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Page 4 - The Mysterious Iron Balls of Baoding
The Other or "Internal" Method
The next step is like learning an internal martial art. You must begin to concentrate on what makes the balls move around in your palm. When you see someone who is good with the balls, they seem to rotate like magic, with almost no external effort. One important thing I have realized over the years, the obvious way is not always the most efficient way of doing things.
I found that the "other" way of moving the balls is by making space for them to roll into. You can practice this by rotating one ball in your palm. By manipulating each muscle of the palm, and by putting your palm very flat so gravity does not affect the movement, you can make the ball more about. Once you can make one ball move, you can usually get two balls to rotate slowly. Keep in mind that you are not pushing the balls, but giving them a space in which to roll. With practice, you will be able to rotate the balls smoothly and seemingly effortlessly within your palm.
This method requires small, minute adjustments of the muscles which takes quite a bit of concentration and relentless practice.
Relax, concentrate on the body, movement within stillness, stillness within movement... sounds like a meditation, taijiquan, calligraphy, massage, qigong, or yoga class. Once you realize that the concept is the same, you can practice any of these disciplines while you are working with the balls.
Higher Levels of Practice
To help you master the "Internal" method, you can test your abilities by using three balls. Once you can rotate three balls smoothly (without them separating), you can put a fourth ball on the top and watch it spin in the reverse direction...a trick showed me by the young master.
Another technique which I have seen highly skilled practitioners do, is to rotate two balls smoothly without them touching each other, using almost no hand motion. I have heard stories about people who could do the same with three balls.
One man told me about competitions among older gentlemen in China, where they would meet and compare techniques. Although I consider him the best I have ever seen at manipulating the balls, he said his skill was not worth mentioning compared to these gentlemen.
Do I feel healthier? I must admit, I have not noticed a significant improvement over the last week, except that my arms ache after practicing a half an hour with three 55mm balls. Of course, a week isn't enough time to test any "preventive" treatment, and the balls were never considered effective as a "first-aid" or quick treatment. I think that the balls would be an excellent exercise for persons suffering with arthritis and because I believe in the effectiveness of acupuncture, I feel as though they can help support a preventive health care system such as traditional Chinese medicine.
Although I will probably never be as good as many persons I have seen, at least those Baoding iron balls that I bought fifteen years ago are not going to rust.
With the right attitude, a person can dramatically increase their knowledge of the "internal" arts by using these tools. I now find that they are a comforting friend when I am deep in thought, or when just relaxing and releasing the day's buildup of tension. After my week long intensive study of the balls, I have relaxed and decided to enjoy them instead of conquering them. Perhaps now they can being improving my health.-----------------------------------
©Qi: The Journal of Traditional Eastern Health & Fitness, Autumn 1991. The author, Steve Luo, is a regular contributor and long-time practitioner of Chinese martial arts and philosophy.
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