Tuesday, 24 March 2020

Covid-19 - Keeping Balance in Strange Times!!

Chen Taijiquan's Ren Mingming
A central tenet of Daoism is the idea of going with the flow, moving calmly through the circumstances in which we find ourselves. The coronavirus is affecting all of our lives in ways that nobody predicted. From the perspective of our school, we had to cancel this year’s May trip to Chenjiagou to train with Grandmaster Chen Xiaoxing; and Chen Ziqiang’s seminars in April have been cancelled, following travel restrictions by the Chinese authorities to prevent the re-entry of the virus that they have got some measure of control after some very tough times.  On a broader and more serious level, at home in the UK we’re in the first day of a type of lockdown never seen before in peace time. The draconian measures include: the immediate closure of all shops selling "non-essential goods"; the  closure of  libraries, playgrounds, gyms, arts/culture venues and places of worship; banning gathering of more than two people (excluding people who live together); and, perhaps most soberingly the postponement of weddings and baptisms, but funerals will be allowed.

With the ongoing pandemic we are collectively faced with a threat that inevitably focuses minds on the value of health and the fragility of people in our communities who don’t have physical robustness and resilience. Or, for want of a better expression, who don’t have the “money in the bank” of a strong immune system. Beyond external behavioural practices such as washing hands, social distancing, self-isolation etc., it is this strong immune system that offers the best defence against the virus.

Taijiquan is an art that is clearly suited for developing just such core aspects of physical health. Drawing heavily from China’s ancient health practices and the ideas of daoyin tu-na or leading and guiding energy and breathing methods. The time-honoured way of gaining benefits from these practices flow from and follow a process of quiet, precise and extended cultivation, and a strengthened immune system is one of the rewards for putting in the effort over time. Today’s fast-paced society, however, often demands instant and easy solutions to complex situations. People are encouraged to believe that Taijiquan is an instant and easy solution to their health and exercise needs. Starting to train Taijiquan from this narrative it’s small wonder that only a small minority of people commit to the rigours, not only physical (which must always be at a level that is appropriate to the age, fitness and health status of the practitioner) but also the degree of mindfulness and attention to detail required. In the following passage Chen Xiaoxing speaks about the fundamental role health training plays in Taijiquan: “Taijiquan can be considered in three stages. In the first stage, the aim of training is predominately for improving physical fitness... In the early stages, you must stay strictly in line with the traditional rules of practice and closely follow the requirements that have been laid down. Training in a step-by-step manner and placing strict demands upon yourself throughout the process. These methodical steps lead to health and wellbeing. By approaching training in this manner for an extended period of time you can achieve a unique and unexpected result.”
Chen Xiaoxing - "The first stage of Taijiquan training is predominantly for improving physical fitness
 
Chen Xiaoxing obviously is a Taijiquan expert talking about the benefits of the art he practices, but what does the science say? Or to be more precise what do the Chinese doctors and scientists who, up to now, have been at the frontline of today’s pandemic say? Few are more qualified to speak on the subject than Chinese epidemiologist Zhong Nanshan. Zhong an articulate and incredibly youthful looking eighty-four year old earned international fame for managing the SARS outbreak and was renowned for refuting the official line which downplayed the severity of the crisis. Online periodical The Diplomat, whose strap line is Read the Diplomat: Know the Asia Pacific, reported how the Chinese media refers to him as the nation’s “SARS hero”. Despite his advanced age (born in 1936, he was 13 years old when the People’s Republic was founded), Zhong was appointed to lead the National Health Commission’s investigation into the novel coronavirus. “Zhong is a public figure who regularly speaks out about China’s health issues from food safety to air pollution and has a reputation as someone who puts public health first… He has been lauded for his own health regimen. Despite qualifying for a senior citizen discount he has been photographed in muscle tees flexing his biceps, swimming laps and shooting hoops. He was an outstanding college athlete in the 1950s, to the point where the Beijing Municipal Track and Field Team attempted to recruit him as a full-time athlete. Zhong, however, was determined to become a doctor and declined the offer”.

Zhong Nanshan - still flexing in his eighties!!
Zhong first came to know about Taijiquan in 1972 when one of his patients who was suffering from a serious autoimmune condition made a better than expected recovery. The only thing he was doing beyond the normal treatment routine was Taijiquan. Zhong became fascinated by this and has trained and researched Taijiquan since then. In a recent Chinese TV interview he detailed some of the reasons why he felt Taijiquan was such an effective form of exercise: “In China we have a very good form of exercise – Taijiquan. The first benefit is that the exercise can be done within a small space. Strength is generated by quietness. It is especially good for training leg strength, training a person from the lower body upwards. Taijiquan is usually performed from a half squat position which pumps blood through the body and makes the lower body very strong. This quiet strength doesn’t adversely increase or affect the speed of one’s breathing [it doesn’t make a person pant or over-exert in terms of their breathing]. But it is very good to train your muscles, blood and bones”.  Zhong’s expertise spans both Western and Eastern disciplines. He was educated at the Beijing Medical University and finished his residency training in internal medicine in the university hospital. In the 1980s, he completed further training at the St Bartholomew's Hospital in London and the University of Edinburgh Medical School. It is his belief that Traditional Chinese medical theory/practice complements Western medicine and should not be seen as an either or.
 
Zhong Nanshan on Chinese TV on the benefits of Taijiquan...
We often hear the claim that Taijiquan is good for health. During this crisis it is obviously important to encourage people to exercise and take care of themselves until we come through the other side and get back to normality.  In fact exercise is an activity that is encouraged in the government directives during the period of national lockdown. At this time it is important for practitioners to honestly assess the art they are learning and teaching. For sure much of what passes for Taijiquan is often little more than arm-waving sessions led by teachers who are at best inexperienced and at worst clueless about what Taijiquan actually is. Trained to its full potential it is a wonderful system that provides benefits and challenges at all stages of practice.  Speaking during the challenge of dealing with the coronavirus pandemic Zhong recommended:  “Through my study [of respiratory diseases], at this particular time, I find that combining medication that dilates a patient’s respiratory tract, Taijiquan training and walking – the three together markedly  improve the health  and quality of life of people with chronic respiratory problems. Even though it doesn’t alter lung function, it very obviously improves the exercise capabilities of a person…”

 

  

 

 

Tuesday, 10 March 2020

What role did Chen Taijiquan play in a UFC classic?

Zhang Weili in action against the formidable Joanna Jedrzejczyk
A couple of days have passed since the South China Morning Post triumphantly reported on the success of Chinese fighter Zhang Weili on the UFC 248 fight show: “Zhang Weili retains title in war for the ages against Joanna Jedrzejczyk.  Chinese champion gets split decision after arguably the greatest fight in history of women’s MMA.” Defending champion Zhang had her hands full with Polish martial artist Jedrzejczyk who Herself won the UFC Women's Strawweight Championship in 2015 at UFC 185 after competing in Muay Thai for 10 years, winning 70 matches and six world championships. 

What’s all this got to do with a Chen Taijiquan page? In a separate report on Taiji.net.cn Zhang Weili’s traditional martial arts background is explored, especially her use of Chen Taijiquan to complement and enhance the fighting skills she has honed since childhood. The following passage is taken from the article: 

“In the training process, MMA training is not the only thing Zhang Weili does. She also includes the essence of China’s traditional martial arts. According to Zhang, “MMA is very intense and your attack and defence [capabilities] therefore need to be very strong.” ... Zhang Weili had an affinity with martial arts from a very young age. She believes that China’s traditional martial arts have many unique combat methods and many aspects worth learning. That said, you have to use them according to the correct and appropriate rules [of the particular system]. She likes traditional martial arts and actively advocates them especially Chen style Taijiquan.
@Fixing the frame with teacher Jing Jianjun
She met her Chen Taijiquan teacher Jing Jianjun and started learning from him after being convinced by his martial skill: “I discovered that somesome traditional martial arts allow me to calm down, like when I train my Taijiquan - Before my breath was always up in my chest, [over time] slowly slowly the breath is able to go down.” [Zhang Weili explained how she was able to correct certain problematic aspects of her physical structure]. “At the beginning my shoulders were lifted, but after a period of training, slowly I was able to drop them.”

Zhang spoke of the importance of keeping an open mind in developing combat skill...
Zhang Weili has a deep interest in the fajin methods of traditional martial arts, but doesn’t involve herself in the recent debate about whether Taijiquan can be used for fighting. Her teacher explained and taught her Chen Taijiquan’s fajin method in accordance to her requirement [as a competitive MMA fighter]. After having her arm lifted in triumph after five torrid rounds Zhang spoke of the importance of martial spirit and mutual dvancement:  “Within the martial arts arena everyone is a warrior and deserves mutual respect. We need to set good examples for the younger generation.”

 

 

Monday, 3 February 2020

Postural Integrity - The Route to Power and Function...

To the novice, learning Taijiquan can be frustrating and confusing process. Session after session the teacher tweaks and adjusts their posture never seeming to be completely satisfied with the result. Where other martial disciplines quickly get down to more obvious fighting techniques, Taijiquan spends what can seem like an inordinately long time moulding the shape of the body before even mentioning any combat possibilities.

Everything rests on correct structure
Taijiquan is no different than any other martial art or sport in the fact that to perform at a high level certain obvious aspects of fitness must be trained to increase the potential effectiveness of an individual. Areas that immediately come to mind include strength, speed, power, agility and flexibility; the relative balance of these varies depending upon the nature of the particular discipline – think of the differences between, for instance, a shot putter, figure skater, marathon runner or a combat ready martial artist. Or, to narrow things down, the different reasons modern practitioners train Taijiquan. For instance, one training to develop their self defence capabilities to the maximum; another whose main focus is on training for competition; or a third who is training primarily to enhance their health.   
In the final analysis, however, each shares the common goal of achieving optimal physical performance. This can only be reached by addressing the one aspect that underpins everything else: a degree of postural integrity that enables stability and control and from which a practitioner can develop a deep understanding of movement and function. This is the reason why Chen Taijiquan requires learners to pay strict and careful attention on the development of correct body structure. In Chenjiagou Laojia Yilu is called the “gongfu form” and training the form is often referred to as “training the frame.” When we talk about structure we mean both the correct positioning of all the body’s joints and from this the emergence of awareness of the dantian as the body’s centre. The development of this coordinating centre enables the body to generate maximum power and efficiency from each action. The balanced centre harmonises the movement and the function of both upper and lower limbs.

Chen Xiaoxing - The final goal is the achievement of optimal physical performance 
 
At the same time it serves to protect the joints and their associated structures. Modern sports coaching approaches have embraced the importance of fully assessing an athlete’s postural alignment before starting any demanding training programme. It takes more energy to move the body when there are postural imbalances. At the same time, performing any explosive movement from a misaligned position inevitably places more stress on the musculature or joints, increasing the risk of injury. Dr Istvan Balyi is acknowledged worldwide as an expert in long term athlete development. In Paradigm Shifts in Coaching, a 2002 article in Faster, Higher, Stronger – the journal of Sports Coach UK – Britain’s premier sports coaching association he wrote the following:
“The kinetic chain is an integrated functional unit, made up of the soft tissue (muscle, ligament, tendon and fascia), neural system and articular system (biomechanics). Each of these systems work independently to allow structural and functional efficiency. If any systems do not work efficiently, compensations and adaptations will lead to tissue overload, decreased performance and predictable patterns of injury… The implications of this are huge. Before training starts, all body and joint alignment, muscle imbalances and flexibility ranges should be evaluated and corrected if necessary. This is preventative sports medicine on the functional side of athletic preparation.”

The idea might represent a paradigm shift in modern sports training, but has been incorporated within Taijiquan’s training method for centuries. In his Ten Essentials of Taiji Boxing Chen Changxing elegantly described the way in which function could be optimised through a balanced posture: “When the moment comes for movement, be like a dragon or a tiger, expressing as fast as lightning, and when the moment comes for stillness, be silent and calm, staying put as stable as a mountain. When still, all parts are still, inside and out, above and below, and without any part feeling out of place. When moving, all parts are moving, left or right, forward or back, and without any part pulling the posture off course.”
 
What does all of this mean to the typical adult learner of Taijiquan? In a way we could say that what we are trying to do is to simplify our way towards perfection: Practitioners inching their way to superior performance via a process of reduction, simplification and optimisation. Accepting the need to try to remove things first, rather than to add things is a critical principle when looking for improvements. Remove acquired postural imbalances and incorrect movement patterns. Slowly and imperceptibly changing over time as individual inefficiencies are ironed out and the “fat” is trimmed.

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.”