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Today we have fantastic map and review services right in the palm of our hand. Gone are the days of getting turn by turn directions over the phone and writing them down or consulting a paper map. Truth is most places we go are pretty familiar even if we go somewhere new. Rarely do we plunge into foreign cultures and destinations that require new language skills and aren’t giving us google street view and hundreds of reviews at your fingertips. Going to a local store is easy to meet today’s need. Immersing yourself in a new culture even briefly can be life changing if you let it. Letting yourself be changed for the better by the experiences you create for yourself is art.  

Traveling to new territory it is nice to have a guide by your side. Of course, you can fly economy to Paris, take some guided tours, and have a great time. You can also learn a little French from a friend and follow their suggestions. Better yet travel with them and let them show you their favorite spots. Deeper yet might be contacting or befriending an art professor who can give you a private tour to the reserve collection at the Louvre.  

Some people are great at winging it without any preparation. Most aren’t. Some people do well with a map and compass, others might like a guide, perhaps even one with a rifle, depending on the wildlife. 

Learning Tai Chi, Qigong, Northern Shaolin, Xing Yi Quan are easy to enjoy and benefit from, and you can learn a lot quickly if you are clever. Regardless of how quickly you learn, acquiring deeper levels of skill takes time and continued coaching from a knowledgeable teacher who trusts and likes you.  

In the martial world sometimes, we talk about levels. The outer level is the Skin and the Hair, next is the Muscles and Tendons, then the Bones, and finally the Marrow. The outer level of skin and hair means the appearance of the movements looks good. Just like someone can have good hair and skin, but also be unhealthy or weak in other ways, it is possible, perhaps common, to encounter people who have martial arts that looks OK, even good, to an unskilled observer, but is totally worthless for self-defense and not that healthy in terms of exercise either. Everyone starts learning the level of skin, of appearance first. There is no other way. First you learn the moves. Then in terms of martial skills you learn how to use the moves. Then you learn how to make them more powerful. Then you learn how to lead and trick your opponent into becoming vulnerable to your moves.  

One classic way to describe these levels is to say every movement of your classical martial art including Tai Chi, Northern Shaolin and all the others can be used at different levels. The first level, the easiest, is the skin and hair. This is the level of striking. The level of throwing punches, palm strikes, and kicks at the opponent. The next level, that of “muscle”, is Throwing and Tripping the opponent. Almost all strikes can also be turned into a throw if you add a grab or two and use the legs and stance for part of the throw or trip. The third level, that of “bone”, is using joint locking techniques. Using a strike to quickly flow into a joint lock is the perfect way to set up a throw and make the throw more powerful. The final layer, the “marrow”, is attacking the opponents acupoints and vital points like arteries, veins, and nerves as part of the attack. Skill in these techniques helps overcome opponents with a huge size or power advantage. This is the deepest level of skill and is hard to acquire without a good teacher.  

In terms of medicine and health, learning the appearance and shape of the movements is the first step. Next comes perfecting the posture and structure of the body in the movement. This opens the flow of Blood and Qi in the body. Then comes learning to sequence the different parts of the body correctly to move synergistically. This helps us to mobilize and circulate our Qi and Blood even more. Moving our body with integrity, we coordinate our breath with our movement becoming more natural, infusing our body deeply with energy, profoundly circulating our blood, and calming our minds. 

In terms of Qigong, you can look at this literally in terms of levels of the Qi sinking from the surface of the body, the skin, at the first level, to the muscles at the second level, the bones at the third level, and finally the marrow and brain at the fourth and deepest level. Using our breath, we relax our mind and body deeply, helping the Qi to sink deep into the body, to build in the center of the body, circulate throughout the body, and then finally to penetrate and infuse the deepest levels of the marrow and brain. 

Learning, understanding, and mastering the deeper levels of martial skill, vibrant health, and abundant Qi is possible with a little hard work. The key to going deeper is to keep showing up and getting fine tuning and detailed coaching from your teacher continuously. Turning your guide book into your tour guide, and then a native friend, and finally an art professor showing you the hidden reserve is as simple as being steady in your attendance, supporting your teacher, and trying your best every class.  

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