My wrists do not hurt, because I do Taijiquan of course! However, I do agree that my posts are almost always too long, since I compose them over days or weeks. I have too much ego, enthusiasm, or just plain argumentativeness to stick to two-line posts or to merely “lurking” on the Board.
Be that as it may, would you prefer an epic commentary on a 17-syllable haiku or a 17-syllable commentary on an epic poem? I would argue that both have their place. In any case, beware of straining your eyes, because this post will be yet another long one.
I plead an inability to bring out the simplicity of Taijiquan without simply repeating things said much more eloquently in the classics, by the masters, or by other practitioners. More to the point, a major part of my Taiji journey has concerned repeated discoveries that people use the same terms to describe what I perceive to be different things. I have often found the differences to be subtle on the surface, but extremely important to the course of my practice.
To write short posts to express what I intend to say invites misunderstanding. For instance, I have grown to be extremely wary of references to terms such as “tension,” “relaxation,” “internal,” and “qi.” I have slowly come to the conclusion that even my teachers have not meant the same things by these words and that my practice has suffered through confusion of different principles and different intentions.
For people who prefer short pithy discussion, I would suggest readings from the classics; but beware how much meaning and confusion can lie behind short words, especially in languages like English and Classical Chinese.
Your question has two parts: one concerns theory and the other concerns practical procedure.
For the very reasons you posted, I have become more and more of the view that concentrating on limiting levels of force is counterproductive in the system taught by the Yangs. They talk about having relatively heavy legs, a medium middle, and relatively light arms during push hands; however, they also view “giving the impression of having heavy arms” as a complement. How do I use talk like this to calibrate the appropriate force of a “push”?
During a seminar, Yang Jun refused to adopt the “eight ounce” approach, merely suggesting that using high amounts of upper-body force would tend to make one’s movements and those of one’s push hands partner wobbly, top heavy, and awkward. I see the Yangs as trying to describe desirable tendencies, rather than trying to set boundaries.
Another point is that I think the Yangs do not focus so much on what should not be done as focus on what should be done. I believe they view “fang song” or “relaxing” as something one should do to one’s joints by the action of the tendons, not as something involved with eliminating use of muscles generally. The two concepts are related, but actually lead to different types of practice and different results.
At the moment, I have a theory of how this actually works at the joint level. If I have time, I will try to post it some day. Basically it involves the fact that in normal circumstances, the design of our anatomy requires that the use of certain muscles in certain ways normally precludes the use of other muscles. In short, one need not worry about which muscles not to use, but rather only about how to use the other muscles. Nature can then simply take over.
From a practical viewpoint, I believe I myself make the mistake of looking to freestyle push hands as a basic learning vehicle. During this type of push hands, I believe the unfortunate process you describe takes over. While under the pressure of competition, the ego, or even the desire to demonstrate learning, we go with what “works,” rather than exploring new paths. The better we are at the old ways, the worse this temptation becomes. Denying this probably goes against several million years of developed instinct and can certainly be described as “unnatural.”
Lastly, let me say one thing I especially like about what I understand of the Yangs’ methods, which is that they do not seem overly concerned with limits. I can almost never recall them using teaching methods at seminars that involved limiting motion or energy, so much as being sure to channel them correctly. As long as this is done, they do not seem to care much about levels of force. I think this applies equally for how they look at the motion of a single joint as how they view Taijiquan at a very general level.
I respect your viewpoint, but honestly believe you are discussing what amounts to a different art than me. Which art more deserves to be called Taijiquan or which is “better” is an interesting question; however, I am more interested in finding out what is good, than what is “better” or “best.” I take to heart the saying that “the best is the enemy of the good.”
I have only a little experience of the methods you describe. Because of this, I do not feel qualified to comment on your ideas in detail. The only thing I feel strongly about is that, at least at the beginning and intermediate level, those methods are not compatible with mine.
Let me give a linguistic analogy, because that is my interest and because your name suggests to me that you may have personal acquaintance with this sort of situation. Spanish and Portuguese are both wonderful languages and even mutually intelligible to a large extent; however, one does best by not trying to speak both simultaneously. Do not tell the father of a Spanish-speaking girl that she has been embarrassed (“embarazada” in Portuguese) by a friend’s actions. He will believe he understands every word, but wrongly conclude that the friend has made his daughter pregnant (“embarazada” in Spanish). You and I may both speak of Qi, Jing, Yi, and Jin, but I am not sure that we are really speaking exactly the same language. Some of the misunderstandings can be subtle, but catastrophic to productive communication.
Eulalio, you also spoke of Wuwei (non-action), which others have commented on. I think that many incorrectly see this concept as being the same as “inaction.” My understanding of it is that it means “no-action contrary to the Dao.” To paraphrase the Dao De Jing/Tao Te Ching, I would define Wuwei by saying: “We do nothing, but leave nothing undone” or “By doing nothing, we do everything.”
A kayaker paddling in a raging river can use the same general type of strokes to paddle across the river, downriver, and even upriver. However, every tiny patch of the river has a different nature and requires its own different treatment. By paddling according to that nature, the kayaker can go just about anywhere with minimal effort. This is what I understand to be Wuwei. I do not understand it to mean that the kayaker must treat the river like a lake or, worse yet, act like a log and merely float with the current. Wuwei is harnessing the power of the Dao. We do nothing, in order to allow the Dao to do everything. If we attempt to do anything on our own, we work against the Dao and encounter unnecessary difficulty.
One other point I would like to make and that has been made before on this board is that many do not view Taijiquan as a Daoist art at all. I believe Chen Stylists in particular do not espouse this view, since the founder of Chen Style did not seem to come from this viewpoint. In saying this, I am not arguing that Daoist thought cannot be used in Taijiquan or that it cannot be applied to Taijiquan, but rather that some would argue that the art is not designed according to Daoist principles.
I, myself, do take what I understand to be a “Daoist” approach to Taijiquan. I also do not feel the need to validate any Yang Style practices by referring to Chen Style practices or writings, however sophisticated they may be. I raise this point only to clarify why you may get fewer takers than you might expect on some of your points.
You asked about my concept of the Chinese waist. First, let me say that if one is speaking with total accuracy, I do not believe that anything important in Taijiquan can be discussed independently of movement energy. This energy is expressed through physical tangible things, but is somewhat independent of them.
I think elsewhere I used the analogy of a lasso. A cowboy wielding a lasso never achieves a perfect circle with the lasso; nevertheless, the circularity of the movement energy is evident from the movement of the rope. Indeed, the circular movement of the energy can manifest itself as soon as the rope leaves the cowboy’s hand and long before it even approximates the shape of a circle. The properties of the circle of energy manifest themselves even if the rope is temporarily moving in a wobbly or ragged shape. On the other hand, if one cuts even 1/8 of the loop in the rope, the circular energy is completely destroyed. Also, if one lays the rope on the ground in the shape of a circle, the circular energy is again completely absent. (If a mind and tendons are involved, I would argue that “energy” can circulate even during periods of apparent stillness.) In other words, the shape of the rope does not cause the circular energy manifested by a lasso spinning in a circle. The shape of the movement energy can actually determine the shape of the physical.
Applying this logic to Taijiquan, I believe that the Taiji waist is actually the “length” of movement energy that unites the circuit of energy flowing from one leg to the other with the circuit of energy flowing through the arms and across the upper back. Because of the arrangement of the muscles and tendons in the back, I believe that the most critical part of this energy is centered in the lumbar region (or the small of the back), more or less where the “Mingmen” or “Life Door” is said to be. If one cuts through all this esoteric talk, I think one can say that the relevant muscles and tendons are those that control the gaps between the lumbar vertebrae or that allow them to twist.
Another aspect of this is that I believe Taijiquan deals with structure mediated by the soft tissue of tendons and sinews, rather than structure determined directly by bone alignment and constricting muscle fibers. I think Jerry makes a similar point to this in one of his footnotes to his translation of the Ten Essentials elsewhere on this site, under Tai Chi Info/Essays. He says: “In Chinese thought the waist tends to be regarded as the space between two vertebrae, rather than a circle girdling the middle of the body.”
Speaking strictly linguistically, I can add that in one of my dictionaries, the Chinese word commonly translated as “waist” (i.e., “yao”) is also used as the equivalent of the English terms “lower back” or “lumbar region.” Thus, the term “lumbar vertebra(e)” is translated in my dictionary as “yao zhui,” and ”lumbar pain”/”backache” is translated as “yao tong.” I cannot speak for German, but “waist vertebrae” and “waist bones” are nonsense expressions in Standard English. Even “waist pain,” and “waist ache” would be taken as referring to the muscles at one’s side, rather than to anything related to the spine or the vertebrae.
Rather than be misleading and just talk about the “waist” and rather than making my post even longer than it was, I settled on the practical solution of identifying the Taiji waist as the lumbar vertebrae.
Peter, you also asked about the natural curves of the spine. Here again, I plead that what I was trying to describe was movement energy, not physical anatomy. To try to straighten out the natural curves of the spine would be very unnatural and unhealthy. In fact, achieving a perfectly straight spine might actually result in paralysis or at least in severe nerve damage. All that is necessary is that you push up and pull down, lengthening the spine. The process is important, not really the extent of the physical result.
I also agree with Michael’s response about why local strength is not an issue, but let me add a couple of clarifications about the physical and about “tension.”
My view of the Taijiquan taught by the Yangs (although not of that taught by some others) always involves an element of the physical and always involves muscular effort. Pulling on both ends of the string of pearls requires muscular effort. Spinning the lasso requires muscular effort. However, if one talks about moving energy through the rope without even touching it, one is entering a realm where I am not comfortable. To be clearer, I do not believe the Taijiquan taught by the Yangs is outside of the laws of physics as articulated by such people as Isaac Newton.
As for “tension,” I strongly believe that different practitioners mean different things by this and that this difference matters very much in shaping one’s Taijiquan. For instance, more than once I have heard, been taught, or read that one should “eliminate all tension from the spine” and allow the vertebrae to rest on each other “like a pile of bricks joined together by gravity.” In my opinion, this is not at all the way the Yangs practice Taijiquan. They seem to open up the vertebrae by gently pulling them apart. The top of the spine reaches toward “heaven” and the bottom toward “earth.” This requires use of the muscles and thus could be thought of as a type of muscular “tension”; nevertheless, this process has nothing whatsoever to do with squeezing joints into rigidity. Instead, this process unites the vertebrae into one system of movement energy.
Some would argue that Taijiquan is about minimization of effort and that I am articulating a model that relies on “muscle power.” I would say in response that in my model, any deliberate calibration of the amount of muscular exertion is either irrelevant or counterproductive. It is in total conflict with Wuwei. Instead, one naturally does what is necessary to the task at hand. If no specific task is at hand, clarity is the only requirement. The level of tension can be as subtle as what can be apparent from the process of breathing. By breathing in, the ribcage is expanded and the air pressure causes the vertebrae to separate slightly. If one is sensitive to this movement and one is trying to “fangsong” in the style articulated by the Yangs, I believe it should lead one to make a few millimeters of adjustment in the hip joints, the pelvis, and perhaps in the space between the shoulder blades. As one exhales, one would again make a natural adjustment.
A cowboy does not consciously calibrate or memorize the force necessary to spin different sizes and weights of rope in the form of a lasso. He simple visualizes the circle in his mind, starts the motion of his hand, and automatically adjusts the speed and power according to the natural feedback provided by his senses and his requirements of the moment. Deliberately applying more or less muscle power to the process is either pointless or catastrophic.
Peter, you also asked about “lifting the pelvis,” an expression which also puzzled Michael. I used this phrase after stating the caveat that I think different people experience the effects of “suspending from above” in different ways. What I tried to articulate was what I physically feel, independently of “theory.” If it is helpful to relate this to “theory,” I can point to the references in the classics to “Threading Qi through the ‘nine crooks/bends of pearl(s).’”
The nine crooks or bends, as I understand them, are the major joints or sets of joints in the body. In my not so original analogy of the string of pearls, the static part of each joint or set of joints can be thought of as a pearl and the movable part can be thought of as the string in between.
When I push up through the Bai Hui point in the top of the head in opposition to the “platform” formed by my shoulders and the base of my neck, I feel no particular sensation in my skull that is important to my practice. I do, however, feel the vertebrae in my neck open up. Although I feel that this action is connected to my shoulders and upper back, the openness of my upper back does not feel as if it is controlled vertically, but rather laterally by my shoulder muscles and tendons. In other words, I must “pluck out the back” independently of “being suspended from above.”
As I follow the alignment process down my spine, I feel as if the small of my back opens up between the two pearls of my pelvis and my shoulders/upper back. As I continue downward, the opposition between my pelvis and my thighs/knees opens up my kua’s or inner hip joints. This latter is what I meant by “lifting the pelvis.” In other words, one lifts the pelvis in opposition to the sinking of the legs.
In actual fact, I think one needs to tilt the top of the pelvis toward the rear and angle the tailbone a little downward and forward to acquire the necessary sensation. Again, the physical amount of this is not an end in itself, but rather the sensation that sets up the right “force vectors” and unifies control of the relevant tendons. If you feel the correct structure through the tendons, I believe you will establish the correct angle for the bones. The elastic structure created by the tendons is what is important, not really the ultimate alignment of the bones. In this case, any level of muscular force you apply can be made to work. Think of ratios, rather than absolutes.
As one improves, I believe one feels less and less of a need to use high levels of force without specific reason. Once one learns how to stand up, does one think about standing with “greater” or “lesser” effort? One just stands. Standing is harder in high winds than in still air, but one does not have to worry much about “practicing” to calibrate the different levels of muscular effort necessary. One simply focuses on staying on one’s feet and lets one’s body do what comes naturally. Muscular effort is not really a relevant parameter to one’s intent in this context.
Peter, you also asked about what copying intent has to do with the mind leading the body and the Yi leading the Qi. My belief is that the Taijiquan taught by the Yangs does not deal much with manipulation of Qi, but rather with manipulation of Yi. In my opinion, the teaching they reveal (at seminars at least) does not have the flavor of Qi Gong or meditation. Some would say that this must necessarily mean that they are dealing primarily with externals, but I do not believe this to be the case. I think their method is an indirect one and therefore somewhat subtle.
By having the mind relate to the body in particular ways, more is accomplished than if one tries to proceed directly. On one occasion, I think I was able to demonstrate this concept to a group of my friends at a Taiji class. I led everyone in a little exercise I came up with. The exercise was impossible to perform while using the first mental concept I asked everyone to apply. When I asked people to apply a different concept of the exercise, many found it quite easy, at least in my opinion. This is why I believe Yi matters so much to this method of Taijiquan. Correct Yi makes for easy application of Qi and Jin. Incorrect or even insufficient Yi leads to sluggish movement of Qi and Jin. Trying to work directly with Qi or Jin does little or nothing for Yi.
Consider another string analogy. Imagine that you and I have identical lengths of string with knots at equal intervals along them. Imagine that I lay mine down while pulling on both ends and that I challenge you to arrange the knots of your string exactly next to the knots on mine. If you try to place your knots one by one, you cannot succeed. Placing any individual knot in place will cause you to pull any previously placed ones out of alignment. One way you can get around this would be by nailing the knots in place one by one. If you did this, however, the knots would never quite line up in a straight line, since your eye would always do this imperfectly. Another way to proceed would be to cut the knots out and then place them individually. While this might work, it would be a laborious process and the knots could never form a single unit of energy. The best way to proceed is to copy my procedure rather than to try to directly copy the result. You simply tug on both ends of your string and miraculously the knots will line up in a perfect straight line at the exact same intervals as mine.
Notice that in my analogy, the process of tugging on both ends of the string applies movement energy to each individual knot; however, this is done in a holistic way. It is integrated force, rather than local force. The question is not whether to use force or how much force to use, but how to use it.
Notice also that calibrating the amount of effort one uses in tugging on the string is almost irrelevant. The only caveats are that one must tug hard enough for one’s pulling energy to reach each knot and that one must allow the string to move freely. On the other hand, any attempt to hold a portion of the string and place an individual knot will not succeed, no matter how “gently” one proceeds. Cutting the rope and disconnecting the knots eliminates all “tension” in the system, but is less efficient in lining them up than applying movement energy to the system as a whole. Think of the knots as the joints and the string as the tendons and sinews. Think of nailing the knots in place as using the muscles to force the bones to stay in particular alignments. Think of cutting the string as letting the muscles go slack and trying to use no muscular force at all.
I began this post in a philosophical way and now wonder whether this was the best approach. Rather than wipe all this out and start afresh (and risk carpal tunnel syndrome), I may at some later date try to walk through a portion of a “simple” posture like High Pat on Horse (Gao tan ma). I think I can explain how that posture can be performed in a way that is physically different from what a practitioner of an “external martial art” would do and how trying to copy the externals without attending to internals such as Yi will not succeed in methods like those taught by the Yangs.