Lockdown Learning

Singapore is not in lockdown……….. yet.

But if we are we can spend the time to learn something. If you like to learn Tai Chi here’s something I put together when I had some free time during lunch today. Its a short introduction to learning the first three movements of the Yang style 108 long form.

Mind you this is a very rough sketch of a how-to-do-it video. I wish I could do it in more detail though a long video might be boring. So here it is.

The first movement is Beginning Posture. Here’s what it looks like :-

I tried to keep the explanation real simple while keeping the essential points in.

The keys to learning Tai Chi in general :-

Key 1 – take your time to learn, don’t rush the learning

Key 2 – pay attention to the details; it might not make sense at first but every little thing + every other little thing adds up to the big picture

Key 3 – practice more; make your share of mistakes and learn from them

Key 4 – practice until you are familiar, then practice until it feels natural, then practice until the principles come alive

Key 5 – later when there is opportunity get a partner to test out your understanding; if it does not work re-examine your learning and practice all over again – you can never get enough of the basics

Learning objective for Beginning Posture :-

Objective 1 – be able to control your balance using the vertical axis; minimize the amount of effort to move

Objective 2 – develop a comfortable body structure that is conducive to application of techniques and power generation

Objective 3 – master the control of wrist-elbow-shoulder control

Feel, Connect, Expand

A teaching emphasis this week is the use of the movement of turn body, left heel kick to learn about slow compression, sudden expansion to utilize fajing in the heel kick.

We start off by turning the body 180 degrees nice and gentle. Left arm closes in, right arm follows with the same.

Feel the movement, feel the timing, feel the body closing.

Now open up by expanding the body, feel the unity, the connection. Nice and easy. Do it slowly first to feel.

After a few tries its time to do it the way we usually do it. Turn body, close arms……………… now suddenly expand body, arms and away the left kick goes.

Is it correct?

Let’s do a test.

Both arms closing in. Slowing down. Partner puts each hand on each of trainee’s upper arm. Apply some pressure, hold the pressure constant.

On completion of arms closing, the trainee suddenly opens up both arms and kicks. If the arms opening are correct the power will be strong and send the partner off balance. If not, nothing much will happen. The trainee will struggle to knock the partner off.

Virus Time

Our neighbouring country is locking down. Over here life is as usual. Actually, not quite.

I went to a factory. Got off the van. Passed temperature check. Unloaded stuff. Back on van. Went to next destination, 3 buildings down. Failed temperature check twice. Guard asked me to go into aircon room. A blast of cold air allowed me to pass the check.

Later I went to NTUC Finest. The entire shelf for eggs…..swiped clean. Not a single tray of eggs left. Many vegetables nearly finished. Chicken……..what chicken. Not even a chicken feather left.

Came home. Work just as much. Times may be bad but the enquiries kept coming. How nice to have 2 weeks lockdown and enforced off time. Come on, what say ye Singapore government?

Its a good thing I do Tai Chi. I get my daily dose of exercise. I can do solo, I can do partner. In these unhealthy times solo practice is recommended over group practice. Less social, less chance of catching it from someone.

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.

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)