I found this article recently that I thought was pretty interesting. It’s about massage and the often used phrase “you’re really tight” by therapists.
Statements like “you’re really tight” are a bit of a verbal tic, something automatic — even expected — that massage therapists to say to pass the time and make conversation with clients. Tightness doesn’t even actually have a clear meaning.3 In this context, it is trivial and harmless.
Being “Sung” (translated as “relaxed”) is one of the things we get told to do all the time in Tai Chi, and it’s open to a lot of misinterpretation. Really, what it’s talking about is not overly tensing muscles, so that the power of an incoming force can be directed to the ground without the muscles taking the load. If you can get the ground to take the load then your muscles are free to do other things.
Due to a nasty training injury, I’ve had to lay off the “rough stuff” for a while, which means I’ve got more time to spend on forms practice than usual. The latest little project I’ve been amusing myself with is learning the start of a different Taiji form than the one I know.
I’ve picked Chen style, since this is the oldest style, and pretty different to my Yang style form.
It’s often hard to see the connection between Yang and Chen style since they look so different, but as I’ve discovered, if you start to learn the beginning of one after already knowing the other it’s very easy to see how they have the same root. This has already provided lots of insights into my regular form by looking at how Chen style treats familiar movements.
To be clear, I’m just learning the first few moves of the form. Probably I’ll get up to the Crane Spreads Wings move (or whatever they call it in Chen). After that, I think the law of diminishing returns starts to kick in and the time spent working on a new form and remembering it starts to outweigh the benefits you get from practising it. I already know a long form, so I don’t think there’s much to be gained by undergoing the arduous process of learning another one.
This little project has made me think about a few side issues, which I’d like to go over below:
Learning from video
There’s this unwritten rule in martial arts that learning anything from a video is bad, or so the conventional wisdom goes. Learning from a real person is preferable, but not always practical. If you’ve got enough experience in an area then I think you can learn a lot from video. Also, let’s not forget, that there are videos on YouTube of recognised experts, like Chen Xiao Wang, doing the form, who are doing it a lot better than any local teacher you’ll find.
For instance, here’s the renowned Taijiquan expert Chen Zheng Li doing the Chen Lao Jia Yi Lu form in a nice relaxed pace that’s easy to follow:
Of course, there will be fine details I’ll miss by copying him, but I’m doing this more as an exercise in personal exploration, rather than in trying to get the Chen form perfect. In fact, I’ve already modified one move I felt would work slightly better in a way I’m more familiar with. (I’m a heretic, I know)
2. Distinguishing ‘energy’ from ‘moves’
Taiji uses the four primary directions of Jin – Peng (upwards), Ji (away from the body), Lu (towards the body) and An (downwards) in various combinations. It’s often hard for people to separate this ‘energy’ direction from the physical movements themselves. So, a “ward off” posture is one thing, but the energy that you usually use with it – Peng – is another. Confusingly, Peng is often translated as “ward off”, so the two become conflated. By doing a new form with different moves, you get to see how the same ‘energy’ is used in a different arm shape.
For instance, in Yang style the ‘ward off’ movements tend to have the palm pointing inwards towards the body, while in Chen style, they are pointed outwards, away from the body.
3. Spotting similarities
So, while a Chen form may look very different to a Yang form, once you start thinking in terms of which of the 4 energies you’re using, you start to see the similarities, even if the postures look different.
For example, both forms start with a Peng to the right, a step forward, another Peng forward, a splitting action, then another Peng to the right, then into the Peng, Lu, Ji, Lu, An sequence known in Yang style as “Grasp Birds Tail” in Yang and “Lazily tying coat” then “Six sealing four closing” in Chen style. (Apparently, the Yang naming came from a mistranslation of the original Chen name, but this matters not to me).
(Note: In some performances, of Chen style – like the one above by Chen Zengli, he misses out the “Lu then Ji” move of the sequence. In others, like this one by CXW below, it’s in there. I don’t know why. Personally, I like to put it in, because it connects me to the Yang style I know.)
Doing Peng in a different arm configuration than you’re used to is, frankly, good for your practice, because it helps you break out of the mould a bit, into a freer execution that is not dictated to by the conventions of your particular style.
The New Year Challenge! Do it yourself
I’d like to challenge you to do the same thing in January. If you’re a Chen stylist, then learn the start of the Yang form up to White Crane Spreads Wings. If you’re a Yang stylist, then give the Chen form a go. Alternatively, investigate the opening sequence of Sun, Wu or Wu(Hao) style. Give it a go!
Here’s a video of Yang and Chen forms done side by side that I’ve posted before because it helps show the similarities: