Sunday, November 25, 2007

Enjoying Taiji

Previously, I wrote about enjoying taiji and also about adding meaning to my moves. Today, after seeing my teacher perform a small part of Chen style taijiquan, I realised what he meant when he told me to enjoy practising taiji.

The key to adding soul and spirit (aka shen 神) is not in adding meaning to your moves, but in enjoying practising taiji. Taiji is about opposites: yes and no, have and have not, explicit and implicit, etc. So while it is good to show the meaning of each move, it must not be too explicit, else it is no longer taiji (since it no longer has the two sides of yin and yang).

You need to show each move, yet hide it so that it is obvious only when you want to use it. When performing your set, it seems as if there is some meaning behind each move, yet that meaning is not immediately obvious. For example, the move may be using the shoulder to hit, but you move in such a way that the shoulder knock is not immediately obvious, yet you are always able to do a shoulder knock.

And how do you do that? First, you must understand how to use each movement. Then, you need to relax and enjoy practising taiji, such that each movement is not an explicit show of application, but just a moving of the body, with the implicit knowledge that should you need to apply that movement, you know exactly how to use it.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Relax relax relax! (Part 2)

I know I have written many times about relaxing. Well, it is one of the most important thing about taiji, so do bear with me.

Last night, my teacher was telling me that when my opponent is stiff and using brute force, the more I need to relax. This stems from my last pushing hands session, in which my opponent was using a lot of brute force, and I had to use force at times (which is wrong). And my teacher demonstrate what he meant.

He relaxed. He became like jelly, like cotton. There was no point where I could apply force on, it was like trying to push an endless depth of cotton. You will just sink in further and further without really pushing anything. And when I used brute force, my own force caused me to lose my own balance and I just fell (because my force was moving in one direction, and with nothing to counter it, my centre of gravity ended up following my force, causing me to lose my balance).

And when I put my hands on his chest trying to push him, he relaxed and I ended up supporting his whole weight on my two badly positioned hands. That caused my arms to become stiff, and once that happens, he simply shifted his weight forward, and I just moved back because my whole body is now just like a big stiff log.

Relax and Enjoy

Usually, I practise my sets very slowly, so when it comes to practising taijijian, I have a problem. A set must be completed within 4 minutes (competition rules), but I am not used to practising my sets at that kind of speed. So in the end, whenever I try to make it within the stipulated time, it seems like I am rushing through my movements, and sometimes my movements are not clear at all.

The key here is not to rush through the set, but rather to firstly get used to the movements. Get the memory factor out of the equation first. When you are not struggling to remember the next movement, you have time for other things. So what are the "other things"?

First is to relax, even when speed is needed. In fact, the best way to hasten your movements is to relax. If you are stiff, your movements are always somewhat slower than if you can relax and let your whole body move together. When you relax, you are able to use your whole body to hasten your movement, rather than try to use just the strength of your arms.

Next is to enjoy the practice. When you enjoy the practice, you won't be tensed up and will also automatically relax. And your movements are smoother because you are not rushing to achieve things, you are letting nature takes it course. And you look better too. After all, the best performers (in performing arts, such as drums) always seem to be enjoying themselves when they perform. That is how you differentiate the master from the novice. The one that seems to be enjoying himself, the one that has the capacity to enjoy his own performance, that is the master.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Sit and Sink/Relax

My teacher pointed out to me a mistake that I have been making, but did not realise. I had thought that having a low stance would help me in relaxing and sinking my kua, but obviously, I was wrong. While I was sitting on my kua, I was not relaxing it, I was not sinking it.

So having a low stance and sitting on your kua is not enough. You must still put in that extra effort to relax your kua, and to sink it down. Otherwise, if your kua is not relaxed and sinking down, you will still not be able to use your kua to turn and direct your force properly.

Ever Ready

My teacher was relating to me an incident that happened in the past, when he used to train our national representatives for taiji.

During one of the competitions, it was about time for one of his students to compete. But his student told him that he hasn't warmed up enough yet. My teacher told him that as a sportsman, as a martial artist, he cannot say that he cannot compete because he hasn't warmed up.

A martial artist that needs to warm up first before he can use his skills isn't going to be able to defend himself from a sudden assault.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Calligraphy and Taiji

I was writing another piece of calligraphy today, and came to realise that calligraphy has similarities to taiji.

What similarity can there be between a martial art, and the fine arts?

The answer is simple. Both of them are art forms, and thus both have similar mental and emotional requirements. For example, you will not write anything good, or be able to practise your taiji movements properly, whenever you are frustrated. Your frustration will show in your moves and your works.

In taiji, you constantly practise to perfect your moves, to make sure that every moves attain the requirements of taijiquan, conform to the principles of taijiquan. In calligraphy, you constantly practise so that each stroke conforms to the principles of the writing style that you are using. Your taiji movements as a whole will look beautiful if they have spirit behind them. Each word you write will look beautiful if you have the same spirit behind them. 和 (peace) must look peaceful, 勇 (brave) must look brave, just like each taiji move must look like how it can be used.

In taiji, your greatest opponent is yourself. Each time you practise, you try to be better than the last, to not make the same mistakes as the last practice. In calligraphy, you are constantly trying to write better each time compared to the last. In both, you learn determination and perseverance even as you strive for perfection.

So are martial arts similar to fine arts? Only in the mind.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Why Study Weapons?

In this day and age, with guns, bombs and missiles, the age of swords and spears as weapons is long over. So why do we still learn them? After all, while learning taiji pushing hands can be a skill for self-defence, no one is going to be walking around carrying a sword or spear anymore, so skills with them seems less practical.

Well, as a means for self-defence, you would be better off learning pushing hands than trying to get something out of taiji sword. But that does not mean taiji sword is useless in this day and age.

Learning weapons is a good way to see how far you have progressed in your taiji skills. After all, weapons or not, the same principles apply, which is to avoid using brute force, that strength comes from the legs, to relax the body, to keep yourself upright, etc. If your application of strength is wrong, you will see it all the more clearly when using weapons, as you will find that you cannot channel your strength to the requirements for each movement. For example, if your wrist is not relaxed enough, the tassel will start to wrap around your wrist when you practise taiji sword.

So the biggest reward from learning weapons is not in the self-defence skills that you may pick up, but in the self-understanding that you will gain about your own strength and its application.

"Your moves are too right" part 2

My teacher brought this up again today, and so I tried to get some clarification on what he meant.

My moves are too orthodox, too "by the book". Especially when practising Yang style, my movements mostly follow a single speed (slow), which is not necessarily bad (it trains up leg muscles) but just doesn't seem good. My teacher told me that in order to improve, I need to drop that single slow speed, and be able to speed up and slow down when needed.

Practising my movements in a single monotonous speed makes it a chore to watch. Taiji, if done correctly, should look nice. While movements that look nice may not necessarily have meaning to them, movements that have meaning to them will definitely look nice. And how to add meaning to your movements? You must know when to speed up and when to slow down, be able to show the application of each movement without being too obvious.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Protecting Your Opponent

There was a recent article on the Straits Times, in which Janice Tay wrote about her experience at an aikido lesson. I happened to notice some similarities between what she wrote, and my experience with taiji pushing hands.

The locks in aikido are designed to cause pain, so much so that an opponent gives up any intention of continuing his attack. Instead of breaking his arm or ribs, aikido deters by careful and precise application of pain. There is no permanent, or temporary, damage done to the opponent.

Taiji pushing hands is similar too. The aim is not to break your opponent's arms, or to break his ribcage or break his back against the wall. No, the aim is to let your opponent know that he has been bested, through the careful and precise application of force to neutralise his attacks and redirect his force back against him. Similarly, done correctly, there is no temporary or permanent damage to your opponent.

Ultimately, if you can win without causing harm, you are one notch against those who need to cause harm before they can win.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Bouncing Off

When you try to push a rubber ball, first, with a little strength, you cause a small dent. To make a bigger dent, you need to use even more force. All the while, for every force, there is a reaction force. Thus, there is a force from the rubber ball acting on you, even as you try to push it. Eventually, you will reach a point in which you have used as much strength as you can to cause as big a dent on the surface of the rubber ball as you can. If you try to push anymore, that is when the reaction force is actually bigger than what you can take, and you bounce off from your own force.

I guess the same principle applies in taiji, when you are pushing. If your opponent peng correctly, what is going to happen is that you will eventually reach a point in which the reaction force generated by your own force is greater than you can take and you get "bounced" back by the force. And it is your own force, not your opponent's, that actually cause you to "bounce" off.

And that also says a lot about peng. You must be able to peng like a rubber ball, absorbing your opponent's force, letting him come in until he cannot push anymore and bounces off on his own.

Friday, November 02, 2007

Returning the Force

How do you actually return your opponent's force back to him?

When pushing with both hands, it is easier to understand this concept. His force from one side can be redirected back at him from the other. That's because there are two points of contact. Much like a wheel. When you push at one point of a wheel, the force turns the wheel, acting on it and in the end, you get an equal force in the opposite direction on the other edge of the wheel.

But when pushing with only one hand, with only a single point of contact, how does one redirect his opponent's force back at him? Each time I resist, my teacher not only doesn't need to move back to absorb my force, he is able to stop me from gaining ground, and at the same time return my force to me, slowly inching towards me if he so chooses. If he wants, he can let me exert all my strength trying to push him, until my arms get so tired that I cannot push anymore. It is like pushing a wall, yet he is very relaxed and doesn't seem to be resisting at all.

So how do you peng without resisting?