This brief article answers these questions by considering parallels between A) silk reeling for the production of silk and B) Silk Reeling exercise.
When I first learned Chen Silk Reeling, I only had a vague reference point to pulling silk from a cocoon based on a tour I attended of a silk factory in China years earlier. Outside of that, I really didn't know anything about Silk Reeling.
Now after years of Wujifa Zhan Zhuang and other practices, I think I've got a much better feeling for and understanding of Silk Reeling and I'd like to share this with you.
As I wrote earlier, and I am more convinced now than then, that learning and practicing Silk Reeling forms as they are commonly taught is not the same as doing silk reeling:
"A common error that beginners make when learning Silk Reeling exercises is focusing on learning the various Silk Reeling forms and then believe they are doing silk reeling. Instructors who teach silk reeling exercises say to practice the forms as if pulling a silk thread from a cocoon. Well, folks, a beginner doesn't even have a thread to pull much less worrying about how to pull it! Silk reeling exercises are not about employing the imagination process but rather about something much more kinesthetic and tactile."
There are many on-line resources to learn about silk production, for example, Silk Making and Silk Production and Silk Fabric Production in Shanghai, China which has nice explanations and excellent pictures.
Basically, a silkworm eats a lot, grows really fast and rotates its body in a figure-8 movement some 300,000 times, constructing a cocoon and producing about a kilometer of silk filament.
In the same way that a silkworm weaves a complex pattern for its cocoon, so too through our lives, we weave a complex pattern, layer upon layer of psycho-physical, emotional-muscular patterns which form a kind of "cocoon".
The silkworm's cocoon is then treated with hot air, steam, or boiling water. The silk is then unbound from the cocoon by softening the sericin and then delicately and carefully unwinding, or 'reeling' the filaments from 4 - 8 cocoons at once, sometimes with a slight twist, to create a single strand.
In the same way that the cocoon needs to be softened before reeling the filament from the cocoon, so too do our hardened mind-body "cocoons" need to be softened to develop internal feeling sensitivity. Relax. Calm down.
Just as boiling is a method to relax the silkworm cocoon, so too there are a variety of methods that may include but are not limited to Wujifa Zhan Zhuang stance, Rolfing Structural Integration, Bio-Energetic Analysis and so on, that help us relax our "cocoon".
Watch the first 50 seconds of this video that deals with silk reeling: How Silk is Made in China.
Notice the method used to discover or find the end of the silk filament.
In the same way, an experienced teacher is needed to help you discover and identify for you the feeling of your internal silk filament.
Notice how fine, how nearly invisible, and as she says, how soft is the silk filament from the cocoon!
In the same way, the level of feeling sensitivity you must develop in your body to detect, as it were, a single silk filament is far beyond the usual feeling sensitivity level of most people which I'll say is a feeling level in the range of steel cable and manila rope! In comparison to where I am now, when I started practicing Tai-chi, I was in this feeling level range too.
Years of practicing Tai-chi forms and push-hands really only helped me refine my cable and rope feeling level. It wasn't until I got into Wujifa Zhan Zhuang, Rolfing and other Wujifa practices that my internal feeling sensitivity developed to a much deeper level. Now, after years of these practices, I am probably now feeling to the level of cotton string.
In the past when my Wujifa instructor adjusted me to help me feel a single silk filament, I would say it felt like nothing. So subtle is the feeling of silk filament when my feeling sensitivity level was at the cable and rope level! Now after more "boiling" and repeated "See? Here is the end of the filament.", I'm developing the internal kinesthetic sensitivity to identify the difference between my string feeling level and silk feeling level!
Just as silk production is complex and labor intensive, so too is the process of developing the internal kinesthetic sensitivity to the feeling level of a single silk filament.
In this analogy, muscular tension and the feeling sensitivity at the muscular level is represented by steel cable and rope and the feeling and sensitivity of fascial stretch is represented by silk filament.
So if you are doing Silk Reeling forms and your level of feeling is steel cable or manila rope, then, if you're like me and you're looking to develop internal strength and whole body connectedness, then you might consider putting your "cocoon" in the boiling waters of zhan zhuang and other practices until you relax your muscular tensions and develop the more subtle silk filament feeling of fascial stretch.
You need to grasp the end of the silk filament first before you can reel silk!
Hope this helps. Happy practicing everyone!