Staying rounded in Taijiquan

My Xing Yi teacher invented the word “chalicity” as an English equivalent of the Mongol phrase “Bak Tam Stay Saub”, which means (very roughly) “a bit like a capacious container”. So, chalicity means, “a bit like a chalice.”

A chalice, or a cup, is a rounded structure designed to contain a fluid with no leaks, and has parallels for both the mental aspect and physical aspect of a posture in the internal arts.

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Photo by Jametlene Reskp on Unsplash

In the context of his shamanism practice, chalicity is more about the mental parallel – the space inside the cup reflecting the space inside a mind that is empty of thought.

However, in the context of Taijiquan and martial arts, you can think of ‘chalice-like’ as the physical structure of the body creating the space necessary to contain “Peng” energy, that is, the ground force used in internal arts expressed through a rounded structure.

Think of Peng energy as being the fluid inside the cup and your body as being the structure of the cup. Or you can think of it as the air inside a rubber ball. If you keep your body rounded, it holds the Peng energy nicely. If you don’t, it leaks out.

The posture requirements of Taijiquan

All the posture requirements of Taijiquan create a rounded structure for the body. Here are some:

1. Head suspended from above

2. Elbows drooped.

3. Chest sheltered / back lifted

4. Shoulders rounded.

5. Chi sunk to the dantien.

6. Kua rounded

7. Knees bent.

These requirements create the structure for your ‘chalice’ within which you can hold the Peng force.

These days all internal martial arts make use of Zhan Zhuang, “standing like a tree” standing postures, which the practitioner is required to hold for extended periods, work the same way. They all maintain this same Peng shape, with gently rounded limbs and upright spines.

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Xing Yi Quan uses the San Ti Shi standing posture which has 6 requirements, two of which are bear shoulders and tiger embrace. Together these two requirements mean your torso and arms take up the same chalice-like posture. You maintain the Peng shape. It’s all the same idea.

Maintaining structure while moving.

Structure isn’t something that’s meant to be achieved only in a static posture. Part of what you’re training when you perform a Tai Chi form, for example, is the ability to keep this Peng shape as you move.

If you keep the requirements you can maintain Peng. If you break the requirements then your Peng force will leak out of your body, just as water would leak from a cup with a hole in.

So, if you start to drop your head or stiffen the neck, for example, or straighten your legs or raise your elbows, you lose the natural power of the body working together all powered from the ground, and you have to start muscling it to compensate in your techniques.

So, to work in internal arts, all the techniques need to be expressed within the framework of this structure, and some techniques in martial arts just aren’t suited to maintaining this Peng structure.

Take for example, a side kick.

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Photo by Jason Briscoe on Unsplash

There’s nothing wrong with a side kick, but you physically can’t keep the body ‘rounded’ while performing a side kick to the opponent’s chest because of the angle you need to open your hip to. Just look at the photo.

I think that’s one reason why you don’t often see the a side kick in most Tai Chi forms or in fact in Xing Yi or Bagua. The kicks you do see in the internal arts tend to not take the hip out of alignment with the rest of the body.

Does that mean you can never do a side kick again? Of course not, but generally, you need to keep your rounded structure at all times when practicing internal arts, that way you keep your Peng energy rounded and the true power of the internal martial arts can be expressed.

Jin, by definition, requires intent

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My post called Don’t put power into the form, let it naturally arise from the form got a few nice reactions, so I wanted to write a follow up because as always in Tai Chi, today’s epiphany is tomorrow’s half truth.

In the last post I was talking about how, if you let the power of the movements naturally arise, it just works, as opposed to trying too hard to put power in them, which always leads to you screwing it up. But that doesn’t mean that if you just sink your weight and relax that your Tai Chi will become naturally powerful all on it’s own. If you want to send force outwards using Jin you need to be consciously aware you’re doing it.

I was reminded of this recently by a post by Robert Van Valkenburgh:

Jin, by definition, requires intent. If you don’t know you’re doing it, how can you be doing it?

As I explained in the last post, using Jin (ground-based force) as opposed to Li (muscle-based force) requires a relaxed body with the ability to sink the weight down to the ground, so it can rebound into the hands.

What I neglected to mention was that if you just sink the weight downwards, then that’s the direction it will go. It’s not going to magically just appear in the hands. So how do you get it there? The answer is, using the Yi.

The Yi is one of those hard-to-define Chinese terms we so often come across in Tai Chi. The most general ‘catch all’ translation you find is “intent”. But you can also think of it as “the mind directed to do something” or “the mind directed in a direction”.

So how do you get the force of the ground into the hands? By using the mind to direct it there. In fact, you want to direct it outwards and past your hands and into your opponent. I like to think of directing it from my foot (the part of me that is nearest to the ground) all the way to the horizon, through my hands, when I do an outward expressive movement, and down and in towards my foot when I do an inwards movement.

Don’t think of the path of power ( a Jin path) as going up the leg, through the torso and then down the arm and out – trapping the mind inside your body like that will not help the energy go outside it, which is what you want.

So, don’t worry about the path it takes, just ‘think’ in a straight line from your foot to your hand and out. The Jin path you create with your mind usually goes from your foot, through the air (at some point) and to your hands and in a straight line, since that’s the quickest route.

In the picture of Yang Cheng Fu below you can imagine that the Jin path goes from his back foot to this hand like this:

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Jin path

So when you run through the form, your mind needs to be creating these jin paths as you practice. As well as you doing everything I said in the last post – relaxing, sinking the chi and coordinating the body so all the separate parts arrive together. That’s the Tai Chi form in action.

Of course, that’s a tall order, and I’d suggest that beginners who are interested in this type of training pick a favourite move (a simple Push movement is a good one) and just practice it over and over, paying particular attention to mentally directing the path of forces in the body.

Without a teacher who can show you what it feels like it will be a bit like fumbling for something in the dark when you don’t know what it is or looks like. So get out there, try and get ‘hands on’ with a good teacher and you’ll get a better idea of what it feels like. If you find somebody who can do this then you can recognise it. It doesn’t feel like normal strength.

Ken Gullette, whose book I recently reviewed, has a good video that I hadn’t seen before which I think can give you a sense of what you’re looking for – the feeling of the ball under the water. That’s the main thing to focus on in this video.

Once you understand this concept then some of the lines in the Tai Chi classics will start to make more sense. Like, for example:

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

“All movements are motivated by Yi, 
not external form.”

“6.) Use the mind instead of force. The T’ai Chi Ch’uan Classics say, “all of this means use yi and not li.” In practicing T’ai Chi Ch’uan the whole body relaxes. Don’t let one ounce of force remain in the blood vessels, bones, and ligaments to tie yourself up. Then you can be agile and able to change. You will be able to turn freely and easily. Doubting this, how can you increase your power?”

“The yi and ch’i must interchange agilely, 
then there is an excellence of roundness and smoothness.
This is called “the interplay of insubstantial and substantial.”

 

Book review: Internal Body Mechanics for Tai Chi, Bagua and Xingyi, by Ken Gullette

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Anybody who has attempted to learn Tai Chi in any depth instantly realises that the choreography of a form is just that – choreography – and that the devil is in the details. Internal Body Mechanics is all about the details: How you move, what you move and where you move it to.

It’s author, Ken Gullette is a veteran of the Internal arts, having started with Yang style Tai Chi way before China opened up to the West and before the Internet appeared. Over the years he’s trained with some of the best, especially in Chen style. He’s interested in the practical use of the internal arts as actual martial arts, rather than a method of communing with the universe, feeling your Qi or healing your body. While he’s been presenting this information in DVD and video format for years via his website kungfu4u.com, this book is his first attempt to capture the “body mechanics” of the internal arts in print.

Like most Western Tai Chi enthusiasts who started when Tai Chi was just breaking into the West, Ken inevitably ended up going down many dead ends before he could find good quality instruction, which is why he’s written this book. Ken’s ambition is to write a Tai Chi book that is all killer, no filler, which immediately sets him apart from 99% of Tai Chi teachers out there, whose books usually give you a lot of boring history and then try to teach you a form, which is impossible to learn from a book in the first place.

Instead, Ken is going straight to the meat of the matter, for which he deserves recognition and praise. Internal Body Mechanics covers 6 core principles of the internal arts:

  1. Centred stance and Ground path
  2. Maintaining Peng Jin
  3. Use whole body movement
  4. Use spiraling movement of silk reeling energy
  5. Internal movement and the Kua
  6. Dantien rotation

The book is structured so that one chapter leads naturally into the next, so once you’ve grasped one principle you are ready for the next one. The chapter on the Kua, how to open and close the kua, and what it is, is especially good. This is a tricky subject to convey in text and Ken does it through telling stories of training with Chen Xiaowang and quoting what he said to him during form corrections. I felt like I “got it” immediately. So much so, in fact, that when Ken used the posture “Sweep the rider from the horse” to demonstrate how Chen Xiaowang was saying people close the Kua “too much”, I immediately put the book down, tried out the posture and realised I was making the same mistake. There you go Ken – you got me! It’s not often you can instantly improve your Tai Chi and correct your form from reading a book, but Internal Body Mechanics proves it is possible.

The book also comes with a website containing videos of all the techniques and demonstrations that are pictured. Obviously a video is superior, but I found the pictures sufficient to get the points being made… except for the large silk reeling chapter of the book – that is where you’d really need to access the videos to ‘get it’ – especially if you’ve never done silk reeling exercise before. But the videos are not free – you have to pay an additional one-off fee to access them.

Qi and Jin

When you get down to the heart of the matter with Internal arts, I find that you are dealing mainly with two things: Qi and Jin. Because these are initially obscure Chinese terms, that don’t translate easily into English and require thought, experimentation and good teaching to master, they become the initial stumbling blocks for all Tai Chi practitioners. Ken spends a lot of the book dealing with the subject of Jin – with chapters on the ground path and Peng Jin specifically. He covers it really well. There are lots of partner exercises to try out that are illustrated with photos from his DVDs. Jin often accounts for the overly-theatrical demonstrations that Tai Chi ‘masters’ like to do on their overly compliant students at seminars, where they send them bouncing away at the slightest touch. Once you understand how Jin works you can see what is really going on, and it stops being so mysterious. Ken’s book will give you that kind of understanding.

It’s on the subject of chi/qi that I find I depart a little from Ken’s thinking. Ken has little time for mystical thinking on qi. By the time Ken gets to his Dantien rotation chapter he is slaying sacred Tai Chi cows like he works in an abattoir and the concept of qi takes a bolt through the head early on.

“As a 21st-century college educated American who applies critical thinking skills and expects evidence before I cling to a belief, there is no evidence whatsoever that our bodies contain Chi or a Dantien…”  – Ken Gullette

I’d agree with him on the critical thinking, but there’s always the danger of throwing the baby out with the bathwater when this staunchly non-mystical approach is adopted. Especially when it comes to qi.

Is qi a mystic substance in our bodies, as some would like us to believe, or is it just a term that the ancient Chinese used to describe parts of the body that is still functionally useful when learning how to move in non-standard ways?

Ken sees the use of Qi and Dantien as merely useful mental visualization tools, so that’s the approach adopted in the book. He also dismisses the idea that you must control your fascia to control your dantien as “poppycock”. This pleases me, and I raised a wry smile as I’ve got into similar arguments with fascia fanatics on the Internet, who attribute almost magical powers to it. He’s right, of course – you cannot consciously control the movement of your fascia or skin, only muscles (let’s not get into the sticky issue of consciously making the hair on your arms stand on end or subconscious control of body functions). However, you can use your muscles to stretch both skin and fascia (and tendons and everything else)  to create a feeling of connection, and that feeling of connection can be slowly built up into something tangible that you can use to manipulate the body from the dantien area. To me, this is the real meaning of Qi, and means it still deserves its place in the creation of whole body movement.

So, while Ken’s Dantien rotation chapter is purely about manipulating the musculature in the area of the lower abdomen, which of course, it is, I’d also add in that you can also use it to connect to the arms and legs via this “qi” connection, which you can build up over time. I went over this idea in my video series, but anyway, I digress.

Conclusion

Ken’s approach is not that of an almighty Tai Chi teacher who is imparting precious wisdom to you, his lowly disciple, from on high, but rather, a healthy attitude of “we can all learn together” flows through the pages. You never feel like you are being preached at. Instead, you encounter a fellow traveler on the path who is as curious as you are to see what lies ahead. Most importantly, he wants you to avoid the dead ends he’s ended up in.

So, while I find myself at odds slightly with Ken on the issue of how Qi relates to internal body mechanics, I don’t find that stops me enjoying the book and learning from it. In terms of practicing Tai Chi as a martial art, grasping the idea of Jin and how to use the power of the ground in your techniques, not local muscle, is the most important thing, and Ken’s book excels in this respect.

It should also be noted that if you’re a fan of “martial” Tai Chi (like me) then you’ll love this book. It doesn’t teach you any martial techniques (that’s Ken’s next book, apparently) but everything is looked at through a lens of why this body method is useful for combat. I actually find that more valuable.

There’s not much Xingyi and Bagua presented in this book really, so while I appreciate the catch-all requirement of the title will widen the book’s appeal, it’s really focussed on Tai Chi, and Chen style in particular. Sure, the body mechanics of Tai Chi cross over into XingYi and Bagua, but the sayings of Chen Xiaowang to the author are repeated frequently through the book and this is really a detailed explanation of his Tai Chi teachings so I would have been happier if that had been reflected in the title.

Don’t let my minor points of contention put you off. This is one of the most practical books on Tai Chi on the market right now and you need to get it. It annoys me that there aren’t more Tai Chi books like Ken’s around that actually deal with the mechanics of movement that you need to develop for Tai Chi, and I hope that Internal Body Mechanics is the first of a turning tide, because the world needs more Tai Chi books like this one.

Ken’s blog: www.internalfightingartsblog.com

Amazon link on US and UK.