Wednesday, 29 July 2015

Precision, precision, precision...

Eyes level, chin drawn in...
Many, maybe most, people approach Taijiquan training, or any other discipline for that matter, in a pretty haphazard way. It’s not that there’s not lots of hard work and sweat, there’s just too much “blindly chugging away in the weight room” – grinding out the reps without paying attention to all those little details. 

Baihui lifted...
The accompanying photos of a group of young Chinese soldiers being trained to hold themselves to the rigorous standards expected of the PLA remind me of the endless hours in Chenjiagou. It doesn’t matter how many times you do the foundation exercises or forms, they can always be embedded more deeply and accurately. Relax the collar bones and draw the chin in so they are connected, lightly lift the top of your head, step out carefully “like gliding on ice” – ready to withdraw your foot at any time…
Stepping with control, ready to withdraw at any time...
Asked about the rationale behind these exercises, an army training officer explained that “repeated precision movement” was the best way to make sure that an optimal response would come out when needed. For precise we could substitute accurate, careful, meticulous, exact, correct…

It’s almost heretical in today’s instant and on-demand world to say that the most effective way might not be the quickest way. But training build upon a meticulous attention to detail is the only way to truly establish Taijiquan’s rules within your body. The reward is optimal movement patterns that will greatly improve performance.  

Chen Xiaoxing - meticulous attention to detail

Wednesday, 8 April 2015

Are you ready to train applications?

An old saying advises Taijiquan practitioners “not to leave the door for 10 years”. The saying is not meant to be taken literally, but it does recognise the fact that Taijiquan is a complex, multi-dimensional discipline with distinct stages of training: learning, correcting, adjusting the form etc. Done in the traditional way, the form settles into a coherent whole, integrating knowledge gained in previous levels. Training slowly through the different stages demands strict discipline and regularisation, a point by point harmonising. This process is known as xiu lian, which literally means “to put in order and nurture”. In the Taoist Body Thomas Schiffer likens this to the tuning of a harp with ten thousand strings.

Contrast this approach to the modern rush which sees students desperate to get to the advanced levels of Taijiquan in the shortest possible time. Desperate to learn applications and to show how strong their fajin is, when they’ve not even understood many of the basic requirements of Taijiquan. There is a pitfall of sacrificing higher level long-term benefits in favour of short-term gains. For instance, once you start relying on the use of force, it’s a hard habit to break. Sadly this impatience is not unique to Taijiquan. In classes now we often see the phenomenon of the two year Karate or Taekwondo black belt. They’ve “mastered” the external arts and are now ready to tackle a more “spiritual” art.

Chen Xiaowang explaining the step by step journey from beginner to advanced practitioner. 

The traditional way is to first put the building blocks in place – a strong unmovable base, co-ordinated movement, agile footwork; develop the correct energetic qualities – heavy at the bottom, light at the top, expanding from inside to out and fullness in the dantian. With this basis develop an understanding of Taijiquan’s different types of jin or trained power – peng, lu, ji, an etc. Training push hands in the same way – first looking to develop the skill of listening to and following the movements of an opponent. Then eliminating the mistakes of disconnecting from your opponent, leaning and resisting with force against force…

When you reach the point where your movement is smooth and coordinated, and you have understood the idea of following an opponent’s movement, then you can begin to examine the application possibilities within the form. Not simply collecting set responses for each movement.
Many students would argue that they have done 10, 15, 20… years training so surely they must be ready to do applications. But if that time was made up of a couple of days a year at a crowded seminar with a teacher from China, and a few hours a week training with teachers who themselves haven’t had enough contact time with a teacher who understands the progressive method of Taijiquan - then the truth may be they are not ready.
The opinions of the grandmasters of Chen Taijiquan are quite clear and consistent on this point. I remember Chen Zhenglei emphasising this point during a training camp in China: “Instead of training individual applications you should train the whole body to work as a system”. Chen Xiaowang was even more direct when answering a question about the application for one of the movements in the form:– “Even if you learn 10,000 applications, if they’re not based on correct principles, they won’t work”.
Chen Xiaowang: "Even if you learn 10,000 applications, if they are not based on correct principles, they will not work"!
At the end of the day what we are trying to achieve in Chen Taijiquan is the ability to respond to an opponent in a natural unforced and spontaneous way. To do this we cannot cut out any of the progressive steps. Like all other martial arts the level you achieve depends on the quality of your foundation. 

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"!