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.