The warm April sun shines through the high windows, breaking through crystal pyramids between the panes of glass and painting rainbow patterns on the wooden flooring. The sweet smell of roses from an aroma lamp fills the large room. Two women speak softly to each other, but the majority of the 60 participants, like me, are sitting quietly at their places, sifting now and then through their bags or simply daydreaming. Together we are excitedly anticipating the arrival of the man from Australia, Ratziel Bander, that will teach us Hsin Tao on this peaceful Saturday.
For the past 1000 years, these gentle movements remained a well-protected secret, learned and practiced only by the highest-ranking monks of the Shaolin Monastery in China. Shortly before the millineum, it began to find its way to a greater public through Ratziel Bander.
Hsin Tao is said to bring about deep, healing and very individual results to body, mind and spirit. Enthusiastic testimonials made me curious: a woman confined to a wheelchair began to feel tingling in her legs, an asthmatic was able to gradually reduce his medication, a women suffering from depression despite months of psychotherapy experienced a breakthrough after the first hour of Hsin Tao. Can these exercises really have such amazing effects? Today, I want to know firsthand, for myself, more about Hsin Tao.
As Ratziel Bander enters the room and positions himself on the stage in front of the group, I am immediately fascinated by his calm and regal manner. As opposed to our jogging outfits, leotards and jeans, he wears an elegant, chinese-looking training suit of flowing white silk. With intense concentration, he views the group with his large, dark eyes – like a tiger preparing to pounce.
Watching this energetic person, I find it hard to believe that only a few years ago, he was so severely ill that he couldn’t hold up a book while lying in bed. A relapse of his childhood affliction, known as post-polio syndrome, had shaken his body with horrible cramps and made it impossible for him to do much of anything. No medical help could change his dire situation and the outlook was grim.
The saving grace came from where he least expected it. A former Shaolin monk and Master of Tai Chi that Ratziel Bander had known for over 20 years told him of a secret self-healing technique that could help him. Extremely skeptical, he decided to accept the offer and became his student. During his devoted, continual training, Ratziel experienced to his great surprise that the intervals between his painful cramping became longer. After about nine months, they stopped completely. Two years later, his condition was completely transformed. Internally calm and clear, physically fit and healthy, he was ready to teach Hsin Tao. Our group was the second group in Munich that had had the opportunity to learn the technique with Ratziel Bander.
„Relax your shoulders, place your hands on your belly.” During the first exercise, Ratziel directs our attention to the stomach and, in the rhythm of our breathing, its gentle rising and falling under our hands. Rising, falling. Rising, falling...
The room became very still. Only a few scattered breaths could be heard. Step by step, we learned a very deep breathing technique that fills the body with energy. It isn’t as easy as I had first thought: “I hear you breathing! Breathe without breath.”
A collective question mark fills all faces. We listen attentively as we hear that the muscles are contracted when there is a sound accompanying the in and out breath: the larynx narrows to a small passage and the breath cannot flow freely. “Munich has trouble relaxing!” he says with a playful wink. “Should we try it again?”
Ratziel will ask that often over the course of the day. After a few trys, we begin to succeed in combining this new, unusual breathing with a soft, natural front-to-back rocking movement of the upper body. I, too, let myself be carried by the soft movements of my body, the pleasurable warmth that radiates from my stomach like rays of sun. Internally, I feel so incredibly light that a little smile spreads across my face.
Babys and children breathe like this on their own, their bellies rising and falling like a bellows. In this way, we are told, they collect energy into the middle of their bodies. Energy that “feeds” and warms the organism. Adults lose this instinct at some point and their breathing becomes higher and shorter. Our bodies begin to “cool down” and this results in a diverse mix of health problems such as back pain, infections of the urogenital tract, digestive problems, among others. An additional result of the adult breathing is that the body “dries out”, the skin wrinkles, and so on. Hsin Tao teaches us to keep these precious energies flowing by breathing as deeply and regeneratively as our children.
Legend has it that the origin of Hsin Tao began over 1350 years ago by a monk named Bodhi Dharma. At the age of 19, the youngest son of the Indian ruler King Sugandha, he was already among the best students of the disciplines of the Veden, Medicine, Meditation and Philosophy. Around the age of 25, he was taught the discipline of unarmed fighting and mastered this as well.
His keen interest in religion and the meditative techniques that were involved were not welcomed by the king. He tried to persuade his son to marry, but Bodhi Dharma declined and chose to become a monk. He left his homeland and began travelling. Several years past until he arrived in the province of Honam, China. There, he settled in a cave next to the Shaolin Monastery to practice meditation in order to achieve enlightenment like Buddha. After nine years, he had attained his goal, but due to the immobility during meditation he had aged significantly. His body was weak, stiff and crooked.
With the help of his enlightened spirit, Bodhi Dharma discovered a series subtle yet extremely effective movements that healed and revejunated his body, mind and spirit in a very short time. He began to teach the monks of the Shaolin Monastery, also ailing through their practice of hour-long, motionless meditation, these movements as well as the Indian Martial Arts that he had mastered as a young man. (In addition, he developed for the monks a series of 18 positions for weaponless defence – today further developed and known as Kung Fu. After their training with Bodhi Dharma, the monks – previously an easy target for thieves during trips through the jungle – developed a legendary reputation for their martial arts prowess, preventing any further attacks from robbers.)
The amazing prowess of the monks resulted from the following Hsin Tao exercise: “The Saint Stretches His Hips” – it balances and heals the body from within. Bodhi Dharma used the revitalizing power of this exercise to upright his bent body and to make his stiff joints pliable.
Standing with slightly bent legs, we rock ourselves back and forth on the soles of our feet. Ratziel Bander demonstrates how the natural rhythm of our breath leads the movement and how the arms and pelvis harmonize with the motion. It looks so easy when he does it, but again we discover that it isn’t as simple as it looks. I catch myself clenching my mouth shut in concentration. “Without effort. Mouth is relaxed.” Evidently, I’m not the only one in the room with this problem. I continue practicing. After a while, I find myself able to automatically combine the interaction between breathing, arm and pelvic movements. Later, when we practice with our eyes closed, my body becomes very warm. My heart beats quickly, despite the fact that I am moving slowly in synchronized movements with my breathing. I begin to sweat all over, especially my hands appear to glow with heat. What is happening to me? I am fascinated by the rise in temperature and I simple continue the movement because my body signals that this exercise feels very good.
After a small eternity the exercise is ends and we lay down on the ground and relax. Eyes closed, I breathe a few deep breaths and observe what I feel in my body. A very subtle tingling, like a shower of energy, travels through my body. I feel a wonderful sense of warm and weight and hear Ratziel quietly saying “It’s very easy to let go from the inside. If you feel pain, let it go. Let it happen.” He explains later that it is very important to practice gently and to be easy on yourself, that Hsin Tao should not be strenuous. The first signs of success, for example: a feeling of heat in the body, sweat and an increase in the flow of saliva, begin on their own and with that, the process of rejuvenation via moisturizing the body from within.
Tired from all the new impressions dancing in my head, I return to my seat after the break. The last exercise, called “The Saint Prepares Medicine”, seems especially geared to me because it calms the mind.
A silent beauty is evident in each movement of this exercise. The tips of the fingers caress the air, gliding as if through water while the arms gently moved in half-circles around the body. My mind becomes so still that it feels as if someone has turned down the thought-volume in my head. For a second, I simply “am”. I find it hard to believe. I am so delighted with this that my thought begin to twirl again like snowflakes in a glass globe.
Ratziel, demonstrating the exercise with his eyes closed, seems enraptured yet very centered. A tiny smile is on his face. He does the movements with such devotion, majestically slowly, that I am in genuine awe. It becomes so quiet in the room that you could hear a pin drop. Everyone seems to have stopped breathing in order not to disturb the grace and beauty that we are priviledged to witness. We begin to sense how wonderful the godly ecstacy must feel that Ratziel spoke of at the beginning of the exercise. Practised regularly, Hsin Tao brings you closer to this feeling in different nuances: first you feel calm, then stillness that becomes deeper and deeper until you ultimately reach the point of ecstacy.
It isn’t necessary that we perform the movements perfectly, Ratziel tells us to our relief, the results are what count. These will become continually more profound the more often we practice and the more we relax and enjoy the movements.
At the end of the day, while I fold my blanket and put my writing materials away, I leave the room with the other participants with the certain feeling that something has not ended, but that it has just begun. Something new, something that I can’t yet grasp with reason, something that – with the help of Hsin Tao – will take me on an exciting adventure. I feel the smile growing on my face for the second time today. A great feeling.
© 2004 Nicole Wiegandt