Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Internal Martial Arts as a Foreign Language

Learning the internal strength component of the internal martial arts is like a native speaker of English learning a foreign language like Chinese. Insofar as Chinese is linguistically different from English, so too is the quality of moving with internal strength different from our normal way of moving.

Framing the learning of internal strength in terms of learning a foreign language might be a useful model to help you gauge if you are learning a completely different body-movement language or if you are learning variations or refinements of your current body-movement language.

Let's first consider this basic sequence of language learning and cross-cultural experiences. Many of you may have walked part of all of this road in your life:
  1. If you never met a Chinese person and all you knew was based on what you heard, read, or saw on TV, then your meaning of "Chinese are X" would represent this level of understanding and experience.

  2. If you got to know a Chinese person as an acquaintance, friend, or in-law and learned to speak a few words in Chinese, for example, ni-hao, xie-xie, gam-bei, then your meaning of, "Chinese are X" would be different than before.

  3. If you took a 10 hour Chinese language class at the Community Education program and went on a ten day tour of China, then your meaning of, "Chinese are X" would be different than before.

  4. If you took a couple years of Chinese language at university, got a job in China and lived there for a year or longer, then your meaning of, "Chinese are X" would be different than before

  5. If you continued your Chinese language studies in China (in Chinese), developed complete fluency in Chinese, married a Chinese and lived within the wider Chinese community for 10, 20, or more years, then your meaning of, "Chinese are X" would be different than before.

Anthropologists and linguists have long argued over the relationships between language, thought, and culture. The way you "naturally" move is also as much a product of your native culture as is the way you "naturally" speak. Hence why this model fits so well here.

As we move through each of these five language-learning and acculturation "levels" we probably find the most people with a "Level 1" understanding and the fewest people with a "Level 5" understanding. The same is true in the internal martial arts community. Here's why.

Assume that your native body-movement language is "English" and the foreign body-movement language you want to learn is "Chinese". Remember, English, Spanish, French, and German languages are all based on or derived from the same Latin alphabet. Chinese is not.

So you come to your first Tai-chi Chuan class only knowing "English". (We'll use Tai-chi because it's the most well-known of the internal martial arts.) You learn open hand and weapons forms. Have you learned "Chinese"? No. You only learned "Spanish". You learned a variant language using your underlying "Latin alphabet".

You go on to learn Tai-chi push-hands. Have you learned "Chinese"? No. You only learned "French". You learned a variant language using your underlying "Latin alphabet".

You go on to learn Tai-chi joint locking and sparring. Have you learned "Chinese"? No.You only learned "German". You learned a variant language using your underlying "Latin alphabet".

From your "English" point of view, you think you are learning something completely different, and developing internal strength, however, the "foreign language" you are learning is merely a variant of a common underlying alphabet. An "M" is still an "M" and a "P" is still a "P". You are merely training a variant of your native body-movement language.

So how do you know when you are beginning to learn "Chinese"; a non-"Latin" body-movement language? You will know when your teacher begins teaching you 放松 and you ask if this is like "M" and your teacher says, "No"! Or your teacher begins teaching you 圆软 and you try to make it work like "P" and your teacher says, "That's wrong." Or you ask your teacher to show you 沉 and you have no letters to equate it to.

When you finally reach the understanding that there is no relation between 放松 and "M" or between 圆软 and "P" or between 沉 and any other "Latin" letter, and you can demonstrate a little 放松 and 圆软 and 沉 then you've advanced to Level 2 as above.

Just as many Americans experience culture shock when they travel to and are immersed in Chinese culture (and vice versa), when you try to make your "P" fit into 放松 or or "M" fit into 圆 or vice versa, you will probably encounter a kind of body-language culture-shock. More on this later.

See Part II: Internal Martial Arts as a Foreign Culture 

See also: How Beliefs Can Inhibit Martial Art Skill Development.
And: The Language of Internal Strength

Monday, December 17, 2012

Habits, Patterns, Blockages: Journal Notes #108

Notes from my November 2012 Zhan Zhuang Training Journal. I train with The School of Cultivation and Practice which practices Wujifa zhan zhuang. (My current reflections are added in italics.)

* Note for November, I'm still not fully back to practicing my Wujifa zhan zhuang training on a daily basis. I am doing some stance maybe 2-3 times a week for 10-20 minutes a session. However, I am doing the Wujifa adjunctive exercises and my Tai-chi form every day.

* Instructor's question to me: Why do you come to class? You're not training. You're not following through on breakthroughs you make. Why do you keep coming to class?
My answer: I don't know. Habit I guess.

Instructor: What if I told you that you couldn't come back?

Me: I don't know.

Instructor: What do you mean you don't know? I can see the expression on you face. What are you feeling?

Me: I would be sad... There must be something I'm not noticing.

Instructor: That's why you get stuck. There are things you're not noticing. How can you notice more of the things you're not noticing? Like when you said you'd be sad but that didn't come out as a response the first time.

* When you're discombobulated, confused, uncertain, that's when you're in a position to discover something. If you're in your patterns, then you're not in a position to discover anything.

* Question: Am I doing the rubberband hands exercise with more connection and movement through my upper chest? I've been practicing this the last couple weeks.
Answer: You are still using too much trapezoid and rhomboid. You need to relax more and find out how the breath moves the shoulder. If you let the shrimp move, you'll discover connection.

There are many shrimp in your body. When you feel the Wujifa shrimp, then that will help you. You have shrimp in the shoulder, neck, sternum, and kua. You have many shrimp. Don't limit yourself. Learn how the many become one.

* Question: What are you talking about, "shrimp"? What do you mean by "Wujifa shrimp"?
Answer: Here's a whole body movement exercise. You can see a similar whole-body movement in the Zebra and Mantis Shrimp when they are escaping danger.

* Fa-jing is simply an umbrella term for the quick release of stored energy. There are different ways to do this once you figure out how to move internally.

* One blockage to progressing is being afraid to really get it and become part of that small minority who really got it, who became great; being afraid of putting yourself out-there, becoming "public", taking challenges, taking "the heat".

* You must be able to move, that is, not move in a manner you've grown accustom to and as you normally identify as moving. There is another quality of movement which when done, looks like sheets of theraband pulling and stretching under the skin.

* Don't tuck! Use a different focal point to get "tuck". Push in under xyphoid process on the inhale. This creates feeling of rolling the dan-tian, belly up which creates tuck without tension. Then on the exhale, roll the belly out, down, and forward which "untucks".

* Notice your level of your functionality. If you can see the bigger picture, you can see the level of dysfunction you have. Once it is exposed, then you see the problem and what you have to work on.

* (Victor Chao made a guest appearance at the November 25th class. Here is what I consider to be the key points):
  • We practiced a method that he's currently teaching to help develop "sinking" which involved dropping the weight to the front of the "Bubbling Well" point rather than into the heel.
  • He too noticed that I'm holding in my chest; not letting go and dropping enough. Rick suggested I get Rolfed on my rib heads to help free up that part.
  • Victor read my pulse (Traditional Chinese Medicine style) and said: Strong Qi. Weak heart.
  • We then talked about "Qi flow" and arrived at an understanding that "Qi flowing" has a particular meaning in the internal martial arts which is distinct from all other definitions and uses of "Qi". In the internal martial arts, "Qi flowing" is a short-hand, abbreviated way to say the bones and connective tissue are correctly aligned which allows a particular body quality to show up. (In Wujifa we call this quality, "connection".) "Qi not flowing" means the opposite, that something in the alignment is wrong. There's muscular tension or fascial adhesion which is skewing the skeletal alignment; no connection.
  • Keep the abdomen and butt relaxed. These muscles are very strong but what you rely on for muscular strength will prevent or inhibit internal development.
  • Need to develop and use muscles of the inner side of the thighs; muscles that you normally don't use. These are the muscles used to develop fa-jing.
  • Must practice many times throughout the day even if only a few minutes. Need to develop muscle memory. If you're only practicing once or twice a day, you'll never get there because what you're not practicing is what you are practicing. Whatever you habitually do is either building or reinforcing muscle memory. (Sitting behind a desk, steering wheel, lunch table, sofa, etc. 10-12 hours a day outpaces 1-2 hours of practice.)
  • "Dragon Waves Tail" in BaGua refers to moving the tailbone. The tailbone has to move for fa-jing to occur. If you practice stance and your tailbone doesn't move, then this is practicing the wrong way. Need to open and close with breathing. If not, then you are locking.
Further reading:
Introductory article explaining this "Journal Notes" series: Zhan Zhuang Training Journal
Previous article in this series: Back To Where I Was Six Months Ago: Journal Notes #107
Next article in this series: - Submitting to the Experience: Journal Notes #109

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Basic Training for Silk Reeling and Taijiquan

For beginners, Chen Xiaowang's "The Five Levels of Taijiquan" can be a bit abstract. Here is a really nice article that explains clearly and in plain English the practices and the changes the body goes through in developing what I understand to be those First Level Taijiquan skills.

What was gratifying for me in reading this article was that I resonated with most of what he was describing. I attribute this to my Wujifa training experiences, many of which I've shared in this blog. That said, I still consider myself unable to demonstrate some of these higher-level, basic skills. I need to practice more.... much more!

Read the full article here: The Five Most Important Taijiquan Skills for Beginners
The Five Most Important Taijiquan Skills for Beginners
by Wang Hai Jun and translated by Nick Gudge (2010)
Many people spend years studying taijiquan but for most of them their progress is slow in gaining the skills of taijiquan. Part of this is probably insufficient practice, but a significant element is not understanding the basic skills that beginners are required to develop. It is not possible to start taijiquan training and learning at a high level. Using conventional learning as an analogy, it would be like trying to start at Phd. research Level. In reality, first there is primary education, then secondary education, then undergraduate study etc. This is equally true in taijiquan. Without a good mental and physical understanding of the basic skills that are at the foundation of taiji, high level taiji skills will not be developed. It is not magic, but the result of consistent and sufficient training in the correct manner.
When asked what I consider the five most important skills for a beginner student in taijiquan, I  listed them as:
  1. Fang Song – Loosen the body by relaxing the joints
  2. Peng Jing – an outward supportive strength, the basic skill of taiji
  3. Ding Jing – upright and straight
  4. Chen - rooted
  5. Chan Si Jing – Reeling Silk Skill
These five basic skills should be considered the early steps in taijiquan training. Without these basic skills being embedded in the body and the accompanying changes that occur during the process, a student is stuck outside of taijiquan. They are learnt through exercises and in the process of learning and training the foundation form of taijiquan.

Master Wang Hai-Jun was the first non- Chen family student to be traditionally trained in Chen Village in Henan in modern times. His teacher, Grandmaster Chen Zhenglei, is one of the "Four Golden Tigers" of Chen style Taiji. More information is available at Master Wang Hai-Jun's Chen Taiji Academy.

And if you haven't read Chen Xiao-wang's Five Levels of Taijiquan, you can find information about this at my article about The Five Levels of Taijiquan.