Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Thoughts on Structuring Solo Training

One of the changes I've made based on working with Sifu Wu is how I structure my solo training. I've tried various approaches to solo training and have generally followed the format used by most of the classes I've attended - start with a bit of warm-up, followed by doing the form, and then practice whatever new thing I'm working on.

In August, I started taking a 24-Form class with Sifu Wu and discussed with her how to practice. She mentioned that in her classes she always starts with an extensive warm-up so that by the time she gets to the form, the students are both physically and mentally prepared to focus on the form.

She recommended that I structure my practice in a similar way - start with Zhan Zhuang training (open stance, empty stance, leg lifts), followed by basic stepping (twist step, back step, side step), and only then go on to practice the form.

My current practice schedule is shown below (updated here as it evolves). I now only spend about 30% of my time on the form as opposed to about 80% that I used to spend.

Working through the basic mechanics first gives you time to build strength, improve balance, and refine the movements. When you finally get to the form, you are warmed up and have gone through the fundamental movements, which has prepared you to do the form.

Current Solo Training
  • 8 Minutes - Open Stance
    • 4 minutes - hold the ball
    • 2 minutes - twist while holding the ball
    • 1 minute - rise and lower
    • 1 minute - open and close
  • 6 Minutes - Empty Stance/Bow Stance
    • 3 minutes - left leg
    • 3 minutes - right leg
  • 6 Minutes - Standing on One Leg
    • 3 minutes - raise empty leg, hold for 30 seconds, switch to other leg
    • 3 minutes - raise empty leg, lower empty leg onto heel, raise empty leg, switch to other leg
  • 20 Minutes - Stepping
    • 5 minutes - twist-step w/hands behind back
    • 5 minutes - twist-step w/brush knee and press
    • 5 minutes - step-back w/hands in front
    • 5 minutes - side-step w/hands behind back
  • 20 Minutes - 24 Form Practice

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Sifu Amin Wu @ Google

I arranged with Google to have Sifu Amin Wu come in and teach an 8-week Taiji session that ended last Wednesday (2015-11-18) - to commemorate the occasion, I took a group photo at the final class:

When I set up the class, I was hoping to get 10 people to sign up and thought I'd need to do some advertising to make that happen but it reached the cap of 20 people before I had the chance to do anything.

As I expected, Sifu Wu did a great job teaching and the class went really well - well enough that Google is working on setting up a second session starting in January.

In fact, the biggest complaint I got about the class (which I heard several times) was from people who hadn't heard about it in time to register - hopefully we'll keep having that problem.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Training the Empty Stance

Continuing with my Zhang Zhuang training, Sifu Wu recently added a new stance into the mix - the empty stance (aka the back stance).

To get into an empty stance, you start from an open stance (i.e. feet about shoulder width apart, feet pointing forward), turn one foot out by about 45 degrees, shift the weight onto that leg, lift the other leg (like in the leg lift exercise), and then put the foot down so that it is forward of the weighted foot - the heel should be on the ground, the foot flexed, and the knee (very) slightly bent. The hips should still be straight and the lateral distance between the feet still about shoulder width.

In the empty stance, all of your weight is on the back leg and your upper body should be straight upright over that leg. As with the other stances, the supporting leg should be solid and rooted while the upper body should be loose and relaxed.

This stance gets uncomfortable quickly and, eventually, your leg begins to shake at which point you sink down the toes of the front foot and then shift the weight from the back leg into a bow stance, which is a more comfortable posture that allows the back leg to rest a bit.

Once the back leg has rested, you bend the back leg to shift your weight onto it, returning to the empty stance. After doing this for a while, you switch to the other leg so that it too can share in the pain and misery (and the benefits).

When I first start training this stance, Sifu Wu had me practice with my back to a wall which forced me to 1. shift all the way onto the back leg, 2. keep my hips straight, and 3. keep my upper body upright and relaxed.

Initially it was difficult to do it for more than a couple of minutes and a lot of the time was spent in the bow stance. I now do 5 minutes on each side and, while I still shift into the bow stance (particularly towards the end), I spend most of the time in the empty stance.

As with the other stance training, spending time in this stance has allowed me analyze my structure and notice when things aren't right. For example, when all of the weight is over the back leg, it is important to feel the weight in the center of the foot. I have a tendency to feel my weight in my heel and, with Sifu Wu's help, I have found that this is caused by collapsing the knee slightly - expanding the hip and knee shifts the weight to the center of the foot and takes care of the problem. It also makes the stance harder.

Again, as with other stance training, this training has helped improve my form. There are a number of postures where you need to shift fully onto the back leg (e.g. circle foot and carry the hammer forward) and I now realize that I wasn't shifting nearly far enough back, which left me off balance and created a lot of tension in my upper body - the form is now harder for my legs but easier on my upper body.

PS. At work the other day, I noticed that my pants were getting a bit tight in the legs and I subsequently realized that many of my pants/shorts are now tight in the legs. I haven't had this problem since I was a weightlifter in my 20's - sometimes it's reassuring to have a physical manifestation that training is actually having an effect.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Lifting the Hip Considered Harmful

In my last few posts, I've been describing the Zhan Zhuang training that I've incorporated into my training regime with the help of Sifu Wu. She has continued to help me refine my training and I am now incorporating some additional movements and different postures.

One new wrinkle Sifu Wu recently gave me with the leg lifts (described in my last post) was, after lifting the unweighted leg, to extend the weighted leg until it's almost straight - still keeping the hips even. Once you've held this position for a while, you bend the weighted leg to get back to it's original position and then (and only then), you lower the unweighted leg. I do this twice on one leg then shift to the other.

Doing this variation clearly showed another problem with my leg lifts. As I lift the leg, the associated hip has a tendency to come up too, which makes the hips uneven - this is bad. In order to stay balanced, you need to keep that hip down. The issue becomes particularly evident when extending the weighted leg - the other hip really wants to come up (even though it's not helping at all).

I discussed my problem with Sifu Wu and she had a couple of helpful insights.
  1. You need to feel that the leg is being lifted by the lower portion of the thigh, towards the knee.
  2. As the knee goes up, you need to actively push the hip down.
  3. To make this all work, the supporting leg needs to keep its structure as well i.e. the foot and knee have to retain their structure - there is a tendency to collapse the knee which lets the outer edge of the foot come away from the ground.
  4. As your leg strength improves, that will help improve the form (i.e. keep practicing).
Doing my best to follow Sifu Wu's advice, my leg lifts have gradually improved over time and, with effort, I am able to keep my hips a lot more even.

Once again, as I was doing the Slow form, I started noticing places where my unweighted hip was popping up (all the usual suspects, particularly any stepping or kicking). As my leg lifts have improved, I've worked these changes into the form, which has improved the form while simultaneously making it even more challenging.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Yet More Tension

In my previous post, I described starting Zhan Zhuang training after a session with Sifu Amin Wu and mentioned that one part of the training included doing leg lifts.

In that post, I didn't describe the leg lifts but they aren't complicated. You start the movement in an open stance, slowly shift the weight to one leg, then raise the other (empty) leg up to about hip level, making sure to keep the knee aligned with toes on the supporting (full) leg and to keep the hips level. You hold the leg up for about 20 seconds before slowly putting the foot down and doing the same movement on the other side.

Lifting the leg is basically the same move as 'Golden cock stands on one leg' and holding the leg up for 20 seconds trains the thigh muscle - as your strength, balance, and flexibility improve you can lift the leg higher and hold it for longer (eventually turning it into a kick but that's beyond what I'm training at this point).

After watching me go through the movements a few times, Sifu Wu mentioned that I was holding a lot of tension in my knee and lower leg and said that I should just relax the knee and let the lower leg hang. Once she pointed it out, I noticed as I lifted my leg that 1. the angle of the knee barely changed, causing tension in the knee and 2. I was forcibly pointing my toes downward, causing tension in the lower leg.

Looking back, I recall that when I was first learning the Slow Form, I started forcibly pointing my foot down in 'Golden cock stands on one leg' because I saw that the advanced people had their toes pointed down and, while it felt tight for me, I figured that once I gained enough flexibility that everything would become loose.

Training the leg lifts while concentrating on keeping the knee and foot relaxed pointed out how much tension I was actually carrying in the knee/lower leg. Bringing this refinement back into the Slow Form, I found that the tension not only occurred in 'Golden cock stands on one leg' but in any move where I had to lift a leg, including any stepping (whether it be a side step as in 'Circle hands like clouds',  a forward step as in 'Brush thighs and press forth palms', or a backwards step as in 'Step back and repulse monkey') so this refinement has applied to (and improved) practically everything in the Slow Form.

So, mind the tension.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Zhan Zhuang

For a bit of background for this post, I should mention that in the fall of 2013, I took a class on the Yang-style 24 Form from Sifu Amin Wu. I'd been interested in learning the 24 Form and had also been interested in taking a class from Sifu Wu once I learned she was teaching in the area.

It was a great class and I really enjoyed learning from Sifu Wu. Ever since the class finished, I've continued to drop in on Sifu Wu from time-to-time and have always wanted to spend more time training with her, when her class schedule and my ILC training coincided.

This year for my birthday I decided to do a private session with Sifu Wu in order to get her thoughts on my training and what I could do to improve things. She made a number of useful suggestions but her main point was that, if I really wanted to improve my Taiji, I should consider practicing Zhan Zhuang in order to strengthen my legs.

Zhan Zhuang is stance training - basically you get into an uncomfortable position and hold it for an absurd period of time. Sifu Wu recommended first working on open stance (i.e. feet parallel, shoulder width apart)  holding a squat with the thighs roughly at 45 degrees and, for variation, mix in bow stance. She also showed me how to eventually add some movement into the stance training that would work up to taking a Taiji step.

The day after the session, I decided to give it a try so I stood squatting in open stance as a warm up before my usual training - 10 minutes later, my legs were shaking so badly that I could barely do any further training that morning. This was a surprise - I've trained the slow form for quite a while and my leg strength and endurance are generally pretty good - and it convinced me that it was worth giving the training a try for a while.

So, for the last few weeks, I've been training Zhan Zhuang. The first week it was 10 minutes on alternating days but I've slowly increased things. Last week I did 10 minutes of standing followed by 5 minutes of leg lifts (held for 15-20 seconds) each day. This morning I did 20 minutes standing (10 minutes open stance and 5 minutes bow stance on each side) and 5 minutes of leg lifts - my legs are toast at the moment.

The results have been noticeable. I'm better balanced doing my Taiji form already and my 2-person work is more stable overall. I'm not sure if it's increased strength or improved posture (standing for that long gives you a lot of time to work on your alignment) but I plan to continue with the training for the next few months to see where it leads.