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Picture of me with my big Bagua broadsword. More can be seen here: https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.10151244101850986.452753.126539245985&type=1
Tai Chi, XingYi, and Bagua classes are now listed on the Experimental College’s website:
Please spread the word!
One cannot learn push hands from a blog post. Consider these just a few reminders for when practicing without the aid of a teacher.
Begin by bowing to your partner a few steps away from them. Then take one step to close the distance and a second step to get into the position. The front foot should be parallel to your partner’s, a few inches away, and with the toes at least as far as their heal. The forearms will touch in a peng (ward off) position, but as soon as contact is made movement should commence as the slight touch of your partner should give a signal as to how you should respond.
Most of the weight of the body should be kept on the back leg for the duration of the exercise, but be careful not to push back with the front leg as this may loosen ones connection to the ground. Turn the body via the kua (hip joints) without excessive movement of the hips or knees and rotate as if your back leg were a swiveling stool with the upper body resting upon it.
As your partner pushes forward on your elbow joint respond by simultaneously sitting into the front kua, bending the elbow, and turning the hand palm up to ward off your partner’s movement. Although these moves happen at the same time, we must think that the movement is driven by the bending of the hip joint while the elbow and hand are merely following along. This prevents the movements of the arm, which is in contact with your partner, from becoming discernible or telegraphed. As soon as you’ve moved your partner’s arm off your center, begin to turn the palm face down again and open the the front kua. As you follow your partner’s elbow back and rotate the forearm make sure not to raise the elbow too high or lift the shoulder.
Keep the body and head upright at all times during the exercise. There should be no need to bend forward or back, just rotate horizontally out of the way of your partner’s push. When you are pushing, don’t lean in to try to push strongly as this could easily result in being thrown off balance. Stay upright, and be aware of how your partner moves to avoid your subtle push.
After several turns your back leg may start to burn and shake from carrying the weight of the body in movement. This is good. Do not immediately come out of your stance when you feel this; rather, try to relax through the burning and notice how your leg wants to straighten itself out to escape it. Learn to master the body by not giving in to the first presence of discomfort. Stay focused on your partner, and do not allow the creeping tension in the leg to hinder your responses to his movements.
My family and I have moved to Davis, CA, my home town, to be closer to the rest of my relatives.
I am also hoping to teach neijia a lot more, eventually even opening a school.
Last Saturday I went to a Tai Chi push hands gathering held at the local farmers market. About five or six people showed up. Interestingly, while nearly all of them knew some sort of Tai Chi form, none seemed to have a great deal of experience with push hands. This is perhaps to be expected as the group was only founded a few short months ago. What was very encouraging was the high-level of enthusiasm to learn more about Tai Chi push hands as well as the other neijia martial arts, particularly bauguazhang.
Having grown up in Davis, I’ve always felt that it was a place where neijia could really thrive, so it is a bit puzzling that there seems to be so few teachers in the area. While I am qualified to teach many aspects of the art, I also hope that by spreading what I know here, it could attract other teachers here as well. The best way we can improve ourselves and grow the art as a whole is by constantly comparing and testing our methods and abilities with that of others.
Information about classes to be held at the UC Davis Experimental College can be found here: http://ecollege.ucdavis.edu/pages/7
Push hands practice in Taijiquan can teach us a lot about basic human behavior. Much of what we learn is obvious in a push hands or martial art context, but not so clear in everyday life. For example, in push hands we’re trying to sense our partner’s movements to a very subtle degree, but we must also be aware that they are trying to do the same to us. Thus, if we think we have the advantage and begin to move against our partner, they may sense this change and will act differently in response. Because we want to make the most of an advantageous position when it arises, we remind ourselves: do not use force, especially when advancing on an opponent so as not to reveal one’s position. All the time we must think of following the opponent, even if we are on the offensive.
Taijiquan’s push hands method is very similar to free-market economic theory. In an ideal free-market, individuals have an incentive to cooperate by maximizing their comparative advantage in labor. Individuals “follow” and adapt to the labor production of others and then trade on that which they produce in a comparatively better way. The difficulty lies in figuring out what exactly one should produce in a given society. This entails knowing oneself (what one is good at producing) as well as knowing others (what could be offered to society). Finding that out requires a push hands-like attunement to ourselves and the environment, yet the better we are at this task the more successful we can be as individuals and the more we can benefit our community.
At least two mistakes can be made in this economic paradigm. First: trying to do something for which one clearly does not have a comparative advantage. This could be likened to having too much force or tension within ones own body, so that the movements are unnatural. In Tai Chi push hands, we act in ways which are forceful we reveal our intentions to the opponent and are also doing so in an inefficient way. Using inefficient force in this way backfires and leads to failure just as it does in the free market. Second: trying to manipulate market incentives where they are felt to be lacking, such as subsidizing a specific industry. This is essentially trying to create an economic incentive where one does not exist and increase production or consumption of a particular good. Creating incentives artificially like that is similar to using obviously forceful techniques against an opponent, trying to get them to move in a way that is more favorable to your victory. Normally, the opponent will sense what you are trying to do and react. Of course, they may not be able to react in time and the technique may actually work, but it can’t work forever because after being attacked once, the opponent will be more cautious and make adjustments. Similarly, a subsidy may actually work, and help an industry to be more profitable. Yet, the act of subsidizing sends a signal to the market as to what the economic planner intends to do, so that in the future the industry may take greater and great risks, believing they can always count on continued assistance no matter their actions.
Economics is merely a hobby of mine, but many of the theories confirm what we Tai Chi practitioners observe every time we do the form or interact with others. The simple idea of ‘not using force’ has unlimited applications and can help us all to better interact with our environment and ourselves.
The reason I emphasize the 5 Elements paradigm so much is because I feel that it is a road map to achieve mastery of Taijiquan as a complete system of internal martial arts. So in that sense the paradigm is quite theoretical because many practitioners will not be able to reach such a diversified level of practice. However, I believe the framework is still very useful even to beginners because it defines some goals which they should be shooting for at their level. The very first level in the paradigm (and my curriculum) is the Earth level which corresponds to the skill of connecting ones alignment to the ground, also known as root.
The important contribution of the Zheng Manqing style to taijiquan was that his style softened up the large-frame postures of his teacher’s style by taking away the emphasis on stretching out the empty leg and pushing out the palms. The forgoing of structure allowed the arms and legs to be closer to the body, so that it became easier to relax more of the body’s weight onto the single standing leg. For this reason, Zheng’s style had a clear advantage in the building of root compared to its parent Yang style.
My teacher and Zheng’s student, Liu Xiheng, further streamlined the process of achieving root by practicing a weight shifting routine separate from the form while incorporating hand movements similar to those used in the from. We called these the “bitter exercises” because the repetitive drilling into the ground with the legs was quite taxing. Mr. Liu however, understood that the skills learned in his basic exercises were not representative of the complete set of skills that embody taijiquan. He therefore modified his basic routine to incorporate elements of Yang style’s longer structural moves paired with more spiral moves normally associated with the Chen style. Practicing this way helped Mr. Liu’s more advanced students to appreciate the benefits of different ways of movement in other styles of taijiquan.
Having taught Mr. Liu’s routine for few years now, I now see it as somewhat problematic for beginners. As soon as one starts adding complexity one loses the focus on the original intent of the exercises which was to build a root. Let me be clear about what I mean by a beginner: A beginning taijiquan student is someone who has not comprehended root i.e. they are still double weighted or pushing against the ground with their legs such their movements are off balance. Root pertains to the Earth element which I definitely believe should come before the other four elements when practicing taijiquan. Yet the complexity of Mr. Liu’s routine adds other elements into the mix: the Wood element or extended structure of the Yang style and the Water element or curving nature of the Chen style. Adding these other skills before the first one is mastered is not a good idea. One thing I’ve noticed about many practitioners of the Yang and Chen styles is that their body’s connection to ground was not as firm as their Zheng style counterparts.
In order to help people achieve root in the most streamlined fashion, I’ve taken a hatchet to Mr. Liu’s routine. Rather than trying to master the hand movements of Brush Knee and Push or Bend Bow Shoot Tiger, now I have students keep their arms down with their hands guiding the waist or reaching down to the knees. In order to touch the knee while keeping the body upright you really have to get in a low posture by bending both knees. Sinking down in that way while shifting from one leg to the other is a more focused (and bitter?) way to achieve a root. The emphasis is NOT on trying to get the power of the legs to support the motion of the hands (which it eventually should be) but rather on the conditioning of the legs and establishing that all-important connection to the ground in the first place.
This is my proposal for a “complete” internal system based on Tai Chi’s 5 steps (elements) theory of the thirteen postures:
All of these systems also have at least some of the applications derived from the other part of the 13 postures-the 8 gates (trigrams) theory. If one wanted to be thorough, they could practice each of the trigram applications 5 different ways according to the style or structure they were trying to emulate; that would be 40 different techniques. However, the 8 gates are only a bit less general than the 5 steps, in that there could be many ways to perform them even with the same structure, so it might be better not to limit one’s practice too much. It would be interesting to explore how the structure taken would effect each of the trigram techniques.
This is only an outline; the book will come later.
To review/summarize/update things I wrote before. Here’s rundown how I view the thirteen postures of Tai Chi for martial arts training
To review, the number 13 refers to the 5 Steps or Stances and the 8 Gates.
The 5 Steps: step forward, step back, look left, look right, and central equilibrium, relate to the 5 elements fire, water, wood, metal, and earth respectively. To me the elements are different ways the body as a whole can move without regard to specific techniques. So ,
Fire: Explosive power, like a tongbei extended punch, or a strike using whip-like energy
Water: Soft/Mobile, like baguazhang stepping or a yielding push hands
Wood: Structural, like Yang style big frame, or the 5 fists of Xingyiquan
Metal: Hard, bludgeoning often with elbows/knees-Xinyiliuhe or Thai boxing
Earth: Stable, absorbing force, like heavy wrestling or fixed-step push hands
The 8 gates are martial art techniques rather than postures, but they are still not fixed applications but general ideas. They are peng, lu, ji, an, cai, lie, zhou, kao. The 1st four are “regular” or structured the 2nd four are “irregular” or folding moves.
Peng: ward off, or keeping enemy at safe distance without retreating
Lu: Flanking, or attacking from in the middle as opponent over-extends
Ji: Focused attack on a small area
An: Two (or more) sided attack to control or stop opponent’s momentum
Cai: A pull taking advantage of over-extension
Lie: Quick strike taking advantage of an structural opening
Zhou: An elbow (or knee) strike taking advantage of forceful block.
Kao: A Shoulder (or hip) strike taking advantage of a forceful grab.
Most martial arts have at least some of these techniques. Taijiquan nicely categorizes them to be of use to martial artists not even interested in practicing a Tai Chi form.
There are two ways that I view taijiquan. One is comprised of the various forms and styles that are practiced as Tai Chi today, such as Yang style, Chen style, Wu style, etc. Included among these are some writings like “Yang’s Ten Points” or other descriptions of Tai Chi movements which serve as guidelines in practicing these forms.
The second and IMO more meaningful way to look at Tai Chi is a philosophical paradigm for practicing and categorizing martial arts as a whole. This framework is know as the 13 postures. Each of the 13 postures are what librarians might call metadata in that they describe general ways of moving in a martial arts context. I will talk about this more later, but the point is that martial artists of different styles can use the 13 postures as a way to further develop their training without actually having to learn a Tai Chi form.