Sunday 2 December 2012

Chen Xiaoxing – entering a new cycle!

The birthday cake -  6 tiers topped by a symbolic longevity peach
A week ago I was in Chenjiagou enjoying the 60th birthday celebrations of Chen Xiaoxing. Unlike the West’s obsession with youth, in Chinese culture the 60th birthday is a landmark birthday and is the first birthday to be marked by large scale celebrations. It was fitting of the man that the party wasn’t held in some fancy restaurant, but in his training hall!
Evening celebrations
The Chinese zodiac is made up of 12 creatures - the rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, ram, monkey, rooster, dog and pig. Each creature in turn is associated with one of the 5 elements of wood, fire, earth, metal and water. Chinese astrologers consider the age of 60 to be the completion of one life cycle – (The 12 creatures multiplied by the 5 elements equates to 60 distinct phases), an auspicious number in Chinese culture. Those who achieve the plateau of 60 years begin a new life cycle at that point. 
Saying my piece - just one of the many speeches
Chen Xiaoxing has lived in Chen Village all his life. He knows everyone in the village, and they all know him. Surrounded by his family, friends and disciples - like all good Chinese celebrations it began with a succession of speeches. One after another stood up to praise him for his modesty skill and martial virtue or "wude".

When everyone else had finished Chen Xiaoxing stood up and in his usual understated way offered the following advice: 
“Don’t criticise other people. Don’t boast about yourself. Just put your head down and train”!   
After the afternoon banquet the whole school demonstrated for Chen Xiaoxing and his guests.

Monday 5 November 2012

You might be doing Chen style but are you doing Taijiquan?

Moving slowly towards correctness

Chen style Taijiquan is a relatively new kid on the block in Western Taiji circles. In a short time many Chen teachers have sprung up – self proclaimed masters proudly proclaiming that they are doing the original, the real, the authentic Taijiquan passed down from Chen Wangting the creator of Taijiquan himself!! You know the type – trained for 2 years and loudly talking about push hands, applications and realistic training… or instructors qualified to teach the Chen short form: Can you imagine a Karate/Judo/Ju Jitsu student training for 6 months and then getting an instructor’s certificate – “qualified to teach up to yellow belt”!! While marvelling at their own achievements they disparage Taiji players from other systems as having too much emphasis on softness, no fajin etc etc.   

Traditional training - precise, meticulous, long-term...
Let us be clear - the unique features of Taijiquan are song, rou and man – that is looseness, pliancy and slowness. Slowness is the method where we can, as it were, expand time to check that every aspect of posture and movement fulfils the necessary criteria. Through meticulous self-examination and correction from a knowledgeable teacher we slowly move closer and closer to the standard required. Following the traditional method it is accepted that the qualities of pliancy and looseness can only be cultivated slowly. Only when these qualities have been honed are we ready to train the wider parts of the syllabus. Many modern Chen players pay lip service to the traditional way but in reality cannot accept this preliminary stage. I know of an ordained Buddhist who received his appointment after completing a “fast track” course in Zen Buddhism. Comparing a traditionally trained Chen Taijiquan player with these “fast track” Chen players is like comparing western boxing with a boxercise class at the local health studio.

Or does it have to be fun or you're not playing!

Monday 15 October 2012

The “inner world” is going mainstream!

The internal training required of Taijiquan and other internal martial arts is often dismissed by some as some kind of esoteric practice.  However, it is interestingly to note that many elite level mainstream sports coaches now acknowledge the critical importance of the “inner world” of the athletes under their charge.  None more so than top sports psychologist James Loehr, who has trained world-class athletes in many different sports, who asserts that in the final analysis even the thoughts inside an individuals head must be considered as a physical aspect to be rigorously trained if they are to achieve excellence in their chosen discipline:  “This may sound quite shocking coming from a psychologist, but all the evidence is there.  The body is physical; talent and skill are physical; emotions are neurochemical events and are therefore physical; and thinking and visualising are electrochemical events in the brain and are also physical… let’s get it straight once and for all: thoughts and feelings are physical stuff too; they are just as real and every bit as fundamental to achievement as talent and skill” Loehr, 1995). 

Constructive Thoughts and Practical Applications
Left are some images from Asian Martial Arts: Constructive Thoughts and Practical Applications. This commerative book marks the end of publication of The Journal of Asian Martial Arts. There is a preview of the book on Amazon. Congratulations to editor Michael De Marco  for his great work over the years! If you love traditional martial arts - support this project!

Tuesday 25 September 2012

Words are just words...

Chenjiagou Taijiquan GB's Mary McGregor feeling the correction

During his seminar at our school recently Chen Xiaoxing said that one of his aims is to train students not to be dependant. He would demonstrate a movement and then expect everyone to train themselves. People often like to have the teacher leading them all the time. And if he is not leading then many people soon stop practicing and start to talk instead. Chen Xiaoxing's approach is that if you want to get the skill yourself then talking and just following him is not the way to do it. Don't be so quick to ask questions - "watch carefully and then practice yourself". His brother Chen Xioawang, similarly often says to "practice more and a question may not be a question any more". During one of his workshops Wang Haijun said simply - "beginners ask too many questions"! Of course sometimes we have a real question, but what we are talking about here is the learner who asks question after question, often barely pausing for breath after one question has been answered to ask the next... In The Tao of Zen Ray Grigg put it nicely when he said: "Look in mind to find mind; look in things to find things; look in words to find words. But words chase themselves in circles trying to explain things that are not words". If a teacher corrects your posture then the most appropriate thing to do is to train and try to replicate the corrections he has just made. Unlike the modern "Zumba-world" - with the ever-changing fitness classes as entertainment model; running on treadmills with tv screens and book-holders - progress in Taijiquan is built upon careful study, introspective training and perseverance. As it has always been!!!!
CTGB's Adrian Murray - after seeing then training hard!

Wednesday 5 September 2012

Follow the Rules!

Got a great few weeks coming up!- Just picked up GM Chen Xiaoxing from the airport. He returns to our school to do a week-long seminar on the traditional Chen Village staples - Standing Pole/Reeling Silk, Laojia Yilu and Erlu. Then for the next few weeks we'll be accompanying him to the South of England and then to Poland, to my pals Ben Milton (Bristol School of Taijiquan) and Marek Balinski's Chen Academy in Warsaw. In both places covering these same fundamentals. One of my earlier postings highlighted Chen Xiaoxing's "village style" training and his simple advice to anyone trying to emulate the skills handed down by successive generations of Chenjiagou practitioners -  "Know the law" and then  "follow the law".

Two generations earlier his illustrious grandfather Chen Fake divided the training process into three stages:

1. Learn the basic movements correctly

2. Become proficient in practising the form ACCORDING TO THE RULES

3. Thorough familiarity WITH THE RULES and understand clearly why there are THESE RULES

It's funny how different people percieve this kind of approach to training. In the world of traditional Chen Taijiquan there really is no other way.  One of my long-time students who has trained in China and attended many seminars happily anticipated Chen Xiaoxing's basic training workshop calling it the "torture session". Others are looking for new exciting things all the time. I guess you take your pick.

Back From the USA

Just got back last week from a great visit to the West Coast of America where we did some really enjoyable sessions at two fine schools - Bill & Allison Helm's Taoist Sanctuary of San Diego (below) and  Kim Ivy's Embrace the Moon Taijiquan and Qigong School in Seattle (left). Thanks for making us feel so welcomed guys and looking forward to our next visit!!

Sunday 26 August 2012

Natural is the First Principle

Standing in the Olympic National Park!
The Daoist sage Zhuangzi advised - "It takes a long time to do a thing properly... Follow with whatever happens and let your mind be free; stay centred by accepting whatever you are doing. This is the ultimate... It is best to leave everything to work naturally..." Chen Fake is reported to have frequently advised his students to ting qi ziran, literally to "listen to nature" or perhaps more accurately to "go with what is natural". 

During my recent visit to the USA I had the good fortune to visit the pristine wilderness of the Olympic National Park's temperate rainforests.  On the flight back to the UK I reread the following passage from The Essence of Taijiquan:

"Taijiquan is rooted in Daoist philosophy. Daoist thinking holds that nature is as it is and that within the cosmos everything has its natural place and function. This can only be distorted and misunderstood when it is defined, labelled or evaluated. "The object of human wisdom is to fall in line with the Dao or the ways and laws of nature and live in harmony with them". Trying too hard is the surest way not to achieve - for example the Taijiquan practitioner who makes the mistake of "trying" to relax instead of just relaxing. Generations of teachers have instructed their students to practice according to the correct principles and let nature take its course". 

It is important to be clear what it is we are trying to achieve in our Taijiquan practice. Take the training method of zhan zhuang (standing post) - why do we do this exercise? 

- mental calmness
-postural awareness & structural integrity
-lower body stability,/upper body lightness
-etc etc

Every Taijiquan student knows this, but how many achieve it? A saying in the Taijiquan classics states that we must go through the process of calming the mind - from this the emotions become stilled - from this the body begins to relax. An inevitable and inviolable sequence. Watch the masters standing - they look comfortable, often stirring slightly, readjusting their positions - clear in what they are trying to achieve. Contrast this with many people who turn standing into a kind of penance. Is someone standing rigid and unmoving really engaging with this process (calm mind/emotional stillness/bodily relaxation)?

It is important to sometimes let go of the desire to over-analyse. Get back to nature and experience its forces instead of reading about them. For a short time perhaps see the world a little more like the Daoists whose thinking shaped the art we practise:    

Inward to outward expansion
Back to the forest.- the concentric circles within the trunk of a fallen 400 year old tree aptly illustrates the idea of inward to outward expansion (Taijiquan's peng jin). Also the layers of circularity hidden within the straightness of the trunk.

- trying to cross the Queets River my legs were taken by the power of the water. Not in a predictable direct push, but in a swirling uprooting motion - instantly finding any weakness of balance or moment of indecision as I try to find a firm foothold.

- watching the branches of the 10,000 year old forest move with the breeze - neither before nor after - neither purposive nor pre-emptive -but exactly in accord.  Isn't this a perfect example of Taijiquan's listening skill or ting jin?

Respect to our friend and guide Kevin Fetherson (right) - ecologist/professor/man of the forest - for a great wilderness Taiji lesson.

Thursday 26 July 2012

The end of an era as we say farewell to the Journal of Asian Martial Arts

The Journal of Asian Martial Arts has always been a quality magazine that I have enjoyed for many years. Filled with thoughtful and scholarly articles about the many faces of the various Asian fighting traditions - an enjoyable source of inspiration and education. It came as a shock a few months ago to hear from the editor Michael DeMarco that the journal was to cease publication due to cost issues. So ends one of the very best Asian martial arts publications, as my friend Kim Ivy said - a sad reflection of the times on many levels!    
 On a brighter note - In celebration of the journals' two decades of great work the JAMA team are publishing a new book called Asian Martial Arts: Constructive Thoughts & Practical Applications. With nine articles by leading martial art scholars covering history, media, healing, spiritual, and combative components and 27 articles by renowned practitioners of many different disciplines demonstrating their favourite techniques and offering practice tips. I was honoured to be asked to contribute a piece about Chen Taijiquan applications.The cover is fantastic and I can't wait to get hold of a copy.

The journal's new website will be live in a few weeks where you can get hold of  a fantastic archive of articles, with new content to be added. Anyone who loves traditional martial arts would do well to support this project.

Saturday 7 July 2012

Don't Just Look for the Good Things!

Training with Zhu Tiancai during his first visit to the UK in 2001
We are all striving to improve as we learn - even Chen Xiaowang says he's constantly examining and refining his practice.   Some years ago, another great contemporary teacher of Chen Taijiquan, Zhu Tiancai, stayed in our home for about a month during his first visit to Europe.  One of the things he encouraged us to do was to watch films of well-known practitioners, to see if we could spot any mistake in their practice.  He explained that even if a master's skill is higher than your own,  when you can pick out a mistake, then you have understood something important and can begin to work on this aspect within your own training.  If the mistake is there and you cannot see it, this is indicative of your own level of understanding.  Also, just because you have spotted some deviation doesn't mean you can do better, or that that practitoner's overall skill level is not superb.  Here we are not talking about differences in choreography, but in deviations from Chen Taijiquan's core principles.  Some people never get past the stance of seeing all famous practitioners as perfect and any suggestion that they could be making mistakes as almost sacriligious.  Even highly skilled practitioners have deviations within their forms. Your ability to spot these is indicative of your own level of understanding.  Drawing motivation from the fantastic skills of the famous teachers is great, but do it with your eyes open!

Wednesday 20 June 2012

Chen Ziqiang - showing 100%

Chen Ziqiang - showing 100%
After the big response to a recent post about the pros and cons of simplified forms I found Chen Ziqiang's stance on Taijiquan training/teaching to be illuminating. He has just finished teaching a series of workshops at our school. Participants ranged in age from 14 to 75 with a great mix of backgrounds and abilities - professional Taijiquan and other martial arts teachers, lawyers, labourers, business people, teachers, an artist, some retired homemakers etc... All serious enough to attend the workshops, but obviously having different goals and reasons for training. Some travelled a long distance to be there (coming from Italy, Slovenia, Poland, Slovakia, Ireland...), others were students nervously attending a seminar with one of the Chen family for the first time. How did he deal with this mixed group?
Rt Josh Fishburn - youngest participant!

Simple - "show them 100% of Taijiquan with all its possibilities, then they know what it can be. Then if they apply themselves 100% from their current starting point even if they ultimately only achieve 50 or 60% of this they will still have attained a  worthwhile level of skill". To his way of thinking people should be exposed to Taijiquan with all its content and difficulty. All the low stances, powerful and intricate movements and martial content. Then they themselves can approximate and modify movements that are, at this moment, beyond them. He was adament that if students were shown things in the beginning in too simplified a format (or 30% of Taijiquan as he put it) then they were much less likely to be inspired to stretch themselves to the limit and reach their own true potential.
CTGB Laojia Yilu group

Wednesday 23 May 2012

Jack Dempsey on the importance of "Following the Process"

Today we have access to many high level Taijiquan masters, but how does that help the Western student trying to replicate the skills they exhibit? I’ve always believed that to simply copy what these masters do is not enough - to just follow what they are doing today may not bring the results we hope for, instead – WE MUST FOLLOW THE PROCESSES THEY WENT THROUGH!!!  Perhaps the main advantage Chen Village students have is that they get to see people at all stages development. Gross movement is mastered before subtle details are filled in.

 The following observations by the great 1920s boxing champion Jack “The Mannassa Mauler” Dempsey on the difficulties of high level fighters teaching fighting skills to beginners gives us food for thought.  Published in 1950, Championship Fighting: Explosive Punching and Aggressive Defense seeks to understand why so few great fighters make great teachers:

“In your heyday as champion, you can't "see the forest for the trees." As an historian might express it, you're too close to your career to get the proper perspective of highlights and background. It was only after I had retired and had begun trying to teach others how to fight that I investigated the steps in my stairway-analyzed my own technique. And that was a tough job.

You see: by the time a fellow becomes a successful professional fighter, nearly all his moves are so instinctive, through long practice, that it's difficult for him to sort out the details of each move. Accordingly, it's nearly impossible-at first-for him to explain his moves to a beginner. He can say to the beginner, "You throw a straight right like this." Then he can shoot a straight right at a punching bag. But the beginner will have no more conception of how to punch with the right than he had before. That's the chief reason why so few good fighters developed into good instructors. They failed to go back and examine each little link in each boxing move. They tried to give their pupils the chains without the links.

When I began breaking down my moves for the purpose of instruction, I found it most helpful to swing my memory clear back to the days when I was a kid at Manassa, a small town in southern Colorado. I was fortunate as a kid. My older brothers, Bernie and Johnny, were professional fighters. They had begun teaching me self-defense by the time I was six years old. In my break-down, I tried to recall exact details of the first fundamentals my brothers taught me. I jotted down every detail of those instructions I could remember, and every detail that dawned on me while I was practicing those early fundamentals.

Jack Dempsey - "Absorb instructions, pointers and theories"
Then I moved mentally across the Great Divide to Montrose, Colorado, the town where I spent my latter youth. There was more interest in fighting in Montrose than in any place of its size I've ever known. It was a town of would-be fighters. In some Montrose families there were four or five brothers who wanted to be fighters. I found plenty of kid sparmates there and plenty of instructors- some good, some bad. My investigation of technique took me on a long mental journey as I followed my fighting trail through the West, where I had worked at any job I could get in mines, lumber camps, hash-houses, on ranches, etc. I was fighting on the side in those days, and I was getting pointers on self defense from all the old-timers I met. Each trainer, each manager, each fighter had his own ideas and his own specialities. Like a blotter on legs,I absorbed all that information in those days, and then discarded what seemed wrong.

Swinging back through Memory Lane, I found myself, at twenty-one, making my first trip to New York, where I fought Andre Anderson, "Wild Bert" Kenny and John Lester Johnson, who cracked two of my ribs. Although that New York trip was a disappointment, I received much valuable fighting information from top-flight heavies like Frank Moran, Bill Brennan, Billy Miske and Gunboat Smith, when each dropped into Grupp's Gymnasium.

And I recalled the details of my later post-graduate courses in fighting from Doc Kearns and Trainer Deforest, one of the best instructors in the world. Deforest's career went clear back to the days of Peter Jackson and London prize-ring rules.

That geographic investigation of my own technique really humbled me. It hit me right on the chin with the booming fact that since I was six years old, I'd had the opportunity to learn punching from a long parade of guys who had studied it. I had absorbed their instructions, their pointers, their theories, in Manassa, Montrose, Provo, Ogden, Salt Lake City, Goldfield, Tonopah, New York, San Francisco, Chicago, St. Paul, and many other cities-before I met Willard at Toledo. And let me emphasize that in the days when I was drinking in all that information, the fighters, trainers and managers knew much more about punching than they generally know today. You must remember that when I fought Willard in 1919, it was only twenty-seven years after Jim Corbett had beaten John L. Sullivan at New Orleans in the first championship fight with big gloves. While I was coming up, the technique of the old masters was still fresh in the minds of the fighting men. Now, it is over thirty years since the day I fought Willard. During those years fighting became "big business"; but in the scramble for money in the cauliflower patch, the punching technique of the old masters-Sullivan, Corbett, Bob Fitzsimmons, Tommy Ryan, Joe Gans, Terry McGovern, and others- seems to have been forgotten”.

CTGB Instructor Andrew Hesketh under the watchful eye of Chen Ziqiang

Back to Taijiquan - If we want high level skills we need to examine what is appropriate at each stage of our development. Is it really necessary for a beginner to stand for extended times and do the beginners in Chenjiagou do this?   Are you really at the correct stage to begin push hands training? Would it not be more beneficial to refine the forms you already know than to collect another one? When you are practicing the form are you laying down correct fundamentals and then building upon them at the appropriate time. Don't just copy blindly. 


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