Building a Strong Foundation Through Partner Practice

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In Tai Chi Chuan, the foundation built by solo practice (jibengong, form, standing, dingzhi etc.) is evident and most practitioners who have studied the art for some time can easily say what it is. In a simple way, I could say that the foundation in Tai Chi is about whole body integration and coordination, building stability and balance (develop root), learning how to move from the core and centerline, and maybe a few other things worth mentioning.

However, there’s another aspect, foundation of Tai Chi as a martial art. I believe that people in general are not really aware about this or that they don’t really understand that the Martial Art has another side that can only be developed by partner practice. Push hands is fine, this often follow form practice. Most beginners start practicing simple push hands exercises early as it should be. And then we have techniques and methods as defense, parrying, attacking, punching, pushing, qinna, takedowns and throwing. But the practice in itself is not the foundation. You don’t build this foundation just by practicing with a partner if you are not aware of what you should focus on and try to develop.

First, even when practicing push hands or other combat drills and exercises, you should always carry with you and keep the integrity of the foundation you try to build in your solo practice, th whole body integration and coordination, balance (root), how to move from the core and centerline, etc. One aspect of partner practice is to put your “solo foundation” to the test.

The other side is the partner built foundation. Personally, I would sum up the qualities of this foundation as sensitivity, following, mirroring, filling in, as well as getting a sense of angle and distance. From this, there are some skills or jins developed, in Tai Chi Chuan expressed as tingjin, listening skill and dongjin, understanding skill (not to be confused with dong = “moving”). However, you don’t need to understand the names of the jins or care about them. These are qualities developed from the partner foundations practice. When you practice with a partner, always mind the the Tai Chi mechanics of body movement. But also be light, mind your sensitivity, follow with utmost precision, be always aware about the space and distance between you and your partner and experiment with angle.

In Tai Chi Chuan, looking at a “technique” as an absolute method is wrong. A technique or combat drill is there for you to practice and build your foundation. Regardless if you practice to intercept and punch, go in for a takedown or do a subtle joint manipulation, never think about it as a technique. These are all ways for you to see if you can relax, continue to breath deeply, practice on how to move from your center, test your balance and alignment and to teach you from what distance and angle you can utilize your body in the best way and achieve the best leverage.

If you always  mind the details, then eventually acting from the correct body method will become second nature. And then the skills will be developed naturally. Never reach out too far or you’ll forget what is near. In solo practice, approach everything you do in your practice methodically and put meticulous attention to the small details of body movement and mechanics.  In partner practice, keep the same approach and attitude, but also be aware of, and put special attention on, the aspects that you can only develop from partner practice. This is my own humble opinion and my own humble advice. But it is also something of the best advice I could possibly give a beginner or to someone who is somewhat new to the art of Tai Chi Chuan.

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On the Problems of Complexity and Diversity of Body Mechanics Within the Same Art

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Tai Chi Chuan is a more complex art than most Tai Chi practitioners realise. Though the complexity makes the art interesting and challenging in a good way, the complexity also has its downside. It creates difficulties for teacher as well as for the student. When I teach, I know from what end I should start teaching Tai Chi. I know what kind of exercises. But on the same time I am frustrated that I can only teach one small fragment at a time. I see so many things that the student have to earn and that I want to teach. Holding back in a good productive manner might be the most difficult job as a Tai Chi teacher.

One of the biggest problems is that there are aspects of body mechanics that are equally important to learn, but they can appear contradicting. Learning one body method, or aspects of body mechanics, can create problems for other equally important body methods or aspects of mechanics.

You want your legs to be rooted, solid. Yet you want to develop a light footwork and change your stance quickly.

You want your top to be empty, light as your following skills and tingjin depends on lightness and non-resisting. But on the same time, you want to understand clear angles of shapes and develop a strong frame.

Your Peng (or Pengjin) should have a strong surface and be an expanding force that connects from the root and from the center. Yet, you can not use your peng against the opponent’s structure with evident pressure. It must be light so you can hardly feel it yourself. But then how do you know that it is strong?

Structure and stability should be put into practice and tested, but still it should be empty and non-apparent in practical use.

How do you achieve a strong frame in your upper body, yet keep a strong root?
How do you achieve a strong frame in your upper body, yet keep a strong root, and at the same time being able to have a light footwork and a sensitive touch?

When people try to develop rooting, they forget about their upper body. When people try to develop their upper body use, they tend to forget the lower body.

When people try to develop their center, their whole body-use tend to become obvious and external. How do you internalise the whole connection from the center and outwards?

Sometimes when students have studied and learned one important aspect and they start to learn a new important aspect, it’s like they have been sent back years in their development. Suddenly they can not use what they have learned before. When you learn something new today, you can forget about what you could do yesterday. Or if you remember it, there can still be difficulties keep doing what you could do yesterday because you must use your body differently today. I remember my teacher constantly nagging about small basic details in my first five or ten years or so. “Sink”, “Take a better stance”, “relax more”, etc. etc. It’s hard to keep everything together. Especially when you learn something new.

Sometimes, Tai Chi practitioners and teachers have studied for a very long time, they can  perform very well inside of the class. But when they try to demonstrate something on a resistant partner, everything seems to fall apart. Why is it so?

There are many questions in the text above and I have no real good answer to any of them. Tai Chi is a complex art. Many aspects concerning different parts of the body are taught. If one part lacks, the whole constructer lacks. The best way, in my own humble opinion, is to start by building a strong foundation. Start with the feet, legs, kua and core. Build a from foundation. Always consider the lower part and the center in everything you do. There’s always an aspect of building “gongfu” if you want everything to fall into place naturally, making it work. You need to build a certain leg and core strength, you need to learn how to breath deep and natural. You need to learn how to keep your mind calm and empty regardless wha is happening outside of you.

Not only do you need to build your skills, layer by layer, making sure that the last layer stays into place when learning something new, but also you need to test your knowledge and skills. You need to do this often and in many ways. Not only inside the school environment, but also outside. There are many ways to do this, like finding friends, martial arts enthusiasts, from other styles.

The problems with complexity In Tai Chi Chuan comes in many shapes and forms. But with diligent practice and building the foundation, carefully, and together with methods for testing and evaluating your skills, you will see your Tai Chi Chuan grow and develop in a measurable way.

Why the Idea of Different “Styles” is Merely an Illusion

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I agree with my teacher that there is no “Style” in Tai Chi Chuan and that it doesn’t matter what forms you practice. Not just for the sake of agreeing, but through my own research and accumulated knowledge through my +30 years of practice, I have come to the conclusion that the idea of “Style” is based on mistakes and is nothing but an illusion. Tai Chi Chuan (or Taijiquan) is a word that sum up certain principles and theories about body movement and mechanics, leverage, angles, as well as ideas about the mind and psyche, and ways to put these principles and ideas into practical practice. If the basic ideas and principles are different, then we can’t talk about different styles. Then we would be speaking about completely different arts. The art is the sum of what every good teacher, dead or alive, and regardless style, could agree with is basic Tai Chi concepts and principles. “Style” is merely different ways to present the same ideas and concepts, merely different packages. So if it is called Tai Chi and in fact really is Tai Chi, then “style” doesn’t matter, you should be able to build the same foundation in all styles and be able to achieve the same type of skill-sets regardless of what style you practice.

– “Chen is the original Tai Chi and thereby the best.”
– “Chen style was lost and the original art was preserved in Yang style.”
– “Chen is better than Yang style for combat.”
– “Chen style is Tai Chi mixed with Shaolin.”
– “Yang Style is watered down Chen style.”
– “Yang Style has more advanced Neigong (internal practice) than Chen.”

These and many other common statements are all based on the false presumption that there is a common standard of “Tai Chi” and that every style has its own set standard. In fact, there has never been a commonly accepted standard, neither of Tai Chi in general or of any style, except until very recent as Chen and Yang family representatives now try to standardise the public teaching. Chen stylists sometimes say that Chen style should be the general standard because this is the oldest style. But still, Chen style has gone through changes and no one knows exactly how it looked like in the days of the person Chen stylists have agreed upon should be the founder, Chen Wanting.

Now, to complicate it further, back in the old days of Yang Lu Chan and his students, no one talked about “style”. No one differentiated “Yang style” from “Chen style” or “Wu style”. Something was either Tai Chi Chuan or not Tai Chi Chuan (or Changquan, or Mianquan as it could be called back then). But the problem we are attaining for the moment is not only a question about the lack of style differentiating names. Practically speaking, everybody back then practiced with, and learned from people with different backgrounds. Chen, Yang and Wu stylists (as we would call them today) all practiced with each other and learned from each other. Yang Cheng Fu studied with Wu Jianquan and learned Push hands from him. And several of Chen Fake’s students also studied with the Yang family.  Also if we look at an individual family, as if you look at students of Yang Cheng Fu, they also studied with other Yang family members as Yang Shaohou and Yang Jianhou. So there are no “pure” lineage today that can only be traced directly from Yang Shaohou and Yang Jianhou, or from Yang Banhou. There is no “pure” lineage from Chen Changxing, Chen Youben or further back. So the concept of “style” derived from a modern time when different traditions already were mixed up. “Style” is a fabricated idea on the illusion that there are or ever has been “pure” Tai Chi styles with clear standards. And that is just not true. In fact far from the truth.

If we look at teachers today, at what an individual teacher from a certain style lacks or what skills he might have achieved, is also not a question of style. Because every teacher or his (or hers) teachers, or at least their teacher’s teachers, have studied from various masters from different styles, no skill or method found in Tai Chi is style bound. What is found in one style can be found in another style, though you might see more of “this” in one branch and more of “that” in another. Follow steps as in Wu (Yuxiang)/Hao and Sun styles are also practiced in Yang style branches. Leaning postures is not found only in the Wu (Jianquan) tradition. And Silk reeling is not only a Chen Style concept. When Chen Xin wrote his book about Silk Reeling in the first half of the 20th century, he never mentioned anything about that Silk Reeling being something only found in Chen style or as a secret. He described it as a core concept for all Tai Chi Chuan, how to move from, and use qi from, the center of the body. The concept and idea is found in all styles and every Tai Chi style have drills and exercises very similar, if not identical to, what is called Silk Reeling exercises in Chen style.

So what is style other than an expression of vanity? (“I want to be different”, “I want to be more special”, “My style is the best”, “My Lineage keeps all the secrets” etc.) How can it be used other than a way to market yourself, your school or your Facebook group?

Well, for one thing, “style” and “lineage” can be used as a way to trace different types of skills through the generations, a way of finding what you specifically look for. It might set a certain focus in your own practice. But to really use these concepts as a tool for your own progress and being able to choose your own skill developing path, you need to have good knowledge about the Art and its history. And you need to actually start somewhere. A good traditional teacher of any art that has good teaching skills is in my own opinion better to look for than being focused on any particular style. If you don’t get anywhere, don’t start to progress and don’t learn a foundation of any style, then what good is what you label it? Labelling nothing? One good teacher does not only open the doors to that specific “style” or “lineage”. He or she opens the doors to the whole art, everything that with right could be called Tai Chi Chuan.

Yi and The Tai Chi Body

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It is said that: “Where the Yi goes, the Qi goes.” and that “The Yi leads, the movement follows.” If we skip talking about Qi for the moment and only focus on Yi and movement, then what movement follow the Yi? I find that when it comes to Yi or “intent” many speak about movement without considering Tai Chi body mechanics. What should follow the Yi is Tai Chi movement. Tai Chi movement from a Tai Chi body. This means that when you consider “Yi” and practice this aspect of the mind, what follows should be your whole trained Tai Chi body. If your idea is to reach out your fist to punch, move in to push, or to evade, follow and lead, the Yi must be connected not only to movement but also to your Tai Chi body. This means that without a proper body method, without correct body mechanics, all talk about Yi or intent is superficial and probably unnecessary.

Compare the calm mind-set and the relaxed body state that we practice and strive towards in Tai chi with the common fighting attitude and mind-set people automatically tune into when they they approach a fight. When going into the “fighting-mode”, most people will automatically tense up the body and clench the fists with muscular strength. But instead the Yi in Tai Chi should work as an “idea” that triggers your body so you will automatically relax, drop the strength and sink. This means that when you practice Yi, you always need to connect both your relaxed mind-state and your whole-body state with the Yi. You should have this in mind while practicing so you can teach your Tai Chi body and Tai Chi mind to respond on aggression and threat instead of the caveman residing inside of each of us.

When practicing punching, pushing or defensive moves, alone or with a partner, make sure you get every ingredient of your body state in everything you do. Always when you “want” to do something, even before doing something, connect the idea of what you want to do with the whole body state: relax, sink the strength, sink the breath, feel the floor with your feet, feel the zhongding (centerline), move with your body as a whole and move from the dantian.

When you consciously practice “to do”, whatever you are doing for the moment, then practice to “do” or act directly without thinking. Make sure that your whole internal body state follows. This takes time. First you need to learn a correct Tai Chi shenfa, a body method. After you have learned the method and you know how to move and act according to the Tai Chi method, the practice of Yi means that you will learn how to trigger this body method, to step directly into your Tai Chi animal just by using the “idea” of doing something. The “idea” when use your Yi should not be “to use” Tai Chi. Instead, every idea connected to use of practical application should trigger your whole shenfa. For instance, when you step into a defensive posture, maybe an all natural looking stance with your hands gently raised for a subtle guard, your whole shenfa should be there. When you act, you should act accordingly to your shenfa. The shenfa or the whole body method should be behind those movements that follow your Yi. This is what Hao Weizhen meant by: ”If you are able to use intention to attack the opponent, then after long experience, even intention does not need to be applied, for the body standards will always be conformed to.“ When you have understood “mind” and “body” as they are understood in Tai Chi, and further learned to connect the shenfa in action through the application of “Yi”, then there will be no  difference between being and doing. Doing means being in your Tai Chi state, the Tai Chi state means being able to move freely within this state. The “Mind state” will more or less be nothing else than what naturally connects “being” and “doing” together as a whole.

Don’t Underestimate a Relaxed Face

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If you really want to relax all of your body and make your mind calm, a good advice or “trick” is to relax all of your face and your hands completely and the rest of the body will more or less follow. At least it will be much easier to relax the rest of the body if you are aware of all of your face and hands and relax every part of them, your eyes, neck, tongue. Relaxing the head and fingers is a good starting point, a step in order to learn how to relax all of the body, and later how to “sink” all of your strength down to the feet.

You can try it sitting or standing. Every conscious thought you’ll have will cause reactions on your breathing pattern through an emotional impact. And because your brain always try to formulate thoughts with words, reactions will happen in your jaws, neck, tongue together with responsive reactions in the rest the face and the eyes especially. This means that relaxing the face will calm your mind. But it also means that a tense face and neck will stir the mind and give rise to thoughts. This cannot be avoided because it’s a function  of the nervous system. Repeated involuntary movements in the neck and jaws will cause stress signals to the brain which will have a negative impact on your body tension and the intensity of your thoughts.

This is also why you should always breath through the nose and not through the mouth. The reason is the same, mouth breathing sends stress signals to the brain. If you are tired and have a hard time to wake up or don’t feel clear in the head, then there are mouth breathing techniques you can use to “wake up” better and to become clear in your mind. For martial arts, there’s a reason why it’s sometimes good to incorporate this, but the over-use of mouth breathing as seen in some martial arts is based on a misunderstanding. And when it becomes a part of meditation it doesn’t serve a purpose to inflict calmness.

So always breath through your nose. There’s also this saying to keep the tip of the tongue on the roof of the mouth. This is also just about relaxing and nothing you need to think about. If you relax the jaws and neck, as well as mind, the tongue will automatically spread out and fill up the roof of the mouth.

While practicing standing meditation, stand comfortable, drop the shoulders and chest, practice to relax face and hands. While moving attention to the face and jaws will help you to relax the neck and keep the head in place. The head can lift itself up and attach itself as it was attached from a string above. But nervous movements in the head and jaws will stir the mind and fill it with thoughts that presses it down. A relaxed face, an empty mind, might give you the feeling that the head is light and help it rise, or float up.

When you relax the head, coordinate this as conscious relaxation together with relaxing the fingers. Then, as you move, you will easily detect any tension that appear from head to fingers as the shoulders and in the chest as well.