Shock and awe (in Tai Chi)

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Photo by Torsten Dettlaff on Pexels.com

Tai Chi Chuan has the 13 postures as its basis, which consist of the 8 powers and 5 directions.

The first 4 powers are well known – peng, lu, ji and an – while the second 4 tend to not be so well known. Li (split), Tsai (Pull down/shock), Zhou (elbow) and Kou (shoulder).

These 8 ‘powers’ are the most common expressions of power in Tai Chi Chuan. No technique in Tai Chi Chuan is really purely a single power – they’re all combinations of all 8 of the powers.

It’s this pull down, or shocking, power I want to talk about today.

Shock is often called Pull down because that’s the direction it’s most often used in, however, it’s actually directionless. I prefer “shock” as a description as that’s what it feels like, rather than a pull. Even if performed while pulling, it’s a sudden burst of focussed energy rather than a long expression of energy over time, like say a push.

A lot of people practice Tai Chi with its soft flowing movements yet are unable to coordinate the body together to produce a single isolated burst of power that’s required in the application of many of the movements of Tai Chi Chuan. Depending on how a Tai Chi form is done it’s quite common to see all the shock power removed altogether in favour of soft, flowing, relaxed movement. Yet without it, something is lacking. You’ll never make your techniques effective.

Take an armlock that’s supposed to break a limb. There’s no way you’re going to get that to achieve the desired effect if you can only do the move slowly and softly.

I’m not talking about a sudden burst of tension there either. A good ‘shock’ is delivered by coordinating the body movements together and generating power from the dantien, legs and waist.

Here’s a video I made whilst working on some Tai Chi – see if you can spot where the shock energy is.

 

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Brush Knee Twist Step: Tai Chi application and style comparison

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Yang Cheng-Fu Brush Knee Twist Step

Brush Knee Twist Step (called “Walk obliquely with twist step”, which was probably its original name) is a fundamental movement in all Tai Chi styles.

Chen Zheng Lei performing “Walk obliquely with twist step”:

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The Yang style Brush Knee looks like a slightly simplified version of this. Here performed by Yang Jun, grandson of Yang Cheng-Fu :

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And Sun Style looks like the Yang style, but with added steps. Here performed by Sun Peng who is Sun Lu Tang’s grandson :

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The version I personally do is somewhere between the traditional Sun and Yang styles. It’s got a step, but it’s most like Yang. Here’s a little GIF showing me doing an application of Brush Knee Twist Step in push hands from the Tai Chi style I practice.

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Here’s how it looks in my form (a Yang style variant from the Gu Ru Zhang lineage that had input from Sun Lu Tang).

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Of course, there are many possible applications of this movement, and I’m just showing one, but hopefully, that gives some indication of the usage.

Sinking in Taijiquan

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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’.

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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

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

 

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

Jin, by definition, requires intent

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My post called Don’t put power into the form, let it naturally arise from the form got a few nice reactions, so I wanted to write a follow up because as always in Tai Chi, today’s epiphany is tomorrow’s half truth.

In the last post I was talking about how, if you let the power of the movements naturally arise, it just works, as opposed to trying too hard to put power in them, which always leads to you screwing it up. But that doesn’t mean that if you just sink your weight and relax that your Tai Chi will become naturally powerful all on it’s own. If you want to send force outwards using Jin you need to be consciously aware you’re doing it.

I was reminded of this recently by a post by Robert Van Valkenburgh:

Jin, by definition, requires intent. If you don’t know you’re doing it, how can you be doing it?

As I explained in the last post, using Jin (ground-based force) as opposed to Li (muscle-based force) requires a relaxed body with the ability to sink the weight down to the ground, so it can rebound into the hands.

What I neglected to mention was that if you just sink the weight downwards, then that’s the direction it will go. It’s not going to magically just appear in the hands. So how do you get it there? The answer is, using the Yi.

The Yi is one of those hard-to-define Chinese terms we so often come across in Tai Chi. The most general ‘catch all’ translation you find is “intent”. But you can also think of it as “the mind directed to do something” or “the mind directed in a direction”.

So how do you get the force of the ground into the hands? By using the mind to direct it there. In fact, you want to direct it outwards and past your hands and into your opponent. I like to think of directing it from my foot (the part of me that is nearest to the ground) all the way to the horizon, through my hands, when I do an outward expressive movement, and down and in towards my foot when I do an inwards movement.

Don’t think of the path of power ( a Jin path) as going up the leg, through the torso and then down the arm and out – trapping the mind inside your body like that will not help the energy go outside it, which is what you want.

So, don’t worry about the path it takes, just ‘think’ in a straight line from your foot to your hand and out. The Jin path you create with your mind usually goes from your foot, through the air (at some point) and to your hands and in a straight line, since that’s the quickest route.

In the picture of Yang Cheng Fu below you can imagine that the Jin path goes from his back foot to this hand like this:

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Jin path

So when you run through the form, your mind needs to be creating these jin paths as you practice. As well as you doing everything I said in the last post – relaxing, sinking the chi and coordinating the body so all the separate parts arrive together. That’s the Tai Chi form in action.

Of course, that’s a tall order, and I’d suggest that beginners who are interested in this type of training pick a favourite move (a simple Push movement is a good one) and just practice it over and over, paying particular attention to mentally directing the path of forces in the body.

Without a teacher who can show you what it feels like it will be a bit like fumbling for something in the dark when you don’t know what it is or looks like. So get out there, try and get ‘hands on’ with a good teacher and you’ll get a better idea of what it feels like. If you find somebody who can do this then you can recognise it. It doesn’t feel like normal strength.

Ken Gullette, whose book I recently reviewed, has a good video that I hadn’t seen before which I think can give you a sense of what you’re looking for – the feeling of the ball under the water. That’s the main thing to focus on in this video.

Once you understand this concept then some of the lines in the Tai Chi classics will start to make more sense. Like, for example:

“The jin should be 
rooted in the feet, 
generated from the legs, 
controlled by the waist, and 
manifested through the fingers.”

“All movements are motivated by Yi, 
not external form.”

“6.) Use the mind instead of force. The T’ai Chi Ch’uan Classics say, “all of this means use yi and not li.” In practicing T’ai Chi Ch’uan the whole body relaxes. Don’t let one ounce of force remain in the blood vessels, bones, and ligaments to tie yourself up. Then you can be agile and able to change. You will be able to turn freely and easily. Doubting this, how can you increase your power?”

“The yi and ch’i must interchange agilely, 
then there is an excellence of roundness and smoothness.
This is called “the interplay of insubstantial and substantial.”

 

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.

 

 

 

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)