Sunday, June 19, 2011

Demystifying and Revealing the Truth on how Taijiquan Works - Part 2

(Please read part 1 first - from April 2011)

 Part 2

 How does the Taijiquan Artist develop the necessary skills?                     

 First through standing (meditation) exercises to teach stability and balance in a fixed position. Both a relaxed mind and a relaxed but properly structured body, while maintaining the body’s center of balance (equilibrium) are necessary. Focusing on proper breathing comes once the body is trained to stand in an naturally aligned position with the back straight, tailbone pointing down and the head feeling like it is suspended by a string pulling up from the crown carrying its weight and all the while maintaining the maximum amount of relaxation.  Total awareness and control of the entire body, its root into the ground and its center need to be accomplished before moving on. One of the natural methods of abdominal breathing used in Taiji  is referred to as reverse breathing. This become an essential part of the  standing exercise which leads to a calm and clear mind as well as a higher level of a relaxed, but neither limp nor lethargic stance. It is also a very natural and efficient way to breathe, better oxygenating the blood and massaging the internal organs in the abdominal region, along with the ability to produce more force as you exhale when needed for the martial artist.

Picture-(Reverse breathing involves the expelling of air while expanding the lower abdominal region downward and out.

 If this seems unnatural to you, try exhaling rapidly and saying the word ha,  (exhaling through your mouth) with your hand on your lower abdominal region. Follow by inhaling in which the lower abdominal region pulls back in using more diaphragm.
(note when done slowly, breathe in and out through the nose-when done quickly to emit force breathe out through the mouth.
 It is important to avoid shallow breathing which uses more intercostals muscles to expand the chest which causes improper ventilation of the lower lobes in the lungs.)

Master/Dr Kam Lee’s detailed explanation:

General breathing can be categorized into 2 kinds:
1. Shallow breathing - Not preferable
2. Deep or Abdominal Breathing - Preferable (Bringing in more oxygen, etc)
Abdominal Breathing when used to nourish our qi (ex: meditation, sleeping, daily movements) can be called, "Natural Breathing" as we don't have to think too much about it. It can happen naturally after you are trained to do it. Doesn't take long.
3. Abdominal breathing when used to express our qi or jin or when power is used, can be called Reversed Breath, which the abdominal muscle groups work the opposite way to Natural Breathing. It stresses the muscle and uses more qi. However when expressed softly or slowly it is a very good method to enhance our qi without expending it so much as in Fajin. If you fajin a lot you can get tired easily if your qi is insufficient.

   Yin Natural Breathing Stillness Relax state of qi Nourishing Jin Uses abdominal (Dantian)
Yang Reverse Breathing Movement Higher state of qi Uses Jin (Fajin) Uses abdominal (Dantian)

Both breathing methods are neither limp nor lethargic. Both can attain a calm and clear state of mind. When done slow (beginner's meditation) natural breathing is preferable. When fajin or expressing jin in martial applications, reversed breath is preferable.

Both are natural and efficient depending on use. Reverse breathing is a plus for martial artist.

Deep abdominal breathing involves breathing in the air by contracting the diaphragm and expanding the lungs to its full capacity, starting from the lower lobes. The contraction of the diaphragm compresses the organs especially the intestines downwards and at the same time expanding the lungs to its full capacity. This can be done only when the body muscles especially the abdominals are in a relax state. Not knowing how to breathe properly builds tension in the abdominal and mid body thus inhibiting good circulation and proper function of qi. Abdominal breathing encourages all movements internally and promotes good health.

Harmony is  now present between the body and mind and true balance is   achieved. The mind’s ability to see, sense, feel and respond reaches an elevated level. (I personally recommend sitting Wuji meditation in conjunction with standing meditation. Although the have many common benefits they are also unique in their own ways. For more information on this please see Dr Yang Yang’s book, Taijiquan - That Art of Nurturing, The Science of Power)

Forms and movement
 Stage two of training is maintaining your center and applying the same principles as in the standing exercise, but with movement. Spiraling movement exercises and forms practice accomplish this task. Total awareness of every point of the body must be realized and all movements must be connected. No individual body part should act independently. (Movement resembles a system of smooth moving cogs as seen in a Swiss watch; each cog has its own important job and cannot be done without.)

At the advanced level of this stage the practitioner will incorporate some fast movements and the releasing of power in a variety of positions.  Weapons’ training in this phase is also important for the basic development of strength and control even if the thought of practicality is not a consideration. To study the variety of weapons offered from short to long and light to heavy while keeping in line with all of the other principles completes this stage and also helps to improve empty hand forms.

Push Hands
The third stage is still maintaining your body’s center and all of the above mentioned requirements while an outside source (partner) tries to disturb your high level of control and balance. Here is where the following of your opponent’s movements, redirecting of his force and controlling his center of balance is studied. We call this phase push-hands because of the continued contact you have with your training partner. But that term does not paint the true picture of this training method. Here in the later stages of Push-hands a higher level of sensitivity and understanding on how the movements apply to self-defense become visible. Joint manipulation is also studied at this stage. Reactions become both spontaneous and natural. At this point along with the health benefits manifested from proper practice the Martial aspects are beginning to materialize. Through proper training of all three phases your body will develop the needed attributes both internally and externally. However by no means does the training stop. This is the true beginning in the process of mastering Taijiquan.  Perhaps the most important aspect of this phase is that it is a platform where one can experiment and discover his/ her flaws regarding all the governing Taijiquan principles. All three phases must constantly be practiced to keep the body and mind tuned like a fine machine.  Neglecting any one of the training methods would be like removing one leg from a tripod. You would be left with a tool that could never function properly. From the first to the third stage is like building a house from the ground up. If proper attention is not paid to the foundation, the house will never be of a sound structure
You can now begin to understand teaching the body to move and react in this natural way is not nearly as difficult as unlearning all of  the counter-productive ways of moving incorrectly that we have accumulated over the years. (Especially the over tightening of unneeded muscles and joints.)

 If your goal is strictly health, continue working on the above and you will find success. But there is much more that Taijiquan can offer to the Martial Artist to enhance their skills.

 People often ask, “If Taijiquan is so effective why don’t we see more practical examples in the Martial Art world?” This requires a brief look at Chinese history. The answers lie in the not so distant past (100 years or so) when it was still being used as a combat art. Like all things it has evolved and changed over the years. That’s why no art is truly 100% traditional. Every martial art must change over time to accommodate the changing environment in which it exists. During China’s Cultural Revolution the practice of this and many other martial arts were prohibited by the government.  Devoted Taijiquan practitioners had to train in secrecy. Many were caught and punished, but they still persevered through this most difficult time and both preserved and passed down their family art. Taijiquan is certainly not the only martial art to suffer this hardship.

 It was only when the art resurfaced publicly following a 1978 endorsement from Deng Xiaoping (China’s leader at that time) stating “Taijiquan is good”.  After that period Taiji was often taught as an art focusing more for its health benefits. The martial art aspect was watered down and furthermore  was also not even understood by many teachers. Hence the term Taiji with out the quan(fist). Taijiquan loosely translates to Grand Ultimate Fist. Also like many Chinese Gungfu styles, Masters were leery of passing on all of their knowledge publicly and carefully chose only the worthiest of students to have access to the complete art.
 Chen Village still remained quite isolated and with a somewhat closed door attitude regarding sharing their family art. Other more popular forms of Taiji (such as Yang Style) were practiced by many, but few trained the martial aspects. Taiji developed a reputation as a slow moving exercise for the elderly. Most players at that time were never exposed to the martial art side of Taiji. That method of Taiji practice became and still is quite popular today.

Presently Chen Taijiquan is being taught openly throughout the world.
The martial art aspects are once again becoming an important part of the training for those who desire.
Another factor is more universal and can apply to all Martial Arts. Equally important to studying a practical and suitable art is the student’s personal attitude.
Three classes a week at your local Martial Arts school does not make a master. Any art being practiced by a student without diligence, dedication and perseverance will never truly manifest itself in that student.  If any viable art fails to produce the desired results, first look at the student and his or her teacher. You will find the root of its inadequacies. Taijiquan is no exception.
For those students electing to focus only on the health aspects, you have still been exposed to some martial benefits. While you should now experience a higher level of health you still shouldn’t consider yourself a martial artist and that is also acceptable for a practitioner.

 For those pursuing Taijiquan in its most complete form including the Martial Art aspects (read on).

The last crucial steps which are often overlooked, involve putting it all together in the proper environment.  

The knowledge gained from the above three stages does not a Martial Artist make. How you gain the practical experience to use these tools requires sparring and training with partners of all sizes and from many other disciplines including other grappling arts. (Taijiquan does deal with all ranges of combat.) Without this reality training you will not be a complete martial artist and won’t develop the real skills needed for survival in self-defense or combat.
A common misconception of Taijiquan among many of its own followers is that they do not need the sparring stage for the development of fighting skills.
In my opinion, this could not be further from the truth. Let us not kid ourselves; this is why many practitioners can’t use Taijiquan as a reality based self-defense art. Even those that attain an advanced skill level in push-hands must move on to sparring under a variety of conditions. Also at this time if the practitioner has not incorporated bag training and striking pads into the mix he should.

The last factor we will discuss depends on the individual. If all of the three stages mentioned above are practiced with great effort and determination
the Taiji player should enjoy a great deal of endurance and strength.  If he is lacking in these areas he must address this problem with additional cardio and strength training exercises. For endurance, more forms, running, sprinting, jumping rope etc…
By strength training I don’t mean typical weight lifting or body building routines which often tightens not only muscles, but ligaments and tendons. (The results of these types of training will become counter-productive. I learned this the hard way.)  Muscles ligaments and tendons that are too tight prohibit the fluidity needed to transfer force through the body when striking They also inhibit the higher level of sensitivity required for blending and redirecting incoming force. Lastly they allow your joints ligaments, tendons and muscles to be manipulated and controlled more easily by your opponent (due to their limited range of motion and  flexibility).

However additional use of the weapons and basic bodyweight exercises such as pull-ups, chin-ups, dips, push-ups etc… using  your own body weight along with some resistance exercises  can complete the strength training aspect of the overall program.

I am not expecting to see Taiji in the MMA world in the very near future, but I will say it could be effective even under those conditions. Even though Taijiquan’s martial skills are usually thought to require years of practice to become effective, this is certainly not accurate. It depends on the student and the teacher he studies with. As far as the art itself goes, many people have not witnessed Taijiquan at its higher levels so they condemn the validity of its martial efficiency.  If you put me on the track in Daytona with the best race car available, I will still lose the race. You can’t blame the car. You can blame me the driver for not showing the true capabilities of a superbly designed piece of engineering. Taijiquan is that superbly designed piece of engineering. The same goes for a master craftsman’s tools. In the wrong hands the tools are useless.  In the body of a well trained technician Taijiquan’s full potential become evident.
What I do recommend for my fellow Martial Artists, keep an open mind and explore the possibilities that Taijiquan has to offer and the option to at least cross-train into this misunderstood art. It may help you further develop your existing skills.  (Visit my Youtube Channel at Taijistevie to see some strength/endurance training ideas)

In conclusion, I would say, unlike other effective martial arts which try to mold the body into a moving in a new manner and then training the muscle memory to follow, Taijiquan calls for the purging and un-learning of the body’s bad habits, those habits that it has conformed to over the years. It returns the individual to a more natural and harmonious way where mind and body form the perfect partnership.
Being that Taijiquan does not require the novice student to possess any great athletic attributes such as strength and speed, anyone can become proficient.

Taijiquan certainly does not hold exclusive rights to the principles discussed in this article, it just emphasizes them.
 We don’t concentrate on learning hundreds of techniques. We just learn to react naturally. Sorry to disappoint those looking for something more mystical or magical. There is nothing here other than the natural laws of physics and using them efficiently in a way that is natural for each individual, but not exactly the same way for every individual. This includes applying them to different degrees depending on such factors as the individual’s abilities, body type, and his or her (physical and mental) strengths and weaknesses.

The results of proper Taijiquan practice could certainly compliment any style you train with.
I don’t claim any expertise in Taiji, but it has given me plenty as a martial artist and even more as a human being. I apply the Taiji Philosophy to every aspect of my life.

Taijiquan has stood the test of time because many things change, but the laws of nature which it rests on remain constant. That being said we must understand that what seemed natural for me yesterday may not seem natural for me tomorrow and that is due to the laws of nature. So within Taiji we appear to have contradictions and that to is only natural, however Taiji has also taught me how to deal with that.

(I haven’t even needed to use the word qi (ki-in Japanese) once to describe Taijiquan.)

Contact me if you have any questions or comments.