Jian, 剑 – The Chinese straight, narrow blade sword (Documentary)

Tags

,

Jian, 剑, is an elegant Chinese sword and one of the few original weapons found in the art of Tai Chi Chuan. Small, precise circling motions are used. It’s also a weapon that is very hard to defend from. It’s use is very misunderstood and few people today practice it with the kind of movements that is needed to make it perfectly efficient in real, practical use.

Here’s a fascinating documentary about the Jian, it’s history and it’s place in modern China:

Advertisements

On neidan in T’ai Chi Ch’uan and the psychology behind Opening of the Three Gates (通三關 Tōng Sān Guān)

In this article, I will discuss the idea of opening the three gates in Daoist Neidan tradition as an integral part of Tai Chi practice. Usually the concept of the three gates is discussed from a Qigong perspective, but here I will approach it more from a philosophical perspective and Tai Chi. I will start with some brief background, but after that, I will try to attack the issue in a most practical manner and try to translate the thoughts into a modern language so the practitioner can turn this into something really useful for everyday Tai Chi practice. At the end of the article, I will discuss the psychology of Tai Chi and neidan practice that is expressed through the philosophy of the three gates. This is where, in my own opinion, Tai Chi becomes useful for both body and mind. You don’t need to believe in Qi or really understand neidan theory to make use of this in a practical manner. And if you read through this article you will understand better what benefits the Neidan aspects of your practice can have in your daily life.

Neidan as an integral part of Tai Chi

Knowledge about Neidan in a practical traditional sense is essential for a deeper understanding of Tai Chi as a health art and meditation. Learning about modern Qigong is not sufficient. Neidan is not the same as modern Qigong or modern theory about Chinese traditional medicin. Neidan means internal alchemy and is a framework of very old practical health systems and philosophical thought with a Daoist origin concerning the rejuvenation of the body. Most of today’s Qigong and Chinese traditional medicin is actually based on quite modern thought on the body’s Qi and Yin-Yang balance. Compared to medical theory, there is a much deeper psychology behind Neidan, which is a system of thought developed through practical experience of dealing with both the body and the mind. Just like Tai Chi, Neidan practice has been influenced by different schools of Daoism, Confucian thought and Buddhism.

In Neidan, there is something called “opening the three gates“. There is something to be found about this in the Neidan cannon “Wuzhen Pian“, a text compiled in 81 poems from 1075 by Zhang Boduan. Even if this book is recognized as a daoist classic, the period when this text was written is a very interesting and important one for the development of Chinese thought. In the Song dynasty Confucianism had a revival and there were different schools of thoughts concerning cosmology, numerology and often expressed as a mixture of Daoism, Confucianism and Buddhism. Zhang Boduan himself was a scholar who had passed the official exams and became a follower of Daoism, but he was also very well reversed in Chan Buddhism.

The special climate of thought from this period of Chinese history might have had an impact on the later understanding of Neidan through the work of Zhang Boduan. But later comments on this book and other similar texts have probably influenced our understanding on Neidan as well. This very period when the original text was written, the Song Dynasty, is also interesting from a Tai Chi perspective due to the fact that many scholars believe that at least most of what  is called T’ai Chi Ch’uan today was already developed in this time.  There are indications that there were already the art of the Sanshiqi (37 postures) and “soft” shaolin arts, arts that resemble modern T’ai Chi Ch’uan even more than the arts usually called Shaolin or Long fist today.

So even if there are differences of views regarding the historicity of T’ai Chi Ch’uan most people all agree that neidan runs through the development of Tai Chi and that it’s an important part of the art. The founder of Chen style T’ai Chi Ch’uan, Chen Wanting, studied Daoism and  Neidan arts as well. So when we practice Tai Chi, we are actually studying a mixture of neidan and martial arts. And we study Neidan principles through the practical practice of our martial art.

The meaning of the three gates

One aspect of the Wuzhen Pian, namely the aspect of opening the three gates, has been interpreted in various ways and understood differently from different perspectives of neidan practice. The three gates are mostly either viewed as obstacles in the body preventing full Qi circulation or as three “dangers” that could hurt the practitioner while he or she practice to develop Qi circulation.

The three Dantian are inside the body, but towards the front of the body. But the three gates are on the back of the body and located in connection to the spine and correspond to the three Dantian. None of the Dantians or the gates are originally located as acu points, but in modern time a lot of teachers of Qigong and similar have claimed they are. The first gate one is located at the tailbone, The second in the spine behind the heart. The third one is represented by the “Jade Pillow”, or where the spine connects with the skull.

The lower gate

The first gate at the tailbone is where the spine connects with the legs. This is where the qi goes out to the legs. If the qi have trouble to go pass this point, or if this area is not developed properly in accordance with Neidan and Tai Chi practice, there will not be what is called Grand Circulation. Then the Qi can not fully nurture the legs.

The middle gate

The second gate is not only in a position that is behind the heart. It’s position is located between the shoulder blades, placed where the spine connects to the arms via the scapula. This is where Qi reaches the arms as it’s traveling up through the spine. This place, the second gate, needs to be open up in order to achieve full Qi circulation out through the arms.

The upper gate

The third gate connects the spine with the head. This gate connects the back to the top and the front, and is also a gate to the upper dantian. This dantian has no exact point according to older daoist, but is said to be located somewhere in the head. More revent philosophy means that this point is equal to what is called “the third eye”.

Circulating Qi through the three gates

Some books on Qi circulation and daoist meditation claim that there three gates represent dangers of practicing to develop grand Qi circulation. It’s said that if the Qi get stuck behind the heart, it could cause damage to the heart. And that if Qi gets stuck in the head, this could cause damage to the brain. In my own opinion, these the dangers are highly exaggerated. Qi is not something that can harm your body just through circulating. Circulation means that there’s nothing stuck inside of the body. I.e., if the gates are not open, the Qi can not reach full circulation and it will not get stuck. If it doesn’t circulate, how can it get stuck? The only way for Qi to get stuck is to focus directly on Qi. Because where the Yi goes, Qi follows. This is an automatic response, a function of Qi and mind.

In Tai Chi, it’s not the will or focusing on Qi that drives and circulate Qi. We never focus on Qi directly. In Tai Chi, it’s breath and movement that circulates and directs the Qi. We open up the three gates by breath, alignment and physical movement. To open up the lower gate means that the muscles in the lower back must be soft. For the Qi to continue to move up through the spine, there  can not be any tension or too much weakness here. Further, to express the Qi down into the legs, we also need to use the “gua”, especially in the meaning of the groin, or the junctional area between the abdomen and the thigh. We can use stance practice and transitional exercises of weight and balance for the larger part of this whole area to open up both the gate and the gua at the same time. In neutral stance, keep the hips tucked in. When moving, coordinate the movements of hips/ pelvis with the rest of the movements of the body and the breath. The movements of the tailbone should be naturally coordinated through the movements of the lower Dantian, so there is no active coordination needed of the tailbone. But you still need to have awareness in this area and keep the lower back rid from tension.

The long lost part of our body is the scapula. This area is the modern man’s loss. We hardly ever use the shoulder blades in an active manner in our daily lives. I would be willing to say that a stiff back part, from the lower back and up the whole back, often ending with raised shoulders and clenched jaws is really a trade for the modern working man. It seems as it doesn’t matter if a person practice some types of sports or weight lifting and use this area sometimes, then and then. Mostly, they still have no awareness what so ever in this part of the body and the scapula is still almost never actively used.  To open up the second gate, you really need to bring attention and awareness to this area. The scapula is the absolute key to open up the third gate and achieve grand circulation out through the arms. When practicing Tai Chi, there should be a spinal movement that connects to the shoulder blades and rounds the chest. What is called “Han xiong ba bei”in Tai Chi, or “raise back hollow chest”, was never meant to be a stationary posture. It’s a movement that travels from the tailbone, up through the spine and through the scapula. The movements and structure in the Tai Chi forms created by movements of the shoulder blades are called “Kai he”, “opening and closing”. It is also said that “opening and closing should be present in each and every movement through out the form.” Without activating the spine and scapula there is no “opening and closing” and there is no opening of the second gate.

The third gate as located in the neck, or the place where spine meats head, is best opened by correctly balancing the head and by releasing and relaxing jaws and neck muscles. If you are tense, the head can not follow the body’s movement properly. The head does not need to be perfectly still or perfectly attached to the body. As the eyes keep track of the fingers, the head needs to have a certain movability to follow the movement of the eyes.

The psychology behind the three gates. 

There’s yet another aspect of the three gates. They all have their placements for psychological reasons. If you don’t keep your emotions and thoughts in control, you won’t control breath, Qi or the body’s movements very well. I believe  that it’s a pity that most of Tai Chi and Qigong practice tend to be concerned with the body and physical movement only. Because in Neidan, dealing with thoughts and emotions is intimately connected with the progression within the arts.

The lower gate represents sexual frustration, sexual thoughts and also an overall shattered mind due to bodily needs. You need to be focused enough to keep away sexual frustration and related thoughts when you practice. But developing awareness of these parts of the body in conjunction with the physical practice of the arts can also act as a cooler, to help you control emotions as frustration, worries and anger.

The middle Dantian represents breath and the middle gate represents the heart. A body with an upset heart can not breath properly. Your emotions can control your breath. By relaxing the body and achieve deeper breath, you can learn how to control and be in charge of your emotions.

The upper Dantian, as I mentioned, is according to tradition just “somewhere in your head”. The upper gate connects the body with the head. You need to get rid of all tension from shoulder, neck and jaws before you can understand to align and properly balance the head. You also need to keep a calm mind, get rid of wandering thoughts and understand to focus. Also, in Daoist tradition, if your mind is not calm, you’ll upset the heart so the heart flame can not sink down to the “stove”, or to the Lower Dantian. Which means there is no “steam” or Qi in the first place. The top gate is your mind. Everything in your body and spirit starts and connect with each other through the mind. My own aim for my own mind when I practice is always the state of “wuji”, or “wuxin”, which through a simple explanation means “emptiness” and “no mind”. A gentle “stare” with the eyes can help you focus and help you to build up your “Shen” or “Spirit”.

A few practical pointers to sum it up:

  • Keep the lower back relaxed.
  • In a neutral stance, keep the hips gently tucked in.
  • Keep the movability of the scapula, relax the chest.
  • Practice spinal movements and the movability of scapula.
  • Balance the head, but first relax the jaws.
  • Let go of frustration, anger and worries.
  • Calm the mind, keep it light.
  • Calm down the heart.
  • Collect all thoughts together.
  • Empty your mind, stay focused.

T’ai Chi Ch’uan will engage body and mind as a whole. You can not affect body without affecting breath. You can not affect breath without affecting emotions. This is what old traditional Neidan practice can teach us and how to use actively in our lives. Fortunately, this is something that is inherited in modern Tai Chi practice. As we practice Tai Chi, we study not only how to keep health, but also how to achieve well-being and in the long run, this might help us to create happiness in our lives.

……

Suggestions on further reading:

If you want to read more about the Neidan in the Wuzhen or about the three gates, I can recommend to also read these pages in the Rum Soaked Fist Forum, a meeting spot for practitioners and people with knowledge in Chinese internal martial arts. Another way could be to search in the Dao Bums community. For more Qigong and Qi meditation aspecs on these issues, you can take a look on the books by Yang Jwing-Ming, especially his work on Tai Chi Qigong.

Recommended posts as further reading and on similar issues:

On pre-natal Qi = https://taichithoughts.wordpress.com/2013/05/21/on-natural-movements-prenatal-qi/

On Body awareness = https://taichithoughts.wordpress.com/2016/08/22/body-awareness-the-real-key-to-success-in-tai-chi-chuan/

On Yi and Intent = https://taichithoughts.wordpress.com/2015/08/20/important-points-on-yi-and-intent-in-tai-chi-and-ima/

Tai Chi and the Chinese Mindset of Simplification

I like the header I created for this Tai Chi blog very much. I use the same picture for my personal Facebook page as well. There’s not only a feeling of daoism and Tai Chi over it. But I didn’t use only one painting for the header. Actually I use two different paintings from the same artist and put them together. The painter is one of the most famous of them all, Qi Baishi (January 1, 1864 – September 16, 1957). There’s a reason why I chose paintings from this artist. He was a Tai Chi practitioner of the old school. I’ve heard that he was very, very good in Tai Chi. He would practice “lü” movement while making circles with a giant brush. He painted very big flowers with one single stroke using the technique from his tai chi. The price on these paintings has 6 figures.

Chinese painting and Tai Chi has a long history together. Tai Chi resembles the mindset of a painter. But there’s also something very “Chinese” in all Chinese culture. This is simplification. If you look at traditional Chinese painting, as in shanshui, landscape painting, bamboo, floors and painting animals, the development of this art always move towards simplification, to paint as simple as possible yet creating as great expression as possible. If you look at the header with the paintings of Qi Baishi, I think you will understand better what I mean.

Practicing calligraphy of characters starts with eight strokes. When you have practiced each stroke individually thousands of times, you start to put them together into characters. But this is only a learning step. As the real artistic expression is developed, the characters are being simplified until it will result in an expression that many times only the the artist himself can interpret.

And of course there is Chinese poetry. In the Tang Dynasty, one of the official exams included writing poems. This is also the reason why Tang poetry is som famous and why there are so many poems preserved from this time. But language itself, today in modern China, is also subject of simplification. Good understanding of Chinese everyday language is very much about simplifying, getting rid of every word that is unnecessary. Too complicated sentences means bad Chinese. Yes, sometimes it’s just as simple as that.

Tai Chi as a Chinese Cultural expression of Art strives toward simplification as well. If you don’t understand this mindset, your Tai Chi will suffer. Tai Chi as a martial art is not about making fancy jumps, spinning kicks or about timing complicated techniques. Tai Chi is all about simplification. We rather chose to trip than to throw, we rather use simple qinna than complicated. We don’t jump at him with a knee, but we can pull him down on a knee. Also, there’s nothing wrong with a straight lead to the face. But it’s even better if you just hold up your fist when he runs towards you. This is the mentality of Tai Chi as a martial art. Some people says that Tai Chi is just plain lazy. This might also be true to some extent.

The precision of movement: Another note on Tai Chi form practice and relaxation

Tags

, , ,

I’ve written a lot on softness, on why I believe in relaxation and how strength comes  from softness and not by using hardness. Mostly, I don’t write separate posts on this subject, though there are one or two separate posts, as this one: Strength from Softness – Softness from Strength.

One important point I would like to add to all of this about relaxation is why it’s important to practice with complete relaxation, being as soft as possible without compromising the structure and angles of the “shapes” or the individual movements.

Shouldn’t you try to hold your muscles at least a little “al dente”? You know, having a rubber kind of feeling or something similar? No.

No? Why no? Well, imagine that you are playing pool games, billiards or bowling or painting with Chinese ink technique, or doing any other kind of movements in sports, handicrafts or anything that demands a kind of very, very precise movement. Just like you aim for that ball with the cue, you need to cut off any other muscle, and muscular movement, that disturb or prevent the precision of your aim and movement.  This kind of precision of movement is exactly what you practice every time and all of the time in Tai Chi Chuan. You always practice to do only exactly what a certain movement demands from your body.

So, if you lift up your hands, you should relax everything to the extreme so that the body support only the movement and the structure behind the shape of the movement. The more you relax, the more you will let go of unnecessary effort and only use the muscles that do the movement. Moving is enough, don’t to anything else that is necessary. Even if you move with your whole body, using whole body movement  and whole body coordination, only move exactly what is necessary of that movement.

This is the same for push hands and applications. Don’t use effort, don’t use strength, don’t add anything else for structure, have a feeling of “al dente” or anything else. Just move and relax. Why? Because when you throw, punch or do anything, you want to use your body as efficient as possible. You don’t want to fragment your energy, using muscles for anything else than for exactly what you want to do. If you can find the same precision as some movements in different sports and handicraft demands in whatever you do, your punches will be stronger regardless what punch or punching technique you use. Your throws will be stronger and you will preserve your energy to continue on fighting. Practicing this skill of precision of movement and preserving energy begins in your form practice. No even before, even as you just stand, relax and breath. If you can completely relax your body while moving, without interfering posture or movement, you have already come a long way.

Of course, you need to remember this when you practice against resistant partners and opponents as well. When it come to this, especially challenges and competitive events, people tend to lack in faith in their relaxation and this means that they will abandon their best skills. So always when you practice against someone else, pay special attention on always relaxing as much as possible and only use exactly what in your body that is necessary for any kind of application or technique you perform. Don’t add structure, strength, “peng” or anything else. The refined movement and your body’s ability to change will give you any structure or “peng” you need. Your body knows what to do, if you only listen to it and keep relaxed.

Following, adapting, mirroring – Do you really know how to practice this?

Tags

, , , ,

When you have read this post about mirroring and adapting in Tai Chi, I can recommend to also read the posts: how to practice Tai Chi applications and Five important points of Push Hands practice.

In Tai Chi, we try to learn how to adapt to the opponents movements, following him like the reflection in a mirror. But there are two things I see in how people commonly practice Tai Chi that I don’t agree with. Both of them have to do with focusing on techniques before principle. Both may lead to bad habits and a false sense of timing.

First, people practice from stationary postures. Your opponent need to move. You can’t start from your opponent standing with a stretched arm. There must be a movement to follow. Almost all applications you see in vids on the tubes start from either a push hands setting or stationary postures. How can you learn how to mirroring your opponent if you don’t have anything to follow? In this sense, much push hands practice serve better to build tai chi skills than most applications practice you can see that people show up on the youtube etc.

Second, people are too concerned with the limbs. They practice how to defend themselves from hands, arms, legs and feet. But what you should learn to follow and adapt to is the opponent’s center, his balance and to his “yi”, or intent. The traditional Chinese philosophy is to get rid of problems while they are small. If you know that you don’t want a tree to grow, get rid of it as soon you see it comes out from the earth. Don’t wait until it has grown strong. The same can be said for Tai Chi philosophy of self defence. Don’t wait for a punch or any attack to become strong and connected. Then it’s too late. So if you can, get rid of it by it’s root, before there is any power in the attack. To do this you must follow and adapt to the movements of the center. Use timing, get in as soon as you can get in to the right distance and get rid of the problem.

But you need to practice on this. You won’t get any practice you can use in real life self defence or combat if you start practicing techniques with your opponent holding out a stretched arm and fist. This will only build bad habits and won’t help you to develop your timing.

Li Yaxuan (Disciple of Yang Chengfu) on this issue of timing and adapting to the opponent’s movements:

Even before physical contact, with a single glance you join contact with the opponent or partner, establishing a firm connection with him. Adherence can begin even at this stage, prior to physical contact. This is important because when you are working in a more intensive competitive or combative mode, if you depend on physical contact to start your adherence, that’s too late and you’re going to be too slow to exploit any advantage of timing or positioning.

(Translated by Scott Meredith: Link to the complete text, PDF)

  • Practice to watch your oppponent, to feel what’s the appropriate distance to enter or attack.
  • Practice to follow his every slight movement done by his centre, feet, hips or shoulder tips.
  • Try to lock the distance from your center to his center.
  • Watch his eyes: When does he look and can you see his gaze changing just before he goes to an attack?

Follow, follow and follow. Try to act as his mirror, adjusting to every slight movement, even if he moves some part of his body even one tenth of an inch. And then when you have contact with your opponent, let your tingjin (sensitivity skill) decide when, where and how to respond and attack.’

Recommended posts: how to practice Tai Chi applications and Five important points of Push Hands practice.