Pardon me for the following long and rambling post, but the numerous comments I would like to respond to have been rich, copious, and involved. Also, such is my nature.
Louis, thanks for the information about “not leaning or inclining.” I have always wondered how this phrase could be consistent with the leaning that most of the traditional families teach in various parts of their systems. Your interpretation also seems more plausible to me than the physical one.
Thanks also for your words about your subway experience. I think we see eye to eye on this. Let me make one clarification, however. From your post, I think you understood my perfectly, but in the context of this thread, I feel compelled to add a clarification for others who might be bringing different assumptions to bear. I want to make clear that I was not talking about hopping back and forth between the legs, but rather about distinguishing how they calibrate their reaction to the jerks of the subway car.
Hopping from leg to leg is, of course, simply too slow a technique to be of use on a subway car. Also, one cannot count on a regular alternation of leftward jerks with rightward jerks. If one gets stuck on the left leg, two leftward jerks in a row would leave one in trouble, since one does not have a second left leg to resort to. There would be no way to distinguish full and empty, unless perhaps, one had a hand on a pole, and then could continue the game between the left foot and the gripping hand, distinguishing full and empty between them.
I also was not clear in expressing why I felt the subway “dance” I described was what was being trained in the traditional Yang Style form. Basically, I see a single step in the Yang Form as the prolonged equivalent of a single jerk of the subway car, or alternatively, as containing any number of potential jerks. All points along the step are potentially equal in character and contain the potential for instantly switching full and empty. The feeling in the legs I think one should have during a Yang Style step is the same I think one should have in the subway car.
On another front, I wanted to respond to some of the ideas that Ron raised. I think that one of the frustrations of studying Taijiquan is that many of the principles do not seem to be stated simply and plainly. There seems to be a great reliance on metaphor. People seem to interpret the metaphors in contradictory ways.
I believe that some of the time, the reason for seeming conflicts is that practitioners have only a partial or faulty understanding of underlying principles. However, I think that another frequent source of seeming conflict is that simple concepts cannot always be stated simply or concisely. In such situations, it is easier to use partially incorrect statements to hint at the principle or underlying truth. One tries to use such statements to help the listener find a bridge to the truth. If the listener does not understand this and takes such statements too literally, he or she can end up pursuing false paths.
Let me make analogy with mapping. The concept of “east” is a fairly simple one that I believe any reader of this forum understands quite well. Nevertheless, I defy anyone to quickly rattle off an accurate definition of “east” that would be less than a paragraph long at the bare minimum.
“East” is not a direction someone can point to. (E.g., someone in New York pointing at someone in the “Far East” must point at the floor, and not “eastward.”). “East” is not at right angles to north. (This procedure only works at the equator, unless perhaps if one is talking in terms of angular degrees.) “East” is not half way between north and south. (E.g., at the North Pole, every direction is south, and no direction leads “eastward.”) The sun does not rise in the east, except for on two days in the year (varying according to place) and only within the tropics. (I think I have this right, but no guarantees.) Yet, someone talking about “east” in normal life is deservedly unconcerned with these discrepancies.
In our daily life, we operate according to the collective myth that the earth is flat. We also assume that exact placement of “east” is unnecessary for any normal purpose and are more concerned with process than absolute truth. Even in navigation, an “eastward compass heading” turns out to be more a shorthand reference to a process than a permanent vector in three-dimensional space.
I think that the most useful attitude to the “metaphors” and statements of principle used in Taijiquan is the same as what our attitude is toward the concept of “east.” I do not believe that recasting principles or metaphors exclusively in terms of pure physics or anatomy ends up being as useful or simple as one might suppose, any more than precisely defining east is useful for figuring out how to go east on Rt. 66. This is probably one reason why no authorities endorse learning Taijiquan from a book. The words on the page will almost certainly be deficient, and practice and a suitable teacher are necessary to figure out how to go beyond what the printed words seem to say.
I remain puzzled at how Yang Chengfu’s statement about full and empty can be used as support for exclusively using single weighted stances to distinguish full and empty. Why would he show such little regard for this “number 1” principle in refining his form, which is full of partially weighted pivots and ending postures with weight in both legs?
I accept the imagery of the balance scale, but agree more with Polaris’ apparent view of this, which is that the circle analogy applies to every part of the body, not just to the entire body as a whole. My understanding is that when one is double weighted in the legs, one is double weighted in every part of the body. I understand the power of using a metaphor that conjures up a wheel turning through 360 degrees and more, but I do not think that maximizing the body’s degree of rotation is the only way this metaphor can be applied.
In Yang Chengfu’s discussion of “Distinguishing Full and Empty,” it seems to me that he was assigning values to the polarity expressed by full and empty, rather than giving descriptions of them. In explaining the values he assigned, he naturally used the extreme cases of having all the weight over a leg and having no weight.
At the same time, I see Yang Chengfu as basically addressing the importance of not ceding control to momentum, rather than as advocating “hopping” from one leg to the other as quickly as possible. For instance, I think that “qian1 dong4” does not mean so much that an opponent can “control you” when you are double weighted, but rather that he or she can “lead your movement” when you are double weighted. Is this an incorrect interpretation of the Chinese? The way I understand it is that, if you do not have control of how Jin is flowing through your body, your opponent can seize control of this flow by default, to your detriment. Without control, you cannot respond. Your Jin is stagnant and cannot serve your desires.
The key issue seems to be the nature and quality of one’s movement, not the nature and quality of one’s stances. My understanding is that the Chinese words to describe “stances” (at least in Taijiquan) have more of a connotation of “footwork” (e.g., bu4 fa3) than of “fixed positions to stand in.”
I also do not see “full” and “empty” merely as opposite categories or binary alternatives, but rather as opposite “directions” on a single scale. I have difficulty understanding how “full” and “empty” could only be defined as fixed points at the extreme ends of the scale.
Suppose you held a scale model of the moon in your hand and asked how to distinguish where north and south were. Someone could say that if you had such and such crater on top, the highest point on the model would represent north and the bottom would represent south. This would not mean that north and south existed only at those two points on the sphere and that north and south were indistinct everywhere else on the sphere. In fact, the only point where the distinction between north and south loses usefulness is precisely at the south and north poles. At the north pole, every direction is south; and at the south pole, every direction is north.
One of the images cited in the context of discussing “nimble” movement is the type of movement used by a cat. My concept of this cat image is that it refers to the peculiar manner in which a cat stalks. The bulk of its body is kept absolutely level, while, in contrast, its limbs motor along with almost machinelike precision. When the cat wants to be still, it appears to pause, paw in mid air, with total control over its momentum. It can freeze at any point within its stride with equal facility, and the entire motion has a smooth, scalable quality. This type of movement is only possible if one does not yield control of the body’s mass to momentum.
All martial arts I am aware of “empty” a leg in order to do a basic step. If Yang Chengfu is referring merely to this, I frankly do not understand why Taijiquan should be special. To me, what is different about Yang Style Taijiquan is that the form is very careful to train “catlike” movements, where one emphasizes continuous control over the body’s mass. Discontinuous, point-like movements are not trained until one begins to study the more advanced weapons forms (where extra-long strides and leaps occur) and where one can use continuity of the mind intent to cover for the occasional discontinuity in the use of Jin.
If “nimbleness” can only mean shifting all the weight off of a leg, why would Yang Chengfu gratuitously violate this principle in the very first pivot in the form, in the transition into Ward Off Left? The form contains far more pivots with some weight in the foot than pivots with little or no weight. If complete separation of the weight between the legs were such a prerequisite, it would seem that this would be a very minor change that could have been made.
I also do not understand references to physically separating Yin and Yang. I thought the whole point of “Taiji” theory (I am referring to the philosophical principle, not to the art of Taijiquan) is that Yin and Yang cannot be “separated.” How can one physically separate “north” from “south”? Where on a globe are these terms most useful? Certainly not at the north or south poles.
Let me be clear that I am not quibbling with the choice of the word “separate” in translation, but rather with one interpretation that can flow from this word choice. As I understand it, the Taiji Diagram was not conceived of as a circle split into a light and a dark half, but rather as a swirling disk or sphere where light and dark interact in endless variety. I understand the core meaning of “Fen” (as in “Fen xu shi” (“Distinguish full and empty”)) to be “to divide,” which does not stress any concept of “distance” between the parts or of inherent proportions.
I understand the issue to be as follows: mentally distinguishing the Yin and Yang aspects of the parts of the body from moment to moment and using both appropriately. This is in opposition to paying attention only to one aspect or the other or failing to realize that both aspects are present at all times. Said differently, I understand that the goal is not to avoid painting in “gray,” but rather to recognize that the secret of painting in gray is to look to the portions of black and white and to harmonize them appropriately for the effect one intends. If one refuses to mix black and white, one does not have much flexibility in painting.
David, I think your statements about a balance of resistance sound like absolute heresy to many, but are absolutely correct for Yang Chengfu’s form, at least at the physical level. Without relative resistance, there is no control whatsoever.
I think that some of the seeming conflict comes from whether we are talking at the level of the mind intent or at the level of the body. I think that Taijiquan does not make use of an intent to oppose muscle groups and stiffen parts of the body. One never focuses on making anything rigid. On the other hand, I think the proper mind intent to extend the limbs will automatically introduce some firmness in the limbs that is required. This firmness comes from the unconscious use of opposing muscle groups and relative resistance. This is an indirect method, not a direct one. I think this is one of the reasons why many of the authorities talk about the required state as being having the body “‘song,’ but not ‘song.’”
If one is talking about the conscious focus of the mind, I think it is improper to attempt to make a limb either tense, limp, or at any set stage in between. The more one makes such an attempt the more one subtracts “naturalness” from the form and reduces the scope for letting the power regulate itself in an integrated way. If you do not fully observe this goal of “naturalness” and “doing without doing” (“wuwei”), you constantly face the question of trying to determine how much is enough and how much is too much. Does it make sense to analyze how much strength is necessary to avoid falling over in the moving subway car during each jerk and bump?
The only way to maintain constant speed in the form is to use relative resistance, or rather to make use of countervailing forces pursuant to Newton’s laws of motion. Gravity can provide a measure of countervailing force, but only in a single direction and only at a constant rate. My belief is that the forces our opponents and we generate are generally more significant than gravity in determining how we must move. Friction also is not really a factor for our joints and cannot provide the necessary countervailing force.
If we allow our opponent to supply the necessary countervailing force, we cede control over our movement and can easily be “led” into a disadvantageous position. To maintain our arm shapes while pressing against the opponent, we must use some of our own opposing muscle groups to retain control, but focusing on this calibration with the conscious mind is not correct. “Forget oneself and follow the opponent.”
Michael, thanks for your comment about leaning in bow stances. I have to say, however, that my experience happens to be exactly the opposite of yours. At one time, I also suffered from lumbar pain, which was unconnected with Taijiquan. Unlike your apparent experience, I find that keeping my spine erect and my back leg straight tends to pull the top of my pelvis forward, closing my Ming Men (“Life Door”) and giving me a sway back that locks everything up. To prevent this, I have to use a relatively large amount of force and put a lot of deliberate tension in my hip (psoas?) muscles to hold my pelvis in place and to keep my tailbone tucked under.
My difficulty disappears if I do one of three things: bend my back knee, lean forward, or face the trunk of my body (judging by one’s navel) to the side. I find that the first solution runs counter to how I train to be “song” within the Yangs system. Thankfully, I find that the Yangs’ form uses the other two solutions in perfect symmetry, and thus my back has no problem with the form. I even appreciate the soft massaging action I receive by gently flexing the lower part of my spine with respect to gravity. I quail, however, when I contemplate the amount of hip flexibility I would need to do a style with lower stances than Yang Style and with a perpetually erect spine.
Michael, you also mentioned an interesting variation of Push in Kuang Ping Style, describing how the hands are held more closely together and the reasons for this. My understanding of the logic of the Yangs’ form is that whenever power is extended forward by the palm or fist, the palm or fist is supposed to be in line with the elbow, shoulder, hip, and leg. I think that this is to train a feel for these relationships rather than to practice particular “applications” per se. I think this is one of the reasons why some believe that the Yangs form is less martially oriented than other forms.
One new principle I learned at the seminar was that moving your hand across the midline of the body could change an elbow from useful to vulnerable and that the forearm and palm had to be rotated in order to avoid leaving oneself open to a Rollback attack. I had not realized the amount of precision that was associated with the type of rotation this principle requires.
Wushuer and Psalchemist, my idea of “intent” in the relatively empty foot may be completely off-base, but I think I have a different approach than what you both hint at. Rather than thinking only of where the foot should be placed, how much weight should be on it, or what it could potentially do, make sure that the foot is actively doing something at all times that integrates with the overall movement of the body.
In the sequence that Michael describes after Lifting Hands, make sure that you do not merely rock the weight off of the right foot, but that you actively push the weight from the right foot to the left. Think of the weight shift as being accomplished by all the muscles in both legs (or, better yet, all the muscles in the body), rather than merely by tilting the torso and allowing momentum to carry the day.
Similarly, as you transition from Brush Left Knee into Play the Pipa/Guitar, make sure that you are actively pushing off the ball of the left foot. Some people lift the left foot too early. Some people lift it at the right time, but really do not do anything with it. If you do this movement “correctly,” the time that the empty foot is merely “perched” and inactive is reduced almost to an instant in time during most of the postures. This procedure also tends to help determine how high you lift the toes or the heel. Since you are actively pushing or bracing with the foot, the toe or heel will naturally rise and fall according to the angle of the forces you are generating.
As you shift weight into the foot, I believe the toe will fall (or the heel will rise). This is quite noticeable in Lifting Hands, Play the Pipa/Guitar, Fist Under Elbow, etc., or even the beginning (in the right foot) and end (in the left foot) of White Crane Spreads Wings.
As you push weight away from the foot or “pull” the trunk of the body away from the foot, I believe the toe will naturally rise (or the heel will lower down slightly). This is noticeable in the transitions into Needle at Sea Bottom and Step Back to Ride the Tiger.
I think that the combination of these two principles also helps explain why one switches from heel to toe or from toe to heel at various points in the form. (E.g., Needle at Sea Bottom and Step Back to Ride the Tiger) The switch is “forced” by the effect of the body’s movement on the relevant ankle. In Needle at Sea Bottom and Step Back to Ride the Tiger, the energy in the left ankle seems to circle backward in a downward arc (down-back-up, like the letter “u”) and circulate back forward in an upward arc (up-forward-down, like the letter “n”). In Play the Pipa, the energy seems to do the opposite, i.e., circle backward in an upward arc and circulate back forward in downward arc to complete the circle of energy. I hope this makes some sense.
Take care all,