Tuesday, 25 June 2019

“Triple tasking” and the correct development of intelligence ...

I was chatting with one of my students who has Parkinson’s disease. He told me about one of the methods he was following having taken advice on the best way to slow down the progress of his condition. The most obvious physical symptoms of Parkinson's are tremor, stiffness and slowness of movement. Non-motor functions are also affected with impairments in the domain of executive functioning being common. A day-to-day example of executive functioning would be something like multi-tasking situations like walking with someone while having a chat. He had been asked to “triple task” – for example riding on a stationary bike while, at the same time, turning a hand crank and counting backwards from one hundred.  The advice he was given has a clear parallel with Taijiquan training.  

Feng Zhiqiang - Taijiquan as a method for "correctly developing intelligence"
I remember an article by the late master Feng Zhiqiang in which he spoke of the benefits of Taijiquan training. As well as the usual benefits like: the development of both internal and external strength, enhanced body coordination, looseness and flexibility, mental quietness, martial ability etc, he spoke of Taijiquan as a means to train “the correct development of intelligence.” What does this mean in practical terms?

Taijiquan training works towards unifying all elements of “separateness.” So there can be: no raising up without some aspect of sinking; no focus on forward movement without simultaneously considering the rear; no focusing on the external shape without paying attention to the internal energetic sensation. For the beginning student it is enough to try to keep the body upright, be as loose as possible, and try to keep the feeling of lightly lifting the top of the head. Over time the mind is engaged to a greater and more subtle degree. In Chen Taijiquan this is sometimes referred to as the “rule of three” where the body is divided and subdivided around its upper, middle and lower aspects. For this reason Taijiquan has been called the study of contradictions. It is the reconciliation of these contradictions that eventually creates the experience of “oneness” or true holistic movement. So when we talk about balance we aren’t talking about some static state, but a dynamic process as an individual continually and instinctively adjusts to shifting and evolving circumstances.

Achieving this requires us to carefully following a process for an extended time with no expectation of quick successes. Trying to put this message across in today’s ever more frenetic and instant culture can sometimes feel akin to King Canute trying to hold back the tide. You only have to look at popular apps like Headspace that promises to show “how to meditate in ten minutes.” During one of our training camps in Chenjiagou Chen Xiaoxing remarked that anyone can train hard for a week or two, but few people can do it daily for five years and beyond.
Chen Xiaoxing - It's easy to train hard for a short time. Can you do it long term?
I was struck by the following passage from an article by Phillip Zarrilli describing the process of learning the ancient Indian martial art kalarippayattu:  “A student’s regularity of attendance, attitude, seriousness of purpose, maturity and emotional stability all come into play in the teacher’s decision regarding advancement. None of this is expressed or spoken. The teacher collects and registers his daily impressions of students. There is no overt sign of approval, nor is reassurance or encouragement given on any regular basis. The individual is basically alone, confronting himself as he struggles awkwardly with the external form of the system and to advancement within it.”

Friday, 24 May 2019

Focus on the process

Taijiquan results are forged by an ongoing process, not by dramatic sudden events. All accomplished practitioners create their own skill by following a carefully orchestrated process. Success in Taijiquan – for success read the achievement of a meaningful level of skill - requires us to follow series of steps that have been handed down for generations. Everyone can quote the stages and requirements. How many follow them? Manifest skill is usually the result of a repetitive journey. Drip, drip, drip and then the sudden overnight ten year success!

Learners are often impatient. Seeing the end product, the polished, dynamic and accomplished practitioner, they typically ignore the process that preceeded this level of skill. The process was the long and bitter road that few people get to witness: the long daily training sessions, the injuries and rehabilitation, the dark lonely days when they are sustained only by inner motivation and determination. The process is the real back story with its countless iteration of form routines, basic exercises and partner drills.
It may be nice to think of skill as something that arrives in a flash - an event like a sudden flash of illumination or moment of enlightenment. This kind of thinking dismisses the need for the drudgery of daily training. How often we see learners questioning everything incessantly but doing little real training - If they only knew the “correct” way to do it… Of course this is an illusion. As I saw it described elsewhere “Such a belief is a mirage of event over process. If you try to skip process, you’ll never experience events.” Sadly, as a media-centred, “I want it today” society, the spotlight and the glory all goes to the event, while the process is hidden behind the woodshed.
Chen Zhaopi compared Taijiquan skill to a bowl of soup. Question any chef and they will surely confirm that the perfect dish is a series of ingredients and a well-engineered process of execution - a little bit of this, a pinch of that, everything done at the appropriate time and place, and wham, you have an appetizing meal. Like the soup, Chen Zhaopi said Taijiquan skill in the end everything is blended together and can’t be separated.  Skill eludes most people because they are preoccupied with events while disregarding process. Without process, there is no event. For our chef, the cooking is the process, while the meal is the event. For the Taijiquan player the repeated (appropriate) training is the process, while the skill is the result.  
A young instructor form the Chenjiagou Taijiquan School

Tuesday, 2 April 2019

Chen Xiaoxing – “If you can see it, it is too much”!

The experience of training in Chenjiagou has changed in many ways over the years. In the first place it’s impossible to ignore the backdrop of the speed and scale of changes taking place in China.  Within this setting, the remarkable pace of development of Chenjiagou shows no sign of slowing down. The simple dusty village that captivated me in the 1990s, seeming to have stood still in time, has been replaced by a modern vision of what the birthplace of an art as famous as Taijiquan “should” look like. With stadiums, a modern exhibition centre, Taijiquan museum and numerous Taiji themed tourist attractions. In the centre of the village the Chenjiagou Taijiquan School has also grown larger over the years. The main training hall that used to be a Spartan concrete floored empty space is now fully  equipped with modern training aids including a full sized boxing ring, rows of heavy bags and a raised push hands ring.

That said, within the school there is still a palpable sense of tradition. A portrait of Chen Xiaoxing, the current principal of the school looks down from above the entrance to the room. The opposite wall is decorated by portraits (left) of his direct ancestors: his father Chen Zhaoxu; grandfather Chen Fake creator of the New Frame routines; another three generations back, Chen Changxin who reclassified the older forms of the system into the Laojia routines; back to Chen Wangting creator of Chen family Taijiquan.
With all the changes, some things are refreshingly familiar. For instance the importance Chen Xiaoxing places on zhan zhuang (standing pole) as the primary means of realising and training Taijiquan’s jibengong (basic training). Taijiquan’s training methodology is built upon an implicit understanding of the ultimately limiting practice of building strength and fitness on top of dysfunction.
At the most obvious level zhan zhuang helps to establish the required body shape - hips and shoulders level, crotch rounded, head upright and balanced, shoulders relaxed and elbows sunken etc… requirements quoted, but often not manifest to a sufficient degree. Beyond this zhan zhuang training provides a means of beginning to physically understand and manifest critical but far from obvious aspects of Taijiquan.
During his camp at Tomlin, Slovenia in August 2018 Chen Xiaoxing spoke at length about the importance of zhan zhuang training:
Zhan Zhuang (photo by Rob Steenkamp)
“Zhan zhuang is training fundamental skill (gong). Why fundamental skill? The saying is “Train quan without training gong, at the end all is in vain”. Many people think that basic training involves stretching the legs and back etc...in fact fundamental skill, as in the taolu (form routine) involves feeling the intention and qi. Whether it is zhan zhuang, reeling silk or form, the fundamental skill is mentally and physically enabling the experience of intention and qi and the extent to which they can be achieved. Because fundamental training is done in a static posture, it is easier to grasp and experience them, unlike in the form routine where one has to cope with a myriad of changes of directions and focus. The mental and energetic feel gleaned from the basic training can then be incorporated into the form. This is the reason why zhan zhuang is important and is a part of training that cannot be missed.”
Chen Xiaoxing jokes sometimes that the thing his students fear the most is standing. Where some people emphasise standing training as a relaxing meditative experience, with him it is also a physically and psychologically challenging practice. Training two sessions a day, every session begins with half an hour or so of zhan zhuang. During our recent visit a film crew spent several days shooting around the school and surrounding village. The German-New Zealand-China collaboration, documenting the many “Colours of China” had spent a year filming around the country. The German project manager was fascinated with the paradox of Taijiquan training - on the one hand the quietness of the practice, and on the other the intensity. The way that everyone in the room’s legs seemed to be shaking with the effort the instant they were adjusted and corrected by the teacher.      

During the visit we spent ten days working through and refining the Xinjia Yilu routine. If our motivation for training is functional efficiency, then a critical goal of training is the development of non-telegraphed movement. Where modern practitioners often talk about effective martial training, in reality practice is often geared more towards performance and demonstration. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with this in terms of fitness and health, self-expression etc. But, in a real situation telegraphing your intention can lead to a disastrous outcome. Anyone who has taken part in competitions where there are real physical consequences for making mistakes realise quickly and painfully the importance of hiding what you are going to do. Chen Xiaoxing often repeats the phrase “if you can see it it is too much.” For example as a practitioner shifts weight from one side to the other, the intention is to move the waist in a narrow almost imperceptible arc. Just as not engaging the waist is a fault, over-turning is also an error. So we need to look beyond aesthetics and the desire to show everything.

Xinjia training in the main hall of the Chenjiagou Taijiquan School      (Photo by Rob Steenkamp)

 Key points emphasised by Chen Xioaxing:

·         Guarding against the danger of movement being overly stylised

·         Using the form to bring out qualities such as the ability to change suddenly, accuracy, timing etc

·         To be effective movement must not be telegraphed

·         The critical importance of intention and feeling

CTGB 2019 group with Chinese students who trained alongside us



Thursday, 7 February 2019

Reducing tell-tale signals…

Today many people train Taijiquan for enjoyment, sports performance, artistic expression etc. Nothing wrong with that in itself, but the mindset is very different from that advocated in traditional Taijiquan where we are told to train using intention without revealing our purpose externally. An often quoted saying from famous military strategist Sunzi’s “Art of War” advises that: “If one knows the enemy and oneself, one can fight a hundred battles without defeat”. How is this relevant to Taijiquan practice? It’s generally said that a person trains form to know themselves and that they train push hands to know an opponent. But this isn’t quite sufficient. For sure push hands training sensitises us to the movements of an opponent. However, it is critical to realise that this is not a one way interaction. Learning to read the movements of an opponent has to be tempered by an awareness that one’s own movements may be read by the same opponent.  Even as an exponent is feeling for the tell-tale signals giving away the intention of another, he must learn to recognise his own anticipatory movement.  This is one of the reasons why the form is practiced so slowly and meticulously. By carefully and meticulously examining each movement one can begin the step-by-step process of rooting out any “telegraphing” of our own intention. By uncovering all the places where movement is inefficient or lacking the necessary smooth and spiralling quality, one gradually reaches the point where it can be said that we “know ourselves.”   

An early shot of Chen Zhenglei and Chen Xiaowang

Saturday, 29 December 2018

Why slow training wins the race...

What makes Taijiquan training different from  that of other arts? I've been asked this question many times and usually answer that the most obvious difference is its use of slowness and looseness as the core method to bring out necessary martial qualities like speed, strength, accuracy etc... 

To reach an advanced level we need to practice slowly, taking care to self-correct all the time. Using slowness to achieve detail. What details are we talking about? Here's a few to be going on with:

1.    Accuracy - in terms of posture and function

2.    Intention and how it matches to movements 

3.    Maintenance of the correct energetic state (of different parts simultaneously to enhance the "whole")

Chen Yu: "Never do an approximation of a movement"
People often either over-complicate or completely misunderstand Taijiquan's training process. In a hurried effort to access higher levels of skill, making the critical error of ignoring necessary stages such as laying down the correct physical shape. Completing this stage naturally opens the door to the internal aspects. Simply put, if the learners hips are not level or the shoulders are lifted, if the chest sticks out or the body is leaning - there's no need to be too concerned with dantian qi.  If training is approached logically it is obvious that at this stage they'd get more bang for their training buck by correcting the visible mistakes rather than losing themselves in some fanciful esoteric wandering. 

Chen Yu, in "Chen Taijiquan: Masters & Methods" cautions that haste makes it more likely for movements to be cut short and in the process important details missed out. He advises practitioners to never do an approximation of a movement: "In every movement, the spirit must be guiding the energy, and the intention driving the power" - training in this way enables the practitioners to develop vital martial qualities including stability, accuracy, speed and ferocity. To ensure not to make the mistake of cutting short and approximating he suggests that  "every movement should take 3-5 seconds to complete so that the Jin in every action is brought out".

Chen Xiaowang: "Every part does what it is supposed to do without obstruction
A central goal of Taijiquan is for movements to become natural, to rid every action of any awkwardness and not telegraphing within an action. Chen Xiaowang often repeats the phrase "natural is the first principle". In this context natural means that every part and each section of the body do what they are meant to do without obstruction. Practitioners are often able to (correctly) repeat the requirement that one must be loose and relaxed in order to enter the door of Taijiquan. However, relaxing is not a simple process. For a start,  if the body's position is not correct, it cannot relax properly.  The process of adjusting and "fixing" the posture, undoing fixed habits and embedding new ones that conform to the system's detailed requirements can only be done in meticulously and mindfully. 

Bringing out the skills of Taijiquan require the ability to move with precision and focus towards an intended direction. In practical term every movement must be finished carefully and exactly, as the end of one movement represents the starting point of the next. During a particular workshop Wang Xian stressed that only by starting from the correct position can the next movement be done correctly. He said with humour (I'm paraphrasing here): "if you start from the wrong position it's 100 percent certain your movement will be incorrect... If you start from the correct position, there's a small chance you might do it correctly".
Wang Xian: "Only by starting from the correct position can the next movement be done correctly"


Monday, 17 December 2018

USA Reflections...

San Diego at the Taoist Sanctuary
On the flight home after a couple of weeks of seminars and  a short book tour on the west coast of America I had the chance to reflect  on the trip as a whole. The first evening of our stop at Bill and Allison Helm's Taoist Sanctuary of San Diego opened with a lecture on our latest book Chen Taijiquan: Masters and Methods (published in August). The talk was structured around four themes that recurred throughout the book: ideas about the nature of Taijiquan; the importance of nurturing within the training process; the most effective way to train if you are to bring out the functional capacity of the art - in particular the role of body integration; and finally some of the problems   facing the art of Taijiquan as it goes into the future. Problems include: the fact that for the majority of practitioners Taijiquan is a discipline no longer practised for its original purpose; the fact that while the number of people practising Taijiquan is at an all time high, the number reaching any meaningful level of skill is depressingly small; and the many misconceptions about the art that still persist...

Over the course of the seminar the San Diego group trained Chen Taijiquan's jibengong (basic training methods) and the Laojia Yilu. Any complete training approach needs to consider multiple characteristics including both internal and external aspects of training. All martial arts, in their own way, follow processes designed to systematically develop the attributes of power, strength, speed and the ability to change. The basic training exercises and first routine provide the template through which Taijiquan practitioners can hone these qualities. At the same time Taijiquan’s training emphasis is very different to other martial arts in the way in which practitioners are required to put aside generally accepted methods of improving the previously mentioned elements of power, strength, speed and changeability:
On the floor...

In terms of strength - they are asked to put aside physical strength as a means of developing looseness (song) and pliancy (rou) – “Using intention and not strength”; To increase speed, the system counter-intuitively instructs practitioners to slow down their movements, keeping faith with Taijiquan’s maxim which states that “extreme slowness gives rise to extreme speed”; To develop the quality of changeability Taijiquan advises learners to “use inaction to control action, meeting all changes with constancy”. With this basis the skilled exponent is psychologically strong enough to wait for opponents to over extend their position before launching an attack.

After the San Diego seminars we spent a couple of days of down time in San Francisco’s historic Chinatown. The oldest Chinatown in the U.S., this colourful district played a pivotal role in the history of Chinese martial arts in the country. Walking down the bustling streets of the largest Chinese enclave outside of Asia has much the same feel as strolling through the back streets of Hong Kong. Loud murals decorate many of the side streets - terracotta warriors, the monkey king and his companions and of course Bruce Lee, the “Little Dragon” born in the city in 1940 before moving to Hong Kong with his parents as an infant. The story goes that on his return to America, the brash young Lee alienated many of the older established Chinese masters as he attacked the “classical mess” of traditional gongfu and his assertion about its reliance on, among other things, “ineffective” forms training.
The late Bruce Lee is never far away in San Francisco's Chinatown
Somewhat ironically, a paving slab beneath one of the murals of Bruce Lee was inlaid with a bronze inscription of an old Chinese idiom - “When you drink water, think of its source”. In one form or another I've heard this saying repeated many times over the years. From my younger days doing Shaolin Gongfu when we were told never to forget we were no more than links in a chain. In Chenjiagou I saw the saying presented in a slightly different form - "When you drink the water, remember the person who dug the well". Chen Taijiquan is close to four centuries old. It didn't emerge from a vacuum but was built upon existing knowledge in areas including martial arts, traditional health practices, elements of Chinese medical theories and ancient philosophy. Throughout Chen Taijiquan: Masters and Methods all the older generation teachers interviewed stressed the importance of following a prescribed route that had been passed down by previous generations. Wang Xian, speaking of this "carefully preserved knowledge... [stated that] Taijiquan offers one of the most formally thought out, meticulous, and clearly articulated set of principles and practices". Our job in training Chen Taijiquan is to try to understand and manifest these principles that have been handed down.

Stopping for a coffee at the Caffe Trieste I was told by a chatty regular that this was the place where Francis Ford Coppola wrote the screenplay for ‘The Godfather.’ I did a little research on the place and found that "...when Papa Gianni founded the Trieste in 1956, upper Grant and the Trieste was ground zero of the Beat Generation. The poets, the writers, the thinkers, the talkers all came here.” Since we were on a mini book tour I took that to be a good omen!! 

Our next stop was Kim Ivy's Embrace the Moon School in Seattle. The Seattle programme began with a "Book Club Potluck" - Great food followed by a lively Q&A session on Chen Taijiquan: Masters and Methods - covering the books content and the background story behind its creation. We basically wrote the book to “scratch an itch” and tried to present it as if we were sitting around the fireside having an informal chat with the most illustrious elders of Chen Taijiquan. 

Seattle at the Embrace the Moon Taiji School
On the floor, again!
Like the seminars in San Diego, training centred around Chen Taijiquan's basic exercises and Laojia Yilu. Taijiquan looks to hone four external and four internal aspects: externally training the hands, eyes, body method and footwork (shou, yan, shenfa, bu); internally training spirit, intention, intrinsic energy and trained power (shen, yi, qi, jin). Taken together these represent the "gong" of the art. In practice these elements must be cultivated carefully bearing in mind the health, strength, experience and level of understanding of the practitioner. Over the course of the US seminars practitioners varied in age from people in their twenties to seventies - from pro-athletes to retired office workers – from veteran practitioners to newcomers whose experience could be measured in months. To be successful training has to take into account these natural differences and be approached on an individual basis. As the saying goes “Don’t’ compare yourself to another person today, compare yourself to yourself yesterday”.

Seattle - Laojia Yilu
So what are we trying to achieve when we train Taijiquan? The most obvious place to start is with the name of the system - "Taiji" refers to a philosophical concept that dates back to China's ancient past. "Quan" is martial arts. Together giving a total art built upon the integration of philosophy and martial arts. Manifesting the art to its full potential depends upon working from where you are today and embracing concepts that have grown from a different culture and mindset.   
Just me and my pal Bill Helm having some fun in Chinatown 



Monday, 1 October 2018

Realising Chen Taijiquan’s Six Harmonies

Taijiquan skill arises from a comprehensive study of the body as a unified whole or system.  The core training methods of the system are built around the qualities of looseness, pliancy and slowness.  Slow training provides a means by which to improve body co-ordination and to help to rid the body of any excess tension. The process of slow training over an extended time helps practitioners to achieve a unification of body and mind described in Taijiquan literature as the harmonisation of the mind (xin), intention (yi), intrinsic energy (qi), and body strength (li).  Every facet of a person – physical, emotional, mental and spiritual – is seen to be interconnected and interdependent, and no aspect can be understood in any meaningful way except in relation to the whole. This wholeness is realised via the nurturing of Taijiquan’s six harmonies.
Internal and External Harmony - Chen Xiaoxing by Mary Johnston
The six harmonies are understood in terms of three external and three internal harmonies. The external harmonies refer to the physical components of the body, which must be ordered in a way that optimises one’s structure. The three external harmonies denote the connections between: 
Hands - Feet
Elbows - Knees
Shoulders - Kua
These can be widened to take in the connections between the left hand and the right foot, the left elbow and the right knee and the left shoulder and the right kua (and vice versa). The late grandmaster Feng Zhiqiang summarised the external harmonies simply as everything “arriving at the same time” – so every movement is performed as an integrated whole. The correct way to apply power arises not from isolated muscular strength, but from an optimally aligned body structure and unified movement through a relaxed physical and mental state. 
The three internal harmonies refer to the unification of an individual’s:
Xin (Heart) – Yi (Intention)
Qi (Intrinsic Energy) – Li (Body Strength)
Jin (Tendons) – Gu (Bones)
In this context, xin refers to the emotional aspect of one’s mind, yi to its logical or intentional part. The literal translation of the Chinese character xin is "heart". Early pictograms of the character for xin unambiguously show a picture of the physical heart.   Xin represents the centre of human feelings and emotions.  Literature from the Warring States period of Chinese history depicts it as the centre of an individual’s emotions and sentiments, from tranquillity and calmness, to anger, grief and disappointment. 
Taijiquan players are often told to “use intention and not force”.   Mental unity is predicated on the presence of both the emotional and logical mind. In a real confrontation conflicting feelings or thoughts can have dire consequences. While xin or heart is necessary to summon up sufficient courage, yi enables them to act with a clear purpose and make the right decisions in an instant.  So, in a real world example we could compare an individual exhibiting xin without yi to the hothead who fights rashly and with uncontrolled emotion and no clear intention. Conversely, yi without xin, could be characterised by the individual lacking in fighting spirit although knowing in their mind what they should do. The idea of linking heart and fighting spirit is also common in the West, where, for example, a skilful but hesitant boxer will often be accused of lacking heart. The fusing of heart and intention allows one to bring into play an energy that is fully focused and integrated.  Combining this with the powers of the body represents a joining of internal and external aspects – that is the connection of energy and strength (qi and li). Achieving this degree of synchronisation enables the body to operate as a unified whole - in terms of Taijiquan’s harmonies, linking the tendons with the bones.