This article was first published in ‘Tai Chi and Oriental Arts Magazine’ about 12 years ago and has been republished in various places over the years. This is a revised version of the original article.
A fun example
If you attended an evening course to learn conversational French, you probably wouldn’t be pleased if the tutor simply taught you how to speak English with a French accent. It may have a certain ‘Je nais se quoi’, but if you went to France to use your new pseudo-language skills, it is doubtful that you would get very far – and you might upset a few French people en-route. A mock French accent might be relatively easy to get the hang of but it wouldn’t equate to having actually learned a new language, instead just being a case of même merde seau different*. As for someone who really thought that they had learned a new language; you would have to question the level of their intelligence wouldn’t you? Unfortunately, this is the way that the majority of Tai Chi (Taiji/Taijiquan) is taught. In this article I will discuss how developing body skill should be the first and ongoing step in Tai Chi, otherwise the vast majority of the superb physio-cognitive skills and benefits can never be actualised.
*same shit different bucket
It is a common phenomenon that once something becomes popularised it tends to lose much of its original purpose, value and meaning. Training methods from the East such as Tai Chi, Qigong, Yoga and Meditation have been highly misconstrued, diluted and intellectualised over time to be easy and convenient for the modern human’s fragile palette. Unfortunately, anything that’s quick, easy and convenient to learn doesn’t usually produce the goods. When learning something worthwhile physio-pyschological discomfort is a natural part of the process and integral to the reconfiguration of the most visceral aspects of ourselves. Without the essential discomfort of change the real and sublime fruits of such transformational arts cannot be harvested.
Emphasis on learning forms is a modern phenomenon; it has nothing to do with learning Tai Chi – but is very marketable.
In most Tai Chi classes a long time is spent trying to remember the choreography of forms i.e. set sequences of movements, of varying lengths. Little or no attention is paid to body development – students simply follow along with a teacher repeating movements until they can be mimicked in a fashion, perhaps with some obscure philosophy and dubious breathing exercises thrown in to further distract the practitioner. Once a form is remembered students usually move onto the task of remembering yet another form or awful fighting applications involving mimicked movements.
No matter how popular this approach is, or how long people do it for, it has nothing at all to do with Tai Chi. Furthermore, it only produces the minimal amount of benefit for those doing it. Proper training, on the other hand, is tough; it completely transforms the raw materials of one’s body and mind as both the essential first, and ongoing, port of call. Without such training a person is physically and psychologically incapable of training Tai Chi at even the most basic level and thus the vast benefits of doing so will always allude them.
Many of those who practised for years thought they had covered such a basic thing as body development – the reality is that they hadn’t even begun.
I’ve lost count of the number of people who have come to me for training over the years who say they have practised Tai Chi for a long time (decades) but can barely move; they haven’t developed their own body in even the most basic way. If someone exhibits stiff/immobile hips and spine, poorly organised skeleton, warped and restricted fascia, flaccid/weak/tense musculature and a scattered/vacant/aggressive mindset they are yet to start proper training. What is interesting is that many of those people genuinely thought that they had already covered such a basic thing as body skill/development and even saw working with the body as somehow crude or distasteful. The reality, however, is that they hadn’t even begun.
In my experience these people usually fall into two camps: one preferring to imagine warped esoterica whilst wafting dreamily through forms in a bid to escape normal life, and those who practise aggressive Tai Chi (a bit like slow bad Karate) and seem to be in a perpetual neurotic fight with the world. Neither of these are desirable or beneficial.
Unconscious incompetence: The individual does not understand or know how to do something and does not recognise the deficit. They may deny the usefulness of the skill. The individual must recognize their own incompetence, and the value of the new skill, before moving on to the next stage
Most modern people are extremely lacking in body awareness and body skill and have poor habitual movement patterns without even realising or conceding that such attributes have much value. Interestingly, this is often especially the case with those who train/exercise a lot and people who harbour lots of intellectual information about the human body and confuse this standpoint with actual body-skill. Similarly, there is a strong tendency in modern culture that people either blindly destroy their body by trying to achieve rather extreme superficial goals regardless of the process, or on the other hand, are completely averse to experiencing even the slightest physical or psychological discomfort.
What you think you know, you fail to observe.
One of the questions that I get asked by new students is how to gauge their progress, as if it is some kind of mystery. Progress should be obvious in the here and now; the body changes drastically and skill goes up in everything that one does. All IMA methodology clearly dictates that one must build an entirely different body in order to be able to practise at the most basic level – this facilitates so many physio-cognitive benefits that the value of doing so cannot be overstated. It’s a mind-boggling phenomenon that most people seem to miss this fundamental starting block.
Body awareness and body skill are two of life’s essential essentials, without them we are seriously compromised as individuals in almost every conceivable way – our lives are lived and experienced through this body. Furthermore, for those interested in Tai Chi, it’s impossible to do even basic training without resolving these issues first. By trying to simply remember choreographed movements, rather than improving the nuts and bolts of human body/mind-mechanics, people usually compound the physical and mental issues that they have in the first place.
‘The more details you give people, the more they ask for details.’ Nassim Taleb, Anti-fragile
For people taking their first steps into Tai Chi training the last thing they need to do is to learn a form. Learning a form offers very little benefit; people simply retain their old, habitual ways of moving and thinking. This is especially true if their bodies are in poor condition; which in my experience, is most people. Since many people come to Tai Chi because it is incorrectly portrayed as an easy or gentle option, this a particularly salient point.
Countless hours spent trying to remember choreography and puzzling over which body part goes where, when and why is a complete waste of time, although perhaps intellectually satisfying in the most superficial sense. Instead, the initial and ongoing aim should be deconstruction/reconstruction; deconstructing negative physical and mental attributes and building the positive. For all the major health, movement and functional benefits Tai Chi has to offer this is the absolute foundation – without it all training is a false economy.
Tai Chi is a martial art with a difference. Instead of learning fighting techniques the first port of call is simply the development of the raw materials of body and mind. Building a good body structure, developing basic mechanics, being at ease with one’s physical existence and possessing the golden freedom of a relaxed body and a calm mind are vital attributes for life and the basic skills we seek to develop in Tai Chi.
Ultimately this means that our training is much more physically and mentally rigorous than most people might expect. Creating a relaxed, stable, balanced and connected body requires a lot of physical work; and you must learn to calm your mind, to pay attention completely, in order to succeed. The students who don’t just give up when they realise that proper training is difficult can go on to achieve something rather special.
I have many similar examples of different martial artists I have taught over the years, but I remember a guy with lots of Aikido experience (25years+) who after a couple of years of training came up to me after class and solemnly said that he now understood Aikido – he had never quite got it before . He was disciplined and practised outside class; within a year or so he had quite a different body and his mindset was much more open and relaxed. Many of his injuries had subsided too. I hadn’t taught him any ‘special techniques’ instead just helped him to rebuild his body, mindset and how to ‘be in’ and use them in a simple, perceptive and balanced way.
As a teacher, I want my students to instigate and experience a complete change in the way their bodies and minds operate and not to spend years concerned with remembering sequences of movements or puzzling esoteric theory – that’s just more mind stuff derived from a culture already drowning in mind stuff. Ultimately, I want to teach a person to improve the way they operate in the world, the way they use their body and the way they use their mind. As most people are not used to training, or indeed moving much at all, the most significant benefits are gained from establishing the basic exercises, of which there are many tasty and nutritional variations.
Opening the body
All of my classes begin with opening the body, also known as Fansong Gong. Consisting of a wide range of simple and distinctly challenging exercises, Fansong Gong follows a general theme of stretching and opening the fascia (connective issue) of the body along the main fascial lines and into all the oft neglected nooks, crannies and crevices. Not only does this build a body that is fully felt and alive – relaxed, elastic, powerful and perceptive – but also teaches you to feel the main kinetic chains and how they weave together to form the three-dimensional body in a tangible way. Some of the exercises are strenuous; not only do they create a strong stretch but also continuously emphasise developing sufficient stability to facilitate balanced movement that emanates throughout the body.
On countless occasions I have taught people from other training modalities, such as Yoga, Dance and Martial Arts who have pulled their body apart through incorrect stretching so that it operates as a floppy, disparate mess, or like a tightly wound guitar string – injury and/or neurosis usually follow these causal factors. Often when people stretch it’s just a waste of time; pulling tight parts of the body tighter in a bid to make them looser is questionable. Similarly, forcing the body to be so flexible that it can contort into all kinds of dysfunctional shapes and movements usually destroys it along the way. This isn’t what we want to do in Fansong – we have specific methods for opening the body three dimensionally in a balanced way that optimises release. Fansong Gong thus emphasises a number of key elements that people greatly benefit from in developing their body knowledge:
- Releasing the hips and spine: flexion, extension, lateral motion and rotation are deeply explored and liberated throughout Fansong. These are areas which are usually very restricted and completely unfelt in most people and are vital for successful existence as a human.
- Balance and leg strength. Squatting motions (assisted or freestyle) and balancing on one leg help to build stability whilst facilitating functional hip mobility. As unstable bi-peds, cultivating stability and balance while moving is one the most important skills we can develop. Bi-peds are still quite a new phenomenon in evolutionary terms – one study I read suggested around 80% of the brain is concerned with simply keeping us balanced.
- Releasing and connecting the arms to the back and liberating the shoulders. Our arms are not independently ‘strong’ levers that are separate from the body, their function and dexterity depends on how well they are connected to and stabilised by the back so that feeling, movement and power generated by the legs and body can flow through them.
- Development of a super-clear felt sense of how all body parts are woven together, from the toes to the fingertips, through the elastic facial web.
Zhanzhuang: Standing training
Standing training is the next step after the elasticating endeavours above. Zhanzhuang is simple and superb: practised correctly it deeply releases and stabilises the body, helps stabilise the mind and develops a clear sense of the tensegrity and interconnectedness of the human body structure. Tensegrity structures, like a well trained human body, distribute forces and movement throughout the entire system via the balanced, elastic fascial web rather than being dealt with locally as they are in lever systems. Tensegrity reverses the centuries-old concept that the skeleton is a frame upon which soft-tissue is draped and replaces it with an integrated fascial fabric with floating compression elements enmeshed within the interstices of tensional elements. A body that exhibits tensegrity in an optimal way is tensionally balanced in all directions under the reliable and constant pressure of gravity:
“Tensegrity describes a structural-relationship principle in which structural shape is guaranteed by the finitely closed, comprehensively continuous, tensional behaviours of the system and not by the discontinuous and exclusively local compressional member behaviours. Tensegrity provides the ability to yield increasingly without ultimately breaking or coming asunder”
R. Buckminster Fuller
Zhanzhuang is the epitome of reorganising the perceived separate parts of the body back into a homogeneous pliable, functional and sustainable whole. What separates the body is habitual tension and restricted tissues underpinned by a lack of awareness in the corresponding parts. Usually we are not aware of the restrictive patterns that have become enmeshed in our structural fabric over the course of our lives. Everybody has them but they are essentially unfelt. Standing then, is to help us feel, locate and release restrictions in the body. It’s not that we want to replace one habitual posture for another but instead return to a settled balanced state so that the body becomes less segmented and more integrated; a malleable mass free to be directed by our will.
Proper standing training is physically tough – the key to quality practise is to observe, feel and relax the body at progressively deeper levels. Open hearted observation through the lens of stillness allows one to discover and augment the inherent qualities our bodies possess but usually miss because of our perpetual mental busyness. It is mainly due to our distinct lack of body awareness/skill and an incorrect, intellectual understanding of the human form that we do not experience the body as a homogeneous, harmonious whole and thus capitalise on these attributes. For usually when we exercise we immediately try to force the body to change in some superficial way rather than learning how pay attention to what it does naturally without interference, intervention or biased-control.
A very important point with Zhanzhuang is that tactile cues and posture corrections are essential for students to learn how to stand properly. One’s habitually funky posture is usually so engrained that without regular feedback from a teacher’s hands-on body adjustments it is very difficult to perceive. If your teacher doesn’t give you tactile cues then you should find one that does. Zhanzhuang training facilitates a number of key developments:
- More than any other training, Zhanzhuang, due to the absence of deliberate movement, allows one to gradually perceive, build and use the body as an interconnected unit rather than as coordinated disparate bits.
- Releases, strengthens and stabilises the body and mind at the most fundamental level.
- Provides an opportunity to learn how to build basic mind skill.
Learning to practise meditation correctly is one of the most useful skills that anyone can invest their time in. However, many people are physically incapable of sitting in meditation properly so as an excellent alternative and precursor to seated practise we can train Zhanzhuang and develop and learn about our physicality as we do so.
“The general consensus has been to think of only one or two muscles participating in any given movement but no matter how common this misconception may be the reality is that any movement is essentially a whole-body movement. For movement is not simply the mere coordinated bending of separate hinges but instead expansion, repositioning and contraction of the tensegrity of the body as a whole via the fascial web” Steven Levin
Simple movements build upon all the preceding basic exercises and offers us the chance to discover and learn how good movement flows smoothly through the whole body (amongst many other skills) Simple doesn’t mean easy, but training simple whole-body movements gives one a chance to get into the nitty gritty of what one is doing and most importantly how one is doing it. Practising in this way offers a chance to discover and iron-out the almost incessant deviations in one’s basic movement patterns using all the preceding work as a tool for accurate cross referencing.
When people develop body skill they become much more physically capable, confident and independent. From here they can use their new skills to train Tai Chi or IMA properly without being a slave to weird dogma, irrelevant details or the teacher. Forms training should be initiated only once a certain base level of body skill is achieved – that level is much higher than most people think. Building such skill is hard work but extremely rewarding. Hard work tends to put people off, so many teachers prefer to teach sloppy forms, otherwise they wouldn’t make any money from their classes. Either that or they don’t know any better having always been a ‘follow along’ student themselves.
I first came across the term ‘Heuristic’ in Nassim Taleb’s book ‘Antifragile: things that gain from disorder’. It comes from ancient Greek meaning to find or discover for oneself. In Tai Chi we have the general principles, or rules of thumb, and it is through dedicated and open-minded tinkering in the laboratory of basic training that one can discover and realise them.
Heuristic: Serving to indicate or point out; stimulating interest as a means of furthering investigation. Encouraging a person to learn, discover, understand, or solve problems on his or her own by experimenting and evaluating possible answers or solutions or by trial and error.
I teach my students to learn from their own body in real time rather than thinking about things. As soon as people start thinking they get into trouble, get confused and forgo their real-time experience in the here and now. Unfortunately, this is the default setting for many people. Most peoples felt bodily and sensory experience is very limited – because of this the mind takes over to fill in the gaps. Similarly, we live in a culture dominated by mind-stuff. That’s one of the reasons why people crave details, special techniques, in-depth theory and spiritual mystery rather than relying on their own down to earth practise and experience. Since we are so used to being endlessly spoon fed information from external sources it can be quite a big step to let go and become more independent – but it is in this direction that true freedom, happiness and skill lies.
For Sam’s local teaching schedule see: Sussex Tai Chi
For Antonia’s schedule see: Antonia Stringer
©The Internal Athlete 2023