Tuesday, 25 June 2019

“Triple tasking” and the correct development of intelligence ...

I was chatting with one of my students who has Parkinson’s disease. He told me about one of the methods he was following having taken advice on the best way to slow down the progress of his condition. The most obvious physical symptoms of Parkinson's are tremor, stiffness and slowness of movement. Non-motor functions are also affected with impairments in the domain of executive functioning being common. A day-to-day example of executive functioning would be something like multi-tasking situations like walking with someone while having a chat. He had been asked to “triple task” – for example riding on a stationary bike while, at the same time, turning a hand crank and counting backwards from one hundred.  The advice he was given has a clear parallel with Taijiquan training.  

Feng Zhiqiang - Taijiquan as a method for "correctly developing intelligence"
I remember an article by the late master Feng Zhiqiang in which he spoke of the benefits of Taijiquan training. As well as the usual benefits like: the development of both internal and external strength, enhanced body coordination, looseness and flexibility, mental quietness, martial ability etc, he spoke of Taijiquan as a means to train “the correct development of intelligence.” What does this mean in practical terms?

Taijiquan training works towards unifying all elements of “separateness.” So there can be: no raising up without some aspect of sinking; no focus on forward movement without simultaneously considering the rear; no focusing on the external shape without paying attention to the internal energetic sensation. For the beginning student it is enough to try to keep the body upright, be as loose as possible, and try to keep the feeling of lightly lifting the top of the head. Over time the mind is engaged to a greater and more subtle degree. In Chen Taijiquan this is sometimes referred to as the “rule of three” where the body is divided and subdivided around its upper, middle and lower aspects. For this reason Taijiquan has been called the study of contradictions. It is the reconciliation of these contradictions that eventually creates the experience of “oneness” or true holistic movement. So when we talk about balance we aren’t talking about some static state, but a dynamic process as an individual continually and instinctively adjusts to shifting and evolving circumstances.

Achieving this requires us to carefully following a process for an extended time with no expectation of quick successes. Trying to put this message across in today’s ever more frenetic and instant culture can sometimes feel akin to King Canute trying to hold back the tide. You only have to look at popular apps like Headspace that promises to show “how to meditate in ten minutes.” During one of our training camps in Chenjiagou Chen Xiaoxing remarked that anyone can train hard for a week or two, but few people can do it daily for five years and beyond.
Chen Xiaoxing - It's easy to train hard for a short time. Can you do it long term?
I was struck by the following passage from an article by Phillip Zarrilli describing the process of learning the ancient Indian martial art kalarippayattu:  “A student’s regularity of attendance, attitude, seriousness of purpose, maturity and emotional stability all come into play in the teacher’s decision regarding advancement. None of this is expressed or spoken. The teacher collects and registers his daily impressions of students. There is no overt sign of approval, nor is reassurance or encouragement given on any regular basis. The individual is basically alone, confronting himself as he struggles awkwardly with the external form of the system and to advancement within it.”

Friday, 24 May 2019

Focus on the process

Taijiquan results are forged by an ongoing process, not by dramatic sudden events. All accomplished practitioners create their own skill by following a carefully orchestrated process. Success in Taijiquan – for success read the achievement of a meaningful level of skill - requires us to follow series of steps that have been handed down for generations. Everyone can quote the stages and requirements. How many follow them? Manifest skill is usually the result of a repetitive journey. Drip, drip, drip and then the sudden overnight ten year success!

Learners are often impatient. Seeing the end product, the polished, dynamic and accomplished practitioner, they typically ignore the process that preceeded this level of skill. The process was the long and bitter road that few people get to witness: the long daily training sessions, the injuries and rehabilitation, the dark lonely days when they are sustained only by inner motivation and determination. The process is the real back story with its countless iteration of form routines, basic exercises and partner drills.
It may be nice to think of skill as something that arrives in a flash - an event like a sudden flash of illumination or moment of enlightenment. This kind of thinking dismisses the need for the drudgery of daily training. How often we see learners questioning everything incessantly but doing little real training - If they only knew the “correct” way to do it… Of course this is an illusion. As I saw it described elsewhere “Such a belief is a mirage of event over process. If you try to skip process, you’ll never experience events.” Sadly, as a media-centred, “I want it today” society, the spotlight and the glory all goes to the event, while the process is hidden behind the woodshed.
Chen Zhaopi compared Taijiquan skill to a bowl of soup. Question any chef and they will surely confirm that the perfect dish is a series of ingredients and a well-engineered process of execution - a little bit of this, a pinch of that, everything done at the appropriate time and place, and wham, you have an appetizing meal. Like the soup, Chen Zhaopi said Taijiquan skill in the end everything is blended together and can’t be separated.  Skill eludes most people because they are preoccupied with events while disregarding process. Without process, there is no event. For our chef, the cooking is the process, while the meal is the event. For the Taijiquan player the repeated (appropriate) training is the process, while the skill is the result.  
A young instructor form the Chenjiagou Taijiquan School

Tuesday, 2 April 2019

Chen Xiaoxing – “If you can see it, it is too much”!

The experience of training in Chenjiagou has changed in many ways over the years. In the first place it’s impossible to ignore the backdrop of the speed and scale of changes taking place in China.  Within this setting, the remarkable pace of development of Chenjiagou shows no sign of slowing down. The simple dusty village that captivated me in the 1990s, seeming to have stood still in time, has been replaced by a modern vision of what the birthplace of an art as famous as Taijiquan “should” look like. With stadiums, a modern exhibition centre, Taijiquan museum and numerous Taiji themed tourist attractions. In the centre of the village the Chenjiagou Taijiquan School has also grown larger over the years. The main training hall that used to be a Spartan concrete floored empty space is now fully  equipped with modern training aids including a full sized boxing ring, rows of heavy bags and a raised push hands ring.

That said, within the school there is still a palpable sense of tradition. A portrait of Chen Xiaoxing, the current principal of the school looks down from above the entrance to the room. The opposite wall is decorated by portraits (left) of his direct ancestors: his father Chen Zhaoxu; grandfather Chen Fake creator of the New Frame routines; another three generations back, Chen Changxin who reclassified the older forms of the system into the Laojia routines; back to Chen Wangting creator of Chen family Taijiquan.
With all the changes, some things are refreshingly familiar. For instance the importance Chen Xiaoxing places on zhan zhuang (standing pole) as the primary means of realising and training Taijiquan’s jibengong (basic training). Taijiquan’s training methodology is built upon an implicit understanding of the ultimately limiting practice of building strength and fitness on top of dysfunction.
At the most obvious level zhan zhuang helps to establish the required body shape - hips and shoulders level, crotch rounded, head upright and balanced, shoulders relaxed and elbows sunken etc… requirements quoted, but often not manifest to a sufficient degree. Beyond this zhan zhuang training provides a means of beginning to physically understand and manifest critical but far from obvious aspects of Taijiquan.
During his camp at Tomlin, Slovenia in August 2018 Chen Xiaoxing spoke at length about the importance of zhan zhuang training:
Zhan Zhuang (photo by Rob Steenkamp)
“Zhan zhuang is training fundamental skill (gong). Why fundamental skill? The saying is “Train quan without training gong, at the end all is in vain”. Many people think that basic training involves stretching the legs and back etc...in fact fundamental skill, as in the taolu (form routine) involves feeling the intention and qi. Whether it is zhan zhuang, reeling silk or form, the fundamental skill is mentally and physically enabling the experience of intention and qi and the extent to which they can be achieved. Because fundamental training is done in a static posture, it is easier to grasp and experience them, unlike in the form routine where one has to cope with a myriad of changes of directions and focus. The mental and energetic feel gleaned from the basic training can then be incorporated into the form. This is the reason why zhan zhuang is important and is a part of training that cannot be missed.”
Chen Xiaoxing jokes sometimes that the thing his students fear the most is standing. Where some people emphasise standing training as a relaxing meditative experience, with him it is also a physically and psychologically challenging practice. Training two sessions a day, every session begins with half an hour or so of zhan zhuang. During our recent visit a film crew spent several days shooting around the school and surrounding village. The German-New Zealand-China collaboration, documenting the many “Colours of China” had spent a year filming around the country. The German project manager was fascinated with the paradox of Taijiquan training - on the one hand the quietness of the practice, and on the other the intensity. The way that everyone in the room’s legs seemed to be shaking with the effort the instant they were adjusted and corrected by the teacher.      

During the visit we spent ten days working through and refining the Xinjia Yilu routine. If our motivation for training is functional efficiency, then a critical goal of training is the development of non-telegraphed movement. Where modern practitioners often talk about effective martial training, in reality practice is often geared more towards performance and demonstration. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with this in terms of fitness and health, self-expression etc. But, in a real situation telegraphing your intention can lead to a disastrous outcome. Anyone who has taken part in competitions where there are real physical consequences for making mistakes realise quickly and painfully the importance of hiding what you are going to do. Chen Xiaoxing often repeats the phrase “if you can see it it is too much.” For example as a practitioner shifts weight from one side to the other, the intention is to move the waist in a narrow almost imperceptible arc. Just as not engaging the waist is a fault, over-turning is also an error. So we need to look beyond aesthetics and the desire to show everything.

Xinjia training in the main hall of the Chenjiagou Taijiquan School      (Photo by Rob Steenkamp)

 Key points emphasised by Chen Xioaxing:

·         Guarding against the danger of movement being overly stylised

·         Using the form to bring out qualities such as the ability to change suddenly, accuracy, timing etc

·         To be effective movement must not be telegraphed

·         The critical importance of intention and feeling

CTGB 2019 group with Chinese students who trained alongside us



Thursday, 7 February 2019

Reducing tell-tale signals…

Today many people train Taijiquan for enjoyment, sports performance, artistic expression etc. Nothing wrong with that in itself, but the mindset is very different from that advocated in traditional Taijiquan where we are told to train using intention without revealing our purpose externally. An often quoted saying from famous military strategist Sunzi’s “Art of War” advises that: “If one knows the enemy and oneself, one can fight a hundred battles without defeat”. How is this relevant to Taijiquan practice? It’s generally said that a person trains form to know themselves and that they train push hands to know an opponent. But this isn’t quite sufficient. For sure push hands training sensitises us to the movements of an opponent. However, it is critical to realise that this is not a one way interaction. Learning to read the movements of an opponent has to be tempered by an awareness that one’s own movements may be read by the same opponent.  Even as an exponent is feeling for the tell-tale signals giving away the intention of another, he must learn to recognise his own anticipatory movement.  This is one of the reasons why the form is practiced so slowly and meticulously. By carefully and meticulously examining each movement one can begin the step-by-step process of rooting out any “telegraphing” of our own intention. By uncovering all the places where movement is inefficient or lacking the necessary smooth and spiralling quality, one gradually reaches the point where it can be said that we “know ourselves.”   

An early shot of Chen Zhenglei and Chen Xiaowang