Tai Chi Boost

A warm day today. But in the current Covid-19 crisis every little precaution we can take to protect ourselves helps. While we should remember to do things like wash hands more frequently, avoid touching face and so on, we should also remind ourselves to do our daily exercise.

So for me this would be playing the Tai Chi form. A Tai Chi form a day helps keep the doctor away. The slow, gentle pace helps give our internal organs a nice, warm massage. You can literally keep a warm glow diffuse throughout the body.

The Tai Chi form is versatile as far as practice goes. If we have the space we play it the way it is organized as demonstrated by Grandmaster Dong Yingchieh below :-

If not, we adapt and play wherever we are. For example, if I want to video it myself then I have to play in such a way that I can fit into the screen and be in front of the screen rather than wander off or turn my back.

So I keep an eye on the screen as I play it ad-lib. I basically go through the entire form sans a few repeat movements here and there, not so much to keep the form short but to prevent the taping from stopping when the phone rings as what happened on an earlier attempt to video.

Dong the form freely does not mean you discard the principles out the window and do some sort of weird, fast paced, wriggly, butt shaking, fajingy bunch of moves. To reap the benefits of practicing the form we must still adhere to the principles such as using minimal strength, stay relax, keep the shoulders and elbows down, back rounded, etc etc.

When we adhere to the principles we can get a nice feeling when playing the form as if we are flowing and rolling, meandering sinuously like a river, whilst tracing cycloid spiral motions in space. Within the natural curves of nature we can tap them to generate power using the minutiae of rising-falling to generate momentum allowing us to fulfil the requirements of F = ma with minimal outer motion and barely breaking stride.

This is why Yang style is frequently misunderstood to lack power generation. It is hard to discern power when it is happening inside the body through the constant compression-release of the 5 points as we move through the techniques. Unless you have a hand on my body when I am doing the form you can’t tell when I am using for example open-close throughout the entire form.

I guess you can say this is the challenge of practicing Yang style. It is not easy but it can be fun trying to grasp something that eludes most practitioners because you can’t get it by simply doing brute practice. You have to use your brains to study the art, apply the little grey cells too.

If you keep at it eventually you will be able to achieve the internal small frame flavor of Yang style Tai Chi. It looks very ordinary, sans impressive powerful fajing. But then when a tsunami is moving along the ocean towards a beach there is very little outer movement until the body of water nears the beach.

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.

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.

Crash Course Salient Points

Two cold mornings. Two early mornings. But then the early bird catches the worm.

Enter Alex from Australia who is here for a quick crash course in Tai Chi. I had planned to teach him Beginning Posture, Grasp Sparrow’s Tail and Single.

After the first lesson we had barely started on Grasp Sparrow’s Tail. OK, revised plan to teaching Beginning Posture and Grasp Sparrow’s Tail.

Learning just how to wave the hands in the air can take some effort. However, learning the principles, the details of how to control and move the body accurately takes tremendous effort because it then is not a just a matter of monkey see, monkey do but monkey must use brain power to remember and perform to a script and tune.

Thus, for the serious student who wants to pierce the veil of secrecy it is better to go for quality rather than quantity. The reason is the foundation skills apply throughout the form, application of techniques and push hands.

To help jog the memory we shot a quick video summarizing the salients point when practicing Beginning Posture and Grasp Sparrow’s Tail.

The emphasis is to remember the step-by-step process so that practicing is not about going through the movements but to train the mind to control the body to move in a manner that allows one to have dynamic balance, connect the body throughout and to the ground, configure the body structure for application of techniques and be fajing-ready.

For the beginner the emphasis for the first layer of skill acquirement is to perform each and every movement in compliance to principles, articulate the biomechanics clearly and execute each movement to their natural conclusion before attempting to execute them in a seamless and flowing manner.

In this way the learner is always sure of what he is doing. In this manner he knows what is the standard of performance to strive for. He will also know when his execution is off because then the key parameters will not be complied to. For example, when the placement of the arm is not optimized then one ends up resisting with strength, resulting in inability to neutralize and fajing effortlessly.

At the end Alex asked the one question I had expected him to ask early; that tiny obsession everyone has – fajing.

Fajing today is no longer a big mystery except to those who don’t know anything about biomechanics. In fact, the method to fajing is already built into the movements of Tai Chi. As long as one diligently practices them the ability to fajing effortless will come in time.

For illustraion I used the movement of Press to demonstrate that anyone can learn how to fajing in as little as 5 minutes. That’s right 5 minutes! Of course, I could slap on a lot of distracting and irrelevant stuff like how one must have qigong, knowledge of meridians and so on, and yeah, maybe need to baisi too.

But I’m on the wrong side of 50, every day a step closer to the end and I ain’t wasting no more time perpetuating the BS that is hampering the progress of Tai Chi.

Press provides a clean and clear cut example of the principles of classical mechanics in play. Follow the steps, setup the technique, then at the very last step is the fajing part. All it takes is one simple instruction here and you can send a person flying, maybe not as strongly at first but practice it a few more times and its not impossible to do so.

Its just a matter of put in place the conditions and pulling the power trigger and everything is ready. Then you see clearly the power that comes from the use of acceleration and momentum. Its practically effortless when you do it right and getting it right is not difficult either.

Yeah, I think the effortless part makes an unbeliever of us for no one wants to believe that its actually easy to fajing. Most people love it that its difficult to perform, difficult to attain and filled with mystery. That’s the myth of fajing. The reality is fajing is physics in application.

Basic Pole Gung 3

The third principle we can learn from the Arrow Pole posture is how to get the power from the ground to the tip of the pole via the use of concentric spirals.

OK, I know the lines shown are not spirals. No matter how I draw the spirals they will not be a good representation of what I want to convey across.

I shouldn’t even mention counter-spirals cause that would be even more confusing without some basic understanding of the Tao, physics and the workings of Nature.

Even then its much easier to just do it, feel it and understand it. Some things are just meant to be felt rather than puzzle over intellectually.

That’s why students who are learning the pole will need to keep practicing the Arrow Pole posture over and over again. Then the gung lik of the pole will manifest in the hand.

Basic Pole Gung 2

The second thing we can learn from the Arrow Pole posture is the use of triangulation to focus our power when handling the pole.

I have added a few lines above to give a basic idea of what this means. This is not exhaustive. The actual triangulation is more complicated than this.

A series of principles are applied in order to triangulate properly. For example, we can use a body closing movement to triangulate.

Add to this the principle of the six harmonies and the plot quickly becomes complex. This is why we must drill Arrow Pole a lot so that we can add in the principles layer by layer.

If we try to dump all the principles in at one go the information will overwhelm and confuse rather than enlighten.

Basic Pole Gung 1

The Arrow Pole posture can teach us a thing or two about power.

A simple but important principle is that of perpendicularity.

Perpendicularity calls for our body to be at right angle to the pole when it is held horizontally in the striking motion known as Arrow Pole.

Perpendicularity enables us to position the pole in a stable manner. This in turn allows us to line up the body behind the pole properly to deliver a powerful thrust.