Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Internal Martial Arts Lineages and Psychosomatic Genealogy

Internal martial art lineages are much more than styles, names and photos on a family tree. Although many people engage in polarized debates about these elements of lineages, this level of discourse completely misses the most fundamental component of lineages; the psychosomatic genealogy.

Of course, internal martial art styles, names and photos are the mainstay of historians and biographers. These elements also provide teachers with fodder to persuade would-be students to join their school. However, this level of martial art genealogy is not worth much past this point.

I've always enjoyed "people watching" whether I'm at a shopping mall, airport, college campus, family gatherings, or wherever. What is especially fascinating is noticing resemblances between fathers and sons, and mothers and daughters. And then sometimes there are resemblances where there is no known relation. These can be fascinating curiosities waiting to be revealed!

Seeing three generations; grandparents, parents, and children, provides another dimension into how various traits are combined, "passed down" and "picked up" by the third generation. Some traits like height or facial structure may be passed down. Some traits like psychosomatic characteristics are picked up via conscious or unconscious mimicry. In the martial arts, a teacher's psychosomatic traits are both passed down and picked up by the student.

By way of example, let's consider one very obvious element in the student-becomes-teacher cycle; hunching in the shoulders and the head jutting forward. This complex is one example of violating a basic principle: Relax! And in the relax, find homeostatic balance.

If a teacher is not aware that he hunches and carries his head forward and does not work on resolving the life-habits or tensions that result in hunching and head jutting forward, then this element of body work will likely never become conscious to the teacher and so it will remain "invisible". Similarly, if this aspect of structure was naturally correct and never needed to consciously be addressed, then too, it will remain "invisible". Never having addressed this structural issue in himself, he is less likely to notice or address this in his students. And this "trait" (not "seeing" hunch/head forward) is passed on.

Most students of the internal martial arts are already adults with their emotional-muscular traumas and psychosomatic patterns firmly in place. I speak from experience! If the student "naturally" has a hunch and head forward posture and the teacher doesn't correct it (for reasons mentioned above), then conscious and unconscious mimicking of the teacher will reinforce this trait in the student. And this "trait" is picked up.

This is but one very gross example of the typically unrecognized or dark side of lineages. When students mimic their teachers, they are likely not aware themselves of what they mis-mimicked or missed altogether. And through practice, this bad habit grows deeper and deeper roots. Later, if this student teaches, then he will teach what he thinks he remembers mimicking not even aware of what he got, got wrong or didn't get at all. This is the level where dilution and corruption of the internal art is unconsciously introduced. How many generations of student-becomes-teacher does it take to dilute and corrupt the original internal art? One generation.

Now, let's look at how this genealogical example played out in the early days of Tai-chi Chuan in the United States. A handful of practitioners who came from Taiwan became instrumental in modeling the physical "look" of Tai-chi Chuan for generations of American students. When we consider in what context and how these practitioners were taught, their level of development, the cultural and language barriers encountered in the U.S., and the orientation and virginal naivete of their American students, this mileau presents a fascinating study in psychosomatic genealogy; noticing what got modeled, mimicked and passed on in the name of Tai-chi Chuan.

We are extremely lucky to have videos of two of the earliest practitioners responsible for modeling Tai-chi Chuan in the U.S. Seeing these practitioners together is hugely instructive if you can see what you are looking at! In this first video is Zheng Man-qing (郑曼青). Watch a few minutes. Notice the slight hunch and head forward in his posture.

Cheng Man-Ch'ing Tai Chi Form

Now watch a few minutes of this video of  William Chen Chih-Cheng (陳至誠) who was one of Zheng Man-qing's students. William was 30 years young when this video was made in 1975. Again, pay particular attention to the pronounced hunch and head forward in his posture.

Tai-chi Grandmaster William Chen discusses Tai-chi and Demonstrates his Form

We've all heard the phrase,  "What you don't know can hurt you." This is also true in learning the internal martial arts. When I was a "child" learning Tai-chi Chuan in the 1980s, I had a naive faith that the physicality that William modeled was what I should embody. I didn't know any different and I learned my lessons well.

When I view these videos now with fresh eyes after clearing out much of those embodied patterns, I now see practitioners who are hunched, whose torsos are rigid and stiff, who have tension across the shoulders, whose hips are stiff and don''t have a lot of root or whole-body connection. I did not see this when I began my first Tai-chi class.

Viewing these old movies from the point of view of "people watching" shines a light on a usually hidden aspect of internal martial art lineages; the psychosomatic genealogy. And just as an art can be diluted and corrupted in one generation, so too can the art be re-invigorated in one generation when there is a singular focus to return to the principles and figure out how to embody the principles.

As a footnote, I am not singling out this teacher-student pair as being a better or worse example of what can occur between any other teacher-student pair. I chose these videos because, A) I knew about these practitioners, B) Their videos are easy to access. C) They are performing the same training routine. D) It is easy to see the trait in question. I did look for other teacher-student pairs of videos (that I knew of) but could not find a duo performing a similar training routine. If you know of another pair of videos you'd like me to post, please let me know.

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