Trust me, I’m a Doctor

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The most recent episode of Trust Me, I’m a Doctor featured Tai Chi!

“Michael Mosley finds out whether t’ai chi can offer the same health benefits as vigorous exercise – without all the huffing and puffing. ”

They compare the same time spent doing Tai Chi to the time spent doing Zumba, which is far more vigorous. Is he really “doing Tai Chi”? Well, that’s up for debate, but the results are surprising.

If you get iPlayer then you can watch it at the link below:

https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b0bnbjlc/trust-me-im-a-doctor-series-8-episode-6

 

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Natural structures in Tai Chi

I spent my lunch hour practicing Tai Chi with the leaves falling around me, which made me realise that Autumn is definitely here. Practicing under the trees also made me think about the strong parallel between the postures of Tai Chi and the structures of nature.

Take trees for example – the branches grow upwards and outwards:

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

If you look at the postures of a Tai Chi form you can see the same ‘outwards and upwards’ structures:

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Animals have the same quality too. The horns on a deer are a good example:

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

But the alert, ready posture of most animals (when they’re not sleeping) also mirrors this:

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The spine is always extended, the eyes engaged and the posture directed upwards and outwards.

The following is a Yang Tai Chi form video. Notice that his body structure is always opening outwards and upwards:

So why do we do this in Tai Chi? Well, natural structures are inherently strong structures. Nature has been working on trees, plants and animals for millions of years, and they have evolved into strong shapes that can take a battering from the elements and survive. In terms of postural considerations of Tai Chi we are aiming to mimic natural structures to take advantage of their inherent strength. For example, with the arms, the elbow is usually kept below the wrist in Tai Chi, when the hand is going up and outwards, this enables your arm to create the same sort of shape as a tree branch that grows outwards and upwards.

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If you collapse the structure of your arms – say, close your joints like the elbows and shoulders too much, you don’t get this effect of mimicking natural structures. Instead, the structure needs to be supported by more muscle usage if it is going to withstand pressure.

Think also of stretching the ‘body suit’ of skin, fascia, tendons. If you bend the joints too sharply you lose the stretch from feet to toes. If you look at a picture of a fower, plant or tree, it looks kind of ‘stretched out’, doesn’t it?

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Photo by Tim Gouw on Pexels.com

There’s a lot to learn from nature.

 

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.

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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.

 

 

 

Your daily Tai Chi ritual – creating order out of chaos

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Scott posted some answers to various questions he gets over at Strengthness with a Twist, his blog. I thought the first one was most interesting:

What do you mean when you say martial arts are rituals?

Rituals are ways of making order out of chaos. Martial arts are about unleashing the greatest forces of chaos and bringing them into order. It is a daily ritual that has deep, lasting, and profound effects on every aspect of our being. This is true of martial arts world wide, but it is particularly clear in the structure of Chinese martial arts as they were understood before the Boxer Uprising.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this quote since it’s pretty clear to anybody who does a daily practice of Tai Chi (or related martial/yoga/chi kung type practice) in the morning, that it soon becomes a kind of ritual, whether you like it or not. Not a ritual in the Western religious sense, but a ritual for your body (which Scott is arguing is, in fact, the true essence of religion in the Eastern sense).

I like his definition of “bringing order from chaos” even if it does sound a bit Jordan Peterson fan-boy-ish 😉

But if we can separate the phrase from the alt-right ideology it has become attached to, that phrase is what you are doing to your body when you practice Tai Chi in the morning. Having just woken up in the morning you can consider your body to be in a state of ‘chaos’ – you’re not yet functioning at 100%, your tendons will be shortened from lying down for so long and your body might ache from uncomfortable sleeping positions, and it needs to stretch. In fact, we stretch as a reflex action once we wake. Mentally you are also not yet “with it”, at least not until you’ve properly caffeinated.

A morning Tai Chi “ritual” (or “routine” if you like), can bring you back into occupying your body properly and get it ready for the demands of the day. When I think about what the main health benefit of Tai Chi is, I think it’s this. People tend to treat Tai Chi as a panacea that cures everything from a bad back to an ingrowing toenail. I take all the latest ‘scientific’ research about the miraculous healing benefits of Tai Chi with a pinch of salt. I think its best feature is simply this: it’s a way of gently ordering and strengthening the body in the morning, ready for the day.

I also like Scott’s later quote,

Martial arts are about unleashing the greatest forces of chaos and bringing them into order

This one brings to mind a whirling Baguazhang practitioner spinning in circles, taming the elements he is working with, or two sword fighters caught in the midst of a leaping blow.

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It all sounds a bit fantastical, but again, I think there’s some truth buried here.

Through techniques in martial arts, we are bringing order to the chaos of the fight. This is perfectly demonstrated in a Jiujitsu match – it’s all scrambling, spinning madness, then order is established as a joint lock or choke is put in place, as one practitioner controls the limbs and body of the other through correct position, leverage and technique, and the ‘fight’ ends.

Performing the Tai Chi form is an analogy for how the whole universe was created out of chaos, and order established. When you start the Tai Chi form, in a still, standing position you are in a state of Wu Chi – the undifferentiated primordial state of emptiness, but always with the possibility of giving birth to something. Then the big bang happens and you start to move – Yin and Yang become differentiated and you are continually moving between these two opposite poles. The body opens and closes in a continuous spiral. As one part of the body is opening, another is closing until the final movement – often known as “Carry the Tiger back to the mountain”- when you return to stillness. The mountain here represents that primordial stillness. You have brought order to chaos and returned to the mountain.

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Photo by Krivec Ales on Pexels.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Week 5 – moving from the middle.

Here’s week 5 of my course Pulling Earth Pushing Heaven, on mindful Tai Chi movement.

OK, so to recap, we’ve started off looking at building the elastic connection along the channels. We’ve looked at relaxing the lower back and getting the power to come from the lower body. We’ve talked about not compromising the movement in the arms. We’ve added in reverse breathing. Now we’re going to try to keep all that and get the movement to be directed from the middle of the body – the dantien.

Week 5: Moving from the middle.

 

 

Thoughts on an interview with Wang Yan, head coach of the Chenjiagou Taijiquan School

Born in 1990, Wang Yan became head coach of Cheng village training centre in 2013 and is as a Taiji fighter as well as a coach, not to mention an expert in forms. He was one of the “nine tigers” – the best nine students of Chen ZiQiang. There’s an interview with him in English on Chen Taijiquan blog, with some great pictures from his private collection. The interview is pretty long, but there are lots of really interesting insights into his daily training, San Da competitions training and how exhausting it all was!

I’ve cherry-picked a few quotes below:

from:

https://chentaijisi.wordpress.com/2018/03/07/if-you-give-more-you-receive-more-an-interview-with-wang-yan-head-coach-of-the-chenjiagou-taijiquan-school/

On his own training:

“Our daily routine started in the morning with running and warming-up excercises. In the first morning class we studied forms, in the second class we did strength excercices, in the third class we did push hands exercises, kicks, punches and other self defense techniques, and during the last evening class we were again doing push hands exercises, and sometimes weight lifting.”

“When a student grows a little older, reaching his late teens and early twenties, then the school starts putting much more attention to learning taolu (forms).”

“When I was a young student, the training was more strenous then now. The approach has changed nowadays towards a somewhat softer way. Students now come from more comfortable backgrounds and are, generally speaking, often more interested in computer games than in serious training.”

 

“Some of us developed more in the direction of Taiji fighting, while the others became the very best in various Taiji forms.”

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Competition training:

“To develop stamina we would practice frog jumps, running in a crouched position, running while carrying someone on our shoulders etc., until the point where I would be absolutely exhausted.

One method of practicing tuishou was, for example, being in a circle of about twenty students, who would challenge you one after another. When I knock the first one down, the next one would attack, and so on till the last one, after which the circle repeats itself. I also practiced the same circle exercise blindfolded in order to sharpen body sensations. Sometimes during wintertime, shifu would take us outside, dressed just in trousers, to train in the snow. One of exercises was to hold each other by the legs while ‘hand walking’ on the cold or frozen ground.

Before tuishou competitions I always have to control my weight, so during preparation time I would eat less and avoid spicy and very greasy food. Finally, after hard training, it is also important to have a proper rest.”

 

Training:

“There is a saying: “By missing one day of practice, your skill regresses for three days”. So, I make sure that I practice every day.That means that I go at least through forms. And when I have some more time, I do also some fitness exercises like running and weight lifting.”

It really does sounds beyond what most people could have physically and mentally endured at a young age, and more extreme than the training is in Chen Village these days.

There’s a lot of controversy in Tai Chi circles about the role of weight training in internal arts. It’s often dismissed as either unnecessary or worse, damaging to progress. It sounds like the antithesis of the frequently heard advice to relax more. Yang Cheng Fu’s “10 important points” essay is often read as a warning of the dangers of following an “external” path. (I think people often miss the meaning of that text though, so I’ll return to it at a later date.)

When the Chen Tai Chi masters teach seminars to Westerners they keep the focus on traditional conditioning exercises, like silk reeling, or zhan zhuang and forms, which do not involve weights, and emphasize things like relaxation and internal conditioning. Traditionally of course, training with heavy weapons would have been a form of weight training, and village farmers would have naturally been very strong people from all the physical labour, but there still seems to be a contradiction between the methods espoused to Western students in seminars and the content of the syllabus for training young fighters in Chen village itself.

There are also the ‘internet famous’ pictures of Chen ZiQiang doing weight training, and looking very ‘cut’ that spark off these debates, for example:

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So, it’s interesting to read the above interview, where Wang Yan makes clear the role that weight training played in training his generation of Chen village teachers, especially when preparing for San Da competition. It’s also interesting to note that they may be the last generation to be trained like that, as “Students now come from more comfortable backgrounds and are, generally speaking, often more interested in computer games than in serious training.

That’s an interesting point in itself, that makes me wonder if that generation was a kind of high point for martially trained Tai Chi fighters from Chen village. “May the children of your enemies live in luxury!”, as the famous Cynic philosopher Antisthenes said; a quote that echoes the famous poem/meme:

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Of course, it’s all a matter of perspective. The people Wang Yan is training now are probably working a lot harder than most people could tolerate, even if they’re not doing wheelbarrows in the snow in winter wearing only their trousers 🙂

Full-time training

If I was training full time to be a fighter and I had a fight coming up in which somebody was going to try their best (under the rules) to hurt/beat me, then you can bet I’d be weight training too! You can’t fake fitness. And no matter how good your Tai Chi skills, if you get out of breath in a fight and your conditioning fails then you can’t fight back. Also, extra muscle mass doesn’t stop you from doing internal movement, although speaking realistically I don’t think that would have been the focus of training going into a fight.

Wang Yan was training as a full-time athlete. As well as doing all the hard physical training he would have been training in traditional Chen family methods at the same time. One does not preclude the other. While some might look down on all that physical training, it appears that the Chen village plan is to develop physical attributes first in its young people, including fighting skills, and later the more subtle Tai Chi skill is focussed on.

Here’s a video of Wang Yan doing some traditional Chen forms:

And here he is looking pretty good in a San Da match from 2013:

He’s a great inspiration for all Tai Chi practioners everywhere.

Week 4 – breathing. Half way through my 8-week Tai Chi course.

Here’s part 4 of the course. This week we focus on breathing. I cover the topics of normal and reverse breathing, then show a couple of different exercises that will get you on the right track for applying the breathing methods to the movement we are working on. Finally, we integrate the breathing into the movement, preserving all the progress we have made so far. Once you get the hang of it those breathing exercises I show are not required anymore, as you should be integrating it into your main exercise.

This week is more subtle than work showed previously. An inner focus will be required. Good luck! I’m happy to answer any questions you have.