Monday, 23 August 2021

The Eyes Have It...

Chinese martial arts across the many different systems agree on the fundamental importance of training the four aspects of shou yan shenfa bu (hands, eyes, body and footwork).  

Within Chinese philosophy there’s a saying often repeated in martial arts theories that the “mind is the commander.” From a position of balance and stability the mind decides the appropriate actions the body must take: “The heart-mind is the lord of the body and the master of one’s spirit and intelligence. It issues orders, but it takes orders from nothing.” To be able to do this it must habitually be in a state of “empty single-minded stillness.” This is described in History of Chinese Philosophy Through its Key Terms: “’Empty’ refers to not letting the existing knowledge that one has interfere in or obstruct the reception of new knowledge. ‘Single-minded’ refers to not letting an understanding of another phenomenon interfere with understanding the phenomenon at hand. ‘Stillness’ refers to not letting one’s free-wheeling thoughts disturb one’s normal understanding.” With these qualities in place an instant and appropriate response can be made within any situation.

However, for the above statement to make sense the mind must have enough information to be able to accurately read any situation. A second saying is that “the eyes are the vanguard.” In the military tradition of Sunzi the vanguard is the part of an army that goes ahead of the main body gathering information on the ground before any tactical decisions are taken.

I was struck by the following vivid description by Teddy Atlas of the importance of the eyes in a fight. [Atlas has been a well-respected boxing coach since the mid-1970s, including six years at the legendary Catskill boxing club of Cus D’Amato. Atlas is perhaps best known for serving as Mike Tyson’s trainer the first four years of his career and preparing him for the eventual world heavyweight championship]:    

“The eyes are so important in a fight. You must always see everything. That’s what I mean when I used to call the fights on ESPN and say a guy’s got “good eyes.” He’s got good vision, he’s calm, he sees everything. He’s laser-like, he’s concentrated – you have to see! Because if you don’t see it [an incoming attack], your brain won’t register it coming and you’ll be hurt more. You can get knocked out; those are the ones that can hurt you even more. The punches because you don’t have time to prepare yourself for it. You didn’t see it!” Using the eyes properly allows a fighter to be “… always balanced, always in position, always ready to take advantage of a mistake.”

Boxing coach Teddy Atlas: "You must see everything"

Despite the importance placed on the subtle methods handed down to train the capacity of the eyes in Taijiquan, today many practitioners pay little more than lip service to this aspect. Within Chen Taijiquan’s syllabus and its underlying theory is a clear and progressive method for developing the eyes:

Stages of training the eyes

1. In the beginning stages of training the basic habit of keeping the eyes level is laid down. For example, before starting the form almost like a mantra checking: the body is loosened as much as possible with weight sinking down to the feet; the eyes are level and taking a wide view; breathing is natural and unrestricted; and one’s mind is calm. Then repeating this process as you go through each of the postures of the form. 

2. The habit of keeping the eyes level is incorporated during jibengong (basic training) and coordinated with movement at a gross level. For example, during the front reeling silk movement the eyes look beyond the hand during the upper part of the circle; During the lower part of the circle, they follow the direction of the hand without looking down.  

3. When a practitioner is very familiar with the choreography of form and they have laid down a foundation from stages one and two, the requirements become more stringent. For example, each movement finishes with a precise focal point of intention. A recent post on a mind training in Chen Taijiquan included the following examples which are also relevant in this context:

Performing Single Whip (Dan Bian), “Maintain visual focus on the left hand which moves left and upward from the lower right side in a large semi-circle at the front of the body. At the end of the movement, focus on the middle finger of the left hand… In Pie Shen Chui (Turn Body and Punch), focus the eyes on the toe of the left foot, while in Zhou Di Kan Quan (Fist Beneath Elbow) the focus is on the fist located under the elbow.”  (Source: Chen Xin’s Illustrated Explanation of Chen Family Taijiquan)      

4. Throughout the course of each movement practitioners use intention to use their eyes in relation to their stepping, direction and the position of a potential opponent. The elements “guard the left” and “anticipate the right” from Taijiquan’s five methods (jin, tui, gu, pan ding) refer to skills such as instinctively glancing in the direction one is going to step before taking the step. Carefully watch any good football player running with the ball and you’ll catch taking in the situation around him before releasing the ball. Likewise, in Taijiquan it doesn’t make sense to step blindly without checking first.  

The eyes synchronised with one's footwork, direction and the position of a potential opponent. 

5. The culmination of all the above factors leads to a place where we can say that the eyes lead, and the intention follows. Like driving a car where your actions are dictated by the information taken in through eyes. You wouldn’t dream of driving with your eyes closed or looking down towards the floor of your car. But this is just how many people practice Taijiquan. Instead of feeling the movement while keeping awareness of the outside situation, they are almost transfixed by the “skill” of their own movement and oblivious to what is going on around them.      

Sunday, 20 June 2021

Why we need to Fang Song...

An important element of Chen Taijiquan’s training theory is the need to let go of physical or mental tension (fang song). Only by achieving the correct state can you be composed and stable. By eliminating physical tension, the body’s internal sensations can be better enhanced whilst training. At the same time by reducing mental tension clear, instantaneous, and correct decisions can be taken. Zhang Zong Jun, chief instructor of the Shandong branch of the Chenjiagou Taijiquan School stressed the importance not overlooking this aspect during training: “To be clear, you need to fang song before, during and after your quan. Preparation is important. Many people come to do Taiji in a hurry and, without mental preparation, go straight into form practice. The mind is not given time to quieten and calm now. Practice with a calm mind and the quality of Taijiquan will improve.”

Accepting the need to fang song you must be able to distinguish between the correct state of looseness from simply being collapsed and weak with no strength to speak of. The creation of a state of song requires the cooperation of the emotion, intention, and the body. This is not a passive process. Many people make the mistake of becoming limp and collapsed when what is required is an active and alive type of relaxation. You must mentally lead the process of relaxing the mind and quietening the emotions. Following this process, the body inevitably begins to loosen. One key advantage of song energy over stiff energy is the ability to redirect a larger force - looseness enabling the body to turn and deflect in the face of a strong incoming force. 

Achieving this optimum condition follows a long-term cultivation of an acute sensitivity to the sensation of what it means to truly loosen the body. Within Taijiquan’s oral tradition several sayings are really admonitions to give up the use of hard strength. At the same time, they point to the method through which the loosening process can be approached. For example, 

“The muscles go down and the bones go up.” 

“Hang the meat from the bones.” 

The underpinning philosophy and methodology of Taijiquan recognises the need for an individual to be continuously aware of the opportunity or potential for either movement or stillness. This is only possible if they can discard all preconceived ideas or plans for how to respond within any given situation. Instead, any response must arise spontaneously based on their sense at that precise moment. Matching philosophy and theory we can take the example of the push hands process where an experienced practitioner is able to manifest the condition of wuji by remaining in this unplanned yet ready state. In contact with an opponent, responses arising only based on the feedback provided by heightened sense awareness – in practice expressing either movement by attacking, or stillness by defending. Either option only possible if the body and mind are in a state of song.  

Zhang Zong Jun " need to fang song before, during and after your quan."

Monday, 3 May 2021

Lessons in the Temple of Heaven Park

Just been going through some old notes, as I like to do now and then, and came across my reflections on some days training with Zhang Baosheng in Beijing’s Temple of Heaven Park in 
the 1990s. Zhang was in his seventies at the time and had learned from the renowned Wu style master Wang Peisheng. We met by chance during a few days in the capital getting over jetlag en route to Chenjiagou. Below are some of his words of advice…

On Zhan Zhuang:

• The arms are expanded outwards. The strength in each arm coming from the opposite leg if tested from the side. If tested from the front, the arms extend forwards while the lower back pushes backwards – as if pushing the lower back against a low wall.

• It can be helpful to practice zhan zhuang against a tree or wall with your back very slightly away from the wall; In the same way you can practice xu bu (empty stance) – as in zhan Zhuang, but with one foot forward and insubstantial; or gong bu (bow stance) by facing a tree with the front knee, toe and nose to the tree representing the final position you can extend to - this slanted position being a feature on Wu Taijiquan.  

On the importance of preserving energy - It is important to preserve pre-natal qi as the qi produced in later life is not so effective. To do this:

• Never finish practice panting and out of breath.

• If becoming agitated during practice, then stop and steady oneself.

• It is important in nei gong (internal strength) training that qi does not become excited and rise. The basic exercises mentioned above are helpful in this.

On intention and maintaining a “secondary energy”:

• The mind clearly distinguishes between yin and yang or solid and insubstantial.

• Do not concentrate totally on a particular response. Instead, always have an alternative or secondary alternative ready should your first response be inadequate.

• Apply the idea of root, trunk and branches to the upper and lower body. In terms of the arm, the shoulder is the root, elbow is the trunk, and the wrist/hand is the branch. In action, if you are pushing in with your hand and the opponent responds to this, then give him the hand (i.e., soften it) and push in with the elbow. 

• When performing a movement there should always be two energies present: one acts as a dummy or ruse and therefore, the opponent must be aware of it; the other performs the true attack and is disguised. So, while the opponent is aware of the “dummy” hand, intent must be with the other “attacking” hand.

On tuishou:

• When practicing push hands emphasis should be upon sensitivity. Connecting very softly and letting your partner reveal their weaknesses like water level settling after it has been disturbed. In Zhang’s words, “Pushing an opponent should be like pushing a boat with the tide, rather than against it.”

• The elbows should not be allowed to lift, and the shoulder mustn’t lift in response to an opponent’s pressure.

On form training:

• You must relax while doing the form, but at the same time be full of intent. Visualisation is as if you were swimming across a river to attack an enemy on the opposite bank. Though your intention is serious, you do your utmost to make no noise or ripples in the water.

• During form training every movement must be carried out with attention and precision. To help with this you can visualise that your extended hand is holding a precious vase.  

Salute to Zhang Baozheng!

Saturday, 20 March 2021

Are You Feeling It?

Soak up what you see - Chen Xiaoxing demonstrating a point.  

An often repeated truism is that to be good at something, you should put yourself into an environment where you can follow people more skilful than you. Then, all being well, assimilate some of  what they have. The  reverse is also true. For example, most responsible parents would worry if their children were keeping bad company in case they picked up the poor attitudes and behaviours they were exposed to.

Thoughtful Taijiquan practitioners accept then that simply having the correct physical form is not enough. Beginning level students (here we are not referring to the amount of time a person has trained, but to their understanding of the training method) often perform the shape or pattern of the forms or push hands drills rather than actually “doing” it. An individual may be a good mimic, but comparing them to a highly skilled exponent it seems something is missing. 

In Chenjiagou it’s said that to become skilful you must be able to copy the external shape and work out and understand the inner aspects. Replicating these less obvious requirements calls for a deeper level of attention. The ability to be present in the moment requires an inner calm and full engagement to the action being practiced. As well as demonstrating the correct shape, all of the internal requirements of Taijiquan must be actualised. Of equal importance to the formal instruction process is the informal learning process. Observation is perhaps the single most important mode of informal learning. By watching more experienced practitioners learners can absorb the subtleties and essence of the methods.

Irish fencing champion John Twomey gave an interesting parallel from the modern sporting arena after the experience of training in Estonia: “He remarked how coaches from many countries had trained him in technique, but his Estonian coach told him only to watch the best fencers as he was training, to sense their feeling, imitate them, be like them, not to concentrate so much on technique but on that “feeling”, the special spirit of perfect fencing.” (Source: Peak Performance: Zen and the Sporting Zone by Felicity Heathcote psychologist for the Olympic Council of  Ireland). The same applies to learning Taijiquan, if you put yourself in good company and look deeply enough some of it might literally rub off on you. 

Look hard enough and some of what you see might rub off on you!

Friday, 5 March 2021

Can you Develop Push Hands Skills Without Training Partners?

Chenjiagou 1998 - A youthful Chen Ziqiang and David Gaffney 
A question people often ask is how they can practice push hands if they don’t have access to regular suitable training partners. By suitable read interested. During one of our early trips to Chenjiagou we interviewed Chen Bing. One of the questions put to him centered on any perceived advantages he had benefitted
from having trained in the village his whole life. His answer was that, on a general level, everybody knows the rules of Taijiquan, so in that sense he had no special advantage having to put in the hard work like anyone else who wants to improve. Pushed a little further though, he conceded that the two significant advantages he had enjoyed were the readily available access to high quality coaching and an endless supply of good training partners. 

With that in mind it would be foolish to say that a lack of training partners isn’t a potential barrier to skill development. Sometimes there are people who want to push, but they just don’t have the patience to want to train systematically and in line with the laid down process. Finding yourself in this situation is clearly not ideal. That said, it’s always better to focus on what we have and what we can do rather than crying about what we don’t have. Progress can still be made by taking a long term perspective and looking at the skill as a whole. So, for example, preparing for the time when you do have access to push hands partners by:   

1. The first point obviously is to continue to refine and develop the form. Form training, standing pole, reeling silk exercises etc. are of fundamental importance in building the basic skills that will ultimately make one’s push hands effective. 

2. Secondly an individual can train the various supplementary drills and strength building exercises of the system. These can be used to develop obvious physical fitness components including strength, speed, power, agility and flexibility that will ultimately enhance overall practically usable skill. So, for instance, there are: single movement drills that can be used to work on the ba fa or eight intrinsic energies (peng, lu, ji, an, cai, lie, zhou and kao); stepping drills to enhance footwork placement and agility; pole-shaking exercises to train whole body connected power; reaction drills etc. Chen Taijiquan has a deep repository of training methods and the list can go on and on. 

3. I remember Chen Zhenglei offering another method to telling the group that how they could begin the process of training listening skills by very consciously mirroring another person’s form. His suggestion was that they do this by trying to exactly match their teacher’s form in terms of speed, rhythm etc.  

All of the above exercises can be helpful in preparing for push hands. Eventually, though real sticking, following and listening skills require working with a variety of push hands partners. Good luck finding them and value them when you do!  


Monday, 15 February 2021

Chen Fake – Four Types of Fajin

Power focused to a single point
In practical terms releasing power can only be effective if the person applying a technique can combine the ability to generate a great amount of force with doing so in a short time. Skill, in terms of delivering a technique accurately, and the capacity to harness the maximum possible strength possessed by an individual also have a great bearing on whether it “works” or not. 

Taijiquan requires us to “focus power onto a single point.” At the same time it makes use of a type of sequential movement that picks up strength through the kinetic chain of every action. This is reflected in the saying that every practitioner is familiar with: “Power starts from the feet, goes through the legs, is directed by the waist and expressed by the hands.” In the excitement of trying to replicate the fajin effect of a skilled exponent it’s easy to lose sight of what is behind their action that makes it so powerful. It’s all too common to see people trying to muscle out the movement with their upper body and overlooking this sequential chain effect. Outside the realm of Taijiquan a study by Russian Yuri Verkhoshansky, a prominent figure in the field of explosive strength training, examined boxers of varying skill levels trying to establish where their power came from. He found that elite boxers generated 38.46 percent of their force from their legs against only 16.51 percent by what he described as Class II and Class III (lower level) athletes. At the same time superior performers relied less upon trunk rotation (37.42% vs 45.5%) and arm extension (24.12% vs 37.99%). The point, as in Taijiquan, is that force is picked up throughout the movement.
The kinetic chain from feet to hands

Assuming an individual is capable of generating this force, the next thing is that it has to be expressed where it is needed. That is, it has to be directed and controlled according to the situation.   Taijiquan has multiple means of delivering force. In a recent post the Chengoushui or “Water of Chenjiagou” website posted a short piece about fajin and four different ways it can be expressed according to Chen Fake. Chen Fake was renowned for his high level of Taijiquan skill, his tremendous physical strength and his practical experience. He listed the following methods of releasing force: 

1. The force on the “outer-edge of the wheel” [at the edge of the circle] where an opponent can be hit without [seriously] damaging them.

2. The force from the inner strength of the wheel. Here he gave the example of Taijiquan’s lie jin (splitting/tearing force), of which he said “this strength can break bones.” Lie jin is used by emitting a very short and sudden twisting and tearing movement. On a cautionary note, it is not easy to experiment with this method as it is very easy to seriously injure your training partner’s joints. 
Chen Fake
3. The third method he called “drill strength” or penetrating strength, describing this as cun jin or Taijiquan’s “inch power.” Penetrating force is realised through the combination of spiraling movement and speed focused towards a single point. Again this was described as a type of strength with the potential to hurt its opponent.

4. The final method was bao fali or “explosive jin.”  In Chen Taijiquan this strength is often compared to a sudden explosion akin to an earthquake emanating with no warning from the centre of the earth. Three generations earlier Chen Fake’s great-grandfather Chen Changxing vividly described the abrupt and unexpected nature of fajin“Lift your hand like lightning flashing. When lightning flashes, there is no chance to close your eyes. Strike the opponent like thunder clapping. When thunder claps, there is no chance to cover your ears.” 

Saturday, 9 January 2021

The Importance of Timing and Distance…

In martial arts training the concept of timing and distance incorporates not just the space between opponents, but also the time it takes to bridge the gap and the angle and rhythm of attack. Together, these elements all contribute to the exact position from which one opponent can effectively strike another. 

Talking about the practical application of Taijiquan Chen Ziqiang said: “The most important strategy is to always be in a stronger position than your opponent. If your opponent is in a weak position in relationship to you, no matter how strong he is physically, he cannot generate much force against you. Nor will he be able to deflect your attacking force easily. He will always be behind your movements… he will always be trying to catch up with you, but you are always ahead of him.” 

Your “position” can be considered either in terms of: your own shape/posture; or your strategic position in relation to an opponent. In the first case the meticulous attention paid to minute differences in bodily posture during training is rewarded with a balanced structure that does not favour any side. In Taijiquan practice this is referred to as “strength in eight directions” - the posture does not overreach or fail to reach your optimum boundary of strength. In the second case, using your sense of timing and distance, the aim is to grasp where change is heading so that one can position oneself advantageously as events unfold. In simple terms, a person is said to have good timing when they know when to release an attack; and good control of distancing when they are able to close the distance from an opponent with effective footwork. A good mastery of timing and distance can help overcome a faster or stronger opponent. In western boxing there is a saying that “timing can be used to overcome speed.” These skills can only be are developed through experience. For instance, improving your timing mostly involves you watching and adjusting to your opponent. Unskilled practitioners often fail to do this instead being preoccupied with themselves and what they are doing.

Training to improve your timing involves watching and adjusting to your opponent...

Tuesday, 15 December 2020

“Shape” - the Essential Base for Push Hands Skills

Chen Xiaoxing: "Before an individual is eligible to train tuishou they must first train the frame..."

Some time ago I came across an interesting article in the Chinese Taijiquan media that posed the question, what is Taijiquan gongfu and can it be better acquired through form training or tuishou? The same question was put to several teachers of different traditions including Chen Xiaoxing and Yang Zhenqi of Chen and Yang family Taijiquan respectively.

First to answer was Chen Xiaoxing: “In this context gong does not refer to the gong component within jibengong (basic exercises). Instead it refers to grasping the essential aspects of Taijiquan during practice, and implementing these essentials. Some people believe that gongfu can be developed more quickly with tuishou (push hands), and that it is useless to train the form. This is not correct. Before an individual is eligible to train tuishou they must first train the frame, until specific internal qi emerges. Compared to learning the form, practising tuishou does nothing more than allow you to grasp a few of the more obvious attacking techniques.  Without learning the form it is difficult to achieve a higher level of Taijiquan.  Invariably, upon encountering some external interference, you will not be able to neutralise the attack or escape it and you will not be able to execute the principle of "using four ounces to deflect a thousand pounds". 

On the same question Yang Taijiquan inheritor Yang Zhenqi spoke of the importance of first developing exactness of shape before training tuishou. I remember Chen Xiaowang making the point that the real skill of Taijiquan combat is based upon the ability to “arrive in the correct position.” Yang explained: “Placement (position) is jin… Gongfu does not develop from tuishou…  Gongfu is trained from the form, and not forced out of tuishou.  If tuishou can produce gongfu then our predecessors would not have needed to train the form and would have just focused on tuishou. The reality is that this was not the case…If you don't know the form, you do not train tuishou. When movements are relatively accurate, placements of the arms and legs are correct, movement positions are fixed, the jin route is integrated, and the xia pan (lower plane) is stable, then you can learn tuishou”. [Recollecting his father Yang Chengfu's method of teaching] First of all teach the correct positions - of the body, of the hands and feet, of accuracy of every posture.  When the position is exact, then the jin can come out.  He emphasised "bitterly train each position" in order for it to become "correct every time it's placed."

To summarise, within Taijiquan’s method correct form training – that is training focused upon establishing essential principles is the necessary first step. Ignoring this stage will result in a person developing no meaningful level of tuishou skill.

Yang Chengfu: "Bitterly train each position"

Monday, 16 November 2020

Words vs Direct Experience

Grueling basic training might  look simple but it provides the necessary framework for skill development

Every morning Chen Xiaoxing leads the training in the small dark room a couple of doors from his own quarters in the Chenjiagou Taijiquan School. While the faces in the class change, the programme never varies. For the first hour or so students are put through “simple” basic exercises. This part of the class is repetitive and gruelling. He moves around the room, wordlessly for the most part, adjusting people’s postures and using his hands to lead them through the correct movement route. This is the ultra important process of laying down deep foundations. During this stage [which never ends!] there cannot be any shortcuts. The structure and movement patterns established here provide a steel frame of understanding upon which to build further skills. As one of the guys in the class said “if you want to build a skyscraper you have to dig deep foundations.”

A key feature is the lack of discussion. In the tradition of Eastern teachers Chen Xiaoxing doesn’t ask people for their opinions about the movements. But what he does frequently is ask them to concentrate and “feel” the position or movement. Throughout the training there is an implicit understanding that words often get in the way. The realities of direct experience, and the fiction created by the spell of words people weave around them, can lead to great 

distortions of meaning. Many people can quote the fundamental requirements of Taijiquan – song (looseness), peng (expansion), sinking qi to the dantian while raising the spirit to the top of the head; maintaining a sense of opposition and harmonisation etc. Problems start when practitioners who haven’t gone sufficiently deeply into what these things actually are reinterpret them according to their pre-held understanding. [The pre-held knowledge is typically either in the form of intellectual knowledge from some other field or experience from a different physical discipline] It doesn’t matter if someone has done Taijiquan for decades, if they’ve never emptied themselves of existing frames of reference it’s difficult to really “enter the door.”      

Morning session in Chenjiagou Taijiquan School
In a wide-ranging interview Naval Ravikant, a fixture of the Silicon Valley start-up scene, spoke on the importance of learning the difference between “knowing the name of something” and “knowing something”: “This is a very deep point. A lot of times we just define something with another definition.  Or we throw out a piece of jargon as if that means we know something. It’s the difference between memorisation and understanding. Understanding is a thing that you want. You want to be able to describe it in ten different ways in simple sentences from the ground up and re-derive whatever you need. If you just memorise you’re lost. So, I think this is one of the things that I get stuck on a lot just keep going back and reading the basics over and over trying to understand them.”

In the end training must be grounded in reality and the challenge is not mistake the word for the thing. The terms used and passed down in Taijiquan represent a compressed way of communicating knowledge that can only be understood from the first principles embedded through direct experience.

Chen Xiaoxing with long time disciple Lin Jun - "feeling it"!



Sunday, 11 October 2020

Cui Guangbo - Training Fajin...

Chen Zhenglei & Cui Guangbo demonstrating applications in The Art of Chen Style Taijiquan

Clearing out an old filing cabinet I revisited a notebook from a training trip to China in 1998. It’s easy to forget how much harder it was to get information in those pre-internet days. On the flip side we valued and took note of any information we got! Among the comments that filled the pages was a short list of reminders from Cui Guangbo, one of Chen Zhenglei’s oldest students, who had joined our group training in Zhengzhou. He gave the following pointers on the process of developing fajin in the correct way.  

1. Silk-reeling exercises act as the root to fajin.
2. Fajin manifests in a scissor route – that is left leg to right arm and right leg to left arm.
3. The most important thing is to be totally relaxed and to learn the form in slow movements.
4. Each time you are going to release power you should first relax into the posture – loosen the kua, sink body, store your chest, relax shoulders etc.
5. Then, at the moment of fajin, all the relaxed positions should spring into action and be activated into their opposite state.

The notes then re-emphasised the point that above all to learn to fajin effectively you must practice the movement slowly and correctly (posture wise). When the movement becomes very familiar, gradually increase momentum (speed) until the correct quality of fajin is achieved. 

The following points were added by Chen Zhenglei:

1. Fajin is based on complete relaxation – the hands, even when held in fists, are relaxed throughout including the point of impact. The idea behind this being that in a real situation by bringing intent it will be easy to provide the necessary force/hardness. The harder part is the development of complete relaxation.  [Looking back at this note I’d add this is especially true for adult learners who tend to have more ingrained tension and faulty movement patterns that need to be worked out before there is any thought about added force at the point of impact.]

2. Think of each movement in terms of the entire route and the different possibilities. For example, depending upon where the energy is released, the Hidden Thrust Punch could be (i) a punch, (ii) an elbow strike, (iii) a shoulder strike.

A requirement to learning is the ability to listen and take note, even if what you’re hearing doesn’t seem to make sense at that moment. Assuming you’ve picked the right person to listen to, by following the process eventually what seemed complex may become clear.

Cui Guangbo and  David Gaffney pushing hands (Zhenzhou,1988)

Friday, 2 October 2020

Mind Training in Taijiquan

The body of a Taijiquan practitioner is observable, their mind is not. Take form training, as an individual does the routine they can be seen going through precise positional and attitudinal changes. At least at a superficial level, the direction and limits of the movements of the hands and feet, the direction of the torso, stepping actions etc are not too difficult to follow. Later, as the level of skill becomes more refined these become more subtle and a trained eye is needed to catch all the details. Traditional teaching involves a process of modelling where, with minimal words, a student learns the proper form by imitating the movements of their master or a senior student within the school. An outsider observing the interaction could easily conclude that the whole process was little more than a mimetic dance. 

This, however, would be to ignore the inner mental processes that are taking place. The mind is less easy to observe and more difficult to control often seeming to wander randomly. The Confucian sage Mencius said: “It comes in and goes out at no definite time and without anyone’s knowing its direction.” The traditional Taijiquan or other East Asian martial arts master is not only interested in the correctness of the form but also in the mental attitude behind it. He is aware of the disparity between a rote performer and an active participant, even though both may seem to follow instructions correctly.

Perceptive eyes can pick up signals revealing a student is still far off from actualising Taijiquan’s internal harmonies and bringing together the mental, energetic and physical aspects. That is the fusing of the xin (heart or emotional mind) and yi (intention or logical mind) with the sensations of expansiveness, weightedness and centredness and the external physical shape of the body. 

Realising this integration requires a mode of thought characterised by simplicity, intuition and naturalness. At the same time its results must be practical and concrete. In his book The Inherited Chen Family Taiji Boxing Art published in 1932 Chen Ziming said state: “To be able to actually do something, mind and spirit have to be gathered together within. When the feet stand heavily, the hands move reverently, the head is upright, and the eyes are solemn, these indicate that everywhere in the body, the mind is involved. Inability to function means the mind is getting distracted by external things.”

Taijiquan has its own methods for developing the mind including:

Putting into practice the concept of movement coming from stillness – taking time to reach a place of physical stillness and mental calm or “enter stillness” before beginning training. Paradoxically while this is an important, maybe the most important aspect of training, no force or focused intent is used. Philosophically this is referred to as wuji or the place without extremes. Once the first movement begins, you must take care to settle and rebalance at the end of each posture. This is in line with the idea that the end of one movement represents the beginning of the next. 

Each posture finishes with a clear focal point. Chen Xin spoke of the “spiritual power” that is manifested through parts of the body such as the hands, eyes and heart: “… when practicing boxing, your eyes should not express any angry emotions but simply follow the movements of the leading hand. In Lan Zha Yi (Lazily Tying Coat), the eyes follow the right hand, concentrating on the middle finger… the spirit of the whole body should concentrate on the final position of this movement… performing Dan Bian (Single Whip), maintain visual focus on the left hand which moves slowly left and upward from the lower right side in a large semi-circle at the front of the body. At the end of the movement, focus on the middle finger of the left hand… In Pie Shen Chui (Turn Body and Punch), focus the eyes on the toe of the left foot, while in Zhou Di Kan Quan (Fist Beneath Elbow) the focus is on the fist located under the elbow.”

At the same time the mind is never allowed to rest on one place to the exclusion of everything else. There is a constant fine dynamic tension between the various aspects of the body. At a gross level requirements like: looking forward while listening behind; lifting the head lightly while sinking into the ground; loosening the root while stretching out to the extremity etc. At a fine level honing an ever-greater sensitivity to the point where “a fly cannot land without you being aware of it.”

Beyond an individual’s efforts in the training hall, mental training cannot be separated from daily life. Thought patterns have to be refined until they are habitually clear, balanced, focused and not over-reactive. A common Chinese parable about a farmer trying to force the process of growing a plant is often applied to the subtleness needed to cultivate the mental processes: “If we exert too much artificial effort to help a plant grow, it will soon wither. In the same way there is a natural course for the development of the heart (xin). One should neither forget nor assist in one’s daily effort to preserve it.” The training and discipline of the mind and body are inextricably linked and neither can be neglected. While the body requires a long and gradual process of shaping and strengthening, the mind too has to be slowly tempered. 

Eighth century Japanese depiction of one of  the Four Jingang: "With his brows knitted,eyes narrowed, and mouth closed, the image seems to be watching a distant enemy.Restrained in facial expression and bodily gesture, it suggests the amassing of energy and the fearfulness of its release.Its power is in a potential state..."

The Eyes Have It...

Chinese martial arts across the many different systems agree on the fundamental importance of training the four aspects of shou yan shenfa b...