Monday, 12 January 2015

Mastering Taijiquan – A Journey not a Destination

Art historian Sarah Lewis: mastery - a constant pursuit
Killing time on a flight back from the USA a couple of weeks ago I browsed through the inflight entertainment guide.   Picking through a series of TED lectures, I listened to a fascinating talk by art historian Sarah Lewis, who considered the role of “the near win” in the quest for mastery. Lewis made the point that: "masters are not experts because they take a subject to its conceptual end, they're masters because they realise there isn't one".  Almost all high level practitioners speak in terms of process and refinement rather than ultimate arrival.

 Lewis listed several characteristics for master artists that I feel also apply to the likelihood of achieving a high level of Taijiquan skill. These high achievers, she found, are the kind of people who:

- Thrive not when they have done it all, but when    they still have more to do.

- Thrive when they stay at their own leading edge

- Can never do enough

- Give themselves over to a voracious unfinished path that always requires more.

- They build out of the unfinished idea, even if the idea is their former self.

Completion may be a goal in your Taijiquan pursuit, but it may never be achieved.   In Lewis’ words, “This is the dynamic of mastery.  Coming close to what you thought you wanted, to help you attain more than you ever thought possible”.

So how do we move from success to mastery? It has more to do with focusing not on outcomes or goals, but on a constant pursuit. Lewis illustrated her point with the example of an archery practice she had witnessed at Columbia University. Hour after hour the archers aimed at the bullseye which, from where they were shooting, “looked as small as a matchstick…I was witnessing what’s so rare to glimpse — the pursuit of excellence.” says Lewis. “Success is hitting that 10 ring. But mastery is knowing it means nothing if you can’t hit it again and again.”
Award winning photographer Li Yingjie's representation of Taijiquan

Monday, 1 December 2014

Looseness... is it really that important?

First time I went to China was in the mid-1990s. Each teacher I met I pestered with questions about how I could improve my Taijiquan to get the same level of explosiveness I was seeing from the teachers and their students. Invariably I was met with the same answer - "fangsong" or "loosen-up". 

           The explosive fajin of Chen Xiaowang
A year later I was back in China, again marvelling at the explosive fajin of many of the guys over there. Once more I was full of questions about how to get the same result. At the time we were training with Chen Zhenglei, but in the free time we spent quite some time with a young instructor whose name escapes me now. After listening to my umpteenth question about fajin, he asked me if I was really serious about this? After I replied "YES"! He said that "if you're really serious, then for the next year you should do NO FAJIN WHATSOEVER"! He put it bluntly, "Taiji power comes from looseness and pliancy and unless you understand and get this looseness, you won't fajin in the correct way". This was absolutely the last thing I wanted to hear. Before coming to Taijiquan I had trained external martial arts for fifteen years and - at the time - thought I knew a thing or two.  The message that came across load and clear was that it didn't matter what you've done before - if you want the same end product you have to follow the correct method.
                                                        Training in Zhengzhou in the mid 90s
All styles of Taijiquan are built upon the qualities of "song", "rou" and "man", that is looseness, pliancy and slowness. In a quick brainstorming session after class we came up with the following non-exhaustive list of benefits we can expect to gain if we achieve Taijiquan's brand of looseness:

1. Allows the body to be in a resting state

2. Whole body allowed to be loose and free

3. Diaphragm is unrestricted - so Qi is not stuck in the chest

4. Joints are flexible

5. Movements become expanded and comfortable

6. Allows roundness and circularity

7. Decreases stiffness, inflexibility and brute force

8. Increases speed and power

9. Enables Qi to sinkdown

10. Makes legs stronger

11. Stabilises the centre

12. Increases usability

13. Xiapan (lower plane) becomes strong

14. Increases blood circulation

15. Increases stability so that the form doesn't float
Looking for looseness, pliancy and correct structure

16. Improves Qi circulation

17. Increases sensitivity of the skin and flesh

18. Enables sectional movement

Working stiffness and incorrect movement patterns out of the body is a long term job.   Getting back to the UK, I took the advice on board and did no fajin for the next year...

Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Chen Xiaoxing – “Know the rules, but be flexible in their application”!

Chen Xiaoxing - "The direction depends upon where your opponent is"
During one session at GM Chen Xiaoxing's recent seminar in Warsaw somebody asked him about the exact direction of the fist in the "Punch to the Ground’ posture. Chen Xiaoxing shook his head and answered "mei guanxi" ( "it's not important").  The group consisted of students who have completed the form and with several years’ experience.  He explained that the direction depends on where your opponent is.  What is important is to be structurally correct, to be rooted, to be able to move in complete unison and to be able to adapt to a changing situation. These are the skills that should be developed.  Variations of this question come up frequently - what is the EXACT position of the hand, the foot, etc.  As students are more frequently exposed to different teachers and to different ways of doing the same form, their confidence and certainty are often being replaced with confusion and uncertainty. New students obviously need a clear map when they are first learning the form, but over time the form should act as a template rather than a shackle. Instead of focusing on the differences, focus on the things that are the same - Is the structure correct and the energy unbroken? Are we alternating opening and closing correctly? And with no unnecessary or additional movements to telegraph the intention?
Poland 2014

The key point of this seminar is:  learn the rules, but be flexible in their application. Chen Xiaoxing illustrated this point with a joke about two groups of soldiers - one Japanese, the other Chinese. Both were ordered to march. After a time the path was blocked by a river where, without a moment’s hesitation, the Japanese soldiers marched straight into the river and were washed away and drowned.  The Chinese soldiers, however, on arriving at the river, halted but continued marching on the spot. The moral of the story - you must obey the rules, but you must also have the presence of mind to change according to the situation in front of you.

Brain mapping research - subject Chen Xiaoxing
In July this year I reported on the ongoing brain mapping research being conducted by Polish scientists from Biomed Neurtechnology. On that occasion Chen Ziqiang was the subject. This time the researcher was happy to find  his father Chen Xiaoxing in town. The results have not been analysed yet, but the preliminary impressions of researcher Greg Wlodarczyk were very interesting. During the first measurement stage when Chen Xiaoxing was asked to sit with his eyes open and keep his mind free (i.e. not in any kind of quiet or meditative state), the frequency of his normal brain waves appeared to be more like those of a person in his 30s.  Wlodarczyk explained that a person in his early 60s would typically show much less frequency. During the final stage Chen Xiaoxing was asked to close his eyes and to consciously quieten his mind.  Like the test with his son there was an obvious and strong connection between the frontal and rear parts of the brain. We'll include a full report of the findings from both Chen Xiaoxing and Chen Ziqiang in our next book (yes, it’s a plug!!!).

Friday, 10 October 2014

Do you own your Taijiquan?

The last few months I've been on the road, taking in France, China and Slovenia like some kind of Taiji gypsy. One of the fascinating things you can't help but notice is the different perceptions of the art that many people hold. Here I'm talking about serious Taijiquan practitioners, if we judge seriousness in terms of dedication and time spent actually doing it (as opposed to talking about it!). Beyond the common martial art v health distinction, there are many different ways a person can approach Taijiquan and get a good return for their investment of time and effort.

CTGB 2014 group in Chenjiagou L-R:  Crawford Currie, Viki Lloyd, Dragan Lazarevic, Davidine Sim, Chen Xiaoxing,  David Gaffney & David Murray
The time honoured method of training in Chenjiagou places great emphasis upon realising fundamentals before progressing to the next level. That said, one of the things that struck me during this recent trip was the many different ways Taijiquan can be practised depending on the age, fitness and goals of the person: 
  • One group of young guys in their teens and early twenties started every day training Laojia Yilu with Chen Ziqiang before going training weight training and sparring sessions to prepare some of them for a repeat of last years challenge match with a team of champion Thai boxers from Thailand.  Others to prepare for full contact sanda competitions.
    Two of the Chenjiagou Taijiquan School's top young fighters
  • A group of more mature students were training the Guandao (halberd) everyday with Chen Hui, another of the school's senior instructors. Using heavy weapons they were building strength in Taijiquan's traditional way while mastering the favoured weapon of Chen Wangting, creator of Taijiquan. 
  • One elderly character who comes to Chenjiagou for a few months every year and delights in walking around bare chested (or in a vest in severe weather), as well as doing his forms, was constantly stretching to keep his mobility in later life. 
  • An elegant young woman was training everyday in the double sword form - one of the most aesthetically beautiful weapons in the system.
My sword group in Slovenia
  • One of the Chinese students who joined our group with her husband is an expert in Chinese tea culture and a member of China's traditional painting society. Each day after training she would go to her room to work on a long term project of doing a calligraphy copy of the Yellow Emperor's Canon of Internal Medicine - one of the defining classic texts that underpins many of the theories of Taijiquan. To her Taijiquan practice is a natural extension of a deep study of China's culture.

It's vital to learn from someone who really understands Taijiquan
Each of us has our own unique body and temperament. Throw into the mix age, fitness, past experience... Different people who learn from the same teacher must ultimately bring out their own particular strengths. In Chen Zhaokui’s widely circulated article “Training for Sparring”, he urged practitioners to consider carefully their own physical and mental advantages and disadvantages and train accordingly: 

"After a reasonable mastery of sparring techniques, you should specialise in one or two techniques, the exact ones will be defined by your build, stamina, reflexes, and other factors.  For example, a tall person should put emphasis on cai, or plucking, and lie, which means splitting… A short person should mainly practice shoulder, elbow, and leg techniques in order to attack the lower part of the opponent.  He must be fast and agile…For the powerful, emphasis should be on cai, lie, and zhou.  Strikes should be so powerful that the first strike eliminates all possible attacks…For the agile, emphasis should be on fake moves.  The opponent should be tricked in any way possible… Then …hit with fast moves…For those with slow reflexes, emphasis should be on defence, i.e., when the opponent strikes, the strikes should be blocked and then countered". 

Chen Zhaokui - "Specialise"!!

The important point is that at some point we need to make the Taijiquan we train our own. Of course it's vital that you learn from someone who really understands Taijiquan and put in some serious training under their guidance. BUT if your idea of doing "good Taijiquan" is being a clone of your teacher, ask yourself why all the most highly skilled practitioners express their own distinct flavour? If you've followed a teacher for fifteen or twenty years and still depend upon them, rather than your own understanding then have you really learned anything? 

Monday, 18 August 2014

Meeting Wang Xian...

For the record...
At the beginning of the month I spent a week in the French coastal town of Fecamp. We came here to meet, train with and interview Wang Xian, one of the pre-eminent Chen Taijiquan practitioners of the elder generation. Fecamp is in the Normandy area and has a long martial history. Here, close to our hotel, William of Normandy celebrated with a giant banquet almost a thousand years ago after conquering England and killing King Harold. The nearby beaches saw action more recently with the bloody allied landings in the Second World War. Wang Xian's camp brought a more peaceful martial vibe...

The Four "Buddha's Warriors"
Wang Xian is one of the "Four Buddha's Warriors" of Chenjiagou Taijiquan and is renowned for his great combat skills. Over the last two decades I've had the chance to train with the other three and was curious to see how his teaching style compared. One of the things I really enjoyed about the seminar was his spontaneity in breaking out of the set programme. Many people who only learn via seminars and don't attend regular classes find this stressful. They argue that the poster said Laojia Yilu or Xinjia Erlu or whatever and that this should be stuck to, or the group won't be able to finish the form. Anyone who has trained in a traditional class for any length of time knows that the best instruction often arises in an unplanned way.

The programme for the week was Xinjia Yilu (New Frame First Form). On the first day Wang was not satisfied with the footwork of the group, so spent quite some time having everyone go through various stepping drills  - including how to take deceptively long or "greedy/hungry" steps to enter an opponent's space unexpectedly. At any time he would switch from the Xinjia to train some movement from Laojia that could illustrate the point he was trying to put across. With a great emphasis on appreciating the subtleties that lie at the heart of correct Taijiquan he would repeatedly ask people to place their hands on his waist, kua, shoulders, chest or dantian so they could feel what was happening. Then after a while he would call everyone to go away and train themselves - "You won't get it by watching me doing it.You'll only get it by doing it yourself!

Wang Xian explains a point...
Above all, he constantly stressed the need to achieve "song" or looseness through slow training and great attention: "Everything is dependent upon song"; "the amount of Qi in the body is a direct reflection of the degree of song". The Daodejing says that one must: "Make freedom from desire your constant norm; thereby you will see what is subtle. Make having desires your constant norm; thereby you will see what is manifest". The failure to understand the difference between the root of a movement and its ultimate expression is a great barrier to many students. It's not that they are not prepared to work hard and sweat, but desperately wanting the end product, they cannot appreciate the need to minutely examine their practice. It's easy to see the explosive fajin of an accomplished practitioner or an exciting application. It's not so easy to realise the correct route of the movement or its energetic requirements. When people are asked to train slowly, you can see that in a short time, some people soon feel the need to go faster, some just get bored and start to do some push hands, some just have a convivial chat with their  friends. Only a few painstakingly repeat the movement over and over, checking if their chest is loose, back filled, kua relaxed etc etc ... It's particularly striking when the teacher leads the group through the form after telling everyone to do it slowly. Some people are always one step ahead. Those who know how to learn try to stay with and  mirror his movements as closely as possible.

(L-R) David Gaffney, Davidine Sim, Wang Xian & Yen Sujie
A few of the tips he gave over the course of the week included:

Don't stupidly repeat the form and think that you are going to get fighting ability. You must take out single movements from the form and train them repeatedly until you completely understand them.

The form is not a dead thing. Many people can do an outside imitation of the form, but they are lost in, as one participant put it, "copy and paste mode". The form must be alive within the principles.

Use slowness to achieve detail. I cannot emphasise how much importance Wang put on the fundamental need to train slowly. Everyone can quote Taijiquan's requirements such as storing the chest and filling the  back, but finding the  optimal degree of relaxation, extension or co-ordination of different parts of the body can only be realised through slowness. 

In his final address to the group at the end of the seminar he told everyone to "train everyday or you won't get it - you cannot train for one day and rest for three"!

Monday, 11 August 2014

Chen family comes out fighting over Zhang Sanfeng claims!!!

2007 Chenjiagou recognised as the birthplace of Taijiquan.
Open warfare has erupted in China over the question of Taijiquan’s origin. It appeared that the dispute over where Taijiquan was created and by who had finally been settled in 2007. After extensive investigation and evaluation by the Chinese Wushu Association, and China's People Association, Wen County, Henan Province was named as, the "birthplace of Chinese martial arts Taijiquan" and "China Taijiquan birthplace" respectively.  Chen Wangting was recognised as the creator of Taijiquan. This confirmed the 1930s research of Tang Hao, often viewed as China’s greatest martial arts historian. 
However, the origin debate has dramatically reared its head again in the last few weeks. On July 16 China’s Ministry of Culture accepted and announced “Zhang Sanfeng Taijiquan” as one of the approved applicants in its "Fourth Instalment of National Intangible Cultural Heritage Recommended List” under the “Traditional Sports, Entertainment and Acrobatics Category”. The Zhang Sanfeng Taijiquan group in question hail from Shaowu County in China’s Fujian Province. The level of anger at this announcement can be seen from the reactions of two of the leading members of the Chen family, Chen Xiaowang and Chen Zhenglei.

Chen Xiaowang addressing the press over the Zhan Sanfeng issue...
Earlier today (August 11) Chen Xiaowang, an eleventh generation descendant of the founder of Taijiquan, held a press conference in Zhengzhou, Henan Province. During the press conference he publicly criticised the Zhang Sanfeng Taijiquan farce, and requested clarification from the relevant bodies and an assurance that they would deal with the issue justly, fairly and transparently.

Taking questions
Chen Xiaowang pointed out a number of inaccuracies with the claims of  Zhang Sanfeng Taijiquan as regards to Zhang Sanfeng's birthplace and its association with the art of Taijiquan and the evolution of the various schools of Taijiquan.  He also pointed out the realistic and multi-angle damage the inclusion of "Zhang Sanfeng Taijiquan" could cause.  In his words, "Once included in the list, it will create confusion regarding historical records and bound to lead to endless controversies".  He also questioned the selection process of the Ministry of Culture, and went as far as stating that " there may be serious bureaucratic and other unhealthy practices." Strong words in China when speaking about the actions of officials!

In a similar vein, Chen Zhenglei reacted immediately upon returning from his world teaching tour on July 23. Hearing the news on his arrival back in China, within two days two letters were sent on behalf of the Henan Taijiquan Association and the Wenxian County Department to the Ministry of Culture and the National Intangible Cultural Heritage Protection Centre about the “problem report”. Chen Zhenglei also contacted Zhengzhou's major news organisations, and "as an individual and as a Chen Taijiquan successor" made public the situation and his dissatisfaction with the whole affair.
Chen Zhenglei - "Zhang Sanfeng story based on myth and fairy tale".

Chen Zhenglei stated that the criteria for "intangible cultural heritage" is its lineage and  continuity, generally for  three generations or more, through father to son (the family), or master to disciple, or through other forms of traditional school.  He went on to say that the Zhang Sanfeng Taijiquan story is based on myth and fairy tale, and the Ministry for the protection of intangible cultural heritage must not confuse the public. This is not the first time that Chen Zhenglei has spoken out against misrepresentations of Taijiquan and the damage this can do to public perceptions. Over a decade ago in
 an interview with BBC Radio’s Eastern Horizon programme, which we reproduced in The Essence of Taijiquan under the heading “Ancient Art or New Age Fad”?, Chen Zhenglei stated that: “There is lots of imitation Taijiquan out there, and the public do not know the difference. These eclectic styles will be passed on as authentic and there will be fewer traditionalists amongst Taijiquan practitioners”.

The mythical Zhan Sanfeng popularised in the Jin Long novels
So just who was Zhang Sanfeng and does it matter who created Taijiquan? In popular culture Zhang Sanfeng is closely linked to the Wudang Mountains.  This is largely due to the martial arts novels of Jin Yong and the movie “Taiji Master” by Jet Li.  Whether or not he was a real person, or during which historical era he lived has been variously debated. But in both myth and 'fact' Zhang Sanfeng is an alchemist and Daoist monk of Wudang. Which begs the question why does the current application come from a group in Fujian and not from Wudang in Hebei? And if the claim is recognised will all the other Taijiquan families have to acknowledge it as their ancestor?

Whatever the truth, it seems the public is lapping it up. In September 2013, Shaowu held an "Across the Taiwan Strait · Sanfeng Hometown" event, and showcased for the first time Zhang Sanfeng (original style) Taijiquan slogans.  Since then almost 3000 foreign students are reported to have come to learn the “Shaowu Zhang San Feng (original style) Taijiquan and Taiji exercises." It is this stressing of the wording “original style” that has stirred up other Taijiquan groups in China. This year from March 31 to April 2, the first Shaowu Zhang San Feng (original style) Taijiquan competition, took place with nearly 2,000 people attended the event. 

Friday, 4 July 2014

Looking Inside the Head of a Taijiquan Master…

A student brought yet another newspaper cutting to class to show me the “scientific” proof that Taiji was good for you. Without even looking at it I could more or less predict what the piece would say: “Group of elderly people (or children) who had never done Taiji before given one or two classes a week for eight or ten weeks and afterwards showed significant improvement in their ability to … take your pick - not fall down, concentrate… For example, a study at the University of Miami, Touch Research Institute showed that: “adolescents with ADHD showed improved behaviour, less daydreaming and hyperactivity after JUST 10 SESSIONS OF TAI CHI” [my emphasis!] Anyone who knows anything about Taijiquan knows that it is not a simple discipline. Even the keenest young beginner can understand little more than some basic choreography after such a short time. In my opinion these kind of studies do little to improve the understanding or awareness of the true potential of Taijiquan trained in the traditional way – that is, diligently over an extended time. If anything, they feed into the idea of Taijiquan as some kind of flaky exercise for people who don’t have the inclination or ability to work hard.

Gregorz Wlodarczyk setting up the experiment 
If we want people to take Taijiquan seriously, of far greater interest and relevance is the scientific study of accomplished practitioners of the art.  I was in Warsaw a few weeks ago with Chen Ziqiang when he was asked to be the subject of an ongoing scientific study into the ability that certain people have to produce or control the level of “alpha waves” in the brain.

Alpha waves can simplistically be seen as the "relaxing waves". However, they also have a vital role to play in the human mind, acting as a bridge between the subconscious part of the mind (theta waves) and the conscious part of the mind (beta waves). I’m no scientist, so I goggled the role of alpha waves and came up with the following: “Information, feelings, creativity, memories, which are deep down in one's mind, cannot become conscious if there is no bridge (no alpha waves), between the two states of mind. There are a number of benefits of alpha waves, the most obvious are that you become calmer and more relaxed. It has also many effects on the body. For example, it slows down the heart rate, which can be effective against heart problems, the body finds more time to regenerate and it even has a very positive effect on learning speed and memorization”. When someone is lacking in alpha brainwave activity, rapid thinking and overthinking generally take place.  In addition they are prone to adrenaline rushes and an inability to concentrate.  

Chen Ziqiang - in the zone
Scientists Gregorz Wlodarczyk and Dariusz Tuchowski of Biomed Neurotechnology who had travelled from Wroclaw in the west of Poland have been working on a “brain mapping” programme and were keen to literally look inside Chen Ziqiang’s head. "Brain mapping" is not a new phenomenon. Wlodarczyk and Tuchowski have access to a large database of readings of the brains of, as they put it, "common people". Their study aims to compare these with the brains of “exceptional people” who have developed their minds through meditation and similar techniques. The mapping of exceptional people is in the early stages. Up to now in the field of Taijiquan and Qigong they have also done the study with Mantak Chia and expect to test different individuals with religious and meditative backgrounds.

After fitting Chen Ziqiang with an electrode fitted cap that made him look like a Russian cosmonaut about to go into space, it was time to start the experiment. One of the scientists asked Chen Ziqiang if he was going to meditate or to prepare for a fight, did he have any special method for calming his mind and if so whether he could do this now? He replied "I'll try". For the first part of the experiment he was asked to keep his eyes open, as the study was looking to see how he could control his mind in the midst of normal background noise and distractions. Within several seconds the two scientists became excited, pointing at the traces of waves on the computer screen Chen Ziqiang was hooked up to. The experiment was done using first a Russian programme to map the brain activity and then repeated using an American programme. I can’t claim to fully understand the full implications of thestudy, but Gregorz and Dariusz did their best to explain in layman’s  why they got so excited. According to them, “Chen Ziqiang, on both tests seemed to access a
What goes on inside the head of a Taijiquan  master?

high alpha state very quickly and therefore, to be able to connect his subconscious and conscious brain very quickly… Usually people can only access the back of the brain but he seemed to be able to affect the whole brain, and it was consistent”. If this is not a great scientific explanation I can only say that it’s the best I can do given my non-existent Polish language skills! Eventually they hope to publish their full findings in scientific journals in Germany and the USA.

Chen Ziqiang’s response to all the excitement was a typically understated: “If you can’t control your mind, how can you control your body”.