Full circle: Last episode of my Tai Chi course is out!

Here’s the last episode of my 8-week course in mindful Tai Chi movements. This week we bring things full circle back to the first exercise we did in week 1 and take a closer look at the back bow.

 

 

 

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The negative circle

Here’s part 7 of my 8-week Tai Chi course. This week we look at the negative circle and experimenting with making our circles smaller while trying to keep the connection we’ve built up already.

 

Taijiquan vs Taiji Gymnastics

Great video by Chen Zhaosen on putting the internal into your Taijiquan practice so that it becomes Taijiquan not Taiji Gymnastics. Of course, it should already have been there, but we all know that already, right? 🙂 The secrets are all here, hidden in plain sight. Chen Zhaosen on breathing:

https://vimeo.com/63562043

Master Chen Zhaosen is a highly accomplished Tai Chi master from Chenjiagou (Chen Village) in China. Here is his “old form routine number 1”.

Heavy Dantien

This is a great clip of Chen Bing teaching a basic silk reeling circle with a lot of emphasis on relaxing and being heavy.

People often wonder how being relaxed can generate power in martial arts. If you watch the video you can see how being relaxed in the upper body leads to great power in the lower body. And once you have that power in the lower body you can start to use it to drive your movements. Of course, there’s more to it than that, but it’s a start.

Taoist Baduan Jin (8 section brocade)

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.

How silk is actually reeled, by hand, in China

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In his chapter on silk reeling, in the book on Chen Style Tai Chi Chuan (1963) (A snip at only 828 pounds on Amazon in the UK!), Shen Jiazhen writes:

…Tai Chi Chuan movements must be in a shape like pulling silk. Pulling silk [from a cocoon] is done by a circular motion, and because it combines pulling straight and circling, naturally it forms a spiraling shape, which is the unification of the opposites of straight and curved. Silk reeling energy or pulling silk energy both refer to this idea. Because in the process of unreeling, extending out and pulling back the four limbs likewise produce a sort of spiraling shape, therefore the boxing manuals say that whether in large, extended movements or compact, small movements, one must absolutely never depart from this type of Tai Chi energy which unites opposites. Once one has trained in this thoroughly, this silk reeling circle tends to become smaller the more one practices, until one gets to the realm where there is a circle but no circle is apparent, at which point it is known only by intent. 1 This is why the third characteristic of Tai Chi Chuan is that it is an exercise which unifies opposites with silk reeling, both forward and backward.

Thanks to Jerry K for the translation. If you’re interested he’s also translated other chapter of the book – like this one on Empty and Full.

With this in mind I thought it would be beneficial to investigate exactly how silk is pulled from a cocoon. The Chinese have cultivated silk worms for more than 5,000 years. Here’s video showing how silk is cultivated today in Shanghai:

 

Like any industry, silk production has been automated, but you can still see how people did it using a hand reeling machine in some parts of China:

 

I’m guessing that the initial spiralling action of her hand she uses to get the starter threads off the brush is where the analogy starts to happen with what you’re doing in silk reeling exercises in Tai Chi Chuan? It reminds me of the way you can play with an elastic band in your hand. With 5,000 years of silk production in China I’m pretty sure the hand reeling machines would have existed at the time Chen style was creating these exercises, some 300-odd years ago, but without a machine then you’d have to be doing it with your hands in that manner.

Either way, I don’t think the silk worm gets out of this alive 😦

Silk reeling and Shen Jiazhen (1891-1972)

Shen Jiazhen (1891-1972) co-authored the book Chen Shi Taijiquan (1963), which contained the famous silk reeling diagram below:

silkr1

Silk reeling is the essential skill of Chen style Tai Chi Chuan and involves learning how to wind the body so that all movements arise from the dantien, and that when ‘one part moves, all parts move’. Other styles of Tai Chi do pay lip service to this idea, of course, but I think only the Chen style really gets into it in the level of depth that’s required because they have a deliberate method (Silk reeling) that’s all about this concept.

When I look at family members of other Tai Chi styles perform Tai Chi I don’t see the same type of movement that you find in Chen style. It’s hard to evaluate of course since a lot of Tai Chi masters can hide the details of the movements. I’ve been told that the current head of the Chen style, Chen Xiaowang, is very good at hiding the movement so you don’t see it. But if you look at videos of Wu and Yang family members I don’t believe that the same silk reeling is really going on there. I see lots of really smooth movement (sometimes called “drawing silk”) but not the dantien control that you typically associate with Chen style.

If you understand the concept of silk reeling I see no reason why it can’t be added to these other styles of Tai Chi, of course. In fact, my own lineage started as a Yang style, but it is more of a hybrid style, as it has gone outside of the bounds of a single “family style” and added in elements from elsewhere, including silk reeling from the Chen style. It doesn’t pretend it got it from elsewhere.

When my Tai Chi teacher introduced me to silk reeling he used the pattern in the diagram above from the Shen Jiazhen book on Chen style. Looking back now I realise that this was actually a very difficult place to start with silk reeling because of the pattern’s complexity. It mimics the Tai Chi diagram… but not quite completely. If you look at the bottom of the diagram you’ll see that there’ s an extra little circle going on. The changes from open to close are also really frequent and quick, compared to a standard single arm wave silk reel.

The way my teacher taught me you stood in a forward bow stance and did one arm at a time. Then change stance for the other arm. The illustrations of the hands are pretty accurate and show the way the palm turns nicely. The numbers are important because these indicate the positions where the body changes from open to close and vice versa (with accompanying weight shifts). The diagram on the left is for the left hand and the diagram on the right is for the right hand.

A portion of Shen’s book on the subject of silk reeling has been translated into English and can be read here.

As I said, I don’t think this exercise is good for beginners. A better starting point for learning the basics of silk reeling would be a simple single arm wave. The best instruction I’ve seen on this is by Mr Mike Sigman. In this video (which I’ve posted before, I think) he explains the concept of muscle/tendon channels, open and close and goes over a basic single arm wave and what you should be doing in very clear terms: