How to Trust your Own Muscle Memory & Body Knowledge – Stop Fighting Your ‘Better’ Self.

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I have written about things as internalising knowledge from practice, how to let it become a property of the body. In this Tai Chi blog, I have tried to explain that you work with your nervous system differently when you do something you really know, something spontaneous and effortless, as after having studied and learned to speak a new language fluently. So you might see this post on “body language” as a companion to this post and read that one first.

The next question, when you understand that there are different ways to use your nervous system and how to access that muscle memory, is much harder and more complicated to answer: How do you learn to spontaneously access that special mode whenever you need it? That place in yourself where everything comes together by itself and you don’t need to think about what to do and how?

To access that mode, or body state, when you practice free push hands with friends, might be easier than if someone challenged you to a fight. How do you do it suddenly and purely by will in everyday life? How do you switch from a normal “daily mode” to a “Tai Chi mode”?

First, before answering that question, I would like to add that one of the biggest assets, as well as one of the biggest problems, in Tai Chi Chuan, is the obsession of details. But the details we deal with are specific details on movement and body mechanics. This obsession and attention to details is really the only way to “get” what Tai Chi body mechanics is and how it should be done, as well as how to internalise this. But at some point, you really need to let go of that learning stage and instead understand how to trust your own body. You can’t really do this until it has become a property of the body.

But here is the problem: We always want to control what we do and have the feeling that we control the situation and what we do. No? You don’t see this as a problem? Well, let me try to explain why this is counter-productive to what we want o achieve.

If you want to be able to always access you greatest skill and knowledge, and really let your Tai Chi work by itself, you really, really, need to learn how to let go of that inherent wish to always control yourself and what you do. Yes, letting your Tai Chi do the work, to be able get into that Tai Chi mode whenever you want to access it, is about standing back, letting go.

Stop making yourself trip is not easy

Yes, for sure, it’s something much easier said than done. Let me illustrate exactly what I mean by offering you a passage of the Taoist classic Zhuangzi:

“When you’re betting for tiles in an archery contest, you shoot with skill.

When you’re betting for fancy belt buckles, you worry about your aim.

And when you’re betting for real gold, you’re a nervous wreck.

Your skill is the same in all three cases – but because one prize means more to you than another,
you let outside considerations weigh on your mind.

He who looks too hard at the outside gets clumsy on the inside.”

― Zhuangzi, The Complete Works of Chuang Tzu

Read a couple of the lines again:

you let outside considerations weigh on your mind
He who looks too hard at the outside gets clumsy on the inside

Worrying about what you do, about the results, or how you do something, will be detrimental to what you want to achieve. Putting your mind outside of yourself, thinking about what could happen in a certain situation, might be the last thing you want to do.

Recently, I heard a gun expert saying that “you need to let go of technique and rely on your muscle memory”. I believe this is the same regarding many, many things in life. Just look at yourself when you are riding a bicycle. You can go on for hours without caring about how you move your feet and shift your weight.

But as soon as you try to intellectualise and to understand what you are doing when you are riding a bike, you will switch back to the learning stage of using your body, you will move clumsy and might even cause yourself to stumble or fall. What have you done? Well, you have switched from using your nervous system from the “knowing” stage, to the “learning stage”.

So what does this mean for your Tai Chi in practical practice? Yes, when you practice push hands, practice to use an application, or a real self defence or fighting method, or when you practice to punch at something using Tai Chi mechanics, first, you need to learn the details of the body mechanics and learn to use them.

But, if you want to be able to do something spontaneous in practice or in real life, you need to learn how to forget to focus on the details and the mechanics and just do it.

Actually, if you haven’t practice this, or thought about this difference, then learning to understand this stage will probably feel totally counter-intuitive to what you are used to do in everyday life.

It will probably feel as pulling the floor away beneath you, because you need to enter that place in yourself where you will have nothing of what you have been practicing in the earlier stages to rely on. Here you are not allowed to think about what you are doing, not plan what you want to do. And you are not allowed to think about what you are doing while doing it.

Yes, it’s hard. The great, legendary acting teacher, Konstantin Stanislavsky, had sort of an exercise to illustrate how hard it is. He told his students to stand in a corner and not think about a polar bear for 15 seconds. Can you make it?

Good use of Tai Chi is like great film acting. Acting without acting. Doing things spontaneously without thinking about it. Whatever you do in Tai Chi, practicing form, playing push hands, defending yourself from a throw or punching someone in the face, it must still be just as you did the most natural thing you could do. Just as lifting a glass of water. Or as if you stretched out for the remote control and switched the TV off. Things you do all of the time n your daily life without thinking about it.

So you really need to learn how to make this transition – from the learning stage – to the doing stage.

To be able to trust your own knowledge, to trust everything you already have put inside your body, and into muscle memory, is not easy. Especially not when someone stands in front of you planning to knock you down. That is just one of those moments when “letting go” and relax feels completely counter-intuitive.

Practicing how to “Let go”

But still, just like learning how to ride a bike, you need to learn how to let go of that control and trust your body, and trust yourself in your already gained, inherent knowledge.

I believe that it’s essential to practice, and often practice this “letting go”.

Here are a few examples on exercises, or how you can practice to let go:

  • When you practice push hands and play free push hands, try to sometimes practice without looking – using your sensation only. You can look if you lose contact, but when you have gained contact again, immediately close your eyes again, just try to feel where your opponent is going, how he is moving and try to “feel” where his balance is.
  • When you practice applications and defensive methods – Let your partner use a few basic attacking methods. He should flow and change between them without you knowing what comes next. Don’t think about what to do an dhow to defend yourself. Just act spontaneously and let your body decide.
  • When you practice punching and similar on some kind of tool, forget all about the mechanics, only rely on your feeling. (You need to learn mechanics and methods before you can practice on how to forget them)

Now, how can we come to that point so we can switch to the real doing mode directly and spontaneously? I will tell you this – in a real situation, and if you already have practiced Tai Chi for a few years, it will probably be there by itself. You might be amazed about how much you can do. Because things will go so fast so you won’t have a chance to even think about what to do.

But still we shouldn’t take this for granted and believe that we always can act spontaneously. We should practice to better understand how to actually do this switch automatically.

When simple thing you can do in everyday one is trying to feel how your body feels when it does something correct. Regardless exactly what you do, try to feel what you do when you “just do” something. Learn how it feels to do things without “thinking”. Don’t try putting it into words, just get the feel and be aware of the feeling.

Finding your own trigger – to release your muscle memory

Later, when you have done this, you should try connect this “feeling” to a “trigger”. Focus on one thing when you do everything correct while practicing your Tai Chi. Try to do everything correct and then when you know that everything is in place, focus on one single thing that you have already implemented or add. You can focus on breathing, how it feels when you sink internally, or on how to gently, softly stare with your eyes.

There are many things you can use as a trigger. But the main point is that you should teach yourself to do this one thing, and when you do this thing, everything else should follow. So, instead of trying to do everything correct, you should be able to remember this one thing and focus on that. And the rest should follow – the sinking, breathing, relaxing, the aligning of yourself – everything should be put in place when you focus on that single thing.

So you should practice to connect everything else to one single thing. So when you know how to do this, you should be able to do this one single thing and at the same time let go of the control of everything else. This trigger will act as a controller by itself.

The state of no-heart/mind might help

Maybe the mind-set of Wu Xin, or emptying your heart-mind, is the best mind-state you could possibly learn to understand. It’s good and can be helpful if you can connect a certain mind-state to the trigger. The mind-state itself could act as this trigger.

But there can also be a certain feeling, or a “tone”, permeating your whole body, at the same time you do the trigger. I don’t know how to express myself more clearly on this point. And I don’t want to go deeper than this. It’s a very personal thing, something I believe you need to actually experience in order to understand.

If you don’t understand this, try to do the doing and feeling, and figure it out by yourself.

Anyway, when you connect this mind-state to the correct mechanics, when you do everything correct, you should practice in an active and conscious manner to forget all of the mechanics and details of what you are doing and only do.

So this trigger should help you to make everything else fall into place automatically. All of this together means that there is actually a method that you can use to program yourself with, to more easily switch from the “Thinking, intellectualising and worrying” state of mind – to instantly be in the empty state of mind. You can learn methodologically how to use one “trigger” to release your own whole body knowledge and muscle memory.

Sounds confusing and deep? Yeah, this is probably the deepest I’ve been on this blog so far. But it makes sense, don’t you think so? Well, you need to practice and put it into use.

The thing is, you really need to practice and experience this by yourself. I doubt ythat you will really understand it completely before you actually can do it. But I hope this text can serve as at least some kind of pointer, so you can understand in what direction you could aim your own practice.

And don’t worry, the next time I publish something here I am trying to go back to that “shallow” stuff, about punching dead objects, something I promised to follow up. Maybe. We’ll see where my inspiration drags me next time.

Notice: Tai Chi Glossary

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Just F.Y.I.: I have added a Tai Chi Glossary. You can find the most common terms and names. Some with links to posts and articles.

I am not completely done with it, I will still add stuff, so you can take a look at it now and you can come back later to have a look at it again.

If you have something to ask about, complain about or some tip on what you would like to read, or would add if it was your page, please let me know by writing a commentary below, in this post you are reading now.

Take a look at the Tai Chi glossary here

Practical Practice Comes First, Understanding Theory Is Secondary

I wrote a post a few years ago: “Learning by Doing“. I believe it’s one of the most important things I’ve written here about the art of Tai Chi, but so far it has received little attention. Anyway, I didn’t really address the problem enough of trying to understand before doing. People try to understand things intellectually, and they shape things into fancy language, before they really understand things practically. Or as teachers, they rather teach those fancy words before teaching how to understand the art practically.

This is a great problem inherited in our own brains, how they work, we want to understand things intellectually, and sometimes we believe that this is enough. But still, we don’t really understand things in Tai Chi before we have a practically understanding of something by doing and experience. We understand things in Tai Chi by turning words and theory into practice and make practical sense out if what we read.

I know, I am a theoretical guy, I write long, theoretical things in my posts. But I don’t write for my readers so they should have more things to think about. I always try to create bridges between theory and practical practice, so you will have a chance to implement practical things in your own training.

Just came of think of something as I am writing this: I used to teach film theory. As I have studied both film theory and practical filmmaking, I had the chance of teaching theory at a film school. You see, film theory is built on, and comes from, practical knowledge about filmmaking, mostly written by filmmakers. If you can reverse the theory into practice, and teach it to aspiring filmmakers, you will give them the practical knowledge of those filmmakers and others who wrote the theory. And, to brag a bit about myself, which is something I usually don’t do, my classes always got the highest score from the students, and some of them even told me that what I taught them, was the best and most useful they had learned, throughout the whole education.

Personally speaking, I use those memories to cheer me up a bit when I think about filmmaking and miss doing it. At least, I have done something right. Anyway, theory in Tai Chi should be used in the same way, as reverse-engineering. You need to understand it from a practical point of View. If it remains as theory, you are doing something wrong, you don’t understand it. So you need to use it in your actual practice, and understand it from the experience of your own practice. Otherwise, the knowledge of the theory remains as intellectual property only, and to be frank: it remains as useless junk.

So, my advice is: whenever you read something about Tai Chi, as theory, proverbs etc, try to turn those words into something practical. Try to understand how it impacts your practice and implement it practically in your training. There’s really no other way to understand theory in Tai Chi: Practice and understand what you practice by your own experience. The only value of theory comes from how well you can implement it practically in your own training. Practice always comes first. The intellectual understanding of theory comes later, when you have experienced the meaning of it, inside of your own body by your own practice.

On “Waist” in Tai Chi Chuan: The Waist is Not What You Think

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What does “waist” mean in Tai Chi Chuan? Isn’t the waist just the waist? Is it necessary to complicate it and analyse the meaning of this common word?  Well, first, Chinese is obviously another language than English. And we know that words don’t always have the exact same meaning in different languages.

Still, this post might seem provocative, as everyone translate the Chinese character “yao” into “waist”, including the most famous “Masters” today who travel around the World to personally sign their commercial books at two-day seminars for many hundreds of participants, eagerly waiting to learn about the deep secrets of Tai Chi that are reserved for only a chosen few. I guess that having a master, or even Grandmaster(!), signing their book make many students feel as they have achieved “more” through their training.

But as I myself am neither famous or travel around signing books, I couldn’t care less about the commercial aspects of being politically Tai Chi correct. So let’s start from the beginning by explaining the Chinese character for “waist“.

In the Tai Chi Classics, this character is “yao” or 腰. This character, that belongs to 3000 most common characters (Ranked no. 1228 to be precise), or Yao, is indeed a common Chinese word for what we mean by waist, or the area around the back and belly, between the ribs and the hips. This is that makes the upper body rotate horizontally while the lower part of the body remains mor or less stable. In Western tradition the waist is what separate the upper and lower body. And sure, we can use “yao” in this sense as well. Yao can be used for “waistline” and the word for belt in Chinese is yaodai, 腰带.

So where, and in what context, do we use the character yao in Tai Chi? Well, It’s right there in the Tai Chi Classics, in the probably most common and well known Tai Chi saying:

其根在脚,
发于腿,
主宰于腰,
形于手指

Rooted in the feet, ​
fa/issue through the legs,
controlled by the ​yao, 
expressed through the fingers.

What many masters on many books have explained, and what I would believe that most Tai Chi practitioners should agree on, is that everything must move together as a whole, as one single movement. Foot, legs, yao, arm and hand. Well, “shou” 手 or “hand” can be used for the whole arm as well. So you could interpret this character, here in this context, as the whole arm, right out to the fingers. When one part moves, the rest of the parts move at the same time. Everything should have a direct connection through movement.

Okay then, let’s go back to the yao. What you need to know is that Chinese people don’t necessarily associate character yao in the same way Western people do with waist. In Chinese, Yao can mean “waist”. But foremost, this character is associated with the lower back. One common translation you can see in dictionaries is in fact: the lower back.

In Chinese medicine, the Yao is directly connected with the kidneys. In fact, the kidney in Chinese is called yaozi, so by this you should understand, that the Chinese word for waist, is indeed connected directly to the lower back.

On a side-note, in traditional Chinese medicine, the kidneys are associated with “original essence” or jing (the same character for “sperm”) which is said to be the source for the Qi and all of the body’s energy. I won’t go into the details, you can read about these things in many different books and on many websites. But let me just add this: If you are a man, and you go to the doctor saying that you have problem with the yao, he might believe that what you are saying is that you cannot perform well in the bedroom.

So, in modern Chinese, the Yao can mean the waist, but it can also mean the lower back. Chinese is a contextual language, and characters are symbolic with different meanings. The meaning of character always depend on the context. And yes, here is the rub. Why does everyone translate “yao” into “waist” in a Tai Chi context? Is it really correct?

Now, let’s have a look at something from Yang Chengfu’s ghostwritten book. It’s the third point of the ten important points: “松腰” or “Relax the Yao.”:

腰为一身之主宰,
能松腰然后两足有力,
下盘稳固;
The ​yao acts as the ruler of the whole body.
With the skill of ​song yao, then both legs are powerful, and the lower base is stable.

虚实变化皆由腰转动,
故曰:‘命意源头在腰际,
’由不得力必于腰腿求之也。
The transformations of empty and full all result from the turning of the y​ ao. Hence, we have the sayings: “the source of meaning is located in the ​yao” And “unable to generate force, look to the ​yao and legs.”

The translation is Lee Fife’s. You can see that he doesn’t use “waist” but let the word alone, untranslated. And this is his comment:

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The ​yao is one of the critical parts of the body for taijiquan. Y​ao is commonly translated as “waist” which can be confusing since we tend to think of the waist as being located on the front and sides of the torso, near the hips or somewhat above them. Y​ao refers specifically to the lower back (e.g. kidney area) and the area where the spine meets the pelvis; it can generally reference the entire lower back, “waist” area of the torso, and pelvis; it sometimes includes the lower back and the hip joints ​(kua). 

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So, if we let go of the translation “waist”, and instead translate “yao” into “lower back”, the Yang Chengfu quote makes much more sense. It’s when you can relax those muscles in the lower back, you can have enough mobility in the pelvis so that it can relax and sink into the legs.

If you want to use “waist” or “lower back” in Tai Chi is up to you. But you should still be aware of the practical implications and understand correct movement. My conclusion is nevertheless that the translation of yao into “waist” is wrong and something maybe derived from lack of practical understanding.

…Intermission…

I am sorry that I have to let you wait for promised articles. This has to do with workload. I don’t know when I will have time to work on new posts, continue the series about punching and so on. The long type of articles (mostly +2000 words) that I have often posted on this blog, they often take about 2 to 3 hours of writing, and with lots of thinking before actually writing. Earlier, I have posted some types of shorter posts, but I have decided to not write the type of short posts you can find on other blogs.

However, I will make an exception here and now and offer you some entertainment instead. I am grateful that I have a few loyal followers and appreciate every time you chime in. Don’t expect another post in the upcoming two weeks. But I will try to make it happening soon.

Anyway, good luck with your training, those of you who practice Chinese martial arts and Tai Chi. I hope to see you again here soon. Here’s some videos to cheer you up with.

(What did you think about my selection? Feel free to tell me what you think in the comments section.)

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