Thursday, April 30, 2009

Lineage (again)

I have talked about this issue before, in a previous post. Today, someone asked me again who my teacher was, because the Chen style taijiquan old frame first routine that I practise is quite different from what is being widely taught now.

Is there anything such as a "standard" version of a form? Is what is widely practised the "standard" version? How do we define "standard"?

Some would say that the version being taught by the Four Kings of Chen style taiji is the "standard" version. But if you look at them, each of them have slightly differing movements within their forms. So whose version is the "standard" version?

Is there even such a thing as a "standard" version?

Each of us, through how we were taught and our own understanding of taiji principles and our own experiences will end up with different thinking about taiji and how to express it. Even two students under the same teacher being taught the same form will end up practising the form in slightly different ways. I think the important thing is not being a copycat and just following what your teacher does. The important thing is to understand the style of the form that you are learning, understand what are the special points about it. For example, the fast-slow mixture with soft-hard expressions in Chen style, or the slow and steady and continuous flow of Yang style, or the smooth and light-footedness of Sun style. As long as you are able to express your form following the style, there shouldn't be any right or wrong. There may be small little differences in the small movements here and there, but what is important is that you are able to adhere to the basic principles of taiji while expressing the form using the correct style.

At the end of the day, we should not be mere copycats, but in order for taiji to improve, we need to understand what we are doing and use our form to express our understanding.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Style of Chen Style Taijiquan

For those who are familiar with taiji, you will know that Chen style taijiquan (陳氏太極拳) has many forms, not just one. The most basic is the old frame first routine (老架一路). Others include old frame second routine (老架二路), new frame first and second routines (新架一、二路), the 56-movement competition routine (五十六式競賽套路), as well as the small frame routine (小架).

A common misunderstanding about Chen style taijiquan is that it is both soft (柔) and hard (剛). To say the truth, all styles of taijiquan are soft and hard. What is special about Chen style is the explicit expression of hard. But does that mean a person practising Chen style should always be exerting force? Actually, no. Because within Chen style, each routine has its own style as well.

The old frame first routine is the most basic, and seeks to provide a good foundation. Which is why it is based on soft (以柔為主), with very few expressions of hard. Once a person has built up a good foundation, and is able to properly express his force (发劲) through the use of his kua (instead of using brute force), he can move on to express himself properly in the old frame second routine, which focuses on hard (以剛為主). The small frame has a slightly tighter (faster) rhythm, with smaller actions compared to the old frame.

The new frame places more emphasis on the silk reeling action and is more expressive of the hard portion of Chen style. Which is why you see a lot more expressions of force in the new frame first routine compared to the old frame first routine. This appeals to the younger generation since it makes the routine seem more lively. But such expressions of force must come from a proper base in order to make sure that the force is generated by the kua, otherwise it becomes brute force, which is a wrong expression of force.

The competition routine draws its movements from the first and second routine, making a balanced mix of soft and hard movements. This form is more for show than for training, since there isn't any proper focus.

So if you are practising Chen style, make sure you understand the focus of your routine. The old frame first routine shouldn't be done with a lot of forceful motions, but should instead be graceful and smooth, with the rare expression of force. The old frame second routine must retain the occasional graceful actions, but you need to demonstrate the proper expression of force (it must look explosive without being overly exertive).

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Taiji is Cruel

Taiji is cruel because on the outside (as seen from another person's view), the moves are all meant to maim, break or kill. There are hits to the groin, locking of joints, backfists to the head, etc. Each move in taiji is specifically designed to maximise the damage to the opponent.

But taiji is not just about moves. After all, each style has their own moves, each with their own applications. What sets taiji apart from the external martial arts is that the moves in taiji is not the end. It is the means of cultivating the inner self and inner strength, it is the means of building up the real skill of taiji. The real skill is being able to use an opponent's force against him, in any situations, without being limited by the moves found in one's routine. And the real inner strength that taiji seeks to cultivate is not the force to push others, but the ability to control our emotions such that we remain calm in all situations and curb our desire to win for winning's sake.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Technique vs Skill

It was a lesson for me today during pushing hands. I learnt what is technique and what is skill. And how they actually need to be practised hand-in-hand, so that one can really be said to master the application of taijiquan.

Technique is the technical application of the moves in taiji. That is to say, where to sweep and where to stand and how to turn the body to be able to apply a certain move such as Grasp the Sparrow Tail. One way to train technique is to have a partner for you to continue practising the moves. Well trained, you can easily apply the moves in fluid motions. You can either be leading with your movements, or your partner can be feeding you with moves for you to counter.

Skill is about the understanding of taiji. This is about being able to relax, being able to listen to your opponent's force, being able to neutralise your opponent and being able to use your opponent's force against him. To train skill, you need a partner, so that your partner can be feeding you moves for you to listen, discern, neutralise and return.

If you focus only on learning technique, you will find that you are able to apply the moves in taiji well against the unskilled and even against those skilled up to a certain degree. But the limit is that you are restricted by form (because you only train the application of the moves in the form/routines). And thus against the truly skilled, because they have no form, they are able to listen, discern, neutralise and then return your force.

If you focus only on learning skill, you will find that at first, you will not be able to handle someone good at techniques. Because you are still unable to properly listen and discern his force, thus you are unable to effectively neutralise and return his force. But if you persevere, you will find that not being restricted by form means you will eventually progress further along the road. But it will take a long time...

The compromise? Practise to gain skill when training with a partner, but think about application when practising your form. That seems to me to be the most effective and efficient way to improve in learning how to apply taijiquan.

Sunday, April 05, 2009

Relax, Not Limp

My teacher's hand feels soft during pushing hands not because there is no strength (i.e. the hand is not limp) but because he is able to relax his whole body, especially his kua. So when a force is applied on the hand, because the kua is relaxed, it is able to move and thus absorb the force, which makes it seems as if the hand is soft (retreating when pushed) when actually, it is not the hand that retreats, but the body as a whole (with the joints moving in varying amounts, not to say that they are rigid).

The common misunderstanding when we talk about being relaxed is that we try to be soft like cotton (that's how my teacher's hand feels like) by not using strength. We take the strength out of our arms, and our hands become limp. And then when a force comes, our hands yield to the force, yet we are unable to do anything about the force. Instead, the force continues to come in, and we end up being pushed.

Instead, to achieve the feel of cotton, we should be relaxing our joints, such that when a force comes in, our joints, moving in varying amounts, absorbs the force, and by then turning the kua, we are able to change the direction of the force, turning it away from us. It still feels like yielding to the force, yet it is not a complete yielding because we are not opening the gates for the enemy to rush in. Instead, we are drawing the enemy (aka force) towards where we want it to go (like luring an enemy into a trap).

Saturday, April 04, 2009

Practice Videos

Here are two videos of me practising. The first is an extract of Chen style old frame first routine.

The second video is Chen style sword.

Do feel free to comment, it will only make me better.