Sunday, December 9, 2012

Another great semester!

Students in the last class (bunched together for the photo!)
Students Richard bows before receiving his certificate.
Classes finished this week, and I was very pleased to award 24 students a certificate for learning Eight Pieces of Brocade routine as taught by my sifu, Master Jesse Tsao. The students were great, and it was such a joy to teach them. Not only that, the students get college credit! Well done everybody!

Thursday, September 20, 2012

It's not magic, it's taiji

Those who have been around taiji masters (or viewed videos on You Tube) are often amazed at seemingly impossible moves. An aura of mystique surrounds taiji/qigong. Some teachers play up to the mystique and have their followers in awe. At Master Jesse's summer training he insisted a number of times that there is nothing "magic" about taiji. Taiji is practice—long term gongfu.
Recently, I tried an experiment to see how my rooting and peng (ward off) postures are coming along. Leaving the university sports center I met one of the football coaches. (Big guy, much taller than me, at a guess 300+ pounds of solid linebacker.) We chatted for a while and I asked him if he would push me. (Bit foolish you might say!) I assumed a peng position, bow stance, asked him to push my wrist and elbow, slowly adding more pressure. I relaxed (song) into my structure. After a while I asked him to stop. How much strength was he using? He told me about forty percent. I remained relaxed, no tension in the muscles and simply stood. I was pleased the root held.
A few days later I discovered one of my students is a college champion wrestler (number two in the country). Another experiment. After a chat, he agreed to push me and try to find my center and unbalance me. We pushed for ten minutes or so. I relaxed into my stance again. Each of seven times he was unable to unbalance me. Seven times he lost balance. He repeated a number of times, "How did you do that?" I simply smiled.
It's not magic, it's taiji.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Final sessions and return

The final three sessions of the training were push hands. What a lot I learned! And what a lot of fun. During the nine hours of pushing hands I partnered with a lot of different people, and learned from them all. To this point I had only pushed hands with my own students. It was a delight to play with those who were much more skilled than I. Overall, I discovered that I have a very strong root, but that my skill level is quite low. I learned that however rooted and centered I felt, Master Jesse (and his senior students —now my friends) could always destabilize me. So much room for improvement! Master Jesse taught us a number of techniques that helped keep our own center, while finding our partner's center. Listening to your own body as well as your partner's is quite fun.
Reflecting on the planes on the way home I realize that during the week of intensive training I learned so much that will take a good while to digest and integrate into my practice. I hope I can embody my Chen family name and "fly like a bird."

Saturday, July 28, 2012

A great honor

Yesterday was an important one. In the morning Master Jesse taught us the Five Animal Frolics qigong forms, explaining the health benefits of each form. This will prove invaluable. In the evening Dr Yibin Wang did a marvelous session on Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) giving us some helpful warm up advice for before taiji, explained important energy points for self healing, told us about the health benefits of food (and had brought samples for us to try). She finished with an excellent demonstration of massage (using Master Jesse as a model). It was truly a lot of fun and Dr. Wang packed an amazing amount into the time. All in all a fine day's learning of qigong!

Of most significance yesterday is that I became a formal disciple of Master Jesse and was given the great honor of Chen family taiji lineage, thirteenth generation.

Chen family style taiji is the earliest traditional taiji and can be traced to Chen Wangting in the seventeenth century. The tradition was passed through the family. In time taiji was taught to others outside the family (Yang Luchan, who modified Chen style to produce Yang style, W'u Yuxiang, Quan You, and Sun Lutang who also modified the style). The traditional Chen style was passed down to the eleventh generation and the "Four Buddha Warrior Attendents" Chen Xiowang, Zhu Tiancai, Chen Zhenglei, and Wang Xian. These four have been responsible for a much wider dissemination of Chen style in China and around the world. Master Jesse Tsao is a disciple of Grandmaster Chen Zhenglei.

It is into this noble tradition of taiji that yesterday I was accepted.

At Master Jesse's home the simple but beautiful ceremony was witnessed by my good friend Larry Ashley and Michael, one of the attendees at the training. I received a lineage name Chen Cheng Fei. Chen is the family name. Cheng means "sincerity" and is the name given to all thirteenth generation lineage holders. Fei is the name Master Jesse gave me and means "fly like a bird."

I take this as a great honor and will do my best to faithfully pass on the heritage of traditional Chen taiji to my students.


Friday, July 27, 2012

Soft but note easy!

I have read a number of books on taiji (and websites are legion) that suggest taiji is an easy option for those who don't want to do "real" sport — that is anything that requires effort. This is because taiji is "soft."

After my first forays into taiji I discovered aching limbs, sore knees and a body that just didn't want to want to do what looked "easy" and "soft." In taiji "soft" does not equate with "easy" and "without effort." Though a great master makes taiji forms look "easy," the "ease" comes from many thousands of hours of taiji play. The "soft" refer to taiji as an "internal" martial art, more to do with the movement of qi — energy — than with simple muscular strength. And that requires much.

All by way of saying that this week's intensive taiji training has been hard work! Session five we continued to work on the Chen Old Frame. By the end of the three and a half hour morning session, my body was asking for rest! Master Jesse told us that after the hard work of Chen style, when we play with Yang, Sun or Wu styles, they feel very easy.

A nice Mexican meal followed by dipping my toes in the ocean was a nice tonic. I was unable to get to the sixth session. As it happens, an early night was quite welcome. My body is still on east coast time, though beginning to adjust to west coast time.

Today we have two qigong sessions. Looking forward to it.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

More than the eye can see

The morning of day three of the training. Physical check up? This has been quite demanding! When I returned after last night's session I was pretty sore — arms, shoulders mostly, not so much legs. I think this is because I have spent a great deal of time working on legs, particularly in the low forms. We have done much fa jin that includes the arms in a different way to slow forms Today I have a major headache and feel a buy " wobbly." Trust it will go away as the morning progresses. (Still jetlag perhaps? Or perhaps negative energy working out?)

Morning sessions are three and a half hours. Evening sessions are two and a half. So, quite a lot of energy expenditure.

Session Two : we continued to look at the thirteen postures, seeing how they are an integral part of the opening form in Chen, Yang, Sun, and Wu styles. This felt very much like an etymology of taiji. Master Jesse explained clearly and demonstrated the Jin of each posture. What fascinated me, and will be very good for my practice and teaching is that each form can be an application of more than one Jin. So, opening form (where arms are led by wrists to shoulder height, and then slowly down) can be pengjin, or anjin. Peng if the intent is to extend, ward off, an if the idea is the pushing control. Though the opening form is different in each taiji style, Jesse demonstrated each with a partner. Overall, this gave deeper meaning to each posture.

Intention is paramount. Each posture and movement is not merely a flowing, gentle and aesthetically pleasing form. Yi leads qi. The mind leads the energy and is expressed in the thirteen postures. In the slow play, the outward action may look the same, but the inner intent differs. There is more than the eye can see.

Sessions three and four: Chen style Old Frame. Master Jesse is teaching us the 75 postures of the Chen style first routine. This is proving invaluable as this has become my main routine. Building on the first two sessions Jesse is teaching the form with examples of the thirteen Jin and martial arts applications. This has meant much fa jin (an explosive energy release that involves the whole body).

Highlights? Having Master Jesse make corrections to my posture, a little here a little there, but what a difference it makes. Improving footwork. Seeing other taiji players and being able to measure my own progress. Daily taiji play is a solitary affair. It is nice to be with others. Master Jesse makes class fun.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Shi San Shi

Session one. Today Master Jesse covered the thirteen essential forms of taiji. The eight energy applications: primary — Peng, Ji, Lu, An; secondary —Cai, Lie, Zhou, Kao. And the five footworks :Jinbu, Tuibu, Zuogu, Youpan, and Zhongding. These are the basic hand and foot movements that are the basis of all taiji in all styles. Whether players know this or not every taiji posture and form is one or a combination of these thirteen. Very basic but very deep. Though in English it is usual to translate each of these Chinese ideas into one word, that is inadequate, and actually misleading. Each contains a depth of understanding and practice.

Homework was to find other words and expressions that convey the meaning of the form.

Peng : ward off, expand, brace, curved barrier, listening, buffer zone ... Stop, resist, bounce away

Ji : press, squeeze, extend, concentrated force ... Toothpaste, conflate, wedge, funneling

Lu : roll back, waist turning, deflect, redirect, neutralize, avert, fend off ... Non-resitance

An : push, seal, control, cover, drive away, constrain with pressure ... Confine

Cai : pluck, sudden pull, snap ... Twist down

Lie : split, surprise, shake, jerk out ... Scythe

Zhou : elbow strike, short distance, twisting force

Kao : body bump, explosive, smash

Jinbu : step forward, advance, pursue

Tuibu : step back, withdraw, back off, avoid, retreat

Zuogu : rotate step to approach left side, drawing near the left

Youpan : rotate step to approach right side, drawing near the right

Zhongding : maintain center position, settling at the center to stay balanced. Maintain equilibrium, stepping with poise and calmness

All good stuff. Downside, feeling jet lagged! But looking forward to more. Much of the first session was a demystifying of taiji. Getting rid of "false magic."

Monday, July 23, 2012


Another airport. Average but very expensive food. Few minutes to reflect.

My taiji practice ... Still a beginner but with 1100+ hours have some sense that my form is beginning to take shape. Recently been very pleased with low form (Snake Creeps Down). All of a sudden it clicked and I am able to get all the way down. Was feeling very good about this earlier today, then did something to my back! Pride comes before a fall.

Expectations? To deepen my somatic awareness. To correct mistakes that have crept into my form. To connect with a good bunch of taiji players. To have a new impetus for the classes that begin again in August. Another step toward enlightenment. If all that happens will be very pleased.

Pilgrimage of sorts

Sittting at Ithaca airport witing for security to open. I'm on my way to San Diego for a week's taiji training with Master Jesses Tsao. I intend to record the things I learn and insights gained. Stay tuned!

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Chen Xiaowang: Five Levels of Taijiquan

Grandmaster Chen Xiaowang
Over the last several years I have read many books on taijiquan. Some are very basic and explain the forms in an elementary and "outward" way. I have found these useful, in a limited way. Some are of the type,"This is the best taijiquan style and all others are fake." These are less than useful. Still others are written by masters and have a depth that requires reading and re-reading. Each time something new is discovered as your own practice evolves.
Grandmaster Chen Xiaowang's The Five Level of Taijiquan with a commentary by Master Jan Silberstorff, is of this type. It a fairly brief text, but is a useful guide as to where your taiji is at present, from the vantage point of where it might be in the future, from someone who is already there.
In brief, Chen Xiaowang suggests that ninety-nine percent of taiji players are in the first level of taiji development. The one percent are at level two and upward, with fewer and fewer in the higher levels.
I tried to be as objective as I could and after over a thousand hours of taiji, I would place myself at the juncture between levels one and two. By the end of level one a student has learned the form (of whichever style the student practices), has a reasonable body alignment, and some beginnings of an understanding of the philosophy —not merely "head" knowledge, but an integral mind-body knowledge. Reading through the Grandmaster's levels, I have a long way to go!
It did give me a way of looking at the levels of progress I designed for students of Way of Peace Taijiquan. My intent was to give students, who take taiji seriously a way of marking their progress in daily practice. I determined that hours practicing were a more accurate measure than number of forms learned. Progress is marked more quickly early in taiji, becoming increasingly difficult as proficiency is acquired. I estimated that if a student was conscientious and practiced for half an hour each day if would take between five and six years to complete the first twelve levels. Level thirteen would be marked by a black sash. To get to level fourteen would requires another ten to twelve years at half an hour a day. An hour a day would be roughly half the time.
Master Silberstorff suggests that a sincere student in a one on one relationship with a master, practicing daily under the masters guidance, could active level one of the five levels in about a year. However, he also says that without a master/disciple relationship it would take much longer.
When I compared this with the levels of progress I devised, there was a remarkable symmetry. Practicing an hour a day would get a serious student through level one (in my terms 1,000 hours) in just about three years. That compares favorably with a master/disciple intense relationship of one year.
In the master/disciple relationship it would take nine to ten years to reach level five. Level five then continues with no end, continuously learning.
In my scheme, where taiji students are unlikely to be in an intense training relationship, to achieve level five would take twenty-five to thi years of daily practice of an hour. This seems about right, seeing taijiquan as a life-long practice of health, meditation and integration.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

A milestone of sorts

When I began my serious taiji practice (as opposed to an ad hoc affair) I set myself certain goals. I wanted to learn Yang style fairly well. I wanted to see what my practice would look like after a thousand hours of taiji: how would my form be? What health benefits would I see? I had a vague notion that to accomplish anything worthwhile, a thousand hours is about the minimum. So, I recorded my taiji practice in a daily log. On day one, a thousand hours seemed like an eternity away.
Today I reached one thousand hours of taijiquan.
Feels like there should be a drum roll, or a fanfare, or something to mark the occasion. But there was just me and the pugs. They didn't take much notice.
My reflections then:
First I need to acknowledge and thank my teacher Master Jesse Tsao, of San Diego. Master Jesse is a very good teacher, very kind, very patient, and I am privileged to have him as my guide in taiji.

What have I learned in taijiquan?
Too much to tell, though this blog has some of the highlights over the last few years.In terms of routines I have concentrated on Yang style. Besides the basics of taiji I have learned the following routines:
  • Yang Style Traditional Long Form 108
  • Yang Style Short Form (Winter)
  • Simplified Taiji Form 24
  • Taiji Bang Eight Immortal Flute
  • Eight Immortal Cane Routine One
  • Traditional Yang Sword (half learned)
  • Chen Style Old Frame Routine One (third learned)
  • Chen Silk Reeling
  • Qigong Eight Pieces of Brocade
  • Qigong meditation for self healing
  • Qigong Five Animal Frolics (one fifth learned)
How has it helped?
In terms of my health I am physically much more flexible than I was (perhaps since a very young chap). After 50 I began to notice more aches and pains. By and large these have gone. For instance, it had become quite painful to turn my neck from side to side. Now I rotate my neck any which way and there is no discomfort. The same would be true for squatting down, touching toes etc. Taiji has given great flexibility. Balance too. Taiji's rooting has given me a better balance than I have ever had. Taiji has also kept at bay other health issues I have struggled with for the last twelve years.
In terms of my meditation practice taiji has helped enormously. My breathing is much slower and more regular. Taiji has helped me to be able to "get in the zone" quickly and easily. Overall my meditation practice has deepened.

And martial arts?
This is a strange one for a nonviolentist! Open hand and weapon forms could be quite deadly! (Seriously) But, taiji as a martial art is defensive, and like aikido is more about using an aggressor's energy against themselves. It is about preventing violence, rather than using violence. It is deflecting a thousand pounds with four ounces.

Where to from here?
Daily practice. Building on what I have achieved so far. Turning my attention to Chen style. Next goal? Three thousand hours.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Taiji posture notes

Posture is everything. Well, if not everything a large part to get right in the early stages of taiji. It is not something that can be learned with books, or merely shown. It has to be felt.
Recently I have been working on a number of related area:

  • Qua (kwa), the area of the hips and related muscles and tendons. "Sink the hips," you will hear from a good teacher.
  • Xu/shi — substantial/insubstantial, the constant flow from one to the other, like yin and yang but not the same. Yin is inward, yang outward, yin contracting, yang expanding. Xu/shi is rather empty and full.
  • Weight on the feet.
  • Yi/mind/intention/meridians and breathing.

Starting with the feet. Weight on the feet should be on the big toe, the pad behind the big toe and the heel (green on the picture)  — not on the outside of the feet. The bubbling well point is just behind the big toe pad (red on the picture). At first, if you are used to spreading your weight on the outside of the feet, this seems counterintuitive. However, if you stick with it you will find it is a much more balanced position and also allows for the flow of qi from the babbling well point. Weight should be centered on the bubbling well point. When moving from one position to another, heel first, rolling to the toe, weight evenly distributed.
The the knees. Before the weight is transferred the knee needs to be "set." Then as the form changes the knee remains set and turning begins with the qua—hips area.
This involves two important aspects.
1) To move from insubstantial to substantial is not merely shifting weight from side to side, but rather a sinking, relaxing of the qua. The difference is shown on video 1.

One the basic and oft repeated taiji forms is gathering energy (see second video). It is so fundamental, yet has many layers and compexities to explore. For some time I have been using yi (mind, intention) to visualize qi flowing along the meridians in the upper body. There are twelved meridians, six yin six yang, paired three in the upper body, three beginning in the lower body. In the upper body, the Lung channel moves from the chest area along the inside of the arm ending at inside of the thumb. Its pair, Large Intestine, moves along the back of the index finger, back of the arm to the chest area. The second pair, Heart/Small Intestine,  moves from the chest area along the inside of the arm to the middle finger (inside), then down backside of the ring finger, back of arm to the chest area. The final pair Peridacrdium/Triple Warmer, moves from the chest along the inside of the arm to the little finger, then back of the little finger, back of the arm to chest area. Yi (mind) comes into play with breathing and movement. In-breath, yi moves qi down arm. Out-breath, yi moves qi along the back of the arm. With intention focussed first on fingers, you will feel a tingling sensation in teh fingers, and with practice in the whole arm. This is quite a strange feeling at first, but is an indication of the movement of qi along the meridians.