When I was in Tokyo I studied yoga with Perr Wynter, a Norwegian man who studied with a yogi from India who, for some reason, lived up the fjord from him in Norway–a very rare situation.
When Perr was in his twenties he went to India and studied at the Shivananda Ashram in Rishikesh where he lived in a very, very tiny room.
He was an exceptional Hatha yogi. He could do any Hatha yoga posture that existed, and when he came to Southeast Asia and he was in Malaysia, his money and passport got stolen. So, what happened was he worked in a circus to earn his stolen money back where his act was folding himself into a suitcase, which will give you some idea about how flexible he was (also see images of Perr above and below)!
Now what made Perr so interesting is that if you’re going to talk about Hatha yoga and Hatha yoga postures, then there’s wasn’t much he couldn’t do.
From what I gathered, he could do as much as Iyengar, author of Light on Yoga, could. But everybody in Tokyo wondered why when he did aikido and when he did tai chi, his energy did not really flow. He was known for being relatively uncoordinated; he was known for just having a kind of semi-spastic quality about him. The question started arising: How is this human-rubber band such that he cannot make energy flow through his body?
He was very healthy and strong–there were no two ways about it–he was all those types of things you would associate with health. As a matter of fact, he was the yoga teacher of a very prominent karate teacher in Japan, Yamaguchi Gogen, the head of Japanese goju karate who wrote about Perr and showed his pictures in the back of his book.
It took me a long time to figure this out, especially after having done Taoist Yoga and chi gung/qigong for many years. With the training Perr had received, the average person with their average expectations and thoughts would’ve imagined that Perr could learn tai chi and aikido, and that he would’ve learned exceptionally, rapidly and well. But, the fact of the matter was that after years of practicing he was considered to be a rather poor student.
What it came down to was this: Perr had stretched his fibers to the degree that, well, they were as far as they could go. He did not have the ability to genuinely relax his body. In order to move really well doing tai chi and aikido, you’ve got to have the ability to really relax your body; flexibility alone won’t cut it. Well, Perr actually wasn’t very relaxed. He wasn’t relaxed in the sound of his voice; he wasn’t relaxed in the way he moved. What he had was fibers that were stretched all the way.
So I became aware of the fact that you could still be relatively tense and be super-stretched. I should mention, many of the gymnasts who can physically do some of the more difficult Hatha postures are extremely tense and they’re not particularly relaxed. There’s something about energy flowing freely in the body, which is a different thing entirely.
When your body simply becomes really stretched, it enables you to move the inside of your body like a machine. It allowed Perr to control his nerves to a great degree, which he got from Pranayama there’s no two ways about it; but, he didn’t have the flow of energy to a great degree. And if you knew Perr–at least back in the late 60s–he was not what you would call a very relaxed person in any way. Although the stretching gave him great mechanical control over his body he did not have the fluidity and the ease, the relaxation that we normally think a person who truly had energy working in his body would have.
The man in the suitcase is an example of the difference between classic Hatha yoga and chi gung/qigong. Many of the chi gung/qigong people don’t have anywhere near the flexibility that Hatha yogis have. Most can’t put both legs behind their heads, can’t lie on their stomachs and put one hand in the middle of their bellies with their other hand behind them with their legs in a full lotus and their body completely parallel to the ground, suspended off the ground. They can’t do things like that, but they can be as healthy, have as much energy and be very relaxed.
China has a history of circus and acrobats where 12-year olds can do every physical posture Iyengar can do, and yet it’s just a fact that they got them young and when their fibers could stretch. The Chinese do not consider them in any shape, matter or form to be Chi masters–they’re just considered to be extremely good physical specimens.
Taoist Yoga is a great way to increase your flexibility and your range of motion when doing chi gung/qigong. Many people who do chi gung/qigong start out stiff and rigid. Taoist Yoga is the ideal complement to chi gung/qigong because it stretches you out in a conscious way. It focuses your awareness on allowing chi to flow, saturating your body with chi, or what is called “making your body wet” in the east. Just as with chi gung/qigong, you’re locating energetic holes and kinks and then releasing them.
There is a difference between something happening inside you–a flow of energy occurring inside you–and what the outside of your body can do. They don’t always go together. Taoist Yoga is working to get that internal flow inside your body while you’re doing Hatha yoga postures.
You may not want to practice Taoist Yoga with the goal of putting yourself in a suitcase in order to pay your rent, but you can dramatically shorten the time it takes to learn chi gung/qigong by integrating the principles of Taoist Yoga into your practice.
Images courtesy of Kodira Mehra, Ormandy and Willard (1969).