Teja Bell has been steeped in martial arts for more than 40 years. He is a 5th degree black belt in Aikido, and teaches Qigong and Aikido throughout the world. He also teaches Buddhist meditation, and is an ordained Rinzai Zen Priest. He talked with The Sacred Cow about the intersection between yoga, qigong, and Buddhist meditation—and how the practices can serve each other.
Sacred Cow: What first drew you to study martial arts?
Teja Bell: Testosterone! I was a young kid with a lot of energy. I wasn’t picked on at school or anything else. I just never resonated with sports that much. I met my first martial arts teacher at 15, Tatsumo Makami, and began to learn Judo. I resonated with the practice right away. It was fun and I could feel myself developing in both skill and internal understanding.
SC: As a boy growing up in the Midwest, did the culture around the practice feel foreign to you?
TB: No. My great aunt Leona had been a missionary in China—her mission was to help to end the practice of foot-binding. She spent many years there, and she would always tell us stories of her time there. We were surrounded by these beautiful artifacts and temple wall hangings. Her stories, I realized later, were Taoist stories. They prepped me, culturally, for my martial arts studies.
SC: And you studied yoga, as well?
TB: Yes, I started to practice yoga at about 17 or 18 years old, when I was at the University of Texas in Galveston, Texas.
SC: How did that influence your martial arts study?
TB: Most martial arts are basically about kicking ass. This is what warriors use to defeat their enemies on the battlefield. After starting yoga I began to become more interested in the spiritual aspects of practice and in the principle of non-harming or ahimsa. In 1971, I began studying Aikido. It’s a wonderful Japanese martial art, that is noncompetitive and ethically based and I really resonated with it philosophically and physically. It is considered an internal martial art. It works at neutralizing the energy of the attack, not so much about defeating the attacker. It taught me that I could practice martial arts as a protector. I have also studied Qigong, which is the foundational energetic practice for all of the martial arts, and this is what I primarily teach.
SC: Do you think it’s important to understand the cultural origins of practices like Aikido, Qigong, and yoga—like Japan, China and India, for instance—in order to have a true understanding of the practices?
TB: I have often wondered if it is possible to look at these practices in a culturally neutral way. To do that, you have to ask what is the value, what is the purpose of doing certain practices, and see if the essence of the teaching or practice can be extracted from the culture from which it came. It is an open question.
SC: What are some ways that practices like Qigong can serve a yoga practitioner?
TB: Over the years, I have watched people get injured in habitual performance of certain asana as the tendons and the ligaments lose their resilience. A practice like Qigong can help yoga students and teachers add longevity to their practice and recover from injury. Qigong practices use pulsing—a type of subtle energetic movement—along with mindful presence to activate healing and rejuvenation. It encourages relaxation of the nervous system, as well as the internal organs, the fascia, and the viscera, which then creates space that allows the flow of qi, or life force. It’s like an internal massage and it can be very healing.
SC: How else can Qigong serve yoga practitioners?
TB: It can help them to get in touch with the subtler aspects of their practice. In Qigong, there is a principle called the “70 percent principle”. You work within 70 percent of your range of motion. So, the attention shifts from maximizing your range of motion to working with the energetic component while learning to direct the qi or prana throughout the body for healing, rejuvenation and well-being. This helps bring the element of mindfulness and equanimity to your practice. The value of this is immense. You can really rest in that pristine space of pure consciousness, of pure awareness. In Qigong, we call working like this the “water method”. Yoga practitioners can benefit from doing a wise Qigong practice because they become more in touch with the subtler flows of energy and they connect with their own physicality in a way that they maybe haven’t done in their more outwardly physical asana practices.
SC: Can you talk more about the water method?
TB: In Taoist practice traditions there is the fire method and the water method. The fire method is the use of our will to burn through energetic obstacles, for instance, pushing through a stretch or asana. The water method is more about following that path of internal recognition and trusting the system so that our minds don’t have to manipulate and control things. If you use the water method in asana, you are actually ‘listening’ to the energy, to the fibers of the tendon, as you move into a pose.
SC: Are there other things that yoga practitioners can get from qigong?
TB: Sometimes, yoga can feel competitive. Especially when you see models in yoga magazines doing perfect poses. To model a pose may be different from what you are actually feeling in the body. Qigong practices really work on directly connecting with feeling. Of course, the competitive aspect has to do more with human nature than it does purely with yoga, but we do see it in yoga.
SC: Are there ways in which yoga can serve Qigong?
TB: I think that yoga offers a phenomenal opportunity for qigong practitioners to open more deeply through their body by using asana. The stretching and opening of tendons, muscles, and ligaments that can happen with yoga asana is less present in most Qigong. They are equally valuable, so I think an integrated approach is optimum.
SC: Should we mix the two together, then?
I don’t think it’s wise to mix and match. Different practices should be honored and practiced in a way that keeps continuity and integrity in that practice. This is not to say that these traditions can’t evolve, but the process of evolving a practice should be done with great care and concern by people who have been practicing a long time. You can’t just mess with the energy body, and even more so if you are a teacher. You want to be very clear about and respectful of what you teach.
That said, I think you can weave principles from one practice into another. And you can do some qigong and then take a break and then do some yoga.
SC: You are also a meditation teacher. How do we weave aspects of meditation into both practices?
TB: Generally, when I am talking about meditation, I am talking about bringing a certain kind of quiescence to the mind that comes from a sense of stability, concentration, mindfulness and equanimity. Using these principles, we connect with direct feeling and a sense of interconnectedness with all of life—the recognition that the energy that beats your heart beats all hearts. This recognition flowers in our awareness as compassionate presence, or loving-kindness.
SC: How can we integrate meditation into our movement practices?
TB: I think it’s helpful to start practicing meditation in still postures like standing or sitting. I often have students work more with standing meditation because it’s very difficult to fall asleep there, and it also works with the aspects of alignment and wholeness within the body. Once you begin to develop mindfulness in stillness—a sense of resting in presence—you can bring that knowledge of the internal space into the motion. Then we have moving meditation.
For more of Karen Macklin’s work, visit her website at www.karenmacklin.com.