What's most important in teaching a beginner?

What's most important in teaching a beginner?

Postby JerryKarin » Thu May 12, 2005 2:44 am

In your view, what are the key concepts and practices you need to communicate to a beginner?
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Postby Polaris » Thu May 12, 2005 3:50 am

In our school, we try to work the first classes at two levels, simultaneously. Besides the technical information associated with the basic posture of the body, footwork relationships and breathing, we also work at subtly (or not) setting up our expectations for the student. We want them to get used to the idea that class time is for work, period. They come in, and start working right away. This has to be the expectation from the first class, and people also have to see that every time they come in to reinforce the expectation. As time goes on, they get introduced to the seniority ranking system and the further expectation of professional, not personal, relationships in the school.

We want them to learn how to learn at beginning (and intermediate) level. On top of that, the professional courtesy expected is a safety feature. It de-personalises the training, it takes the "emotional charge" out of interactions if observed correctly. Once that is accomplished (it does take a while for people unfamiliar with the traditional Confucian system), then it is safe to advance to more complicated martial study.

Classes for senior citizens or the rehab community are slightly different, since there isn't very likely ever going to be martial training in those classes, we can relax the discipline somewhat and have the classes be more social, more chatty. We still insist on mutual respect, though.

[This message has been edited by Polaris (edited 05-11-2005).]
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Postby Anderzander » Thu May 12, 2005 7:45 pm

I have actually just started teaching my wife. I haven’t taught a ‘beginner’ taiji for a few years now.

She displays a real aptitude and tremendous patience so I first taught her how to sink in a static posture. She went away and worked on that.

Next I have shown her how to sink to one side to peel the heel up of the insubstantial foot. She can do this – so next time we will work on the ‘weightless’ leg being moved over by the sinking process.

I consider this a luxury to be able to work solely from the movements being created by the internal. Rather than teach the movements and then changed the way they are generated.

I don’t think I will wait for the sinking to be thorough enough to generate the arm movements before I teach her those though. I will have her strive to hold the arm postures with the minimum amount of force possible and explain that it is always less than you think.

That teaches relaxation as an ever-deepening understanding rather than a fixed state, so that when the sinking force increases the control of the arms can naturally pass over to it.
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Postby Audi » Mon May 23, 2005 1:40 am

Greetings Jerry and fellow enthusiasts,

Jerry, this is truly an excellent question, which of course means that it is not an easy one. I have not had the privilege of teaching anyone from scratch, but I have occasionally botched up trying to give people quick introductions to what I considered basic principles and practices.

Here are some random thoughts I have based on my prior botched experience and my own recollections of what troubled me most as a beginner. I have tried to limit them to ten specific things I wish I personally had appreciated better when I first began studying Taijiquan.

1. Motivation

I think one of the first things to do is to address people’s motivations for studying Taijiquan, so that their expectations about what and how fast they will learn can be reasonable. I think that many practitioners actually change their motivations early on in their practice, but I still think it is important to sketch out the territory with respect to what type of health, lifestyle, and martial benefits are reasonable to expect over what time frame.

I also think that many people are confused about what parts of Taijiquan are oriented toward “health,” “self-defense,” “spiritual cultivation, and “fun.” Making clear the interdependence of these concepts at most levels of practice is probably a good idea.

2. Morality

I think this is also a good point to slip in something about “martial arts morality” and how fundamental this will be to the learning experience. One way of introducing an aspect of the moral dimension is to talk about the subtlety of Taijiquan and the fact that the teacher must serve as a guide into territory that will not only be unfamiliar, but somewhat hard to fathom as it is negotiated. Without a high degree of respect for what the teacher can convey and for him or her as a person, the power of the guidance will be weak. On the other hand, without a high degree of respect for yourself, you will not recognize the many places where your teacher cannot go and where you must find your own way. When your teacher first tells you to bend your knee and sink down, only you can know for sure what degree of sinking overtaxes or fails sufficiently to challenge your physical abilities. You need to cultivate integrity to negotiate these waters in the best way.

Your classmates, both those more advanced and those less advanced, can stand in teacher and student relationships to you and can immensely affect the learning experience. Fellow practitioners of other styles or even of other martial arts also have their role and deserve respect for their knowledge and skills.

For me, another aspect of respect is trying to have high expectations of myself and of my teachers. Without high expectations, it is easy to fail to appreciate all that a teacher may be trying to convey or all that I may be capable of doing. At the same time, high expectations must be coupled with patience that represents respect for the difficulty of the art itself. It is all too tempting to demand instant, painless, and effortless results and to become frustrated and full of blame when these do not come.

When there is truly an objective problem with a teacher, a student, or a colleague, the best way to identify this and be able to act appropriately is to proceed from a place of respect that insists on integrity.

3. Variation between Taijiquan styles and teachers

For certain students, the number of different styles, form variations, and competing theories, practices, and emphases can be bewildering. In addition, it is obvious that all teaching and teachers are not of the same quality, and so one can fear that one is not getting the “real deal” in a particular class setting. There is no sure answer to this dilemma from the standpoint of an uninformed beginner, but I think an unfortunate way of proceeding is simply to read as much as one can, cherry pick from what pops up, and then try to construct a curriculum or practice system on one’s own.

I can make two analogies. If you are trying to learn to prepare an egg, you can decide to learn to scramble it or fry it whole, but you cannot do both at the same time. With some experience, you can adapt a recipe for one method to the other, but trying to mix two such different recipes as a beginner will result in confusion. Also, whether or not scrambled or fried eggs are better or more “authentic” than the other is a matter of opinion and taste, but they are not the same dish. The differences matter.

Unlike fried eggs and scrambled eggs, a broiled steak and a fried steak are arguably the same end product; however, even here different methods matter. If you grease up your skillet, put a nice pat of butter on your raw steak, and stick it under the broiler, you may well end up with a minor oven fire or smoke out your kitchen. If you put your steak on a broiling pan, and then place it on the burner to fry it up, you will destroy the pan and release all sorts of nasty chemicals into your steak.

Taijiquan is similar. Differences matter. For example, if you read that a Chen stylist advocates “spiraling the Dantian” as the key to all Taijiquan, you may decide to seek out teachers that use this method, but it probably does not make sense to introduce this method into your beginning practice without explicit guidance. With experience, you can make your own judgment about whether such a practice works for you and about whether it suits your tastes and goals.

In this particular case, for instance, my own opinion is that “spiraling the Dantian” is not an appropriate focus of practice for the type of Yang Style Taijiquan taught by the Association. In my view, Yang Style has its own unique characteristics and does not need to be “fixed” or “supplemented” by turning it into a disguised form of Chen Style. I think that the reverse is also true and that Chen Style is not begging for “improvement” by modifying it along the lines of Yang Style. If, however, someone wants to develop a new hybrid style, this is also a perfectly acceptable, if somewhat daunting, challenge to assume.

4. Body vs. mind vs. spirit

Much is made of the mental and spiritual aspects of Taijiquan. While I think there is a lot of merit to this, I think it can be confusing to beginners, who can be misled into thinking that Taijiquan is somehow primarily a type of meditation or spiritual devotion. I think that it is better to convey that the nature of Taijiquan practice concerns cultivating certain sensations and feelings that are produced by working the body, mind, and spirit in concert. It is not about mind over matter, but mind with matter. It is not about being spiritual, but about learning how spirit affects your physical and mental well-being and potential.

The goal of practice is not to eliminate, minimize, or transcend the physical, but to integrate the physical with the mental and spiritual to acquire a subtle understanding and nimble control of the “whole system.” What makes Taijiquan somewhat special is not that the body and the physical are unimportant, but that the mind and the spirit are important to even the basic physical practice. We try to copy our teachers exactly, but not only in their external practice that is accessible with the eye, but also in their internal practice that is accessible only through the interpretation of the mind. Both are important.

5. Taijiquan Theory

Since the mind is important to Taiji practice, some undersanding of Taijiquan theory is indispensable to make good progress. It is easy to get intimidated by the theory and so it is important to know how to approach it.

I would say that the Taijiquan the Association teaches is best thought of as subtle, but essentially simple. (I am not asserting that the Association is in any way unique in this, but I do think that different styles of Taijiquan emphasize different levels of complexity and naturalness in their approach.) In other words, any particular item of theory should be approached as if the basics can be understood in a matter of seconds or minutes. Real understanding will probably, of course, take longer, but the attitude should not be that understanding will emerge only after months and years of ascetic practice. As an example, I would say that Yang Chengfu’s Ten Essentials should not be approached as items of advanced, or even intermediate theory, but rather as basics for beginners to work on. “Beginners” are generally not those who have invested years in practice.

Being able to act in accordance with theory is, of course, much more difficult than acquiring a basic intellectual understanding of it. Even here, however, I think that beginners should proceed with an expectation that they can learn physically to demonstrate a particular principle somewhere between a few minutes and few hours after first being thoroughly exposed to it. What will take months and years is demonstrating the principle consistently under all circumstances and while equally observing other principles.

At the same time that the theory should be approached as if it is simple, it should be thought of as deep. Here is also what makes Taijiquan difficult, but still fascinating. Ideas that are essentially simple concepts have pervasive and relentless applicability. They are onions in which every layer presents a slightly different aspect. Study of many of the layers takes a lifetime, and the ability to integrate any one of them consistently in one’s practice will also take years.

6. Chinese philosophy vs. western science

The theories and practices of Taijiquan are formulated with many concepts that are foreign to the Western experience, such as Qi, Jing, Dantian, and Jin. Beginners should understand that traditional Chinese beliefs about biology, physics, and how the world works have in fact varied widely over the last three millennia and continue to vary. In addition, modern science in China is basically as strong as it is anywhere else in the world, but is not consumed in a fight to the death against any of the core concepts of Taijiquan.

Taiji practitioners generally hold varying beliefs about such things as Traditional Chinese Medicine and Qi Gong, but addressing these beliefs is not central to the practice of the type of Taijiquan the Association teaches. Our Taijiquan maybe related to them, but it is independent of them.

Taijiquan is about doing, not believing. There is nothing in it that necessarily requires adopting a particular belief system or becoming a Daoist or a Confucian. It does not require any suspension of belief in modern science. While it has a rich theory, it rests on a very practical foundation of people who were engaged in the very practical pursuit of defending their lives in very dangerous places and during very turbulent times. In such situations, people do not allow their lives to depend solely on fanciful philosophical speculation without any assurance that what they are doing will be effective.

An analogy could be made to how physics applies to baseball and basketball. No one advocates that baseball and basketball operate outside of the laws of physics; however, coaches do not generally coach these sports in terms that would be of much interest to a modern physicist. Instead, they do what it takes to win games. Similarly, no basketball fan feels obligated to analyze how a concept like a “momentum shift” during a game matches up with contemporary psychiatric theories of brain activity. Playing basketball is not an exercise in applied physics or applied psychology, and practicing Yang Style Taijiquan is not an exercise in applied Traditional Chinese Medicine or applied Qi Gong.

When approaching a concept like “sinking your Qi,” it is important to understand what needs to be done and why, but it is not important to one’s basic practice to be able to reconcile how the concept of Qi should fit in either with modern physics or any of the schools of Traditional Chinese Medicine. One need not bother with analyzing what the physics of “sinking” Qi must entail or what meridians or vessels the Qi must travel through. “Sinking your Qi” need be no more mysterious a concept than “rooting with the ball of your foot.”

7. Yin, Yang, and Taiji

Judging by my own experience, I think that many Westerners begin the study of Taijiquan with a superficial or faulty understanding of what exactly Yin, Yang, and the principle of Taiji are. I think many people simply understand these things to mean that everything is made up of opposites that perhaps alternate in importance over time. I think it is instead more helpful to think in terms of dynamic equilibrium between opposites, so that nothing should be viewed or addressed as static or absolute, even if it might appear so on the surface.

8. “Relaxation”

The concept of “relaxation” has such a rich resonance in popular culture and in the Taiji community that I think its proper role in practice and its correct manifestation can be a great difficulty for beginners. For the type of Taijiquan the Association teaches, I think it is important to convey that “relaxation” represents a Taiji concept (i.e., a concept with Yin and Yang in dynamic tension) and not an absolute state analogous to the relaxation one seeks as one slips into a Jacuzzi, as one lays down to sleep, or after one sips a glass of wine. It has little to do with being passive, just letting go of all desire and intent, or zoning out. This applies to both physical and mental “relaxation,” which are both, or course, important.

I also think it is important to teach “relaxation” as a positive thing that must be actively engaged in rather than as a negative thing that is the passive result of not engaging in other things. Perhaps in the physical sense, the concept should always be linked to the idea of the sensation of lengthening the tendons across the joints and linking up the soft tissues in the body. In the mental sense, perhaps it could be linked with the idea of lengthening the perceptions “across” the present so that we can unify our perception of reality as it is, rather than be tied up in knots of imagined reality as we wish it or fear it to be.

9. Softness and Force

For the type of Taijiquan the Association teaches, I think it is important to make clear to beginners that the word “softness” in English covers somewhat different territory than the original Chinese term rou2 and that cultivating the concepts of being mushy or pillow-like are inappropriate.

A better image than the softness of pillows is the softness of the water in a wave, which can vary in power and feel from a ripple to a tidal wave. Another image might be the feel of pressing down on the branch of a young tree sapling. The tree both yields smoothly at the same time as it pushes back with palpable resilience. A given sapling will show one pole of this quality more the other, but what is important is not finding a particular location on the continuum between the two poles of yielding and pushing back, but rather fully manifesting the smooth and dynamic equilibrium between the poles that shows utter responsiveness and resilience.

An allied issue is the role of force. I think it is important to make clear to beginners that Taijiquan discourages a focus on maximizing brute strength, but does not in any way oppose the potential of manifesting great physical power. Part of the issue lies in understanding the difference between local use of Qi and muscle and integrated use of whole-body Qi and muscle. Another part lies in understanding how local focus on muscular strength (or even its absence) prevents the ability to make proper use of “softness” or “resilience.”

Beginners with no martial arts experience are sometimes reluctant to manifest energy or exert themselves to the necessary degree because they are afraid of crossing a line of “force” they do not understand. They sometimes end up cultivating a passivity of movement that denies them the necessary feel of energy in their limbs. With little feel of energy to work with, it is hard to learn much.

Beginners who do have martial arts experience are sometimes mesmerized by the search for a presumed mental or muscular trick that will allow them to experience the power they know is necessary in many martial situations (for instance, in thrusting forward a twelve-foot spear). They also can have an inappropriate desire to find out when they can “let loose” from perceived artificial restraints and return to old habits of generating force “externally.” In this misguided search, they can fail to appreciate how exactly Taijiquan applies the mind to the body to generate power naturally and internally.

Beyond the issue of what power an individual can or should generate is the fact that Taijiquan really focuses more on the relative flow of energy between practitioner and opponent than on the absolute flow at either end. Both Fajing and borrowing energy are important parts of the overall practice, but training with too much of an eye to maximizing or minimizing the level of individual power generation can develop into an idea that ignores the importance of energy flow and that threatens to make most high-level skills irrelevant.

10. Form vs. push hands vs. applications

I think that it is important to convey to beginners that Taijiquan is by and large a progressive discipline, meaning that a person can go in as shallowly or deeply as he or she might want and still benefit. A corollary to this concept is that the more you put in, the more you get out. Learning the Ten Essentials, learning the traditional barehand form, and practicing it regularly are major achievements that need nothing further to yield great benefit, but learning weapons forms and something of push hands can complement these achievements quite a lot.

I think that beginners also need to understand that the varying practices are subtly different from each other in execution and quite different in their role in the curriculum. They also play quite a different role in the curriculum from similar practices in other martial arts. Beginners should therefore resist the temptation to adapt them to purposes for which they are not intended.

For example, just because one happens to practice Single Whip in the form over a thousand times during a given year does not automatically mean that one has added this technique to one’s self-defense repertoire. Most Taijiquan is not expected to work this way, and modifying performance of the form to try to get it to work this way is generally not a good idea.

The traditional Taiji form does not function in the same role as a Taekwondo form, nor do push hands drills correspond very well to partnered practice in even such a “soft” art as Aikido. The Taiji curriculum is not simply the same as a Karate or Wing Chun curriculum “enhanced” with heavy doses of relaxation, softness, slowness, sensitivity, and mental focus. Once this is understood and the whole panorama of the real curriculum is glimpsed, practice can be properly focused without the distractions of trying to make specific Taiji practice methods somehow more “realistic,” more “practical,” more “martial,” or more relevant. All the necessary practices are already there for students who are ready to properly benefit from them, but they may just be in unexpected parts of the curriculum or combined with unexpected skills.

These are my rambling thoughts on what I would like to have been told as a beginner. Any comments or questions are welcome.

Take care,

[This message has been edited by Audi (edited 05-23-2005).]
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Postby Louis Swaim » Mon May 23, 2005 5:19 pm


To the excellent suggestions here, I would just add that the most basic and fundamental training should be conditioning of the legs as a foundation for all subsequent form training. This includes deep leg stretches, kicking drills, holding deep horse stances for extended periods of time, practicing bow stances, and standing in the Pipa posture for extended sessions. Building a good foundation in the legs pays real dividends as one then delves into learning the taijiquan form.

Take care,
Louis Swaim
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Postby fol » Thu May 26, 2005 1:20 pm

Hello, all:

This is great advice for the ambitious student--someone who is on the way to being a "regular contributor" to the Tai Chi community: thanks! Some students--such as us fat old ladies--may also need a stern warning about the duty to care for onself, including specific pointers for protecting the knees and so on.

Thanks again!--fol
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Postby Kalamondin » Thu May 26, 2005 6:11 pm

Hi Jerry,

I like to start beginners out with relentless drilling in footwork: all the requirements for toe position, loading weight into the feet, knee position and alignment, rounded kua. I think many people are too head-oriented, spending their days sitting and thinking and talking, and that paying attention to the footwork helps bring them down into a sense of their body so they can begin integrating body with mind from the get-go.

I talk about balance, about where the bubbling well point is on the feet, and trying to balance over it. I want them to develop a greater awareness of balance, of feeling balanced, of the dynamic equilibrium it requires to maintain balance while constantly moving.

IMO, beginners tend to neglect the footwork because the arm movements seem so fascinating and complicated—they naturally draw the eye and the attention. But even as I teach them the form, I like to have frequent footwork reviews—5 or 10 minutes of the class—so they can have some practice learning balance from the ground up.

We’re told to look for errors in the root, and so many postural errors can be corrected through close attention to footwork, leg position, hip alignment. I hope to teach my beginning students what it feels like to have a stable base first—how to find their own internal sense of balance, vertical alignment, and stability. Then it’s much easier to learn all the movements when they don’t have to worry about losing their balance during brush knee and push because their feet in the bow stance are closed to a single center line instead of maintaining a shoulder-width distance.

And because many beginners just can’t seem to _see_ when their footwork is too narrow, I often give them lines on the floor to aim at, or show them their footwork is too narrow by running a narrow stick (pointer, yard stick, or even my arm) between their feet.

Learning a felt sense of the body is just as essential to tai chi chuan practice as learning the motions. Training a felt-sense of balance, of internal integrity, of trust in the body helps the student learn how to learn by teaching them to explore and correct their own structure from the inside out. It helps them learn why the ten essentials make sense on a deeply personal level. It also helps people learn faster. Many beginners start by replicating an external structure with no gut level understanding of why it makes sense. But if they can feel—in their bones and muscles, just once—why one way of doing things has more structural integrity than another way, then it’s easier for them to incorporate a single correction throughout the form instead of in just a single movement.

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Postby Audi » Thu May 26, 2005 7:21 pm

Greetings all,

Kal, I liked your points and they inspire me to pose a question about how to describe what "shoulder width apart" means. I find that beginners often seem to have trouble applying this to a Bow Stance.

Here is the formula I propose.

"In a Bow Stance, your heels should end up aligned on two imaginary railroad tracks that are shoulder-width apart and parallel to the final orientation of what ends up being your front foot. Your back foot will end up at a 45 degree angle to the outside of the tracks.

"There is no minimum requirement about how far to step along either track; however, in a big frame style, you want to extend yourself somewhat. The maximum requirement of how far you can step is determined by how low you can bend the supporting leg. You may bend only as low as allows you to have complete stability and complete control of all your weight throughout the stepping motion.

"Your control should be so good that you can stop and reverse the stepping motion instantly and at will during any inch of the step and at any speed, with no irrelevant changes in your body orientation or bobbles in your center of gravity. If you find yourself plopping down, even a little bit, or find that you have to swing your torso back to reverse direction, you are trying to go too low and extend the leg too far."

What I am particular interested in is if folks think that the imagery of the railroad tracks clarifies anything.

(By the way, I should also make clear that, as I understand it, the "control" rules are relaxed slightly for the weapons forms, where you are encouraged to step a little longer and not control the external aspect of the weight shift as mechanically as in the barehand form. In other words, you should give some play to momentum in order to promote greater flow, as long as you do not upset your structural alignment or your sense of internal control.)

Take care,
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Postby Kalamondin » Thu May 26, 2005 11:36 pm

Hi Audi,

<font face="Verdana, Arial" size="2"> Kal, I liked your points and they inspire me to pose a question about how to describe what "shoulder width apart" means. I find that beginners often seem to have trouble applying this to a Bow Stance. </font>

Thanks. I agree, and I think your train track image is a good one. I’ve actually made diagrams for people both on paper and out of duct tape that have the parallel lines, but hadn’t thought to describe it that way. I find that even the phrases “shoulder width apart” and “45 degrees” cause difficulty for many people. For example, is “shoulder width” measured from the outside edges of the shoulders or from the center? Some people have quite broad shoulders, bulked up even more with muscles or fat, so when they look in the mirror to find their stance, they sometimes end up with one that is wider than what I would consider “shoulder width.” For me, shoulder width is more like having my feet lined up underneath a vertical line drawn through the armpit to the shoulder. This is also what I observe in others.

And 45 degrees—I once had a student who insisted he was at 45 degrees even when I could tell he was quite clearly opened wider than 45 degrees. The problem wasn’t with our special ability; it was that he didn’t understand what part of the foot had to be at 45 degrees. My sense is that if you draw a line down the center of the foot lengthwise, this line should be oriented to 45 degrees. He had aligned the inside edge of his shoe with 45 degrees, so he was always just very slightly off.

Many beginners also have difficulty with “45 degrees,” even when they’re looking straight at their feet. Sometimes having them practice on linoleum where the grid is clear is helpful. Again, duct tape at 45 degrees, exactly measured to their stance, with another small piece at the center of their toes, can be helpful for people who don’t have the spatial ability to judge 45 degrees, but who can feel it if you help them align properly and have them stay put for a little while.

Your formula is excellent. A couple small things to consider about word choice:

“irrelevant changes in your body orientation”

This is true, but I submit that beginners don’t generally notice irrelevant changes in body direction because they haven’t yet gained the physical self-awareness to distinguish between relevant and irrelevant movement—like tipping the torso sideways or backwards during bow stance transitions because they haven’t shifted their center over their bubbling well point. You might consider adding examples, or linking the phrase to your example about extra torso rotation in the next sentence.

“plopping down”

Great word choice because it describes both the heavy dropping motion and the sound, but for those who don’t associate the word with a sound you might consider being even more explicit: that if your foot makes a noise when it hits the ground, this is an indication of double-weightedness, etc.

I also understand that momentum in the weapons forms makes the stances a bit longer.

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Postby Audi » Fri May 27, 2005 11:23 am

Greetings Kal,

Thanks for your comments. You make especially good ones about the need many have to hear exactly where the actual "measurements" might be made on the body and its parts.

One thing I wonder if I missed and probably do not stress enough is the "bubbling well point." (I actually prefer the term and imagery of "bubbling spring,"). How do you describe this to beginners? Do you primarily just point at it, try to discuss its characteristics, or trust that working with it will reveal its location? If you do discuss characteristics, what are they?

[quote]I also understand that momentum in the weapons forms makes the stances a bit longer.[quote]

Sorry about this, my parenthetical comment was not intended at you. I presumed you knew this. I struggle with the format of internet forums where conversations can be simultaneously private and public. I was conscious about setting down simple rules that other readers might take too literally and too far, not realizing that there is always just a little bit more to simple rules.

Take care,
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Postby Kalamondin » Fri May 27, 2005 8:42 pm

Hi Audi,

No apology necessary! I too struggle with the public/private format and did not even think that your comment was aimed at me. I thought that your caveat about not taking footwork requirements too literally was a good one and meant to support it. Tone can be difficult on the Internet. When I wrote that I understood about momentum guiding some portion of footwork in weapons forms, I actually meant it as corroboration, and not as a defensive position—but I see how it might have sounded that way. Sorry for not being more clear.

<font face="Verdana, Arial" size="2"> One thing I wonder if I missed and probably do not stress enough is the "bubbling well point." (I actually prefer the term and imagery of "bubbling spring,"). </font>

“Bubbling well point” is just the first phrase I learned for it and it stuck. Why do you prefer “spring?” How do you feel about “Bubbling well-spring?” I think I prefer well-spring if we’re going to talk semantics because a bubbling spring can just well up out of the rocks and flow away down a stream—a constant “loss” of water, although it does have a channel. A well-spring, however, according to the OED, is: “1. The source or head-spring of a stream; a fountain-head. 2. fig. A source of perennial emanation or supply.”

While according to this definition, it’s just like a spring, it’s also got the word “well”, which denotes some measure of containment and storage. What’s coming in can be stored.

I think an important characteristic of the “Bubbling well-spring” is that it’s not only a key place where energy enters and exits the body from the ground but it also has the implication of “perennial emanation or supply.” While “spring” has that connotation in the literary tradition, it does not specifically denote “perennial emanation or supply.” There is no measurable limit on the chi that can be drawn from the ground—except in so far as individuals are limited by the capacity they’ve developed for doing so. Tension, lack of awareness, lack of practice, focus on other things all serve to limit the energy that is accessible.

Interestingly, I was unaware that the etymology for “well” included “boiling.” I’m not sure what, if anything, that has to do with the bubbling well point. Etymology for “well” “[OE. wielle (wylle), *wiell (wyll, will), str. masc., *wiella (wylla, willa; Anglian wælla, wella), wk. masc., wielle (wylle, wille; Angl. wælle, welle), wk. fem., f. the stem of weall-an to boil or bubble up: see WALL v.1 Cf. OHG. wella (G. welle) wave, ON. vella boiling heat.]” (All definitions and etymologies are quoted from the Oxford English Dictionary.)

I do like the word “spring” and think that the other meanings of the word—like coiled mechanical spring, or springing forth, or springing up with the legs—are all useful images for people to associate with the bubbling well-spring point for tai chi. We do talk about power coming up from the feet and legs, and in other areas there’s been discussion of concepts like bouncing, or recoil (as in the recoil of a gun, bouncing back in response to an explosion forward). Others have talked about sending the force of incoming energy to the ground and then “bouncing” it back up again.

<font face="Verdana, Arial" size="2"> How do you describe this to beginners? Do you primarily just point at it, try to discuss its characteristics, or trust that working with it will reveal its location? If you do discuss characteristics, what are they? </font>

Hmm, I think I try to do a little of all of that. I do generally try to show beginners exactly where it is, sometimes going so far as to take of a shoe to demonstrate, or have them sit on the floor, take off their shoes and prod at their own feet. I find that for most people, the bubbling well-spring is a more sensitive area, so they don’t have much trouble finding it. I believe that physical contact with it helps reinforce their understanding of where it is, and what it feels like, so they can more readily find it when they standing up and doing the form. My feeling is that being as precise as possible about the “where” helps them to discover its location for themselves—from the inside.

Just as you mentioned in a different post, many of the things that the Yang family talks about can be replicated by beginners quite easily after one or two practice sessions if they are given adequate instruction (sinking the chi). I think it was you who said the difficulty comes in the matter of degree and consistency and that’s where the long-term practice comes in. Along similar lines, I believe many beginners can understand the rudiments of “rooting.”

In my class yesterday, I took my beginners through the form with a focus on the bubbling well-spring point (inspired by our conversation). I had them visualize roots sinking into the ground from this point (not one of YJ’s teaching techniques), and I talked about balancing over this point.

Even though it’s not an area that gets a lot of pressure from contact with the ground (like the heel or the ball of the foot), I tell them that this is the area over which they want to center the line of force to the ground. If the body were simplified into a wishbone structure (there’s that arch concept again), I would liken the legs to the two flexible prongs with a vertical axis running through the dantien (the center that never breaks, ideally) and up to the head-top. The bubbling well-point would be the point through which force is transferred to the ground; the most stable point for rooting (although it is certainly possible to root through any part of the foot, or any part of the body connected to the ground, IMO).

The foot also has its arch. If we simplify the foot’s structure, we see that not all of the sole of the foot bears pressure in contact with the ground. There’s a slight hollow area for the arches where force is transferred through arches, through the foot (even if the fleshy part of the arch touches the ground, there’s still an internal arch structure, except perhaps for those with very fallen arches). The heel, the ball, the outer blade of the foot bear the most weight and the finer points of balance are controlled by the toes.

Sadly, the best analogy I can come up with for this kind of foot structure that touches the ground at certain semi-“outer” points but not so much over the bubbling well point is to compare the foot to a toilet plunger!! (Please forgive me.) The toilet plunger has a semi-spherical shape—it’s an arch in all directions. The stick attached to it delivers force downwards, but does not contact the “ground” itself, much the way we seek to transfer force down to the ground through the bubbling well point although it isn’t a main point of contact with the ground. We’ve probably all experienced that plunging a toilet works best if one centers the handle and applies direct downward force. Plunging at an angle makes the base slip and then there’s dirty water everywhere. Not a good result! Similarly, directing the body’s force of gravity downward at an angle, not centered over the bubbling well point, can cause the body to slip and makes for poor balance and double-weightedness. So, although the bubbling well point isn’t the geographic center of the foot, best center for the tensegrous (is that a word?) distribution of force.

So, characteristics…well, there’s the purely bio-mechanical/structural aspect discussed above, and also an energetic aspect—chi flow and so forth. I’m not sure I know enough to talk well about this aspect. My best sensation of rooting through this point comes when I manage to relax my waist and hips enough to really sink downwards. Otherwise the root is much more shallow. And not for beginners so much, but I can often track waves of energy that come up from this point and radiate through me to come out at the energy point for the movement. I can’t do this well—there are certainly still blockages and misfires—but it makes for easier self-correction. Just to be clear: I don’t try to guide the chi as it goes from point to point; this is not the way my teacher advocates we practice; I set the intention of what I want to happen (push, for example) and then I watch what happens. I hope someday I will be so in the moment that the separation between observer and observed blurs.

Any insights? It would be great to hear your perspective. I’m sure there are many other aspects I haven’t thought of, but I think this is enough to start.

One final question: we hear about rooting downwards, actually rooting energy into the ground below the feet. Does anyone know of an equivalent expansion upwards beyond the top of the head mentioned in any tai chi teachings?

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Postby Audi » Sat May 28, 2005 2:32 pm

Hi Kal,

Wow. Good post.

I preferred the term "spring" because it was what I was originally taught and because this is the likely definition you will find in a dictionary for the original Chinese word quan2. Another word that appears often is "fountain." If you look up "well," you get jing3, which is the thing one draws water from in a bucket and is, of course, a different concept.

Now, I recognize that the English words are not as simple as this, as your post points out; but it did seem to me that "spring" more clearly indicated that something should be coming up and out than with a well. For me, even a bubbling well does not necessary mean that anything concrete gets out of the hole. I was not conscious of the possibility of anything "welling up" until you pointed out the possibility of this interpretation.

Having said all that, I really like your idea of infinite supply and storage and am really reconsidering. "Well-spring" seems like a good idea. It also makes clear that "spring" does not have anything to do with "springiness" or "metal coils," but rather ever-renewing flow.

I am also beginning to wonder about the term "bubbling," since many dictionaries use stronger terms (like "gushing") to translate the original word yong3. In other words, is the issue one of effervescence or displacement through space? I made a quick search in one of my Chinese-Chinese dictionaries and found the definition shui3 xiang4 shang4 mao4, which means something like "water issuing upward." I then looked up the entire term yong3 quan2 and found pen1 chu1 de yong3 shui3, which means "gushing/spouting/spurting spring water."

I am not sure what to make of all this, but think it is worth considering switching "bubbling" to something stronger, like "gushing" or "spouting." Perhaps, "gushing well-spring" covers the territory?

Now to toilet plungers.

You messed with my head here. I thought the structural points you made were truly excellent, but was still prepared to banish the image, until you talked about letting the base slip and letting dirty water get everywhere. This is just too efficient an image of why careful stepping is important to Taijiquan. If we add to this that we are talking about spouting, rather than just a little fizz, well, proper channeling of energy becomes even more important.

One thing I definitely picked up from the plunger description is final image resolution (for me) as to how to view the requirement of gripping the ground with the toes in order to complete foot placement. This is one of the very, very few areas were I resisted one of the Yangs' teaching concepts and had to work through a good resolution more through practice and experience than anything else. Gripping the floor with the toes just seemed like such an image of local, tense force that I was uncomfortable with this wording.

The plunger structure makes much more vivid that we are talking about the structure of the sole of the foot and that simply letting the foot lie flat in any old way does not necessarily engage this correctly. It also makes clear that there is an actual moment of engagement and disengagement that must be attended to. You have to make your foot completes a step not only by making it "adhere" properly at the conclusion, but when you lift it back up, there is also an initial moment of disengagement. Heel, to ball, to toe. From toe, to ball, to heel.

My basic takeaway from all of this is that I have not been devoting anywhere enough attention to some fundamental issues and need to review some basics again. Coming back down from the alternating sun and moon and reviewing a little more stepping practice might pay some nice dividends. Image

Take care,
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Postby Audi » Mon May 30, 2005 4:11 pm

Greetings Fol and everyone else,

<font face="Verdana, Arial" size="2">Some students--such as us fat old ladies--may also need a stern warning about the duty to care for onself, including specific pointers for protecting the knees and so on.</font>

This sounds like an excellent thought. I thought we had had a thread on knees somewhere a while back, but could not locate anything. It might be a good idea for someone to start on a new thread along those ideas, either focused exclusively on knees or on all sorts of things beginners should make special efforts to protect themselves from.

Examples beyond knees might be what sort of teaching standards or behavior from fellow students should beginners insist upon. My experience has been generally very good, even in a variety of settings, and so I am not sure what would be helpful.

Someone could start the thread either by asking for help on specific topics or else by volunteering advice based on their own experiences. I have often wondered if some sort of separate Beginner's Corner or forum focused on beginners' concerns would also be worthwhile, but was unsure how it could be structured.

Take care,
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Postby Kalamondin » Mon May 30, 2005 7:39 pm

Hi Audi,

Sorry for messing with your head! Image

"spring"... is the likely definition you will find in a dictionary for the original Chinese word quan2. Another word that appears often is "fountain."

Now, I recognize that the English words are not as simple as this, as your post points out; but it did seem to me that "spring" more clearly indicated that something should be coming up and out than with a well. For me, even a bubbling well does not necessary mean that anything concrete gets out of the hole. I was not conscious of the possibility of anything "welling up" until you pointed out the possibility of this interpretation. [QUOTE]</B>

I think that’s just it: the English words are not so simple. In modern English usage, it’s easy to think of “spring” having two or three definitions only. It’s the same with “well.” Until I consulted the dictionary I was content with my image of a rock lined vertical pit with water coming up into it (but not out). Words in English almost always mean multiple (2 -20+) different things, but modern English usage is so simplified.

Using the word “spring” as an example, the OED lists “spring” as 5 separate words (3 nouns, 2 verbs) and each of those words has multiple definitions, totaling 58 separate meanings for this single word (!), not including compounds like spring-flowers, spring-green, etc..

I’ve always hated the American Heritage College Dictionary for being too simple and never having the nuances I wanted for words I was looking up. The translators who developed “bubbling well” and “bubbling spring” may well have been aware of the nuances we’ve been unearthing; it’s just that common use tends to dull the awareness of other meanings. Even if we know meanings like “welling up” or “springing forth,” they are used so rarely in daily speech that it’s easy to forget or overlook them.

I think there’s another meaning that we’ve been skirting around. You mentioned “fountain.” Actually, there was one definition for “spring” in the OED that I overlooked, (and I don’t have access to it right now) but it was something more like “geyser.” [6/1 Here are some water-related definitions, see in particular 2.d.: “I. 1. The place of rising or issuing from the ground, the source or head, of a well, stream, or river; the supply of water forming such a source. Now rare. 2. a. A flow of water rising or issuing naturally out of the earth; a similar flow obtained by boring or other artificial means. b. A flow of water possessing special properties, esp. of a medicinal or curative nature. Usually with various distinguishing adjs., as chalybeate, hot, mineral, thermal, warm, etc. d. transf. A jet or spray of water. --rare.

I think this agrees with your research below:

I am also beginning to wonder about the term "bubbling," since many dictionaries use stronger terms (like "gushing") to translate the original word yong3. In other words, is the issue one of effervescence or displacement through space? I made a quick search in one of my Chinese-Chinese dictionaries and found the definition shui3 xiang4 shang4 mao4, which means something like "water issuing upward." I then looked up the entire term yong3 quan2 and found pen1 chu1 de yong3 shui3, which means "gushing/spouting/spurting spring water."

I am not sure what to make of all this, but think it is worth considering switching "bubbling" to something stronger, like "gushing" or "spouting." Perhaps, "gushing well-spring" covers the territory? [QUOTE]</B>

I think we need to be cautious when considering whether “bubbling” ought to be changed. I agree that it is possible for energy to gush, rush, or spout from this point. I experimented with this during forms practice yesterday morning and I think this is how fa jing operates—like high-pressure geyser shooting from the ground—but I think that “bubbling” adheres more to the tai chi chuan tradition of delicate understatement.

Moreover, I think a “bubbling well-spring” is a better image for daily practice. After all, it takes a very strong person to withstand, contain, and channel that much energy rushing around all the time. Geysers that gush, like Old Faithful at Yellowstone, put forth one violent burst of energy and then must rest for a while until enough pressure builds for it to burst forth again. I think it would be exhausting to run energy like a gushing well-spring and only the very adept could do it. “Bubbling” also brings to mind restraint—a continuous, regular, inexhaustible supply of energy that gradually builds and can issue at need. There are also geysers that bubble (mudpots) instead of gushing.

As far as effervescence vs. displacement goes, I think it’s both. For daily practice, the bubbling well-spring provides access to clear, fresh energy that runs through the system, cleansing and recharging it, bringing in a fresh effervescent energy (like putting your hand over a Jacuzzi jet). When necessary, someone with a clear and open system could open to allow a quick powerful upwelling of energy—the geyser spout of explosive energy release—but with out a clear and open system that’s free of energy blocks and tension, this kind of gushing is damaging and exhausting.

Gripping the floor with the toes just seemed like such an image of local, tense force that I was uncomfortable with this wording. [QUOTE]</B>

I know what you mean.... I found, however, that gripping with the toes can be done with intention instead of local force. There are several different ways I’ve felt it operate.

First, there’s the sense of “feeling the ground” —the way one does when standing barefoot in a mud-puddle, on sand, or in a rocky streambed. It gives you a sense of the terrain and lets you explore it with your toes to “listen” for how to align the body to maintain vertical structure on uneven or slippery terrain.

Second, in push hands, gripping with the toes helps me maintain my ground—more like locking around the root somehow. It is an area of tension, but it’s different from stiff-strength and un-relaxed tension because it’s maintained with the mind and the intent and is still responsive. It’s the same as the tension one uses to maintain a strong grip on the opponent that’s still flexible and responsive.

Third, it sometimes happens spontaneously. It’s a little like watching a cat knead its paws—it seems to arise from an instinctive internal impulse.

Fourth, I think there’s an energetic component to toe-gripping too, that I haven’t yet heard discussed, but there’s a very different internal feeling up my legs and into my torso when I grip with the toes. Also, in a different tradition (Wudan Gate?) there’s a chi gung exercise for training internal strength for martial artists that involves different variations of toe clenching, fist clenching, and teeth clenching. I don’t really remember the sequence and would not wish to offend the teacher who taught the friend who demonstrated it for me by sharing it here. I tried it once, but it gave me a headache. I could tell it was good for power generation, but at the time it was too strong for me.

Now to toilet plungers—again.

As for foot engagement and disengagement—yes, I feel that it’s quite precise. It’s not just the heel to ball to toe, it’s the center of the heel, and a gradual rolling along the center line of the foot to the bubbling well-spring, and then a kind of splaying that allows the toes to “wrap” around the bubbling well-spring, completing the contact with the ground on all sides around the center. This is how it feels to me anyway.

Moreover, going back to the circular structure of the plunger against the ground, having the force distributed this way allows one to roll around the edges, as it were. The handle contact with the rubber dome is a flexible point of contact, like the ankle. When our opponent applies some pressure and we receive it, we cannot always channel it down precisely through the bubbling well-spring. Having a foot “perimeter” like the rim of a plunger, can help us roll the incoming energy around the edges before returning it to the center, much the way a basketball can roll around the rim before dropping into the center (or falling outside). If we can keep the entire foot in contact with the ground, there’s much more stability for rolling the point of contact with the ground so that our feet are, quite literally, always under us. Moreover, this business of using the toes to grip the ground also reminds me of the suction applied with a plunger as well (this metaphor has a life of its own!). With all points in contact, it’s harder for your opponent to uproot you because the root is not only deeper; it’s also more flexible and enhanced by a kind of energetic suction in its contact with the ground.

Added 6/1: During standing meditation, I discovered that if the toes grip the ground (gently, with intention, not force) then this "vacuum seals" the foot and there's then a raising up sensation at the bubbling well-spring as though a gate opens and something is drawn upwards (like a old-fashioned pneumatic tube).


[This message has been edited by Kalamondin (edited 06-01-2005).]
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Postby Audi » Fri Jun 03, 2005 4:30 pm

Greetings Kal,

I have enjoyed our exchange and have been putting some of the ideas into my daily practice. It's always nice to peel back a few more layers of onion.

I think the bottom line for me is that Taijiquan is supposed to be an integrated-body exercise. If I try to move my fingers according to whole-body Jin, I must do the same with my toes. The question then arises as to what exactly to do with the toes.

Here the plunger analogies work quite well for me and even stimulate thinking about other parts of the foot that should also do their share of work. I like the way you have elaborated on this.

As I think back about how I originally did the form before studying with the Yangs, I was preoccupied with turning off muscular activity. This meant that I tried to keep the soles of my feet quiet and simply tried to let them lie still when not in movement. Rooting was an exercise in mental visualization with uncertain impact on the body.

I personally have been much happier with an active approach that can even relate toe movement directly to waist movement. This is partially what I meant by quoting "from heel to ball to toe," which sounds like a such a simple, innocent instruction. Our exchange has definitely provided additional grist for the mill.

As for terminology, I should make clear that I distinguish between translation issues and mental "tags" or "hooks" for Chinese terms. Issues of formal translation can be complicated by various factors, and so I have not intended to address this issue directly. At the moment, I do not know what term I would use to describe yongquan ("bubbling well") outside of this discussion. I have, however, interpreted our discussion as dealing with what mental hooks are useful for practice and not really with formal translation.

I still wonder whether "bubbling" is really the right term, since I think the Chinese really does not mean this. When I think of bubbling, I think of something that tickles the soles of my feet. There is an awareness that is nurtured, but the purpose of the awareness is not clear.

When I think of "gushing," "spouting," or "spurting," I find that I must deal with the issue of channeling the flow. In other words, my awareness in the sole must immediately flow up my leg into my spine and towards my center. Once the perception of flow gets into my body, the next challenge is discovering how not to impede it and how to thread it throw the body into the hands and then out toward the imaginary opponent.

You raise good points about understatement and the ability to handle too strong a flow. Perhaps one possibility is to stress that the flow of the average spring is actually quite gentle. Most of the spings I have seen do not have enough force to overcome the strength in my hand, let alone to move my body.

Since the impetus for the flow comes from the ground, there is less reason to worry about using local muscle to help anything along. In order to Fajin, however, I think one must do more than simply put one's hand on another and direct the flow of Qi from the ground through the bubbling well-spring. Separating the issue of flow from the issue of Fajin might be helpful in reconciling some people to the gentleness with which the form is practiced.

Once individuals get a good sense of the Qi and Jin flow, I think it is a relatively easy step to understand how the body can drastically increase the force of the flow and Fajin. All the practice in directing the flow from posture to posture gives a good sense of what controls what and what parts of the body can contribute what.

Perhaps, one call also stress directly that the issue of the "gushing well-spring" is not about power-levels, but about aligning Qi and Jin flow. You want to feel a strong sense of flow in order to get immediate bodily feedback, but you do not actually use the power of the flow for anything during normal form practice other than developing good health. Here again, though, more is not necessarily better, except for the purpose of making sure that the sensations remain clear.

Take care,
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