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Tai Chi with Liping at Tassajara Zen Center

After such a wonderful initial trip, I decided to return to Tassajara Zen Mountain Center the first chance I got, which was the beginning of the Guest Season in May. I signed up for a week long retreat, studying Tai Chi with lay monk and Tai Chi Master Liping. A week at Tassajara is an ambitious feat: no electricity, no cell service, no contact with the outside world at all. When you are at Tassajara, your are AT Tassajara. But, after all, that is the point…

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Although I was eager to get back in touch with the world by the end of the week, I throughly enjoyed my week long stay there, and made many personal discoveries. It truly is a wonderful place for contemplation and self exploration. As far as I can tell, that’s what Zen Buddhism is about. Abbot Myogen told me once, “Just sit, and see what happens. See where your mind takes you…”. So even though I was there to learn Tai Chi and study Zen, ultimately I was there to “inquire within”.

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Tucked away throughout the grounds are numerous alcoves and nooks for people to sit down, relax, contemplate, read or just simply observe.

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I had numerous spots that I frequented while I was here, but my favorite was a flat stone down by the creek that meanders it’s way along the Monastery’s grounds.

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Many of the guest quarters are built along the creek as well, which has been a home for humans since prehistory.

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These hollowed out holes in the stone were used by Native Americans to grind acorns into mush that they would eat as their main staple.

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The love and care that has been put into making Tassajara what it is today is palpable. This handmade walk way leading to the Zendo from the Monks quarters is a piece of art in itself. Observe how each piece of wood was independently measured and cut to make a smooth a sinuous path that leads to the Zendo.

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All over the grounds there are small pieces of art that act as functional pieces of the Monastery: A dead Sycamore tree turned into bench seating, tiny shrines tucked away in obscure places, everywhere are small details some Zen monk took the time to create with care.

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The entrance to the Monastery.

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One of the several gardens on the Monastery grounds.

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Another great reading nook to take a book, or to just sit and observe.

The Tai Chi retreat was an amazing experience. Liping is a Chinese national who immigrated to the US almost 20 years ago. She lived at the San Francisco Zen Center, studying Buddhism, for over ten years. During her time in the US, she has been a practicing Zen Monk, as well as a practitioner of holistic Chinese medicine. Liping is a very unique individual indeed: a native practitioner of Chinese medicine and arts, but also a devotee of Japanese Buddhism.

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Liping demonstrates a Tai Chi sword form.

She has taught numerous Tai Chi retreats at Tassajara. The style of Tai Chi that she teaches is very rare, dating back all the way to the last royal family of China. Her style is known as Swimming Dragon Tai Chi, and it is known for it’s fluidity, grace, and athleticism.

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Liping, mid form, with students looking on.

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Liping performs while Phillip, her husband and also a Tai Chi Master, watches on and names the techniques Liping is demonstrating.

Tai Chi was a challenge for me because of how slow we were required to move. Tai Chi is very much an Internal art, but I saw numerous correlations to self defense, or “External Arts”. Swimming Dragon Tai Chi was developed by an Imperial General while he was held prisoner during the cultural revolution. It was designed to enhance and maintain physical attributes such as grace, strength, flexibility, and stamina. From some of the photos posted, you can easily see that this is the case.

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Liping getting grounded with Swimming Dragon Tai Chi.

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Effortless grace.

By the end of the week I became close friends with many of the participants at the Swimming Dragon Tai Chi Retreat. Everyone at the retreat, and at the Monastery in general, are extremely warm and inviting people. It is easy to make friends, but I was surprised at how many GOOD friends I made.

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The Swimming Dragon Tai Chi Class, Spring 2014.

As if learning the ancient art of Swimming Dragon Tai Chi with amazing people in an inspiring environment wasn’t enough, Master Liping asked me to teach a small workshop the last day of her retreat. I was, and still am, extremely honored to be asked to share my knowledge by such an esteemed master as Liping. It truly is an honor beyond words. I demonstrated various southeastern martial arts: Kali, Silat, and Muay Thai. All of these arts have a history of music, dance, meditation and ritual connected to them, similar to Tai Chi and it’s relationship to Kung Fu. So instead of showing the lethal our fanciful techniques of these arts, I decided to do a “Tai Chi Speed” demonstration of Kali, Silat, and Muay Thai.

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Urban Warrior_1 giving a short lecture on the Southeast Asian Martial Arts and their various elements, which includes meditation and restoration.

In the Indonesian art of Silat, they have what is called the Bua and the Bunga, or the fruit and the flower. The Bua, or the fruit, is the actual application of a technique, but the Bunga is the flowery presentation of the art. Just like the fruit and the flower can’t exist without each other, the external application and the internal practice of the art cannot be separated from each other. The Bunga will often be performed very slow and gracefully, with music accompaniment. This concept is very akin to Tai Chi and how it relates to the External Martial Arts of China.

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Yours truly, Urban Warrior_1, demonstrating a Hari Mau Silat technique.

In the Filipino art of Kali, there is something called Karenza, or “Dancing with the Wind.” In this practice, the Kali practitioner will often ask a question or seek guidance from God. Than the practitioner will practice Kali in the air, visualizing opponents and attacks, but also entering a meditative state through motion. Often they will dance with their shadow from candlelight or the moon. After a certain amount of time of moving meditation, the practitioner will find a solution to the problem that they face. This practice, although Filipino, bares striking resemblance to Tai Chi and the other Internal Arts of Asia.

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Karenza at Tassajara, an honor beyond words.

In Thailand, Muay Thai has been the warrior art for centuries, if not millennia. All warrior arts have an internal element, a time for the warrior to turn inwards, refelct and be introspective, heal and recuperate, and Muay Thai is no different. In Thailand they have what is call “Wai Kru”. It is a ritualistic dance that today is practiced by combatants before a Muay Thai fight. It symbolizes what camp you are from, part of your history, your connection with God, and your confidence and ability as a Warrior. Essentially it is a war dance. Again, it is practiced very slowly, much like Karenza or the Bua.

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Demonstrating “Wai Kru”

Wanderlust Yoga Festival on the North Shore of Oahu

At the beginning of the year, I attended the 2014 Wanderlust Yoga Festival on the North Shore of Oahu. I had casually heard about the event and looked into it with tepid interest, Yoga “festivals” aren’t necessarily my way of practicing yoga. But after looking more closely, I saw that there were a lot of options for classes and courses outside of the world of yoga.

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There were numerous classes on Hawaiian culture, hiking, mountain biking, surfing, paddle boarding, even slack line and hula hooping. It was a very eclectic selection of classes to choose from.

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My interest grew; than I noticed the festival was being held minutes away from the fabled North Shore of Oahu, and we were allowed to camp on the beach! Being an avid surfer, this pretty much sealed the deal for me, but than I saw Gerry Lopez would be teaching a yoga class everyday. I HAD to go at this point.

For those of you who don’t know, Gerry Lopez is like the Joe Montana of surfing, to use an analogy. He is a champion surfer, he is humble, polite, and just and all around nice guy that everyone loves. He is famous for mastering Pipeline, a surf break on the north shore known for it’s deadly waves that can create the most amazing rides in the world.

The first thing I would like to mention about my trip to hawaii is not the surf, the sun, or the yoga, but the food. The food in Hawaii is amazing. You’ve never had fruit this good, or vegetables this fresh, or raw ahi this delicious. I haven’t been back to Hawaii in awhile, so I had forgotten the difference in quality between the Islands and “the Mainland”.

Here are pictures of the best ahi poke I have ever tested or even dreamed of. The fish is so rare it almost melts in your mouth.

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Is it from a famous Japanese restaurant you ask? Does it have a Zagat rating? Nope, you’re in Hawaii, where an old supermarket called “Kahuku Superette” serves the most delicious sushi grade ahi you’ve ever tasted.

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There were numerous vendors selling food throughout the day at the Yoga festival as well. Delicious vegan options, macrobiotic, and local fare were all present. I enjoyed this particular meal very much: wild elk skewers from Molokai, with Taro root hash, and sea vegetable salad. This was my go to meal after a big surf session.

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I tried to maintain a paleo diet while I was in Hawaii. Being “paleo” is relatively easy in Hawaii because there are so many options to choose from to support this diet. In it’s basic sense, ‘paleo diet’ means no grains or flour, no dairy and refined products such as sugar. Only foods that a hunter-gatherer would eat in the paleolithic age is allowable. Impractical? Yes. Effective? Yes. Being in Hawai’i makes this diet not only easy, but enjoyable. The one thing I had that was not paleo was rice. I have to admit it, I love rice.

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Here are some local provision that I picked up:a papaya and bananas from a roadside fruit stand, fresh made poi from a local superette, and local smoked ahi and marlin from the same superette.

Okay, enough about food, now more about the Wanderlust Festival. There were a wide range of classes offered for the yoga novice to the yoga nazi. I was more interested in restorative yoga since my trip was already extremely active due to my important surf schedule, which was a major part of the equation for me. But there were numerous alternative activity classes that involved history, hiking, mountain biking, surfing, kayaking, even hula and music.

One of the classes that I enjoyed the most at Wanderlust was the Slack Key Guitar class. The teacher was extremely knowledge about the music but also the history and culture of Hawaii. It was a very rare opportunity to get some hands on experience with Hawaiian culture.

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There was also live music every night at Wanderlust. Moby of all people played Friday night, and Donovan Frankenfurter, a famous surfer, played with his band Saturday night.

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Donovan Frankenfurter

One of the many highlights at the festival was getting to work with the non-profit organization Sustainable Coastlines. They are dedicated to the health and sustainability of our coastlines, specifically through cleaning up and reducing the use of single use plastics.

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Loading up the bus at Turtle Bay Resort to take a trek a do a beach clean up in a remote beach that has a lot of plastic washed up on shore.

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A few hundred people from wanderlust participated in the beach clean up. It was very uplifting to see so many people demonstrate their support for the environment, especially while they are on vacation.

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After the beach cleanup I finally got to take my Yoga class with Gerry Lopez. I took two classes with Gerry, and I was very surprised to hear that he has been a Yogi since the 70′s. I’ve been to a lot of yoga classes, and I have to say that I was very impressed by Gerry’s knowledge and approach to yoga.

On the first day, I settled in and found my place on the floor, I looked up and saw another famous pro surfer, Dan Malloy, sitting right in front of me. Dan is well known for his alternative approach to surfing lifestyle, and his support of conservation efforts for natural resources. Fittingly, he is a surf ambassador for Patagonia. Dan is one of my favorite “free surfers”, and I was very excited to get to meet him.

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Here is a picture of me with Gerry Lopez. He said something interesting which I found very relevant to yoga practice today. He said that when he started Yoga back in the 70′s, it was taught as a complete lifestyle within itself, but nowadays Yoga has been broken up into “specialty yoga”: yin yoga, flow yoga, hot yoga, etc. I think it’s important to remember what Yoga was originally created for, finding calm and balance within yourself, not getting tone and lean.

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Gerry’s Yoga class, over 200 people strong.

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My humble abode, after getting drenched in an afternoon storm.

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I would say the trip was a raging success for me. I surfed in Hawaii, did Yoga with Gerry Lopez and Dan Malloy, met so many wonderful people, ate amazing food, and had a one of a kind experience. Wanderlust has Yoga festivals all over the US and they’re starting to go International as well. Although I have reservations about the commercialization of Yoga, I thoroughly enjoyed myself at Wanderlust North Shore 2014, and I will almost definitely be heading back there again.