basis to do the groundwork needed to build a strong and healthy foundation. A big part of that involves a whole different kind of practice of breathing with my awareness centered in the midst of any feelings and bodily sensations that arise in response to what is taking place in my life. Breathing into the feelings in this way facilitates a process that enables me to digest my life experience and any subsequent feelings that arise.
I have done lots of deep tissue body work and have worked with a number of powerful healers whenever the opportunity presented itself. I have gone on numerous vision quests, which are a traditional Native American healing practice that involves going out to fast alone in the mountains for four days and nights without food or water. It was during the individual healing sessions and vision quests that I could feel the parts of myself that were holding trauma being transformed. It’s the combination of all of these practices that have made it possible come as far along as I have.
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Ben Oofana is a healer who began his training with Horace Daukei, one of the last surviving traditional doctors among the Kiowa Indian tribe. Call (913) 927-4281 to learn more or to schedule an individual session.