Get rid of bad habits before “souping-up” the engine...
(mar, 01 feb 2022)
The traditional way is to first put the building blocks in place – a strong unmovable base, co-ordinated movement, agile footwork. Cultivate the correct energetic qualities – weighted at
the bottom, light at the top, expanding from inside to outside and fullness in the dantian. With this basis develop an understanding of Taijiquan’s different types of jin or trained power – peng,
lu, ji, an etc. Form training enables one to develop correct posture, to synchronise the different parts of the body and to increase co-ordination to the point where action is characterised
by integrated whole body movement. The traditional insistence upon a long period of form training is Taijiquan’s means of developing optimal movement skills and conditioning before beginning push
hands training. It is wrong to assume that the learner can achieve a high level of push hands ability just because they train hard. They may develop strength and improve endurance,
but what are their movement patterns like? Throughout the course of their lives, most individuals develop poor habits of body mechanics and lose the original mind-body unity, suppleness and
naturalness that were their original innate state. Trying to function with inefficient posture or motion is akin to driving a car with the handbrake on. If you are driving your car
with the handbrake on, the way to boost performance is not to put a bigger engine into the car, it is to release the brake.
If an activity is practiced with poor form, the poor form will be part of the information recorded in the individual’s motor programme. Beginning to train push hands, with its complex
patterns of movement, before correcting these bad habits means that these inefficient habits of motion are inevitably carried over into the newly acquired movement skills and are further
reinforced. Physical motor programmes, therefore, must be developed and refined so the practitioner can perform effectively under varying conditions and high levels of physical and mental
stress. To return to the car analogy, only when the car is running as well as it should in the first place does it make sense to “soup up” the engine. Consequently, it is much more
efficient to first inhibit and release poor habits and then, building on this foundation, train push hands. The physical structure and the movement quality gained from form training provide the
basis for all subsequent skills.
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The "Secret" of the Fingers in Taijiquan
(Wed, 15 Dec 2021)
The often-heard Taijiquan saying “when one part moves, all parts move” is really a simplified code for the fact that every part of the body is connected and
affects each other. At a gross level this is manifested through the coordination of the upper and lower body, the left and right sides etc so that in the end we have a type of whole-body
synchronised movement. In the Taijiquan classics this is reflected in the saying: “The motion is rooted in the feet, released through the legs, controlled by the waist and manifested through the
fingers.” Look a little deeper and we can see relationships throughout the body that can help a practitioner to move towards a completely integrated and co-ordinated kind of movement.
For example, most Taijiquan students are aware of the basic rules for the hands: middle finger extended, hukou (area between the index finger and thumb)
opened, laogong (centre of the palm) relaxed and so on… Beyond this however they are often unaware that each digit has its own role and function to play within any action: “Everybody knows
that the five fingers [four fingers and one thumb] together make the palm, but they don’t understand the secret within the palm.”
What are the secrets? Let’s take a look at the role and function of each of the digits in turn:
Thumb: The thumb helps to control an individual’s balance throughout any movement. To facilitate this, during practice the hukou must always be
slightly open. Try stepping with the thumb tightly clamped to your index finger and you can immediately see that your movements are awkward and unbalanced. Opening the hukou also
allows the area beneath the armpit to remain open and the arms to turn freely. The, at first sight, seemingly humorous Chenjiagou saying to “always keep an egg under your armpit” reflects the
importance of not allowing the upper arms to become stuck to the side of the body.
Index finger: Do not use any strength in the index finger. It should be fangsong (let loose) and gently follow the path of a movement. If the index
finger is not song (loose), then the whole palm cannot be song. This will have a knock-on effect throughout the body so that if the hand is not song, then the wrist cannot be
song and flexible. This is reflected in another Taijiquan saying cautioning: “if the hand is stiff, the whole body will be stiff.” At the level of the whole body this negatively affects the
ability to fulfil Taijiquan’s fundamental requirement of song jian chen zhou (loosening the shoulders and sink the elbows).
Middle finger: The middle finger is said to control the direction. If yi (intention) follows the direction of the middle finger, then your
intention can reach far. Chen Taijiquan theorist Chen Xin instructed that every movement must culminate in a clear focal point combining the “hands, the eyes and the heart” and that “the
eyes must look beyond the middle finger.” Throughout training a practitioner must simultaneously attend to the body’s position, energetic state etc while maintaining an acute awareness of the
outside environment (forward, behind, above, below and the sides). There is a saying that the “yi travels forward with no end”. How far the yi can travel depends upon the
gong (internalised skill) of a person.
Ring Finger: The ring finger is referred to as wu ming zhi or the “nameless finger” and is said to be the clumsiest of the five digits. It is
responsible for any upward and forward movements of the palm. Therefore, all movements that involve forward or upward movement should be led by the ring finger. It is important then that when
performing this type of movement jin (focused strength) should be concentrated in this finger rather than the whole palm. Failing to put jin in this finger when you are lifting up
will result in all the other fingers being listless. During tuishou (push hands), your technique is less likely to be weak if you can maintain jin in this finger.
Little Finger: The little finger should always be kept song regardless of what action is being performed. In addition, before any movement that
involves backward and downward motion you should first loosen the little finger – then relax shoulder, sink elbow. These are important preparatory elements that help lead you into other actions
in an efficient way.
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The Eyes Have It...
(Mon, 23 Aug 2021)
Chinese martial arts across the many different systems agree on the fundamental importance of training the four aspects of shou yan shenfa
bu (hands, eyes, body and footwork).
Within Chinese philosophy there’s a saying often repeated in martial arts theories that the “mind is the commander.” From a position of balance
and stability the mind decides the appropriate actions the body must take: “The heart-mind is the lord of the body and the master of one’s spirit and intelligence. It issues orders, but it takes
orders from nothing.” To be able to do this it must habitually be in a state of “empty single-minded stillness.” This is described in History of Chinese Philosophy Through its Key Terms:
“’Empty’ refers to not letting the existing knowledge that one has interfere in or obstruct the reception of new knowledge. ‘Single-minded’ refers to not letting an understanding of another
phenomenon interfere with understanding the phenomenon at hand. ‘Stillness’ refers to not letting one’s free-wheeling thoughts disturb one’s normal understanding.” With these qualities in place
an instant and appropriate response can be made within any situation.
However, for the above statement to make sense the mind must have enough information to be able to accurately read any situation. A second saying
is that “the eyes are the vanguard.” In the military tradition of Sunzi the vanguard is the part of an army that goes ahead of the main body gathering information on the ground before any
tactical decisions are taken.
I was struck by the following vivid description by Teddy Atlas of the importance of the eyes in a fight. [Atlas has been a well-respected boxing
coach since the mid-1970s, including six years at the legendary Catskill boxing club of Cus D’Amato. Atlas is perhaps best known for serving as Mike Tyson’s trainer the first four years of his
career and preparing him for the eventual world heavyweight championship]:
“The eyes are so important in a fight. You must always see everything. That’s what I mean when I used to call the fights on ESPN and say a guy’s
got “good eyes.” He’s got good vision, he’s calm, he sees everything. He’s laser-like, he’s concentrated – you have to see! Because if you don’t see it [an incoming attack], your brain won’t
register it coming and you’ll be hurt more. You can get knocked out; those are the ones that can hurt you even more. The punches because you don’t have time to prepare yourself for it. You didn’t
see it!” Using the eyes properly allows a fighter to be “… always balanced, always in position, always ready to take advantage of a mistake.”
Boxing coach Teddy Atlas: "You must see everything"
Despite the importance placed on the subtle methods handed down to train the capacity of the eyes in Taijiquan, today many practitioners pay little more than lip
service to this aspect. Within Chen Taijiquan’s syllabus and its underlying theory is a clear and progressive method for developing the eyes:
Stages of training the eyes
1. In the beginning stages of training the basic habit of keeping the eyes level is laid down. For example, before starting the form almost like
a mantra checking: the body is loosened as much as possible with weight sinking down to the feet; the eyes are level and taking a wide view; breathing is natural and unrestricted; and one’s mind
is calm. Then repeating this process as you go through each of the postures of the form.
2. The habit of keeping the eyes level is incorporated during jibengong (basic training) and coordinated with movement at a gross level.
For example, during the front reeling silk movement the eyes look beyond the hand during the upper part of the circle; During the lower part of the circle, they follow the direction of the hand
without looking down.
3. When a practitioner is very familiar with the choreography of form and they have laid down a foundation from stages one and two, the
requirements become more stringent. For example, each movement finishes with a precise focal point of intention. A recent post on a mind training in Chen
Taijiquan included the following examples which are also relevant in this context:
Performing Single Whip (Dan Bian), “Maintain visual focus on
the left hand which moves left and upward from the lower right side in a large semi-circle at the front of the body. At the end of the movement, focus on the middle finger of the left hand… In Pie Shen Chui (Turn Body and Punch), focus the eyes on the toe of the left
foot, while in Zhou Di Kan Quan (Fist Beneath Elbow) the focus is on the fist located under the elbow.” (Source: Chen Xin’s
Illustrated Explanation of Chen Family Taijiquan)
4. Throughout the course of each movement practitioners use intention to use their eyes in relation to their stepping, direction and the position
of a potential opponent. The elements “guard the left” and “anticipate the right” from Taijiquan’s five methods (jin, tui, gu, pan ding) refer to skills such as instinctively glancing in
the direction one is going to step before taking the step. Carefully watch any good football player running with the ball and you’ll catch taking in the situation around him before releasing the
ball. Likewise, in Taijiquan it doesn’t make sense to step blindly without checking first.
The eyes synchronised with one's footwork, direction and the position of a potential opponent.
5. The culmination of all the above factors leads to a place where we can say that the eyes lead, and the intention follows. Like driving a car where your actions
are dictated by the information taken in through eyes. You wouldn’t dream of driving with your eyes closed or looking down towards the floor of your car. But this is just how many people practice
Taijiquan. Instead of feeling the movement while keeping awareness of the outside situation, they are almost transfixed by the “skill” of their own movement and oblivious to what is going on
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Why we need to Fang Song...
(Sun, 20 Jun 2021)
An important element of Chen Taijiquan’s training theory is the need to let go of physical or mental tension (fang song). Only by achieving the correct
state can you be composed and stable. By eliminating physical tension, the body’s internal sensations can be better enhanced whilst training. At the same time by reducing mental tension clear,
instantaneous, and correct decisions can be taken. Zhang Zong Jun, chief instructor of the Shandong branch of the Chenjiagou Taijiquan School stressed the importance not overlooking this aspect
during training: “To be clear, you need to fang song before, during and after your quan. Preparation is important. Many people come to do Taiji in a hurry and, without mental
preparation, go straight into form practice. The mind is not given time to quieten and calm now. Practice with a calm mind and the quality of Taijiquan will improve.”
Accepting the need to fang song you must be able to distinguish between the correct state of looseness from simply being collapsed and weak with no
strength to speak of. The creation of a state of song requires the cooperation of the emotion, intention, and the body. This is not a passive process. Many people make the mistake of becoming
limp and collapsed when what is required is an active and alive type of relaxation. You must mentally lead the process of relaxing the mind and quietening the emotions. Following this process,
the body inevitably begins to loosen. One key advantage of song energy over stiff energy is the ability to redirect a larger force - looseness enabling the body to turn and deflect in the
face of a strong incoming force.
Achieving this optimum condition follows a long-term cultivation of an acute sensitivity to the sensation of what it means to truly loosen the body. Within
Taijiquan’s oral tradition several sayings are really admonitions to give up the use of hard strength. At the same time, they point to the method through which the loosening process can be
approached. For example,
• “The muscles go down and the bones go up.”
• “Hang the meat from the bones.”
The underpinning philosophy and methodology of Taijiquan recognises the need for an individual to be continuously aware of the opportunity or potential for
either movement or stillness. This is only possible if they can discard all preconceived ideas or plans for how to respond within any given situation. Instead, any response must arise
spontaneously based on their sense at that precise moment. Matching philosophy and theory we can take the example of the push hands process where an experienced practitioner is able to manifest
the condition of wuji by remaining in this unplanned yet ready state. In contact with an opponent, responses arising only based on the feedback provided by heightened sense awareness – in
practice expressing either movement by attacking, or stillness by defending. Either option only possible if the body and mind are in a state of song.
Zhang Zong Jun "...you need to fang song before, during and after
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Lessons in the Temple of Heaven Park
(Mon, 03 May 2021)
Just been going through some old notes, as I like to do now and then, and came across my reflections on some days training with
Zhang Baosheng in Beijing’s Temple of Heaven Park in the 1990s. Zhang was in his seventies at the time and had learned from the renowned Wu style master Wang
Peisheng. We met by chance during a few days in the capital getting over jetlag en route to Chenjiagou. Below are some of his words of advice…
On Zhan Zhuang:
• The arms are expanded outwards. The strength in each arm coming from the opposite leg if tested from the side. If tested from the front, the arms extend
forwards while the lower back pushes backwards – as if pushing the lower back against a low wall.
• It can be helpful to practice zhan zhuang against a tree or wall with your back very slightly away from the wall; In the same way you can practice
xu bu (empty stance) – as in zhan Zhuang, but with one foot forward and insubstantial; or gong bu (bow stance) by facing a tree with the front knee, toe and nose to the tree
representing the final position you can extend to - this slanted position being a feature on Wu Taijiquan.
On the importance of preserving energy - It is important to preserve pre-natal qi as the qi produced in later life is not so effective. To do this:
• Never finish practice panting and out of breath.
• If becoming agitated during practice, then stop and steady oneself.
• It is important in nei gong (internal strength) training that qi does not become excited and rise. The basic exercises mentioned above are helpful
On intention and maintaining a “secondary energy”:
• The mind clearly distinguishes between yin and yang or solid and insubstantial.
• Do not concentrate totally on a particular response. Instead, always have an alternative or secondary alternative ready should your first response be
• Apply the idea of root, trunk and branches to the upper and lower body. In terms of the arm, the shoulder is the root, elbow is the trunk, and the
wrist/hand is the branch. In action, if you are pushing in with your hand and the opponent responds to this, then give him the hand (i.e., soften it) and push in with the elbow.
• When performing a movement there should always be two energies present: one acts as a dummy or ruse and therefore, the opponent must be aware of it; the other
performs the true attack and is disguised. So, while the opponent is aware of the “dummy” hand, intent must be with the other “attacking” hand.
• When practicing push hands emphasis should be upon sensitivity. Connecting very softly and letting your partner reveal their weaknesses like water level
settling after it has been disturbed. In Zhang’s words, “Pushing an opponent should be like pushing a boat with the tide, rather than against it.”
• The elbows should not be allowed to lift, and the shoulder mustn’t lift in response to an opponent’s pressure.
On form training:
• You must relax while doing the form, but at the same time be full of intent. Visualisation is as if you were swimming across a river to attack an enemy on
the opposite bank. Though your intention is serious, you do your utmost to make no noise or ripples in the water.
• During form training every movement must be carried out with attention and precision. To help with this you can visualise that your extended hand is
holding a precious vase.
Salute to Zhang Baozheng!
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Are You Feeling It?
(Sat, 20 Mar 2021)
Soak up what you see - Chen Xiaoxing demonstrating a point.
An often repeated truism is that to be good at something, you should put yourself into an environment
where you can follow people more skilful than you. Then, all being well, assimilate some of what they have. The reverse is also true. For example, most responsible parents would worry
if their children were keeping bad company in case they picked up the poor attitudes and behaviours they were exposed to.
Thoughtful Taijiquan practitioners accept then that simply having the correct physical form is not
enough. Beginning level students (here we are not referring to the amount of time a person has trained, but to their understanding of the training method) often perform the shape or pattern of
the forms or push hands drills rather than actually “doing” it. An individual may be a good mimic, but comparing them to a highly skilled exponent it seems something is
In Chenjiagou it’s said that to become skilful you must be able to
copy the external shape and work out and understand the inner aspects. Replicating these less obvious requirements calls for a deeper level of attention. The ability to be present in the moment
requires an inner calm and full engagement to the action being practiced. As well as demonstrating the correct shape, all of the internal requirements of Taijiquan must be actualised. Of equal
importance to the formal instruction process is the informal learning process. Observation is perhaps the single most important mode of informal learning. By watching more experienced
practitioners learners can absorb the subtleties and essence of the methods.
Irish fencing champion John Twomey gave an interesting parallel from the modern sporting arena after
the experience of training in Estonia: “He remarked how coaches from many countries had trained him in technique, but his Estonian coach told him only to watch the best fencers as he was
training, to sense their feeling, imitate them, be like them, not to concentrate so much on technique but on that “feeling”, the special spirit of perfect fencing.” (Source: Peak Performance: Zen
and the Sporting Zone by Felicity Heathcote psychologist for the Olympic Council of Ireland). The same applies to learning Taijiquan, if you put yourself in good company and look deeply
enough some of it might literally rub off on you.
Look hard enough and some of what you see might rub off on you!
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Can you Develop Push Hands Skills Without Training Partners?
(Fri, 05 Mar 2021)
Chenjiagou 1998 - A youthful Chen Ziqiang and David Gaffney
A question people often ask is how they can practice push hands if they don’t have access to regular suitable training partners. By suitable read interested. During
one of our early trips to Chenjiagou we interviewed Chen Bing. One of the questions put to him centered on any perceived advantages he had benefitted
from having trained in the village his whole life. His answer was that, on a general level, everybody knows the rules of Taijiquan, so in that sense he had no special advantage having to put in the
hard work like anyone else who wants to improve. Pushed a little further though, he conceded that the two significant advantages he had enjoyed were the readily available access to high quality
coaching and an endless supply of good training partners.
With that in mind it would be foolish to say that a lack of training partners isn’t a potential barrier to skill development. Sometimes there are people who want
to push, but they just don’t have the patience to want to train systematically and in line with the laid down process. Finding yourself in this situation is clearly not ideal. That said, it’s
always better to focus on what we have and what we can do rather than crying about what we don’t have. Progress can still be made by taking a long term perspective and looking at the skill as a
whole. So, for example, preparing for the time when you do have access to push hands partners by:
1. The first point obviously is to continue to refine and develop the form. Form training, standing pole, reeling silk exercises etc. are of fundamental
importance in building the basic skills that will ultimately make one’s push hands effective.
2. Secondly an individual can train the various supplementary drills and strength building exercises of the system. These can be used to develop obvious physical
fitness components including strength, speed, power, agility and flexibility that will ultimately enhance overall practically usable skill. So, for instance, there are: single movement drills
that can be used to work on the ba fa or eight intrinsic energies (peng, lu, ji, an, cai, lie, zhou and kao); stepping drills to enhance footwork placement and agility; pole-shaking exercises to
train whole body connected power; reaction drills etc. Chen Taijiquan has a deep repository of training methods and the list can go on and on.
3. I remember Chen Zhenglei offering another method to telling the group that how they could begin the process of training listening skills by very consciously
mirroring another person’s form. His suggestion was that they do this by trying to exactly match their teacher’s form in terms of speed, rhythm etc.
All of the above exercises can be helpful in preparing for push hands. Eventually, though real sticking, following and listening skills require working with a
variety of push hands partners. Good luck finding them and value them when you do!
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Chen Fake – Four Types of Fajin
(Mon, 15 Feb 2021)
Power focused to a single point
In practical terms releasing power can only be effective if the person applying a technique can combine the ability to generate a great amount of force with
doing so in a short time. Skill, in terms of delivering a technique accurately, and the capacity to harness the maximum possible strength possessed by an individual also have a great bearing
on whether it “works” or not.
Taijiquan requires us to “focus power onto a single point.” At the same time it makes use of a type of sequential movement that picks up strength through the
kinetic chain of every action. This is reflected in the saying that every practitioner is familiar with: “Power starts from the feet, goes through the legs, is directed by the waist and
expressed by the hands.” In the excitement of trying to replicate the fajin effect of a skilled exponent it’s easy to lose sight of what is behind their action that makes it so
powerful. It’s all too common to see people trying to muscle out the movement with their upper body and overlooking this sequential chain effect. Outside the realm of Taijiquan a study by
Russian Yuri Verkhoshansky, a prominent figure in the field of explosive strength training, examined boxers of varying skill levels trying to establish where their power came from. He found
that elite boxers generated 38.46 percent of their force from their legs against only 16.51 percent by what he described as Class II and Class III (lower level) athletes. At the same time
superior performers relied less upon trunk rotation (37.42% vs 45.5%) and arm extension (24.12% vs 37.99%). The point, as in Taijiquan, is that force is picked up throughout the
The kinetic chain from feet to hands
Assuming an individual is capable of generating this force, the next thing is that it has to be expressed where it is needed. That is, it has to be directed
and controlled according to the situation. Taijiquan has multiple means of delivering force. In a recent post the Chengoushui or “Water of Chenjiagou” website posted a short piece
about fajin and four different ways it can be expressed according to Chen Fake. Chen Fake was renowned for his high level of Taijiquan skill, his tremendous physical strength and his
practical experience. He listed the following methods of releasing force:
1. The force on the “outer-edge of the wheel” [at the edge of the circle] where an opponent can be hit without [seriously] damaging them.
2. The force from the inner strength of the wheel. Here he gave the example of Taijiquan’s lie jin (splitting/tearing force), of which he said “this
strength can break bones.” Lie jin is used by emitting a very short and sudden twisting and tearing movement. On a cautionary note, it is not easy to experiment with this method as it
is very easy to seriously injure your training partner’s joints.
3. The third method he called “drill strength” or penetrating strength, describing this as cun jin or Taijiquan’s “inch power.” Penetrating force is
realised through the combination of spiraling movement and speed focused towards a single point. Again this was described as a type of strength with the potential to hurt its opponent.
4. The final method was bao fali or “explosive jin.” In Chen Taijiquan this strength is often compared to a sudden explosion akin to an
earthquake emanating with no warning from the centre of the earth. Three generations earlier Chen Fake’s great-grandfather Chen Changxing vividly described the abrupt and unexpected nature of
fajin: “Lift your hand like lightning flashing. When lightning flashes, there is no chance to close your eyes. Strike the opponent like
thunder clapping. When thunder claps, there is no chance to cover your ears.”
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The Importance of Timing and Distance…
(Sat, 09 Jan 2021)
In martial arts training the concept of timing and distance incorporates not just the space between opponents, but also the time it takes to bridge the gap and the angle and rhythm of attack.
Together, these elements all contribute to the exact position from which one opponent can effectively strike another.
Talking about the practical application of Taijiquan Chen Ziqiang said: “The most important strategy is to always be in a stronger position than your opponent. If your opponent is in a weak
position in relationship to you, no matter how strong he is physically, he cannot generate much force against you. Nor will he be able to deflect your attacking force easily. He will always be
behind your movements… he will always be trying to catch up with you, but you are always ahead of him.”
Your “position” can be considered either in terms of: your own shape/posture; or your strategic position in relation to an opponent. In the first case the meticulous attention paid to minute
differences in bodily posture during training is rewarded with a balanced structure that does not favour any side. In Taijiquan practice this is referred to as “strength in eight directions” -
the posture does not overreach or fail to reach your optimum boundary of strength. In the second case, using your sense of timing and distance, the aim is to grasp where change is heading so that
one can position oneself advantageously as events unfold. In simple terms, a person is said to have good timing when they know when to release an attack; and good control of distancing when they
are able to close the distance from an opponent with effective footwork. A good mastery of timing and distance can help overcome a faster or stronger opponent. In western boxing there is a saying
that “timing can be used to overcome speed.” These skills can only be are developed through experience. For instance, improving your timing mostly involves you watching and adjusting to your
opponent. Unskilled practitioners often fail to do this instead being preoccupied with themselves and what they are doing.
Training to improve your timing involves watching and adjusting to your opponent...
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“Shape” - the Essential Base for Push Hands Skills
(Tue, 15 Dec 2020)
Chen Xiaoxing: "Before an individual is eligible to train tuishou they must first train the frame..."
Some time ago I came across an interesting article in the Chinese Taijiquan media that posed the question, what is Taijiquan gongfu and can it be better
acquired through form training or tuishou? The same question was put to several teachers of different traditions including Chen Xiaoxing and Yang Zhenqi of Chen and Yang family Taijiquan
First to answer was Chen Xiaoxing: “In this context gong does not refer to the gong component within jibengong (basic exercises). Instead it refers to grasping
the essential aspects of Taijiquan during practice, and implementing these essentials. Some people believe that gongfu can be developed more quickly with tuishou (push hands), and that it is
useless to train the form. This is not correct. Before an individual is eligible to train tuishou they must first train the frame, until specific internal qi emerges. Compared to learning the
form, practising tuishou does nothing more than allow you to grasp a few of the more obvious attacking techniques. Without learning the form it is difficult to achieve a higher level of
Taijiquan. Invariably, upon encountering some external interference, you will not be able to neutralise the attack or escape it and you will not be able to execute the principle of "using
four ounces to deflect a thousand pounds".
On the same question Yang Taijiquan inheritor Yang Zhenqi spoke of the importance of first developing exactness of shape before training tuishou. I remember Chen
Xiaowang making the point that the real skill of Taijiquan combat is based upon the ability to “arrive in the correct position.” Yang explained:
“Placement (position) is jin… Gongfu does not develop from tuishou… Gongfu is trained from the form, and not forced out of tuishou. If tuishou can produce gongfu then our predecessors
would not have needed to train the form and would have just focused on tuishou. The reality is that this was not the case…If you don't know the form, you do not train tuishou. When movements are
relatively accurate, placements of the arms and legs are correct, movement positions are fixed, the jin route is integrated, and the xia pan (lower plane) is stable, then you can learn tuishou”.
[Recollecting his father Yang Chengfu's method of teaching] First of all teach the correct positions - of the body, of the hands and feet, of accuracy of every posture. When the position is
exact, then the jin can come out. He emphasised "bitterly train each position" in order for it to become "correct every time it's placed."
To summarise, within Taijiquan’s method correct form training – that is training focused upon establishing essential principles is the necessary first step.
Ignoring this stage will result in a person developing no meaningful level of tuishou skill.
Yang Chengfu: "Bitterly train each position"
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Words vs Direct Experience
(Mon, 16 Nov 2020)
Grueling basic training might look simple but it provides the necessary framework for skill development
Every morning Chen Xiaoxing leads the training in the small dark room a couple of doors from his own quarters in the Chenjiagou Taijiquan School. While the faces
in the class change, the programme never varies. For the first hour or so students are put through “simple” basic exercises. This part of the class is repetitive and gruelling. He moves around
the room, wordlessly for the most part, adjusting people’s postures and using his hands to lead them through the correct movement route. This is the ultra important process of laying down deep
foundations. During this stage [which never ends!] there cannot be any shortcuts. The structure and movement patterns established here provide a steel frame of understanding upon which to build
further skills. As one of the guys in the class said “if you want to build a skyscraper you have to dig deep foundations.”
A key feature is the lack of discussion. In the tradition of Eastern teachers Chen Xiaoxing doesn’t ask people for their opinions about the movements. But what
he does frequently is ask them to concentrate and “feel” the position or movement. Throughout the training there is an implicit understanding that words often get in the way. The realities of
direct experience, and the fiction created by the spell of words people weave around them, can lead to great
distortions of meaning. Many people can quote the fundamental requirements of Taijiquan – song (looseness), peng (expansion), sinking qi to the dantian while raising the spirit to the top of
the head; maintaining a sense of opposition and harmonisation etc. Problems start when practitioners who haven’t gone sufficiently deeply into what these things actually are reinterpret them
according to their pre-held understanding. [The pre-held knowledge is typically either in the form of intellectual knowledge from some other field or experience from a different physical
discipline] It doesn’t matter if someone has done Taijiquan for decades, if they’ve never emptied themselves of existing frames of reference it’s difficult to really “enter the door.”
Morning session in Chenjiagou Taijiquan School
In a wide-ranging interview Naval Ravikant, a fixture of the Silicon Valley start-up scene, spoke on the importance of learning the difference between
“knowing the name of something” and “knowing something”: “This is a very deep point. A lot of times we just define something with another definition. Or we throw out a piece of jargon
as if that means we know something. It’s the difference between memorisation and understanding. Understanding is a thing that you want. You want to be able to describe it in ten different
ways in simple sentences from the ground up and re-derive whatever you need. If you just memorise you’re lost. So, I think this is one of the things that I get stuck on a lot just keep going
back and reading the basics over and over trying to understand them.”
In the end training must be grounded in reality and the challenge is not mistake the word for the thing. The terms used and passed down in Taijiquan
represent a compressed way of communicating knowledge that can only be understood from the first principles embedded through direct experience.
Chen Xiaoxing with long time disciple Lin Jun - "feeling it"!
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Cui Guangbo - Training Fajin...
(Sun, 11 Oct 2020)
Chen Zhenglei & Cui Guangbo demonstrating applications in The Art of Chen Style Taijiquan
Clearing out an old filing cabinet I revisited a notebook from a training trip to China in 1998. It’s easy to forget how much harder it was to get information in
those pre-internet days. On the flip side we valued and took note of any information we got! Among the comments that filled the pages was a short list of reminders from Cui Guangbo, one of Chen
Zhenglei’s oldest students, who had joined our group training in Zhengzhou. He gave the following pointers on the process of developing fajin in the correct way.
1. Silk-reeling exercises act as the root to fajin.
2. Fajin manifests in a scissor route – that is left leg to right arm and right leg to left arm.
3. The most important thing is to be totally relaxed and to learn the form in slow movements.
4. Each time you are going to release power you should first relax into the posture – loosen the kua, sink body, store your chest, relax shoulders etc.
5. Then, at the moment of fajin, all the relaxed positions should spring into action and be activated into their opposite state.
The notes then re-emphasised the point that above all to learn to fajin effectively you must practice the movement slowly and correctly (posture wise). When the
movement becomes very familiar, gradually increase momentum (speed) until the correct quality of fajin is achieved.
The following points were added by Chen Zhenglei:
1. Fajin is based on complete relaxation – the hands, even when held in fists, are relaxed throughout including the point of impact. The idea behind this being
that in a real situation by bringing intent it will be easy to provide the necessary force/hardness. The harder part is the development of complete relaxation. [Looking back at this note
I’d add this is especially true for adult learners who tend to have more ingrained tension and faulty movement patterns that need to be worked out before there is any thought about added force at
the point of impact.]
2. Think of each movement in terms of the entire route and the different possibilities. For example, depending upon where the energy is released, the Hidden
Thrust Punch could be (i) a punch, (ii) an elbow strike, (iii) a shoulder strike.
A requirement to learning is the ability to listen and take note, even if what you’re hearing doesn’t seem to make sense at that moment. Assuming you’ve picked
the right person to listen to, by following the process eventually what seemed complex may become clear.
Cui Guangbo and David Gaffney pushing hands (Zhenzhou,1988)
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Mind Training in Taijiquan
(Fri, 02 Oct 2020)
The body of a Taijiquan practitioner is observable, their mind is not. Take form training, as an individual does the routine they can be seen going through precise positional and attitudinal
changes. At least at a superficial level, the direction and limits of the movements of the hands and feet, the direction of the torso, stepping actions etc are not too difficult to follow. Later,
as the level of skill becomes more refined these become more subtle and a trained eye is needed to catch all the details. Traditional teaching involves a process of modelling where, with minimal
words, a student learns the proper form by imitating the movements of their master or a senior student within the school. An outsider observing the interaction could easily conclude that the
whole process was little more than a mimetic dance.
This, however, would be to ignore the inner mental processes that are taking place. The mind is less easy to observe and more difficult to control often seeming to wander randomly. The Confucian
sage Mencius said: “It comes in and goes out at no definite time and without anyone’s knowing its direction.” The traditional Taijiquan or other East Asian martial arts master is not only
interested in the correctness of the form but also in the mental attitude behind it. He is aware of the disparity between a rote performer and an active participant, even though both may seem to
follow instructions correctly.
Perceptive eyes can pick up signals revealing a student is still far off from actualising Taijiquan’s internal harmonies and bringing together the mental, energetic and physical aspects. That is
the fusing of the xin (heart or emotional mind) and yi (intention or logical mind) with the sensations of expansiveness, weightedness and centredness and the external physical shape of the
Realising this integration requires a mode of thought characterised by simplicity, intuition and naturalness. At the same time its results must be practical and concrete. In his book The
Inherited Chen Family Taiji Boxing Art published in 1932 Chen Ziming said state: “To be able to actually do something, mind and spirit have to be gathered together within. When the feet stand
heavily, the hands move reverently, the head is upright, and the eyes are solemn, these indicate that everywhere in the body, the mind is involved. Inability to function means the mind is getting
distracted by external things.”
Taijiquan has its own methods for developing the mind including:
• Putting into practice the concept of movement coming from stillness – taking time to reach a place of physical stillness and mental calm or “enter stillness” before beginning training.
Paradoxically while this is an important, maybe the most important aspect of training, no force or focused intent is used. Philosophically this is referred to as wuji or the place without
extremes. Once the first movement begins, you must take care to settle and rebalance at the end of each posture. This is in line with the idea that the end of one movement represents the
beginning of the next.
• Each posture finishes with a clear focal point. Chen Xin spoke of the “spiritual power” that is manifested through parts of the body such as the hands, eyes and heart: “… when practicing
boxing, your eyes should not express any angry emotions but simply follow the movements of the leading hand. In Lan Zha Yi (Lazily Tying Coat), the eyes follow the right hand, concentrating on
the middle finger… the spirit of the whole body should concentrate on the final position of this movement… performing Dan Bian (Single Whip), maintain visual focus on the left hand which moves
slowly left and upward from the lower right side in a large semi-circle at the front of the body. At the end of the movement, focus on the middle finger of the left hand… In Pie Shen Chui (Turn
Body and Punch), focus the eyes on the toe of the left foot, while in Zhou Di Kan Quan (Fist Beneath Elbow) the focus is on the fist located under the elbow.”
• At the same time the mind is never allowed to rest on one place to the exclusion of everything else. There is a constant fine dynamic tension between the various aspects of the body. At a gross
level requirements like: looking forward while listening behind; lifting the head lightly while sinking into the ground; loosening the root while stretching out to the extremity etc. At a fine
level honing an ever-greater sensitivity to the point where “a fly cannot land without you being aware of it.”
Beyond an individual’s efforts in the training hall, mental training cannot be separated from daily life. Thought patterns have to be refined until they are habitually clear, balanced, focused
and not over-reactive. A common Chinese parable about a farmer trying to force the process of growing a plant is often applied to the subtleness needed to cultivate the mental processes: “If we
exert too much artificial effort to help a plant grow, it will soon wither. In the same way there is a natural course for the development of the heart (xin). One should neither forget nor assist
in one’s daily effort to preserve it.” The training and discipline of the mind and body are inextricably linked and neither can be neglected. While the body requires a long and gradual process of
shaping and strengthening, the mind too has to be slowly tempered.
Eighth century Japanese depiction of one of the Four Jingang: "With his brows knitted,eyes narrowed, and mouth closed, the image seems to
be watching a distant enemy.Restrained in facial expression and bodily gesture, it suggests the amassing of energy and the fearfulness of its release.Its power is in a potential
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Chen Boxian – Following the Middle Path & How One Thing Affects Everything…
(Tue, 01 Sep 2020)
Early photo of Chen Boxian and Chen Xiaoxing in front of the Chenjiagou Taijiquan School
A recent ceremony in Chenjiagou marked what would have been the one hundredth birthday of Chen Boxian (1920-1989). While he might not be very well known in the West, Chen Boxian was a well-respected
Taijiquan practitioner in Chenjiagou. He was a direct descendant of Taijiquan creator Chen Wangting’s nephew Chen Suole and learned from teachers including Chen Ziming, Chen Zhaopi, Chen Zhaoxu, Chen
Zhaokui and Chen Kezhong. The event recognised his role in protecting a number of the old masters from the excesses of the Cultural Revolution, for the preservation of the
lineage/genealogy records of the Chen family, and for collating and recording many historical events of the village.
In one of his many writings Chen Boxiang highlighted the importance of following the middle path as the route
to successful practice. At the heart of Taijiquan training is a search for balance, centredness and equilibrium. Outlining the essentials of Chen Taijiquan practice Chen Boxian explained how
Taijiquan shares this quality with the three great philosophies that have shaped much of the Chinese worldview - Confucianism, Buddhism and Daoism. While each have their distinct nuances and
subtleties, they can all be placed within the category of approaches of the “middle school.” The literal translation of his words is that, “Confucianism teaches "upholding the middle", Buddhism
teaches "emptying the middle", Daoism teaches "observing the middle". The practice of Taijiquan also attaches great importance to the word
If the translation seems cryptic we can break it down to try to get a clearer idea of the point Chen Boxian is
making. The reference to Confucianism is to grasp and withhold the centre or zhi zhong. Followers of this tradition are expected to be fair, unbiased
and impartial, unwavering and in complete control of their thoughts and actions. The Buddhist reference of an empty centre or xu zhong points to the
idea of the void. In the most simple terms we can say it is a way of perception where experiences are interpreted in their purest form. Where an individual neither adds to subtracts from what is
in front of them based on their own preheld ideas or expectations. The Daoist notion of observing the centre or shou zhong is a call to observe balance
and flow in harmony with occurrences in the environment. Based on a clear and composed mindset and a balanced physical structure, Taijiquan’s core
ideas such as listening and following the movements of an opponent, taking advantage of weak points and the requirement of acting from a position of central equilibrium, follow these essential
Chen Boxian wrote: “Without thinking and without worry, calm down and [let your mind] settle down: When you
practise boxing, you should eliminate all distractions, leave nothing in your mind, and calm down your thoughts. Do not allow the area above the navel to fill with qi; qi sinks to the dantian… At the beginning stage of learning, while being aware that qi must sink down, you cannot be rigid with this, otherwise, it’s easy to [make the mistake of]
worrying about one thing and losing the other.” [This is a common Chinese idiom – “if you hang onto one, you overlook a thousand” - being overly fixated on any single aspect of training you run the
real risk of losing sight of the need to train the body as a whole system].
Chen Boxian wrote detailed descriptions of the fundamental requirements of Taijiquan, emphasising the way that
everything affects everything else. Take for example his instruction of how to hold the head:
· “Stand upright; it is not
appropriate to tilt the head in any direction: The body should be straight, not bending forwards or
stooping, not sticking the chest out, not leaning to the left or right sides. The head is kept straight, not bowed or tilted back, or do not shake or twist
· The front, back and lifting
energies of the head converge; the eyes are level and look straight ahead: The front and back of the head should have the sensation of pushing out as your head lifts up (ding jin). The intention should be for
the front and back of the head to be slightly extended outwards and that should be enough.
Do not stiffen your neck and force your head upwards rigidly. Slightly draw in the chin, and keep the eyes level
and looking forwards. This way it is not easy to lose the front and back expansion jin. If you bow your head you lose the
forward ding [the front part of the overall requirement to lift the head lightly] and your spirit will not be lifted and you may feel faint when turning. If you tilt your head backwards [looking
upwards and raising your chin] you lose the backward ding and your breathing becomes unnatural and your chest becomes tight as transverse qi fills the chest.
· Ears listen behind; keep the heart (intention) close to your back. Raise the tip of the tongue and place it gently between
the teeth: As the eyes look to the front, they also look to the left and right [in other words the attention is not focused too narrowly]. The back seems to be imperceptible as it is
outside your field of vision and sensation. Because you cannot see your back you have to compensate the deficit. This explains the need to listen behind – known as “reverse listening.” [During
this process] the mind intent stays close to the back to maintain neutrality and guard against the sense of emptiness at the rear of the body. It also meets the requirements of "quietness
in motion" and "the whole body follow each other".
· The mouth is kept
closed, breathing is through the nostrils, and the tip of the tongue should be placed gently between the roots of the upper teeth and upper palate: In this way, fluid under the
tip of the tongue (saliva - known as Huachi in Chinese medicine, or in literary figurative speech Yuyeqiongjiang– jadelike or high quality wine)
is readily secreted. The saliva must be swallowed, not only for the purpose of preserving the original qi but also in practical terms to avoid the
problems such as dry mouth, thirst and panting and breathlessness during Taijiquan training.”
The above are merely some of the requirements for the head. The same degree of detail is applied to every part
of the body. In the final analysis Taijiquan has to be understood and approached with the end goal being the training and developing every aspect of an individual – both physical and mental –
through a process of mutual integration, influence and transformation.
The first Henan Sanshou and Tuishou tournament in 1982. Chen Boxian (seated in the centre) led the team that included Chen Xiaowang, Chen Zhenglei, Zhu Tiancai and Wang Xian.
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Timing and Taijiquan's Movement System...
(Thu, 13 Aug 2020)
When asked what was the single most important thing to pay attention to in training Taijiquan? Chen Xiaoxing said “timing”. He was referring to the coordination of multiple different aspects
e.g. the left and right sides of the body and the upper and lower body. And also the integration of the physical and energetic, for instance harmonising the internal sensation within the body
with outside movement etc – so that everything starts and finishes together. To fulfil Taijiquan’s six harmonies (i.e. the three internal and three external connections) we aim for the
combination of a body that is loose, relaxed, pliant and strong with a mind that is calm, focused and clear so that the body and mind are harmonised. In a nutshell, it’s not enough to be
strong or fast if movements are scattered and disorganised.
This idea of timing is an often visited theme in Chinese philosophy. Confucian scholar Du Weiming illustrated its importance in relation to playing music: “A performance that accords with the
highest standards of excellence requires both the “strength” to carry it out and the skill to make it right. It is not only the power and ability to complete the whole process but also the
“timing” at each moment as the music unfolds that gives the quality to the performance.” Mencius cut straight to the heart of the matter explaining: “It is like shooting from beyond a hundred
paces. It is due to your strength that the arrow reaches its target, but it is not due to your strength that it hits the mark.”
In a similar vein, chatting with Chen Xiaowang during his last seminar in the UK, he highlighted some of the obstacles that people must overcome if they are to make a success of their practice. A
common mistake, he suggested, was focusing exclusively on the external aspects and the appearance of Taijiquan rather than understanding its real essence:
“People ask how high your arms are or how far you should reach, or how far the legs should step out. This is not the aim of practice. The aim of practice is to make your body into a movement
system. The whole body should become like a system. Like the relationship between the engine of a car and the steering wheel. The steering wheel is like the movement system and the movement
system is driven by the engine. No matter what kind of car you’re driving, the movement system is the same. No matter how the car changes, the movement system doesn’t change… So when we train
Taijiquan there are hundreds and thousands of possible movements, but they all go back to one method. As in the saying ‘ten thousand methods return to one principle’. This is the key to
understanding Taijiquan. It doesn’t matter what movement or form you do, the question is whether you can use this movement system.”
So what then is Taijiquan’s movement system? Again we go back to the issue of timing and coordinating every aspect of an individual’s movements. Or as Chen Xiaowang often explains, “It is using
the dantian as the centre or axis - the whole body moves as one unit so that when one part moves everything moves, permeating from section to section - qi linking and flowing unimpeded.”
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Applying the Wisdom of Chess Grandmaster Maurice Ashley to Taijiquan
(Mon, 03 Aug 2020)
Chess Grandmaster Maurice Ashley: "Keep a beginner's mind and look for the ever-more subtle details
The term “Taijiquan” can be broken down into two components: Taiji – is a philosophy drawn from the Yijing, China’s ancient “Book of Changes”. This text has heavily influenced Chinese thought for
several thousand years. At heart it uses the idea of the relationship between the two poles or yin and yang to explain the way in which order and balance can be maintained within a constantly
changing universe. Quan – can be translated to mean martial art or boxing system. Put together the term Taijiquan refers to a martial art that seeks balance as its core principle. What does this
mean in practice?
• On a physical level it means the coordination of every aspect - left/right sides, upper/lower body, breathing/movement etc.
• Energetically it seeks a state where the lower body has the sensation of being heavy and stable, the upper body is light and agile, the dantian is full and the whole body has the feeling
of expanding outwards.
• Mentally it seeks a state of calmness, stillness and awareness. Looking inwards we pay attention to the position and sensation of the body. At the same time the eyes look outward so we
are also aware of our environment.
Philosophically we can say that training Taijiquan and working to maintain balance in all these aspects is akin to practicing a small “dao” (way). That is a kind of micro approach where we come
to understand the wider principles of the universe through the study of some particular art. In the East many disciplines have been studied in this way – painting and calligraphy, the tea
ceremony, swordsmanship etc. The other day I was listening to an interview with Maurice Ashley, the first African-American chess grandmaster on the Tim Ferriss podcast. His description of the way
he was able to raise his level of performance through the wider integration of martial arts principles was fascinating.
Ashley credited his introduction to Aikido and to the philosophy of the soft or internal martial arts with raising his game to the heights necessary to become a chess grandmaster. Not your
stereotypical geekish chess player, he was raised in the tough Brownsville district of Brooklyn, New York where, he jokes, it was so rough Mike Tyson had to leave. It’s obvious looking at him
that Ashley is a physically powerful individual. Top that with the fact that his brother was a kickboxing champion and his sister a boxing champion, so it’s easy to believe him when he says he
was brought up in a highly competitive environment.
Speaking of his approach to chess in his younger days, “I would say like I’m from Brooklyn. We had a school of chess that said you attack, that’s how you go. My friend Ronnie Sims used to say
“ever forward, never backward.” He’s not backing up. When he’s coming after you you’re supposed to die! But you did that against the best players and somehow they would sidestep your attacks and
bring their pieces inside the gaps that you left behind. And that’s exactly what Aikido and the soft martial arts are about – it’s finding the gaps and letting you [the opponent] get as much of
your attack as you want off, but just getting off centre enough that you miss or you barely hit. But then the return coming at you is going to come with tremendous force… And when I was able to
physicalise that, get it into my body and internalise it, and then transfer that into mental mapping onto the chess board my game went to a complete different level – and that really is what took
me to becoming a grandmaster as far as I’m concerned. Because, being able to do that meant that you had to stand in the middle of the energy, the tornado coming at you, and just say “No, I’m
fine, everything is okay. This attack is not going to work.” It was a whole different way of thinking that I hadn’t studied before and because of that I was able to change the way I played and
improve as a player.”
Among the points highlighted by Ashley that have clear parallels within Taijiquan training were the need to:
• “…centre yourself to recognise possible openings in an opponent’s position because they were too aggressive” – that is putting yourself in a position where you are able to capitalise when an
• “…maintain balance and look for the soft point in an opponent’s attack” – in line with Taijiquan’s maxim to always attack the weak place and correspondingly never attack the strong place.
• “Understand the primacy of controlling the centre, while at the same time focusing on your opponent” – this same idea is central to Taijiquan’s idea of “listening” to an opponent’s movements
from a position of balance.
• “Keep a beginner’s mind and look for the ever-more subtle details” –Yang Taijiquan master Yang Banhou wrote of the need to develop an ever-greater ability to discern the actions and
intentions of an opponent: “When in your fighting skill you have obtained the sense of a foot, an inch, a tenth of an inch, and the width of a hair, you can then estimate the opponent.”
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Uniting Taijiquan's Three Jin Systems
(Tue, 21 Jul 2020)
Understanding how to generate and release power in Chen Taijiquan isn’t a simple task. To
begin with we must be clear how it differs from conventional ideas of power and strength. We could go to any fitness or weightlifting gym and find strong and fit individuals. Does that mean they
can easily replicate Taijiquan’s fajin? In a recent video Chen Xiaowang is seen giving some pointers to a group of young instructors from the Chenjiagou Taijiquan School. By normal standards they
would be considered to be flexible, loose, powerful etc. He gave them a short master class pointing out some of their mistakes and how they could correct them and improve.
To begin with Chen Xiaowang emphasised the need for practitioners to broaden their minds to
accept the idea of training the body to work as an integrated system. He explained “proper fajin involves three routes of jin”. That is three different elements of trained
power and the course and direction of their expression. Each of these aspects has to be developed and be closely coordinated with the others. The three routes of jin identified
· dang jin
· dantian jin
· chest jin
Dang jin is the contained and elastic strength of the crotch. In Chen
Xiaowang’s words, it is “the power created by the convergence of the power of the two legs.” Second is the connecting power of the body’s centre which links the lower and upper body. Answering
the question what is dantian jin, he explained “It is the power of the waist, supported by the legs that should not affect the dantian as the core.” That is, the action of the legs shouldn’t
disrupt “the complementary and uniting relationships of the dantian and the whole body.” The relationship between the legs and the dantian then is “like the relationship of water and boat.”
Finally, the power generated from the dantian is transmitted to the chest. “The strength created by the chest is known as chest jin.” A well known and often quoted Taijiquan saying is
that power comes from the feet, through the legs before being directed by the waist and expressed in the hands. This speaks of a smooth system which, after initiating power, transfers and adds to
it en route to its end point.
According to Chen Xiaowang, the most common mistakes made by practitioners as they fajin
· An over–reliance upon the use of excessive muscular tension or stiffness which acts as a brake and
impedes the smooth release of whole body connected power. Tensing up the upper body
has the effect of locking the potential power of any movement within the body. It also has the secondary effect of preventing the dang and waist from moving in a fluid and unrestricted
way. This is a serious problem that must be rectified. A practitioner may look
powerful to an untrained observer. But if the fist is clenched tightly and the muscles are overly activated during the gathering phase of a punch, then “the jin is stuck inside.” Chen Xiaowang advised that when preparing to punch to not “tighten the upper body, release any tension and hold the fist lightly.”
· Failing to understand how to position the legs correctly to simultaneously generate power and support
the dantian. He puts it simply – “If the position of the legs is not correct the dantian will have no power.” Conversely, when they are placed correctly the dantian is then able to generate
power. To illustrate the point Chen Xiaowang compared the lower plane to the carriage of a cannon that needs to be stable if the weapon is to be fired accurately.
· Turning the hips too much. It is important not to lose the correct position of the hips. He showed the
common mistake where a person punching, for example with the right fist over-emphasises the hip twist – “…the right hip twists too much to the left as the fist goes out. The two kua should
remain level and forward facing.”
· Very often people only use the chest jin, and are unable to execute dang jin. “Over-extending the upper
body is a clear symptom that an individual is using too much upper body strength and not enough dantian and dang jin.” In Taijiquan terms the over-reliance of one jin at the expense of the others
is referred to as the dispersion or separation of jin. “Releasing power, the fist and the elbow move together but each has its own distinct action. At the moment of emitting they become one line,
with the upper and lower parts together and not isolated.”
· When, according to Chen Xiaowang, “the body is not supported by the bone structure.” That is, if
the body slants or bends forward out of principle. “There should be no leaning at all and the buttocks should not protrude as that compromises the
waist i.e. dantian jin.” In practice this can happen when someone takes too low a posture. Unable to maintain the correct postural framework after going past the limit of their strength they
are forced to compensate by coming out of the correct posture. Here he said, the answer is to “ take a higher posture because the stance has reached the limit of your normal
As any shortcomings in dang jin, dantian jin or chest jin limits the overall potential of any fajin action, the question that must be answered is how to most efficiently coordinate the three jin routes? Chen Xiaowang said - “If all three jin routes are used together in a fully coordinated way, then each should not affect the other in a negative way. Dang jin,
dantian jin and the chest/shoulder jin explode in unison.”
Where an untrained or unskilled person puts all their attention on their fist from the
beginning to the end of a punch, the action of a skilled exponent is qualitatively different. The spark of intention to release the body’s power is like lighting the touchpaper of a stick of
dynamite. Once the process has been activated the practitioner’s role is to control and direct the power of the whole body out to a single focused point. Chen Xiaowang explained that when using
jin, “You do not take an active role, but a reactive role, in effect following the body’s jin.” In this way the power can be directed exactly where it is needed in an instant. A well known
Taijiquan expression – “Distance fist, near elbow, close up shoulder” – advises on the appropriate technique to be used depending on how close you are to an opponent. Chen Xiaowang explained,
“You use your fist when (an opponent is) far. When an
opponent is near you won’t use your fist, you’ll use your elbow. [Extremely] close to your body use the shoulder. The same jin routes only the
distance is different.”
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Chen Zhaopi - Always Going Forward…
(Sat, 09 May 2020)
There’s a saying in Taijiquan circles that one should “always go
forwards.” But, and this is an important but, this is not a call to plant your feet and go toe-to-toe! In any serious physical confrontation, the mental battle between opponents can far outweigh
the physical side.
Even within the more controlled sporting arena, modern sports
science recognises the pivotal importance of mental strength and resilience if any athlete is to have a successful career. And, whilst it’s easy to wheel out terms like mental toughness and focus
actually bringing these qualities out when they are needed comes down to “mind management.” At the heart of this is recognition of the fact that, in the heat of battle, to be passive is to
greatly reduce the chances of success.
In his General Explanations of
Taiji Boxing Fundamentals, published in 1930 Chen Zhaopi, pointed to the need to always be in an active state mentally when faced with an opponent: “When it is time to advance, I advance,
overwhelming his strength by valiantly charging straight in. When it is time to retreat, I retreat, luring his energy in so that he over commits and falls forward… When it is appropriate to
advance, I must not retreat and thereby make myself timid. When it is appropriate to retreat, I should retreat, and yet with a readiness to advance. Therefore, advancing is a matter of advancing
whole-heartedly, and retreating is also actually a matter of advancing.”
Applied sports psychologist Robert J, Schinke wrote a fascinating article on
his coaching journey with the elite amateur fighters of the Canadian National Boxing Team. His account opened with the story of a Canadian boxer suffering a loss to a Cuban in the final stages of
the 1996 Atlanta Olympics: “Throughout the bout… it was apparent that one boxer controlled the ring from the center (the Cuban). The second athlete (the Canadian) relinquished the ring, moved
backwards passively, and was clearly exemplifying defensiveness, fear and concern.”
Even an inexperienced Taijiquan practitioner can understand the advantage
of moving forward and taking an opportunity when an opponent leaves an opening. It’s the retreating part of the equation that they often misunderstand. Put simply, “yielding” does not mean
running away from force. The Taiji classics tell us “when a fly alights, it sets you in motion.” They don’t say you pull away because the fly lands. Within their retreat a skilled exponent
doesn’t just move back or wait for an opponent to make a mistake. They lay traps and force them to make mistakes. Where the casual observer sees only the obvious attacks and attempts to
evade them, skilled fighters make use of intricate strategies within the micro-battles of footwork, positioning, diverting, feinting etc.
As always in Taijiquan the goal is to react in accordance to unfolding
events. Not entering with a predetermined plan or trying to win with “tricks.” Having the self-confidence and self-control to do this requires the mental flexibility to act in the
moment. Or, as Chen Zhaopi puts it: “It is important that these points not be turned into a restrictive formula. I must
first observe an opponent’s strengths and weaknesses, which will give me my strategy. … adjusting according to the situation, for I must not be stubborn about when to use one or the other…
adapting as circumstances demand, for I must not hold to a preconceived pattern.”
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Physical, Psychological and Spiritual Training...
(Fri, 24 Apr 2020)
A student's role in the first stage is to watch the teacher carefully and try to replicate what they see.
Asian arts, whether martial or cultural, typically go through a process of training and discipline that lead to three levels of mastery: physical,
psychological and spiritual.
Physical Mastery - The first stage is where the foundations are laid. Foundations that, depending upon
their depth and integrity, will determine the ultimate height a person can reach in their practice. In Taijiquan, on the physical level mastery of form is the bottom line requirement of training.
By form we’re talking about the development of correct postural integrity and movement patterns, rather than the memorising and collecting of multiple routines. Whether the discipline being
trained is Taijiquan, Karate, calligraphy or tea ceremony, the traditional way of passing on skill is highly structured. Teachers serve to provide a model form. A student’s role is to watch the
teacher’s every movement carefully and then try their best to replicate it. Through almost endless repetition the physical forms will eventually be internalised. In the words of Buddhist scholar
and Aikido master, the late Taitetsu Unno (1929-2014): “Words are seldom spoken and explanations are rare; the burden of learning is on the student.” Learners who have never trained with traditional teachers often rail against the idea of training without being allowed to discuss and talk about every movement
they are asked to do. But it is important, as the great philosopher Confucius said, “…not to mistake eloquence for substance.”
The foundation laid down in the first stage is solid ground we can push off from, a root from which real skill can develop. Students who are stuck
in their own minds either through ego or a lack of confidence in the method never get to lay down the necessary base. In his treatise Cultivating the
Dao, Daoist master Liu Yiming (1734-1821) explained: “Foundations” means having an actual ground, a root. People do not succeed in attaining the Dao
because of their egoism and selfhood… When there are egoism and selfhood, you are filled with a selfish mind and cannot walk on an actual ground… a hundred obstacles obstruct the way, at every
step you find obstacles and hindrances and in every pursuit you get stuck in the mud… Our ancestral masters taught that one should first of all lay the foundations for refining oneself. This is
because they wanted us to perform the whole practice from an actual ground, in order to rise from what is below to what is above, and to reach the deep from the shallow using the operation of
In this first stage then, the criteria are precise, stringent and progressive. Taijiquan students have been passed down a systematic map of a
training process that must be deeply embedded.
Eventually and paradoxically the learner is freed from the constraints of the form through mastery of it. Accepting and committing to follow a
repetitive and little-changing training routine for an extended time inevitably leads to certain internal psychological changes. Remembering the time he spent with his own teacher, Taijiquan
master Zhu Tiancai said: “These fourteen years consisted of repetitively training the principles of Taijiquan. Training in this way can often be monotonous and grinding and you come to realise
the path is long and there is no end point.” It is this very monotony and grind that examines the student’s commitment and willpower, while simultaneously tempering the character. By falling in
line with the process, they become calmer and stoic and accepting of the requirements of the task at hand. Imperceptibly, from the earliest stages of training, negative traits such as impatience,
stubbornness and pridefulness are polished away.
As time passes this consistent training rids the body and mind of bad habits, and bit by bit a practitioner’s real strength, character and
potential begin to emerge.
Real confidence and self-belief are key differentiating factors between a successful or unsuccessful outcome when facing a strong opponent. It can
be tempting to suppose that the high level of self-belief demonstrated by top class practitioners is something they are born with. For sure every individual is different and some seem more
confident than others from an early age. But often it is a trait that has developed over years as a person senses their increased physical and technical capabilities. The words of fourteenth
generation Chen Taijiquan master Chen Changxing leave no doubt about the importance of balancing physical and psychological aspects: “To get the upper hand
in fighting, look around and examine the shape of the ground. Hands must be fast, feet light. Examine the opponent’s movements like a cat. Mind must be organised and clear… If hands arrive and
body also arrives [at the same time], then destroying an enemy is like crushing a weed.”
Spiritual mastery is inseparable from psychological mastery but is only set in motion after an intensive and lengthy period of training. Speaking
of the different levels of progression in Taijiquan Chen Xiaoxing explained: “Taijiquan can be considered in three stages. In the first stage, the aim of training is predominantly for improving
physical fitness. In the intermediate stage, the purpose is for developing the ability to attack and defend. At the highest level, the main emphasis of practice is self-cultivation.” At the heart
of this self-cultivation is a search for naturalness and spontaneity, leaving behind predetermined responses and being able to respond exactly as required. Physical skills have been honed to the
highest possible degree and, reaching this level, an individual trusts their responses completely. This free expression of one’s capabilities is only possible when the ego has been subsumed.
Mistakes come when we over-think or hesitate. Taitetsu Unno also said: “One becomes vulnerable when one stops to think about winning, losing, taking
advantage, impressing or disregarding the opponent. When the mind stops, even for a single instant, the body freezes, and free, fluid movement is lost… Ultimately, physical, psychological and
spiritual mastery are one and the same.”
Chenjiagou Chen Family Temple image - naturally and spontaneously responding as the situation demands...
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Covid-19 - Keeping Balance in Strange Times!!
(Tue, 24 Mar 2020)
Chen Taijiquan's Ren Mingming
A central tenet of Daoism is the idea of going with the
flow, moving calmly through the circumstances in which we find ourselves. The coronavirus is affecting all of our lives in ways that nobody predicted. From the perspective of our school, we had
to cancel this year’s May trip to Chenjiagou to train with Grandmaster Chen Xiaoxing; and Chen Ziqiang’s seminars in April have been cancelled, following travel restrictions by the Chinese
authorities to prevent the re-entry of the virus that they have got some measure of control after some very tough times. On a broader and more
serious level, at home in the UK we’re in the first day of a type of lockdown never seen before in peace time. The draconian measures include: the immediate closure of all shops
"non-essential goods"; the closure of libraries, playgrounds, gyms, arts/culture venues and places of
worship; banning gathering of more than two people (excluding people who live together); and, perhaps most soberingly the postponement of weddings and baptisms, but funerals will be
With the ongoing pandemic we are collectively faced with a threat that inevitably focuses minds on the value of health and the fragility of people in our communities who
don’t have physical robustness and resilience. Or, for want of a better expression, who don’t have the “money in the bank” of a strong immune system. Beyond external behavioural practices such as
washing hands, social distancing, self-isolation etc., it is this strong immune system that offers the best defence against the virus.
Taijiquan is an art that is
clearly suited for developing just such core aspects of physical health. Drawing heavily from China’s ancient health practices and the ideas of daoyin
tu-na or leading and guiding energy and breathing methods. The time-honoured way of gaining benefits from these practices flow from and follow a process of quiet, precise and extended
cultivation, and a strengthened immune system is one of the rewards for putting in the effort over time. Today’s fast-paced society, however, often demands instant and easy solutions to complex
situations. People are encouraged to believe that Taijiquan is an instant and easy solution to their health and exercise needs. Starting to train Taijiquan from this narrative it’s small wonder
that only a small minority of people commit to the rigours, not only physical (which must always be at a level that is appropriate to the age, fitness and health status of the practitioner) but
also the degree of mindfulness and attention to detail required. In the following passage Chen Xiaoxing speaks about the fundamental role health training plays in Taijiquan: “Taijiquan can be considered in three stages. In the
first stage, the aim of training is predominately for improving physical fitness... In the early stages, you must stay strictly in line with the
traditional rules of practice and closely follow the requirements that have been laid down. Training in a step-by-step manner and placing strict demands upon yourself throughout the process.
These methodical steps lead to health and wellbeing. By approaching training in this manner for an
extended period of time you can achieve a unique and unexpected result.”
Chen Xiaoxing - "The first stage of Taijiquan training is predominantly for improving physical fitness
Chen Xiaoxing obviously is a Taijiquan
expert talking about the benefits of the art he practices, but what does the science say? Or to be more precise what do the Chinese doctors and scientists who, up to now, have been at the
frontline of today’s pandemic say? Few are more qualified to speak on the subject than Chinese epidemiologist Zhong Nanshan. Zhong an articulate and incredibly youthful looking eighty-four year
old earned international fame for managing the SARS outbreak and was renowned for refuting the official line which downplayed the severity of the crisis. Online periodical The Diplomat, whose
strap line is Read the Diplomat: Know the Asia Pacific, reported how the Chinese media refers to him as the nation’s “SARS hero”. Despite his advanced age (born in 1936, he was 13 years old when
the People’s Republic was founded), Zhong was appointed to lead the National Health Commission’s investigation into the novel coronavirus. “Zhong is a public figure who regularly speaks out about
China’s health issues from food safety to air pollution and has a reputation as someone who puts public health first… He has been lauded for his own health regimen. Despite qualifying for a
senior citizen discount he has been photographed in muscle tees flexing his biceps, swimming laps and shooting hoops. He was an outstanding college athlete in the 1950s, to the point where the
Beijing Municipal Track and Field Team attempted to recruit him as a full-time athlete. Zhong, however, was determined to become a doctor and declined the offer”.
Zhong Nanshan - still flexing in his eighties!!
Zhong first came to know about
Taijiquan in 1972 when one of his patients who was suffering from a serious autoimmune condition made a better than expected recovery. The only thing he was doing beyond the normal treatment
routine was Taijiquan. Zhong became fascinated by this and has trained and researched Taijiquan since then. In a recent Chinese TV
interview he detailed some of the reasons why he felt Taijiquan was such an effective form of exercise: “In China we have a very good form of exercise – Taijiquan. The first benefit is that the
exercise can be done within a small space. Strength is generated by quietness. It is especially good for training leg strength, training a person from the lower body upwards. Taijiquan is usually
performed from a half squat position which pumps blood through the body and makes the lower body very strong. This quiet strength doesn’t adversely increase or affect the speed of one’s breathing
[it doesn’t make a person pant or over-exert in terms of their breathing]. But it is very good to train your muscles, blood and bones”. Zhong’s
expertise spans both Western and Eastern disciplines. He was educated at the Beijing Medical University and finished his
residency training in internal medicine in the university hospital. In the 1980s, he completed further training at the St Bartholomew's Hospital in London and the University of Edinburgh Medical
School. It is his belief that
Traditional Chinese medical theory/practice complements Western medicine and should not be seen as an either or.
Zhong Nanshan on Chinese TV on the benefits of Taijiquan...
We often hear the claim that Taijiquan is good for health. During this crisis it is obviously important to encourage people to exercise and take care of themselves until
we come through the other side and get back to normality. In fact exercise is an activity that is encouraged in the government directives during the
period of national lockdown. At this time it is important for practitioners to honestly assess the art they are learning and teaching. For sure much of what passes for Taijiquan is often little
more than arm-waving sessions led by teachers who are at best inexperienced and at worst clueless about what Taijiquan actually is. Trained to its full potential it is a wonderful system that
provides benefits and challenges at all stages of practice. Speaking during the challenge of dealing with the coronavirus pandemic Zhong recommended:
“Through my study [of respiratory diseases], at this particular time, I find that combining medication that dilates a patient’s respiratory tract,
Taijiquan training and walking – the three together markedly improve the health and quality of life of
people with chronic respiratory problems. Even though it doesn’t alter lung function, it very obviously improves the exercise capabilities of a
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What role did Chen Taijiquan play in a UFC classic?
(Tue, 10 Mar 2020)
Zhang Weili in action against the formidable Joanna Jedrzejczyk
A couple of days have passed since the South China
Morning Post triumphantly reported on the success of Chinese fighter Zhang Weili on the UFC 248 fight show: “Zhang Weili retains title in war for
the ages against Joanna Jedrzejczyk. Chinese champion gets split decision after arguably the greatest fight in history of women’s MMA.” Defending champion Zhang had her hands full with
Polish martial artist Jedrzejczyk who Herself won the UFC Women's Strawweight Championship in 2015 at UFC 185 after competing in Muay Thai for 10 years, winning 70 matches and six world
What’s all this got to do with
a Chen Taijiquan page? In a separate report on Taiji.net.cn Zhang Weili’s traditional martial arts background is explored, especially her use of Chen Taijiquan to complement and enhance the fighting
skills she has honed since childhood. The following passage is taken from the article:
“In the training process,
MMA training is not the only thing Zhang Weili does. She also includes the essence of China’s traditional martial arts. According to Zhang, “MMA is very intense and your attack and defence
[capabilities] therefore need to be very strong.” ... Zhang Weili had an affinity with martial arts from a very young age. She believes that China’s traditional martial arts have many unique
combat methods and many aspects worth learning. That said, you have to use them according to the correct and appropriate rules [of the particular system]. She likes traditional martial arts and
actively advocates them especially Chen style Taijiquan.
@Fixing the frame with teacher Jing Jianjun
She met her Chen Taijiquan teacher Jing
Jianjun and started learning from him after being convinced by his martial skill: “I discovered that somesome traditional martial arts allow me to calm down, like when I train my Taijiquan -
Before my breath was always up in my chest, [over time] slowly slowly the breath is able to go down.” [Zhang Weili explained how she was able to correct certain problematic aspects of her
physical structure]. “At the beginning my shoulders were lifted, but after a period of training, slowly I was able to drop them.”
Zhang spoke of the importance of keeping an open mind in developing combat skill...
Zhang Weili has a deep
interest in the fajin methods of traditional martial arts, but doesn’t involve herself in the recent debate about whether Taijiquan can be used for fighting. Her teacher explained and taught her
Chen Taijiquan’s fajin method in accordance to her requirement [as a competitive MMA fighter]. After having her arm lifted in triumph after five torrid rounds Zhang spoke of the importance of
martial spirit and mutual dvancement: “Within the martial arts arena everyone is a warrior and deserves mutual respect. We need to set good examples for the younger generation.”
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Postural Integrity - The Route to Power and Function...
(Mon, 03 Feb 2020)
To the novice, learning
Taijiquan can be frustrating and confusing process. Session after session the teacher tweaks and adjusts their posture never seeming to be completely satisfied with the result. Where other
martial disciplines quickly get down to more obvious fighting techniques, Taijiquan spends what can seem like an inordinately long time moulding the shape of the body before even mentioning any
Everything rests on correct structure
Taijiquan is no different than any other martial art or sport in the fact that to perform at a high level
certain obvious aspects of fitness must be trained to increase the potential effectiveness of an individual. Areas that immediately come to mind include strength, speed, power, agility and
flexibility; the relative balance of these varies depending upon the nature of the particular discipline – think of the differences between, for instance, a shot putter, figure skater, marathon
runner or a combat ready martial artist. Or, to narrow things down, the different reasons modern practitioners train Taijiquan. For instance, one training to develop their self defence
capabilities to the maximum; another whose main focus is on training for competition; or a third who is training primarily to enhance their health.
In the final analysis, however, each shares the common goal of achieving optimal physical performance. This
can only be reached by addressing the one aspect that underpins everything else: a degree of postural integrity that enables stability and control and from which a practitioner can develop a deep
understanding of movement and function. This is the reason
why Chen Taijiquan requires learners to pay strict and careful attention on the development of correct body structure. In Chenjiagou Laojia Yilu is called the “gongfu form” and training the form is often referred to as “training the frame.” When we talk about structure we mean both the correct positioning of all the
body’s joints and from this the emergence of awareness of the dantian as the body’s centre. The development of this coordinating centre
enables the body to generate maximum power and efficiency from each action. The balanced centre harmonises the movement and the function of both upper and lower limbs.
Chen Xiaoxing - The final goal is the achievement of optimal physical performance
At the same time it serves to protect the joints and their associated structures. Modern sports coaching
approaches have embraced the importance of fully assessing an athlete’s postural alignment before starting any demanding training programme. It takes more energy to move the body when there are
postural imbalances. At the same time, performing any explosive movement from a misaligned position inevitably places more stress on the musculature or joints, increasing the risk of injury. Dr
Istvan Balyi is acknowledged worldwide as an expert in long term athlete development. In Paradigm Shifts in Coaching, a 2002 article in Faster, Higher,
Stronger – the journal of Sports Coach UK – Britain’s premier sports coaching association he wrote the following:
“The kinetic chain is an integrated functional unit, made up of the soft tissue (muscle, ligament, tendon and
fascia), neural system and articular system (biomechanics). Each of these systems work independently to allow structural and functional efficiency. If any systems do not work efficiently,
compensations and adaptations will lead to tissue overload, decreased performance and predictable patterns of injury… The implications of this are huge. Before training starts, all body and joint
alignment, muscle imbalances and flexibility ranges should be evaluated and corrected if necessary. This is preventative sports medicine on the functional side of athletic
The idea might represent a paradigm shift in modern sports training, but has been incorporated within
Taijiquan’s training method for centuries. In his Ten
Essentials of Taiji Boxing Chen Changxing elegantly described the way in which function could be optimised through a balanced posture: “When the moment comes for movement, be like a dragon or a
tiger, expressing as fast as lightning, and when the moment comes for stillness, be silent and calm, staying put as stable as a mountain. When still, all parts are still, inside and out, above
and below, and without any part feeling out of place. When moving, all parts are moving, left or right, forward or back, and without any part pulling the posture off course.”
What does all of this mean to
the typical adult learner of Taijiquan? In a way we could say that what we are trying to do is to simplify our way towards perfection: Practitioners inching their way to superior performance via
a process of reduction, simplification and optimisation. Accepting the need to try to remove things first, rather than to add
things is a critical principle when looking for improvements. Remove acquired postural imbalances and incorrect movement patterns. Slowly and imperceptibly changing over time as individual
inefficiencies are ironed out and the “fat” is trimmed.
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Four types of Taijiquan...
(Fri, 24 Jan 2020)
Going into a new decade we have to face the fact that Taijiquan is a seriously misunderstood discipline. To the point that Chen Taijiquan master Zhu Tiancai disparagingly spoke its descent to the
point where today there are four different expressions of the art. The first three he labelled Taijiquan “exercise”, “dance” and “religion” - each in their own way distortions and
misrepresentations of Taijiquan. The fourth and last being authentic Taijiquan.
Casual practitioners would probably be surprised to hear that much of the Taijiquan they see in the parks of China is really little more than a shell of the traditional art. According to Zhu
Tiancai the majority of these practitioners fall under the category of Taiji Exercisers”. Arriving in the park at dawn they wave their limbs, breath the early morning air, socialise with friends
and the go about their daily lives. While certainly gaining some benefits from moving and stretching most pay only passing attention to the subtle and practical aspects of Taijiquan. Their
practice differs from authentic Taijiquan in two key areas: it lacks emphasis upon the development of the internal efficacy of the body; it also places little attention on the development of
combat capabilities that the name Taiji”quan” alludes to. Where casual practitioners and the public see the Taiji players in the parks as the idealised face of Taijiquan, Chen Xiaoxing spoke of
the sad state where “... Taijiquan suffers from the fate of being viewed by the general public as a kind of exercise for the parks and street corners. This isn’t to say there are no Taijiquan
practitioners passing on the traditional art in the parks, but they are few and far between.
The second category of practitioners were likened to “Taiji dancers.” Here the main emphasis is upon public performance and competition. A dramatic example would be the thousands of performers
who drew beautiful Taiji patterns as they showed the art to the world during the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympic Games. We can include in this category the many wushu competitors who take
Taiji almost into the realm of gymnastics. The elite performers in these competitions can be truly spectacular in their athleticism. But again they fail to incorporate aspects considered
essential in traditional Taijiquan: the central importance of cultivating the qualities of roundness, sunken relaxation and intention; a lack a focus on training in a way that can develop
practical application potential etc.
The third misrepresentation of the art was classified as “Taiji Religion”. To be clear here we are talking about the negative aspects of religion and cult would probably be a better description.
This is the crazy world of fantastical claims and “empty force.” In popular cinematic culture it is the old master with the white hair and flowing robes who defeats his enemies by just pointing
his fingers. In real life their are whole sects based on this kind of mystical nonsense. A notorious contemporary example is China’s Yan Fang who routinely demonstrates her supernormal abilities
by performing feats like projecting energy to knock over students standing behind a concrete wall.
Where the first two examples can’t be considered as the traditional art practitioners can get some benefits: as we said before both categories can get exercise benefits; on being exposed to these
partial representations of Taijiquan some people can become inspired to delve more deeply and seek out the traditional art. There’s no doubt that the physical capabilities developed by people in
the second category can provide a good foundation upon which to develop the more subtle aspects. The third category is wholly negative and doesn’t warrant any more attention.
The final category of authentic Taijiquan is the methodology honed and passed down by generations of adepts. Categorised by the development of both the internal and external - that is the
complete harmonisation and integration of an individual’s psychological, energetic and physical aspects. At all times working with an understanding that Taijiquan is a martial system and training
appropriately. Following a clearly laid down system of progression where qualities that support the system’s martial function also serve to exercise the body. Where aesthetic expression comes
from conforming to natural principles. And where “spiritual” development follows years or decades of serious study as a practitioner’s character is imperceptibly shaped.
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Matching physical effort with thought and reflection…
(Sat, 28 Dec 2019)
Chenjiagou mural - Chen Xin passing on the principles and rules of Chen Taijiquan
Wang Zongyue’s classic manual of Taijiquan advises that “an
initial error of one inch can result in a deviation of a thousand miles. Practitioners must study and understand the principles very carefully.” Taijiquan is a complex discipline and to have any
hope of reaching a competent level great care and attention must be given to your Taijiquan study from the start. It’s easy, especially for beginners, to ignore what seem to be inconsequential
details. But making this mistake can cause a learner to misunderstand the art, ultimately preventing them from reaching a true understanding of Taijiquan.
On the training floor many students fail to really pay conscious attention to their practice, paying little
more than lip service to following Taiji principles. Filled with their own ideas about what Taijiquan is they don’t listen carefully to the instructions given by their teachers. In many cases
they may practice hard but their physical effort is not matched by any deep thought or reflection. The end result, they find it impossible to distinguish between Taijiquan principles and other
ideas or disciplines. Their reward after spending in some cases decades of training is a failure to obtain any true Taijiquan skill.
Following from that depressing statement the obvious question - what is meant by true Taijiquan skill?
Answering this fully is way beyond the scope of a single blog post, but as a starting point we could consider the two vital and overarching qualities of peng and ding (as in zhongding).
Peng or “ward off” is first of Taijiquan’s four basic types of trained force or “jin”. It is characterised by a soft, expansive power that is usually
expressed in an upward and forward direction. Peng is not applied simply by pushing hard into an opponent, but is applied according to their situation. Zhongding simply stated refers to “central
equilibrium” or, in practical terms, the ability to maintain balance and stability even where an outside force is being applied against any part of your body. This type of stability is realised
when a practitioner can move easily and instinctively in any direction in accord with the direction and strength of any attack. Key to maintaining this state is the ability to maintain focus upon
the dantian automatically readjusting it to keep balance. Finding and developing a connection to the dantian in the first place requires considerable mindful practice as the body shape is moulded
into the correct shape while simultaneously the correct energetic state is slowly cultivated.
To achieve these two qualities the various parts of the body must be carefully integrated and in Taijiquan
parlance “all excesses and deficiencies must be eliminated.” Again, in practical terms, this means that each time an error is pointed out by a teacher or recognised by a student it should be
worked upon and corrected immediately. The type of integration we are talking about is no less that the total participation and cooperation of every part of the body.
Taijiquan theory provides many pointers to help us work towards this whole body harmonisation. One example:
the rule that “jin or power comes from the feet, is changed or transformed through the legs, directed by the waist and expressed by the hands.” How can a practitioner hope to develop the
necessary sensitivity to this distinct kind of sequential transference of power through their body without approaching their training with the greatest care and attention. The careless
practitioner puts all of his attention on the end point of an action whether it be a punch, throw, lock etc. The practitioner who has understood the method pays attention to where their jin comes
from, how to store it, control it and only then how to use it in the most efficient way. This concept has been explained through an analogy where the body is compared to an army going into
battle. Here the lower body is represented by the rear of the army that provides the food and ammunition to be used by the front line troops – the upper body. Without sufficient supplies the
troops will soon be defeated. Similarly, without a strong source a practitioner’s techniques are unlikely to succeed.
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Putting theory into practice...
(Mon, 18 Nov 2019)
Chen Xiaowang - "Have a strong will, strong consciousness and practice continuously"
The development of a Taijiquan practitioner from basic performance to an elite level of accomplishment is
a long and complicated process. To begin with we need to accept the fact that ultimate mastery is built from a certain starting level of innate ability and potential. In this sense Taijiquan is
no different than other disciplines be it tennis, wrestling or running. To reach the highest levels of accomplishment talent needs to be identified and nurtured from an early age. This isn’t to
say that learners can’t make significant improvements at any age, but starting early is clearly an advantage. I remember a lecture given by Chen Zhenglei at his International Chen Taijiquan
Training Camp in Hebei province in 1999 where he spoke of the ideal process of learning Taijiquan. He quoted the saying that to get the full benefits of Taijiquan a person should “learn when you
are young, train in the middle years and conserve energy when you are old.”
Starting at an
early age students can fully develop their athleticism - that is the physical qualities of strength, power, speed, mobility, agility, balance coordination and endurance. Starting at a later age
these qualities still need to be developed, but in a way that is appropriate to the individual’s physical capacity.
There are other
factors in play beyond the starting age of a practitioner. If we look again into the sporting world, it’s easy to find instances where athletes with the best technical abilities do not
necessarily win. A strong mind, as well the right social environment and optimal support can also be crucial factors in triumph or defeat. Another Taijiquan saying advises us to learn the
principles and methods from a competent teacher and to consult with our “good friends”, read fellow students, when things are not clear. The mental side of Taijiquan training is as important as
the physical side. Developing and fine-tuning skills and reaching and maintaining high levels of performance over the course of a lifetime requires many hours of training and with it the need to
maintain motivation. And not just the ongoing desire to train hard, but the attendant ability and sincere motivation to identify discrepancies between one’s perceptions and
There are many factors then behind the science of Taijiquan skills acquisition in terms of – motor control and
development and the strengthening of the psychological aspects of an individual. In China’s Tai Chi Renaissance, an article in an early edition of T’ai
Chi magazine, Chen Xiaowang listed the attributes and mindset required in an individual is to develop a high level of skill in Chen Taijiquan. He mentioned five key points:
1. Be clear
about the demands on all parts of the body.
the main regulations, principles and theory.
3. Put the theory into practice.
4. Coordinate theory with demand (“You must do every action on the basis of the demands of the theory”).
5. Have strong will, strong conscientiousness, and practice continuously.
In the same article Zhou Yuanlun, deputy secretary-general of the Shanghai Wushu Association, emphasised the depth of
the theory that underpins Taijiquan stating that “Only by going deeply into the theory can you make improvement.” In practical terms working out how to combine theory with practice by determining
the true meaning of the rules and advice that has been passed down.
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