Monday, 3 August 2020

Applying the Wisdom of Chess Grandmaster Maurice Ashley to Taijiquan

Chess Grandmaster Maurice Ashley
Chess Grandmaster Maurice Ashley: "Keep a beginner's mind and look for the ever-more subtle details

The term “Taijiquan” can be broken down into two components: Taiji – is a philosophy drawn from the Yijing, China’s ancient “Book of Changes”. This text has heavily influenced Chinese thought for several thousand years. At heart it uses the idea of the relationship between the two poles or yin and yang to explain the way in which order and balance can be maintained within a constantly changing universe. Quan – can be translated to mean martial art or boxing system. Put together the term Taijiquan refers to a martial art that seeks balance as its core principle. What does this mean in practice?
 • On a physical level it means the coordination of every aspect - left/right sides, upper/lower body, breathing/movement etc. 

 • Energetically it seeks a state where the lower body has the sensation of being heavy and stable, the upper body is light and agile, the dantian is full and the whole body has the feeling of expanding outwards. 

 • Mentally it seeks a state of calmness, stillness and awareness. Looking inwards we pay attention to the position and sensation of the body. At the same time the eyes look outward so we are also aware of our environment. 

Philosophically we can say that training Taijiquan and working to maintain balance in all these aspects is akin to practicing a small “dao” (way). That is a kind of micro approach where we come to understand the wider principles of the universe through the study of some particular art. In the East many disciplines have been studied in this way – painting and calligraphy, the tea ceremony, swordsmanship etc. The other day I was listening to an interview with Maurice Ashley, the first African-American chess grandmaster on the Tim Ferriss podcast. His description of the way he was able to raise his level of performance through the wider integration of martial arts principles was fascinating. 

Ashley credited his introduction to Aikido and to the philosophy of the soft or internal martial arts with raising his game to the heights necessary to become a chess grandmaster. Not your stereotypical geekish chess player, he was raised in the tough Brownsville district of Brooklyn, New York where, he jokes, it was so rough Mike Tyson had to leave. It’s obvious looking at him that Ashley is a physically powerful individual. Top that with the fact that his brother was a kickboxing champion and his sister a boxing champion, so it’s easy to believe him when he says he was brought up in a highly competitive environment. 

Speaking of his approach to chess in his younger days, “I would say like I’m from Brooklyn. We had a school of chess that said you attack, that’s how you go. My friend Ronnie Sims used to say “ever forward, never backward.” He’s not backing up. When he’s coming after you you’re supposed to die! But you did that against the best players and somehow they would sidestep your attacks and bring their pieces inside the gaps that you left behind. And that’s exactly what Aikido and the soft martial arts are about – it’s finding the gaps and letting you [the opponent] get as much of your attack as you want off, but just getting off centre enough that you miss or you barely hit. But then the return coming at you is going to come with tremendous force… And when I was able to physicalise that, get it into my body and internalise it, and then transfer that into mental mapping onto the chess board my game went to a complete different level – and that really is what took me to becoming a grandmaster as far as I’m concerned. Because, being able to do that meant that you had to stand in the middle of the energy, the tornado coming at you, and just say “No, I’m fine, everything is okay. This attack is not going to work.” It was a whole different way of thinking that I hadn’t studied before and because of that I was able to change the way I played and improve as a player.”

Among the points highlighted by Ashley that have clear parallels within Taijiquan training were the need to: 

• “…centre yourself to recognise possible openings in an opponent’s position because they were too aggressive” – that is putting yourself in a position where you are able to capitalise when an opponent over-extends. 

• “…maintain balance and look for the soft point in an opponent’s attack” – in line with Taijiquan’s maxim to always attack the weak place and correspondingly never attack the strong place. 

• “Understand the primacy of controlling the centre, while at the same time focusing on your opponent” – this same idea is central to Taijiquan’s idea of “listening” to an opponent’s movements from a position of balance. 

• “Keep a beginner’s mind and look for the ever-more subtle details” –Yang Taijiquan master Yang Banhou wrote of the need to develop an ever-greater ability to discern the actions and intentions of an opponent: “When in your fighting skill you have obtained the sense of a foot, an inch, a tenth of an inch, and the width of a hair, you can then estimate the opponent.”

Tuesday, 21 July 2020

Uniting Taijiquan's Three Jin Systems

Understanding how to generate and release power in Chen Taijiquan isn’t a simple task. To begin with we must be clear how it differs from conventional ideas of power and strength. We could go to any fitness or weightlifting gym and find strong and fit individuals. Does that mean they can easily replicate Taijiquan’s fajin? In a recent video Chen Xiaowang is seen giving some pointers to a group of young instructors from the Chenjiagou Taijiquan School. By normal standards they would be considered to be flexible, loose, powerful etc. He gave them a short master class pointing out some of their mistakes and how they could correct them and improve.   

To begin with Chen Xiaowang emphasised the need for practitioners to broaden their minds to accept the idea of training the body to work as an integrated system. He explained “proper fajin involves three routes of jin”. That is three different elements of trained power and the course and direction of their expression. Each of these aspects has to be developed and be closely coordinated with the others. The three routes of jin identified were:   

·        dang jin

·        dantian jin

·        chest jin  

Dang jin is the contained and elastic strength of the crotch. In Chen Xiaowang’s words, it is “the power created by the convergence of the power of the two legs.” Second is the connecting power of the body’s centre which links the lower and upper body. Answering the question what is dantian jin, he explained “It is the power of the waist, supported by the legs that should not affect the dantian as the core.” That is, the action of the legs shouldn’t disrupt “the complementary and uniting relationships of the dantian and the whole body.” The relationship between the legs and the dantian then is “like the relationship of water and boat.” Finally, the power generated from the dantian is transmitted to the chest. “The strength created by the chest is known as chest jin.” A well known and often quoted Taijiquan saying is that power comes from the feet, through the legs before being directed by the waist and expressed in the hands. This speaks of a smooth system which, after initiating power, transfers and adds to it en route to its end point.  

According to Chen Xiaowang, the most common mistakes made by practitioners as they fajin include:  

·        An over–reliance upon the use of excessive muscular tension or stiffness which acts as a brake and impedes the smooth release of whole body connected power. Tensing up the upper body has the effect of locking the potential power of any movement within the body. It also has the secondary effect of preventing the dang and waist from moving in a fluid and unrestricted way. This is a serious problem that must be rectified. A practitioner may look powerful to an untrained observer. But if the fist is clenched tightly and the muscles are overly activated during the gathering phase of a punch, then “the jin is stuck inside.”  Chen Xiaowang advised that when preparing to punch to not “tighten the upper body, release any tension and hold the fist lightly.”   

·       Failing to understand how to position the legs correctly to simultaneously generate power and support the dantian. He puts it simply – “If the position of the legs is not correct the dantian will have no power.” Conversely, when they are placed correctly the dantian is then able to generate power. To illustrate the point Chen Xiaowang compared the lower plane to the carriage of a cannon that needs to be stable if the weapon is to be fired accurately.  

·       Turning the hips too much. It is important not to lose the correct position of the hips. He showed the common mistake where a person punching, for example with the right fist over-emphasises the hip twist – “…the right hip twists too much to the left as the fist goes out. The two kua should remain level and forward facing.”  

·        Very often people only use the chest jin, and are unable to execute dang jin. “Over-extending the upper body is a clear symptom that an individual is using too much upper body strength and not enough dantian and dang jin.” In Taijiquan terms the over-reliance of one jin at the expense of the others is referred to as the dispersion or separation of jin. “Releasing power, the fist and the elbow move together but each has its own distinct action. At the moment of emitting they become one line, with the upper and lower parts together and not isolated.” 

·        When, according to Chen Xiaowang, “the body is not supported by the bone structure.” That is, if the body slants or bends forward out of principle.  “There should be no leaning at all and the buttocks should not protrude as that compromises the waist i.e. dantian jin.” In practice this can happen when someone takes too low a posture. Unable to maintain the correct postural framework after going past the limit of their strength they are forced to compensate by coming out of the correct posture. Here he said, the answer is to “ take a higher posture because the stance has reached the limit of your normal strength.” 

As any shortcomings in dang jin, dantian jin or chest jin limits the overall potential of any fajin action, the question that must be answered is how to most efficiently coordinate the three jin routes?  Chen Xiaowang said - “If all three jin routes are used together in a fully coordinated way, then each should not affect the other in a negative way. Dang jin, dantian jin and the chest/shoulder jin explode in unison.” 

Where an untrained or unskilled person puts all their attention on their fist from the beginning to the end of a punch, the action of a skilled exponent is qualitatively different. The spark of intention to release the body’s power is like lighting the touchpaper of a stick of dynamite. Once the process has been activated the practitioner’s role is to control and direct the power of the whole body out to a single focused point. Chen Xiaowang explained that when using jin, “You do not take an active role, but a reactive role, in effect following the body’s jin.” In this way the power can be directed exactly where it is needed in an instant. A well known Taijiquan expression – “Distance fist, near elbow, close up shoulder” – advises on the appropriate technique to be used depending on how close you are to an opponent. Chen Xiaowang explained,  “You use your  fist when (an opponent  is) far. When an opponent is near you won’t use your fist, you’ll use your elbow. [Extremely] close to your  body use the shoulder.  The same jin routes only the distance is different.”

Saturday, 9 May 2020

Chen Zhaopi - Always Going Forward…

There’s a saying in Taijiquan circles that one should “always go forwards.” But, and this is an important but, this is not a call to plant your feet and go toe-to-toe! In any serious physical confrontation, the mental battle between opponents can far outweigh the physical side.

Even within the more  controlled sporting arena, modern sports science recognises the pivotal importance of mental strength and resilience if any athlete is to have a successful career. And, whilst it’s easy to wheel out terms like mental toughness and focus actually bringing these qualities out when they are needed comes down to “mind management.” At the heart of this is recognition of the fact that, in the heat of battle, to be passive is to greatly reduce the chances of success.

In his General Explanations of Taiji Boxing Fundamentals, published in 1930 Chen Zhaopi, pointed to the need to always be in an active state mentally when faced with an opponent: “When it is time to advance, I advance, overwhelming his strength by valiantly charging straight in. When it is time to retreat, I retreat, luring his energy in so that he over commits and falls forward… When it is appropriate to advance, I must not retreat and thereby make myself timid. When it is appropriate to retreat, I should retreat, and yet with a readiness to advance. Therefore, advancing is a matter of advancing whole-heartedly, and retreating is also actually a matter of advancing.”

Applied sports psychologist Robert J, Schinke wrote a fascinating article on his coaching journey with the elite amateur fighters of the Canadian National Boxing Team. His account opened with the story of a Canadian boxer suffering a loss to a Cuban in the final stages of the 1996 Atlanta Olympics: “Throughout the bout… it was apparent that one boxer controlled the ring from the center (the Cuban). The second athlete (the Canadian) relinquished the ring, moved backwards passively, and was clearly exemplifying defensiveness, fear and concern.”

Even an inexperienced Taijiquan practitioner can understand the advantage of moving forward and taking an opportunity when an opponent leaves an opening. It’s the retreating part of the equation that they often misunderstand. Put simply, “yielding” does not mean running away from force. The Taiji classics tell us “when a fly alights, it sets you in motion.” They don’t say you pull away because the fly lands. Within their retreat a skilled exponent doesn’t just move back or wait for an opponent to make a mistake. They lay traps and force them to make mistakes. Where the casual observer sees only the obvious attacks and attempts to evade them, skilled fighters make use of intricate strategies within the micro-battles of footwork, positioning, diverting, feinting etc.
As always in Taijiquan the goal is to react in accordance to unfolding events. Not entering with a predetermined plan or trying to win with “tricks.” Having the self-confidence and self-control to do this requires the mental flexibility to act in the moment.  Or, as Chen Zhaopi puts it: “It is important that these points not be turned into a restrictive formula. I must first observe an opponent’s strengths and weaknesses, which will give me my strategy. … adjusting according to the situation, for I must not be stubborn about when to use one or the other… adapting as circumstances demand, for I must not hold to a preconceived pattern.”

Talking Chen Taijiquan - The Book!

Just released - decade of Talking Chen Taijiquan posts. Beautifully illustrated and covering aspects including attitude and mindset, technical questions and the role of Taijiquan in the mainstream... 

Friday, 24 April 2020

Physical, Psychological and Spiritual Training...

A student's role in the first stage is to watch the teacher carefully and try to replicate what they see.
Asian arts, whether martial or cultural, typically go through a process of training and discipline that lead to three levels of mastery: physical, psychological and spiritual.

Physical Mastery - The first stage is where the foundations are laid. Foundations that, depending upon their depth and integrity, will determine the ultimate height a person can reach in their practice. In Taijiquan, on the physical level mastery of form is the bottom line requirement of training. By form we’re talking about the development of correct postural integrity and movement patterns, rather than the memorising and collecting of multiple routines. Whether the discipline being trained is Taijiquan, Karate, calligraphy or tea ceremony, the traditional way of passing on skill is highly structured. Teachers serve to provide a model form. A student’s role is to watch the teacher’s every movement carefully and then try their best to replicate it. Through almost endless repetition the physical forms will eventually be internalised. In the words of Buddhist scholar and Aikido master, the late Taitetsu Unno (1929-2014): “Words are seldom spoken and explanations are rare; the burden of learning is on the student.”  Learners who have never trained with traditional teachers often rail against the idea of training without being allowed to discuss and talk about every movement they are asked to do. But it is important, as the great philosopher Confucius said, “…not to mistake eloquence for substance.”
The foundation laid down in the first stage is solid ground we can push off from, a root from which real skill can develop. Students who are stuck in their own minds either through ego or a lack of confidence in the method never get to lay down the necessary base. In his treatise Cultivating the Dao, Daoist master Liu Yiming (1734-1821) explained: “Foundations” means having an actual ground, a root. People do not succeed in attaining the Dao because of their egoism and selfhood… When there are egoism and selfhood, you are filled with a selfish mind and cannot walk on an actual ground… a hundred obstacles obstruct the way, at every step you find obstacles and hindrances and in every pursuit you get stuck in the mud… Our ancestral masters taught that one should first of all lay the foundations for refining oneself. This is because they wanted us to perform the whole practice from an actual ground, in order to rise from what is below to what is above, and to reach the deep from the shallow using the operation of gradual progress.”

In this first stage then, the criteria are precise, stringent and progressive. Taijiquan students have been passed down a systematic map of a training process that must be deeply embedded.
Psychological Mastery
Eventually and paradoxically the learner is freed from the constraints of the form through mastery of it. Accepting and committing to follow a repetitive and little-changing training routine for an extended time inevitably leads to certain internal psychological changes. Remembering the time he spent with his own teacher, Taijiquan master Zhu Tiancai said: “These fourteen years consisted of repetitively training the principles of Taijiquan. Training in this way can often be monotonous and grinding and you come to realise the path is long and there is no end point.” It is this very monotony and grind that examines the student’s commitment and willpower, while simultaneously tempering the character. By falling in line with the process, they become calmer and stoic and accepting of the requirements of the task at hand. Imperceptibly, from the earliest stages of training, negative traits such as impatience, stubbornness and pridefulness are polished away.
As time passes this consistent training rids the body and mind of bad habits, and bit by bit a practitioner’s real strength, character and potential begin to emerge.
Real confidence and self-belief are key differentiating factors between a successful or unsuccessful outcome when facing a strong opponent. It can be tempting to suppose that the high level of self-belief demonstrated by top class practitioners is something they are born with. For sure every individual is different and some seem more confident than others from an early age. But often it is a trait that has developed over years as a person senses their increased physical and technical capabilities. The words of fourteenth generation Chen Taijiquan master Chen Changxing leave no doubt about the importance of balancing physical and psychological aspects: “To get the upper hand in fighting, look around and examine the shape of the ground. Hands must be fast, feet light. Examine the opponent’s movements like a cat. Mind must be organised and clear… If hands arrive and body also arrives [at the same time], then destroying an enemy is like crushing a weed.”  

Spiritual Mastery
Spiritual mastery is inseparable from psychological mastery but is only set in motion after an intensive and lengthy period of training. Speaking of the different levels of progression in Taijiquan Chen Xiaoxing explained: “Taijiquan can be considered in three stages. In the first stage, the aim of training is predominantly for improving physical fitness. In the intermediate stage, the purpose is for developing the ability to attack and defend. At the highest level, the main emphasis of practice is self-cultivation.” At the heart of this self-cultivation is a search for naturalness and spontaneity, leaving behind predetermined responses and being able to respond exactly as required. Physical skills have been honed to the highest possible degree and, reaching this level, an individual trusts their responses completely. This free expression of one’s capabilities is only possible when the ego has been subsumed. Mistakes come when we over-think or hesitate.  Taitetsu Unno also said: “One becomes vulnerable when one stops to think about winning, losing, taking advantage, impressing or disregarding the opponent. When the mind stops, even for a single instant, the body freezes, and free, fluid movement is lost… Ultimately, physical, psychological and spiritual mastery are one and the same.”
Chenjiagou Chen Family Temple image - naturally and spontaneously responding as the situation demands...




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 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.


Applying the Wisdom of Chess Grandmaster Maurice Ashley to Taijiquan

Chess Grandmaster Maurice Ashley: "Keep a beginner's mind and look for the ever-more subtle details The term “Taijiquan” can be bro...