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!  

 

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