Archive for taijiquan
So, the big question on everyone’s my mind is whether or not martial arts teachers, yoga instructors, and their religious gurus are “enlightened”. In stuff like Tibetan guru yoga, you are supposed to view your teacher as enlightened — sometimes even if they aren’t. It’s part of the practice. I don’t do it, but it makes sense as a practice, in order to discover your belief is malleable and useful to that end. There is no god(s) if you don’t believe in them, and vice versa.
Although Taijiquan is my big psycho-physical investment at the moment, I am willing to believe it’s not the same spiritual ace-in-the-hole for other people. How could it be so? People need to be unique, independent. But at the same time, the big problem of human existence is social friction. How do we deal with other people? This is a big portion of Jean-Paul Sartre’s philosophy: the existence of another creates a new perception of oneself and one’s surroundings. They are no longer a portion of selfless existence, but exist in contrast to oneself.
Amidst others, we seek to validate our own views, yet for what reason? There is opposition to all views, and human reason and rationale is endless. It is supremely difficult to co-exist with others in peace. And peace is a difficult subject to address, because the moment it is broached and given our conscious attention, it ceases to exist. It is simply the absence of conflict, and the absence of selfish views. But that’s too often misconstrued as being a doormat.
The other strange thing is that, although Taijiquan or dream yoga or Alexander technique or Zen or Sufi or Benedictine chant or whatever else may work for some people, these practices are not guarantors of ability or insight. They are more like rocket boosters that can change one’s mental, physical or spiritual trajectory, but the original trajectory for real insight has to be there in the first place. Those are prior causes, the manifestation of which is natural genius. But then for some reason, hard work seems way more important.
Been reading a lot about Jodo Shu/Pure Land Buddhism lately. It sounds a lot like Christianity to me: everybody goes to paradise as long as they can faithfully recite Amida Buddha’s name out. Even the negative actions of a sinner cannot stop a true believer in Amida’s Pure Land from going there. Amida’s Pure Land is also locate in the west. Why the west? I couldn’t tell ya. Well, I do have my own speculations on the matter, but they’re worthless even to me, much less to you, lolz!
I gotta say, though, this whole deal of thinking heaven and paradise are somewhere else and you get to go there miraculously for being a good little lamb — I don’t believe it. Not because I don’t believe in paradise, but because I don’t think you’ll have to wait around to go there once you see it. When it happens, it happens, kapicz?
In fact, the whole problem of getting to paradise is a lot like the whole problem of learning to relax and issue power in Taijiquan. The only way we can issue power is by focusing on relaxation, so the only way we can go to paradise is to focus on… …. ….
Okay, I don’t really have much of a point here, but think about this! For some reason, everybody (and I’m not just generalizing) builds up chronic muscle tension in their back, hips and shoulders over time. This eventually leads to back problems and serious back pain, joint pain, etc. which further builds up depression, listlessness, and so on. But instead of getting up every morning and going through some half-hour routine to deal with this inevitable physical pain that accompanies existence, most people complain about it or want some easy solution later in life when it builds up and finally hits them. Which, again has some kind of analogy to yearning for paradise, though again I am slow and not quite getting to the …
Oh well. Paradise actually doesn’t exist, because if we conceptualize it in advance, it’s not paradise.
I’ve been busy and haven’t had much I care to write about lately. Society has had its way with me. But I have been practicing a lot of Taijiquan (TJQ). That’s the only thing in life that doesn’t seem like a complete waste of time — it levels up the soul as well as the physical body all at once.
The principle you hear superior TJQ bloggers talk about these days is maximum use of relaxation, specifically the Chinese term fang-song. The principle of using the waist efficiently in movements (“waist is the commander”) is the core of most martial arts; pretty much every martial art does that at advanced levels. But in TJQ and “internal” martial arts, the key unique principle or secret above all else, is total softness and the ability to relax muscle while fighting.
But even if you don’t practice TJQ or any other macho head-games, fang-song is a beautiful concept to work with. It literally means a combination of “relax” and “unclench the muscles”. It’s pretty much the idea that all meditation teachers are trying to point to, but don’t usually have the vocabulary or practice methods to elucidate. Whenever I am sitting somewhere with nothing to do, or lying in bed drifting off to sleep, I just fang-song my whole body. Sure, sure, you could sit and “be mindful of the breath,” but a lot of people do that without taking heed of their levels of tension. Fang-song is a lot like meditation-class body-scanning-for-tension, but it’s a method that was developed to also function when confronting extreme violence or threats to one’s life.
Most tension starts when the back isn’t straight, and immediately ripples to the shoulders and hips. When the shoulders and hip joints are tense, there is a parallel effect on the elbows and knees respectively. The other big issue is the verticality of the spine, which is a whole additional TJQ principle in of itself (all the principles are co-dependent upon one another). Ideally, one wants to tuck the coccyx until the whole spine, from the bottom (or top of the ass), up to the neck, is one straight line (as when viewed from the side).
It’s also very important to unclench jaw and facial muscles. The reason to wear sunglasses in on bright days is to keep your face from scrunching up and becoming incredibly tense. Excess jaw and facial tension can lead to migraines, headaches and other kinds of annoying pains. Shoulder tension can do this too, and practicing TJQ-related fang-song is practically a miracle cure for chronic back pain, myofascial muscle issues, etc.
As far as qi and issuing energy goes — without total relaxation, the amount of qi a person can circulate and issue in strikes is pretty minimal. I’m not entirely sure what the energy programming instructions are in external, muscular styles like Karate, Shaolin, Silat and so on, but in TJQ and internal styles, it’s the total relaxation which gives you the qi explosion. A lot of beginners are always interested in qi circulation and bringing it out in striking energy, but once you get somewhere in practice, you realize the qi naturally appears and soaks into everything when you relax really deeply.
Anyway, I have a feeling that Taijiquan will get super big in a martial way soon, right before the world implodes. Considering that there are a large number of MA teachers pitching TJQ efficiently now, I don’t see how it could go any other way. Especially since TJQ is the best.
But what difference does it make if TJQ becomes commercially popular in a martial way? Is that really better than the current trend of it being popular as a New Age healing tonic? I guess I don’t care either way.
Lately, in my Taijiquan practice, I’ve been thinking a lot about the principle of verticality. One of the five fundamental principles of Zheng Manqing-style Taijiquan (and numerous other branches) is to maintain verticality in all movement. This means, keep the back straight — and very importantly — keep the eyes looking ahead on eye-level. This last part about the eyes is often neglected unless folks practice wholeheartedly and on a daily basis.
Verticality is important if you do Buddhist or Taoist meditation practices too (and probably other branches, i.e. Hindu stuff, but I really don’t know and can’t say). Of course, in seated meditation, when it is done with the eyes open the eyes are not straight ahead, but must fall a few feet in front of where you are sitting. The exact spot will vary from person to person, depending on their height, torso size, etc. and must be determined by the individual through consistently practicing and discovering which position allows for good posture with minimal tension.
But the point in either case, is that the eyes are directly related to posture, even though we commonly associate the idea of verticality only with the spine. When the eyes drop below the normal eyeline of the head/body, the body slumps and begins to lean forward. In a combative situation, one will lean on or into the opponent, or overextend the limbs and let them become handles by which to manipulate the body. This can also be related to — or an exaggeration of — sloth, torpor or laziness. It is usually an extension of bodily tension and chronic poor posture, further cyclically exacerbated by this eye scenario.
The other possibility, that the eyes extend too far above the relaxed, default position, reflects tension and excitability or irritability. It’s less common that people have this problem, rather than the previous one of slumping. If people are overly upright in posture, they typically are carrying a lot of tension in the shoulders because they’re using too much muscle mass and are disconnecting from their dantien or hara — their bodily center below the navel.
It seems pretty obvious, but the eyes are a subtle part of our posture. Most people walking down the street are looking at the ground, only glancing up at noises or approaching people. By looking at the ground, their posture is already beginning to suffer — and they’re revealing themselves to be a more viable target for predators seeking people lost in their own thought-worlds. In fact, the drooping of the eyes and the slumping of one’s neck and back is directly tied to thoughts — the more lost in our thoughts we are, the more our posture will suffer.
Full-body movement is very interesting. When using the entire body to move at once, as in Taijiquan or a variety of other martial arts, there is no place where the movement originates. Sure, it’s seemingly POWERED by the legs and the waist, and you keep your mind-intent in the dantien or hara, but the movement does not originate anywhere specifically on the body. Which connects the intent to the mind, rather than any telegraphed isolated point in the limbs or whatever.
As a result, the individual gains a subtler awareness of the body’s relationship to itself and its surroundings. Full body movement generally takes place as one eliminates unnecessary tension from the muscles — tension which is the result of excess stress from thoughts, worries and other typical mental baggage and metaphysical funk. Upon releasing tension from the muscles, one’s structure becomes naturally stable and strong (held up by the skeleton), and the qi begins to fill the dantien and then move throughout the structure of the body, strengthening the bones.
Strange things can be done with qi. Qi is, of course, difficult to define or pin down (preaching to the choir here!). And why don’t Buddhist masters talk about qi? Surely many of them knew about it, and Hindu religious practices emphasize prana. Tibetan Buddhism has it’s own set of definitions about bodily energy which are fascinating, but most Buddhism emphasizes all personal energy or ability, health and whatnot as coming from the mind alone.
Yes, Buddhism and even Hermetics focus upon the mind/breath as the object of meditative practice. I’ve heard people claim that meditating upon the qi is missing the point or somehow allows people to get lost in ideas of power or energy or trance. Yet in my experience, qi meditation is merely a means, and is never explicitly described to be an end. Qi meditations are not the only ones I use, but in certain cases, such as in the martial arts, it leads to an increased subtle awareness which makes one’s practice much deeper.
Anyway, everyone is sensitive to the qi meridians. Just run your finger along the sensitive, ticklish spots on the inside of your arm or the back of your legs and ankles. I found I could follow the qi meridians right away because the qi flows where a person is naturally sensitive/ticklish. For what it’s worth, although I had already read about the qi meridians in books before being “transmitted” the meditation process in person, I did not actually recognize or follow the qi until someone showed the process to me.
On that note, qi transmission is problematic because it is hard to make sure someone else is learning it properly. I know folks who have been practicing longer than me who still claim not to feel anything qi-related, and quite advanced meditators who claim to have no experience with qi. This lends to the skepticism of many empiricists who do not trust qi to be a valid experiential medium. But in my experience, qi is verily real. One teacher of mine had the strange ability to undo tension in other people by using his qi. Whether or not it’s actually qi, he did it by extending his energy into you through his hands, at the point on the upper palm, and the personal result is a hot stream of energy in your body where he sends his intent. Wild stuff. Sounds like reiki or shiatsu or whatever, but I’ve felt those things and this was something else.
Everything that exists has qi, but it differentiates from the concept of mind, in that qi is limited to the dynamics of being a life-force medium which is unknowable. The mind is itself perhaps unknowable as well, but the mind is the very intangible fabric in which all things are reflections. Qi does not have reflections, but is the subtly tangible, yet unknowable, essence behind all existences.
In the magical science of Taijiquan, there are eight basic movements. They are the fundamental ways to react to oncoming force and neutralize it. A lot of martial arts and philosophies actually have eight basic movements/ideas/potentials, so it’s not that big of deal (or maybe that means it is). But I’m just talking about Taijiquan here so lets keep moving.
These basic movements all represent a kind of energy. When you’re pulling someone off balance, you’re using cai or “pulling” energy. When you suddenly expand your arms to block a hooking punch, you’re using peng or “ward-off” energy. There are distinct moves in Taijiquan forms that implement these basic movements; in fact the forms are pretty much exclusively made up of variations on them. But the thing is, we can’t get attached to the actual movements themselves. We want to implement into our minds, as if some kind of full-body hermetic tantra, the ideas behind these various energies.
So the eight basic movements really exist symbolically. That means, every time something expands, it is peng energy. Every time something is efficiently shrouded and deflected, that’s lu or “roll-back” energy. Within these definitions, the movements work like the Hermetic ideas about the elements — that fire represents expansion and the notion of heat, whereas water represents contraction and the fundamental notion of cold. Similarly, in Chinese five-element philosophy, the elements are (obviously) symbolic. For example, metal symbolizes things rendered and removed from direct association with the earth or elements (tools, technology, and so forth).
The movement of various energies becomes a mental exercise. After training with physical structural concepts for a while, one practices with others, and here one becomes adept at maintaining utmost single-pointed concentration side-by-side with sensitive “listening” skills. By harmonizing the basic energies with the body movements, one begins to respond appropriately to physical engagements by perceiving the duifang (uke, opponent, whatever) intimately in the mind — as a subtler mental manifestation. This is where one begins to “see into the 4th dimension”.
What really kicks ass about all this is that one gets to the point where the physical senses no longer are the primary sense faculties. They certainly are in so much as they indicate immediate qualitative distinctions in the immediate physical environment to the individual’s brain. But they cannot project onto our minds the bigger cosmic picture, they cannot sense predators or impending catastrophe. It is only as these peripheral, intuitive mental faculties increase in sensitivity from our training (again, not necessarily MA or Taiji), a greater awareness of the universe opens up.
It’s un-Buddhist to be a martial artist, right? Everyone should live in a vanilla-flavored paradise where we all get along for ever and ever, amen. There are insecure macho types, as well as sadists, who become fascinated with martial arts and wear it on their sleeves for all to see and televise. Eventually these people become experts. Some of them even claim to say violence is bad — when they themselves are obsessed with violence!
But… isn’t religious doctrine a response to the way the world is? Isn’t that a similar indoctrination along the lines of what martial artists are teaching, that one should not get carried away by the aggressive nature and activities of the world? Sure, there are messed up martial arts teachers, maybe more so than religious teachers, but I don’t think that’s any more surprising than the amount of crappy people in any profession, social group or hobby.
It’s just worrisome that fighters physically hurt people. Even when you go to a class to learn or practice fighting, you feel violated after someone hurts you unexpectedly; even after you’ve heard a million times that you should expect to get injured in learning a martial art.
I think just as many people become evil lawyers, businessman, politicians, gangsters, pornographers, oilmen, mercenaries, or spies. Some of them are probably attracted to the martial arts too, but the arts themselves are neutral — insofar as they exist. Practicing over the years has never made me enjoy violence or think about it more. Instead, I don’t react very emotionally to actual physical pain, I’ve learned to sense intents right away and I yield or react very naturally and smoothly when someone or something is about to hit me. But some would say, certain professions are devoid of neutrality, right? Like being an assassin, or an oilman, or a mercenary, or a gangster. How can these people be neutral or decent? Some people will actually say the same thing about martial artists or anyone who practices these things seriously, or tells you Taijiquan is a violent martial art (which it is).
Sure, the Taiji forms usually emphasize movements that old people and sick or injured people can do too. But it’s because the person’s ability and structural strength is built up over time. At Weakness With a Twist, a bunch of good posts were made regarding the subject, that muscles often develop to make up for a structural imbalance creating stiffness and pain. Cleaning up one’s structure melts away excessive muscles and allows one to move without relying on them.
That’s the “magical” part of Taijiquan that makes doctors or Buddhists or whomever else approve of it. But it’s pretty freakin’ hard to get the full benefits of Taiji without learning the full martial skillset. A lot of people decry martial arts because they find the stuff intimidating or dysfunctional. They don’t want to put the hard work into practice. Doing some kind of meditation every day is pretty hard in itself, just like doing anything everyday is pretty hard. Yet I find it’s easier to be a little lazy with meditation practice. With martial arts practice, if you don’t put total effort into it every time, you’ll immediately realize you’re wasting your time when somebody (your buddy) smooshes your pretty-boy nose. One perfect nose, ruined forever! Bam!
Blah blah blah, gong fu (lifelong virtuous work) is amazing. Not really. It’s like blogging. Who’s in it for the long haul? Blogging everyday, even when you feel like shit, just because you have to is more gongfu-relevant than the people who go on meditation retreats once a year and then just sit with a group once a week the rest of the time.
…miniature American flags for others!
It’s funny, if you try to compare how difficult to learn the various martial arts are, there’s no clear winner. I have my own views (Taiji is the best ever! A delicious martial art!) but they’re all pretty hard in their own right. If they weren’t, they wouldn’t be worth much nor require discipline. The thing is, the uninformed public tends to gauge difficulty by how impressive something appears on the surface. For this reason I think Taijiquan has gotten a misleading reputation.
Taijiquan and other similar “internal” arts are difficult not just physically, but also in the aspect of listening and using mental awareness. They demand one get rid of muscular strength and learn a certain kind of coordination and intuition. One cannot become lazy and just put blatant physical force into the movements. The concepts are a little more subtle than just getting strong and pounding people.
Lots of people I’ve known will accept that Yoga or Tae Kwon Do or Shaolin kung fu is tough to do, just ‘coz it looks all acrobatic or elastic and spiffy. Taiji is rarely practiced fast, except when you get down to the sparring or weapons stuff. WHICH WE DO ALL THE TIME, geez. Even so, we don’t hop around all that much either. Which isn’t to say we can’t, particularly since a lot of people who practice this stuff with a serious teacher end up with a really serious rooting ability. It’s good for running around mountains or whatevas.
Another interesting thing about Taiji, is there are no visible results in your physique! Yeah yeah, we’ve all said it’s cause of taiji when we get a beer belly. But seriously, the more I do Taiji, although I get in better shape, it is absolutely not visibly noticeable to anyone — not even to me. Although my body becomes lighter and springier, and my movements more balanced and “full”, my muscle mass actually just melts away! See why you can’t attract the babes doing Taiji? You end up looking like an old Chinese man.
Based upon this, I suppose no one is surprised then that Taiji doesn’t attract the largest amount of MMA types. On top of that, to really kick ass with Taiji (having had no prior experience), it would take like 5-10 years with a good teacher. I feel like time with any typical Muay Thai teacher or whatevers, would yield “tougher” results or result in fighting ability more quickly (assuming you were already a young male in good physical shape, not the prerequisite for Taiji, if ya ask me). I just seriously doubt if those positive results from studying Muay Thai could last through one’s middle-aged career, or through illness or debilitating injury. Same with Tae Kwon Do, actually. I’ve met a couple of middle-aged guys who needed hip replacements from all their flying spinning jumps.
In fact, Deshimaru, a dude I’m always talking so big about, proves his ignorance on the subject in his otherwise pretty rockin’ Zen Way to the Martial Arts. See, Deshimaru fell into the same trap most people in popular culture have, in assuming the Taiji sponsored by the Communist Chinese government in the ’60s was a serious source of the art. The Chinese government did have some member of the Yang lineage create a watered down public Yang form for the people as a kind of nationalistic exercise, which has been spread under the guise of the 24-posture Yang form. But Taijiquan is an old-school lineage of gongfu and martial skill which goes back several centuries.
When people used to ask what kind of gongfu I study, I initially wouldn’t even say Taijiquan because it’s so annoying that everyone thinks it isn’t a deadly, soul-crushing dance with the devil. These days I usually just suck it up and tell people I do Taiji, ‘coz I don’t want the only people saying they do Taiji to be some pony-boys now, do I? There are a lot of those around: people who do Taiji for a couple of months and try push-hands a few times and think they have experience. But really, push-hands is (A) just an exercise and (B) very hard to do correctly without consistent practice for years. On the one hand you can’t have rules in push-hands because then what is the practical point of the exercise? On the other hand, without any rules it just becomes a stupid shoving match. So you stick to principles (not dogma).
Some people seem to think if they’re really peaceful and just practice push-hands and some form work they’ll magically get enlightened one day and be martial masters. I understand that people are afraid of or perturbed by martial arts, they don’t want to fight or hurt people (almost all Taiji teachers do not require that you learn to fight if you are opposed to the idea). It’s sick to hurt someone else. I have always thought that. We all say that, but I am serious. I started practicing martial arts because I really hated hurting people. In fact, I used to get bullied because I didn’t want to fight. But was that smart? Anyway, the point is, the highest level in the stuff is achieved by the martial masters. Sad but true. Not that anyone in particular has cornered enlightenment or ultimate reality more than anyone else.