Learning Tai Chi

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Yangstyleintention

A thinking, tailored and radical approach to mastering Tai Chi.

Huajing & Fajing

Our Yang form trains subtle ways of huajing and fajing. You need to be able to control your movements to access them.

Huajing requires you to hold back, to control your movement. If you lack the control you end up resisting and you waste your strength. Worse still the opponent’s position is still intact and he can carry on attacking you.

A good huajing causes your oppponent’s strength to roll off smoothly with minimal, optimized movement. At the moment his strength is neutralized then your chance to attack is there.

When the opening is available then you must fajing quickly. If you take too long to set up your fajing then the opponent will have time to fight back. You need to practice doing fajing naturally so that you can eliminate movements you do not really need. Once you have deleted the excess movements you should be able to fajing quickly in the blink of an eye.

When you fajing you must take care not to push hard but to strike hard. A hard push is not necessarily a strong fajing. A hard, forceful strike is the result of a strong force impulse resulted in the focusing of concentrated power at the point of impact. Such a force is injurious even when it does not look powerful. This is what old timers call an internal strike.

So pay attention to your practice and the skills mentioned in the Tai Chi Classics will come alive in your hands.

Wordless Understanding

Metaphorically you need to make 99 mistakes to find the 1 right way. This is because mental understanding is different from physical understanding.

You can say you have understood an explanation. However, this does not mean that your mental understanding can translate into physical understanding.

For this reason, you should always assume that you do not understand until you can actual demonstrate the understanding. When you reach this point of understanding then the story of the wordless Flower Sermon of Buddha will make sense.

I saw a documentary that mentioned that forms were created as a means for solo practice because it is not always possible to have a training partner. It is common for students to lament that they do not have a training partner.

However, I would caution them that with a wrong training partner they will not improve. So they need to take care when selecting a training partner. With a form it is only themselves, their state of mind, their diligence, patience, doggedness that is important to working the form to extract the lessons embedded within.

A form has many layers of learning. When you thought you know something you may be surprised that there are a lot more you didn’t know. There are things obvious and a lot more not obvious.

When a student has made the 99 mistakes and now has a more awakened mind then it is possible to bring out and highlight the things that are in plain view. For example, the movements of White Crane Spreads Wings has ton of stuff there and took more than an hour just to cover the many areas, adjusting the movements, the angles, the timing, the coordination.

With the unveiling then it can be seen that there are a lot more ways to use the movements of White Crane Spreads Wings. Ways to do huajing and fajing are all there. One just has to reach the stage of being able to see.

Many students cannot see because they keep saying that its too difficult to understand. They sabotage their own learning before they even begin. Nothing is ever easy at the beginning. This is why we need to practice over and over again until we start to get it. This is why in Zen there is a teaching which basically indicates that the more you rush to learn something the harder it is to get it.

The lesson here is to keep practicing, always, don’t ask too many questions first. Instead, keep doing until you are familiar, then keep going until you develop a heightened awareness. And then keep going further until you are ready to step through the inner gate. Then you will experience something interesting.

From Raise Hands changing to White Crane Spreads Wings we do rollback. I pick on my student’s left arm movement. Wrong I say. Why?

With a wishy washy way of moving he missed out on possibilities. The first possibility is the correct movement allows for a strong strike in a movement that does not look like a strike. With the wrong application it is not a strike; with the right application that is a strike.

But if you are not doing it properly even if you suddenly recognize that you could strike in that particular scenario your strike would be powerless. So get the movement right and the power will be there.

Then the downward arm movement becomes a circling movement to lead the left hand back to the right side of the body. The rotation of the left hands is not just a turn of the arm but the application of the body movement that is a vital part of the rollback process.

When the small movement here is proper than it is easy to lift your left hand up. If you are using the left hand to twine and trap the opponent’s arm then you need to get the palm angle correct and the turning timing spot on otherwise you will lose traction and the opponent’s arm will escape.

Otherwise, the application could well be to regain a better position and open up a different window for you to counter-attack. This is why the left hand has to move to an exact position at the right side of your body and your right arm then circles clockwise to a position on the left.

When a student does not study this closely and practice until they can maintain discipline when moving they will always have a problem when applying this movement. They always end up becoming attached to wanting to make contact and lose the ability to stop when they are supposed to. They end up locking into a position that looks favorable to them but is actually exploitable by an experienced opponent.

So the form trains the discipline to move how you need to move, how you want to move, to achieve the position from which you can change to the technique that you desire to use. Otherwise, you react blindly, with emotion instead of using calculated motions to seek the optimal position that can allow you a range of responses.

So many valuable lessons that can be learned from a form. Yet, how many understand the true value of a form today. Too many are in a rush, thereby missing out on many valuable lessons.

Real Soft

This video shows a real world example of the use of soft and empty spaces in material to absorb hard impact.

In Tai Chi we apply the same principles to absord and neutralize an opponent’s attacking force and pressure.

If you train using model-free learning you might have a hard time figuring out how to do this. More so, if you do not take into consideration the principles of the Tai Chi Classics.

The Tai Chi method of Grandmaster Wei Shuren as taught through my teacher uses model-based learning to learn how to cultivate softness and emptiness to the point where it can actually be used.

Grandmaster Wei Shuren demonstrating 太極功法

For example, the principle of “receive strength do not use wrist” contains the method of receiving the opponent’s strength into emptiness. This same method is also contained in the short Skill Method (太極功法) exercise that has been passed down from Yang Chien-hou.

It is said that Yang Chien-hou used to sit on the grassy ground in the evening to practice this exercise. Though we learned it standing up it can also be practiced sitting on a chair. The key is not so much the external movements or the breathing method (there’s no special breathing method or Hen-Ha sound employed here) but in the use of intent.

The Skill Method exercise is divided into three subsets namely :-

a) Spirit Skill Method (神功法)

b) Intent Skill Method (意功法)

c) Energy Skill Method (气功法)

Learning Plan

Recently I had a quick discussion with a student on how to learn our Tai Chi.

I told him to look at Appendix B in TaijiKinesis Vol 1 at the following :-

a) Song of Form Play

b) Song of Push Hands

Song of Form Play is a general road map for what we want to achieve in training the form.

This learning is put into practice to realize the Song of Push Hands. In return what is learned in Song of Push Hands is used to further refine the learning goals of Song of Form Play.

For example, 3.1 to 3.4 in Song of Form Play is to help achieve 4.1 to 4.4 in Song of Push Hands.

This of course begs the question of what 3.1 Song of Form Play means exactly in practice. In form training one very important detail stands out to realize this objective – the positioning of the elbows.

In this regard, we avoid doing zhanzhuang because the elbow positioning in zhanzhuang is an obstacle to achieving 3.1 Song of Form Play.

If so, then it will be difficult to put 4.2 Song of Push Hands into practical usage.

This is how we can learn our Tai Chi effectively and efficiently by using the road map that is available to see the trees from the forest.

Move Less to Move More

Learning how to use the intent to control the movement of the body takes a lot of effort. The question is how to have economy of motion while being able to generate a functional force.

To solve this problem requires an examination of key issues such as :-

a) Difference between pushing and rotating

b) Addressing the key components of structural alignment and connection

c) How to rapidly and efficiently deploy the power

This video shows the learning of the above and the effort required to do a lot internally while moving very little outwardly. This is how we define our “internal” approach to Tai Chi.

End of an Era

Tong Lian Shu Dian Supplies was incorporated on 10 May 1986. When I first got to know about this book store which was dedicated to martial arts, particularly Chinese martial arts the late Mr Loh (the boss) and Ms Koh (the assistant) was running it.

Ms Koh in 2013

Ms Koh continued running the book store after the passing of Mr Loh. Though the focus was still on Chinese martial arts the declining readership for books and increasing competition from other book stores in Bras Basah Complex rendered Tong Lian a shadow of its former self.

A young Ms Koh in a photo taken with the famous Master Fu Zhongwen

Still as Ms Koh was running the book store the legacy of Tong Lian continued. And so it did until today I learned that Ms Koh passed away at home in December 2019 after a fall. The news was conveyed to a tenant on the same level as Tong Lian by the cleaner.

A young Ms Koh in a photo taken with the famous Master Sha Guozhen

The passing of Ms Koh is likely to also be the end of the road of Tong Lian Shu Dian. I know there is a financial backer who kept the shop opened and had Ms Koh running it. By now, with Ms Koh gone I don’t know if the backer will continue the business.

Ms Koh in a Tai Chi posture

Anyway, however it may be, whatever may be, will be. Rest in peace Ms Koh.

Mr Loh (2nd row, 5th from left) and Ms Koh (1st row, 5th from left)

Physical Intelligence

….rationalizing won’t get the job done.”

I love this sentence in the Introduction of the book “Physical Intelligence” by Scott Grafton. Similarly, I would say that the only way to master Tai Chi is to engage in things Tai Chi i.e. you gotta practice the form, gotta do push hands, gotta learn to apply the techniques, gotta do deep study.

Complaining about how difficult it is to master Tai Chi, how you can’t seem to understand it, how it seem unattainable, and other complaints will not get you anywhere. You just gotta do it.

Do it, do it, do it. No matter how difficult it may be.

The problem always starts when you want to master the elusive fajing. The more you yearn for it, the more elusive it gets. Hence, my teacher said it best when he said the objective is just to practice daily, not master fajing, not win medals, not get ranking promotions.

When you get your priorities right you begin to move forward. As Scott Grafton writes :-

Skills such as these are informed by “physical intelligence”: the components of the mind that allow anyone to engage with and change the world.

So don’t try to think your way to mastery. The thinking has already been done in the past (hint : Tai Chi Classics); if anything you have to do it, keep doing it, and do it some more. Otherwise, you will get stuck for a long, long time in Tai Chi non-mastery hell.

Do you know why you need to practice the solo form alone, without the joys of being part of group who share the same interests, engaging in banter, shared physical interactions?

Solo form training is a way of allowing yourself to find a way to be free of internal and external chatter, of the monkey brain and of friends. As Grafton pointed out :-

Rather, the solitude provides time for reflection and an opportunity to examine the kind of intelligence that informed human action as our species evolved.

Thus, solo training allows you to focus your mind, develop a better awareness and feel for what your body is doing. This familiarity deepens with the passage of time, that if you keep working on the same movement over and over again, using the same form so as to have a consistent frame of reference, will allow you to experience the insights hidden behind the principles of the Tai Chi Classics.

Grafton also mentioned :-

1) Physical intelligence is absolutely ruthless in requiring that knowledge be gained from direct physical experience.

2) …physical intelligence reflects learning processes that constantly tinker with a person’s performance. One never stops learning to cook, to drive, or even to walk, for that matter. It is also a knowledge that is lost from disuse; without practice you will fall on ice or off ladders.

3) …physical intelligence provides the means to establish a sense of control. Humans acquire their skills and learn to solve problems through constant experimentation.

4) There is no end to the sensing, adapting, anticipating, and accommodating that must take place for a person to act intelligently. It takes practice and know-how to do even the little things in life…

The funny thing is that I have been telling students to learn push hands as well as they study the form but most of them don’t want to do it. They don’t listen as they know what they want, or so they think. Points (3) and (4) is basically what push hands is teaching and I am glad that a scientist has pointed out the importance of such learning to acquire a skill.

Maybe now students will believe me, or maybe not. People can behave irrationally, they know that they have not mastered a skill and they seek out a person to teach them the skill and by extension how to master it, but they just don’t want to listen to how to master it. Strange behavior that I would like to see a scientist write a book on.

In the meantime, life goes on. Another lunar year, the beginning of a new lunar year cycle will soon begin. What will be, will be. What won’t be, won’t be.