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

Photo by Abhiram Prakash on Pexels.com

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.

 

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.

 

 

Two recent stories

I’m still using this blog for posting my ideas and blog posts, but I’ve decided to start putting a few new stories onto my new Medium page.

I’m using Medium as a place to post more polished articles. They’re basically my better blog posts that I’ve tidied up a bit and made more coherent.

Here are the first two I’ve done:

Let me know what you think!

 

 

Tai Chi’s Rollback: A deep dive

photo of night sky

Photo by faaiq ackmerd on Pexels.com

Split, like Rollback, is one of Tai Chi’s 8 energies. It’s also one of the most commonly found of the 8 energies in the Tai Chi form. Almost every technique you see in Tai Chi Chuan (Taijiquan) uses Split energy to a greater or lesser degree.

I’ve seen Split described as spiral energy, a takedown or a breaking force. But all of those things miss the point – they describe its effects, not what it really is.

Split is really the energy of two things moving in opposite directions. If you move two things in a circle in opposite directions you create a spiral. When you do applications on somebody with spiral actions the result is usually a takedown. And you can’t break any joint without directing force in two different directions. For example, if you kick somebody’s leg it’s unlikely to break unless that leg is locked against something that doesn’t move, like say, the ground.

This brings us on to how Split is applied in Tai Chi Chuan.

In Tai Chi you want your hands to be clearly differentiated from each other. One hand needs to be active, the other passive. One empty, and the other solid. One Yin, one Yang. If you don’t do this then you enter a state known as being double weighted. As it says in the classics:

Sinking to one side allows movement to flow;
being double-weighted is sluggish.

Anyone who has spent years of practice and still cannot neutralize,
and is always controlled by his opponent,
has not apprehended the fault of double-weightedness.

To avoid the fault of double-weightedness, which hand is the yin one and which is the yang one must change continually and ceaselessly as you go through the movements of the Tai Chi form. Tai Chi Chuan should always be in a state of change, just like the Tai Chi symbol itself is.

yin-yang-2024615_640

Image by Pixabay.

 

If it’s not in a state of change then it’s stuck. Calling something double-weighted is another way of saying that it’s stuck.

Split is usually applied along with another of the 8 energies. One example I wanted to look at today is Rollback. Rollback, or Lu energy, is the most yin of all Tai Chi’s 8 energies. It’s almost the absence of energy. When being confronted with active Yang energy, Lu is the energy of retreating or yielding. Its movement is usually inwards.

The technique called Rollback in the Tai Chi form gets its name from Lu energy, but also mixes in a bit of Split energy.

If you look at this picture of Yang Cheng Fu doing Rollback you can see the differentiation in his hands.

ycf_roll_back

This left hand is withdrawing and pulling, but his right hand is pressing downwards.

In the action of Rollback your left-hand starts off as the active one with a guiding pull on the attacker’s wrist, but the right one then takes over as the active hand with a strong pressing down action onto the attacker’s elbow area.

I found a really old video of me doing rollback in push hands, so you can see what I mean:

giphy

At the start of the motion my left hand is the active one, then the right hand takes over with the pressing down movement.

Throughout the whole Tai Chi form, you should be aware of this interplay of energy between not just the palms but the other parts of the body too. If you can notice it in the palms, with one hand being the active one and the other the passive one, and then exchanging positions, you can start to notice it in the feet, the legs and so on.

Once you can do this over the whole body then you can distinguish yin and yang throughout your form and you will no longer be at the risk of exhibiting double weighting.

 

 

The upsidedown world of Tai Chi

man performing handstand

Photo by Yogendra Singh on Pexels.com

I’d like to give a quick shout out to Cook Ding’s Kitchen who reposted one of my blog posts “Don’t Try“, which gave me the chance to read it again. It was about using less effort and not forcing things. Difficult words to live up to.

This started me thinking about one of the things that can help in using less effort in Tai Chi. A good trick is to turn our normal perspective on the human body upside down. We normally think of doing things with our arms and hands and don’t think much about the legs at all. In Tai Chi we want to reverse that.

If we watch a boxing match, for example, we tend to look at what’s going on with the hands a lot, since that’s where all the action is, and generally miss the subtle changes of the legs.

low angle photo of two men fighting in boxing ring

Photo by Sides Imagery on Pexels.com

Tai Chi is boxing with the legs: You use your legs like arms, and your arms like legs. When you’re doing the Tai Chi form, stop using your arms to ‘do’ things and put all your focus into using your legs to do it. It’s a bit like walking on your hands: your arms and legs swap their normal functions over.

When doing the form or applications, your toes grip the ground, your weight moves fully forward or backward on the feet (no wishy-washy stances floating about in the middle ground, please), you are sunk and slightly low in your stance so you can get fully into your legs. In contrast, the upper body should be empty. Relax. Let the arms go where they need to go, but don’t move them there deliberately. Let your legs, directed by your middle, do the work. Think them into position with a directed focus (yi).

The Press posture is a good example of what I’m talking about:

ycf2

Yang Cheng Fu – Press

You put your inside hand on the outside arm wrist and push towards the opponent in a linear direction. Because you’re forming a particular shape with your hands in Press, it’s tempting to do this move with your arms cut off from the body. Instead, the power needs to come from the ground via the legs. Drop down and release from the dantien area to the ground and let the power of the ground rise up to the hands. Done right, you’re hitting the opponent with the force of the planet (jin), not just the force of your body.

As it says in the classics:

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

and

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

and

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

 

 

 

 

Stand still, breathe better

underwater photography of woman

Photo by Engin Akyurt on Pexels.com

Have you noticed that some people always seem a little bit out of breath? Especially when they talk. I think it’s a problem of posture. Not a huge posture discrepancy, like bending over or tilting to the side, perhaps not even anything visible, but just a slight incline here or slump there that has become ingrained, causing the body to work harder than it needs to draw in oxygen.

I just read a great article that talks about the correct mechanics of breathing, which I’ll quote:

Here’s how breathing is supposed to work, according to the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute:
  • The abdominal muscles relax while your diaphragm contracts downward, pushing all your guts out of the way.
  • Your intercostal muscles contract to expand your rib cage, lowering the air pressure in your lungs and creating a vacuum in the chest cavity.
  • Air flows through your nose and mouth in response to the vacuum.
  • The intercostal muscles and diaphragm relax while the abdominal muscles contract, pushing air out of the lungs.

 

Breathing is an automatic process that should be happening effortlessly, yet we mess about with it far too much.

So what does this have to do with Tai Chi you might be asking? Well the posture requirements needed to achieve the optimum style of breathing are provided by correct application of Tai Chi principles. I find standing upright with the head ‘as if suspended from above’, as it says in the Tai Chi classics and a relaxed upper body is the key. When we slump in even a minor way we impinge the correct functioning of the breathing process.

One of the best ways to train this is in Zhan Zhuang, “stake standing” postures, because it takes the complexity of movement out of the equation. With regular practice your general sense of being upright tends to improve.

One of the best free sources of information on Zhan Zhuang is the Channel 4 TV series Stand Still, Be Fit! that breaks it down into easy 10 minute lessons.

Notice that there’s no specific advice on breathing, but a lot of attention is paid on alignment and posture. The idea is that with correct posture, the breathing becomes natural again and follows what the Taoists called ‘the way’.

Clear as a glass of water. Do you have the patience to wait
till your mud settles and the water is clear?
Can you remain unmoving
till the right action arises by itself? The Master doesn’t seek fulfillment.
Not seeking, not expecting,
she is present, and can welcome all things.”

Tao Te Ching – chapter 15

 

Tai Chi is open and close happening simultaneously

 

Wu Jienquan not lean

Wu Jianquan

Tai Chi is opening and closing happening simultaneously.

That’s one of the secrets of Tai Chi, right there. Unfortunately, as with much of the truths about Tai Chi Chuan, the statement doesn’t make any sense unless you already know what it means.

As an art, much of Tai Chi is self secret like this. In one way that’s frustrating, but in another way it’s freeing because it means teachers don’t have to hold things back. The secrets reveal themselves over time.

Look at the Tai Chi Classics, for example. They’re a collection of pithy martial arts sayings that hide deeper meanings. “5 ounces of force deflects a thousand pounds“, “Walk like a cat.“, “Store up the jin like drawing a bow.”, etc.

Many of the sayings in these documents don’t mean anything to people reading them who don’t already understand them. So, there’s no risk in losing ‘the secrets of the art’ by publishing them, which is perhaps one reason why the Tai Chi classics are in wide circulation, while other martial styles keep their writings secret, held only within families.

Perceiving opening and closing

When you’re doing your form, can you perceive movements that are obvious opening movements, and movements that are obviously closing movements?

It’s good if you can. If you can’t then think about this – roll back (lu) is clearly a closing movement, and ward off (Peng) is obviously and opening movement. Look for the same actions in the other movements. On the opening movements, the body expands outwards. On the closing movements the body contracts inwards.

ycf_roll_back

Yang Cheng Fu – Roll back

But that’s not the end of the story.

If you’re perceiving the form like this – a series of opening and closing movements that happen one after the other, then you’re not quite on the right track.

The key is that the opening and closing are both happening all the time simultaneously. So, as one part of the body is closing whilst another part is opening.

Look at the yin yang symbol. If you follow it around in a circle with your eye you can see that as one aspect grows stronger, the other aspect diminishes, but is also being born again and growing. It goes on in an endless cycle.

PakuaPostHeaven

It’s these cycles you need to pay attention to in the form. It should feel like this cycle of opening and closing movements is going on with one movement giving birth to the next, rather than perceiving them two separate movements where one starts, then stops, then the other starts and stops. The movement is continuous. It goes out, it comes back, it goes out again.

Silk reeling circles

Let’s break this down into something more tangible.

A while ago I made a video course on the basic single handed silk reeling exercise. This exercise is great because it gives you a chance to work on opening and closing in a relatively simple movement.

Out of the whole course, part 1 is probably the most relevant video to explain what I mean:

Here’s what I’m doing in the video: I’m looking for a slight stretch across the front of my body and a slight stretch across the back of my body (the yin/yang aspects). As the arm goes out the front of the body gradually becomes more taught until there’s enough tension there that I can use it to pull the arm back in. As the arm comes back in, the back of the body becomes slightly more taught until there’s enough tension there to use it to expand the arm outwards. This is all integrated with reverse breathing which powers everything from the Dan Tien area. It’s a very stretchy, rubber band-like practice.

You can start with big, crude circles, but work down to smaller more subtle circles.

But ultimately you’re looking for the feeling of the cycle of yin and yang, opening and closing going on in the body.

It’s this feeling that you need to take into the Tai Chi form where opening and closing happening simultaneously through a myriad of different movements.