Sunday, December 22, 2013

One from the Hip

In my previous post, I discussed how I discovered that I'd been slouching while doing the form and how I was trying to remedy it. I've been working on that for a while now and it led to another light-bulb/dope-slap moment.

When doing the Slow Form recently, I've been focusing on what happens with the leg I'm shifting onto when shifting weight from one leg to the other (either backward or forward). My instructors have emphasized in the past that it should feel like the hip is being drawn toward the center of that foot. I eventually realized that my legs needed to be much more active and engaged during these transitions and that the bending of the leg being shifted onto during the transition is what draws the hip to the center of the foot - pretty obvious (and it is) but it's taken me a couple of years to figure out. The problem is that it's still been tricky for me to keep my balance while making the shift.

Once I started working on the slouching issue, this movement started feeling more solid. After puzzling on it for while, I realized that, if I slouch while I am in an bow stance, my weight moves forward and creates tension in the front of my forward leg to overcome the misalignment (i.e. exactly what happens with the ILC rocking drill). When subsequently shifting forward while slouching, since the weight is shifted forward, it's difficult to smoothly sink the weight into the center of the foot. Holding my torso erect removed the excess tension from my forward leg and, when shifting, allowed the weight to sink smoothly from the torso, through the hip, to the center of the foot. This change also gave me an odd feeling in my hip joints - there was simultaneously more weight in the hips and yet they felt much more able to move freely.

In I Liq Chuan, one of the "13 Points to Unify the Body" is "Kwa - maintain energy in center of the hip joints" - this has always been a mystery to me but I'm finally starting to get an idea about what this means and why it's important.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Slouching Tiger

One of Taiji and I Liq Chuan's basic principles is to keep the crown of the head suspended (like you are balancing a book your head or are being pulled up by a rubber band from above). I've been concentrating on this particular principle recently and discovered something wrong in how I've been doing things.

The issue manifests in many places but is particularly pronounced when I'm doing Tiger Returns to Mountain Cave (at the beginning of sections 2 and 3 of the Slow Form). When I transition from Crossed Wrists to the diagonal Ward Off, I tend to end up in a somewhat shorter and narrower Bow stance than usual - this is not a bad thing in and of itself but, because the stance is more compact, it changes the relative timing of the movements of the upper and lower body when doing 'Ward Off' (and the subsequent postures of Stroke Peacock's Tail).

What happens is that I find myself having fully shifted forward before my hand motions have completed. I've been compensating for this by sinking more and this is where the problem manifests. As I sink, I also end up slouching - what seems to happen is that, as I sink, I retreat my lower back and, as I'm doing that, I've been letting my spine arch (i.e. slouch). Worse, in order to feel like my crown is suspended, I end up letting my head suspend at an odd angle which leaves my spine completely out of whack.

I first tried fixing this issue by keeping my spine completely erect and stiff during this movement - this helped but I soon realized that locking the spine is as bad as locking any of the other joints. The spine needs to be flexible yet the vertebrae also need to be lined up.

Figuring this out has been difficult and I've spoken about it with a number of instructors and fellow students. Finally, one of my instructors suggested that, when doing the movement, I should focus more on the application and the energy and less on my lower body. When I do this, it helps to straighten out the timing issue, my back stays straighter, and my eyes focus further up, which helps keep my head suspended.

I've noticed this same slouching issue crop up in various places throughout the form and focusing on the application and the energy has helped straighten out my alignment.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Thoughts on Intermediate Forms

I haven't mentioned it much previously but, in addition to the Slow Form, I've learned 3 additional forms in the last year and a half. I call these forms the Intermediate Forms (not a term used by TToPA) because they are taught in rotation in the Monday evening class, which students can start attending after going through the Slow Form class. Here's a quick rundown of the 3 forms:
  • Taiji Dao: If you're not familiar with it, a dao - also known as a 'falchion', 'sabre', 'machette', 'big knife', etc - is around 33 inches long, weighs about 2 pounds, and has an edge on only one side. The Dao Form was the first one I learned after the Slow Form. The dao is a basic weapon meant for the masses and there's not a lot of elegance to it. The purpose of the form is to learn how to express power via the dao (e.g. by chopping and slicing). The first thing that I learned was that the Dao Form wasn't really about becoming proficient with a dao but rather about using the weight of the dao as an external force that changes your balance and quickly points out your flaws (not that Dao Form is irrelevant to learning to use the weapon but, like the Slow Form, it's only the first step). You might not think that a scant two pounds would change things that much but you'd be wrong (well, I was). Of the Intermediate Forms, it's my personal favorite. I'm not sure if that's because I like its brute-force approach or just because it's the one I'm the most familiar with.
  • Fast Form: The Fast Form was the second Intermediate Form that I learned. It's the Slow Form with certain moves modified to be done at speed, with inertia and momentum. Whereas the Slow Form takes about 30 minutes to do, the Fast Form takes about 7 minutes to go through primarily the same sequence. The purpose of the form is to transition the principles of the Slow Form to a more dynamic setting. Like the Dao Form, it quickly points out any flaws that you have in your form. These days I call it the 'Faster Form' because I'm focused on just doing it faster than the Slow Form rather than at full speed.
  • Taiji Jian: The jian is a traditional two-edged straight sword - it tends to be a bit longer than a dao but weighs about the same. Given that a jian has two edges, you have to be a lot more precise with it and that requires a lot of training compared with the dao (which is why they were more the weapon of the elites). The Jian Form was the third form I learned - I've just finished that class and I'm still working on just remembering the choreography.
I faced a few dilemmas when it came to the Intermediate Forms. The first dilemma was whether I was ready to learn them at all. By the time I'd finished the Slow Form class, I felt that I'd spent a lot of time in the previous few years just learning choreography and that it was time to focus on refinements. Additionally, in the literature it's recommended that you not start studying additional forms until you've studied Taiji for at least 3 years and have a solid basic foundation. I debated this for a while but, in the end, I decided to learn the forms for the simple reason that I had the opportunity to. I've never been sure how long I'm going to stay where I am so it seemed like a good idea to learn what I could while I had the chance.

The second dilemma I faced was how much to practice the Intermediate Forms. As I learned the them, I decided to focus mainly on refining the Slow Form and only practiced these forms as much as necessary to remember them (about once a week).

I recently started thinking that, since I had put the time into learning these forms, I should start practicing them otherwise that time has been wasted. A few weeks ago, after going through the Slow Form, I decided to do the Dao Form. I hadn't done this on my own for a long while so I decided to go slow and focus on the principles I'd just been focusing on in the Slow Form. This was the first time I had actually gone through the form without worrying about the choreography or trying to hack the dao with all my might and, to my amazement, it went much better than it had ever gone before. Since then, I've added the Intermediate Forms into my solo practice and I focus on whichever principles I've been working on in the Slow Form. I've found this not only gives a different perspective on the principles but also adds variety to my practice that helps keep me focused.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

A Visit to Master Chen's (4/25)

During my recent visit to NYC, I had the chance to drop by Master William CC Chen's studio. Lincoln, who visited me at my school earlier in the year, encouraged me to drop by and arranged for me to attend both the Long Form and the Push Hands class. I was a bit unsure of how I would be received - I hadn't been there in a long time and, in the interim, have adopted a different style of Taiji - but I needn't have worried, I was remembered and warmly welcomed and had a great evening.

In the first class - the Long Form - not only were my (former) fellow students Lincoln and Anna there but so was my (former) instructor Alex. It was great to take class with everyone. Master Chen focused a lot on me that class - he didn't try to correct my form but rather focused on principles and pointed out places where I was popping up (uprooting myself), keeping tense, and generally losing structure/power. It was a bit embarrassing at first but he was doing it because I don't get the chance to work with him often and I really got a lot out of it.

I wasn't sure what to expect at all from the Push Hands class - I had never taken one with Master Chen when I studied out there - but it was also a great experience. Master Chen worked with me for quite a while to begin with, pointing out places where I tensed up and generally trying to get me to relax and loosen. He even demonstrated some effortless power that sent me flying, which was also a really cool experience. He then paired me up against various students in the class and emphasized loosening drills based on what he had been teaching me. I met some very cool people that session - there were about 20 altogether - and even got to push with Lincoln and with Alex (who is, as expected, really good). The last guy I pushed with - Jordan Forth - was somewhat younger then the other students and, after some basic practice, Master Chen told us to play free. Jordan is really good - very flexible/loose and rooted - and I had to use my ILC training to counter him and we even got into some moving step as well. I had a lot of fun pushing with Jordan - he's a cool guy with a great attitude - and it turns out he has several gold medals in push hands and was in training for a san-shou tournament when I visited.

At the end of the evening, Master Chen told me that I had improved a lot since the last time that he had seen me and, if I focused on loosening, I would improve a lot more. Adam Mizner said the same thing to me about loosening at the end of his workshop too. So I'm now starting to focus on loosening, which brings me eye-to-eye with the classic Taiji Paradox - how do you work on relaxing?

Taiji Workshop - Adam Mizner (4/21)

While visiting NYC recently, I had the chance to attend a workshop with Adam Mizner (Heaven Man Earth) that was put together by Joshua Craig, whose ILC classes I attend when I visit NYC (Internal Arts Training). Due to my schedule, I was only able to attend the second day but it was a great experience.

The first day of the workshop they spent going over a set of loosening drills - Song Shen - that we reviewed on the second day as a warm up (and later, as a cool down). After warming up, we went through the four basic energies by doing Stroke Peacock's Tail (aka Grasp Sparrows Tail).

We spent the rest of the day doing two-person drills. Initially we did drills based on each of the four energies and then spent time on a drill based on Holding the Ball where we focused on how just sinking could uproot your partner. In the afternoon, we went through a push-hands training pattern that was different from what I'm used to primarily because it incorporates other energies (e.g. the bump) and it was an interesting break from my usual routine.

Overall, the essence of the second day - what Adam was really trying to stress in each exercise and drill - was how staying loose and not using arm strength really made everything more effective. Adam demonstrated this many times by launching people 5-10 feet with little effort. He demonstrated this once on me and it didn't feel like being shoved - I was standing there one moment and flying backward the next - very cool skill.

So, if you get the chance, definitely check out an Adam Mizner workshop. In the interim, he has a youtube channel HeavenManEarthTaiji with some nice videos.

Benjamin Sanchez, Joshua Craig, and Adam Mizner

ILC Workshop - Steve Arboleda (3/23-3/24)

A few months ago, I took a 2-day I Liq Chuan workshop with Steve Arboleda from Chinatown Internal Arts in New York City. Steve is both highly skilled - he has studied with Sifu Sam for many years - and entertaining.

On the first day of the workshop, we spent time working on the 15 Basics Exercises, with emphasis on certain key points. One point Steve stressed was that, while it's difficult to keep all 13 points of alignment in mind, it's important is to focus on the center of the feet and the top of the head first - do this and the other points fall roughly into place and can be refined over time. I've been keeping this point in mind for the last couple of months and it has had a positive impact on both my ILC and my Taiji training. We also spent time doing 2-person drills based on the 8 circles - the main idea was to have one partner hold the wrists of the other and for the other partner to use one of the circles to break the hold (which explains why Steve calls them 'wrist-breaks'). We went through the circles one at a time - the wrist-breaks give a nice insight into where the energy should be focused for the circle and whether you're using your waist or your arms to drive the movement.

One the second day, we worked primarily on the 5 Elements by starting with Earth and incrementally adding the subsequent elements. While doing this exercise, we focused on how the different elements move you from heel to toe (or vice-versa) and how the transitions from yang to yin (or vice-versa) neutralize the energy. I've done 5 Elements before but this was the first time I was able to make the connection from the exercise to the ILC principles. We have subsequently practiced the 5 Elements in class and it's a great overall exercise - you can use it to focus on most any of the aspect of ILC training.

Friday, April 12, 2013

5 Years of Taiji

Today marks my 5th year of studying Taiji. My practice currently consists of doing Taiji for an hour most mornings and going to 3-hour classes twice a week. I've been asked why I put so much time and effort into my practice, particularly since I never expect to use the martial capabilities or have a career as a martial artist. Given that Taiji is such a big investment in time, it's worth considering whether the benefits make the effort worthwhile - so here are my thoughts on what I get out of my practice:
  1. Health Benefits - The obvious reason to practice Taiji is for the physical benefits and is certainly why I got involved in it in the first place. Practicing Taiji on a daily basis has built up my strength, increased my flexibility, and improved my balance. As an exercise, the better I get at Taiji, the more challenging it becomes and so the physical benefits continue to increase.
  2. Long-Term Viability - The stereotypical image of Taiji is that of a large group of older people doing the form slowly in the park. That's not all Taiji is but it is an exercise that can be done by older people and, given it's health benefits, it is something I'd like to continue into my old age. I could wait until I'm older to study Taiji but it's a lot easier to gain the skill now rather than trying to take it on later. Also, there is some incidence of arthritis in my family and the evidence indicates that doing Taiji helps alleviate or even prevent the onset of arthritis.
  3. Conflict Resolution - One of the main tenets of Taiji is that you don't meet an external force head-on but instead sublimate it with force in different directions - this deals with it in a more effective and efficient manner. Much of the training in Taiji - both forms and push-hands - is learning to recognize external forces, understanding their effect on you, and figuring out how to deal with them without running away from them (a common misconception about Taiji is that you run away from incoming force but, in two-person training, you quickly learn that's as ineffective as meeting the force head-on). As you start to understand these principles, you recognize how they apply to other aspects of life when dealing with conflicts so that you don't run away from them or get overwhelmed by them but instead understand them for what they are and figure out how to deal with them effectively.
  4. Perspective - Like everyone else, my life has its ups and downs that include periods of great stress and some mornings I wake up feeling overwhelmed by all the things I have to deal with. Going through the form in the morning shifts my focus off of those immediate concerns and puts them into their true perspective, which allows me to see them a lot more clearly for what they really are i.e. minor annoyances.
  5. Time Outside - Some time ago, I started practicing outside (taking advantage of one of the benefits of living in CA). It feels really nice to be outside - breathing the fresh air and feeling the sun - for at least part of the day on a regular basis.
  6. Challenge - As I get better at Taiji, I realize how much more I have to learn. Far from being discouraging, this makes the study of Taiji continually more interesting, which is why I practice more now then I did when I started.
  7. Community - People who practice Taiji regularly tend to be pretty nice folks. I have made some great friends through my practice and, when I travel, I often drop in on other Taiji schools for a visit and meet some very good - and sometimes very skilled - people.  

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Thoughts on Double Weighting

A friend of mine from my original NYC Taiji class was in the Bay Area and stopped by TToPA for a visit. Lincoln came on a night where we had Taiji instruction in the first class - covering Cloud Hands - followed by an open class where we did some basic two-person drills and a bit of free-style. It was great to have Lincoln visit and he seemed to have enjoyed himself as well.

While he and I were discussing some of the differences between the way the form is taught at the two schools, Lincoln observed that at TToPA, our archer stance is not nearly as front-weighted as taught by Master Chen and he asked if that caused any problems with double weighting.

Double weighting is discussed in the Taiji classics - students are admonished to avoid it otherwise they will not progress beyond the beginning stages - but it's never actually defined clearly, which leaves it open to interpretation. When I first heard the term, I thought it simply meant that you should never have weight on both legs at the same time (and I have read a number of interpretations that say just that) but that definition avoids the points that 1. you almost always have weight on both legs as you move from posture to posture (i.e. a large percentage of the time) and 2. even in styles that do have their archer stance weighted more towards the front, the distribution is still 70/30, which means that a non-trivial amount of weight is on the back leg.

My current understanding of double weighting is based on the following analogy: consider one of the postures where you are on one leg (e.g. White Crane Exposes Wing) - at this point think of that leg being filled to the top with water. As you transition from that leg to the other, it's like the water is pouring from the first leg to the second (it feels this way as the weight shifts). As long as you keep moving from posture to posture, the water keeps flowing from leg to leg.  Double weighting occurs when the flow of the movement is interrupted, which causes the water to collect separately at the bottom of each legs and makes you feel like your legs feel heavy - it takes effort (and time) to get them started moving again. That doesn't mean all movements have to occur at the same speed - you can speed up and slow down as long as the water continues to flow.

So, in response to Lincoln's question, my answer was that the weight distribution of the stance doesn't matter as long as the movement flows. That's my understanding at this point but I'm open to hearing other interpretations.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

A Taiji Christmas

Most years, I visit my family in Sarasota over Christmas. While visiting last year, I tried a simple 2-person exercise with a friend of mine to see if my training was paying off. The exercise was a very basic form of push-hands - we faced one another with feet shoulder width apart, hands contacting each other's shoulders with one arm on the inside and the other on the outside, making everything symmetric. The game was to simply try to off-balance each other. I wasn't sure what was going to happen but, with just a bit of energy, my friend's upper body locked up and over he went - several times.

This year, I was at my sister's on Christmas day and that same friend dropped by for a visit. After a while, I suggested that we try the same exercise again and this time, rather then locking up, he stayed completely loose, which was an improvement. Still, he was a bit too loose so I was able to take the slack out of his arms and over he went - several times.

After doing this for a while, he convinced my nephew to give it a try (since my nephew was laughing at him). While my nephew is only 15 (closing in on 16), he's taller than I am and outweighs me by a fair bit. When we commenced, he leaned on me and pushed with all his strength (did I mention that he also lifts weights). Normally, I would have just twisted a bit and let him slip by but, with all the energy he was putting into it, I knew he would go flying across the room so instead I redirected his force back into him and twisted him off his base - again, several times. I think he was impressed because he later asked about how it all worked.

Finally, after seeing me push her son around, my sister decided she wanted to give it a go as well. She's only 5' tall and 110lbs but she does triathlons and is very competitive. She wasn't satisfied with the horse-stance we were using and instead got into an archer's stance. When we commenced, she lunged at me with all her strength and I sent her flying across the room before I had the chance to think. She thought it was pretty hysterical and, once she stopped laughing, came back and started pushing with all her strength again (completely oblivious to the fixed-step nature of the exercise). I had enough time to react so I didn't send her flying across the room again - I just tried to keep relaxed and channel her energy back into her - she's impressively strong and aggressive and it took a lot of my skill to handle her.

In the end, this exercise was interesting for two reasons. First it showed that I have gained skill through my training and that skill can be applied to vastly different opponents/energies. Second, it showed that I still have a lot to learn yet. Despite their lack of training, it was much harder for me to control my friend, nephew, and sister than I expected and I expended a lot of effort to do so. This points to a number of weaknesses in my own skill that I need to think about and figure out how to improve. That way, I'll be ready for next Christmas.