Taiji Culture, Philosophy and Technology

The learning attitude in Tai Chi Gong

Author: Sim Pern Yiau

In the beginning, you should clarify large concepts. The theoretical premises. What is the big direction in Taijiquan and Taijigong? Yin Yang. Power and softness. Following the opponent. Go in the flow. Heaven and Earth. 五行八卦,虚空粉碎Etc.

These help to clarify technical training and the practice of specific principles. In our system, the 39 principles.

Practising without knowing these, as many people do, following their “gurus” and “masters” external forms unthinkingly, they waste years and decades in wishy-washy, diluted practice.

If you start by being clear first the large conceptual/theoretical/philosophical premises and direction, you will find your technical capabilities in Taiji growing. Start with the question, what is Taijiquan about? At the very least, you know what capabilities you are supposed to acquire through the practice, and not merely have a generalised sense of feeling good!

Once you find your abilities and capabilities growing, that will lead you to feel you know the premises and the working principles better and better.

At this stage is the fork in the road.

If you are complacent, thinking that you “know”, then your practice everyday will settle into rote.

It will be merely execution.

But true progress from the beginning levels towards the intermediate and advanced levels, should lead you to feel that you don’t really know that well. That what you theoretically and intellectually knew,  perhaps you don’t really experientially know. That perhaps your concepts and your understanding needs to shift, in the light of practice. Or that the experience of doing it leads you to realise that what you thought you knew, you didn’t really, after all.

That is the difference between 体会 (experiencing) and 知道 (knowing)。

True 体会 has the element of exploring, of tasting anew, of the discovery and the awareness , and most importantly, of a good kind of not knowing. Of being in the unknown. Not taking things for granted. Even if it looks like you are executing the same familiar sequence and exercises every day.

In this way, doors and paths and illuminations appear where you didn’t even suspect exist.

知道 however, leads to mere execution.

So everytime you execute 相随,贯穿,弥深弥长,五行八卦,or any of the other principles and energies that you have learnt, do not just practice as if you are drilling something that you have done for ages. Practice as if you are encountering it for the first time.

This is the condition that separates Taiji exercisers and Taiji practitioners, perpetual beginner’s and those who progress.

If you find the balance between the state of knowledge and not knowing, you will continue to enjoy your Taiji practice til the end of your days!


A teacher like this waste decades

Author: Sim Pern Yiau

Recently someone who has been training with another Taiji master for more than 10 years asked if he could join my classes, because the master (whom i know of) has retired and this person is looking for a new group to practice with. To help me understand his level and select an appropriate class for him, i asked him if his Qi feeling was constant, stable and clear. He spoke highly of his master’s level so i expected that somebody who has been practising his methods for over a decade should be experienced in Qi and its aspects.

However the student’s answer was non-committal as if he wasn’t sure what constitutes Qi feelings and usage. He said it comes and goes. I was surprised yet not.

Then he started explaining for his teacher. His teacher had said that students like him are 半路出家 and the implication is that it is only expected that they are not very good. Those Chinese words refer to people who started a particular practice or line of work relatively late in their lives, or who switched to another training or profession from their original training or line of work.

These are the bad excuses of a lousy teacher and lousy practitioner.

You can be “not very good” but you should be not be “not very clear” about your practice. Qi is a fundamental practice element of most Taiji systems, whether you use the term or not. After ten years if you are still unclear about what the practice entails, such as how to systematically work with Qi principles, then how can you ever know if you are good or not?

It is also troubling that he says when he looks at his seniors, probably some of whom have been training Taiji since young and are not 半路出家, they talk alot of what Taiji can achieve but they cannot demonstrate any of it. It remains the stuff of legends to them.

I suspect his master is the type that goes “Dont ask me to explain so much about the inner workings of Taiji. It is deep and abstract. Keep at the form and one day you will understand.”

Teachers like this waste decades of a practitioner’s life.

However, so-called “masters” like these are everywhere because students’s generally don’t know better. The level of practice and teaching has generally sunken so low that students are amazed because they see someone practising gracefully at an old age. Which is a nice thing that Taiji gives us but you can get grace in old age practising many things and not only Taiji. It doesn’t make you a Taiji master. What characterises a Taiji master is his advanced ability to manage Qi in the Yin Yang way. Called 养,蓄,运,使 , which can be generally translated as grow, accumulate, flow/distribute and use.

When my father Sim Pooh Ho became Master Wu Tu Nan’s disciple, he was already 30 and has been training Shaolin external Martial Arts since 6 years old.

The great Yang Lu Chan also started relatively late and yet became a legend.

Our lineage is full of practitioners of every level including Instructors, Senior Instructors , Junior Masters and Senior Masters, and these people have started from ages ranging from 8 to 60.

Taiji lead us to mastery of the body and our energies in intelligent, efficient ways that are not dependent on youth or muscular strength. Because of this Taiji is least dependent on having to start at a young age, unlike most other physical systems.

More importantly, Taiji helps us to understand and transform our bad habits and unwise ways of using the body and energies, habits and ways accumulated from the earlier parts of our lives. Giving 半路出家  as a reason for a student’s lack of progress despite long practice is merely the excuse of a lazy teacher and lousy practitioner, and is unfairly putting blame on the student. In my opinion the harm done is immeasurable.

I have recently started allowing some disciple-students to take Basic Tui Shou exams (which means 1st to 3rd Dan). They will pair up with their Juniors, most of whom have started training 1 or 2 years later than them. The Juniors play aggressors.

The Juniors have to be either the same weight (give and take a few kilos) or heavier than them.

Across all of them, the following pattern arises.

First round with their Juniors, the Seniors will often win right away. Upon the word “go”, the Juniors will either be pinned or be sent flying into the padded walls within a second. However, i tell them that is because the Juniors are taken by surprise, and have no prior experience of the sudden explosive power their Seniors can exert from a seemingly relaxed state.

So to ensure a true measure of ability, i tell them to go at it again.

This time the Junior is not fooled by the Senior’s initial relaxed state and thus prepares their Jing (power) to fight back. The more unskilled ones will harden their stances and muscles in preparation.

In this second round the Seniors often fail to overcome the aggressors. Often they are visibly taken aback by the sudden difficulty of overcoming someone whom a moment ago they threw with ease. This makes them lose confidence and pressure builds. The Juniors will start to remember their training and do everything in their ability to avoid being defeated. Often it ends in a long stalemate. In a few cases – when the Junior is much heavier or bigger than the Senior – the examinee was actually defeated.

At this point i find myself sharing this observation with them. In terms of technique and power, the Juniors cannot touch them. But skill in Taiji means that during great and sudden pressure, you are still able to stay relaxed, calm, sensing the opponent, which then allows the trained techniques, acquired power and naturally correct responses to surface in a split moment . These are the qualities that disappear when they face the sudden ferocity of their Juniors’ attacks. The Juniors feel no pressure because it is not them who are undergoing the exams. Being more relaxed their power surfaces more. It is not that the Juniors won them, because they are actually nowhere near in skills or power.  It is the Seniors who lost.

After giving them this observation , i let them have a go at it the third round. You then see the marked difference. For those who could let go of the pressure, relax and “listen” to the opponent rather than fearing or trying to force a win, they suddenly find themselves easily overpowering the opponent who a moment ago felt too strong. It was most satisfying to see this happening for a lady disciple whose “aggressor” was 15kg more than her, and for a male disciple whose slim built proved deceptive.

What this means is that in Taiji, we are our own real opponents.

Here’s wishing all disciples and Taiji enthusiasts a good journey of personal growth and discovery!

Taiji workshops at MindBodySpirit Festival 2013: 11, 12 May – click here for details

Taiji Full Foundation Course starting 22 May: SIGN UP NOW ! – click here for details

Following  on from the first post in this Song series. At the Intermediate level:

Peng Song 掤松

All the Song relaxation described in the post on Basic level Song, should lead to what i call a released or relaxed expansion. Like a good sponge, or an office-desk stress ball, when you stop squeezing it tight and let it go, it should gently expand, rather than stay collapsed or limp. True relaxation creates a supple firmness in the body part, rather than limpness.

Together with this relaxed expansion and firmness, there is a qi (energy) expansion. This qi expansion, when it emanates evenly from the body into all directions outwards, prevents the opponent’s force from entering. It is like a huge beach ball. When you try to press or strike a well-inflated beach ball, there is a natural and relaxed rebound back upon yourself. This is the first Jin (defense power) of all Taiji Quan and Taiji Gong. It is called Peng jin (掤劲). Therefore, Peng Jin comes from Peng Song, the released and relaxed expansion.

Xu Kong Fen Sui Chai Kai 虚空粉碎的拆开

In the first post, we were introduced to the concept of Chai Kai, taking apart. From the basic-level Chai Kai of the body along the major sections such as the major joints, spinal column, parts of the trunk, we move on to a realm of disintegration of the body that is almost unique to Taiji Gong, and which cannot be found in a mere anatomical understanding of body parts — the “taking part” of the 3 dimensional body into its component planes, lines and points.

Volume is made of areas (planes), area is made of lines, and lines can be divided into smaller segments or points. Through internal training, the Taiji Gong body, after acquiring good muscular (physical) relaxation and suppleness, can acquire the skills to further “dissolve” into components for the purposes of defense and attack. Needless to say, this requires lineage teachings directly transmitted from Masters to Disciples and cannot be elaborated here.

Without these 2 qualities, one cannot be said to be truly practicing Taiji Gong. Muscular and physical relaxation, while good and necessary, can be found in many exercise systems, and is hardly the deep and unique qualities that Taiji can offer.

With these 2 qualities, one enters traditional Taiji Gong practice and has a chance to go to the advanced stages of the art.


On Gong Li 功力

Author: Sim Pern Yiau

In Taijiquan or Taijigong, gong li (功力)is important. We can say gong li is power. No matter what skillful or secret techniques you have, you cannot yi xiao sheng da, yi rou zhi gang, yi man da kuai 以小胜大,以柔制刚,以慢打快) without power. (Transl: Small wins the large, the soft overcomes the hard, the slow defeats the fast). It will be just idealistic talk. Only thing is, power in Taiji gong is not of the blatantly and obviously forceful kind.

In addition to the properties of power in TaijiGong, there is also the question of quality. For example you might be powerful in a normal way if u have a thousand kg of force and therefore can withstand 999kg of pressure. In Taiji however, we will seek far less energy to withstand the same amount of pressure. The power used seems less but because of that you can say that it is more “powerful”. This is because the Taiji exponent is under less strain when dealing with the same amount of pressure. We can say he or she “breaks less sweat”. There is thus a relative ease in the use of power. Because of this, we can say that the question of Power in Taijiquan is also a matter or quality, that the greater ease you have in handling great force, the less the display of force in settling the matter, the greater your Power.

往 复 须 有 折 叠 , 进 退 须 有 转 换

In sideways movements (to and fro), there should be folding and layering. In forwards and backwards movements, there should be changes (to the sides).

Those who practice in our system will know this principle. It is related to the principle of not moving back and forth in purely straight lines.形、劲 不可直来直往。

When you move in purely straight lines, you are essentially trying to force your way through. You therefore encounter more resistance, and are more easily read by the opponent. But when you move sideways and through layering, you are spreading out the opponents resistance (often without him realising it) and applying compounded pressure on him.

When you retreat in straight lines, the opponents attacking force can come right back into you, which is of course dangerous.

The Spanish are famed for their passing game, and much of the effectiveness of that is the sideways passing is also moving the ball and other players forward/backward. Their team exists in lines (layers) and the passing, when effective in putting pressure on the opponent, is done through diagonals, therefore being both sideways and forwards/backwards at the same time. At the same time when a pass is made, the layer/player from which the pass is made is already moving forward to become the next layer.

When it fails is when the passing is not done with layering. Witness Spain two years ago as well as Arsenal’s snooze-inducing constant sideways passing without threat. No layering, no penetration.


Don’t give the near for the far (Don’t beat about the bush)

Of course, it is a common tactic to spreading play and draw defences out by using wingers and even overlapping, but the superiority of the Spanish is in the ability to do it at a higher sharpness with skillful short passing thus less need of the wings. They open up the opponent and layer the pressure much closer to the centre and therefore poses a greater direct threat to goalmouth.

It is no coincidence that the Spanish are technically better players than others. Like in Taiji Tui Shou, to play really well means to be really close to the opponent, with really compact, powerful yet energy saving moves. And that takes much greater skill and technique, than say, lunging punches from a distance.

Because they play like that, they also tire less and get less fatigue-related injuries. Just like in Tui Shou.


Form is Everything (in the beginning)

Author: Sim Pern Yiau

This should be read together with the posts Don’t get trapped in Form, Dont get trapped in Form 2 and Dont get trapped in Form 3.

As one’s Taiji progresses, one should rely less and less on the Form to grow, accumulate, flow and use Qi.

One of the purposes of practicing Tui Shou/ Da Shou (Defence) is simply for that subtle purpose. Because when some one is attacking you, you do not know how his attack is going to take place. You can’t anticipate anything. The attack is not going to follow any nice fixed patterns against which you can employ a corresponding nice fixed pattern from the Taijiquan sequence that you have learnt. You have to be free of patterns. Your energy has to use form but transcend form.

But not free of the principles and the skills that you have learnt via the Form.

These operating principles and skills/techniques are what allows you to handle an attack.

These principles and skills/techniques, are embedded in a good Taiji Quan form.

Even at the lowest level, form in Wu Tu Nan Taiji Quan is not just the learning of a sequence of moving shapes. It is actually the application of the following physical principles:

1. 节节贯穿 Connectedness of section to section

2. 上下相随 Upper sections and lower sections of body closely coordinate with each other

3. 虚实分明 Clarity of weightage spread over the 2 legs

4. 卦向分明 Accuracy of directions in the body

On top of these, every slight placement of arm, hand or other body parts, has a direct effect on your balance, relaxation and – most importantly – amount of energy that you can access in a given moment. The placement can come down to an exactness of a centimetre or less even already at the basic stage of form practice. These requirements of placement and physical positions are collective known as the following principle

5. 身、腰、手、眼、步,姿势正确 Accurate Body, Waist, Hand, Focus and Feet Positions.

Included in point 5 and point 3 are the important practice of the different kind of footsteps/leg positions. These have a direct bearing on our stability, balance and power when under attack, and thus have to be properly understood.

Major Footsteps & Leg Movements:

1. Taiji Bu 太极步,

2. Cun Bu 寸步,

3. Xu Bu 虚步,

4. Gen Bu根步,

5. Lian Zhi Bu 连枝步

and others like standing on one leg, etc.

Thus, form practice in Taiji Quan is so much more than just knowing shapes. It is actually the practice of deep operating principles that allow us to understand cause and effect within a movement and a situation.

From these good Form principles, then deep balance, deep alignment-coordination and deep relaxation of the body is possible. Only with these can the Taiji task of growing and using Qi be strongly effected.

Thus in the beginning stages, understanding what constitutes good Form practice is of utmost importance. Only then will you have a chance to progress to advanced stages where you are free of Form.


Lesson from a Taxi Uncle

Author: Sim Pern Yiau

Was in a taxi one day. The driver and I were making small talk and topic turned to the Casino. Both of us were against it. But at one point i said, just for the sake of being balanced: But at least the gahmen knows the negative effects it can have on Singaporean families, so its doing all those anti-gambling addictions ads and setting up help hotlines and counselling centres, and imposing that $100 per day fee.

To which  the uncle retorted: So it is okay that we let people from Indonesia or anywhere else come and lose their monies here? It is okay for foreigners to destroy their careers and families through our casinos, as long as we protect our own people? So foreigners are not human beings?

I was chastised. He was right. We know the casinos are morally wrong. It is an even greater wrong when we try to choose who this wrong shall befall and who it doesn’t, because some are ‘our’ people and some are not. And because we want to take the money of the ‘others’. ‘Thank you uncle for a sharp lesson.