Yin and Yang, with Yang in the ascendant phase.
The first principle of Tai Chi Chuan is Tai Chi, which is the interaction of Yin and Yang in the constantly varying process of natural equilibrium.
An attack is by its very nature is definitively Yang. By accommodating, redirecting, or avoiding the attack (becoming Yin) we encourage the attacker to enter the Yin phase, by over extending, becoming unbalanced, or simply needing to recover before his next assault. During his Yin phase we may become Yang and counterattack.
In the martial arts it is the potential for movement that is of greatest concern
As I walked through the swing doors into the large school hall I was surprised to find it relatively silent, silent except for the sound of deep, prolonged breathing, immediately I recognised from my training in Raja Yoga, the importance of this practice. I made my way as unobtrusively as possible to a bench where a few other observers waited. Observing the lesson, I recognised several people as former classmates from Judo and Karate. Before long I was treated to the spectacle of 4 of the senior student sparring first one to one, then one to three etc. while the other 30 or so members practised techniques at the other end of the hall. Shortly the Master joined the sparring seniors, they stopped immediately and bowed, he took a relaxed stance in the centre of the space and they surrounded him, all was still. Watching the seniors spar I had been impressed at their agility, the speed and sheer variety of techniques. The Master nodded his head and his protagonists exploded into action, they moved fast, their limbs blurred, the Master seemed to move slowly, calmly, without hurry, yet he ran rings round them. Where they kicked, he span, they punched he was gone, yet his hand passed across a face softly without harm, a deft sweep of an arm would send one into another, he had all the time in the world. This was my first live exposure to the Chinese internal arts, I had read about them, but this was real, this was great and I was hooked. I joined the Thetford Wu Shu Club under that Master, Ted Bird and thrived on it.
As my training progressed and I showed some ability (read ’put in more practice’) I was invited to the student section of the central training school in Dunstable, there we would be coached by the Grand-master, Chee Soo. The price of missing these sessions was driven home to me on one practice night when a fellow student with whom I shared a friendly rivalry, returned from a session I had been unable to attend. We had shared many hard battles without clear victory being established, In one session he had been transformed from being my equal in sparring; to someone I could not even touch. My kicks were intercepted half way, my hand strikes never landed and not a single technique of my fiendishly contrived combinations got through. Astonished and somewhat demoralised, I questioned my now superior and very pleased training buddy as to how this dramatic improvement was accomplished, generously he shared the secret and at the next session we were back at it hard as ever and even in skill once more.
Perhaps what was so surprising about Chee Soo was his ability to do so little and achieve so much. While senior level master’s flailed away, looking as cumbersome and uncoordinated as they made their own students seem, he stood comparatively still, a twist here, a shift of weight there, occasionally a step. His arms appeared magnetic, wherever you aimed, whatever devious angle or cunning combination you conceived, there they were sliding past you sending you into nothing, or a partner, trapping you without gripping, and yet you could not escape, or sometimes seizing you with a paralysing grip and an accompanying grin. This truly was mastery of ‘stillness in motion’.
To put this into perspective, as Master Grade teachers we had all acquired the ability to deal with up to five assailants in mass attacks, whether they were unarmed or armed with a variety of Chinese weapons we would spin in and out, throwing, tripping, locking and controlling, all without harming or being harmed, if you were hit in these tests you failed. So to see people with this level of skill handled like novices, made to look inept and inexperienced was somewhat awe inspiring, to be directly on the receiving end humbling.
Chee Soo could judge distance with the precision of a micrometer, timing to perfection, furthermore he understood and could exploit every angle or change of alignment with uncanny precision. This was the stuff he clearly enjoyed, even when well past retirement age.
Yet the other side to this was his encyclopaedic knowledge of how movement healed, how breath, intention and posture could affect the state of your body, or someone else’s. He happily modified the traditional postures of Tai Chi forms to make them significantly more beneficial to health, differences that you can feel physically and energetically.
Grand master Chee Soo, gave me a fantastic foundation in the Chinese internal arts. Thanks to his knowledge, tireless work and generosity over the 18 years I ‘Took from him’ I was inspired to continue my studies for a further 18, with other great teachers. Through constant research and practice, I have learned to see the connections between the martial arts and the therapeutic, the spiritual and the practical. I have observed that the gentlest of activities can be of tremendous benefit to those with reduced health, and yet those same movements can become vigorous and challenging, demanding the skill and stamina of an Olympic gymnast. Yet the combination of passive and active phases of the Chinese internal arts can also become a catalyst in the search for peace of mind, strong focus and balance in the fast paced world of today. Based upon Daoist precepts, stretching back through the millennia, they inevitably lead one to ponder the nature of life and our place within it, and almost as inevitably to appreciate the true nature of ourselves.
I am proud to be able to pass on this legacy.
Grandmaster Clifford Chee Soo (1919 – 1994) presided over the International Wu Shu Association, Chinese Cultural Arts Association and International Taoist Arts Society until his demise in 1994. He was taught by Chan Kam Lee, a dealer in precious stones and gatekeeper of the Lee family martial and health arts from 1934 until his death in 1953.
Keith Roost studied under Chee Soo from 1976 to 1994, receiving his Masters degree in 1986 from the IWSA. Keith is a senior level (30 years +) instructor with the Tai Chi Union of Great Britain, and Technical head of the Golden Rooster School (UK) and Institute (Portugal) he has recently returned to England after teaching Tai Chi Chuan and Daoist Qigong (pronounced Chee Gong) at Coimbra University Hospital and other institutions of higher education in Portugal.
Correct alignment in Single whip Henry S Dean and Clara.
I am somewhat surprised by the amount of correspondence I receive from people who are questioning how the spine should be aligned in Tai Chi Chuan. Often this questioning seems to arise as a result of information provided by people involved in the fields of medicine, or increasingly those who have undertaken training in personal fitness, and perhaps most pervasively the internet with its plethora of lifestyle and how to blurb.
The matter is perhaps not helped by many early attempts to translate the traditional guidance on posture given in the Tai Chi Classic’s. Therein you may find many wondrous descriptions of ‘Straightening the spine’ and it’s many benefits.
There are two problems with these forms of advice.
1 The spine needs to be allowed to maintain its natural structure in order to perform its many and varied tasks. It needs to change alignment according to the position and activity of the body, but should never be un-natural.
2 Most people who begin Tai Chi training are not aware of what their spine is doing, have little control over it, and almost certainly do not use it correctly in their daily life activities let alone Tai Chi.
Different styles use different postures, so alignment changes.
Therefore in Tai Chi Chuan practice we have the following tasks to achieve
Building awareness of the alignment, movement, and control of the whole body, including the spine.
Achieving a level of strength, flexibility and fitness which allows the body to maintain correct alignment
Educating the body to move through the various postures with correct alignment, and adjust it according to the movement/posture.
Natural alignment of the spine that facilitates the posture/movement is a key concept. If you understand it you can understand why the different styles of Tai Chi Chuan use the body differently, yet correctly.
Keith and Gloria demonstrate correct posture at different heights.
Furthermore, if you take on board the scale of the problem of correct use, against the issues of unfit or inappropriately conditioned practitioners with underdeveloped awareness, you will see why much of the practice is slow.
This is what you should remember and teach
In the Golden Rooster School, Tai Chi Chuan practice involves the correct alignment of the spine to facilitate the optimum bio- mechanical use of the body commensurate with the movement or action undertaken.
Therefore in Single Whip we move the hips to a mid position to lengthen the lower spine, facilitate opening the hips, and align the spine to support the rotation of the waist and issue and consequent absorption of forces through the use of Fa Jin.
The Dao of Living Now ... Are the Chinese Internal Arts a pathway to living in conscious awareness in the 21st Century
Keith Roost & Henry S Dean in Tui Shou
One of the marvellous benefits of Chinese Internal Arts is the development of conscious awareness, Indeed it is impossible to practise these arts effectively without developing awareness. The whole point of the Internal Arts is developing your self and your skills consciously. By becoming aware of our body and how we use it, we increase our ability to tune in to the subtle messages that are always there, reflecting our physical discomfort, stemming from unsympathetic body mechanics, or more simply poor posture. Whether you realise it or not your posture reflects your current psychological state:-
The Last of these posturers is the one, which at least in Traditional Chinese Medicine, is the most beneficial state for us. When we are open our energy can flow more clearly, Our breathing improves, and we live more fully. It is in the state of 'openess' that we are more receptive to ourselves, our surroundings, and to those we are interacting with, we literally become more conscious of life.
Our internal arts practice teaches us to become aware of ourselves, observing our posture is one of the keys to a richer life.
How to vary Ding Shi and Square Form to get what you need to advance in Tai Chi practice.
Gloria Dean, relaxed composure holding a difficult stance.
Thanks to my hardworking colleagues at the TCUGB I have just received the latest magazine, which reminded me that I had perhaps over emphasised one aspect of holding when practicing the square form. In truth the following advice was always intended to be included, but time is a precious thing.
The thing is your goals in practicing the internal arts, or any thing else, need to move as you progress, indeed to enable good progress you need to have set appropriate goals and keep them in mind whilst training, but thats another subject. Assuming you have already acquired a sound knowledge of the Square form, short or long, you can choose whether to focus on improving physical relaxation or being Sung. This is the idea behind my earlier entries on the subject (scroll down the page to find them) or you can practice to increase strength. Both goals are achieved through the same practice but for the latter you persevere with the posture, whilst over riding the bodies attempt to tighten. To encourage relaxation as a beginner however it is counter-productive to attempt to hold for extended periods (e.g. over 5 minutes in any one posture) Instead your focus should be on achieving correct posture with minimal tension, then releasing further without loosing structure, ( for example think of relaxing the belly) when this is achieved in one posture, change to the next and begin again.
In the picture above gloria demonstrates good alignment, with focus, composure, and physical relaxation whilst maintaining extension and height, no mean achievement. Try it yourself without leaning back, without drooping, or letting the foot drop or pull back, and of course... without stiffening. When you can hold like this
for the relatively new being Sung is a prime requirement, for those who can already achieve this then the goal of greater strength and stamina is available for both body and mind
Enjoy your practice.
In Shakespeare's lyrical tale of ill fated lovers, Romeo Montague and Juliet Capulet meet and fall in love. As members of two warring families, they are doomed from the beginning. In the extract above, Juliet tells Romeo that a name is an artificial and meaningless convention. In Tai Chi Chuan this is also the opinion of many a student, and regrettably some teachers. In this article I shall reveal something of the occluded meanings, of some of the names of Tai Chi techniques, and hopefully some reasons for their preservation.
Every style of Tai Chi Chuan has, as its primary means of solo practice, a hand form. The traditional styles (of Tai Chi Chuan) that have emerged, were at first only distinguished as people noticed significant differences in the practice methods of subsequent teachers, and therefore named the style after that particular teacher, Yang, Wu, Sun etc.
One of the features that changed with the development of the different styles was the order of the techniques, which technique was performed in conjunction with another; this may simply be a result of a teacher finding applications (self defence techniques) which worked well in that combination, it is also the reason why techniques in long-forms occur in varying combinations.
Another obvious development, perhaps more significant, was the changing names of some techniques. In some cases this may be a matter of dialect, or class / education related speech idiom, in others it pertains more to the way the technique is conceived and this is where I finally get to the main point of this article:
What is the purpose of the names of the techniques in the forms?
To begin with lets look at some fairly obvious examples `Step back to beat the tiger `, in this case the term tiger refers to the ferociousness, of the attacker, Similarly the technique´ Draw a bow to shoot an arrow at a tiger´ indicates a similar ferocious intrusion, but this time against a classical double handed strike as seen in many Shaolin forms or Goju Ryu Kata. The tiger theme is developed further in the form with Step back to ride the tiger´ in this technique, the performer is responding to a number of fierce attacks by a skilled opponent, who attacks high and low in close combination. Different responses are indicated against similar types of attack, indeed most techniques may contain several applications against differing attacks. The tiger theme continues in the sabre form for example where the association of the tiger with being low, and having a long back is significant in `Chop the tiger´as is the sudden nature of a tigers spring in `Hungry tiger leaps the stream´.
Some times a name appears simple and straightforward, this may be because the original term has been changed or indeed forgotten over time, or simply lost in translation. Such an example would be `Parry and punch´ which appears obvious, however its Chinese term (perhaps not the original?) is more informative; Bon, Lam, Choi, respectively indicate an upper parry, lower parry, and punch. Perhaps of most significance here is the term `Parry´ rather than `Block´, as the latter is more than somewhat out of line with Tai Chi Chuan techniques, yet frequently shown in demonstrations by those who do not understand that a block stops the opponents incoming energy, while a parry diverts it and allows you to make use of it.
In `Grasping birds tail´ we are being given more than just the advice of what kind of attack to expect, and how to meet it, but also the level of sensitivity that is required in the situation. This technique contains the four primary techniques of Tai Chi Chuan, Peng, Lu, Ji, and An (ward-off, roll-back, push, and press) and as such is an adaptable technique often used to enter inside an opponents guard. The bird is the opponent, who is quick and flighty, or changeable, you must be swift to grasp the tail of this bird, but if too forceful, you will be left with nothing but a handful of feathers, instead you must be sensitive to every change in the opponent so as to counter it before it begins.
There are other kinds of information hidden within the names of techniques, sometimes not in the most obvious names (many if not all techniques have multiple names) or in the name for the inner techniques (the form within the form) for example `Unity posture´ is also known as `Embracing the one´ and alludes toward the use of this posture in standing meditation amongst other things, whilst the stars of the eponymous `7 star style´ posture and similarly named pushing hand technique is a reference to the astral constellation Ursa Major, reflected in the shape of the performer, this constellation is of great significance in Taoist schools, and may often be seen engraved in to the blades of old weapons.
Speaking of weapons, the forms for the various weapons are rich in cultural references, both `Li Gwong shooting an Arrow´ and `Pui Kung cleaving a snake´ are direct references to historical events, and persons associated with Tai Chi or its weaponry, whilst ´Taking off the boots while drunk´ ( a means of extracting a sword from a stricken opponent amongst other things) is an indirect reference to the famous poet, swordsman, and drunkard, Li Mu Bai, not surprisingly one of those characteristics is usually missing when he is portrayed as a hero as in the film “Crouching tiger, hidden dragon.” yet ´Retrieving the moon´ may also allude to the same character and (missing) characteristic.
So, cultural heroes, historical (and hysterical) events, descriptions of tactics, opponents tactics, mind set, technique, meditation, mysticism, alchemy all are hidden within the names of our techniques, it’s a fascinating game of discovery, thought provoking and informing as well as inspirational. If after all this you still wonder of what use are all these archaic names and martial references to you? Consider this; the names are pneumonic, you can always just create a story that helps you remember the form….In the beginning there was absolutely nothing, then as the Tao divided in to yin and yang, the 7 stars appeared in the night sky, and I lightly grasped the birds tail, with a single whip I threw it into the clouds, waving my hands as I did so. I bent to pat the horse on high and turned to face left…..
Gloria dean teaching WuDang Tai Chi Chuan
I heard Gloria’s voice, and instantly knew she was restraining amusement, not quite managing to sound like a chiding schoolmistress “did you just use a rude word?” the offending student, towering over her meekly replied that he had but “as it was in Portuguese I did not think you would notice” very gentle admonishment delivered, it was back to training for all amidst quiet laughter.
What our unfortunate miscreant was expressing (not quite as privately as he hoped) was his understandable frustration at not achieving perfection in a movement of the form, its not that he lacks talent, or indeed effort and concentration, just that Tai Chi is like that, your intellectual grasp of a technique is only part of the journey. If you have been practising Tai Chi for any length of time you will have experienced similar frustration (if not apply for saint hood it will surely be granted) of course you may well have been more successful at keeping it to yourself.
Sometimes it seems as though ones practice is defined by difficulty and frustration, sometimes all goes well. As teachers we are accustomed to judging the level of temporary discouragement our students experience, before intervening in some beneficial manner. We are also often surprised to observe the form of expression such sentiment takes, pulling faces, stamping feet, or throwing things are more obvious expressions of self recrimination and dissatisfaction, thankfully less common than a muttered expletive but very disturbing for fellow students.
Wherever you may be in your personal study, soaring the heights of new understanding, or stranded in the doldrums of “Why can’t I get this” contain your frustration, be cool. There is in Daoism, a tradition that laughter is often the best response to the efforts of man to transcend his own nature.
Focus your Yi, (your intention) upon the simple act of practice, keep your Hsin (Heart/mind) concentrated gently upon your goal, and continue along your path with tranquillity.
Share your thoughts amidst some laughter after class; you may be surprised at how many share your feelings, and perhaps, the door will open a touch wider.
Keith Roost applies a powerful Chin Na technique.
In my early training in the 1970’s it was customary for us to spar vigorously in the last half hour of the three hour lesson, we sparred with everyone, we fought hands only, feet only, with throws and chin na only and with all combinations of the above. Sometime we would don full contact equipment and go all out for a few minutes, as seniors we would spar against multiple unarmed and armed opponents, learning to use the weapons we seized according to their inherent characteristics, and to use positioning and tactics to good effect.. Without doubt it was tough, but it was also fun and we could not get enough of it.
Over time we progressed our ability grew along with our experience, and we began to see how much our seniors had preserved us when sparing with them. As your ability to exploit an opening, a momentary loss of balance or awareness increased, so did your understanding of the consequences. Perhaps it was then that you really understood the reason s for the many hours of practising the standard techniques, the endless committed attacks where you allowed a partner to execute a technique against someone (you) delivering a proper attack, on target and without trying to spoil the counter. I know that it was this practice, frequently painful, and often daunting, that truly enhanced my understanding of techniques. Being able to feel the difference between my classmates, and my teachers, when it was wrong, and what it felt like when it was right, opened the door to understanding the difference between enthusiastic but effortful technique and skilled effortless internal technique.
It is a fact that so many skills in the Internal arts, are really only acquired when you truly give yourself up to sincere practice according to the principles. This is true whether we are talking about the ability to relax our mental processes and our body, or execute high-level techniques at full speed without harm. I welcomed the opportunity to provide a focussed, committed attack against my teachers and seniors, to overcome the fear, not resist, or hold back, but commit fully, that is the way that I experienced the full potential and the many minute adjustments throughout the technique and subsequently gained the skill for myself. I hope you will also train sincerely and gain much.
All good things.
The Sunday review
A Teacher of Tai Chi Chuan reflects upon a lesson
Emerging from the cool interior of the house onto the terrace, I shield my eyes against the brightness, treading carefully on the hot pink surface, carefully, to let my bare feet adjust to the searing heat without burning. I reach the lounge chair opposite Gloria, and sit back. Within a breath or two my muscles relax under the soothing warmth of the afternoon sun, penetrating deeply despite the cooling of a gentle Atlantic breeze.
Gloria semi prone has one long brown leg stretched out, one raised at the knee, her head in shade, eyes closed, and exquisite profile clearly outlined against the azure blue of the sky. Gloria is still…. Everything is still
In the distance, 30, perhaps 40 kilometres away, the furthest mountains are bright jewels, with every tiny detail clearly visible. Brightly jewelled waves topped by a foaming crest of snowy clouds emulating another range of yet larger mountains. In the searing spotlight of the sun, contrasting sharply with the nearer hills in deep purple shadow, a small group of sentinel wind turbines proudly stand to attention, shining like freshly polished teeth. Yet, at this moment, on the nearer mountain range where my friendly local group of sentinels stand guard, or accompany me in patient cloud hands, they are apparently off duty, and totally invisible in the contrasting shadows.
Overhead smaller vapour-ish clouds, nebulous and itinerant skip about the blue, playing in the occasional breeze, as the stand of Eucalyptus across the way sways rhythmically. Their movements larger and longer than the stubby olive trees they so closely match in colour.
I close my eyes and soak in the peace and stillness…slowly the lilting ebb and flow of the breeze rustling through the Eucalyptus, the lazy warmth and freedom from ‘things which must be done’ recalls a summer day on an empty, windswept North Norfolk beach. A few stolen moments spent releasing the demands of three simultaneous careers as the soothing rhythm of waves echoed the ebb and flow of the Dao, reminding me that I am still, and always, a part of nature.
Opening my eyes, for a moment the swaying olive grey of the Eucalyptus has become the swelling and sinking North Sea, prolonging my reverie, until suddenly a bunch of chattering Goldfinch clatter past in their eternal territorial disputes, and beside me, a soft wispy shadow detaches itself from the shade of a rusty upturned wheelbarrow on the tin roof of the shed next door. Seemingly blown by the wind, it drifts to its favourite resting place amongst the upturned tiles and tin, all a familiar soothing terracotta colour and becomes part of them, lizard no longer, simply pattern within colour, safe, still.
Across to the east a charcoal grey column of new smoke gradually becomes a smudge, smeared by the same breeze that rocks the Eucalyptus. Gloria, gently stirring, recalls that yesterday, I described her technique of turning inside a led horse which unexpectedly jumps, spooked by a suddenly glimpsed anything or nothing, as perfect Aikido, it was! The horse becomes the centrifuge around her, she remains, still yet revolving in the centre, a perfect demonstration of not resisting, but merging for yesterdays student. Gloria asks what would be the difference with Tai Chi, would we have let go? No, simply circle and change direction, leading off, exactly as she did. Yesterdays lesson reviewed, we enjoy the sounds of the valley quietly returning to its gentle activity.
I hope your Sunday is enjoyable
This concludes the three part article on Holding form or Ding Shi, to develop Sung (active relaxation).
Leave 10 minutes aside toward the end of your practice session for Ding Shi. Begin with a posture you know well, perhaps 'Single whip' a double weighted posture is easier to begin with, and settle in to it. Now calm your mind and concentrate on your arms, be sure the position is correct and systematically work back from the fingertips of your right arm and relax each muscle that is not needed to maintain the position, this may need several attempts. Repeat this process for each part of your body, do not expect to get it all first time, but with persistence you will get there. Don't rush, stay calm, focussed, and centred, practice regularly and consistently. Remember to enjoy the process, deepen your awareness and be patient.
Sometimes Qigong practice like this can induce some unexpected symptoms, you can read Gloria's article on this if you look under Gloria's Blog in gloriadean.weebly.com, and also her tips on staying focussed, by clicking the more navigation bar at Golden Rooster.
Next Blog is developing skill in applications (self defence) of Tai Chi Chuan.
All good things . Keith
Keith has studied the Chinese Internal arts for over 40 years. He lives in England and Portugal with artist, designer and writer Gloria Dean and teaches in Portugal and the UK.