Sunday, July 26, 2009

Videos of a Younger Chen Xiaowang

Found this on Youtube. It is Chen style old frame first routine, but see how different it is from what we are used to seeing nowadays. It is softer, just like what the first routine is all about.

And here is another video of Chen Xiaowang when he was younger. The video is clip of his first and second routines combined.

Taking Comments

An incident at class. An old man (a friend of my teacher) came over to talk to my teacher, and saw us practising. He saw a fellow student, and commented that his moves were too stiff. After the old man left, the student made a rude remark about the old man. My teacher chastised him for not being open to comments.

I know the old man. He is also a practitioner of taiji, and practises daily (except for rainy days). And he probably has been practising taiji even before I was born. I thought about bringing this up to my fellow student, but decided to keep my comments to myself before he thinks I am trying to be smart.

I think that in order for us to improve, we must be open to comments. Not just from our teacher, but from fellow students and even passerbys. When someone makes a comment, we need to reflect to see if that comment is true, because there is no smoke without fire. Usually, an external party can notice things that we would otherwise miss out. We think we are correct, but when someone thinks otherwise, we need to ask ourselves why is it that someone else is perceiving things differently from us.

Be open to comments, because they can only help to improve you. And be thankful that the person giving you a comment actually bothers to spend his time looking at you and telling you what he thinks can help you improve.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Why Practise Taiji Slowly?

Why do we practise taiji slowly? It is, after all, a martial art, and you don't move slowly at all when you are applying taiji. So why not practise it at the speed that you use it?

I think the answer is because we practise taiji slowly so that we make sure that each movement is done correctly. When we move slowly, we are able to check ourselves to ensure that each movement is carried out exactly as is required, so that we move in line with the principles of taiji. With time, each time we practise a movement, it is correct, meeting the requirements. After practising the same movement a few thousand times, the correct way of moving becomes such a part of us, that instinctively, whether moving fast or slow, we are able to carry out the movement in the exact same way, just at different speeds. Then, when we need to apply that movement, we are able to meet the requirements of the movement, but moving at a faster speed.

But slow is not necessarily good. Each time we practise, while we move slowly, we must not have breaks within our movements. Because one of the main principles of taiji is to move continuously (绵绵不断). If we move so slowly that there are breaks in our movement (usually because we take too much time checking ourselves), and it becomes a bad habit, what happens is that when we try to apply that movement (moving at a faster speed), the same break will happen, because we are so used to it. And then we will find that we are unable to properly apply that movement, because the break in it causes the force to be disrupted.

So while practising slowly is good, remember, the movements must be continuous. Otherwise, it defeats the purpose of practising slowly, and we might as well practise at the same speed as we expect to apply the movements. And then it becomes like changquan.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Questions on Taiji

Do you have a question on taiji? Do feel free to post them here as comments. It will give me ideas on what to write about, and who knows, maybe someone else can provide you an answer as well.

Hard vs Soft

I was watching a video on Chen style fajing training. It introduced 42 methods of training fajing, which can be stringed together to become a continuous training routine. Below is an example taken from here.

The video I watched showed applications as well (I couldn't find it on YouTube, so you will have to make do with the example above), but watching the video, I started thinking about how the applications seem to stress the hard part of application, without touching on the soft part of application.

I think taiji movements can be applied in two ways, hard and soft. By hard, it means striking. Basically, like a punch, you start without contacting your opponent, and suddenly make contact. The force is usually more explosive. Much like what you will see in Chen style second routine.

By soft, you are already in contact with your opponent, then you listen to his force and redirect it to use against him. The movements are more fluid and is what you will find familiar in Chen style first routine.

For example, the double peng can be used to strike away an opponent's arm when he tried to use both hands to push you. That is the hard method of applying it. It can also be used to turn and lift up his arms, and his whole body with it, when he similarly tries to push you with two hands. That is the soft method of using it.

The hard method requires power, which can be developed via constant practice. What you need to remember is that the movement must be smooth and relaxed. Power comes naturally when your body moves as a whole. There is no need to specifically exert force.

The soft method requires the ability to listen for and redirect your opponent's force. This is achieved through pushing hands training. This may be the harder method to train, since it requires that you have a partner available to train with.

So while it may seem more interesting to train in the hard method of application (after all, the explosive nature of the force exerted makes it look more impressive and more "useable"), let's not forget the soft method of application, which is what allows one to use "four ounces of strength to move a thousand catties" (四两拨千斤).

Friday, July 10, 2009

Taiji Mentality

A lot about taiji comes from the mind. After all, one of the basic principles of taiji is to use the mind to control the body (用意不用力). So the correct mentality towards applying taiji is very important, since the mind controls the body.

A common misunderstanding (I would think) is that taiji is about yielding (see previous post about yielding vs following) to the opponent, so that you don't resist him. I would think the correct mentality is not about yielding. Rather, it is about not resisting. But how not to resist? It does not mean to yield, to let your opponent has his way. Rather, in order not to resist, you listen, then follow, then lead your opponent in the direction that you want. Starting out passive, you end up taking the lead. The correct mentality is to remain passive until your opponent makes a move, but all the time you tell yourself to look for an opening to take the lead. You need to end up like water, flowing into every nook and canny available.

Martial arts is about defeating the opponent. That usually means you have to push forward (not to be taken in the full literal sense). If you need to move back to gain an advantage, by all means go ahead. But you need to press forward (need not be taken literally, it can be a mental kind of thing) at some point in time in order to defeat your opponent. If you keep running away, at best you avoid losing.

So the mental model to adopt is to be like water, be like the sea, flowing into every nook and canny, crushing itself upon the shore, retreating only to strike again.

Saturday, July 04, 2009

Learn By Looking

There is a limit to learning by looking at what your teacher is doing. Because when you are looking, you are not able to comprehend what is going on within your teacher's mind/body.

For example, when you look at your teacher pushing hands with someone else, you may notice him moving his hands, his legs, his body in certain ways to neutralise an attack. But when you try to imitate his movements, you find that you are unable to achieve the same effect. Also, everytime you look at him, he seems to be moving in a slightly different way, yet the effect is the same. Why? Because your teacher's movements are a response to his opponent's movements/force. Each situation is a different situation, and thus each response is different from the other. You cannot achieve the same effect imitating him because firstly, you lack his level of skill/understanding of taiji. Secondly, your opponent's movement/force is different. So your situation is different from your teacher's.

It is the same when observing your teacher performing a taiji routine. It is difficult to imitate your teacher because you don't know what is going on inside his mind, what he understands from each movement of the routine and how he visualises applying it. If you try to imitate his movements without knowing how he interprets each movement, you will end up with an empty shell, a form without substance. You are better off performing each movement based on how you yourself understand each movement is applied.

Does that mean there is no value in looking at your teacher? No, there is still value. You look at your teacher is learn the broad movements, after which you must ponder on your own their applications (and ask if you cannot figure it out). You look at your teacher to see what can be achieved, thereby allowing you to set goals for yourself. You look at your teacher to see if you have made any gross mistakes in the movements (usually because when you first learn the routine, due to your lack of understanding, you didn't pick up enough details, and now that you know better, you realise that your hand is too low, your feet too wide apart, etc.)

Pushing Hands For Self-Defence

Is pushing hands a form of self-defence?

If you were to ask me, I would say that strictly speaking, pushing hands is not a form of self-defence. Rather, it is a way to practise taiji skills related to self-defence.

A real attacker is not going to touch hands with you before he continues his attack. So the basic movements (single-hand stationary pushing hands, double-hands stationary pushing hands, etc.) that we use in pushing hands will not be useful when we are really under attack. So if you think you are going to be able to defend yourself just by learning pushing hands, you may need to relook your options.

What pushing hands does is that it trains you in the basics of taiji, which is 掤履挤按採挒肘靠. It teaches you the importance of staying relaxed, and trains you to turn your kua properly to neutralise an opponent's force. You still need to couple this with your taiji routine training (which is a form of shadow boxing), during which you visualise how to apply each movement in your routine. Taiji routine practice allows you to know how to apply each movement; pushing hands training allows you to apply each movement correctly (the correct amount of force, the correct point to make contact, etc.)

So pushing hands alone is not self-defence. Practising taiji routines alone is not self-defence. Only when you put both of them together, can you make taiji a form of self-defence.

Thoughts on Peng

I just wrote about why we need to practise single-hand pushing hands. This post is about additional thoughts on peng related to that article.

As mentioned, the most important thing about single-hand pushing hands is to learn about peng and other basic skills of taiji. So what exactly is peng all about? I think peng is wrongly translated in English when we use "ward off". Because peng is not just about warding off. Rather, the most important thing about peng is learning where to meet an opponent's force. It is about where to make contact, and that is why it is the most important move in taiji. Because only after making contact, can you continue to perform other things, like leading your opponent's force away and thus neutralise it, and then return it to your opponent.

For example, a common mistake is to make contact with your opponent's hand (when he pushes) using the back of your hand. Why? Because when you make contact with the back of your hand, your wrist will become stiff, thus allowing your opponent to make use of your stiff wrist (aka brute force) against you. If instead you make contact with your forearm (near the wrist), your wrist can remain relaxed.

Is peng just about making contact with your hand? No. Any part of your body that makes contact with an opponent can be peng. Peng is about how and where to make contact, and is not limited to the hand/arm. It can be the shoulder that makes contact, or the back, or the shin. Peng is about shifting the point of contact to that which is most advantageous to you, so that you can then make use of your opponent's force against him.

Friday, July 03, 2009

Why Practise Single-Hand Pushing Hands

A fellow student in class today asked me why do we practise single-hand pushing hands. Come to think of it, it is highly unlikely that a real opponent will stand there with you and use only one hand to push you. More likely, he will be moving around and trying to use both hands on you. So what is the value of learning to push with one hand in a stationary position, when it is unlikely to be the case when you really need to apply pushing hands?

I think the value of single-hand stationary pushing hands is learning the most important basics of pushing hands, which is peng, and to turn your kua. Over a prolonged period of single-hand pushing hands, you try your ability to peng and you start to learn how to turn your kua to neutralise your opponent's force, and learn how not to resist. With this good foundation, when you move on to the more advanced forms of pushing hands, and actual application, you will find that peng comes naturally to you, and you are able to turn your kua like second nature, and staying relaxed is easily accomplished without much thought. Once you can do this, you are much better at sensing and neutralising your opponent's force, and returning it becomes easier too.

So the value of single-hand pushing hands is not in its application during a real situation, but because it trains you to become familiar with the most basic movements in taiji which is fundamental for the proper application of taiji in all situations.