Archive for the ‘Form’ Category

Left Ward Off

July 12, 2017

First stepping move of Tai Chi, Left Ward Off.


Naturalistic Tai Chi

July 26, 2016

A naturalist error is one in which we fail to make a distinction between something that is factual or concrete knowledge and something which is a prescription for action or what ought to be done; also known as the is/ought fallacy. Ex. Just because drinking alcohol *is* helpful in preventing some medical problems, doesn’t mean we all *ought* to be drinking.   If it feels good, should we always do it?   Not necessarily.  Through scientific study, we learn about the world and much about our bodies function and structure.  But how we are to use that knowledge in our Tai Chi is quite a separate matter.

This problem is represented by two separate fields of exercise science: biomechanics and motor control.   In biomechanics, we learn about muscle anatomy and equations for determining the velocity, force, torque, etc of bodily movement.  Much of this research is done by video analysis, or things we can see externally.  Motor control, on the other hand, is concerned with what we think about, focus on, or are told to do in order to produce movement.  It focuses more on the internal world.  Or to sum up:  Biomechanics describes what movement is while motor control is concerned with how movement is produced by humans.

Things get more interesting when we start talking about the mind, or the cognitive neuroscience of movement. When we “think” about movement the part of the brain most utilized is the thinking part of the brain or the cortex, more specifically, the motor cortex and some nearby regions. As movements become more skilled and require less conscious control, sub-cortical regions of the brain like the cerebellum take over.  This unconscious control center, which is responsible for refined movement, contains half the neurons in the entire brain, demonstrating how the brain’s structure prioritizes the importance of movements which are not consciously controlled.

Specifically thinking about a movement, according to the brain’s structure, means that we are engaging in a movement which is less skilled or not even a skill at all.  Thus in Tai Chi practice, if we are thinking about which muscles to use when or about the various angles of our joints while moving, we have not yet refined those movements enough so that they can be taken over by the cerebellum, i.e. unconsciously controlled  This is perfectly normal in the beginning when learning a new skill, but as we advance we must practice letting go of excessive “biomechanical” thoughts, so that we can develop smoother more efficient movements.

Learning biomechanics or anatomy is not necessary for learning or even teaching Tai Chi.  Thinking about movement is different from the physics of the movement that occurs.   It actually may do more harm than good. In motor learning research studies, it’s been shown that when students are told to focus their minds externally, that is focus on the effects their correct movement is supposed to have rather than focusing internally or on the feeling of certain muscles being used, joint angles etc, those focusing externally have the advantage in learning the new movement.  Teachers often make the mistake of telling students that a movement should “feel” a certain way or that this muscle should be used, but this is not how people learn new movements efficiently.  Thinking externally by being told things like “punch toward his gut” initiates a lot of automatic control processes in the brain that naturally coordinate many of the desired muscle actions.  Once that basic movement has been ingrained in the mind then the student can gradually devote more cognitive resources to refining certain aspects of the movement and improve how it feels.

In the internal martial arts, many instructors have experience with traditional Chinese medical terms like Qi and have little anatomical knowledge.  Ordinarily, this wouldn’t be a problem, yet if taught right away, it could cause students some learning difficulties due to the inefficiency of internal visualization.  Saying things like “train your Qi” also has very limited benefits for teaching people how to develop practice methods that are specific to them.  “Qi” is a representation of how we feel performing certain movements.  How anyone feels during movement is very subjective, and telling people that they should feel a certain way may not help them move any better at all.  This is where some might start talking about biomechanics instead, thinking that the more accurate depictions of movement will help people move better.   However, attempting this would mean bumping into the classic degrees of freedom problem in motor learning studies, namely that there are so many possible configurations of the various joint angles of the entire body that we must somehow choose from a mathematically infinite number of movement possibilities — far too much for our conscience minds to handle at the speed needed for athletic activities.

So what are some good visualization techniques?  As noted above, the best ones are those that have some depiction of the motion that is outside the body.  For example, when working on the stability of various fixed postures, try imagining being able to support pressure from several different directions.  The imagery can be aided by having someone push on you from different angles. Imagining outside forces prevents the mind from focusing too much on particular aspect of the movement or specific muscle groups and naturally unifies the body.

Thinking of the martial art applications is often a useful way to get people to learn new movements quickly.  Some Tai Chi practitioners are resistant to this idea because they feel that thinking of direct applications with lose sight of Tai Chi’s emphasis on relaxation.   In the beginning this will be true; however, no movements can be very relaxed when they are first being learned.  I argue that it is better to first teach the move in the most efficient way possible so that greater relaxation can begin to occur even sooner than if we focused on relaxation right from the beginning.

Some martial art applications are too complicated for the beginner to usefully visualize in the early stages of learning; this is especially true of the internal styles of Kung Fu.  For those I would suggest other less complex imagery to aid in learning such as drawing lines in the air with the hands/feet or moving imaginary objects around.  These visualizations are simply a means to an end, and can be discarded once the basic movement becomes more automatic.

To sum up,  what we actually think about to produce movement in the martial arts doesn’t matter in the least, as long as it helps us move the way we want to, whether it be qi energy flowing from your dantian or equally imaginary arcs, angles, and line segments in the air. After all, the goal for martial artists should be to not have to think about their own movements at all, but to devote those precious cognitive resources to discerning the movements of the opponent.

Modified ‘Play the Pipa’

July 18, 2011

Mr. Liu would have us hold the posture Play the Pipa in his set routine.  He practiced this posture differently by keeping the front foot flat on the ground and putting more weight on it.  The original posture has nearly 100% of the weight on the back leg and the toe off the ground as shown below:

Yang's 'Play the Pipa' (flipped)

Practicing this way builds a different kind of strength in the back leg as well as builds the muscles of the front shin.  Mr. Liu’s posture allows the waist to relax a bit easier.  I demonstrate my teacher’s modified posture below:

Me performing Liu's Pipa

This posture is a bit more directly useful in push hands practice as it matches a position which occurs frequently.  The opponents each have one hand on their partner’s  chest and the other hand on their partner’s elbow.    Shown here:

Play the Pipa in Push Hands

We practice this simple push hands method because there is little room to maneuver or block with the hands,  so both partners have to focus on having a root in their feet or they will get pushed out quickly.   It is also easy to control a tense elbow in this position as well.  Practicing the solo modified ‘Play the Pipa’ posture will certainly help in the two man exercise.

The Five Elements of Taiji (Part 2)

August 30, 2009

This article will discuss the training methods used for each of the five element styles described in Part 1.

Earth Training:

A strong root is the most basic of taiji’s skills.  Standing postures and slow form work are the ways one can build up this connection to the ground.  All taiji players should have some of this, while others will take the element to the ultimate extreme by trying to remain almost completely still while others attack.  I once pushed with a older man in Taiwan who did not move much at all and could not control me, yet he was impossible for me to move.  Try as I might, by hook or by crook, I could not shake or entice him out of his solid stance.  Although this is not my style, I can appreciate that ability after having studied Shuai Jiao (aka Chinese Wrestling), where being immovable often mean being unthrowable.

In order to manifest this energy proficiently, one must certainly have people push against their arms and body while holding and moving through the various postures.  In this way, one will gradually be able to support the weight of and absorb  attacks no matter where they are placed.

Water Training:

Training for softness begins in push hands practice.  The first step is to learn how to yield and follow with one’s entire body.  In this way one can completely move out of the way of the most transparent of attacks as well as follow opponents who become stuck at the end.  The second step is to learn how to yield to a resisting opponent who has some rooting skill.  This occasionally requires an attitude adjustment because when the opponent’s center is found, the initial response is to push on it.  Yet, if he is strong, the opponent will be able to resist a push on his center. As Sun- Tzu said,

“Leave a passage for a besieged army.  Do not press an enemy at bay.” (The Art of War Ch. 7)

What instead should be done is to immediately back off of the resistance, and allow him a space to fall. This creates an opportunity to change directions and attack in a more vulnerable position.  Essentially this is a micro-flanking maneuver.

Wood Training:

Practicing the standard long form shown in the pictures of Yang Cheng-fu is mostly what is needed to practice this style.  Some spear and/or long pole training would help as well.  Pushing out the palms and extending the empty leg as far as possible in each posture will build up the required limb and core strength.  Push hands should be practiced in a similar expansive way, making sure to keep ones arms (and the opponent’s) as far as possible from the body.

Metal Training,

After ones listening energy and root are developed, it is possible to begin putting those two energies together by reacting to the opponent’s energy more directly by grinding against his every move.  To even be able to practice this style one has to have developed a very heavy feeling in the arms through lots of slow form and posture training as well as some weight or heavy weapon work.  The difference between Metal and Earth or Wood training, is that when training for Metal the moves of the form may feel more robotic as one focuses on turning the joints and body in more precise (i.e. less flowing) directions.  In time one may feel no need to flow with the movements of a lesser skilled opponent but can direct their movements at will. It is said that Yang Cheng-fu would do this in push hands and his students arms would quickly become tired and sore.  In my own experience, my long form teacher was the only person I ever met who neared this ability.  It actually felt as if he had some sort of metal bionic arms, such was the amount of force he could manifest on mine.

Fire Training:

Training for explosive power is the last thing that one can train in push hands as it requires a strong root, relaxed smooth movements, and the ability to extend power quickly.  In order to pull this off successfully one also has to be able to conceal any intent to attack.  Although, it is the last thing that one likely will become proficient in, once all of the prerequisites are met, it is perhaps the easiest to practice.  I recommend learning Xing-yi for fire (fa-jing) practice as Taiji has little of it, even in Chen Style.

Cheng’s Change

July 15, 2009

If it ain’t broke why fix it?  This is what many people who practice other versions of the Yang form have asked about the 37-style form.   It is not really the number of moves or their order which seems to bother people.  Some are troubled by the comparatively small frame, yet there are also other Yang stylists who ended up with small frames themselves.  No, the crux of the criticism, in my view, tends to be directed toward the straight, relaxed wrist or as we say the “Beautiful Lady’s Hand.”  The BLH is something which only students of  Cheng’s lineage seem to do.  This is natural, considering Prof. Cheng and his main students have been so adamant about it.   In this article I will discuss the reasons for the change and possible trade-offs to the practice.

So why the BLH?   I believe the reasoning can be traced back to a comment made by Cheng in his book “The Thirteen Treatises.”  In it, he says that “of all the jins (energies, or types of movement) which he learned from Yang Cheng-fu, only jie jin (or borrowing force) was very difficult to learn.”  I interpret this statement to mean that Cheng was challenged by jie jin and that it consequently became something which he wanted to emphasize  in his practice.   Cheng’s style of push hands became geared toward borrowing the force of others in order to overcome them.

So what has jie jin got to do with the BLH?  In this style of Taiji, the ability to borrow the force of others is dependent upon 1. being able to sense the movement intentions of others and 2. not giving away your own intentions through subtle or unsuble tension in the hands. Being sensitive to movement is not really the most imporant point because if you give away your intent after your have dicerned the movement of your opponent, he will change his position as well, and you will have to start all over again.  Cheng’s solution, it appears,  was to practice taking ones focus away from the hands while doing the form such that it would become a habbit.  In this way the practictioner has a better shot of concealing his intent and employing jie jin.

Since it is safe to assume that practicing borrowing force was one of Cheng’s main goals in taiji quan, and that what he believed was necessary to achieve this goal was to eliminate tension in the hands, it then makes sense that Cheng would strongly emphasize keeping the hands and wrists relaxed both in push hands and in the form.    As I have often noticed, the most common mistake beginners to taiji and other internal martial artists make is to consentrate their movments within the hands and arms instead of in the waist and legs.   By taking the focus away from the performing an extended hand position, students are then somewhat better equiped to focus on the rest of the body.

Is there a trade off to Cheng’s BLH?  Indeed, there is.  By pushing the palms outward in an extended fashion as other internal styles often do, the stabilizing muscles of the upper back can be utilized to develop greater ward off (peng) power and/or lateral (heng) power.  Using these kinds of energies makes for a somewhat different push hands experience then Cheng seems to have preferred, where expansive energy from ones core muscles is utilized rather than soley attempting to use the opponent’s power against him.  In the one method the attention is directed at ones self, in Cheng’s method the attention is focused on others.

I do not believe that it is impossible to have both of these attributes in ones taiji.  But it would be very unlikely to see them both used within the same place and time.  Since Cheng was mainly concerned with ones attention in the form and not specific muscular development, in theory, as long as one can return to being soft and letting go of  force in the hands while pushing, the muscles you develop when not pushing ought not to interfere with performance.  However, from my own experiences, I felt that it was difficult to be doing one sort of taiji in the form and another in push hands, so I would not recommend it.

To conclude, it is not so much that the traditional long form is broken in some way, rather it was the practictioners’ difficulty to let go of tension in the hands and thus  telegraphing their movements, which seems to be the motivation behind the creation of Cheng’s “beautiful lady hand.”    I think it is still an open question as to whether “borrowing energy” or “Ward off energy” is superior and might largely depend on the practitioner.  What I do know, is that many styles practice developing extended peng or ward off energy.  Fewer styles even use borrowing force at all.  To my knowledge, Cheng’s style of taiji is the only martial art which exclusively specializes in borrowing force.  For that reason alone it deserves very special consideration.