Talking Chen Taijiquan with David Gaffney

Chen Boxian – Following the Middle Path & How One Thing Affects Everything… (mar, 01 set 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 "middle”." 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 concepts. Chen Boxian 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 it.  ·    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 Huachiin 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 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 opponent over-extends.  • “…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 were:    ·        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 include:   ·        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 strength.”  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.” Talking Chen Taijiquan - The Book! Just released - decade of Talking Chen Taijiquan posts. Beautifully illustrated and covering aspects including attitude and mindset, technical questions and the role of Taijiquan in the mainstream...  ORDER FROM AMAZON


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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 gradual progress.” 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. Psychological Mastery 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 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 selling "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 allowed. 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 person…”         
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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 championships.  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 combat possibilities. 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 preparation.” 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 reality.     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. 2. Understand 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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Mental, emotional and physical conditioning in Taijiquan... (Thu, 07 Nov 2019)
  A complete training approach needs to balance the internal and external, balancing physical and mental aspects. Taijiquan is no different than any other martial art in that to achieve usable skills you have to put in the hard work. This is reflected in sayings such as “Go to bed with tired legs and wake up with tired legs”, “eat bitterness” etc. But training hard is not the whole story. The obvious consequence of intense training is the expending and depletion of energy, physical and injury and damage to a practitioner’s body and, at times, feelings of exhaustion and despondency. To counter these negative aspects most traditional martial systems include exercises to help the body recover and recuperate – exercises such as zhan zhuang (standing pole), variations of standing, seated and even lying down meditation, massage, breathing exercises etc. To be completely clear, these methods were never designed to replace intensive training but to complement it. The late grandmaster Feng Zhiqiang summarised the balance between training and recovery as follows: “Taiji gongfu is acquired through a combination of training and nurturing, with nurturing being its mainstay.” Optimum performance is only possible when all the forces within the body are balanced so every aspect must be cultivated and nurtured. He went on to say that robust good health was the necessary foundation without which any talk of gongfu was irrelevant.     Taijiquan trains skill and resiliency  In The New Toughness Training for Sports, premier sports psychologist James E. Loehr examined the mental and physical factors that impact human performance at the highest level. In particular he looked at the areas of mental, emotional and physical conditioning and the equally if not more important need to actively train recovery in these same three areas. “At the most basic level, recovery is simply anything that causes energy to be recaptured… It’s essential also to understand that recovery occurs in three areas – physical, mental and emotional – [just like the three areas to which we must apply stress if we are to see improvement and growth of a Taijiquan martial artist]. The most common signs of recovery identified by Loehr in each area include, but are not limited to - Physical Recovery: reduced feelings of hunger, thirst, sleepiness, tension; slower heart and breath rates; decreased blood pressure, muscle tension and brainwave activity. Emotional Recovery: feelings of emotional relief; increased positive feelings of fun, joy, humour, and happiness; decreased negative feelings of anger, fear and frustration; and increased feelings of self-fulfilment. Mental Recovery: feelings of mental relief such as an increased feeling of calmness; the sense of mentally slowing down. Back to Taijiquan – Where some people are naturally drawn to the physical aspects of practice enjoying the sweat and hard work, and others prefer the quieter and more meditative aspects. Both are necessary and any complete training approach needs to take account of multiple characteristics that address both internal and aspects. The goal in the end, alongside the development of skill is to get stronger and more resilient physically, mentally and emotionally. Final word to Loehr, who after a lifetime coaching world class performers to peak performance in disciplines including boxing, speed skating, golf, tennis etc., concluded that, “Mind, body, spirit, thoughts, feelings, emotions are all part of the same continuum of life. There is and can be no separation.”  
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Creativity in Traditional Chen Taijiquan (Sun, 13 Oct 2019)
Chen Xianglin; "Persistance and the process of unquestioning practice" In “Conversations with ...#3” Chen Xianglin, instructor of the Chenjiagou Taijiquan School’s Shanghai branch, responding to the question - how did he overcome the difficulties of training and the high level of expectation placed on him - answered: “persistence and the process of unquestioning practice.” (Full interview can be found at: www.chentaijiquangbcom). In a similar way I’ve mentioned in several previous posts how Chen Xiaoxing often meets questions about practice with the phrase “you know the rules, follow the rules.” Many learners instantly rise up and reject this idea of unquestioning practice - the western educational system actively encourages its students to question everything from the first days in school. This willingness to ask questions is viewed as a marker of intelligence and creativity? In the thought provoking Making Ideas Happen Scott Belskey looks at the intersection where creativity and structure meet. The book’s subtitle, Overcoming the Obstacles Between Vision and Reality points to a common problem facing today’s urbanised and individualised practitioner. The first chapter opens with the following paragraph: “In a world obsessed with innovation, it is easy to fall in love with ideas. The creativity quotient is the darling of the adventurous mind. For some of us, creativity is intoxicating. Our society has gone so far as to divide its members into two camps, the “left-brain people” and the “right-brain people”, under a radical (and arguably false) assumption that both parts of the brain cannot coexist effectively- that brilliant creative people are inherently unable to act as organisers and leaders.” His conclusion - the creative psyche rebels against organisation and is intolerant of “procedures, restrictions and process.” Paradoxically, he found that it is organisation and process that provides the guiding force of productivity. The most important, and often most neglected, organisational element is structure. We tend to shun structure as a way of protecting the free-flowing nature of ideas. But without structure, ideas fail to build upon one another. And without structure, we can’t focus long enough on any particular idea to develop it to its maximum potential. Chen Taijiquan’s training methodology has a clear and systematic means of progression. Skills are overlaid upon each other step-by-step. Often a person’s Taijiquan development is likened to the broader educational system - first you must go to nursery school, then primary, secondary school, university etc... Everything works out (within the limits of an individual’s potential) as long as stages are taken in the correct order. Does that mean that we should never ask questions? Not at all, just that we question when we have something real to ask. Often people ask questions before they have even tried to train a movement. Like there’s an unwillingness to train unless everything is perfectly understood first, which is of course impossible. In response to this kind of incessant questioning Chen Xiaowang would often say “train first and often the question answers itself.” Through the process of training and working things out questions often answer themselves in a real way, where the body actualises the element being considered rather than simply logging one more intellectual realisation that, put to the test, cannot be used in a practical way. It might help you win the debate, but in all likelihood you won’t win a fight. Forget Taijiquan for a moment and look at this through a different lens. I listened to an interview with Mike Tyson when he spoke of his early years with legendary trainer Cus D’Amato. He didn’t give the impression that they debated every instruction. Rather that he was in effect “programmed” by following the instructions he was given. Through this unquestioning application he went on to become a legendary fighter in his own right.  Mike Tyson with man who made him Cus D'Amato: "A boy comes to me with a spark of interest. I feed the spark and it becomes a flame. I feed the flame and it becomes a fire. I feed the fire and it becomes a roaring blaze." Limiting ourselves by confidently training within the fixed framework passed down through generations of refinement by accomplished Taijiquan practitioners offers the best chance of a successful outcome. Again this is not unique to Taijiquan but holds true in many cases. The following statement by the Russian-born composer, pianist and conductor Igor Stravinsky could have been a call to Taijiquan players to have faith in the traditional method. “My freedom thus consists in my moving about within the narrow frame that I have assigned to myself for each one of my undertakings. I shall go even further: my freedom will be so much the greater and more meaningful the more narrowly I limit my field of action and the more I surround myself with obstacles. Whatever diminishes constraint diminishes strength. The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees oneself of the claims that shackle the spirit.”
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Keeping an upright posture... (Sat, 14 Sep 2019)
 A common saying inside Chinese martial arts tells us that, “people who bow their head and bend their waist will not achieve a high level of gongfu”. The saying highlights the importance of maintaining a centred and upright position and is as true for Taijiquan as it is for other martial disciplines. Letting this ideal position become compromised by leaning the body inappropriately is a major mistake, as leaning in any direction inevitably borrows power from other parts of the body.    Chen Ziqiang - "central balancing point like a needle standing on end"    To overcome the tendency to lean or slant the body, we need to place great attention on maintaining a straight line to connect the upper and lower body - from the baihui point, situated on the top of the head to the huiyinpoint, located between the anus and the genitals.  The importance of this connection is reflected in the Taiji saying, “one straight line joining the upper and lower body”.  During his recent seminar in Warsaw’s Chen Taijiquan Akademie Chen Ziqiang compared this central axis to a needle balanced so that it is dead straight standing on end. Because the balance is so fine, to remain upright it has to be adjusted constantly. At the same time the whole body remains loose and relaxed and qi is allowed to sink down to the dantian. Every movement requires the waist, with the abdomen as centre, to be constantly adjusted so that the whole body is balanced.  Fulfilling the requirements of suspending the head, the tailbone straight and centred, storing the chest and rounding the back, shoulders sunk down elbows lowered, spine relaxed and the waist loose and agile.  Concentrate on attack and defence This search for balance should be applied to all aspects of Taijiquan. A few pointers Chen Ziqiang gave during his six days in Poland included the importance of:  -          training everything in line with shou yan shenfa bu (hands, eyes, body and footwork) – with each part of the body (waist, legs etc) doing what they are supposed to do. [This reminded me of Chen Xiaowang’s statement said some years ago that “naturalness” was nothing more than every part of the body conforming to its appropriate function].    -          not just training the dominant side. Most people are right handed and by training and making the left hand strong as well you can find real balance. For example, using the sword or broadsword the support hand serves to add strength to the weapon bearing side. Enlivening the non-dominant side by performing basic drills with both sides increases the level of coordinated power that can be brought out.   -          during push hands not just concentrating on attacking – at the same time as you are attacking you also have to consider defence. Take the case of Taijiquan’s shuai (throwing method). It’s not just about learning to throw an opponent; you also have to train to fall correctly. “Traditional Taijiquan is not like a sporting contest on a soft mat” [here he was specifically referring to the practice of slapping the ground to dissipate the force of landing]. In combat on a concrete floor you protect yourself by curling up as you are falling. Drawing your chin to your chest and drawing your knees and arms in. “When you land you don’t want to be in an open and exposed position so an opponent can stamp on you.”   Sword form workshop            
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Taijiquan – “A Study of Contradictions” (Mon, 26 Aug 2019)
Searching for the fine details of posture- a young instructor in the Chenjiagou Taijiquan School correcting Zhan Zhuang To the uninitiated Taijiquan can appear to be a strange and inconsistent discipline. From the beginning it asks learners to put their faith in the counter-intuitive idea of using slowness and softness as the means to developing superior speed and power; to have confidence in the ability of stillness and calmness to overcome an opponent’s forceful attacks; and to “use the mind and not strength.” At the same time, like any other martial art, Taijiquan requires them to set their sights high if they are to develop real and effective skills. Simply, they must approach training with ambition. The first time I trained in China back in 1997 I bought a bootleg disc of Wang Xian and his disciples demonstrating the breadth of the Chen Taijiquan system. To say I loved the disc would be an understatement! At the time my eyes were untrained to many of the subtleties of Taijiquan, but it had everything - power, speed, coordination and a  tight focus and togetherness when groups of instructors demonstrated. The last performance was Wang Xian himself explosively demonstrating the Xinjia Yilu on the banks of the Yellow River. When he reached the end of the form and quietly closed, the following simple message played across the screen- “If you want to be better than everyone else, train harder than everyone else” - pretty ambitious right?! Going back a further generation Chen Zhaopi, the teacher most credited with sparking the modern resurgence of Taijiquan in Chenjiagou, described an individual’s progressive advancement from beginner to advanced practitioner via three stages: in the first, a learner must open their joints training the overtly physical aspects of the art; the second stage encompassed the long journey of understanding Taijiquan’s neijin or internal energy;  the third he described as “continuous movements executed in one breath.” This elevated level represented the height of perfection: with a complete integration of form and spirit; body completely balanced and unrestrained; and movements natural and instinctive. Reaching this level is referred to as shen ming, or "divine realisation".  A youthful Chen Zhenglei teaching the next generation Getting down to day-to-day training we’re told to relax and not to “try” too hard; to be natural and don’t force it; to cast aside stiff energy etc. All the while continually having our frame adjusted to a place where the legs are literally trembling with the effort. I remember a training session with Chen Xiaowang where someone asked about the pain they were experiencing in their legs and if it ever got easier. His oblique answer was simply to say, “don’t put so much importance on the pain in your legs.” In other words, just because the legs are hurting no need to add to that by fixating on it. If you’re doing Taijiquan properly your legs are going to work hard. Taijiquan has a saying “concentrate on one thing lose everything.” No matter how hard you train if you pay too much attention to any one thing you will move away from the ultimate aim that is no less than the total integration of internal and external, physicality and consciousness. Taijiquan itself makes no apologies for its paradoxical nature. The very name of the system is drawn from the philosophical concept of Taiji – it is the martial art of balance and change. It is up to each individual to reconcile the apparent contradictions for themselves. This area probably confounds western Taijiquan students the most. For example many athletically able students are overly concerned with external appearance and shape – whether it be in terms of strength, flexibility etc. It’s there that they get their positive strokes from others who also don’t see the whole picture. And to be very clear this is not to diminish the fundamental importance of strength, flexibility etc. This type of student can find it very hard to open up their mind. During a training session with one of the younger generation teachers from Chenjiagou, a strong and flexible individual stretched out into a wide and low posture. The teacher’s correction was to lift the posture up and advise him to put attention to loosening his kua and rounding his dang (crotch). Although the position was low, it was locked in such a way that the dang strength that is a vital part of Chen Taijiquan was totally lacking. The immediate response – “What exercise can I do to loosen it?” - completely missing the point that this was not something that was going to be corrected by grinding out some reps. Another face of Taijiquan - Chen Zhaokui traing qinna Taijiquan is built around the qualities of agility and changeability. It requires us to aim high but at the same time do today’s work. Chinese culture is imbued by the Daoist tradition and an acceptance of seemingly contradictory aspects if we are to see a thing in its entirety. The following passage from the Inner Chapters of Zhuangzi point simultaneously to the need for careful instruction, effort and time while being mentally calm, free and ungrasping.”   “Neither deviate from your instructions, nor hurry to finish. Do not force things. It is dangerous to deviate from instruction or push for completion.  It takes a long time to do a thing properly. Once you do something wrong it may be too late. Can you afford to be careless? Follow with whatever happens and let your mind be free; stay centred by accepting whatever you are doing. This is the ultimate… It is best to leave everything to work naturally…”      
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Chenjiagou - and the tradition of China’s “Martial Villages” (Tue, 06 Aug 2019)
Wrestlers from China's Yi people One of the things I love about traditional Chinese martial arts is the sheer diversity and the ingenuity of the countless different systems. I remember watching the first delegation of Chinese wushu performers to visit the UK back in the 1980s. It was the first time many of us saw martial artists from mainland China.In those pre-internet days the event caused quite a stir in the local martial arts community. On 20th July Chenjiagou’s International Culture Centre hosted the Chinese Wushu Association’s (CWA) three day long national taolu (forms) tournament. This is the first time it has been held in Chenjiagou since the inaugural competition in 1993. Theme of the 16th tournament was the promotion of the development of China’s “martial arts villages” or significant locations in the ongoing history of the countries martial arts. At the opening ceremony one of the Wenxian officials explained that the competition was emphasising the taolu of each system “because learning a set of taolu is the first step in laying a lifetime practice.” Secondly the competition was intended to let people to feel the “atmosphere and warmth of family” – with competitors taking part in a discipline that has a family feel to it. One of the aims of the competition was for all the competitors taking part to have a deeper appreciation of the many stories that make up Chinese wushu. In all 97 different martial arts locations were represented consisting of 1600 competitors. Each different location has its own story to tell about its part in the development of China’s many different martial arts systems. Some are well known to martial arts enthusiasts - places such as: Dengfeng home of Shaolin boxing; Foshan the source of Yongquan (Wing Chun); Fujian birthplace of White Crane which in turn spawned the Okinawa art of Karate etc. Others are less well known. Competing on the same stage in Chenjiagou were individuals representing the 129 disciplines recognised by the CWA. China has a long tradition of “martial arts villages” - locations with their own distinctive fighting arts. A couple of months ago I was in Kunming close to the border with Vietnam. Everywhere you looked there was evidence of the areas Torch Festival through which the local Yi people expressed their obsession with combat. Much as many other minority traditions have been co-opted by local governments, the festival is a rapidly-growing tourist attraction. Despite this, local customs continue to thrive. Just a glance at the picture above of the locals in competition is enough to know that, while the art they are practicing might not be well known to the outside world, these are seriously conditioned and motivated individuals. These are not flash in the pan events. The Yi people are one of the most populous minority groups in China and the Torch Festival has been celebrated by them for thousands of years. It is said to remember a mythological battle between the gods of the sky and earth. Their spirit of combat is not restricted to humans another feature of the festival being bull fighting. Not done in the Spanish style where matador faces off against and ultimately kills a tormented bull. In the Yi version animals are pitted against each other and the contest ends when one turns tail and runs away. Back to Taijiquan - I enjoy the fact that we are training an art that has been forged and stood the test of time. And the fact that it has its own unique features and methods. As part of the opening ceremony representatives from all the major styles demonstrated - pictured above Chen Xiaoxing and his students.
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“Triple tasking” and the correct development of intelligence ... (Tue, 25 Jun 2019)
I was chatting with one of my students who has Parkinson’s disease. He told me about one of the methods he was following having taken advice on the best way to slow down the progress of his condition. The most obvious physical symptoms of Parkinson's are tremor, stiffness and slowness of movement. Non-motor functions are also affected with impairments in the domain of executive functioning being common. A day-to-day example of executive functioning would be something like multi-tasking situations like walking with someone while having a chat. He had been asked to “triple task” – for example riding on a stationary bike while, at the same time, turning a hand crank and counting backwards from one hundred.  The advice he was given has a clear parallel with Taijiquan training.   Feng Zhiqiang - Taijiquan as a method for "correctly developing intelligence" I remember an article by the late master Feng Zhiqiang in which he spoke of the benefits of Taijiquan training. As well as the usual benefits like: the development of both internal and external strength, enhanced body coordination, looseness and flexibility, mental quietness, martial ability etc, he spoke of Taijiquan as a means to train “the correct development of intelligence.” What does this mean in practical terms? Taijiquan training works towards unifying all elements of “separateness.” So there can be: no raising up without some aspect of sinking; no focus on forward movement without simultaneously considering the rear; no focusing on the external shape without paying attention to the internal energetic sensation. For the beginning student it is enough to try to keep the body upright, be as loose as possible, and try to keep the feeling of lightly lifting the top of the head. Over time the mind is engaged to a greater and more subtle degree. In Chen Taijiquan this is sometimes referred to as the “rule of three” where the body is divided and subdivided around its upper, middle and lower aspects. For this reason Taijiquan has been called the study of contradictions. It is the reconciliation of these contradictions that eventually creates the experience of “oneness” or true holistic movement. So when we talk about balance we aren’t talking about some static state, but a dynamic process as an individual continually and instinctively adjusts to shifting and evolving circumstances. Achieving this requires us to carefully following a process for an extended time with no expectation of quick successes. Trying to put this message across in today’s ever more frenetic and instant culture can sometimes feel akin to King Canute trying to hold back the tide. You only have to look at popular apps like Headspace that promises to show “how to meditate in ten minutes.” During one of our training camps in Chenjiagou Chen Xiaoxing remarked that anyone can train hard for a week or two, but few people can do it daily for five years and beyond.   Chen Xiaoxing - It's easy to train hard for a short time. Can you do it long term? I was struck by the following passage from an article by Phillip Zarrilli describing the process of learning the ancient Indian martial art kalarippayattu:  “A student’s regularity of attendance, attitude, seriousness of purpose, maturity and emotional stability all come into play in the teacher’s decision regarding advancement. None of this is expressed or spoken. The teacher collects and registers his daily impressions of students. There is no overt sign of approval, nor is reassurance or encouragement given on any regular basis. The individual is basically alone, confronting himself as he struggles awkwardly with the external form of the system and to advancement within it.”
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Focus on the process (Fri, 24 May 2019)
Taijiquan results are forged by an ongoing process, not by dramatic sudden events. All accomplished practitioners create their own skill by following a carefully orchestrated process. Success in Taijiquan – for success read the achievement of a meaningful level of skill - requires us to follow series of steps that have been handed down for generations. Everyone can quote the stages and requirements. How many follow them? Manifest skill is usually the result of a repetitive journey. Drip, drip, drip and then the sudden overnight ten year success! Learners are often impatient. Seeing the end product, the polished, dynamic and accomplished practitioner, they typically ignore the process that preceeded this level of skill. The process was the long and bitter road that few people get to witness: the long daily training sessions, the injuries and rehabilitation, the dark lonely days when they are sustained only by inner motivation and determination. The process is the real back story with its countless iteration of form routines, basic exercises and partner drills. It may be nice to think of skill as something that arrives in a flash - an event like a sudden flash of illumination or moment of enlightenment. This kind of thinking dismisses the need for the drudgery of daily training. How often we see learners questioning everything incessantly but doing little real training - If they only knew the “correct” way to do it… Of course this is an illusion. As I saw it described elsewhere “Such a belief is a mirage of event over process. If you try to skip process, you’ll never experience events.” Sadly, as a media-centred, “I want it today” society, the spotlight and the glory all goes to the event, while the process is hidden behind the woodshed. Chen Zhaopi compared Taijiquan skill to a bowl of soup. Question any chef and they will surely confirm that the perfect dish is a series of ingredients and a well-engineered process of execution - a little bit of this, a pinch of that, everything done at the appropriate time and place, and wham, you have an appetizing meal. Like the soup, Chen Zhaopi said Taijiquan skill in the end everything is blended together and can’t be separated.  Skill eludes most people because they are preoccupied with events while disregarding process. Without process, there is no event. For our chef, the cooking is the process, while the meal is the event. For the Taijiquan player the repeated (appropriate) training is the process, while the skill is the result.   A young instructor form the Chenjiagou Taijiquan School  
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Chen Xiaoxing – “If you can see it, it is too much”! (Tue, 02 Apr 2019)
The experience of training in Chenjiagou has changed in many ways over the years. In the first place it’s impossible to ignore the backdrop of the speed and scale of changes taking place in China.  Within this setting, the remarkable pace of development of Chenjiagou shows no sign of slowing down. The simple dusty village that captivated me in the 1990s, seeming to have stood still in time, has been replaced by a modern vision of what the birthplace of an art as famous as Taijiquan “should” look like. With stadiums, a modern exhibition centre, Taijiquan museum and numerous Taiji themed tourist attractions. In the centre of the village the Chenjiagou Taijiquan School has also grown larger over the years. The main training hall that used to be a Spartan concrete floored empty space is now fully  equipped with modern training aids including a full sized boxing ring, rows of heavy bags and a raised push hands ring.   That said, within the school there is still a palpable sense of tradition. A portrait of Chen Xiaoxing, the current principal of the school looks down from above the entrance to the room. The opposite wall is decorated by portraits (left) of his direct ancestors: his father Chen Zhaoxu; grandfather Chen Fake creator of the New Frame routines; another three generations back, Chen Changxin who reclassified the older forms of the system into the Laojia routines; back to Chen Wangting creator of Chen family Taijiquan.   With all the changes, some things are refreshingly familiar. For instance the importance Chen Xiaoxing places on zhan zhuang (standing pole) as the primary means of realising and training Taijiquan’s jibengong (basic training). Taijiquan’s training methodology is built upon an implicit understanding of the ultimately limiting practice of building strength and fitness on top of dysfunction.   At the most obvious level zhan zhuang helps to establish the required body shape - hips and shoulders level, crotch rounded, head upright and balanced, shoulders relaxed and elbows sunken etc… requirements quoted, but often not manifest to a sufficient degree. Beyond this zhan zhuang training provides a means of beginning to physically understand and manifest critical but far from obvious aspects of Taijiquan.   During his camp at Tomlin, Slovenia in August 2018 Chen Xiaoxing spoke at length about the importance of zhan zhuang training:   Zhan Zhuang (photo by Rob Steenkamp) “Zhan zhuang is training fundamental skill (gong). Why fundamental skill? The saying is “Train quan without training gong, at the end all is in vain”. Many people think that basic training involves stretching the legs and back etc...in fact fundamental skill, as in the taolu (form routine) involves feeling the intention and qi. Whether it is zhan zhuang, reeling silk or form, the fundamental skill is mentally and physically enabling the experience of intention and qi and the extent to which they can be achieved. Because fundamental training is done in a static posture, it is easier to grasp and experience them, unlike in the form routine where one has to cope with a myriad of changes of directions and focus. The mental and energetic feel gleaned from the basic training can then be incorporated into the form. This is the reason why zhan zhuang is important and is a part of training that cannot be missed.”   Chen Xiaoxing jokes sometimes that the thing his students fear the most is standing. Where some people emphasise standing training as a relaxing meditative experience, with him it is also a physically and psychologically challenging practice. Training two sessions a day, every session begins with half an hour or so of zhan zhuang. During our recent visit a film crew spent several days shooting around the school and surrounding village. The German-New Zealand-China collaboration, documenting the many “Colours of China” had spent a year filming around the country. The German project manager was fascinated with the paradox of Taijiquan training - on the one hand the quietness of the practice, and on the other the intensity. The way that everyone in the room’s legs seemed to be shaking with the effort the instant they were adjusted and corrected by the teacher.         During the visit we spent ten days working through and refining the Xinjia Yilu routine. If our motivation for training is functional efficiency, then a critical goal of training is the development of non-telegraphed movement. Where modern practitioners often talk about effective martial training, in reality practice is often geared more towards performance and demonstration. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with this in terms of fitness and health, self-expression etc. But, in a real situation telegraphing your intention can lead to a disastrous outcome. Anyone who has taken part in competitions where there are real physical consequences for making mistakes realise quickly and painfully the importance of hiding what you are going to do. Chen Xiaoxing often repeats the phrase “if you can see it it is too much.” For example as a practitioner shifts weight from one side to the other, the intention is to move the waist in a narrow almost imperceptible arc. Just as not engaging the waist is a fault, over-turning is also an error. So we need to look beyond aesthetics and the desire to show everything. Xinjia training in the main hall of the Chenjiagou Taijiquan School      (Photo by Rob Steenkamp)  Key points emphasised by Chen Xioaxing:   ·         Guarding against the danger of movement being overly stylised ·         Using the form to bring out qualities such as the ability to change suddenly, accuracy, timing etc   ·         To be effective movement must not be telegraphed ·         The critical importance of intention and feeling    CTGB 2019 group with Chinese students who trained alongside us              
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Reducing tell-tale signals… (Thu, 07 Feb 2019)
Today many people train Taijiquan for enjoyment, sports performance, artistic expression etc. Nothing wrong with that in itself, but the mindset is very different from that advocated in traditional Taijiquan where we are told to train using intention without revealing our purpose externally. An often quoted saying from famous military strategist Sunzi’s “Art of War” advises that: “If one knows the enemy and oneself, one can fight a hundred battles without defeat”. How is this relevant to Taijiquan practice? It’s generally said that a person trains form to know themselves and that they train push hands to know an opponent. But this isn’t quite sufficient. For sure push hands training sensitises us to the movements of an opponent. However, it is critical to realise that this is not a one way interaction. Learning to read the movements of an opponent has to be tempered by an awareness that one’s own movements may be read by the same opponent.  Even as an exponent is feeling for the tell-tale signals giving away the intention of another, he must learn to recognise his own anticipatory movement.  This is one of the reasons why the form is practiced so slowly and meticulously. By carefully and meticulously examining each movement one can begin the step-by-step process of rooting out any “telegraphing” of our own intention. By uncovering all the places where movement is inefficient or lacking the necessary smooth and spiralling quality, one gradually reaches the point where it can be said that we “know ourselves.”    An early shot of Chen Zhenglei and Chen Xiaowang
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Why slow training wins the race... (Sat, 29 Dec 2018)
What makes Taijiquan training different from  that of other arts? I've been asked this question many times and usually answer that the most obvious difference is its use of slowness and looseness as the core method to bring out necessary martial qualities like speed, strength, accuracy etc...  To reach an advanced level we need to practice slowly, taking care to self-correct all the time. Using slowness to achieve detail. What details are we talking about? Here's a few to be going on with: 1.    Accuracy - in terms of posture and function 2.    Intention and how it matches to movements  3.    Maintenance of the correct energetic state (of different parts simultaneously to enhance the "whole") Chen Yu: "Never do an approximation of a movement" People often either over-complicate or completely misunderstand Taijiquan's training process. In a hurried effort to access higher levels of skill, making the critical error of ignoring necessary stages such as laying down the correct physical shape. Completing this stage naturally opens the door to the internal aspects. Simply put, if the learners hips are not level or the shoulders are lifted, if the chest sticks out or the body is leaning - there's no need to be too concerned with dantian qi.  If training is approached logically it is obvious that at this stage they'd get more bang for their training buck by correcting the visible mistakes rather than losing themselves in some fanciful esoteric wandering.  Chen Yu, in "Chen Taijiquan: Masters & Methods" cautions that haste makes it more likely for movements to be cut short and in the process important details missed out. He advises practitioners to never do an approximation of a movement: "In every movement, the spirit must be guiding the energy, and the intention driving the power" - training in this way enables the practitioners to develop vital martial qualities including stability, accuracy, speed and ferocity. To ensure not to make the mistake of cutting short and approximating he suggests that  "every movement should take 3-5 seconds to complete so that the Jin in every action is brought out". Chen Xiaowang: "Every part does what it is supposed to do without obstruction A central goal of Taijiquan is for movements to become natural, to rid every action of any awkwardness and not telegraphing within an action. Chen Xiaowang often repeats the phrase "natural is the first principle". In this context natural means that every part and each section of the body do what they are meant to do without obstruction. Practitioners are often able to (correctly) repeat the requirement that one must be loose and relaxed in order to enter the door of Taijiquan. However, relaxing is not a simple process. For a start,  if the body's position is not correct, it cannot relax properly.  The process of adjusting and "fixing" the posture, undoing fixed habits and embedding new ones that conform to the system's detailed requirements can only be done in meticulously and mindfully.  Bringing out the skills of Taijiquan require the ability to move with precision and focus towards an intended direction. In practical term every movement must be finished carefully and exactly, as the end of one movement represents the starting point of the next. During a particular workshop Wang Xian stressed that only by starting from the correct position can the next movement be done correctly. He said with humour (I'm paraphrasing here): "if you start from the wrong position it's 100 percent certain your movement will be incorrect... If you start from the correct position, there's a small chance you might do it correctly". Wang Xian: "Only by starting from the correct position can the next movement be done correctly"    
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USA Reflections... (Mon, 17 Dec 2018)
San Diego at the Taoist Sanctuary On the flight home after a couple of weeks of seminars and  a short book tour on the west coast of America I had the chance to reflect  on the trip as a whole. The first evening of our stop at Bill and Allison Helm's Taoist Sanctuary of San Diego opened with a lecture on our latest book Chen Taijiquan: Masters and Methods (published in August). The talk was structured around four themes that recurred throughout the book: ideas about the nature of Taijiquan; the importance of nurturing within the training process; the most effective way to train if you are to bring out the functional capacity of the art - in particular the role of body integration; and finally some of the problems   facing the art of Taijiquan as it goes into the future. Problems include: the fact that for the majority of practitioners Taijiquan is a discipline no longer practised for its original purpose; the fact that while the number of people practising Taijiquan is at an all time high, the number reaching any meaningful level of skill is depressingly small; and the many misconceptions about the art that still persist... Over the course of the seminar the San Diego group trained Chen Taijiquan's jibengong (basic training methods) and the Laojia Yilu. Any complete training approach needs to consider multiple characteristics including both internal and external aspects of training. All martial arts, in their own way, follow processes designed to systematically develop the attributes of power, strength, speed and the ability to change. The basic training exercises and first routine provide the template through which Taijiquan practitioners can hone these qualities. At the same time Taijiquan’s training emphasis is very different to other martial arts in the way in which practitioners are required to put aside generally accepted methods of improving the previously mentioned elements of power, strength, speed and changeability: On the floor... In terms of strength - they are asked to put aside physical strength as a means of developing looseness (song) and pliancy (rou) – “Using intention and not strength”; To increase speed, the system counter-intuitively instructs practitioners to slow down their movements, keeping faith with Taijiquan’s maxim which states that “extreme slowness gives rise to extreme speed”; To develop the quality of changeability Taijiquan advises learners to “use inaction to control action, meeting all changes with constancy”. With this basis the skilled exponent is psychologically strong enough to wait for opponents to over extend their position before launching an attack. After the San Diego seminars we spent a couple of days of down time in San Francisco’s historic Chinatown. The oldest Chinatown in the U.S., this colourful district played a pivotal role in the history of Chinese martial arts in the country. Walking down the bustling streets of the largest Chinese enclave outside of Asia has much the same feel as strolling through the back streets of Hong Kong. Loud murals decorate many of the side streets - terracotta warriors, the monkey king and his companions and of course Bruce Lee, the “Little Dragon” born in the city in 1940 before moving to Hong Kong with his parents as an infant. The story goes that on his return to America, the brash young Lee alienated many of the older established Chinese masters as he attacked the “classical mess” of traditional gongfu and his assertion about its reliance on, among other things, “ineffective” forms training. The late Bruce Lee is never far away in San Francisco's Chinatown   Somewhat ironically, a paving slab beneath one of the murals of Bruce Lee was inlaid with a bronze inscription of an old Chinese idiom - “When you drink water, think of its source”. In one form or another I've heard this saying repeated many times over the years. From my younger days doing Shaolin Gongfu when we were told never to forget we were no more than links in a chain. In Chenjiagou I saw the saying presented in a slightly different form - "When you drink the water, remember the person who dug the well". Chen Taijiquan is close to four centuries old. It didn't emerge from a vacuum but was built upon existing knowledge in areas including martial arts, traditional health practices, elements of Chinese medical theories and ancient philosophy. Throughout Chen Taijiquan: Masters and Methods all the older generation teachers interviewed stressed the importance of following a prescribed route that had been passed down by previous generations. Wang Xian, speaking of this "carefully preserved knowledge... [stated that] Taijiquan offers one of the most formally thought out, meticulous, and clearly articulated set of principles and practices". Our job in training Chen Taijiquan is to try to understand and manifest these principles that have been handed down. Stopping for a coffee at the Caffe Trieste I was told by a chatty regular that this was the place where Francis Ford Coppola wrote the screenplay for ‘The Godfather.’ I did a little research on the place and found that "...when Papa Gianni founded the Trieste in 1956, upper Grant and the Trieste was ground zero of the Beat Generation. The poets, the writers, the thinkers, the talkers all came here.” Since we were on a mini book tour I took that to be a good omen!!  Our next stop was Kim Ivy's Embrace the Moon School in Seattle. The Seattle programme began with a "Book Club Potluck" - Great food followed by a lively Q&A session on Chen Taijiquan: Masters and Methods - covering the books content and the background story behind its creation. We basically wrote the book to “scratch an itch” and tried to present it as if we were sitting around the fireside having an informal chat with the most illustrious elders of Chen Taijiquan.  Seattle at the Embrace the Moon Taiji School   On the floor, again! Like the seminars in San Diego, training centred around Chen Taijiquan's basic exercises and Laojia Yilu. Taijiquan looks to hone four external and four internal aspects: externally training the hands, eyes, body method and footwork (shou, yan, shenfa, bu); internally training spirit, intention, intrinsic energy and trained power (shen, yi, qi, jin). Taken together these represent the "gong" of the art. In practice these elements must be cultivated carefully bearing in mind the health, strength, experience and level of understanding of the practitioner. Over the course of the US seminars practitioners varied in age from people in their twenties to seventies - from pro-athletes to retired office workers – from veteran practitioners to newcomers whose experience could be measured in months. To be successful training has to take into account these natural differences and be approached on an individual basis. As the saying goes “Don’t’ compare yourself to another person today, compare yourself to yourself yesterday”. Seattle - Laojia Yilu So what are we trying to achieve when we train Taijiquan? The most obvious place to start is with the name of the system - "Taiji" refers to a philosophical concept that dates back to China's ancient past. "Quan" is martial arts. Together giving a total art built upon the integration of philosophy and martial arts. Manifesting the art to its full potential depends upon working from where you are today and embracing concepts that have grown from a different culture and mindset.    Just me and my pal Bill Helm having some fun in Chinatown       
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Realising Chen Taijiquan’s Six Harmonies (Mon, 01 Oct 2018)
Taijiquan skill arises from a comprehensive study of the body as a unified whole or system.  The core training methods of the system are built around the qualities of looseness, pliancy and slowness.  Slow training provides a means by which to improve body co-ordination and to help to rid the body of any excess tension. The process of slow training over an extended time helps practitioners to achieve a unification of body and mind described in Taijiquan literature as the harmonisation of the mind (xin), intention (yi), intrinsic energy (qi), and body strength (li).  Every facet of a person – physical, emotional, mental and spiritual – is seen to be interconnected and interdependent, and no aspect can be understood in any meaningful way except in relation to the whole. This wholeness is realised via the nurturing of Taijiquan’s six harmonies.   Internal and External Harmony - Chen Xiaoxing by Mary Johnston   The six harmonies are understood in terms of three external and three internal harmonies. The external harmonies refer to the physical components of the body, which must be ordered in a way that optimises one’s structure. The three external harmonies denote the connections between:    Hands - Feet Elbows - Knees Shoulders - Kua   These can be widened to take in the connections between the left hand and the right foot, the left elbow and the right knee and the left shoulder and the right kua (and vice versa). The late grandmaster Feng Zhiqiang summarised the external harmonies simply as everything “arriving at the same time”– so every movement is performed as an integrated whole. The correct way to apply power arises not from isolated muscular strength, but from an optimally aligned body structure and unified movement through a relaxed physical and mental state.    The three internal harmonies refer to the unification of an individual’s:   Xin (Heart) – Yi (Intention) Qi (Intrinsic Energy) – Li (Body Strength) Jin (Tendons) – Gu (Bones)   In this context, xin refers to the emotional aspect of one’s mind, yi to its logical or intentional part. The literal translation of the Chinese character xin is "heart". Early pictograms of the character for xin unambiguously show a picture of the physical heart.   Xin represents the centre of human feelings and emotions.  Literature from the Warring States period of Chinese history depicts it as the centre of an individual’s emotions and sentiments, from tranquillity and calmness, to anger, grief and disappointment.    Taijiquan players are often told to “use intention and not force”.   Mental unity is predicated on the presence of both the emotional and logical mind. In a real confrontation conflicting feelings or thoughts can have dire consequences. While xin or heart is necessary to summon up sufficient courage, yi enables them to act with a clear purpose and make the right decisions in an instant.  So, in a real world example we could compare an individual exhibiting xin without yi to the hothead who fights rashly and with uncontrolled emotion and no clear intention. Conversely, yiwithout xin, could be characterised by the individual lacking in fighting spirit although knowing in their mind what they should do. The idea of linking heart and fighting spirit is also common in the West, where, for example, a skilful but hesitant boxer will often be accused of lacking heart. The fusing of heart and intention allows one to bring into play an energy that is fully focused and integrated.  Combining this with the powers of the body represents a joining of internal and external aspects – that is the connection of energy and strength (qi and li). Achieving this degree of synchronisation enables the body to operate as a unified whole - in terms of Taijiquan’s harmonies, linking the tendons with the bones.        
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Chen Zhenglei - Four Steps to Combat Skill... (Mon, 13 Aug 2018)
At his recent training camp in Chenjiagou, Chen Zhenglei addressed the question of how a practitioner should approach Taijiquan if they are to develop high level fighting skills. During the course of his lecture spoking about what people should focus on at the different stages of training? In summary he suggested that the development of Chen Taijiquan’s internal martial arts skills arise from following four steps: 1. The first step involves an in-depth and meticulous study of the “gongfu frame” (the first routine) of Chen Family Taijiquan. Chen Taijiquan’s gongfu formula is based on  the foundation of the original boxing form that has been passed down from generation to generation. 2. From this basis studying the indoor methods within the gongfu form that enable the altering and transformation of power and the system’s attacking skill.  These skills are based on the changes and transformations that arise from the total familiarity of the gongfu form.  Study each and every move for the ability to bring out the perfect round, complementary and spiral force, and the skill to transform each and every move that can be utilised. The goal here is to achieve the highest level of power that encompasses looseness, pliancy, elasticity and “shaking power”.    3. The third step is to study the indoor method of tuishou.  Based on the foundation of the alternating and complementary spiralling skill, learning the two persons tuishou methods, using the skill that has been extracted from the meticulous study of the form. Through these methods becoming familiar with the different energies/power and attack/defence possibilities.  Practicing until one is completely accurate in listening and differentiating incoming energies and until reaching the stage where the opponent can be felled unwittingly and unconsciously.    4.  Finally, studying the sanshou method of Chen Taijiquan.  Now building on the foundation of the previous steps, a practitioner undertakes two persons’ sparring that is not restricted by the prescribed form, so as to learn the full repertoire of defence and attack. Using the ba fa - peng, lu, ji, an, cai, lie, zhou, kao - together with seizing, grasping, throwing, sweeping, practicing possibilities of actual fighting.  Until reaching the stage of being able to borrow another’s force, to “divert thousand pounds with four ounces”. As always, the advice was that there could be no shortcuts and that the above four stages must be progressed through step-by-step, layer by layer, gradually and incrementally increasing one's level of skill.  
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