Here at the frontier, the leaves fall like rain. Although my neighbors are all barbarians, and you, you are a thousand miles away, there are still two cups at my table.

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 ~

Saturday, October 08, 2022

A Retrospective of a Senior Teacher's Taijiquan Study

From a Quora post in 2020:

Stages and Basic Principles of Taijiquan Practice

Larry Wall (Practicing and teaching Yang Ben Hao style taiji for 47 yrs)

As a beginner, what were the challenges you faced learning Tai Chi?
I was lucky in a sense because I was my teacher’s only student for close to two years before he had other committed students. For close to the first year I was his only student. Later, people would show up, stick around for a week or so and then drift away. I was also lucky in that my teacher practiced taiji every morning at 6:30 AM, so I had daily instruction.

My teacher first told me that if I study taiji every day, it will take me one month to learn the moves, another month to memorize the moves and about ten years to get any good at the moves. In my fairly unique circumstances, I did indeed learn and memorize the move(s in two months’ time.

How long did it take me to become “good” at the moves? I don’t know. I’ve been practicing taiji now for 47 years and I’m still getting better at it as I go.

One thing that was a challenge, now that I think of it, was getting used to my teacher’s rather oblique method of teaching. He insisted he wasn’t at all “Chinese-y,” in that he was willing to teach non-Chinese the art. On the other hand, he still maintained some of the classical Chinese tests a teacher maintains with his students.

For instance, my teacher would show a move in its most general form. He’d then wait for the student to ask an informed detail question about the move before he’d elaborate on the deeper elements of the move. If a given student never asked a decent detail question, my teacher would quickly write him or her off as somebody who “doesn’t get it” and while he’d never kick that student out of class, he’d more or less ignore that student from that point forward unless the student eventually came back with an intelligent question.

This put the student in an interesting bind: he or she had to be curious and perfectionistic enough to begin with to ask intelligent detail questions. Most students essentially weren’t. They waited for my teacher to correct them, give them feedback on how they were doing and then correct them further. But my teacher wouldn’t do that: he really only wanted to give serious time to those students who were inquisitive and who showed a real desire to learn.

Another thing my teacher did was, if you learned an element of a move or a taiji principle that he didn’t think you were ready for and you asked him about it, he’d tell you that you were doing it all wrong and that you were to never do things that way again.

My teacher did this to me in my first year when I stumbled upon the taiji principle of shuǎi (甩), which literally means “fling” but which has a hidden meaning of “feel the weight at the end” (these days I prefer the term bǎi (擺; 摆), which translates to “pendulum,” because it’s more descriptive for American students). Essentially, when you’re walking with your arms naturally swinging forward and back, if you’re relaxed enough you can feel the weight of your arms dropping down into your hands by the simple process of centrifugal force. If you do this in the summer, you can actually see your hands turn slightly pink and see them swell slightly.

This is shuǎi, which is the pendulum feeling (bǎi) you should have in your hands throughout the taiji exercise form. If performing a kick, you should be feeling shuǎi (bǎi) in that part of the foot that would be delivering the force of the kick.

Feeling shuǎi provides bodily feedback that you are sufficiently relaxing your arms enough (sōng; 鬆) so that your force is at least coming from your torso, if not from your feet.

Anyway, when I first discovered shuǎi I excitedly asked my teacher about it. He promptly told me I was “doing it all wrong” and that I should “never do it that way.” I listened to him respectfully (of course) but on my own started practicing shuǎi anyway.

Roughly six months later, I decided to bring the question of shuǎi up again (of course, back then I didn’t know the word for it was shuǎi; I just asked about the feeling).

This time, my teacher responded “Well of course that’s how you do it! I thought you already knew that!” I guess after that additional amount of time studying, my teacher decided that I was ready enough to be confirmed in that understanding.

My teacher also tested his students to see if they could be trusted. He was extremely adamant he didn’t want what he was teaching to fall into the hands of a potential bully who would abuse the knowledge.

Once about three years into my training, my teacher showed me a very simple variation on a defense, which turned the defense into an attack. Unfortunately for me, a student from another school just happened to have been taught that very same move by his teacher from across town. At the beginning of a class, this student, thinking he had something new and exciting to show me, “taught” me the move.

I caught a single glimpse of my teacher observing this student showing me the move. I knew instantly he believed I had breached his trust and was showing that move to the student from the other school.

My teacher then refused to show me anything new or detailed for a full seven months. He’d written me off as untrustworthy. Whenever I tried to ask him a detail question, he’d very politely put me off with a very generic answer. I felt terrible.

Finally, I asked a fellow student (who I knew still had my teacher’s trust) to tell him in private what happened to me: that I hadn’t revealed the move he told me to keep quiet about to that student from another school but had been an unfortunate victim of coincidence. A month later my teacher began once again answering my detail questions and I was back in the inner circle as though nothing had ever happened (I guess it took my teacher a full month to decide if I was telling the truth).

So those were some of my initial difficulties in learning taiji.

Here’s a portion of an article I wrote for the Marquette (MI) Monthly four years ago. Hopefully, it’ll be helpful.

What is Taijiquan: Understanding the Rectification of the Body

Taiji is very misunderstood. Apart from the artistic depictions of it in the media, taiji is a demanding art that requires a significant degree of dedication and persistence. While taiji looks pretty to an observer, the goal of taijiquan is nothing less than a profound body-mind transformation called shēntǐ de zhěngdùn (身體的整頓) or “the rectification of the body.”

Like a sculptor softens a stiff lump of clay to then transform it into a sculpture of a swan, the goal of the taiji practitioner is to relax and soften his or her body so that it can become a conductor of both physical and psychological energy, called qì (氣; pronounced “chee”). That qì then expresses itself in a multiplicity of “strengths” or skills known as jìns (勁). In taiji, the use of jìn is contrasted with our usual tendency to force things: to push back when pushed, to pull away when pulled; an oppositional attitude that is called lì (力) or wéi (為).

A primary element in transforming or “rectifying” the body involves relaxing deeply enough while lightly creating torque in the limbs and the torso (called chán sī jìn (纏絲勁) or “silk reeling skill”), so that rather than relying on muscle strength as virtually all of us do when under stress, one instead relies on gravity and the natural rebound of walking, as well as the innate elastic strength of one’s tendons, ligaments and fascia to respond to an attack.

The Five Stages of Taijiquan

My teacher Qín Liáng Zhōu (秦梁周) would typically explain taiji to newcomers using the following progression, based on the English translation of taiji as “Supreme Ultimate:”

Taiji at first is the Supreme Ultimate Exercise. Taiji is a gentle exercise which stretches the limbs, loosens the spine and rejuvenates one’s sense of balance and bodily kinesthetics. Taiji enhances one’s breathing and is vigorous enough when practiced correctly to raise a good sweat while being gentle enough that one can continue to practice it well into old age. Most people who begin to practice taiji remain at this level, no matter how many years they practice the art, which is perfectly all right. Most people either have no desire to progress to the next level or else they lack a competent teacher who can help them go further.

Next, taiji becomes a Supreme Ultimate Dance. Only a few people begin to sense the inner rhythm and flow of taiji to the point where they experience taiji as a dance form. For these people, taiji becomes a delightful way to turn on one’s inner happiness and radiance at will. Qín Liáng Zhōu once commented that taiji “is very much like the waltz. It has that rhythm once you feel it.” Most people who experience taiji as a dance are content to remain at this level.

At the third level taiji becomes a Supreme Ultimate Martial Art. The full name of taiji is tàijíquán (太極拳). The word quán (pronounced “chwen”) most directly translates as “fist.” As the martial art of taijiquan relies on a degree of body “rectification” as well as satisfaction by the teacher that one is of “decent character,” going through the Exercise and Dance progressions are absolutely necessary prerequisites before one learns taiji as a means of self-defense. There were many students who never received more than a superficial introduction to the martial aspects of taiji from Qín Liáng Zhōu because he decided they weren’t trustworthy enough not to abuse the knowledge. Others simply never developed the relaxation or coordination to arrive at that level. Many students, as I mentioned, were never interested or were actually emotionally repelled by the idea of using taiji in a martial fashion.

Very, very few taiji practitioners arrive at the martial arts level and for those who do, this level is a major trap.

The goal of taiji at this level is not at all to become a “martial arts bad ass” or to “learn how to kick butt,” even though taiji martial art is extraordinarily comprehensive and allows one to respond to an attack with anything from a no-touch evasion, to a light push or pull, all the way to a killing technique if everything else has failed.

The goal of taiji as a martial art—oddly enough for most people—is stress management. The idea is that if one can remain physically, emotionally and mentally relaxed while someone is trying to grab, hit or otherwise hurt you, you can probably remain relaxed in the normal hassles of everyday life.

This is the interesting part: the various jìns of taiji don’t work if you tense up and try to use muscle strength. Tensing up both slows you down and drastically reduces the power you can produce. Trying to muscle one’s way to a “victory” in the exercise known as “push hands,” for instance, will only result in your resorting to wrestling rather than taiji. Tensing up while someone is trying to hit you probably means you’ll find yourself getting hit.

The other interesting thing about practicing taiji as a martial art (as well as related disciplines such as aikido and Systema) is that skilled practitioners usually come across as very “laid back” and non-aggressive. It turns out that much of the “tough guy” posturing and “woofing” found in the bars and on television is understood as an expression of underlying fear these arts teach you to resolve, just as it resolves the intense fear of injury seen in those who cower and tremble in the face of any expressed or implied aggression.

The main goal of taiji as a martial art is to learn how to listen and respond to another person’s projection of energy. Many of the jìns that are important to develop if one wants to master taijiquan cannot be developed if one only practices solo taiji. It is vital for students to practice cooperatively if they are to understand and develop the higher levels. One of the most popular methods of cooperative taiji practice is called tuī shǒu (推手) or “push hands.” It’s variations begin at the simple and evolve into the complicated and freestyle.

The fourth level of taiji is that of the Supreme Ultimate Meditation. If you recall, I mentioned that the word quán directly translates into “fist.” But take a second: what is a fist? A fist is a “concentrated hand.” In the same way, the word quán can serve as a poetic reference to meditation as a “concentrated mind.” In practicing taiji as a meditation, it is necessary to have approximately mastered the prior three levels of taijiquan. In the meditative level, one focuses on one of the many aspects of taiji practice: the shifting of one’s weight from one foot to the other, the expression of force as it develops in the feet, travels up one leg into the torso and from there travels down one arm and out the hand; one focuses on one’s breathing to further refine the physiology of the inhale and the coordination of movement with the exhale, the feeling of one’s entire body as it moves through space—the possibilities of what to focus on are endless. This is one of the things that makes taiji fascinating: when done correctly, taiji is never boring. One can still be a student after fifty years of practice and while into one’s 70’s or older.

At the fifth and final level, Taiji Becomes Itself. The taiji practitioner at this level easily shifts from levels one through four and also is able to consciously slip into a form of high level non-verbal awareness the Chinese Daoists call wú xīn (無心) or “no mind.” The taiji practitioner at this point can defend him or herself with complete spontaneity, responding to an attacker’s moves in the same effortless fashion that a skilled jazz saxophonist can improvise music in perfect synchrony with the pianist. This ability transfers into every area of the practitioner’s life and is said to have penetrated “into the bones” to the point where the taiji practitioner is performing taiji in everything he or she does, whether it’s driving a car, engaging in self-defense, talking with the boss or washing the dishes.

Some Basic Principles of Taiji Practice

You can begin to practice some of the basic taiji principles of movement without a formal lesson. Here’s how to get started:

Imagine Your Head Is a Balloon Filled with Helium

This will encourage you to “float” your head above your neck and will promote proper upper-body alignment and tension release. This is the basis for the postural alignment discipline called the Alexander Technique, just to point out a connection to Western disciplines. Instead of imagining your head is a balloon, some people prefer the mental image of your head being pulled upwards by a string. Both work.

Pay Attention to The 4 Internal Forces: Fall, Compress, Float & Fling (An, Ji, Peng & Liu)

Taiji is based on four feelings we experience continuously but usually never notice while walking. As we step forward, our foot “falls” towards the ground and then “compresses,” prompting a “rebound” or “float” of force that goes up through the body and out the top of the head. If you relax while naturally swinging your arms, like a pendulum, you can feel the weight of your arms travel down into your hands. All taiji moves are elaborations and developments of these four “forces.”

Pay more attention to these internal “feelings” than how you look.

Taiji primarily involves the feet and legs. The illusion is that the arms and hands are the main points of focus.

All Movement Comes from The Feet, Goes Up Through the Body and Then Travels Out the Hands

This feels very foreign for most people who begin learning taiji. You will probably need to be coached at first to experience this. Once you get the hang of the feeling, however, it becomes very natural.

The Instant You Compress into Your Partner, Feel Your Back or Forward Foot Compress into the Ground

This activates your bodily structure and provides you with a full-body connection between your hand (or hands) and the ground. Most of the time you’ll compress your back foot into the ground as you compress your hand or fist into your partner for a push or a strike but occasionally you’ll compress into your front foot for particular techniques. In the absence of a partner, you can practice using a wall to experience the whole-body connection between your foot and your hand. A variation of this activation also applies to pulls.

Breathe from Your Lower Abdomen (Diaphragm)

This is how you breathe when you sleep. Most people, however, breathe from their chest when they’re awake. If you have ever played a wind instrument, sang in a choir or engaged in public speaking, you already know how to do this.

Bend Your Knees in Line with Your Third Toe. Never Reach Past the Vertical Plane of Your Forward Toes.

Bending your knee in the direction of your third toe protects you from knee misalignment and damage, as does never bending your knee past the vertical plane of your toes. Never reaching with your hands past the vertical plane of your forward toes protects you from losing balance by overextending yourself.


Christian said...

Great article! Thanks for posting it.

Rick Matz said...

Thanks for reposting it!