Insight 3.8 – Everything, All At Once

1. INTRODUCTION

Stand (like) Stake or ZhanZhuang (站桩) as it is popularly known is an exercise in which you stand still. In the few Tai Chi styles that I have learned only one particular style had ZhanZhuang.

This was the lineage of Yang Sau Chung —> Chu Kin Hung —> Richard Wong. None of the other Tai Chi styles (Cheng Manching style, Dong family, Nip Chee Fei, GM Wei Shuren) that I learned taught ZhanZhuang.

2. DOING ZHANZHUANG

I don’t remember much of what I learned in ZhanZhuang. I remember that the first posture taught was standing with feet parallel and both arms in front as if embracing a ball. Later we added three or was it four more postures.

I forgot how long we had to stand but if I had to make a guess it was probably about 30 minutes before we moved on to doing the form and push hands. We had our posture adjusted if it was out. Mostly it was a battle to keep the posture correct and boredom at bay.

3. GETTING SOMETHING OUT OF IT

Once I left this Yang style I tried to do ZhanZhuang on my own. Frankly speaking, to me doing ZhanZhuang was boring. After picking up the Dong style I stopped doing ZhanZhuang.

Three reasons for dropping ZhanZhuang :-

a) I didn’t get much out of ZhanZhuang in terms of skill improvement

b) In Dong style my teacher said we do not do ZhanZhuang

c) Proof of the pudding is in the eating

4. DON’T BELIEVE WHAT YOU ARE TOLD

My approach to learning is to give the benefit of a doubt to what I am told is the correct, the best, the ultimate, the secret, the whatever other accolade you can think of to heap on the method you are selling or praising.

Some methods are good, some not so. Some are good for the short term and others for longer term learning. Some are good methods ruined by bad explanations.

The best way to check out something is to try it. If it does not work out it may mean the following :-

a) The method sucks
b) The method has potential but the teacher sucks
c) You didn’t practice it long enough

For point (c) the problem is how long do I need to practice it before I give up. This is where having a standard of performance helps. Or in its absence a teacher who can act as a reference of the high standard that I aspire to.

5. RED PILL MOMENT

The decision you make today can affect the future outcome of your learning journey. If I did not walk out of the first Dong style I went to check out I might have ended up learning it. As it is, I saw it, didn’t like it, turned around and walked back the same way I came up the stairs.

The first Dong style I saw didn’t inspire confidence and I nearly bailed on checking out the second Dong style. But I didn’t cancel the appointment. Yes, for the first Dong style I just walked off the street and had a look. No appointment necessary. For the second Dong style I had to call the teacher and made an appointment to meet him in his office in the Central Business District.

One thing led to another including meeting the grandson of the founder of Dong style. This sparked my interest to learn from the teacher I met. I did so…………….. a year later after I saved enough from working a full time job and part time job. This was the first time learning Tai Chi would cost me an arm and nearly a leg if I had not negotiate for a lower fee.

Two years on I caught up with my Yang Sau Chung style teacher. His father was still learning from him. His father was a veteran of Cheng Manching style and had heavy arms, doing push hands like he was turning a stone mill with great strength.

I had a problem doing push hands with the father previously. He could stick and adhere well, applying strong pressure that made it difficult to neutralize. But this time was different. This time I came off two years of constant push hands training with my Dong style teacher.

Most Tai Chi class would spend a lot of time doing forms and very little time on push hands. My Dong teacher would spend half the time on getting the long form correct and the other 50% of the time on push hands. Because of this I spent a lot of time doing push hands with my teacher as I was his only student.

So here I was two years on facing the father. He piled on the pressure as soon as the pushing began. However, this time I had a way to deal with his pressure. The most surprising part was when I could neutralize his strong push and push him back. That was my red pill moment, realizing that I was correct not to pursue doing ZhanZhuang.

There is a postscript to this story. Many more years later I heard that my Yang Sau Chung teacher and his father attended a seminar given by the Grandmaster Dong I met. Apparently, the father tried to test GM Dong without warning and was pushed hard into the wall, banging his head against it.

The son was not happy and wanted to show up GM Dong. The son fell prey to GM Dong’s superb plucking technique (I had seen him do it against a partner putting up strong resistance), losing his balance forward, falling and hitting his cheek against the floor. This story was told to me by my Cheng Manching style teacher. Later I met up with my Yang Sauchung teacher and he was very upset with GM Dong, complaining about something but never explaining clearly what the grouse was.

6. RIGHT OR WRONG

You might think that I am anti-ZhanZhuang based on my experience. In a way I am but I constantly evaluate what I know and conclude. One good argument against ZhanZhuang is that in a fight you never stand still, you always move.

So what is the point of learning to stand still when you could spend the same time learning to move. This was the argument my Wing Chun teacher gave in arguing against the need for ZhanZhuang (note – in his Wing Chun style (its an old style, much older than the popular Ip Man style) there’s no ZhanZhuang training).

My point of contention is simply that we can look cool when standing still. The problem is when we have to move we have a problem keeping the body together as what we had trained in ZhanZhuang.

So whose argument is right and whose argument is wrong? Or could it be that we are looking at it from the wrong perspective? The hint came when I read that Yang Chengfu when doing the form would pause at certain postures and stand for a while.

7. ALL AT ONCE

In the light of what I now know about the practice of Tai Chi particularly after more than two decades on GM Wei’s Tai Chi this is what I think of ZhanZhuang :-

a) Getting a beginner to stand still is pointless; it is better to work on moving.

b) Teach the beginner what he needs to know about moving properly. Get him to slow down to a pace at which he can move as per the requirements. Later, he may need to move even slower in order to nail certain refinements in moving.

c) When the movements are properly coordinated and harmonized there will be moments at which the body feels as if it is moving as one unit. You would normally feel this at a slower speed. At a slow speed which approximates zero velocity this is when you would feel as if your entire body is moving all at once.

This is what I feel is the critical lesson from doing ZhanZhuang – to align the body not so much by not moving but by keeping relatively still so as to facilitate learning how to move the different parts of the body together. For those of us who don’t do ZhanZhuang we are simply approaching this from another perspective. We move until we can move in such a manner that if we slow down to near zero velocity it looks as if we are not moving.

For example, when we do the Single Whip motion in GM Wei’s 22-form at the conclusion of the technique it looks as if we are standing still to do ZhanZhuang. However, this is not what we are doing. Instead, we are still moving but we are focused on using the intent while adjusting and moving the body in a very intricate way that allows us to prime the five body bows all at once. You can say that even as we stand still our mind is moving.

8. SUMMARY

When we go through the 22-form we are moving, flowing like a river. If you study the movement of water you would know that water does not flow at a constant velocity. Instead, the movement of water can slow down or speed up.

Amidst the body movements our mind is focused on the steps on how to actualize and fulfil the principles of the Tai Chi Classics. The mind is relatively still when compared to the body.

Similarly when the entire body is moving there are parts that are not moving a lot relatively. When the speed of the various parts of the body is synchronized with each other the entire body feels as if it is moving at the same overall speed. If you now slow down this overall speed to near zero velocity you approximate the ZhanZhuang condition of standing still but you are not still.

You can never be still because physics requires you to move your body in order to transform potential energy to kinetic energy. Without this you do not have the ability to fajin. When you can move in a very refined manner it will look as if you are not moving when you are doing fajin but this is not true. You are still moving but you are moving in ways that fulfil the requirement of the laws of physics. This is how I view ZhanZhuang.

Insight 2.1 – Fixed vs Flexible

1. INTRODUCTION

In Tai Chi we learn the techniques by learning them through a form. You can think of a form as a physical textbook containing a collection of techniques strung is a certain arrangement and sequence imparting lessons in coordination, timing, biomechanics, and so on. Sometimes a form can be thought of as a form of shadow boxing.

However, a common criticism of form learning is that it is unrealistic training because no one fights in exactly the way a form would lay out the sequences of techniques. A form may also breed inflexibility in moving.

2. TEXTBOOK LEARNING

Learning a form is not simply a matter of remembering the techniques in their order. Instead, form training is much more than that. If we do not go deep enough into form training then form training has little value.

A form is a reference textbook, one that we constantly review and revisit to improve our understanding of the breath and width of the lessons contained within whether obvious or hidden. We can track our learning progress by comparing our performance and understanding as time goes by.

Suffice to say your performance of a technique in Year 1 should not be the same as that in Year 10. There should be changes in how you do a movement. The changes could be cosmetic and the changes could be deep. A beginner’s rendition of the same technique as a seasoned practitioner may look the same outwardly, however, the veteran would have a certain “it” in his movements, the “it” of which is the expression of the attributes and characteristics of the style being demonstrated.

3. PERCEPTION PROBLEM

When you first see a style such as Tai Chi your perception would be that of a soft style. Is this true? What you see, what you feel in the early stages of learning and your understanding years on will be different if you train diligently.

Perception is a problem of seeing things as they are. We see a technique, we imitate it, perhaps even try it on a compliant partner and think we understand it. However, things are not always as they are. This is the problem of perception. What we think is, is not always it.

4. LONG VS SHORT

A short form is a condensed version of a long form. It meets the needs of the modern society’s time starved practitioner. The other benefit of a short form is that you can practice it a few more times in the same duration of time that you would spend going through a long form that is about 4 times the length of a short form.

For a form with complex lessons within it the 22-form is a good form to begin one’s journey in GM Wei’s Tai Chi. You could go for a longer form but struggle to go through the many more movements in a long form. Sometimes not biting off more than we can chew makes for better digestion.

5. HOW WE LEARN

Most of us learn a form by imitation, basically monkey see, monkey do even if there are verbal instructions. We struggle to see, to copy what is shown. Then we try out on our own and we struggle to remember. Our mistakes are pointed out, we try to correct them, probably correcting only some of them properly and many not, and many more not corrected.

As time goes on we remember better, we flow better and think we know what we are doing. Pass a grading test and you can move on to the next form. Many more forms learned later and we end up being a collector of forms.

We can remember the forms but we are not doing it full justice. We basically wave our hands in the air, we think they have meaning but our movements betray our mastery. We can see a disparity between our movements and our teacher’s but we accept that this is the state of affair and life goes on.

6. ONE FORM

Practicing one form can be a bore. This would be the case if you are just going through the motions. Not so if you are mentally working through the principles.

If anything the 22-form makes for stimulating practice. The form may be short but the search to reconcile knowing, understanding and mastering makes for an exciting journey through the years.

You keep working on the same one form over and over again. As you become more familiar with the movements your performance will become smoother. When you are able to successfully integrated the 13 attributes (refer to Insight 4.2 – Basics) into the form the flavor of your movements will change yet again. This is a long term learning process. You can try to rush it but some things just takes time.

7. THE DOORWAY

The successful partial infusion of the 13 attributes into your performance will bring you to the doorway of mastery. To enter it you need to integrate all the 13 attributes properly into each and every technique in the 22-form.

Once you are through the doorway you begin again, this time to go beyond your understanding of the integrated 13 attributes. At this stage you can play the same techniques differently each time, not just physically but with emphasis on different principles.

It would not be wrong for you to play the form more freely by switching and substituting a different technique in the original sequence. You could also swap around the order of the six routines of the 22-form. Consider these as lessons to check and test your understanding.

This is when you go beyond being fixed and becoming flexible. This is when a form is no longer a form, where your practice can be on doing the same technique moving along a straight line or turning to face different directions or even doing the technique in a small space.

When you reach here you can pick up the 37-form or the long form if desired. You may realize that despite the different arrangements the attributes, the characteristics, the principles, the strategies remain the same.

8. BEING FREE

The 22-form is a means to an end. Do not become obsessed with it. You put time into it for the skills that you learn and not for boasting rights.

A form not practiced properly is like a book half read or skipped through. You know some, you know so many more not.

To be free of the form make it your slave and not be its slave. The key is consistent and diligent practice to uncover its lessons and make them become part of you.