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The pivot

PostPosted: Fri Oct 26, 2007 6:46 pm
by Bob Ashmore
Reading Xiang Karen's "A Study On Push Hands" for some insight into opening and closing (I remembered he had a lot to say on the subject but not exactly what and I've been working on opening and closing quite a bit lately). As I read the first part of his treatise, I at first thought:
"Ah, I think I may be beginning to understand this at least a little bit now"...
But then I got to these paragraphs and, just as Xiang Karen states at the end, "I felt like crying".
Does anyone have any thoughts or theories on how to make better sense of this?
I'm hoping maybe the translation leaves something to be desired, but I am afeard it is instead my understanding that is not up to the challenge.

Xiang Karen:
In 1934 I was in Changsha pushing hands with a classmate. Wang Ruen was watching from the side. Suddenly he said, “How is it that there is no opening or closing in your push-hands?” I quickly stopped and asked, “When you taught me push-hands you never spoke of opening and closing. Teach us, where should we look for this opening and closing?” He said, “Don’t the Boxing Treatises say that if you can open and close, then you can breathe, and if you can breathe then you will be spirited and lively? You should have discovered this principle yourself.” I said, “A long time ago I suspected that I didn’t really comprehend those two words. What is the meaning of “if you can open and close, then you can breathe”? Being unable to breathe, isn’t that the same as being dead?”

Master Wang laughingly replied, “I am afraid you really don’t understand! Everybody breathes. This is the breath of the natural person, but it is not the breath of an artist. If an artist cannot synchronize his breathing, then he feels like he cannot breathe at all. This is extremely important. When you read books praising demonstrations by martial artists, there are always two expressions used, ‘The face does not change color and ‘The breath is not panting.’ Just now as you were practicing push-hands, you were panting. This is because you were not paying attention to the breath.” I said, “Xu Yusheng once told me that there must be opening and closing coordinated with the breath. At that time I disregarded his teaching. Nor did I pursue him to ask how to find that coordination. Furthermore, I was not aware that push-hands also has opening and closing which must be similarly coordinated with the breath.”

Master Wang continued, “When you first began to study, I couldn’t speak of this kind of movement, because it is too complicated. It is not easy to feel and comprehend. But at this stage in your training, you must devote your effort to synchronizing opening and closing with the breath.” He then proceeded to point out some examples from the form. For instance, ward-off and press are “opening”. Roll-back and push are “closing”.

From that time on, I began to search for opening and closing movements whenever I practiced the form. After several days I thought I had gotten it. I practiced “Grasp the Sparrow’s Tail” while Master Wang observed. Master Wang said with a laugh, “No need to continue. Your opening is not opening; your closing is not closing.” At that time, he had a folding fan in his hand. As he waved the fan, flicking it open and closed, he asked, “How is this opening and closing produced?” I said, “It is produced by the motion of your hand.” He shook his head and pointed to the button that held the ribs of the fan together, saying, “Only if you have this thing is it possible to open and close.” Then he pointed to the door of the house, saying, “It is just like this door–which must have a hinge in order to open and close. You haven’t yet discovered this pivot, so naturally your opening is not opening, your closing is not closing.” I asked, “Where is the pivot?” He replied, “This is something you yourself must find. If I tell you, it would be of no use.”

Because of this “pivot” I immersed myself in study and practice for more than a month. I thoroughly familiarized myself with the theories concerning Taijiquan. The result was a sudden insight–I realized that the pivot is in the waist. Thereupon I began again to search for “opening” and “closing”. In order to bring the form more in harmony with my realization, I changed many of the linkage points between the postures. Later I felt that within each movement there are several openings and closings, all of which must coordinate with the breathing. I spent more and more time refining the movements.

At this time, since Master Wang was teaching at Hunan University, it was not easy to meet. After half a year I chanced upon him and excitedly began to demonstrate for him. He smiled and nodded his head, saying, “Although you are not at the heart of it, you are not far! You only know that the control is in the waist, but you have overlooked the word ‘between’ in the saying, ‘The meaning and source of life is between the kidneys [here, kidneys means waist],’ and you have skipped over the word ‘middle’ in the saying, ‘You must at all times keep the mind in the middle of the waist.’ You must understand that these two words show the location of the ‘life meridian’ of Taijiquan. From these two sayings we can also see from whence comes the name ‘Taijiquan’. If you are unable to find this, then you will not find ‘central equilibrium’ among the Thirteen Postures. Moreover, how will you understand the principle of ‘When you move, everything moves. When you are still, everything is still.’? It is true that this theory is quite abstruse and not easy to grasp. And it is even more difficult to actually experience in the body. If one speaks of this to beginners, it is not only of no benefit, but, to the contrary, it would cause them to be skeptical and disparaging. Therefore the ancients did not lightly or easily pass on their knowledge. It is not that they were scared of people knowing, but that they were scared of people not knowing.” When I heard this profound instruction, I was so grateful that I felt like crying.

PostPosted: Fri Oct 26, 2007 6:56 pm
by Bob Ashmore
I didn't finish before I hit the Submit button.
What I am really looking for are ideas on the theories he talks about in the very last paragraph, before that I think I understand what he's saying well enough. I only posted the rest for clarity in the posting.
Though if anyone wants to express their views on the subjects of the earlier paragraphs I would be very greatful for that as well.
What I am thinking of is the part where he is saying "The meaning and source of life is between the kidneys [here, kidneys means waist],’ and you have skipped over the word ‘middle’ in the saying, ‘You must at all times keep the mind in the middle of the waist.’ You must understand that these two words show the location of the ‘life meridian’ of Taijiquan. From these two sayings we can also see from whence comes the name ‘Taijiquan’. If you are unable to find this, then you will not find ‘central equilibrium’ among the Thirteen Postures. Moreover, how will you understand the principle of ‘When you move, everything moves. When you are still, everything is still.’? It is true that this theory is quite abstruse and not easy to grasp. And it is even more difficult to actually experience in the body."
While I do have my own ideas on what "the middle of the waist" might mean, I do not, however, know for sure and so will wait and hope that others who do know may help to at the very least point me in the right direction.

PostPosted: Fri Oct 26, 2007 9:51 pm
by Louis Swaim
Greetings Bob,

I've always liked that Xiang Kairan essay. It's come up in discussions here a few times. Last spring I was finally able to find the original Chinese version on the web.
I'll try to make some comments soon (I've actually been meaning to address the appearance of the term single weighting ever since I discovered the Chinese version), but don't have the time now. Suffice it to say, the English translation that's been available on Terry Chan's page for years is quite good.

In the meantime, for those who read Chinese, here's the paragraph Bob's asking about (posted in Big5 coding):


Take care,

[This message has been edited by Louis Swaim (edited 10-26-2007).]

PostPosted: Sun Oct 28, 2007 5:30 pm
by Louis Swaim
Greetings Bob,

I think what Master Wang was getting at was that the pivot is not an invariable location. Whether the “pivot” refers your center of gravity, or to a key pivot point in your vertical axis around which you turn in response to pressure or in adapting to your own movements, its location changes according to the configuration or position of your body. The key remark to me is when Wang states: “If you are unable to find this, then you will not find ‘central equilibrium’ among the Thirteen Postures.” It is because the location of the “pivot” and center of gravity constantly shifts that the Song of the Thirteen Postures reminds us: “Moment by moment, keep the mind/heart on the waist.” The pivot and center of gravity are roughly “between the kidneys,” in the small of the back, the lumbar spine, but it cannot be reduced to a constant location since it shifts according to the fluctuations of emptying and filling as you move. Therefore, you must constantly monitor and adjust your awareness.

There is another way of interpreting this—as a reference to an energetic source of movement—hence the reference to the kidneys, which in Chinese medicine are considered key sources of energy. Bob Flaws, in Statements of Fact in Traditional Chinese Medicine (Boulder: Blue Poppy Press, 1994), translates a number of formulae relevant to the role of the kidneys. A few examples: “The kidneys govern agility.” “The kidneys govern opening and closing.” “The kidneys are the root of the source qi.” Also, in traditional Chinese medicine, the mingmen (literally, “gate of life”) is the meridian point between the 2nd and 3rd lumbar vertebrae, and is associated with kidney functions. A few years ago I translated some material from Tang Hao & Gu Liuxin’s 1963 book, Taijiquan yanjiu (Research on Taijiquan) that upholds this interpretation:

‘The classic writings all clearly point out that the central pivot determining the play of empty and full throughout the whole body is in the “region of the waist.” Some boxing manuals alter this specialized classical term (yaoxi) to the more generalized terms yaoji or yaojian, referring simply to the general area of the waist. This is incorrect. The technical term yaoxi is commonly called yaoyan: “eyes of the waist,” that is, the two kidneys to the left and right in the small of the back. Traditional Chinese medicine refers to the kidneys as “the source of life” (xing ming zhi yuan), “the place from which true qi flows” (zhen qi zhi suo chu), and considers that “if the kidneys are healthy, then the essential energy (jing) will be sufficient and the qi will be abundant.”’
—Tang Hao & Gu Liuxin, Taijiquan yanjiu

My personal opinion and experience is inclined toward the former interpretation—that is, that the goals prescribed have to do with body-mechanical relationships and with optimizing the awareness of central equilibrium. One could ask, how would knowledge of the kindneys’ role in qi energetics contribute to an actual practice or procedure that would produce better results in your taijiquan? Furthermore, some of the terms being touted as medicinal/energetic are ambiguous in usage. Neither of the alternate terms “yaoji” or “yaoxi” mentioned in the Song of the Thirteen Postures line actually make reference to the kidneys. Both variants could easily be interpreted as referring to the “middle” or “core” of the waist. In like manner, the term Tang/Gu mentioned “yaoyan” (eyes of the waist) may refer to the kidneys in certain traditional medicine contexts, but it also can simply refer to “the small of the back.” That being said, I don’t think the two interpretations are necessarily at odds; it’s just a matter of emphasis. After all, returning to the Song of the Thirteen Postures itself, as I re-read it and think it through, it seems to prescribe attention to body-mechanical detail. For example, “With the lower abdomen completely loosened, the qi will ascend on its own.”

Since we are on the topic of Xiang Kairan’s push hands essay, I have to bring up something I discovered last spring when I finally found the original Chinese essay. You may recall that in the discussion thread on “Single-Weighting” back in 2003, I raised a red flag about that terminology, questioning whether any traditional taiji documents used such a term as “single-weighting.” I brought up the English version of Xiang Kairan’s essay as one place where I had encountered the term “single-weighted.” For example, he wrote, “There is another saying, "If you are single weighted, then you can be responsive. If you are double weighted, then you are stagnant.” I couldn’t figure out what “saying” he was quoting, and I speculated that the Chinese for the term “single-weighted” would be “danzhong,” but reiterated that I had found no evidence for that term in traditional taiji texts. As it turns out, the term Xiang used for “single-weighted” was in fact “danzhong.” But his reference to the saying was either an accidental or intentional mis-quote of the lines in the Taijiquan Treatise, “Sink to one side (pianchen), then follow. If double weighted, then one will stagnate.” So, Xiang replaced the phrase “sink to one side (pianchen) with “single weighted” (danzhong). Perhaps he did so in order to reveal what he saw as a better parallel with the term “shuangzhong” (double weighted), but I haven’t found any support for that usage outside of his own.

Take care,

PostPosted: Mon Oct 29, 2007 4:14 pm
by Bob Ashmore
Thank you for your insights. As always, extremely helpful.
I do remember the "single-weighting" thread and actually had that come to mind on reading Xiang's treatise. I chose not to mention it at the time I posted, but am very glad you addressed the issue.
At the time we were kicking that thread around I was quite confused because a former school used the term "single weighted" on a pretty constant basis. Not knowing at the time that different schools use not only different terminology but the same terminology to mean entirely different things threw me quite a bit.
I have since changed my point of view around to not using that term, so I was surprised to see Xiang Karen's treatise use the (english translated) term "single weighted" in nearly the exact same way I had used the term previously.
Good to know that I am not alone and that "single weighted" may indeed have a meaning at least similar to the one I used to think it did.
I won't take it to the bank yet, but at least I can think in a more familiar mode on the subject.

Beyond that, I had not previously considered that the "pivot point" would or even could be so fluid. I can see now how and why it would be, but up until now had not even considered the possibility of this "pivot point" being a constantly changing location.
Perhaps that's why I had such a hard time figuring out what was being said here. Or maybe I'm just not that bright. ;-)

Now that I am taking into account a location that would change with the circumstances, two things are going on in my head.
One: How will I ever be able to keep up with it?
Two: I have a TREMENDOUS headache!

Be that as it may...
I now have an entirely new perspective on the "pivot point". Unfortunately, it's not one I can put my finger on, because it's mutable to circumstance rather than a fixed point in my body.

I'm going to have to think about how best to come to grips with this new to me concept.
"The more you know, the more you know you don't know."
Once again, that proves to be more true than I'd often like.
Hopefully the follow up statement, "However the more you know the faster you will learn" will also prove true for me.
I hope so, because right now it's all that's giving me hope!


PostPosted: Mon Oct 29, 2007 6:18 pm
by Louis Swaim
Hi Bob,

A quick Google search brought up thousands of pages relevant to “body, center of gravity.” Here’s one at random that gets to the point in an accessible way.

I think the notion of a pivot point on one’s vertical axis is very closely related to maintaining one’s balance—hence the center of gravity—and Xiang’s essay clearly makes reference to “zhongding” (central equilibrium). I have known taiji masters who have referred to “the pivot” as analogous to a universal joint. As you say, it’s “mutable to circumstance.” My sense of it is that it is less a matter of knowing a location and more one of managing an operation. As Zhuangzi said of this adaptive ability, “A state in which ‘this’ and ‘that’ no longer find their opposites is called the hinge of the Way. When the hinge is fitted into the socket, it can respond endlessly.”

I’m not sure that I understand with certainty what Master Wang meant in Xiang’s essay when he said, “From these two sayings we can also see from whence comes the name ‘Taijiquan’.” Perhaps he was referring to this mutability and adaptive response based upon the polarity of yin/yang, opening/closing, emptying/filling. He also makes reference to the pivot as being the location of taijiquan’s “mingmai.” The translation “life’s meridian” may be somewhat misleading. Mingmai is a common metaphorical term that means something like “life line,” “life blood,” or the like. It’s kind of like saying “that’s the key point.”

Take care,

[This message has been edited by Louis Swaim (edited 10-29-2007).]

PostPosted: Mon Oct 29, 2007 6:39 pm
by Bob Ashmore
Reading that article, one thing immediately popped to mind.
This passage really opened my mind to the possibilities of push hands and sparring:
"In addition to the shifting of the center of gravity caused by body movements, external loads alter the position of the center of gravity. When an external load is added, the concern is the combined center of gravity of the load and the person. When the person lifts or carries a load, the combined center of balance must be kept over the base to be in balance. The greater the external load, the greater the distance the load is held from the person's body, the farther the combined center of gravity will be from the person's center of gravity. "

I guess I just had never made the connection between touching with a partner and "external load".
I must start to consider how touching with a partner or opponent changes my center of gravity.
Once you add the "external load" you will need to redefine what you thought of as your "center".

OK. Now I REALLY have a headache.

The idea of hiding your center does sort of spring to mind.
I've never connected that to this idea before, but now that I have I can clearly see the connection.
As soon as you touch with your opponent you have added the external load so your center changes location. Hide where your center is from your opponent takes on a whole new meaning!
First though, I'm going to have to work on recognizing where my own darned center is before I can hide it from anyone else!

Much to think about.


PostPosted: Mon Oct 29, 2007 6:53 pm
by Louis Swaim

Yep! Indeed, that's why I like to think in terms of "muscle loading profiles." The profile changes constantly in one's own body as your position changes, and most definitely changes when you touch or are touched by another body.


PostPosted: Mon Oct 29, 2007 7:31 pm
by Bob Ashmore
I think I can see that.
This concept helps to explain a LOT of things to me that I've never understood before.

Let's see if I'm starting to get this:
I know, pretty closely anyway, where my center of gravity is when it's just me, myself and I in the mix. I can control that fairly well.
I know now that it moves, but I think I always knew that but hadn't really followed that to its logical conclusion.
I can deal with this part of it fairly well for now.
What is bending my brain now is this...
Just as soon as I touch with an opponent our masses join together and we now have a shared center of gravity. A point somewhere in space that is the new "center" for both of us.
What seems to me to be quite difficult will be knowing where THAT center is located and being in control of it, while hiding it from my opponent and keeping him from controlling it.

The entire idea of "controlling the center" has just expanded quite a lot for me.
If this is even half way accurate, I've just found an entirely new way in which my understanding was profoundly lacking.

One of many, many more to come, I feel quite sure.....

PostPosted: Wed Oct 31, 2007 4:43 am
by Steveg219
Hi Bob,

Wonderful quote and discusion point- thank you. I woudl like to offer a viepwoint on that last paragraph.

This can also be read as referring to the Tai Chi posture and correct Physological state at the same time. That is, the center core, including the spine, den and ru vessels, rooting to the ground, the kidneys (in the chinese medicine meaning) all in alignment in a psychological state of letting go and full relaxation and full awareness.

From this place, opening and closing moves, which have extensive arm, leg and body expressions are really just the pivot of the core itself. A closing twist of the core brings the legs in together, closes the groin and and closes the joints as the arms and hands come into the center. A small outward core rotation opens all of these elements back up. Think of single whip, as you prepare and close many things are going on in the hands and legs. Then you open up and express the single whip and then step out and complete.

Perhaps the last paragraph can also be interpreted as reducing the whole process of say, single whip, to a core intention and simple core movement of closing/opening, i.e. from the inside-out.

I think the reference to understanding the meaning of "TaiChi" in this is the psychological state-if/when we get to that place of total surrender and concentration, we then have an opening to the Ultimate Reality, the Center watching Yin and Yang in their play!!

PostPosted: Wed Oct 31, 2007 7:04 pm
by Bob Ashmore
I've long felt that there is single point in my body that if I just can get a hold of with my mind I would be able to control things better.
Before now, I felt it was a fixed point, but now I see that it is a constantly moving, mutable location.
Since coming to that startling conclusion I have found that my practice is getting easier and easier in terms of how fluidly I move. It seem that now that I understand that my "center" will change with circumstances I have an easier time controlling it.
This is very good. I like it a lot.
In terms of my push hands practice, I have found that I now use a lot less "force" when I push. My partner noticed it immediately.
I guess now that I know that I don't know where the "center" is during push hands, I find that I want to control at least my own internal center of gravity a lot better. This leads me to not want to "give" my opponent anything he can use to find it, which has lead to some interesting results.
Not spectacular, just interesting.
I'll need much more practice.

As for "simple" core movement...
I'm not anywhere near there yet. My core movement still seems quite complicated to me.
But I'm working on it.

PostPosted: Sat Nov 03, 2007 5:57 am
by Steveg219

I have no idea what your practise is like but you clearly have a passion for the art. I sense that you are being too hard on yourself in stating that you are not near understanding the core movement.

I don't think any of these things should be seen as complicated. To me, that is the whole point, to move to simplicity from our stress and chaos- what is more simple than doing nothing and watching what happens? Image

Spefically I am thinking of this idea of the core and opening and closing. Take the Tai Chi principle of the external art and movement not being important and the important thing being the application and experience of the guiding principles. Different styles and interpretations of movement can be seen and yet both can be perfect in their application of principle.

The core being the center and the source of all movement is a simple and direct idea, not something to struggle to understand. Just take any move in the form and slow way down, stop. Think of how you will move exactly from principle with the activation in the feet, moving up the legs, the waist sets the direction and the core moves as one unit with this activation. Shift weight and turn the body and do nothing else. Do nothing with the arms and see where they want to go on their own.

Many moves look like the hands are doing something when they really are just following the body and have done nothing, or very little, relative to the body- since the body has moved it has added it's movement to the hands. As if you were walking on top of a train as it steams forward. Your body is racing forward as the sum of the speed of the train plus your walking speed. You are going 90 miles an hour with just the effort of a pleasant walk!

To me, much of Tai Chi is like this but slow and deliberate, focus on the principles and initiate movement in the correct way and all of the complexity of hands and feet movement follow simply and naturally!


PostPosted: Sat Nov 03, 2007 6:09 am
by Steveg219
If a picture is worth a thousand words, a video is that much more!

I see a very demonstration of what I was talking about above in this video. It appears to me that he really is moving from principle and the hands are a secondary result, you just don't seen excess movement and the root and the lower body seems to set it all in motion....

PostPosted: Mon Nov 05, 2007 2:34 pm
by Bob Ashmore
Well as this is a clip of Yang Zhen Ji, Yang Zhen Duo's older brother, one would hope a lineage holder was upholding the principles! And of course he did so, splendidly.
I am closing in on understanding core movement in TCC, but I need much more practice.
I practice traditional Yang Cheng Fu style TCC as taught by Yang Jun. I have attended three seminars now with Yang Jun and I train with Bill Wojasinski at the Louisville Yang Cheng Fu Center.
I have excellent teachers and am trying to improve at least a little every day.
Someday, I may actually start doing Tai Chuan instead of playing at it. Hopefully soon, but I have time to keep trying if not.
Thanks for the link. I find I learn quite a lot by observing excellent practitioners at work.


PostPosted: Mon Nov 05, 2007 5:12 pm
by Louis Swaim
Greetings Steve,

Thank you for sharing that clip. That's really splendid! I've seen footage of Yang Zhenji, but in those he was quite a bit older. I wonder when this was filmed. He really appeared to be in his prime. Notice how he sinks his weight and bends his knees prior to the first weight shift and turn. Not everyone does it that way, but I like that interpretation -- it works for me. We had a discussion about this point some time back. He also performs Ward Off Left differently than Yang Zhenduo, and explains his rationale for this in his book.

It's a great clip!

Thank you,