Lightness in Taijiquan – walking like a cat

animal world attention branch cat

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

My post the other day about sinking in Taijiquan seems to have hit the right note, judging by how many shares it got on Facebook, so I thought I should also talk about its opposite – lightness.

Lightness is an equally important quality in Taijiquan. The Yang to the Yin of sinking.

Yin and Yang

One of the contradictions of Tai Chi is that you are required to sink and be light at the same time. It’s not meant to be some sort of Zen Koan, like “imagine the sound of one hand clapping”. Instead, it’s meant to be the way you carry yourself in the form, in push hands and in sparring. These two qualities are a pair that work together, mutually supporting each other.

If you look at the classics of Tai Chi there are frequent references to being light, nimble and agile.

For example,

The Tai Chi Classic:

In motion the whole body should be light and agile,
with all parts of the body linked
as if threaded together.”

The Treatise on Tai Chi:

“A feather cannot be placed,
and a fly cannot alight
on any part of the body.”

From The Exposition of Insights:

“When the ching shen is raised,
there is no fault of stagnancy and heaviness.
This is called suspending the headtop.”

and

“Walk like a cat.”

From Song of the 13 postures:

“To make the whole body light and agile suspend the headtop.”

singlewhip

Yang Cheng Fu – light and nimble, even for a big man.

 

There are various clues here as to how lightness is performed in Tai Chi Chuan. The first thing to note is that there’s a lot of reference to ‘suspending the headtop’. Here the classics are referring to keeping your head upright and not leaning, and the feeling of being suspended from the crown point at all times.

The crown point is where the fingertips of your index fingers meet if you put your thumbs on top of your ears and try and touch your index fingers together over the top of your head.

Your body should be organised as if it is suspended from this point. It’s the point that medical skeletons are suspended from, which indicates how it aligns the spine nicely. E.g.

skeleton

 

The crown point is actually a lot further back on the head than most people think it is. When you try and suspend the head from a point further forward on the skull (as most people instinctively do) then you end up lifting the face, shortening the neck and making the chin jut forward. This is wrong and will make your movement worse.

Done correctly, ‘suspended the head’ should result in the chin being tucking in slightly, and the neck lengthening. But again, don’t use force to achieve this. Find your balance in nature. If you hit on the correct point to suspend from, then everything will just slot into place and feel good.

The correct alignment of the head will free up the spine to move, and hey, guess what – your movements can be lighter and more agile.

Combined with the previous advice on sinking, the upward pull on the spine that correct head position will create acts as a counterpoint to the relaxing downwards and your connection to the earth. The feeling is that you’re being lifted slightly and pulled down slightly simultaneously as you perform the form.

Lighter stepping

Another thing to note is your stepping. There are various exercises in Chinese martial arts for making your stepping light and agile – some people practice on wooden poles raised above the ground, others stepping between terracotta plant pots. All these exercises are designed to make your stepping light.

My own teacher recommended the use of ankle weights. You alternated between periods of wearing the ankle weights during the form only, and taking them off to do the form, so you wore them at all other times of the day.

This required a big commitment, and I used to get some funny looks at work(!) but the resultant lightness of stepping made a difference to my movement and my form.

Lightness in daily life

It should also be noted that lightness refers also to your attitude to practice. Tai Chi shouldn’t feel like drudgery. When you go outside to practice put a spring in your step. You’re spending time in nature doing something you enjoy. There’s no need to drag your feet.

Look at animals in nature for inspiration.

Walk lightly, smile brightly.

Advertisements

Red Pine on Cold Mountain, a Bill Porter interview

 

green forest

Photo by Tyler Lastovich on Pexels.com

I really enjoyed listening to this podcast interview with Bill Porter, who goes under the author name of Red Pine. (There’s a transcription as well so you can read it too).

Bill has had an interesting life, as you’ll discover from the podcast, most notably going to China to interview hermits living in near isolation on mountains in search of The Way. His most famous book is about this: Road to Heaven: Encounters with Chinese Hermits.

I particularly enjoyed his description of translation work as being like trying to dance with a skilled dancer when you can’t hear the music.

In his translation work he’s perhaps most famous for his work translating the Buddhist poet Cold Mountain.

I found a collection of Cold Mountain translations here. They’re not by Bill, but by A. S. Kline. I like them all the same:

 

Where’s the trail to Cold Mountain?

Cold Mountain? There’s no clear way.

Ice, in summer, is still frozen.

Bright sun shines through thick fog.

You won’t get there following me.

Your heart and mine are not the same.

If your heart was like mine,

You’d have made it, and be there!

 

 

 

Sinking in Taijiquan

black and white waves close up view circle

Photo by Skitterphoto on Pexels.com

I generally try to avoid telling people to “sink” in Tai Chi for the simple reason that they usually try to physically lower themselves in the postures, inevitably resulting in using too much force and sticking out their butt, or putting their knees at an odd angle.

Sure, you do need to have a lower-than-normal-standing posture, so you can relax the lower back and centre the coccyx, but when people start to get uncomfortably low (usually combined with too much tucking of the hips) that’s when things break down.

I was doing some push hands recently, and I was trying to work on the idea of reacting to being pressured with a push with the action of sinking as your initial response rather than by trying to do something with their push.

Taoist non-action

By sinking I mean internally sinking – letting go of tension and letting it all drop, rather than by physically lowering yourself. In a way – it’s a kind of non-action. You’re taking something away rather than adding it to the situation. If you can do that then the tension that is created between you and your partner – the pressure – when they start to get too close with their push just dissipates, and the right action arises spontaneously by itself. It’s easy to redirect them because you have ‘got underneath them’.

screen-shot-2017-02-21-at-22-54-10

Sun Lu Tang

It’s a difficult concept to grasp. It reminds me a lot of reading the Tao Te Ching, the Taoist classic of the way and its power. The Tao Te Ching constantly advises us to take the path of no resistance, which initially seems like a passive response to a situation, but when done skillfully, is anything but.

By taking ‘you’ out of the conflict, it can often resolve itself, and usually in your favour.

“Therefore the Master
Acts without doing anything
And teaches without saying anything.
Things arise and she lets them come;
Things disappear and she lets them go.
She has but doesn’t possess,
Acts but doesn’t expect.
When her work is done, she forgets it.
That is why it lasts forever.”

 

Related stories on this blog:

Is Taijiquan Taoist?

Wu Wei – the art of doing without doing

Don’t push the river, listen to it instead

The history of Xingyi (a podcast series)

57fd354968838

Tang Dynasty soldiers

We’ve been building up to this episode of the Heretics podcast for a while, but we’ve finally got there. Here it is, the history of Xingyi, part 1.

Damon heads back to the Tang Dynasty to dig into the historical conditions that gave rise to the Song Dynasty and influenced the eventual creation of Xingyi, specifically the An Lushan Rebellion (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/An_Lushan_Rebellion) and its disastrous consequences (some scholars have estimated that we lost a 6th of the world’s population! Although that figure remains controversial) and the subsequent rise of the Wen and Li traditions in the new Song Dynasty, and how this was going to influence the mother of a certain young commoner who hadn’t even been born yet, but whose name would come to be known throughout all of China – Yue Fei.

This is probably starting a lot further back than most people would imagine a history of Xingyi would begin, but we’re not in a rush – we’re going to do it right, placing everything in its historical context. Lots of detail and lots of depth.

I’ll update this post with each new episode.

Podcast Links:

https://www.spreaker.com/user/9404101/13-xing-yi-part-1

https://www.spreaker.com/user/9404101/14-xing-yi-part-2

https://www.spreaker.com/user/9404101/15-xing-yi-part-3

Here’s the picture by Fan Kuan ‘Travelers amongst mountains and streams’ which gets a mention often:

fan-kuan_sitting-alone-677x1024-500x1000

 

 

 

New Heretics Facebook page

Just a quick heads-up. If you want to be notified when a new episode of the Heretics podcast is out I’ve created a Facebook page that you can follow. I think it will act as the ‘Homepage’ for the podcast until we get a website sorted.

So far we’ve managed a new episode every week since we started. The next one will be on… Xingyi.

Link.

Review: Hidden in Plain Sight, by Ellis Amdur (2nd edition)

4170uwy164l._sx327_bo1204203200_

Hidden in Plain Sight by Ellis Amdur is a thorough examination of the subject of internal power exhibited by Morihei Ueshiba, the founder of Aikido, and the historical origins of this type of power in martial arts from China and Japan. Ellis has many years of direct experience in Chinese and Japanese arts and also works (or worked) in a field that requires physical restraint skills to be utilised, so in short, he knows what he’s talking about. More importantly, he’s a good writer and thorough researcher. The book gets straight down to business, quickly identifying the different types of power that human beings are capable of producing, then how they apply that in martial arts using methods like whipping power or coiling power, then takes a closer look at exactly what ‘internal power’ is and why it’s different, or more refined, compared to other types of human-generated power.

But here I ran into my only real hiccup with the book. Internal arts are full of Chinese words like Jin, Qi, Shen and so forth, none of which are simple concepts that can easily be summed up in one word. In his descriptions of internal power, Ellis translates Jin to mean ‘intent’ (p.54, 56) quite a few times. To my thinking intent is more properly translated as “Yi” in this context, and is indeed a facet of Jin practice, but not a good direct translation of the word “Jin”, which means literally something like ‘refined strength’. Jin is strength produced by the application of Yi, rather than “intent” itself. The process of using intent in the internal martial arts is using the mind to create a path to the ground for jin to follow. A path which may take it from a point of contact with the opponent, for example, straight down to your feet, where it is supported by the ground. It’s a subtle difference, compared to translating Jin as “intent”, and not one which affects the rest of the book, but one which bugs me all the same

Perhaps reflecting the authors experience of having to restrain people in real life, the book is quite down to earth and honest about the realities of looking for this internal strength ability and what it means in practical terms. The main realisation you get is that it’s going to require a serious amount of practice to get basic abilities in internal strength. Time that could be better spent acquiring other skills that would be much more easily applied and learned say from an MMA teacher. I like that Ellis is quite honest about these important points because it’s something that is sometimes lacking in internal strength devotes, especially if they are trying to sell you something! Internal strength is not like a magic pill that once taken will transform you into a martial arts expert. In fact, any skills you develop in this regard still require placing in a martial context to be of any practical use, and that can take as long as developing the skills in the first place. My personal take is similar. I’d say that if your goal is to be an MMA fighter or you just want to learn self-defence skills,  then the amount of time you are required to invest in developing ‘internal’ skills makes no sense – financially or otherwise.

There’s an impressive amount of research that has gone into this book, but since there are so many unanswered questions left about where Ueshiba got his abilities, a large amount of speculation from the author is added throughout which supports his general premise, which at times ignores other possibilities.

For example, at one point Ellis speculates on how this esoteric knowledge of internal power got from China to Japan. On page 103, in wondering what the famous figure Chin Gempin (a Chinese martial artist who ended up in Japan, just as the country was closing itself off to outsiders) could possibly have taught to three experienced Japanese martial artists, as the story goes, who went on to form their own now-famous Ryu (the historical ancestor of Judo amongst them) using this information. Ellis reasons “whatever he taught had to have had such an effect on such men that they made a foreigner part of their origin story, and furthermore, allowed them to develop such men as Ukei and Takino. Internal strength training is the only such methodology that I can think of.

That could well be true, but I can think of something else, as I’m sure you can. (To be fair, in the footnotes Ellis does offers an alternative explanation – being connected to an older Chinese tradition was clearly great marketing, and the whole thing can simply be put down to advertising.)

That’s true, but there is a simpler explanation: submissions. Existing jiujitsu battlefield grappling methods dealt with grounding an armoured opponent, with the goal of finishing them off with a short knife that could easily be worked through the armour at weak points. As such, submission holds weren’t a priority in existing Japanese grappling methods. Equally, Japan’s native Sumo wrestling was more concerned with gaining a victory by rule set (e.g. pushing the opponent out of a ring, for example), rather than by submission. In contrast, the Chinese grappling methods of the time would have been ripe with Chin-Na techniques for breaking limbs or small joints.

(Edit: In this hypothetical situation I’m not trying to imply that submissions skills didn’t exist previously in Japan – they did, of course –  rather that it could be that Chin Gempin was teaching some new types, or higher quality, types of joint locks that hadn’t been seen before.)

From Daito Ryu to Aikido

The second half of HIPS is history-heavy and I have to confess to skipping a few pages that turn into lists of who taught who in a particular Ryu. The history of Daito Ryu however, or rather the personal history of Takeda Sokaku, who was most likely the arts’ founder (since its history is undocumented) is quite revealing. Everything that it’s possible to know about Takeda is here. Ellis often steps over the bounds of mere speculation and delivers a psychological evaluation of a traumatised individual who grew up during the Boshin war, witnessing horrors on a daily basis. He transformed himself into a jiujitsu teacher after disappearing for 17 years. What he was doing and what he was learning in those 17 years nobody knows, but since it followed an incident in which he killed several construction workers in a brawl, and was almost killed himself, it’s probably better not to ask.

Finally, the book turns its attention to Ueshiba himself and collects as much information about his training as is humanly possible. It’s all here, including anecdotes from those that trained with him. There’s also a biography of his life, looking at what martial arts he came into contact with and when in great detail.

A final technical point: you won’t really learn how to do internal strength from this book. This is not a book of exercises, it’s a book about the exercises, and their historical context. In short, it’s a sit down read, not a ‘get up and practice’ manual.

If you’re interested in any of these subjects, and particularly if you practice Aikido, then you’ll find Hidden in Plain Sight provides plenty of food for thought. It’s a great resource and deserves a place on your bookshelf.

Link to Amazon.

 

Chen Ziming’s general comments on Taijiquan

e3808ae999b3e6b08fe4b896e582b3e5a4aae6a5b5e68bb3e8a193e3808b-e999b3e5ad90e6988e-1932-photo-3

Delving deeper into Chen Ziming’s book.

I posted yesterday about a translation of Chen Ziming’s book “The inherited Chen family Taiji boxing art” that is available on the Brennan translations website. I’ve just started reading it and noticed a couple of interesting things I thought I’d post about.

(It should be noted that I often read critiques of the translations by P. Brennan, saying there is too much of the author’s own interpretation in there, rather than a literal translation, so take that into consideration.)

Firstly, who was Chen Ziming?

e3808ae999b3e6b08fe4b896e582b3e5a4aae6a5b5e68bb3e8a193e3808b-e999b3e5ad90e6988e-1932-photo-10e3808ae999b3e6b08fe4b896e582b3e5a4aae6a5b5e68bb3e8a193e3808b-e999b3e5ad90e6988e-1932-photo-11

Chen Ziming was the same generation of Chen family boxing as Chen Fake, who moved to Beijing and made Chen style famous in the capital. Chen Ziming really rose to fame as being the student of Chen Xin, who (unusually for the time) was literate and wrote the first book on Chen style Taijiquan Taijiquan Illustrated, which contained several drawings of silk reeling energy which are still used today. The book was published after the death of Chen Xin by the historian Tang Hao and others. Chen Xin died in 1929. Some extracts of Chen Xin’s book are available on Jarek’s China from Inside.

There are various subdivisions of styles within Chen style. There is a big frame, small frame, old frame and new frame. As a student of Chen Xin, Ziming promoted what is known as the “small frame” of Chen Taijiquan. This sub style was born in the Chen village and uses smaller circles as a feature of its practice (it uses the same forms other Chen styles use).

e3808ae999b3e6b08fe4b896e582b3e5a4aae6a5b5e68bb3e8a193e3808b-e999b3e5ad90e6988e-1932-photo-32e3808ae999b3e6b08fe4b896e582b3e5a4aae6a5b5e68bb3e8a193e3808b-e999b3e5ad90e6988e-1932-photo-37

While the small frame is often said to be the more ‘traditional’ method because it stayed in the village longer, all Chen substyles share the same principles, so they’re not really separate styles, just each has a different emphasis, reflecting the person who passed them on.

From Wikipedia:

The increased interest in Chen-style t’ai chi ch’uan led Tang Hao (唐豪; 1887–1959), one of the first modern Chinese martial art historians, to visit and document the martial lineage in Chen Village in 1930 with Chen Ziming.[10] During the course of his research, he consulted with a manuscript written by 16th generation family member Chen Xin (陳鑫; Ch’en Hsin; 1849–1929) detailing Chen Xin’s understanding of the Chen Village heritage. Chen Xin’s nephew, Chen Chunyuan, together with Chen Panling (president of Henan Province Martial Arts Academy), Han Zibu (president of Henan Archives Bureau), Wang Zemin, Bai Yusheng of Kaiming Publishing House, Guan Baiyi (director of Henan Provincial Museum) and Zhang Jiamou helped publish Chen Xin’s work posthumously. The book entitled Taijiquan Illustrated (太極拳圖說 see classic book) was published in 1933 with the first print run of thousand copies.[11]

From Wikipedia:

Chen Xin initially trained with his father but his father ordered him to study literature rather than the martial arts. It was only later that he decided to use his literature skills to describe his understanding of the secrets of Chen style. In Chen Xin’s generation, his older brother, Chen Yao and his cousin, Chen Yanxi(陈延熙, father of Chen Fake) were considered masters of the Chen style. Chen Xin’s legacy is his book and his student, Chen Ziming (陈子明). Chen Ziming, went on to promote Chen style small frame throughout China and wrote books [32] promoting the art. Chen Ziming was in the same generation as Chen Fake.”

e3808ae999b3e6b08fe4b896e582b3e5a4aae6a5b5e68bb3e8a193e3808b-e999b3e5ad90e6988e-1932-photo-41

At the start of the book Chen lists 9 ‘general comments’ about Taijiquan.

The first 6 are a kind of an orientation to the subject and a guide to what is in the book. From point 7 onwards it gets interesting. He makes some very good observations about Taijiquan that are worth reflecting on.

7. The boxing art called Taiji seeks an appearance of ease. Once you have practiced it to familiarity, you will be able to understand its subtleties and your body’s actions will never depart from the principles. If in the beginning you overanalyze each technique, you will come up with strained interpretations of them and will only get yourself stuck in your ideas, and this will instead hinder your progress. However, if you are able to abide by the principles, then after practicing for a long time you will naturally enter into a transformation of spirit. Therefore the solo set in this book is presented only as postures and movements, giving guidance in skills without lapsing into contrived profundities. As long as you do not forget that this boxing art is called “Taiji”, then through gradual practice the art will come to conform to the taiji concept.

He further elucidates on the idea of “conforming to the Taiji concept” in point 8:

8. Learning Taiji Boxing, regardless of beginner or advanced practitioner, never goes beyond the methods of movement and stillness, opening and closing, rising and lowering, turning side to side. As a beginner, you have to clearly distinguish between these opposites. Then after a prolonged period of training you will achieve such skill that at any time you will be able to alternate between them with your whole body all at once, which is the most delightful aspect of the advanced level.

This reiterates an important point in Taiji practice. Your body needs to be going through a process of going from one ‘extreme’ to another to be practicing Tai Chi. (I put extreme in quotes because there are no physically extreme positions in Tai Chi, unlike Yoga, for instance). You do need to arrive at a closed position, then move to an open position and then close and so on. That action is what makes the Chen boxing art “Taijiquan”. That action can also only really be achieved by doing what Taiji people call “moving from the dantien”.

That’s one of the profundities about Taijiquan. Everything is tightly packed together into the simple concept of “Taiji”. Like Dr Who’s Tardis, it’s bigger on the inside. There’s a lot of stuff in there and you need to unpack it bit by bit to understand the profound simplicity of the whole.

Chen Ziming’s “The inherited Chen family Taiji Boxing art”.

e3808ae999b3e6b08fe4b896e582b3e5a4aae6a5b5e68bb3e8a193e3808b-e999b3e5ad90e6988e-1932-portrait-1

 

Paul Brennan has added a new selection of translations to the martial arts manuals contained on his website. This one is Chen Ziming’s “The inherited Chen family Taiji boxing art”.

Sample quote:

My colleague Chen Ziming is a native of the Chen Family Village in Henan and an expert of the Taiji boxing art. After many years of painstaking effort, he has written The Inherited Chen Family Taiji Boxing Art. A month ago, he begged me to proofread it and also to produce a preface. I read it carefully over the course of two weeks and could not help but slap the table in amazement. The Taiji boxing art is truly a means of connecting to the Way, which cannot be said about most other boxing arts. But unless you achieve a high level, you will not be capable of discussing its essentials.
This art as it is taught in modern times can be divided into about three styles: [1 – Chen] Chen Style Taiji is in a direct line of descent from the Chen family in Henan. [2 – Hao] Hao Weizhen taught Sun Lutang what is called “Open & Close Taiji”, but Hao Style was obtained from Wu Yuxiang, who had learned Chen Style. [3 – Yang] The Taiji that Yang Luchan studied was likewise taught to him by a member of the Chen family, Chen Changxing, and then Luchan taught it to his own sons, Banhou and Jianhou, and to this day his version is in fashion everywhere. All three of these versions actually originated from Chen Style. They have each evolved and been improved, and so they each have their differences.

Link.

Mongolian Wrestling

A new Heretics podcast episode is up that covers martial arts – specifically Mongolian Wrestling – which I thought you might like.

We cover Mongolian wrestling, culture, writing, language, rivalry with the Chinese, wrestling techniques, Sumo, the three ‘manly’ arts (which are also practiced by women) and female wrestlers.

“Mongolian Wrestling is one of the three warrior arts of the Naadam that originated from Genghis Khan and the Mongol Empire. In this episode we explore the history, techniques and links with Shamanism of this surprisingly extensive and complex art which has produced both Sumo grand champions and Judo gold medalists.”

https://www.spreaker.com/user/9404101/11-mongolian-wrestling

Here are some videos that go with the episode:

Mongolian Wrestling highlights:

Asashoryu, the famous Mongolian Sumo wrestler we mention:

 

Mongolia’s first gold medal in Judo at the Olympics from Naidangiin Tüvshinbayar, Beijing 2008:

 

D. Sumiya has won a gold medal in the 2017 World Judo Championships in Budapest, Hungary, becoming the first Mongolian female gold medalist at world judo championships:

Let’s explore the Mongolian national wrestling with Stephen Pera: