Monday, August 23, 2010

The Yin aspect of training

                                      Great Grandmaster Wu Chien Chuan 

"Every movement in Tai Chi Form has to have two complementary parts of the body, a moving part (Yang) and a stationary part (Yin).  When the yin-yang junction is located in the torso of the body, it is an internal move.  When it is outside the torso, it is an external move"...Wu Chien Chuan

This is a day and age of immediate gratification, immediate communication, etc., but it is there any argument that people are stressed out?  Is there any doubt that this may be due in part to human nervous systems being in a constant state of stimulation and over-drive?  Tai Chi and its attendant reputation as a stress reliever seems tailor made for over wrought nervous systems.  Yet, because of the yen for  immediate gratification, Tai Chi has fallen victim to much of the hype.  Tai Chi has a worldwide reputation for  slow movement, almost as if practitioners are not even moving at all.  What is there  in this, that does not appeal to those who are seeking serenity, some respite from the frenetic malaise of modern life? 

There is a famous saying in the Tai Chi Classics called: "Seek the stillness in movement" and it is attributed to the very popular Yang Cheng Fu.  Stories of Yang seem to indicate that he did not want to study Tai Chi early on, there is every indication that he was largely self-taught.  Unlike his brothers who submitted without question to the rigor of their father's training, one wonders at how rigorous his training actually was. Nevertheless, the advice is well taken. However,   I would re-phrase this to say: "Even if you cannot achieve it, at least understand the rationale of  stillness in stillness, then one can seek the stillness in movement".  In other words, if a student cannot stand still, much less understand the reasons when a situation calls for standing still, how then can they be expected to achieve stillness when they are moving?  Is it any wonder that the first lesson of any military organization is to teach recruits how to stand at "ATTENTION". Every Marine recruit (and I was no exception) hears that word spoken very loudly on a consistent basis, and they learn early on to bring the body to total immobility.  No one dares to instinctively scratch an itch, make "extraneous movement", etc. and failure to retain "attention" results in immediate retribution.

Over the years of teaching I notice that a large number of students are inconsistent in their movements, both during and after learning the Tai Chi round form...there are  many extraneous movements. In many instances I have noticed that many more students are also inconsistent in their stillness. Specifically, I speak of extraneous motion during Tai Chi form and oddly enough, extraneous motion during moments when the teacher is demonstrating or teaching. Are students paying attention?  In other words, I see students fidgeting, tracing movements in the air with their hands, etc. all while standing still and watching. I reiterate:  

"if a student cannot stand still when a situation calls for standing still, how then can they be expected to achieve stillness when they are moving?" This should be the easiest part of the training for students, after all they are not required to make any complex movements...just to stand still and watch.  Yet, it seems to be the most difficult, the nervous system seems like it is firing non-stop and the student simply cannot quiet their movement down.

To further make my point about the importance of this training in Tai Chi,  notice the extraneous movements of the arms and hand fluorishes during the performance of the Wu Style  Form in the Facebook article. The challenge for both teacher and student is how to train the Yin, how to reach stillness in movement. As Master Hwa says: "keep parts of the body still when they are not required to move". This is perfect rationale for teaching the Square Form to students before Round Form. 

Square Form is essential in so many ways, but to curb the instinctive movements that students make, it is most often a  necessity. The Yin aspect is that part of the training wherein the student is taught to keep one part of their body still while the other part moves. Learning to keep one part still while the other moves, to delineate what is yin and what is yang is the most important lesson Wu Chien Chuan passed on to Young Wabu (Master Stephen Hwa's teacher).  

What can be done:  Students want to learn fast and that is part of the "immediate gratification" problem. There is so much, so rich of a bounty in Classical Tai Chi wherein a student can take steps to curb the natural inclination of the body to those instinctual but extraneous movements.  First of all, like any college course that requires textbooks, the learning of Classical Tai Chi Square Form is more than enhanced by the acquisition of video.  With even one lesson per week, having a DVD becomes like having the teacher for the old days of apprenticeship in Tai Chi.   Regarding the learning of square form, making a straight line in one's movement whether learning to write or learn Tai Chi is certainly easier than learning to make curves. This is particularly in light of the frenetic and persistent problems we have spoken of regarding the nervous system.   

Instinctive and extraneous nervous system glitches on the part of the student are no problem for the square form.  For one, it avoids the use of internal discipline in the upper body, saving that for offline silk reeling practice. As well,  the basic walking practice (really a "square form practice") allows the upper body to remain immobile, no hand movement required.  And the list goes on.  I would urge all students and interested parties at the very least to obtain the book "Uncovering the Treasure" by Stephen Hwa, where this is discussed in detail.  Then, I cannot recommend enough that students take pains to eventually obtain the "textbooks" (DVD's)  for their studies as we have iterated.


Rick said...

I happen to like the practice of zhan zhuang ("standing like a stake").

ZZ won't help one's internal discipline, but it will help with one's alignment, and more importantly, how to stand still.

When I first began ZZ practice (and this is common with many people starting the practice), I felt like jumping out of my skin after only a couple of minutes!

Once you have that breakthrough though, it becomes easier and easier to stand longer and longer.

When I practice the forms, I stand at the beginning and at the end for however long "feels right." It could be seconds, or it could be many minutes. I don't deliberately hold back, but I'm not in any unnatural rush either.

Another exercise that I'm exploring is to make the pauses between the movements of the square form longer sometimes; just not be in any rush to get to the next posture and explore the current one more fully.

Shang Lee said...

square form is the first form i learnt in Tai Chi. It brings back many memories although with my current understanding, i believe the square form may block the learning of the transitions, which are essential if we were to apply Tai Chi. But i do understand where you're coming from.

btw, the feeds are white in google reader, making it almost impossible to read. not sure how to amend this, just thought i let u know. :)

Classical Tai Chi of Buffalo said...


Thanks much for your contribution to discussion, it is always appreciated.

To continue discussion, I think it is also true and important to mention that Zhan Zhuang is mentioned in Forum 17 (located at home page as an "interesting article from a Tai Chi student on incorporating Wuji positions and Zhan Zhuang applications in the square form to take full advantage of the pause".

On the other hand, I think it is also important to mention that Zhan Zhuang per se is not included as required study in the "learning paths" of the Classical Tai Chi curriculum on the DVD series. It is also not mentioned or included as something which need be emphasized as training in Stephen Hwa's book: "Uncovering the Treasure".

Tom said...


Thanks for the recent posts on square form. We once had a conversation that another aspect of square form was to insure that the movements were passed on correctly in a time when there was no video recording technology. How else was it possible for a teacher to be certain that the intricacies of the movements would be taught correctly from generation to generation without being watered down. The precision of square form insures the precision of the round form. Just a thought.