Archive for November, 2010

The Relativity of Structure

Thursday, November 4th, 2010

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.

Structure – How to learn it

Thursday, November 4th, 2010

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.

Pushing Hands Without being Pushy

Thursday, November 4th, 2010

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.