Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Competency before intensity!

Chen Xiaowang
Basic movements
Chen Xin wrote that if you don't understand spiral movement you don't understand Chen Taijiquan. The reason for doing seemingly endless practice of the different silk reeling exercises and of training the form slowly is to reach a point where the whole body moves as one functional unit. Without this training, a student may only be able to harness forty or fifty percent of their body's potential. By realising the reeling silk method, they may be able to bring into play ninety or ninety-five percent (or even more!) when emitting force etc. This training method of fixing precise movement patterns before speeding up the movement has been passed down through generations of Chen Taijiquan practitioners for getting on for 400 years.

Kelly Holmes - perfect basic movements
Its fascinating to see some of the leading lights in modern sports performance training "discovering" the importance of fixing correct movement patterns before adding intensity. For example, Mark Bennett MBE, founder of Performance Development Systems (PDS), who provides high quality performance coaching & mentoring to national and international coaches, organisations, teams and athletes. In the British Army, he served as the senior instructor at 29 Commando running the physical development and commando training for the Regiment. In an article on how to train like double Olympic Gold winner Kelly Holmes, Bennett listed 5 crucial areas that must be attended to: nutrition, motivation, exercise, rest and movement. It's this last category that we are interested in here. Under the category of "movement" he wrote, "All Olympians know that to achieve great results, it's vital to spend time perfecting the basic movements before applying any level of intensity. This is called "competency before intensity". With this in mind, never be afraid to take a step back, reduce the level of resistance to perfect the movement...". Likewise, in Athletic Body in Balance: Optimal movement skills and conditioning for performance, leading coach Gray Cook describes a pyramid  made up of three levels - the base (the largest and most important level) representing the establishment of correct movement patterns, the middle level representing strength, power and general conditioning, the top level - built on the preceeding strong base representing functional skill. In Cook's own words: "The optimum performances pyramid is the pyramid in which movement patterns, movement efficiency and sport skill are balnced and adequate". The inhabitants of Chenjiagou have been following this cutting edge sports science for four centuries!

How many times are Taijiquan students seduced by the lure of the more (seemingly) exciting advanced forms, weapons, applications etc before they have even begun to put down an adequate foundation. This is a certain dead end road. Chenjiagou practitioners have the advantage of seeing learners at each stage of the learning process, so they readily accept the validity of the traditional syllabus. Western students hear the tales of the grandmasters spending long periods on the foundation form, but often either get bored or lose confidence. I read one "advanced" student of one of the Chen grandmasters proudly proclaiming his 200 hours of training with said teacher during which time he had apparently gone through the entire syllabus. Chen Taijiquan is a powerful and effective martial art that has stood the test of time. It has its own unique movement and energetic requirements and is not just Shaolin Gongfu or Karate done slowly. The slowness of Taijiquan allows the practitioner to pay attention to the myriad requirements which, when all in place, gives a tremendous degree of rootedness, structural integration and balance. Looking back at the notes I took during Chen Zhenglei's First International Advanced Training Camp in Hebei, China in 1999, I had highlighted the following advice he gave "train the movement, not the manifestation - train the body to be a completely integrated system". Slowness is the method not the aim of practice!
1997 International Advanced Chen Taijiquan Training Camp we were told to "train the body as an integrated system"
Contrast this with the depressing trend where martial artists of other disciplines open up Taijiquan classes, with no respect or awareness of the complexity of the discipline. Like the following example from the website of a longtime Shaolin teacher (who presumably took the trouble to learn the forms of his system) advertising his Taiji classes: "I also teach Taiji and Qi Gong, derived from my experience in Shaolin (Chinese) Martial Arts. I have studied some Yang and Wu Style forms and choose to devise my own forms for the time being. This is based upon the classical precepts, with a focus upon the cultivation of Chi (energy). Inspired from the heart of the Shaolin Temple and by the rogue monk who was expelled from its walls - by the young boy who secretly watched from a treetop the ‘inner teachings’ of the old man practicing by the moon reflecting on the water, like all monkeys, I experiment with what comes and use whatever sticks...I am more interested in simple movements that can help one relax and unwind, than sharing complicated patterns that lead one away from the belly and into the head. This is another way of saying that I like to teach the bodymind, watch people learn without effort and see them having fun." I wonder if this same guy went to his Shaolin master and described his Shaolin training as "learning without the need for effort" and said that it would be better to drop the traditional animal forms because they were complicated and made him to have to think. Whilst he was at it he could drop the conditioning methods because they hurt a bit!

In Chenjiagou there is a saying that to achieve success and skill in Taijiquan you must be prepared to "eat bitterness". There is also a saying that "you must train according to the rules". It is not just about being easy and fun and without effort. The real marker of whether someone is serious about Chen Taijiquan is whether they believe in the method. Don't be in a hurry. Carefully work towards understanding the different requirements, train hard and advance step-by-step!!   


Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Goodbye "Linda - Little but Lethal"

Linda Hargreaves (1st right)
Its a sad day in our school today as we have lost  a much loved Taiji sister. Life really is a fleeting journey - at the school Christmas party she was full of joy and laughter, now she is no longer with us. Linda Hargreaves was small of stature but large in spirit. Training with a sabre that was almost as big as herself or doing applications with the big guys - earning the nickname "Linda - little, but lethal"!

3rd from the left, next to Chen Ziqiang - smallest as usual!
What I loved about Linda was her willingness to try everything - to have a go.  Coming to Taiji relatively late, with not such great health and - always - the smallest person in the class - her attitude, beaming smile and ability to encourage others led to her assisting her instructor Lee Davies Conchie in our Blackpool branch. When the dynamic Chen Ziqiang came to the UK last summer to teach the Cannon Fist, she leapt and jumped, kicked and punched, swept and spun through the seminar. Even the normally impassive face of Chen Ziqiang broke into a smile! 

How often people come to class and say "I can't". Linda was a glowing example of a person of normal ability achieving success because they  are determined to. She'll be sorely missed.


Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Push Hands - exploring your Limits!

The concept of "investment in loss" can be difficult to truly accept. The idea of individual effort and success is a cornerstone of western society. In 1997 I travelled with the team of my Chinese Taijiquan teacher to compete in the "International Atlantic Cup", a tournament with competitors from Hong Kong, USA and a number of other countries. Over the previous 15 years I had taken part in lots of karate and kick-boxing tournaments. This was my first go at push hands competition and it would be an understatement to say that I was excited. Then came the bombshell - there were 3 weight classes - and we had one heavyweight and two middleweights, myself and a good friend of mine. "Decide who is going to concede if you are drawn against each other". I thought I was hearing things, but the teacher explained that in China the most important thing was the result of the team. It was usual, it seemed,  for teammates to concede defeat if pitted against each other and coast during a bout to make sure that the one most likely to succeed went through to the next round fresh. After all my hard training I definitely wasn't going to concede.  And my teammate obviously felt the same! As it happened we didn't meet until the final so, in the end, there was no problem - I won a hard contest after an extension. If we had met earlier it would definitely have weakened one of us!     

I read a facebook comment posted by one of the students in our school  who recently started to learn push hands after four years or so of Taijiquan practice. He described his experience as "exploring the limits of what you know - and do not know - about the realities of taijiquan, in a friendly and supportive environment". This reminded me of a conversation from over a decade ago when I was training with GM Zhu Tiancai in Singapore. Zhu is an enthusiastic teacher who likes to intersperse his classes with anecdotes of his training with his own teachers Chen Zhaopi and Chen Zhaokui. During a break in one session, he descibed his experience of push hands as a youth in Chenjiagou. Push-hands, he said, was approached as a cooperative and analytic activity. People of all ages of either sex would train together, carefully working out the nuances of each angle and position. Ego and competitiveness played little part in the day to day training. He recounted one exception - a bigger and older student who used excessive force each time he pushed with Zhu. All he could do was run away. When he told his teacher Chen Zhaopi told him not to worry and at all costs not to try to use force to stop his opponent. As long as he didn't do this, moving away from  his opponent didn't mean that he had lost.  Later in another exchange between them Zhu reversed the forceful attack of his opponent and broke his (the opponent's) finger in the process. When the big guy complained, Chen Zhaopi  scolded him and told in no uncertain terms that it was his own clumsy force that had broken his finger!

Singapore 2001 - Pushing hands with GM Zhu Tiancai

Introducing Gabriela Morgado - translator of the Portuguese edition of "The Essence of Taijiquan"

Gabriela teaches in Lisbon, Portugal.She is a linguist who started her Taijiquan training with Yang Style in 1993, moving over to Chen Style in 2000.She has been to Chenjiagou a number of times with our school and has done a great job bringing "A essĂȘncia do Tai Ji Quan" to Portuguese Taijiquan players.