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.

 

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.

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:

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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.

 

 

Chen Ziming’s general comments on Taijiquan

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Delving deeper into Chen Ziming’s book.

I posted yesterday about a translation of Chen Ziming’s book “The inherited Chen family Taiji boxing art” that is available on the Brennan translations website. I’ve just started reading it and noticed a couple of interesting things I thought I’d post about.

(It should be noted that I often read critiques of the translations by P. Brennan, saying there is too much of the author’s own interpretation in there, rather than a literal translation, so take that into consideration.)

Firstly, who was Chen Ziming?

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Chen Ziming was the same generation of Chen family boxing as Chen Fake, who moved to Beijing and made Chen style famous in the capital. Chen Ziming really rose to fame as being the student of Chen Xin, who (unusually for the time) was literate and wrote the first book on Chen style Taijiquan Taijiquan Illustrated, which contained several drawings of silk reeling energy which are still used today. The book was published after the death of Chen Xin by the historian Tang Hao and others. Chen Xin died in 1929. Some extracts of Chen Xin’s book are available on Jarek’s China from Inside.

There are various subdivisions of styles within Chen style. There is a big frame, small frame, old frame and new frame. As a student of Chen Xin, Ziming promoted what is known as the “small frame” of Chen Taijiquan. This sub style was born in the Chen village and uses smaller circles as a feature of its practice (it uses the same forms other Chen styles use).

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While the small frame is often said to be the more ‘traditional’ method because it stayed in the village longer, all Chen substyles share the same principles, so they’re not really separate styles, just each has a different emphasis, reflecting the person who passed them on.

From Wikipedia:

The increased interest in Chen-style t’ai chi ch’uan led Tang Hao (唐豪; 1887–1959), one of the first modern Chinese martial art historians, to visit and document the martial lineage in Chen Village in 1930 with Chen Ziming.[10] During the course of his research, he consulted with a manuscript written by 16th generation family member Chen Xin (陳鑫; Ch’en Hsin; 1849–1929) detailing Chen Xin’s understanding of the Chen Village heritage. Chen Xin’s nephew, Chen Chunyuan, together with Chen Panling (president of Henan Province Martial Arts Academy), Han Zibu (president of Henan Archives Bureau), Wang Zemin, Bai Yusheng of Kaiming Publishing House, Guan Baiyi (director of Henan Provincial Museum) and Zhang Jiamou helped publish Chen Xin’s work posthumously. The book entitled Taijiquan Illustrated (太極拳圖說 see classic book) was published in 1933 with the first print run of thousand copies.[11]

From Wikipedia:

Chen Xin initially trained with his father but his father ordered him to study literature rather than the martial arts. It was only later that he decided to use his literature skills to describe his understanding of the secrets of Chen style. In Chen Xin’s generation, his older brother, Chen Yao and his cousin, Chen Yanxi(陈延熙, father of Chen Fake) were considered masters of the Chen style. Chen Xin’s legacy is his book and his student, Chen Ziming (陈子明). Chen Ziming, went on to promote Chen style small frame throughout China and wrote books [32] promoting the art. Chen Ziming was in the same generation as Chen Fake.”

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At the start of the book Chen lists 9 ‘general comments’ about Taijiquan.

The first 6 are a kind of an orientation to the subject and a guide to what is in the book. From point 7 onwards it gets interesting. He makes some very good observations about Taijiquan that are worth reflecting on.

7. The boxing art called Taiji seeks an appearance of ease. Once you have practiced it to familiarity, you will be able to understand its subtleties and your body’s actions will never depart from the principles. If in the beginning you overanalyze each technique, you will come up with strained interpretations of them and will only get yourself stuck in your ideas, and this will instead hinder your progress. However, if you are able to abide by the principles, then after practicing for a long time you will naturally enter into a transformation of spirit. Therefore the solo set in this book is presented only as postures and movements, giving guidance in skills without lapsing into contrived profundities. As long as you do not forget that this boxing art is called “Taiji”, then through gradual practice the art will come to conform to the taiji concept.

He further elucidates on the idea of “conforming to the Taiji concept” in point 8:

8. Learning Taiji Boxing, regardless of beginner or advanced practitioner, never goes beyond the methods of movement and stillness, opening and closing, rising and lowering, turning side to side. As a beginner, you have to clearly distinguish between these opposites. Then after a prolonged period of training you will achieve such skill that at any time you will be able to alternate between them with your whole body all at once, which is the most delightful aspect of the advanced level.

This reiterates an important point in Taiji practice. Your body needs to be going through a process of going from one ‘extreme’ to another to be practicing Tai Chi. (I put extreme in quotes because there are no physically extreme positions in Tai Chi, unlike Yoga, for instance). You do need to arrive at a closed position, then move to an open position and then close and so on. That action is what makes the Chen boxing art “Taijiquan”. That action can also only really be achieved by doing what Taiji people call “moving from the dantien”.

That’s one of the profundities about Taijiquan. Everything is tightly packed together into the simple concept of “Taiji”. Like Dr Who’s Tardis, it’s bigger on the inside. There’s a lot of stuff in there and you need to unpack it bit by bit to understand the profound simplicity of the whole.

What is Tai Chi Chuan?

A question that comes up a lot from beginners seems to be “what defines Tai Chi Chuan?”. Non-beginners seem to not worry about this question and just practice, which is for the best, but it seems everybody goes through a stage where their mind needs to define and categorise what it is they’re doing. What makes it Tai Chi Chuan, as opposed to, say, Bagua, or JuJitsu?

I can only answer from my current understanding. I’ve been doing Tai Chi long enough to realise that today’s epiphany is tomorrow’s half-truth, so I wouldn’t say this will be my final word on the subject, but it’s something I’ve settled on recently.

When defining what Tai Chi Chuan is I look first at the name – TaiChi boxing/fist. So, it’s a martial art whose chief feature is about TaiChi – the interaction of Yin and Yang. Therefore, for a movement to be Tai Chi Chuan it requires that the interaction of yin and yang is correctly distinguished (i.e. in harmony) in all the movements, and (crucially) also in the fighting strategy (no double-weighting).

That’s it!

On one level my answer sounds like a ridiculous over simplification, and it is, but that doesn’t make it ring any less true. It’s only when you ask yourself ‘what does distinguishing yin and yang mean?’ that you realise how deep the wormhole goes. There are obvious, simple, answers like always having your weight on one leg and not both at the same time, but there are much more subtle answers to do with where force is inside the body, and how it is utilised.

A good place to start with this line of enquiry is by looking at your own form with No.4 of Yang Cheng-Fu’s 10 Important Points in mind.

4.) Differentiate between insubstantial and substantial. This is the first principle in T’ai Chi Ch’uan. If the weight of the whole body is resting on the right leg, then the right leg is substantial and the left leg is insubstantial, and vice versa. When you can separate substantial and insubstantial, you can turn lightly without using strength. If you cannot separate, the step is heavy and slow. The stance is not firm and can be easily thrown of balance.