Don’t Worry Too Much About Doing Things Wrong

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Teachers put a lot of pressure on their students sometimes not realizing it. Less ambitious students, those who practice Tai Chi for having something to do as a hobby or to have a social platform probably won’t get affected. But it can become a problem for the ambitious practitioners, those who really want to get somewhere in their art and develop real skill. I’ve read things lately as that the student should not experiment too much or try to develop their art by themselves and instead follow the teacher and the curriculum as exactly as possible. Someone wrote that correcting something wrong is hard, so it’s important to practice correct from the beginning. I’ve also read things about the important of things as reverse breathing and a whole lot of descriptions about how to do reverse breathing.

I remember a whole lot of things I struggled with, wondered about and sometimes worried about when I was young. There are so many different things that you should know and understand. There’s a whole lot of pressure on students. Sometimes it’s hard to ask about things, sometimes it might feel embarrassing to ask, and sometimes it might be hard to verbalize questions and express your thoughts.

But the thing is that we all have different roads, we all understand different things faster or slower. Having gaps in the understanding of things, having hard to grasp things and sometimes misunderstand things is a part of every practitioner’s journey. Knowledge always comes from practical experience and trial and error. There’s nothing wrong with experimenting, trying things. There’s nothing wrong with misunderstanding things, being wrong, being corrected or having to re-learn things. If you are dedicated to this art, then your progress will always sometimes be faster, sometimes go slower. Sometimes you will need to re-evaluate things you have done, accept that you have done things wrong and move forward again. Occasionally you might want to laugh at yourself or curse at yourself. And all of this is okay. Your journey will never be straight and no wrong turn you make can eventually stop you from going forward and reach your goal as long as you continue to practice and try to keep it in sight.

One very wise man said that every kind of human development and progress have a certain pattern that can be described as “two steps forward, one step back.” This is very true and if you continue you continue your Tai Chi journey you will always experience the truth of this statement. You will always go backwards now and then, but the road still leads forward. Don’t worry too much about rules, restrictions and about what you need to do, what, when or how often. There is no absolute path and every teacher has different ideas about what is right and wrong and best and bad. So it’s better to take it all not so seriously and to not worry too much. Rather important, in my opinion because your road will be long, is to have fun and try to find ways to enjoy the practice, alone as well as with others. And as you will certainly screw things up along the way, my friendly advice is that, if you already don’t know how, should take things lightly and be ready to laugh at yourself.
… And you know this already, that life is short, so make sure you always enjoy what you do.

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The Touch of a Master

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There’s a great, great difference between how a “common” Tai Chi practitioner and an advanced practitioner “feels”. You really need to meet people in real life and touch hands with them to understand their level of skill.

When you meet up with common practitioners you won’t feel anything particular when you feel their hands. They feel common, nothing special. That kind of practitioner can probably show different applications or methods, but you will always sense that there’s a technical approach, what they do is mostly based on techniques and not on adapting to a certain body method. Even their push hands feel like nothing special even if they can be sensitive and understand following.

An advanced practitioner should have a developed Shenfa, a body method. What this means is that the practitioner moves, use his balance and body, in a learned manner. What they do is based on many years of experience. Good practitioners step in and out of this body method by will. Even better practitioners have this natural. They don’t even need to think about it, their Shenfa is a natural part of whatever they do. By merely touching an arm or a hand of this kind of practitioner, you will feel something very different compared to a common practitioner. But there’s more to it. All of the great practitioners and “masters”, they all feel different. Their touch is a trademark, it has their own unique characteristics like the unique voice of a singer. Many people have tried to copy the voices of singers like Frank Sinatra or Aretha Franklin. But the brilliance of something that sounds simple and effortless is  mostly something unique, something hard to copy and most often impossible to replace. There’s something similar with the touch from someone who has developed a shenfa. You can’t really copy what they do and how, but you can still develop your own signature “voice”.

Some good teachers touch will feel light as a feather, others can be felt heavy and unmovable. Some feel connected, some others don’t. Some great practitioners will constantly change touch, angle and leave you with a feeling of uncertainness or confused. They all feel very different and the only way you are getting to know their own approach to their art, is not about listening to what they say, but about touching their hands. You can learn a whole lot by touching and feeling a great practitioner. Their whole art is summed up in their own Shenfa, in their body method. And the only way to get a sense of how they really use their own bodies is by one way or another touching hands with them.

I remember the first times touching hands with my first teacher who I consider my primary teacher and the one I have spent most time with. his hands and arms felt completely empty. When he evaded or redirected an incoming push or punch, he would not have any connection between his limb and the rest of the body. Sometimes he would react very fast with his body and change, but often when you pushed his arms or at his body, he would let you in close before he re-directed you away.

His teacher Bill, who I also studied for periodically, would give you a sense of being connected, rooted. He had a certain stretching quality throughout his body, something that was evident in his forms as well. He would let you feel this and he felt solid. Yet, as soon as you touched his hand he would change the angle and never let you push directly at his balance. When he issued power, or performed his fajin, he was so connected from the root that it was impossible to direct away his push if you didn’t have timing and evaded him early.

Bill’s teacher, who I also studied for, was very, very different from every other teacher I had met. Mr He was absolutely brilliant, precise and exact. He felt rather connected and every movement he did was connected to the back and to his scapula. You could see the shoulder blades moving, sometimes sticking right out from his body, as he made subtle adjustments with the smallest leverage. It was not a question of having the pleasure to feel his touch or having time to study his movements. As soon as he touched your arm or hand, you would find yourself on the floor, one way or another, but mostly just by sitting right next to him where he could easily reach your head with his fist. I don’t believe I will ever have the pleasure to meet a practitioner of his magnitude again.

Another teacher that I had in Beijing, Teacher Ding, was a rough or crude looking fellow. He taught painting and calligraphy as well as Tai Chi. He smoked a lot and used to spit on the class room floor. Yet, when he performed his Tai Chi form, he was extremely soft when he moved. All of his body was well coordinated, but he moved very gracefully, yet had a certain power in his movements. Just like with Bill, it was a real pleasure just watching him. But Ding Laoshi was much, much softer and felt very soft. His touch was extremely light. When you touch hands with him, you would find yourself stumbling in air.

I might have something to say about a few other teachers and practitioners I have met, but mostly I have nothing special to say. Some of them I appreciate a lot, and even if they might be very good, their approach is very different from mine. So what about me? I wouldn’t call myself anywhere near “master” level, and I don’t think I ever will use such a title. But I have made some kind of progression through the years. Many years ago, maybe halfway through my road up until today, I tried to shift between solid and insubstantial. One of my friends said that he sometimes thought he had me on the hook, but then I would suddenly empty myself, he felt like like pressing on a door that suddenly opened up. Back then, I had still a lot to learn and I could still become hard, stiff up and sometimes fell back into using strength. A few years later, I discovered lightness, the art of being light. It’s a bit peculiar that I hadn’t done so before, but I had very much been focusing on structure and alignment. But as I had truly understood lightness I also re-discovered softness and learned how to trust in “song” (relaxation/releasing), as started to understand the meaning of “emptiness”. I always practiced my own lightness and softness when I had my own group and tried to teach what I believed was the essence of this Art. But that was quite some time ago, about ten years ago from today. I seldom teach today, but hopefully it will become more of that in the future. I hope to find people who wants to travel the same kinds of roads. It would be interesting to feel how their touch would changed from year to year and to follow their journey.

If this post has interested you, please also read an article in another blog, Adam Mizner’s translation of Li Yaxuan’s text, a description of the different qualities of Fajin by his teachers and friends. I believe you would find it enlightening.

Just get it right and don’t think too much about Qi.

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There’s a tendency in the world of Chinese internal martial arts that I really don’t like. That is the use of different jargongs and catch words, phrases that sound good, that teachers use to look more impressive, to look better than they really are. But they bear very little practical use for the student. “Sink the qi” and “use yi/intent,” might be the most used and mis-used of these catch phrases. How do you sink the qi? By sinking the qi?…??? When you look at many of these teachers, well, if you could look at them very closely, you would most likely see that there are things that they do that don’t match what they say. But sadly, practitioners are most often more interested in what teachers say than about what they actually do. All of this talk, and partly nonsense, about Qi, Yi and Jin does nothing more than creating obstacles for the students so they focus and keep on focusing on exactly the wrong things compared to what they should focus on. Too much Qi and mysticism might prevent students from advancing for many years. It might take a long time before students by themselves can “snap out of it”, before they can see things clearly, with their eyes not clouded by Qi.

What Qi to not spend too much thinking about?

I want to explain a little bit about Qi. First, just let me say that I am not the greatest “believer” in Qi or in what it can accomplish. But on the same time, I am absolutely no strict denier. I know all about Qi, what it means in philosophy and what it means in Chinese medicine. From my very first years, now 30 years ago, I have studied different types of qi circulation exercises and meditation. I know what Qi is and what it is not. I know that I can feel certain things when I practice, and I can certainly build up quite a good heat in a short amount of time when I start moving with my Tai Chi. But I also know that it’s useless to speak about “feelings” and that it’s useless to speak about Qi. But when we try to explain it, there’s no need trying to keep up the mystic flare. Qi is actually something very simple, and on one basic level very easy to comprehend.

Some time ago I read the best short explanation I’ve ever read about “Qi”. Very simple, not many words at all:

“Qi is the perfect function of an indent in human body.”

This was said by a person who professionally practice Traditional Chinese Medicine. Again: “Qi is the perfect function of an indent in human body.” So what does this mean? It means that when things function as properly as possible in the body, there is qi. If there is an unbalance in the body, then the qi might be weak or stagnant. “Qi” helps us in different ways to describe different states of the body. We could speak about the “Qi” of breath, or “Qi” of a punch when the body parts needed to breath or punch collaborate in the most optimum manner. For breath, the Qi of breath would the perfect collaboration of all parts of the body needed to breath.

But then again, don’t we all breath? Well, yeah. But maybe we mostly don’t bring with us a deep abdominal breath in daily life. We could certainly make different parts in us to collaborate better to breath better. Tai Chi teach us to move the body relaxed in different ways and how to continue to breath deeply while doing complicated body coordinated movements. When we do everything right, we have Qi. We don’t have qi because we “want” Qi or because we imagine Qi. Strong “intent” doesn’t help very much either if you don’t “do” things correctly.

Yi, oh my Yi. How intent yourself into confusion.

And here is another mistake, a mistake about “yi” or intent. It is said that Yi leads the Qi. But it’s also said that you should never focus directly on qi, because then it becomes stagnant, you prevent it to flow. Many teachers teach that you should have your “intent” before your movements and before your qi to lead it. But this is also, at least partly, a mistake.  You can compare with someone who draws a drawing. It doesn’t matter if you draw very fine lines, like making hairs or shadowing. Or if you outline someone’s portrait. When you need to control those lines, you can not let your mind wandering all over the place and you can not focus on something in front of your hand. You must be focused on where your hand and the pen are in the moment. You must focus on what is happening right when you draw and on the line where you are. The strength of your focus depict very much how good you are at drawing.

In Tai Chi, the same matters. When you lead away someone’s arm, you need to feel what is happening right now, be inside of that very moment, and not imagining things about what has not happen yet. When you practice form, you must focus on exactly where you are, what you do and feel the movements where they are and when they happen. “Leading with Yi” might fool you to do mistakes, to not be in the moment. Some students who listen to talk about “strong intent” will tense up both mind and breath when they try to focus.  There are other uses of “yi”, but only a few of them will help the practitioner to actually “do” something.

What to actually do and what to don’t

So what should you do? When you practice solo or with a partner, you need to have a very practical and realistic approach of what you are doing. Fooling and imagining yourself or someone else that you do things that you don’t do doesn’t help yourself and it doesn’t help your partner or student.

So that was what to not do. So again, what to actually do? Well, to really circulate Qi as we mean to circulate Qi in neigong and in the Internal Martial Arts, as achieving full circulation through out the body, you need to first nurture the three Dantians and open the three gates. What does this mean? It means that without a calm, focused mind, without deep breath and without a heart without worries and anxiety,  there is no real circulation. Forming those three aspects means a “perfect function of an indent in human body.” Then you will have Qi. You don’t need to think about Qi, just calm your mind and heart, relax internally and externally  while you are still or moving and there will be Qi. Further, to circulate the Qi throughout the whole body, you need to open the three gates, and briefly speaking, you need to open the joints as well as understand to become soft and movable in both the lower and upper back. Focusing on all of these aspects of mind, breath, heart and body while practicing, and keeping on practicing these aspects while help you to develop what you could feel as circulation. It will help you to build up heat while you are practicing and to make the feeling of circulation more intense. And you will never even once have to “think about qi”. Don’t.

The art of Immovability – without thinking about Qi or Yi

But as a more practical example, let’s speak about “stability” or “immovability” as absorbing a pressure, absorbing mass in movement as from a push. So you want to just stand there and feel immovable and that’s pretty impressive enough. Don’t you think so? When someone come at you, trying to push you away with his whole mass, you don’t need to do many things at all. It’s very simple. You don’t need a big, broad posture, instead just stand there with your legs slightly apart to have some kind of base to work with. Then you need to relax, sink or drop your strength so you don’t have any unnecessary tension in the trunk and become top heavy. But you don’t need to really “sink” until you meet a pressure against you. When you feel your opponent’s hands on your chest, you need to continue to stand straight.  You can not lean backwards, you cannot lean against him. Just keep perfectly straight. When you feel the incoming push, what you need to do is to just sink a little bit straight down. But you need to do this in exactly the same speed as the push. Not faster and not slower. You need to ride with the incoming movement, and right here you need ride it by doing a straight vertical movement. This movement can become very small, but will still help you to absorb the push and will lead the pressure straight down. If you do it right, the effect will be that your opponent will actually help you to stabilize your own mass. It’s all very, very simple though it needs some practice to get right. It looks terribly simple as well. And you don’t need to think about qi, yi or jin. Just do the small things I have described. Some other things like trying to feel your Dantian might help you to stabilize your own structure.

But then what about qi? Where does it come into this equation? If you are very relaxed and do the things right, you could come to feel certain things similar to when you are practicing form, you might feel some kind of circulation. But this does not happen because you think or want it to be there. It’s there because everything match properly and you are there in the movement with your awareness to feel this.  Again: “Qi is the perfect function of an indent in human body.” Here, it’s the perfect function of the different parts combined that you need to perform this certain act. So there is your qi, when your body is balanced, relaxed, open, when you breath deeply and there’s nothing to stop or make obstacles for the circulation. And again, it doesn’t come about because you “think” it. It’s nothing you can use because you “want” to use it. It’s just there because you do certain very basic things correctly. If you want to become immovable, just relax, don’t lean and ride (straight down) with the incoming force. That’s all, there’s nothing else to it. And again, yes, it’s just a simple as that. We don’t need to bring up Qi and we don’t need to make Jin a part of the equation. Cut away all thinking about Qi, Yi and Jin. All of those things won’t help you to understand to what actually “do”. And this means that these words can never help you to accomplish the “best intend” of different parts. Like building  a machine, you need to deal with the different parts and know how to put them together. Understanding how the steam or electricity moves through an engine won’t help you to actually build one. So instead, learn what you need to practically do and always try to learn what you need to do in order to accomplish something in a most practical, physical and simple manner. Simple words and common daily expressions will do. As with everything you do, focus on what to really do. Then do it correctly, keep on practicing and everything else will automatically fall in its correct place.

Internal – A Personal Journey

…So, I wanted to continue my thoughts from the last post, that there is no Internal Standard, that there is no real definition about what is “Internal.”… But I also want to give you more of my own personal point of view.

The thing is that already when you want to look at an art, a style or a school, or even a specific method, as “Internal”, you do quite a sever mistake. Something outside of you can not be internal. And an external method can not make you “internal” from the outside.” Just practicing a certain style or a method is not enough to make someone understand the “internal”. Instead, “Internal” is much more about the individual person, his or her’s own journey and personal discoveries.

“Internal principle” of the Internal Arts is a process. It’s your own process. You can not escape this process and you are not internal until you have been in this process for a while.

I look at people who practice Tai Chi and other so called internal arts, even other styles as Wing Chun who claim what they do is Internal. Some of them have only practiced “Internal methods” for a couple or a few years. They perform movements, try to follow principles and they call what they do “internal”. Some people believe that “sinking the qi” is important to be internal, so they do something, often a clear visible external movement. And they believe that what they do is internal. Some others have practiced Tai Chi for a couple of decades, maybe more. But what they still is external  movements only. They lead their movements with their limbs, their balance is bad. They don’t know how to sink. As soon as they try to use their Tai Chi in free partner exercises, free push hands and similar they become stiff, hard and seem to forget everything.

This is because they don’t “own it”. They are not inside of the process. Maybe they have started their journey and “try” to become “internal”. But the “Internal” is a process that takes time. And it should take time. Sadly, some people don’t understand this at all, they never understand to travel this road. What they do never become something Internal. Maybe it stays as an idea in their mind, but never becomes a process that they are a part of.

I remember my own process. First when I had practiced a couple of years I started to understand what Tai Chi was about, I started to understand it because I started to verbalize the art for myself with my own words, in my own way. I believe it took yet another year before turning the art into something of my own, before I really started to own it. I remember the following years, those years about thirty years ago, how I struggled to make the process of my own practice more internal. I always tried to become better to initiate movements from the root and from the core (my Dantian). What I did was certainly “Internal”. But still I did a lot of mistakes many years ahead.

I don’t remember when I had become really comfortable in my Tai Chi. But after quite a few years of practice I started to have more confidence. I probably needed more than ten years of practice before I completely stopped cheating and stopped compensating because my own flaws and lack of faith. But when I had gained enough confidence in my art, I soon found that my breath was always deep and full. I could “sink” at an instant and I could feel my own Dantian (lower Dantian of course) whenever I wanted. Just “being me” and “being inside of the process” had blurred together. Nowadays when people ask about my Tai Chi, how I practice and how often, I find it difficult to answer. The truth is that I always bring my art with me. It is always in my heart and almost never leave my mind. The process of learning the Internal, learning to understand it, eventually turned into something else…

Is There Any Internal Standard?

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Again and again, in forums, chats and discussion groups, I see questions asking about if there is something general, common or universal in the so called “Internal Arts” where Tai Chi belong. There will probably always be questions about an “internal standard.”

There are a few things that are always mentioned. “Qi” and breath, intent or “yi”, whole body movement, ground force, shen or spirit etc. What makes an art “internal”? The obvious answer for most people would be “Qi” and “Yi”. But the thing is that these very vague concepts are very common. All Chinese martial arts speak about qi in one way or another. Every art speak about yi, intent and using mind. These concepts are not a denominator for internal arts. Not even the the focus on neigong, or internal skills practice, is a common denominator. Some explicit hard styles have a great focus on neigong.

Some people say that hard styles focus on hard methods first and soft later, Internal arts focus on soft and internal first and moves toward the external and add hard method later. This is absolutely not true for many schools usually getting a label of hard, external or soft and internal. Some soft arts starts quite hard. Some hard styles are in their nature quite internal. And I would not even say that everything called Tai Chi today is “internal”.

Other people say that Shaolin is a hard style, but there are many different things called Shaolin. Some of these arts and methods are very soft and internal, just as internal as any other “internal art”.

So is there any kind of standard or common denominator? I would not try to answer that question myself. The reality of Chinese martial arts is complex and varied. Mostly, what people see and get are quite simplified versions of more original traditions. Some of the more modern “traditions” could be generalised. But not the old, general tradition. People didn’t practice the same way as in newer times. There were no real fixed styles four hundred of years ago. People practiced methods, forms or “daolu” practice had individual names. There were sets with labels and different kind of neigong and waigong practice. People ususally practiced what they found, took parts here and there, what they found and focused on what they liked. The very fixed way we think about “style” didn’t exist. So there were internal and external methods, but not really fixed styles.

So we can speak about internal practice and internal practice, but arts usually have both internal and external practice. What is internal and how depends on the specific method or exercise. But there are no real way to define internal practice in a more general sense and there is no way to define “internal arts”, especially how people use it to day. As the term “Neijia”, or “Internal Family”, which was invented probably more than four hundred years ago, we can define what it was originally meant. But then a whole lot of things called internal today falls out of that definition. (I wrote a post recently about this, defining what belongs to”neijiaquan.”)

If people ask me, I usually just say that if the focus of practice is on internal aspects, it’s internal practice. If the practice focus on external aspects, it’s external practice. Maybe I could also say that focusing on developing internal awareness is a must in order for anything to be called internal practice. My question to you now is: Do you believe that learning Tai Chi movements, a form, to memorize movements and practice them in a learned sequence is enough to be called an internal practice? Think about it. What in your own practice is specifically internal and how do you deepen the internal focus in your own practice?