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The ‘Empty Force’ Of Tai Chi

 

Photo on 23-10-2017 at 17.52 #3

‘Empty force’ sounds nebulous and difficult to understand, but it isn’t. The body is a spring, when the posture is correct and the joints unlocked, when the soft tissue carries no unnecessary tension – the compression and release of a combination of the joints, including the spine, bodycore and soft tissue is a skill that can be trained in a multitude of ways.

The first level of skill is to unlock the body and keep it unlocked, start with good posture and then unlock the ankles, knees, hips, back and chest with the mantra ‘soften and connect’ when you can drop your bodyweight into the arches of your feet and feel them spread to the floor with the weight you’re ready to pump.

If you were to then jump in the air you would bend the joints and spring upwards, making the body ‘float’ upwards with an emptiness – and that’s what we’re looking for. Then try it without leaving the ground making the arms raise and float upwards with the Tai Chi technique at the beginning of the form called ‘raise hands’ although the hands float up they should still be connected to the feet so it they contacted the opponent at any point, the power would still come directly from the feet.

Then practice a series of exercises, (the Yang Family qigong is specifically designed for this purpose) making each part of the body float in every range of movement with that ’empty but connected to the feet’ sensation constantly unlocking and springing through the joints and soft tissue.

The next stage is the Tai Chi form with every technique practised in the same way so that you ‘float’ through the form with that characteristic soft, smooth, spiralling but still powerfully connected manner where at any point you can repel an opponent and also send an additional pulse in the same manner of a dynamic ‘pinball’ of energy into an opponent without overextending into them or collapsing from their pressure or your own technical failure.

This can then be applied to push hands and application work in a variety of skillsets.

The idea is simple. The action takes considerable training, but the skill is layered in at each stage. The purpose of this blog is to give you the vision of where to go and be able to recognise the training plan to get you there.

In Karate you may recognise the same process as ‘sink, swallow, float and spit’.

It’s an old internal skill that is rapidly getting lost as martial artists move from principles to technique only and a gym style of muscular development, throwing the baby out with the bathwater as they do so.

It wasn’t called ‘Soft Cotton Boxing’ and ‘Deceptive Boxing’ for nothing!

 

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Standing Neigong

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Standing Neigong

Several people have today messaged me asking questions about neigong and to explain the benefits and basics of how we do it in our training system.

The benefits of Standing neigong are as follows:

Good posture
Good balance
Good rooting
An understanding of left/right and upper/lower body harmony
Good breathing
An aware, focused sensitive and intense mind
Emotional intelligence
An intuitive understanding of yin and yang

The 5 basic postures are:

Neutral
Upper Yin
Upper Yang
Lower Yin
Lower Yang

There is an excellent set of videos called ‘stand still – be fit’ that can be seen here:

 

The basic way that we teach at Shi Kon is as follows:

Neutral
Stand with the feet pointing to the front and under the line of the shoulders.
Straighten the body and raise the head ‘as if suspended by a rope from above’.
Place the tongue to the top palette with the eyes looking straight ahead.
Loosen ankles, knees, hips, shoulders, elbows and wrists.
Lightly and actively stretch the myofascia up through the crown of the head and out through the fingertips .
Gently spiral the myofascia outwards from both feet upwards not affecting the ankles or knees and gently opening the hips, releasing the buttocks and lower back to allow the spine to lengthen and to stabilise the core into the diaphragm.
Turn the palms of the hands to face backwards returning them to the inwards position from the wrists only.
Gently pull the PC muscle until it engages the tailbone.
Find your natural breathing rhythm as taught in class breathing from the dantien.
Ensure left and right harmony in feet, ankles, knees, hips, shoulders, elbows,wrists and hands.
Ensure upper and lower harmony of feet to hands, ankles to wrists, knees to elbows and hips to shoulders.
These basics are maintained at all times and then:

Upper Yin
Bring the arms up and rest their weight onto your core.
Gently bow and connect the 3 bows of legs, spine and arms.
Connect with the energy and rest the mind and emotions on:
Patience
Kindness
Tolerance 
Compassion

Lower Yin
Is the same apart from the arms being down in the same frame in front of the Dantien.

Upper Yang
In upper yin turn the hands over at the wrists and slightly cup them bowing the 3 bows more intensely connecting with the energy and resting the mind and emotions on:
Resolve
Determination 
Courage
Power

Lower Yang
Is the same apart from the arms being down with the same frame until the thumbs point to the middle of your legs.

Apart from the occasional fist, crane beak and needle hand the entire Tai Chi form is the transitioning of these hands, therefore essential learning for any Tai Chi practitioner. In Shi Kon we don’t hold any position for too long but transition from one to the other learning how to switch polarity and mindset at will.

This is only the basics and a reminder for those training in the Shi Kon system, IT IS ESSENTIAL THAT YOU ARE TAUGHT BY A PROPERLY REGISTERED SHI KON INSTRUCTOR.

 

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The Importance Of Qigong In Form

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The Importance Of Qigong In Form

Tsou lou hsih au pu!”  Sifu called the name of the technique known as ‘brush knee’ in English, it’s repeated several times in the Yang Chen Fu tai chi form, signifying it’s importance for training the basic ideas and principles of tai chi.

“Claire, you’re coming out of your legs and loosing your root as you step forwards,” Sifu advised.

“I can’t see how I can stop doing that,” Claire said with a look of confusion on her face.

“You need to soften down into your legs before you move and use your body skills to lift the leg without coming up,” Sifu said

“Body skills?  What body skills?”  Claire asked.

“Precisely…” said Sifu with a humorous wink of the eye.  “The body skills are in the chi kung exercises, just about all of the 24 exercises are contained within the stepping movement, can’t you see that?”

“I don’t really practise the exercises that much,” said Claire emptily.

“Then I’m not surprised that you haven’t developed the necessary skills in the form!” replied Sifu.

“I can’t see the point if I’m going to practise the skills in the form anyway…” ventured Claire.

“Maybe now you can see the point, because if you haven’t worked the specific skills in the exercises you aren’t able to apply them in the form” said Sifu in an exasperated tone.

He continued – “Each exercise awakens and trains a power source, that’s 24 specific ways of empowering a technique, by realising them in the exercises, you are able to discover them in a multitude of ways and variations in the form, as you move, your body will ‘find’ them as it recognises the familiar signals trained in the exercises.”

“But surely, doing the form we’ll learn them anyway?” Claire asked.

Sifu answered “you’ll be training them in many different ways and will have to learn hundreds of different ways of applying the skills, when you have the exercises; you have a basic reference point that can be applied to each of them, like a code.”

“But I know the exercises; I just don’t practice them much…”  Claire was getting confused.

Sifu was having difficulty in getting his point across..  “The exercises provide the feelings that your body will recognise, there’s knowing with your thinking mind and knowing with your body, once you understand the exercises with your thinking mind you need to practice them everyday to own them with your body, when you’ve done that the body will react to the signals and connections in movement reflexively.”

“How’s this going to help me understand the stepping?” asked Claire.

“Okay take Tsou lou hsih au pu position” instructed Sifu.  “Now turn to the corner for the beginning of the step,  instead of rising up as you transfer your weight into the other leg place your head upright over the supporting foot and soften up to let your body weight cascade down, this skill is in your head to foot exercises.  As you turn your head, this turns your torso and allows you to lift from the ribs, this is in your torso twisting exercises, this rotates your hips and stepping foot on the floor.”

“That really hurts my thigh muscle on the supporting leg,” moaned Claire.

“That’s what we call ‘good pain’ as your thigh muscles are taking your body weight instead of your knee joint and being trained so that you don’t move upwards to alleviate the pain,” instructed Sifu.

“Ooooookay….” Trembled Claire as her leg started to shake under the pressure.

“Now pulse from the unweighted stepping foot and flinch the leg so that it floats off the floor, this is in the second of our twisting exercises, step out and place the foot moving the unweighted and floating arm and leg together, Sifu instructed.

“It’s amazing how one side can be so heavy and the other so light!” – exclaimed a surprised Claire.

“This is referred to in the classics as the substantial and insubstantial” answered Sifu.  “Now as you transfer the head goes first as in the head exercises, the body leans as in the leaning exercises, it also coils as in the twisting exercises, the striking yang hand remains at the L1 point as in the chest and back exercises, as you uncoil and move upright, the hand floats to the strike as in the chest and back exercises and the spine takes the ‘parked’ position as in the spine exercises.  The transfer of weight in the legs goes directly from muscle to muscle from one leg to the other as trained in the leg exercises.  The spiralling through the ankles and knees are as in the lower joint exercises, the vibration in the hips are as in the hip exercises.  All these skills are then combined and harmonised for a smooth transition of power – and that’s what the form is for!”

“So the form uses the exercises in all manner of movement and technique and I won’t be able to use all these skills in harmony if I haven’t practiced them sufficiently in the exercises first,” realised Claire.

“Bingo!” Sifu exclaimed as the light went on in Claire’s brain.  “The exercises give us the basic skills and power that are then expressed in all manner of ways in the form, applications and pushing hands.  This is another holy trinity of training.  As you use them in the form it deepens your understanding for the exercises and the applications and as you use them in the applications – it deepens your understanding of the form and exercises.”

“Could this not be used in any martial art, because we all have to step?” Claire queried.

“It’s essential learning for all martial arts” answered Sifu.

“So why do most martial arts do athletic exercises as a warm up and warm down?”

Maybe because they haven’t learned these ones” smiled Sifu…..

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Right Effort In Training

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The class began with sanchin qigong.  With our feet under our shoulderline, we rotated out on the balls of the feet, releasing our ankles, knees, hips, lower back and chest, then stretched the crown of the head upwards bowing the spine from the top and pulling the pubococcygeus muscle at the base to complete the ‘bow’ and assist the energy flow, putting the tongue to the top palette to complete the circuit.

We held the arms out in a ‘bow’ (or yin) formation at the front of the body, palms inwards, hollowing the chest to work with the bowing and opening of the back.  Lightly stretching the fingers and stretching and opening the joints in the shoulders and along the arms and hands we encouraged the flow energy until it felt like ran from the arms into the sunken chest and down into the lower abdomen.

After a period of feeling the ‘shade’ at the front of the body we turned the hands over to feel the ‘yang’ side, feeling like we had the sun on our back, ‘sitting’ the laogong points in the palms of the hands  down to their partnered points in the arches of the feet.  Both hands had to feel the same, they were stretched and adjusted to get the best energy flow, both feet had to feel the same, with the mind there, the arches of the feet felt like they filled with ‘cushions’ of energy, the relationship between each hand and foot also had to feel the same ‘balancing’ the body.

We then did the yin/yang breathing exercises, opening, closing, flexing and bowing the body in time with the breath, followed by the retention and expulsion of the breath with mawashi uke

“No….  soften and open here…”  Sensei put his hand on the ming men (the lower part) of Marion’s back.  Marion tensed.. “No…  soften and expand toward my hand, don’t push, soften and open..  Work with me…

“I’m trying Sensei….”

“You certainly are Marion…”

“No, I mean I’m trying to do it prop….”  Sensei cut her off..

“Humour Marion, humour, I know you’re trying your best, but that’s the problem.  Let me explain to the class.”  Sensei clapped his hands.  “Sit down everyone.”

“Does anyone know what chap sau  means?”

“Hand Fiddling … “Our resident Cantonese speaker responded inquisitively.

“That’s right – it’s a gong fu term for advanced physical adjustment made by a sifu to a student in a technique.  This cannot take place until their ‘chi is in agreement’ in other words they have to have developed their relationship to a point that the student can relax and allow the sifu to adjust their body to get a direct transmission of the ‘feeling’ that he or she has when doing the technique.

If the student stiffens when the sifu is trying to adjust them, or goes all weak and floppy, the ‘transmission’ can’t be made, therefore there has to be this developed relationship, trust and physical ‘agreement’ that allows it to take place.”

“So when I said I was ‘trying’ I was trying too hard?”

“That’s right.  You have to allow me to do my work.  If you seem uncomfortable, I have to stop until the time is right.”

“God… it’s so difficult….”

“There ya go again…”  Marion reddened

“My job is to pre-frame you with regard to the learning process.  ‘Learning how to learn’ is worth its weight in gold.  Information is worth its weight in gold.

Never complain because you’re being taught a lot.  Write it down.  That person might be dead before you can see them again.  Queue the assimilation of information, there will be many times that not too much is going on and you can absorb and catch up on the study.

Don’t try too hard – let the information ‘hang’ in your mind whilst you practice – and simply work at a pace that your body can slowly and carefully assimilate the information.  It’s like osmosis – it just gradually ‘soaks in’ at its own pace and of its own accord.

Bear in mind that a ‘club’ is people coming together for a common purpose, we all play a part, the better we all play our part – the better it works.  Look around for things to do that will make everything work better.  Every ‘club’ needs secretaries, treasurers, helpers, every event needs co-ordinators and helpers, when all an instructor has to do is teach – he teaches better.  When he has to do many other jobs, his teaching will suffer

An experienced instructor is often older – courses can be taxing, a good bed, an early night, good food and rest can make all the difference.”

“You guys just want a soft life…”  John couldn’t resist the jibe.

Sensei laughed.  “Maybe, but I’ve watched thousands of people come and go in the Martial Arts and many of them have their defeat written in right from the beginning due to their attitude.  That change of attitude is crucial for their success.  This is why developing the correct relationship with the instructor is so important.  It’s also important because for a club to exist and function properly, instructor and student are interdependent.  The better each one can play their part, the more successfully the club and relationship functions.

An instructor can teach rubbish and the student wouldn’t know.  To ‘push the boundaries’ and get REAL progress takes a LOT of effort from both sides.  When this is happening, there’s bound to be stress and difficulty, many instructors couldn’t be bothered, or aren’t capable.  It’s easier to format classes or courses of ‘monkey see monkey do’ stuff that people can teach the same day they’ve learned it.  Easy to teach, easy to do, courses, books, DVD’s – good business, popular instructor.  Why would anyone want to push the students, make them feel uncomfortable, make them see their lazy, selfish face and drive them to ‘do the right thing’, train the ‘right way’ and in a way that’s not fun or instantly gratifying?

People nowadays don’t want to take the long term view and forge a body and mind over a longer period of time that is ‘wisdom’ and not ‘vanity’ based

Think about it guys, it’s the most valuable lesson because learning how to learn will improve everything you do from now on.  I’ve spent 40 years of learning with great people, making great friends all over the world, enjoying the journey of learning and study in the Martial Arts in a permanent state of a pleasant, zen-like confusion and inspired wonder. ”

“Can I carry your bag for you sensei?”

“Stop taking the pee John……”

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Feather On The Breath Of God Qigong

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Ahhhhhh…. ‘Feather on the Breath of God’ by Hildegard Von Bingen, one of my favourite albums to practice qigong and form to. Hildegard was a 12th century Christian abbess, visionary, mystic and healer, she wrote the most beautiful music to lift your soul and raise your spirit. ‘Feather on the Breath of God’ describes the feeling of qigong and taiji perfectly.

We were practicing ‘medical’ qigong, scattering the energy throughout the body with exercises such as ‘dropping post’ and ‘trembling horse’ and cultivating it with exercises like ‘stroking Kwankung’s beard’, ‘kidney circles’ and ‘golden ball’. I could feel myself relaxing and the familiar tingling and pulsing sensations associated with an unrestricted flow of energy as my tension eased, posture corrected itself and the meridians opened. With this ‘warm up’ I knew that we would be working on the ‘Taiki’ form that Sensei had put together to provide karateka with the links between taiji and karate.

“Taiki!” (I was right) It was good to practice a form that related directly to the qigong we had just been practicing. As I stretched and twisted my torso and limbs I could feel the movement promoting the flow of energy – you would think that the links between taiji and karate were pretty tenuous, and yet this form showed just how direct they really were. Techniques such as jodan uke, gyakuzuki in karate are fair lady plays at shuttles in taiji. Uchi uke in (Wado) karate is roll back in taiji, gedan barai, gyakuzuki in karate is brush knee in taiji, and soto uke in (Wado) karate is part wild horses mane in taiji.

In the background, the inspirational music written by Hildegard continued, with the monophonic hurdy gurdy background tones coupled with the soaring female soprano voices made a strange but compelling mix of ancient western religious mysticism and eastern taoist exercise.

I felt no ‘argument in heaven’ as I moved to the music and ‘reeled silk’, this meant keeping the thread of the movement even, not too tense (as that would snap the silk), not too loose and sloppy (as that would cause the silk to do the same and snap when taken up) and not jerky (as that would also snap the silk) the lilting background rhythm matched the movement perfectly and the soprano voices matched the feeling of my energy.

The first section was qigong in martial arts, the second, giving the trapping skills and deadly elbow strikes but still twisting and stretching the torso against a fixed and rooted base in classic qigong maneuvers, the third section is the uke or receiving part, quickly going into circles, curves and spirals, all unbalancing and weakening the opponent with one hand whilst dispensing ‘karmic justice’ strikes with the other. The fifth part of the form focuses on the legs with locking, trapping dislocating and kicking leg skills.

“That felt good” said Dave as he sat down afterwards for Q and A.
“Yeah the mix of qigong and form to the music is magical” said Pam, “I can’t describe how uplifting it is”.

“Yeah we noticed” said Dave with a mischievous smile.

“Don’t lower the tone now Dave” said sensei. “Does anyone have any questions?”

“I have Sensei” said Pam, “you always talk about the ‘trinity of kata’ and say how the ‘medical’ aspects are of prime importance and I can see how the exercise is good for me and how calming the music and movement is, but am I missing something?”

Sensei smiled. “Your body and subconscious mind aren’t, only your thinking mind is” said sensei.

“Explain…” said a frustrated Pam.

“Firstly, a well structured posture, an alert mind, softened muscles and tendons and deep natural breathing allow a ‘free passage’ of energy through the body. This is the first stage of good mental and physical health. When you practice these exercises and form, your mind and body will reap the benefit, even if your thinking mind can’t see how.”

“So is that like mol gik or wu chi in chinese or mushin or zazen in Japanese?” Asked Dave.

“Yes,” said sensei. “But then we need the motion of the exercises and form to activate the physical ‘pumps’ for the energy, blood and waste expulsion in the body. This will also strengthen the muscles, heart, bones and ligaments and help remove waste from the lymphatic system. The different types of breathing bring more air into the lungs and therefore more oxygen into the bloodstream and up to the brain making us feel more alert. Breathing is also the doorway between the sympathetic and the parasympathetic nervous systems, meaning that we are able to positively affect the function of the internal organs by the control and regulation of the breath.

The ‘martial’ aspects of what we do, make us focus that alert mind with a ‘life and death’ aspect of what we do, enabling us to have a well focused and ‘alive’ intention, sending our energy to where we want it to go. The techniques make us more spatially aware and balanced meaning that our ‘mind’ permeates all of our body.

This means that we can identify dis-ease in our body long before we would otherwise be able to. The pumping of energy up through the governor vessel and draining down through the conception vessel feeds all the meridians of the acupuncture system and nourishes the body internally.

By working on the mind we can affect the body and breath, by working on the breath, we can affect the body and mind, by working on the body, we can affect the mind and breath, so as you can see, there is another trinity there, this is the sanchin or ‘battle of three elements’ (mind, body and breath) that affect the state of man. Martial arts training can bring these into harmony, thereby resolving the conflict. Sanchin kata is named and structured around this battle.”

“In effect, the health benefits can’t really be separated from the skills or martial aspects then?” asked Dave.

“Exactly!” said sensei, “but equally they can’t be ignored, they are a trinity, not three separate entities.”

“They are inextricably linked”, said Pam “but there’s a lot more to do with the health aspects like the chakras and alchemical process… you haven’t talked about those yet”.

Sensei laughed. “That’s right Pam I haven’t, but that’s getting deep for a Q and A session and would require a full lecture or course on the subject.”

Sensei then gazed out across the class. “The fact is that martial arts have an ingenuity that is unique, the trinity of health, skill and martial application fosters a kind of power that in their isolated form, none of these individual qualities are able to.

Students that work only on the fighting application don’t have the internal tools to make their techniques work so well and can become quite violence obsessed, eventually maybe causing illness and oddly, often the pendulum swings from violence to religious obsession. Those that work only on skill are often ‘empty vessels’ winning competitions for the sake of vanity – and those who only train for health are never able to achieve it without the necessary skills and mindset.

“That is why studying the trinity is essential….. Shall we go again?”

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