I think I am beginning to understand where your puzzlement with Yang Style may be coming from. You make some perceptive observations that took me several years to begin considering. If you find what you are being taught surprising, you should be comforted by the fact that what you describe as your original understanding of Taijiquan is actually quite common among many Yang Stylists I have known.
Whether or not the original approach you describe is good Taijiquan or good technique for martial arts, I think it is ultimately at variance with what the Yangs teach. Others may well see this differently. Below, I will try not to mince words in the interests of clarity, rather than to be combative.
Rather than directly commenting on your post, let me first paint a more general picture to clarify where I perceive the theory of the Yangs to lie. Your post raises a bunch of issues that can generate discussion along a number of paths. In particular, I would like to address differing views of muscle exertion, momentum, and leaning, but probably will not have time to do so all at one time. By saying that I think something is or is not a particular way, I do not necessarily mean that I think you disagree or that NAWS does things differently. It is simply easier to try to state a coherent position from my viewpoint without having to account for other ones.
First, I think that the distinctions that some people make between good force and bad force and between soft and hard do not match up very well with the presumed Chinese terms that underlie these words. By this, I do not mean that Chinese is better than English or even more descriptive of Taijiquan, but rather that the English translations can mislead about the distinctions being made in Chinese. Here are some examples:
Both “Li” (“raw strength”) and “Jin” (“refined or integrated strength”) can be translated as “force.” Emphasizing “Li” is universally viewed as bad Taijiquan; however, I have never heard or read anywhere that use of “Jin” is bad. Because of this, it is hard to draw any useful distinctions by talking only about “force” in English. Some “force” is good Taijiquan. Some “force” is bad Taijiquan. I have added the phrases in parentheses above not because these are really accurate translations of the Chinese terms, but as mere tags that hint at the distinctions.
To remedy the linguistic problem of talking only about “force,” people resort to other phrases, such as “hard force,” to try to make the distinction between what is good and what is bad. I think this phrase and similar phrases (like “brute force”) are intended to match up with the Chinese phrase “zhuo li” (“clumsy or awkward force”), which may be used more often even than “Li” itself. Although such devices are unavoidable, we may merely run up against other linguistic problems.
Talking about “hard force” as a bad thing implies that “soft force” is good. However, my understanding is that the Yangs do not oppose these terms in quite this way. They talk about having softness on the outside and hardness on the inside. Getting rid of hardness altogether is not the goal of their Taijiquan and would not conform to the philosophical principle of Taiji, which implies a desirably and dynamic interplay of opposites such as hard and soft.
The Yangs also distinguish two different types of “soft.” They describe their Taijiquan as “Rou,” but not as “Ruan.” These two words are close in meaning and can both be translated as “soft” in certain contexts. They are nonetheless distinct. If you are making your Taijiquan “Ruan,” you will not be conforming to one of the Yangs’ essential requirements. If you are not making your Taijiquan “Rou,” you will again not be doing their style of Taijiquan. Because of the ambiguity in the English term, I am hesitant to rely on the “softness” of someone’s technique or form as the sole indication of its correctness from the Yang Style perspective.
If one is approaching the Yangs’ Taijiquan from a theoretical framework, it is very important to understand the difference between “Li” and “Jin” and between “Rou” and “Ruan.” These words have been discussed before on this board, but I would be happy to provide more linguistic information about any of them if you can’t find the previous discussion. (By the way, you could probably search on “rou” or “ruan” and turn up the threads.) I tend to go further on linguistic matters than some might like and have less knowledge than other contributors on this board. As a result, I will not go further into these words now unless you or someone else thinks it might be helpful.
Another problem with talking about “Li” and “Jin” is that some people talk as if “Li” is simply bad and “Jin” is simply good. This is not what I understand the Yangs’ position to be. What I have read and heard of their views can be summarized as follows. All “Jin” has some “Li” in it. If there is no “Li,” there is no “Jin.” The object of Taijiquan is not to eliminate “Li,” but to refine it into “Jin” through correct practice.
In one of the essays accessible from the homepage on this board (under Tai Chi Info/Essays/Fang Song), Yang Zhenduo analogizes the difference between “Li” and “Jin” to the distinction between iron and steel. One does not get steel by eliminating the iron in it. On the other hand, adding more iron to the steel is also not terribly useful by itself.
Also, the Yangs really do not seem so much concerned with “maximizing” the amount of “Jin” as with using the correct mind intent (“Yi”) to allow whatever “Jin” there is to flow. Once one can learn to allow the “Jin” to flow correctly, the “amount” of “Jin” really takes care of itself in people of average health and fitness. One should not really make the pursuit of “Jin” the center of one’s practice.
I can make an analogy to swimming, since most of the attributes that apply to traditional Yang Style apply to swimming, in my opinion. One does not improve one’s swimming merely by using fewer muscles or by reducing the level of one’s energy output. Once one learns how to use the muscles in an integrated way, the amount of energy output that will be generated depends on how fast and how far one wants to swim. Merely floating uses no muscles at all, but is not the ideal of swimming form. The trick is to learn how to use one’s muscles. What one learns is not so much a fixed set of unvarying movements, but a feel for movement that is more than a memorized sequence of movements.
Some people talk about “efficiency” to capture this idea, but I think that this can obscure the fact that “efficiency” is a meaningless concept without defining what the goal of the “efficient” activity is. Sleeping is more efficient than walking if one’s goal is to use the minimum number of calories. It is not, however, very efficient at getting one anywhere outside of dreamland.
By the way, I make an absolute distinction between the way arts like Karate or even Aikido organize the use of the muscles and tendons in the body and the way the Yangs do. I would describe Aikido as “soft,” but not in the way Yang Style Taijiquan is soft. At least for me, a Karate punch and a Taiji punch do not use the joints in the same way, even when the level of physical exertion is the same. It is not so much a matter of skill level or even a matter of “coordination” or the “outward” shape of the movements, but how the joint movements are “mediated” with respect to each other and integrated into the overall body movement. It is also not a matter of manipulating Qi in any purposeful way or of using some sort of mind power that is independent of body movement.
Another very problematic word, both in English and in Chinese, is “relax” (“Fangsong”) and how it is used. Many people believe that to “fangsong” can only mean to “ease up on the use of the muscles.” Although this is one of several possible translations of this word, the Yangs, in my opinion, have little direct concern for this meaning of the word in their training method. When Yang Zhenduo demonstrates how to “fangsong,” he shows more muscular activity, in my opinion, rather than less. At least for me, Karate relaxation or even Yoga relaxation are not at all the same as the Taiji relaxation used in traditional Yang Style. Some masters talk about a state that is “Song” (“relaxed?”), but not “Song,” that I believe reflects this same reality and this same view. What one does on a couch or in a Jacuzzi has nothing to do with this feeling. This is also one reason why the Yangs stress that the relaxation must be conscious. Being unfocused or even sleepy makes their type of “relaxation” impossible.
In my opinion, the Yangs’ method of “Fangsong” concerns a feeling one develops in the tendons (and in the mind). This feeling is ultimately independent of the amount of muscle exertion involved. If one does one’s Taijiquan correctly, one will indeed not expend a great deal of one’s own energy; however, in my opinion, the fact that one is or is not greatly exerting a particular muscle is an extremely unreliable gauge of the correctness of a posture. For example, if one reads about the palm methods translated elsewhere on this board (under Tai Chi Info/Essays/Palm Methods), one will find Yang Zhenduo actually counseling against insufficiently doing things, rather than against overdoing them.
In the Yangs’ training method, other principles seem to address the appropriate level of muscle exertion for particular activities. In other words, if one does other things correctly, the result will be that one does not rely on raw muscle; however, directly avoiding the use of muscle is not a good focus by itself. I am unaware of any passages or quotes from the classics that express a different view. If you or anyone else has one to propose, I would be happy to address it.
There are passages where Yang Chengfu counsels against the use of “strong force.” In my opinion, rather than addressing form and one’s own posture, Yang Chengfu is addressing how one relates to the opponent. I believe he is counseling against the attitude prevalent in hard styles that seeks to overwhelm an opponent by exhibiting great speed and/or power. Instead of doing this, I think Yang Style aims at manipulating the energy in the opponent first, before focusing on one’s own energy. Put more simply, I think that one does not try to minimize the “Jin” generated in the solo form, but does try to minimize the amount of one’s own “Jin” that is used in Push Hands as we “forget ourselves and follow the opponent.”
Although many view the essence of Taijiquan form as something like the development of “effortless power,” I do not think this is correct of what the Yangs teach. I think the main purpose of their form is to develop a conscious, yet innate understanding of how the body moves and its potential. Trying directly to minimize muscle use goes directly against this objective, since it is only by using the muscles that we learn of their potential. Doing “effortless” form does not necessarily mean training for effortless Push Hands or effortless sparring.
I also believe that the form is concerned with exploring relative values, not absolute ones. We learn how to relate one muscle to another. In Push Hands, we learn to relate ourselves to our opponent. In neither case are we aiming for any absolute states or for a feeling that we have used the absolute minimum or maximum of force. We are not drilling anything absolute into our muscle memories, but trying to learn about the use of our muscles and tendons.
If one looks specifically at stepping and the interval between first contact with the floor and flattening the foot, I think one can make several observations. The technique that causes the least demand on the muscles is simply to allow gravity, momentum, the weight of the body, and the relaxation of the ankle to push the foot down. In my opinion, this type of movement has several problems from the point of view of traditional Yang Style.
First, the speed of gravity is usually too slow for combat purposes. When I used to wrestle in high school, it was very apparent to me that mediocre wrestlers had difficulty realizing that the speed with which they could sprawl to the ground was much slower than the speed with which they could move in other directions. As a result, they were always vulnerable to leg tackles. If one trains to use gravity as the primary engine of movement, one is training to arbitrarily limit one’s speed.
Second, the speed (or rate of acceleration) of gravity is fixed. An essential characteristic of traditional Yang Style movement is smooth flexibility and adjustability. Everything about it is elastic. Linking one’s movement to a fixed variable like the speed of gravity is at variance with such flexibility/elasticity and does not allow for the dynamic interplay required by the Taiji principle.
Third, trying deliberately not to use certain muscles is by definition not integrated movement and does not qualify as “Jin” under the traditional Yang Style definition. It is local movement and thus purely undesirable “Li,” no matter how slight the level of muscle exertion. When Yang Chengfu talks about not using the slightest amount of “clumsy or crude force,” I do not believe he is talking about not using the slightest amount of exertion, but rather about not using the slightest amount of a particular type of force, i.e., local movement. In traditional Yang Style, I think one is supposed to use more muscles in order ultimately to use less muscle overall, even for slight amounts of movement.
Fourth, relying on gravity means relying on a force that is relatively weak. In allowing gravity to flatten the foot, one trains to let a certain set of muscles collapse rather than to let another set of muscles to push or extend. The rate at which any muscle collapses or disengages is fixed and not under conscious control, unlike the rate at which a muscle engages, which is subject to conscious control. (Biologically and neurologically, the body has no real relaxation mechanism. The speed of muscle contraction can be varied, but a muscle relaxes simply by ceasing to contract. This is why stretching exercises can be important to maintain mobility.) Muscle engagement can thus participate in a Taiji relationship that muscle disengagement cannot. If one interprets “fangsong/relax” as a feeling of being collapsed or disengaged, I again think one is talking about a feeling that does not have the dynamic principle of Taiji in it.
Fifth, since gravity and momentum cannot be smoothly varied, relying on them to calibrate movement violates the principle of continuity. The principle of continuity is not that movement is constant (i.e., this principle does not describe momentum), but rather that the application of “Jin” is constant. Yang Chengfu contrasts Taijiquan’s continuous power with the “cut off” energy of hard styles rather than with stillness. The same “Jin” one uses to flatten the foot, is the same “Jin” one would use to do “Kao” (“Shoulder Stroke”).
Imagine that you are stepping and beginning to flatten the foot and that an opponent has snuck by your defenses, tied up your arms, and managed to place his or her hand on your chest to begin a push. At this point, your only defense may be “Kao.” To return the opponent’s energy back along its path and strike with one’s body through the opponent’s arm requires the expenditure of a fair amount of “Jin.” A “soft” Aikido technique cannot do this, since Aikido is not built around the principle of Taiji, but along other principles. The amount of “Jin” needed to perform this strike will exceed the amount of power that gravity can deliver by itself. Proof of this is the fact that such a “gravity-based” Kao cannot be performed in slow motion. Even leaning will have little effect on the amount of power generated in slow motion. Such a “Kao” would be calibrated by the speed of gravity, rather than by the speed of the opponent’s “Jin.”
A "Kao" based on the integrated use of all the muscles (i.e., on "Jin") can be performed with full power over the space of 30 seconds or within 1/2 a second with no change in the type of energy used. The speed can even be varied in mid-Kao. What determines the useful speed of this type of Kao is the nature of the energy manifested by the opponent. Although momentum and gravity can be accounted for, there is no time when Jin is not being applied and thus the opponent will not be able to lead the energy away easily.
I have composed this post over several days and have reached the limit of what I can do for the moment. At some later date, I want to comment on what you have described as “double weighting.” I am now more certain than ever that “double weighting” in traditional Yang Style is independent of the percentage of weight in the legs. If you look at anything other than 100/0 weight distributions as “double weighting,” I think you are using this term differently than in traditional Yang Style. Double weighting in traditional Yang Style concerns the movement of energy and the intent, not the effect of gravity on dead weight.
Hopefully, what I have posted above will begin to clarify why I have posted the things I have in the past. Let me know if it makes any sense.
[This message has been edited by Audi (edited 03-08-2003).]