Four days of intense training with Adam Mizner gives new meaning to the idea of building a “taiji body,” my goal since a seven-state 2016 tour studying the internal martial art. The teachers I met along the way, whom I’ve likened to New Dharma Bums after the Jack Kerouac classic, showed me that, to fully realize the potential of taiji, I must first transform my body. I drew up an exercise regimen based on their advice, but I see now it was not nearly sufficient to the task.
That’s the first thing I learned from Shifu Mizner, who emphasizes rigorous training to open the joints, tendons and fascia of the body, to make room for the qi that can energize you. For several hours each day, we worked to open our bodies, one joint or region at a time. Beginning with the hips and kwa (the inside of the hip socket that folds between the thigh and the groin), then the waist and lower back (the yao, which Mizner calls “the commander”), we left no joint or muscle unstretched. We’re also pushed by our shifu (the Chinese honorific for teacher) to “eat bitter” in standing exercises, including interminable one-legged postures, enduring any pain or discomfort, willing it to dissolve. Observe, release.
Strict discipline is required if we are to take the full step into taijiquan, Adam tells us. No half-measures will work. “The path lies in sincerity alone,” he says repeatedly, reflecting his own sincere approach to the internal arts he teaches. The website for Heaven Man Earth, which Mizner founded in 2004, is open and transparent about the method and goals of the program. Adam’s personal journey began as a spiritual quest – studying Buddhism and Taoism in and out of monasteries, and even in caves in Thailand and Burma, where as a young man he would isolate himself to meditate and practice qigong. Today, he also teaches meditation and Dhamma, the universal law of Buddhism, as a “senior lay disciple of Ajahn Jumnien in the Thai Forest tradition of Theravada Buddhism.”
In our workshop in Washington, DC., Shifu Mizner’s final stop in a whirlwind tour through Europe and the United States, the focus was almost entirely on body transformation. Even the afternoon partner push-hands drills pointed to the body work we needed to play at a high level. Many were like me, looking for opportunities to touch hands with Adam, to see how quickly he took control of our bodies with his gentle touch. I was helpless against his fingertips, feeling but not yet understanding the power of the soft yin release in the body. “There are three reasons to practice taiji,” he tells us, “for fighting, for health and for the cultivation of the Tao. I think this cultivation is a worthy goal in and of itself.”
“Taiji is yin–yang together, the harmony of the duality within nature,” Adam says, instructing us to harmonize shen (spirit) with yi (mind/intention), yi with qi (energy), and qi with li (force). Using these three internal harmonies in conjunction with the three external harmonies (feet with hands, hips with shoulders and knees with elbows), we are able to create jin (power), if we work hard enough. Mizner insists on using the Chinese words for the concepts in taijiquan, noting that they originated thousands of years ago within the Chinese culture and don’t have ready English-language equivalents.
“The dantien, where we sink the qi, is not a physical organ in the body,” Shifu Mizner said. “It must be developed from where you center and mobilize qi.” He uses metaphors to describe the terms and processes, referring to qi as a fluid and the body becoming “hydraulic” if we work at it. Unless we are able to clear blockages within the body through rigorous training, we will not be able to sink the qi and create internal power, he said. “Calm the mind, sink the qi and release with song. Then you can do taiji.”
Adam teaches a Yang-style taijiquan that can be traced to the grandson of Yang Lu Chan, the father of the most popular style of taiji. More directly, the Mizner method is related to Grandmaster Huang Sheng Hsien, a Chinese White Crane kungfu champion who “converted” to the internal martial arts after seeing a demonstration of its power. Huang studied with Cheng Man-Ch’ing in Taiwan, then spent decades in Malaysia perfecting the art that Adam cultivates today at Heaven Man Earth, using Huang’s short form and sincere focus on preparing the body. He demonstrates Huang’s “5 Loosening Exercises” (Song Shen Wu Fa) in this video:
At about 3:10 on the video, Adam begins a series of movements that made me sweat profusely during the workshop, with three repetitions each, first slowly harmonizing shen and yi and qi and li down to the feet and slowly drawing long jin up, then bending down for three individual movements loosening the kwa, the “belt” around the waist, and the space between the ribs, one side then the other. “One part moves, all parts move,” he repeats, getting us to focus on the single movements. I don’t remember working so hard in a five-minute exercise.
Through this “eating bitter” process I also learned, despite my convictions to the contrary, that I am capable of doing the “Asian squat,” a phenomenon that once amazed me along the streets of Saigon, Taipei and Bangkok. How do they squat with their haunches just above their heels, flat-footed, balanced between their legs? Was it a cultural or physical anomaly? Why do I fall on my butt when I try it? The answer, it turns out, is that I haven’t tried hard enough. If I turn my feet out at 45 degrees and slowly sit down toward my heels, hands between my legs for balance, I accomplish the squat, not yet comfortably but I’ll persist.
I also participated in “bone-setting” treatment, getting stretched and aligned by Adam’s senior student and assistant, Curtis Brough of Australia. I continue to work through structural issues with my computer neck and separated shoulder, and had hoped for Tui Na treatment, having read about Adam’s study and practice as a healer. Tui Na is an acupressure massage treatment that helps to clear blockages and open channels within the body. It is offered at some Heaven Man Earth workshops.
The participants in the DC workshop, pictured below, are among the fortunate ones who got to train with Shifu Mizner before he goes on retreat for a minimum year and a half. Battling illness and exhaustion at the end of his tour, he was ready to retreat and recharge. Heaven Man Earth students won’t miss a beat, however, since Mizner has created an online video training program called Discover Taiji. “Solo training is the most important,” he said.
Besides this step-by-step video series for online, Adam has built a network of Heaven Man Earth affiliates in Europe, the United States and Southeast Asia, where hands-on training is available from qualified teachers. Sometime soon, the U.S. workshops will be run by Brough, who is Adam’s most senior student. Also assisting in the Washington, DC., workshop was Ben Sanchez, from Los Angeles, and Patrick Reece, who offers Heaven Man Earth training in Philadelphia, with monthly visits to Washington.
Mizner’s success in creating his global taiji presence so quickly is made more remarkable by the fact that he’s only 39 years old. He has students and acolytes nearly twice his age, many of whom are teachers themselves. Adam said he promised himself he would take a break when he turns 40, which happens in November. He’s off the fast track, but he’ll be back.