In the last post, we looked at a well-known secret on the easy way of getting good at taiji. However, there is also a not-so well-known secret that sits alongside it. And that secret is that a large proportion of taiji practice involves working with a partner.
Why Partner Work Is Important
You may recall from an earlier post, that our internal movement in taiji is expelling bad stuff (binqi) and bringing-in new good stuff. This action originates in the martial art of taijiquan. We neutralise our opponent's attacks by taking their force through our body and either sending it away or giving it back to our opponent. This isn't a trick you can learn overnight. It requires practice of the quality I described in last week's notes.
You need to explore what it feels like to become a conduit of an opponent's energy, to conduct and send that energy away, or to fold it back into the opponent. Through this exploration, you gradually become adept at doing it correctly without conscious effort. And by doing this, you become adept at the internal movement of taiji.
Perhaps the most well-known partner exercise in taiji is 'tui shou' (pushing hands). This is a fairly sophisticated, structured sparring exercise, where the partners are trying to cause one another to lose balance. Other, even more sophisticated sparring exercises, are 'da lu' and 'san shou', which also incorporate foot work. The only way to learn these things properly is through instruction and practice.
However, before we get to these partner forms in our classes, we need to spend some time learning some of the principles employed. We do this using 'sticking hands', 'two-handed yielding', and a basic form of 'ba gua'.
In practising sticking hands, we are learning to generally perceive our partner - their position, movements, energy - without using our eyes. Not only that, but we are learning to trust our perception. This is the beginning of our understanding of how to sense subtle movements and changes in our external environment.
In two-handed yielding, we up the ante slightly. In this exercise, we have a defender and an attacker. As the defender, we are learning to hide our centre of gravity, or 'root'. As the 'attacker', we are learning how to seek-out our partner's root, and thus cause them to lose their balance.
These exercises can really only be learned through live teaching, and they will are gradually introduced to students as they become more comfortable with the basic solo work.
Tuesday, 15 October 2013
MovementIn the previous article, we considered how one of the foundations of taiji is expansion. This expansion provides us with a good infrastructure for movement - a movement that flows from within. Think of it like plumbing. By expanding the joints, we are opening the valves and turning on the taps. Our aim then is to make 'qi' flow through the pipes. To do this, our 'qi' has to be pumped from somewhere and must travel to somewhere.
What is this qi?I think that a particularly good translation of the word 'qi', is 'stuff'. Qi refers to all sorts of things, the most tangible being bodily matter (solids, fluids, and gases), such as metabolic by-products, blood, synaptic fluid, air, methane, etc. Stuff.
The exercises we study and practice in taiji get rid of 'binqi' - bad stuff. Things like lactic acid in the muscles, ammonium chloride in the joints, calcifications, stagnant joint fluid, puss, methane, and the like. Stuff that we would rather not have inside us, but nevertheless is present either because we put it there, or because it is produced by natural body processes.
It is reasonable to assume that there is an abundance of good stuff around us; fresh water, fresh air, fresh food, etc. So in taiji, we adopt the same strategy as breathing, eating, and drinking - we send out the stuff we have used and no longer need, which in so doing, causes a whole load of new, fresh stuff to flow in. And then we repeat ad infinitum.
So our internal movement within our plumbing system is always in an outward direction, sending all of the qi away.
The DestinationWe control where we send the stuff away to with our mind. We do this by thinking and focusing on the place we want our stuff to go to. It doesn't necessarily matter where that destination is, provided it isn't a person. Rather we choose our destination based on its distance (the further the better), the direction (the direction we want our qi to flow in), and how well we know the place (obviously it is easier to think of and focus on somewhere we know well).
The PumpIn order for the stuff to actually move through our newly opened plumbing system, it needs to be pumped. This is done by the 'lower dantian'. The lower dantian is a region in the abdomen, centrally located about halfway between the navel and genitals, and about a third of the way inside, in between the abdominal muscles.
The lower dantian is activated with certain exercises that I will be teaching in my classes. When it is activated, the lower dantian pumps qi through the body when we make all body movement originate from it. This process is easier to understand by demonstration and practice than by reading.
However, I really want to emphasise that making ALL body movement originate in the dantian, resulting in a flowing, joined-up movement, is the foundation to this process. If you are not doing this, then you are not doing taiji.
Come along to a class and try it out for yourself!
Wednesday, 9 October 2013
Coming to Your First ClassNew students turning up to their first taiji class often don't know exactly what to expect. So, if you decide to come to one of our classes, then the following might give you some insights.
What is important?Taijiquan is called an 'internal' martial art for good reason, because it is primarily about what is happening on the inside of the body. Our aim is not to perfect the external manifestation of a taijiquan form, but rather to perfect the necessary internal structure and movements in manifesting any and all of our external movements. We use taijiquan form as a means of studying and practicing this.
Taijiquan form is important, but there are some even more important fundamentals that need to be covered before and during our study of taijiquan form.
ExpansionTaiji is all about expansion, rather than relaxation. Expansion is fundamental to taiji. For example, we endeavour to expand our joints, creating space between them.
We begin our studies by focusing on expanding the biggest joints - our hips, shoulders, and spines. It might be debatable whether our spines are joints, but for our purposes we can think of them as a string of joints running from the coccyx to the base of the skull. We find that muscles around these joints are prone to a lot of physical tension, due to lifestyle habits, negative emotions, and other forms of stress, which in turn cause the joints to contract.
Many of the exercises that we do are intended to work on these joints; firstly to loosen them, and then to gently expand them. Taijiwuxigong exercises are particularly helpful in achieving this. Each week we spend time doing these exercises, gradually improving our understanding of how we make expansion happen and how it feels. We also apply this fundamental knowledge each week in a step-by-step study of the taijiquan form known as Taiji37 form.
BenefitsThe upshot of this is that studying and practicing taiji provides relief from the physical effects of long term stress. Come along and find out for yourself - the more you do it, the better it works.
Tuesday, 8 October 2013
How to Become Good at TaijiIn the previous article, we considered what the word 'movement' really means in taiji and how it is done. You will recall that the concept is profoundly simple, yet putting it into practice is far from straightforward. This is mainly because it requires us to re-learn some fundamental aspects of movement, things we originally learned as young children.
Clearly, movement is pretty fundamental to taiji, in fact it is fundamental to everything we do in life, even sleep. So as a newbie to taiji, it might not be such an attractive prospect to discover that much of the initial work is about learning to move (also breathe, think, and sense) differently than how you do in everyday life. To alleviate this, I am going to let you into a secret: the easy way to become good at taiji.
The Easy WayThis easy method is so simple that you will probably have to read it twice to notice what it is. In fact the philosophy of it is contained within that sentence.
Much of the effort in bodywork is in development of proprioception - knowing what it feels like to move and position very specific parts of your body in very specific places. To truly know, you have to explore and to question: what am I doing now? where am I now? where do I need to be? how do I need to move to get to where I need to be? what does it feel like when I am there?
And that last question is probably the most important: how does it feel? Essentially, it is an act of introspection. What is important is this exploratory process, not how long it takes, or how successful you are. Focus on the exploration. ENJOY it and have FUN with it.
When you go to your next taiji class, use your taiji teacher as a talking mirror. Really apply the feedback you get, really enjoy it and remember what it feels like when you know you are closer to getting it right. Take that knowledge with you and apply it to everything you do. Re-tune your perception of taiji into a philosophy of movement that you apply to everything you do. That way, you can enjoy it so much more because you will have so many more opportunities to explore.
During those moments of your life where you are doing relatively little movement - perhaps you are watching TV or listening to the radio, or even just boiling the kettle - remember what you learned in taiji class last time. Play with it, explore it, and enjoy it. It need not take more than five minutes, but oh, what five minutes of joy!
So, when you go along to your next class and try it out for yourself, you will probably already begin to notice how much easier it is.
Tuesday, 1 October 2013
What Is Tai Chi?The term 'tai chi' is an English abbreviation of the term 'tai chi chuan'. Sometimes you see tai chi written as ‘taiji’ and tai chi chuan as ‘taijiquan’; both ways of spelling it have the same meaning and are interchangeable.
The abbreviation from tai chi chuan to tai chi is so made because the 'chuan' part means 'boxing' or 'sparring', and most practitioners tend not to focus on the martial aspect. When taken alone, the 'tai chi' part of the term has several translations. It depends on context in the same way that 'bear' does in English (we should bear in mind that there are many varieties of bear).
In the literature, we often see tai chi translated as 'grand ultimate' - hence tai chi chuan becomes 'grand ultimate boxing'. It sounds nice, but it does not really describe what the practice consists of. A more informative translation of tai chi is 'unlimited size'.
The term 'unlimited size' actually refers to a fundamental principle of tai chi: expansion. Expansion is the practice of stretching and expanding your joints, and creating space between them. Practitioners begin their studies by focusing on expanding the biggest joints: hips, shoulders, and spines.
We find that muscles around these joints are prone to a lot of physical tension, due to lifestyle habits, negative emotions, and other forms of stress, which in turn cause the joints to contract. By studying tai chi, we gradually improve our understanding of how we make expansion happen and how it feels. This is why studying tai chi provides relief from the physical effects of long term stress.
However, ‘expansion’ is a fundamental principle of tai chi for somewhat more profound reasons than this…