Tai Chi should be heavy, like a stone

 

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Move your hips! Photo by: Samuel Castro

One of the most frequent things you hear in BJJ is “move your hips“.

Brazilian teachers tend to say “escape your hips“. Which is an odd-sounding translation of presumably something that sounds better in Portuguese. In American and English it usually gets turned into “hip escape“, as in, “do a hip escape here“, “it’s not working because you need to hip escape more“.

 

We hip escape up and down the gym as a warm up (also known as “shrimping”) because it’s a fundamental movement you need to have in your tool box that you can pull out without having to think about it.

But why? What is it? Simply put: It’s designed to create more space between you and your opponent on the ground.

You can use hip escapes for escaping bad positions like side control and mount. But it also has benefits for attacks too. Basically a good rule of thumb is that if what you’re doing isn’t working try doing a hip escape and doing it again. The change of angle and leverage will probably fix it.

Now we know what a hip escape is, let’s get to the point of all this.

When we say “move your hips” that’s not the part of the body that you need to move from. If you just moved from your hips you’d never go anywhere.  You’d just spasm on the floor like a dying fly having its last buzz. What you actually need to do is push with your toes and feet on the ground so that your hips move.

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Your hips moving is the result of the action, not the action itself.

Which brings me onto Tai Chi Chuan and the dantien (the lower abdomen area of the body).

All wise and knowledgeable Internet-enabled Tai Chi practitioners know that we need to “move from the dantien” in Tai Chi Chuan. (This is the supposed secret to Tai Chi that you get told by your wise master only after you have paid the required tuition fees for a number of years. 🙂 )

 

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Cheng Man Ching, Single Whip posture.

But again, where does the action originate? I would say that, just as in JiuJitsu, you don’t actually “move from the dantien” by originating action there. Your dantien moves, but it’s your foot that provides the impetus. Your foot pushing against the ground is where the ‘power’ comes from in Tai Chi Chuan.

(A side note here for the Order of Advanced Tai Chi Wizards of the Internet: When you get this concept of the power from the ground you will find that you can actually originate the movement in the dantien as a kind of dropping force that is then rebounded from the ground, so it’s less of a push with the legs. File this under “advanced” if it makes no sense right now and come back to it later).

What Tai Chi Chuan specialises in is transmitting this power to the extremities without interfering with it as much as is humanly possible. We know that in Tai Chi we need to be relaxed (song), which seems like the last thing you’d want to be if you have to hit something hard, but there is a method in the madness.

In Tai Chi Chuan you are trying to transfer that power – the ground reaction force – from your foot all the way to your fingers as smoothly as possible and directing it with the dantien. This is called ‘threading a pearl through the 9 crooked gates‘ in the Tai Chi classics. The gates here are the joints of the body. All the breaks in connection between your foot and fingers are the points where power leaks out. Usually we cover these things up by using muscular strength to get by – you can spend years fooling yourself with this, and it’s a very hard habit to stop.

basecheng

Points of interest, where we generally mess this up, are the lower back (keep it open) and the shoulders (stop using them as a power source). The whole body should be Song.

‘Relaxed’ doesn’t mean light and floaty. It means heavy and rooted like a stone.

 

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Tai Chi’s crotch Dantien: store and release in the legs

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Cheng Man-Ching doing his Single Whip posture.

In Tai Chi we all know we are told we should “round the crotch area” – sometimes called “Kua”, but more accurately called “Dang” in Chinese – but why? What does that mean anyway? I’m going to try and point you in the right direction with this post.

The three dantiens

There are three main dantien’s in the body that Tai Chi is concerned with. Firstly there’s the main one in the lower belly, which acts as a nexus, or control point for the whole body, but slaved to it are two other dantiens – the chest dantien and the crotch dantien.

There are clear parallel’s here to the idea of chakras in Yogic folklore, and indeed there are more “dantiens” in the Chinese system that relate to the other chakra locations in the body too, but for the purposes of internal martial arts, it’s the crotch and chest dantiens that are most important.

The crotch dantien is located at the Hui Yin point, and shown in the drawings from Chen Xin’s book:

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These dantiens are points where you can use to store force that can be used in the release of power in the way that the internal martial arts express it – i.e. from the ground to the point of application.

It’s often said that Tai Chi is “boxing with the legs”, and this relates to the use of the crotch dantien. The knees are also in the domain of the crotch dantian, so, you need to think of the legs, hips and crotch all working together.

So what is that supposed to feel like? Well, It’s a bit like sitting on a space hopper – that feeling of grasping something with the inside of your legs, but not too forcefully.

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When you take up your stance in Tai Chi you should feel this ‘energy’ inside that leg arch, as if you are sitting on a space hopper. That’s not exactly a scientific way to describe it, but hopefully, you get the idea.

So your knees are involved too: when you rotate one leg forward, the other leg must rotate backwards to keep the grip on the ball. This forms the action of opening and closing, and is part of the overall action of opening and closing that is going on all over the body.

Squeezing the ball

As you move through the Tai Chi form you ‘squeeze’ this ball between your legs (just as you do a space hopper). So the crotch (the part of the body where the legs join the torso) can close on one side of the body and open on the other, but the feeling of there being something there is maintained throughout.

In Zhan Zhuang practice you get a lot of people describing holding a balloon between the legs, or a ballon supporting your limbs – that’s the same idea, and with enough practice it can actually start to feel like this.

While the space hopper or balloon may be imaginary, the feeling isn’t. It reminds me a lot of the verse in the Tao Te Ching about the value of what’s not there:

“Thirty spokes share the hub of a wheel;
 yet it is its center that makes it useful.
 You can mould clay into a vessel;
 yet, it is its emptiness that makes it useful.
 Cut doors and windows from the walls of a house;
 but the ultimate use of the house
 will depend on that part where nothing exists.

 Therefore, something is shaped into what is;
but its usefulness comes from what is not.”

This feeling of buoyancy in the crotch dantien forms part of the way the power is transferred from the legs to the torso, and ultimately out to the fingers.

Store and release

In terms of training this power, traditionally it’s common to stand in a low horse riding stance for a long period of time. I think this is more about building leg strength than the sort of power I’m talking about though, so while there’s nothing wrong with it, I think you need a moving exercise to practice what I’m talking about.

So, I’d recommend focussing on it while doing a simple single arm wave silk reeling exercise. (Like the one I use in my silk reeling course).

Trying to focus on just developing this power while doing the whole Tai Chi form isn’t optimal, as there are too many other things going on at once.

It’s important to stress again that there is no actual ball of energy between your legs – it’s just a useful metaphor for helping you get the right feeling for the particular winding in the legs and hips that helps produce power through the store and release mechanism in the horizontal plane.

As you turn one way then the other, the windings of the legs results in opening and closing actions which store power, that can be released into movement.

This is another reason why you really need to turn the waist a lot in side-to-side motions in Tai Chi Chuan (usually a lot more than you think). Without sufficient turning of the waist, you’re just not getting the hips and legs involved enough and activating their store and release potential for power.

The Tai Chi move ‘Wave hands like clouds’ is a good example of this. Notice that I’m turning all the way through to the sides to get the most store and release out of the legs:

cj6ysk

 

My teacher always admonishes me to ‘relax the waist’ when he’s critiquing my form.  Over the years I’ve learned that what he’s really asking me to do is increase the range of movement that my waist goes through. Obviously, stiffness inhibits the range of motion of the waist, but just realising that you need to turn more than you are currently doing is a valuable insight in itself. And now hopefully you can understand the reasons why.

I hope that helps.

 

 

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.”

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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.

Trust me, I’m a Doctor

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The most recent episode of Trust Me, I’m a Doctor featured Tai Chi!

“Michael Mosley finds out whether t’ai chi can offer the same health benefits as vigorous exercise – without all the huffing and puffing. ”

They compare the same time spent doing Tai Chi to the time spent doing Zumba, which is far more vigorous. Is he really “doing Tai Chi”? Well, that’s up for debate, but the results are surprising.

If you get iPlayer then you can watch it at the link below:

https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b0bnbjlc/trust-me-im-a-doctor-series-8-episode-6

 

We all use Jin already, all the time

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Chang Man-Ching using the power of the ground to uproot an opponent.

I’ve talked a lot about the idea of Jin on this blog, usually in reference to using the power of the ground in martial technique. However, talking about Jin only in this context starts to create the impression that it’s a special skill that you may, or may never acquire.  A hidden secret, almost. It might be more grounding (no pun intended) to consider that we all already use some aspects of Jin in every day life.

Take a look at the following photos of people carrying things/other people:

two boys walking beside the grass

Photo by Dazzle Jam on Pexels.com

man in black overcoat and blue denim jeans kissing while carrying a woman in pink overcoat and knit cap on shore at daytime

Photo by Daria Shevtsova on Pexels.com

 

two women wearing traditional dress carrying basins

Photo by Jose Aragones on Pexels.com

 

beach careless carry clouds

Photo by Artem Bali on Pexels.com

 

The photos of people carrying weights on top of their heads provide perhaps the clearest example of what I’m talking about, but I wanted to include the other photos too, because the same principles apply.

In all cases, the human body has the ability to manage the extra weight applied to it in a constantly shifting environment of movement, without you toppling over. The weight being carried is being sent to the ground in all cases. If you hold a heavy weight out in front of you it is much more difficult, because you have to use your arm muscles in isolation, but if you can simply add the weight to your own body and let the force pass through your body to the ground then it’s a lot easier to carry, especially over long distances. Your body/mind will automatically manage these forces as you move using your subconscious. If it wasn’t doing it then you’d simply fall over as you moved because you wouldn’t be adapting to the subtle shifts of weight.

The point about the subconscious doing it is important because it means your conscious mind is free to do other things. For example, you can carry out a conversation while carrying a weight on your head and walking, rather than having to concentrate on it with 100% of your mental effort.

This ability of the subconscious mind to manage these forces is what we call Jin in Chinese Martial Arts. So, when somebody pushes on me, say in Taijiquan Push Hands, and I send that push to the ground I am using some sort of conscious control over a normally subconscious-mind ability.

That’s the skill you need to train. These Jin skills can range from the simple to the complex, but it’s all based on using an ability we already possess and use naturally, without even thinking about it.

The whole Chen Tai Chi curriculum, in video form

Well, this page is interesting. It’s from Bosco Baek (and some of Bosco’s students) who is based in Los Angeles, USA, and from the looks of things, and it looks like a video reference for the whole Chen style Taijiquan curriculum!

https://chenbing.org/videos

Chen Bing Taiji Academy (陳炳太極院) was established by Master Chen Bing who is a 20th generation representative of Chen Family Taijiquan.   Its headquarter is located in Chenjiagou, Wenxian County, Henan Province, China. – the birth place of Taijiquan.  Master Chen Bing is a direct descendant of Chen Wangting (陳王廷), the creator of Taijiquan.

That’s very generous of him to share these videos. It’s fascinating. Things I’ve noticed so far:

  1. The advanced stepping and silk reeling he shows shares a lot of similarities with Bagua (the tea cups-style exercises of Bagua Zhang are obviously silk reeling exercises, so this should be no surprise, but it’s the first time I’ve seen a Chen guy walking a circle, like they do in Bagua).
  2. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j8JBxWQz3bg
  3. The advanced push hands videos look a lot like ‘wrestling without being allowed to grab the legs’. Looks like good basic training in stand-up grappling:
  4. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gjiw-JAl9YI
  5. The ‘primary explosive power’ video combines all the basic ‘fa jing’ moves you find in the Chen ‘old frame’ form into a nice little sequence:
  6. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LqcFfZaYPYA
  7. There’s a Yoga sequence at the end! Obviously he finds that a useful addition to Tai Chi. More weight to the idea that the primary origins of the ideas of body movement in Tai Chi and Yoga originate from the same source (or at least are compatible).
  8. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FXT67_vgncw

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.

 

 

 

Get outside and move more

Tai Chi wants you to create a balanced approach to life. You can tell this from the way the form itself is balanced; the posture is balanced, the mind is balanced and the breathing is balanced. Therefore it makes sense to look at your whole life, not just the part of it spent doing Tai Chi, if you want to get the best out of it.

Matt Haig, who wrote one of my favourite books How to Stop Time, shares his top tips (from his new book Notes on a Nervous Planet) for leading a balanced life here:

Matt talks about the importance of getting outside in that video.

Another Matt that I know is Matt Hill of the Systema Academy in Wiltshire, and he’s all about getting outside more. He wrote a recent blog post I’d like to share about the importance of getting outside for a good 3 hours at least once a month.

Finally, here’s a podcast by movement biomechanist Katy Bowman about How To Integrate Movement Into Your Life – And Enjoy It There are lots of tips here on how to integrate more movement into your day to day life.

 

Week 4 – breathing. Half way through my 8-week Tai Chi course.

Here’s part 4 of the course. This week we focus on breathing. I cover the topics of normal and reverse breathing, then show a couple of different exercises that will get you on the right track for applying the breathing methods to the movement we are working on. Finally, we integrate the breathing into the movement, preserving all the progress we have made so far. Once you get the hang of it those breathing exercises I show are not required anymore, as you should be integrating it into your main exercise.

This week is more subtle than work showed previously. An inner focus will be required. Good luck! I’m happy to answer any questions you have.

Natural movement in Chinese martial arts

I just wanted to say a few words about natural movement, and what we mean by it in Chinese martial arts, before I post part 4 of my 8-week course on Tai Chi movement on Sunday.

If you’ve been following the videos you’ll notice that I did a kind of ‘universal’ open and close exercise in part 1, which cycles between two phases

Open:

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and close:

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From: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fV3DaNZz3hI

If you’ve been following up to week 3 you’ll know by now that it’s not a case of just mimicking these postures – you need to be going into and out of them using the elastic connection you’ve been developing by doing the arm circle exercise.

You can see these open and close postures in nature all the time, in movement – when a squid or octopus swims it kind of pulses between open and close.

Octopus:

Open:

screen_shot_2018_06_01_at_9_25_03_am

Close:

screen_shot_2018_06_01_at_9_25_15_am

From: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oxawhfXGGt8

The classic example in the animal world is the Cheetah, since it’s the most majestic animal when it comes to running. It cycles between open and close quite obviously too, which helps.

Cheetah:

Open:

screen_shot_2018_06_01_at_9_28_44_am

Close:

screen_shot_2018_06_01_at_9_28_59_am

From: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V8vejjVgIHg

In the Chinese martial arts, all the ‘internal’ martial arts like Bagua, XingYi and Tai Chi should be using open and close. The martial art that best exemplifies it though is XingYi, as all the 5 element fists go through a very obvious open and close cycle.

For example, in Pi Quan:

Closing:

screen_shot_2018_06_01_at_9_37_12_am

Opening:

screen_shot_2018_06_01_at_9_36_44_am

Closing:

screen_shot_2018_06_01_at_9_37_00_am

from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9HNML_k9a-s

When we say “natural movement” is used in internal arts, this is what is being talked about.

Of course, you can use the open and close sequence in everyday life too. Just yesterday I was kicking a ball about with my kids in the park and I started to play around with open and close as I kicked the ball, rather than just doing it with my leg in isolation. When you use open and close your whole torso and back get involved – I was quite surprised by how much extra power and direction I could give the ball when I started to use open and close to kick it. Like everything, it starts off big and clumsy and first, but you soon learn to remove the excess movement and refine it.

Look out for part 4 on Sunday when we’ll be taking a look at how breathing factors into the whole thing.