Tucking the tailbone in Tai Chi Chuan

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There’s a lot of debate about “tucking the tailbone” in Tai Chi. Some people are big exponents of ‘tucking’ or centring the pelvis, which removes the curve of the lumbar spine. Other people prefer a more ‘natural’ lower back which has more of an inward arc.

For me, it’s not that either of these positions are wrong in Tai Chi, it’s that the idea of holding your spine in a fixed position that is wrong.

If I see anybody practising Tai Chi with a fixed, ‘held’, lower back shape I think it’s just time to sigh and move on.

The lower back is part of the dantien area. This area must be relaxed and free to move.

By far the most common way people hold the spine in this position with tension is with an inward curve. If you see a curved-in back then this area is not relaxed. It might be more aesthetically pleasing but there is no way to connect the power of the ground and legs through the dantien area like this – it’s essentially cut off from that power.

Sure, you can generate power in other ways, but unless you relax the lower back power can’t be transferred from the ground.

Xing Yi is the oldest of the ‘internal’ martial arts. If you look at videos of a precursor art to Xing Yi, called Dai family Xin Yi Lie He, you can see their art has an exercise called squatting monkey as its foundation practice. Look at how it bows and unbows the spine. There’s a lot of flexibility being trained here.

These exercises are like basic, large frame, training exercises for conditioning the muscles and tendons of that area, and the movement can become a lot smaller in usage.

If you’re a Tai Chi practitioner you don’t need to start doing Squatting Monkey practice. I’m not saying that, but you do need to start paying attention to your lower back as you do whatever exercises you are doing – form, Pa Tuan Chin, Silk Reeling, Chi Kung, etc…

Ask yourself what your lower back is doing. Am I holding tension in it? (Here’s a big clue – you are!) and how should I release it? How about when walking around town, or pushing a trolley in Sainsbury’s? You’ll be surprised by how often we hold tension in this area.

Next think about the role of breathing and how it relates to the lower back. If we are doing deep diaphragmatic breathing (which makes the abdomen swell) then it should also be expanding at the back of the abdomen too.  Ask yourself, do you have any flexibility here when you breathe in?

If not, then you know what to do.

 

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Lightness in Taijiquan – walking like a cat

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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.”

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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.

Sinking in Taijiquan

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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’.

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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

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

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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.

One stroke of the brush

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Photo by Niketh Vellanki on Unsplash

It says in the Tai Chi classics that the movements of Tai Chi should be continuous, like a rolling river:

Chang Ch’uan [Long Boxing] is like a great river rolling on unceasingly.”

There are a few interesting things to unpack about this quote, taken from the Tai Chi Classic attributed to Chang San Feng. Firstly, it doesn’t call the martial art “Tai Chi Chuan”, instead it calls it “Long Boxing”, which is yet another indicator that what is known as the “Tai Chi Classics” are in fact, just a collection of common sayings about martial arts of the time that have been bundled together.¹ I tend to regard what we know as “Tai Chi Chuan” today, in all its various forms, as the modern expression and amalgamation of older Chinese martial arts; it is an evolution of ideas and techniques, rather than a ‘new’ martial art which was invented in a moment of divine inspiration by somebody having a dream about a Crane fighting a Snake, which is one of its apocryphal origins myths.

Secondly, the image of water harks back to ideas of Taoism, which uses water imagery frequently in its depictions of worldly affairs. The imagery of a river is a good one. And the implication is clear: no stopping. Continual movement.

Quite often people who think they are doing a Tai Chi form continuously are not. They’re putting in little stops at the end of movements. My teacher called this “posturing”. A good performance of a Tai Chi form will smooth out all these end points so that the form becomes like a single stroke of a calligrapher’s brush on a canvas.

When approached this way, the Tai Chi form stops being composed of numbered moves which are separate elements. As human beings we’re so ingrained in this type of thinking that we even classify Tai Chi forms with numbers on the end. E.g. the “The Tai Chi 24-step form, the Chen style 48 form, the Yang style 108-posture form, etc..” with the number indicating how many different postures there are in the form. When you do the form as ‘one stroke of the brush’ then the whole form becomes one move from beginning to end. Sure, you move from close to open to close to open, and so on, continuously within the movement, but there is still only one movement.

But why? Well, in terms of aesthetic value, it’s definitely more pleasing to the eye to see somebody who moves like this, but that’s not the only reason. In terms of martial technique, the ability to flow smoothly between techniques is key to being able to respond adaptively to whatever the opponent is doing. If you’ve never put the time into practicing movements smoothly you can’t expect to just pull that skill out of the bag when required.

Another reason is that it’s much easier to learn to coordinate your arms and legs if you can move at a constant rate. It gives you the mental space you need to slow down (which is a whole principle in itself) and become more aware of the movements you’re doing, rather than rushing through them, which creates mental blank spots you may miss.

You need to approach continuity as a task that is going to take you a while to complete. As you do the form become aware of where you’re losing awareness and continuity. Has a hand stopped moving here? An arm become immobile there? Did you pause for a fraction after completing Brush Knee Twist Step? (Here’s a hint, you probably did).

If you make continuity the focus of a complete run through of the form then over weeks and months you can get to the stage where your movement becomes very smooth and even. Now you’re ready to look for a deeper meaning. Consider the aforementioned river – it moves continuously, in that it never stops, but different parts of it move at different rates. Where the river narrows rapids form, where it flattens out the pace is more genteel. The form is like this too. There are faster bits and slower bits – quite obviously in Chen style, but also in the even-paced Yang styles. Let the movements guide you – they’ll tell you where you should naturally ‘go with the flow’. Now your techniques will start to become more realistic and you’ll be able to appreciate the type of movement required to make them work.

As Bruce Lee said. “Be like water, my friend”.

¹. See Douglass Wile’s Lost Tai Chi Classics from the late Ching Dynasty

 

Don’t put power into the form, let it naturally arise from the form

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I don’t know if this is a famous quote from a master of old, or if it’s just something that Wayne Hansen thought of himself, but he uses it in his signature, and I was musing on this phase recently:

Don’t put power into the form let it naturally arise from the form

It’s such a great quote, because it’s absolutely true!

I was reviewing somebody’s form recently and the big thing I noticed was that they were trying to put power into the movements, rather than just accepting that the movements on their own are powerful, and don’t need anything extra to make them work. In fact, when you try and make Tai Chi movements powerful, it just messes them up, because you inevitably revert to tense, isolated muscle use, instead of a smooth flow of connected power, like a river.

(I think I should mention here that I’m not talking about the explosive bursts of power you typically see in Chen style forms. These are different. Instead, I’m talking about the general movements found in Tai Chi, typified by Yang style and it’s variations, which opt for a smooth form with an even pace throughout).

What that quote doesn’t do however is explain how it’s done. Tai Chi is full of these mysterious sayings, with very little explanation, so let’s break this one down and see where we get.

Fang song

Firstly, in Tai Chi we are frequently admonished to Fang Song or “relax” as we would say in English. We all instinctively know that a relaxed body can be a powerful body.  Think of how heavy a small child can make themselves if they don’t want to be picked up by going all floppy. Similarly, a baby’s grip is surprisingly powerful, but not tense.

Being too tense results in a kind of rigid and brittle strength. It’s strong, but it’s not deep. It tends to lie on the surface, like ice on a lake, but break through the surface and it’s nothing but water underneath. Relaxation can be more like thick sea ice all the way down.

But to be powerful a relaxed body needs to be a coordinated body. On a purely mechanical level that means moving so that the coordinated power of the body arrives at the right place at the right time. There’s no point punching with just the arm, but if you can coordinate your body so the legs, hips, torso, and arm are all working – arriving – together it creates a kind whole body power that doesn’t rely much on tension at all. But that’s still not the whole story.

That sinking feeling

This sort of whole body power on its own is not enough. The next stage is to get used to sinking into the movements. This sinking – dropping the weight of the body down into the ground through relaxing – paradoxically, enables power from the ground to come up into the hands. It generally moves in an upward and outwards manner, which is the Peng Jin that Tai Chi is famous for. All the movements of Tai Chi need to contain this Peng Jin.

I often read people who critique this method, thinking that “pushing from the legs” will just be too slow, but frankly, they just don’t know what they’re talking about 🙂

True, the legs are very much involved, but when you effectively sink – drop the weight down – it’s not a physical movement. It’s an internal movement. And the power of the ground arrives in your hands instantaneously, so there’s no delay. It’s not too slow to use.

Once you get used to doing this sinking you can feel it. It requires practice, probably daily practice to get it. But that’s why you do the form every day. Every day you are practicing movements where you drop the weight and put the power of the ground in your hands.

Remember, the movements themselves are powerful – you don’t need to add power in. Instead you need to learn to relax, coordinate and sink your ‘energy’.

Just look at that picture of Yang Cheng Fu above.

He’s got it.

 

 

 

Henan Village Chang family Xiao Luohan

I was reading through this excellent interview with Matthew Polly, author of American Shaolin, (a book which has somehow has escaped my bookshelf – a situation I should rectify promptly), when I came across this video of a man performing Chang family Xiao Luohan in a rural village in Henan.

It’s a great little video for a number of reasons. The first is that this is something old and precious that is in danger of dying out as people lose interest in WuShu in modern life. The second is the authenticity of the presentation – it really does look like a rural villiage where he has lived all his life. The third is – it’s a really good performance!

These are the sorts of “old school” martial arts skills that are in danger of dying out in China. To quote from the Matthew Polly interview above:

“As I mentioned in American Shaolin, the idea of chī kǔ (吃苦 ), eating bitterness, is central to the Chinese understanding of learning martial arts, and the value of suffering. And the way in which that contrasts with the western idea of trying to avoid pain in any way. We have an entire society built around the idea of alleviation of pain. We have an opioid crisis because we’re trying to avoid all sorts of pain. I admire progress and evolution in the way mixed martial artists do, but I have a nostalgia and sentimentality for tradition and the way that old man practised the same form for 60 years. There’s something beautiful about that and a sadness in seeing that wiped away as MMA goes like a bulldozer through the traditional kung fu and karate world.”

Chang family boxing is one of the precursors to Taijiquan, at least in terms of martial arts theory, although there are several similar postures to Chen Taijiquan found in its boxing sets, so the connection may be more literal than just in terms of theory.

I think research into Chang family boxing would reveal more about the origins of Taijiquan than wondering if it was Taoist. Luckily this research has already been done by Marnix Wells in his book ‘Scholar Boxer: Cháng Nâizhou’s Theory of Internal Martial Arts and the Evolution of Taijiquan‘. Again, another shocking omission from my bookshelf, but by all accounts, this is a very deep piece of research. According to Jess O’Brian (author of Nei Jia Quan: Internal Martial Arts) – “For those interested in the theory, history and practice of the internal martial arts, this book is going to blow your mind.”

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Tao Te Ching, chapters 8 and 61

 

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I was giving the Tao Te Ching the cursory glance I occasionally give it recently. I’ve got the copy shown above. I usually flick to a random chapter, read it three times and ponder it deeply. Well, as deeply as I am able to. I landed on chapter 61, and the next day I landed on chapter 8. These two seemed to be linked in theme, so I thought I’d say something about them.

Incidentally, I really like the Stephen Mitchell translation. I’ve no idea how accurate it is compared to the Chinese, but all translation seems to involve some interpretation, and I like the way he’s done it.

Here’s chapter 61:

61

When a country obtains great power,
it becomes like the sea:
all streams run downward into it.
The more powerful it grows,
the greater the need for humility.
Humility means trusting the Tao,
thus never needing to be defensive.

A great nation is like a great man:
When he makes a mistake, he realizes it.
Having realized it, he admits it.
Having admitted it, he corrects it.
He considers those who point out his faults
as his most benevolent teachers.
He thinks of his enemy
as the shadow that he himself casts.

If a nation is centered in the Tao,
if it nourishes its own people
and doesn’t meddle in the affairs of others,
it will be a light to all nations in the world.

 

and chapter 8:

8

The supreme good is like water,
which nourishes all things without trying to.
It is content with the low places that people disdain.
Thus it is like the Tao.

In dwelling, live close to the ground.
In thinking, keep to the simple.
In conflict, be fair and generous.
In governing, don’t try to control.
In work, do what you enjoy.
In family life, be completely present.

When you are content to be simply yourself
and don’t compare or compete,
everybody will respect you.

 

So, firstly let’s look at the imagery of water, one of the classic symbols of the Yin side of the Taiji diagram. Both chapters use water as a metaphor for the correct way of acting or being in the world.  It’s a theme that repeats through the Tao Te Ching, and also throughout the history of Asian martial arts, even in modern times. I’m thinking of Bruce Lee in the infamous interview where he says “Be water, my friend!”

 

I was reading another article about Wing Chun today by Ben Judkins, which also expanded upon this idea of softness overcoming strength, and how this idea has permeated Asian martial arts:

Early reformers in martial arts like Taijiquan (Wile 1996) and Jujitsu sought to shore up their own national identities by asserting that they brought a unique form of power to the table.  Rather than relying on strength, they would find victory through flexibility, technique, and cunning (all yin traits), just as the Chinese and Japanese nations would ultimately prevail through these same characteristics.  It is no accident that so much of the early Asian martial arts material featured images of women, or small Asian men, overcoming much larger Western opponents with the aid of mysterious “oriental” arts.  These gendered characterizations of hand combat systems were fundamentally tied to larger narratives of national competition and resistance (see Wendy Rouse’s 2015 article “Jiu-Jitsuing Uncle Sam” .

but as the author notes, the situation is often muddied

Shidachi appears to have had little actual familiarity with Western wrestling.  It is clear that his discussion was driven by nationalist considerations rather than detailed ethnographic observation.  And there is something else that is a bit odd about all of this.  While technical skill is certainly an aspect of Western wrestling, gaining physical strength and endurance is also a critical component of Judo training.  Shidachi attempted to define all of this as notbeing a part of Judo. Yet a visit to the local university Judo team will reveal a group of very strong, well developed, athletes.  Nor is that a recent development.  I was recently looking at some photos of Judo players in the Japanese Navy at the start of WWII and any one those guys could have passed as a modern weight lifter.  One suspects that the Japanese Navy noticed this as well.

But while the idea of the soft overcoming the hard has already fallen to the level of a cliché, especially when it comes to martial arts, and mixed with political ideas, should we ignore it as a way of being in the world?  I’d say not. It does point to a truth.

Anyone with any familiarity in martial arts is aware of the feeling of having to ‘muscle’ a technique to make it work, as opposed to executing a clean technique based on good leverage. This points towards what I think these chapters of the Tao Te Ching are talking about.

When it comes to Tai Chi one of the hardest things to grasp about the techniques exemplified in the forms is that they shouldn’t necessarily feel powerful to you as you do them. My teacher often uses this phrase: “…if you feel it then they don’t – you want them to feel it, not you“.

If you can give up the need to control and struggle with a situation, then you can relax and access your own inner power. See what acliché that statement sounds like already? It sounds like one to me as I wrote it, but I guess all cliches were probably based on something real, otherwise, they wouldn’t be a cliché.

In Chinese martial arts that sweet spot between doing and not doing (to bastardize some more Taoist terminology) is called Jin. I’ve written a bit about that before:

The 6 directions and Jin

Rickson Gracie using Jin

Mike Sigman on basic Jin

Jin in Chinese martial arts (and tennis)

 

 

 

 

 

 

“The teachings of Li CunYi on XingYi’s 5 Elements” – a new translation.

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Paul Brennan of Brennan Translation has completed a new work, that’s worth a look if you’re a XingYi practitioner. It’s called “The teachings of Li CunYi on XingYi’s 5 Elements“, which are said to be the oral teachings of the famous XingYi boxer, Li CunYi as recorded by Du Zhitang of Guangzong [in Xingtai, Hebei]. There’s no date on the manual, but 1916 is a good guess.

The manual covers the 5 Elements of XingYi (Pi, Zuan, Beng, Pao and Heng) together with a “continuous boxing set”, which is a linking form, where the techniques are linked together in one continuous flow.

The linking form presented in the book is very close to this one: