Thursday, April 03, 2014

Stages in Learning to Relax

As we practise our routines, we learn to relax, but it starts with conscious effort.

First, we need to learn the movements. Get the movements right.

Then, consciously try to use less strength in moving when trying to achieve each movement. At this stage, you are still moving your body in individual parts using muscle strength, just that you are trying to use less muscle strength to achieve the same movement.

The next stage is to try to move your body as a whole to achieve that same movement. This part is about linking your legs to your arms, so that you use the force generated by your legs to move the rest of your body, by relaxing your joints. It is still conscious effort to move your body as a whole using the force generated from the legs. And this is the stage in which you need lots of practice, to make it second nature.

And once it becomes second nature, you will then reach a stage in which, by thinking about the movement, your body will respond automatically to achieve the movement. This is when you are able to use intention to move your body.

For me, it is back to practice...

Friday, March 28, 2014

Recent Training Routine

My recent training routine starts with 15 minutes of warm-up.
原地走 (walking on the spot, to loosen up the body)
转脚 (ankle rotation)
转膝盖 (knee rotation)
伸屈膝盖 (bending of knees)
弯腰压腿 (hamstring stretch)
大鹏展翅 (raising of arms front and back)
转肩 (turning the shoulders)
伸手 (stretching out the hands)

I practise about 4 days each week.

Day 1:
Warm-up
1 set of Sun style taijiquan
2 sets of Yang/Dong style fast form
1.5 hours of pushing hands

Day 2:
Warm-up
10 sets of opening 起势
1 set of Yang style taijiquan

Day 3:
Warm-up
3 sets of Yang style taijidao
3 sets of Yang style taijijian
3 sets of Chen style taijijian
1 set of Yang/Chen/Sun style taijiquan

Day 4:
Warm-up
1 set of Chen style taijiquan
1.5 hours of pushing hands

Will probably expand the warm-up to daily if I can. At least on those days in which I don't really practise, doing a bit of warm-up exercises before going to work seems like a good idea.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Relaxing Is Not Letting Go

Staying relaxed is a taiji fundamental. Yet it is not the same as letting go. It does not mean going limp. Even when relaxed, one must maintain the "balloon". It is not the same as dropping the balloon. You relax in order to maintain the balloon, so that when people press in, they bounce back. If you drop the balloon, then when people press in, they reach you instead.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Inkling: Some Thoughts on Taiji, Consolidated Into Simple Phrases

鬆而不丢,慢而不僵,快而不乱,轻而不软。
Relaxed but not letting go.
Slow but not stiff.
Fast but not disorganised.
Light but not limp.

Sunday, March 09, 2014

Force as a Concept in Taiji

The word force (劲) is often used in taiji, such as when we talk about the eight forces of taiji such as peng (棚) and cai (采). This Chinese character for the concept of force in taiji is used to differentiate it from what we understand as force in our normal sense of the word. But what we need to understand is that the concept of force in taiji is not what we normally understand by the word force. We understand force as something physical that is used to move an object. That is not what the word "force" in taiji means. It is a concept used to understand the physical manifestation of a state of mind in taiji.

The biggest clue to us that the concept of "force" in taiji does not refer to physical force comes from the phrase 用意不用力, which means to use mental intention, not physical force. This is what taiji is about: using the mind. Our actions are actually the physical manifestation of what our mind is thinking about. The mind leads and the body follows. So in taiji, the focus is not on the physical but on the mental state of the mind. The use of the word "force" is to explain a concept, something that starts in the mind but comes to manifest itself in the physical.

Friday, March 07, 2014

Inkling: Relax and Change Direction of Force

I still haven't really figured it out yet. But I think relaxing has something to do with changing the direction of your opponent's force. Somehow, when you relax, his direction of force is reversed, and you are thus able to return his force towards him and use it against him.

Such as when he tries to pull you towards him, by relaxing, you change his force, and can make him fall forward instead. Or when he is pushing towards you, by relaxing, you change his force and bounce him backwards.

I will need more experience and pondering to figure this out, but that is the basic idea as of now.

Wednesday, March 05, 2014

Learning to Push

You don't need to learn how to use brute strength to push. Even a baby knows that. A 5 year old (like my son) knows that. We are all brought up learning how to use brute force.

So coming to pushing hands class, trying to learn how to push, and continuing to use brute strength... that is a waste of time. There is nothing new to learn here. These are all things that we have learnt as kids and gotten better at over the years.

The value of pushing hands class is in learning where we are still unable to relax. Because when someone is able to push us, it means we still have some place or point in time in which we are unable to relax. Realising that, and then working to relax that place/point, is why we actually push hands.

Everyone can push. But not everyone knows how to relax.

Sunday, March 02, 2014

Fast and Slow

In taiji, it is said that when your opponent is fast, you have to be fast too; when your opponent is slow, you have to be slow too. This fast and slow should not be taken literally, though. It is not about the physical movement, in other words. It is not about how fast or slow we move.

Rather, it is about intention. After all, one of the things that we learn about taiji is that it is not about force. We are told to use our intention and not our physical force. Similarly, this thing about fast and slow is not about the physical but rather the mental. It is actually about how fast or slow we change our intentions so as to match that of our opponent's.

Intentions translate into actual action/behaviour. But it is the intention that leads, not the action. By making sure that our movements follow our intentions (instead of being instinctive/reactive), we become the masters of our bodies, and we are able to control our actions and our reactions. And that is what sets a taiji master apart from the average Joe.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Reading My Blog Posts

I was thinking about how one can use the experiences that I have written down as I go about my taiji journey. After all, that's what this blog is about, for me to write down my experiences and share with others.

But reading more doesn't mean knowing more. Taiji is a very personal thing, and no matter what, everyone has to experience it for him or herself. While I can share my experiences, it may not be meaningful to everyone. However, it does serve as a reference for people through their own learning journeys. So I am going to share my thoughts on how I think reading my blog can be useful, and how to read it right.

There are many stages to learning taiji, and as we progress through the stages, our experiences and our understanding will differ. Even now, as I read what I have written in the past, there are some slight differences with what I experience now. So it got me thinking... am I sharing the right things?

Yes. Because I am sharing what I experience at each stage. And thus, in order for what I share to be meaningful, it also means that you, the reader, has to read at the right stage. My taiji journey started in 2005. On average, I practice 4 to 5 times each week, about 2 hours each time. That means I accumulate about 450 hours of practice each year. You, the reader, should thus be reading blog posts at similar stages in my learning journey. So for someone who practices about the same frequency and amount as me, if you started learning in 2005 too, you should be reading my more recent posts. If you started in 2007, you should be reading my posts 2 years before.

Otherwise, things would either be too simple for you, or beyond your understanding. Just as our teacher would teach us differently at different stages, we should be reading differently too.

Monday, February 03, 2014

Inkling: You Can't Push When You Are Stiff

Why can't you push when you are stiff? Because all that strength is being used to maintain that stiff structure. Instead of generating force moving towards your opponent.

Saturday, February 01, 2014

The Science Behind Relaxing the Contact Point

Something that I have been taught, have read, and even experienced for myself is that if I relax at the contact point when my opponent uses force, he will temporarily fall into emptiness, feel like he is floating and thus lose his balance for that short while. So far, I have only been told to practise like this, because this was how my teacher has been practising. He was teaching me as he learnt it.

In my scientific mind, so used to the principles of modern science, I have been trying to figure it out in terms of physics. And I have not been able to figure out anything even close as to the reason why. If I move away from the contact point, and my opponent follows, he will eventually move his centre of gravity beyond his base and thus lose his balance. That I can understand.

Yet in all that I have been taught about relaxing at the contact point, it is not about moving away. It is simply that, relaxing at the specific point in time and space. The opponent's centre of gravity is still well within his base. So what causes him to actually feel like he is floating? What is the physics behind all that?

Do I keep seeking the science behind this, or do I just take it in good faith and practise as my teacher teaches?

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Inkling: Relaxing the Contact Point(s)

Taiji is about being able to relax. And how to use that is probably being able to relax at the points at which you are in contact with your opponent.

Once in contact, relax. Then shift your weight towards where you want to go. Relaxing should cause your opponent to lose his balance. Shifting your weight then moves him to where you want him to go.

Going to try this out for a while. So far, it has shown to be true.

What You Learn From Pushing Hands

So what does pushing hands actually teach you?

Does it teach you how to relax? No. What it actually teaches you is whether you are really able to relax.

Through taiji practice, you learn to relax. But how do you know if you are really able to relax? You don't, not unless you actually try to apply taiji. And that is when you know whether you are really able to relax or not.

And that is actually what pushing hands is for. It tells you whether you are really able to relax. Whether all that practice is actually in the right direction.

Pushing hands doesn't teach you how to relax. You can't learn how to relax from pushing hands. But it does tell you if you are able to relax or not. And that tells you whether your training is leading you in the right direction or not.

Reading "太极揉手解密" by 祝大彤

Recently, I have been reading this book by 祝大彤 called "太极揉手解密". What it talks about is very similar to what I have been learning from my teacher, Mr Kwek.

There is one central thing that the book keeps talking about. And that is, to get better at pushing hands, you need to practise your taiji routines. Practising taiji routines is the way to learning how to relax, and being able to relax is the key to being able to apply taiji.

This calls for more practice...

Thursday, January 09, 2014

Out of Practice

Wow. I was overseas for 3 weeks. 3 weeks without any practice. And I am out of practice. After 3 weeks, I went back for class today. Just a bit of warm up, followed by 1 set of Sun-style taiji, and my legs were tired. Throughout the whole pushing hands session, my legs were trembling. I just couldn't adopt the usual stance that I am used to, and ended up adopting a very high stance, almost standing up for the entire session.

I guess this really shows the importance of constant practice. It is no use practising 5-6 hours in a day, for a few days, and then stopping for weeks. Consistently practising 30 minutes each day probably helps more.

This is a good wake-up call for me. Time to put in effort everyday, no matter how short, rather than 3-4 times each week for longer periods.

Monday, December 16, 2013

A Short Break, Again

Time for a short break from the usual practice schedule, as I go for a vacation trip with the family. I can already start to feel that all my hard work for the past few weeks going to waste... after all, constant practice is the key to improvement. All these breaks don't help...

Sunday, December 08, 2013

Stages Learning Chen Style Taiji

This is my own take on how to go about learning Chen style taiji.

The first step is in getting the actions right. So practise all movements slowly. Pay attention to the movements, the little actions, all the details. Make sure you know what you are supposed to do, what you are doing, and make sure they are the same. This step is about knowing the form.

Next is learning how to use your kua to move. Again, practise slowly, focusing on using your kua to move your body and your arms. This step is about meeting the principles of taiji.

Once you can use your kua, next comes varying the speed of movements. This is when you use your kua to vary the speeds of your movements, to give the fast-and-slow rhythm that characterises Chen style taiji. This step is about manifesting the flavour of Chen style taiji.

Finally, as you practise your Chen style taiji routine, visualise the application of each movement. This final step is about learning how to apply taiji.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Start Teaching From the Basics

At one of my teacher's classes, the students have asked to start learning taijijian. I am helping out there every once in a while, and was about to start teaching them when my teacher stepped in.

He started off by teaching the students how to hold the sword. How to hold it using the left hand when preparing to start, how to transfer it from left to right hand, how to do a "sword greeting". How to even grip the sword hilt properly.

All these are very basic movements, things that never crossed my mind, things that I never thought of teaching them (I actually knew all these from the days I learnt wushu, long long ago). But looking at the students, seeing how awkward some of them actually are when holding the sword, I realised that my teacher was right to start from such basics.

This little incident taught me an important lesson. Start from the basics, don't assume that the students know.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Inkling: Moving While Relaxed

Another inkling... this one after my teacher told me that I am still using too much force when practising my Chen style routine. The hard part about Chen style is the mix of fast and slow, hard and soft. It may be easy to remain relaxed when moving slow and trying to be soft, but when I need to move fast, the tendency is to use more force instead of staying relaxed.

So how to stay relaxed and yet move fast?

I think it is all in the mind. Maybe if I just focus on linking the force from my feet to how it is brought to my hands through the movement of my kua? That way, speed is controlled by my kua instead of my arms. Something to work on in future practices.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Consistency Comes From Practice

I was helping a fellow student out, she wanted to take a video of Yang Style Taiji Dao, so I became the "model". We didn't have a professional studio, so it was done with one camera inside our usual practice place (a dance studio).

With only one camera, she needed me to do the routine a few times, so that she could take from a few different camera angles. She then pieced the pieces together to get a single video that showed the entire routine from the best angle for each part.

She told me that while video editing is never easy, she had an easier time because all my movements over the various times that I did the routine were very consistent. It made it easier for her to cut and paste different portions to string together into the final product.

That consistency, though, didn't come easy.

It came from lots of practice. Lots of practice means I know how much space I need for my entire routine. It means I place my feet at the same place time after time, my hands at the same height time after time. Every time I deviate from the expectations, I bring it back at the next practice, to try and close the distance between what I practice and what is the expected/standard/requirement. Basically, practice is a reduction of error (difference between actual and ideal). With lots of practice, I get close to the ideal, allowing for consistency.

The downside is that if you get the standard/requirement/ideal wrong, practice will make you consistently wrong too... so practice makes you consistent in what you are aiming for; it is up to you to make sure that you are aiming for the right thing.

Saturday, November 09, 2013

Recent Performance on 26 Oct 13 at Tzu Chi Foundation (Singapore)

My teacher, Mr Kwek Lee Hwa, teaches taiji at Tzu Chi Foundation (Singapore) every week. Twice a year, there is a performance by students who take classes (not just taiji, but also calligraphy, yoga, etc.) at Tzu Chi Foundation to let the public see what they have learnt.

The most recent performance was on 26 Oct 13, where besides a performance by the students on "Taiji for Health", there was also a Yang Style Taiji Dao and Yang/Dong Style Taiji Fast Form performance.

Watch the performances at Mr Kwek's Facebook page:
Yang Style Taiji Dao
Yang/Dong Style Taiji Fast Form

Friday, November 08, 2013

Self-Reflection: Differing Treatment

This is not really a post on taiji, but just a self-reflection that came up after pushing hands class.

I came to realise that I treat people differently. There are those whom I am patient with during pushing hands, taking time to give feedback on how to improve, what I have previously been taught by my teacher, and pushing them just enough for them to lose balance but not fall. Then there are those that I just push hands with, without much talking, not really giving much feedback, not really sharing with them what I sense or feel, and pushing them beyond just losing a bit of balance, and even locking their arms and getting a bit rough.

The question is, why the differing treatment? Is it their attitude towards learning? Their attitude towards me? Am I jealous of their progress? Or am I just inconsistent in the way I treat people?

I have been told that I am inconsistent in applying rules at work. Maybe this inconsistency goes beyond work? Maybe I am just an inconsistent person?

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

There Are No Shortcuts

In one of the interviews in the CCTV series 太极拳秘境, Grandmaster Chen Xiaowang shared that there are no shortcuts in taiji, it is all about the continuous pursuit to improve.

It reminded me about something I recently wrote, about new training methods. While new training methods may seem scientific, logical, and imply the achievement of progress in shorter time, we need to remember that in our pursuit of taiji, there are no shortcuts. It is always an endless journey of practice and reflections. After all, taiji is an internal art. One needs to internalise one's training, teachings and experiences through constant self-reflection to crystalise our own understanding of taiji. Methods are external, they provide a basis to start from, but beyond that, it is all about how much effort we put into practice and how much time we spend on reflection.

It takes time to get better. How much time depends on yourself, not on your teacher or his teaching method.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Step-By-Step: Learn To Sense Force First

Many people come and learn pushing hands, thinking that it will teach them how to apply taiji. They see progress as being able to push their opponents. After all, if taiji is a martial art, it should be able to be used in the offensive.

So when they repeatedly fail to be able to push their opponents in practice, they start to lose interest. They start to think that they are not making progress. Eventually, they give up and go somewhere else, thinking that the teacher is not good, unable to teach them, or unwilling to teach them.

They fail to realise that the problem is actually within themselves. By focusing on pushing, they are losing sight of the aim of pushing hands. Pushing hands is about learning how to sense force, how to neutralise it, and then use it back. Pushing is only one part of pushing hands, and it is actually a manifestation of all the other parts when done properly.

There are many stages to pushing hands. Only when you make progress stage by stage, taking things step by step, will you eventually get to the stage when you can apply force like a taiji master.

The first step is very important. It is about learning how to sense force. Without being able to sense force, you cannot progress any further. And to sense force, being relaxed is very important. You must not resist force. It goes back to being willing to accept being pushed. Once you can get past this mental hurdle, you will know how to avoid resisting, how to relax. You will then be able to sense force, and slowly progress through to the subsequent stages.

So don't skip steps. Take things one at a time. Start first by learning how to sense force. Everything else can wait, and will come when you get there.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Pushing Is Not the Aim, But the Aim Leads to Pushing

Pushing hands is the foundation for pair practice. But we should not be misled by the name "pushing hands". It is not about learning how to push. It is about learning how to sense force, how to neutralise force, how to use your opponent's force.

You push, so that your opponent can learn how to sense your force, neutralise it, and then try to use it against you. Then when he pushes you, you try to do the same thing. The "push" in pushing hands is for you to help your opponent learn and vice versa.

Pushing is not the objective, it is the method. To become obsessed with pushing becomes detrimental to learning. Because you don't need to be good in taiji to be able to push. But you need to be able to relax, to be able to fulfill the fundamentals of taiji, before you can sense force, neutralise it, and use it back against your opponent.

So don't confuse the method with the aim. But the aim will lead you to the method too. In the end, it is a cycle, by learning how to relax, to sense force, to neutralise it and use it back, you also learn how to push.

Sunday, October 06, 2013

太极拳秘境 TV Series

I found this on Youtube, it is a TV series by CCTV put together through a series of interviews with masters from the various taiji styles. There is a bit about the differences between the various styles, but also a lot of taiji theory that is common, about how taiji should be practised and how to apply taiji's force.

Episode 1
Episode 2
Episode 3
Episode 4
Episode 5
Episode 6
Episode 7
Episode 8

Thursday, October 03, 2013

Teaching As You Learnt It

I look at the way my teacher teaches taiji, and how some others try to teach taiji, and have some thoughts.

My teacher teaches taiji the way he learnt it from his teachers (Grandmasters Lim Bo Yan, Hu Yunhua, plus Chen Xiaowang and Zhu Tiancai, though the latter two consider him contemporaries rather than teacher-student). He passes on the same taiji theory that his teachers taught him. He doesn't try to come up with his own theories, instead assimilating his own understanding into the theories taught by his teachers. He spent years learning taiji, and even more years practising what he learnt, as he learnt it. This got him to where he is today. His training is effective, as shown by his achievement.

There are some teachers who try to come up with scientific theories behind taiji. They no longer teach taiji as they learnt it; instead, they have used their understanding from their learning to derive their own theory, trying to base it on modern science to appeal to the modern student. In so doing, they hope to shorten the learning curve, to make training more efficient.

But is efficient training the same as effective training?

If I spend 30 years doing what my teacher taught me, I should be able to achieve close to what he did.

What remains unknown is whether using that same 30 years to train under a modern scientific method will yield the same result. After all, the person who came up with that method did not reach where he is using that method. He trained under his teacher using the good old traditional way.

One is a proven method. The other sounds right to the modern scientific mind, but is unproven.

To be effective? Or to be efficient? Can wit really replace hard work?

Wednesday, October 02, 2013

Keeping Things Simple

I was driving back from taiji practice when a thought came into my mind. I was actually talking to my teacher about his fellow student, when it reminded me of a video clip that I saw of his fellow student performing a Praying Mantis routine. While the movements are the same when compared to what my teacher taught me, his fellow student's presentation of the routine is more flashy, mimicking a praying mantis more closely.

It got me thinking: these animal styles, are they supposed to look like the animal that inspired them, or is the inspiration a concept (something inside) rather than in action (something outside/external)? In other words, is the Praying Mantis style supposed to look like a praying mantis? Or is it based on the concept of how a praying mantis attacks it prey? One is literal, the other conceptual. To me, one is flashy and showy, the other is down to the essence.

Do we put more energy into looking like a praying mantis? Or do we put that energy into fighting like one?

The movements my teacher taught me are simple and straightforward. Each move has a use, and there is nothing extra to try to make it look more like a praying mantis (we don't bounce/spring, crouch low and draw needless circles, etc). To me, martial arts are practical skills, they were designed for a specific purpose, and anything beyond that is unnecessary. It is like competition wushu nowadays, the actions are flashy/showy but a lot of energy is spent on making it look good, rather than making it effective in defeating an opponent.

It also reminded me that in my taiji practice, I need to get rid of all that extra stuff, the extra movements, the extra force. Strip down everything to the bare minimum, keep things as simple as they can be. Keep to the essence, everything else is a waste of energy that can be better used.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Self-Conceit

Self-confidence is one thing, but being overly confident of oneself can lead to self-conceitedness, which blinds one to his own weaknesses, and ultimately prevents one from becoming better.

As we become good in something, we start to gain confidence in our skill. We know we are better than others. But if we stop at that, if we only know that we are better than others but do not realise that we still have weaknesses that need to be improved upon, then we have reached a wall in our development.

It is a wall that requires a lot of effort to climb over or break down. Because self-conceit feeds itself; each victory makes us more conceited, and when things don't turn out as planned, we start blaming every other thing except ourselves.

And that is why I like pushing hands with my teacher. Because every time I push hands with him, I am able to remind myself that I still have a long way to go. I may have started to get an inkling of how to use force, how to neutralise force, but I still have a long way to go before I can really relax and use force like a true taiji master.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Pushing Hands Is About Practice

Actually, not just pushing hands, but everything is about practice. Practising taiji routines, practising pushing hands, using pair practice, practising with a partner on how to use each move, these are all practices that will help you become better and better.

And that is what I like about the pushing hands class in Japan that I went to (a few times only, though...)

There is a lot of practice there. Because it is not a class but rather a gathering of like-minded individuals. Yes, there is a pushing hands master there, who gives his advice to the rest, but everyone there is there to learn from one another, to practice with one another. They are all there with the right mindset, and there are many of them. So there is no lack of practice. You can practise with different people, each with his strengths and weaknesses, his own experiences to share. Instead of learning only from one teacher, in a way, everyone there is a teacher and you learn from all of them. (In fact, quite a few of them are actually taiji teachers teaching taiji classes of their own.)

I guess it means that each time I go for class, I should maximise the time for practice. And maybe one day, who knows, Singapore will have a pushing hands group that is big and with people of the same mindset (there to learn, rather than there to push) that I can join to further my learning journey.