When the rice fields outside of Pichest’s were cut for the harvest, I realized it had been a (long long) while since the last blog post, and thought this transition of seasons marked a good place and time to write some more about our experiences in Thailand. That was around mid-December. Now, I’m sure the rice is nearly fully grown again. When I left Thailand for India a little over two weeks ago, the roosters and chickens were cooing in the long stubble in the very hot afternoons. At times, a few cows came out to graze. Now, I look out over a similarly dry landscape, toward the town of Trimbak, in Maharashtra, India, where I am studying for a month at an ashram. But more on that later.

A new year, the Year of the Tiger, in which we should seize the things in front of us with no hesitation, has begun and there are many things to write about.  It’s a bit disorienting to write about Thailand from here, where the sense of the world is entirely different, in ways I have no words for yet.

I’ve decided to keep some parts of this first post, more or less composed from my sweet little bungalow in Chiang Mai, in the present tense. The other posts will obey the basic rules of time and space as they’ve been taught to me, since some over the things I would like to write about are “over,” whatever that means.


The winter seems close to over here.  The heat is coming back, filling up the afternoons. Now, when we break for lunch, Pichest says “hot hot,” which is actually the first thing I heard him say on the day we first came to class in October, when he was standing in the road outside his house. We were excited and disoriented and didn’t know for sure if it was Pichest or not. He turned to us with a big smile and said, “hot hot.” It is hot hot now, and this is not even hot. The heat is coming. And then, we hear, when the heat is at its worst, they will start burning the hillsides around Chiang Mai.  Heat plus smoke equals, we hear, hell. We also hear that they didn’t used to do this. My friend Som says one night when we’re sitting at the restaurant at the top of a large hotel, eating really gross French fries, looking out over the Ping River, that it’s only been a few years that they’ve been burning so much. It didn’t used to be something that covered the city with unbreathable air.  A few days ago, Pichest said that Chiang Mai is very unhappy because they have a problem with their garbage.

Now for the orders of business; that is, the posts that are to come, either in one big swoop, depending on how the next few days ago, or in a trickle. This list should create nothing less than great suspense and anticipation, like a serial novel published in the weekly newspaper:

Pichest and the Central Axis

Jack Chaiya and his mother/Lek Chaiya and her son

Sinchai: The blind man near the north gate

Horizontal Movement 1: 10 White Cows

A Tour of the Region: Meet the Healers

A Tour of the Region:  Close to China, on the Edge of Burma

Side of the Road Projects: Just One More Foot

Chiang Mai Dusk Walk: Humanscape to Naturescape

Putting Your Hand Under Pichest’s Foot: Teaching By Touching (Refusing Concept)

1 Month in 3 Indias

Wow! Better get started. The first one might be the hardest, actually

Pichest and the Central Axis

I take notes in Pichest’s class. Sometimes, I do this furtively, writing little snippets when I think he’s not paying attention. Sometimes, I sit there with my notebook open like I’m in a lecture hall. Either way, he relentlessly makes fun of me for doing this.  Of course, he’s right. I’m keeping things in my head, conceptualizing them. When he points at me and laughs, I put the book away, usually for the rest of the day.  Perhaps, however, there might be some value, at least for me, and maybe for you, since you’re reading this, to these notes. One can look over them and see some of the patterns of his talks, which are essentially dharma talks. He takes up certain themes certain weeks, though all of the elements he talks about tend to circulate and recur day to day. Sometimes, he’ll become focused for a number of days on death and how we are going to all end up in a box; sometimes, he’ll talk about karma, our mother and fathers, the way they took care of us as babies, the six directions, the precepts. Sometimes, he talks more about the body itself, how we can take it apart, lay all of its elements in front of us…skin, tendons, organs, hair, bones…and then, where is the body? Where is the ego? Where is the unity we try to believe in?  Oftentimes, he’ll talk about the external form of the body and our attachment to it as “body show,” something already dead, just a skeleton inside. Usually, in this particular talk, Miss Universe makes an appearance.

Looking back over several months of notes, I realized that Pichest, in many of his talks, refers back time and again to finding and keeping concentration in the central line of the body. “Keep here,” he says, “concentrate here,” and points up and down his torso, from navel to throat. “Keep here.”

He often says to find, and keep this place of stability by taking a sip of water. “Listening water,” he sometimes says. Take a sip of water and follow it down down down. “Where does it go?” From the mouth to just above the navel (there are slightly different assignations of this point in different Buddhist and Hindu traditions – it’s often said to be four fingerwidths below the navel…) When you forget the sensation of that place, where the water ends, take another sip of water. Forget, sip. Forget sip.

He also goes through periods where he talks about the stone and the waves. The waves are on the surface. They are the emotions, the fluctuations of the mind, desires, aversions, “I want, I don’t want.” These waves can be large or small, turbulent or calming, even lulling. But no matter. What we should follow is the stone. Like when you drop a stone into the river. “Follow the stone,” he says, pointing down the center line of his body, to the place where the water stops, where the stone rests. He looks up, with a very big smile. “Keep here.”

Here, the center line, from tongue to just above the navel, this is the first sen line, Sen Sumana. It’s the biggest, the main channel. In Indian practice, it’s called the Shusumna. In Tibetan practice it’s also used, though I don’t know the name for it. It’s the energetic spine inside the physical spine and itself has several inner layers, nestled one in the other. This is the place where the deepest movements of the human energy body take place; the space where the deepest illnesses live; the life cord, in many senses, of the rest of the body as well ass its fundamental organizing principle, energetically and musclo-skeletally. It’s the part we that stands us upright, and the part that can remain upright in meditation; the stem of the lotus, where the blossom will come.

So Pichest is offering a strong Sen Sumana meditation.  Feel the sensation of water in the mouth, on the tongue, a strong sensing organ. Feel the energy of the water travel down the space of the channel. Where the energy comes to rest, there rest your mind. Rest your mind there with the weight of a stone, unmoving, resting, there, on the soft bottom of the river. The breath, if you follow it from nose to diaphragm, to the lower belly, follows the same line. When you forget, drink more water. This meditation can be done anywhere, not just sitting on a cushion.   Every time you drink water, you can practice this. Like a good Tantric practice, another wonderful thing about this simple meditation is the way it asks you to bring energy to a simple, daily activity. The Tantra says: whatever you do, do it fully; whatever you do, enjoy it..

On a side note, Pichest just yesterday offered another water-related practice. It’s something like this (and I’ll try to capture more or less in Pichest-speak, which is a delight all its own): “Talking with boyfriend, talking with girlfriend, do like this. When girlfriend talking, boyfriend drinking the water.  Keep in the mouth, don’t swallow. (puffs out his cheeks, to show that the water stays there, filling the mouth.) Girlfriend talking. Keep here, keep in mouth. Then, she finished, and boyfriend swallow. And follow here (points to the center line and the navel). Then, boyfriend answer. Girlfriend drinking water, but keep here (in the mouth.) Don’t swallow. Ah, like that. Then…no problem. Then, honey sweet.”

Like meditating together.

I made this extremely technical diagram to explain it all:

But the central axis is not only a deep space of meditation; it’s also the place from which much, if not all, of the physical work of Thai massage comes, especially as Pichest teaches it. As the body learns to truly relax, to lean and not push, to use angles of leverage between giver and receiver to find the best place to work, the central axis is where everything comes from. The arms, the legs, the feet, the hands…nothing acts independently. A hand never pushes from the palm, or even the shoulder. All the pressure comes from the relation between hand and center line. The breath comes from the side of the ribcage, and goes into the hand, and the hand goes into the body of the receiver.

The receiver’s central line and Pichest’s central line seem to do a kind of a dance together. Many people say that when Pichest works on them, they feel that his body becomes completely one with their body, on all levels.

When I watch Pichest work, one thing that strikes me is the lack of contortion of his body. He never seems in a position that doesn’t make sense, or that confuses the logic of  his body. He is like a pure central axis, leaning, bending, relaxing, straightening…moving with that central intelligence guiding. Even when the position seems outwardly complicated (inspiring a lot of photographs to be taken)

When you look closely at what’s actually happening, how the two bodies are working together, it’s remarkably simple. It’s those moves that provoke the biggest grins from Pichest himself, since, of course, he feels the simplicity of it all as well…more than any of us.  “Good simple,” he often says, and wouldn’t need my complicated notes to understand these exact things.

Since another aspect of my life is the practice of Buto dance, in the writing of this post, I have found myself thinking quite a bit about how that practice as well focuses on the central line of the body. To some extent, all forms of movement and body work must take this orientation and structural support of the body into deep consideration, but in some practices it is focused on more than in others, and in Buto the stability, support and collapse of the central axis, and, in particular, the movement between these states, is the place from which much of the dance, and its philosophy, is drawn.

The practice of Buto tries to bring the practitioner back to a basic understanding of the reality of humanness. The cycle of living and dying, and all the experiences the being in this cycle goes through in a lifetime, all of them manifest in the body as various states of stable behavior or the collapse, or gradual collapse, of this stability.  In collapse is vulnerability, and oftentimes, in this vulnerability is contained great truth, free from the illusions we create around ourselves in daily life.

In Buto the central axis is a filament held taut between heaven and earth…taut but with play in the line. While it is taut, there are certain ways one can work with it. You can turn on it. You can walk with it as taut, elastin support. You can rise and fall on it.

But cut it, and new forms of work emerge. Buto explores the fall and the process of falling as a space of work. The collapse is a space of work and engagement. Slowing down the collapse to feel its every pull and shift is a practice the dancer does again and again, until there is an intimate knowledge of how to cut the cord that keeps the body upright, a good citizen, a good friend and lover. How to cut the cord that will ultimately be cut with some other scissors, tomorrow or in 80 years.  How can the body collapse comfortably? How does it feel when it collapses uncomfortably? From collapse, how can movement be initiated again? How can collapse be elaborated on through movement? How can collapse be slowly recuperated; the body reintegrated?

All movement forms, being generated by humans, animals, plants, the movements of the winds, and so on, bear relation to one another. Perhaps this last question, how to move the body from collapse to reintegration, has some particular resonance with Thai massage, and other forms of working toward the deeper health of the human. How are the practices we are doing with our ”patients,” who are also our friends, our colleagues, our fellow dancers moving between these two axes, of stability and collapse? And furthermore, how can we allow our own bodies, while working on others, to completely collapse in the way Pichest’s does, with the central line so supple and relaxed and yet so functionally integrated into every movement we do?