Tuesday, 26 September 2017

UFC legend Anderson Silva meets Chen Taijiquan...

Chen Taijiquan Chen Xiangin meets MMA's Anderson Silva
I saw this interaction between UFC legend Anderson "The Spider" Silva and Chen Xianglin one of the branch instructors of the Chenjiagou Taijiquan School and a member of its fighting team and thought some of you might enjoy it.
Mixed martial arts website bloodyelbow.com reported recently that "the UFC is headed to Shanghai in November with Anderson Silva expected to headline in a bout with Kelvin Gastelum. The UFC is finally headed to mainland China five years after their first event in Macau, back in 2012".
Brazilian mixed martial artist Anderson "the spider" Silva holds the longest title streak in UFC history, which ended in 2013 after 2,457 days, with 16 consecutive wins and 10 title defences of the UFC middleweight crown. He was described by UFC president Dana White and a number of mixed-martial-arts publications as the greatest mixed martial artist of all time.

Silva and Gastelum are currently in China promoting their upcoming bout. One of the most dominant strikers the sport has ever seen Silva's main martial art is Muay Thai, but he is a black belt in Taekwondo and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and Judo.

After the press conference yesterday (25th Sept) for the upcoming fight the "Spider" met with Chen Xiangln for dinner and for a friendly exchange of skills. Chen Xianglin is one of the guys we've watched over the years emerging from the ranks of students and developing into an accomplished martial artist.

In the short clip of their meeting Silva's jaw  visibly dropped at the explosiveness of Chen's short range fajin. What's the chance he'll add Chen Taijiquan to his repertoire?
Legendary MMA champion Anderson Silva experiencing Chen Taijiquan


Monday, 25 September 2017

On Taijiquan, weightlifting and a shared world view...

Unveiling Chenjiagou's new statue of Chen Wangting
Chenjiagou is buzzing at the moment with the unveiling of a new and bigger statue of Chen Wangting. At the same time, coming across the following quote by Wang Xian made me chuckle: “What’s the biggest secret in Taijiquan – train, train, train and train again. If you just look and don’t practice even Chen Wangting couldn’t teach you”! A simple and unmistakable message that nobody could fail to understand! Everybody gets the idea that superior skills require bitter training. Ultimately every person makes a decision how hard they are going to work and, by definition, the elite level is built on a commitment that the masses cannot commit to. As bodybuilding legend and multiple times Mr Olympia winner Ronnie Coleman puts it: “Everyone wants to be a bodybuilder, but don’t nobody want to lift no heavy-ass weights”!

Joking aside, a serious obstacle faces many western students of Taijiquan that cause many students to get a disproportionately small return in real Taijiquan terms for their hard efforts. The various internal martial arts systems share many training methods and theories which practitioners, while sweating and knocking out the reps, often pay lip service to. Requirements such as:

Chen Xiaoxing - "without understanding China's
traditional culture you cannot go past a basic level"

Head held as if being suspended by a string
Eyes kept level
Tongue against the upper palate
Shoulders relaxed and elbows sunken
Chest relaxed and contained
Qi to dantian
Kua relaxed
etc. etc...

These are the core requirements. The problem is that the benefits of training these aspects are not at all obvious. Many students are able to quote these rules, but lose confidence in prioritising their attainment in their daily training. The average Chinese student has less internal conflict when their teacher asks them to follow these requirements. Not that there are no lazy or impatient Chinese students, or that all Chinese students pay strict attention to these details and don't get distracted by the more dynamic side of Taijiquan. But these ideas are shared throughout Chinese culture.  Many of the same requirements underpinning Taijiquan are also central to the theories of Traditional Chinese Medicine,painting and calligraphy etc. Even the ultra stylised medium of Beijing opera requires performers to keep their kua level, to sink qi to the dantian, lift the crown of their head etc. In an interview with Chen Xiaoxing he went as far as describing the lack of understanding of traditional Chinese culture as one of the most significant barriers for non-Chinese students. Without this, he believed a person could never get beyond the basic level of imitating the outside shape.

During the London Olympics I watched the weightlifting event. As one of the Chinese contestants prepared to make his final lift his coach quietly said "chen qi" or "sink your qi". At this pivotal moment he for sure wasn't looking to make some kind of obscure philosophical point. The advice carried a clear and understandable message to his lifter. The lack of understanding this shared world view is a barrier that western Taijiquan students must overcome if they are to be successful in their practice.
Chinese weightlifters understand what is meant by "sinking the qi"

Friday, 15 September 2017

Doing it "correctly" v "quickly"...

It's always a pleasure to return to Poland. As usual Chen Ziqiang's week long series of workshops was ably hosted by Marek Balinski's Chen Taijiquan Academie in the suburbs of Warsaw. A recurring pointer over the different sessions was the need to be patient and to do the right thing. Haste, impatience and the urge to do it quickly- be it the handforms, weapons or push hands - only lead to poor realisation. Ultimately this kind of short-cut thinking kills any chance of developing authentic skill. Conversely, careful repetitive practice allows one to systematically train out any mistakes of structure or timing and coordination. To quote Chen Ziqiang, "Be patient. Do it right. If you do the right things, the right things happen".

We reviewed the spear form over the course of two days going deeper into  the essential points of the weapon. Despite it being an experienced group that knew the choreography well, he spent  half of the first day working on three core basic drills which combined, trained the "martial flower" pattern. The martial flower synchronises fast and agile footwork with movements of the spear, "as if there were an axle turning two wheels closely on either side of the body".  As mentioned in a previous post, people often incorrectly do this movement by turning the spear in front of their body as if paddling a canoe.

Students often get impatient during this kind of basic practice, but that is what gets results. Commenting on one over-zealous student moving furiously up and down the room: "Look at him spinning the spear around as if he knows what he's doing". Superficially the hand movements were OK, but the footwork was completely uncoordinated,

stepping back as if both feet were fixed on tramlines. Chen Ziqiang recalled how he was instructed to train the martial flower for two years before being allowed to begin learning the spear form. And to train the basics of the sabre for five years before learning the form. Training in this way ensured that the essential characteristics became default settings over which it was easy to learn the form correctly. Obviously this time scale might not be practical or possible for a middle-aged practitioner who enjoys Taijiquan as a hobby and trains a couple times a week. However, it does point to the importance of careful mindful practice and the fact that doing it correctly is far more important than doing it quickly.
Qinna training...

 On a similar theme, during push hands training emphasis was placed on fixing the movement track until it is seamless. For instance, repeatedly training a single qinna with the idea of adding speed in the future when it can be applied instinctively without excessive or telegraphed movement. Going through the dingbu drill, carefully paying attention to the moments when you or your opponent were vulnerable to attack. Being mindful of changes in weight and the points where the opponent became double weighted and unable to take their foot off the ground.

In the beginning learners are naturally anxious to get everything, but at some point there's a need to realise that the best results only come if training is approached in a particular way. Above simply training hard (which is a given), what's needed is the mental capacity to take a step back and undoing mistakes.  Adopting a state of relaxed mindfulness, in a sense, not trying too hard and not fixating on any one particular aspect. Many people may misinterpret this as advocating some kind of easygoing less than optimal approach. This is a serious misunderstanding. Relaxed in this sense doesn't mean just sloppily doing what you want, but building slowly from fundamentals and adding to them layer by layer - no matter how long it takes...
Warasw spear group

Wednesday, 6 September 2017

Taijiquan's "Placing Hands"

Kenji: Manga and Chen Taijiquan come together

Many people approach Chen Taijiquan’s “push hands” without really appreciating its subtleties and its place within the training curriculum. Interestingly even the term “tuishou” or “push hands” is a relatively recent term. Go back through the literature left by earlier generations and the term more commonly used was “geshou”. The literal translation of this is “putting hands”, but for readability in English we can say “placing hands”. Think of the action of putting a glass of water onto a table. Without paying attention and putting it down carefully we’ll either spill the water on the way to reaching the table. Or, worse we’ll drop the glass onto the floor if we release it too early. From this simple example we can see that the distance, angle etc must be exact.
The following text is adapted from Paul Brennan’s translation of Chen Ziming’s 1930s Taijiquan treatise.  “…you will begin to sense that the subtleties of the placing hands exercise come entirely from the ordinary practice of the Taijiquan form. All of the principles within the form manifest from a balanced energy. Placing hands is the application of that balanced energy.
Diligently practice the form. Once you are accomplished at it, you will naturally be able to move on to placing hands… In the beginning, work hard and unceasingly. But you must not learn placing hands first as it will undermine everything you are working towards, and for your whole life you will never be able to reach the heart of the art. If you do not first learn the form, and you instead want to start with placing hands exercise, you will be like an infant who learns to walk before learning to stand – ie always falling over. To abandon the beginning in search of the end is to start with the goal and neglect the work that will get you to it. If you do not know what comes before and follows after, how can you be on the right path? It is the form that is to be practiced first. People who first learn placing hands are all impatient for quick results, and they do not start with the form because they are all afraid of the hard work it entails and want only comfort. Unable to face up to the proper sequence of training, they just want to jump ahead. It is like wanting to draw lines and circles without the use of compass and square. In this way, they all produce something that a true craftsman would deem worthless”.   
Chen Ziming "placing hands"
Even with the basis of good form skills students must not become transfixed with the idea of pushing their opponent or forcing their techniques on and “winning” the encounter. This is a serious misunderstanding of the exercise. While it may seem to have been applied instantaneously, an accomplished practitioner applying a technique goes through the following four stages.

    1. ting jin (listen to an opponent’s energy)

    2. dong jin (understand…energy)  

    3. hua jin (neutralise…energy)

    4. fa jin (release your own energy)


Monday, 28 August 2017

Integrating Body and Mind…

Six harmonies to unify body and mind
The famous Chinese military strategist Sunzi stated that: “Victory comes from deep thinking, detailed preparation and long calculation”. Chen Taijiquan’s systematic training methodology takes into account every aspect of an individual. Its unique training method was devised to unify body and mind and sayings such as “concentrate on one thing lose everything” reflect an implicit understanding that no single facet can be understood except in relation to the whole. Recognising this practitioners work towards harmonising the opposing forces or aspects within the body through the gradual realisation of Taijiquan’s “six harmonies” – divided into three external and three internal harmonies.
Understanding and applying the six harmonies is not easy, especially the three internal harmonies and learners shouldn’t expect to achieve this overnight. To take them in turn, the external harmonies refer to aspects of  structure and alignment and the coordination of the external aspects of the body. The three external harmonies represent the connections between:

Hands – Feet

Elbows – Knees

Shoulders - Kua

The realisation of the external harmonies is sometimes referred to as the skill of “everything arriving at the same time”.

Working Towards Integration
Chen Xin
Broadly speaking we can say that anything that leads us towards integrating the body and mind leads us towards realising the six harmonies. Over the generations different ways have been used to explain this process. For example, Chen Taijiquan makes use of “three sectional movement” explained by Chen Xin as follows: “Jin is divided into three sections, every section is interconnected [jin] moving from section to section”. The following passage taken from the Chen family classics explains how to use this theory to synchronise the whole body:

“In truth it can serve the purpose by discussing them [the different parts of the body] by three parts: the upper, the middle and the lower, or root, middle and tip. For the entire body, head is the upper part, chest is the middle part and legs are the lower part. For the face, forehead is the upper, nose is the middle and mouth is the lower. For the torso, chest is the upper, stomach is the middle and dantian is the lower. For the legs, kua is the root, knee is the middle and foot is the tip. For the upper limb, arm is the root, elbow is the middle and hand is the tip. For the hand, wrist is the root, palm is the middle and finger is the tip, from which the case of the feet can be deduced. So there are three parts from neck to feet. It is important to focus on the three parts in their cooperation. If the upper is not clear, there will be no source, if the middle is not clear, the internal body will be empty, and if the lower is not clear, instability will occur. From this it is obvious that the three parts of the body cannot be overlooked”.

The bow has the function of stretched power between two opposing forces. 
Others use the idea of “Five Bows” to explain Taijiquan’s internal power mechanics – simply put, bows have the function of stretched power between two opposing forces.  The body consists of five primary bows - the torso, the arms and legs which, when combined, form the basis of focused whole body jin.  They allow the collective force of the entire body to be emitted through one point, hence the saying, “five bows combine into one”.

In practice it is important to become more aware of movements opposing and complementing each other - recognising the fact that if there is a motion upward, there will be a motion downward. If there is a motion forward, there will be a motion backward.  If there is a motion leftward, there will be a motion rightward. This is reflected in advice passed down such as: “The heels sink down while the achilles tendon lifts up. The kua loosen while the lower spine lifts up. The shoulders relax while the neck lifts up”. Or the “three liftings” of the internal martial arts which instructs practitioners to use intention to lift the baihui, tongue and huiyin while everything else sinks down.

To summarise harmonisation:
-      No action in isolation

-      When one part moves another part harmonises (upper/lower, left/right, hand/foot/ qi/action etc) 

While Taijiquan is considered to be an “internal” martial art, there is a close relationship between the external and internal aspects. So for instance, the process of quieting the mind leads to the calming of the emotions and inevitably to the relaxation of the body. In the early stages of training practitioners use the external shape to lead the internal, eventually using internal energy to drive the external shape.

Taijiquan’s three internal harmonies are usually described as the harmonisation of one’s xin (heart/mind), yi (intention), qi (intrinsic energy) and li (body strength). These are unified through the connections of:

Xin – Yi

Yi – Qi

Qi – Li

Or alternatively:

Xin – Yi

Qi – Li

Jin (Tendons) – Gu (Bones)

Zhu Tiancai summarised the body’s internal connections as a chain reaction:

1.   Xin is activated in instigating an action.

2.   Yi dictates the direction and power of the action.

3.   Yi sets in motion qi energy (that starts to move under the direction of yi).

4.   This in turn produces li or physical power.
Singapore 2002 pushing hands with Zhu Tiancai: "Intention dictates the power of an action"
Heart and Intention

The xin represents the centre of human feelings and emotions, from tranquillity, calmness and serenity to anger, grief, disappointment and frustration etc. The yi, on the other hand, refers to the logical decision-making mind. To cultivate mental unity both the emotional mind as well as the logical mind must be present. Fully focused energy can only be achieved with a decisiveness of purpose.

Nowhere is this more important than in the arena of combat where conflicting thoughts and feelings can easily lead to an unsuccessful outcome. Here xin is needed to summon up courage and fighting spirit and yi to make clear judgements and logical decisions. To paraphrase 14th generation master Chen Changxin, when facing an opponent “stand like a living dragon and then crush him like plucking a weed”.  
Chen Changxin statue in Chenjiagou

Monday, 7 August 2017

Taijiquan's "Big Four" Joints...

Chen Zhaoxu
An article published on Taiji Yiren, a Chinese site created to promote Taiji culture, reported the response by Chen Zhaoxu to the question – “How do you train this martial art”? Chen Zhaoxu (the eldest son of Chen Fake and father of Chen Xiaowang and Chen Xiaoxing) answered, “You have to fangsong (loosen) the “four big pieces” in the body”. That is the two shoulders and the two kua.

His younger brother Chen Zhaokui expanded on this, advising practitioners of the need to pay attention to relaxing the chest as only if your chest relaxes can your shoulders relax. He gave the example of push hands: “During push hands, the first thing is to control someone’s shoulders. If your shoulders are not flexible, you are actually locking yourself”. He went on to suggest that once you’ve solved the problem of the shoulders - that is they are flexible and can execute full rotation – even if someone locks you from behind,
Chen Zhaokui - "First thing is to control an opponent's shoulders"
you can reverse the attack and escape. Chen Zhaokui spoke of the relationship between the shoulders and the kua:   “Relaxing the chest and shoulders facilitates the folding movement of the torso and that has a direct relation to the kua being relaxed.  

Sun Lutang - "First solve the problem of the shoulders and kua"
Sun Lutang, the renowned internal martial artist and creator of Sun Style Taijiquan believed that, such was the importance of these four joints that in the early stages of training learners should focus upon them above everything else: “The key is in the shoulders and kua. In the beginning don’t think about anything else – just solve the problem of these two parts”. He advised learners to constantly think about how to relax and sink (ie don’t lift) the shoulders. This focus should be carried over to encompass one’s daily activities – “In your everyday life think about sinking your shoulders and dropping your elbows. [In time] you’ll see an obvious change”. Sun Lutang was of the opinion that a lot of people who have trained gongfu for many years have not succeeded in opening their kua.  Concluding that this was a serious failing that he believed meant that no matter how much effort they put in, without addressing this shortcoming, whatever they you train will be incorrect”.
Sun cautioned practitioners to be patient, advising them to only move on to other aspects of training when this basic requirement was achieved. Relaxing the shoulders and the kua is crucial if one is to develop an integrated body and from that point start to open up and stretch the rest of the joints: “After your shoulders and kua open other things are not so difficult. If you are diligent and persevere your body will start to change shape – you might even get unexpected results”.

Friday, 28 July 2017

Taijiquan's "Potential Strength"

Taijiquan's potential by Mary Johnston
Taijiquan teachers often use the expression - “be strong in eight directions”.  But what does this actually mean in practice? Fundamental to understanding how the Chinese understand dynamic processes is coming to terms with the character shi which can be loosely translated as the “configuration of energy”, or we could say latent energy. In texts from as far back as the Warring States and Qin period the term shi can often be found paired with the character xing, “external shape”. For example, a boulder has a shape. If it is balanced at the edge of a cliff it is said to have shi. The term is used widely in the Chinese tradition to describe the manifestation of energy from potential. China’s most revered military strategist Sunzi described the potential of a rock perched on the edge of a cliff and the devastating power that could be released from this quiet and harmless state. The art of war teaches us to rely not on the likelihood of the enemy not coming, but on our own readiness to receive him; not on the chance of him not attacking, but rather on the fact that we have made our position unassailable. Similarly, Taijiquan appears quiet on the surface, but a highly trained practitioner seeks to be in a place of balance where they can instantly react to a force coming from any direction. 

Sunzi would have seen the potential of this
 rock perched high above the Grand Canyon
John Hay (1994) in his introduction to Boundaries in China describing shi wrote: “Its boundaries are therefore in time as well as space; they are never geometrically precise. Instead of exterior planes, they have a changeable envelope of textured energy”. Little wonder then that western Taijiquan players often misunderstand their Chinese teachers. During one training camp in Chenjiagou a student asked whether a particular movement was peng or lu. The answer he received was, “It could be peng and it could be lu”. That is, it had the potential to be either depending upon the intention at that moment. The student walked away confused and disappointed that they had not received a “straight answer”.