Saturday, December 31, 2016

Impressions of Wu-Style Tai Chi

Last fall Sifu Amin Wu suggested that I take her Wu 13 Form class as a first step in training Wu-Style Tai Chi. In my last post, I went into great detail about how I feel that learning too many forms can be a bad idea so I wasn't at all convinced about the idea of taking on an entirely new style.

Sifu Wu is best known for Wu-Style so I was interested in giving it a try and asked her why she suggested I take it up. Sifu Wu is a master of 5 different styles of Tai Chi (Wu, Hao, Chen, Yang, & Sun) and explained that different styles of Tai Chi suit different people and, from her experience, she felt that Wu-Style would suit me best. She also told me that she didn't want me to stop training Yang-Style but rather wanted me to train both and assured me that Wu-Style and Yang-Style training are compatible.

While still unsure whether it was a good idea, I started taking the 13 Form class last fall and split my solo training time with half the time spent on Yang-Style and half spent on Wu-Style.

Wu-Style is derived from Yang-Style small frame but there are a number of differences between training the two styles. The most obvious differences show up in the Bow stance.

In Yang-Style, the Bow stance has the forward leg with the toes pointed straight forward, the back leg with the toes pointed at 45 degrees, and the torso upright (perpendicular to the ground) with about 70% of the weight on the front leg.

In Wu-Style, the Bow stance also has the front leg with the toes pointed forward but the back leg also has the toes pointed forward, which requires a lot more flexibility with the back ankle. Instead of being upright, the torso is inclined in line with the back leg. In the stance, the front toes, knee, and nose all form a vertical line with 80+% of the weight on the front leg.

Stepping is also much different due to the difference in posture/weight distribution. In Wu-Style, you do not shift back and turn out the front leg but instead you pivot on the front hip/kua to bring the torso upright while simultaneously bringing the back leg in beside the front leg. Once you are fully upright on the front leg, you step the (formerly) back leg out forward and shift your weight forming a new Bow stance.

The difference in weight distribution makes holding the Bow stance in Wu-Style more challenging for the front leg than in Yang-Style and taking the step requires holding the weight on that leg, making things even more difficult for the front leg.

The 13 Form class finished in mid-December and, after 3 months of training it, I do really like Wu-Style. The movements are similar to how I trained Yang-Style previously at TToPA and the movements came pretty naturally to me.

As for training the two styles simultaneously, that also worked out pretty well. The Wu-Style training improved my leg strength and Sifu Wu had me use that strength to go lower in Yang-Style.

The inclined posture in the Wu-Style Bow stance was different from what I've done before (i.e. with TToPA's Yang-Style, the front shin never goes past perpendicular to the floor whereas Wu-Style the knee goes out to the toes) and getting the weight in the center of the front foot rather than in the toes required relaxing the lower back.

Over time, I realized that in my Yang-Style Bow stance I was carrying that same tension in my lower back and relaxing the lower back in the same way made my stance more dynamic.

Lowering my stance and relaxing my lower back combined to improve the overall flow my Yang-Style form - in the stance, I feel a lot more ready (and able) to move.

Sifu Wu wants me to take her Wu 45 Form class this winter as a follow-up to the 13 Form class. I still have my reservations about learning too many new forms and styles but I trust her judgement and will see how continuing to train Wu-Style works out.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Training the 32 Form

Last January I started learning the 32 Form as the next step in my Tai Chi practice. Sifu Wu's approach to teaching Tai Chi is to start with a basic form and progress through a series of forms that get more challenging and incorporate more advanced moves (by contrast, some schools will teach one form and focus on refining that form over time).

The 32 Form is an intermediate form that is the follow-up to the Yang 24 Form. While it is composed mostly of Yang-Style movements, it is a combination form that incorporates Chen, Sun, and Wu-Style movements.

I wasn't all that interested in learning the 32 Form initially. I know students who want to continually learn new forms (form junkies :) but I've always been the opposite - learning a new form takes time and effort that I feel could be better spent on refining a form you already know. Since I already knew the Yang-Style Long Form, I didn't see much point in learning an intermediate form that I would eventually stop practicing but Sifu Wu recommended that I study it so I did.

One emphasis of the 32 Form is lowering the stance in order to train flexibility and strength. As I was learning the form, Sifu Wu had me work on longer/lower steps during my stepping training and added in some stretching exercises to loosen up my ankles, hips, and hamstrings. Once I learned the form, Sifu Wu cut back my Zhan Zhuang training because the form training provides some of that training benefit (don't worry, I still do plenty of stance training).

While I still think that learning a lot of new forms is not a good use of valuable training time, I must admit that the effort I put into learning the 32 Form has been well worth it. I've come to really enjoy the form and it has provided a good venue to incrementally increase to my training level. Eventually I'll learn the 48 Form and move on from the 32 Form but I think it's going to be a while - I still have a lot to learn from this form.

Technically, now that I've learned the 32 Form, I should move on from the 24 Form but Sifu Wu has recommended against that. The 24 Form is ubiquitous (classes, competitions, demonstrations, ...) so it's useful to keep in practice. I now use it as a warm-up, going through it few times in a higher stance and then moving on to the 32 Form.

As a final note, Sifu Wu has just released a 32 Form DVD and you can check out a demo of the full form from the DVD on her YouTube channel:

Sunday, November 13, 2016

From 9 to 5 - Preparing for Kung Fu Tai Chi Day

It's been a while since my last post (I had a busy summer and fall hasn't been much better) and I have so many things I'd like to write about that it's hard to know where to start but I decided to pick up from where I left off in my last post with the Kung Fu Tai Chi Day event.

Early last spring, Sifu Wu told me that she had decided to have her school participate in the the Kung Fu Tai Chi Day event and asked if I'd be interested/willing to compete in the event. After looking over the event details, I decided to compete in the Yang 24 Form competition.

Due to time constraints, the competition only allowed 5 minutes per participant. The standard pace of the 24 Form is 6 to 6.5 minutes and it was left up to the individual competitor to decide whether to do the form at a faster pace (completing the entire form) or to do the it at the standard pace (ending the form early) - either was acceptable.

I had never trained for a particular pace. When I practiced the traditional Yang Form, I aimed for around 30 minutes but my main concern was doing the form slowly - if it took longer than 30 minutes, that was a win.

In our first session preparing for the competition, Sifu Wu had me go through the form at the pace I go on my own and it turned out I was going at a 9 minute pace or about 50% slower than standard pace. Sifu Wu said that the first thing I needed to do was to get the pace down to 6.5 minutes.

For my solo training, I use an interval timer app on my phone (seconds) so I set up a timer to break the 24 Form into 4 parts of 1 minute and 40 seconds each. The first time I went through the form, I felt like I was racing through it and felt like I was missing all of the details. Over time though, I came to be able to do the form at that pace and realized that there were several benefits to the faster pace.

The first benefit was that the faster pace forced my concentration to be more focused - in my previous training, if my attention wandered, I was going slowly enough that I could catch myself. While I still can't keep my attention from wandering completely, I now have to catch it a lot quicker.

The second benefit of the faster pace was that it prevented me from doing continuous-correction. Before, when I would go through the form, when I noticed myself doing something wrong, I would pause to correct it (e.g. if I hadn't turned my foot out far enough, I would adjust my position before moving on). I hadn't even realized I was doing this but it had the effect that I would never actually fix certain mistakes because I would always just readjust myself - going through the form at the faster pace meant I couldn't adjust around these errors any longer so I was forced to fix them.

The final benefit of doing the form at the faster pace was that it allowed me to link the movements together, making the form more continuous. While I was still moving at a pace where I could do the form properly (i.e. not rushing through it and skipping details), moving faster allowed everything to flow more smoothly, something Sifu Wu has been working on with me (as a side note, Sifu Wu told me that the pace for the traditional Yang form is about 20 minutes - training at the 30+ minute pace I used to do isn't wrong per-se - there are other training benefits with a slower pace - but it makes it difficult to do the form in a continuous manner).

Training for pace, I was able to get the 24 Form down from 9 minutes to 6.5 minutes and, eventually, 5 minutes, which is what I did at the competition. As I progressed, I went from having the interval timer track 4 sections down to 2 sections, and finally, just to alert me to the last 30 seconds of the form.

Now that the competition is over, I practice the 24 Form at a 6 minute pace and still use the interval timer to make sure that I'm staying at the right pace. As I train the 32 Form these days, I also use the interval timer to stay on pace.

Monday, May 30, 2016

Kung Fu Tai Chi Day

The good folks at Kung Fu Tai Chi Magazine published this photo of me at Kung Fu Tai Chi Day on their Facebook page (along with lots of other pictures):

The event took place in San Jose on May 22nd 2016 - I'm planning to write a blog entry about it (and my preparation for it) in the near future but I think the picture stands on its own.

One of my push-hands training partners described the photo as showing my 'unwavering focus and martial intent' - qualities I can really only aspire to.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Sifu Amin Wu @ Google - The Yang 24 Form (Part 2)

Last winter, I arranged to have Sifu Amin Wu come to Google and teach the first part of the Yang-Style 24 Form (discussed previously). In the spring, I was able to arrange to have her come back and teach the second part of the form.

I had been concerned about splitting the form across two sessions, particularly for new students who hadn't been in the first session. I was hoping that the class would consist mostly of returning students but about half of the students were new.

Sifu Wu gave a really nice comprehensive review of the first half of the form over the first 3 weeks, which was good for both the new and returning students, and then taught the second half of the form over the remaining 5 weeks.

As I expected, the attrition rate with the new students was higher than with the returning students but a higher percentage of students (both new and returning) got through the form than I'd expected. The class finished yesterday and, as with the previous sessions, I took a group photo:

While the results were pretty good, both Sifu Wu and I felt that splitting the class across two sessions was difficult both on her and the students - she just didn't have time to go into the details about the form that she would have liked to.

Sifu Wu will be away for the summer but I'm working with her to set up a fall session. We're trying to arrange a 12 week session rather than 8 week one, which should give her the (minimum) time necessary to get through a basic short form (Sifu Wu wants to teach the Chen 18 Form - she thinks the students at Google will enjoy it and I think it should be a lot of fun).

Monday, April 4, 2016

Hosting My First Martial Arts (Mini) Workshop

Last Saturday (March 26th), I co-hosted my first ever martial arts (mini) workshop along with my long-time I Liq Chuan training partner Rod McChesney.

Rod and I have been working on spinning hands training for Student Level 5 and looked into doing some distance learning on the subject with Ashe Higgs but it turns out that training spinning hands really needs to be hands-on.

Eventually we started discussing with Ashe the possibility of coming out and teaching a workshop focused on basic Student Level 5 spinning hands training. Since we wanted the training to be focused and hands-on, we decided to limit the number of attendees, making it a semi-private session rather than a workshop.

For some context, I should mention that a bit over a year ago (January 2015), Rod established I Liq Chuan of Redwood City and started holding classes regularly. Our initial plan was to hold the session only for folks training with the group, limiting the size to 4 participants.

As we started setting things up, we decided we wanted to be more inclusive so we opened it up to the other I Liq Chuan students in the Bay area working on Student Level 5 and ended up with 8 students registering for the session/mini-workshop:

It was a great session. Ashe explained the points that Student Level 5 training is concerned with (e.g. circle-with-center, 1st section) and some of the things that it's not. We did a number of partner drills and focused a lot on slicing in order to maintain the point of contact (Ashe always has great partner-drills). Our group got a lot out of the day and the other folks seemed to enjoy (and benefit from) the session too. And dinner afterwards was a lot of fun.

As an added bonus, Sifu Wu dropped in for the last hour or so and Ashe showed her some of the principles behind I Liq Chuan's spinning hands training.

In retrospect, I'm glad we kept the session relatively small - there were a number of logistical issues that we had to work out and it was a lot easier with a small group.

We plan to arrange more of these kinds of focused workshops with Ashe in the (near) future and plan to open them up to the I Liq Chuan community in the Bay Area - we just have to figure out how to do that in way that preserves the hands-on aspect.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Sifu Amin Wu @ Google - The Yang 24 Form (Part 1)

In a previous post, I mentioned that last fall I arranged to have Sifu Amin Wu come to Google and teach an 8-week Tai Chi session. The class went so well that I was able to arrange to have her to come back and give another 8-week session in the winter. The class filled up within a day of being announced - even faster than the previous session (which was really cool to see).

The winter session focused on the Yang-Style 24 Form. While 8 weeks is not enough time to teach the entire 24 Form, Sifu Wu was able to get through the first half of the form without overwhelming the students. As with the fall session, I once again took a group photo after the final class:

Sifu Wu will return to Google in the spring to hold a third session that will review the first half of the 24 Form and teach the second half of form.

I wasn't sure how well splitting the form across two sessions would work out and, honestly, I still don't know - this is all new territory for me and I'm figuring it out as I go - but I have confidence that Sifu Wu will teach a great class no matter the circumstances.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

That First Step is a Doozy

After working on basic stance training (i.e. open stance, empty stance, bow stance, and standing on one leg) for a while, Sifu Wu eventually reckoned that I'd developed enough strength and balance to take a step.

The forward step is comprised of the basic stances. Starting from a bow stance with the left foot in front, the step occurs in 4 stages.
  1. Shift back to an empty stance on the right (back) leg and turn the left (front) leg out to 45 degrees (turning from the waist).
  2. Step forward onto the left (front) leg. Start by putting the left foot down (heel to toe) and shifting the weight forward until it's in the center of the foot. Continue shifting the weight onto the left leg and, as the right (back) leg becomes empty, lift the right foot (from heel to toe) by bending the knee and put the toes of the right foot down just behind and to the right of the left foot.
  3. Step out into an empty stance with the the right (back) leg forward. Start by lifting the right leg (like doing a leg lift but not lifting so high), opening the left hip slightly (to about 45 degrees), and putting the right heel down in front.
  4. Shift forward into a right bow stance. First put right (front) foot down (heel to toe) and expand the knee slightly without opening the hips. Start shifting to the right foot by closing the right knee further and simultaneously straightening your left (back) knee. As you shift forward, your torso should turn from 45 degrees to face front.
You end up in a bow stance on the right side where you can take another step (and another and another ...).

Now this is all very simple but it isn't easy - I keep finding (innovative) ways to do the forward step wrong.

The first problem Sifu Wu pointed out was that I was stepping out too wide in stage 3. The feet should end up about shoulder-width apart in the empty stance but I was stepping wider than that, particularly on the left side. I was also stepping out with different widths on either side so I ended up moving forward diagonally, listing to the left. With practice, I was able to adjust the steps appropriately but, if I don't pay attention, I can still start drifting again.

Narrowing my step has also had the benefit of allowing my step to lengthen naturally. My forward step has always been a bit short and now I understand why that was.

My second problem was in stage 2 of the step. While shifting onto the left (unweighted) leg, I was always unstable. Sifu Wu said that I was 'double-light' - the weight was shifting off of the right (back) leg, making it light but wasn't sinking into the center of the left (front) leg, so it was also light.

There were a couple of issues that were causing this problem. The first issue was that, as I was shifting forward, my shoulders leaned in the direction that I was turning, breaking my structure and throwing off my balance.

The second issue was that, as I was shifting onto the left (front) leg, I was bending my left hip and ankle appropriately but was keeping my left knee stiff, which made the shifting awkward and shifted my weight forward rather than letting it sink into the center of the foot.

I'm still haven't fully resolved these issues but working on them has made my stepping more stable and, as my strength and balance have continued to improve, so has my stepping.