Breathing Part 2Li Style Tai Chi Sequence Names
The use of mental imagery or mind theatre in training for sports is really nothing new and it is a practice that appears to lend itself especially to those involved in the martial arts.
Peter Ralston, a practitioner of the internal martial arts and author of ?The Art of Effortless Power? describes how his execution of throws and techniques became effortless after he began to practice the moves in his mind before training. Indeed a search on the web regarding the use of visualisation in training for sports will find the enquirer inundated with results.
Although not new, the first scientific research into this practice that is oft quoted involved the use of basketball free throws.
A number of students were divided into three groups who all had the same objective. Namely, to throw a basketball through a hoop from a set point.
The first group actually practiced throwing the ball through the hoop for a set period of twenty minutes for twenty days. They were scored on the first and last days.
The second group were also scored on the first and last days but engaged in no practice of any sort.
The third group were scored on the first and last days and their practice was to imagine that they were throwing the ball through the hoop and if they missed then they corrected their aim and carried on.
At the end of the test the first group (who actually practiced by throwing the ball) were found to have improved their score by 24%.
The second group (they who did nothing) showed no improvement whatever.
The third group (who practiced using visualisation) had improved their score by 23%.
The results, which were published in the American Research Quarterly, speak for themselves but I cannot help but wonder what the result would have been had there been a forth group who used both visualisation and ball practice. My own belief is that their results would have shown far greater improvement.
Going back to the martial arts the use, or suspicion of the use, of visualisation can be found in both fact and fiction.
Chan in his novel ?Secrets of the Tai Chi Circle? describes how a young
man is introduced to the Chen family in seventeenth century China.
Meeting the various family members who practice the Chen style he comes
at last to the very oldest and most decrepit grandpa. He is solemnly
informed that although no longer able to train physically the old man
still practices the style in his mind and is able to thereby circular
the energy through his meridians and prolong his life.
Still in the world of fiction Deng Ming-Dao in his Chronicles of the Tao mentions a secret manual of the Internal arts entitled ?Seven bamboo tablets of the cloudy satchel.? This book, considered apocryphal (though I have seen sections quoted in other martial arts texts) is said to deal in parts with the use of visualisation.
The historical use of visualisation can often be inferred even when it is not admitted.
Going back to the Chen family we have the tale of how Yang Lu Chan, the founder of Yang Style Tai Chi, obtained employment as a servant with the Chens. He then spied on them in their training and was able to learn their art to such a degree that he was finally accepted as a pupil. Now if this story is true we must ask ourselves how Yang was able, on his own and in secret, to reach such a standard that he was accepted as a pupil. One answer must be that he used mental imagery to train himself.
Two other historical martial arts figures, this time in Japan, also come to mind; who are said to have reached mastery via solitary training.
The first of these is Miyamoto Musashi the famous swordsman. It seems likely that as a child he had training in swordsmanship from his Father and Uncle, indeed it is claimed that he killed his first man at the age of thirteen. As a teenager he was involved with the losing side in civil war. After this he disappears from view only to re appear at the Yoshioka ryu school of swordsmanship where he challenges and cripples or kills their finest instructors. In the excellent book ?Musashi? Eiji Yoshikawa depicts Musashi as presenting himself at the school dressed in filthy rags and grimed with dirt having been training alone in the mountains.
Our second mountain man was Mas Oyama a Korean immigrant to Japan who, after training in Karate, headed for the hills. Mas Oyama spent many months training in seclusion, perfecting his art and enduring many hardships. He shaved off one eyebrow in order to resist temptation to return to society. As you can imagine on his return his abilities have miraculously improved.
Now tales grow with the telling and there are numerous stories of martial artists living the life of hermits and perfecting their arts in solitude. Often the story takes on a supernatural twist where they are instructed by the Kami (nature spirits). Whilst it is nice to think of our hero?s having been trained by the fairies I suspect that there may be a more rational explanation for the improvement in their abilities. Namely their use of visualisation where they have an imaginary opponent on whom to practice their techniques.
obvious question we must ask ourselves is ?do we believe it possible to
improve our abilities by solitary training?? No one would doubt that on
our own we can improve our strength, endurance, flexibility and speed;
but can we improve our techniques against a flesh and blood opponent by
the use of mental imagery?
Can we change the way we use and move our body?
own answer is an obvious yes ? we can improve our performance, as
proved by the ball through the hoop experiment. But the use of
imagination obviously has its limitations. As an example I could lie on
my bed and imagine myself sprinting to the top of a mountain for hours
on end. However put me at the foot of the mountain and start me running
and I doubt that my stamina will have improved one iota.
So we can assume that the use of mental imagery lends itself to certain areas of our practice. The most obvious being the way we move (take for example the thumb to little finger movement which causes us so much trouble to master) or the execution of techniques, involving the use of an imagined opponent.
In the second part of this article I will attempt to give some examples of how we may make us of mental imagery in our practice as well as showing some of the difficulties involved.
As a final note let me say that the use of visualisation is in no way an easy option for training in or improving our art. Those who put these ideas into practice may find them as frustrating and exhausting as any physical efforts they may make.
In my first article I (part1) introduced the concept of using mental imagery or mind theatre as a means of assisting our training in the martial arts.
In this article I would like to give you some food for thought as to how we might use visualisation and to do so I will return to the previously cited example of persons taking basketball free throws. As you may remember this is a simple case of imagining yourself throwing a basketball through a hoop from a set position.
The idea seems simple enough and in part one I explained that the persons who simply imagined throwing the ball through the hoop, and did nothing else by way of practice, did as well in the test as those who actually practiced throwing the ball through the hoop. So far so good.
Now let us take the matter a step further and consider exactly how they went about imagining the act of throwing the ball through the hoop.
Let me suggest to you that they may have imagined the act in two possible ways ? either with themselves ?associated? with the act or ?disassociated? from it. Let me attempt to explain.
Visualisation done from an associated perspective is like entering a ?virtual reality? you are inside your own body and looking through your own eyes. In the case of the basketball free throws you are standing on the spot, you are holding the ball and looking at the hoop, you are throwing the ball through the hoop. Depending on our ability in the use of visualisation you may be able to feel the ball in your hands, smell that smell which is peculiar to sports halls and hear the roar of the crowd. As you launch the ball at the hoop you will follow it with your own eyes as it heads towards its target. In other words you are ?associated? with the action. It is you, inside your own body doing it.
So, in associated visualisation you are the actor in your own play. You are there performing the action.
In disassociated visualisation you are watching yourself from the point of view of an observer. From a dissociated perspective, mental rehearsal allows a person to be more like the audience, editor or director of the play or movie.
In terms of images, being associated means seeing an experience as if
it were actually happening, through one's own eyes as a participant,
whereas being dissociated means watching oneself go through the
experience -- somewhat like watching a movie of it.
Let us now return to our basketball. We wish to improve our ability for throwing it through a hoop and hope that visualisation may help. Do we imagine performing the action in an associated or a disassociated way? Well it depends.
Let us suppose that you are absolutely hopeless with a basketball. You couldn?t hit a barn door at five paces let alone throw the ball through a hoop.
In this case the use of associated visualisation would be most likely to bring about improvement. Imagine yourself there, feeling the relaxation in your body as you hold the ball in your hands, looking at the hoop and following the ball with your eyes as you throw it and watch as it falls through the hoop. Scientific research has proved that such a use of visualisation will indeed improve our ability and a whole new science of sports psychology has grown up around such practices.
But now let us look at the matter from a different perspective. Let us suppose that you are an old hand at basketball and have spent long solitary hours practicing throwing the ball through the hoop. So good have you become that you score with nine out of ten throws. Unfortunately you can only do so when on your own. As soon as any spectators are present you immediately become self conscious and go to pieces; now you can only score with four out of ten throws.
This is where disassociated visualisation is advantageous. By becoming a spectator and watching yourself performing the action it is possible to remove the emotional charge from it. By imagining yourself sat in a crowd and observing as you successfully perform the throws you distance yourself from your feelings of self consciousness and over time will improve your ability to perform in front of crowds to the standard of your private practice.
In other words if one visualizes in a disassociated manner ``from the outside'' one will be more emotionally objective, or at least one's emotions will be *about* the experience rather than the emotions had by oneself as a participant. This allows us to gradually drop the emotions which are causing the problems.
In this article I have deliberately avoided using martial arts as an example in the use of visual imagery. It would not however take much ?imagination? to see how it may be of use in our practice and I hope that you may give it some thought and perhaps have a play with it. You may well be pleasantly surprised at the results.
It is possible to live without food for weeks and to live without water for days; but if you are deprived of oxygen for only a few minutes, it leads to unconsciousness and brain damage. It may sound dramatic but, since we breathe all the time, the importance of breathing is often overlooked and ignored.
When attention is paid to it, it is usually when there is a problem due to illness, over indulgence or some other factor. This is a pity as good breathing cannot only assist bodily health, but also aid in emotional and mental well-being.
How you may ask? Well how is your breathing now? Take a moment and assess how it feels. What terms would you use to describe the quality of your breathing? Is short-long, quiet-noisy, smooth-rough, easy-restricted, hard work or effortless? Now you have assessed your breathing, is it better or worse than normal, or just average for you? Whichever, would you like to improve it, both objectively and subjectively? Breathing tends to be either predominately in the chest or the abdomen.
Which does yours currently qualify as? Has it changed since you started paying more attention to it?
The organs that absorb oxygen from the air are your lungs, which reside in the upper chest behind yourribcage. They are cone shaped organs, smaller at the top and larger at the bottom. You have two lungs, the right lung, which has three lobes, and the left lung, which has two. Although the left lobes are larger than those of the right, overall the lung capacity is smaller as your heart is also just left of centre, protected behind your ribcage. Below your heart and lungs, there is a large muscle called the diaphragm, which stretches across the torso from front to back and side to side, separating the heart and lungs from the stomach and digestive tract. If you get hit in the solar plexus, it interferes with the movement of this muscle making it harder to breathe.
The process of breathing is not about sucking air in and out, although it seems like it. It is about increasing and decreasing the volume of the lungs, and the air pressure difference is what moves the air in and out. If you close your mouth and hold your nose you can see and feel this for your self by expanding or contracting the volume of your chest. This merely compresses or expands the air, only when you open an airway (nose, mouth or both), does the air rush out or in without any further muscular effort. So, while the muscular effort has an effect on how much and how quickly the air moves, it does not directly move the air.
The lungs are cone shaped, and larger at the bottom than the top. Breathing with the abdomen/diaphragm will open predominantly the larger lower lobes while breathing with the upper chest will open only the smaller upper ones. Since both types of breathing require similar amounts of effort, abdominal breathing is the more efficient; the change in volume is greater for the same effort put in. So it is objectively more efficient for air exchange to use abdominal breathing.
The amount or air exchanged is usually between 40- 65%. The more air exchanged, the more carbon dioxide removed and the more fresh oxygen brought in, to be absorbed into the blood. However you will never exchange all the air in the lungs or they would then collapse and need to be re-inflated by qualified medical personnel. If you got to 65% you would be doing well and it would be quite sufficient.
When you breathe abdominally, the whole body expands around the waist. The belly protrudes slightly, and the floating ribs open the side and back. Try this now while sitting or standing in a good posture. The movement to the front is easy to observe. If you can’t feel anything to the back; try bending over forward to restrict movement there, while you feel for the expansion in the back. So you are now aware of breathing abdominally which is objectively more efficient.
To explore subjective experience of breathing, try this exercise. As before, just check out your breathing but now pay attention to how you feel as well as the physical sensations. Next, purposely breathe using only your upper body (chest breathing) and notice how you feel. What has changed? Does it feel better, worse, or just different? Finally, breathe using primarily your abdomen. Focus on relaxing, and gently encouraging the breath to be longer and smoother. How does it feel now? Does it feel better, worse, or just different? If paying attention like this is new to you, relax. As long as you can feel some difference you are going in the right direction and the rest is just practice. If you can’t, practise until you can.
Breathing is about the only physiological process that is both under autonomic control (your body does it without any conscious effort), and subject to a large degree to conscious control. For example you can hold your breath to be very quiet and still, or when swimming under water. In both cases, you are altering your normal breathing pattern cue to respond to factors beyond your physiological need for oxygen.
Hopefully from your investigation of normal, chest and abdominal breathing you have noticed that subjectively you feel a difference between chest and abdominal breathing. If you breathe longer and smoother, it tends to calm the heart and mind. You are now intentionally changing your emotional state by altering you breathing. If you are feeling stressed or overexcited, taking slower and longer abdominal breaths will help calm, relax and centre yourself, providing a mental and emotional pause for you to make an active choice rather than just reacting blindly. This is one reason why so many forms of meditation from all over the world use the breath as a starting tool.
Finally we come to Chi (Qi, Ki, Prana), one of the meanings of Chi is literally breath. Without good breathing, you can’t have good Chi; while not exactly the same thing, they are very close together and good breathing will help you develop more and better Chi. Hence many exercises to develop your energy: of Chi Kong (Qigong), Dao Yin, Pranayama are breathing exercises.
So from time to time just spend a moment being aware of your breathing and give it a gentle nudge to improve it for your own sake.
In the first part (Breathing Part 1) we
investigated breathing while stationary and examined the physical
aspects with a series of exercises designed to increase your awareness
of the gross and subtle sensations of breathing. We also ended by
touching on how breathing can affect your mental and emotional state. In
this article we will be looking at how breathing is affected by moving
your limbs or whole body.
There are three main areas in Li style where breathingis touched upon, Tao Yin (breathing) exercises, K’ai Men (literally: ‘Open Door’) exercises, and in the Form. First let us look at how movement affects the breathing. We will do these exercises in Bear Stance. First just stand in Bear and breathe normally to set your ‘neutral’ breath as a base line. Three or four times will probably be sufficient, but take as long as you need to get a sense or where your breathing is to begin with. Once you have established this we will go onto the other exercises. Remember you are looking to notice similarities as well as differences between these exercises.
Standing in Bear, breathe in as you raise your arms sideways till they are horizontal, parallel with the floor. Breathe out as you lower them. Keep the breathing natural and easy. Do this three or four times. Nowbreathe in as you raise your arms forwards to the horizontal, and then breathe out as you lower them to your sides. Notice any differences you can, how much detail you notice will vary from person to person.
Noticing a recognizable difference even if you can’t pin it down to specifics is quite sufficient. Details come with practice, repetition and deeper relaxation. Now repeat these exercises with the breathing pattern reversed i.e. breathe in as you lower your arms and breathe out as you raise them. Again notice similarities and differences. Does the movement of the arms make the breathing easier, harder or have no noticeable effect?
you have completed these exercises, vary them so that as you breathe
in, raise one arm forward and one sideways at the same time. Repeat on
the other side and repeat on both sides in the other combination –
breathing out when raising arms and in while lowering. If this has
whetted your appetite you might even try raising one arm whilst lowering
Finally repeat all these exercises, but this time raise your arms not just to the horizontal but on up to the vertical, both sideways, forwards etc.
Now that you have increased your awareness of breathing and movement, and how different positions can help or hinder the breathing process, we will examine the different ways we use this to our advantage in the Li family system. Remembering all the time that although the focus and emphasis may differ, the underlying principles of posture and movement remain. Tao Yin exercises are aimed at increasing your energy and improving your health through effects created by the breathing on (usually) the torso and organs. The movement of the limbs and body are to aid and reinforce the effect of the breath, which is the primary tool. If the posture is not correct, the movements of the body will not reinforce the breath and much of the value of the exercise will be lost. The movement should be timed to the breath: if the breath is short the movement will be quick, if long, the movement will be slow, but a balance between movement and breath must be maintained to avoid straining.
take a single example, in the Tao Yin exercise ‘Happy Days’, from Eagle
as you breathe in, you draw up thorough your centre and raise up on
your toes; at the same time you cross your arms across your body as they
raise up to the vertical. If they cross too far your body and breath
lock up, and if not far enough it has little to no effect. In practice
you will find that when the hands are at about the other side of the
body is optimal. Exactly where will vary from person to person. At about
this distance, you will restrict the upper and middle chest so the
breath has to start in the abdomen. Also check to see you don’t lean
back as this restricts the floating ribs. As the arms rise, the emphasis
shifts to the middle chest, and finally to the upper chest as the arms
end up above your head. As you breathe out the abdomen, then middle and
upper chest deflate. Analysing the process in relation to this
particular exercise, its purpose is to open the lungs and improve the
Deep breathing will do both these things but the movement of the arms amplifies the opening of the lungs and rising onto the toes, further increases the circulation of the blood.
In K’ai Men exercises the emphasis is different. Herethe aim is to improve structural alignment and increase flexibility through opening the body to release excess physical tension and energetic blockages. Regular practice will increase the circulation of blood and energy flow in your whole body. By contrast with the Tao Yin the primary tool is the body and the breath has the supporting role, although again a balance between the two must be maintained to avoid straining. The inhalation is used to assist opening and extension of the body and the exhalation, to assist the release of tension and blockages. Thus it is necessary for the breath to be co-ordinated with the movement in the sequence. Once the body is accustomed to the opening created by the sequence one progresses to practise of the extension. Although this is practised with natural breathing the movement of the body will naturally produce a similar breathing pattern, however the requirement to co-ordinate the breathing is relaxed, natural breathing allowing time for greater extension without struggling for oxygen!
The two types of exercise complement each other like the two parts of the T’ai Chi symbol. One uses properly aligned movement to enhance the breath, the other breath to enhance the flexibility and alignment. Both thereby improve health.
Lastly we come to the breathing in the Form. The first important question is when to practise breathing with the Form. When you first begin to learn the Form you are so busy focusing on what limb goes where, which way to turn, what foot to step with and maintaining your posture, that you don’t have any spare attention to focus on the breathing. Once you know the physical form, can maintain structural alignment and relax while you are doing it, and can keep your mind present in your body you are ready to turn your attention to the breathing. Without this level of proficiency as a foundation, you are likely just to create further confusion and stress. The first things to look for are; how difficult or easy the breath is. Do you ever hold it? Even if it is only for a moment, on a transition that you find difficult, you need to be aware of what you body is currently doing before we progress further. For example do you find your body co-ordinating with the breath in any movements? Some in particular? Or none at all? What do you feel your breath wants to do? Generally, you breathe in as you go upward, out as you lower, in as you expand, out as you contract, in as you absorb and out as you express, in on the odd numbers and out on the even numbers. I say generally because ultimately every movement of the Form is unique and defines its own unique breath so that these generalisations do not always hold true.
Adding an awareness of breathing should not cause strain so begin by performing the Form to the natural pace of your breath to avoid excess tension. Breathing within the Form needs to be both easy and relaxed, as in the Tao Yin, and synchronised with the movement, as in the K’ai Men, to open the body and allow the energy to move freely. So the two approaches to breathing can be explored until they can be combined in a balanced way. Sometimes you will focus on keeping the breath smooth and easy and use your breath for the speed of the movements; at other times you will slow the movement and try to elongate the breath, using the body movement as your main speed regulator. Thirdly you try to maintain an optimum balance between the two, combining the two halves of the T’ai Chi symbol. Hopefully now you will see why the breathing is not taught with the form or even mentioned much till later on in one’s practice.
As long as you maintain good posture, the breathing is easy, loose, relaxed and you are aware of how it feels you will be on the right track. If it feels wrong, listen to your body carefully, and either with or without help, you will find the correct way forwards.
I recently came across an article concerning the four steps, stages or levels one goes through in perfecting any new skill, especially a physical skill. This seemed particularly appropriate to our efforts in learning the Internal Arts of the Li Family System and I thought that I would share some of my thoughts with you.
This is where we find ourselves when first introduced to Tai Chi. We see the form performed and we try to copy the performer or teacher. We may well believe that we are doing exactly what they are doing and feel very pleased. Master Swanson once told me the story of professional West End dancer who came to one of his classes. As an experiment he taught her the whole Tai Chi Form in a matter of hours and she was able to perform it from beginning to end. The next time he saw her she had largely forgotten what she had learned and explained that to her it was like any other dance routine which she would learn, perform and then forget as she moved on to the next show.
I am sure that her performance of Tai Chi looked very beautiful and graceful but it will not have been the “real thing”. Whilst able to learn a realistic approximation of the form in a matter of hours she would have no notion of the principles which need to be put into practice to bring the form to life, to make it work.
It is a sad fact that many practitioners of the Taoist Arts never get beyond this first level. The reason being as we attempt to put the principles of the art into practice it all becomes difficult. Ignorance can be bliss and it is easier by far to teach and learn the Taoist Arts without adding difficulties such as principles.
our gallant beginner has been to their first class practised the
opening of the form and suddenly they are introduced to the principles.
It may be something as simple as having their feet hip width apart in
the bear stance but its effect is to show the learner that they are
doing something wrong. Instead of simply stepping sideways with the left
foot they have to step in a certain way. We have in effect made them
conscious of their incompetence. It is at this stage that many students
simply give up. Whilst happy to do something “more or less right” they
do not wish to make the effort to progress to the next stage. It may be
that they simply cannot be bothered, perhaps they feel that they will
never get it right and throw in the towel. None of us like to be made
aware of our shortcomings and I am sure that were it possible we would
all like to be able to just “do” things without all of the effort
required to make progress. I am sure that there are people out there who
can just “do” things but I am afraid that I am not one of them and I
doubt that many of us are.
added problem in our art with this level is that we constantly find
ourselves back there. It’s a bit like the game of Snakes and Ladders. We
make progress in one area only to be made aware by our teacher that
there is something else to work on. But this is not a bad thing. Once
made aware of the problems we can begin to correct them and so move onto
the next level.
So the gallant beginner has been told that when stepping into bear stance the feet need to be hip width apart. They are shown what hip width is and that the feet should point forwards and not akimbo. They begin to practice and are aware of what the correct stance both looks and feels like. After a while they can step from eagle to bear stance in the correct manner but at this stage they are doing so consciously. They are making both mental and physical effort to move and stand correctly.
An example I can give to the more experienced practitioner for this stage is the use we make of numbers in our various Tai Chi and Kung Fu Forms. How many of us still count to ourselves when practicing the various forms? I am not suggesting that there is anything wrong in this, it is simply part and parcel of the stage of conscious competence in which we find ourselves. And we find ourselves there time and time again as we correct faults and make progress in our art. But all of our efforts are geared towards reaching the final stage.
have given conscious thought to our practice for so many hours that we
have lost count. We have painfully and consciously thought out our
movements as we performed them and progressed through the three previous
stages. Slowly but surely muscle memory has set in, our movements
become more fluid, effortless and almost unconscious, the mind calm. It
is at this stage that that our practice becomes a moving meditation un-
encumbered by thought.
make no claims to have reached this stage yet but all of my practice
leaves me in no doubt that it does exist and is the destination of all
our striving; the thing that makes the frustrations of the three
previous stages worthwhile. It is the level where our actions have
become so natural that they appear almost supernatural.
hope that these musings can act as food for thought in your own
practice. We are all climbing the same mountain though some may be
nearer the summit than others. All that really matters is that we
progress and all we need do to ensure that is to practice and
continually seek to improve. To quote an ancient Chinese proverb “fear
not moving forward slowly, fear only standing still.”
Don’t go changing just to please me …I love you just the way you are”
Our new DVD, showing Part II of the Form, has been extremely well received by members in the UK, France and Germany. Some of you may also have noticed that it is starting to attract notice outside the Organisation.
An independent review has appeared on the website of a Li style practitioner who is not in the TAO. The review is generally very enthusiastic, praising “the application of the core T’ai Chi principles to the rendition of the Form”. However, the reviewer also remarks on what he considers to be “modifications to the traditional execution of the moves”. From time to time students both within and outside the TAO have the perception that I am changing the Form or other forms within the system and so I would like to use this opportunity to respond.
focus of my teaching is to help people get as much benefit as possible
from their practice of T’ai Chi,showing techniques and
how they work and
expressing the continually changing and adapting energy typessuitable
to support those techniques. I am particularly anxious that TAO students
should not perform theempty movements, which, unfortunately, pass for
T’ai Chi so frequently these days. The empty movements will give people a
certain degree of benefit, but the incorporation of the principles and
the energies enormously increases the benefits of practice.
It doesn’t seem right to offer to teach T’ai Chi and then teach a pale imitation. So, although it is much more time-consuming and demanding for students, I persevere in trying to teach the “real thing”. As Chee Soo used to tell us in those early years, “learning forms has no real value if you cannot use what they are teaching you. Why learn a weapons form if, in reality you would only swing the weapon around aimlessly?”
We had to learn every detail of each weapon, its strengths, its weaknesses, how it defends, attacks and manoeuvres, before ever starting the forms. I have never claimed to be the great master, or my teacher’s favourite, but I do claim that he taught me well and my reputation has come from the respect I receive from the Masters of other systems who have seen what I do, what I teach and the students I produce. I have stood there, proud to call Chee Soo my teacher, confident enough to test what I have been taught and defend his honour. One of the best compliments for the TAO was from one of the most highly respected practitioners of Yang style when he said “All styles and teachers can produce one or two good push hands competitors, but you can bring 20 to a competition and they can all do it.”
Soo wasn’t famous at the time that I started training with him. At that
time he had not long been teaching the system. Previously he was
teaching various Japanese martial arts too, Judo, Aikido and Kendo. So
when he started to focus on this system he didn’t need to call it T’ai
Chi unless it was T’ai Chi, conforming to all the principles common to
T’ai Chi systems.
As with the Feng Shou Kung Fu and all the other disciplines he taught, no one else outside the Chinese community would have heard of it. As the Kung Fu craze had not yet started, he had no need to call it these names if it did not conform. He could have called it anything and it would not have mattered. He taught me these principles in the 60s when he was one of the first to be teaching Chinese martial arts in the west and certainly to westerners. It was some 6 or 7 years before the Bruce Lee craze made Chinese
Martial Arts more widely known and him famous. In those early years the classes were small. It was not his living, just his love. If you are giving that to others whose inherent culture is not the same as your own you would definitely make sure that they were doing it correctly.
Chee Soo published 2 books on the Form to supplement his teaching. Again these cannot be treated as irrefutable evidence of exactly how the Form should be done. They unfortunately contain some significant inconsistencies. For instance in the 1984 book the list of sequence names differs from sequence names in text. The positions shown in the pictures in his first book of 1976, published by Gordon and Cremonesi, differ from those in his 1984 book published by Thorsons. One photograph has famously been printed in mirror image. Even apart from these problems, still photographs as a medium generally are far from ideal as they require a great deal of informed interpretation to be used to reconstruct the Form. That was the only medium that could be afforded at the time; moving images were too expensive then. However the problem is that the still photographs can be quite misleading, the hand movements are captured at an instant in a three-dimensional movement, the complexities of which simply cannot be inferred from the photograph.
In the 1980’s Chee Soo started to rebuild his organisation after moving up to Coventry and so he was dealing with very large classes within which a high proportion of the students were beginners. As a result he pushed what intermediate students he had onwards, teaching them the mechanics to complete the Form so that they in turn could begin to teach the large numbers of beginners. As a result there were many of his students left with a little knowledge and this is, as the saying goes, a dangerous thing., especially when coupled with an incomplete understanding of the entire system. As Donald Rumsfeld said recently in relation to a very different topic, there are known “knowns”.
There are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say there are things that we now know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we do not know we don’t know. Some students may have little understanding of how much they still would have had to learn, had Chee Soo lived and so believe that their knowledge is more complete than it actually is.
An illustration of this problem is the perception, which still circulates in some quarters outside the TAO, that Chee Soo only taught the essence of the Arts in his later years. This is the natural consequence of people not knowing what they don’t know and preferring to justify staying where they are rather than embark on the painful process of continued learning that many of the TAO senior students have described in earlier articles. This has required humility, excting standards and a lot of hard work and some types of people naturally resist this. So to justify their resistance they claim that what they know is best. However it is not only me who disagrees with them. Chee Soo’s own daughter, Lavinia, who began training in her childhood, has written, During the period of 1970s through to the 1990s my father changed the Kung Fu system at least three times. The reason I believe is that my father always said, “ If I cannot do the moves then I will not teach them”, which was fine when he was a young man, but as he grew older then the system became ineffectual. Within the Original Li Style Taijiquan there are numerous difficult moves. My father could see that few people would persevere with the style, so it was altered drastically, making it easier to learn and bringing in a large number of students, but in doing so it lost its original principles.
The movements I have put on the new DVD are, as faithfully as I can show them, the movements that I learnt from Chee Soo in the 1960s and early 70s with the level of detail appropriate to an intermediate student. When you advance through intermediate to advanced level, there will be additional subtleties to show you – it still won’t mean I am changing it!
Each individual will do things slightly differently because each body is different, but practising to implement the principles gives rise to an underlying conformity, so that the movement will work for that body. This is why teaching the principles is so important. Without them, of 10 students with the same teacher who does not teach the principles, each student would do things slightly differently to suit their body even though they intended to copy the teacher. If each of them then went on to teach, without the principles, the divergence would increase among this second generation of students and would continue to increase as this process continued.
The Form should not be regarded as a piece of choreography to be precisely copied. It is a practice.
For maximum benefit there must be the maintenance of balance and relaxation in the body and the correct opening of the relevant joints, in other words the principles must be consistently observed. However, what is correct is not absolute but relative to the practitioner. The 70% rule reminds us not to overstretch either in our physical movements or in our desire to progress. In this context it means that the practice should stretch you from where you are in your learning journey, but you should certainly not attempt to force your progress beyond its natural pace. A simple example would be the high kicks that you see performed by the competition team in some of the later tracks of the DVD. These are correct for an advanced student, who has trained to open their joints and increase their flexibility, but would be incorrect for most beginners, as they would carry a risk of strains.
The same thing applies to some of the finer detail. In the last few years I have begun to teach the energiesand, at varying rates, students are becoming able to understand these and incorporate them into their practice of the Form. This will progressively refine the appearance of the more externalised movements that they first learnt to perform but those movements were correct for them then just as the more subtle ones are correct now.
As an example, I was very athletic in my younger days. Now I don’t kick so high or sink to such deep postures. But does that make me less of a martial artist or T’ai Chi player? The external movement may be less impressive to look at but this is to miss the point. A true connoisseur of T’ai Chi should be looking to see that the principles are still there and being continually refined.
As long as students in the TAO continue their journey of exploring the principles and energies, and progressing towards making their T’ai Chi as full as possible, we will continue to be recognised, as we now are, by the wider T’ai Chi and Chinese Martial Arts community as well as on the international competition scene, as practitioners of a style of T’ai Chi which sits firmly alongside other styles in its conformity to all the principles, but simultaneously demonstrates its own unique and beautiful qualities.
Tony Swanson Technical Director
At the recent Summer School at Ratcliffe a passing remark by Master Swanson set me thinking how we improve and progress in the Taoist Arts and how we might measure the progress that we make.
When I first started to learn Tai Chi it was for no other reason than that I found the concept interesting and somewhat mysterious. I really had very little idea what it was all about and what little I did know came from film of Chinese people practicing in parks in the early morning.
As I began to practice the arts I gradually became more and more interested and did a great deal of background reading. This sent me off on tangents in all manner of directions from martial arts and health benefits to diet and divination. It did not take me long to realise the massive scope of that which I was beginning to learn.
1997 I attended a weekend course in Louth and it was there that I first
saw Master Swanson in action. Watching his obvious abilities I realised
that the fantastic feats of which I had read were in fact possible and
that by training with the Taoist Arts Organisation it may just be that
sometime in the far distant future I might be able to emulate at least
some of them.
But we were definitely talking about some time in the very far distant future. I remember practicing push hands with our Technical Director and realising that I was worse than helpless and could in fact do nothing to affect him, a rag doll would have done as well. I promised myself that I would improve and would not stop training until this improvement had come about.
So there I was standing at a set point looking out towards the far distant horizon where the future “me” would have improved significantly.
At the last Summer School I had another opportunity to practice push hands with Master Swanson and just like all of the times before I found that I could do nothing to affect him and was still very much the rag doll. So what does this tell me about my progress in the arts and its measurement?
Well I obviously set myself an ideal out on the horizon that I would work towards; namely reaching a state of proficiency in the arts we practice and I could evaluate my progress against that ideal. Unfortunately when I do this I suffer great disillusionment when I go into rag doll mode because using that as a measure of progress would show that I have not progressed at all.
Very simply, I suggest that if you have an ideal, and you evaluate your progress against that ideal, it will seem as if you aren't making progress even if you're making a lot. This is because ideals are like the horizon: the more you move toward them, the more they recede. You can travel forever, and never reach them. If you measure your progress this way, you will always feel frustrated, you will not experience the fulfilment of making progress, and you will become discouraged.
All of my practice in our arts has in fact shown me that the more I learn the more I see that there is to learn. I keep moving towards the horizon only for it to recede into the distance.
Realising this fact shows me that Resourceful people measure their progress not against an ideal, but against where they started. They look back and see how far they have come. In this way, they feel the satisfaction of making progress, and continue to be motivated to keep going.
Ideals are great, but they're not good for measuring progress.
All of us who practice the Taoist Arts with the T.A.O. have made great progress. If we look back to where we were when we started, and look at where we are now, there is a very significant positive change. So long as we keep practising consciously and diligently we will improve and this is as true for the newest student as it is for Master Swanson.
So to sum up the moral of my little tale I would say this. Measure your progress by how far you have come and not by how far you have still to go.
This article is designed to explain some of the physiological differences between men and women, which are relevant to our training. Of course men differ widely from one other as do women. Also, there is a lot of overlap in body types between men and women so that, for example, men are generally taller than women but many individual women are taller than many individual men. The Li family system focuses on the individual in helping them learn how to get the best out of their personal physique. However, it may help us to work with our training partners and ourselves, if we understand a little about the differences between “average” gender characteristics.
Women have smaller bones and men longer ones. The bones act as levers. The woman’s short levers give her greater precision whereas the man’s longer levers give him greater speed and strength.
A woman’s chest cavity has less capacity than a man’s and her breastbone is shorter. The top of her breastbone is a little lower than a man’s. This means that when standing her shoulders appear relatively lower and flatter compared with his slightly more angled shape. Her upper ribs are more mobile so that a woman can expand the upper ribs more easily than a man.
The left arm of the skeleton in the illustration is turned palm forward and in this position there is an angle between the line of the upper and lower arm. This is known as the carrying angle and is more pronounced in the female. This difference is thought to have evolved to facilitate the carrying of children. In terms of training it means that women are more challenged in aligning the arm straight when turned out. It also means women are more comfortable (and stronger) gripping with the palm down but find it more awkward to grip with the palm up.
Men’s shoulders are wider than their hips whereas women’s hips are wider than their shoulders, both because the pelvic opening is wider for childbirth and because their hip bones flare out more widely, typically creating a more curvy shape. In training, when aligning the inside of the shoulder over the inside of the hip, the knee, ankle and foot it will probably help women in particular to identify and recognise the hip insertion point, as the exterior lines of their bodies will be less likely to appear in vertical alignment.
It is common for women to have a more accentuated curve of the lumbar (lower) spine than men. This means they have less spinal control but more flexibility. It will be harder for women to straighten their spine but when it is straight their sacrum curls under more naturally.
The attachment of the thighbone at the hip is different in men and women. A woman’s stride is shorter than a man’s because of her shorter bones; therefore she has less impetus and speed. However, because of the way the hip works, she can swing the hip round more to follow the thigh. The result is that her stride is longer in proportion to her height than a man’s, so there is no reason for stance proportions in relation to shoulder width to be different for men and women despite the difference in bone length.
Overall women have a lower centre of gravity than men, which helps with balance and stability. A woman’s centre of gravity is likely to be more towards the front of her body than a man’s. Information like this could come in useful in push hands!
Connective tissue (ligaments, cartilage and tendons)
Women have thinner cartilage another factor that gives them greater flexibility than strength as compared with men, in whom the opposite is the case. Women in general have more laxity in their ligaments which gives them flexibility and larger range of joint motion which makes it harder to maintain the alignments required for T’ai Chi. In addition female hormones (oestrogen and progesterone) have the effect of loosening the ligaments more. This is to allow the body to expand to accommodate a pregnancy.
However these hormones also fluctuate over the course of the menstrual cycle so, between puberty and menopause, a woman will experience changes in her flexibility and stability from week to week. These changes increase her difficulty in learning to maintain her alignments.
Men feel tension in their ligaments when the joint is extended and this tells them to stop before they overextend. Because the female ligament is more flexible there may be no such signals or they may occur only after the alignments have been broken.
Such women need to be shown the appropriate place to stop and to develop a muscle memory of that point in order to learn to maintain the six harmonies.
In women the flexible ligaments are more vulnerable and they are generally more prone to injury from the diaphragm down to the knees. This vulnerability is greatest during menstruation and Chee Soo advised refraining from deep stances at that time.
Women’s knees are also more vulnerable than men’s because the thigh and the shinbones are at an angle to the vertical, which means they insert obliquely to the knee.
Therefore women have a greater susceptibility to knee problems. Instructors need to be aware of this to help them avoid injury and women need to be extra vigilant to avoid the knee deviating from the line of the foot or progressing beyond the toes. Meticulously maintaining the proper alignments will protect them from injury.
Neurological differences affecting learning and memory
In women the left-brain is more developed and in men, the right. However in women the communication between the left and right brain is better developed so that all parts of the brain function together whereas men are more one-sided and as a result their brain function is more specialised. This creates a gender differentiation in many of our sensory responses. For instance, women have wide-angle vision, are better at perceiving colour nuances and have better visual memory while men tend to focus more precisely and have better perception of form and movement. These neurological differences lie behind the tendency for women to have more difficulty in copying three dimensional movements from a single demonstration.
The instructor turning to face the same way as the student often helps. I asked the Technical Director about how these differences affected coaching. “I generally encourage men and women to train in a similar way. The different angles of the arms and legs in women start to come into line more as the right muscles are developed in training. Eventually the muscles support the joints to work with a similar action. This is the case not only in martial arts. You will have seen teenage girls who tend to run with their lower legs out to either side, however a trained female sprinter has the same action as a male, allowing for the different length of stride. Similarly with the arms, females will tend to punch more at an angle but with training can deliver a straight punch, which gives them more power and speed.”
“There are some aspects of our system where the exercises vary slightly between the genders. Usually the women have their hands palm down and the men, palm up. The traditional theory behind this is that women primarily absorb the yin energy coming up from the earth whereas men primarily absorb yang energy from the heavens. Obviously this is an unprovable hypothesis, but over the years I have monitored students, trying to test whether or how this idea works. My experience is that, in an untrained female, turning the hands over can make a significant difference to the strength of a stance. However after some years of training the difference it makes is less marked as the student has better alignment so that the stance is less vulnerable. By the time the student reaches 1st Tengchi level, the position of the hands makes a negligible difference.”
Thanks to Tony Swanson, Isabelle Helaine, Sue Gobardansingh and Gray’s Anatomy for their help with this article.
During the course of their first few months of training, new T’ai Chi students will be taught some exercises in class. These will involve a short sequence of movements with co-ordinated breathing during which the student is encouraged to become increasingly aware of their postural alignment, breathing and energy.
the exercise the Instructor will describe the particular health
benefits it may confer. As their learning progresses the student will
find that some of these exercises are called K’ai Men and have
extensions to the basic sequence, while others, called Tao Yin, don’t
have extensions but do have individual names.
This must all be rather confusing because, let’s face it, these two types of exercises look the same from the outside.
So what is the difference? Before explaining some of the theory I should say, as ever, that it is a guide rather than a substitute for your own experience. To increase your awareness of what an exercise does it is necessary to be aware of your posture, breath and energy, both before you have done the exercise, during it, and after you have finished it. This helps to clarify what changes you have undergone by doing the particular exercise.
K’ai Men means ‘Open Door’ in Chinese. These chi gong exercises are designed to open the body up by increasing flexibility, opening the joints physically and energetically, elongating, untangling and aligning the muscle fibres, as well as rebalancing the muscle pairs and improving your posture. So the main focus in a K’ai Men exercise is on the body alignment and movement.
the body opens up and relaxes physically, it will also open up
energetically as the meridians clear. This will lead to improved blood
and energy flow around the body, which in turn will lead to improved
K’ai Men exercises will focus their effect on particular parts of the
body. Take for example the ten basic K’ai Men exercises [Booklet
available through the TAO]. This set of exercises takes all main joints
and puts them through a tune up so that they are ready to function in
the way in which they are designed, giving you as an individual the
maximum range and capability. They help relax chronic tensions and this
reduces obstructions to the energy flow from the centre to the
When you have completed them your body alignment will be improved and your awareness of your body will be such that you are better able to understand concepts such as the 10 points of external posture and the movement of the four primary energies.
Tao Yin exercises utilise the same principles of body mechanics as K’ai Men exercises, but the focus is on the breathing and energy movement within the body, rather than the physical articulation of the body. The body movements and breathing are there to enhance and facilitate the movement of the energy within the torso and through the organs. In a K’ai Men exercise you use the body alignment, movement and breathing to open up the body physically and energetically, which then allows the energy to flow more freely.
In Tao Yin exercises you use the posture, movement and breathing to assist and encourage the movement and concentration of energy, in specific places for specific purposes. Tao Yin are more concerned with restoring health or treating specific problems directly, as opposed to a general opening up and balancing of the body, both ways lead to improved health.
For example the ‘Happy Days’ Tao Yin exercise energises the lungs and so oxygenates the system. So it is useful as a warm up exercise either for T’ai Chi or just first thing in the morning to wake you up. Also it helps fight colds, flu or other illnesses that enter through the lungs. The ‘Four Directional Breathing’ Tao Yin, encourages the energy to flow from the centre out through the limbs, this prepares the body for activity and so again is appropriate as a warm up for T’ai Chi.
The more therapeutic Tao Yin exercises are particularly concerned with the movements of energy within the body, especially the torso and organs [Booklets available through the TAO].
The differences are subtle and concern about them should never be allowed to interfere with relaxed practice. You might find it useful to think that the K’ai Men work on the body from the outside in (opening joints leading to improved energy leading to better health) and that the Tao Yin act on the body from the inside out (energised and rebalanced organs lead to better health leading to improved energy).
Another possible way of approaching them is that in a K’ai Men exercise you lead with the body movement and alignment and the breath follows the movement. In a Tao Yin exercise you lead with the breath, helped by the body movements to move/concentrate the energy and blood into particular organs. Both use the same principles; they just start in a different place to affect the whole of your physical and energetic body.
However, because of their different approaches the ways they are used are quite distinct from one another. A Tao Yin exercise has a very specific purpose and would be selected and used for that purpose as appropriate for the individual, with guidance from their Instructor if necessary. By contrast, the K’ai Men exercises are multifunctional and need to be adapted both for the different physiques of individual students and to fine tune their well-being.
Adapting K’ai Men to the individual
key to a K’ai Men exercise is not how far you can stretch but what
muscle changes you effect. Say for example that a K’ai Men exercise
appears to involve touching your toes: a flexible person could do that
easily but it wouldn’t have that much effect because it was too easy for
them. A stiff person would not in the beginning be able to go that far,
but, if they were following the principles and only got as far as their
ankles, the effect on their muscles would be greater.
A flexible person in order to get the same muscle change would probably have to at least get their palms flat on the floor. It is not important how far you move your body externally through space, but rather how you open your body internally.
Therefore the Instructor needs to help individual students work towards the correct muscle change for their unique physique. K’ai Men have multiple extensions and the higher extensions are to assist the advancement of a student, whose body is beginning to open, to continue to challenge them to greater opening.
Adapting K’ai Men to progress or direct training
K’ai Men can be used to progress through five different levels of training. These are a natural progression of following the principles, and your internal awareness increases as you do the exercise.
They are as follows:
1.Physical: the opening of the body, increased flexibility and improved circulation.
2. Medical/health: the benefits of the improved circulation, less strain on the heart etc. follow on as the relaxation and opening starts to have an effect,
3. Energy circulation: as the relaxation deepens and enters the ‘fibres’ of the body, the energy starts to flow more easily and smoothly. This level can also be accompanied by emotional release, as some things that may have been held in or suppressed are let go, and come up to conscious awareness.
4. Dynamic: once the body is physically and energetically open you can do the exercise dynamically. Even if done with ‘effort’, it is still coming from a base of relaxation, and you can ‘pump’ energy through the body. If you try this before the body is fully open and relaxed you can cause problems if you don’t subsequently clear and flush excess energy from the system (for instance with the Tao Yin ‘Five Lotus Blossoms’).
5. Nei Gung: once the body is open physically and energetically, and if the mind is sufficiently focused you can do K’ai Men as a Nei Gung or internal energy exercise. Here the movement of the energy is coming primarily from the mind (yi/intent). Most people would have to do some meditation to strengthen the mind to do this properly. If you have been paying close attention to what you are doing, what is going on in your body and following the principles, you will be completing the groundwork and it will become a natural progression. One word of caution here; at this level you have to guard against the difference between actually feeling what is going on and just imagining it happening. The first is based on the reality of what is happening in your own body; the second, only on what is happening in your mind/imagination and divorced from physical/energetic reality. If in doubt, go back to the physical exercise (level one), reconnect with your body and progress naturally through the different levels clarifying how your awareness changes.
In my last article we looked at the differences between Tao Yin and K’ai Men exercises. In this article we will explore the 5 levels of K’ai Men practice that I set out there, with reference to the following specific exercise.
_ Starting Position: Eagle.
_ Breathe in as you step forward to Left Dragon and let both arms rise forward until they are parallel to the ground and palm down [Position A].
_ Breathe out while maintaining the Dragon stance and allowing the arms rise further forward and up until the fingers point upwards with the palms facing forward [Position B].
- Breathe in as you return to Position A.
_ Breathe out as you lower your arms to your sides and shift back into Right Duck [Position C].
_ Breathe in and, remaining in a good Duck stance, bend forward at the hips until your
torso is parallel to the floor, lifting your abdomen in and up slightly as you tilt your torso. The arms stay in the same plane as the body, so the palms will now be facing up [Position D].
_ Breath out as you return to Position C.
_ Breathe in as you return to Position A.
_ Breathe out as you return to the Starting Position.
Repeat on the other side of the body.
This is the sequence of the exercise; it warms and prepares the body physically for the extension.
Throughout the exercise you need to be applying the ten points of external posture to your movements. Just as water cannot pass down a kinked hose, neither can blood, breath and energy move easily around a ‘kinked’ body. For the extension start with an in-breath and then breathe naturally, don’t hold your breath or strain.
_ Start in Eagle.
_ Position A
_ Position B
_ This time keep extending up the front of the body, whilst keeping the back (especially the lower back) relaxed and ‘neutral’. Your hands continue up, over and back, until (if you are flexible enough) your palms face up and you are looking up. Just work go as far as you can without straining. Remember it is the muscle change you go through that is important, not how far you move through space.
_ Return to Position B
_ Position C
_ Position D
_ This time you still have to maintain a good duck stance and avoid closing the space at the front of the hip joint or compressing the abdomen. As you bend forward, release from your lower back all the way to the base of your skull as if unzipping your spine. As you get to your upper back let the arms rotate forward from the shoulder, so the palms now face forward. Finally release the neck and let the head drop. To return, lift your head; lower your arms as you reset your spinal posture from the neck to the sacrum [you have unzipped the spine, now zip it up again].
_ Position C
_ Position A
_ Starting Position
By doing this you have gone through the exercise (sequence and extension) at Level 1: the Physical.
Level 2: Adaptation to the needs of the Individual
When you are able to perform the exercise at level 1 correctly, achieving the elongation and aligning of the correct muscle fibres with the resulting specific releases of tension, you will then be able to adapt the exercise to suit specific ailments. For instance if somebody has lower back problems and performs the exercise at level 1, they will achieve a general release but won’t relieve their back problem without adapting the exercise. The adaptations have to be tailored to the person’s individual structure and problem and so in the early stages you should ask your Instructor. As you become more proficient at the exercise and learn to recognise the releases and the internal realignments you will be able to adapt it for yourself.
Level 3: Expression and Energy Circulation
As you become more proficient at level 1 you can pay more attention to the energy circulation because the physical movements require less concentration. The releases and stretches should be performed in a relaxed way so that the expression (peng, lu, ji or an) occurs as a result of expansion within the fascia. This relaxed expansion of the fascia allows relaxation of the internal organs and an increased awareness of energy movement within the body.
Level 4 Dynamic:
Once you have progressed to level 3 so that you can perform the exercise while relaxed and expansive, you can try creating a little more dynamic tension by gently exaggerating the compressive and expansive movements of the muscles and fascia. You can achieve this by imagining you are moving your hands through water and (for more resistance) treacle to increase the amount of active effort. (This is similar to what we do in Four Directional Breathing.)
However it is important that this type of practice should not introduce any unnecessary tension. As your awareness of the exercise with the muscle changes increases, the next stage is to go for the same degree of opening with the minimum physical effort and movement. Going for the effect on your body directly, rather than using the movement to create that effect. This acts as a half way house to the next level.
Level 5 Nei Gung:
Nei gung is the original chi cultivation system in China, invented by the Taoists. The internal power it produces is the basis for all internal martial arts, including T’ai Chi.
Once the body is open externally, internally and mentally, going through the exercise in your mind and noticing the energy respond to your intent without there being any major external movement, you can progress into the deeper body structures such as bone marrow and blood. But to do this you will need to have a good focus without allowing your attention to wander. Before practising at this level you should have personal tuition from a suitably experienced teacher.
In finishing I would remind you what Tony said at the end of my last article. The key aspect of the Li arts is to remain in touch with your own body and you cannot rush the natural progression of training. The rate of development will be affected mostly by your presence of mind in practice, the awareness in and of your body as well as your body’s current physical capacity. It takes time to integrate the learning into your spirit-mind-body.
This year, during the Summer Course, I tried another evening along the lines of the session exploring Wu Wei that I ran last year [see write up in Newsletter Sept 2009]. The themes of these sessions are concepts within Taoist philosophy which I have been asked about many times over the years. You can find explanations in books fairly easily but it is more difficult to understand how the concepts might relate not only to martial arts but to the entirety of our life. So my aim in these sessions is not to give explanations and answers but to give students the opportunity to explore a concept within the practical context of their martial arts practice.
Of course, in writing up the session it is not possible to offer readers the practical demonstrations and experience. The article is more of an explanation and, since I now know which parts some students found harder to grasp I can try and give a little more detail.
The topic I chose this year is Patterns of Li. Li, in this sense, originally meant the markings in jade and came to refer to all organic patterns. We see examples of these dynamically in ripples in still water, the wind in the trees, the waves breaking on the shore. The result of organic processes is recorded in a static form in, for example, the grain of wood or stone such as jade. Taoist thinkers frequently study these patterns and derive great inspiration from them. The question I tried to answer is why they do this and in what way are they relevant to martial arts and to everyday life? Writing this article gives me the opportunity to talk about this concept at greater length than during the session but I would still like to encourage anyone reading it to explore the ideas in practice rather than stopping at the theory.
Think of throwing a pebble into a pool. The pattern of ripples that results is the unique result of a pebble of that size and weight being thrown along that particular trajectory into a pool. The ripples are affected by the temperature and depth of the water, the wind over the pool surface will make a difference, so will the nature of the ground in which the pool is formed and the size and position of any plants growing in the pool. . Even if you fished the pebble out and dropped it again 2 minutes later, the ripples would not be exactly the same. The ripples you see depend on the position of your eye and the sun relative to the surface of the water and the quality of your eyesight.
The patterns that nature makes are multidimensional, they take into account all the factors in the eco-system in which they occur. But what is the relevant eco-system? Modern science has shown that the weather here is affected in some way by something as small as the flap of a butterfly’s wings in South America or as large as the eruption of a volcano in Asia. It has shown that the climate on earth is also product of its position in the solar system, that the sun’s position in the galaxy is the result of gravitational forces between it and other stars and also that the position of the galaxies relative to one another is a function of the momentum from the Big Bang and the gravitational effect of the matter in space.
In this way science is beginning to discover a truth that the Taoists have always instinctively understood – that the “things” we perceive and name with language are actually features of a seamlessly interconnected system that includes everything in the universe throughout time. Our “things” have no independent existence. The human use of language creates the illusion that “things” are independent, and tends to make us focus on detail at the expense of seeing the whole picture. We mistakenly see ourselves as disconnected from nature, independent observers with the power to change things, and this has had significant consequences for the natural world and ourselves in it.
The Taoist ideal is that we need to be able to see both the whole and the detail – in balance. I touched on this idea in the introduction to last year’s session. It is such a key concept that I thought it might be helpful to explain it again in a different way.
Returning to the patterns of Li, nature’s organic patterns infinitely more complex than the two dimensional, geometric patterns that people make. Because they are so complex not two are the same and so we cannot predict them intellectually but we instinctively recognise their perfection: nature never makes a mistake. Their perfect appropriateness to the unique situation is a quality we are seeking to develop in our practice.
Although we cannot predict them precisely we can identify the principles and processes governing how Li patterns are generated. Although the patterns are infinitely variable, the processes and principles are constant. The parallels between this and our martial arts practice are clear, the processes are not identical but comparable.
In our partner work we face an infinite range of slightly varied situations. Just as you can never drop a pebble into the pool exactly the same way twice, no two strikes are identical and so the precise response cannot be defined. However the principles which govern the type of response we are trying to learn are definable but their application depends on the precise moment. In the Li style we teach principles that could be applied to any given situation, as against set responses and these should enable you to be strong enough to maintain your structure, enable you to yield enough to get behind the force whilst maintaining harmony of movement to control the situation.
These relative definitions (strong enough, flexible enough etc) depend on a sense of the moment, which is why we spend so long developing our listening and sensitivity skills. The ability to respond in accordance with the principles is trained and ultimately the goal is that the interruptions to that response, created by the habits of the conscious mind, should be lost and the instinct for natural movement rediscovered.
Once this happens we move without conscious consideration, just as a pool responds to a pebble.
As you can see from this ever more wordy explanation – these things we can recognise instinctively as perfect and simple become very clumsy when you try to put them into words. They are to do with seeing and feeling the whole and so language with its divisions is really not the appropriate medium.
This is why the great Taoist writings are not precise, logical explanations. The Taoist thinkers use poetry and metaphor to get to a level of communication directly with the imagination that transcends language.
The patterns of Li are used in the same way – as complex metaphors. Watching the willow bend in the wind is a metaphor for how to be both strong enough and flexible enough from moment to moment. Watching the movement of water in a stream shows us how to flow around and behind an obstacle. Watching the sink empty shows us how a spiral can draw things in and down.
These examples are not the same patterns of movement made by the human body but they have a natural unforced quality, which is precisely what we aim to cultivate, leaving behind habits of tension and forcing. This is why the Taoist studies the patterns of Li.
At summer school I gave a much briefer explanation of this and moved to partner work designed to experiment with these ideas. The exercise was to make a simple circle with our partners, as we would start sticky hands but with no radial movement or hand techniques. The partners were to take it in turns to change that shape and see what the effect was.
This was not a technical exercise. I know that a lot of our training involves concentrating hard on the minute details of the movements we make. In this session I hoped people would relax their focussing mindset and engage the imagination and instinct to see what would happen when they did a simple exercise in a different state of mind. Rather than a new technique, it is a different way of thinking about what we already do. The rightness of a movement can be instinctively recognised even though it is unique. Imagining yourself moving like, for instance, water, may help you stay in touch with your instinctive, sensitive mind and stop your conscious and controlling mind from interrupting the flow. In this way you may be able to tap into the natural movement we aim to develop in the Arts.
Tony Swanson Technical Director
Gather Celestial Energy 1 -3
Play the Lute 4-6
Fair Lady Weaving 7-11
The Crane Exercises its Wings 12-17
Drive the Tiger Away 18-20
Grasp the Bird's Tail 21-22
Brush Knee and Side Step 23-24
Repulse the Monkey 25-26
The Stork is Aroused 27-30
Double Whip 31-32
The Cobra Unwinds 33-36
The Wild Dog Retaliates 37-40