This set of eight exercises is a popular Qi Gong exercise in China, probably the most popular. There are hundreds of different variations. This one I particularly like because although the reeling movement she’s doing is hidden to the point of invisibility, the arm movements are being used very obviously to enhance the subtle tensioning from fingers to toes throughout in a way you can see. Very nice.
I think that somebody doing some background research into “Tai Chi” inevitably ends up looking at a picture of the “acupuncture meridians” and starts to wonder how they relate to Tai Chi Chuan.
The meridians are used in traditional Chinese medicine practices like acupuncture, massage and pulse diagnosis.
It’s very easy to jump to the conclusion that specific moves in Tai Chi Chuan must affect specific meridians (since, you know, they’re both Chinese…), and indeed a lot of Tai Chi literature will tell you things like this – for example, you’ll see it written that Wave Hands Like Clouds works on the belt meridian or Needle At Sea Bottom works on the bladder meridian.
Do they really? Who knows.
I remember asking my Tai Chi teacher about this and he just brushed it off as unimportant. He was right, too. The thing is, when you do an opening outwards movement, Qi (if there is such a thing, and if there is, then it’s probably not what you think it is) is moving through all the meridians equally in an outward direction, and when you do a closing movement it moves equally through them all in an inward direction. This sequence of opening moves turning into closing moves, which turn again into opening moves, and so on, is repeated throughout all Tai Chi Chuan forms, and is therefore the key feature of the art, and where it gets its name – you continually move from Yin to Yang to Yin to Yang, etc…
You don’t need to worry about the acupuncture meridians for practical considerations. The meridians are not exactly the same as the muscle tendon sinew channels (Jing Jin) first described in the Yellow Emperor’s Inner Classic (Huang Di Nei Jing) that Chinese experts will talk about. The meridians are more modern, and roughly drawn over the top of the old channels (so are useful for illustrating a general concept, like their same sidedness, for example) but they’re more detailed/fiddly, and not as useful for practical work because of that. You need broader brush strokes.
In internal martial arts you want to develop the connections in the muscle sinew channels so you can actually feel them. You’re starting point for developing these connections would be to use open and close movements. So (generally) the channels that go up the outside of the legs and up the back of the body are used for ‘opening’ and the ones on the front of the body are for ‘closing’ movements.
Using reverse breathing you try and feel a slight tension on the surface of the body and turn that into an opening outward, or a pulling inward, sensation, matched with the movement. (E.g. I breathe in and try and feel a pull along the ‘close’ channels of my arm, and let that lead my movement). You need to let this connection become the driver of the movement, taking over from the local muscles. Your shoulders are usually a source of problems, as is relaxing the lower back sufficiently. Remember to drive power (Jin) from the lower body (closest to the ground). Connections start gossamer thin and build up over time.
Any Tai Chi form movement would work for this, so find one you are familiar with and open up the back and close down the front. However, if I were to pick a movement to start with then a single arm silk reel would make most sense. Like this:
I believe this is the basic path.
Alternatively (using the way most of us Westerners get taught) people learn lots of forms, techniques and exercises that make them feel like they know a lot, but then in 20 years they might meet an expert and realise that they didn’t start with the basics…
There is an interesting theory about martial arts that I want to talk about today. Let’s call it the Golden Age theory, as it posits that at one time there was a Golden Age of martial arts, probably in China. Now, ok, you might not buy into that theory, but please bear with me. Drop your natural cynicism for a moment and allow the idea to percolate in your mind a little as we take a trip back to ancient China…
The knowledge the ancients had in this golden age about how the body functioned was complete, detailed and comprehensive, producing something more than normal strength. It was an overarching understanding, so it covered all sorts of skills, not just martial arts, but as time went on, and social, political, economic and geographical environments changed this knowledge slowly degraded and fewer and fewer of these old skills survived intact. Today we are left with remnants of them passed down in different traditions, most notably Tai Chi, XingYi and Bagua, and clues left in the historical record.
That body of knowledge consisted of what is known today as the Internal skills of the martial arts. Most Chinese marital arts still contain some internal skills, what you might call “basic Jin”. We can tell that all martial arts descended from this skill set as you see the remains in today’s marital arts and you can still see clues everywhere, including the names of old martial arts like ‘Six harmony spear’ or ‘Six harmonies, eight methods’. This “six harmony” nomenclature refers to a way of moving the body in a connected fashion from the toes to the finger tips.
This way of moving existed in all martial arts once, and survived amongst a special few even into the modern age. For example, Morihei Ueshiba of Aikido had it, and he died in 1969. Some people have it today, to various degrees. Usually you find these people in the Chinese Internal arts, but there are glimpses of it everywhere, even in the Japanese maritial art of Judo.
If you’ve seen Olympic Judo matches you can see it’s an incredibly athletic sport that requires supreme physical conditioning and strength mixed with a high level of technique. But is today’s Judo really where the art originally started out?
There is an old kata in Judo called Gu No Kata, which consists of a number of movements performed with a partner. It’s pretty safe to say that these days the meaning of the movements has been lost, as it’s performed with raw physical stength, not what the Chinese would call Jin, but dig under the surface and you’ll find that it’s a series of Judo techniques which serve as internal strength testing exercises, linked together.
This article provides a description of Go No Kata.
And here’s what it looks like done in modern times:
It doesn’t look very “internal”, but watch this informative video by Mike Sigman in which he explains and demonstrates how the various postures of Go No Kata are done with Jin – i.e with strength from the ground through a relaxed (‘song’) body.
In Mike’s own words:
“The “tests” in Go-no-kata resolve into Up, Down, Back, Forward, and sideways. You need to develop your qi/frame and you need to work with jin forces until you’re comfortable with them because not only can you resist forces (they’re doing it for development purposes, not as a basic strategy for good Judo), but you can learn to take kuzushi using only the mind-directed forces of jin.
Here’s the video. It’s fairly short. If you haven’t played much with jin forces, it may not be obvious what is going on, so please try to meet up with someone that has some jin skills.”
Here are the different pictures he’s referring to:
Finally, watch this comparison video between Kanō Jigorō the founder of Judo and a modern practitioner, and ask yourself, what has been lost?
The writings in the Taiji Classics really only make sense if you understand what they’re saying already. As we’ll see…
Everybody who practices Taiji and has read the Taiji Classics is familiar with the idea of using the legs as primary generators of force, rather than the shoulders and arms.
As it says in the classics:
“The chin [intrinsic strength] should be
rooted in the feet,
generated from the legs,
controlled by the waist, and
manifested through the fingers.”
Reading that, you’d think that it’s talking about simply pushing off the ground with the legs to generate force. But that’s not the whole story. It couldn’t be – I mean, a good boxer punches from his legs in a similar manner, getting the force of the whole body into the shot. Taijiquan is supposed to be ‘internal’ and involve a different way of moving than regular athletic human movements. Isn’t it?
This mention of ‘controlled by the waist’ here is the key. It’s referring to the fundamental idea in Taijiquan that the dantien area of the body (basically, the waist, but inside, not just on the surface) is controlling the actions of the arms and hands, so they don’t move independently of the movements of the body. This should be true of any Taiji movement, regardless of the particular style of Taijiquan being practiced.
This is such an important concept to Taijiquan that in a lot of interviews (like this one) Chen Xiao Wang, the head of the Chen style branch of Taijiquan, calls it his “1 principle”:
CXW: “There is just one principle and three kinds of motion. The one principle is that the whole body moves together following the Dantien. In every movement the whole-body moves together but the Dantien leads the movement and the whole body must be supported in all directions. This is very important. One principle, three kinds of motion: the three kinds of motion are as follows…First, horizontal motion, the Dantien rotates horizontally. The second kind of motion is vertical motion, the Dantien rotates vertically. The third kind of motion is a combination of the first two. Any movement that is doesn’t follow the principle is a deviation. So when we are training every day we are trying to find and reduce our deviations from the Taiji principle.”
You could also sum up this concept using the phrase, “Hands follow body”. (Later on you get ‘body follows hands’ – but let’s not worry about that right now).
It’s important to note that this mode of movement is contrary to the way we normally move in everyday life. It’s very common for people to be able to understand it intellectually, but not be able to physically embody it. It’s also very difficult to do it consistently. In Taijiquan you need to do it all the time, and without cheating! Take your mind of it for a second and you’ll find you revert to using your ‘normal’ movement again; you’ll use your shoulder and upper body to move your arms. Throw in working with a partner who is providing resistance and it becomes even harder to always move from the dantien.
Incidentally, I think one of the reasons for the incredible amount of solo form work found in Taijiquan is that you need to practice this stuff for months and years for it to become ingrained in your body, so that it becomes the default way you move, even under pressure. Hence the need for regular form practice.
So, the dantien moves, and it moves the hands. So far, so good. The next question is ‘how?’ How, exactly, can moving your legs, hips and dantien control the actions of the arms and hands?
The answer lies in the muscle tendon channels that connect the body internally. They (generally) stretch vertically from the hands (fingers) to the feet (toes) either on the front of the body (yin channels) or on the back of the body (yang channels). It’s important to note that the channels themselves don’t really cross over the body from side to side – they generally run vertically. Credit needs to go to Mike Sigman here, for introducing me to this concept of muscle-tendon channels.
The theory is that muscle-tendon channels were the precursor to the acupuncture channels that we’re all familiar with these days, and are a roadmap of the strength flows and forces of the body. If you really want to get into it, there’s a fuller explanation of the theory on Mike’s website, but the TLDNR (too long, did not read) version is basically that if you create a stretch on the muscle tendon channels from end to end, so they are somewhat taught, then you can start to manipulate them via their central nexus – the dantien – so that a movement of the dantien can power a movement of the hand (or foot). Yes, it’s more complicated than that (there is more than one dantien, for example), but that’s the basic idea.
If you remember back at the start of this blog post, I quoted some lines from the classic that says the progression in generating movement in Taijiquan starts from the bottom and goes upwards, yet at the same time we’re being told that all movement starts in the dantien, which is definitely not in the feet. So, we have a contradiction. Or do we?
Here’s the thing: If you use your legs to push upwards off the ground to generate force you get a kind of “muscle jin”, since you’re not using the power of the dantien, as described by Chen Xiao Wang. To really get to the meat of what it means to use Jin (refined force) in Taijiquan you need to learn how to send force downwards from the dantien to the ground, and bounce it back up simultaneously. So, the originator of the upwards force is still the dantien, and the general direction of force is still upwards from the feet.
For example, when you’re loaded onto the rear leg, and ready to push forward you’d actually start by sending force from your dantien area downwards, “sink the qi”, and the bounce back force that comes up from the ground is what you use to push the opponent away. It should be noted that sending forces down to the ground from the dantien and bouncing it back into the opponent is simultaneous – there’s no time delay.
The next time you go swimming dive down to the bottom of the deep end and stand on the bottom then push off the floor and send yourself upwards to the surface. What you’ll notice is that you naturally want to drop your weight down before you push up. This is a crude kind of approximation of what’s going on in a Taiji push.
How to put the juice into Rollback and Press
Tai Chi contains advancing and retreating movements, combined with circling left and circling right. Of course, in Tai Chi all movements need to be powered by the dantien. That’s easy to say, but on a practical level, how does this work?
One way I like to think about this is that as you retreat you can think about the arm movements being pulled by the dantien and as you advance they are pushed by the dantien. You can think of ‘rollback’ and ‘press’ from the Yang Tai Chi form as being a good example of this. As you shift the weight backwards in rollback you can imagine ropes attached from your dantien to your hands that are gently pulling them as the dantien moves. Rollback is usually performed with a turn of the waist to the side as you do it, so rather than being pulled completely in towards you, the pulling makes the hands go past you and ready to circle into the next movement… which is ‘press’. At this point you can imagine the ropes snap hard and become ‘rods’, which push the hands away, so the ‘press’ is powered by a pushing from the dantien into the hands. It looks like this:
In all of this your shoulder joint is moving, and power is going through it, but the key thing is that it is not the source of the power. The power source is the triangle formed by the two feet, legs, kua and dantien. The power goes through the shoulder to get to the hands, and if you tense the shoulders then you stop the flow.
Of course, these ropes and rods I’m talking about don’t actually exist, but they do give you the idea of a kind of pressure that is either pulling or pushing your arms and hands, which I think is useful. Once you use reverse breathing to pressurise your body you can start to feel this push and pull in the arms and hands. This isn’t imaginary, it’s a genuine feeling.
If you stand in a relaxed stance you can feel the pressurisation that reverse breathing gives you. Pick the classic ‘hold the ball’ Zhuan Zhang position, then stand for a few minutes while doing reverse breathing*.
You need to feel a connection all the way to the fingers and toes that’s connected to the breathing. It should feel like a slight pressure. Then try to get the feeling of pulling that connection in towards the dantien on an in breath and pushing out towards the fingers on an out breath.
The usual disclaimers apply to any type of work with pressure in the body – don’t do anything crazy with the pressure – you don’t want to tear anything in the body, and don’t direct it into your head. That way lies madness, or at least a pretty decent headache 🙂
(* All breathing in Tai Chi is done lower in the body than normal, so that the diaphragm extends downwards when you breath in, as opposed to the chest expanding. In ‘normal’ Tai Chi breathing the abdomen expands as you breathe in, in reverse breathing you change this around so that you contract your abdomen as you breathe in – this creates a kind of pressure in the body, that you can then use to power movement.)
Once you have a handle on the feeling of being pushed and pulled you might like to experiment with a basic arm wave silk reeling exercise – as the arm moves away from you it’s the ‘push’ from the dantien, and as the arm circles back towards you, you are looking for a basic ‘pull’ from the dantien. You need to maintain the pressurised connection at all times.
Here’s Chen Xiao Wang showing some silk reeling exercises – he starts with the basic single arm wave. Unlike me, he’s an actual expert, so pay close attention.
Of course, there’s more going on than this in Tai Chi, but as a basic fundamental it’s a good place to get started. Going back to the example of rollback and press – it’s a good section of the form to work with as both hands move in the same direction. Other Tai Chi movements, like Repulse Monkey for example, are more complex, with one hand going towards you, – a ‘pull’ – and the other going away from you – a ‘push’. Of course, it’s easy to mimic the movement on a surface level, but you need to be doing it from the inside. For now I’ll leave it up to you to think about how Repulse Monkey might work when it’s powered from the dantien.
When we talk about Qi (Chi) in martial arts, what do we mean?
Chinese as a language can have meanings on different levels. The basic definition of Chi is ‘air’, but in terms of martial arts we’re talking about vital energy that’s intrinsic to the breath. If you put the word “Qi” into a Chinese/English translation you get all sorts of definitions, for different Chinese characters. So, to clarify the character we’re talking about is (in traditional Chinese)
It’s a bit like a picture of a pot of rice over a fire with steam rising upwards. In simplified Chinese it looks like:
Unfortunately, “vital energy that’s intrinsic to the breath” still doesn’t help much in terms of understanding what is meant by Qi when we talk about it in martial arts. The most practical way to understand what Qi is, is to take a look at Jin. You can think of Jin is the physical manifestation of Qi. When you manipulate your qi using your mind to do something, you manifest a direction of force in the body – and when the force can be expressed in a direction, without impeding it by tensing your muscles, so that it runs all the way from the feet to the hands, then that is Jin. So, if somebody pushes on your hand, you should be able to create a line of force from your foot to your hand (using your mind) that maintains your position, so that they are effectively pushing into the ground, not your hand. If you push on somebody’s outstretched arm and they feel really strong, like a rock, yet they’re not tensing their muscles then you could say they have “strong qi”.
In the following video Mike Sigman takes you though what Jin is, which should hopefully increase your understanding of what Qi is.
You can see that he’s talking about setting up pathways in the body – if you refer back to my previous post about basic silk reeling movement you can see how the two tie-in together.