Sunday, 17 July 2022

Controlled Breathing

When beginners first learn Taijiquan invariably there will be unconscious tension in the body that results in unnatural and uneven breathing. Unnatural breathing causes tension in the muscles of the chest (which in turn leads to the compression of the heart, lungs, diaphragm etc).  In addition, uneven breathing makes the muscles in the body continue to tense, which affects the smooth transition of movements required in Taijiquan. Insufficient exchanges of the gases cause hypoxia, and the resulting lactic acid concentration in the muscles as well as the depletion of qi and blood lead to premature fatigue during practice.

Unregulated and uncoordinated breathing not only affects movement specifications, but also constancy and speed (rhythm and timing). People often ‘hold on’ to the breath to execute a series of movements which means it becomes necessary to ‘snatch’ the next breath that forces the movement speed to change unnaturally. It violates the taijiquan requirements of smooth natural breathing and flowing continuous sequence of movements. 

Related to uneven breathing and  holding the breath (allowing qi to be stuck in the chest) are for example, shrugging shoulders, stiff neck, protruding elbows and other phenomena that seriously violate the standard specifications of body structure and movements.  All of these make it difficult to manifest limberness, smoothness and expansiveness. Relaxation and looseness and strict adherence to movement principles go hand in hand with even and coordinated breathing.

The basic requirement is that breath and movements are consistent, first inhale, then exhale, breathing in accord with a particular rhythm in each sequence of movements. A common problem for practitioners is incorrect timing of breath and movement. The breath is finished before the action is completed, or the action is not finished and the breath runs out. Because inhalation is not deep enough, exhalation is inadequate and as a result breath and action cannot be coordinated. A few actions in a row is enough to cause tense and rapid breathing, tightness in the chest, eventually leading to shortness of breath and exhaustion. 

Pay attention to overcoming uncontrolled breathing when practising. Train mindfully to correct erratic breathing that does not conform or match up to the requirements of the movement. 

Song in Tuishou and Form

Many people tui shou without first realising “song”.  The burden of the stiffness and tension in their own bodies slow them down and make them unable to respond quickly. Train “song” until you are able to respond and neutralise at will and nobody can “hit” you.  Training the form is solo practice. Tuishou is partner training.  The same “song” must be applied, not strength.  It is not fighting. The standard and level of “song” is within your own body. 

Extracting Internal Power

Learning the traditional form of Taijiquan is to gradually learn the potential internal power of the discipline. However, after the realisation of  internal strength, it is necessary to then not overly focus on internal strength but enter the realm of mind intention, and finally to achieve a natural intuitive state not dictated or confined to prescribed movement patterns - in accordance to the Taijiquan principle:  “abide strictly to the form then forget the form”; “from familiarity of the routine to understanding jin; from understanding jin to divine realisation”.  The actual cultivation process is “Da Dao Zhi Jian” which means that fundamental principles are invariably concise and without flourish.  

A routine is merely a temporary tool through which to experience and derive internal strength from the external movements.  It is a temporary vehicle, likened to a boat that takes you across the waters to the other side.  

The purpose is to “extract” internal power. Once extracted the power can be enabled instinctively and not confined within any routine, from limited moves into the infinite without move - i.e.“dismantling the form”.  The mind that is self-bound in the comfort zone of the quan routines evolves into a free and unfettered state that is ready to burst forth without restrictions.

Relaxation the Foundation of Internal Training

Whole body relaxation is the foundation of Neijia (internal) training. The concept of "da song da san” (big loosening big expansion) emphasised in every aspect of training is easy to understand but not easy to do. The harder one ‘tries’ to loosen the muscles, the tenser they get. 

Muscle relaxation must occur subconsciously. However just being “loose" is not enough, because in usage, you have to control your body shape, store strength, and make the appropriate action. So at the same time as “big loosening big expansion” you must also fulfil the criteria of "muscles are loose but intention/spirit is not scattered.”

To fulfil this, the analogy “meat hanging from the bones” is sometimes used, i.e. the muscles and flesh are loose but the tendons and bones are in place for them to hang from.  In many Neijia Quan, there are exercises to relax the muscles of the whole body. For example, the static exercise Zhan Zhuang, is to practise “extreme looseness”. Some use “Chan/Zen" practice method to achieve “deep relaxation”, so that the spirit can reach a profound quiet and tranquil state of mind to relax the body.

Getting to this level is no small feat and requires focused training over time.  However it is only the beginning.  For people who want to utilise the power of the body’s integrated strength in actual combat, the “big loosening big expansion” must be present even in critical situations, which is very difficult for ordinary people to do without specific training.

Taijiquan's Eye Method

The concerted action and appropriate use of the “eye method” (yan fa) should be present in all aspects of training,  be it taolu, tuishou, sanshou or weapons training; in fact, the eyes should accompany all kinetic movements either externally manifested or internally presented eg. jing (essence), qi, shen (spirit) and yi (intention).

The Yang family’s  “Deciphering Taiji Word by Word” alluded to this aspect of training:  “Look Forward-Glance Backward-Guard Left-Anticipate Right relates to the eyes and crucially involves the spirit”.

Yang family’s “Taiji Interpretation of the Human Body” also stated:

“The heart is the master of the body; the eyes are the sprouting shoots of the heart”

“The spirit originates in the heart and expresses through the eyes”“ The spirit kindles, intention follows, eyes reveal.”

“The eyes lead the hand, the eyes follows the hands, working in conjunction’’

Chen family’s Chen Xin in "Taijiquan’s Push Hands Original Explanation" said: "Hands and eyes are alive; do not move them randomly."  In movements, the eyes are in a dynamic state and closely match the actions of  "look forward-glance backwards-guard left-anticipate right" whilst fulfilling principles and are not random and without focus.  It must be consistent with the direction of the rotation of the body, so that the "hands-eyes-body-step" are in all aspects of the movement.   "When one part moves everything moves; when one part stops everything stops.” 

Yang Chengfu said in "Talk on Taijiquan Practice":  “Although the gaze is level and the line of sight is empty, it stays alive and in times of  critical change complements and compensates the hand and body methods”

The direction of the eyes in movements is varied.  Some people advocate "look forward through the forefinger or fingertip of the forehand."  Or "pay attention to the front hand, the upper hand," etc. Some people think that "an enemy takes the main gaze, while the peripheral vision guards left and anticipates right. Yang Taijiquan advocates that  “Under normal circumstances, the eye is looking forward, looking forward at and through the hand in front of the eyes, but not dead at the hand. The eyes also look forward and down, their direction determined by specific action of the dominant hand.” 

There are actually two methods. The first method is the level eye method: the eyes look naturally forward, without exhibiting any expression or emotion.  The other is the three-point method: "the eyes (the starting point) look through the fingertips of one hand or both hands (the midpoint) and forward at the imaginary opponent (the end point)." This is in accordance with what Chen Xin said, "eyes look forward, light radiates outwards in four directions."  Do not stare at one’s own hand, or looking at the right and left hands in turn.  Staring at the hands instead of following the direction of the body impedes flexibility of the intention and the extension of the far vision.  The liveliness of the eyes,  “like a cat stalking a mouse" makes boxing lively and full of vitality.  

After a certain period of time, the distance in front becomes a point in the distance, so that the distance is formed according to the degree of concentration of each person. Thus, how far each person is likely to concentrate is determined.  It enables Taijiquan to fully show its concentrated yet abundant strength, to achieve the characteristic upper level “penetrating and piercing strength," and illustrates "action stops but intention continues; intention stops but the spirit continues.”

Wednesday, 2 February 2022

Taijiquan's Three Axes

One of the most basic requirements that Taijiquan players must be aware of is the three axes that support and balance the body when standing - in the up and down direction, in the front and back direction and in the left and right direction.  These three dimensional supports are:

1. An up-down suspend and pull that is created by “ lifting the top”; through the actions of the toes gripping the ground and the mingmen and navel forming a central plate from which the upper and lower parts are “pulled” apart. 

2. A front-back spring load that is created by the actions of drawing in the kua and containing the buttocks;  enabling the pelvis to tilt down and the muscles to be stretched to the right tautness.

3. A left-right complementary opposing force that is created by the action of wrapping the knees and rounding the crotch; the lower part of the legs rotate inwards to allow the knees to wrap and fix, whilst the upper part brace outwards to round the crotch.  

In this way, the body possesses a contradictory yet unified control force in the upper-lower, forward-backward and left-right dimensions.

Four Fundamental Rules

Four fundamental rules of Taijiquan movements are: "With every turning there must be sinking; With every sinking there must be leading; With every rising there must be falling and; With every settling there must be closing”. 

“With every turning there must be sinking”:  Turning refers to transformation, which should include two aspects: one aspect is the transformation of pace, the other aspect is the change of the centre of gravity. Sinking involves loosening (song), letting go of the tension of the hips so that the body drops. Loosening is the action and sinking is the result.  The purpose is so that power can be generated from the ground, which is a fundamental requirement.  All the power source of Taijiquan practice comes from "pushing off the ground", from which the so-called "crotch strength" (dang jin) develops.  Depending on the direction of the waist, crotch actions either take a “downward arc” or a “downward back arc”.

"With every sinking there must be leading”:  Sinking in this case refers to dropping the waist and hips or relaxing the whole body.  “Leading”  (ling) refers to the hands. As the body sinks the hand must lead (upwards) instead of being allowed to drop. The position of the leading hand is not actually moving the hand, but the hand staying up as the body drops.

“With every rising there must be falling”:  the concept is applied in multiple ways  e.g. with every up there must be down;  with every forward there must be backward etc. The concept facilitates and maintains lower plane stability and should be executed throughout the form. For example, whenever a knee is raised the waist and buttocks drop as the kua relax and the leg rotates downwards into the ground.  The opposing energetic strength stabilises the centre of gravity and the stances will not be erratic and energy will not drift and float.

"With every settling there must be closing": can also be understood as "everything must be brought together". There is an obvious settling at the end of each posture that brings into play all the above requirements. The settling facilitates the commencement of the next posture and ensures the link is smooth and everything is in its optimum place. This is important in the process of unbroken intention, continuous strength, and connected postures.