My old friend David suffered a near-fatal stroke a year ago. His right side was paralyzed and the prognosis from his doctor was not good. It’s been a year, he was told to expect a decline. But that’s not how David and his wife Susan roll. Both are taijiquan teachers and are not about to let the pessimism of a doctor to rain on their parade. Susan has been agressively assisting in the rehab and both are convinced that recovery is going to happen.

When I called a bit over a week ago, David had hit a barrier. Despite their diligent efforts, his right arm was still paralyzed, so he was learning to write left-handed. He was able to take a few steps without a cane, but it was difficult and exhausting. He had been trying to use qi flow to heal the arm, but his usual robust energy was stuck. He could draw energy in through the left hand, but nothing was coming out the right.

I asked if he could feel with his right hand, even though he couldn’t move it. He said yes. So, the stroke paralyzed the motor neurons that controlled the arm movement, but not the sensory neurons that enable him to feel sensation in the arm. The brain is highly redundant, so it can find work-arounds if given a chance. He was probably unable to move the arm because the brain kept going back to the same dysfunctional circuits. Addressing the sensory (afferent) neural network first, alerts the brain to the intention and gives it a moment to activate alternate motor (efferent) neurons to take up the slack. Neurons are being replaced all the time, so full recovery is a strong possibility.

Equally important is that this is the way to mobilize qi. I tell students, “Feel first. Then Do.” Learning to mindfully Feel, then Do shifts the nervous system out of its habitual pre-conscious state. It sets up the conditions to use jin to produce the “soft power” of taijiquan. It takes a lot of practice to rewire the nervous system to prioritize sensory over motor, since it goes against the default settings encoded in our DNA. As animals, our pre-conscious response leans heavily toward, “Act first, then think about it.” It requires conscious intervention to override that impulse.

We calm our primitive instincts and “emotional mind” (Xin) by mindful feeling. Noted taijiquan scholar, Dr. Yang, Jwing-Ming, writes in Taijiquan Theory of Dr. Yang, Jwing-Ming,

“When you bring your mind from outside your body to inside your body, it is called, ‘Nei Shi‘ and means ‘internal vision.’ That means paying attention to the internal feeling of the body. The deeper and more sensitive this feeling, the more you can sense the connection between your mind and your body. Feeling is the language between your mind and body.”
This mindful feeling is essential for using jin in your taijiquan. And this sets us up to discuss Elbow Jin. (See my four-part series “Unlocking the Elbow Gate”) I have mostly presented elbow jin in the context of its synergistic effect on the whole body-mind. Not only does it amplify effortless power in any posture, but it also goes a long way toward predictably and easily accessing superconscious awareness.
It is an easy jump from martial expression of elbow jin to healing applications…for others, but also for yourself. So many of us have been instructed by our teachers (and our teachers’ teachers’ teachers’) to DROP the elbows and let them hang in order to “relax the shoulders.” This seems logical enough…at least until you test it out. It not only isn’t effective for issuing energy (like in a push or punch), but it also collapses the structure and BLOCKS the energy flow. Rather than “dropping” the elbows, I advise REACHING with them. (see “Unlocking the Elbow Gate” for more explanation on how to do this.)

This video gives a demonstration of the power of Elbow Jin:

So I suggested to David that he practice feeling his elbows in different positions and extending them. Use the sensory neurons to remind the central nervous system how to reclaim some lost territory. David and Susan developed some ingenious exercise to explore what is possible. The results have been instantaneous and miraculous. After a year of paralysis, David was able to move his right arm for the first time on March 12th. Since then, he has gotten stronger each day. One rep turned into ten, which turned into multiple reps of ten throughout the day. He is able to walk farther and three times faster over uneven terrain. Here is a video he sent me a couple days ago:

Elbow jin will not only give you mad skills as a martial artist. It can also encourage profound healing. I am including David’s detailed write up below:

Regaining the chi flow in the right arm.

I had been thinking about energy flow on my right side, especially the arm. Since the stroke, we’ve been following the western medical model (mostly). Since diagnosing and acute treatment are their specialty and the stroke was a crisis, that made sense. The situation needed to be brought under control and the clot needed to be removed, followed months later by the angiogram and stent. We needed to get my body out of danger of dying and I took all the medicines prescribed and did the procedures that were recommended and explained.

In order to actually heal, and not just be temporarily ‘fixed’, we need to look at all aspects of a human being: mental, physical, spiritual, emotional and energetic. That’s actual life. Focusing just on what’s wrong with me physically is too narrow of an approach to use to get to true health.

We have been working extensively on the physical, mental and emotional aspects. (Spiritual took care of itself as soon as I got out of the hospital and could resume our practices.)

Now it’s been almost a year since the event, and it is time we looked into our area of expertise, chi (energy) flow. Behind the body, like a blueprint, is the energetic field(s). I attempted to use energy flow techniques that used to work to little avail. Susan and I talked about the energy flow in my arm, and guessed that there was a blockage somewhere along the path. We immediately thought about asking Rick Barrett what he knew, as this is one of his areas of study and work.

When I got through to Rick, I asked, ‘If energy generally comes in the left palm (receiver of energy) and flows out through the right palm (energy generator), what is happening to mine now that my arm is not functioning?’ He also said ‘blockage’, but then the discussion led to the idea that it is probably blocked at the shoulder. He referenced the tai chi adage to ‘keep the elbows in’ because he’d been noticing that old videos of old masters show them with their elbows away from the body in order to generate more energy issuing from the hands. They were not practicing what they were teaching.

I had regained enough shoulder & back muscle that I was starting to be able to lift my upper arm away from my torso. So I upped that exercise, and started looking for opportunities to really lift that upper arm, like sitting with my arm around my wife’s shoulders as a practice.  The arm immediately started getting more flexible.  I mostly had to manually move it around to stretch it, but before this it had a very limited range of motion.

When my elbow started to be able to lift (unassisted, except laying down to take away some of the force of gravity) and it cleared my shoulder, there was an exponential improvement. I could do much more movement unassisted.  Friday, March 12, was the first time I could do unassisted arm curls, arm across the body, arm stretched all the way out to the side, and arm straight over head. (This is done on the bed to lessen the effects of gravity.) I could do one rep of each of 6 or some gross motor movements. The next day, I could do multiple reps. I also slept most of the day, part of the brain recovery process that we are now understanding is very healing. By the 14th, I could do 10 reps of every movement, and added torso twisting and stretching to the routine, which now took 45 minutes to complete. I have been able to maintain that level, and there is much more control when standing. The arm isn’t just dangling like it was before.  As of one week later, I can do 3 reps of 10 of each of the exercises.

We were beginning to have more questions and thought about calling Rick again for another conversation. How do we direct this new flow? What’s next for us to do? Then I had a clear, persistent sentence come into my mind: the chi knows how to fix it. Of course! There is an incredible intelligence to the invisible energy system behind the physical manifestation of the body. All I have to do is open the blocked gates and the energy will repair the network.

I don’t think I could have done this any sooner. I need to recover enough from all that I’d been through, reestablish a daily routine and exercise program. I really haven’t had enough energy to start thinking about the energy field where we usually play in tai chi chuan.

Susan reports that holding my right hand now is a buzzing, heat generating experience. Like it used to be. On Friday, the day of after the first movement, I started walking about three times as fast as I had since the stroke, and that seems to be permanent. Releasing energy in the right arm affected the whole right side, of course.

Rick has now sent us a qi gong exercise to open the gate at the elbow, as that is most likely compromised, too.

Adventures in chi have begun!