What makes Xingyi’s Bengquan different to a normal straight punch? Part 2: The bow draw.

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Chinese archer, photographed in the 1870s

Following on from my previous post about Bengquan, one of the 5 Element fists of Xingyiquan, I want to take a closer look at some of the internal characteristics of the strike.

In learning to do a Bengquan correctly you must first learn the mechanical way to do it, then later you can tackle what should really be going on. By the ‘mechanical way to do it’ I’m talking about things like weight distribution, a slight contraction and a slight expansion as you punch, a counter rotation on the spine between hips and shoulder, and the way the fist continues straight forward like an arrow shot from a bow. Generally, these are the things I talked about in the last article. A lot of this is simply maintaining the requirements of San Ti Shi – the 6 bodies posture – while in motion.

Once you are able to do these ‘mechanical’ actions it’s time to look a little a little deeper at some of the internal aspects.

At this point, we need to introduce the concept of the leg bows, arm bows and the back bow. Together that makes 5 bows, all of which need to be coordinated together to produce a perfect bengquan. The word ‘bow’ is used here in the sense of a bow and arrow – the string can be drawn to create potential energy and released to fire that energy.

beng bows

Arms, legs and spine form the 5 bows.

By utilising the 5 bows we are able to source power from areas of the body that aren’t used in normal movement. The process that co-ordinates the 5 bows working together is known simply as opening and closing. I’m going to try and explain how it works with a bengquan, in a very basic way. Obviously, the situation is more complex than I’m trying to make out, but let’s just go with a basic explanation for now.

I’ve mentioned the muscle-tendon channels before. We try and condition them in the internal arts. They run from the fingertips to the toes on the same sides of the body. The opening, or Yang channels, run roughly along the back of the body. The closing, or Yin channels run roughly along the front of the body.

The connection along these channels start as very weak and difficult to get a sense of, but with repeated conditioning, in the correct manner it can be strengthened, so that the limbs can be manipulated using the channels, rather than by using normal muscle usage. Your muscles are still involved, of course, but you are repatterning the way you use them, so they can be controlled from the body’s centre, known as the dantien.

(Try my free Qigong video course for details on how to do this.)

Think of the channels as elastic connections. You need to be relaxed to access them. If a joint is tense then it reduces your access to the elastic force (hence the constant admonitions to Sung “relax’ in internal arts). Ultimately it is your breath, via reverse breathing that enables you to access these bows. Pulling in along the Yin channels creates the action called closing, and pulling in along the Yang channels creates the action of opening. This phenomenon is observable in most animals in nature. Similarly, in internal arts, one side of the body is always contracting as the other side is expanding, and so on. This opening and closing action enables us to use the ‘bows’ of the legs, arms and back in the same way a bow can power an arrow. There’s a storing phase, and a releasing phase.

While the bows certainly ‘add’ to the power, it’s important not to think of them as ‘additives’ that you can apply on top of the wrong sort of movement. They fundamentally are the correct way the body should move if you are using the muscle-tendon channels.

The image at the top of this post shows a Chinese archer, photographed in the 1870s using what’s known as a recursive bow – the very top and bottom actually curve away from the archer when in a neutral position and are pulled back when he draws the arrow. This type of bow was popular throughout Asia.

Here’s one being built using traditional methods:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F0nEocphm-M

If you think of a recursive bow mapped over the top of a human body, then you get some idea of how the bows concept works.

beng2

Of course, this is just to get the general idea – the overal feel. There are actually 5 bows involved, as I’ve said.

In the last article we looked at how a bengquan has a storing phase of the movement, then an expansive phase of the movement. Now we can form a parallel with the action of drawing and releasing a bow.

However (and Mike Sigman needs credit for pointing this out to me) instead of thinking of the bow as firing an arrow out from your middle behind you, think of the string being pulled inwards towards the shaft of the bow, on the storing/closing cycle, and then released back to normal with a snap on the expansive punching section as you punch. That’s more like what is actually occurring within the body.

In the drawing phase the arms bend, the legs bend and the back bows and the dantien contracts.

The spine would ‘bow’ out. The bottom tip of the spine bow would be the coccyx and the top tip the head.

spinebow3

Spine in a neutral position before the ‘string’ is pulled back towards the ‘bow’.

The flexing and straightening of a leg, for example, is another bow. Same with an arm. All the bows need to be utilised as a team, lead by the dantien, and activated using the muscle tendon channels rather than just local muscle.

On release, the dantien is going down and out, which releases the back bow. The leg bows release which add a vertical component to the power. These combined forces drive and the arm bow to extend on the punching side.

The visual image of drawing a bow has long been associated with Xingyi’s Bengquan because the Bengquan ‘form’ is a perfect training vehicle to work on developing your back, leg and arm bows.  I haven’t mentioned intent (Yi) yet or Jin yet, so there’s more to the story, which I hope to mention next time, but if you’re looking for a way to practice the 5 bows in conjunction with a power release then Bengquan is a perfect mechanism to practice it with.

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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.”