Tuesday 15 December 2020

“Shape” - the Essential Base for Push Hands Skills

Chen Xiaoxing: "Before an individual is eligible to train tuishou they must first train the frame..."

Some time ago I came across an interesting article in the Chinese Taijiquan media that posed the question, what is Taijiquan gongfu and can it be better acquired through form training or tuishou? The same question was put to several teachers of different traditions including Chen Xiaoxing and Yang Zhenqi of Chen and Yang family Taijiquan respectively.

First to answer was Chen Xiaoxing: “In this context gong does not refer to the gong component within jibengong (basic exercises). Instead it refers to grasping the essential aspects of Taijiquan during practice, and implementing these essentials. Some people believe that gongfu can be developed more quickly with tuishou (push hands), and that it is useless to train the form. This is not correct. Before an individual is eligible to train tuishou they must first train the frame, until specific internal qi emerges. Compared to learning the form, practising tuishou does nothing more than allow you to grasp a few of the more obvious attacking techniques.  Without learning the form it is difficult to achieve a higher level of Taijiquan.  Invariably, upon encountering some external interference, you will not be able to neutralise the attack or escape it and you will not be able to execute the principle of "using four ounces to deflect a thousand pounds". 

On the same question Yang Taijiquan inheritor Yang Zhenqi spoke of the importance of first developing exactness of shape before training tuishou. I remember Chen Xiaowang making the point that the real skill of Taijiquan combat is based upon the ability to “arrive in the correct position.” Yang explained: “Placement (position) is jin… Gongfu does not develop from tuishou…  Gongfu is trained from the form, and not forced out of tuishou.  If tuishou can produce gongfu then our predecessors would not have needed to train the form and would have just focused on tuishou. The reality is that this was not the case…If you don't know the form, you do not train tuishou. When movements are relatively accurate, placements of the arms and legs are correct, movement positions are fixed, the jin route is integrated, and the xia pan (lower plane) is stable, then you can learn tuishou”. [Recollecting his father Yang Chengfu's method of teaching] First of all teach the correct positions - of the body, of the hands and feet, of accuracy of every posture.  When the position is exact, then the jin can come out.  He emphasised "bitterly train each position" in order for it to become "correct every time it's placed."

To summarise, within Taijiquan’s method correct form training – that is training focused upon establishing essential principles is the necessary first step. Ignoring this stage will result in a person developing no meaningful level of tuishou skill.

Yang Chengfu: "Bitterly train each position"

Monday 16 November 2020

Words vs Direct Experience

Grueling basic training might  look simple but it provides the necessary framework for skill development

Every morning Chen Xiaoxing leads the training in the small dark room a couple of doors from his own quarters in the Chenjiagou Taijiquan School. While the faces in the class change, the programme never varies. For the first hour or so students are put through “simple” basic exercises. This part of the class is repetitive and gruelling. He moves around the room, wordlessly for the most part, adjusting people’s postures and using his hands to lead them through the correct movement route. This is the ultra important process of laying down deep foundations. During this stage [which never ends!] there cannot be any shortcuts. The structure and movement patterns established here provide a steel frame of understanding upon which to build further skills. As one of the guys in the class said “if you want to build a skyscraper you have to dig deep foundations.”

A key feature is the lack of discussion. In the tradition of Eastern teachers Chen Xiaoxing doesn’t ask people for their opinions about the movements. But what he does frequently is ask them to concentrate and “feel” the position or movement. Throughout the training there is an implicit understanding that words often get in the way. The realities of direct experience, and the fiction created by the spell of words people weave around them, can lead to great 

distortions of meaning. Many people can quote the fundamental requirements of Taijiquan – song (looseness), peng (expansion), sinking qi to the dantian while raising the spirit to the top of the head; maintaining a sense of opposition and harmonisation etc. Problems start when practitioners who haven’t gone sufficiently deeply into what these things actually are reinterpret them according to their pre-held understanding. [The pre-held knowledge is typically either in the form of intellectual knowledge from some other field or experience from a different physical discipline] It doesn’t matter if someone has done Taijiquan for decades, if they’ve never emptied themselves of existing frames of reference it’s difficult to really “enter the door.”      

Morning session in Chenjiagou Taijiquan School
In a wide-ranging interview Naval Ravikant, a fixture of the Silicon Valley start-up scene, spoke on the importance of learning the difference between “knowing the name of something” and “knowing something”: “This is a very deep point. A lot of times we just define something with another definition.  Or we throw out a piece of jargon as if that means we know something. It’s the difference between memorisation and understanding. Understanding is a thing that you want. You want to be able to describe it in ten different ways in simple sentences from the ground up and re-derive whatever you need. If you just memorise you’re lost. So, I think this is one of the things that I get stuck on a lot just keep going back and reading the basics over and over trying to understand them.”

In the end training must be grounded in reality and the challenge is not mistake the word for the thing. The terms used and passed down in Taijiquan represent a compressed way of communicating knowledge that can only be understood from the first principles embedded through direct experience.

Chen Xiaoxing with long time disciple Lin Jun - "feeling it"!



Sunday 11 October 2020

Cui Guangbo - Training Fajin...

Chen Zhenglei & Cui Guangbo demonstrating applications in The Art of Chen Style Taijiquan

Clearing out an old filing cabinet I revisited a notebook from a training trip to China in 1998. It’s easy to forget how much harder it was to get information in those pre-internet days. On the flip side we valued and took note of any information we got! Among the comments that filled the pages was a short list of reminders from Cui Guangbo, one of Chen Zhenglei’s oldest students, who had joined our group training in Zhengzhou. He gave the following pointers on the process of developing fajin in the correct way.  

1. Silk-reeling exercises act as the root to fajin.
2. Fajin manifests in a scissor route – that is left leg to right arm and right leg to left arm.
3. The most important thing is to be totally relaxed and to learn the form in slow movements.
4. Each time you are going to release power you should first relax into the posture – loosen the kua, sink body, store your chest, relax shoulders etc.
5. Then, at the moment of fajin, all the relaxed positions should spring into action and be activated into their opposite state.

The notes then re-emphasised the point that above all to learn to fajin effectively you must practice the movement slowly and correctly (posture wise). When the movement becomes very familiar, gradually increase momentum (speed) until the correct quality of fajin is achieved. 

The following points were added by Chen Zhenglei:

1. Fajin is based on complete relaxation – the hands, even when held in fists, are relaxed throughout including the point of impact. The idea behind this being that in a real situation by bringing intent it will be easy to provide the necessary force/hardness. The harder part is the development of complete relaxation.  [Looking back at this note I’d add this is especially true for adult learners who tend to have more ingrained tension and faulty movement patterns that need to be worked out before there is any thought about added force at the point of impact.]

2. Think of each movement in terms of the entire route and the different possibilities. For example, depending upon where the energy is released, the Hidden Thrust Punch could be (i) a punch, (ii) an elbow strike, (iii) a shoulder strike.

A requirement to learning is the ability to listen and take note, even if what you’re hearing doesn’t seem to make sense at that moment. Assuming you’ve picked the right person to listen to, by following the process eventually what seemed complex may become clear.

Cui Guangbo and  David Gaffney pushing hands (Zhenzhou,1988)

Friday 2 October 2020

Mind Training in Taijiquan

The body of a Taijiquan practitioner is observable, their mind is not. Take form training, as an individual does the routine they can be seen going through precise positional and attitudinal changes. At least at a superficial level, the direction and limits of the movements of the hands and feet, the direction of the torso, stepping actions etc are not too difficult to follow. Later, as the level of skill becomes more refined these become more subtle and a trained eye is needed to catch all the details. Traditional teaching involves a process of modelling where, with minimal words, a student learns the proper form by imitating the movements of their master or a senior student within the school. An outsider observing the interaction could easily conclude that the whole process was little more than a mimetic dance. 

This, however, would be to ignore the inner mental processes that are taking place. The mind is less easy to observe and more difficult to control often seeming to wander randomly. The Confucian sage Mencius said: “It comes in and goes out at no definite time and without anyone’s knowing its direction.” The traditional Taijiquan or other East Asian martial arts master is not only interested in the correctness of the form but also in the mental attitude behind it. He is aware of the disparity between a rote performer and an active participant, even though both may seem to follow instructions correctly.

Perceptive eyes can pick up signals revealing a student is still far off from actualising Taijiquan’s internal harmonies and bringing together the mental, energetic and physical aspects. That is the fusing of the xin (heart or emotional mind) and yi (intention or logical mind) with the sensations of expansiveness, weightedness and centredness and the external physical shape of the body. 

Realising this integration requires a mode of thought characterised by simplicity, intuition and naturalness. At the same time its results must be practical and concrete. In his book The Inherited Chen Family Taiji Boxing Art published in 1932 Chen Ziming said state: “To be able to actually do something, mind and spirit have to be gathered together within. When the feet stand heavily, the hands move reverently, the head is upright, and the eyes are solemn, these indicate that everywhere in the body, the mind is involved. Inability to function means the mind is getting distracted by external things.”

Taijiquan has its own methods for developing the mind including:

Putting into practice the concept of movement coming from stillness – taking time to reach a place of physical stillness and mental calm or “enter stillness” before beginning training. Paradoxically while this is an important, maybe the most important aspect of training, no force or focused intent is used. Philosophically this is referred to as wuji or the place without extremes. Once the first movement begins, you must take care to settle and rebalance at the end of each posture. This is in line with the idea that the end of one movement represents the beginning of the next. 

Each posture finishes with a clear focal point. Chen Xin spoke of the “spiritual power” that is manifested through parts of the body such as the hands, eyes and heart: “… when practicing boxing, your eyes should not express any angry emotions but simply follow the movements of the leading hand. In Lan Zha Yi (Lazily Tying Coat), the eyes follow the right hand, concentrating on the middle finger… the spirit of the whole body should concentrate on the final position of this movement… performing Dan Bian (Single Whip), maintain visual focus on the left hand which moves slowly left and upward from the lower right side in a large semi-circle at the front of the body. At the end of the movement, focus on the middle finger of the left hand… In Pie Shen Chui (Turn Body and Punch), focus the eyes on the toe of the left foot, while in Zhou Di Kan Quan (Fist Beneath Elbow) the focus is on the fist located under the elbow.”

At the same time the mind is never allowed to rest on one place to the exclusion of everything else. There is a constant fine dynamic tension between the various aspects of the body. At a gross level requirements like: looking forward while listening behind; lifting the head lightly while sinking into the ground; loosening the root while stretching out to the extremity etc. At a fine level honing an ever-greater sensitivity to the point where “a fly cannot land without you being aware of it.”

Beyond an individual’s efforts in the training hall, mental training cannot be separated from daily life. Thought patterns have to be refined until they are habitually clear, balanced, focused and not over-reactive. A common Chinese parable about a farmer trying to force the process of growing a plant is often applied to the subtleness needed to cultivate the mental processes: “If we exert too much artificial effort to help a plant grow, it will soon wither. In the same way there is a natural course for the development of the heart (xin). One should neither forget nor assist in one’s daily effort to preserve it.” The training and discipline of the mind and body are inextricably linked and neither can be neglected. While the body requires a long and gradual process of shaping and strengthening, the mind too has to be slowly tempered. 

Eighth century Japanese depiction of one of  the Four Jingang: "With his brows knitted,eyes narrowed, and mouth closed, the image seems to be watching a distant enemy.Restrained in facial expression and bodily gesture, it suggests the amassing of energy and the fearfulness of its release.Its power is in a potential state..."

Tuesday 1 September 2020

Chen Boxian – Following the Middle Path & How One Thing Affects Everything…

Early photo of Chen Boxian and Chen Xiaoxing in front of the Chenjiagou Taijiquan School

A recent ceremony in Chenjiagou marked what would have been the one hundredth birthday of Chen Boxian (1920-1989). While he might not be very well known in the West, Chen Boxian was a well-respected Taijiquan practitioner in Chenjiagou. He was a direct descendant of Taijiquan creator Chen Wangting’s nephew Chen Suole and learned from teachers including Chen Ziming, Chen Zhaopi, Chen Zhaoxu, Chen Zhaokui and Chen Kezhong.   The event recognised his role in protecting a number of the old masters from the excesses of the Cultural Revolution, for the preservation of the lineage/genealogy records of the Chen family, and for collating and recording many historical events of the village. 

In one of his many writings Chen Boxiang highlighted the importance of following the middle path as the route to successful practice. At the heart of Taijiquan training is a search for balance, centredness and equilibrium. Outlining the essentials of Chen Taijiquan practice Chen Boxian explained how Taijiquan shares this quality with the three great philosophies that have shaped much of the Chinese worldview - Confucianism, Buddhism and Daoism. While each have their distinct nuances and subtleties, they can all be placed within the category of approaches of the “middle school.” The literal translation of his words is that, “Confucianism teaches "upholding the middle", Buddhism teaches "emptying the middle", Daoism teaches "observing the middle".  The practice of Taijiquan also attaches great importance to the word "middle”."

If the translation seems cryptic we can break it down to try to get a clearer idea of the point Chen Boxian is making. The reference to Confucianism is to grasp and withhold the centre or zhi zhong. Followers of this tradition are expected to be fair, unbiased and impartial, unwavering and in complete control of their thoughts and actions. The Buddhist reference of an empty centre or xu zhong points to the idea of the void. In the most simple terms we can say it is a way of perception where experiences are interpreted in their purest form. Where an individual neither adds to subtracts from what is in front of them based on their own preheld ideas or expectations. The Daoist notion of observing the centre or shou zhong is a call to observe balance and flow in harmony with occurrences in the environment.  Based on a clear and composed mindset and a balanced physical structure, Taijiquan’s core ideas such as listening and following the movements of an opponent, taking advantage of weak points and the requirement of acting from a position of central equilibrium, follow these essential concepts.

Chen Boxian
Chen Boxian wrote: “Without thinking and without worry, calm down and [let your mind] settle down: When you practise boxing, you should eliminate all distractions, leave nothing in your mind, and calm down your thoughts. Do not allow the area above the navel to fill with qi; qi sinks to the dantian… At the beginning stage of learning, while being aware that qi must sink down, you cannot be rigid with this, otherwise, it’s easy to [make the mistake of] worrying about one thing and losing the other.” [This is a common Chinese idiom – “if you hang onto one, you overlook a thousand” - being overly fixated on any single aspect of training you run the real risk of losing sight of the need to train the body as a whole system].           

Chen Boxian wrote detailed descriptions of the fundamental requirements of Taijiquan, emphasising the way that everything affects everything else. Take for example his instruction of how to hold the head:

·    “Stand upright; it is not appropriate to tilt the head in any direction: The body should be straight, not bending forwards or stooping,   not sticking the chest out,   not leaning to the left or right sides.  The head is kept straight, not bowed or tilted back, or do not shake or twist it. 

·    The front, back and lifting energies of the head converge; the eyes are level and look straight ahead:  The front and back of the head should have the sensation of pushing out as your head lifts up (ding jin). The intention should be for the front and back of the head to be slightly extended outwards and that should be enough.  Do not stiffen your neck and force your head upwards rigidly. Slightly draw in the chin, and keep the eyes level and looking forwards.  This way it is not easy to lose the front and back expansion jin. If you bow your head you lose the forward ding [the front part of the overall requirement to lift the head lightly] and your spirit will not be lifted and you may feel faint when turning. If you tilt your head backwards [looking upwards and raising your chin] you lose the backward ding and your breathing becomes unnatural and your chest becomes tight as transverse qi fills the chest.

·     Ears listen behind; keep the heart (intention) close to your back. Raise the tip of the tongue and place it gently between the teeth:   As the eyes look to the front, they also look to the left and right [in other words the attention is not focused too narrowly]. The back seems to be imperceptible as it is outside your field of vision and sensation. Because you cannot see your back you have to compensate the deficit. This explains the need to listen behind – known as “reverse listening.” [During this process] the mind intent stays close to the back to maintain neutrality and guard against the sense of emptiness at the rear of the body.  It also meets the requirements of "quietness in motion" and "the whole body follow each other". 

·       The mouth is kept closed, breathing is through the nostrils, and the tip of the tongue should be placed gently between the roots of the upper teeth and upper palate:  In this way, fluid under the tip of the tongue (saliva - known as Huachi in Chinese medicine, or in literary figurative speech Yuyeqiongjiang jadelike or high quality wine) is readily secreted.  The saliva must be swallowed, not only for the purpose of preserving the original qi but also in practical terms to avoid the problems such as dry mouth, thirst and panting and breathlessness during Taijiquan training.”

The above are merely some of the requirements for the head. The same degree of detail is applied to every part of the body. In the final analysis Taijiquan has to be understood and approached with the end goal being the training and developing every aspect of an individual – both physical and mental – through a process of mutual integration, influence and transformation.     

The first Henan Sanshou and Tuishou tournament in 1982. Chen Boxian (seated in the centre) led the team that included Chen Xiaowang, Chen Zhenglei, Zhu Tiancai and Wang Xian.

Thursday 13 August 2020

Timing and Taijiquan's Movement System...

When asked what was the single most important thing to pay attention to in training Taijiquan? Chen Xiaoxing said “timing”. He was referring to the coordination of multiple different aspects e.g. the left and right sides of the body and the upper and lower body. And also the integration of the physical and energetic, for instance harmonising the internal sensation within the body with outside movement etc – so that everything starts and finishes together. To fulfil Taijiquan’s six harmonies (i.e. the three internal and three external connections) we aim for the combination of a body that is loose, relaxed, pliant and strong with a mind that is calm, focused and clear so that the body and mind are harmonised. In a nutshell, it’s not enough to be strong or fast if movements are scattered and disorganised. 

This idea of timing is an often visited theme in Chinese philosophy. Confucian scholar Du Weiming illustrated its importance in relation to playing music: “A performance that accords with the highest standards of excellence requires both the “strength” to carry it out and the skill to make it right. It is not only the power and ability to complete the whole process but also the “timing” at each moment as the music unfolds that gives the quality to the performance.” Mencius cut straight to the heart of the matter explaining: “It is like shooting from beyond a hundred paces. It is due to your strength that the arrow reaches its target, but it is not due to your strength that it hits the mark.” 

In a similar vein, chatting with Chen Xiaowang during his last seminar in the UK, he highlighted some of the obstacles that people must overcome if they are to make a success of their practice. A common mistake, he suggested, was focusing exclusively on the external aspects and the appearance of Taijiquan rather than understanding its real essence: 

“People ask how high your arms are or how far you should reach, or how far the legs should step out. This is not the aim of practice. The aim of practice is to make your body into a movement system. The whole body should become like a system. Like the relationship between the engine of a car and the steering wheel. The steering wheel is like the movement system and the movement system is driven by the engine. No matter what kind of car you’re driving, the movement system is the same. No matter how the car changes, the movement system doesn’t change… So when we train Taijiquan there are hundreds and thousands of possible movements, but they all go back to one method. As in the saying ‘ten thousand methods return to one principle’. This is the key to understanding Taijiquan. It doesn’t matter what movement or form you do, the question is whether you can use this movement system.”

So what then is Taijiquan’s movement system? Again we go back to the issue of timing and coordinating every aspect of an individual’s movements. Or as Chen Xiaowang often explains, “It is using the dantian as the centre or axis - the whole body moves as one unit so that when one part moves everything moves, permeating from section to section - qi linking and flowing unimpeded.”

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…”





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