Relax and Breathe: The Taoist Way

It was about 35 years ago when I first consulted the Oracle from the Chinese classic I Ching, tossing coins to construct a hexagram that would offer a vision of my future. Que sera sera. What shall I be? I was casting about for the next move in my journalism career, looking for an opportunity, even a living wage. I was advised that I should wait. Good things would come.

I wasn’t asking the right questions, obviously, from the Taoist perspective. It was a beggar’s approach to a sacred text of Taoism. A “living wage,” or even fame and fortune, has nothing to do with the Way forward. I was not deserving of an honest answer, not a true believer. Still, there is almost always no harm in waiting, and I believed.

Patience as a remedy runs through the 64 hexagrams of the I Ching, and it doesn’t matter if your circumstances are a step removed from the ancient remedy. Yes, it is easy to rush in, but it is almost always better to consider carefully the move you will make. Wait.

By most accounts, Bruce Frantzis rushed in. He is a Taoist priest, martial artist and teacher of the ancient Chinese arts of Chi Gung, energy work, and its ancillary martial applications of Tai Chi and Ba Gua. Rebelling against the Greek Orthodoxy of his religious upbringing in New York, Frantzis turned to martial arts, eventually at age 18 traveling to Japan to immerse himself in Zen and martial arts forms.

Inevitably, Frantzis learned the Way of waiting, moving to Taiwan, then to China for 11 years during the Cultural Revolution, Mao’s purge of foreign influences, and to India for studies in meditation and yoga. This led him to legendary Taoist priest Liu Hung Chieh, who adopted him and extended his lineage to Frantzis, a foreigner. He became a celebrated master of Taoist meditation and healing through energy work.

Recently, in a suburban Washington D.C. conference center, Frantzis brought his seven-movement Chi Gung form called Dragon and Tiger to a group of about 170 students, me included. These exercises use breathing techniques to stimulate energy channels in the body, channel good energy through the major organs and dissolve bad energy. Five of the movements are condensed here:

Frantzis is a master teacher who recalls bitterly how Mao Tze Tung’s minions tortured people and discouraged martial arts, or any non-Party ideals, during the Cultural Revolution. He was required to heal the sick monsters of this political purge. Frantzis reveres the culture and history that begets the Chi Gung arts, but he is appalled by the political system that threatens people who practice.

Frantzis’s two-day Dragon and Tiger training was preceded by three hours of “Taoist Longevity Breathing,” which involves “breathing with your entire body” and from particular body parts. I am still trying to “breathe from my kidneys,” something I cannot feel but must visualize. I have a lot to learn. Fortunately, Frantzis has written nine books and is available for training sessions all over the world – although I am holding out for the lessons in his home base of Hawaii.

My quest is to understand, and realize, internal strength through energy work, particularly Tai Chi, a martial art that is also a healthful exercise and, essentially, moving meditation, my daily Taoist connection to the Earth and cosmic energy, performed outdoors when I can.

A few years ago, I explored the phenomenon of internal power with Sifu Mark Rasmus, an Australian martial artist now based in Thailand. His workshops focused on the “science of elastic force,” a unique Western-style look at the physiological and psychological power that derive from Tai Chi.

While the lessons of Mark Rasmus were hands on, with pressure, Bruce Frantzis asked you to feel, with only a little pressure, taps along the energy channels. With Dragon and Tiger Chi Gung, available through Frantzis’s Energy Arts associates, and they offer courses around the world, you learn to channel energy through your body, building inner strength.

As Frantzis explains it, all the paths to the Tao involve Chi Gung, energy work that touches and fortifies the inner body, from organs to blood circulation. You get in touch with your body, dissolve energy barriers and channel the energy of the universe. Yes, they connect.

There is obviously more here to explore. So much to learn, and feel.




The Body Electric

Most of the individual exercises during Sifu Mark Rasmus’s workshop, “The Science of Elastic Force,” involved giving our partners enough pressure to allow them to bounce us by absorbing that force and turning it back on us, and vice versa. We were encouraged to sense the “springs” in our elastic joints and connective tissue. And we learned that developing that elasticity takes work.

ImageWe would alternately “push” and “pull” to open our joints and stretch our connective tissue. Pushing the arms, hands and fingers outwards, stretching the joints, is a natural movement. But then using the muscles in your arms to “pull” back against the reach, stretching and opening the joints, proved to be more of a stretch.

Sifu instructed us to use the magnetic Yin power to absorb the incoming force, drawing our partners off balance in order to make them susceptible to the return Yang power, which he described as electric, the opposite polarity to the magnetic force. How “electric” we were in response to our partner’s push depended on how well we were cultivating the elasticity of our joints and connective tissue.

It was hard to miss the difference between the electric force that Rasmus generated compared with the less assertive movements of his students. Using his arms only to “feel” the balance of his partner, his body would pulse against the incoming pressure, bouncing his partner violently but catching him with his sensing hand to avoid injury.

I have used “partner” and “opponent” alternately in describing this training to distinguish between developing the techniques in practice and using the techniques for self-defense. Our Sifu made clear, however, that the practice partner is an essential condition for becoming adept at tai chi as a martial art. One cannot simply practice the form and expect to develop the expertise necessary to defend yourself, he said. You have to practice with a partner.

That partner must be a willing foil for you, not your opponent. You don’t want a “sparring partner,” but a guide to help you develop your skills, and vice versa. “This is not the time to fight,” he said. “It is the time to learn.”

To connect with your partner or your opponent, you must tune into the same frequency, Sifu says, and you find that frequency by touching them gently, by sensing their root and their vibrations. This was perhaps the most difficult concept for me to grasp, and I struggled to gain this sensitivity to vibrations and frequency.

In this video clip, Sifu Mark Rasmus demonstrates to our group how to sense the frequency of a partner’s push, allowing you to “switch off” the body’s resistance to absorb the pressure and break the balance of the pusher. We quickly learned it is not as easy as it looks:

Aaron Green, director of Mid Atlantic Movement Arts, sponsor of the workshop, worked with me as my partner a few times, encouraging me to listen with my mind to the “switch” when he could be drawn off balance by my magnetic force. Inevitably, I would see it in his eyes, rather than feel it through the touch.

Tai chi teaching demonstrations of fajin – masters “bouncing” their opponents – as seen often on YouTube, may involve complicity of the student, whether overt or otherwise. The master has demonstrated the moves, and the autosuggestion for those who are most sensitive will be enough to move them, sometimes without any visible force.

This is not acting, however. It is a power that exists, particularly among those who do not resist it, who feel the power and respond to it.

As Sifu Mark touched each of his students, demonstrating different techniques, he pointed out that he feels different energy from different people. “Some are more receptive to this training; others are resistant,” and he likened this sensitivity to that of hypnotism, whether someone is receptive to autosuggestion, or who resists efforts to “put them under.”


Drawing from his Hermetics training, Rasmus teaches that we can focus our mind through meditation to increase our magnetic and electrical forces, that we truly have control if we allow our minds to lead. The meditations rely on elements of the earth, water, fire, and “ether,” an astral plane, which correspond to trigrams in the I-Ching, the mystical Chinese Book of Changes.

As we sit quietly and meditate on the space between our hands, breathing in and out, Sifu asks us to take one particular thought, something you want, “perfect health, for example, anything,” and project it into the space between our hands, breathe into it and accept it as our own, close up our hands, embrace our thought, make it reality.

It is a summons to tai chi warriors to carry our vision forward, to believe and to succeed, guided by this art that focuses the mind and conditions the body to win. Clearly, we must practice. We have much work to do.

For more information about Sifu Mark Rasmus and his teaching, check out the website at He is making plans for another tour of the United States next year.