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

Posted in Meditation, mindfulness, movement, Qigong, Tai Chi, taijiquan | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

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.

 

Posted in Martial arts, Meditation, mindfulness, movement, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

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!

 

 

 

 

Posted in Anatomy Trains, Balance, Fascia, Health and Fitness, learning, mindfulness, movement, posture, sports science, Squatting, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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

Gravity…

webYears ago when I used to be an avid reader I came across a collection of short stories by
the well known author John Wyndham (Day of the Triffids et al). One particular story, the
name of which I have long forgotten, was about a group of futuristic humanoids who had
traveled to Earth in their unbridled anti-gravity spaceships. Upon seeing our seemingly
prehistoric locomotive machines and the burning of fossil fuels as our chief source of
power they scoffed at our ignorance of natural resources. Instead of fighting gravity to
move, they suggested, wouldn’t it make much more sense to harness the power of this
limitless and constant force? At the time of reading I had just started my training in Tai Chi
and the story resonated with me because I was fascinated by the way Tai Chi was
teaching me how to make gravity my friend using it to achieve a kind of effortless
movement and strength that I hadn’t been aware of in all of my previous training.
In the same way that a fish probably doesn’t notice the water that constantly supports it,
very few of us are aware of the reliable and reassuring force of gravity around which the
human body structure organises itself. Not only does harnessing this force create
immense stability and balance but it is also responsible for creating natural effortless movement, lift, nimbleness and expansion in the body. Such an obvious natural phenomenon is usually ignored by most and unfortunately impeded by the strange ways that people think that they should use their bodies and more specifically how they should look.
For me, learning how to move well is the most important and beneficial first (and ongoing
step) in human physical education. It requires that we restore the tremendous amount of
natural awareness we all seem to lose as we get older and firmly cement the body and
mind as one unit. On the other hand, what is prehistoric to me is that many people
specifically use their bodies in a way that burns as many calories as possible. This is
usually called ‘exercise’. This gross waste of energy is synonymous with health and fitness
in ‘The West’ whereas the majority of the population in the rest of the world barely have enough calories to live comfortably on a daily basis. It makes you think doesn’t it?
Join us for our new Summer term of Tai Chi and Qigong courses from the week beginning
4th July.You will learn much more than you think! All the details are on the website:
Posted in Anatomy Trains, Balance, biotensegrity, mindfulness, movement, Tai Chi, taijiquan | 6 Comments

An Interview with Grandmaster Chen Xiao Wang

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Last year I was very fortunate to have the opportunity to interview Grandmaster Chen Xiao Wang during his annual week of training in Reading hosted by Karel and Eva. (1) I’m not one who goes in for hero worship in any shape or form but after having trained with Master Chen for the last 14 years I have found his teaching to be an extremely insightful and positive influence on my Taiji training and, dare I say it, my life also. Therefore, the interview was something I was very much looking forward to and even a little nervous about. The day soon came round and this particular June afternoon found us all sitting around the kitchen table at Karel and Eva’s nursing steaming cups of delicious Oolong tea. Master Chen, looking very dapper in his jet black silk suit, sat across the table from me his meaty, bear-like hands gesturing beautifully as he talked. Despite punctuating his words with the occasional explosive Fajin, I soon felt greatly at ease and found myself just happily listening, simply immersed in the story of the Chen family history straight from the horse’s mouth:

SM: Thanks very much for meeting me today Master Chen. Could you start things off by talking about the history of Chen Family Taiji a little?

CXW: OK…It’s my pleasure. We’ll start from the 9th generation of Chen Family Taiji with Chen Wangting. For a long time Chen Wangting was an army general and scholar during the late Ming dynasty (1368-1644). He was a fearsome fighter both with weapons and in unarmed combat. Being the winner of many battles he was highly recognised and rewarded by the emperor but when the Ming dynasty came to an end and the Qing dynasty began (1644-1911) he didn’t want to serve the Qing dynasty and decided to retire to Chenjigou village.

Back in Chenjiagou he lived a simple life and farmed his land during the warmer months of the year and over the winters he worked on developing Taiji. Chen Wangting was already a very good martial artist when he retired and had lots of fighting experience, he was also a scholar and widely travelled. So he combined all of his knowledge of fighting and Taoist principles (yin/yang principle), Meridian theory and Chinese Medical theory. All these different elements he brought together and created a new kind of movement that was good for the body, good the mind and good for fighting: Chansigong, the Silk-reeling technique or spiralling movement. He devised 5 Taiji forms as well as pushing hands routines – the pushing hands routines were to help people train together but without injuring each other so much when sparring. He also created some two person spear fighting routines.

After Chen Wangting the next few generations all did well and prospered and the Taiji practise stayed the same. At the 14th generation things changed with Chen Changxing. He did Taiji very well. He was a good fighter and trained many of his students to work as bodyguards on trade convoys as there were many bandits in the area in those days. There are many, many stories about Chen Changxing’s Taiji skills but I’m not going to talk too much about stories today just Chen Family history. Chen Changxing condensed the five hand forms into just two sets: Yilu and Erlu. We would call them Laojia or old frame today. The weapons forms and pushing-hands routines are much the same as they ever were.

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One principle, three kinds of motion

One of Chen Changxing’s friends was a wealthy business man who owned a Chinese Medicine shop in a town nearby. One day a couple came in and offered to sell him their son to work in his shop. He accepted and this 12 year old boy was Yang Lu Chan – he went on to create Yang style Taiji. By the time he was 18 Yang Lu Chan had outgrown shop work and so he was sent to work for Chen Changxing. Working as a servant in Chenjiagou over the years, Yang Lu Chan often had a chance to watch Chen Changxing teaching his students Taiji. One night when Chen Changxing was on his way home he noticed someone in the shadows practising something that looked a little like Taiji but didn’t recognise him as one of his students. He asked Yang Lu Chan where he had learned Taiji and Yang Lu Chan explained that he had learned just by watching here and there while doing his job and by training at night time. Around this time Yang Lu Chan was given his freedom by his owner and he was allowed to stay in Chenjiagou – he stayed for for 6 years of basic training. After this first period he went away travelling as he wanted to test his Taiji skills against other martial artists in the land. He fought against many other people and found that while he didn’t ever lose, he also didn’t ever win. So he came back to Chen village to train with Chen Changxing for another six years.

A funny story during this time is that one night after class Yang Lu Chan was following Chen Changxing up some stairs on their way home. Young Yang, who was carrying a lamp to light the way, decided that this was a good time to test his master. He blew out the lamp and in the darkness grabbed Chen Changxing around the waist to try and topple him off the stairs. Chen Changxing responded straight away, he was very fast. Using a movement like ‘Fists Drape Over the Body’ with a little Fajin (Master Chen gestures violently in his chair) he knocked Yang Lu Chan all the way down the stairs to the bottom where Yang got up on to his knees and bowed repeatedly saying ‘Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you!!’

After this time Yang Lu Chan went away to make a life on his own and ended up teaching Taiji to the royal family in Beijing. Over time he changed his Taiji for the royal family to make it easier to learn. He made it simpler, a little less hard work, without the silk-reeling and the difficult movements like the jumps and Fajin. People say that he came back to Chenjiagou for another 6 years but it’s not true. He did come back to visit once for a few days but he didn’t stay. Many historical records show this. When he came back to visit he was very well dressed, wearing a long fox fur coat. Everybody said to him how smart and regal he looked but he just replied that the coat was only made from dog fur.

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In the 15th generation there was Chen Gengyun. He worked as a bodyguard protecting convoys full of valuable goods. Once when he was working away from home his convoy ended up being delayed by three years. When he eventually got back home to his wife she opened his suitcase to find that nothing inside has been touched. She asked him why and he replied that he had just been practising Taiji continuously all day and all night. He just slept when he was tired and as soon as he woke up he would immediately start training again. He didn’t have any time to open his suitcase. Another time when Chen Gengyun was working away he and a friend went to see an outdoor play. There was a big audience and about halfway through the performance a large group of trouble makers started to push the crowd violently to get to Chen Gengyun to challenge him to a fight – he was very well known for his Taiji. Chen Gengyun simply stood his ground and didn’t do a thing. The crowd broke upon him like water flowing around a stone, all falling to the floor when they tried to shove him or move him. He and his friend made a quick get-away only to soon be cut off at a bridge over the local river. On the one side was the gang and on the other Chen Gengyun and his friend. Chen Gengyun told his friend to hold on tightly to his belt and not to let go under any circumstances. Then suddenly he strode across the bridge right through the crowd with one arm in front sweeping all those at the front off the bridge and into the river. Seeing this, all the others behind were scared and ran away.

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The 16th generation was Chen Yanxi he was a well known body guard trainer. There are many stories about him but for another time. The 17thth generation was Chen Fa Ke, my grandfather. He was very famous. He was well known for his Taiji skills and for being a very good fighter. But also everyone liked him for having a good heart – he was very humble and always tried to help people. As well as teaching Taiji, Chen Fa Ke worked for the police in Wenxian helping them catch bandits. The police would often call for Chen Fa Ke to come and help them and by using his fierce Qinna he was always able catch and control them.

Another story is that at one time in Wenxian there was a large group of bandits who were part of a religious cult that believed that they were invincible, that no blade or bullet could hurt them. They were called the Red Spear Gang and were causing a lot of trouble in the region. When he’d had enough, the chief of police at Wenxian sent a message asking if Chen Fa Ke could come and sort them out. Chen Fa Ke agreed and on his way there he was met by the gang at a large bridge across the river outside Wenxian. Someone had told them that he was coming. At the front of the crowd was the big boss with a long spear. He said Chen Fa Ke couldn’t come across and laughed saying that nobody could hurt him or his gang, that no blade or bullet could pierce them. Chen Fa Ke just stood there calmly, holding his plain wooden staff. Suddenly the big boss lunged at Chen Fa Ke with his spear. In one very fast movement Chen parried the blow and hit the boss in the chest with the end of his staff – it went straight through his body and two feet out the other side. When they saw this the rest of the gang suddenly lost confidence and ran away, of course they were not invincible after all, and they never came back.

Chen Fa Ke spent 30 years teaching in Beijing. He developed the New Frame (Xinjia) forms, yilu and erlu. He made the chansigong, the silk-reeling technique, clearer and more intricate and added more fajin, more spiralling movement and more martial applications.

In the 18th generation there was my father Chen Zhao Xu, and Chen Zhaopi, Chen Zhaokui and Chen Zhao Chi – all who reached a very high level in Taiji. Chen Zhaopi and Chen Zhaokui were most well known teachers but it was Chen Zhaoxu and Chen Zhaochi who had the highest level.

WCTAG, Jan Silberstorff (22)

The 19th generation is not as good as the previous generations. That is why I always practise very hard. Before 1980 I spent a lot of time looking for what teachers were left, to find out what the standard was after my father’s generation. I couldn’t find anything so I just practised very hard myself. After many years of training, after lots of trial and error, practising hard every day, trying this and trying that and always asking questions but not being happy with the answers I eventually discovered the Taiji principle myself during the year 1979-1980. The principle never changes: one Taiji principle, three kinds of motion. Since 1980, when I’m training, every day there is less deviation, the principle is clearer and more delicate. Every day my Dantien gets stronger, my body gets stronger and my Qi is more flowing. So every year since 1980 my Taiji improves, it only gets better because the principle is now clear. Each year you can see the difference. If the principle is not clear it is very difficult to improve your Taiji and you don’t know your deviations.

In 1980 I started working for the Chinese government. They wanted to start to promote Chen family Taiji to more people. But they said that other martial arts have basic exercises (Jibengong) and that Taiji is too difficult. I said to them that Laojia yilu is the basic exercise in Taiji! They said Laojia is too difficult – so from here I developed the silk-reeling exercises to help people learn Taiji and to make the principle clearer.

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Back in the day – serious concentration!

In 1984 I started teaching in Europe and everyone found that Laojia is too difficult. So I developed the 38 form by taking out most of the repetitions in Laojia…but this was still too long for people to learn! So then I developed the 19 form and it’s still too long for most people! People don’t know how to learn… but in any form, in any number of movements it’s always the same principle: 1 principle, three kinds of motion. From one principle come one thousand movements.

Master Chen’s hands-on corrections are invaluable

SM: Thanks Master Chen, that’s excellent. Could you tell me a little bit more about Taiji principles and how to practise?

CXW: OK, no problem. There is just one principle and three kinds of motion. The one principle is that the whole body moves together following the Dantien. In every movement the whole-body moves together but the Dantien leads the movement and the whole body must be supported in all directions. This is very important. One principle, three kinds of motion: the three kinds of motion are as follows…First, horizontal motion, the Dantien rotates horizontally. The second kind of motion is vertical motion, the Dantien rotates vertically. The third kind of motion is a combination of the first two. Any movement that is doesn’t follow the principle is a deviation. So when we are training every day we are trying to find and reduce our deviations from the Taiji principle.

Really, it’s impossible to have no deviation at all and one lifetime isn’t enough, but this is the principle that guides our training. Even the most advanced and precisely engineered machinery has some deviation. It is just natural to have deviations but as we reduce it everything really improves, we become stronger, more balanced, more flowing.

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Legs cooked- very amusing all round!

SM: Master Chen, after all these years do you still feel like your Taiji is improving?

CXW: Every day. Every day in my training there is less deviation. Every day I have some questions that I work on and every day some answers. Since 1980 when I discovered the principle I always improve: more balanced, Dantien stronger, Qi more flowing. Training Taiji is never ending, there is always more to discover and you can always improve.

SM: Just one last thing Master Chen. What are your hopes for the future of your Taiji?

CXW: After all my decades of training and teaching Taiji I look back and see all the wrong turns I have made. Now I realise that everything is the same and comes from the same principles. After all of my experiences I realise that the way is actually from the complicated to the simple. My purpose is to put signs on all the wrong turns where students can easily lose their way, to make the path clearer for them. If I can simply help people improve their Taiji then I will be very happy and all my wishes will have come true.

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

Sam Moor teaches Chen Taiji full time across Sussex: http://www.sussextaichi.co.uk

i For more details see: http://www.ciaa.co.uk

Pictures of Master Chen courtesy of WCTAG

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