Make Xing Yi wild again

animal animal photography avian beak

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Rewilding is an environmental process that brings nature back to life and restores living systems. Apex predators and keystone species are reintroduced and we let nature reclaim parts of the landscape, without human intervention.

The coronavirus pandemic has lead to a kind of enforced rewinding of the urban world. As the human race retreats indoors for the next few months it’s a chance for nature to reclaim parts of cities. As tourists left corona-stricken Venice, swans, fish and even dolphins returned to the canals. In England, the constant background hum of traffic is dimmed as people stay at home. As I stand in my back garden and look up at the last of the blossom on my cherry tree I can see more birds flitting about in its branches than normal. I can hear more bird song than usual.

One of my favourite martial arts, Xing Yi, was once a wild and untamed martial art, but over time it has become a rather domesticated and pale version of its former self. Human ideas have come to dominate in Xing Yi, where once nature was its real inspiration. But now Xing Yi can no longer be practiced freely with other people maybe we should take this time to do the same thing with it and other martial arts — rewild them and return them to the source.

animal close up country countryside

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Our hook into the natural world

After trees and fields, our next point of entry into the natural world is usually from seeing wild animals. Even in cities, animals are all around us, but we rarely pay much attention to them. Foxes roam our streets at night, magpies land on our rooftops and birds of prey can even hunt in our gardens. In the past animals provided inspiration for many martial arts. Xing Yi, with its various animal ‘shapes’, in particular, was one of them. Unlike humans, wild animals aren’t separated from nature by civilisation. Even our pets can unexpectdly reveal their wild side on occasion.

Unusually, I was first introduced to Xing Yi Animals as part of my Tai Chi training. My teacher’s teacher had learned Xing Yi, along with various other martial arts in Hong Kong, before moving to the UK in the 1970s, but rather than teach the whole art to his UK students he used the 12 Animals as coat hangers for techniques which suited their individual body types and attributes. The main arts he taught my teacher were Tai Chi Chuan, Northern Shaolin and Buk Sing Choy Lee Fut, but to help his students become more effective in sparring he saw a lot of value in using the Xing Yi animal strategies. So, for example, one student who was good at straight punches would be given Horse to work with in sparring, and another, who was more stocky and good at rounded punches and kicks would be given Bear.  Learning in this way was very individual. You were given some sample movements, and it was then up to you to build from there by adding in other techniques that you found worked well in combination.

My own teacher also used the Xing Yi animals in the same way and from this little dip into the art my curiosity for Xing Yi was piqued and I became hungry to learn more. My search for Xing Yi-proper lead me to eventually meet an actual teacher of the full art, who was kind enough to take me on as a student. And while his techniques had more variety and specialisation, and the body methods looked more distinctively “Xing Yi”, (they required a good grounding in the 5 Element fists first, and were quite different to Tai Chi Chuan) I was pleased to see that his overall approach to the animals was roughly the same. After first learning a set sequence, he would then introducing variations to help you get the flavour of the animal through free experimentation. He encouraged you to actually observe the animal in question. Rather than being prescribed an animal to work with, his students tended to naturally gravitate towards one animal or two; the ones that suited their personalities and abilities.

Xing Yi Snake

The author practicing Xing Yi Snake with Glen Board, author of Xing Yi – A study of Tai and Tuo Xing . Photo by Emma Heeney (c) 2020 Somerset Valley Publishing

A proficient Xing Yi practitioner however, he taught me, should always be able to switch between animals freely, as required by the situation. Tiger, for instance, is good at entering from a distance while striking heavily on the opponent. Bear, for example, is good at close infighting and Snake is good at close quarter grappling. Moving between all three in an encounter may take only a few seconds.

Ultimately, the goal for a Xing Yi student is to get good at all 12, rather than just one or two, then leave them behind entirely and just practice “Xing Yi” itself. Of course, this training progression assumes you have hours of free time to practice, since this was the traditional way. The reality of adapting Xing Yi to our busy, modern lives is somewhat at odds with this expectation, so I found that focussing on an animal or two that suited me personally was perhaps a better use of my limited time. Bear-Eagle, Chicken and Monkey were my favourites.

Rewilding Xing Yi

In modern times, Xing Yi animals have taken something of a back seat to the 5 element fists, or set linking forms. Rather than expansive fighting strategies derived from nature they have become somewhat domesticated, reduced and institutionalised. Really, each animal should be practiced like a mini martial art in itself, yet it is often shrunk down to a single move repeated over and over.

Rewinding Xing Yi would involve putting the focus back on the 12 animals and expanding them. And that’s starts with research.

We live in a time when it’s possible to view Xing Yi from all over the world on your laptop at home. Between all the different lineages of Xing Yi there is enough animal content preserved to fully flesh out the characters of each animal. If we start to look at as many variations of them as we can possibly find between both Xin Yi and Xing Yi, we can build up a bigger picture of what a Xing Yi animal represents.

Even better, find another Xing Yi practitioner and share your animal methods.

Xing Yi Chicken

The author practicing Xing Yi Chicken. Photo by Emma Heeney (c) 2020 Somerset Valley Publishing

And let’s not forget that we can still do with a lot of the Xing Yi animals what the founders of the Li tradition of the Song Dynasty tried to do, which is to get back to nature through direct observation. Amongst the 12 animals, there are several which it’s possible to observe directly yourself in the countryside and woodlands of the United Kingdom. For instance, chickens can be found in farmyards. Horses can be found in fields, and swallows still perform their aerial acrobatics in our skys. While there are a goshawks living in Wales and Scotland, Sparrow hawks are common throughout Brtain, and you can at least find birds of prey on display at many centres throughout the UK.

The other way we can rewild our practice is to change where we practice. My teacher always taught outside, in nature, because that was the way he learned in China. It didn’t matter what the weather was like, if he said he was going to be there, he was there. In fact, if you turned up to practice in a snow or rainstorm he’d be happier and teach you something especially good! Experiencing the weather directly is one way to get closer to nature. You can only learn to take the environment into account in your practice if you have to deal with it on a regular basis. Practicing at night under the night sky where you can see the stars is another great way of turning your head back to nature. Stop practicing indoors. Training in village halls is fine, but that perfectly flat wooden floor is making life too easy for you. Get outside and feel the wind on your face, it will do you good.

brown and white eagle

Photo by Magda Ehlers on Pexels.com

I’m not suggesting that we abandon the fundamental principles of Xing Yi and adopt a delusional approach to practice, where our only judge of what’s correct is our own opinion. Animals living wild in nature don’t have the luxury of opinions. Their methods of hunting for prey or defending against predators either work, or they starve or get eaten.

The principles of Xing Yi are not derived from old sayings or old books. They’re derived directly from nature.

We’ve been ignoring nature for a long time now. As the coronavirus sweeps the world an old, uninvited guest has returned to the table. To quote the excellent poem, Sometimes a Wild God, by Tom Hirons,

Sometimes a wild god comes to the table.
He is awkward and does not know the ways
Of porcelain, of fork and mustard and silver.
His voice makes vinegar from wine.

When the wild god arrives at the door,
You will probably fear him.
He reminds you of something dark
That you might have dreamt,
Or the secret you do not wish to be shared.

We can fear this guest, or we can embrace him.

Let’s let nature be our teacher once more.

Let’s make Xing Yi wild again.

woman walking on a log in the forest

Photo by Brady Knoll on Pexels.com

Tai Chi and the Corona Crisis

woman wearing collared top

Bored at home? Photo by Valeria Ushakova on Pexels.com

Like a lot of people in the UK, I’m working from home for the foreseeable, uncertain future. I don’t want to talk about the virus itself – that’s a job for experts. The less of us that decide we are experts and voice our opinion, the better, I think. Instead, let’s talk about how staying at home can impact your Tai Chi practice.

Without my daily commute, I’ve noticed that there’s more time in my mornings for practice. If you haven’t added daily Zhan Zhuang to your practice then now is a good time. Just follow along with Master Lam on YouTube:

When it comes to online tuition there are all sorts of freebies and offers on right now, so check them out. For example, Ken Gullette is doing daily Facebook Live Chi Kung exercises.  Spirit Dragon is offering 30 days’ free instruction.

There have been some videos circulating online of Coronavirus patients in China using Tai Chi to help get some exercise while they recover in isolation:

Now is a very good time to work on your health, so a little investment in Tai Chi and Chi Kung about now could pay dividends in the long term. Every setback is an opportunity to try something new.

How to motivate yourself to do Tai Chi every day

man sitting on edge facing sunset

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If you’ve been in the Tai Chi game for long enough it’s impossible to not recognise the hard truth that you can’t progress very far without daily practice. You have to practice this stuff every single day or you won’t see any real progress. That requires time, and unless you’re independently wealthy, you’ll find that there are already a lot of competing demands on your time, even your ‘free’ time. Add kids into the mix and your me-time shrinks to absolute zero faster than Jorge Masvidal running across the ring to flying knee poor Ben Askren in the face.

Quite often though, we could make time to practice, but we just don’t have the motivation. We get distracted by all sorts of other fun pursuits, like social media, TV, Netflix, Box Sets or listening to music, things that simply occupy us rather than fulfill us. In the old days, these used to be considered treats, but now they seem to be the main course.

If we cut all that out then I’m willing to bet that we’d have more than enough time to practice Tai Chi in our day. We just lack the proper motivation.

I’m no expert on motivation. In fact, I should be writing a piece of very dull freelance work right now, but instead, I’m here procrastinating on this blog by writing this article for you all about motivation. Ironic, huh?

So, I thought I’d ask somebody who is an expert what they thought would be the solution to getting our butts outside to practice Fair Lady Weave the Shuttles (even when it’s cold) should be. Mark Manson writes lots of books and blog posts about getting yourself together, getting motivated and getting stuff done. You can read his whole article on motivation, but the top line is that his advice is alarmingly simple – instead of waiting for inspiration to strike, just do something.

It doesn’t matter what it is, just do something, and build from there. Hopefully, that something will then inspire you to do something else, and so on.

So rather than starting your morning by looking at your phone, just pick one warm-up exercise and do it. After that, you might find you want to try another, and another and so on, until you’ve built a practice out of positive curiosity rather than enforced discipline and willpower, which never lasts.

Try it, and let me know how you get on. Go do something now.

 

Let the Qi sink to the Dantien

split level photography of man underwater

That sinking feeling. Photo by Jeremy Bishop on Pexels.com

I’ve been doing some work with the Tai Chi Classics lately, which has thrown up an interesting point. There’s only one time the Tai Chi Classics mention the “dantien” by name, which is the admonition to  “Let the qi sink to the dantien”.

Instead, it uses the term “waist”, a lot.

I’ve been wondering why this is.

It’s not like the Tai Chi Classics don’t utilise archaic Chinese language – they do. They mention Chi, Jin, Xin, Shen and Yi all the time. But only that one line about the Dantien.

One of the most quotable lines in the classics is:

“The jin should be
rooted in the feet,
generated from the legs,
controlled by the waist, and
expressed through the fingers.”

Again, it says waist here, not dantien.

I wonder if it’s because “waist” gets across the idea that it’s the whole area of the abdomen that you need to utilise, including the front, sides and back.

The idea of sinking the qi to the dantien is another of those lines from the classics that is often stated and little understood. You’ll find a hundred different interpretations from a hundred different practitioners. So, I might as well add my own.

To me it’s not a particularly esoteric subject. It’s a practical consideration.

It simply means relaxing the upper body enough that your weight seems to settle in your lower body. Your breathing also lowers, as it relaxes, and becomes diaphragmatic breathing, so the abdomen expands and contracts as you breathe. There should be almost no expansion of the chest when you breathe like this.

With your breathing and weight settled around the dantien area you can sense a kind of fullness, or heaviness. Thus your “qi” is sunk to the your “dantien”. It should also help you feel calm. If you notice when you get stressed or anxious, your breathing quickens and raises up in the body. Sinking your qi to the dantien is the opposite of this.

In terms of martial technique, it helps you stay rooted. You’re using your mind to overcome a ‘fight or flight’ reaction. Of course, as soon as you engage with an opponent, the temptation is to react too physically with your arms and shoulders – this would be ‘letting the qi rise’ and the wrong thing to do from a Tai Chi perspective. Instead, you should maintain the sinking feeling in the lower body and try and stay calm and move from the dantien.

Sinking the qi to the dantien will always improve your technique, regardless of what it is, when dealing with an opponent.

two men practicing aikido

Sink your qi to enhance your technique. Photo by Anton Belitskiy on Pexels.com

 

 

 

Why you can’t learn Tai Chi from a book

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Photo by Bruno Moretti on Pexels.com

I’ve been talking a lot about how to move from the dantien recently, and you might be wondering how easy this is to teach or do.

As it happens, I was trying to get a friend to understand how to do it today. I’ve been trying to get him to do this for a while actually (more than 2 years), but despite practicing diligently, he’s never really got it before. He’s got better at parts of it, but never the most important bit – moving from the dantien. It’s a very difficult thing to teach. You can describe it in words, but they’re open to misinterpretation. You can show them what you mean by doing it yourself, but its very hard to see unless you know what you’re looking for. You can even try and move their body for them in the right sort of way, but again, it’s not really the same thing as them doing it for themselves.

For some reason, today the penny dropped and he got it! You could almost see a light bulb appear above his head. The key seemed to be a combination of using the phrase “the arms trail behind the dantien” and trying a double-handed silk reeling exercise for the first time and watching me do it. For some reason, this time, it worked. It was a real Eureka! moment.

Of course, he can’t do it perfectly yet, but at least now I know he’s on the right track. He’s letting the pull of his dantien guide his arms. It sounds so simple, but it’s very hard to actually do. You can lead somebody to the gate as best you can, but they need to go through it themselves.

What was interesting was that with this new way of moving, he instantly felt muscles in his abdomen and lower back moving in ways they hadn’t done before. They were being worked. Instead of this area being ‘dead’ it was now full of movement. So much so that doing a Tai Chi form in this way was suddenly physically demanding. What had once been empty, floating movement was now full, rich and damned hard work. It was also mentally demanding. If he stopped paying attention, he stopped doing it.

His immediate observation was, “You can’t learn this from a book”.

Yes, he’s right. You can’t.

To learn Tai Chi you need to practice, under the guidance of somebody who has gone through that ‘move from the dantien’ gate. Once you’ve got through the gate it’s much easier to practice on your own, as that is the basis of everything that follows.

What you can find in books, like the Tai Chi Classic, which I recently produced a commentary on, only really makes sense once you’ve gone through the gate.

A lot of the requirements of Taijiquan that you find in writings are really external rules to encourage you to go through that gate. For instance, the rules about feet matching the hands, and knees the elbows, etc. These are all external requirements for dantien-driven movement. If you truly are moving from the dantien then your feet and hands will already be co-ordinated. Your knees and elbows will already be in harmony. All these rules will make sense. Before then there are still too many possibilities of going down blind alleys or faulty understanding.

In that sense, books and rules are useful in that they can help you stay on course, but they’re also a trap that you can get stuck in.

Tai Chi is also not an intellectual process. It’s a feeling. As human beings we tend to want to define everything and label it so we can think we understand it that way. Tai Chi isn’t like that. You need to do it, not think it.

I heard about a teacher once that used to confiscate any Tai Chi book that he saw on sight for the benefit of the student attempting to read it. He was probably right.

The Tai Chi Classic [Part 2] – a new interpretation

The Tai Chi Classic [Part 2]

Attributed to Chang Sanfeng (est. 1279 -1386),
interpretation and commentary by Graham Barlow.
girl thumbs through the old book

Photo by Kaboompics .com on Pexels.com

 

6.

All movements are motivated by Yi,
not external form.

[Yi is usually translated as “intent” and refers to the mind. It doesn’t mean ‘your intent to do something’ – a closer English translation of that would be “will”, and it definitely doesn’t mean what a lot of people end up thinking it means, which is your intent to hurt or attack. People talk about having this kind of killer, or predator, mindset. No, that’s not what it’s talking about.]

[What these lines are saying is that the guiding action for a movement comes from your mind leading the body. It’s your internal self leading your external self. In Taijiquan your dantien leads the physical movement, with your body kind of trailing behind, but here we are told that before that happens, your mind starts the movement, with your dantien kind of trailing behind that.]

[It’s important to note that we’re not talking about the thinking part of your mind here. I quite often liken Yi to thinking in directions. You want to raise your arm up, you think in that direction and let the body follow. What this does is dispense with the intellectual, thinking, part of the brain, and just gets you in touch with the physical body directly, with no barrier in between.]

 

7.

If there is up, there is down;
when advancing, have regard for withdrawing;
when striking left, pay attention to the right.

If the yi wants to move upward,
it must simultaneously have intent downward.

[I think there are two, related, ideas going on here. The first is that (paradoxically) if you want to push somebody up and away, you first let your dantien area sink downwards and connect to the ground, then the power comes up from the feet]

[Previously we talked about power up from the ground. Now we get into the nitty-gritty of how we make that actually work without just using brute strength from the legs. If you sink the dantien area – think “drop” – then there is an instant ground force reaction that comes back in the opposite direction. Provided the body is ‘threaded together’ and relaxed enough, where force this goes is guided by the part of your brain the Chinese called Yi. Here are two photos attempting to illustrate this, but remember, it’s all happening simultaneously, rather than in two separate steps.]

drop 1

Sink down from the dantien.

drop 2

Issuing force with jin.

 

[The other idea presented here is that of being aware of the left and right, and when advancing being aware of withdrawing. On a simple level, it’s saying don’t overcommit, but I connect this idea to a phrase in one of the other classics which says “if you empty the left, you must fill the right”. Just like the Taiji symbol, everything in Tai Chi is circular and in harmony. So if you move something left, then another part of you must move to the right simultaneously, as you rotate around a central point, otherwise, you will be out of balance]

[The Taiji symbol is perfectly balanced, and you need to achieve the same state in your body].

yin-yang-2024615_640

 

8.

Alternating the force of pulling and pushing
severs an opponent’s root
so that he can be defeated
quickly and certainly.

Full and empty
should be clearly differentiated.
At any place where there is emptiness,
there must be fullness;
Every place has both emptiness and fullness.

[Here we are getting towards the fault of double-weighting. In Taijiquan, you need to have your weight more on one leg than the other at all times. If your weight settles in an equal position then your Taiji symbol has stopped ‘moving’ and is now flat – it has become two separate halves, not a spiraling mix of energy. There’s more to double-weighting than that, but see the link above for that. ]

[As your weight shifts from one leg to the other in push hands, for example, you are ‘alternating the forces of pushing and pulling’. If you can do this while staying in balance then your opponent will become disrupted.]

[But again, you must stay in balance. So if you advance something – here represented by fullness – then you must withdraw something else – here represented by emptiness – at the same time.]

9.

The whole body should be threaded together through every joint
without the slightest break.

[This is a return to the theme at the start of the classic of threading the body together, making it connected and keeping everything balanced. After reading the words between the start and these lines you should have a better idea of what that means. The emphasis on keeping the joints open and relaxed in particular is that these are usually the problem points where we lose connection.]

10. 

Long Boxing is like a great river
rolling on unceasingly.

[It’s interesting that the classic calls the art “Long boxing”. These days there are different martial arts in China called Long Boxing (Chang Quan) that aren’t Taijiquan.  Perhaps this indicates that the name Taijiquan was not universally adopted when the classic was written, but more likely it is simply that the classic is a collection of already popular martial arts sayings. The Taijiquan form is a long sequence of movements, so “long boxing” is quite descriptive of the art.]

11.

Peng, Lu, Ji, An,
Tsai, Lieh, Zhou, and Kao
are equated to the Eight Trigrams.
The first four are the cardinal directions;
Ch’ien [South; Heaven],
K’un [North; Earth],
K’an [West; Water], and
Li [East; Fire].
The second four are the four corners:
Sun [Southwest; Wind],
Chen [Northeast; Thunder],
Tui [Southeast; Lake], and
Ken [Northwest; Mountain].
Advance (Chin), Withdraw (T’ui),
Look Left (Tso Ku), Look Right (Yu Pan), and
Central Equilibrium (Chung Ting)
are equated to the five elements:
Metal,
Wood,
Water,
Fire, and
Earth
Taken together, these are termed the Thirteen Postures

[This last section is almost a bit of admin. It lays out the fundamentals that define Taijiquan – the 8 energies and the 5 directions].

The Tai Chi Classic [Part 1] – a new interpretation

The Tai Chi Classic [Part 1]

Attributed to Chang Sanfeng (est. 1279 -1386),
 interpretation and commentary by Graham Barlow.
brown book page

Photo by Wendy van Zyl on Pexels.com

 

1. In motion, the whole body should be light and agile,
with all parts linked as if threaded together.

[Here the Classic is connecting the ideas of being ‘light and agile’ with ‘threading the body together’. It is referring to being relaxed and without stiffness or excess local muscle tension in your movement. If you can be relaxed then your movement can flow and be connected together via the muscle-tendon channels. Any stiffness you possess will prevent you from moving in this unique way, which is key to Taijiquan. Particular problem areas to look out for that can prevent your body being ‘threaded together’ are the shoulders and lower back where we tend to store tension.]

 

2. The chi should be activated,
The mind should be internally gathered.

[In the first line I’ve chosen the word ‘activated’ when referring to the chi, rather than the usual ‘aroused’ or ‘excited’. This is to give more of a sense that you are switching to dantien-driven movement, using the muscle-tendon channels, rather than using normal movement, which is unconnected to the waist.]

[The second line originally says Shen, which refers to the spirit, rather than mind, but I think that this line is really referring to ‘paying attention to what you’re doing’ in a calm yet focussed way, rather than letting the mind wander or become distracted.]

[Taken together these two lines are a way of saying, ‘in Taijiquan we move the body in an internal way, and to do that we need to use the mind and keep it on what we are doing, rather than letting it wander’.]

 

3. The postures should be rounded and without defect,
without deviations from the proper alignment;
in motion, your form should be continuous, without stops and starts.

[These lines start by addressing the physical posture considerations of Taijiquan. I’ve added ‘rounded’ here, because you need to round your posture to make it properly relaxed.]

[The second part talks about the movement itself. Developing the skill of being able to move without ‘stops and starts’ takes a while and is one of the fundamental reasons for practicing the Tai Chi form every day. Of course, we are talking about moving from the dantien without stops and starts, not just normal movement.]

[The phrase ‘dawing silk’ is often used to describe this quality of continuous movement you find in Taijiquan. If you were drawing silk from a cocoon then you need to do it at a constant rate – speed up and you risk the thread breaking, slow down and you risk it collapsing.]

[By linking these two ideas in the same section the author is drawing a parallel here between having no breaks in the physical posture (keeping it rounded) and having no breaks in the actual movement either (keeping it continuous).]

 

4. The jin should be
rooted in the feet,
generated from the legs,
controlled by the waist, and
expressed through the fingers. 

[These are the lines most often used to describe how power should be expressed in Tai Chi Chuan. So, when issuing a punch or a push you should be going through this sequence. It uses the ground force (jin), so the first part of the body mentioned is that which is closest to the ground – the feet. Next it links together the legs and waist as the parts of the body most associated with delivering that force to the hands – or fingers as it says here.]

[Obviously, this part is not talking about kicking. Notice that the palms are not mentioned either. In Tai Chi your hand technique is usually a punch or a push. Occasionally a back or hammer fist is used, but it’s mainly pushing or punching to the torso or head, both of which use the fingers to make contact with the opponent.]

[When you push (to the chest) in Tai Chi you shouldn’t use your palm. Instead, you push with your fingertips. If you try pushing hard on a heavy bag with your palm you’ll soon discover why – pushing hard with your palm risks serious injury to your wrist. Of course, pushing on an arm, as we do in push hands is different, and you can use your palm without risk.]

[Taijiquan goes beyond simply using the raw power of your legs to augment the power of punches and kicks – it’s not talking about just doing this physically and externally. Instead, it’s talking about making use of the power of the ground through a relaxed bodyused as a coordinated whole. This passage also makes it clear that the ground force and the force of the legs are the only power inputs permitted to create jin, so, don’t try and punch or push from the shoulder.]

 

5. The feet, legs, and waist should act together
as an integrated whole,
so that while advancing or withdrawing
one can take the opportunity for favorable timing
and good position.

If correct timing and position are not achieved,
the body will become disordered
and will not move as an integrated whole;
the correction for this defect
must be sought in the legs and waist.

The principle of adjusting the legs and waist
applies for moving in all directions;
upward or downward,
advancing or withdrawing,
left or right.

[I’ve grouped these lines together as I think they need are all on the same subject. Following on from the previous point about the feet, legs and waist producing power from the ground, the Classic now makes it explicitly clear that they need to be used together. They all related to the supreme importance of the trinity of the feet, legs and waist (dantien area) all working together to power movement. If you can power your movement like this then you can produce Jin (power from the ground). Once you break this trinity, say by using local muscle in your shoulder, then your power has become separte, and lacks the connection to the ground which is required by Taijiquan.]

Part 2 is now available.

Tai Chi: What moving from the dantien actually means

white ferris wheel under cloudy sky

“Stand like a perfectly balanced scale 
move like a turning wheel.” Photo by Paweu0142 L. on Pexels.com

Uber-malcontent Oliver Gerets, is back in my comments section, this time complaining that my statements are still oversimplified and misleading.” Which I think probably just means that he hasn’t bothered to read much of my blog before, as everything I said in the post he’s referring to on whole-body movement is pretty well explained in previous posts, if you want to look for it.

His issue is that I said the following were the 3 movement principles of Tai Chi, without further explanation:

1) moving from the dantien

2) power up from the ground (jin) – rooted in the feet, expressed by the fingers.

3) coiling and spiraling actions from the dantien out to the extremities and back.

He’s right – I did exactly that and moved on because I didn’t want to get sidetracked on them and get onto the main point I was discussing.  You see, I’ve gone over those points before, but we might as well use this as a springboard to discuss these ideas again and un-simplify everything. Just like Al Pacino in the Godfather – just when I thought I’d got out, but he pulled me right back in.

Let’s deal with Oliver’s first complaint.

1. There is no generally accepted definition what the dantien is amongst Taijiquan practitioners. Not even in Chen style. “Moving from the dantien” is a hollow phrase with very little practical meaning.”

I don’t know what he means with the “not even in Chen style” comment, so let’s ignore that.

I’d agree that there are no accepted definitions of anything amongst Taijiquan practitioners of what the dantien is, but there are no accepted definitions of anything amongst the practitioners. They’re a strange bunch of people ranging from weekend dabblers to full-on fanatics who have very differing views on everything under the sun, but the people at the top of the family trees tend to disagree much less. They all know what they mean.

I also think most Tai Chi people do know what the dantien is. For clarity, let me add my own definition:

The dantien I’m referring to is simply the lower abdomen area of the body. It encompasses the front, sides and back of the body. It’s a general area, rather than a specific point. When I’m talking about “moving from the dantien” I’m talking about movement originating in this area of the body. You could call this area the waist, if you like, so long as you understand that it’s not a line, like a waistline is. 

out of order text on persons belly

I’ve got no idea why she’s written “out of order”, but there’s a photo of the dantien area for you. Photo by Kat Jayne on Pexels.com

I’m not sure what more explanation I can give of that – it’s fairly simple.

The how of the matter is not so simple. Anybody can move that area of their body without any connection to the rest of their body – the limbs and head, for example. Dancers do it all the time. What’s hard is making it connect to everything else.

In Tai Chi you need a tangible connection between the dantien area and the extremities so that once you move the dantien area, the extremities are also moved as a consequence. This connection is formed by what the Chinese called the muscle/tendon channels in antiquity. These then formed the basis of the meridian system over time.

Mammals usually have muscle/tendon channels on the front and back of the body.  Yin channels on the front and yang channels on the back. They consist of muscle, tendon, ligaments, fascia and skin and can be affected by abdominal breathing (which is also centered on the dantien area).

If you can hold the body in a neutral position (the classic Zhan Zhuang posture “hold the ball” is good for this) then you can keep an equal tension on the front and back muscle-tendon channels. You can then use your breath to create a small pull on these channels when you breathe in and out. The connection starts off as very weak, but grows stronger over time.

So, Zhan Zhuang, Tao Yin and Qigong exercises strengthen this connection over time. Eventually, the connections get strong enough that you can affect the movement of the limbs with small changes in the dantien area, like rotating it left and right, or up and down, all in coordination with the breathing.

tiger stretching over brown trunk during daytime

A Tiger showing a stretch along the yin channels on the belly and a corresponding contraction on the yang channels along the back. Photo by Flickr on Pexels.com

In Taijiquan, (which deals with humans standing upright, not tigers), the dantien, legs and feet must form a connection and drive the power of the rest of the body:

From the Tai Chi classics:

“The feet, legs, and waist should act together
as an integrated whole,
so that while advancing or withdrawing
one can grasp the opportunity of favorable timing
and advantageous position.”

“The principle of adjusting the legs and waist
applies for moving in all directions;
upward or downward,
advancing or withdrawing,
left or right.”

Movement originating in the dantien, therefore, becomes a real, physical phenomina, rather than an abstract idea.

This is what I mean, Oliver.

The best exercise I’ve seen to help you develop this skill is a single-arm wave from Chen style silk reeling. In my original post I linked to a video showing the basic single arm wave. I’ll link to it again here.

In future posts I’ll address Oliver’s next 2 complaints.

 

 

Stop thinking of internal arts as special

Internal Chinese martial arts are often presented in the West as this special spiritual thing deserving of seated lectures about the meaning of Tao, complex esoteric meanderings on the nature of Chi or Shen and expensive seminars involving “masters” “lineage holders” and “internal fighters”. There are a lot of snake oil salesmen out there.

I say to hell with all that. It’s a trap you need to avoid or break out of if you’re currently in it.

Internal arts are martial arts and they should be trained like martial arts.

When you see videos of people in China training, it’s small groups with a very informal structure. Watch this video as a good example:

What they’re saying doesn’t matter so much (although that is interesting too) as what they’re actually doing. Watch the people in the background training. That’s how I think these arts should be trained: small groups, informal structure and preferably outside. No whiteboards, lectures, seats or marketing.

Nobody is trying to sell you anything or upsell you anything. Just people being shown something and trying to practice it, Making mistakes, getting better and just training.