Sunday, 20 June 2021

Why we need to Fang Song...

An important element of Chen Taijiquan’s training theory is the need to let go of physical or mental tension (fang song). Only by achieving the correct state can you be composed and stable. By eliminating physical tension, the body’s internal sensations can be better enhanced whilst training. At the same time by reducing mental tension clear, instantaneous, and correct decisions can be taken. Zhang Zong Jun, chief instructor of the Shandong branch of the Chenjiagou Taijiquan School stressed the importance not overlooking this aspect during training: “To be clear, you need to fang song before, during and after your quan. Preparation is important. Many people come to do Taiji in a hurry and, without mental preparation, go straight into form practice. The mind is not given time to quieten and calm now. Practice with a calm mind and the quality of Taijiquan will improve.”

Accepting the need to fang song you must be able to distinguish between the correct state of looseness from simply being collapsed and weak with no strength to speak of. The creation of a state of song requires the cooperation of the emotion, intention, and the body. This is not a passive process. Many people make the mistake of becoming limp and collapsed when what is required is an active and alive type of relaxation. You must mentally lead the process of relaxing the mind and quietening the emotions. Following this process, the body inevitably begins to loosen. One key advantage of song energy over stiff energy is the ability to redirect a larger force - looseness enabling the body to turn and deflect in the face of a strong incoming force. 

Achieving this optimum condition follows a long-term cultivation of an acute sensitivity to the sensation of what it means to truly loosen the body. Within Taijiquan’s oral tradition several sayings are really admonitions to give up the use of hard strength. At the same time, they point to the method through which the loosening process can be approached. For example, 

“The muscles go down and the bones go up.” 

“Hang the meat from the bones.” 

The underpinning philosophy and methodology of Taijiquan recognises the need for an individual to be continuously aware of the opportunity or potential for either movement or stillness. This is only possible if they can discard all preconceived ideas or plans for how to respond within any given situation. Instead, any response must arise spontaneously based on their sense at that precise moment. Matching philosophy and theory we can take the example of the push hands process where an experienced practitioner is able to manifest the condition of wuji by remaining in this unplanned yet ready state. In contact with an opponent, responses arising only based on the feedback provided by heightened sense awareness – in practice expressing either movement by attacking, or stillness by defending. Either option only possible if the body and mind are in a state of song.  

Zhang Zong Jun " need to fang song before, during and after your quan."

Monday, 3 May 2021

Lessons in the Temple of Heaven Park

Just been going through some old notes, as I like to do now and then, and came across my reflections on some days training with Zhang Baosheng in Beijing’s Temple of Heaven Park in 
the 1990s. Zhang was in his seventies at the time and had learned from the renowned Wu style master Wang Peisheng. We met by chance during a few days in the capital getting over jetlag en route to Chenjiagou. Below are some of his words of advice…

On Zhan Zhuang:

• The arms are expanded outwards. The strength in each arm coming from the opposite leg if tested from the side. If tested from the front, the arms extend forwards while the lower back pushes backwards – as if pushing the lower back against a low wall.

• It can be helpful to practice zhan zhuang against a tree or wall with your back very slightly away from the wall; In the same way you can practice xu bu (empty stance) – as in zhan Zhuang, but with one foot forward and insubstantial; or gong bu (bow stance) by facing a tree with the front knee, toe and nose to the tree representing the final position you can extend to - this slanted position being a feature on Wu Taijiquan.  

On the importance of preserving energy - It is important to preserve pre-natal qi as the qi produced in later life is not so effective. To do this:

• Never finish practice panting and out of breath.

• If becoming agitated during practice, then stop and steady oneself.

• It is important in nei gong (internal strength) training that qi does not become excited and rise. The basic exercises mentioned above are helpful in this.

On intention and maintaining a “secondary energy”:

• The mind clearly distinguishes between yin and yang or solid and insubstantial.

• Do not concentrate totally on a particular response. Instead, always have an alternative or secondary alternative ready should your first response be inadequate.

• Apply the idea of root, trunk and branches to the upper and lower body. In terms of the arm, the shoulder is the root, elbow is the trunk, and the wrist/hand is the branch. In action, if you are pushing in with your hand and the opponent responds to this, then give him the hand (i.e., soften it) and push in with the elbow. 

• When performing a movement there should always be two energies present: one acts as a dummy or ruse and therefore, the opponent must be aware of it; the other performs the true attack and is disguised. So, while the opponent is aware of the “dummy” hand, intent must be with the other “attacking” hand.

On tuishou:

• When practicing push hands emphasis should be upon sensitivity. Connecting very softly and letting your partner reveal their weaknesses like water level settling after it has been disturbed. In Zhang’s words, “Pushing an opponent should be like pushing a boat with the tide, rather than against it.”

• The elbows should not be allowed to lift, and the shoulder mustn’t lift in response to an opponent’s pressure.

On form training:

• You must relax while doing the form, but at the same time be full of intent. Visualisation is as if you were swimming across a river to attack an enemy on the opposite bank. Though your intention is serious, you do your utmost to make no noise or ripples in the water.

• During form training every movement must be carried out with attention and precision. To help with this you can visualise that your extended hand is holding a precious vase.  

Salute to Zhang Baozheng!

Saturday, 20 March 2021

Are You Feeling It?

Soak up what you see - Chen Xiaoxing demonstrating a point.  

An often repeated truism is that to be good at something, you should put yourself into an environment where you can follow people more skilful than you. Then, all being well, assimilate some of  what they have. The  reverse is also true. For example, most responsible parents would worry if their children were keeping bad company in case they picked up the poor attitudes and behaviours they were exposed to.

Thoughtful Taijiquan practitioners accept then that simply having the correct physical form is not enough. Beginning level students (here we are not referring to the amount of time a person has trained, but to their understanding of the training method) often perform the shape or pattern of the forms or push hands drills rather than actually “doing” it. An individual may be a good mimic, but comparing them to a highly skilled exponent it seems something is missing. 

In Chenjiagou it’s said that to become skilful you must be able to copy the external shape and work out and understand the inner aspects. Replicating these less obvious requirements calls for a deeper level of attention. The ability to be present in the moment requires an inner calm and full engagement to the action being practiced. As well as demonstrating the correct shape, all of the internal requirements of Taijiquan must be actualised. Of equal importance to the formal instruction process is the informal learning process. Observation is perhaps the single most important mode of informal learning. By watching more experienced practitioners learners can absorb the subtleties and essence of the methods.

Irish fencing champion John Twomey gave an interesting parallel from the modern sporting arena after the experience of training in Estonia: “He remarked how coaches from many countries had trained him in technique, but his Estonian coach told him only to watch the best fencers as he was training, to sense their feeling, imitate them, be like them, not to concentrate so much on technique but on that “feeling”, the special spirit of perfect fencing.” (Source: Peak Performance: Zen and the Sporting Zone by Felicity Heathcote psychologist for the Olympic Council of  Ireland). The same applies to learning Taijiquan, if you put yourself in good company and look deeply enough some of it might literally rub off on you. 

Look hard enough and some of what you see might rub off on you!

Friday, 5 March 2021

Can you Develop Push Hands Skills Without Training Partners?

Chenjiagou 1998 - A youthful Chen Ziqiang and David Gaffney 
A question people often ask is how they can practice push hands if they don’t have access to regular suitable training partners. By suitable read interested. During one of our early trips to Chenjiagou we interviewed Chen Bing. One of the questions put to him centered on any perceived advantages he had benefitted
from having trained in the village his whole life. His answer was that, on a general level, everybody knows the rules of Taijiquan, so in that sense he had no special advantage having to put in the hard work like anyone else who wants to improve. Pushed a little further though, he conceded that the two significant advantages he had enjoyed were the readily available access to high quality coaching and an endless supply of good training partners. 

With that in mind it would be foolish to say that a lack of training partners isn’t a potential barrier to skill development. Sometimes there are people who want to push, but they just don’t have the patience to want to train systematically and in line with the laid down process. Finding yourself in this situation is clearly not ideal. That said, it’s always better to focus on what we have and what we can do rather than crying about what we don’t have. Progress can still be made by taking a long term perspective and looking at the skill as a whole. So, for example, preparing for the time when you do have access to push hands partners by:   

1. The first point obviously is to continue to refine and develop the form. Form training, standing pole, reeling silk exercises etc. are of fundamental importance in building the basic skills that will ultimately make one’s push hands effective. 

2. Secondly an individual can train the various supplementary drills and strength building exercises of the system. These can be used to develop obvious physical fitness components including strength, speed, power, agility and flexibility that will ultimately enhance overall practically usable skill. So, for instance, there are: single movement drills that can be used to work on the ba fa or eight intrinsic energies (peng, lu, ji, an, cai, lie, zhou and kao); stepping drills to enhance footwork placement and agility; pole-shaking exercises to train whole body connected power; reaction drills etc. Chen Taijiquan has a deep repository of training methods and the list can go on and on. 

3. I remember Chen Zhenglei offering another method to telling the group that how they could begin the process of training listening skills by very consciously mirroring another person’s form. His suggestion was that they do this by trying to exactly match their teacher’s form in terms of speed, rhythm etc.  

All of the above exercises can be helpful in preparing for push hands. Eventually, though real sticking, following and listening skills require working with a variety of push hands partners. Good luck finding them and value them when you do!  


Monday, 15 February 2021

Chen Fake – Four Types of Fajin

Power focused to a single point
In practical terms releasing power can only be effective if the person applying a technique can combine the ability to generate a great amount of force with doing so in a short time. Skill, in terms of delivering a technique accurately, and the capacity to harness the maximum possible strength possessed by an individual also have a great bearing on whether it “works” or not. 

Taijiquan requires us to “focus power onto a single point.” At the same time it makes use of a type of sequential movement that picks up strength through the kinetic chain of every action. This is reflected in the saying that every practitioner is familiar with: “Power starts from the feet, goes through the legs, is directed by the waist and expressed by the hands.” In the excitement of trying to replicate the fajin effect of a skilled exponent it’s easy to lose sight of what is behind their action that makes it so powerful. It’s all too common to see people trying to muscle out the movement with their upper body and overlooking this sequential chain effect. Outside the realm of Taijiquan a study by Russian Yuri Verkhoshansky, a prominent figure in the field of explosive strength training, examined boxers of varying skill levels trying to establish where their power came from. He found that elite boxers generated 38.46 percent of their force from their legs against only 16.51 percent by what he described as Class II and Class III (lower level) athletes. At the same time superior performers relied less upon trunk rotation (37.42% vs 45.5%) and arm extension (24.12% vs 37.99%). The point, as in Taijiquan, is that force is picked up throughout the movement.
The kinetic chain from feet to hands

Assuming an individual is capable of generating this force, the next thing is that it has to be expressed where it is needed. That is, it has to be directed and controlled according to the situation.   Taijiquan has multiple means of delivering force. In a recent post the Chengoushui or “Water of Chenjiagou” website posted a short piece about fajin and four different ways it can be expressed according to Chen Fake. Chen Fake was renowned for his high level of Taijiquan skill, his tremendous physical strength and his practical experience. He listed the following methods of releasing force: 

1. The force on the “outer-edge of the wheel” [at the edge of the circle] where an opponent can be hit without [seriously] damaging them.

2. The force from the inner strength of the wheel. Here he gave the example of Taijiquan’s lie jin (splitting/tearing force), of which he said “this strength can break bones.” Lie jin is used by emitting a very short and sudden twisting and tearing movement. On a cautionary note, it is not easy to experiment with this method as it is very easy to seriously injure your training partner’s joints. 
Chen Fake
3. The third method he called “drill strength” or penetrating strength, describing this as cun jin or Taijiquan’s “inch power.” Penetrating force is realised through the combination of spiraling movement and speed focused towards a single point. Again this was described as a type of strength with the potential to hurt its opponent.

4. The final method was bao fali or “explosive jin.”  In Chen Taijiquan this strength is often compared to a sudden explosion akin to an earthquake emanating with no warning from the centre of the earth. Three generations earlier Chen Fake’s great-grandfather Chen Changxing vividly described the abrupt and unexpected nature of fajin“Lift your hand like lightning flashing. When lightning flashes, there is no chance to close your eyes. Strike the opponent like thunder clapping. When thunder claps, there is no chance to cover your ears.” 

Saturday, 9 January 2021

The Importance of Timing and Distance…

In martial arts training the concept of timing and distance incorporates not just the space between opponents, but also the time it takes to bridge the gap and the angle and rhythm of attack. Together, these elements all contribute to the exact position from which one opponent can effectively strike another. 

Talking about the practical application of Taijiquan Chen Ziqiang said: “The most important strategy is to always be in a stronger position than your opponent. If your opponent is in a weak position in relationship to you, no matter how strong he is physically, he cannot generate much force against you. Nor will he be able to deflect your attacking force easily. He will always be behind your movements… he will always be trying to catch up with you, but you are always ahead of him.” 

Your “position” can be considered either in terms of: your own shape/posture; or your strategic position in relation to an opponent. In the first case the meticulous attention paid to minute differences in bodily posture during training is rewarded with a balanced structure that does not favour any side. In Taijiquan practice this is referred to as “strength in eight directions” - the posture does not overreach or fail to reach your optimum boundary of strength. In the second case, using your sense of timing and distance, the aim is to grasp where change is heading so that one can position oneself advantageously as events unfold. In simple terms, a person is said to have good timing when they know when to release an attack; and good control of distancing when they are able to close the distance from an opponent with effective footwork. A good mastery of timing and distance can help overcome a faster or stronger opponent. In western boxing there is a saying that “timing can be used to overcome speed.” These skills can only be are developed through experience. For instance, improving your timing mostly involves you watching and adjusting to your opponent. Unskilled practitioners often fail to do this instead being preoccupied with themselves and what they are doing.

Training to improve your timing involves watching and adjusting to your opponent...

Why we need to Fang Song...

An important element of Chen Taijiquan’s training theory is the need to let go of physical or mental tension ( fang song ). Only by achievin...