Greetings to Steve, Psalchemist, Wushuer, and all:
Steve, thanks for your response. Let me try to go a little deeper in explaining what I was trying to do with this post, because I think I may still not have been clear. In the end, I think our positions are quite close, if not identical; but I want to go to some length so that I can minimize confusion about what I have been trying to say.
In my opinion, for which I claim no authority, the Yangs and others teach principles that sometimes stress the mind and sometimes stress the body, but in virtually no case can one profitably separate the action of the two when discussing their methods or principles. I think that Horatio made a point similar to this ages and ages ago on this board, but I do not think I fully appreciated much of his meaning at the time. I think he coined a double term like “mind-body” to try to make his point.
I refer to this point because it is a very important aspect of how I relate to the form. Although one can appear to exactly duplicate the external aspects of a posture, I believe the posture will be incorrect if the internal aspects are not appropriate. At the same time, however, I also believe that duplicating the “internal” aspects of a posture will be incorrect if the external aspects are not appropriate.
In a position like the Preparation Posture, I doubt that there is any direct martial application of a principle like “drooping the elbows” or “extending (shu1) the fingers”. In other words, I believe that a person can appear to perform this posture “effectively” without really observing these principles. Nevertheless, I, like you, believe that it is important to observe them even here. If one observes the same principle throughout all 103 postures, one will learn 103 variations on the same theme and acquire a deep understanding of the theme. If, on the other hand, one practices 103 different themes, even while looking for a unifying principle, a very different set of skills ends up being trained. For me, the difference between these approaches is central to how I approach Taijiquan.
In the Preparation Posture, I now believe I must consciously “droop my elbows” and “extend my fingers.” However, I feel I really learned how to do this from other postures where the difference in feel between doing it and not doing it was initially clearer. Now that I think I have some feel for it, I can also look for it in other people, as you mentioned in your post. Sometimes I can clearly see its presence or lack. Sometimes I cannot. By observing small bodily movements, I try to infer how the person’s mind is controlling or relating to various parts of his or her body. Most often, however, I find it hard to reach firm conclusions until I can observe additional movement.
In a posture like Fair Lady, my understanding is that the Yangs have a very definite and very specific idea as to what the standard position of the “blocking” arm should be. (I need to stress the term “standard,” because they seem to emphasize learning things in a standard fashion first, before embracing the complexities of variation. What may be standard for them does not necessarily have to be standard for other teachers.) The position of this arm is quite high, compared with other instruction I have been exposed to. (One justification I have been shown for the height is that it must be so positioned as to prevent an opponent from landing a hooking punch to your temple.) However, even in this “high” position, the Yangs very much stress that the elbow and shoulder must remain “down.” This is fairly easy to show, but cumbersome to describe.
Some teach Taijiquan in a way that seems to imply that the mind generates, shapes, and controls energy all by itself. I, at least, do not understand the Yangs teaching to be like this. Every aspect of their method seems to involve both mind and body. When I speak of principles, I always mean that the body is actively doing something, not that the mind is imagining or even imaging something by itself. Nerves, muscles, and tendons are engaged in specific, if subtle, activity.
When the Yangs require that the elbow be simultaneously high (perhaps about eye-level in Fair Lady) and simultaneously “down,” I understand that they mean that the mind must be ordering the muscles of the arm to be doing something specific to the orientation of the elbow. This something is really the same throughout the form, but will manifest itself differently from posture to posture and moment to moment. The muscle and tendon action is concrete and physical, but the orientation principle is itself neither concrete nor physical. In other words, I do not believe that there is any one orientation of the elbow that can consistently define “down” throughout the form. “Down” ends up being defined by what your mind tells your elbow to do, but not really by the direction your elbow ends up facing in three-dimensional space, independently of your body. I think of making my elbow “down” as an unvarying procedure that will unfold in different ways depending on initial conditions and the interplay of other actions.
All of this may sound complicated and theoretical to some, but I am trying to describe something very simple. An example to make my point clearer might be “stretching.” “Stretching the fingers apart” is not quite the same as “moving them a certain distance apart.” One might not profitably learn how to stretch one’s fingers by taking a tape measure, measuring the distance between a teacher’s fingers, and then trying to duplicate the same measurements. Stretching is easy and natural. Learning to move the fingers an exact distance apart is neither simple nor natural.
For me, orienting my elbow and shoulder are the same type of phenomenon as “stretching.” In other words, I define it as a particular action to perform or a procedure to follow, not as a particular position to arrive at. By following the procedure or principle, my elbow’s external position will change. Learning the procedure is a much more fundamental skill than managing to achieve the final position my some other means.
I know that many people who do Taijiquan give great importance to the action of gravity and keeping the muscles lax. From this perspective, it becomes important to know how high to lift the arm in order to engage the minimum amount of muscular force. In my opinion, the Yangs do not teach muscular laxity or yielding to gravity. I do not thing that such approaches fit well with their methods. For me, keeping my shoulder and elbow down is not a matter of trying to yield to gravity and “relaxing” in the normal English meaning of the word. If I were lying flat on my back trying to “push hands” with someone wrestling with me, I would not yield my shoulder or elbow to gravity, but would engage in exactly the same process to keep my shoulder and elbow “down” with respect to my body frame as if I were standing on my feet. The effect of gravity is negligible compared to the structure I would be trying to give to the Jin circulating through my body.
To sum up, my position is as follows: if a person does not know how to “droop the elbows” in Fair Lady Works the Shuttles, they really do not know how to do it anywhere in the form. For that reason, Fair Lady can be an excellent posture to use in order to learn how to do this thing. I believe that “drooping the elbows” is something natural to all humans and so really does not need to be “learned” from scratch. What we need to learn is what this process is and how it affects the control of Jin in our bodies. Once this stage is reached, one practices simply to unlearn all the other bad habits we have and to remember not to forget to do this simple thing.
Psalchemist and Wushuer, my understanding of the role of the Ten Essentials is that they are meant to define ten essential characteristics of Taijiquan practiced according to Yang Chengfu’s methods. Other styles of Taijiquan would not necessarily have the same ten. In my opinion, if Yang Style practitioners have fundamentally different views of any of the ten essentials, this often indicates they follow fundamentally different practice methods, despite outward similarities. Following different practice methods can lead to different results and the development of different skills.
Wushuer, you mentioned the following:
<<My training was strictly in the genre of "stand this way","raise your head top", "hold your neck this way", "tuck in your chin", "tounge on the roof of your mouth and relax your jaw", "sink your chi to the tan tien", "relax", "don't extend your knee beyond your toe", etc, etc, ad infinitum.>>
The Yangs also teach in this way. After doing Taijiquan for several years and even studying one of their videotapes for a year or so, I attended one of their seminars for the first time and was frankly shocked by a number of things I have described in previous posts. One of these was the extremely direct and simple manner of their teaching style.
At the time, I was able to follow a little of Yang Zhenduo’s Chinese, with the help of the simultaneous translation. I was quite surprised that he seemed to be operating basically in “coach” mode and not as a distant, all-knowing philosopher. During teaching of the form, I heard no enigmatic statements, no vagueness, no fluff, and few abstruse statements of philosophy. During the seminar, the Yangs did not engage in speculative disputation of theory and even seemed somewhat averse to discussion of theory at anything other than the most practical and immediate level.
In the context of seminars (and probably outside as well), I understand their teaching method to be: give an introductory lecture on theory to establish a base, put discussion of theory aside, and then teach some movement to allow students an opportunity to explore the theory in action. It can appear as if one can simply skip the theory and practice the movement, but I think such a strategy has major pitfalls. On the other hand, I think it is easy to engage in endless discussion of theory that does not, in the end, meaningfully advance practice in any way. In the context of an Internet discussion board, practical demonstration is just---impractical. As a result, we are left to talk theory and hope for the best in applying it to our practice.
Wushuer, you also said the following:
<<Concentrate on the "essentials" during the form or sparring and you are effectively, in my humble opinion, negating the very idea of having them in the first place.
Isn't one aspect of any "essential" part of TCC to eliminate concentrating on any one thing to the detriment of others? To let your mind relax as well as your body and just go with the flow?>>
I think what the Yangs say about this is that you have to study and concentrate on certain things until perhaps you reach the point where you can intuit what is correct and no longer need to pay such attention to basic details. In my opinion, this process is more than a question of knowing or not knowing, but rather a recursive one. You reach one level of understanding, but then need to continue explicit study and concentration to reach the next level of understanding about the same subject matter.
There is one other thing I would like to express about the Ten Essentials and their role in the Yang Family’s Taijiquan, since many people seem to practice Yang Style, while discounting the importance of these principles. I think it can be unwise to approach Taijiquan only as an objective reality to be discovered, as opposed to the end result of following particular practice methods. Let me make an analogy to poetry.
Poems exist as objective collections of words, sounds, and meanings; however, our approach to them and their effect on us is profoundly conditioned by context, culture, and knowledge. Many Classical Chinese poems generally derive power and beauty through succinct expression, suggestion, and understatement. A word picture is sketched, and the reader feels compelled to fill in the details. This sort of sensibility is, in my opinion, ill fitted to most Classical Arabic poetry, which strives for power and beauty in a more “symphonic way.” Repetition of imagery and word play is embraced. Demanding brevity in Classical Arabic poetry would be like demanding brevity in a symphony and insisting that no musical themes repeat. Classical Latin or Greek poetry, in contrast to the Chinese and Arabic traditions, can derive power and beauty through interlocking complexity and grammatical ambiguity that would be unthinkable, ugly, or unworkable in Chinese or Arabic. A complex tapestry may look great hanging on a wall, but quite garish as a pattern on a dress or a business suit.
Given such realities, isn’t it usually advisable to go beyond mere discussions of “beauty” and “power” and to try to understand the various methods of achieving these? To learn how to write poetry with beauty and power, do we not need to study specific methods rather than freely mix everything together? In the context of Taijiquan, it is all right, for example, to talk about threading Qi throughout the body, but will all methods of doing this really have the same characteristics and the same results?
Another reason why I think that the Ten Essentials are a very important gate to the Yang Family’s Taijiquan is that many terms and concepts in the greater family of practitioners of Taijiquan are used to cover different territory. Indeed, many of the terms and concepts also exist in other martial arts and even in Chinese or Asian cultures generally. The multifarious uses of terms like “Qi” make it quite easy to travel far from the meanings important to the authors of the Taijiquan classics. I do not criticize the decision to strike out independently, since that is a matter of free choice that can have many valid justifications. I am only highlighting the fact that doing so has a definite cost that is easy to underestimate.
Let me make another analogy with poetry. I have many thick and authoritative dictionaries in my house that all agree that define Haikus as short poems from Japanese tradition that generally describe nature scenes and contain a total of seventeen syllables. Although this description fits English Haikus, it does not fit Japanese Haikus. Syllables play only a minor role in Japanese phonetic sensibility, and Haikus are not based on counting them. Instead, Haikus are based on counting something called “morae” or “moras.” Although moras are important in Japanese (also in Latin, Ancient Greek, Sanskrit, and classical Arabic), they play a minor or nonexistent role in how native English speakers consciously appreciate English language rhythms. (Moras are also more or less useless in analyzing French, Spanish, Portuguese, or Mandarin)
A syllable is a unit of sound length that is roughly based on the relative ease of emitting minimal groups of sound. A mora is a unit of sound length that is roughly based on the relative time it takes to pronounce minimal groups of sound. The two concepts often overlap, but are nonetheless distinct. The Japanese word “Honda” is usually separated into two syllables as “hon-da,” but into three moras as “ho-n-da.” The word “Nippon” could be divided into two syllables as “Nip-pon” or into four moras as “ni-p-po-n.” Likewise, the word “Tokyo” contains two syllables (Too-kyoo), but four moras (To-o-kyo-o).
If you listen to a Japanese haiku and listen for the number of syllables, you will hear a real rhythm, but one that is likely completely unintended by the author and one that would be unnoticed by almost all native speakers of Japanese. Worse yet, if you listen for changes in stress or pitch, things which are very important to English poetic rhythms, you will hear yet a third rhythm that has little or no significance to any native speaker of Japanese. The objective reality of the sounds must be mediated by the correct mindset for the correct rhythms to be perceived and understood.
In my view, if one seeks to practice Yang Chengfu’s Taijiquan, but does not study the Ten Essentials, one will almost inevitably be “listening” for the wrong “rhythms.” The objective reality of the movement must be mediated by the correct mindset for his art to be correctly perceived and understood.
As I understand it, Yang Chengfu’s Taijiquan was not based on silk reeling energy (chan si jin), maintaining laxity in the muscles, conscious manipulation of Qi channels, or many other concepts that may be important in other methods of Taijiquan. I am not asserting that these things are inappropriate to any style of Taijiquan or that they have no reality in Yang Chengfu’s Taijiquan, only that they are the wrong “rhythms” to pay attention to in the Yangs’ system.
Similarly, if one does not exhibit the Ten Essentials, does not clearly distinguish when the palm is straight and when it is seated, does not pay attention to the evenness and smoothness of the form, does not train mind intent more than movement of Qi, etc., I think that one will miss much of what is useful, interesting, and subtle about Yang Chengfu’s art.
I want to make clear, however, that Yang Chengfu is not the only gate to wonderful Taijiquan. Chen, Wu2, Wu3, Sun, and other styles do not need to have and should not have the same characteristics as traditional Yang Style. I simply am suggesting that trying to practice Yang Chengfu’s Taijiquan without reference to the Ten Essentials is no less of an undertaking than creating a new style of Taijiquan, or a new form of poetry.
This is enough babbling and preaching for today.
Take care all,