Saturday, November 3, 2012

The Whole Foot

I've previously discussed the importance of keeping the body weight in the center of the foot for maintaining proper body alignment and balance. I was concentrating on this principle the other day while doing the form and noticed that when in the bow stance, the weight in my back foot was mostly concentrated in the heel of my foot.

After thinking on this for a while, I realized the problem arose from the stance. In the bow stance, as taught by TToPA, the back foot forms about an 80 degree angle with the front foot (other styles go with 45 degrees but the issue is the same). Since the front foot is pointing forward, it is easy to shift the weight along that line and keep it in the middle of the foot. With the back foot, the middle of the foot is off to the side so it is easy to just let the weight follow the line of the leg and end in the heel. In order to get the weight to the center of the foot, you have to open the hip of the back leg so that the back knee can also move in line with the foot (i.e. knee towards big toe) - then you can shift your weight to the center of the foot without torquing the knee.

Once I made this correction, I noticed that keeping the weight in the center of the rear foot resulted in keeping the whole foot connecting to the ground - i.e. the weight is absorbed by the whole foot not just the center. I further noticed that this same principle applies to the front foot as well. The result is that while the weight is still directed to the center of the foot (i.e. 'the bubbling well'), it can be distributed across the entire foot, which makes the whole foot the contact point and the stance more stable.

Not that I should be surprised by this - in ILC, one of the basic tenets is that of '9 solid 1 empty', which is all about keeping the entire foot connected to the ground. In Taiji, it is less actively done than in ILC but it is the same principle.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Class with Alex Dong

I was visiting New York City last week and decided to drop in on a Taiji class with Alex Dong - - the grandson of Dong Huling, the same lineage that TToPA derives from.

In this particular class, Master Dong was emphasizing keeping roundness and energy in the arms when transitioning in the postures in order to maintain balance.

He first demonstrated this principle with 'brush knee and press forth palm'. During the transition from 'brush left' to 'brush right', after turning the left foot out to 80 degrees, you sink all of your weight onto the left foot as you twist left and upright your torso, at which point you are fully weighted on the left foot and vertical. At the same time, your arms are also in motion with your left arm circling back, around, and up while your right arm slowly sinks down. And this was the point of the exercise - as the arms are in motion, you need to keep them rounded and energized in front of you (like holding a big ball) in order to keep everything balanced throughout the transition. This transition has always been tricky for me - which is frustrating since it seems so simple - but, as we did the exercise, I realized how disconnected my arms were (particularly my left one) and that keeping them rounded/energized made everything much more stable.

Master Dong went on to demonstrate how the same principle applied to 'step back and repulse monkey'. In this case, when your transition from right foot forward, you move backwards by sinking all of your weight onto the left (back) leg while twisting to the right as you upright your torso. During the transition the left arm circles around and up while the right arm rotates clockwise. Again, during this transition, you need to keep the arms rounded/energized (like holding a big ball) to keep everything balanced. And again, I realized how disconnected my arms (particularly the left one) were throughout the transition and how much more stable everything became once I was mindful of the arms.

As we subsequently went through various parts of the form in class, I realized how much this principle applied throughout the postures, which I had completely missed (not that I haven't been shown this same principle before but it finally resonated with me). Towards the end of class, Master Dong showed how it even applied to 'crossing wrists', which put that movement in a new light.

Overall, it was a great class and I really enjoyed meeting Master Dong and his students - I hope I get the opportunity to work with them again sometime soon. It was striking how similar their approach to the form is as compared to what I've learned at TToPA - I felt very much at home in the class and was able to apply what I learned directly to my own practice. I had been curious about this because, while we're from the same lineage, things do tend to change over time. Not to say that there aren't any differences - there are - but they're minor compared with taking a class from a different Yang-style lineage (e.g. Cheng Man Ching).

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Twisting and Internal Strength

Early on when I started at TToPA, I asked one of the instructors about internal strength. He had me stand in a horse stance and told me to relax as he put his hands on my shoulders and gently pushed with one hand and pulled with the other - this caused my torso rotated to the left. He then told me he was going to do the same thing again but that this time I should resist being turned - he applied increasing pressure and I resisted without allowing my torso to be turned. He asked if I felt the twisting feeling throughout my torso and I acknowledged that I did. He explained that this was internal strength - it was clearly internal since I wasn't moving and yet there was something going on inside that was keeping me from being turned.

While this demonstration gave me my first inkling of internal strength and its connection to twisting, it certainly didn't open the flood gates of understanding about internal energy and it's application and this is a concept that I continue to struggle with.

But I got a little closer recently.  I was in class - with the same instructor - and we were going over the transition from 'white crane exposes wings' to 'brush left thigh'. For this transition, you start off facing square to the east and bend a bit forward to get your arms moving and - this is the important bit - then you then simultaneously twist your torso to the right as you step out to the left - what struck me this time through was just how much internal twisting occurred in my torso as I twisted to the right and stepped out to the left - like a big rubber band being stretched from the right shoulder to my left hip and letting that rubber band snap back (albeit slowly) gave the power to transition into 'brush left thigh' - this was the first time I was able to use internal twisting to power a move and it was pretty amazing.

The other amazing thing that I noticed was that as I sunk into my left leg and continued twisting left (to face forward), the rubber band was loaded again - this time from compression from my shoulders down into my hips. When I subsequently shifted my weight from the center of my left foot to the heel (to transition into 'brush right thigh'), my foot turned out without any intention on my part - once the contact point on the foot was small enough, the compressed rubber band just pushed it open. 

Having this internal rubber band loading/unloading while transitioning from posture to posture is a key part of internal martial arts but this was the first time I recognized it. I recognize it a lot more now as I go through the form - particularly with 'white crane', 'brush thigh', 'single whip', 'cloud hands', and 'part wild horses mane'. When I don't feel it in these postures, it's an indication that I've done something wrong - e.g. I haven't sunk down entirely into my foot or I've let one of my hips pop up or I've tensed up somewhere - and this helps me correct those problems. But there are still moves where I don't recognize this feeling at all - e.g. 'serpent creeps down' and 'separate thighs' - and I realize that these are moves where I have the most work to do.

Final Note: a spring may have made for a better analogy than a rubber band but a rubber band is what came to mind at the time so I'm sticking with it for now.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Pivoting on the Heel

Since my previous post, I went of vacation for 2 weeks during which time I took a break from training. This was a conscious decision on my part - partly to give my body some time off and partly to give my mind the chance to mull things over in my unconscious for a while. Seems to have worked because, once I returned, it felt like there was a spotlight on a number of sticking points in my practice.

One sticking point was the issue I discussed in my previous post, where I described how to do a weighted pivot (on the left foot) by closing the (left) hip - this allows you to pivot without having to shift your weight back first.

While practicing this movement, I noticed I was still shifting my weight back slightly, although much less than previously and that my balance still felt a bit off. I finally realized that I've been pivoting on the extreme back edge of my heel. Based on my experiences with push-hands/spinning-hands, once your weight is in the back of the heel, you can be pushed right over - if you're weight does move to your heel, it can't move past the center of the heel and I realized this applied to the pivot as well.

I've adjusted my pivots now by moving the pivot point to the center of the heel and it has made things a lot easier. As a bonus, I find that I am also able to move my foot further along the arc of the pivot before torquing my knee, which gives me better mobility.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

The Weighted Pivot

In my practice recently, I have been focusing on distributing my weight across my entire foot - while still simultaneously keeping the weight centered in the middle of the foot - which allows me to be more stable. Applying this to the form has meant that I have had to become more aware of the weight transfer as I transition from one posture to the next and allowing that weight to settle into the entire foot.

Where I have found this to be particularly challenging is with weighted pivots. For example, in the first part of the form, when transitioning from 'brush left thigh and press forth right palm' to 'brush right thigh and press forth left palm', you start by pivoting on the left (front) foot.

To do this as a weighted pivot, you first shift the weight in your left foot back to the heel and then twist to the left, pivoting the left foot on the heel and keeping energy in the right foot so that you remain balanced. The net result is that the pivot opens up both hips.

My problem is that, with my weight initially spread across the entire left foot, in order to shift my weight to the heel, I have had to shift my entire body weight back - essentially doing an unweighted pivot. After talking it over with Mike, it turns out that you actually can do this without shifting your weight back - how you do it is during the initial twist to the left, you let your left hip close, which allow you to shift the weight in your left foot to your heel without shifting the rest of your body.

This is an important point because its a manifestation of what we are training in both the form and push-hands - explicitly how the joints work together so that you can redirect your energy/weight where you want it.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Applied Taiji: Hiking in Moab

I recently spent 4 days in Moab, Utah at an offsite for work. It was pretty fantastic - 13 of us went and we went on 3 hikes, each getting longer and harder. Only four of us finished the final hike. it went from 8am to 6pm over 15 miles of up/down in 100+ degree weather - I drank 5.5 liters of water that day and was happy and exhausted at the end of it. Afterwards, a friend of mine asked if I thought that my Taiji training helped with hiking and, after some thought, I realized it had helped in a variety of ways:
  • The obvious direct benefit of Taiji is that doing the form every day has improved my muscle strength and endurance - spending 30+ minutes every day in a crouched position has that effect (not to mention the training effect from going to class).
  • A less obvious benefit is that, while training the form, I work on relaxing muscles that aren't being used (and only using as much strength as necessary from the ones that are) - we refer to this as 'loosening'. For long hikes where you have to carry a lot in your pack (e.g. 6 liters of water weighs about 14lbs on its own) its easy to burn energy unnecessarily and being mindful of this makes a big difference as the hike wears on.
  • Related to the previous point, as I train the form, I practice keeping my center of balance as I transition from one posture to the next. This is an important this skill in hiking particularly as you traverse uphill/downhill terrain - being aware of your balance and knowing how to shift your weight efficiently makes the hiking easier and that pays off as time goes on.
  • Finally, towards the end of the 3rd hike, about three miles out, I hit the wall - my legs felt like lead and climbing was a challenge. It's easy to get panicked in such a situation but one of the things we learn in two person training is how to relax, particularly when things are getting bad. In this situation, I focused on the basic principles to relax more and expend the least amount of energy necessary to get the job done. And that did the trick, I managed to finish those final three miles without incident.
And, for those of you that are interested, here are some links to pictures from the hikes:

Sunday, May 27, 2012

The Spring ILC Workshop

Last weekend, I went to an ILC workshop given by Sam Chin at Stillness in Motion in Oakland. Sifu Chin visits every six months to give a workshop and this is the third one I've been to - though the first one I've been to since I started practicing ILC seriously.

The workshop started on Friday (5/18) with a short evening session (6-9) for ILC members. At the beginning of every session, Sifu gives a lecture that addresses the concepts that we're going to be working on. In previous workshops, I found it difficult to make sense of the lectures much less make the connections with the subsequent exercises but, this time, I got a more out of the lectures - as part of my training, I've been studying the ILC principles and doing so added the context I had been missing. Friday evening's exercises really focused on the basic strategies - from the inside, open out and from the outside, close in.  The main takeaway I had from that session was how to move your arm in the frontal plane to neutralize a force coming in on the perpendicular - if you are neutral to begin with, instead of fighting that force, you can neutralize it either by closing (i.e. in and down) or opening (i.e. out and up) in the two dimensions of movement in the frontal plane.

On Saturday the workshop started at 10:30 and was scheduled to end at 6:00 but ended up going on until 9:30.  The main focus of this session was how to use the 3 planes of movement - horizontal, frontal, and sagittal - in order to neutralize external forces. It was an extension of the concepts we had gone over on Friday but with more depth. The particular exercise that I recall was using the horizontal circles to neutralize a force coming from the south - you really have to get all of the body mechanics correct for it to be effective but it gives you a clear idea of the way the horizontal circles work.

Finally, Sunday also started at 10:30 and was scheduled to end at 6:00 but I didn't leave until 7:30 and other folks were still going on with spinning hands practice. On that day, we practiced qin na - joint locking.  We spent a lot of the time going over the 8 different grabs that lead into the actual joint locks.  These grabs follow the basic circle and occur at the primary points (north/south/east/west) - you can grab such that you absorb with the yin muscles (yin grab) or such that you project with the yang muscles (yang grab). Qin na is a more advanced topic and I didn't get as much out of it as I did the first two days but the advanced students seemed to get a lot out of it.

It was a long weekend and I was pretty exhausted afterwards but it was worthwhile.  Just seeing someone of Sifu Chin's skill is inspiring - the first workshop I went to, he spun hands with me for a short time and I felt like I was in an earthquake. My skills have improved since then but, when I touched hands with him again on Saturday, it was still like being in an earthquake - though I am now more aware of where the forces are coming from (even if I can't do anything about them).

Thursday, May 17, 2012

The Art of Standing on One Leg

In recent weeks in my Taiji class, we've been going through the second section of the Slow Form, progressing from 'High Pat on Horse' through to 'Twin Mountain Peaks Smash Ears'. I hadn't really noticed before but this section contains a lot of sub-postures that involve standing on one leg - e.g. 'high pat on horse', 'separate foot' and a variety kicks.

As we went through 'high pat on horse', I found that I was still popping-up as I made the transition into the posture. The transition for this particular posture starts from 'single whip' (with your torso facing the south-west corner) and continues by shifting your weight onto the right leg as you twist to the left so that you square off (with your torso facing west). At that point, your left-leg is unweighted and resting lightly on the floor (or just above it) such that you're able to move it easily. As I was twisting left, I was bending at the waist to the right, essentially using my upper body as a counter-balance to force my left foot to come off the ground - this resulted in my left hip being higher than my right and my balance being off - i.e. 'popping-up'.

To do the transition without popping-up, what you need to do is, as you twist left, not to think about lifting the foot off the ground but rather focus on raising the left thigh as you sinking on top of the right leg. This change in focus helps keep the hips even - as you lift the left thigh, your lower back tucks under and the left foot slowly peels off of the ground from the heel to the toes - and, in the end, you are balanced because you're solidly centered over the right foot.

As we continued on in the sequence of postures, I noticed that this general principle applies to all of the kicks in the sequence. In particular, when you kick, you don't think about picking up the foot but rather letting the lower back tuck-under to raise the thigh, with the effect of the foot slowly coming off the ground from heel to toe.

I have subsequently realized that this same principle not only applies to kicking but also any time you have to pick up one leg in order to move it - e.g. ward left, ward right, brush thigh, circle foot to carry the hammer forward, single whip, and almost everything else. I am now working on recalibrating my balance to incorporate this refinement, which means I'm losing my balance all over the place in the form. Again.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Internal Arts Training

I've been visiting New York City for the week and took the opportunity to drop in at Internal Arts Training (IAT), an ILC school in Union Square run by Joshua Craig. I visited them once before when I was in NYC last fall and got a lot out of it, so I thought it would be worthwhile to stop by again.

It's always feels a bit awkward to me dropping in on a school where you really don't know the folks all that well but Joshua and the students were great to work with. I had intended to go for the first hour and maybe stay for part of the second but ended up staying all three hours. If you're ever in the New York metro area, I recommend attending a session at IAT - it will be well worth your time.

The evening I went, one of Sam Chin's advanced students - Jeff - was visiting class and he led us through the 15 basic exercises. He and Joshua worked with me during this time to help refine my form, focusing primarily on:
  • Horizontal Plane - My horizontal circles don't stay horizontal - it's a problem Mike has pointed out to me previously and I've worked to improve them but they still aren't right. Joshua suggested placing my arms lightly on a flat surface (e.g. a table or counter top) and to get a feel for doing the circles. Once the circle starts feeling more natural, I can then practice with my arms about 1/2 an inch above that flat surface, which should allow me to develop a feel for the cycle such that I can transition to the basic exercises.

  • The Loop - The transition from concave to convex has always been a bit of a mystery to me. After teaching the 15 basic exercises, Jeff worked with me to demonstrate how this transition works in the sagittal plane.  He explained it by starting with the arm above and the hand in a convex position.  As the arm pivots down, the hand moves into the neutral position at the point that the arm is parallel to the floor - this is where the problem arises - you need to transition from the neutral position to the arm moving down with the hand in a concave position but if you simply try pushing down, it doesn't work. What you need to do is press down while simultaneously pivoting around the point of contact and getting the hand into the convex position - this movement forms a loop. I still don't fully understand the technique but I did get a feel for it while working with Jeff and want to work with Mike and Keith to get a better understanding of it.
After the basic exercises, I did some spinning hands with Rich, one of the other students. We focused primarily on the first circle and particularly on the transitions from south to east (and south to west). Joshua came by frequently, initially explaining the move and subsequently refining it with us. While doing this exercise, I was struck by a number of things:
  • Initial Engagement - At IAT they stress engaging your opponent from the initial moment of contact. I have a tendency to let my guard down at this initial point and my fellow students at TToPA are nice enough to me that I get away with it but it's a bad habit that I need to break.

  • Long Stance - At IAT, they take a much wider stance then I typically practice in and the students stand much further apart from each other. This felt awkward at first but I got more used to it over time. The longer stance has the advantage of being more stable but it is harder to hold for long periods of time. Since the students stand further apart, I found myself leaning forward to engage them so I had to adjust my stance and alignment to stop.

  • South-to-East/West - In the transition from South-to-East/West, you need to keep the energy focused on your opponent throughout the movement. Joshua described the transition in the following steps:

    • equalize the point of contact - in the south position, this is on the yin side of your lower arm. He broke the contact point into four quadrants and said to make sure the energy was equal in all for.
    • for the actual transition - when first learning - you can think of the inner two quadrants as a hinge the you're pivoting around, rather then spinning your arm around the contact point, you are closing the hinge.
    • closing the hinge is a lot like using a screwdriver to tighten a screw - you can't just use rotational force you must also use some forward force otherwise the screwdriver slips out of the slot.
    over time, this transition became smoother and it feels more effective then what I've been doing.
Finally, I worked with a different student - Jeffrey - and we continued to practice the first circle but spun a little more freely. Jeffrey was working with me on balancing the energy at both points of contact - basically training my listening skills. He was able to show me at the four basic points how to recognize where I had gaps and how to go about adjusting to re-balance the energy - we worked to together on this for about an hour and, again, it became smoother over the time we worked together and felt noticeably.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Refining the Wrecking Ball

Previously, I discussed the pendulum effect that comes about when turning the torso by opening and closing the hips. Since becoming aware of this effect, I've continued to recognize it in more places - most notably in circle palms, single whip, brush knee, and divert & draw - and I've been working to refine my use of it.

First, I'd like to clarify that I called this the 'wrecking ball' not because it's so devastating but rather because I had to completely relax my ab muscles in order to relax my hips enough so that they would open/close easily, without torquing my knees. And with my abs completely relaxed, my belly looks more like a wrecking ball then a pendulum.

Second, in subsequent discussions with Mike and Keith, both note that as the pendulum swings towards an extreme - i.e. a leg - you need to sink that leg down towards the center to absorb the energy/weight shift. If you don't, your weight floats upward and you are easily uprooted. Metaphorically speaking, while it's good fun, it's not really a good idea to go swinging from vine to vine ala Tarzan.

Thinking on this issue has led me to refine this move such that, as I turn from one leg towards the other, the leg I'm turning towards relaxes the hamstring muscle and sinks down into the center of my foot while the leg I'm turning away from lengthens to keep the center that foot connected to the ground. In both cases, of course, I have to focus on keeping the knees properly aligned and on keeping my hips at a level height. Even though I try to keep the leg movements subtle, it does involve more muscle movement - i.e. shortening/lengthening the hamstrings/quads - which makes the overall form more challenging and my legs are pretty sore these days.

On a final note - sometimes, when I'm working on this refinement, I find myself falling back to my original approach of trying to force the torso around with my legs and I get myself confused. When this happens, I find it best to start back with relaxing everything and just opening/closing the hip and then slowly adding on the sinking/extending (absorb/project).

Anniversary - 4 Years

Today marks 4 years since I took my first Taiji class. It's been a great time so far and I'd like to thank my instructors - Alex, Master Chen, Mike, Keith, and Walter - as well as my fellow students - Anna, Lincoln, Chao-Hsin, Daniel, Matt, Ken, Stefan, and Ed - for all of the help along the way.

Monday, April 2, 2012

What the Tuck

One of the primary tenets of both Taiji and ILC is that you need to keep your center of gravity (i.e. the dantian) on the line that connects the centers of your feet (i.e. the bubbling well) - doing this keeps your weight in the center of your feet and keeps you balanced. As you shift your weight from one foot to the other, the dantian moves along that line and, at the extremes, your weight is on one foot with the dantian over the bubbling well.

The issue of the tuck comes up as you sink down or rise up. This issue showed up once again in my last ILC class as we were going over one of the basic exercises - absorb/project. In this exercise, you stand in either the Horse stance or the Archer stance and, without shifting your weight, sink down (absorb) and then rise up (project).

Without getting too detailed, you absorb by relaxing the yin muscles - the back of the legs (i.e. hamstrings) and the front of the torso - which causes you to sink down. As you sink down you need to keep your body aligned such that your dantian is still on the line between the centers of your feet and this is where problems come up. It's easy to keep your weight in the center of your feet while letting your hips move backwards so that your butt is sticking out, in which case your dantian is no where near between the centers of your feet.

To keep the proper alignment, you need to tuck the tailbone, which simply means relaxing your lower back and allowing the hips to roll under the torso and is often described as the same move as 'sitting on a tall bench'. When I sit on a tall bench, I can feel the effect but it's been difficult for me to actually do this while absorbing in the Archer stance. Over time, I've come to realize that I've been trying to push my tailbone into place with my glutes, which actually tightens up the lower back and prevents me from doing the move properly. I've further realized that instead of pushing from behind I needed to pull from the front, essentially drawing my crotch upwards using my ab muscles, and that's done the trick. In ILC terms, I was trying to use the yang muscles (glutes) in a move that's based on the yin muscles (abs).

I still need to figure out when my dantian is actually on the center line, which requires a level of awareness that I don't have but it feels like it's a step in the right direction.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Getting Serious about I Liq Chuan

In mid-February, I added practicing the first five ILC basic exercises to my morning Taiji practice. Up to that point, my only ILC practice was in our Monday class and, while I had made some progress, much of my improvement in ILC had come via the work I had done in Taiji, both in the form and the four energy pattern (i.e. push hands).

The current training system for ILC is relatively new and still being refined and I had been hesitant to add the ILC basic exercises to my routine because I wasn't sure that I wanted to get up a half hour earlier every day to practice something that might not be of any benefit, particularly when I could spend that time practicing Taiji, which I knew would give me benefit. In the end, I decided to give it a try for a couple of months and then evaluate my progress and their utility.

The first couple of weeks of practice sessions were pretty rough. I really didn't know what I was doing so practice was both frustrating, because I couldn't do the exercises well, and boring, because it was just a repetition of the same thing over and over (and over ...).  When I started, I focused primarily on absorb/project and, over the last several weeks, have been working my way thorough the exercises of the horizontal plane.  Working through the exercises raised a lot of questions that Mike and Keith - and Sam's video - have helped me work through. I have improved, albeit slowly, and actually come to find practice more interesting.

At this point, I can't say that practicing the first five basic exercises has actually improved my push-hands or spinning-hands ability. Still, it was practicing these exercises that gave me the insights into the 'wrecking ball', which has noticeably improved my Taiji and, as I've started focusing on the frontal plane, I have gotten some insights on the four energy pattern. With this in mind, I have decided to continue my morning practice of the exercises and expand them over time to include the first ten basic exercises. In November, I plan to take the ILC student level 1 test at which point I will revisit the utility of daily ILC practice. For the curious, I have laid out a schedule of practice leading up to the test and added it as a page on this site.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

The Wrecking Ball

While practicing ILC recently, I stumbled across a new insight. It started while I was in the ILC forward stance - front foot turned in slightly (5 degrees) and back foot turned out moderately (40 degrees) - very similar to a Taiji archer's stance.

I was practicing shifting my weight back and forth while keeping my balance (center of mass) between the center of my feet. I was shifting pretty much through the full range of motion such that at one extreme most of my weight was on my front foot and then gradually shifting back until most of my weight was on my back foot. As I was doing this, I was keeping my upper body square to the front and, after a while, I started to feel a small internal twisting toward my back leg as moved back that let off as I moved forward.

After feeling this for a while, I started to twist my waist in sync with this internal twisting - all the while keeping my leg motions exactly the same - so that as I shifted backward, I followed the internal twist by twisting to the back leg and as I shifted forward, I followed the internal twist by twisting to the front leg.

The important point was that the twisting of my waist was not being driven by my legs, which is the way I have always tried to twist my waist. The twisting of my waist was actually independent of my leg motion - it was just a matter of opening the hip I was shifting away from while closing the hip I was shifting towards. It gave the most peculiar sensation, as though my stomach was a pendulum swinging back and forth from leg to leg although, as I've played around with this movement, sometimes it feels more like a wrecking ball than a pendulum.

Not this is anything new - early in the beginning Taiji class at TTOPA they teach an exercise in 'merging twisting and shifting' that emphasizes this exact point and the Taiji classics speak about 'loosening your waist to drive all movement' - but it's the first time its ever clicked with me such that I've gotten a real taste of what's going on.

I've been playing around with this technique when practicing ILC and Taiji and it  makes a difference. In the Taiji slow form, I haven't been able to apply it to all of the movements but it has changed how I do a number of them where twisting and shifting dominate - it's been particularly noticeable with cloud hands and I now sometimes feel like Tarzan swinging from vine to vine when doing it - I'm probably going to need to tone that down a bit but, for now, it's a lot of fun.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

A Twist on the Single Whip

In my last post, I spoke about not torquing knees by sinking - linearly - into the leg rather than letting the twisting of the upper body move the knees out out of alignment with the toes. In this post, I want to discuss applying this principle to a specific posture - the single whip.

Last week in the class I attend, we went over the single whip. I won't go over all the details but there is an intermediate stage where you end up pigeon-toed and it is at this point where I run into problems. The single whip starts from the press/push, in an archer stance with your right foot forward - from there you shift your weight onto the left foot and you twist to the left, which draws the arms across the body and right foot into this pigeon-toed position. It's this left-ward twisting where problems can creep in. So the first point is that, while your upper body is twisting left, your weight should be sinking straight down into the center of the left foot rather then off the left side of your foot, which will torque the left knee.  The second point is that the twisting of your upper body is what moves your right foot into position - in order to get the right foot around to the proper position, it need to start turning your right leg with your upper body as soon as you start twisting otherwise, when you're done twisting, your right foot's still won't be in the correct position at which point there's a strong temptation to - once again - torque your left knee to drag that right foot around a little further.  The final point is that the twisting of the upper body doesn't stop once your upper body is lined up with the left leg - while you want to sink into the left leg without torquing the knee, you can do that while continuing to twist the upper body at the waist - and it's this action that brings the right foot all the way around.

For me, I have some flexibility issues with my ankles - they are really tight, even though doing Taiji has helped to loosen them up significantly - so getting the right foot into position while doing the single whip has always been a problem and one of the major causes of knee pain for me. Following the points outlined above has helped tremendously to reduce the stress on my knees.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Spiraling Energy, Torquing Knees

On Saturday, I went down to Santa Cruz to drop in on the Santa Cruz Tai Chi folks once again. It was a good time - in the Short Form class, we went over step-up/deflect/intercept/punch and needle at the sea bottom and in the push hands class I got to push with some of the guys I hadn't pushed with before, including Mark, the instructor.

One of the questions that has been bothering me as I try to understand the differences in my two schools has been the notion of spiraling energy. When I originally learned about it in New York, I thought that the spiraling energy was a twisting in my legs, so I would try to twist my foot somewhat as I sunk into it.

At TToPA, one of the major principles they teach - repeated over and over - is that the knees always stay in line with the toes as it moves so, as you sink into your feet, there is no torquing of the knee. This has eliminated most of the knee pain I used to feel when I did Taiji (I have some pain because I still torque my knees somewhat due to bad habits that I'm working to eliminate).

As I have practiced the Short Form on my own, I have modified the way I do it so that I sink into the leg rather than twist and it has worked out pretty well. In class on Saturday, Mark spoke of the spiraling energy but, as I watched him and his senior students doing the form, they weren't torquing their knees and, in fact, were doing it pretty much the same way I was. It seems I had misunderstood this from the beginning. Spiraling energy is internal and I was trying to force it externally.