Friday, October 7, 2011

The "Tai Chi Classics" have some glaring mistakes

Video excerpted from "Tao of Martial Applications DVD series Volume III"

Recently a question arose in the Yahoo Email Group of Classical Tai Chi regarding the statement:  "Every movement in Tai Chi Form has to have 2 complementary sides 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 of the torso, it is an external move." This statement has we have said before was the most important statement made by Wu Chien Chuan to his student Young Wabu. You can find this statement on p. 2 of the book "Uncovering the Treasure" by Stephen Hwa Ph.D. and it is available at Amazon.

The statement was challenged by someone who asked: "Can someone please explain to me how this conforms to the classics of "when moving, there is no place that does not move". "When still, there is no place that is not still".  He continued by saying "The statement about 2 complementary sides, moving Yang and stationary Yin sounds like a broken posture as how a force can pass through the body, if it is not working together as a unit, moving as one".

Master Stephen Hwa has written the following response on October 6, 2011 to the question and challenge, the video above provides an illustration  of his major points about holding the body still while executing a movement that sweeps the leg of the opponent. The video very graphically shows how the movement only works if the nonmoving side of the body is held very still.  Further information about the "Sweeping Movement" is contained in the topic  "The Concept of Yin (nonmoving) and Yang (moving)" on pp. 50 - 51, "Uncovering the Treasure" by Stephen Hwa, Ph.D.

Tai Chi Classics

These Classics started became known in the 1930-40s when book about Tai Chi started to be published in China. These writings reported in those books are a collection of short works attributed to different authors from Chang San-Feng to anonymous authors. Even though their authorship cannot be verified, they are considered to be the holy writ on Tai Chi. They do contain some insights and principles of Tai Chi; but also some glaring mistakes.

How is that possible that both good and bad could be contained in one work. My suspicion is that there is more than one person involved in the writing as we see now. One of my ancestors in the fifteen century wrote a collection of short poems. We have the original hand written manuscript which we published three years ago. During research, we discovered that these poems have been published six times over the years. Many of the published poems are identical to the manuscript; but some have been altered – the later version has more alteration than the earlier version. Apparently, these publishers exercised their poetic license trying to add what they thought a better wording. This kind of alteration is very common in old writings in China and also in the west, such as the bible. The church has devoted inordinate effort to select an acceptable version of the bible.

Two major mistakes in the Classics are: "when one part moves everything moves" and "The jin should be generated from the legs". The later was discussed in Forum 11.

During our last work shop in Buffalo, I warned everyone that you would be challenged by "when one part moves everything moves" when you talk about Classical Tai Chi in public Tai Chi gathering. So you better be prepared. First of all, any martial art move depends upon rooting, there will be a nonmoving part of the body attached to the ground to provide the rooting. Only external martial art which uses push off to generate momentum to attack can qualify "everything moves". In addition, some of these rooted moves, the requirement of nonmoving is very dramatic. During one of the Jou Tsung Hwa Birthday Celebration Gathering ( David Brown was there), I demonstrate this point by asking audience to do a leg sweeping move by standing on one foot and sweep the other leg and move their body with it just slightly. I heard many "ouch" sound from the audience. Then they do the same move while keeping the side of the body above the standing foot still. There was no pain in the knee and delivered a much more powerful sweep.

I think you all need to keep this demonstration in your pocket. Because, you will need it in the future.

Stephen Hwa, Ph.D.

Monday, October 3, 2011

One Yin, One Yang

My own teacher of Classical Tai Chi would probably shrug his shoulders at my revelations here; no big deal, because he knows this already. But at the heart of it, I guess I will always talk as a "westerner" and seemingly be amazed by things, (as his wife Eva has said to me in so many words, we should rue the day when we stop learning) no matter how much Tai Chi I learn.

The Wu Style but more comprehensively Classical Tai Chi talks about "ting jin" and the sensitivity that enables it.   Undoubtedly at its finest it picks up even the most subtle sensations of an opponent's movement. Then, I feel there is our ''ting jin", our sensitivity  when it comes to our own bodies and our minds. Some would call this self-awareness, self-sensing, somatics, etc. It has become quite well accepted that calming the mind through Meditation can have good effects on one’s body.  What has not been well documented, much less accepted is the flip side on how calming the body can have good effects on the mind.  

In his book “Uncovering the Treasure”, p. 31, Stephen Hwa makes the case that mind and body have a relationship which proceeds from the  initial difficulty of learning and total engagement of body-mind. One is struggling to learn in the beginner’s stage, one has to think about everything they do, one has to memorize the movements.  The training then makes a progression toward disengagement of body and mind.  One has memorized the movements, one no longer has to think of what comes next or how to do things .  So this clearly differs from what the meditative traditions state when they say body and mind are inseparable and stay as “one” during Meditation itself. In one sense Tai Chi is similar to meditation with a starting point of “oneness” of body-mind but in Tai Chi the end result is what might be called disengagement of body-mind.

The result of this disengagement is that the mind, no longer having the difficult tasks to do, can simply monitor sensations of  stretching and energy circulation in the body itself. This is where the term “sensation” is joined with the idea of enjoyment;  but the idea of sensitivity to sensations along with  feedback from sensations is an overall prevailing theme. In Uncovering the Treasure, Dr. Hwa talks about the word "sensation" about 20 times, it is indeed quite important.  More than any other style of Tai Chi I studied, Classical Tai Chi teaches one to pick up on these sensations, the subtle signals of the whole body throughout the body, systematically and perseveringly.

In reflecting on this however, it occurs to me there is not only the enjoyment of the sensations of internal energy, there is also dissatisfaction with other sensations in the body. I talk to students about this on occasion both in my studio and Internet Forums.  Student's say during the playing of the form and then even afterward they notice areas of their body that are tight, achy, etc.  One would call these the negative sensations. 

Certainly mind and body are disengaged at advanced levels and one is playing the Tai Chi subconsciously, yet the mind is “still minding the store” by monitoring both enjoyment or satisfaction and  dissatisfaction.  As some exampIes:  I never used to give that much attention to my back, now I know of more areas where it is tight;I notice a plethora of areas in the body where things feel tight, tense, itchy, painful, etc.  Then the sensations seem to go beyond the tactile to sight, hearing, smell, etc. Even when I am through practicing, almost as though the mind is still working on a subconscious level,  I even have things like increased awareness of hunger, I feel hungrier, sounds seem clearer, lights seem brighter, etc.  

There is no doubt in my mind there is a greater diversity of signals on the negative things as well as the positive things; but are the "negatives" really negative, aren't they all just sensations after all? . Haven't we just interrupted the flow of internal  energy where mind and body were disengaged; now we find ourselves naming things?  I enjoy the sensations of internal energy, immensely.  I still sit on the couch, even after 8 years and I do what is called quarter body movement, I do this seemingly without thinking; my wife nudges me, "stop that, it is embarassing".   

 In understanding what happens when one begins to master the Tai chi however, the one disengages and becomes two;  body disengages from mind.  When body and mind are thusly disengaged of course we are doing Tai Chi; but what do we "hear" in regard to sensations?  We hear of sensations some of which we assign as negative, one is dissatisfied; then there is  what we assign as positive or  satisfied. Is it not  all "sensation" ; whether negative or positive, is there ever only one side to the coin?

When I started Tai Chi in the 70's, we all were kind of trapped in  Western hemisphere thinking.   Nowdays, parts of Tai Chi which used to be difficult to explain have become easier to explain but which of course many do not believe; mind and body are one, but in Tai Chi they disengage.  Nowdays, Buddhist monks come to the West and scientists study them, so the differentiation between East and West is slowly disappearing. In the 70's Rene Descarte's "turf deal" with the church (Cartesian Dualism) was dominating our understanding (we have a mind linked to a soul, which is also independent of our body). That illusion has faded with our study of the meditative “mind controls body” disciplines but what about “body controls mind” disciplines such as Tai Chi.

I taught Tai Chi to Therapists at the Veterans Hospital in Buffalo in the 70's. At that time we were getting the first wave of returning vets from Vietnam; some of those armed service personnel had very serious trauma. They could not  begin to relax; some lived in terror and they did not feel safe. What my Tai Chi students only partially realized at the time but what we now seem to know is those vets had sensations of combat imprinted in their bodies too. Scientists tell us  now that mind and memory are imprinted on the whole body;  their trauma is stored in their whole bodies.

I tend to think our  minds note every bit of information that is stored in our bodies, that  we are big memory banks. It is truly great to revel in the enjoyment of the "sensations" of internal energy as Master Hwa says. In some ways however, this is a mixed blessing because as I say, we seemingly also get more to complain about with increased sensitivity to all sensations. Take heart that it is a gradual process however, I have experienced it thusly but certainly more intensely with Classical Tai Chi with its emphasis on Internal Discipline.

Why are sensations so intense with Classical Tai Chi? I have done several other styles of Tai Chi and in none of them did I find  such intensity. I think this is largely attributable to what is referred to as   “one yin, one yang”.   As passed on from Wu Chien Chuan to Young Wabu it was the most important instruction he gave: “Every movement in Tai Chi Form has to have 2 complementary sides of the body, a moving part yang and a stationary part yin.  When the yin-yang junction is outside the body,the movement is external, when it is inside the body, it is an internal movement”.  The profundity of this statement never ceases to amaze me, for the more I can keep still , the deeper I can make that stillness, the movement itself becomes deeper, more intense.  This is referred to as "one yin, one yang".  With one yin one yang we attain greater and greater levels of intense sensation internally.  We refer to intense sensation in the core of the body; the long neglected torso where the internal organs are stored.  To reiterate,  that is greatly dependent on how much stillness I can achieve which is then coupled with movement  This is in sharp contrast to the commonly held notion that we get greater sensation simply from increased movement or being totally Yang.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Iron Island...Needles of Steel

            The church, then funeral home, now "haunted" Iron Island Museum, Buffalo, NY  featured on "Ghost Hunters"

Not really an article about Classical Tai Chi,nevertheless it is dedicated to a Classical Tai Chi student John C. and all those folks that suffer from "back ails".  John indirectly had asked me about acupuncture and so I felt it only appropriate to tell him of my experience.  Here is my defining and  I hope the reader will find somewhat humorous  moment in acupuncture to the tune of an old Forbes Magazine article called:   "The New Old Medicine" by William Flanagan.  In it I reminisce about Dr. James Gong (who helped me alot)  "Ghost Hunters",  Car batteries, Chinese herbal soup and more...

It was a frozen rope cold day in mid January 1987, Buffalo, NY.  I thought it was going to hurt but it did not bother me one bit.  The bespectacled and kindly face of Dr. James Gong hovered above me as he inserted needles into my lower back around the area of the sacrum that had been bothering me. Other needles were slipped into my arms, shoulders and, strangely, my upper lip.

I remained very relaxed and it seemed to increase.  My back and shoulders began to feel a warm sensation like bath water when he hooked the needles to alligator clips.  My muscles in back, shoulders, arms began to twich.  Oh yes, and the alligator clips were electrodes which were attached to what only could look like mini car batteries. When attached,  the devices had a very slight humming noise. "What on earth had made me come here to do this"? the Lovejoy Street, Buffalo, NY  office of Dr. James Gong, in mid frozen January in Buffalo's Iron Island District.

Then I remembered-how painful my lower back and neck were.  Several trips to a Tonawanda Street G.P. , a physical therapist, a chiropractor had failed to pro­duce much relief.

I decided to take another tact and try acupuncture. A Tai Chi student of mine recommended Dr. Gong. I took my car to Lovejoy Street passing four pizza parlors, a  Cafe, numerous bars,  grocery stores, a drug store , a bank, and other personal businesses. I passed a  formerly popular Methodist Church at 998 Lovejoy, which on that day was a funeral home.  The funeral parlor long ago donated it to the Iron Island Preservation Society and it is now a museum called "Iron Island Museum".   The museum was even featured on the Sci-Fi Channel series Ghost Hunters.  The TAPS people believe that ghosts of an older man and woman are part of the Iron Island Museum. Reaching Gong's first floor office in a semi brick home built in 1900, I entered the front door.

Dr. Gong spoke English, but not often. Most of my questions to him were greeted with a friendly chuckle, but I managed to let him know where my back and neck hurt. He hustled me into a room, which was half filled with other men, all in their shorts and with needles sticking out of their backs. He had me lie down on a cot, and went to work. In the next room, I learned, that several women were also getting a treatment. I thought back on what my student had told me and the Forbe's article he had given me.  The article had featured that piece "The New Old Medicine" by William G. Flanagan and how much Gong had helped him.  Flanagan spoke in glowing terms about Gong after he visited him at his Mott Street, NY City office.  He had spoken of Dr. Gong even treating the NY Giants professional football team with acupuncture.  He mentioned how Gong had even been flown overseas by wealthy clients in order to treat them.

As I lay there a while, becoming oblivi­ous to the needles and the muscle spasms and the electric current shooting through my arm, I drifted into a dream-like state and of all things fantasized about doing Tai Chi in the old Central Railroad Terminal which was close by.  "Really" I asked myself,  " while hooked up to a car battery"?   I recalll now  that not only was the Iron Island Museum  featured on Ghost was featured  along with the Buffalo Central Railroad Terminal when they were in Buffalo. I remembered in writing this, that  the museum is allegedly haunted and that nowdays I could actually now spend the night in the "haunted" museum, maybe even still hooked up to the "car battery"?

There was an incredibly delicious smell coming from what appeared to be the kitchen, "Was that soup he was making?'  "This guy treats rich people, and he makes his own soup?"  Then I could smell what smelled like ..."Wait, is someone smoking marijuana?" How did I know that...why else...I worked for U.S. Customs at the time.  No, I've heard of this, here he comes holding what appears to be a lit cigar. That's moxa and yes he is holding it over the needles on one of the gents on the other table. What a fantasy trip this is, I feel like I've stepped out of time and place.

I had been to another acupuncturist before this.  I feel it safe to say not every acupuncturist offers such fantasy trips, soup  and beyond along with the price of treatment, of course. Acupuncturists today are as likely to be found on  Lovejoy Street in Buffalo as in Chinatown's all over the world, and they are as likely to be Caucasian as Asian. There are probably 10's of thousands of acupuncturists in the country today.  A trip through the phone book...excuse me Google will show M.D.'s, DDS, who know  acupuncture techniques. Why so?   Easy,  it is in big demand, but I'll bet only a few of them can give good reasoning why the thing works.

Very gradually I began to rouse from my half sleep reverie and smelled something else. It smelled like the soup was burning. Oh no, I wanted to try some, it smelled wonderful. Then the smell became stronger and I realized it was coming from my room. I managed to lift my head even though the effort was staggering, I was so relaxed, my head felt like it weighed a ton. As I looked to my left I could see smoke coming from one of the throw rugs on the floor. I noticed that his heat lamp had fallen and started to scorch the rug...wait, now there is a small flame.

I started calling, "Dr. Gong, Dr. Gong", I thought I was barely whispering but he began to enter the room. "It's OK", he said, you can all go back to sleep. He went over and stamped out the fire. During this time period, I began to fantasize once again. All I could think of was that I was in my underwear. "What if the fire spread, what if we all had to get up while needles were in our bodies and still attached to electrodes, what if we all had to run out into the frozen snow, into the street, staring at oncoming fire trucks while attached to car batteries with our backs and shoulders twitching like a bunch of demented frogs?"

He came over to me, detached the electrodes and began to remove the needles. With each couple of needles, he began a deep massage with some type of pleasant smelling ointment. That feels really good, this guy really knows his stuff. He gently said, "come on, get dressed, the soup is ready".

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Addressing the need for perseverance in Classical Tai Chi

Last night I watched 2 of my more concientous and persevering students take to the learning of Square Form like "Ducks to Water".  What a rewarding experience.   I offer this quote:

"Teachers are sort of faced with a thankless task, because no matter how good they are, unless they find a way to personally rationalize the rewards of their effort, nobody else is really going to do it for them en masse."  Julius Erving 

In a recent conversation with my teacher Master Stephen Hwa, he stated that the problem of student perseverance needed to be addressed.  What follows is my humble attempt, mostly based on my personal experience and insight to address the problem.  Unfortunately, I do not have any easy solutions, but what I do offer is some analysis and  insight into what constitutes the problem.  I organize the analysis around what I feel is a persistent symptom of the lack of perseverance which is as follows: 

 That is the rationalizations over training or not training that students engage in on what often seems like a constant basis to this teacher.  I have a feeling that if students can recognize their own urge to rationalize their lack of practice, absence from class, etc., then they can at least head off some of the impulse they have to not persevere in the discipline. On the other hand a rewarding facet of Classical Tai Chi training is that it is indeed subject to such rationalizations.  One can learn to deepen their practice and since Tai Chi is indeed a meditation in motion a student can learn to recognize them just as they would in any other meditation practice. Rationalizations, emotions, thoughts, fantasies, quasi-logic, insights will all come to the surface during consistent and deep practice of the Classical Tai Chi and it is part of the mediation process for the student to not only recognize them but to detach themselves.

Classical Tai chi essentially is a self-discipline, of both body and mind. Its practice is not intended only for the days when one feels good, inspired, awake, enthusiastic, or energetic. Classical Tai Chi is meant to be practiced through everything that life offers up.  Consistent daily practice is the only way to progress through Tai Chi's many stages of personal development. Whether one is  financially burdened, responsibility laden, busy, sick, worried, sad, injured, tired, or even indifferent, the discipline calls us into that present moment to face life’s constant changes.

The mind will always provide opportunities to rationalize not engaging in practice. In other words, one must persevere to practice in spite of lack of motivation. Master Hwa has always stressed the importance of consistency and perseverance. Through his decades of experience, he knows as do I that the Tai Chi is not only a tool to face difficulties in life, but also a way to create the capacity and potential for growth. In tough times, when it becomes actually easier for one to hone the ability to make rationalizations/excuses, a steady practice can make a huge difference. I advise students to come to class, take off their shoes, begin their practice, and see where this leads. This teaches not only discipline, but detachment.  Detachment, equanimity, grace under pressure...all rewarding things that can come from perseverance in spite of adversity.

Self-discipline, like many other qualities, must be cultivated. Progress in learning the Tai Chi forms is accomplished through sustained effort. There are no shortcuts. The truest essence of Tai Chi is not in any outward physical manifestations, but rather in the deeper, more subtle and profound physical and mental internal changes. These are gained only through meeting the challenges that a daily practice reveals. Except that I see many, many students over the years who tell me they rationalize such challenges as mountainous, when actually they become molehills if one can persevere with practice. After all one of the eventual goals of learning Tai Chi are: Using internal movement to direct external motion.

I even have conscientous and devoted students still studying who tell me they cannot wait till they retire from their jobs so they can devote time to learning Tai Chi. On the other hand people have come and gone who have said: "but, I cannot come to class, I have (insert responsibility)". "But, I did not study, I have... so what's the point of coming to class", "but I came to Tai Chi and expected this and I did not get it, so why should I come to class", "but the teacher is too meticulous, I just want to do it", etc., etc.  So then they end up quitting entirely in spite of their protestations that they "will continue study on their own".

It is not learned in a vacuum, you need almost constant input from a teacher, preferably in person. Beginning students not only need steady input from a teacher but they need nurturing (yes, much like growing anything from plants to children) over the first 3 years and some cases perhaps 5 years. Now if you truthfully are so disciplined that you feel you can study on your own, there is no reason why you cannot come to class if there is one near you. My weekly trips to Toronto to learn , encompassed hundreds of miles per week for study and in the face of the adversity and responsibility, some of which I still have.

I understand completely and I empathize, please do not say that I do not. Before I retired, I raised children, cared for a spouse, cared for 3 dogs, other family, worked for U.S. Customs before and after 9/11, taught Tai Chi at 3, sometimes 4 different locations , traveled to Toronto for lessons, ran a studio in Buffalo, NY. I did these in conjunction with each other and I had my own practice. As the saying goes, I needed my practice even more, sometimes very much more to "consolidate the input" from all these other stressors. So, I do understand, and that  in contradiction to people who say or imply that I don't. I do not contradict them however as to the veracity of their responsibilities.

However, had I waited to have such time as I do now before I began or continued with Tai Chi would waiting for a "but" that will never come. As some have said: "it is like being a person waiting for the ocean to calm before going to take a bath in it".

Don't get me wrong here. I am not the proverbial man with a stick who "whacks" someone if they do not come to class or study. Nor am I the confessor that will tell you to "go and sin no more" for not coming to class or practicing. I once had a clinical psychologist in class who after his initial interest wore off seemed to have a different excuse (he jokingly called it "rationaizations") each week for why he did not do this, or do that. Finally, I told him: "I tell everyone this and that is that the emotion of guilt is no help whatsoever in learning this". I'm pretty sure most folks who come and go whether long time or short get to the guilt stage. It has been said that one reaches the guilt stage when they run out of excuses/"rationalizations". Or as the psychologist would say "rationalizations for not coming or practicing". Some run through the rationalizations faster than others. Here's a "confession": I stuck with it sometimes because I got tired of feeling guilty.   I told myself, "if you feel that bad for not doing it, then you must really need it".  Believe me, I do understand but I'm not going to feel guilty with you. I learned to recognize my rationalizations and detach myself from them, but that only comes with continuing the Tai Chi.

It does give you a "look inside" yourself, doesn't it? I have a suspicion over these many years of seeing a "revolving door" of students, that people do not like what they see sometimes, don't want to see anything deeper and find it easier to rationalize, feel guilty then...

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Acquisition of Skill in Tai Chi

                   Short Video  Master Stephen Hwa Intensive Workshop at Buffalo State College, July 9, 10, 2011

Well, our vacation was "Irened" out as the state DEC called us and said that our reservation in the Adirondacks was cancelled...the campgrounds will be closed.  Rick Matz tells me not to worry because being retired from the U.S. Customs Service, means I am always on vacation.  So, while on "permanent" vacation I write....

This  is only conjecture and opinion on my part because I have no hard statistics to back it up but I am trying to make another point here:  

My own teacher states that Young Wabu was dominated by Wu Chien Chuan when they met  and "compared"  skills.  See this link to Young Wabu autobiography.  You should also take a look at this link because it is part of what I say here. Young Wabu was no doubt very skilled at Tai Chi. However, if we say that Wu Chien Chuan passed on all or even  part of his skill (note I did not say his curriculum) I wonder how much the next generation got?  Mathematics are at play here so I seriously doubt if he passed on "all" of his skill. My guess is a smaller percentage of skill acquisition for the next generation. Young studied personally with Wu at Young's house and this training went on for several years.  Young later worked at honing the skills he gained by continuing to practice and teach his own students.  I would guess however, that in all humility he would tell you that he did not have "all" Wu's skills.  I'm sure Stephen Hwa in all humility would tell you he did not gain all of Young Wabu's skills.  I feel the same...

So then we have several generations later and I would guess the skill level is another fraction of what the generation after WCC attained. To complicate things further and  as do I and other teachers of Classical Tai Chi experience, we will always see those students who are only give us a 1 - 3 year attention span and who do not apply themselves at home.  If they are not staying longer one asks were they even  capable of going longer than a one year maybe 3 year attention span?   How much can we even pass on to them (of our own limited skills acquisition).

I saw much in the way of Tai Chi "dance" performed at World Tai Chi Day for about 5 years. I saw these "dances" done by what are presumably long time practitioners, but it is not Tai Chi. One student I talk to called it "Geriatric Tai Chi", I continued with "Paint by Numbers Geriatric Tai Chi".   It is obvious where the "skills" went there...never there to begin with.   I have also   had my own share of  1-3 week,  1-3 month and 1-3 year attention span students, how much of even the curriculum can I pass on to them, to say nothing of skill? Yet, scores of books, DVD's purport to pass on Tai Chi curriculum...but in 'easy' lessons? If it is "easy", how is it rigorous enough to gain any skill, even if we forfeit the question of limited attention span?

Students leave after weeks, months and years, seemingly one might say in that "1 -3 range".  I never hear from them again.  I have a feeling they believe they can do it on their own. I have never believed that.  I also seriously doubt that their "skill" level is increasing on their own and that they just fool themselves.  In over 30 years of teaching I have only met one person named Tom Kostusiak who "came back" after studying with me for many years and stopping lessons.  Tom is a very humble guy and will be the first to tell you that he even lost skills when he stayed away from lessons.  He was very grateful when I personally introduced him to  Master Stephen Hwa, get the DVD set and resume study. Even with the DVD, Tom will tell you that he wishes he could attend lots more lessons but his work schedule and being out of town prevents it.  

The DVD series is really good, it is very rigorous but it cannot perform a critique of a student.  My teacher knows this and has gone out of his way and at his own expense to make himself available all around the country.    I can only hope to emulate my teacher and so I have offered to do that as well when I travel.  We recently held an intensive workshop  that was taught by Master Stephen Hwa and folks came from as far away as France.  I also made myself available before hours and held additional intensive workshops for those that could make it.   I did this in my own studio and the beautiful Japanese Gardens near Buffalo State College and the workshop. 

 I tell students to make doubly sure they take even a seemingly "simple"   correction to heart, even if it is just one will make a big difference in the long run.  In light of that, I don't like to give additional corrections if I see that a student has not applied themselves to the first one. Here's an example:  Classical Tai Chi requires that a foot be solidly planted before shifting weight to it, all students have problems with this one...and also tend to give short shrift to it.  I see students who study for the "1 -3" who still have the problem after I give a correction...even after a year or two.   In that regard, I gave a brief stepping and weighting correction to Dr. Mark Thomasson, DDS some time ago.  Mark is the fellow in the video who is asking the question.  I was very happy to see that he took it to heart.  To top it off, his ability to learn push hands increased from buckling down to just that one correction.  Note I did not give Mark "more curriculum", I gave him a correction, he took it to heart and his skill level increased. 

Even in light of the DVD's and such workshops, how much skill can students hope to acquire, particularly if they do not apply themselves like Mark did?   Classical Tai Chi does not have a huge curriculum, you will not see such things as weapons, 30 kinds of push hands training, Tai Chi Fan, etc. I studied with other teachers before who had big curriculums but I also saw that students skill levels were not "big".   An overwhelming curriculum is certainly no guarantee that students will gain more than a fraction of their teacher's could it be?    I also saw that each and every student was not being taught by the Master personally, in some cases the teacher was not there to even teach the class.  How can one gain skill from the teacher if the teacher is not there?  Yet, I get statements from students who say they (in so many words) doubt the efficacy of DVD's as a teaching tool. 

 Given the problems associated with getting personal attention from a high caliber teacher, what else is there available?  My teacher feels that DVD's and particularly with new technology offer good opportunity for students to constantly watch and replay what he does. I agree when he says that it is like having a teacher for private lessons, much like Young experienced when Wu came to the house. In addition, he provides an incredible amount of rationale for what he teaches.  I met no one before him who would deign to do that.   I doubt if Young Wabu asked Wu, "Could you show that to me 20 times, Master Wu?"  One could not get any  teacher to repeat a move 20, 30 times, could they?  Even so and in addition to being able to play the DVD dozens of times, my teacher Stephen Hwa still offers practitioners the opportunity to make DVD's of their form and submit it for critique.  Why don't more people do this?     Perhaps it is that  "attention span phenomenon" that is at play? My teacher laughs when I say:  "Even with the DVD, someone still has to get up off the couch and put it in the tray". 

So I say to myself: Chances are we won't be up to our chins in skilled "easy" Tai Chi practitioners.  One has to ask, will we be up to our chins in skilled Classical Tai Chi practitioners, which always asks that study be more rigorous? My point?  The "math" works against you as it is, if you don't apply yourself and ask for critique, (even in email, Facebook, Blog, Yahoo email group, etc. ) particularly if your teacher is "out of town", think how problems associated with skill acquisition will might say it is inevitable.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Breathing Qigong and Tai Chi

The Tai Chi Classics say :  “If the ch’I is dispersed, then it is not stored and is easy to scatter.  Let the ch’I penetrate the spine and the inhalation and exhalation be smooth and unimpeded throughout the entire body”.

I tell all  students who  wish to attend classes to view my website.  I require that they learn “2 silk reeling exercises and basic walking” as it is outlined here on my website.    I should add that I ask all interested students to learn 2 silk reeling exercises and basic walking before being admitted to class.  I explain the reasoning  why students should  study rather than merely “viewing the videos".  I believe you can see the rationale and reasoning why we want serious students:

  • It is the entrance examination and a student must pass it for admission to class. 
  • It is useful for determining how serious a student is about study. 
  •  It is useful for the student to determine if they are capable of doing the study.
  •  It is useful for the student to see if they like it.
 It is useful because only a limited number of students can be taught due to a very small studio space. Now I have to change the subject, make a change of course, get back to the title of this blog and discuss the insertion of breathing qigong into the Tai Chi form:

  •  I do this because it is a perennial question. 
  • I do this because of student's  concern with breathing  in Tai Chi
  • I do this because there is a prevalent thesis that one must always breathe in and out in conjunction with each and every movement while doing Tai Chi .
  • I find that students reach  conclusions from viewing the videos that we were breathing incorrectly. 
  • I also list numerous book references below where there is a lot of emphasis on insinuating some form of breathing qigong into the learning of Tai Chi. 

In “A Last Interview with Fu Zhong Wen”, 1994 in Tai Chi Magazine, he said natural breathing is used during practice.  “When we talk about qi (ch’i) it is not the breath that we breathe, it is the internal qi that is being moved.  The breath is not concentrated on during the form,( he said) the breath is just natural. If you concentrate on the qi (as breath), you can’t concentrate on the movements.  You have to concentrate on your energy (internal) .”

  Fu Zhong Wen is  obvious on what his position on breathing is.  In light of these types of arguments and their prevalence, it is my feeling that the debate about breathing will rage on forever.  It will go on in both  a “my style vs. your style” format and in an "I'm right and you are wrong" format as well. We can begin the discussion in Uncovering the Treasure, Stephen Hwa, p. 98: “One should not try to incorporate breathing qigong into Tai Chi…after all Classical Tai Chi itself is a much better motion induced qigong than breathing qigong”.

  • Here is the  reasoning why breathing qigong is not a one size fits all discipline.  If you will please take a look at the Compact (Round Form) video above:  
  • You can readily see the complexity and various planes on which the motion occurs.
  • How one could view this and then develop a thesis about incorrect breathing is perplexing. 
  • I put it to the reader: Ask yourself at what point would one decide where they should breathe in or out?  
  • How would insinuating some form of breathing qigong not interrupt the internal energy?
  • There is also the concern that   all beginners should drop their previous learning (not an empty request). 
  • Why is this? 
  • Unless the study is going to be limited in its curriculum there is going to be a lot on their mind right from the very start. 
  • Why then would one want to add concern with how to breathe  to an already busy mind? 

In the Compact form above, Master Hwa is probably going at an “10 minute to do 108” pace which is somewhat rapid.  It is particularly rapid compared to practitioners who take say  “40 minutes to do 108” and also state that they insinuate various breathing qigongs into their form.  In order for me to insert the breathing that students suggest to me,  one would undoubtedly hyperventilate.  I speak of course of attempting to insert qigong breathing techniques into even the 10 minute round form that Master Hwa is doing.  One can only painfully visualize how one might blackout at that pace with those artificlal breathing standards.  One can only imagine what might happen at a 4 minute or 3 minute pace that the “tight” Compact Form calls for and using such breathing demands.

By the way what is the  point in trying to improve your breathing by forcibly taking a longer  inhale and exhale in Tai Chi as some teachers recommend?  If you want to breathe deeper, refrain from slouching and simply straighten the torso by allowing your head to stretch up at the neck…you will breathe deeper once you do that.  Besides, it is the classical way to learn Tai Chi, one stretches the head up as though it was suspended from above, chin tucked in as well. In forcibly trying to extend the breath or insinuating the breathing qigong into Tai Chi, the flow of internal energy will undoubtedly be disturbed.  Why would one want to do this when by breathing naturally in Tai Chi there is so much to enjoy with the flow of qi in an otherwise relaxed body?

The Inner Structure of Tai Chi: Mastering the Classic Forms of Tai Chi Chi Kung By Mantak Chia,p. 199
Physical activity instruction of older adults By C. Jessie Jones, Debra J. Rose, p. 236
The complete book of Tai Chi Chuan:  ... By Wong Kiew Kit, p. 76
Stay Young With Tai Chi:  By Ellae Elinwood p. 61
Handbook of T'Ai Chi Ch'Uan Exercises By Fuxing Zhang, p. 17
T'ai Chi for Seniors, Sifu Philip Bonifonte, p. 51

Sunday, July 17, 2011

The true cause of "double weighting"

The Tai Chi Classics say: “Anyone who has spent years of practice and still cannot neutralize, and is always controlled by his opponent,has not apprehended the fault of double-weightedness.  To avoid this fault one must distinguish yin from yang.”

 A student recently stated: “You are standing double-weighted”.  This is not the first time that a student has said this to me and  their observations were incorrect. This bears out the statement by my teacher Master Stephen Hwa:  “sometimes the appearance of reality is actually an illusion”.He continues by saying “My students in class often told me that they thought I was moving certain way and try to do the same. Later they found out that their observation was not correct. That was the reason I incorporated different views in my video so you could see my moves at different angles to lessen the chance of wrong impression. Using a fresh eye to review the lesson video could also uncover any misinterpretation of my movements. The other thing to remember is “you perceive that you are moving a certain way, but in fact, you are not moving that way.”

In meeting this student,I watched his Tai Chi form and his standing still.   At one point, the student asked me to correct his stance, he then took the opportunity to “correct” mine.   I observed from several different angles  that he would stand and move with a step size of three foot lengths and more, (this is typically a large frame stance).  In addition, I observed that he used a pushing motion to shift his weight and in the “sitback” posture would not work to obtain a “crease” in the front of the trousers at the pelvic area.  He actually would sitback in a perfectly perpendicular stance, typical of large frame tai chi.

Typically, I will stand in either a Compact or Tight-compact form with the step size ranging from one and a half foot lengths to two and a half foot lengths.  The photo above  illustrates this  step size.  From a view that is looking down at the feet ( the only angle from where the practitioner was looking)  it may appear that the feet are double weighted, particularly to a beginner.  This however is one of the very important advantages of the Classical Tai Chi footwork.  It is indeed hard to determine where the practitioner’s weight is, that is also a very important strategic advantage. From these compact positions I can lift either foot in a split second, a great advantage for speed and fluidity.

In thinking about this article, I decided to research the term “double weighted” in numerous books which I list below.  After sifting through all of them, one thing began to stand out and that was their ignorance of their own limitations.  In every case the author makes a claim that a student can become aware of their own weight distribution and work to correct double weighting.  The common thread in all theses is that “double-weighting” occurs at a moment in time when the weight is equal on two sides of the body.

They ascertain what they think double weighting looks like but what they fail to ascertain however is the root cause of the double weighting.  The root cause of double weighting is the “pushing from the back foot” in going forward and “push from the front foot” in going backward in a large frame that the vast majority of practitioner’s engage in while moving.   The root cause I speak of is a direct result of this pushing because both feet are literally glued/frozen to the ground until the act of pushing is completed.  A foot that is stuck to the ground, cannot be picked up and moved…hence the stance is double weighted. 

As I observed in the student’s own stance in performing the Tai Chi form and stance in push hands,  the root cause comes from a large frame stance.  The act of pushing is also a built in facet of large frame stances, in other words, large frame has to push in order to move…it cannot use the feet to pull.  The pull in those stances is ineffectual simply because the larger size of the stance inhibits the act of pulling.  To compound the ignorance, practitioner’s of large frame insist that they are doing an “internal” art when what they are really doing is external.  It takes no internal movement of the core to push with the back leg, if that were true then the everyday act of walking would intrinsically be an internal martial art.  Walking defined by one author as the act of controlled falling because of all the momentum one has to generate in order to keep thrusting one leg in front of another.  This done not only to move but to stay erect while moving.

On the contrary, one can make the act of everyday walking into an internal art by adapting the Classical Tai Chi walk with its important characteristics of 1.) Using a “pull” walking motion, 2.) Keeping the body center of gravity under control, not allowing it to fall forward as defined as normal walking (we must eschew the act of controlled “falling”), 3.) Body weight stays back until foot (whether in front or back) is flat on the ground, then one pulls…one does not land the foot either on the heel or toe.

I find it interesting that some really good information on double weighting came from my teacher’s own book: “Uncovering the Treasure” by Stephen Hwa.  The information comes from subjects in the book however that large frame practitioner’s would never associate with double weighting…namely the subject of “pushing”.  PP., 48, 103 and 122 will find the use of the word “pushing” associated with double weightedness.

P. 122:  If you wish to stick to an opponent, you cannot push with the back or front foot and expect to be fluid enough to follow their movement.  The act of pushing will always lead to double weight.
P. 103:  One can certainly generate (jin or even fa jin) force from a pushing leg in a large frame, but it still leads inevitably to a double weight situation.
P. 48:  Back foot pushing as front foot lands on heel is a major contributor to slps and falls and in that situation the stance is double weighted.

Actually, if one wishes to "push" an opponent, it is best done with the front foot off the ground so that the pushing force goes directly into the opponent not to the ground to be double weighted.  As my teacher says, "pushing is always strongest in the upward direction, look at what track and field sprinters do before starting...they crouch".

My references include:
Arthur Orawski in : Tai Chi a personal learning experience, pg. 1165, 1996
Ray Pawlett in The Tai Chi Handbook, pg. 83
Lawrence Galante in Tai Chi, The Supreme Ultimate, pg. 83

Additional “double weighted” references:
Black Belt Magazine October 1987 article by  Wei Lun Huang
The Essential Movements of Tai Chi”, p. 24, John Kotsias 
The Tai Chi Book, p. 36 Robert Chuckrow

Additional references:
Complete Tai Chi, p. 87 Alfred Huang
Hwa yu tai chi, p. 80, Glenn Newth
Gateway to the Miraculous, p.115 by Wolfe Lowenthal
Sunrise Tai Chi,  p. 6, Ramel Rones 

Monday, June 20, 2011

Having sufficient light and heat to find "Treasure" in Classical Tai Chi

Plutarch said: "The mind is not a vessel to be filled, but a fire to be ignighted".
"Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire". William Butler Yeats
Regarding finding treasure, I can only relate in my own fashion what my teacher has told me:
The lighting of an educational "fire" for light and heat to gain "treasure" can be fraught with problems :  There can be many causes of this. Admittedly students like the wood  are  "green", and it will be harder to get it to 'catch'. If not enough starting material such as paper or in the case of Classical Tai Chi things like "silk reeling","basic walking"  is used, it won't generate enough heat to get the fire going. Putting pieces of wood that are too large such as forging ahead too far too fast,, in the form on one's own,  soon smothers the fire and it will die. If the fire is arranged so that air cannot get up through the wood,or one has built a "spaghetti like learning structure" as I outline below it will likely sputter and die.
My teacher has said: "Silk reeling exercise is encouraged for not so advanced students so that they can  experience some internal energy flow rather quickly. For advanced students who can play the form with ever  move using internal discipline, silk reeling exercise is no longer necessary, since the entire Form practice is a complex silk reeling exercise  with internal flow continuing without stop from beginning to the end." 
As I see it:  The problem with learning too much of  the form before "silk reeling" is like putting too much wood on a fire that has not really been burning for very long.
There was a student back in 2005 that purchased the DVD, Vol. 2 and did not purchase Vol. 1, Overview.  He stated at the time that he felt he should get input from every possible source rather than confining himself to one commitment.  He would continually say things that made it crystal clear he did not understand the overall structure, rationale and goals of Classical Tai Chi.  My teacher addressed that in an email to him because he said he did not feel it was necessary to view the "Overview DVD Vol. 1":
Master hwa said: "I think if you have studied vol 1 Overview, it will be much clear,to you the overall structure, rational and goal of learning Classical Tai Chi. Vol 2 Form Instruction is teaching details. It will take a while learning individual trees before you can see the forest."
The only thing this student seemed to accomplish was to be "lost".  He seemed to want to clutter himself with too much information as fast as possible.  The problem with "clutter" is that one cannot see the forest for the trees as my teacher says...the way is not clear.  In the early stages of learning one needs direct pathways to find stuff...I refer to the establishment of "neural pathways" in the brain.
Why burden oneself, complicate things with "neural paths" that resemble nothing better than a giant plate of noodles, with no starting point or end?  The same holds true for starting on Vol. 2 DVD before viewing Vol. 1 Overview.  That would be like buying a map that resembled a plate of noodles.
It also occurs to me that folks don't much like my telling them how to get their learning organized, to get the "neural paths" in order. Cetainly, my aim is not to force anyone to do things right, it can be frustrating to students if viewed that way. However, I've seen too many students that aim too high or burden themselves with all the wrong concerns.  Remember, the ignition of a fire cannot be rushed, it takes proper structure time and patience....and there is a distinct rationale to reaching that goal.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

"Back to Basics"

Young Wabu and  Master Wu Chien Chuan

"When you have something that works well, why complicate it?"

The study of Kata cuts across all martial arts and Classical Tai Chi is no exception.  In Tai Chi of course, the term Form is most often used instead of Kata.  Prof. Geoff Lane of the Danzan Ryu  JuJitsu system has written an article entitled "Back to Basics" which can be found here: Back to Basics.

In the article Lane pays tribute to Grandmaster Young Wabu's devotion and adherence to fundamental principles.  I include the excerpt here:

"Another martial artist I was very fortunate to meet with a similar quality was Linyi Maslin's father: Master Wabu Young, a Tai Chi master.  He studied in Hong Kong under Master Wu Chien Chuan in the 30's after he came to Hong Kong from Shanghai to escape the Japanese.  He spent his whole life perfecting one kata.  Doing it square, round, regular and mirror image, fast and slow, large and small...the basics...doing the same Tai Chi form for 70 years.  He passed away in 2004 (correction: note that Grand Master Young Wabu passed away on April 18, 2005 at the age of 101 in Rochester, NY), dying a "typical Zen Master's death (but that's another story), exuding power and grace to the end.  The basics served him well.  When you have something that works well, why complicate it?"

 Professor Geoff Lane teaches jujitsu at the Nibukikan in Chico, California.  Grand Master Young Wabu's daughter Lin-Yi Maslin also teaches Wu Style Tai Chi at the Nibukikan.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Learning "stages" and "curve" in Classical Tai Chi

My student Barry knows the travails of “forget” when it comes to his training in external martial arts. He has trained many years in a form of Karate to the level of a high ranking Black Belt.  He is also a defensive training officer for the Government.  Barry made good progress these past 2 years with the form and one can see he can go through much of it without thinking of what comes next. 

Note: This is really what comprises the 1st stage of learning Classical Tai Chi, wherein one can do the form in all the right directions.  

What is really next for 2nd stage is correct hand position, then 3rd is timing and finally 4th is integration of internal discipline.  Barry feels chagrined about some things I mention but  what I see is somewhat normal for the stage of learning he is at.  In some respect that is that he holds his arms very close and tight (like a compact form with no internal discipline). That seems to create tension and compression of arms, one can see scrunching at the shoulders, tensing the neck.  It appears he does not stretch at the shoulder, for that matter he keeps the wrong angles of arms for postures.    

Barry’s learning, scrunching, tension is not very different from other students who are at the same stage. However, they all, including Barry are more advanced than they think.  Specifically, they do have  internal discipline in the major movements, I can see core moving and engaging with the arms. My own teacher, Master Stephen Hwa touches on this “learning curve” in an email that I include here.  So I thought about  this some more and  read pages 72 and 73 of “Uncovering the Treasure” (link to the book on this page).  This is where the discussion gets into whether arm leads core or vice versa.  I must say I got some inspiration for teaching him from this. 

Note: In some regard, I find that this is a situation where he truly needs to learn how to use his arms, which is clear to see falls into the realm of the 2nd stage…learning correct hand position.

Now I spend a little more time with him doing repetitions of movements and pay particular attention to whether he is stretching at shoulder and keeping elbow down and not “chicken wing” the elbow out to the side.  This seems to alleviate the scrunching and tightening at neck and shoulders. I am also doing this with my other students who started at the same time as Barry. By encouraging him to stretch from shoulder, one can see the proper angles and hand positions improving as well.

After I sent an email to my own teacher  on this subject, I recalled his  narrative about his student  Ernie and how his concentration on relaxing shoulder actually did not work because he was thinking about it too much.  I include this
 link to the Tai Chi Forums (just click) and you just search for Forum 14, do a search for the word “shoulder”.

Although Barry is not really ready for push hands, I thought the "solo" of that movement might be of some use.  I see now that doing that solo push hands movement where one can stretch at the shoulder appeals to him.  He seems to take to it naturally because of his Karate background . My telling him to stretch did not make much impression, however having him do the one person part solo of push hands seems somewhat intuitive for him.

He does not show scrunching when he does that.  So now time will tell if he makes that "transfer" to stretch shoulder lightly, keep elbow down to the rest of the form.

Email from Master Stephen Hwa:  Jim: I am teaching a group of not young people here (he is enjoying the wonderful climate in Florida after many years living in snow country). I do not expect them to really learn the whole form. So I started them on some of the silk reeling exercise including the "moving arm up while engaging the core". It is a hit to everyone. They love it. I know this is an upside down approach. But, if they enjoy it and getting somethng out of it. Why not?  With our methodology of teaching this move, we do not need to follow the old tradition which teaches this only after ten years of tai chi training! 

Now a day one needs to keep student's interest otherwise they leave. Learning this kind of internal movement seems really appreciated by even the beginners.