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The Five Most Important Taijiquan Skills for Beginners
Part one of a three part article by Wang Hai Jun
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:
All of these ideas are very difficult to describe in words. In a recent article in the Spring 2010 edition of this magazine I wrote about the traditional Six Stages of Learning in Chen style taijiquan. At the request of my students, in this three part article I have provided some understanding of what to concentrate on as a beginner to make progress in Taijiquan. This article introduces these ideas and examines more closely the first of them. The second article covers the second and third skills and the final article covers the fourth and fifth skills and summarises.
These beginners' skills are complimentary to each other and are acquired slowly with persistence of practice. Understanding what they are does not come all at once. With the aid of a teacher, the mind grasps a bit of the idea first. Then, with considerable practice, the body gets the idea. Then with lots more practice it becomes a part of a person. It is not like a light switch, being either on or off, although some part of learning these skills can seem that way. Only when the body understands at a certain level can the mind grasp what is beyond that level. As many teachers have commented, it is not possible to jump to a full understanding. It is not a mental trick, or something to do with intellect or high intelligence. It is a process that has many possible detours and no short cuts.
These five basic skills are not learned one after the other. The student does not completely understand fang song before starting to understand peng jin. Rather they are collective, with progress in each skill acting as an aid to progress in the others. A little bit more skill gained here and a little bit more there. Persistence in practice provides the opportunity for progress. The more practice done utilising these skills the more progress is made.
I thought at first to put Peng Jin as the first skill as it is the central taijiquan skill. However, without fang song, peng jin will not develop, so I will start by talking about fang song.
Fang Song - Loosen the body
The first of these skills is fang song, sometimes abbreviated to song. Song is frequently translated as "relax". While this is true, it does not really describe the process. The joints must relax, but as a consequence other parts of the body must work hard, particularly the legs. Loosening the joints is perhaps a better translation. The result should not be a body like a cooked bowl of noodles: rather it should be like a solid piece of rubber, strong but not stiff. The term fang has two meanings. The first is about something remaining under control, connected to both the mind and the body (i.e. in this case not going limp). The second is to put something down, away from you. The combination of these two meanings provides the understanding needed.
For most people studying taijiquan, song appears early on in their lessons. Unfortunately, most adults (and many children) are much stiffer than they realise. We do not know where we are tight, nor the degree of stiffness we generally maintain in our joints. In taijiquan, song describes the requirement of loosening the joints, relaxing the habitual stiffness from them, getting used to holding them without stiffness, then moving them without stiffness: shoulders and hips, elbows and knees, the spine, particularly in the waist, the ankles and wrists.
When a joint is loosened, it is free to rotate or turn without hindrance or resistance. It is this ability that is required in taijiquan. The taijiquan classics talk of even the smallest pressure of a feather or a fly causing movement, like a finely balanced and oiled ball-bearing, where even the lightest touch causes it to rotate.
How do we know when a joint is stiff? Well, initially we do not know it is stiff, but as a learning tool it is probably more effective to say that as adults they always are stiff, usually to a much greater degree than we realise. While this is an unpalatable truth, it is a good starting point. A good teacher helps a student see where their stiffness lies. The student needs to be shown repeatedly where a joint is stiff. This is because the student neither knows that the stiffness is there nor how to loosen it. Their habit is to move with this stiffness. With practise, the joints become looser, and deeper structural stiffness becomes apparent. As the shoulders loosen, the arms feel heavier. As the hips loosen, the legs work considerably harder. So, for the beginner, heaviness in the arms and the legs working very hard, are good indicators that the skill of fang song is being developed.
Stiffness is difficult to recognise, but the effects of stiffness are easier to see. As the joints stiffen, they rise up. As they are loosened, the body, particularly the hips and shoulders, sinks down. For a beginner it is easy to confuse bending the knees for relaxing the hips (song kua), and lowering the arms for relaxing the shoulders. One of the many reasons why taijiquan is called an oral art is that it requires a teacher who understands to show the way. Most people need to be shown the way repeatedly before they understand it in their mind, and then corrected repeatedly before they understand it in their body. Much practice through this process is required for it to make sense and take hold. Many people get the basic idea in their mind but do not practice enough to realise it in their body.
There is a method or order to progression. The forms of taijiquan are the framework on which the method is hung. Within the forms, each posture offers an opportunity to understand the various levels of loosening the body.
Around each joint is a structure of muscle. For all the joints that rotate, we can initially consider them having a top, bottom, front and back. Each part needs to be trained to loosen before the joint will open properly. As an example, let us look at fang song in the hips. (This process is called song kua - loosen the hips.) In the hips, usually the stiffness in the top section is most prominent. Once this is loosened then the front becomes more prominent and can be paid attention to. After this, attention can be paid to the back of the hip and then the underneath part. The student needs to be shown where to relax many times until they catch the idea, then practice until the loosening takes place in the body without need of attention. Once this skill is gained in one part, then the mind can be used to address the next area of stiffness. Each student is a little different but the process is the same.
As each part of a joint is loosened, other parts of the body assume the workload of holding the body. In the beginning, this is mostly felt in the legs. Loosening the hips a little brings a significant additional workload onto the thighs. Until the legs become used to doing this extra work, no more loosening of the hips can be learnt. Loosening the hips a little makes the legs work much harder. Practicing with this extra work in the legs makes them stronger. When they have been strengthened in this way and are used to this extra work, then more loosening can take place. There is a saying, to gain taiji gong fu, go to bed with tired legs and wake up with tired legs. In other words, loosen the hips so the legs work so hard that even in the morning they are still tired.
Once the joints are loosened, they will be free to rotate properly and to transmit rotation to and from other parts of the body. This is a fundamental requirement of taijiquan. Any impediment to the joints rotating freely will result in a diminishing of taijiquan skill. The more joints that are unable to rotate freely, or the greater the resistance within each joint, the less taijiquan skill will be apparent. The more joints that are able to rotate freely, or the lesser the resistance within each joint, the greater the taijiquan skill will be apparent. This is why loosening the body is the first, most basic skill in taijiquan.
The second article will focus on helping beginners grasp the ideas of peng jin and ding jin.
Wang Hai Jun is three times All China National Taijiquan Champion in forms, weapons and push hand. He is also the trainer of five other All China National Taijiquan Champions. He lives in Manchester and teaches in the UK throughout the year in London and Manchester. Visit www.wanghaijun.com
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