I was nineteen years old the first time I went to one of Bruce's retreats at Anvil Ranch. I had only been training with Bruce for a year and a half but the idea of doing a week of Spiraling Energy Body sounded like a great way to spend part of my summer break.
Part of what made these retreats special was the location. Just getting there was a bit of an adventure, especially in the early days. You had to drive up a windy dirt road, many people had horror stories of riding the airport bus up that little road. As I grew up locally I usually got my dad or a friend to give me a ride.
The view from the ranch was amazing all you could see for miles was a huge valley most of which was part of the ranch. The only noticeable building was a Buddhist temple all the way across the vast valley. Northern Californian is a magically place.
The accommodations were less magical. In the early days before they converted the barn into dorm people either stayed in a room in one of the two houses or camped. I camped under a fig tree in the little fig grove next to the second building. I was right outside Bruce's window which occasionally offered some added entertainment.
Classes were usually held up the hill from the living area in a grove of trees surrounding a large open dirt circle. A big oak tree in the middle had a sign on it with the words "Circle of Nature" on it, a reminder that we were indeed in California.
Some people camped up there on the edges but I never did because after a few days the porta-Jon up there got a bit ripe.
Sometimes when we could all fit and depending on the practice we would practice on the grass outside the main building. I always liked these session because I could lay on the grass during the break.
The typical day started at 6am with a morning meditation in the living room. Bruce would sit on one of the large couches and the rest of us would sit where we could, often overflowing into the hall and the dining room. I eventually got hip to getting there early so I could grab one of the big cushy chairs.
These meditations were some of the best sessions I ever had with Bruce, we did things like using sounds to release blockages, dissolving ghosts and exploring different energetic bodies.
After the morning session we ate breakfast, I missed the first couple years or retreats when the food was reportedly kinda bad, we had a wonderful lady named Marilyn who cooked, she got to know me real well. The food was good considering the number of people but after a few years I started bringing a stash of meat with me.
After breakfast, from 9-12 we had the morning class. The classes were similar to any of Bruce's classes these days only he was a bit more active in correcting people and he would do more dramatic demonstrations. Oh and there were no cameras!
The biggest difference was because we were so far out in the woods you felt protected and free to let things happen as the may. I can remember several times over the years when I had to wander off into the trees and scream, cry or laugh at the top of my lungs.
I remember one of the first times I had a major emotional release I was a little embarrassed but when I came back to the group one of the older women came up and without a word gave me a big hug. I realized that these people knew what I was going through and that it was just part of the process.
Years later I would joke that if I didn't have at least one big release per retreat, I didn't get my money's worth. I always got my money's worth.
After the morning class we would take our afternoon lunch break. The break usually lasted until 3pm which gave us time to go swimming at one streams or lakes on the property, take a hike, or usually in my case take a nap in the shade of the fig trees.
The afternoon class was usually from 2 or 3 - 5 or 6 depending on the heat. Because Bruce was also staying on the property and no one had any where to go things were often pretty flexible when it came to the schedule. This was in the age before cell phones and it was nice to be able to forget about what time it was or even what day it was. I can remember several times when Bruce realized we were a day behind or ahead of where we needed to be and either give us more time to practice or rush to fill in the remaining material.
When class ended we would all mill around and practice a bit until dinner. After dinner was my favorite time of the day, it was cool out and you could practice without sweating like a pig. But also it was great just hanging out with 60-100 other people who all share your same practice. I learned a lot over the years by playing with and talking to my fellow students.
Some of these people I can barely remember, others have hurt me, many have become lifelong friends, mentors, and even former lovers. All of them in their own way helped shape my view of world.
It still amazes me the variety of people that would attend, I remember many conversations where I was totally impressed how accomplished these people were. There were lawyers, writers, government workers, artists, wandering hippies, and of course some really good martial artists. It was inspiring to know that you didn't have to make this stuff your profession in order to benefit from it. I did anyway, but that is another story.
One of the most popular post dinner activities was hanging out in or around the hot tub. Bruce would often "hold court" in the tub and answer people's questions, tell stories, or tell jokes in a Hindi accent. If Bruce wasn't there you could still watch people practicing push hands, sparring or doing tuina on each other on the grass below. Another trick I learned was to use the hot tub on the days where the water had been changed.
The highlight of the week was the beach trip and party. Each year we would drive out to the beach near Stewart's Point, where as Bruce loved to point out you could buy guns and cheap wine. Always a winning combination. I won't tell you the name of the beach, some things must remain sacred.
The beach session were great lessons in how the energy of the ocean can teach you many things. Bruce would usually wrap up the weeks topic at the beach so it was quite often very intense. i remember one guy at the end of class just falling back into the sand like it was snow. The beach session were a great release after being in one place for a week, after class we would play on the beach for a bit then head into town for dinner. Usually a bunch of us would go to a small Chinese place in Anchor Bay. One year the owner recognized me and asked in broken English if "the big guy" was coming and when I said yes, she hurried into the back shouting instructions to her staff in Chinese.
I don't know if the food is still any good but I remember it being fantastic, but I had just come from a week of eating camp food.
Sometimes I would skip the Chinese and go to the Smoke house in the parking lot in Gualala super market. Eating a rack of ribs there with a couple friends is one of my fondest camp memories.
After dinner in town people would get supplies for the evenings entertainment. The parties were a lot of fun and people really cut loose often lasting way into the early morning and made the Saturday morning class a challenge.
People often showcase their talents during the parties, people would dance, sing, tell jokes (often very off color ones). Others would spar or push hands with a bit more gusto then they had during the week or do multiple attacker sparring. I myself remember waking up the next day with a serious hangover and multiple bruises of unknown origins.
The last morning was usually questions and answer and was patty mellow. Then we would gather for a group picture with camp call of "hip, hip, kwa!" Then we would say our goodbyes, with a lot of emotions and a lot of "if you are ever in ______, look me up" we all head our own ways until the next time.
Spiraling Nei Gong
It has been over 20 years now since the first time I did standing chi gung, it was like a spark was ignited and years of practice have turned that spark into a fire. When I first started I couldn't understand why I wasn't able to let go of tension, i though of it as if there was some magic switch I just had to find and then all my tension would disappear.
What I eventually came to accept was that there was no short cut I just had to practice more. Admittedly, I would frequently take classes that were over my head in the hope that I would get a little extra to feed the fire. And sort of like a child learning to stand sometimes I would fall and sometimes I would stand, both figuratively and at times literally.
It is hard in a few short words to explain why standing is so important but standing helps all the other stuff to "gel." Initially, standing and moving are taught as separate exercises, later standing becomes the process for wiring in the internals of the physical movements.
In order for this to happen the body has to have become extremely comfortable with the standing dissolving practice, this is important for two reasons. First it acts as a safety mechanism the dissolving can put out the fire if things start getting to hot.
Secondly, it clears out any blockages which present a potential danger when energy starts rising in the body.
Once the dropping and rising of energy are balanced various internal techniques like creating circles, spirals, spheres are used to more deeply open the inner body and the awareness to the energy flows inside of us.
This sets the stage for eventually unifying the energetic body into one unit. This is done in Spiraling the same way the physical unification happens in every gates.
To become comfortable standing is no easy task, but when it finally happens it becomes an incredible oasis from the stress and chaos of the everyday world.