Here’s the second episode of my Tai Chi course on mindful Tai Chi movements. This week we take a look at where you power you movements from in the body. Enjoy!
My FREE 8-week Tai Chi Notebook course has launched!
Good news! I’ve started filming a short 8-week Tai Chi Notebook course, and you can get it here, for free.
As usual things come together by chance (or maybe a it’s fate) but either way, a friend asked me to show them how to do “this internal stuff“, so I was about to shoot them a simple video on the basics, then I realised that there’s too much to cover in just one video, so I planned out 8. Then I started to get creative and made it look a little bit professional, and the end result is what you’ve got here – a short YouTube course called Pulling earth, pushing heaven.
In week 1 of the course we cover the concept of “maintain and extend”. Each week will focus on a different aspect until we get to the point where you’ve got the basic idea of “Tai Chi movement”. Of course, this is just ‘foot in the door’ stuff, but I’d like to think that after following along for 8 weeks, and doing it every day, you’d at least have the correct foot inside the correct door. Look out for part 2 next week.
This is a great clip of Chen Bing teaching a basic silk reeling circle with a lot of emphasis on relaxing and being heavy.
People often wonder how being relaxed can generate power in martial arts. If you watch the video you can see how being relaxed in the upper body leads to great power in the lower body. And once you have that power in the lower body you can start to use it to drive your movements. Of course, there’s more to it than that, but it’s a start.
Silk reeling and Shen Jiazhen (1891-1972)
Shen Jiazhen (1891-1972) co-authored the book Chen Shi Taijiquan (1963), which contained the famous silk reeling diagram below:
Silk reeling is the essential skill of Chen style Tai Chi Chuan and involves learning how to wind the body so that all movements arise from the dantien, and that when ‘one part moves, all parts move’. Other styles of Tai Chi do pay lip service to this idea, of course, but I think only the Chen style really gets into it in the level of depth that’s required because they have a deliberate method (Silk reeling) that’s all about this concept.
When I look at family members of other Tai Chi styles perform Tai Chi I don’t see the same type of movement that you find in Chen style. It’s hard to evaluate of course since a lot of Tai Chi masters can hide the details of the movements. I’ve been told that the current head of the Chen style, Chen Xiaowang, is very good at hiding the movement so you don’t see it. But if you look at videos of Wu and Yang family members I don’t believe that the same silk reeling is really going on there. I see lots of really smooth movement (sometimes called “drawing silk”) but not the dantien control that you typically associate with Chen style.
If you understand the concept of silk reeling I see no reason why it can’t be added to these other styles of Tai Chi, of course. In fact, my own lineage started as a Yang style, but it is more of a hybrid style, as it has gone outside of the bounds of a single “family style” and added in elements from elsewhere, including silk reeling from the Chen style. It doesn’t pretend it got it from elsewhere.
When my Tai Chi teacher introduced me to silk reeling he used the pattern in the diagram above from the Shen Jiazhen book on Chen style. Looking back now I realise that this was actually a very difficult place to start with silk reeling because of the pattern’s complexity. It mimics the Tai Chi diagram… but not quite completely. If you look at the bottom of the diagram you’ll see that there’ s an extra little circle going on. The changes from open to close are also really frequent and quick, compared to a standard single arm wave silk reel.
The way my teacher taught me you stood in a forward bow stance and did one arm at a time. Then change stance for the other arm. The illustrations of the hands are pretty accurate and show the way the palm turns nicely. The numbers are important because these indicate the positions where the body changes from open to close and vice versa (with accompanying weight shifts). The diagram on the left is for the left hand and the diagram on the right is for the right hand.
A portion of Shen’s book on the subject of silk reeling has been translated into English and can be read here.
As I said, I don’t think this exercise is good for beginners. A better starting point for learning the basics of silk reeling would be a simple single arm wave. The best instruction I’ve seen on this is by Mr Mike Sigman. In this video (which I’ve posted before, I think) he explains the concept of muscle/tendon channels, open and close and goes over a basic single arm wave and what you should be doing in very clear terms:
Wrist usage in Tai Chi Chuan
Following on from my last post about using the waist, I’ve been thinking about wrist usage in Tai Chi Chuan. According to the Classics, all movements in Tai Chi Chuan are controlled by the waist. “The waist is the commander of the whole body. If you can sung the waist, then the two legs will have power and the lower part will be firm and stable”, wrote Yang Cheng-Fu in number 3 of his 10 Important Points.* However, what about the wrist?
Try as you might I don’t think anybody can direct their wrist and hand movements solely by turning their waist. At least, I can’t. The arm can be directed by the body, sure, but the wrist needs a certain amount of autonomy. The key thing is that the movements of the wrist need to be natural and not over exaggerated.
Moving the wrist in Tai Chi Chuan movements relates directly to the Chan Si Chin, the “Silk Reeling” exercises found in certain style of Tai Chi Chuan. Silk Reeling helps you understand spiral movement, and the way that the wrist moves directs the arm in terms of the physical side of spiral movement.
Having this awareness of ‘autonomous, yet influenced by the body’ wrist movement throughout the form might help you develop your Tai Chi Chuan practice, so give it a try during your next practice session.
* Of course, there’s more to it than this – your mind actually controls what the body does, so the waist may be the commander, but it is itself under the command of the mind. As it says in the Mental Elucidation of the 13 Postures by Wu Yu-hsiang “The Xin (relates to ‘mind and ‘sprit’) is the commander, the chi the flag, and the waist the banner.”