Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Addressing knee problems in Classical Tai Chi

Hello all, 

"I am new to Tai Chi, (practicing for the last two weeks!) and I've been trying to learn the square form from the DVD, before tackling the round form. 

I can do the first two forms (preparation and raise hands)but am encountering some difficulty in the transition to the third (Hand strums Lute).

Obviously I am doing something wrong, since Master Hwa does this effortlessly in the DVD. I did check that my weight is fully on my right leg and the left leg is 'empty'. I'm sure my body is stiff (which is why I'm doing Tai Chi!), but I can't figure a way to put feet 90 degrees to each other without straining the weight bearing knee.

If anyone has encountered this before, I'll be very grateful for any suggestions."

Thanks in advance,
A student

"It is the heightened negative sensations that enable the practitioner to sense that he or she has the wrong posture or body structure, such as a concaved back putting undue pressure on the lower back, or an out turned back foot which creates a twisting force in the knee, etc. It is these negative sensations that guided me to improve my form movement. No teacher can correct every movement of the student. It is up to the student using his own feedback sensation to alert that something is not right. I always wonder why so many people practice tai chi with such bad posture oblivious of its consequences. As Sifu Jim Roach pointed out in "One Yin, One Yang" Blog article that such feedback sensation needs to be cultivated. It may not be something born with it." on One Yin, One Yang of October 3, 2011
 Master Stephen Hwa

3. "Hand Strums the Lute...."
“Pay special attention to the feet. This is the first form that subjects the students to complex feet movement. It is easy to be distracted by the complexity of the upper body movements and neglect the details of the lower body”

  • In further consideration of the above instructions and what you say about “torque in the right knee but nothing very painful”.  
  • I would spend more time paying attention to details of the lower body and forego the upper body movements for now.
  • In other words, do the stepping, weight shifting of the square form without raising the hands and arms whatsoever, put your hands by your sides. 
  •  Do this just as though you were doing the basic walking.
  • The basic walking is the lower body work of the square form. 
  • The square form takes the lower body work and adds turns, weight shifts and complex foot movement, which is why:
  •  You may wish to consider holding onto a post as you practice these lower body movements, just as Master Hwa teaches in one of the Youtube videos.  This will stabilize your upper body and further lessen the chances of becoming uncomfortable.
  • I do this “post” work, even such complex foot movements with my students and they seem to relish not subconsciously worrying about their balance.
        There is not much discussion in Tai Chi instruction “out there” with such iteration about protecting the knees as Master Hwa provides in the DVD series. For the most part, however, he addresses the mid size stance which is an optimum choice for most entering students.

Difficulties in turning from the heel is often due to the following factors:
        Too large a stance or incorrect/insufficient knee bend. 
          Finally, much more consideration should also be given to your step size

I      If you had a knee problem before, your first order of concern is to protect your knee. When you are comfortable with your knee and can do the lower body form movement found first in the walk, or doing form movements sans the upper body, then add upper body work. 

i   J.E. Roach

Monday, March 25, 2013

Classical Tai Chi is not dance

A student once wrote the following: "I just completed my first lesson -- the walk. Very tricky but also very fun. This is going to be exactly what I have looked for so long. I have always loved to dance but never enjoyed performing for people. This dance of Taiji will be that dance I have been needing for so many years!" 

Master Stephen Hwa wrote in response: "I am glad you have made a good start. It is important that you feel fun and challenged while you doing it. Your comments about Tai Chi as a kind of dancing is what prompted me to write about the topic "Yi" – the martial art intent. I remember my teacher became unhappy when someone referred to Tai Chi as an exercise. Again, the “intent” is lost when it was called as an exercise."

I can't remember a time when I ever thought of calling Tai Chi "exercise" and/or "dance"...although I hear of or read of people referring to it as such.  This puts Tai Chi as no better than pedalling away on an exercise bicycle while watching television. Since dance also qualifies as exercise, then Tai Chi in many minds also falls into the same "exercise/dance" genre as "Sweatin to the Oldies". 

I will always correct my students as well when I hear them refer to it as "dance" or "exercise".  Although it is not surprising that people do this for I once had a student argue with me that Tai Chi originated in San Francisco and not in China.  Given that it did originate in China and given that Grandmaster Wu Chien Chuan, as an "originator" of the Wu Style of Tai Chi was an officer in the Imperial Palace Guard...can we come to the understanding that it is not "dance" nor "exercise"?

"Again, the “intent” is lost when it was called as an exercise."  (One must find out what "intent" means in Tai Chi)

In fact, in his "Six Essential Elements of Practicing Tai Chi", Grandmaster Wu stated that the "first thing to be avoided as taboo in Tai Chi is to apply "Li" (muscle and awkward power).   All the movements should be poured forth with the "Yi".  He continues by saying: "In moving the hands up, they are not automatically moved up without consciousness.  It is the Yi which moves them up.  While the Yi is not stopping, the movement will not stop.  At the moment the Yi stops, the movement instantly stops."  "...beginners...should avoid the vain attempt of applying li, then they can gradually get away from prosaic and mechanical practice..."

So far "exercise" without intent is mechanical, prosaic (it is indeed commonplace), it uses "Li" , which is no more than muscles/muscular force and for the most part is certainly awkward, lacking in skill and most definitely clumsy. To show how widespread the misconceptions about Tai Chi are, I recall students saying "I bet doing more situps will help", "I have some belly dancing videos that I am going to look at now", "I can bench press 250 pounds, now how can that not help", "The Tai Chi looks like Ballet", "I do Karate, so all I have to do is my Karate in slow motion and I will be doing Tai Chi".

Addressing just Karate  and leaving belly dancing and ballet for now I know from extended personal experience that "Karate" does solo forms that are called Kata...I did some Shorin Ryu Karate.  In Tae Kwon Do, we called it "poomsae".  I did these forms with lots of power, "snappiness", lots of "kiai" (sounds like yelling) and as much speed/acceleration as possible...moving like there was an opponent  Someone watching could say, "yep, he is fighting an imaginary opponent, that is obvious".  It was challenging doing the Tae Kwon Do because I was also doing Wu Style Tai Chi at the same time in Toronto.  Poomsae had very tense arms/forearms/fists with stacatto movements but my Tai Chi had/has relaxed arms with continuous movement.  Yes, I felt the movements in Tae Kwon Do were done from muscles in shoulders, upper chest, arms, etc. In the case of Classical Tai Chi as Master Hwa says:  "The Yi in Tai Chi is therefore purely mental".

"Again, the “intent” is lost when it was called as an exercise."  (One must find out what "intent" means in Tai Chi)

I certainly have taught weightlifters, ballet dancers, karate practitioners, etc., and for some they seemed to grasp what "Yi" is.  For most I saw that it was not easy to get and "intentions" to do something else with the movement usually began to show...early on.  The dancers would not keep their heel down on the back foot and would rise up on the toe, with "fluorish" type movements in their hands.  The weight lifters were incredibly stiff and inflexible around the upper chest and shoulders, the internal discipline of the core would elude them.  Karate people seemed to be stuck on a permanent type of stacatto movement, making movements continuously seemed to elude them.  I recall conversations with one long time Karate practitioner who said in so many words that he could not understand why anyone called Tai Chi a martial art.  The implication being that only Karate (or at least "his" Karate) could be a martial art?

For the most part, I think that all of those folks engage in superfluous/extraneous movement of the extremeties. If there is superfluous/extraneous movement, there can be little if any "Yi" or intent in movement.  At this point I must defer to what Master Hwa has written so well about:  "Extraneous motions, or nerve signals, along the path of Qi, such as shoulder, elbow, and arms, have the same effect of disrupting the flow of Qi between the body and the fingers. People who use their hands intensively, such as dancers, typists, and piano players could have such problems. It is important for them to keep localized nerve activity dormant and let the Qi from the body take over. This is a good reason to learn the square form from which the practitioner will get used to movements with steady arms and hands without localized impulses."

"Again, the “intent” is lost when it was called as an exercise."  (One must find out what "intent" means in Tai Chi)
This brings us the most obvious question which is "what does Yi look like?" if it can't be found in these examples. Again, I defer to Master Hwa's statement: 

Tai Chi Form should be practiced with “Yi” (martial art intention). “Yi” is not something complex and elaborate. It is single minded and somewhat intuitive with the desire to deliver the internal power externally through hands, arm and foot, what ever the movement is. If the hand is moving forward, then the Yi goes to the palm and fingers; if the hand is moving laterally in a blocking movement, then the Yi goes to the leading edge on the side of the hand; etc. Once the practitioner masters the “Yi”, it is no long a conscious effort any more. It becomes subconscious and comes naturally whenever the practitioner makes a move. At this stage, when you play the Form, you have both the internal energy and Qi (nerve signal - a simple-minded definition) circulating in the torso of your body. With the “Yi” as a catalyst, the Qi is able to flow to your hands and fingers while the internal energy continue to circulate in your torso until you need it for an application. Then the internal energy will follow the Qi to the arms, hands, and fingers for delivery.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

"Six Harmonies" start with the core in Classical Tai Chi

The Youtube Video link. On behalf of Edward Hunter regarding his comment on Youtube:

"In Wu Tai Chi the movement starts with the hand. Elbow 
follows hand. Shoulder follows elbow. Hip follows shoulder. 
Foot follows hip. That is the way of natural movement. Chen 
is wrong. Yang is wrong. Wu Tai Chi teached with hands 
following the feet is also wrong."

Dear Mr. Hunter:

 Thank you for the comment.  I see that you are a student/teacher in a "branch" of the Wu Tai Chi style; I am as well. I was also a student in another "branch" for many years.  That branch "turned the hip" as opposed to "turning the waist", they "started movement with the hand" as opposed to "mobilizing the extremeties from the waist". One "branch" within the Wu Style raises their arms very high above their heads, Classical Wu Tai Chi does not do this. I will not argue the point from the perspective that one is right while the other is wrong, I would definitely have my work cut out for me in doing so.

It seems however, you are stating  by implication that if something is natural, eg., “natural movement” then it is somehow good, thus implying that what is unnatural, eg., “unnatural movement” is bad. This characterization of  “natural” presents many problems.    I am sure that even if we agree some things are natural and some are not, what follows from this?  Nothing.  In other words I do not see facts presented to support that what is “natural” movement is good (right)  and what is by implication “unnatural” is bad (wrong).

Stating that  “movement starting with the hand” is true to the extent that (as we already established) some schools even within the same style (Wu in this case) will start the “six harmonies” ( 1)hand follows 2) foot, 3) elbow follows 4) knee, 5) shoulder follows 6) hip by using the hand first. In this case, I see you are from the "Wu" school. I also see that you do not mention the use of the core, the "hands" connection to the core, the foots, the elbow's, etc.

Stating about the “six harmonies” being “wrong” as presented here in Classical Wu Style  however is not sound. Simply stating the premise that “movement” is “wrong” because it is not “natural” does not make or present  facts to make it “wrong”. 

There are however certain observable things that one can take note of: Here, in Classical Wu Tai Chi,  the movement does not start with the hand, it starts with the waist. In using the hand to start first, one is using an extremity of the body and whether in Classical Tai Chi or any Tai Chi it is initially reducing or draining off  some of the power of the movement, as the movement is not initially connected to the core. Tennis players, baseball players, golfers, , etc. make use of an external movement first with the arms/hands then it is connected to the core, presumably for power, once the arc of the swing reaches the proximity of the core.  The act of using the hands/arms first however does not mobilize the core of the body before the fact effectively, for it is the core itself that should be used to mobilize the hands, arms, legs, etc…the extremeties. After all, we are talking about Tai Chi for health and martial purposes and not baseball.

  •  Hand and arm movements in and of themselves are abstract in nature, when not connected to the core of the body they lack strength and cannot move in a relaxed manner.  This to excess in Tai Chi makes hand and arm movement merely extraneous. 
  •  By using the hand first and thus allowing the arms to move independently of the core you are compromising the movement and diffusing the neuromuscular signals for the core of the body to even respond.  
  • By using the hand first you are placing the junction for the delineation of yin and yang (what is moving/ what is not moving) somewhere in the area of elbows or shoulder.  
  • By using the hand first you are creating a disconnect right where the shoulder meets the core.  
  • By using the hand first you are short circuiting and disrupting the flow of “qi”, placing the disruption somewhere in the hand/elbow/shoulder…there is no circuit completion of qi flow through the core to the arm…It only begins in the core when the hand leads the  arm which engages and stretches the shoulder which is of course connected to the core.  In other words it stops then begins at the shoulder.  Qi also going where yi goes.  After a movement from the core however,  the qi should flow to the arms and hands, the majority of internal energy should continue to circulate in the torso until needed. 

Using the hands first in Tai Chi almost sounds like the same way dancers, typists, piano players use their hands. As we said this acts to disrupt the flow of qi between the body and fingers.   Using the core first insures that the localized nerve activity of the hands/arms remains dormant and lets the qi from the body take over.  This is good reason to learn the square form of Tai Chi, so that a practitioner can get used to movements with steady arms and hands without localized nerve impulses.

Wu Chien Chuan (who stayed at Yeung Wabu’s home in Hong Kong circa 1938, with lessons going on night and day) himself told Yeung Wabu:  “Every movement in Tai Chi Form has to have two complementary parts of the body, a moving (yang) part 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.   This is the key to a methodology that enables Tai Chi practitioners to mobilize the core of the body for Tai Chi movements, to generate internal energy and internal energy circulation.  I have done Tai Chi from both sides of the coin, hand first, waist first and the latter is the most powerful.  Try doing this yourself using the waist first and keeping the hand still and you will see the difference in generation of power. 

Monday, March 18, 2013

The Correct Body Structure of Classical Tai Chi

I recall my early days of study, particularly those in which I had teachers who were long on enthusiasm and short on experience...some with only 1 year more than me.  In retrospect I recall them telling me to "sitback, sitback, sitback..." with no accompanying instructions on HOW to sitback correctly or WHY I was doing it wrong.  Obviously, I was doing it incorrectly, I thought, otherwise why would they keep repeating "sitback, sitback, sitback..." in a stacatto fashion?  Master Stephen Hwa addresses "sitback position", HOW, WHY, WHEN,  "forward position" and more in a 12 minute segment taken from a 2011 workshop.  The segment is more appropriately named "The correct body structure of Classical Tai Chi". You can go to the Youtube video of the segment by clicking on this link:

Master Stephen Hwa: 

I went to Shanghai and a relative of mine told me his Uncle is a big guy in Yang Style Tai Chi in Shanghai.  He is also a Catholic Bishop  there and so they use the church to practice Yang Style Tai Chi. They are like this.  And then when they are older, in their “60’s”, the whole group, everyone has bone spurs in their lower back. Because the compression, the stress on the lower back caused bone spurs. You know this stress sometimes causes bone spurs, right? That unusual stress on the joints causes bone spurs. Every one of them has bone spurs in the lower back.

Student:  Master Hwa, you talk about the sensations occurring in the back, do you talk about the sensations occurring in the front as well?

Master Hwa: Some, but mostly in the back. Also, remember when he spoke?  He just raised an excellent point.  Remember, we said, going forward, all the weight has to be on the front foot? Now, the whole back is not entirely relaxed because there is a stretch in the lower back, down to the heel, try to maintain the touch of the heel on the ground.  Now, do you feel that stretch? Now you don’t have weight on it, but you should feel that stretch. You work to maintain the heel touch the ground. So the leg is kind of straight, not with bent knee.  Not with bent knee.  So you want to maintain some force on the leg to maintain the stretch. Not bending the knee.

Student: Do you sense that stretch continually when you are transferring weight back?

Master Hwa: Yes, when you are pulling back, there is more in the front now. When you are pulling back, and again using your abdomen.  Pulling your body back like this, again pulling with your back foot. There is more sensation comes more in the front. The sensation comes more in the front.  This sitting position actually is a very awkward position. But again, when we do push hands, when we do the push hands, you will realize this is such a very important position. One of the most important positions, but it is a very awkward position. A lot of people do not know how to do that correctly, a so called sitting motion.
Okay, any other questions on this segment?

Student: Can I ask you a question about sitting back?  When you are sitting back are you tucking the buttocks and sitting at the same time?

Master Hwa: Yes, tucking and sitting back at the same time.  When you are sitting back, it depends how you do it.  You can sit deeper and deeper, the deeper you can sit the better.  With the sitting back, you still should be able to turn your body.  Because that is the purpose of your sitting back.  You sit back, you turn and the guy falls.

Student: Master Hwa, when you are sitting back are you shortening the length of the abdomen?

Master Hwa: Not too much.  If your shoulder is too much (hunched over), your turning is limited, you cannot turn very well. You still need that length of body, so you can turn.  When I sit back, it is not just sitting back, I have to turn, to redirect. If you are too (hunched over) it is harder to turn. If you keep your body stretched (lengthened) then you can turn better.

Student: It is a pelvic tilt?

Master Hwa: Yes, the crease is not abdominal, it is creased in the pelvis.

Student: The farther you are down, the more your back stretches up?

Master Hwa: Yes, right, you find your back is kind of pulled up.  Certainly, if your step is big, your sitback is naturally quite low, OK? Now, we don’t teach the large frame.  The large frame, the step is big and it does teach you how to sit low. Now if you don’t sit low correctly, you are not sitting, your body weight is more toward the front. When you sit back correctly, the thighs have to be even (parallel).  Now my body is facing forward, if I am not sitting back, my body is facing to an angle.  On such an angle, I have a strong side and a weak side.  So when I sit with thighs parallel, my teacher checked it.  The reason he says this is “you are facing the opponent squarely and not crooked”.  If you face an angle, then you face opponent at an angle, so he is using the “thigh” guage.  Most other martial arts are facing the opponent really at an angle with the body.  We are facing the opponent squarely and you will be able to redirect the opponent to either direction. If I face him at an angle, I can redirect to one side only but cannot redirect to the other very well. So you are giving a signal to an opponent that you have a strong side. So if you do push hands with “outside” practitioners.  So how can you handle him to take advantage of his weak side.  Then not falling into his trap of succumbing to being pulled by his strong side.

Student:  When I sit back like this should my thigh feel tight?

Master Hwa:  Yes, really tight

Student: When I sit back this leg muscle is very tight. I have a weak right knee so I notice this.

Master Hwa:  Then you need to take a smaller step. If one has knee problems you always keep your step small.

Student: Could you address the importance of tucking the chin?

Master Hwa: Right, when your chin is not tucked, and people push you hard enough, you head may snap back.  If your head snaps back like this you are very weak. We constantly stretch our head up using the neck muscle to support the head rather than using the cervical vertebrae part of the spine to support the weight of the head.  In doing so, you also develop the neck muscle.  The neck muscle is important in preventing whiplash.  When you sit back you have to feel the tuck of the chin, the stretch of neck muscle and that is why you feel the back is pulled up.