Louis, you said: <BLOCKQUOTE><font size="1" face="Verdana, Arial">quote:</font><HR><font face="Verdana, Arial" size="2"><B> As you point out, Yang Zhenduo doesn’t bend the knees until after the weight begins to shift into the right leg.
It seems to be a very subtle, but potentially significant difference. I would be interested in hearing more of your thoughts.</B></font><HR></BLOCKQUOTE>
Here is my current attitude/theory of bending the knees.
Two of the teachers I have had in the past taught that the first reaction to a threat or attack should be to bend the knees and sink. As a result of this, I have always thought of this kind of reaction as very provocative and significant in a self-defense context. I also see it as a key issue of strategy, tactics, and training, for often one will get time for only one initial reaction when attacked.
Some forms begin with the knees already bent and do not indicate how the practitioner should arrive at this state. I have come not to like this kind of omission. For at least one of the two teachers I referred to, the explanation would probably be that bending the knees and sinking should be presumed as one’s initial response to a threat. The other teacher taught a form that began with the feet in a “v.” I think the application he taught was that the initial sinking could be viewed as in response to a bear hug from the rear, as you, Louis, described.
Yang Zhenji’s form description seems interestingly ambiguous. On the one hand, describing the initial knee bend as a transition from Wuji to Taiji could imply either of the two ideas I have described above. On the other hand, I think I saw in a video that he linked the knee bend with the momentum transferred from the sinking of the arms. Is this correct? If it is correct, it implies that the sinking should not come out of nowhere.
I do not recall having heard any particular explanation of the Commencement Posture from Yang Zhenduo or Yang Jun. As a result, I feel free to speculate about it. From all that I have read and experienced, my current belief is that the origin of the posture in all styles was symbolic and was simply a means of preparing the mind and body for movement.
Although I believe the origin of the Commencement Posture was symbolic, I believe it would be a mistake merely to note this and move on to more “exciting” or “practical” things. First, let me talk about at least one possible idea behind the symbolism.
A few years ago, I recall reading an article in Tai Chi Magazine in which a teacher asserted that the Commencement Posture had a very specific symbolic meaning and a specific method of execution that had allegedly been lost through ignorance among certain Yang lineages. He gave some detailed chronology of events and presented his material as simple fact, rather than speculation. I vaguely recall that he said that the posture was a physical representation of a universal circle and the all-encompassing nature of Yin and Yang. He asserted that it was incorrect merely to lift the arms and drop them down and that the arms should describe an arc, almost as if smoothing over a mound from front to back. The image I have is of molding the “dome of heaven.”
When I read this article, I think it was at a time when I was unsure how to develop my form practice. Much of the teaching I had received up to that point was eclectic in nature and either neutral toward personal experimentation or even demanding of it. Since I did not know at the time how to put much internal content into the Yangs’ method of doing this posture, I considered adopting this other version; however, for a number of reasons, I decided to postpone such a change, stick to what the Yangs taught, and await understanding.
Much later, I was visiting a class where a lesser-known style of Taijiquan was being taught. Gene may recall this. Although much of the external content was quite different than what I had seen before, most of the internal content was quite congenial to what I thought I understood of Yang Style. During the class, an application of the Commencement Posture was demonstrated and drilled.
The application was much like the Wu version that Polaris described earlier in this forum, but with two differences. First, this style placed a great deal of emphasis on explicit and visible Silk Reeling. As a result, the arms were raised in the Commencement Posture with a constant rotation throughout the lift and an opposite rotation throughout the fall.
I initially had a great deal of trouble with this application drill for a variety of reasons. One of these was that my first introduction to Taijiquan was through a mixed hard and soft style that seemed basically external in approach. Using the techniques of this style, I felt that I could get most Taiji applications to “work,” but in ways that seemed slightly out of sink with what other styles described and with what seemed emphasized in the classics. On this particular occasion with this “lesser-known style,” the students were being advised physically to “sink” in order to make the technique work. Because I was having trouble, one person was particularly advising me to sink more. I resisted this advice, because it seemed to lead me down the path of my previous training methods and further away from the flavor of what this particular teacher was conveying. I did not want to make the technique work through dramatic external movements. More “outside” movement seemed to me to mean less “inside” movement, at least at that moment.
The teacher saw my difficulty and immediately diagnosed two problems. First, he said that, judging by my gaze, my thoughts were too internally directed, rather than being directed toward the opponent. In other words, I needed to “get out of my head” and “into the opponent’s body.” Second, I needed to place my mind between the shoulder blades of my opponent. The moment I heard this latter injunction, I had an “aha” moment, tried the application with these modifications, and immediately succeeded. I not only succeeded, but palpably felt the connection between “Shen,” “Yi,” and “Qi” and how these three interacted with the “opponent.” For me, this was also completely compatible with what I thought I understood of the Yangs’ teaching about these concepts.
I will forever remain grateful for this experience, and it is one of the reasons I am so wary about rushing to mix teaching and training methods. As I mentioned earlier, some of my teachers have put great emphasis on physical sinking, while putting minimal emphasis on other aspects of traditional Taijiquan. Had I done that in this case, I could have gotten this application to work, but without acquiring the same knowledge about “Shen,” “Yi,” and “Qi.”
My issue is not that sinking is bad, but that relying excessively on it for this occasion would have been inconsistent with the method I was being taught. I felt this way despite the fact that physical sinking was actually a part of the application I was being shown and despite the fact that such sinking occurs in some applications Yang Jun has shown. I also want to make clear that I am not advocating being closed to ideas from other styles, because I am in fact using an experience with another style to make a point about how I understand the Yangs’ form.
One implication of the spiraling energy that this other style used is that the attack seemed different from what Polaris posted about Wu Style. Rather than focusing on the opponent’s heel point, the attack was aimed between the opponent’s shoulder blades. The arms were spiraled out to initiate a force vector that resembles the movement one uses to clap the backs of one’s hands together. These horizontal arcs made it hard for the opponent to avoid closing his upper back and cutting off the Jin in his arms from the Jin in his trunk and legs. If you keep connected, you can isolate this weakness in the opponent and force him back with little effort. If the opponent senses the attack and releases his grip, you can simply continue the horizontal arcs and strike the opponent’s ears with the backs of your hands. I suppose this approach can be combined with what Polaris described, but have not actually tried this out.
I liked this application so much that it made me wonder about how the Yangs do the form. This was the third or fourth version of the Commencement Posture I had learned that involved some physical sinking, and I wondered why the Yangs form did not. I also wondered about the linear movement of the arms in the Yangs’ version that seemed contrary both to the symbolism discussed in the article mentioned above and the spiraling nature of my new application. The proper role of Silk Reeling Energy in Yang Style has also been one of the areas in which my teachers have differed the most.
I finally decided to ask a group of the center directors attending one of the Yangs’ seminars. I showed them the spiraling application and asked for their views. I cannot recall exactly who said what and so will instead relate the conclusions I have drawn from our discussion.
The first motion in the Yangs’ form is to rotate the arms to the front, as if pivoting along the axis of the thumbs. It is not to sink the body physically as a prelude to other action. In the context of the application I describe below, I have come to like this approach a great deal.
If one takes time to sink physically before “engaging” the opponent, one does two things. First, one gives the opponent time to change his intent and apply a further technique. Second, the mere act of sinking can be understood as initiating an attack and can escalate the confrontation uncontrollably. For instance, maybe the opponent will be provoked or frightened into attempting a kick. Acting in this way seems to violate the Yangs’ tactical principles in several ways. (By the way, I can defend such sinking in other versions of the form, but only along other lines, with other principles, or in the context of other applications.)
The intent I use for the initial arm rotation is to visualize the opponent facing me and grabbing my wrists, as in the previous applications discussed. The rotation allows me to engage the opponent’s “wrist” and forearm muscles and “listen” for his intent (i.e., use Ting) without provoking a response unrelated to the grip. By intent, I mean the purpose for which my wrists are being held and the “orders” that my opponent’s mind is giving to his hands, arms, and body. If he is not actually trying to control my wrists or arms, I cannot control him through this method and must immediately go down another path. If he is, I will sense this from how his muscles respond to my initial movement and the overall disposition of his body.
If the opponent persists in trying to control my wrists, he is at a disadvantage in resisting my rotation and will naturally tense his forearm and elbow muscles. If I sense this, I can then use his reactions to “attack” the center of his upper back through his own arms. Again, if his mind is focused on controlling my arms, it is unnatural for him to have his upper back correctly deployed to counter my technique. If I execute correctly, the opponent’s Jin will break between his shoulder blades. As my force concentrates there, he will naturally attempt to push back, but will instead end up pushing himself away from my wrists and my body. Since he is initiating the push himself, it will be unnatural for him to maintain his grip. He will sail away from me under the power of our combined Jin.
As with the Wu version of this, there are things the opponent can do to thwart the technique. One of these is to absorb the Jin by bending his elbows. Another is simply to loosen the grip on my wrists. These situations can be addressed by several different ways of then proceeding to lower the arms. The choice is controlled by what is sensed with Listening Energy (“Ting”). If the opponent has abandoned control of my wrists, I can “jerk” my hands free without signaling an escalation in our confrontation. I am simply following my opponent’s intent and not declaring a battle of wills. This variation can then look much like the symbolic method described in the magazine article.
If the opponent insists on control, I do not oppose this or try to jerk my hands free. Such actions would be “resisting” (“Kang”) and contrary to the idea of using “Following” (“Sui”) as a core technique. Instead, I use Linking (“Lian”) and Following to seek to change the implications of his actions. (This is Hua, or Neutralizing/Transforming Energy.) As my right foot pivots to the right and my hands begin to arc forward and backward, I can use my body energy to spin the opponent out to my right and rear, by using the leverage of his arms. This escalation matches what the opponent has done, but still offers no strike or kick to trigger worse aggression. Done correctly, it maintains a degree of control over the opponent to prevent him from initiating certain techniques. By the way, this application does not work if one does not follow the Yangs’ instructions and simply “holds the ball” on the right side of the body. The left hand has to advance and the right hand has to retreat in the short horizontal arcs they teach.
If the opponent remains after all this “to and fro,” he is no longer just trying to intimidate or to offer a fight. He is now in a fight with you and has shown substantial skills. Now you proceed with Ward Off Left and introduce a serious of complex force vectors that cannot be directly countered with a grip on your wrists. One of these vectors involves externally sinking for the first time. As one sinks into the right foot, the increased distance from the opponent’s shoulders makes it easier to accomplish the changes in one’s own arms and transform how they connect with the opponent’s arms. These changes also make it nearly impossible for the opponent to take advantage of your sinking to launch a different attack.
Depending on what the opponent does, you can follow his actions to break his arm, send him flying, or slam him into the ground. The particular visualization I favor is again incompatible with “holding the ball” or having the torso face squarely to the south, as is done in some Yang Style forms. As a result, I discourage friends from cultivating these practices if their ambition is to learn or practice the Yangs’ form. I am not asserting that these other practices are inferior, but only that they are crucially different and adapted to train other things.
A natural outcome of my particular variation can be for the opponent to step backward to avoid being thrown over my leg. If I follow while sticking to the opponent’s left arm, this sticking leads naturally into a further step into Ward Off Right. If the form showed this precisely, the practitioner would have advanced into the laps of the onlookers or into the space of a watching instructor. As I result, I believe that the form has been altered to change the direction of the action, i.e., for “esthetic reasons.” While esthetics would seem a strange guide to correct practice of applications, my understanding is that the Taiji form is not supposed to be used to “drill” applications. As a result, “esthetically-based” alterations are immaterial, as long as they do not disrupt training in principles.
From what I have seen on tapes, Fu Shengyuan’s and Fu Zhongwen’s form seems to deal with this structural concern by sending Ward Off Left somewhat toward the southwest, rather than directly to the south. The Yangs’ form deals with the issue by adjusting the direction of the left foot after Ward Off Left. In either case, the rest of Grasp Sparrow’s Tail is performed to the west, rather than to the south. I have almost no evidence for my speculations, but thought to repost them here in case someone might be interested.
<font face="Verdana, Arial" size="2"> “Bending the knees is a transitional process from wuji to taiji. After bending the knees, there is a differentiation of yin and yang, empty and full.”</font>
Louis, I find this quote of Yang Zhenji quite interesting and a little surprising. Yang Zhenduo and Yang Jun seem to make a point of stressing that one must begin to observe the Ten Essentials as one does the Preparation Posture, and not later. This would of course include: “Differentiating between full and empty.” Based on this, I have concluded that the transition from Wuji to Taiji takes place before the end of the Preparation Posture and certainly before the Commencement Posture or Ward Off Left.
I have also heard others assert that the transition from Wuji to Taiji occurs at the beginning of the Commencement Posture, since one makes an overt differentiation between up and down. I think this was the position taken in the article in Tai Chi Magazine I referred to above. Again, I have not adopted this position, because it seemed inconsistent with the practice instructions I have understood. For me, philosophy is most important because of its practical application.
Yang Zhenji’s comments would seem to be justifiable from two perspectives that differ somewhat from what I have described above. First, if one returns to the idea of the Commencement Posture as being symbolic and a mere preparation for training, it is more logical to view it as representing Wuji. This would seem to correspond to the beginning of the Sword Form as now practiced by the Yang Zhenduo and Yang Jun. The initial movement of the Sword seems to have no martial purpose at all, while resembling the beginning of the bare-hand form.
As I consider further the correspondence between how Yang Zhenduo and Yang Jun do the hand, sword, and saber forms, I realize that the initial knee bend always seems to be away from the direction of the first overt technique to the front and always after some other circular motion or technique as already been initiated. The first weight shift seems always to be into a foot that has finished a pivot. Does anyone know whether other teachers show similar correspondences in how they begin these three forms? What does Yang Zhenji do or teach?
A second way of viewing Yang Zhenji’s comments can be inspired by the difference in his practice. If the Commencement Posture and Ward Off Left are not viewed as martially connected, it seems reasonable that the beginning of Ward Off Left could “borrow” the descending energy manifested by the arms in the Commencement Posture in order to initiate a sinking in the body.
The only application I have seen Yang Jun demonstrate for Ward Off Left in the form did not show any particular connection with the Commencement Posture. I have not completely adopted this visualization, however, because it does not give me enough information to understand all the details of the transition he teaches. I have mostly maintained the visualization/intent I have outlined at length earlier in this post. For me, it also seems more easily to justify directing my gaze to the west or southwest, rather than to the south.
My last comment about the issue of symbolism is that Yang Zhenduo and Yang Jun teach very detailed arm positions in the commencement posture. The arms seem to have the same details of Jin movement that they have in any other posture. With such detail, it is hard to view their instruction as having merely a symbolic purpose.
All in all, I have come to like the method Yang Jun teaches, as well as the interpretations I give to the movements. These seem to unite strategic, tactical, and moral dimensions into one. “Give back to the opponent only what he gives to you.” By yielding the initiative, you can establish a degree of subtle control. In doing this, you allow the opponent to reveal himself, while keeping your own intentions and abilities hidden inside his own actions until it is too late for him to counter. I try to carry this spirit into the other postures of the form and look for cases of “progressive escalation.”
These are a lot of rambling ideas and definitely one of my less coherent posts. With luck, some clarity of thought may have poked through here and there.