<<Is the term "fangsong" summarized in the idea "loosening up the joints" a complete one...or is "fangsong" of a deeper complexity and substance?>>
The Yangs teach that you must not only “fangsong” the body, but also the mind. Physically, it is something quite straightforward, but surprisingly difficult to do consistently and continuously.
“Fangsong” is a compound. “Fang” can mean to “put” or to “release.” “Song” basically means “loose” or “loosen.” As a compound word, “fangsong” overlaps in meaning with “relax,” but can refer to things that do not fit this word. “Fangsong” can mean: “take it easy,” “slacken,” or “limber up.” For instance, one could say that you want to exercise a bit in order to “fangsong” (“limber up,” not “relax?”) your muscles.
I have been taught at least three overlapping, but different views of what this concept should be for Taijiquan. In most of the contemporary literature, most people seem to stress the idea of “taking things easy” or “using minimal amounts of muscular energy.”
Advocatine a different view, one teacher I had talked about “relaxation” in terms common with other sports or activities, basically meaning to avoid the type of tension that inhibits movement. As a general rule, he favored going through the range of extreme relaxation to extreme rigidity, depending upon the needs of the moment. He just thought of Taijiquan as generally emphasizing more relaxation than other activities.
In my opinion, the Yangs usually refer to something more specific than either of these two meanings. Basically they want you to continuously extend your limbs, as if you were trying physically to unlock and open your joints. In my opinion, this process takes more energy, rather than less, and can be visibly demonstrated. When the Yangs do this, they do so from what is basically a static posture. It is not a concept that applies only to movement and is not directly concerned with the level of muscular exertion. The focus is on the joints, tendons, and sinews, not muscles, positively or negatively. To get the right feel in your joints, tendons, and sinews, you must use your muscles in a certain way.
If you practice moving according to these principles, you begin to develop a wiry strength, or rather a body sense that continuously “feels” for your dynamic body structures. This is also one of the reasons why extending the fingers (“shu zhi”) is important to the Yangs’ system. This extension is part of this same feeling of “song” that threads throughout your body. If you merely “relax” your fingers and allow them to go somewhat limp, this will run counter to the feelings the Yangs want you to cultivate. Nor is it, in my opinion, a question of just finding a happy medium between being maximally “relaxed,” while retaining the proper external structure. This is the strategy that some teachers pursue, but I do not think it is the right one for what the Yangs teach.
You also asked:
<<Question! Audi, what is the difference between "releasing jin", "pushing jin through the jin point on the side of the palm heel", and executing a "fajin technique" ...The degree of explosiveness?>>
I do not know what “releasing jin” means exactly. I think this is a term that some practitioners use, perhaps as a translation of “fajin.” By “pushing jin,” I was referring to the feeling of using each individual joint and all of them collectively to “push,” or rather extend, through a particular point on the body.
You also stated:
<<I have heard described previously, by a Chen style Master, in passing, the concept of "maintaining the wrists "above" the feet, and the elbows "above" (in line with) the knees. Are we speaking the same type of ideology?>>
I think this concept is what is called the Six Harmonies/Combinations/Correspondences (“Liu he”). The idea is that the movement of the wrists is linked to the movement of the ankles, the movement of the knees to the movement of the elbows, and the movement of the shoulders to the movement of the hip sockets. I actually was not referring to this concept, but rather to phrases that talk about threading the Qi through the “nine bends of pearl beads.” On interpretation of this, is that the “nine bends of pearl” refer to the nine sets of major joints in the body. Each of these must be “song” individually, as well as collectively, for the whole body to be unified.
Here is what I was talking about by mentioning three planes. Movement in Taijiquan goes in straight lines and curves. You can think of the curves as occurring in three different planes with respect to your body: a pinwheel (left-up-right-down), a Ferris wheel (up-forward-down-back), and a merry-go-round (left-forward-right-back).
In a posture like Step up Punch to the Groin (Shang bu zhi dang chui). It is easy to get confused about the planes in which the force vectors should lie. In one sense, the posture is basically chasing the opponent and can be seen as an advance straight forward to the west; however, the placement of the feet really make it somewhat of a zigzag. “Go right in order to go left.” One can also see this as “Be wary of the left” (“Zuo gu”) and “Look out for the right” (“You pan”) mixed in with “Advance” (“Jin bu”) at the end. If one fixates too much on “waist rotations,” one can convert this subtle zigzag feel into an incorrect feeling of “spin right” and “spin left” and lose the feeling of the straightness of the advance and the feel of opening the hip sockets to initiate the steps.
In this posture, the left hand and arm sweep first to the right and then to the left, as in Brush Knee and Twist Step, Left (“Zuo lou xi ao bu”). These sweeps can give the feel of the “merry-go-round” plane of rotation. It is easy to transfer this feeling to the right arm, especially the initially rightward sweep of the left arm, but I believe such a transfer to be incorrect. The right forearm should instead move in something of a “Ferris wheel” plane, with the right elbow drawing back directly to the east, rather than rotating clockwise in a horizontal plane to “match” the rightward movement of the left arm. Basically, the right elbow does not rotate in the “merry-go-round” plane at all in this posture.
It is also easy to mistakenly ram the right arm straight backward, as if cocking a gun or chambering the arm, as is done in Karate. Instead, the movement of the right fist initially describes some of a “Ferris wheel” circle. It pulls back to the level of the hip socket, not to the level of the ribs, before “reeling” off in a straight line for the punch.
In my view, none of these are things that one artificially drills into one’s movement patterns. Although there is a standard way to perform the postures, there is no universally right way to do a “technique.” As you concentrate on being “song” (“loose” and “extended”), you begin to feel how all the curves and straight lines grow out of the standard moves. You learn what your body is capable of in various positions. If you try to freeze a joint to use it as an anchor or leverage point or if you let a joint go limp, this method does not work well for this purpose and the feel of the inherent geometry of your movements can be obscured.
As you probably now, there is a term in Chinese philosophy called “wu wei” (“non-action”). Rather than meaning “inactivity,” this refers to allowing the true nature of things to unfold without interference from you. If you truly “fangsong,” you can start to feel the inherent geometry of the motions express themselves without your actively imposing your will to define individual shapes. Your mind sets up the requirements for the force ratios and relationships, and your body naturally expresses this. The Yi leads, and the Qi and Jin follow.
All this is, of course, quite easy to say, but not so easy to do. First you do it in one movement of one posture, then you do it in two, then three, etc. After a while, you begin to see many of the patterns of repetition in the form, and most of the movements begin to feel like minor variations of each other, or rather different combinations of the same variations.
Let me close with one more analogy of what “fangsong” can mean for the mind. My father was taught how to swim as a boy when the older boys of the town took the younger ones out on a raft into the local river. As was tradition, they then tipped the raft over and let nature take its course. My father became an instant swimmer.
Young boys can have the flexibility of mind to “listen” for the “feel” of the water and figure out the “dao” of swimming in a few moments, even through a few seconds of pure panic. Six months of lessons at the YMCA are not necessarily required.
We older folks, on the other hand, are often unwilling to let go (“fang”) of what we know or what we think we know. We cannot deal with the nature of reality as is. If someone loses their contact lenses, we look for them where the light is good, not in the spot where they were lost. We find it hard to learn new languages, because we cannot get past the fact that we already “know how to talk.” By refusing to let go of what we have, we may lose even more.
I personally do not have the heart to continue the tradition of the raft method for teaching young kids to swim, but I have to concede that it did work for at least some. In any case, I certainly would not recommend this for adults, whose minds have usually lost much of their pliability.
As you do form, it may not be apparent that you must listen to your body and let go of some control; however, as you push hands, the challenge to “loosen up” the mind can become much more apparent. If you truly “abandon your self and conform to your opponent” (“she ji sui ren), you then have to be “song” in order to flow with the Yin and Yang in every moment and every movement. This is what I understand to be the key to applying “wuwei” and why Taijiquan does not focus so much on speed and strength as the answer to everything.
Enough of my ramblings for now.