OK, once you’ve got the Large San Sau down, the thing you need to do is to start adding a bit of power. This will start to happen naturally as you learn the movements, fluency seems to bring some power with it, but what I am referring to, is a more intelligent use of power.
Experiment with degrees of power to find out how much power you and your partner can dish out, and also how much you can receive without getting too badly disrupted. Keeping the flow and the form moving is the goal, and you should aim to do this despite getting disrupted. If you’re the one who’s just done the disrupting, you should start becoming aware of what you’ve just done, notice that your partner is that fraction of a second slower on the next move, become aware of the options open to you on speed, power and timing of the next move.
This is all very valuable combat practise, as you get the experience of being bashed and battered about, and can learn how to deal with it in a safe environment. Equally, you can learn what your movements can do to someone else.
To give you an example, when Mark and I first started applying some meaningful power to this, we noticed that some of our angles would go out of whack. Some parries would literally spin me 45 degrees off line and I’d end up facing in completely the wrong direction, and have to struggle to get the defense for the next move in.
Another thing we noticed was this phenomenon of “body shock”. Sometimes when you are struck, it doesn’t really matter where, the body takes a little shock, and it stops whilst your awareness goes to the bit of you that’s just been hit. If you’re not used to it, it’s quite disconcerting and that pause, even if it’s a fraction of a second is bad news in a self-defense situation. The san sau allows you to experience this “body shock” and learn how to deal with it in an environment that is safe so that should you ever experience it for real, you’ll already know how to deal with it.
The Large San Sau is one complicated beast. The movements are complex, and unless you’re already very well versed in movement, you won’t be able to do all of the movements, let alone pull off all of the techniques.
So, you have to give yourself a bit of a break, and focus on the techniques and movements that you find easy, the ones you can do and do your best impression of the ones that you can’t.
Having a regular partner to work with also helps. As you progress you’ll develop an understanding of which bits of the san sau you can do well and which bits you’ll have to improvise through. Being cooperative rather than competitive will also help a lot. If your partner knows you’re slow on a particular move, then he or she can play that one slightly slower, to allow you time to actually pull the move off. Over time you’ll get faster and better at it.
I can’t emphasise enough how helpful a regular training partner is. They will be able to give you feedback on how you’re moving, and whether anything is changing from week to week and you should do the same for them.
Lastly, when you’re starting to learn the san sau, don’t worry too much about combat effectiveness, power or being able to “make it work”. Just learn the movements, and get a good flow going. You need to be able to do the movements without thinking about them, because this frees up headspace to work on power, timing etc. Most importantly, it helps keep the practise safe. If you’re always thinking about which move comes next, you won’t really be thinking about that fist coming towards you at speed.
One of the injustices of training structure is that it’s all relative, and you can only measure your structure either relative to other people, or relative to what it used to be like.
As you make changes to your structure there will be a period of time where you’re aware of it, and once it becomes habit (or skill) you will cease to be aware of it. Nevertheless your structure has improved by that little bit.
So if your body feels the same as it did three months ago, how can you be sure your structure has improved?
The answer is pushing hands, you’ll notice that you’ll be less easily moved by people, your movement will have a bit more discipline to it. Chances are your training partners will remark to you that something has changed.
So, if things don’t feel like they’re any different, take heart. If you’ve been training diligently, they will be different. Go do some pushing hands and find out how different.
We talk a lot about structure in Taiji. Whenever we do mention “structure”, students nod sagely, but it occurred to me that Greeny and I have never really said what “structure” actually is.
In a nutshell, structure is a combination of the following:
- Alignment: When you align your skeleton in the correct way, it allows your body to relax, receive force and also apply force more easily. (Posture)
- Coordination: Your muscles must be able to comfortably hold your skeleton in the right position, and be able to move your body whilst maintaining that alignment, and this takes coordination and skill.
- Awareness: Structure has to be self-correcting. If you drift out of the right structure, your body needs to be able to get itself back in to the right alignment.
Now, the reason why structure always seems a bit like a Jedi power is because it cannot be explained in words because I cannot articulate how things feel under my skin. It’s an internal thing.
Structure can only be learned experientially, that is, you have to have an experience of what it feels like to recognise what it is, and then subsequently your practise tries to recreate that experience to develop your structure.
The good news is that there are many, many ways to get the experience of good structure:
- Standing meditation: The is the easiest and perhaps the best way to get an experience of what structure feels like. You’re standing still so you’re going to have a lot of headspace to focus on what your body feels like. There is no movement to focus on or distract you. In fact, standing meditation is such a good exercise for body awareness that I still do a lot of it today. Standing meditation really helps to build alignment and awareness from the summary above.
- Form: Playing form slowly helps you build the coordination to keep yourself in good structure. Movement requires your muscles to work in a coordinated way, and slow movement through the form will teach them to hold the right alignment whilst you’re moving. A lot of students who practise a lot of standing report that their form starts to feel like standing after a while. This is a very good thing.
- Pushing hands: Pushing hands is a much more dynamic way to learn structure. This method works all three simultaneously, which is why it can seem a bit bewildering, but it’s also the most direct. You get instant feedback on whether your structure is good or not and more importantly, it shows up holes in your structure that you weren’t aware of.
This is going to sound a bit like a con, but all the exercises are just normal Taiji training methods, there’s no secret technique to it. The best way to learn, it would seem, is to do.
The term “pushing hands” is a bit of a misnomer. The exercise is a tool, a method that you can use to develop specific skills and qualities within the body and practically none of these skills is about pushing. Come to think of it “Complicated Arm Rolling Exercise” is more apt.
There are, broadly speaking, four components to pushing hands, and each component builds a certain skill or quality in the body. Now, these components are things you can drill whatever your level or that of your partner’s
The first component is movement – you’ll need to get good at going round and round, or side to side, forward and backwards and up and down. Just as important as becoming comfortable with the movement is being able to do the movement and flow with a partner. Relaxation, flow and smoothness are what you’re aiming for here. The focus here is internal, get to know how your body moves, where the areas of tension are, and where you find it difficult to do the movement. Experiment. Play.
The second component is what I like to call “switching off”. You must learn to move your awareness away from the movement. This is something that needs to be learnt, and it won’t just happen because you will have spent a lot of time concentrating on the movement and out of habit your awareness will focus there. The objective here is to let your body do the movement rather than make your body do the movement. If your practise of the movement has been good and thorough, your muscle memory will take over and just do the movement without you needing to try to do anything.
The third component is listening. Now that you can move and you’ve freed up the headspace that would have been spent on doing the movement, you can then focus this awareness on your partner and what they are doing. How is their balance, is there any tension? Are any parts of the circle weak, where are their strengths? Get to know what your partner’s movement is saying. People have called this “Listening with the skin” or “seeing with the hands”.
The final component is that of integration. You need to learn to do the first three components all together at the same time, and you might find that your awareness. You need to be able to unconsciously do good movement whilst listening to your partner’s movements.
Each component in detail is probably worth of several blog posts alone, so it’s fair to say that you’ll never really run out of detail to work on in your pushing hands. As soon as you master one aspect, another will be discovered so that you can continue your learning.
The first fa jin in the 99-step Chen Pan Ling form we do often causes students some problems. The logical thing to do would be to copy the movement, but that’s not really how you can get this posture, or for that fact, any posture right. Technically perfect movement is still not Taiji. One student we had a few years ago was a professional dancer and it took her three weeks to learn the form. What she didn’t get was the understanding of the flavour of the movement. This flavour, this feeling is what makes Taiji what it is rather than a sequence of movements. Flavour is in the feeling. The English language is well equipped to describe each sense in isolation, we have many adjectives for describing sight, sound and touch, but the feeling of movement is a combination of these senses for which English, or for that fact any other language has no vocabulary to describe.
So, how do you learn something you can’t describe? Through experience.
The process of learning Taiji is largely experiential. It isn’t till you have experience the flavour that you can really know or understand it. Some teaching methods just got the student to repeat the postures again and again until an awareness of the flavour develops, but we don’t believe that is an efficient way to learn. What we prefer to do is to present different metaphors, give new perspectives to the student that they can try with the movement until they catch a glimpse of the flavour they’re aiming to capture. That glimpse is all that’s really necessary, as the student can then develop that glimpse until it is a part of the form they practise every day.
Last year, I hurt my back – and I used my Taiji form to help me heal it and get back to my normal self within a week or so.. And I thought I should share how I did it.
It’s my own fault really, I had a “me Tarzan, You Jane” moment and was a typical man. I lifted a 45kg chest of drawers from the showroom to the car and then up the stairs to my son’s bedroom. Now, bear in mind that I (Tannage) am a middle-aged 5’4″ midget who weighs in at 65kg.
So, unsurprisingly something had to give, and unfortunately it wasn’t my pride.
Two days later, I wake up unable to really bend at the middle. If anyone of you have ever seen the Cybermen, that’s what I looked like when I walked around, well minus the shiny suit and evilness.
My back had gone into spasm, and a rather unpleasant spasm it was. I get stabbing pain, the sort that feels like hot chopsticks being stuck into your body.
Taiji person, heal thyself
So, having taken this hit to my pride, I resolved to be even more of a man. No painkillers. Stabbing pain? Crippling discomfort? Nah, I will be a man and get through it all!
Well.. Actually there was a method to my madness.
I’ve used Taiji to help me heal my back before, but it’s not quite as straightforward as just running through the form again and again, although that would also help.
Shotgun vs Sniper Rifle
Practising Taiji form heals the whole body, and if you have a bad back it will also help heal it, but this is something of a shotgun approach. A rising tide lifts all boats so they say. Raise the general health of the body and the back will heal itself.
Y’see, for a Taiji person, I was (1) Impatient, (2) in dire need of salvaging some pride.
I prefer Taiji practise for healing to be somewhat more focussed, I prefer it to be like a sniper rifle.
The question then is..
How Can I Practise Specifically To Heal My Back?
First up, I played through the form, paying attention to which postures caused discomfort, and the nature of the discomfort. Yeah I was doing the macho thing without taking painkillers, but there is method to the madness. Painkillers dull your sensations, and by taking them I would have dulled my sensitivity to the pain, and would therefore not have got as good a reading on which postures I needed to work on.
Don’t get me wrong, if you’re thinking of doing this, and you ARE in severe pain, maybe take some (but always consult your doctor first). There’s no point in being in so much pain you can’t concentrate on anything.
1) Find the Postures That Hurt
I drew up a list of postures that were uncomfortable or painful, and took some notes on how these postures were different to the normal way I usually practised. Unsurprisingly, these postures were the ones that all had gentle flexing of the back, like cloud hands, snake creeps down, needles at sea bottom and especially grasp swallow’s tail.
2) Play The Form, Focussing On The Postures That Hurt
So what I did next was play the form repeatedly, paying attention to those postures, focussing on the back at those postures and making sure it got some movement and some flexing and circulation during the form. The main focus was in relaxation, as it was my back muscles going into spasm that was causing all the pain. I didn’t push these postures as hard as I normally did, didn’t sink as low, or make the movements too big, as the focus was to help rehabilitate the back.
Well, it’s remarkable what a few days of focussed practise can do.
3) Other things to consider
Now this, in of itself is not the whole story. I was also paying strict attention to how I was holding my body during the day, as bad posture is a major contributor to my back pain, as a bad posture is sure to bend an already hurt back even more out of shape. Give your back the best chance at healing itself is what I say, so even though I’d be practising, I’d still be doing other things that would help too.
It took a week, but my back was well and I had no pain after that time.
It’s worth mentioning that I had strained the muscles in my back, and there was no structural damage like tearing or inflammation. This was a back spasm (which I’m sure many of you will be aware of), so if you have some tissue damage this method may not work and you should see a health professional.
Taiji Form is a Tool
Taiji form is more than just a sequence of healing movements. It’s a tool that has certain properties. Just like you can use a knife to cut vegetables, slice meat and so on, your Taiji form can also be used in a variety of healing ways, it’s a tool that, if used in the right way can yield great results.
Well, some of you might know that we’re back from a bit of a long absence, the last post was in September 2009! That’s a long time away but we do have a good excuse. Really, we do.
The excuse is babies. We’ve both had a baby each, and those of you who are parents will know and understand our rather tenuous excuse for not posting here. It’s Greeny’s second and Tannage’s first.
First I introduce you to Mackenzie Green, second born of the Greeny and already nearly as tall as Tannage.
Next but not least, is Jin, Tannage’s little boy, born New Year’s Eve and truly the ruler of his household!
There have been numerous posts recently on how to do fajin, and we’ve received quite a few emails about how the fajin can be used in a more self-defense and combat context. So in answer to all the questions:
1) Yes you can use fajin to issue power, but doing it in a combat context is a different avenue of study to that of cultivation. When you’re learning it you can use it to cultivate both but there comes a point when you have to decide within your training session either to train power issuance, or train cultivation.
2) No it is not a method to crush bone and smash all and sundry in just 7 days. Crushing said bone is just a by product of being able to generate power. Proper fajin, in that I mean, fajin that isn’t going to injure you or your training partner is the result of careful training. Power as they say, is nothing without control and developing just the power bit is not going to help you to crush aforesaid bone. You also need to develop accuracy and control to deliver the goods where and when you want to
3) Yes, cultivation and self defence are two different avenues of study, both have many common elements to begin with but quickly branch off. You can specialise in one or the other or spread yourself over the two depending on your own training goals
4) There is a two man form in taiji, and parts of it are what you see in the video above. If there is a way to perform it for health we don’t know it, for us, cultivation is mainly done via forms and qigong, we save the paired exercises for trying to bat each other senseless.