Damo’s Taijiquan Study
Damo Mitchell is widely known as a teacher of Daoism, Qi Gong and Nei Gong. These are the main subjects that he has been teaching internationally on workshops and courses. He has also written several books on the subjects and these books have sold well across the world. What is not so well known is that Damo studied Taijiquan (Tai Chi) before he began his studies of Nei Gong and these studies have continued for many years. Taijiquan is Damo’s favourite subject to teach as he enjoys the interactive nature of Taiji study and in particular Tui Shou or ‘pushing hands’.
Damo has studied Yang style Taijiquan with numerous teachers from within various lines. He has studied within the Zhen Manqing, Huang Xingxian, Nanpai and Tian Zhaolin lines. These are all variations of the Yang family tradition and each manifests the Yang principles in a unique manner. Alongside this Damo has studied Daoist Taijiquan, Chen village style Taijiquan and Hunyuan Taijiquan from the line of Feng Zhiqiang. Study across these lines has given Damo a varied and extensive understanding of Taijiquan principles and application. He now focuses upon the Yang line with students of the school beginning with the Huang Xiangxian system before moving onto other expressions of the Yang family tradition.
The beauty of Taijiquan training is that it is based upon two of the simplest and yet, at the same time, elusive qualities: Sung and Ting. Sung is the progressive release of tension from the body and mind whilst Ting is the absorption of the awareness into the processes inherent within all aspects of being. Only when a person has managed to apply Sung and Ting to the structure of Taijiquan will they attain Fa, the ability to issue Jin. Once a student can do this the they have ‘entered the door’ of Taijiquan study; a stage very few modern day practitioners manage to reach due to poor transmission of Taiji teachings.
The Lotus Nei Gong syllabus for Taijiquan begins by teachings students the principles of Sung and Ting. These principles are applied to various drills before the Taijiquan form is studied. Alongside this students study pushing hands, a partner drill designed to manifest the results of Sung and Ting in a tangible and directly experiential manner. These elements together provide a rounded way of developing expertise in Taijiquan.
Taijiquan is truly a jewel of Chinese culture and an art form which has sadly become watered down over the generations. It is Damo’s wish that more students have access to authentic Taiji teachings and that the art form continues to develop as an internal form of personal cultivation rather than a bad quality wrestling sport which is what it seems destined to become right now.
Progression in Taijiquan
Within Lotus Nei Gong we initially begin students with a study of the 37 posture sequence of Huang Xingxian. This is the sequence of Taijiquan that Damo has studied since the age of 14, initially with his father then later with various teachers within the Huang and Zheng Manqing lineages across the west and South East Asia. This aspect of the training highly emphasises the skills of Sung and Ting whilst building structure and fluidity around the key postures of the Yang family tradition.
As students become used to the concepts of Sung and Ting they are introduced to Tui Shou or ‘pushing hands’ though perhaps ‘pushing’ is not the best word to describe the practice. Students study the meaning of the terms stick, adhere, join and follow as these are the key tenets of the Taijiquan style. Force is studied as it moves between two people and students learn how to absorb, neutralise and return this force through maintenance of Zhong Ding or ‘central equilibrium’.
Though Huang’s Taijiquan transmission is profound, it is not necessarily ‘complete’ with regards to the Yang family tradition. For this reason advanced students progress onto the more complex form within our school which is an amalgamation of the principles of Yang Chenfu and Yang Shaohou via the teachings of Tian Zhaolin. A great deal more emphasise is placed upon the more complex aspects of the system including development of the ‘drumskin’ throughout the body and transmission of martial forces. This is a very intricate and challenging form of the Yang family art which takes a long time to learn.
Three Main Stages of Study
The first level of study in our system involves the short 37 posture form of Huang Xingxian. The emphasis at this stage is upon correct structure, the releasing of the joints, progressive levels of internal sinking and the cultivation of Ting. This is the foundation level and generally takes students round three years of regular study to get to grips with it. During this time they will study forms, principles, pushing hands drills and Taiji forces or ‘Jins’.
The second stage in our system is the longer form which focuses upon development of internal force through cultivation of Peng and ‘silk pulling’ power. The martial aspects of the system are emphasised here so those interested in Taijiquan purely for health generally stay at the first stage of our syllabus. More intricate aspects of Tui Shou are studied along with martial skills and focused adjustment of power lines in the body. This is classical Yang family Taijiquan for martial prowess.
The third stage on our syllabus is the study of the Jian or ‘straight sword’. This is the level of refinement. At this point in our syllabus we study the nature of the Yi, focus and adjustment of the skills studied at stage two in order to refine our Jin. Studying each of the three stages in Lotus Nei Gong’s Taijiquan syllabus must be done in sequence if students are ever to comprehend the teachings of Taijiquan.
An Abstraction on Combat
Taijiquan philosophy is based around the principles of Yin and Yang mutually coexisting with one another as well as the study of the forces known as Peng, Lu, Ji, An, Cai, Lie, Zhou and Kao. These are eight methods of manipulating pressures and energies within the body in order to govern the way in which two people may relate. This relationship is studied within the context of conflict but of course can easily be applied to the rest of life as well. This is why Taijiquan was long considered a jewel within the vast pantheon of Chinese arts; it is as much a form of meditative self cultivation as it is a study of violence.
Many now see these eight key methods as techniques meaning that they have missed the point by a mile. Taijiquan does indeed have ‘techniques’ like all other martial arts but these are secondary to the develop of Gong; true skill within the study of the internal.
Damo Mitchell Taijiquan Sequences
Fa Jin Controversy
Within the world of the internal arts, and specifically Taijiquan, nothing brings with it as much controversy as the skill of Fa Jin. For those who do not know, Fa Jin can be translated as meaning to ‘issue Jin’. The exact meaning of Jin is up for debate but within Lotus Nei Gong we translate Jin as meaning ‘the external expression of a force which originates within the body’.
Fa Jin and its exact application divides the Taiji world into two main groups – those who see Fa Jin as being nothing more than a description of the mechanical forces involved in grappling and the second group who see Fa Jin as a way of uprooting an opponent with minimal to no muscular force. Those in the second group generally demonstrate the skill by lifting their partners into the air as if they were rag dolls; a feat which looks very impressive on video!
The argument against this kind of skill is that it appears almost superhuman and thus who have never felt it being applied to them do not believe that it is possible. Statements such as ‘this only works on the weak-minded’ and ‘that would not work against a resistant opponent’ are thrown around and so the insults fly and the Taiji world is divided.
As a practitioner of Taijiquan who has experienced and trained in Fa Jin I feel that I have the right to have my own say on what exactly Fa Jin is. I am from the second group, Fa Jin is a way of training to uproot an opponent through the use of minimal force to me. It is an important aspect of Taiji training which unfortunately suffers much from the arguments and, as far as I see it, is both misunderstood and misrepresented by both groups, those for and those against its practice. Do not get me wrong though, I also enjoy grappling in Taiji and believe the training of both to be the most efficient way to develop martial skill.
For those who have never seen this kind of Fa Jin here is a video of me teaching and practicing Fa Jin with a group in Portugal.
The problem with Fa Jin is that it is generally seen with a very limited viewpoint; It is either an undefeatable weapon or it is not. If stuck within this very limited viewpoint then there is always going to be problems with how this important aspect of Taijiquan practice is perceived. Do not misunderstand me though, it is not just those who are against this form of Fa Jin who cause this misperception, it is also those who practice and demonstrate it publicly. It is incorrect to perceive it purely as a martial weapon but also incorrect to sell it as the ultimate weapon as well. To keep it simple, it is a power development tool, a way of exploring structure and a method of learning how to read, absorb and then disrupt forces as they pass back and forth between two practitioners of the internal arts.
Fa Jin works by learning how to shape and stretch the soft tissues of the body in such a manner that they distribute mechanical pressures and forces from a point of contact down into the floor. As they do this they cause the Fa Jin issuers body to move into a state of internal stress. This stress then reaches a certain peak before it releases this pressure back into the person applying force into the structure. As this happens there are a series of internal springs which are ‘released’ within the soft tissue structure of both the issuer and the receiver. The receiver of the force is then lifted up into the air by the force as their entire bodily structure is ‘bounced’ upwards away from the ground. The force of the spring within both parties tissues then dictates just how high and far the ‘bounce’ is as the Fa Jin is issued outwards from the Taiji practitioners body.
In order for this phenomena to take place there has to be several factors in play. The first is that the issuer of the Jin needs to have trained their body to develop a clear line through to the floor whereby the force being applied into their body can be transferred down into the ground. They then need to have built the various springs within the tissues through a lengthy process of stretching and relaxing the soft tissues of the body; generally this is accomplished through prolonged practice of static postures. There then needs to be a clear line of force passed into their body from their partner/opponent. This force needs to be clear and direct, as if the person is giving them a prolonged push; it is this force which is then taken into the floor. The final aspect required to issue the Jin is that the target of the Jin has to have enough of an elastic structure within their own body for the release of the internal ‘springs’ to generate the uprooting force. If there is no structure within the targets body then the force is instead transferred into their skeletal structure. Instead of the targets soft tissues ‘bouncing’ them upwards into the air, they generally collapse instead as any weakness in their structure is exploited. It becomes an exit point for the power of the Jin being released into their body. Far from being as visually impressive this result is actually more realistically applied directly into competitive work. The ‘bouncing’ Fa Jin is something of a phenomena which is generated between two practitioners of the internal arts or a similar body art which emphasises whole body connection and the use of soft tissues to shape the body into a single unit.
So What Are the Uses of Fa Jin Training?
Looking at the above description we can see that the impressive uprooting Fa Jin which causes so much controversy has a fairly limited scope of people with which it can effectively be used. For this reason it is important that Taijiquan practitioners do not see Fa Jin as a complete martial tool in its own right, for Taijiquan to be combat effective there must also be the practice of skills such as striking, footwork, grappling and so on. This is an important part of our own school for those interested in self defence. Fa Jin is a separate skill set which is vital to Taijiquan skill development but its application is slightly more abstract outside of pushing hands drills. Below are some of the reason why Fa Jin training is important within Taijiquan practice.
- As stated above, Fa Jin helps to train the elasticated strength of the soft tissues of the body and in particular the fascia. In Taiji they say that we should minimise ‘Li’ or brute muscular force. We should then train ‘Jin’ which is the force which can be developed deeper within the body’s structure. Each time we issue or even receive Fa Jin into our body we are actually stressing and thus strengthening the lines of the body through which Jin travels. In this way we are helping to develop an internal strength which is more elasticated and spring-like than pure muscular power.
- The practice of Fa Jin helps to develop a very high level of physical sensitivity to incoming pressures. At first there needs to be a large degree of power put into your system to initiate the release of Jin but with time the required pressures become less and less. At this time even the slightest push into your body will develop a series of internal changes within the tissues of the body which serve to redirect your force back into the opponent. Without Fa Jin practice your sensitivity to rapidly shifting pressures never really develops beyond a very low level.
- The practice of Fa Jin provides the platform from which the various internal forces of Taijiquan can be trained, these are namely Peng, Lu, Ji and An and their various derivatives. Translated as Wardoff, Rollback, Press and Push, these four powers are not simply ways to move your arms but rather different ways in which Jin can be directed through your connected body system in order to disrupt an opponents structure. Without first learning to issue Fa Jin you cannot ever learn to place upon this Jin the ‘characteristic’ of one of these four qualities.
- Possibly the most important reason for learning how to issue Jin is that it is great fun. It is a way for two practitioners of pushing hands to apply and release pressures into each other’s physical structure without the risk of injury. The level of skill of these practitioners then dictates which person is uprooted away from the other. In gaining skill through this friendly exchange you will find that many of the internal skills of Taijiquan such as effective rooting are improved. If you ever have the chance to push hands with somebody much better than yourself you will have the chance to experience how just about any weakness in your structure results in you being uprooted from the floor and ‘bounced’ away.
The skills developed through this practice are then applied into more unstructured and competitive martial work for those who wish to see how Fa Jin is put into combative training. At this stage the impressive ‘bouncing’ feats you see in videos such as those above are not so common as a competitive opponent will rarely be foolish enough to give you the clean, straight push which is required to touch upon the ‘springs’ within their body. Since the floor is more difficult to touch you will instead find that the skills of the Jin’s you have developed will manifest in more subtle ways as you are able to touch their root more cleanly, manipulate their structure and absorb their force without resisting it in any way. All skills that any martial arts practitioner will instantly recognise the value of.
In conclusion I believe that Fa Jin of this kind has been misunderstood by those who do not practice it and misrepresented by many who do. It is a drill like any other and a single skillset which should form a part of any classical Taijiquan practice regime. Look to any video of masters in China or refer to stories of those who lived prior to the invention of the camera and you will find that they all practice and demonstrate this kind of force. The problem is simply that through the lens of the rather two dimensional modern/western mind Fa Jin is difficult to understand. It is a more circular mental approach which is required in order to understand the value and meaning of Fa Jin training.
Ultimately though, it should be remembered that it is up to each and every one of us what we practice. We never really have the right to become angry at what others do or pass negative comment upon an entire aspect of the internal arts simply because we do not like it. Each person’s practice is their own and as long as they are not ‘selling’ a skill set as something more than it is then they are doing nobody any harm. We should all focus on our own practice and if you don’t like something……simply don’t do it!`
Taijiquan by Paul Mitchell
Taijiquan be it the ‘grand ultimate fist’ or the ‘boxing style that uses the motive force of creation’ is my life’s study. Ok, as a martial artist all martial arts and much more are my study, but for me there are no limits to the principles contained within the forms of Taijiquan. Training to be a person with no limits is for me what the study of martial arts is all about.
I think that before I become immersed in this written piece maybe I should attempt to define my definition of the study of the martial arts. To the uninitiated and also possibly some that consider a purely academic approach to all things internal is even remotely possible, the study of martial arts may seem a competitive brutal basic person’s way. This is simply not the case.
The study of the martial way (as opposed to that of martial sports) is the study of contentious issues. For this reason, many avoid its rigors and for the main part it is populated by the physically tough but unfortunately, emotionally immature. My personal opinion is that again unfortunately in modern times egos rule the day and any notion of philosophy loses out to raging hormones, mainly testosterone. In these times western sports science has filtered into the martial arts, a supposed martial artist is measured by the amount of trophies that he/she has accumulated in their youth. This is unfortunately the nature of sport and arguably the blue print for modern societies design. I cannot see this situation improving any day soon, but I have long not cared what others do and always endeavour to both commit my study to what I consider to be the deeper elements of martial arts and subsequently teach it accordingly.
If studied correctly the external methods, being those that involve muscular engagement for the proliferation of punches, kicks, blocks, chokes, throws, and the like teach the individual many things that are all but impossible to learn in any other way. 35 years in I still remember the clumsy awkward man in his mid-20s that walked into the dojo for the first time. He, or I, was not a particularly sophisticated individual but if I compare myself and my understanding of life with most people at the time and am honest in a non-arrogant or self-effacing manner I was certainly not stupid by comparison. I was certainly clumsy, awkward, and unable to move in a coordinated manner. These are the first lessons to be learned by any aspiring martial artist.
Of course these rather basic skills can be learned in an arguably more complex and aesthetically pleasing manner by learning to dance, but nobody is attacking the wannabe dancer. Learning to keep your head whilst under the pressure of someone attacking you certainly assists in the whole live in the moment focus thing.
Dropping the mind and breath into the belly, again whilst under pressure changes a person. In time these moments of pressure, as pressure does, causes personal growth. Dealing with bare blistered feet on a hard floor and sometimes being thrown onto the same causes the normal discomforts of life to dull by comparison whilst a degree of suffering most definitely brings out a feeling of compassion for those of any species that are truly suffering.
In time this uncomfortable life style choice ceases to be one of discomfort and the time in the dojo feels like peace incarnate.
To summarise I would say that the skills learned whilst studying the external martial arts revolve around physical strength and coordination, self-defence, self-realisation, relationships with others and eventually compassion for yourself and all living entities. How long does this take? For me a long time, but I am a slow learner, so it is most likely an individual thing. Let’s face it, in such things we don’t all start in the same place.
There comes a time in all people’s lives when the things of youth must or should be surrendered gracefully. Please don’t get me wrong and imagine that I am about to write that a person should surrender to the onslaught of time and the ageing process and give up the martial way. Most do I am afraid. This to me is one of the differences between a martial art and a martial sport. As in all sports the player is over the hill by the time they are in their early 30s. In martial arts we do not play. Games are for the amusement of children; instead the study of our art continues until the moment of our demise. Now as I am not yet at that moment, gladly I have to say, I cannot predict that I shall sustain the daily or even minute to minute enthusiasm to continue my path of choice until the precise moment of my death but I intend to give it my best shot. Sports people peak and trough; artists mature with time.
So what is it that a martial artist should, as I and a damn good poem alluded to; surrender gracefully with the cessation of their youthful vigour. For the answer to this question we must look to the example set for us by the sporting fraternity. We must ask ourselves why we don’t see older sprinters, jumpers, javelin throwers or even boxers. The exception seems to be marathon runners. I am definitely no expert on the marathon as it pertains to running, but it seems likely to me that the mind plays a major role in the marathon run, good breath, good posture and clear mind almost the required requisite for the marathon study of the martial arts.
In the youthful world of the competitive sports person the will to win must dominate the very soul of the competitor if they are to finish ahead of the crowd. In the young maybe this attitude is all well and good, some would say necessary, but not I. It is this competitive nature that makes it possible for our young to be dragged by the evil of our leaders into wars that just lead to suffering and despair.
As a martial artist ages and matures this naïve, non-questioning and almost headlong behaviour is obviously not desirable. This is the point where meditation should start to take a major role in a person’s study. In this way the follower of the martial way has evolved by almost shedding the skin of their former testosterone driven self and begun the journey into the next evolutionary version of themselves. On a footnote to this, my last statement I would have to say that having over the years assisted several females of our species through the rocky waters of the external arts they are far wiser by nature than their male counterparts.
Physically as our bodies age we burn off our life energy. We only have to look at the people that live a long life to realise that all but the very few have not overdone anything all be it eating, drinking, sexual activity or even hard physical exercising. In short we wear ourselves out by our behaviour.
It is for this reason that I write that at some stage the studies of a martial artist must again evolve this time from a predominately external and physical one into a predominately internal and mind orientated system. As I attempt to pick my techniques carefully in combat so I also attempt to pick my words when I both talk and write. I used the word predominately when I stated than I felt that a martial artist should evolve from external to internal as they aged. In truth we should never leave a stage of our development behind and to sacrifice the Physical for the energetic completely seems to me to be akin to sacrificing a quality of life for a quantity of the same. Ok it may be best if at about 60 we did just a little light physical exercise whilst meditating and periodically climbing to our feet for some light Qi Gong exercises. Personally I would sooner die a few years earlier but keep a good degree of my accumulated physical strength and persona. As all things in life this issue is about balance for me.
Having made the conscious decision to evolve into the energetic aspects of the martial arts the first problem is to find a teacher that has the required knowledge and the ability to pass said knowledge onto you. It is often stated that one of the hardest things to find in the martial world is a good teacher, it is then also often said that it is even harder to find a good student. It is little more than a miracle that certainly the internal martial arts have survived at all. But as is the way of men survived they have, albeit in small pockets.
It is unfortunately my experience that many if not most teachers of Taiji either fall into the category of believing that all is physical and those that say otherwise are all using smoke and mirrors, or simply people teaching slow rhythmic movements in time with breathing for health reasons.
The first category often appeals to what I rather disparagingly refer to as the meathead fraternity in the martial art community. They simply play to the crowd and often do very nicely for themselves due to the fact that they have a large potential clientele. Unfortunately, these teachers can be quite defensive due to the fact that there are plenty of examples of internal force being demonstrated on social media and this has the potential to threaten their livelihood due to their lack of ability in such matters.
I personally do not mind the second category because they fill a need. Ok what they teach lacks a certain depth but I have come to realise that authentic Taijiquan is not for everyone, but if people can at least reap some of its benefits through this simplified method all is good.
To the completely uninitiated amongst us in terms of the concept of the internal arts all this can be a little confusing, but we were all at this stage at some point, albeit in this life or a previous one.
If I was to say that technically in an external system a martial artist uses muscle, bone, gravity, and leverage against an attacker or opponent whereas an internal exponent uses fascia lines, soft tissues, vital or internal energy, and mental intent I would not be doing the subject justice but I would be pointing you in the right direction.
I know all this sounds most combative and almost a word I really like; pugilistic, but in truth by the time a martial artist has reached the stage in his/her evolutionary journey that this transition is the natural and correct course of action the conflicts within them are all but resolved. They have made friends with their own worst enemy: Themselves. In short they have found that place of peace within themselves.
On a personal level all martial arts are about self-defence. I say on a personal level because ultimately they are really about the bigger picture and within that it is fairly obvious that personal wellbeing or indeed survival are not of paramount importance. Self-defence is a large concept. It is often assumed by non-martial artists than people of my persuasion are a paranoid bunch with the idea that there is a potential attacker around every corner. Whilst this is not true in the sense of there necessarily being a masked attacker waiting to pounce with a weapon in hand, who can deny that our futures are uncertain and a heightened state of awareness is a wise precaution against calamities whatever form they may take?
Our most likely attackers that will eventually kill the vast majority of us are sickness and disease or eventually just the running out of time. There is no escaping these most persistent adversaries but we can most certainly draw the battle lines and take them on in our own territory. In this way the health aspects of the study of Taijiquan are just a further development of the martial aspect and as such still come under the umbrella term of martial arts.
So now to the uninitiated reader it may well seem that I am fighting shy of the obviously awkward task of laying before them how an internal martial art works if not by muscular contraction, leverage, or even gravity. Shy I am not.
The first hurdle that a newbie to the internal studies must overcome, having been fortunate enough to find a teacher with the right qualities in order to guide them through the somewhat confusing process of the inward journey, is that of their own mind. Certainly for people that have spent long and arduous years in the study of the external martial arts there is a tendency to be suspicious of anything that cannot be seen, touched, or otherwise proved to be factual by one of our physical senses.
Obviously a degree of scepticism in all matters esoteric is a healthy and necessary thing. A good teacher in the internal arts should have the ability to demonstrate in various ways that they have some abilities that could be attributed to a personal control over their internal aspects, but in truth most at the beginning could be attributed to smoke and mirrors. It is for this reason that the new student needs to open their mind and give their practice their all for a reasonable period of time. Having spent a few months of training with periods of daily personal practice the new trainee will discover energetic realms within themselves that will cause any doubts that they may have encountered in their initial studies to dissolve. At this stage the mind of the student begins to open and the possibilities for them to achieve their true potential comes to the fore.
It is understandably common for people that begin a study of Taijiquan to assume that the movements or form that has become a fairly common commodity for advertisers to use in order to sell their wares from music videos to pain killers is Taiji. This is not the case. In Daoist theory Taiji is the spiralling energy that is the basis for all existence. The word ‘Quan (拳)’ means fist or can be taken to mean martial art. Taiji as such is often referred to as; the motive force of creation. For these reasons the term Taijiquan is maybe best translated as; the martial art or, the boxing style that uses the motive force of creation.
From this the reader can no doubt deduce that the Taiji form is merely the vehicle by which the practitioner is firstly manipulated by this motive force and in time learns to turn the tables and manipulate it instead.
It is necessary for an individual that wishes to embrace all aspects of Taijiquan to begin the study of Nei Gong. I would assume that most readers of this piece are aware of what this entails. Therefore, it is probably not necessary for me to explain my previous assertion beyond saying that a high degree of internal awareness and eventually control are an imperative requisite for a deep study of Taijiquan.
In many physical activities from sports to dancing there is a new buzz term, being that of, fascia lines. These so called fascia lines have come to be understood to have the potential by sports technologists to increase the strength and connected movement of an athlete without the massive burn off of energy created by the use of oxygen in the contraction of the human muscular system. I think it is true to say that this information was first gleamed within the Taiji community.
Taijiquan makes particular use of these fascia lines. They are often referred to as the Jing Jin (經筋) lines or connective tissues. The western medical profession is also just beginning to realise the significance of the, as they term it ‘bio fascia system’. Previously doctors simply thought that it was a bag like organ that laid beneath the skin. I don’t really know what, if any function they believed it to fulfil, possibly a protective layer.
This bio fascia or connective tissue system as I understand it is in terms of placement in the human body rather like the pith of an orange and not only lies beneath the peal or in the case of the human body the skin but also runs through to the very core.
In the practice of Taijiquan the connective tissues play many major roles. Firstly, because when the human muscles are engaged they contract this has a limited if any usage for the movements or postures of Taijiquan. Unlike the gross muscular system, the fascia system when engaged expands. This expansion gives the human form a tensile strength far beyond the potential of the muscular system. It is a misnomer that whilst a person is performing the Taiji form they are relaxed in a for want of a better word, floppy or disconnected way. Taijiquan form is often referred to as steel wrapped in cotton, or sometimes silk. The gross or large muscle groups hang from the skeletal structure as the connective tissues are engaged and therefore expanded giving the practitioner the potential power of tensile steel.
The second role of these connective tissue lines revolve around the fact that they are known to carry energy rather like fibre octaves and are often referred to as the river bed of the meridians. It was inevitable that at some point in my present ramble I was going to get to the stage whereby I had to bring our meridian system into the mix. This next section may sound a little out there if you have little or no real knowledge of the internal arts. In the practice of Taijiquan or should I say the Taijiquan that I practice because as in all things I cannot speak or indeed write for anyone else we use a particular hand position often referred to as ‘fair maidens hand’. This hand position is concave in nature with the joints open, giving it a once again connected feeling that runs throughout our whole body. As its name suggests this hand position has a distinctly gentle feel to it. It may surprize you when I state that this is our martial hand.
Before I continue with my assertions about the role of the meridians and also our almost feminine grip whilst performing our Taiji form and indeed any partner work that we may engage in it is necessary for me to expand a little (no pun intended) on the nature of our connective tissues.
These connective tissues also include our ligaments and our soft tissues. Those of you that have engaged in the practices of standing in both ’Wuji’ and ‘Zhan Zhuang (站樁)’ will I am sure be acquainted with the idea of dissolving the soft tissues down to the arches of the feet. Some, if not most of you will no doubt be aware that at some stage of the proceedings we are waiting to experience through ‘ting’ an equal and opposite return wave of what is generally referred to as Peng.
This ‘Peng wave’ that rises from the earth up through our ‘bubbling spring’ point on the sole of our feet is the mechanism that we use to both engage and transmit throughout our connective tissues.
At this point I shall return to our ’fair maidens hands’. The Taiji classics state that amongst other things: The internal energy is rooted beneath our feet, comes forth through our legs, is controlled by our centre and functions through our fingers. From feet to legs, legs to the waist, all should operate as one unit. By acting as a unit, it is possible to expand or contract with precise timing to suit the situation.
So, from our feet to our centre. Obviously our energetic centre lies in our lower Dan Tien. In other words, the energetic pulse that has travelled from the earth up through the meridians in our legs gathers in the lower Dan Tien. From there it travels with a little help from our ‘Yi’ or deep intention mind to, as the classics say, our fingers.
At this point in the proceedings a practitioner feels as if his/her finger tips are electrodes. The soft light grip of the hands as they make contact with another’s body touches into the depth of their fascia or connective tissues. At this moment due to the fact that the connective tissues are as I stated previously the riverbed of the meridians there is a merging of both meridian systems and we have almost hacked into the energy system of the other party.
A common question from beginners when demonstrating this by affecting the receivers form or root is understandably along the lines of; can you affect anybody in this way?
I think that in order to answer this question we must consider what the demonstration of the external expression of internal force is about in terms of the development of the Taiji exponent. Firstly, it is not in my opinion a replacement for physical methods of self-defence. In other words, if a person that has learned to defend themselves physically is attacked by a marauding axe wielding maniac they should just as the moment is most definitely fixing them in the physical realm deal with the situation physically. The run like hell principal should be applied if at all possible. If escape is not feasible, secondly pick up a bigger weapon, like maybe a chair, or if both these options are unavailable for any reason use simple direct action in order to survive. It is definitely true that one should not attempt to use any form of internal skill against life threatening attack.
So having ascertained when not to use internal skills let’s try to put them into perspective. I mentioned earlier that a person that feels they may have the will and determination to go along with their wish to attain the deeper skill sets that are the possible to attain through a dedicated study of Taijiquan, should be also studying Nei Gong. A person that studies Nei Gong goes through a process, referred to as the neigong process. Within this process they develop internal awareness of their Dan Tien and meridian system, and eventually control of these elements of themselves. Again I would imagine that most people that are reading this or have had their interest held to this point are aware of the complexities of the nNei Gong process. For uninitiated I will simply state that fairly near to the beginning of this process a new trainee has their lower Dan Tien awoken from its semi dormant state that is the norm for a mature human being. When this occurs the recipient becomes energised and it is at this point that their meridian system begins to be open enough for the free flow of their internal energy and subsequent inflow off another person’s. Suddenly this does not sound so pugilistic I think.
There are elements of Taijiquan principals that are connected with the connective tissues that can be used for martial arts against a for want of a better word an unsophisticated attacker but these methods are almost too easy to apply to put them down in words for general consumption. One of the often asked questions in martial art circles revolve around whether there are indeed ‘secrets’ or secret techniques or principles. Many teachers of martial arts both external and internal would likely answer in the negative. Personally I would not agree with them.
Some of what I have attempted to explain in this article would by some be viewed as things that should be kept secret. Again it is my personal opinion that although what I have written is easy enough to understand to a person with a degree of the ground work having been achieved the theory is one thing the practice most certainly another. In other words, there are no short cuts and understanding must be the beginning of intense practice if anything of value is to be achieved.
The skills that must be kept secret are the simple ones that are relatively easy to gain proficiency in. If a student achieves skills that are perceived by them and more relevantly in their early development other people their ego can become inflated and further development is all but impossible for them to make. There is an old Chinese saying that I quite like that states: When the ego goes the chi comes. On a physical level this simple statement implies that it is not until a person can go ‘sung’ or relax their tissues completely whilst using the achieved ‘Peng’ wave to expand their structure having previously been successful in their endeavours to reach a fairly high level of Nei Gong practice that the ability to transmit to another person is possible.
The role that is played by the ego in this process is that it is not possible to dissolve all residual tension from out of the human body whilst still being controlled by low level consciousness; such as, greed, envy, resentment or even harbouring a competitive nature. Therefore; when the ego goes the chi comes.
There is most certainly a benefit to be gained by practitioners of Nei Gong by the inclusion of partner work in their practices. Whilst standing in ‘Wuji’ or ‘Zhan Zhuang’ a practitioner will routinely dissolve their soft tissues down to the arches of their feet. In this manner the individual is said to be ‘rooting’.
Rooting is a basic skill of a practitioner of Taijiquan. Whilst rooting a person should be able to take physical pressure (a push) against their body. It is my experience that the majority of people that ‘root’ cannot achieve this without having been tested in this manner. In effect they are actually not achieving ‘root’ and their practice is therefore fruitless in this particular element. However, it is also my experience that this skill is in most cases relatively easily achieved through the manner I have just outlined.
It is often stated that Taijiquan as a martial system specialises in yielding. I do not personally like this statement as it can be misleading. Yielding as a word implies to me that a person moves backwards away from their partner as pressure is applied. This is not so and if we were to substitute the word ‘absorb’ for that of ‘yield’ we would I think be getting closer to the truth.
Having had pressure from their training partner’s push applied to their body the skilled Taiji practitioner uses this pressure to add to the mass that they sink to their foot arches. As there is always an equal and opposite reaction this added mass increases the returned Peng wave and consequently the emission of internal force is magnified proportionally. Simple eh? As always understanding is one thing achievement another.
I think it is relatively obvious from what I have written in this piece about the evolution that is achievable from moving from the external martial arts to the internal methods that the acquisition of internal force is not primarily about physical self defence against a human being or indeed multiples of the same. Having said that there are many advantages to be gained through the internal studies that readily cross back over to the external martial arts. Just as we are holistic beings so too are our artistic abilities.
Unlike physical skills internal ones’ increase with time and the ageing process. We can from this maybe gleam a little about the mind-set of those that formulated the internal arts such as Taijiquan so very long ago. All the skills learned by the study of the external martial arts are encapsulated in the internal methods, but I would say in a far more cranial way. It is also true that whilst engaged in external combat there is obviously a very real presence of danger in the shape of possible physical damage to both parties. It seems likely to me that the internal methods of combat fitted well into the mind-set of older very skilled martial artists that they could continue with their life’s studies and endeavours without inflicting or having inflicted upon them physical damage as their bodies aged and lost some degree of their recuperative ability.
There are so many other elements and advantages to the sincere study of Taijiquan but this piece is already twice as long as I intended. As always good training my friends.
Key Terms of Taijiquan
In order to understand the deeper meaning of any of the internal arts it is important that we begin to try and understand the key terminology which underpins the art. In the case of Taijiquan and, in particular, Tui Shou (Pushing Hands) we need to understand the terms Ting, Dong, Hua, Na, and Fa. These terms can be translated as follows:
- Ting (Listening)
- Dong (Undertanding/Knowing)
- Hua (Transforming/Neutralising)
- Na (Controlling)
- Fa (Releasing/Issuing)
Understanding the meaning of these terms enables us to understand the importance of the practice of Tui Shou within Taijiquan. If these principles are lost then Tui Shou becomes little more than wrestling, bad wrestling at that.
Our first term is Ting which is generally translated as meaning ‘listening’. In the case of Taijiquan this does not literally mean listening with your ears but rather to ‘listen’ through your skin in much the same way that a cat may ‘listen’ to its close surroundings through its whiskers. Ting is generally accomplished through light contact of the skin; in the practice of Tui Shou this is generally done by feeling through the palms of your hands but in time this feeling can be translated through to the forearms and then the rest of your body. Ting is the study of increasingly working on being able to ‘listen’ to the movements and structure of your opponents body. In the early stages you should learn how to feel where the opponents push is coming from so that it can then be neutralised in some way. At more advanced stages you should gradually be able to feel not where the push is coming from but rather where the impetus for that push is coming from. This can either be an initial reverse push against the floor which is required by the ‘pusher’ or even the sense of an initial thought which generated the origin of the push. The study of Ting is long and absorbing.
Only when your Ting ability is high then Dong (Understanding) can be achieved. Dong is the ability to feel through your opponents body right through to his core and then into the initial thoughts which generate every of his actions. This level of understanding goes beyond the simple level of feeling your opponents body through their skin; deeper down into understanding the core of your opponents being. This level of understanding can then be carried through into every aspect of your life.
Hua or ‘neutralising’ is the ability to take your opponents force and change it into something powerless. In the early stages of training in Tui Shou you will learn how to turn your waist and rotate your body so that the push is directed away from your core. This is the absolute beginning of the process of learning Hua as it is based on large mechanical movements. Going deeper, you are able to neutralise with little or no movement and then deeper still and your neutralisation can take place before the opponents push has even started. Hua should be taking place as soon as you make contact with your opponent. If you ever have the chance to practice Tui Shou with a real master you will find that as soon as you make contact with them you can hardly move at all. Every single movement you try to make is neutralised before it begins to manifest and you are basically rooted to the ground. You cannot move your arms or even move away from the master as they are using Hua to foil everything that you do. Experiencing this is the only way to ever really understand Hua. Hua relies on being able to effectively practice both Ting and Dong first.
Na is the skill of controlling your opponent in Tui Shou. A mistake is often made here as people are used to the term Na appearing with the term Qin which means to seize hold of something. This is the act of grabbing hold of somebody and locking their joints. In Taijiquan Na is rarely mentioned in conjunction with Qin meaning that your control should be applied without first grabbing hold of your enemy. Na (Control) should be applied through light contact of the palms alone with no closing of your fingers to grab hold of your opponent. Na means to be able to find the opponents centre and direct your intention through to this point. Once you have achieved Na on an opponent you basically have control of whatever they do. Any move can be ended before it starts and their structure can be destroyed or uprooted with little effort whatsoever. When a master has hold of you through Na you become like a powerless rag doll which is being tossed around with no effort at all.
Fa means to release or to let go of something. It is generally combined with the term Jin which can be translated as an expression of force. Fa Jin can then be translated into different types which various schools will translate in different ways. For me there are basically two broad categories of Fa Jin which are Fa Li and Fa Qi. Fa Li is when the internal force is issued through the medium of the muscles resulting in the kind of Jin you commonly see projected into the air as in the video below:
This kind of Fa Jin is useful for striking and for learning how to express your force into ballistic strikes but it is not really the kind of Jin which is usually training through Taijiquan Tui Shou. The Fa Jin in Tui Shou should really be what I term Fa Qi. This is the expression of force through your own structure into the opponents centre once you have used Ting and Dong to achieve Na. When this Jin is issued it uproots the opponent, something which Taijiquan specialises in. The second half of the video below shows Fa Qi being used in pushing hands.
In this video it is the directed force of Jin being directed through his centre which causes him to be uprooted.
These are all complex skills which go beyond mere wrestling. Don’t get me wrong though, I enjoy wrestling and think that it is an essential part of any martial arts study but it is not Tui Shou. They are two very different practices. Tui Shou is the study of the key terms above and an effective way to develop a very specific skill set which is then applied to the rest of your Taijiquan practice.
I have been studying Taijiquan in one way or another since I was 14 years old and this was after already studying external martial arts for around 10 years. I have had quite a number of years training in Tui Shou and can safely say that I only just beginning to scrape beneath the surface of what is both the most complex aspect of Taijiquan and also the heart of the entire system.