Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Taiji Spiral

There must be some physics to this that I haven't had the time to research on, but somehow, I think there is some scientific basis behind the spiraling force we use in taiji. When you spiral out, you may move the same distance along a single axis, but the force generate is much more compared to moving that same distance in a straight line. Why? Maybe because the distance actually travelled is different? For example, the straight line distance between point A and B is 10cm. When you spiral from point A to B, however, you definitely cover more than 10cm. The science behind this may have to do with the difference between a nail and a screw, and maybe has to do with torque, but I am not good with physics or mathematics... so I guess I will have to leave this to someone else to explore and come up with a scientific explanation.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Getting Rid of Brute Force

I am currently reading Matsuda Ryuchi's (松田隆智) newest book, "拳法極意-発勁と基本拳" (roughly translates into "Secret of Martial Arts - Generating Force and Basics"). In the section on Chen style taiji, he mentioned that one of the key to getting rid of brute force lies in stance training (站桩). An example provided by him is to slowly practise Xingyiquan Piquan (形意拳劈拳) while focusing on how the force is generated by the legs and reaching the hand. It brings me to think about what my teacher used to say about practising the opening move (起式) in taiji. I think it has a similar effect, while practising the opening move to think about how the force is generated from the legs, how it is then transferred through the body to the arms and hands, how that force becomes the energy that moves the rest of the body.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Linking Hands and Feet and Staying Rooted

After some time practising while focusing on linking my hands and feet (see here and here), I came to realise another small little thing. By focusing on linking my hands to my feet, and knowing how the force from each hand is linked to each foot, I become more aware of how the force is generated from the feet/legs. I become more aware of how my legs are supporting my weight, how they are shifting it from one side to another. I become more aware of my own balance. I have, in short, become more rooted. It is a small inkling but I guess it is also a small step towards becoming more self-aware, towards becoming more sensitive to force.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Learning From A Teacher

In the beginning, it is always important to have a teacher.

A teacher not only teaches you, but he also provides feedback. He points out your mistakes so that you know where to improve on. He paces out your learning for you so that you know where to focus on.

More importantly, he forces you to practise. By going to a teacher, you have to practise regularly (everytime you have classes). When left alone, man's laziness kicks in... and a lot of self-discipline is required to force yourself to practise, especially if the practise is tough. A teacher helps prevent laziness and prompts you to practise without the need for self-discipline. This helps in the initial stages when you still have not settled into your own cycle of practice.

Once you have found your own cycle for practice, once you have learnt the steps, once you know what to look out for (the common and uncommon mistakes), a teacher is no longer needed for further learning. You are then on your own. You are then your own teacher, prompting yourself to practise, watching for your own mistakes, setting your own pace for learning.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Linking Hands and Feet and 上下相随

Previously, I have talked about linking hands and feet. I have been making it the focus of my practice and I think I am starting to get a better understanding of this concept. In taiji, it is important for the body to move as a whole, for the top and bottom to follow each other (上下相随). Once I started to focus on linking my hands to my feet, this concept of 上下相随 came in quite naturally as well. I start to feel how the movements of my legs will actually bring about the movements of my hands. It is still quite in the infant stage, I would say, but at least it is a start of something new. I guess it is always easy to talk about the concepts of taiji, but how to actually put it into practice, and more importantly, the key to being able to put it into practice (like this concept of linking hands and feet is the key to putting 上下相随 into practice) is very important. If anyone has similar practice suggestions to share, do feel free to do so!

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Sharing By Kendo Practitioner

Today, I had a chance to listen to a bit of sharing by a kendo practitioner. It is about the value of defence. He was advocating the value of waiting for your opponent to make his attack. When you face your opponent squarely, with the right posture (upright), with awareness of your own weaknesses and ready for your opponentn to make the first move, somehow, he will feel compelled to move (otherwise we will just be two persons standing and staring at each other) and may even fidget a bit. When he does move, his movement will appear in slow-motion, allowing you to instead move in with your preferred attack. This sounded to me like what taiji advocates about following your opponent, which basically means allowing him to make the first move.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Linking Hands and Feet

I must admit, I have not been a good student, after missing quite some pushing hands classes over the past two months. Of course, I missed some of the lessons due to work, but some I missed intentionally... because I somehow cannot reconcile the differences between the two styles of pushing hands (the one that I learnt in Singapore, and the one practised at this class in Tokyo). But I did learn an important thing from the pushing hands class in Tokyo, and that is the importance of linking your hands with your feet.

In taiji, it is important to use intention, and thus mental images are very important. The mental image linking your hands to your feet is important, since the feet is the contact with the ground from which you derive your force. Mentally linking your hands with your feet allows you to bring the force generated by your legs into actual use (at the hands). When you come into contact with your opponent's force, mentally channeling it down to your feet allows you to neutralise it and change its direction. When neutralising, it is like making his force travel from your hands (assuming that is the point of contact) through your arms, down the torso and both legs to arrive at the feet. And then you make that same force travel from the feet up your legs and torso, through the arms to arrive back at the hands and in the direction that you want to bring your opponent towards.

So right now, the current focus of my taiji routine practices is to maintain the mental image of my hands being linked to my feet. Let's see where this leads...

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The Perfect Warrior in Bushido Thinking

I attended a lecture on bushido today. It was on what is the image of the perfect warrior in bushido thinking. When one brings up the topic of the perfect warrior in Japan, there may be some who will think about historical figures like Takeda Shingen, Uesugi Kenshin and Miyamoto Musashi. In bushido, the perfect warrior is not just one who is highly skilled in martial arts. He is someone who is also compassionate and kind and skilled in the fine arts. Why?

Bushido believes that the person who is not afraid of death is a strong warrior. I don't think anyone can dispute that. After all, if a person is willing to be killed just so that he can also cut you down, he is quite likely to be able to achieve what he sets out to do (ie. cut you down). But what makes a person able to disregard his own life in the pursuit of his goal?

That is when the pursuit of the fine arts come in. When a warrior pursues the fine arts, he learns to appreciate beauty, he learns to appreciate that the beauty of the things around him do not come by easily. A calligrapher may take only minutes to write a calligraphy piece, but he had to practise years before he could make each piece a work of art. A warrior skilled in the fine arts is thus able to appreciate the difficulties of life, and that brings about compassion and kindness in him. He is able to appreciate beauty and the value of life.

And thus when he can convince himself of his goal being bigger than the value of his life, he is no longer afraid of dying, and that makes him a very dangerous opponent. It is similar to what I have written before about being ready to accept defeat.

Thus, it is not enough to just train everyday in the martial arts. The perfect warrior must also devote time to studying the fine arts and learn to appreciate the beauty in the things around him and the wonders of life.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Talking With a Hakko-Ryu Sensei

I had an opportunity to speak with a teacher of Hakko-ryu ju-jutsu (八光流柔術). One thing that he said that I thought I would like to share.

He mentioned that most martial arts spend a lot of time training in things other than sparring. Even a boxer does not spar everyday, but instead steps up on sparring practice only before matches. Most of the time, the training is focused on other things. This made me recall what my teacher said about pushing hands practice before I came over to Japan. He told me not to worry about not being able to practise pushing hands. Instead, he told me to focus on my normal taiji practices.

Thursday, June 09, 2011

High Stance

One thing I realised from practising with a high stance during pushing hands. In the past, I practised with a lower stance, it allowed me to move out of danger even though there are parts of my body that is still not relaxed. In a way, I could use distance to neutralise my opponent's force.

But with a high stance, I no longer have the luxury of distance. My body really must be relaxed, else I cannot neutralise my opponent's force. And because of this, it helped me realise the faults with my stance. My chest is still not round enough... I still have a slight force that pushes my chest outwards. My kua still has a tendency to stick out towards my opponent. My elbow still have a tendency to point outwards rather than downwards. Most important of all, I am still not relaxed enough in total... the kua may be able to turn, but that is at the expense of the rest of the body, which is wrong. I was so focused on making the kua relaxed and able to turn that I overlook the real meaning of relax, which is the whole body. When the whole body (from head to toe) is relaxed, the kua will naturally be relaxed as well and able to turn.

Saturday, June 04, 2011

A (Slightly) Different Style

In my search for a place to practise pushing hands, I have found a group that practises Wu (吴) style pushing hands. It is very similar to what I have been practising in Singapore, so I decided to stick with it for the time being.

However, there are differences.

- The stance is a lot higher than what I used to practise. My teacher (Mr Kwek) advocates a low stance when practising pushing hands, but this group advocates a high stance (almost like standing). And because of that, the knees are only really really slightly bent.
- I was told not to turn my kua too much, instead to just move my kua in the direction that I want to push, and then only slightly. This is in relation to when I am being pushed. Complete context is: When pushed in one direction, sink down, then move kua slightly in the direct opposite direction. The key is to be very very relaxed at the point of contact. I would say even limp.
- When pushed, my opponents jump around a lot in what seems like an attempt to dissipate the force. I was told that the key to being able to do this is to "withstand the incoming force with my feet" but somehow, I still don't see how that links to jumping around... this is probably going to get some time to figure out.

That's all for now, I guess it will take some time to get used to a different style, but I think there are things to be learnt from this as well. I would say I have a clear idea of how I want to better myself, and this is a good chance to learn something different, to see things from a different angle.

Thursday, June 02, 2011

Being Stable

I was observing a taiji class the other day, and the instructor was talking about the importance of being stable. An important thing in taiji is not to overdo something. You should not stretch yourself beyond your ability. You do not move your centre of gravity beyond what is needed to achieve a movement. And therefore you remain stable. While broad, elaborate movements may look nice, stable movements are what taiji is about.

The key:
- Move as a whole. If your kua has stopped moving, your upper body should stop too. A common mistake I make is to do the small little silk-reeling movements of Chen-style taiji with my hands, without linking it to my kua movement. While it may look nice, it is not taiji.
- Shift your weight to the supporting leg before taking a step. When taking a step, the leg that moves should touch down like a feather. Only when the foot is properly on the ground, then should you start placing weight on it. Else you will suddenly shift your centre of gravity, which can be exploited during pushing hands.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Creating Your Own Style (Or Not)

While searching for a suitable taiji class in Japan, I came upon a class where the teacher created his own taiji set, esssentially, his own taiji style. It set me thinking, what is good about creating your own style, and what is good about sticking to what your teacher has taught you.

If Yang Lu-chan did not create his own style, we would not have Yang style taiji today. Similarly for Sun Lu-tang and the other founders of the major taiji styles. Yet, there must be reasons why these major styles have survived for generations, and therefore there must be value in continuing to practise these styles as they were handed down from generation to generation.

I think a style needs to be significantly different in order to set it apart and for there to be benefit in learning it. For example, the Yang style focuses on the soft aspect of taiji, while the Sun style uses a different type of footwork. A style should not be just a gathering of different movements.

Your Own Place

I once read a book about Sagawa Yukiyoshi (佐川 幸義), a master in daito-ryu aikijujutsu. In the book, there was a portion when he talked about the difference between him and his teacher, Takeda Sokaku (武田 惣角). Master Takeda did not have a fixed dojo, insteading wandering from place to place to teach. Sometimes he would stay in a certain place longer if he can find a suitable place to teach, otherwise he would stay for a short while to give seminar-like lessons. Master Sagawa, however, set up his own dojo, a fixed place for him to teach. Unlike his teacher, Master Sagawa believed that it was important to have his own dojo. And I think I understand why.

A person who teaches martial arts full-time spends a portion of his time teaching. Yet he also has time in which he is not teaching. However, without his own dojo, he cannot utilise that "free time" for his own practice and research. If you have your own dojo, you can use the time between lessons to practice, to research, to ponder, without having to worry about finding a suitable place. In a way, it allows you to maximise the time in honing your skills. Imagine, if you wake up in the middle of the night with an inspiration, if you have your own dojo, you can just walk in and pursue that inkling. Maybe that is why Master Sagawa chose to have his own dojo.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Teaching Taiji Is Not Easy

The title says it all. But what is so difficult?

I have talked about the teacher's mistakes being reflected by the students. That is one of the difficulties, that the teacher must first attain a certain standard before he can teach. Else he will be passing on mistakes.

But there is another difficulty. And that is, is there a syllabus to follow?

Just like an academic class, in which a syllabus helps the teacher to pace the progress of what to teach, in teaching taiji, is there a syllabus to follow? What do you teach in the first class? How many steps do each teach per class? How many repetitions (practices) before you teach a new step? What type of mistakes do you correct in the first month, the second month, etc? When do you start introducing the basic principles of taiji? Because if you try to teach too much at one go, the student will be overwhelmed and learn nothing instead. Yet if you teach too slowly, you run the risk of boring the students.

The problem of syllabus is less obvious when teaching a single student, since you can tailor the class to his learning ability.

A syllabus provides clarity to the students on what to expect for each class, and gives them a sense of progress. But just like in academic classes, slower learners may not be able to keep up with the syllabus, and keeping to the syllabus may mean running the risk of losing these students. Of course, just like academic classes, you can always help these slower learners by paying more attention to them (aka remedial lessons).

Talking about the sense of progress, being in Japan gives me a chance to appreciate how the dan 段 system helps to give a sense of progress and achievement to the student to keep him engaged and interested in continuing to improve himself. There are specific objectives to meet in order to qualify to progress through each dan, and the objectives are in line with a bigger syllabus that works towards a bigger goal. In a way, it provides a systematic approach towards achieving a goal, something which the Japanese are very good at. The question then, is to define what each of these levels (dan) means. There is already a system in China but how do you adapt it for traditional taijiquan?

Teaching taiji is not easy...

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Trying to Learn Taiji in Japan - Continuing the Search

As I have written before, I am looking for a place in Japan to practice. I went to observe a taiji/pushing hands class last night. What was taught for pushing hands was somewhat different from what I have learnt, though it is similar to something that I have seen on video before. The similarity only came much later in the class when they started to do single-hand pushing hands like what I know. But it runs so contradictory to what I have learnt from Mr Kwek, that there is no way that I can accept what was being taught at that class. So I did not join the class.

Anyway, the search continues, though I have more or less decided to practise taiji on my own. But I am still searching for a way to practise pushing hands.
If anyone knows where I can practise pushing hands in Tokyo (weekday nights), Yokohama (weekends) or Yokosuka (weekends), or if you don't mind practising with me, please drop me an email. You can contact me at vntsjp_at_yahoo_dot_co_dot_jp or leave a comment with some way to contact you.

A bit on the video that I saw which was similar to what was being taught. It was a video of pushing hands, demonstrated during a wushu and taiji demonstration in the early 90s. There was a mass group display and I have uploaded it below for those who are interested.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Trying to Learn Taiji in Japan

I talked about my temporary stay in Japan for a year, and therefore my temporary break from my lessons in Singapore.

I never knew it was this hard to find a taiji class in Japan.

There are many available, but none like what I am used to having. Plus, they just seem to be the opposite of the schedule that I can afford.

If anyone has information to offer on classes in Tokyo and Yokohama, I am looking for pushing hands class in Tokyo on weekdays and classes in Yokohama on weekends.

Wish me luck!

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Not Taking the Advantage

There are times when you do not take an advantage on purpose. It happens a lot during pushing hands, because if you seize every advantage, it may take the fun out of learning. After all, in order to learn, you win some, you lose some. If all you are concerned about is winning, then that goal will cloud your senses and cause you to lose instead. And if you keep winning, your opponent will either lose interest, or become frustrated (and may even turn rough, for example).

It is known as 喂招 and it is something that is very much a part of Chinese martial arts training. You purposely do something for your opponent to respond to. An example is to give an advantage to your opponent so that he learns how to see an advantage and take it.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Temporary Break

I will be taking a temporary break from my taiji lessons in Singapore as I go to Japan for a year. And now I am faced with a dilemma.

If I don't practise pushing hands for a year, I will definitely drop back to square one after a year of not practising.

If I find a place to practise pushing hands while in Japan, it means learning from a new teacher. If I follow what the new teacher teaches, my current teacher in Singapore may not like it. If I continue to do what my current teacher taught me while under the new teacher, the new teacher may not like it.

It is between a rock and a hard place...

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Uniform Force

On a circle, every point is the same. That should have given me a clue about how force should be like. My teacher was telling us the other day that force should be the same along my arm, ie. the force at my wrist should be the same as the force at my elbow. One cannot be heavier (or lighter) than the other. Also, when pushing an opponent using two arms, both arms must push with the same force.

In the first case, if a part of your arm is lighter than another, it is an opening for your opponent to move in.

In the latter, if the force from both arms are the same, there is no opening for the opponent to escape towards.

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Inkling - Moving With Your Opponent

An inkling again, this time about how to move with your opponent. Taiji teaches us not to resist our opponent, to move with his force. I see two ways to do this.

One is to let him push you around. Once he overcomes inertia, you move. You continue moving as long as he can push harder than the force acting back against him (either friction or any additional force you may put on him). It is like pushing a wooden block. It is easier to move a wooden block on wheels (less friction) compared to the wooden block by itself on a flat surface. In this case, your opponent will feel whatever force that is resisting him (which, if you are not resisting him, is purely friction alone) since by the laws of physics, any force will have an equal and opposite force acting on it. He will feel less force if your kua is relaxed (due to less friction), and theoretically (meaning "impossible") he will feel like he is pushing nothing if there is no friction in your kua.

The other way is to sense his force, then on your own, move in his intended direction. This is like pushing a wooden block that seems to predict your force and moves away from you on its own. In this case, depending on how well you sense your opponent's force, your opponent will feel whatever left-over force after the two forces interact (if you move away with less force than him). If you use more force to move away, you end up losing contact. If you use exactly the same force as your opponent, he will feel like he is pushing nothing.

While the latter may feel like you are not resisting your opponent, my inkling is that that is actually the same as letting go (going limp). When taiji talks about "不丢不顶", it means not to intentionally use force, whether to resist your opponent or to run away from him. Being relaxed "松" and moving with your opponent's force "随" means letting him push you, then using your kua to change the direction of motion to achieve your intended effect.

Monday, February 28, 2011

Relax is a State of the Mind

Once again, the question about being relaxed comes up. I have written before that being relaxed is a state of mind. When your mind is relaxed, you don't have the "fight or flight" mentality, and thus you are able to see more options (other than the two basic ones). This mentality manifests itself in your body, in that your body doesn't stiffen up from tension. Your body is thus relaxed, and when your opponent moves, you are able to sense his movement (direction and magnitude) and through a relaxed state of mind, see the options available to counter his movement.

A common mistake is to equate the relaxed body to mean a relaxed state of mind. When the mind is all tensed up trying to tell the body to relax, the body is necessarily going to be the opposite. So the more tensed up your mind is trying to get your body to relax, the harder it is to relax. And then it becomes easy to fall into the trap of "letting go (or going limp)" aka "丢". It becomes a vicious cycle because going limp won't stop your opponent, so your mind become more tensed.

So being relaxed starts with the mind, and that is why taiji is so focused on using intention, "用意不用力".When your mind is relaxed, your body will listen to your mind's commands instead of reacting to instincts, and you are then in control of the situation to change it to suit your needs.

Sunday, February 06, 2011

Inkling - Hiding Your Force, Opening Possibilities

Another inkling, this one about hiding your force. When your force takes shape (which means it has direction and magnitude), your opponent can sense it and use it against you. Your force becomes a corner sticking out. To avoid this, you have to hide your force. It must become like an arc, in which every point is the same, there is no corner sticking out. By having no corners, each point on the arc has the possibility of becoming a corner. By not presenting force, you open up possibilities for the force to appear as, when and where it is needed.

Saturday, January 08, 2011

Push With Back Leg Part 3

I have written about what I felt about pushing with the back leg before. Recently, I realised that I have been getting it wrong. All the while, I had thought that pushing with the back leg meant that when I am pushing forward, all the force should come from my back leg. Instead, that doesn't generate force to my arms, and cause the problem of stiffening my kua.

After some thought, and talking to my teacher, I realised that to push with the back leg doesn't mean the back leg pushes with a constant magnitude of force throughout. As your weight slowly shifts in front, the front leg takes on more weight, and the back leg should push with less force. Pushing with the back leg is actually a gradual shifting of the weight from back leg to front leg. The reverse (when shifting weight from front to back leg) is the same, of course. This helps you to move your centre of gravity properly and thus allows you to bring your weight to bear.

Monday, January 03, 2011

Power From Stance Training

Power comes from the legs. This is something common to all martial arts. Weak legs, weak stance, and you cannot generate force. Which is why it is important to train the strength of your legs. And all seem to agree that the way to do it is via stance training. It can be static (zhan zhuang) or dynamic (adopting a low stance when practising taiji routines). So don't rush through your routines, use them to practise your stances and from it, build up and learn to generate the force from your legs.