The autumn leaves are falling like rain. Although my neighbors are all barbarians and you, you are a thousand miles away, there are always two cups at my table.

T’ang Dynasty poem

Ten thousand flowers in spring, the moon in autumn, a cool breeze in summer, snow in winter. If your mind isn't clouded by unnecessary things, this is the best season of your life.

~ Wu-men ~

Tuesday, December 06, 2016

Paradox in Taijiquan

Today we have a guest post by Greg Knollmeyer. Greg teaches Taijiquan in Ann Arbor, MI. He is also the motive force behind the SE Michigan Push Hands Group where people from all manner of schools and styles get together for some friendly push hands. If you're in the area, please pay a visit!

Rest In Paradox

I love taiji. I’ve been studying and practicing taiji for years. As with any long term relationship, I do find myself frustrated from time to time. The fact that my practice is so indirect frustrates me. While it’s true that I can perform forms or stand when I choose, the actual internal growth doesn’t come from performing forms or standing. It comes from the things that I allow to happen inside of those practices. I cannot force myself to relax. Rather, I can stand with good alignment and allow myself to relax more deeply. When it goes well, my integrity and relaxation feed each other and growth occurs. But often I’ll be seeking growth and will quite literally try too hard.

I’ll get too fixated and my intention puts me in tension. At those times, I’m actually preventing growth. The Dao de Jing 道德經 (Tao te Ching) tells us of this kind of paradox in the first verse. The desire for understanding dynamics often reduces a dynamic merely to its effects.

Free from desire, you realize the mystery.          
Caught in desire, you see only the manifestations

So practice seems to be a paradox. If I practice with a desire to improve, I’ll flatten the dynamics and end up with empty forms.

If I don’t want to improve, why practice? The opening lines of the Dao de Jing tell us that the paradox of indirectness is built into the universe. It tells us that its subject is actually unsayable.

The tao that can be told
is not the eternal Tao.   

A literal student would put the book down. If it can’t be said with words, why read a book about it? But the book continues for another 80 chapters. So something more must be going on here. Perhaps something might be gained in trying to understand the ineffable through words when we don’t hang on too tightly to the words. If we begin knowing the truth itself cannot be adequately expressed, perhaps we can pick up some hints as we explore the text. Practice seems like this. If I don’t hang on too tightly to the forms or the stance, but use them to explore internal dynamics, perhaps I’ll find something.

Often I joke with students that much of what I say are “lies pointing in the direction of truth.” There is an inherent limitation in description—particularly when it comes to internal dynamics. How would an opera singer describe the internal sensation of singing and holding a perfect note? We can definitively name what syllable and note are being sung. But it is impossible to express that same definitive quality in the singer’s description of how s/he generates the sound. 

As students advance, taiji increasingly reflects these paradoxes. At the beginning, many things can be communicated in a direct and specific way. Putting feet in the right place for a proper stance can be communicated easily. But to get to real health and martial benefits we need more than that. We need internal skills and deep relaxation while having good integrity. Relaxing into the earth in this stance cannot be communicated very directly.

Nonetheless a good teacher will work hard to make subtle dynamics as observable as possible. In the example of rooting, a teacher might do pressure testing with students so they can feel differences or drop root with a student so the dynamic is more palpable.

An attitude of exploration seems the most effective way to participate with teachings while resting in paradox. If I’m exploring root, I might put myself in proper alignment and then explore my body for tensions and release those. Then I might send my awareness as far down into the ground as I can and try to find new ways of sinking my root. I might try different images—What would it feel like if I imagined I was in an elevator sinking down to the center of the earth?

Exploring that image and its sensations may also provide growth. Eventually I might find paradoxical experiences. Often the feeling of being heavily rooted is accompanied by a sense of extreme lightness in the body. These contrary sensations co-exist quite nicely in a way that is very hard to describe. But focusing on exploration to discover new awareness and new dimensions in practice can help you rest in paradox. Exploration is a wonderful antidote to frustration.

About the Author Sifu Greg Knollmeyer has spent more than fifteen years studying Taiji with world renowned teachers. He teaches taiji at The Spiral Chi Center as well as at hospitals, senior centers and businesses. For the last several years he has been studying with Sigung Richard Clear.

Previously, he studied with Master Wasentha Young and he has also attended classes with Grandmaster William CC Chen, Benjamin Pang Jeng Lo, and some of their senior students. Greg has certifications in several healing techniques and helps clients in his office heal and evolve.

While making instructional taiji videos, Greg also discovered a passion for video. His editing skills in particular have been sought after and he occasionally takes on video projects. You can find out more at


Marc Sabin said...

Nice article. In my study of Taijiquan, I have found that once the correct alignment and physical structure is in place, much learning becomes possible if I turn my attention to being aware of what is. Relaxation happens best when my body gives me permission to release. This is less of a paradox than a matter of allowing the body/mind to find its way without interference from the head/mind.


Marc Sabin

Kai Morgan said...

Hi Greg and Rick, I love this beautiful article, thank you for sharing it. The way Greg has explained the "paradox" reminds me of that old story about setting a trap for a monkey by putting a nut or banana (etc) inside a cage. The bars of the cage are just wide enough for the monkey to reach inside with an empty hand, but once they are holding the banana, their hand is too big to pull it out again. The trap works (apparently) because the monkey won't drop the banana. I don't know if this is actually true, but it's a great metaphor for letting go in order to attain freedom . . .