Taiji: basic movement patterns and body coherence

When I was a college student I used to give guitar lessons. It was a great way to earn money without being too time consuming and I soon realised that I really liked the teaching process, not to mention the independence of being my own boss. My students would start out by learning the basics; how to hold the guitar, simple scales, chords and so on. The only way to play more complicated tunes well, I would always explain, is to be competent at the basics, which requires diligent daily practise. How boring and not very rock ‘n’ roll at all!  The students who followed my advice over the years went on to become decent musicians able to play almost any tune well because of being forearmed with a fundamental understanding of and essential skill base in music.

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Training with CB – mentally and physically challenging. Working on the basics improves everything

The students who were most difficult to teach were the ones who were either tone-deaf or had no sense of rhythm (sometimes both!) especially when they didn’t realise it and thought they sounded amazing! To begin with they would have no frame of reference as to whether something was in tune or in time. They would make a horrible din – lots of noise but no discernible tune or tempo – and they couldn’t hear the difference between what I was playing and their cacophonic attempts. So with these students it was a really interesting teaching process and very educational for me. Slowly but surely I had to teach them, step by step, to really listen and pay attention to all the variations and nuances in tone and timing. Nothing could be assumed. Even more than usual did we have to get stuck in to basic practise with lots of repetition and comparison of simple riffs so they could gradually build up a more accurate (and sweeter sounding) frame of reference, and they had to practise, a lot. At times it was frustrating for both parties but when they improved they often couldn’t believe just how far they had had to come to understand something so simple. I guess it’s only simple when you know how.

Unconscious incompetence: The individual does not understand or know how to do something and does not recognize the deficit. They may deny the usefulness of the skill. The individual must recognize their own incompetence, and the value of the new skill, before moving on to the next stage.

In this article I will discuss how learning basic movement patterns and building body awareness should be the first port of call in Taiji classes. Otherwise it is like trying to teach Beethoven to someone who is tone deaf.

The big difference between music and Taiji is that while most people have some basic sense of music, many people are completely lacking in body awareness and have poor habitual movement patterns without even realising or conceding that such attributes have much value. Basic movement ability and awareness are two of the most essential life skills – without them we are seriously compromised as individuals.

Taiji is often associated with oriental mystery and assumed to be an art of confusing subtle energies and spiritual ideals barely comprising a physical activity at all.  My experience is that Taiji training principles are based on a long history of optimal body/mind training gained through highly perceptive heuristic movement, astute observation of natural phenomena at both micro and macro levels and rigorous testing through application (fighting/self-defense/life). Over a long period of time this experience culminated in a most natural and optimal way to train the human body and mind for health, movement and martial arts that we know as Taiji.

During my two decades of teaching and training Taiji the most common problem I have encountered is that people spend a lot of time trying to learn the choreography of forms but do not actually learn how to move well, often lacking the most basic level of body cohesion after years of practise. More often than not people immediately get bogged down with trying to learn and remember forms and as a consequence almost completely forgo the forging of basic body cohesion. Furthermore, by trying to remember choreographed movements rather than improving the basic nuts and bolts of human body-mechanics people can compound the problems that they have in the first place.

 ‘The more details you give people, the more they ask for details’ Nassim Taleb, Antifragile

Body cohesion is the essential fusion of balanced, connected, relaxed, 3-dimensional whole-body movement, strength and awareness that underpins all good movement and is especially emphasised in Taiji and other internal martial arts as a key-stone principle.  The increasing popularity of intelligent movement training as opposed to superficial ‘exercise’ (check out Ido Portal and Connor Macgregor for example) means that Taiji teachers really need to step up what they are doing otherwise we will all be perpetually condemned to that abysmal umbrella understanding of Taiji as a pseudo-spiritual, faux exercise for the infirm.

Body cohesion is the heart of Taiji training and more than anything else building this whole-body connection will benefit the vast majority of people in terms of their physical and mental health and overall ability to move and function well. As a teacher I want my students to experience significant change in the way their bodies operate and not to spend years worrying about remembering sequences of movements or theory. Ultimately I want to teach a person to improve the way they move, the way they use their body and the way they use their mind. As the vast majority of people are not used to learning movement or indeed moving much at all the most significant benefit is gained from establishing the basic exercises (Jibengong). In most of my classes we spend at least 50% of the time training basics.

For people taking their first steps into Taiji training the last thing they need to do is to learn a form. Learning a Taiji form offers very little benefit if instead of learning how to move well  people simply retain their old, habitual way of moving. This is especially true if their bodies are in poor condition and since many people come to Taiji because they think they are too damaged to do anything else this a particularly salient point.

Countless hours spent trying to remember sequences of movements and puzzling over which body part goes where, when and why is almost a complete waste of time, although perhaps intellectually satisfying in a superficial sense. Instead the initial and ongoing aim should be that students look to the body and mind and build; build their awareness, build their body and ultimately build their body/mind connection. For all the major health, movement and functional (martial or otherwise) benefits our art has to offer this is the absolute foundation and without it the majority of training is a false economy.

Taiji is a martial art with a difference. Instead of learning fighting techniques the first port of call should be simply learning how to develop body cohesion. Moving well, being at ease with one’s physical existence, being immersed in down to earth sensory experience and possessing freedom of movement are vital attributes for life and are the basic skills we seek to develop in Taiji.  Ultimately this means that our training is much more physically and mentally rigorous than most people might expect. Creating a relaxed, stable, balanced and connected body requires a lot of physical work; and you have to learn to calm and focus your mind, to pay attention completely, in order to succeed. So having said that, here’s a rundown of essentials we train in my classes and what I focus on in my own training:

Find your body – Fansong Gong

All of my classes begin with Fansong Gong, Chen Bing’s unique loosening/conditioning method. Consisting of a wide range of simple though not particularly easy exercises, Fansong Gong follows a general theme of opening the soft tissues of the body along the main fascial lines. Not only does this build a body that is loose, elastic, resilient and connected but also teaches you how to feel the main kinetic chains within the body and how they are woven together to form the three dimensional body structure in a simple and tangible way. Fansong Gong also incorporates lots of variations of balancing on one leg. Some of the exercises are strenuous for not only do they create a strong stretch but also continuously emphasise developing a base that is sufficiently stable to facilitate balanced  movement from the legs and centre that emanates through the whole body. Fansong Gong thus emphasises a number of key elements that people greatly benefit from in developing body cohesion:

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Simple squat – an important basic movement skill

  • Basic movement of the hips and spine. Flexion, extension, lateral motion (side-bending) and rotation are explored throughout Fansong and seeing that these are areas which are restricted in most people, and of course vital for all movement and for developing ones Taiji, it generates delightful results.
  • Balance and leg strength. Squatting motions and balancing on one leg help to build the body from the ground up whilst facilitating functional hip mobility. As unstable bi-peds, being able to balance well and having a stable base is one the most important skills we can develop.
  • Connecting the arms to the back and freeing the shoulders. Our arms are not independent levers that are separate from the body, their strength and dexterity depends on how well they are connected to and stabilised by the back so that movement and power generated by the legs and body can flow through them.
  • Developing a clear felt sense of how all body parts are woven together, from the toes to the fingertips, through the elastic facial web.

 

 

Zhanzhuang: Standing Meditation

Learning how to stand up is the next step after the elasticating endeavours of Fansong Gong. Zhanzhuang is simple and superb: it stabilises the body, stabilises the mind and develops a clear sense of the tensegrity of the human body structure. Tensegrity structures, such as the human body, distribute forces and movement throughout the entire system via the spring-like and elastic fascial web rather than being dealt with locally as they are in lever systems. A body that exhibits tensegrity in an optimal way is tensionally balanced in all directions under the reliable and constant pressure of gravity:

“Tensegrity describes a structural-relationship principle in which structural shape is guaranteed by the finitely closed, comprehensively continuous, tensional behaviours of the system and not by the discontinuous and exclusively local compressional member behaviours. Tensegrity provides the ability to yield increasingly without ultimately breaking or coming asunder” R. Buckminster Fuller

Tensegrity reverses the centuries-old concept that the skeleton is a frame upon which soft-tissue is draped and replaces it with an integrated fascial fabric with floating compression elements enmeshed within the interstices of tensional elements.

‘Being natural is the first and foremost principle in Taiji’ Chen Bing

WCTAG, Jan Silberstorff (22)

Standing – simple and effective but definitely not easy!

Zhanzhuang is the epitome of reorganising the perceived separate parts of the body back into the homogeneous whole of a tensegrity structure.  What separates the body is habitual tension and restricted movement underpinned by a lack of awareness in the corresponding parts.  Usually we are not aware of the restrictive patterns that have become enmeshed in our structural fabric over the course of our lives.  Everybody has them but they are essentially unfelt.   Standing then, is to help us feel, locate and relax restrictions in the body structure.  It’s not that we want to replace one habitual posture for another but instead return to a settled state so that the body becomes less segmented and more integrated; a malleable mass free to be directed by our will.  Through gentle and perceptive coaxing of the body we discover how it can support itself effortlessly from the ground upwards utilising the natural power of ground reaction force.  The key is to quieten the mind by simply feeling and observing.  Curious observation through the lens of stillness allows one to discover the inherent qualities our bodies possess and work with them rather than against them.

It is mainly due to our distinct lack of body awareness and an incorrect, intellectual understanding of movement that we do not experience the body as a homogeneous whole and thus capitalise on its inherent, natural attributes. For usually when we exercise we immediately try to force the body to change in some superficial way rather than learning how pay attention to what it does naturally without interference, intervention or biased-control. It is the ability to pay attention accurately which allows us to discover the inherent structure of our human form, something that is with us whatever we are doing.

 

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Tactile cues/posture corrections are vital for improvement. Chen Bing’s adjustments are particularly insightful.

A very important point with Zhanzhuang is that tactile cues and posture corrections are essential for students to learn how to stand. One’s habitual posture is usually so engrained that without regular feedback from a teacher’s hands-on body adjustments it is very difficult to perceive. If your teacher doesn’t give you tactile cues then you should find one that does.

Thus Zhanzhuang training facilitates a number of key developments:

  • More than any other training, Zhanzhuang, due to the absence of deliberate movement, allows one to gradually perceive and use the body as a whole unit, a tensegrity structure.
  • Strengthens and stabilises the body and mind at the most fundamental level.
  • Highlights how busy the mind is and as such provides an opportunity to learn how to focus on direct sensory experience and not thinking.

Learning to practise meditation is probably one of the most useful skills that anyone can invest their time in. The mind is such a busy little monkey; always trying to pin things down, categorise and judge most inaccurately.  It constantly craves information and fixed points of reference. Aside from this relentless activity the mind is also capable of quietly observing. Learning how to strengthen this observational aspect of the mind comes from deliberately paying attention and forms the most basic and most useful aspect of meditation. However, sitting down more is the last thing most people need to be happy and healthy so throw away the meditation cushion and practise Zhanzhuang.

Walking the walk (Zou Bu)

After Zhanzhuang the next basic skill I like to work on with students is being able to step well. Taiji walking has many variations but all follow the theme of learning how to maintain structural integrity, balance and connection whilst stepping slowly (to begin with). It is challenging to do well and without the distraction of waving the arms around students can really focus on moving in a balanced way.

Chansigong : Silk-Reeling exercises

“The general consensus has been to think of only one or two muscles participating in any given movement but no matter how common this misconception may be the reality is that any movement is essentially a whole-body movement. For movement is not simply the mere coordinated bending of separate hinges but instead expansion, repositioning and contraction of the tensegrity of the body as a whole via the fascial web” Steven Levin

Simple Chansigong builds upon all of the preceding basic exercises and offers students the chance to discover how good movement flows smoothly and naturally through the whole body, from the feet to the fingertips, organised by the centre (Dantien). Training simple isolated, whole-body movements gives one a chance to get into the nitty gritty of what one is doing and most importantly how one is doing it. Any Taiji form is basically a collection chansigong variations but as one goes from one move to the next any mistakes are usually glossed over and forgotten immediately. Practising Chansigong gives you a chance to discover and then iron-out any deviations in one’s basic movement patterns using all of the preceding simpler work as a tool for accurate cross referencing.

Conclusion

When people have a good grasp of the basics they become much more physically capable, confident and independent. From here they can use their new skills to learn a form successfully with meaning and without being a slave to irrelevant details or the teacher.

I first came across the term ‘Heuristic’ in Nassim Taleb’s superb book ‘Antifragile: things that gain from disorder’. The word Heuristic comes from ancient Greek meaning to find or discover for oneself. I had not really thought about it too much prior to this but at that point I realised that this is how I learn and teach Taiji. In Taiji we have the general movement principles (one principle, three kinds of motion) or rules of thumb and it is through inquisitive tinkering via lots of basic training  that you discover, realise and then own them for yourself rather than trying force oneself to adhere to them and/or just blindly following a teacher:

Heuristic: Serving to indicate or point out; stimulating interest as a means of furthering investigation. Encouraging a person to learn, discover, understand, or solve problems on his or her own by experimenting and evaluating possible answers or solutions or by trial and error.

I always encourage my students to pay more attention to their own body feeling rather than thinking about things too much. As soon as people start thinking they start to forgo their whole-body experience.  I want students to learn how to learn from their own felt experience of their training rather than trying to remember things. It is because many peoples’ felt experience, their sensory perception and proprioception are so limited that the mind takes over to fill in the gaps. That’s one of the reasons why people crave details, in-depth theory and spiritual mystery rather than relying on their own practise and experience. Since we are so used to being spoon fed information from external sources it can be quite a big step to become more self-reliant. Training Taiji basics for body cohesion gives you all the tools you need. But don’t take my word for it, try it for yourself.

 

Sam teaches Chen Taiji full-time in West Sussex. He is an associate instructor for the Chen Bing Taiji Academy and a lecturer in Professional Resilience at Chichester University: www.sussextaichi.co.uk

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A tricky business!

 

Snap shot of a lesson with Chen Bing – physically and mentally demanding!

Teaching Tai Chi is a tricky business – and learning Tai chi even trickier! This is mainly because what people expect to learn by coming to a Tai Chi class and what they are likely to get are usually two quite different things. Tai Chi is often associated with oriental mystery and assumed to be an art of subtle energies and spiritual ideals. This is very amusing!  Tai Chi training principles are based not upon intellectual theory (theory is like shutting the gate after the horse has bolted) but a long history of direct experience of optimal body/mind training gained through highly perceptive heuristic movement research, acute empirical observation of natural phenomena (such as the laws of physics) at both micro and macro levels and rigorous proof testing through application (fighting/self-defense/life). All of this experience eventually culminated in a most natural and optimal way to train the human body and mind for health, movement and martial arts.

So Tai Chi is a martial art – but with a difference. Instead of learning fighting techniques the first port of call is in fact simply learning how to move well. Moving well, being at ease with one’s physical existence, being in immersed in down to earth sensory experience and possessing freedom of movement are vital attributes for life and the basic skills we seek to develop  in Tai Chi. More than anything else, it is these things that almost everybody could do with addressing, although many people do not realise it.

Ultimately this means that our training is much more physically rigorous than what most people might expect. Creating a relaxed, stable, balanced and connected body requires a lot of hard physical work; and you have to learn to focus your mind and pay attention completely in order to succeed. People generally show a strong bias towards thinking about things that are unrelated to what they are doing on the most fundamental level. However, in order to move well (and this means moving without destroying the body on the way) the body and mind must work together as the seamless unit they actually comprise at the most primal level.  It is the most fascinating journey!

At Sussex Tai Chi we have a number of new courses and workshops starting over the summer. You can check out all the details on the website: www.sussextaichi.co.uk

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A day of Qigong

Most people have heard of Tai Chi but its sibling art of Qigong is less well known, which is a great shame. Qigong (pronounced chee-gong) has its roots in ancient China and as such shares many similarities with and benefits of Tai Chi but is considerably easier to learn comprising a variety of simple exercises rather than a long sequence of intricate movements.  There are many different types of Qigong; some styles focus upon developing specific aspects of the body such as joint mobility or improving the function of certain internal organs while others build strength or seek to promote a calm state of mind. In essence most of what we do  in Qigong usually focuses upon building an integrative combination of all these attributes and the benefits one can expect from regular training  centre around posture, breath, concentration, calmness, balance and strong, smooth connected movement with the body and mind working in unison. It is a vastly beneficial art to learn!

Chen Xiao Wang

GM Chen Xiao Wang enjoys some standing Qigong – simple and effective

One of the challenges that beginners face when learning Tai Chi is that there are a lot of movements to remember and this can become one’s focus rather than correct training which revolves around paying attention to how one is actually moving. Qigong is an excellent supplement to Tai Chi and other types of training such as Yoga or Pilates. Traditionally it has always accompanied martial arts training as a way of preventing injury and keeping the body and mind strong, supple and firing on all cylinders over a long period of time.

I started to learn Qigong at the same time that I began Tai Chi. While I love both arts and appreciate that there is much that overlaps between the two, I have found that my students often get more from learning Qigong than Tai Chi especially when they first start out. The brilliance of Qigong lies in its simplicity and this encourages people to practise on their own – twenty minutes a day of good Qigong practise can have the most superb effect on one’s health and state of mind.

I am running a one day workshop where you can learn some excellent Qigong exercises on Saturday May 20th, 10.30-16.30 at the Newell Centre, Tozer Way, Chichester. During this workshop we will learn and practice Fansong Gong (joint loosening/conditioning), 8 Animals Qigong (8 simple exercises loosely based on animal movements and their attributes) and Zhanzhuang (Standing Qigong). The fee for the day is £50. All abilities are welcome however if you have any specific health/mobility issues please contact me to assess suitability. All the details are on the website: www.sussextaichi.co.uk

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It’s not what you do…

All of my courses are back in full swing now and with the exception of one early morning class, all are full to capacity. It is great to see that more and more people are starting to take notice of mindful movement and exercise – it’s the only way to be sustainable really.

 It’s not what you do it’s the way that you do it – that’s what gets results.

Exercise is a bit like food, we are what we eat and we are how we use our bodies. So it is well worth being intelligent in ones choice of how to exercise rather than just ‘eating anything’.

The initial contents of my classes are simple and extremely useful and perhaps a little difficult to grasp; we learn how to pay attention to our bodies. This vastly underrated first step is the keystone to really being able to move well, breathe well, feel well and live well. Although a simple concept it takes lots of daily practise to realise on an experiential level and when taken further along the line is what will allow one to get some seriously tasty results from any physical/mental endeavor (like life) owebr performance without destroying the body/corrupting the mind on the way.

For most of us our senses are extremely dull and what takes precedence in our experience of life is the content of our minds i.e. our common thought patterns and constant benign mental chatter. However, it is in fact only from our senses that we glean accurate information about both our internal and external environments and as such it is well worth addressing this top-down imbalance. Otherwise it’s like living in a dictatorship and you never really have a clear idea of what you are doing, how you are doing it and what is happening around you.

There is only one true rebellion: to free your body and mind.

Often, when people start training the first thing they notice is that their mind is a cacophony of chatter, categories, judgements, memories, predictions and unreasonable beliefs none of which have anything to do with or accurately reflect whawavet is happening in the present moment. Realising that it might be worth learning how to turn this noise down is major step in an intelligent training direction. I’m not, by the way, referring to being spiritual but instead simply being very sensible. For me this process is inseparable from ‘turning up’ our bodily senses – I take inspiration from nature, our animal friends who absolutely bristle with sensory life.

This is not something that can be taught in the traditional sense but instead something that must be learned. My job is to facilitate this learning process rather than simply disseminating information. While having its uses, information is inferior to knowledge. Knowledge is superior because it comes from direct experience and experience derives from trying things out for yourself, making a few little mistakes and learning directly from the results rather than following instructions blindly or just regurgitating what someone else has said. This all takes time and in order to learn something we must not kid ourselves that there is a quick solution.  Embrace the process, seek progress, not perfection and keep practicing.

 

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A whole new year…

As I write my last post  of 2016 the shortest day of the year (or the longest night – it depends how you look at it) is upon us. After the solstice and the imminent Christmas celebrations the days start to lengthen once more and many of us think of doing something new to improve our health and fitness in the New Year. Gym memberships flourish in January (this is what keeps most Gyms financially solvent) and while having the intention to exercise is a good one it must be stated that mindless calorie burning is a waste of energy; any exercise where you are not continuously learning and/or engaging and appreciating that the mind and body function as an integrated unit is entirely superficial and non-functional.

Lost in the Rock-Pools

Basic movement skills – vital for looking in rock pools!

The human body and mind accurately reflect how they are most commonly used, so in order to really improve our physical condition and mental state we must educate ourselves and learn about our most common movement patterns, perceptions and thought processes.

 

 

 

 

 

Chen Xin Wuji

The human body operates as tensionally balanced unit – lots of people talk about it but can you feel it?

To be fit and healthy humans require that a number of generic body movement patterns and basic movement skills are maintained and function well in an integrated manner. Blind exercise without addressing these fundamental requirements is a real false economy. So rather than seeing our bodies as a vehicle to carry our big, busy brains around it is worth considering the human being functions as a single unit – to really capitalise on our physicality we have to have this as our basic premise when we exercise. Eventually we may even come to realise that everything we do is in fact exercise.

The first thing we focus on in Tai Chi is learning how to calm the mind and relax so that we can rediscover and reignite our perception and the body’s natural capacity for movement. These are vital life skills known and valued for millennia in China. From here we have a clear path to building all the key skills we need to move and function well in life such as balance, connected strength, mobility and awareness. Think about it…..If you want to try something different you should come and check it out. All of our new courses start from Monday 9th January and the details can be found on the website: www.sussextaichi.co.uk In the meantime I wish you all a very merry Christmas and a wonderful new year!

 

 

 

 

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An Interview with Chen Bing

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Xinjia Yi Lu – It’s easy!

‘After ten years of training Laojia all day, everyday, it only took me 2 and ½ hours to learn Xinjia’ says Chen Bing smiling at us. ‘It’s easy!’ he adds, ‘once you know the basics’. Everyone groans, because inevitably this means that what we are about to do is bound to be difficult. ‘No pressure Laoshi!’ I reply, for even though I know Xinjia well, keeping up with Chen Bing’s wide spectrum of intricate variations and super-charged Fajin is going to require some serious focus and a relentless ability just to go with the flow. We all love it, of course, for that is what we are here for: the first International Chen Bing Taiji Retreat in Greece.

In September last year (2015) I was contacted by Roza Maragopoulou, one of my students from back in the day, who after training at Chen Bing’s Taiji academy in Chen Village for a year was interested in hosting Chen Bing in her native country of Greece. Initially asking me for a few pointers we eventually decided to host Master Chen together and run an international retreat on the beautiful Greek island of Evia. This way we could bring together the many Chen Taiji players from UK, Greece and across the world keen to train with Chen Bing for an intense Taiji training camp in a delightfully sunny location.

We set the schedule to include 6 hours a day of training covering Fansong Gong (Chen Bing’s unique loosening/conditioning exercises), Silk-reeling (Chansigong), Standing Meditation (Zhanzhuang), Laojia, a little Xinjia and of course pushing-hands (Tui Shou), which is one of Chen Bing’s specialities. Once everything was in place, almost immediately the retreat was fully booked with students hailing from UK, Greece, France, Bulgaria and USA. Needless to say time flew by and the time for the retreat soon came around. In this article then, I include an interview with Chen Bing that we conducted with Jannis Christodoulakis from Crete for a popular Greek martial arts website. First, however, I want to talk about the key themes that underlay Chen Bing’s teaching and his unique approach that left everybody inspired and happy. Along with his uncle Chen Xiao Wang, Chen Bing is for me a really special teacher.

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Aside from teaching Taiji full-time, I spend a lot of time training on my own. Over the last two decades I have found Taiji to be an extremely fulfilling and challenging pursuit that has developed my body and mind in a way that I never expected. I thought I knew how to train and move well before I started Taiji and I thought I knew a lot about anatomy and the processes of the mind, but I was in fact, quite wrong. Good Taiji training is such a down to earth and natural process and indeed so obvious that sometimes you just can’t see it and there is much confusion as a result. For me, the first ten years were quite frustrating but when I look back it was when I stopped trying so hard to achieve something, a fixed idea in my head, but instead simply focused on what I was doing and started to perceive my body directly that I found what I was looking for. All good things come to those who wait as they say. So in light of this, I really like Chen Bing’s emphasis on being natural and building quality Taiji from the basics; having the opportunity to spend 7 days training intensively in the company of someone who has simply lived Taiji for most of his life is a golden opportunity to learn, improve, refine and enjoy my practise.

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Beautiful surroundings, good company and good training!

Like his uncle and main teacher Chen Xiao Wang, Chen Bing emphasises simplicity in his teaching. Everything he teaches builds from the ground upwards; only by training to viscerally embody the basics that comprise the Taiji principles can one fully uncover the more advanced elements/practises in a natural way for oneself. Learning Taiji is not about remembering movements, techniques or information but instead about learning from your own direct experience of how your body and mind move, operate and are continuously integrated and flowing together. It is a fascinating and fundamentally natural process completely at odds with how the minds of modern people tend to operate.

First, you have to look for your body’ Chen Bing calmly enthuses, ‘find your body!’

One of the things I really like about Chen Bing is that his quality of movement is exceptional in every way. Natural, flowing, powerful, balanced, connected, rooted, agile, perceptive and explosive are all words I would readily use to describe the way that he moves. Also, as I mentioned before, Chen Bing exudes a tangible kind of calmness and he emphasises training this throughout all of his teaching. A busy mind, he explained, takes you away from your body and the felt senses that allow you to relax, move naturally and perceive accurately. For thoughts are just a faint reflection of direct experience. Since humans show a strong bias to living in the thinking world, a world of fixed concepts, inaccurate assumptions and extremes that create internal and external conflict, the first step in training is to address this gross imbalance. This is achieved by looking for your body, the deliberate process of continuously focusing the mind into ones physical self and paying complete attention to the experience therein.

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Students hailing from UK, Greece, USA, Bulgaria and France

All of our training sessions began with Fansong Gong, Chen Bing’s unique loosening/conditioning method. Consisting of a wide range of different exercises, Fansong Gong follows a theme of opening the soft tissues of the body along the main fascial lines. Not only does this build a body that is loose, elastic, resilient and connected but also teaches you how to feel the main kinetic chains within the body and how they are woven together to form the three dimensional Taiji body in a simple and tangible way. Some of the exercises are quite strenuous for not only do they create a strong stretch but also continuously emphasise developing a strong base or root in order to facilitate balanced freedom of movement from the centre that emanates through the whole body.

After our elasticating warm-ups we would then train Zhanzhaung in number of different postures, resolutely turning down the dimer switch of mental activity and looking for the Taiji body in any given posture. These basic themes of Chen Bing’s teaching were emphasised no matter what we were doing and while I say that they are basic it does in fact take lots of time and down-to-earth training to manifest them. A point, Chen Bing explained, that most people miss all too easily.

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Chen Bing and I demonstrate Tui Shou

As well as lots of enjoyable and rigorous form work we spent two days training pushing hands, from basic patterns to applications. We looked at common problems that people come up against in Tui-Shou and how to work on resolving them. Ultimately, Chen Bing enthused, it isn’t complicated, it all comes down to keeping your Taiji body no matter what. So, he added, this is what you have to work on for a long time in Tui-Shou rather than just trying to score points and sacrificing your position to do so. Fortunately for me, I spent a lot of time pushing-hands with Chen Bing and it was very insightful to feel how he moved. I can best describe the feeling of his body as ‘liquid steel’ for Chen Bing moves very softly and fluidly yet beneath the surface is a formidable power that you wouldn’t want to be on the receiving end of. Most of the time he took it easy on me and was brilliant to work with. Occasionally, while demonstrating an application, he would smash me onto the ground which, while being painful and unnerving, gave me a clear insight into how he would unbalance me and then very rapidly exploit my weaker position just by going with the flow and keeping the superior position of his Taiji body.

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On the floor again – a good way to learn!

Next year, in 2017, our retreat will be on the beautiful Greek Island of Samos where Chen Bing will be teaching the whole of Xinjia Yilu over a week interspersed with pushing-hands training. I for one am already really looking forward to it! You can find the details here: www.sussextaichi.co.uk

Below is the interview with Chen Bing that I have transcribed and edited myself – I thank Qi Cao for her excellent translations over the course of the retreat:

Jannis Christodoulakis: Master Chen, can you tell us a little about the background of Chen Taiji?

Chen Bing: Chen family Taiji has around 400 years of history and was developed by Chen Wanting in Chenjiagou, Henan province. At the time there were no guns or canons and so Taiji was built primarily as a martial art but also the training was inseparable from sustainable health development.

The contents of Taiji training include a strong focus upon independent training and self-development that is centred around the cultivation of the three aspects of body, mind and spirit. Through the combined and balanced focus of health and self-defence, of training internally and externally by embodying the principles of yin and yang or change, Taiji is a unified and integrated martial art.

JC: Can you tell us about your teachers and biggest influences in your training?

CB: Since the time of Chen Wanting Taiji has been practised continually in Chenjiagou for many generations. Over the years Chen village has produced many exceptional practitioners and still does to this day because almost everybody there is training and involved in Taiji all the time. It really is the home of Taiji in China and where you can find the best players. For me, my teachers are my uncles Chen Xiao Wang and Chen Xiao Xing. They are both exceptional practitioners and excellent teachers.

JC: Do you think the way that Taiji is practised has changed over the years seeing that more people are interested in Taiji for developing their health than martial arts skills these days?

CB: Since Chen Wanting’s time, Taiji then compared to now is of course a little different. It was a different time when there was much more hand-to-hand combat and so people needed to be to able use their martial skills on a regular basis. Also, it is worth remembering that different people have always trained differently and emphasised some aspects of Taiji more than others. These days, because of necessity, emphasis in Taiji has had to shift to the development of health, mind and spirit which are very much needed in modern times seeing that most people require this on a daily basis more than just being able to fight.

JC: Do you like travelling to The West to teach? Are there any differences in how people in The West and people in China practise Taiji?

CB: Ever since I became a teacher I’ve thought a lot about how to best teach and promote Taiji so that as many people as possible can benefit from it. One of my main goals has always been to share Taiji with people outside of China. When I travel around the world to teach Taiji I want to share something really important from my own culture. Also, I want to learn about other cultures too, to understand people better and find the commonality that we all share.

JC: How would you describe you own style of teaching and training?

CB: There is a Chinese saying that you can’t just teach everybody using the same method. I try to use different methods of teaching depending on what’s best for each individual and how they learn. So really I’m always exploring how to find the best way to get the knowledge across and it varies from group to group and from person to person. Teaching itself is a very educational process! For example, when I first started to teach my Fansong concept people found it very hard to understand intellectually so I had to find ways to get people to really feel what Fansong is like for themselves, to keep it in themselves and integrate it into their practise.

JC: What are the most important things to focus on during training?

CB: In Taiji the most important factor is knowing the different steps of training and their correct sequence. It’s just like building a house, the foundation needs to be in place for everything else to built successfully on top. You can’t just jump from one thing to another without having gone through the right preceding steps. In order to get quality in your Taiji training you need to know the main principles, so in order to do this you have to follow the steps. For example, people like doing Fali (explosive movements) but you cannot just focus on Fali because it will never have any foundation in the body, it has to be developed from the basic steps. In order to solve any problems you have in your training you have to go back to previous steps to iron them out. So in order to be able to do this, first you have to know the steps. This is very important.

JC: What about Zhan Zhuang (standing meditation), do you think it is important?

CB: Standing is the very first and most important foundational step in Taiji. When I was young all the children had to do standing for half an hour everyday. It was so hard for us all to keep still of course because children love to move – so we all found it very torturous to begin with! However, standing is the key is to calming your mind and finding your body and the stillness inside which is where movement comes from.

JC: What about breathing; is it important to learn reverse breathing?

CB: What I mentioned when we were training earlier is that all forms of breathing should be natural. The most usual form is the slow relaxed breath when the Dantien fills on inhale and empties when you breathe out. During fast movements when you release power it’s the opposite, your Dantien fills as you exhale. Both are a natural consequence of your training and just two different states depending on the way are moving. You don’t want to force or control your breath. Being natural and in a state of naturalness is the first and foremost principle in Taiji.

JC: Is there a connection between Taiji and Meditation?

CB: There are a lot of similarities between Taiji and Meditation such as finding stillness and relaxation.

JC: Do you prefer Laojia or Xinjia? Is just doing one form enough or should we learn both?

CB: Normally, I’d say it’s best to learn either one or the other and just focus on that. But if you really want to learn more about Taiji and improve it’s good to learn both as it deepens your ability and your understanding of Taiji as a whole. I have practised Laojia more but I really enjoy training Xinjia!

JC: Could you tell us about intention or Yi?

CB: Yi is a way for you to send a message for what you want to achieve. For example if you want to relax, your mind is the main controller and sends the message to the rest of the body. Yi is a way to send a message to the body in order to direct it in what you want it to do. Yi is a way for your thoughts and your state of mind to be connected with your physical body. It’s the bridge between the mind, the body and what you want to achieve.

JC: What are the most common mistakes that people make in Taiji training?

CB: There are two very common mistakes that we see in Taiji. The first is that people do not know the correct sequence of training and the order of the steps. Secondly, is that people do not know how to relax (fansong) and do not realise how fundamental it is to their Taiji. Often people practise Taiji for many years but do not ever really learn how to relax and this restricts their ability.

JC: Why is it so difficult to relax?

CB: Most people don’t really ever consider what it means to relax. Usually, in day to day life, people are focused only on what’s outside, the external world, and use excessive force and control to carry out all of their actions. You only start to train the relaxation when you begin to deliberately focus on the inside.

JC: What implications does training Taiji have for everyday life?

CB: Taiji can be very useful in everyday life. Firstly, it trains you to develop a calm mind which is very important in itself but also enables and equips you to face any situation at any time. Secondly, by having a calm mind and the ability to face any situation, it allows you to be in better position to discern the fundamentals of life’s situations and perceive the truth and falsehood or the essence of the situation or problem at hand. This gives you a more holistic viewpoint and puts you in a better position to resolve everyday challenges. Another aspect of Taiji is that over time it allows you build great confidence in yourself. This can be a big change for some people.

JC: Finally, are there any secrets in Taiji?!

CB: Yes! (laughing and every one in the room laughs)

JC: That’s great! Thank you very much for your time Master Chen.

For more information about training with Chen Bing and Sam’s classes please visit: www.sussextaichi.co.uk

Posted in Chen Bing, Chen Taijiquan, Chen Xiao Wang, Fascia, movement, Tai Chi, taijiquan, Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Learning how to learn

After an immensely enjoyable weekend of learning Lindy Hop with my partner in Bristol recently and with our intense Tai Chi retreat with Chen Bing in Greece looming beautifully on the horizon I have been mulling over the art of learning. For when I spend time with my teachers, Chen Xiao Wang and Chen Bing, I am always keen to learn as much and as well as possible. Learning is a fundamentally liberating experience and vastly enjoyable on many levels. This is especially so when the subject or skill at hand facilitates and emphasises mind/body integration. For me, remembering facts and information has very little to do with education and in fact very much interferes with learning proper. There are lots of people who can talk the talk (i.e. regurgitate useless information and stories) but not so many that can walk the walk. So when at our Lindy Hop workshop I saw that the teachers were excellent dancers who moved really well and in a lovely natural fashion I was very happy to follow their instruction. I watched them intently and listened very carefully to all of their instructions making sure all the time that I followed as well as I could continually updating and improving the basic steps I had learned previously. This required a lot of concentration which I liked because when one really focuses on what is happening in the present moment it is a seriously liberating experience and here that real learning takes place.

Chen Bing Demonstrates – watch like a hawk!

Over the last two decades I’ve attended a great many different Tai Chi classes, private lessons, workshops and seminars. Of course, I have also been teaching full-time for the last ten years or so and spent many hours training on my own. It is really interesting to see that everyone gets something different out of each class or seminar. The worst thing is when someone feels that they haven’t learned anything from the teacher or that they are not getting what they want. They often blame the teacher, however it is down to each individual to be responsible for their own learning.

Probably the main factor that influences ones ability to learn is having the actual desire and perseverance to do so. Without this it is rare that people are able to pay attention enough or are willing to go through the inevitable discomfort of not knowing. However, without entering the ocean of creative uncertainty it is impossible for us to do or produce anything new. In psychology a model of four stages of competence is often used to describe the learning process:

1) Unconscious incompetence

The individual does not understand or know how to do something and does not recognize the deficit. They may deny the usefulness of the skill. The individual must recognize their own incompetence, and the value of the new skill, before moving on to the next stage. The length of time an individual spends in this stage depends on the strength of the stimulus to learn.

2) Conscious incompetence

Though the individual does not understand or know how to do something, he or she does recognize the deficit, as well as the value of a new skill in addressing the deficit. The making of mistakes can be integral to the learning process at this stage.

3) Conscious competence

The individual understands or knows how to do something. However, demonstrating the skill or knowledge requires concentration. It may be broken down into steps, and there is heavy conscious involvement in executing the new skill.

4) Unconscious competence

The individual has had so much practice with a skill that it has become “second nature” and can be performed easily. As a result, the skill can be performed while executing another task. The individual may be able to teach it to others, depending upon how and when it was learned.

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Corrections are like a gift – capitalise on them

From my experience as a teacher and as a student it seems that most practitioners of Tai Chi never get past the first stage of ‘unconscious incompetence’ which is indeed a great shame. In seminars people complain that what the teacher is teaching is too basic or that they didn’t learn what they thought they needed or desired to learn. Often they wanted to learn some really tasty technique or hear a profound verse of wisdom that they can recite to themselves (or others – bloody teachers!). Usually, however, the teacher is trying to teach exactly what we need to learn and most of us in stark reality really struggle to achieve basic basics which take hours and hours of personal practise time to realise on the most simple physical level. This vital and solid foundation is what paves the way to the superior health and fitness benefits and of course any real martial skills that one can glean from good Tai Chi training.

Chen Bing demonstrates 'Lazily Tying the Coat'

Listen carefully and follow every instruction – not just the ones you prefer. You’ll be suprised at how much you miss!

I was chatting with Chen Bing, a teacher I really admire, over dinner one time and he said that in order to really understand and know Tai Chi, to really improve one’s ability, one has to look for errors in one’s practise and not simply revel in the things you can do well or just go through he motions blindly. The key, he added, was learning how to pay complete attention to what you’re doing, to accurately feel your entire body and mind, and search out the elements/deviations that do not correspond with the Tai Chi principle in the most simple and visceral way. From here, he said, you can really grow although it is a never-ending process. His final thought, which he added with a wry smile, ‘it is just like life’.

Follow attentively – never assume anything

So, my advice for all you keen learners and especially those players joining us with Chen Bing in Greece later this month is this: learn how to pay attention. Here are some tips that I find useful:

i) Watch the teacher like a hawk, perceive his movements as deeply as you can. Give your mirror neurons a chance to help you out and feel as if you are doing it too. Don’t think, don’t intellectualise, categorise or judge, just watch and experience as best you can.

ii) Listen very carefully and follow all of his instructions to the letter. If you assume that you are already doing so then it is very likely that you are not! Instead, assume that all the instructions are aimed at you specifically and not someone else. Which of course they are.

iii) Focus intently on finding out whether or not your body is doing what you think it is. When you follow the teacher allow 50% of your attention to be on perceiving his movement and the other 50% on your own. Don’t follow blindly, drift off of space out – pay attention!

iiii) Never assume you know anything. Practise diligently and consistently on your own to make Tai Chi yours. Any corrections the teacher gives you are like a gift. Don’t just ignore them, find them and feel them, make them your own.

I still can’t Lindy Hop very well but I know that I will be able to if I simply Pay Attention, Practise and Persevere. Enjoy!

www.sussextaichi.co.uk

Posted in Chen Bing, learning, Martial arts, mindfulness, movement, Tai Chi | Tagged , , , , , | 4 Comments