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

Posted in Chen Taijiquan, Chen Xiao Wang, Martial arts, movement, Tai Chi, taijiquan | Tagged , , , , , , | 13 Comments

Making mistakes

Everybody makes mistakes or so the saying goes. There is often a lot of common sense in these old adages and this one certainly rings true, for wisdom comes from experience and experience comes from making mistakes. In fact, it is usually when we’re not frequently making little mistakes here and there, and learning as a direct result, that we set ourselves up for something seriously undesirable and unexpected in the form of a really big mistake. In most aspects of our culture the acceptable norm is to avoid mistakes, little or otherwise, at all costs.  To do this however, is very counter-productive as it denies oneself a highly valuable source of adaptation and learning – two of life’s essential essentials. Mistakes, if you capitalise on them, make you very resilient and at best antifragile[i], the precise opposite of fragile.

Some corrections for Sam

Rather than putting me into a ‘correct’ or fixed posture, Master Chen adjusts the body to create a certain feeling of fluid whole-body connection and calmness. This is infinitely more useful than a fixed idea.

Back in the day Tai Chi was taught in a non-prescriptive fashion with the emphasis lying heavily upon the student’s ability to observe, practise independently, evolve and learn heuristically i.e. from trial and error, observation and discovery. By developing and relying upon one’s evolving experience, common sense, creativity and incremental exploration the student, through diligent training, actually uncovers Tai Chi for herself. The teacher simply points a finger in the right direction:

 ‘It is like a finger pointing away to the moon; if you look at the finger then you miss all the heavenly glory.’

So, by learning in this way the student develops independence and many other unexpected and invaluable skills which translate into domains other than Tai Chi, such as daily life, relationships and business. Students who are new to Tai Chi usually avoid training on their own because they want to avoid making mistakes. They want to ‘remember’ the movements/exercises ‘correctly’. I usually explain that Tai Chi has nothing at all to do remembering anything other than the necessity to practise every day. Similarly, I like to vaguely suggest that terms such as ‘right and wrong’ or ‘correct and incorrect’ have nothing to do with anything related to our training seeing that they are such limited and unrealistic concepts.

Tai Chi training i.e. learning how move well and focus your mind, is similar to learning how to play a musical instrument – but with Tai Chi it is your body/mind that is the instrument. So you just have let go a little and make some ugly noises to begin with, for if you don’t have any feedback from your actions you simply can’t learn anything. Reading books about music or remembering music theory will not enable you to be able to play beautifully or indeed at all. You just have to do it. It is the same with Tai Chi and, of course, life. Just as a wise old master once said: ‘You have to be in it to win it!’

Most of us are very much used to being spoon fed information from various external sources (educational institutes) and confuse this top down process with more wholesome grass roots learning. The infinitely more useful heuristic model of learning can be difficult for us modern folk to get our heads around but if you always have to rely on someone else to give you information in order to know what you are doing then you are in a very fragile and weak position. So remember, don’t cry over spilled milk, instead simply learn from it

 

www.sussextaichi.co.uk

 

[i] Check out Antifragile by Nassim Taleb.

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

Tai Chi, Fascia & Biotensegrity

I have always had a deep passion for nature which is one of the reasons why I love Tai Chi so much. In particular I am consistently fascinated at how all of Earth’s inhabitants, from the tiniest of bacteria to the biggest of mammals, are inextricably linked through one vast ecological web.

When running nature workshops for children one of my conservationist friends illustrates this fact by building a working model of an ecological web using many bits of twine. All of the children assist with the construction; each tentatively holds their own a piece of string which represents some aspect of, or creature from, the natural world. All the threads are then tied together to form a delicate three dimensional web and thus the many facets of our ecology are visibly connected and the constant but gentle pressure of the integrated structure is felt by each individual. Pull on a thread in one particular place and the rest of the web will move to compensate, the change in pressure felt by all. Sever a thread and the integrity of the entire structure is compromised; the web collapses. Each separate part affects the whole. Indeed the model illustrates that there are not really any separate parts. It is just our limited perception, experience and understanding that creates such divisions. It is exactly the same with the human body:

“Fascia forms a continuous tensional network throughout the human body, covering and connecting every single organ, every muscle, and even every nerve fibre.” (1)

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“The world is full of obvious things that no-one by any chance ever observes.” Sherlock Homes

Research into the role of fascia as an effective means of understanding the physical reality of the body is still a recent thing but is rapidly gaining much credence in the realms of musculoskeletal and movement therapies and sports science. For practitioners and teachers of Internal Martial Arts such as Tai Chi (Taijiquan) it is really worth looking at and acquiring an idea of the basics, which I will briefly outline here, for there are some stunning similarities between them and perhaps you will be able to observe some correlations in your own training. (2)

Before Anatomy Trains, there was Chen Tai Chi. This image, taken from 'Chen Xin's Illustrated Canon of Chen Family Taijiquan' (1933) shows the spiral line of fascia that courses through the body.

Before Anatomy Trains there was Chen Tai Chi. This image, taken from ‘Chen Xin’s Illustrated Canon of Chen Family Taijiquan’ (1933) shows the spiral line of fascia that courses through the body.

That the human body moves and functions as a single unit, so well illustrated by research into fascia and biotensegrity has, in fact, been well known by Tai Chi players for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. Tai Chi training principles are based not upon intellectual theory (theory is a lot like shutting the gate after the horse has bolted) but a long history of direct experience 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 that we know and love as Tai Chi.

The first reliable records of Tai Chi proper takes us back to Chen Village, or Chenjiagou, circa the early 1600s and cite Chen Wanting, the Ming Dynasty General, as founder of the art. Chen style Tai Chi has retained all of the authentic flavour and goodness from the old days although unfortunately much of the Tai Chi you see today is in fact  bastardised, modernised and heavily simplified. As such, it is a huge misconception that Tai Chi consists only of slow movements most suitable for the elderly or comprises some kind of pseudo-spiritual dance. Nothing could be further from the truth. At first the student of Tai Chi trains slowly and smoothly to develop highly accurate sense perception (this is requires a calm and focused mind), body coherence and balanced, connected strength. Once these basic requirements are well established we train for speed and power but with an intelligent and calm foundation that we continually work on and seek to improve.

Check out the video of Chen Xiao Wang below. Here he gives a little taster of  some the treats Chen style has to offer. At 3 minutes in you start to see some fireworks! He is 70 years old this year and has been training consistently for over 60 years. He is as strong as bull but as pliable as a baby:

Balanced, relaxed, whole-body movement forms the core principle of all good Tai Chi practice and vastly contributes to its superb efficacy  in not only optimising health and all bodily functions but also as a method for developing superb movement, power and ‘whole-body’ strength without damaging the body on the way. If you consider it carefully, to have this as the key fundamental premise for how one trains makes more sense than many other approaches, for when a system is integrated it will be optimal, adaptive and harmonious in its functioning (3):

“From one principle come ten thousand movements” Chen Xiao Wang (4)

“When one part moves, all parts move; the whole body responds” Tai Chi Classics (5)

So let’s get back to fascia. Fascia is primarily made up of densely packed collagen fibres that comprise an integrated system of sheets, chords and bags that permeate the human body in its entirety. This three dimensional fascial web is jam packed with mechanoreceptors and essentially forms a ‘global’ sensory organ which richly communicates where we are in space, what our bodies are doing and most importantly, how they are doing it. Fascia is elastic in nature and exhibits this quality even more so when in good condition facilitating connected and fluid movement. It responds to the continuous force of gravity around which it organises bodily structure and function; if you can imagine wearing an elasticated wet-suit that permeates your body entirely, adapted and yet ever adaptive to how you most commonly use your body then this may give you some idea of this incredible stuff. Although most of us are not aware of it, to extend out a limb results in a corresponding stretch across the whole fascial ‘body-suit’ priming the body to recoil in one elastic and fluid motion. Whether we run, jump, walk or do Tai Chi a large part of the energy of that movement comes from the elastic recoil and spring-like properties of fascia. Similarly, the Tai Chi classic texts state that:

“When storing energy it is like a drawing a bow, when releasing energy it is like shooting an arrow.” (6)

Incredibly, it has been discovered that the fascia of humans has a similar kinetic storage capacity to that of Kangaroos! (7) Fascia has long been ignored until recent years being seen only as a kind of unimportant bulking agent of the body. However, anyone deeply engaged with any kind of movement practise who has developed the above-average level of body-awareness necessary to do so is likely to agree that the usually favoured isolated muscle presentation as the be all and end all of movement anatomy leaves much to be desired. While some may find it intellectually pleasing to categorise and separate the human body, its actions and functions into disparate bits, it in fact operates and is organised as a unit of function; an integrated whole. (8) The human being grows organically from a single egg and so from conception to expiration this single unit operates inextricably. (9) Separating movement into discrete functions fails to provide an accurate or useful picture of the seamless integration and responsiveness seen in and experienced by a living body. Fortunately, fascia is here to fill the gap:

“…that the complexity of human movement and stability can be derived by summing up the action of these individual muscles is a naive and reductionist conviction.” (10)

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. (11) So the Tai Chi classics were certainly on to something when they told us that if one part moves, the whole body responds ‘like a string of pearls connected by interwoven threads of silk.’ (12)

At school we learn to intellectually divide the body into the skeletal, muscular, nervous and circulatory systems, etc but the only tissue that can facilitate the integrated responsiveness humans possess is fascia.(13) This ‘living matrix’ is in fact the most abundant component of human matter and forms the bulk of the human body and as such is probably worth paying some attention to. The overall form of the body, as well as the architecture, mechanical and functional properties of all its parts, are largely determined by the configuration and properties of fascia. (14) For example, we have long assumed that the skeletal system holds the body up and that our muscles hang off the skeleton and that specific muscles move the bones in isolation. In reality however, bones float in a three dimensional mass of soft-tissues, their positions determined by the tensional balance or tensegrity of the entire fascial web and thus it is this web that actually comprises our body structure.

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 in this way and thus capitalise on it’s 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, whether we are ‘exercising’ or standing in a queue at the supermarket. What more sensible first port of call could there be to commence your training?

It is very curious that even in the typically touted holistic practice of Yoga most practitioners seem bent on achieving controlled aesthetics. Most postures have no relation to good bio-mechanics or whole-body movement and are counter productive to the development of a resilient, elastic body structure that is vital for optimal movement.

All good movement is whole-body movement

All good movement is enjoyable, relaxed, whole-body movement. Isn’t that a good premise to start training from? Photo of Skating Legend Ben Moor-courtesy of Daniel Turner

A body that exhibited tensegrity in an optimal way would be tensionally balanced in all directions under the reliable and constant pressure of gravity. This, incidentally, is the first basic and ongoing (there isn’t a fixed finished product) goal in Tai Chi training and forms the foundation for all subsequent movement. The Tai Chi classics point to this when they say that in our training, specifically regarding how we move, we should seek:

“No hollows and no protuberances. No deficiencies, no excess” (15)

And in regards to perceiving and maintaining such balanced, structural integrity in every movement:

“When there is up, there is down. When there is forwards, there is backwards. When there is left, there is right. When there is opening, there is be closing” (16)

This concept of Tensegrity also known as Biotensegrity (17) is a phrase coined by the designer R. Buckminster Fuller. Tensegrity structures, such as the human body, distribute forces and movement throughout the system via the spring-like fascial web rather than being dealt with locally as they are in lever systems:

“The word ‘tensegrity’ is an invention: a contraction of ‘tensional integrity’. 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 (18)

Nice view of a tensegrity structure...

A man made tensegrity structure.

The classics suggest that through Tai Chi training our bodies can be so well tuned in this way that even a fly alighting from one part of the body should set our entire structure in motion – we should perceive all nuances of movement and indeed external forces as distributed through the whole. (19) Chen Xiao Wang often states that in all of our training we should constantly seek ‘balance in all directions’ and thus develop what he calls ‘all-sided support’.  He is, of course, referring to the facilitation of the inherent biotensegrity of the human body as a most sensible basis for movement.

Hundreds of years before the word biotensegrity was even coined, Tai Chi players were bang on it. Another illustration from Chen Xin (1849-1929) shows the human structure as a sphere - the most economical and useful of shapes.

Hundreds of years before the word biotensegrity was even coined, Tai Chi players were bang on it. Another illustration from Chen Xin (1849-1929) shows the human structure as a sphere – the most economical and useful of shapes.

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. (20) One feature of this fascial body structure is that it never stops adapting to how we use it most; the body has a great capacity for structural change at any age so we always can keep learning and improving. (21)

To me, Tai Chi is the science of optimal human movement and being. Through the process of our training we seek to discover and develop ‘global’ or whole–body awareness, connection and movement that is balanced, organised and integrated through the centre of the body. Learning about fascia can help us achieve this, but of course just having an intellectual understanding will not even nearly suffice. First to actually discover a direct sense of this whole-body connection and movement and then to augment what occurs naturally is our ongoing aim.

Right from the start, in the warm-ups and basic exercises that beginners often find tedious, and throughout all aspects of our training should we seek to observe the simplicity of whole-body integration. For once you start to get a sense of the golden feeling of whole-body movement, all training becomes is a real pleasure that is sweet like honey. Not some kind of chore to blindly flagellate ourselves with. Even basic movements like warming up specific joints should always directly relate to the whole and we can find out how by acutely focusing the mind on the physical job in hand firmly cementing the inextricable link between mind and body:

“The skin is no more separated from the brain than a surface of a lake is separate from its depths; the two are different locations in a continuous medium…The brain is a single functional unit, from cortex to fingertips to toes. To touch the surface is to stir the depths.” (22)

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There is a great deal to be learned from looking at nature – a quiet mind allows us to fully observe and take it all in

A good way that we can discover and develop these principles is whilst training something very simple such as the maintaining of a simple ‘neutral’ standing posture as in Zhanzhuang (standing meditation, it’s simple and brilliant – learn it from a decent teacher). The absence of deliberate movement focuses the mind into the body and heightens the senses. This allows us to discover and thus relax the restricted and unfelt areas of our body structure, which for most people, especially in the beginning, comprises the majority. This way we can improve our direct sense and functioning of the whole fascial net.

With regular practice we can perceive steadily more and start to clearly experience the body as a balanced and connected unit. As we progress to simple movements we see if we can perceive and achieve the same level of integration; do we feel the elasticity that fascia imparts to our movement? Can we feel the spherical nature of our tensionally balanced form? From here we progress to training more complicated movements, a Tai Chi form for example, and it is much more difficult to allow the same principles to come to fruition. It is an ongoing process and any deviations that we might discover can be resolved by taking a step back to the preceding basics and ironing out what seem to be current discrepancies:

“Learning Taijiquan means to educate oneself. It is like slowly advancing from primary school to university. As time passes, more and more knowledge is gained. Without the foundations of primary school and secondary school one will not able to follow the seminars at university.” Chen Xiao Wang (23)

The properties of fascia mirror many aspects of how we approach training in Tai Chi and allows us a more contempory way of understanding what we do. The important point is that not only do we normally fail to understand that the body functions as an integrated unit on an intellectual level but also on an experiential level; surprisingly low levels of body awareness or body-intelligence are the norm in our society, even (and often especially) in the very active. We tend to rely on our arms and hands and it is here that most of our awareness lies. If we were to think of the archetypal image of strength we would probably see an arm with a bulging bicep in our mind’s eye rather than a body in its entirety well connected, balanced and integrated. Remembering that the body moves as one unit, supported by our understanding of fascia, can help us keep on the right track with our training rather than being distracted by what we consider to be separate parts.

My research into fascia has yielded much more interesting and realistic results that relate to my own training and experience than I have ever encountered in the field of traditional anatomy or Traditional Chinese Medicine. I have found that the parallels with these findings and the principles in Internal Martial Arts that I know from my own direct experience are not only striking in their similarity but also fascinating. They have been very useful in my own training and teaching as I feel this more contempory and scientific approach to anatomy and movement nicely backs up what we do in Tai Chi (and related arts) without having to rely on the traditional obscurities that seem to distract people from good training so very readily.

I know of a number of established and well respected Yoga teachers who now use fascia as a basis for teaching their art rather than the traditional abstract, sometimes nonsensical concepts and explanations. (24) For me the properties of fascia, and our understanding of biotensegrity, are far more relevant to Tai Chi and similarly a basic level of comprehension can drastically help clear up misunderstandings and more abstract notions about and apparent in the art. By making it more understandable and palatable to modern society increasing numbers of people are likely to practice (the big secret) and thus enjoy the vast benefits that come from immersing oneself deep within the golden sensation of freedom of movement and natural power.

Sam Moor teaches Chen Tai Chi full time in Sussex.

www.sussextaichi.co.uk

References:

1. Schleip, R. et al. Fascia: The Tensional Network of the Human Body. 2012, Elsevier.
2. An accessible place to start is ‘Anatomy Trains’ by Thomas Myers, Elsevier.
3. Siegal, D. The Mindful Therapist. Norton. 2010
4. Chen Xiaowang Yanshi. Chen Family Taijiquan. 2008.
5. Liao, W. Tai Chi Classiscs. Shambala. 2000

6. Ibid
7. Sawicki, G. Exercise Sports Science Review.37. 2009
8. Sills, F. Craniosacral Biodynamics. Volume One. North Atlantic Books. 2001
9. Myers, T. In Schleip, R. et al. Fascia: The Tensional Network of the Human Body. 2012, Elsevier.
10. Myer, T. Anatomy Trains. 2001. Elsevier.
11. Levin, S and Martin, D, C. In Schleip, R. et al. Fascia: The Tensional Network of the Human Body.
12. Liao, W. Tai Chi Classiscs. Shambala. 2000
13. Schultz, R. and Feitis, R. The Endless Web: Fascial Anatomy and Physical Reality. 1996, North Atlantic Books
14. Oschman, J. Energy Medicine in Therapeutics and Human Performance. 2003, Elsevier.
15. Liao, W. Tai Chi Classiscs. Shambala. 2000

16. Ibid

17. Check out: http://www.biotensegrity.com
18. Fuller, B. Synergetics. New York: Macmillan. 1975
19. Liao, W. Tai Chi Classiscs. Shambala. 2000
20. Levin, S & Martin, DC. In Schleip, R. et al. Fascia: The Tensional Network of the Human Body. 2012, Elsevier.
21. Schultz, R. and Feitis, R.
22. Juhan, D. Job’s Body: A Handbook for Bodywork. 1987, Station Hill Press, NY.
23. Xiaowang, Chen. The Five Levels of Taijiquan. 2012, Singing Dragon.
24. Check out: http://www.intelligentyoga.co.uk/

Posted in Anatomy Trains, biotensegrity, Chen Taijiquan, Chen Xiao Wang, Fascia, Martial arts, mindfulness, movement, Tai Chi, yoga | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 32 Comments

Grandmaster Chen Xiao Wang – Part 1

Chen Xiao Wang - picture courtesy of WCTAG

GM Chen Xiao Wang – one of the most inspiring and amazing people I have ever met.

‘Learning Taijiquan means to educate oneself. It is like slowly advancing from primary school to university. As time passes, more and more knowledge is gained. Without the foundations of primary school and secondary school, one will not be able to follow the seminars at university. Studying Taijiquan requires starting from the very bottom, working one’s way systematically and step by step towards the more advanced levels. Someone who does not accept this, thinking that he may take a short cut, will not be successful’ Chen Xiao Wang [i]

Eating Bitter

‘Soup, spaghetti, or pizza?’ Chen Xiao Wang asks and looks at me enquiringly. I’m not really sure how to answer his question; it is a difficult decision to make. I look to my teachers and seminar hosts Karel and Eva for guidance and with a cheeky grin Karel whispers ‘pizza, just ask for pizza’. Nervously, I reply, ‘pizza please Master Chen’ and I know that I am asking for trouble. We are at the end of a long day of training and the time has come for questions and posture corrections. Not being one to miss out on some ‘hands-on’ tuition, I have sacrificed myself and stepped forwards, assuming the deep posture of Single-Whip or Dan Bian for Master Chen to correct.

Some corrections for Sam: Soup, Spaghetti or Pizza??

Some corrections for Sam: Soup, Spaghetti or Pizza??

Master Chen immediately gets to work. Carefully he lifts me up and adjusts my hips so that I’m in a reasonably high posture and then delicately addresses my spine and rib cage. After some tweaks to my shoulders, arms, hands and head he stands back, gestures towards me and calmly announces ‘Soup’ to the rest of the hall. In this position my body is very comfortable and relaxed. I can feel my limbs nicely connected to my centre and my body weight is flowing smoothly down to the floor. It is a good feeling and one that I can’t always achieve in my own training.  Satisfied that everyone has taken note of his work Master Chen turns his attention back to me and continues adjusting. Now he takes great care and very softly guides my hips significantly lower.  With continuous, tiny manipulations he manages to keep my hips fluidly balanced all the time. Out of the corner of my eye I can see that he is concentrating, listening and feeling with his hands as he finds the most balanced position for my centre now that my stance is much lower. In the foreground of my senses I observe that my left leg has started to shake and a bead of sweat runs steadily down my back.

Lower and lower...

A little bit lower…

As the minutes go by it seems to me as if time has slowed down. My legs start to burn with fatigue and I feel my body start to expand and flow pleasantly, as if filling with warm water. Once again Master Chen comes to a stop and turns to address the crowd, ‘Spaghetti!’ he says in a tone that suggests he is now a little happier with his creation. It’s not easy to maintain the posture for long and just as I’m starting to consider easing my way out of it, to let someone else have a go, he recommences his endeavour with renewed vigour. Lower, and then lower still, he eases my hips down. I start to discover leg muscles that I never knew I had. My legs in fact, feel as if they are on fire. I just focus on breathing and relaxing and it helps, a little. In fact, I am amazed at just how full and deep a breath I can naturally take now that my posture is in a better position.

The minute, constant adjustments he makes here and there only add to the intense fatigue but it is not entirely unpleasant, for at the same time my body feels incredibly well balanced, connected and flowing, with my feet feeling as if they are merging into the ground. Finally, with one concluding adjustment to my left hip and lower spine, Master Chen steps back and smiling broadly declares ‘Pizza!’ much to the amusement of everyone else. I can now feel sweat both on my brow and running freely down my back. Even my legs are sweating as they shake and struggle to maintain the posture. The classic Taijiquan phrase ‘eating bitter’ comes readily to mind. I think to myself that enough is enough and as I go to lift myself out of position Master Chen holds me down in place and I find, much to my dismay, that I can’t get up. ‘A little Chilli perhaps?’ he asks with a serious look on his face. ‘No thank you Master Chen, I have to stop!’ is my stammered reply, but to my horror he only continues to hold me down in position with a wry smile on his face. Just as I seriously think that my legs are going to give way he lets me go and very slowly I inch my way up and  out of the posture. Master Chen begins to laugh heartily and so do I, and when I look around the hall everyone is smiling and laughing and I suddenly feel very happy. So I thank him, we shake hands and I slowly shuffle off to the sideline to recover as someone else goes up to enjoy the same treatment. ‘You want soup, spaghetti or pizza?’ I hear him asking over my shoulder.

A Resume

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A young Chen Xiao Wang training diligently

Chen Xiao Wang was born in 1945 in Chenjiagou (Chen Village) Henan province, China. His training started as a young child when  he was rigorously tutored in Chen family Taijiquan theory, forms, weapons, pushing hands and free sparring first from his father Chen Zhaoxu, and then later his uncles Chen Zhaopi and Chen Zhaokui. For the first few years he was a little reticent with his training and it was, for the most part, simply because he was forced by his father that he continued with his studies. However, on one normal village day in 1953 his feelings towards Taijiquan were to be changed forever after witnessing an impromptu demonstration of his father’s sublime Taiji skills. So, on this particular day, with all their chores taken care of, a young Xiao Wang accompanied his father on a trip to see some friends at a house on the other side of the village. Upon arrival they could see that there were many people gathered inside chatting and socialising and Chen Xiao Wang and his father were soon happily embroiled amongst the crowd. Little did they know however, that a big lump of a man, a well known prankster and long time Taiji aficionado named Chen Lizi, had sneaked up on them from behind. All of a sudden he leaped out, grabbed Chen Xiao Wang’s father’s arm and twisted it violently in a bid to test his skills with some vicious Qinna. Instantly Chen Zhaoxu responded and with a powerful shake threw Chen Lizi high up into the air where he promptly smashed against the roof beams. Before he could fall to floor Chen Zhaoxu shot forwards to catch Chen Lizi and laid him carefully on the ground. It took him some time to recover and when he finally came round he said all he could remember was grabbing Chen Zhaoxu’s arm and then suddenly everything had gone black.

Dragon on the Ground - picture courtesy of WCTAG

At 70 years old Chen Xiao Wang is as strong as a bull and soft like a baby

After seeing his father’s remarkable skills Chen Xiao Wang decided to dedicate himself entirely to his training from then on and continued to do so even in the terrible conditions of the ensuing Cultural Revolution. In fact, it was during this time that Chen Xiao Wang’s father died as a result of being falsely persecuted and imprisoned under the emerging extreme left wing regime. After his father’s death Chen Xiao Wang focused on studying with his uncles Chen Zhaopi and Chen Zhaokui, a process that he says was extremely arduous and demanding. Even today Master Chen says that he finds his father’s death difficult to accept having lost not only a father but also his Sifu and mentor. However, at that time this great loss only served to motivate him further in his quest for Taijiquan skill or ‘gong fu’. Day after day he would take himself off to train in peaceful solitude on the banks of the East River. His rigorous training allowing him some bitter-sweet respite from his troubles as he simply immersed himself entirely into the world of Taijiquan.[ii]

In 1980 Chen Xiao Wang became a board member of the Henan Institute of Sport and began teaching Taijiquan professionally. He entered the National Taijiquan Competition winning gold medals in pushing hands for three consecutive years (1980, 1981 and 1982) and in 1985 he represented China the first International Martial Arts Competition in Xi’an receiving the world champion title for Taijiquan. From here Master Chen continued to compete in many prominent competitions and was awarded the title of champion in Taijiquan more than twenty times. In 1990 he made the bold and life changing decision to leave China on a mission to share the treasures of Chen family Taijiquan with the world. Ever since then he has been touring Europe, North America, South America and Asia teaching his family art untiringly, inspiring thousands of people across the globe to take up, enjoy and reap the benefits of this extraordinary art.[iii]

First Impressions

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Back in the day – I had more hair and more corrections from GM Chen!

The first time I met Chen Xiao Wang was back in 2002. I had already been practising Yang style Taiji for a few years when out of the blue one of my fellow students invited me to go to Reading for a workshop with Master Chen hosted by Karel and Eva Koskuba of the Chinese Internal Arts Association (www.ciaa.co.uk). I jumped at the chance because I had always wanted to see Chen Taiji and I had heard lots of good things about Master Chen’s skills. All in all, I was very curious to find out more about the Chen style, the mother source of Taiji. The workshop was a fascinating experience. First of all Master Chen talked a little about Taiji principles. In a clear and down to earth way he explained how we must learn to move in a balanced and relaxed way with the Dantien as the organiser behind the integrated, whole-body movement that comprises all Taiji movement: ‘from one principle come one thousand movements’ Chen Xiao Wang enthused. Furthermore, he added, any kind of movement that does not comply with this simple yet fundamental Taiji principle is a ‘deviation’ and in one’s own training it is the discovery and subsequent resolving of such deviations that paves the way for ongoing improvement. Therefore, in order to get the most out of our Taiji training we must constantly seek to reduce our deviations from the  Taiji principle.

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Gm Chen explains a point

As he demonstrated some of the basic Silk-Reeling exercises (Chansigong) his calm presence and exceptionally fluid and stable movements made for some remarkable viewing. Working through the exercises ourselves, his regular corrections allowed me to realise that I hardly knew my own body at all despite my years of previous training and irrational beliefs to the contrary. It was both disappointing and massively enlightening all at the same time! When it came round to him giving me some input on my movements rather than being overly critical or waffling on about mystical concepts he just gently adjusted my posture and manipulated my body in such a way that I could really get a felt sense of what to do and what to aim for. He stood opposite me mirroring my stance and holding each arm guided me, again and again, through the simple but very tricky ‘Hidden Thrust Punch’. It was quite an incredible and unmistakable physical sensation; for the first time in my training I had the direct sense of integrated movement initiated from my centre. I smiled widely as I relished this brief glimpse of the key Taiji principle and looked up to see Master Chen smiling too, ‘much better now!’ he said and we both laughed happily. Only when a person’s skill is thoroughly embodied through many decades of training can someone really teach in this way. And when difficult things suddenly seem possible it lifts one’s spirits in a way that is beyond measure and so I felt very happy, but it was about to get better.

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Some final adjustments…

As things drew to a close Master Chen said he would provide us with a demonstration and so we all sat down around the edge of the hall and waited with baited breath. As he stood in the centre of the hall preparing himself, his eyes closed, Master Chen appeared calm, motionless and balanced. Slowly and smoothly he began. His form looked different to what I was used to but never before had I seen Taiji done so well or indeed any kind of movement performed at such a high level. He seemed to combine incredible smoothness, structural integrity and fluidity with deep, solid stances that just exuded stability and balance. Even from seriously low stances he was able to step and move nimbly. Everything about him just looked natural somehow.

 

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My legs are on fire! GM Chen finds it all very amusing as usual!

I was already impressed when after about 2 minutes into the demonstration everything changed. Suddenly Master Chen jumped high into the air and landed unwavering, both feet slamming into the ground with a loud bang that reverberated through the floor only to then emit a flurry of lightening fast punches. It was like a bomb going off. For the next couple of minutes I was in shock as Master Chen proceeded to let rip up and down the hall indefatigably.  But as quickly as it had started it was all over and Master Chen was back in the centre of the hall quiet, calm and motionless once more. The hall exploded with applause. My mind was completely blown, this was like another world. I didn’t even know that there were any fast movements in Taiji let alone jumps, stamps, kicks and punches. In this sense I had always wondered why the simplified Taiji I had learned before wasn’t more like its sibling arts of Bagua and Xingyi but now with this Chen style, I could see how it all fitted together; the softness and slowness was one side of the Taiji coin that facilitated this new exciting other. All I wanted to do now was learn Chen style and the rest they say is history.

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Chen Xiao Wang – awesome power!

 

Repetition, repetition, repetition

Receiving my certification Laojia and Xinjia Yilu & Erlu

Receiving my teaching certification in Laojia and Xinjia Yilu & Erlu

Training with Master Chen is a very down to earth experience with lots of simple warm-ups and extensive periods of standing meditation (Zhanzhuang). When teaching form he will take us through a small section of movements which we then repeat time after time, after time, gradually building up to longer portions or indeed the whole form. When I first started training with him I found it quite challenging, both physically and mentally. ‘One more time!’ he would say and very slowly we would work through whatever section we happened to be focusing on for at least the one hundredth time. He would demonstrate a few times and then we would get back to work with each new repetition commencing with a few minutes of quiet standing and one of Master Chen’s softly spoken catchphrases ‘Calm…down…’ lingering in the air. Periodically, we would stop and hold a posture for what seemed like ages while he would slowly and carefully correct everybody.

WCTAG, Jan Silberstorff (22)

Zhanzhuang – the most essential basic!

This simple process has taught me quite a lot over the years. Firstly, it has trained me to pay attention to how my whole body moves and how my mind is engaged with what I am doing, two absolute Taiji essentials that I’m still working on. Secondly, it has taught me how to watch and learn from observing. By watching Master Chen very carefully year after year I can now see much more in the way he moves than I would have ever thought possible in the early days. A picture paints a thousand words as they say. So after every training session with him I come away tired, my legs thoroughly tortured, but feeling very calm and happy. Every year when Master Chen comes to Reading to stay with Karel and Eva I am very excited. I’m amazed at just how consistent he has been over the years and it has been remarkably reassuring to train with him year in, year out for the last thirteen years. I always get to learn loads of cool stuff and inevitably end up going away being hugely inspired all over again which helps immensely in my own training and teaching.

Valuable hands-on training with GM Chen Xiao Wang

Valuable pushing-hands training with GM Chen

As well as the larger seminars where we train all the delightful requisites mentioned above, I particularly love the small group seminars where we work on things in more detail. And of course, if there’s an opportunity to do pushing hands with Master Chen I always grab it with both hands. There is a lot to learn from pushing hands with Chen Xiao Wang. Despite him being twice my age he combines tremendous softness and dexterity with a very formidable, fluid power. Although he takes it easy on us I find it daunting to say the least, for when he applies a technique on you it is very much like being hit by a bus or perhaps being rapidly crushed to the ground by a powerful hydraulic press. Similarly, GM Chen’s Qinna (joint locking) skills are second to none and very memorable due to the intense pain he can inflict in an instant! Earlier this year Karel and Eva kindly set up a meeting for me with Master Chen so that I could interview him about Chen Family history and Taiji principles in more detail. Fortunately, Master Chen’s spoken English is pretty good which more than made up for my basic mandarin skills. So on a Wednesday afternoon in June in between exhausting seminars, we all sat in Karel and Eva’s kitchen nursing mugs of green tea and Master Chen explained.  Next time we’ll look at what he said…

Sam Moor teaches Chen Taiji full time in Sussex: www.sussextaichi.co.uk

Photographs of Master Chen reproduced with kind permission from WCTAG

Article first published in the No.49 edition of Tai Chi Chuan and Oriental Arts Magazine

———————————————————————————————————-

[i] Xiaowang, Chen. The Five Levels of Taijiquan (translated by Jan Silberstorff). 2012, Singing Dragon.

[ii] Chen Xiawang Yanshi. Chen Family Taijiquan. 2008.

[iii] Ibid.

Posted in Chen Taijiquan, Chen Xiao Wang, Tai Chi, taijiquan, Uncategorized | Tagged , , | 5 Comments

Taiji Almighty – Training with Chen Bing

Master Chen demonstrates Single-Whip

Master Chen demonstrates Single-Whip

First published in Winter 2013/14 edition of Tai Chi and Oriental Arts Magazine

“First, you have to find your body.” Calm and cool Chen Bing looks at each of us in turn. After patiently watching us carefully demonstrate the opening moves of our forms, this simple nugget of wisdom is the opening gambit of his corrections. Having picked him up from the airport the night before, this is our preliminary day of training with him on what will form his first ever visit to the UK.

Training hard!

Training hard!

“Only feel your body. Don’t think. Let your mind come down into the body. Find your body and keep this feeling.” he adds. This is easier said than done. It is very difficult to relax when you feel under pressure though this is perhaps the crux of our art. As we mull over these wise words Chen Bing decides to illustrate his point. “Watch me” he says and casually demonstrates a slick freestyle medley of moves from Laojia Yilu, the first form of Chen Taijiquan. As we watch, the observer becoming the observed, one thing is clear, the quality of his movement is exceptional, it simply oozes decades of dedicated training. Yet despite his combination of slow, fluid silk-reeling, unfaltering low stances, cat-like agility and crisp, powerful fajin it is actually his unwavering composure, a palpable focus and awareness, that most characterises his form. So in the cool of the early, misty December morning Phil, Emma and myself get back to work on refining our practise, readily inspired by Master Chen’s effortless demonstration.

Chen Bing demonstrates 'Lazily Tying the Coat'

Watch carefully! Chen Bing demonstrates ‘Lazily Tying the Coat’

Over the last twenty years or so the Chen style of Taijiquan has become increasingly popular worldwide and not least of all in the UK. Regular visits from such luminaries as Chen Xiao Wang, and more recently his younger brother Chen Xiao Xing and nephew Chen Ziqiang, have done much to inspire people to take up Chen Taiji and challenge the notion that Taiji in general consists only of slow movements comprising a pursuit primarily reserved for the elderly. A coin, of course, has two sides and the Chen style’s emphasis on balancing Yin and Yang, hard and soft, fast and slow has perhaps helped to remedy this gross misconception and spark a wonderful growing interest in Taiji among younger people in recent years.

Nephew of Grandmasters Chen Xiao Wang and Chen Xiao Xing, Chen Bing was born in 1971 and started to train with his uncles at the age of six. As he matured in his teens he gradually became more conscious of and inspired by the impressive skills of his famous uncles, especially Chen Xiao Wang whom he says he has always looked up to. This, along with the growing feeling of responsibility of being the eldest of his generation, influenced him as a teenager to make the conscious decision to dedicate himself entirely to Taiji. From then on he became very focused on and dedicated to his training being much more careful, meticulous and rigorous in his adherence to Taiji principles than ever before. In the same vein as Chen Xiao Wang he says that he found he naturally favoured the focused, meditative practise of Zhanzhuang (standing meditation) and Chansigong (silk-reeling exercises) rather than the allure of the faster ‘Cannon Fist’ routine alone which the younger people in Chen village often fixate upon. This is perhaps where the more mindful flavour of his art comes from as well as going some way to explain the formidable power he has for someone of a more slight stature, for his fajin is awesome!

During his time visiting with us he would often say that if one desires speed and power then one must first calm the mind and develop slowness and softness. Decades of training later sees him as a widely respected, highly skilled practitioner, teacher and winner of many pushing hands competitions in China where his outstanding record of success has earned him the nickname ‘Taiji Almighty’ and interesting certification as a ‘Chinese Intangible Cultural Asset to Taiji’. These days he is widely considered to be one of the best practitioners to ever come from Chen village and aside from his potent Taiji skills is well known and well liked across China for his humble, gentle nature and warm personality.

Master Chen illustrates relaxed dantien breathing with Phil and Yiheng

Master Chen illustrates relaxed dantien breathing with Phil and Yiheng

Over the last few years myself and my good friends, fellow Chen Taiji instructors Phil Muil and Emma Westlake who run the Oxford School of Tai Chi and Chi Kung (www.oxfordtaichi.co.uk) had been watching Chen Bing’s progress with keen interest. With many excellent videos of his forms and pushing hands on Youtube we were sure that soon enough he would come to teach in the UK especially seeing that he was spending more time in America and Europe each year. We waited with baited breath ever more enticed by glowing reports of his generous and warm teaching style from friends and students of ours who had travelled over to China to train with him at his school in Chenjiagou. As each year went by we told ourselves that surely someone would invite him over this year. Eventually enough was enough and early last year we decided to bite the bullet and sent Chen Bing a warm invitation to join us in the UK for some informal teaching and sightseeing. To our delight he accepted and we immediately busied ourselves making all the necessary arrangements for his arrival scheduled for early December 2013. Slowly but surely we put together a working programme that would cover all the basics of Chen Taiji featuring Zhanzhuang and Chansigong, a few days to focus on the requisite Laojia Yilu form as well as the more lively Xinjia Yilu and of course an in-depth Tui-shou seminar, all of which we eagerly awaited. Time flew by and December soon came around with lots of lovely people from across the country coming to take part in the seminars. Taiji certainly brings friends together; a week or so before Chen Bing arrived we were contacted by one of his disciples from China, Yiheng Yu, who had only recently moved to England to attend Sussex University. Young Yiheng was delighted to be able to come and study with his Shifu in the UK and turned out to be an excellent translator. While Chen Bing speaks good English the explanation of some of the finer Taiji points really benefited from some additional translation.

The main features that characterised Chen Bing’s training and teaching flowed like a strong current both clear and consistent throughout all of the seminars he conducted regardless of the theme. It was these distinct characteristics that we all found so useful and appealing that I would like to outline here.

Sam gets some corrections from Master Chen

Sam gets some corrections from Master Chen

Firstly, Chen Bing deeply emphasised using the felt senses of the body as the main tool to not only calm the mind but also concentrate and perceive accurately the process of one’s training in a very down to earth and no nonsense way. For him it seemed that relaxation and concentration should go hand in hand and that these two inseparable components were required in order that we might first, and most importantly, ‘find our body’ and then develop through training what he called a ‘Taiji body’ thus allowing balanced Taiji movement to occur whether it be fast or slow, hard or soft. In order to ‘find the body’ as he put it, we must learn to entirely relax and focus on our body in what we are doing and not be distracted by our thoughts. This way, one can first discover and then develop their root and centre (dantien) and over a long period of time, be able to slowly come to maintain central equilibrium at all times. We should do this, he suggested, through the constant practise of basics such as standing meditation and silk-reeling exercises, these being the necessary tools to really learn how to feel and relax the body and develop an accurate, visceral map of one’s own physicality and the problems and restrictions therein to be solved. Staying balanced and relaxed, he urged, comprise not only the essential underlying preliminary requirements for all subsequent, more overtly martial, Taiji training but are also inseparable from health and happiness in day to day life. On the same note he said that learning how to pay attention and be aware of one’s posture and movement at all times in general everyday life would also play a large part in improving one’s Taiji.

More corrections...

More corrections…

Each seminar began with an extensive selection of warm-ups which ranged from being easy to fairly rigorous. The ‘Fansong’ exercises, as he calls them, are designed to systematically open all of the joints and soft-tissues. They combine relaxing soft bounces through the legs and hips, swinging motions and more integrative stretches that target all sections of the spine, some of which are often difficult for most of us to reach. I really liked the way that all of the warm-ups emphasised the use of gravity to provide a constant impetus to relax and move without unnecessary effort which allowed one to feel the inherent, elastic natural support of the body structure. Some of the exercises I found a little curious to begin with (that’s what learning is all about) but after a few days of practise soon felt the immense benefit of increased mobility and support especially in my hips and spine and thus warmed to them hugely.

During the Laojia and Xinjia form seminars we focused very thoroughly on all the essential basics that almost everyone who practices Taiji tends to eventually forgo or gloss over in favour of some other alluring tidbit. Having said that, we would from time to time cover a selection of really cool Fajin variations or combine some freestyle movements from the form just to keep everyone on their toes and mix things up a bit! On the whole however, Chen Bing emphasised that we should practise every movement of the form very slowly and mindfully. This way, he said, we could really learn how to feel, find, and thus train the body to relax and move without deviating from Taiji principles. When training us, at every junction in the form, he would get us to pause and feel, check our postures and relax our bodies from the inside out. He constantly urged us to relax, to feel our bodies heavy and loose without collapsing or compromising structural integrity or balance. This is easier said than done. Practising so slowly and thoroughly was very insightful and very good for the legs! The frequent soft ‘bobbing’ into one’s stance that he espoused to help soften the hips, shoulders and arms soon allowed new levels of leg fatigue to come to light; I noticed after just a few days that my stances felt significantly better and my upper body much more relaxed.

Corrections for Emma

Some corrections for Emma

When holding a posture in the form such as Single Whip he would often get us to simply drop our arms and let them fall unencumbered with a slap to our sides just so that we could feel just how much unwanted effort we used to hold them up. “Arms heavy, Dantien heavy, and root heavy,” he enthused, “heavy, heavy, heavy!” Needless to say, he got us to feel the weight of his arms on many occasions and they were indeed exceptionally heavy and loose regardless of whether he made a fist or some other shape with his hands and arms.

The Tui-shou seminar with Chen Bing was particularly enjoyable and insightful. Before the obligatory warm-ups he talked about how for Taiji training to be successful everything should be practised systematically and step by step. The proficiency of each step simply builds upon the quality and foundation of the previous step. Of course, he said, it is just natural that we all want to progress quickly but everything comes down to how well one actually embodies the basics and nowhere is this more evident than in pushing hands. Therefore, he asserted, if one cannot relax and maintain their centre in simple standing, silk-reeling and form training then how can one expect to do so in pushing hands? More importantly, he added, this is one of the most salient points in Taiji that everybody says that they understand but in reality do not.

So to start with we practised some very simple partner work with one person being active, the other passive. The active person was to slowly and steadily push the other’s chest trying to locate and push through their centre while the passive person simply seek to stay balanced and neutralise the push with his body alone. Chen Bing advised that the passive partner only focus on relaxing, sensing and maintaining their centre, just to experiment with it and not to try and think their way out of it. This would help us avoid relying on using our arms but instead instigate whole body movement using the centre to neutralize. When it came to practising with him the fluidity and stability of his body was very obvious and his centre virtually imperceptible.

Gradually we moved on to practise the main double-hand pattern typical of Chen Taiji. Again we followed the active and passive model from before but now it was trickier and required much more concentration. Over and over he would illustrate that by being passive and focusing only on following our partner and maintaining one’s centre it was much easier to discover and thus naturally exploit weaknesses in the active partner’s stability. Similarly, he iterated that fixed-step pushing hands is just a bridge to moving-step and moving-step pushing hands a bridge to free-fighting and as such suggested that we should avoid fixating on fixed-step training. He added that we should especially steer clear of the common mistakes of standing one’s ground and scoring a point at all costs as this would over time seriously compromise our long term Taiji skills.

Despite being extremely solid for his size I was very impressed how he always maintained a high level of softness and fluidity. Again he emphasised that we must avoid ‘hunkering down’ against a strong push and instead maintain our centre, flow around it and stay mobile. Even when training fixed step, he said, we must always retain the ability and willingness to step freely into a superior position when necessary otherwise we would literally become stuck in our ways and that would hinder us later on. Even when he would sink into an eye-wateringly low stance Chen Bing was very agile and light on his feet showing a great example of a moving root. This really came into play towards the end of the seminar when he started to demonstrate and teach some really ‘tasty’ applications and take-downs all building upon the previous exercises but now employing some of the viciously deft footwork he talked about and emphasised during his form-work. It really was impressive how he combined all of these skills exceedingly well to form a very balanced approach overall: softness and sensitivity, strength and fluidity, stability and nimbleness. By the end of the seminar we were all dog-tired and very happy with lots of material to practise.

A little Qinna with Phil

A little Qinna with Phil

The week with Chen Bing flew by and we were very sorry to see him go. Chen Bing is a very pleasant man to be around. He exudes a calm, down-to-earth demeanour being both gently spoken and extremely easy going. Sometimes it is hard to imagine that he reset his own badly dislocated middle finger during a particular Tui-Shou match at the China National Championships only to go on to win that bout and then the next two in order to claim the gold medal. Although now after pushing hands with him it is much easier to bring to this mind!

Happy Days! Sam and Master Chen Bing

Happy Days! Sam and Master Chen Bing

Sam Moor teaches Chen Tai Chi full time across Sussex.

www.sussextaichi.co.uk

 

 

Posted in Balance, Chen Bing, Chen Taijiquan, Martial arts, Meditation, mindfulness, movement, Tai Chi, taijiquan | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Postulating Posture – Part 1

For most people our posture is something that is generally unconscious. It is  something largely unfelt that operates autonomously behind the scenes of the commonly valued and perhaps more superficial physical attributes such as being thin or having pronounced muscular definition. As a result its role in our lives is greatly undervalued. It is usually only when we injure ourselves or experience chronic pain that we start to consider our posture and often this is carried out begrudgingly after the nagging advice of a doctor, body-worker or indeed Taiji instructor! When a buff athlete, bristling with muscle slips a disc she is suddenly rendered as weak as a kitten, for posture in fact, is like the keystone or foundation for how the body engages with movement of any kind. It is well worth paying attention to and augmenting as a primary port of call in any type of physical training long before problems develop, otherwise one’s training can a false economy. I’d like to suggest that improving our posture comprises a fundamental way to seriously enhance all aspects of our movement and physicality. The big question is ‘how’? A good down to earth understanding as to what the terms refers to is vital for long term, grass roots improvement. In the first instalment of this two part article  I will talk about a more accurate, sustainable and holistic way of understanding posture that is at the heart of all good Taiji and internal martial arts training as opposed to the ‘quick fix’ approach common to other exercise systems. In the second part we will look at some fundamental training methods to get to grips with posture in a more visceral and less intellectual way.

Posture is at the heart of all good training

Posture is at the heart of all good training

In our society it appears that the way we normally observe the human body is just at a superficial or ‘skin deep’ level, however this has very little to do with posture and how well a person moves in terms of function, enjoyment and sustainability. Many years ago I was given some tickets to see a performance of Swan Lake by a famous ballet company. I walked out  after  half an hour of torture. I found it unbearable to watch such highly trained unnatural movement. To me the dancers looked very tense, unhealthily thin and just generally uncomfortable. From my Taiji perspective  their movement seemed extremely imbalanced, fundamentally rigid and injury inducing and yet upon my consultation of many others at the performance that night it depicted the absolute height of good posture in motion. It is worth remembering the difference between training the body so it looks a certain way and training sustainably for long-term usefulness and enjoyment:

 

External attractiveness has no relation to goodness or essential quality.[i]

 

External attractiveness is of course entirely subjective. The current vogue for being stick thin and having minimal body fat have little to do with being healthy, happy or the ability to move well:

 

When people see some things as beautiful, other things become ugly. When people see some things as good, other things become bad – Lao Tzu

 

Through my research I have found that the general approach toward posture widely purported throughout the health and fitness industry, and occasionally spewed out by the media, merely relates to achieving a certain superficial look rather than becoming aware of and facilitating optimum natural movement, which as we will see, is what posture is inherently bound up with. Furthermore, this is usually realised by rather futile attempts to hold and control the body in fixed positions in a very unnatural way. From my own teaching and personal experience this is something that actually significantly hinders movement and the subsequent development of posture. It is usually when you stop forcing and cease controlling the body that it approaches the natural balance and  freedom of movement that allows a life time of health and enjoyable movement.

As to what actually constitutes ‘good posture’ depends greatly upon who you ask. From time to time I like to discuss posture with a various people including teachers and experts from other fields of movement or bodywork. It makes for good discussion and the answers are always interesting, especially so because there seems to be such little variation in what people understand posture, good or otherwise, and the training thereof to mean. The most common assumptions associated with improving posture can be summarised by the following: pulling one’s shoulders back, keeping a straight spine, tucking one’s chin in, holding one’s abdomen in or ‘using the core’ and keeping one’s tailbone tucked under. Think of the archetypal image of a soldier or indeed the hinge-like figure of the avid Yoga practitioner, all dysfunctional and unnatural angles. For me these assumptions illustrate a very poor understanding of posture and how the human body moves. If I try to control a so called problematic part of the body by holding it in fixed position it may look ‘better’ from the outside but actually I obstruct its ability to move, balance freely and integrate naturally with the rest of the body. If I constantly hold my abdomen  in for example, then I can’t breathe properly let alone move freely. Interestingly, I’ve found that people with a background in arts that emphasise such control often really struggle to learn Taiji because they can’t get their head around the idea of moving their body without holding it tight, either deliberately or otherwise. For good posture is underpinned by a body that operates and moves naturally without interference and unnecessary control. Taiji focuses on process rather than quick results!

Take a room full of people and you can observe that each person exhibits their own personal tendencies in how they stand, sit and move around, especially if you know what to look for.[ii] No one is perfectly balanced nor flawlessly symmetrical. It is fascinating to observe just how many variations there are on a few simple themes in human posture. Next time you walk down the street, try it out for yourself and simply watch how people move – but without being creepy! See what themes you notice. By observing others you can learn a lot about yourself and vice-versa,  for we all have the same tendencies to greater and lesser extents. To get a good sense of someone’s posture then you really have to look at how the whole body balances, relates and moves together rather than just focusing on one section alone. If you look closely you will notice that in almost everyone some parts are well aligned, some parts are not. Some parts are too tight, others too loose. Some sections move well, some are fixed and rigid. Some parts are very strong while others are weak and vulnerable. In spite of this however, somehow the whole body structure interacts as a unit, balancing and working together from head to toe for better or worse. It is quite incredible really, the natural process of integration and adaptation evident in  the human body. We don’t have to actively control the plethora of minute processes, it is just natural. In fact, there is no way that I could control such an intricate and delicate balancing act and trying to do so would take a huge amount of effort.

The human body operates as tensionally balanced unit - but can you feel it?

The human body operates as tensionally balanced unit – it’s a nice idea but can you actually feel it?

Generally speaking, whatever our posture is like it represents the habitual tensional balance that lies at the heart of our body structure. To a great extent this reflects how we have used our bodies most, for posture illustrates how our bodies have moulded and adapted to our habitual motions over long periods of time. For our posture to improve then, we need to become aware of and change our habits over a similar extended period in order for the body to recalibrate little by little.

Everything must change so that everything can stay the same[iii]

 

Posture simultaneously informs and is informed by how we use our bodies currently. It is in this sense then that one’s posture is not a mere  static thing that can be quickly fixed by holding in or controlling certain parts of the body but instead comprises the current process of response to both a past and an ongoing relationship between our bodies, how we use them and our awareness. Movement is like food for the body; you are what you eat, or rather, you are how you move.

The restrictions and imbalances in posture that everyone develops from a young age are with us all the time, regardless of what we are doing and therefore greatly inform our quality of movement and health as a result. Another way of looking at it is that we could consider our posture as being like the default setting for how our body, in its entirety, deals with the constant pressure of gravity combined with our most often repeated day-to-day movements. If we can improve this default setting then we can potentially improve the quality of all of our movements and functions exponentially. To me this is one of the most important and primary aspects to be addressed in learning how to enjoy movement and pivotal in attaining excellent movement skills and robust health.

As I mentioned earlier, for most of us posture is something well beneath our awareness and therein lies the key to improvement.  When I walk for example, somehow I can stay upright with hardly any conscious effort, it’s all taken care of. As I place one foot in front of the other my whole body continually adjusts and balances together with only the relatively small surface area of one foot at a time being in contact with the ground. It doesn’t seem like a big deal because we do it all the time, we take it for granted. Walking is like the most natural thing in the world but when you think about it, it really is amazing. Behind the scenes of this basic human movement every aspect of the body from head to toe and back again  is occupied in a meticulous, information rich process that aims to keep me going in my intended direction in the most economical manner and without falling over. Next time you are out for a walk place your hands on your lower back and see if you are able to feel the myriad movements that occur through the body during this basic motion. If you pay attention you can feel some small extension, flexion and lateral motion of the spine as the body moves and stabilises all at the same time. When the body is in good condition our posture exhibits an optimum balance between stability and mobility. Restriction, which impedes the body’s ability to move freely, is reduced to a minimum. Holding the body, or various parts thereof, is very similar to having a restriction, it prevents the body from naturally adjusting and balancing with integrity. When I stand on one leg for example, I don’t try to hold myself still in order to stay balanced.  This is futile.  I only try to feel my balance, go with the flow and relax the parts that tense up.

Freedom of movement? It's child's play! (image cortesy of manbicep.com)

Freedom of movement? It’s child’s play!
(image cortesy of manbicep.com)

When we are young we learn to move around through unceasing experimentation and trial and error. Usually, small children exhibit the most balanced and excellent postures you are likely to see because their bodies are naturally pliable, mobile and stable and as yet generally restriction free. Like animals, children are much more aware of and ‘in’ their bodies than the majority of adults and at a stage before any strange movement and postural habits concretely set in. As we progress to school age we have to start moving much, much less in order that we can sit down all day, learn our lessons and focus our minds on retaining information. Our present moment body awareness has to take a distinct back seat:

 

Life is like riding a bicycle. To stay balanced you must keep moving

– Albert Einstein

 

Unfortunately, our bodies go downhill from here as mental dominance takes over and we train ourselves unknowingly to ignore the vast majority of our body sensation so that we can think more. This becomes our default setting.  For example, as I sit here writing on my laptop it is very difficult to concentrate on what I’m writing and accurately sense my body at the same time. However, because I have spent a fair amount of time training Taiji and relearning how to sense my body I am generally aware of when I become uncomfortable and have inevitably ended up slouching like a banana in my chair whilst hunched across my desk. I do not ignore these sensations. Instead, I focus more on feeling my body and as a result it seems natural to reposition myself in a more balanced way but I certainly don’t force myself to sit bolt upright. Or as an alternative to this, I have a break, stand up and move around for a bit usually enjoying some simple Taiji movement. I deliberately sense the motion of the whole body until I am comfortably balanced once more and happy to carry on working in this recalibrated mode. However, before I started Taiji and was back at college, I didn’t notice how I was sitting at all. Only after a day or two sat awkwardly at the desk would I get up and feel a twinge in my back. Repeat that a few hundred times and our body adapts to fit the usage.

So despite notions of posture usually conceding to fall amongst the themes apparent in ‘alternative health’  which are often not taken all that  seriously by people outside of the sphere, it does in fact play a constant and vital role in our overall ability to move and enjoy our physicality whether that be playing football, training Taiji, walking down the street or working at a desk. Even though Taiji often  gets mistakenly lumped together with Yoga and Pilates in this realm of alternative exercise, it’s training approach couldn’t be more different. For me Taiji training can be summed up by one word: natural. However, it’s worth remembering though that in the world internal martial arts there is still much discrepancy as to what constitutes posture, good or otherwise. It’s just the way people are. It’s all valuable food for thought and despite what anybody says about it by far the best way to get to grips with posture is to be body intelligent and learn over time from your own experience and awareness, to learn progressively to feel how your body moves and operates naturally in its entirety:

 

I cannot teach anybody anything, I can only make them think – Socrates

 

In the second half of this article I’ll be looking at some productive ways to get to grips with posture without excessively controlling the body. In the meantime there is one single thing that you can learn to do to vastly improve your posture and thus all of your movement and activities regardless of whether or not you do Tai Chi or any other martial art or sport. That single thing is this: pay attention to your body. For once you start to pay attention to your body you will begin to develop your own independent and increasingly accurate frame of reference regarding your personal architecture and how you use it.  This may take a considerable amount of time so if you haven’t started already, you’d better start now!

www.sussextaichi.co.uk

 

First published in No. 48 edition of Tai Chi Chuan & Oriental Arts magazine – the journal of the Tai Chi Union for Great Britain


 

[i]This maxim was first stated by Sir Thomas Overbury in his poem ‘A Wife’ (1613):”All the carnall beauty of my wife is but skin-deep.”   ‘The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms’  Ammer, C. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 2003

[ii] Like anything worth developing reading posture and movement takes practise – interestingly enough as one’s own felt experience of the body and movement improves so too does the ability to see it in others.

[iii] From ‘The Leopard’ by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa

Posted in barefoot running, biotensegrity, Chen Taijiquan, Fascia, Fascial Fitness, Health and Fitness, Martial arts, mindfulness, movement, posture, sports science, Tai Chi, taijiquan | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Learning and Teaching Taiji

“To learn Taijiquan means to educate oneself”  Chen Xiao Wang

For me Taijiquan is something that cannot be taught in the traditional sense but instead something that must be learned by the student. So as an active Taiji instructor I feel that it is my job to  facilitate this learning process rather than simply disseminating information. Please take my occasional articles as an exception that proves the rule! For information,  while having its uses, is greatly inferior to knowledge. Knowledge is superior because it is practical and comes from direct experience and experience derives from trying things out for yourself (training), continually finding  little mistakes here and there, adjusting as you go along and learning from the results. Following instructions or movements blindly or just regurgitating what someone else has said are best avoided as having little value.[ii] These points are particularly salient in regards to learning how to effectively train in disciplines such as Taijiquan, for as the old saying goes: In theory there is no difference between theory and practice. But, in practice, there is” [iii]

MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA

Actions speak louder than words… To learn Taiji you just have to do it…hands-on corrections from an expert are very useful! Training with Chen Xiao Wang in 2004

In the West many people relish the theory of Taiji and love to think about it and talk about it but never really get around to doing it. I suppose it is a bit like reading cookery books and thinking about food but never getting round to the actual eating. Movement is like food for the body, an essential requirement for life, and the awareness in action at the heart of Taiji makes this marvelous martial art perhaps the most nutritious food of all.From my experiences of training in China, it’s the other way round. Taiji players there just simply get stuck in to basic practise day after day without drama and thoroughly enjoy the results. It is very normal and down to earth. For the people who are really keen on Taiji, perhaps with the aim of competing or becoming a teacher, then 8 hours a day of serious training for years on end is a norm which rapidly results in a body/mind that is very relaxed, stable, balanced, resilient, agile, powerful and healthy. It is good for us teachers in the UK to have a high bar to aspire to.

“The more details you give people, the more they ask for details.”[iv]  Nassim Taleb

For me teaching Taiji full-time has been and continues to be a very enjoyable and fulfilling job and while being self-employed has its own peculiar rigours and responsibilities, the positive aspects of teaching something you love on the whole greatly outweighs the negative. Having been a full-time instructor for about ten years now I have, upon reflection, learned a great deal about the many ways in which people perceive and learn Taiji and engage with the training. In turn, I have learned a lot about how to teach Taiji more effectively and as a sweet unexpected pay-off, improved how I learn myself.  Now when my teachers demonstrate, I watch like a hawk. When they briefly explain a point I listen carefully; I am all ears. If they adjust my posture I focus wholly in order to feel it without thought. Then I go away and practise again and again until I understand more clearly through my own felt experience. After that, well  I just go back for some more! Rinse and repeat as they say. This all takes a considerable amount of time and in order to learn something well we must not kid ourselves that there is a quick solution or method. We must embrace the process, seeking progress and not perfection. If you try to force the body and mind to change there is usually an undesirable pay off soon to come resulting in injury or at the very least extreme frustration.

Chen Bing demonstrates 'Lazily Tying the Coat'

Chen Bing demonstrates…Watch like a hawk! You have to learn how to pay attention in order to ‘read’ whole body movement and learn correctly.

“I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand”[v] Confucius

In the late 90’s when I was at university and in my first few years of learning Taiji I attended a long weekend seminar with a prominent teacher. It was quite expensive and being a poor student at the time meant that it was a substantial investment for me to fork out so much for the event. Nonetheless I deemed it would be well worth it and conceded that I would have to live on beans and rice for the next little while in order to save the required fees.  I was very curious to experience different teachers in my early days in a bid to tentatively piece together just what-was-what in the realm of Taiji and internal martial arts. So when the seminar finally came round I was really looking forwards to learning some  top-notch ‘lineage’ Taiji as was clearly advertised. Imagine my disappointment when said teacher just talked continuously and manically for two and a half days (some of the things he said were outrageous) and we barely stood up let alone did any Taiji. I came away feeling cheated and ate my rice and beans in my cold student digs with much chagrin for the next month or two. All was not lost. In retrospect the experience was very useful in pointing me in what direction not to go when I eventually started to teach full-time. The expensive seminar was ram-packed with middle-class punters simply lapping up the psycho-babble but for me on both personal and professional levels results worth having only come from training and not from collecting/remembering intellectual information.

“Those who talk don’t know and those know don’t talk” [vi] Lao Tzu

One of the best things about teaching is that it has greatly informed my own practise and research over the years by allowing me the privileged position of being able to observe the body movements and  attitudes of thousands of people of all shapes, sizes and levels of ability. Yoga teachers, Pilates buffs, Ballet dancers, body-workers, various sportsmen and women, martial artists, avid meditators and not to mention all your average Joes all regularly pass through my classes. Some of them even stay for a while and the few that persist always go on to really achieve something valuable off their own backs: a quality of integrated movement, stability, strength and awareness that serve as an invaluable companion for life as long as they keep up a regular practise. My main and somewhat reassuring conclusion from these observations is that we are all human (what a relief!) and as such all exhibit similar physical and mental restrictions and weaknesses that the usual suspects of fitness training and alternatives like Yoga and Pilates, in my opinion, just can’t touch  but Taiji can effectively remedy. For good Taiji training, once you kind of get the hang of it, leaves no stone unturned. A little bit of pushing hands or sparring soon dissolves any false notions one might have about being calm, centred and stable. No attribute isn’t dealt with effectively in Taiji because it is such a well rounded approach based upon awareness, bio-mechanics/biotensegrity,[vii] the laws of physics and natural phenomenon.   It  follows nature just as the wise old Taoist philosopher Lao Tzu asserts is best for humans to do.[viii]

“Everything in the universe is governed by the same basic laws of physics and always moves towards a state of balanced equilibrium and minimal-energy. There is no question about which way is best because the choice is automatic, like an apple falling from a tree towards the centre of the earth” [ix] Graham Scarr

Unfortunately,  Taiji is still greatly misconceived by many people and these misconceptions are often very difficult to overcome. On the whole my classes are reasonably well attended but I am consistently surprised and concerned that Taiji is not more popular. I’m sure this is due, in part, to the gross misrepresentation of Taiji as most suitable for the elderly or inherently mystical/new age and so it gets dismissed by the majority of the more down to earth and perhaps younger people who just want to be fit and healthy.  In China people usually start Taiji when they are much younger than in the West and at the latest when they are middle-aged. It is certainly not a last resort for elderly people when their body has finally given up on them! Having said that, anybody can benefit from Taiji training regardless of age but for older people the training has to be very heavily adapted. I think that somewhere along the line when Westerners first started to see and learn Taiji, they completely misinterpreted what was going on and perhaps this was because of the language barrier and a profound lack of understanding of human movement. I can speak a little Mandarin, it is indeed confusing and difficult to grasp, and unless you are well versed in being able to accurately ‘read’ body movement, then it would be quite easy to misunderstand Taiji completely from the outside:

“You see but you do not observe, the distinction is clear” [x] Sherlock Homes

If you see someone doing really decent Taiji in their 70s or 80s then without a shadow of a doubt they have been training for many decades or more probably most of their life. They didn’t just start last week! People like Chen Xiao Wang and Chen Bing have a lot of good work to help dispel these gross misconceptions. Check out Chen Xiao Wang in the video below:

These factors aside however, I do feel that the main reason that people can be a little put off by Taiji, is that it is quite difficult to learn to begin with, and ‘to begin with’ can mean quite a long time!  People who want instant gratification may be a little disappointed at their first class. In Taiji we are concerned with how we move rather than mindlessly burning calories (what a waste!) or  forcing the body to look, move or behave in a certain way. ‘Yong yi bu yong li – use mind, not force’ as the old  classic phrase goes. Almost all other exercise systems begin by forcing the body to do something strange and unbalanced which usually only adds to our habitual levels of tension/restriction and takes us further and further away from awareness, natural movement and balance.

People attend Taiji classes for a wide variety of reasons and sometimes it can appear difficult to cater for everyone’s needs in a single class. However, regardless of whether a student wants to explore the martial side, improve their health, learn some cool movements or simply relax and calm down everyone has to train the basics over and over again until they are firmly ‘in their body’. Essentially this means engaging with the ongoing process of dealing with the basic Taiji skills, or ‘Jibengong’, and body method, or ‘Shenfa’, and it is here that the majority of the key benefits can be gleaned. Interestingly enough this seems to be what the majority of students find  most challenging. For example, when we work on opening and closing the Kwa without collapsing the knees, a basic requirement for all good movement,  people often complain: “It isn’t possible!” they protest, even though they can see me and more experienced students doing it and they know it makes sense intellectually and bio-mechanically. Then after only five minutes of practise they are bored…

Most of us live in our heads (even and sometimes especially people who exercise a lot) far away from our senses and accurate down to earth perception. Once we calm down and actually  ‘find our body’ we start to experience our physicality as it really is and begin to learn how we move. This can be both wonderful and disconcerting all at the same time. After my first ever Taiji class I came away thinking “Hmmm, that made my body really tense.” when actually it was my first real experience of just how much habitual tension I had in my body. Similarly perplexing to me was that I didn’t seem to able to maintain a simple Zhanzhuang standing posture without my legs shaking from fatigue and instability, or stop leaning back. How infuriating! Up to that point I had always considered myself to have strong legs, good balance and decent flexibility but I was quite wrong. It was an excellent wake-up call and after I recovered I relished at the thought of how much both my movement and my mind would vastly benefit from training Taiji. To begin with it was quite challenging and I often thought of giving up but deep down I knew that persisting would be well worth it!

Just taking it all in...

No rest for the wicked – you can always find the time and place for Taiji training!

Much of  what we discover from our first steps into Taiji training, if we are open minded enough to observe it, is that we all have a lot of physical and mental weaknesses that would otherwise go unnoticed unless we slow right down. Doing the most simple of things can be quite tricky. For example, as people decelerate they usually notice that a large part of their mind is very noisy and any sustained body-awareness or concentration is nigh on impossible. All of this can be challenging to anyone and especially so to people who already have years of experience in another discipline that purports to offer the same results as Taiji. The flip side of this, and the secret to learning anything well, is that weaknesses and mistakes are absolutely priceless if you capitalise on them. In fact, they are essential for success but first you have to be aware of them and if you choose to ignore them after that than that is up to you.[xi] Teachers can encourage students to relax, keep practising and simply take it all in their stride for like a meaningful life Taiji is all about steadily overcoming obstacles.

I frequently ask myself how can I teach more effectively and there is no one simple answer for there are many different elements and factors to consider. My main aim as a teacher is to encourage students to take up their own regular, independent training so that when they come to class they have already built their own frame of reference to work with and can consequently ask the right kind of questions, pay more attention and find out how to resolve their ‘deviations’. Without independent practise and regular class attendance it is pretty much impossible to learn Taiji and engage with it fully and thus enjoy its many benefits. So I gently and persistently encourage this on a regular basis. Again, it takes time for students to get to grips with building their own training regime. It often infers a lot of challenges on a personal level but it’s all part of the learning process. In short,  you have to take responsibility for yourself because no-one else can do it for you. You just have to crack on with it!

Valuable hands-on training with GM Chen Xiao Wang

After some valuable hands-on training with GM Chen Xiao Wang and you soon realise you are still a beginner!

I am certainly driven to further enjoy and improve my own Taiji training. Regular input from my teachers helps me to find the mistakes that slip under my radar and retain that ‘beginners mind’ which  is really healthy for a teacher to have. The main rule of teaching I have for myself is that I must practise as much as time will allow (but without becoming miserably monk-like or a recluse). If I do not practise what I preach then I have little integrity as a teacher. Don’t get me wrong, I am not brilliant at Taiji but I do practise consistently and I really love it. My health and fitness have improved continuously and considerably  over the years as a result and I will be seeking to further enjoy and improve my Taiji for the rest of my life. If I had not started Taiji as a youth then I dread to think what kind of trouble I may have ended up in, but that’s another story! The final thing to mention is that I feel it is important is to facilitate a hard-working but light hearted atmosphere in class. Hard work is an obvious requirement for learning anything and a few laughs along the way really helps to grease the wheels.  For when you laugh, you relax, and then everything is a bit easier. Over the next few articles I will explore some of the main common elements that people find difficult to get to grips with in their Taiji, starting with posture, or rather, the illusion of posture.

“I have just three things to teach: simplicity, patience, compassion. These three are your greatest treasures” [xii] Lao Tzu

Sam Moor teaches Chen Style Taijiquan across Sussex: www.sussextaichi.co.uk

First published in No.47 edition of  Tai Chi Chuan and Oriental Arts Magazine


References:

[i] Xiaowang, Chen. The Five Levels of Taijiquan. 2012, Singing Dragon.

[ii]Empirical evidence (such as sense experience) is a source of knowledge acquired by means of observation and experimentation.

[iii] Many different people are cited as the source of this quote.

[iv] Nassim Taleb talks about this kind of thing in:  Antifragile – Things that Gain from Disorder.’ Penguin, 2012.

[v] Confucius. The Analects. Penguin Classics, 2007.

[vi] Ursula K Le Guin. Lao Tzu: Tao Te Ching. Shambala, 1998.

[vii] Check out Graham Scarr’s new book: Biotensegrity – The Structural Basis of Life. Handspring Publishing, 2014

[viii] Ursula K Le Guin. Ibid

[ix] Scarr, G. Biotensegrity – The Structural Basis of Life. Handspring Publishing 2014

[x] Doyle, A. C. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. 2007. Penguin Classics.

[xi] To a certain extent this relates to the four stages of competence, or the “conscious competence” learning model often bandied about in Psychology i.e. the psychological states involved in the process of progressing from “unconscious incompetence” to “conscious incompetence” to “conscious competence” to “unconscious competence” in a skill.

[xii] Ursula K Le Guin. Ibid.

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