Basic movement patterns and body coherence

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

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Training should be mentally and physically challenging – working on the basics improves everything

The students who were most difficult to teach were the ones who couldn’t follow basic instructions, were either tone-deaf or had no sense of rhythm (sometimes all three) especially when they didn’t realise it and thought they sounded amazing.

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

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

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

The big difference between music and Taiji is that while most people have some basic sense of music, many people are completely lacking in body awareness and have poor habitual movement patterns without even realising or conceding that such attributes have much value. Basic movement ability and awareness are two of life’s most essential skills – without them we are seriously compromised as individuals in almost every conceivable way. Furthermore, it is impossible to learn Taiji or indeed any internal arts without resolving these basic issues first.

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

During more than two decades of teaching and training Taiji the most common problem I have encountered is that people want to spend a lot of time trying to learn the choreography of Taiji forms but do not actually learn how to move well, often lacking the most basic level of body cohesion after many years of practise. More often than not people immediately get bogged down with trying to learn and remember forms and theory and as a consequence completely forgo the forging of basic body cohesion and the basic perceptive mind skills therein.

Moreover, by trying to remember choreographed movements rather than improving the basic nuts and bolts of human body/mind-mechanics people usually compound the physical and mental issues that they have in the first place.

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

Body cohesion is the essential fusion of balanced, connected, relaxed, 3-dimensional whole-body movement, strength and awareness that underpins all good movement and is emphasised in Taiji and other internal martial arts as the first basic requirement for all subsequent training. From my experience, the majority of Taiji teachers really need to step up what they are doing otherwise we will all be perpetually condemned to that abysmal umbrella understanding of Taiji as a pseudo-spiritual, faux exercise for the infirm.

Body cohesion is the heart of Taiji training and more than anything else building this whole-body connection will benefit the vast majority of people in terms of their physical and mental health and overall ability to move and function well. As a teacher I want my students to experience significant change in the way their bodies operate and not to spend years worrying about remembering sequences of movements or theory.

Ultimately I want to teach a person to improve the way they move, the way they use their body and the way they use their mind. As the vast majority of people are not used to learning movement or indeed moving much at all the most significant benefit is gained from establishing the basic exercises (Jibengong). In most of my classes we spend at least 50% of the time training basics.

For people taking their first steps into Taiji training the last thing they need to do is to learn a form. Learning a Taiji form offers very little benefit because instead of learning how to move well  people simply retain their old, habitual ways of moving. This is especially true if their bodies are in poor condition. Since many people come to Taiji because they think they are too damaged to do anything else and/or that the art is going to help them float away from physical reality, this a particularly salient point.

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

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

Here’s a rundown of essentials we train in my classes and what I focus on in my own training:

Find your body – Fansong Gong

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

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

Zhanzhuang: Standing Meditation

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

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

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

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

WCTAG, Jan Silberstorff (22)
Standing – simple and effective

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

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

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Tactile cues/posture corrections are vital for developing an accurate frame of reference

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

Thus Zhanzhuang training facilitates a number of key developments:

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

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

Walking the walk (Zou Bu)

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

Chansigong : Silk-Reeling exercises

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

Sam teaches full-time in West Sussex: www.sussextaichi.co.uk

Posted in Fascia, Martial arts, movement, Tai Chi, taijiquan | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Guest post by Antonia Stringer

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I don’t often read fiction books however on the run up to our recent retreat in Morocco I read an excellent and very funny book. It is titled ‘this book will save your life’ by the author A.M. Homes. The story is about a stocks and shares trader who works from his beautiful house in L.A and is so caught up in making money, he sees no one except his nutritionist, his trainer and his housekeeper. He has become so out of touch with his feelings that he does not realise how completely disengaged from life and other people he is until an attack of excruciating pain lands him in hospital.  While they can find no physical reason for the pain it is the catalyst to his emotional thaw and the start of his transformation to engaging more fully with his life.

At one point he goes to see a doctor who says to him ‘you have hit a wall, now climb it – literally’ and gives him the number of some rock climbing venues.  ‘Make the mental physical and the physical mental, and things will improve.’

Whilst rock climbing might not be for everyone he has a point.  In the relationship between physical and mental the line is blurred. The body is an object that inescapably conditions our thoughts, feelings and perceptions of the world around us and this in turn conditions every cell, organ and function within our body for better or worse.

Our minds and emotions are difficult to observe and tend to resist change; the body is an ideal, highly visible medium for transformation. ..when we relax the body and release tensions, the mind and emotions tend to reflect this change (and vice versa).  Conscious physical training is using the visible to mold the invisible.’  Dan Millman, The Inner Athlete

I like this quote. It suggests, as does my own experience, that a mind-body movement practice can be a powerful tool through which you can affect and change your physical, mental and emotional wellbeing in profound and enduring ways.

Physical ease is a mirror of the relationship of the body to the mind and relaxation is the single most effective indicator of whole body well-being.  Relaxation through balance is the best way of promoting vitality.

Less energy is expended by working with the body rather than against it; learning to breathe well, to stand, to sit, to get up and down and to move in ways that centre and align the bones and breath is fundamental for health and well-being.

‘A body free from nervous tension and fatigue is the ideal shelter provided by nature for housing a well-balanced mind, fully capable of successfully meeting all the complex problems of modern living’.     Joseph Pilates

Relaxation in the context of physical training is often misunderstood:

“Relaxation is not negation, it is not passivity. The moment it is considered as such, flaccidity is encouraged, both mental and physical. Take hold of your bones softly, but do not let go of them.”     Mabel Todd, The Thinking Body

Babies and children are masters of relaxed movement. They have yet to develop the tensions, imbalances, comparisons and limiting self-beliefs that often plague us as adults. They progressively, playfullly, yet determinedly persist in exploring their movement potential every day and as adults there is great benefit to be gained in rediscovering, restoring and refining basic yet fundamental movement patterns.

Thankfully most of the body’s tissues, including the brain, have a remarkable and lifelong capacity for change. Becoming aware of the chronic tension we carry is the first step in being able to release it but as with any change there is likely to be a period of discomfort as the body and mind adjust.  Indeed a sure sign of this is that we feel as if we are getting ‘worse’ as we become increasingly aware of our stiffness, tension and weaknesses.  Due to this temporary drop in self-esteem our built in defence mechanisms can cause resistance which results in us remaining stuck in old patterns and habits that no longer serve.  The will to change therefore needs to be greater.

Perhaps the crux of any mind-body movement practice therefore should not be to try to conform to an ‘ideal’ or achieve a particular standard of posture or movement but to develop our curiosity and awareness sufficiently to be able to recognise and evolve our own habits and patterns, particularly those that literally disconnect, contort and confine us within our own body.

 

Join Antonia and Sam for their forthcoming workshop ‘Centered: posture and balance’ on April 13th at Cowdray Hall. Visit Antonia’s website for all the details: www.antoniastringer.com

 

Posted in Balance, Health and Fitness, Martial arts, mindfulness, movement, posture, Qigong, Tai Chi | 1 Comment

Taiji Almighty – Training with Chen Bing

Master Chen demonstrates Single-Whip

First published in Winter 2013 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!

“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 we get back to work on refining our practise, readily inspired by Master Chen’s seemingly effortless demonstration.

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.

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.

Over the last few years myself and my friends Phil Muil and Emma Westlake (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

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 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.

Each seminar began with an extensive selection of warm-ups which ranged from being easy to fairly rigorous. ‘Fansong gong’ exercises 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 better and my upper body more relaxed.

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 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 which is a very common problem. He added that we should especially steer clear of the major mistakes of standing one’s ground and scoring a point at all costs as this would seriously compromise our long term Taiji skills over time.

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. 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.

The week with Chen Bing flew by and I was sorry to see him go; he is a very pleasant man to be around and an excellent teacher with some serious Taiji skills to teach. He has a calm, down-to-earth demeanour being both gently spoken and extremely easy going. Underneath the surface however he has a body that is like fluid steel and he certainly knows how to use it.

Happy Days! Sam and Master Chen Bing

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It’s not what you do…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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An Interview with Chen Bing

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Xinjia Yi Lu – It’s easy!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Chen Bing and I demonstrate Tui Shou

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

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On the floor again – a good way to learn!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JC: Is there a connection between Taiji and Meditation?

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

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

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

JC: Could you tell us about intention or Yi?

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

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

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

JC: Why is it so difficult to relax?

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

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

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

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

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

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

For more information about training with Chen Bing visit: www.chenbingtaiji.com

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An Interview with Grandmaster Chen Xiao Wang

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First published in 2015 in Tai Chi and Oriental Arts Magazine

Last year I was fortunate to have the opportunity to interview Grandmaster Chen Xiao Wang. 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. Therefore, the interview was something I was very much looking forward to. The day soon came round and this particular June afternoon found us all sitting around the kitchen table at Karel and Eva’s house 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.

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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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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.

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 on fire – 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.

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Tai Chi, Fascia & Biotensegrity

I have always had a deep passion for nature and 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.

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
Enjoyable, relaxed, whole-body movement. Isn’t that a good premise for training? 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 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 on it. Another illustration from Chen Xin (1849-1929)

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)

wave
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 internal arts more understandable and palatable to modern society increasing numbers of people are likely to practice correctly and thus enjoy the vast benefits that come from immersing oneself deep within the golden sensation of freedom of movement and natural power.

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 , , , , , , , , , | 34 Comments

Grandmaster Chen Xiao Wang

Chen Xiao Wang - picture courtesy of WCTAG

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

‘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]

‘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. 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??

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.

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.

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A young Chen Xiao Wang

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

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]

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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.

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 both arms guided me, again and again, through the simple but very tricky ‘Concealed 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.

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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.

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.

Großmeister-325

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)

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.

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 excellent 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…

Photographs of Master Chen reproduced with kind permission from WCTAG

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[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

Squeeze in some Squatting

First published in ‘Tai Chi Chuan and Oriental Arts’ magazine Spring 2014

Over the last ten years of teaching Taiji full-time I have had the pleasure of meeting many different people from all sorts of walks of life. From teenagers to 90 year olds, from gymnasts and ballet dancers to boxers and fitness trainers, from staunch businessmen to placid yogis, from couch potatoes to triathletes, you name it; they have probably been to one of my classes or booked in for some one-to-one time with me. One of the greatest things about being a teacher is meeting lots of people, and being an avid learner, ever keen to improve my own skills too, I am always fascinated in how as humans we all vividly exhibit similar patterns in how we move, think and learn despite myriad superficial differences. Just as Sherlock Homes points out we often miss out on learning some really good stuff that is in fact right in front of our noses:

“The world is full of obvious things which nobody by any chance ever observes.”[i]

Resting Squat
Squatting is an excellent way to get to know your lower body

One of the main things I have observed along the way, both in myself and virtually everyone around me, is that from a relatively young age we all gradually lose our body-awareness, proprioception and sense-perception and this is matched usually by diminished mobility, integrated strength and stability in the general body structure. This is especially evident in the lower half of the body comprising the feet, legs and hips and lower back. Moreover, and perhaps most importantly, this is mirrored by an increasing dominance of mental activity unrelated to what is actually happening within and around us in the real world, in real time, over the visceral, present, down to earth world of sensation. It’s like we slowly suffer from a kind of ever increasing disassociation from our physical selves and this supplements a gross imbalance between the physical and mental threads that inextricably twine together to form the whole human. We tend to become incredibly top-heavy as we leave childhood. Unless this imbalance is addressed from the off then I feel it is very difficult to facilitate optimum health and fitness and our more standard, less perceptive attempts to do so are somewhat counter-productive. For generally when most of us exercise, it is most often inspired by a aesthetic bid to simply change the way we look from the outside rather than a conscious re-orientation towards integration and balance. This is even, and often especially, the case in ‘alternative’ or ‘mind-body’ disciplines. The question of ‘how’ doesn’t usually come into our equation; the actual quality of the movement/exercise we engage in, whether it requires the relaxed, focused awareness necessary to address these kind of imbalances, is rarely a consideration.

For me Taijiquan is an absolutely genius system in this sense because it immediately addresses this imbalance right from the start and from this most sensible of premises proceeds to offer stupendous benefits of all kinds (too numerous to mention!). However, developing this receptive and perceptive mindset can be quite tricky. Even with the wonderful art of Taiji it is easy for us remain mentally dominant and  just kind of intellectually collect and blindly repeat Taiji movements without paying the relaxed attention necessary to deeply immerse ourselves within the world of sensation i.e. directly engage with what we are doing in real time, that I feel fundamentally constitutes ‘doing Taiji’. Practising something very simple is a good place to start as it gives our big, interfering brains a chance to calm down and get with the programme in hand. So this time I’m going to talk about and encourage you to try the superb practise of squatting.

Almost all of us sit down far too much, even children. We humans originally evolved to be hunter-gatherers primed to be steadily on the move all day with our plethora of senses finely honed to be highly receptive. Staying firmly grounded in the present moment rather than drifting off into some revelry about the past or future was then, as it is now, vital not only for survival but also for healthy, happy and successful living.[ii]

Lack of movement in day-to-day life has seriously negative health implications; if we can simply do more walking (or more Taiji!) each day then we can placate that hunter-gather part of ourselves and begin to disperse some of our excessive mental energy. Even better, if we can improve our perception and functioning of the much neglected foundational, lower halves of our bodies then not only will this focus and engage our minds in their fundamentally embodied nature but our overall health and mobility can be seriously enhanced. A kinetic chain is only as strong as its weakest link as they say.

Back in 2004 when I first went to train in Beijing one of the many things that amazed me was just how often people would rest by squatting flat-footed on the ground rather than sitting on a chair. Everyone would do it, from little children right up to the eldest of the elderly. It seemed that the majority of people could demonstrate this excellent, basic mobility. Often after training we would eat our lunch in the park and all just simply squat down in a circle around a very low table. This was noticeably excellent for my lower body and I love training while I’m resting!  At this point in time most of the toilets in China consisted of a simple hole or small trench rather than a western toilet, and so a simple ablution would require careful, mindful squatting and balance in order for it to be successful. Fortunately, when I was twenty years old my first ever Taiji teacher taught me how to squat properly. Despite being quite young and what I thought was very flexible (I could happily do the splits for example) to begin with I found it very difficult to do and couldn’t maintain the position for very long. It really perplexed me to find such a simple thing so difficult! Yet with daily practice it rapidly became easier as my joints and spine became stronger, more mobile and more stable. It really helped with my Taiji and to this day I really enjoy squatting on a very regular basis and often much to the amusement of people around me. Funnily enough, nowadays I feel that flexibility is quite a gross misconception and an attribute that isn’t half as useful as many people make out who seem to strive for it. Anyway, that’s another story for another time.

Being able to squat successfully requires and facilitates excellent hip, ankle and spinal mobility, stability and leg strength. It also promotes healthy digestive, elimination and sexual functions. It is worth remembering that in reality squatting is simply a basic and fundamental human movement rather than an ‘exercise’ to torture ourselves with. Again for me it brings to mind our ancient hunter-gatherer friends squatting round a fire, relaxed, alert and ever-ready to move. Many of us in the west, even youngsters, cannot even nearly carry out a full flat footed squat but if we could learn to do it well and regularly it would do us the world of good and address some of the imbalances that impact deeply upon our health that I mentioned earlier.  It’s not something that people normally think of when they want to ‘get fit’ but what better place to start than learning how to lower your body down and then lift yourself up from the ground? Learn to walk before you run, learn to stand before you walk and learn to squat before you stand, that’s what I say. And if you want it to sound a bit more mystical then just consider it to be practicing the art of ‘sitting without sitting’. That must be in the Tao Te Ching somewhere. So try it for yourself, see how you get on and incorporate it into your daily life but don’t throw away all your chairs and sofas just yet, please wait until you have actually tried it.

Here is a rough guide to how it is done but it’s much better if you mainly just experiment intelligently with it for yourself. As long as you pay relaxed attention to what you are doing and do not force your body to anything particularly uncomfortable you will be able to discover how you body actually moves in its current state and go from there. Just practice slowly, softly, smoothly and sensibly. What we want to do is a flat footed squat as opposed to a heels up or ‘Western’ squat where we rest on the balls of the feet. The flat footed squat comprises a highly beneficial closed kinetic chain of movement whereas the heels up version does not, is invariably much easier but places more stress on the knees and is less productive in the long run, especially when it comes down to improving hip mobility in a sustainable way.

The basic squat
The basic squat

There are a few basic variations on how we can go about it so to begin with I suggest starting with a stance of approximately shoulder width apart and with your feet facing forwards or both turned a little outwards at more or less the same angle. We can vary the width of our stance all the way from a narrow gait i.e. feet together to a wider double shoulder width stance. It’s nothing to get caught up about; each variation simply offers slightly different emphasis. I suggest that once you establish the basic way of doing it that I outline here you vary how you do it from time to time and investigate the differences for yourself. Remember, try to go with the flow of how your body moves naturally rather than forcing it to move in a way that you think it should. Simply practice, observe and learn from your own experience without judgement. For example, no body is a hundred percent symmetrical and it really is counterproductive to pursue such ideals.

From our shoulder width stance then, we want to slowly but carefully relax and lower the hips down and back using our connection through the legs to the ground to support the upper body. It is just natural for the upper body to move forwards a little in order to balance the movement of the hips so do not try to force yourself to be straight. Over time as your mobility improves the amount you lean will probably lessen naturally. Gradually keep sitting down and see how low you can go without causing too much discomfort. Watch out for any pain in your joints: this is an indication to move much less or stop.

As you sit down relax your hips and with your knees soft try to keep your feet flat on the ground i.e. don’t lift your heels. Find out if you can also relax your feet. Gently encourage your knees to track the line of your feet; many of us will find that our knees want to collapse inwards. Keep working on it and slowly but surely this will improve as the tensegrity of your body structure becomes more balanced. Again, it is just natural if you feel certain parts of your body are restricted. For example, it is very common to sense that your calves and hip flexors are  tight. All these observations are just interesting insights into how you have used your body up to this point and offer an excellent starting point for great improvement. If you can only go down a little way without lifting your heels and/or knees collapsing inwards, perhaps you can just comfortably manage a half-squat, then that’s all good; just slowly and carefully lift yourself up consciously using your legs and the ground to lift and support your body. If you try it a few times in succession, a few times every day then you should find that slowly but surely your comfortable range of movement will improve until you can sit all the way down into your heels so that your backside is almost on the floor. This may take some time. Just be patient and persevere. Gradually as you get used to it you will start to notice, if you pay attention, that the whole body shifts and balances as you lower yourself down and lift yourself up. Just as with all movement, there is no part that is not involved in this balancing process. The more you can relax and focus your mind on perceiving the plethora of inherent nuances and sensations the more you can learn and benefit from the movement.

If you find it fairly easy to do a full squat then you can try staying in this squatting position for a few minutes and investigate your body-experience of this. Occasionally, slowly shift your weight side to side a little and rock your weight forward and back. Again this will emphasise different aspects of your structure allowing you insights into how you move. From here you can further experiment by executing your squats extremely slowly and continually without pause. To begin with see if you can try taking half a minute to go down and half a minute to go up again all in one fluid motion. This can be fairly hard work so just be careful; the slowness of the movement should be mirror the amount to care and mindfulness you put into it.

Lots of us will find this exercise quite a challenge and perhaps not want to do it because of this. If you find it difficult because your knees roll in or your legs struggle to support your torso for example, then this is more of an indication of the current state of your body than anything else and highlights even more of an incentive to practise and improve. It is best not to judge before experience so just relax and keep trying it out every now and again. For almost everyone, if they pay attention and persevere, will be able to glean lots of benefit from regular practise. So instead of slumping into your favourite armchair, try squatting for a bit instead. If you are fairly happy squatting anyway, experiment with yourself and see if you can watch your favourite TV show whilst maintaining this position. Often I eat my meals squatting in the garden and it is very satisfying. When I slowly get up again I feel my hips and spine are more fluidly mobile and somehow stronger than before. I’m not sure what my neighbours think though… Happy squatting!

References:

[i] Doyle, A.C. “The Hound of the Baskervilles.” 2007. Penguin Classics.

[ii] Dawkins, R. “The Ancestors’s Tale.” 2005. Phoenix.

Posted in Chen Taijiquan, Martial arts, movement, Squatting, Tai Chi, yoga | Tagged , , , , , | 4 Comments

Paying Attention: The Power of Perception

first published in the 2013 spring/summer edition of Tai Chi and Oriental Arts Magazine

If you took footage of a sportsperson engaging in their chosen pursuit and slowed it right down you would immediately be able to see much more detail in the way that they move when compared to a normal speed performance. You could observe significantly more of what was happening in the background too. If you were a bio-mechanic or sports-scientist you could assess their performance, gait, economy of movement and so on and then use this information to help the athlete improve the way that they move. If you could get said athlete into a laboratory, you could attach motion sensors to all of his or her joints and spine and then measure their alignment and efficiency in relation to each other with the help of a computer programme. Further still, you could attach electrodes to the athlete to gauge the quality of muscle tone and distinguish any areas of unnecessary tension. Regular treatments from an osteopath or chiropractor could relieve symptoms of persistent structural misalignments. Perhaps one might even measure their brain activity in a bid to calculate just how well they concentrate and focus and define whether or not they are in ‘the zone’. Or more simply, you could just teach them Tai Chi.

Slowly but surely wins the race...

Slowly but surely wins the race…

Initially, the most distinguishing feature of Tai Chi training is that it is carried out slowly even consisting at times of the absence of obvious external movement entirely (i.e. Zhanzhuang). It is this slowness and stillness that facilitates key neurological and physiological developments in Tai Chi; it allows us time learn how to accurately feel, locate and assess our bodies from the inside out within and in relation to the field of our external environment. Learning how to directly and accurately sense our internal architecture allows us to optimise and integrate our physical and mental capacities to the full and thus produce the health and fitness that is required for a fulfilling life and fundamental in martial arts. As you learn and practise the slow, smooth movements of Tai Chi focusing your mind on the job in hand is essential to develop the ability to perceive and influence the mechanisms of your own inner workings – through practise you can become your own bio-mechanic, your own sports-scientist. As your perception improves you start to clearly feel how the body is connected, moves and operates naturally as an integrated system rather than merely coordinated and controlled separate parts.

Training this way we progressively uncover and augment the natural principles of Tai Chi rather than somehow forcing them into ourselves (a common misconception). The most important concern here is the development of sufficient awareness and perception for without these one cannot discern such essential discrepancies in the body nor clearly and accurately feel how one actually moves and functions. Furthermore, training and augmenting our proprioceptive and kinesthetic faculties directly stabilises and strengthens our body structure by activating usually neglected tonic (postural and slow twitch) motor units.[i] It is slowness and stillness that gives us time to do this, to pay attention to the body and mind and discover what they really do rather than what we think or would like them to do and merely training blindly and incongruently. Intellectually, one might have a deep knowledge of human anatomy, TCM or have read every book on Tai Chi theory but it doesn’t mean you can do Tai Chi. It’s easy to talk the talk but walking the walk comes from ongoing practise and direct experience:

‘If I rely entirely on books then it is better not to have books. If I rely entirely on teachers, then it is better not to have teachers.’ T. T. Liang [ii]

All of us can sense our bodies and minds to some degree for if we couldn’t successful interaction with the external world would be impossible. However, when we really tune in to our physicality it is surprising just how much of our bodies we cannot clearly feel or are completely unaware of. Assuming that our nervous system is working properly there is potentially no part of ourselves that we cannot feel.[iii] However, our habitual mental busyness is a distinct distraction from accurate perception and awareness.[iv] In fact it as though all of our senses are dulled by thinking. Unfortunately, from a young age we are taught to ignore the majority of the body and its sensations in favour of mental activity. We have to sit down all day at school and lose much of our natural strength, awareness and freedom of movement especially in the lower body. Many of us then go on to do sedentary jobs post-education. We can become ‘top-heavy’ with incessant thinking as our body awareness diminishes and we tend to care more about our thoughts and how the body looks from the outside rather than how it feels and works from the inside. It is unfortunate that when we do get around to noticing the body it is usually as we get older and because it is in pain. For many of us even when we exercise and consciously use our bodies the emphasis is upon ‘no pain no gain’ and we blindly and repetitively push the body ever harder ignoring the plethora of physical sensations that suggest that how we are using our bodies is entirely uneconomical.

It seems that we cannot but help to separate mind from body in our culture, even our language necessitates such a divide, but in order to do anything well we have to realise this fundamental error. In order to understand the integrated nature of the mind and body we must recognise that the mind, as a function of the brain, is essentially embodied i.e. a physical thing; the legendary organ simply forms the condensed pinnacle of an extensive nervous system that permeates the whole body.[v] If we approach the mind and body as an integrated unit; we cannot separate training our muscles from our mental activity for they are obviously inextricably linked.[vi] Training the body perceptively necessitates a quietening and training of the mind as it is actively engaged it in its observant and embodied nature.

So the first and most important principle in Tai Chi is that we learn how pay attention to what we do. As we are mainly concerned with developing our health, which is a sensible starting point for everything else, we learn to pay attention to the body and our senses. By paying attention to the body we can discover a great deal about how we use it and start to develop a tangible sense of and a good relationship with this our essential internal architecture. From here we can foster such skills as learning how to relax and move with ease, structural integrity, balance and connected strength. Paying attention to the body and immersing yourself in the direct experience of its myriad perceptions is as much of a mental as it is a physical process. I cannot focus upon feeling and sensing the body clearly if my mind is otherwise engaged and I am thinking about something else or drifting off in some kind of reverie. Through practise I can learn to engage my mind in a wholesome way and orient it to the present moment through my sense perception. Often we find that our minds consist of a constant chatter, by learning to pay attention to the senses we can promotes a much more democratic life rather than simply being governed from the top down.

The skill of paying attention can make all the difference to your ability because it directly challenges inefficient movement, actions and habitual ‘mistakes’ because you learn to notice much more of what you do. It keeps you grounded in the present moment rather than drifting off on auto-pilot. Through paying attention I can acquire the feedback necessary to distinguish what the body actually does rather than what I think it does and often these are two very different things. For example, I might think that my posture is quite well balanced because it is habitual, but when I stand up and really focus upon feeling and pay attention to my body I discover that I have a tendency to lean back.[vii] Similarly, I might consider myself to be quite a relaxed person but on a physiological level my adrenals have been working overtime for years to keep me alert or stressed and this has simply become my normal mode of existence so I do not notice it. Through being aware we desist from blindly operating on automaticity and thus have a chance to facilitate improvement in our health and our chosen art on many levels.

So in order to evaluate optimally how we use our bodies it should occur personally from the inside via felt senses such as proprioception. This marvellous term refers to the internal physical sensation of bodily positioning in three dimensional space. It is via proprioception that we sense our interior architecture and the mechanics and processes of our own movement and posture. Without proprioception simple actions such as walking or reaching for a mug of tea would be very difficult, nigh on impossible. Typically a high level sportsperson exhibits a higher than average level of this fascinating attribute and a high-level Tai Chi player perhaps even higher! As Yoda from the Star Wars trilogy gurgled: “Luke…you have to feel the force “ so too in Tai Chi do we want to move away from intellectualising our practise, the body and how it should move and instead gravitate towards developing an accurate felt sense of the direct experience of our bodies and minds in the present moment as a foundation for all subsequent practise.[viii]

It is incredible to note then that usually where we have gaps in our proprioception and kinaesthetic awareness there are habitual restrictions and impingements of movement in the corresponding unfelt parts of the body.[ix] Our connective tissue, the myofascial net that holds the entirety of the human form together from top to toe and essentially comprises our body structure, starts to lose its vital elastic nature and becomes rigid. Similarly, the stability and mobility of the joints diminishes when consistently unfelt and unconsciously used in turn further compromising the structure and function of the whole body. The knock on effect of all this is that without fully engaging our senses the structural integrity of the whole body is compromised which gradually hinders all major functions and movement.[x] To perform any action well we have to work on ridding ourselves of unnecessary tension which impedes our natural motion, perception and flow of awareness. Similarly, we must seek that our entirety works together as a seamless, balanced and homogeneous unit for it is in this direction that health lies. Improving our ability to feel and be mindful of our actions can thus be fundamental to how we improve our health. It all comes down awareness: the essential tool of the mind that firmly roots it back into the body. Not only does such awareness training foster a healthy body free from restriction and pain but also serves as an incredible tool for calming the overactive mind. Deliberately sensing the body brings us directly into contact with the present moment, which is where everything happens, and it trains the mind to focus and disassociate from churning endlessly over as if on automatic pilot. Modern neuroscience literature suggests that this trained ‘presence’ actually builds new neural pathways within the brain and is akin to the highly prized ‘Zone’ a top sportsman enters when on good form. It also shares some similarities with various ‘Mindfulness’ practises which are fashionable at the moment.

Out of all exercise systems Tai Chi is unique in that it specifically trains proprioception as a most basic and essential requirement. Learning how to feel the entirety of our bodies takes time and practise but as this ability improves so does everything else. It underpins movement, posture, balance and strength. By readdressing the balance between our internal world and the outside we can develop more of an integrated and enjoyable way of life. Learning anything new can be challenging of course and this is great because it is the actual learning process that keeps us mentally and physically agile just as much as the content of what we learn. It is this experience that greatly contributes to the neuroplasticity of the brain thus keeping our minds fresh.[xi] In this sense too we can keep our bodies fresh by continually experiencing new ways of moving and by challenging the habitual ways in which we hold ourselves that restrict our natural movement.

Sam Moor teaches Chen style Tai Chi and Yiquan full time across Sussex. www.sussextaichi.co.uk.

References:


[i] Richardson, C. et al. Therapeutic Exercise For Spinal Segmental Stabilization in Low Back Pain. 1999, Churchill Livingstone.

[ii] Olson, S. Steal my Art: The life and times of Tai Chi Master, T.T. Liang. 2002, North Atlantic Books.

[iii] Myers, T. Anatomy Trains (second edition). 2009, Elsevier.

[iv] Didonna, F. et al. Clinical Handbook of Mindfulness. 2009, Springer.

[v] Siegal, D. The Mindful Brain. 2007, W. W. Norton and Company

[vi] Oschman, J. Energy Medicine in Therapeutics and Human Performance. 2003, Elsevier.

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

[viii] Dawkins, R. The Magic of Reality – How we Know What’s Really True. 2011, Bantam Press.

[ix] Schultz, R. and Feitis, R. The Endless Web: Fascial Anatomy and Physical Reality. 1996, North Atlantic Books

[x] Schleip, R. et al. Fascia: The Tensional Network of the Human Body. 2012, Elsevier.

[xi] Siegal, D. The Mindful Brain. 2007, W. W. Norton and Company

Posted in Health and Fitness, Martial arts, Meditation, mindfulness, sports science, Tai Chi, yoga | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments