Friday, 24 January 2020

Four types of Taijiquan...

Going into a new decade we have to face the fact that Taijiquan is a seriously misunderstood discipline. To the point that Chen Taijiquan master Zhu Tiancai disparagingly spoke its descent to the point where today there are four different expressions of the art. The first three he labelled Taijiquan “exercise”, “dance” and “religion” - each in their own way distortions and misrepresentations of Taijiquan. The fourth and last being authentic Taijiquan.

Casual practitioners would probably be surprised to hear that much of the Taijiquan they see in the parks of China is really little more than a shell of the traditional art. According to Zhu Tiancai the majority of these practitioners fall under the category of Taiji Exercisers”. Arriving in the park at dawn they wave their limbs, breath the early morning air, socialise with friends and the go about their daily lives. While certainly gaining some benefits from moving and stretching most pay only passing attention to the subtle and practical aspects of Taijiquan. Their practice differs from authentic Taijiquan in two key areas: it lacks emphasis upon the development of the internal efficacy of the body; it also places little attention on the development of combat capabilities that the name Taiji”quan” alludes to. Where casual practitioners and the public see the Taiji players in the parks as the idealised face of Taijiquan, Chen Xiaoxing spoke of the sad state where “... Taijiquan suffers from the fate of being viewed by the general public as a kind of exercise for the parks and street corners. This isn’t to say there are no Taijiquan practitioners passing on the traditional art in the parks, but they are few and far between.

The second category of practitioners were likened to “Taiji dancers.” Here the main emphasis is upon public performance and competition. A dramatic example would be the thousands of performers who drew beautiful Taiji patterns as they showed the art to the world during the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympic Games. We can include in this category the many wushu competitors who take Taiji almost into the realm of gymnastics. The elite performers in these competitions can be truly spectacular in their athleticism. But again they fail to incorporate aspects considered essential in traditional Taijiquan: the central importance of cultivating the qualities of roundness, sunken relaxation and intention; a lack a focus on training in a way that can develop practical application potential etc.

The third misrepresentation of the art was classified as “Taiji Religion”. To be clear here we are talking about the negative aspects of religion and cult would probably be a better description. This is the crazy world of fantastical claims and “empty force.” In popular cinematic culture it is the old master with the white hair and flowing robes who defeats his enemies by just pointing his fingers. In real life their are whole sects based on this kind of mystical nonsense. A notorious contemporary example is China’s Yan Fang who routinely demonstrates her supernormal abilities by performing feats like projecting energy to knock over students standing behind a concrete wall.

Where the first two examples can’t be considered as the traditional art practitioners can get some benefits: as we said before both categories can get exercise benefits; on being exposed to these partial representations of Taijiquan some people can become inspired to delve more deeply and seek out the traditional art. There’s no doubt that the physical capabilities developed by people in the second category can provide a good foundation upon which to develop the more subtle aspects. The third category is wholly negative and doesn’t warrant any more attention.

The final category of authentic Taijiquan is the methodology honed and passed down by generations of adepts. Categorised by the development of both the internal and external - that is the complete harmonisation and integration of an individual’s psychological, energetic and physical aspects. At all times working with an understanding that Taijiquan is a martial system and training appropriately. Following a clearly laid down system of progression where qualities that support the system’s martial function also serve to exercise the body. Where aesthetic expression comes from conforming to natural principles. And where “spiritual” development follows years or decades of serious study as a practitioner’s character is imperceptibly shaped.

Saturday, 28 December 2019

Matching physical effort with thought and reflection…

Chenjiagou mural - Chen Xin passing on the principles and rules of Chen Taijiquan

Wang Zongyue’s classic manual of Taijiquan advises that “an initial error of one inch can result in a deviation of a thousand miles. Practitioners must study and understand the principles very carefully.” Taijiquan is a complex discipline and to have any hope of reaching a competent level great care and attention must be given to your Taijiquan study from the start. It’s easy, especially for beginners, to ignore what seem to be inconsequential details. But making this mistake can cause a learner to misunderstand the art, ultimately preventing them from reaching a true understanding of Taijiquan.

On the training floor many students fail to really pay conscious attention to their practice, paying little more than lip service to following Taiji principles. Filled with their own ideas about what Taijiquan is they don’t listen carefully to the instructions given by their teachers. In many cases they may practice hard but their physical effort is not matched by any deep thought or reflection. The end result, they find it impossible to distinguish between Taijiquan principles and other ideas or disciplines. Their reward after spending in some cases decades of training is a failure to obtain any true Taijiquan skill.
Following from that depressing statement the obvious question - what is meant by true Taijiquan skill? Answering this fully is way beyond the scope of a single blog post, but as a starting point we could consider the two vital and overarching qualities of peng and ding (as in zhongding).  Peng or “ward off” is first of Taijiquan’s four basic types of trained force or “jin”. It is characterised by a soft, expansive power that is usually expressed in an upward and forward direction. Peng is not applied simply by pushing hard into an opponent, but is applied according to their situation. Zhongding simply stated refers to “central equilibrium” or, in practical terms, the ability to maintain balance and stability even where an outside force is being applied against any part of your body. This type of stability is realised when a practitioner can move easily and instinctively in any direction in accord with the direction and strength of any attack. Key to maintaining this state is the ability to maintain focus upon the dantian automatically readjusting it to keep balance. Finding and developing a connection to the dantian in the first place requires considerable mindful practice as the body shape is moulded into the correct shape while simultaneously the correct energetic state is slowly cultivated.   

To achieve these two qualities the various parts of the body must be carefully integrated and in Taijiquan parlance “all excesses and deficiencies must be eliminated.” Again, in practical terms, this means that each time an error is pointed out by a teacher or recognised by a student it should be worked upon and corrected immediately. The type of integration we are talking about is no less that the total participation and cooperation of every part of the body.

Taijiquan theory provides many pointers to help us work towards this whole body harmonisation. One example: the rule that “jin or power comes from the feet, is changed or transformed through the legs, directed by the waist and expressed by the hands.” How can a practitioner hope to develop the necessary sensitivity to this distinct kind of sequential transference of power through their body without approaching their training with the greatest care and attention. The careless practitioner puts all of his attention on the end point of an action whether it be a punch, throw, lock etc. The practitioner who has understood the method pays attention to where their jin comes from, how to store it, control it and only then how to use it in the most efficient way. This concept has been explained through an analogy where the body is compared to an army going into battle. Here the lower body is represented by the rear of the army that provides the food and ammunition to be used by the front line troops – the upper body. Without sufficient supplies the troops will soon be defeated. Similarly, without a strong source a practitioner’s techniques are unlikely to succeed.   
 
  

 

 

Monday, 18 November 2019

Putting theory into practice...

Chen Xiaowang  - "Have a strong will, strong consciousness and practice continuously"
The development of a Taijiquan practitioner from basic performance to an elite level of accomplishment is a long and complicated process. To begin with we need to accept the fact that ultimate mastery is built from a certain starting level of innate ability and potential. In this sense Taijiquan is no different than other disciplines be it tennis, wrestling or running. To reach the highest levels of accomplishment talent needs to be identified and nurtured from an early age. This isn’t to say that learners can’t make significant improvements at any age, but starting early is clearly an advantage. I remember a lecture given by Chen Zhenglei at his International Chen Taijiquan Training Camp in Hebei province in 1999 where he spoke of the ideal process of learning Taijiquan. He quoted the saying that to get the full benefits of Taijiquan a person should “learn when you are young, train in the middle years and conserve energy when you are old.”    

Starting at an early age students can fully develop their athleticism - that is the physical qualities of strength, power, speed, mobility, agility, balance coordination and endurance. Starting at a later age these qualities still need to be developed, but in a way that is appropriate to the individual’s physical capacity.   

There are other factors in play beyond the starting age of a practitioner. If we look again into the sporting world, it’s easy to find instances where athletes with the best technical abilities do not necessarily win. A strong mind, as well the right social environment and optimal support can also be crucial factors in triumph or defeat. Another Taijiquan saying advises us to learn the principles and methods from a competent teacher and to consult with our “good friends”, read fellow students, when things are not clear. The mental side of Taijiquan training is as important as the physical side. Developing and fine-tuning skills and reaching and maintaining high levels of performance over the course of a lifetime requires many hours of training and with it the need to maintain motivation. And not just the ongoing desire to train hard, but the attendant ability and sincere motivation to identify discrepancies between one’s perceptions and reality.    

There are many factors then behind the science of Taijiquan skills acquisition in terms of – motor control and development and the strengthening of the psychological aspects of an individual. In China’s Tai Chi Renaissance, an article in an early edition of T’ai Chi magazine, Chen Xiaowang listed the attributes and mindset required in an individual is to develop a high level of skill in Chen Taijiquan. He mentioned five key points:

1. Be clear about the demands on all parts of the body.

2. Understand the main regulations, principles and theory.

3. Put the theory into practice.

4. Coordinate theory with demand (“You must do every action on the basis of the demands of the theory”).

5. Have strong will, strong conscientiousness, and practice continuously.

In the same article Zhou Yuanlun, deputy secretary-general of the Shanghai Wushu Association, emphasised the depth of the theory that underpins Taijiquan stating that “Only by going deeply into the theory can you make improvement.” In practical terms working out how to combine theory with practice by determining the true meaning of the rules and advice that has been passed down.

 

Thursday, 7 November 2019

Mental, emotional and physical conditioning in Taijiquan...



A complete training approach needs to balance the internal and
external, balancing physical and mental aspects.
Taijiquan is no different than any other martial art in that to achieve usable skills you have to put in the hard work. This is reflected in sayings such as “Go to bed with tired legs and wake up with tired legs”, “eat bitterness” etc. But training hard is not the whole story. The obvious consequence of intense training is the expending and depletion of energy, physical and injury and damage to a practitioner’s body and, at times, feelings of exhaustion and despondency. To counter these negative aspects most traditional martial systems include exercises to help the body recover and recuperate – exercises such as zhan zhuang (standing pole), variations of standing, seated and even lying down meditation, massage, breathing exercises etc. To be completely clear, these methods were never designed to replace intensive training but to complement it.

The late grandmaster Feng Zhiqiang summarised the balance between training and recovery as follows: “Taiji gongfu is acquired through a combination of training and nurturing, with nurturing being its mainstay.” Optimum performance is only possible when all the forces within the body are balanced so every aspect must be cultivated and nurtured. He went on to say that robust good health was the necessary foundation without which any talk of gongfu was irrelevant.   


Taijiquan trains skill and resiliency 
In The New Toughness Training for Sports, premier sports psychologist James E. Loehr examined the mental and physical factors that impact human performance at the highest level. In particular he looked at the areas of mental, emotional and physical conditioning and the equally if not more important need to actively train recovery in these same three areas. “At the most basic level, recovery is simply anything that causes energy to be recaptured… It’s essential also to understand that recovery occurs in three areas – physical, mental and emotional – [just like the three areas to which we must apply stress if we are to see improvement and growth of a Taijiquan martial artist].

The most common signs of recovery identified by Loehr in each area include, but are not limited to - Physical Recovery: reduced feelings of hunger, thirst, sleepiness, tension; slower heart and breath rates; decreased blood pressure, muscle tension and brainwave activity. Emotional Recovery: feelings of emotional relief; increased positive feelings of fun, joy, humour, and happiness; decreased negative feelings of anger, fear and frustration; and increased feelings of self-fulfilment. Mental Recovery: feelings of mental relief such as an increased feeling of calmness; the sense of mentally slowing down.
Back to Taijiquan – Where some people are naturally drawn to the physical aspects of practice enjoying the sweat and hard work, and others prefer the quieter and more meditative aspects. Both are necessary and any complete training approach needs to take account of multiple characteristics that address both internal and aspects. The goal in the end, alongside the development of skill is to get stronger and more resilient physically, mentally and emotionally. Final word to Loehr, who after a lifetime coaching world class performers to peak performance in disciplines including boxing, speed skating, golf, tennis etc., concluded that, “Mind, body, spirit, thoughts, feelings, emotions are all part of the same continuum of life. There is and can be no separation.”

 

Sunday, 13 October 2019

Creativity in Traditional Chen Taijiquan

Chen Xianglin; "Persistance and the process of unquestioning practice"
In “Conversations with ...#3” Chen Xianglin, instructor of the Chenjiagou Taijiquan School’s Shanghai branch, responding to the question - how did he overcome the difficulties of training and the high level of expectation placed on him - answered: “persistence and the process of unquestioning practice.” (Full interview can be found at: www.chentaijiquangbcom). In a similar way I’ve mentioned in several previous posts how Chen Xiaoxing often meets questions about practice with the phrase “you know the rules, follow the rules.”

Many learners instantly rise up and reject this idea of unquestioning practice - the western educational system actively encourages its students to question everything from the first days in school. This willingness to ask questions is viewed as a marker of intelligence and creativity?

In the thought provoking Making Ideas Happen Scott Belskey looks at the intersection where creativity and structure meet. The book’s subtitle, Overcoming the Obstacles Between Vision and Reality points to a common problem facing today’s urbanised and individualised practitioner. The first chapter opens with the following paragraph: “In a world obsessed with innovation, it is easy to fall in love with ideas. The creativity quotient is the darling of the adventurous mind. For some of us, creativity is intoxicating. Our society has gone so far as to divide its members into two camps, the “left-brain people” and the “right-brain people”, under a radical (and arguably false) assumption that both parts of the brain cannot coexist effectively- that brilliant creative people are inherently unable to act as organisers and leaders.” His conclusion - the creative psyche rebels against organisation and is intolerant of “procedures, restrictions and process.” Paradoxically, he found that it is organisation and process that provides the guiding force of productivity.

The most important, and often most neglected, organisational element is structure. We tend to shun structure as a way of protecting the free-flowing nature of ideas. But without structure, ideas fail to build upon one another. And without structure, we can’t focus long enough on any particular idea to develop it to its maximum potential. Chen Taijiquan’s training methodology has a clear and systematic means of progression. Skills are overlaid upon each other step-by-step. Often a person’s Taijiquan development is likened to the broader educational system - first you must go to nursery school, then primary, secondary school, university etc... Everything works out (within the limits of an individual’s potential) as long as stages are taken in the correct order.

Does that mean that we should never ask questions? Not at all, just that we question when we have something real to ask. Often people ask questions before they have even tried to train a movement. Like there’s an unwillingness to train unless everything is perfectly understood first, which is of course impossible. In response to this kind of incessant questioning Chen Xiaowang would often say “train first and often the question answers itself.” Through the process of training and working things out questions often answer themselves in a real way, where the body actualises the element being considered rather than simply logging one more intellectual realisation that, put to the test, cannot be used in a practical way. It might help you win the debate, but in all likelihood you won’t win a fight.

Forget Taijiquan for a moment and look at this through a different lens. I listened to an interview with Mike Tyson when he spoke of his early years with legendary trainer Cus D’Amato. He didn’t give the impression that they debated every instruction. Rather that he was in effect “programmed” by following the instructions he was given. Through this unquestioning application he went on to become a legendary fighter in his own right.

Mike Tyson with man who made him Cus D'Amato: "A boy comes to me with a spark of interest. I feed the spark and it becomes a flame. I feed the flame and it becomes a fire. I feed the fire and it becomes a roaring blaze."
Limiting ourselves by confidently training within the fixed framework passed down through generations of refinement by accomplished Taijiquan practitioners offers the best chance of a successful outcome. Again this is not unique to Taijiquan but holds true in many cases. The following statement by the Russian-born composer, pianist and conductor Igor Stravinsky could have been a call to Taijiquan players to have faith in the traditional method. “My freedom thus consists in my moving about within the narrow frame that I have assigned to myself for each one of my undertakings. I shall go even further: my freedom will be so much the greater and more meaningful the more narrowly I limit my field of action and the more I surround myself with obstacles. Whatever diminishes constraint diminishes strength. The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees oneself of the claims that shackle the spirit.”

Saturday, 14 September 2019

Keeping an upright posture...


A common saying inside Chinese martial arts tells us that, “people who bow their head and bend their waist will not achieve a high level of gongfu”. The saying highlights the importance of maintaining a centred and upright position and is as true for Taijiquan as it is for other martial disciplines. Letting this ideal position become compromised by leaning the body inappropriately is a major mistake, as leaning in any direction inevitably borrows power from other parts of the body. 
 
Chen Ziqiang - "central balancing point like a needle standing on end" 
 
To overcome the tendency to lean or slant the body, we need to place great attention on maintaining a straight line to connect the upper and lower body - from the baihui point, situated on the top of the head to the huiyin point, located between the anus and the genitals.  The importance of this connection is reflected in the Taiji saying, “one straight line joining the upper and lower body”.  During his recent seminar in Warsaw’s Chen Taijiquan Akademie Chen Ziqiang compared this central axis to a needle balanced so that it is dead straight standing on end. Because the balance is so fine, to remain upright it has to be adjusted constantly. At the same time the whole body remains loose and relaxed and qi is allowed to sink down to the dantian. Every movement requires the waist, with the abdomen as centre, to be constantly adjusted so that the whole body is balanced.  Fulfilling the requirements of suspending the head, the tailbone straight and centred, storing the chest and rounding the back, shoulders sunk down elbows lowered, spine relaxed and the waist loose and agile. 

Concentrate on attack and defence
This search for balance should be applied to all aspects of Taijiquan. A few pointers Chen Ziqiang gave during his six days in Poland included the importance of: 

-          training everything in line with shou yan shenfa bu (hands, eyes, body and footwork) – with each part of the body (waist, legs etc) doing what they are supposed to do. [This reminded me of Chen Xiaowang’s statement said some years ago that “naturalness” was nothing more than every part of the body conforming to its appropriate function]. 
 
-          not just training the dominant side. Most people are right handed and by training and making the left hand strong as well you can find real balance. For example, using the sword or broadsword the support hand serves to add strength to the weapon bearing side. Enlivening the non-dominant side by performing basic drills with both sides increases the level of coordinated power that can be brought out.  

-          during push hands not just concentrating on attacking – at the same time as you are attacking you also have to consider defence. Take the case of Taijiquan’s shuai (throwing method). It’s not just about learning to throw an opponent; you also have to train to fall correctly. “Traditional Taijiquan is not like a sporting contest on a soft mat” [here he was specifically referring to the practice of slapping the ground to dissipate the force of landing]. In combat on a concrete floor you protect yourself by curling up as you are falling. Drawing your chin to your chest and drawing your knees and arms in. “When you land you don’t want to be in an open and exposed position so an opponent can stamp on you.”
 
Sword form workshop  
 
 
 
 
 

Monday, 26 August 2019

Taijiquan – “A Study of Contradictions”

Searching for the fine details of posture- a young instructor in the Chenjiagou Taijiquan School correcting Zhan Zhuang
To the uninitiated Taijiquan can appear to be a strange and inconsistent discipline. From the beginning it asks learners to put their faith in the counter-intuitive idea of using slowness and softness as the means to developing superior speed and power; to have confidence in the ability of stillness and calmness to overcome an opponent’s forceful attacks; and to “use the mind and not strength.”

At the same time, like any other martial art, Taijiquan requires them to set their sights high if they are to develop real and effective skills. Simply, they must approach training with ambition. The first time I trained in China back in 1997 I bought a bootleg disc of Wang Xian and his disciples demonstrating the breadth of the Chen Taijiquan system. To say I loved the disc would be an understatement! At the time my eyes were untrained to many of the subtleties of Taijiquan, but it had everything - power, speed, coordination and a  tight focus and togetherness when groups of instructors demonstrated. The last performance was Wang Xian himself explosively demonstrating the Xinjia Yilu on the banks of the Yellow River. When he reached the end of the form and quietly closed, the following simple message played across the screen- “If you want to be better than everyone else, train harder than everyone else” - pretty ambitious right?!

Going back a further generation Chen Zhaopi, the teacher most credited with sparking the modern resurgence of Taijiquan in Chenjiagou, described an individual’s progressive advancement from beginner to advanced practitioner via three stages: in the first, a learner must open their joints training the overtly physical aspects of the art; the second stage encompassed the long journey of understanding Taijiquan’s neijin or internal energy;  the third he described as “continuous movements executed in one breath.” This elevated level represented the height of perfection: with a complete integration of form and spirit; body completely balanced and unrestrained; and movements natural and instinctive. Reaching this level is referred to as shen ming, or "divine realisation". 
A youthful Chen Zhenglei teaching the next generation

Getting down to day-to-day training we’re told to relax and not to “try” too hard; to be natural and don’t force it; to cast aside stiff energy etc. All the while continually having our frame adjusted to a place where the legs are literally trembling with the effort. I remember a training session with Chen Xiaowang where someone asked about the pain they were experiencing in their legs and if it ever got easier. His oblique answer was simply to say, “don’t put so much importance on the pain in your legs.” In other words, just because the legs are hurting no need to add to that by fixating on it. If you’re doing Taijiquan properly your legs are going to work hard. Taijiquan has a saying “concentrate on one thing lose everything.” No matter how hard you train if you pay too much attention to any one thing you will move away from the ultimate aim that is no less than the total integration of internal and external, physicality and consciousness.

Taijiquan itself makes no apologies for its paradoxical nature. The very name of the system is drawn from the philosophical concept of Taiji – it is the martial art of balance and change. It is up to each individual to reconcile the apparent contradictions for themselves. This area probably confounds western Taijiquan students the most. For example many athletically able students are overly concerned with external appearance and shape – whether it be in terms of strength, flexibility etc. It’s there that they get their positive strokes from others who also don’t see the whole picture. And to be very clear this is not to diminish the fundamental importance of strength, flexibility etc. This type of student can find it very hard to open up their mind. During a training session with one of the younger generation teachers from Chenjiagou, a strong and flexible individual stretched out into a wide and low posture. The teacher’s correction was to lift the posture up and advise him to put attention to loosening his kua and rounding his dang (crotch). Although the position was low, it was locked in such a way that the dang strength that is a vital part of Chen Taijiquan was totally lacking. The immediate response – “What exercise can I do to loosen it?” - completely missing the point that this was not something that was going to be corrected by grinding out some reps.
Another face of Taijiquan - Chen Zhaokui traing qinna

Taijiquan is built around the qualities of agility and changeability. It requires us to aim high but at the same time do today’s work. Chinese culture is imbued by the Daoist tradition and an acceptance of seemingly contradictory aspects if we are to see a thing in its entirety. The following passage from the Inner Chapters of Zhuangzi point simultaneously to the need for careful instruction, effort and time while being mentally calm, free and ungrasping.”  

“Neither deviate from your instructions, nor hurry to finish. Do not force things. It is dangerous to deviate from instruction or push for completion.  It takes a long time to do a thing properly. Once you do something wrong it may be too late. Can you afford to be careless? Follow with whatever happens and let your mind be free; stay centred by accepting whatever you are doing. This is the ultimate… It is best to leave everything to work naturally…”