I had a lesson with my T’ai Chi teacher on Sunday, March 30, 2014. It was raining and my training partner was the one driving. He made a wrong turn, and we ended up being 30 minutes late. Chung-jen was kind enough not to count that against us, so we still had a full two hours for our lesson.
For about the first 40 minutes of the lesson, we did jibengong (basic exercises). In the past six months, I have been working more on specific skills and less on my physical conditioning. As a result, my legs gave out from exhaustion several times. This has only happened to me a few times before. I usually get to the brink of that each time, but I manage to hang on. This time, I could not. Though these are called basic exercises, they are grueling. Always, within about 10 minutes, I break out in a light, full body sweat, and I do not sweat easily. This time, Chung-jen added something new, something to help loosen the shins and ankles. It is a great exercise, but is extremely difficult for me. I will only be able to practice that with the help of someone else, though Chung-jen does it fine by himself. I also sought clarity on one of the exercises, and Chung-jen offered corrections on a few others. When we were done with the jibengong, my heart was pounding, my breathing was noticeable, my body was sweaty, my thighs felt thick and heavy, but I was ready for the rest of the lesson.
In general, there are 3 main things regarding trying to improve skill that are at the heart of every lesson I have with Chung-jen: 1) more emptiness; 2) better structure; and 3) less doing. Each of those topics are rather deep and are outside the scope of this article, so I will not be touching on those here. I only mention the list because this lesson was no different in that regard. However, the context in which those ideas are presented have varied among the lessons.
I mentioned in a recent article that I both wanted to and needed to get back to basics and work on my foundation. After all, the better one’s foundation, the easier it is to do things that depend on that foundation. One can know how to do high level things, but without an equally high level of foundation, the success rate of one’s techniques will be less than desired, particularly when one has an opponent or training partner that is not being direct with his power or purposely feeding his center.
The first thing I requested that we work on was root. I am still a bit baffled by Chung-jen’s root. I understand, at least on some level, how to root, and in training situations and with people of lesser skill, I appear to have root. However, when Chung-jen softly pushes on me, my root is not there, and my body cannot help but to resist. My mind does not appear to be pushing back, and I know that I neither want to nor intend to be pushing back, but I can clearly feel my legs and / or other parts of my body engaged in resistance, pushing back into him. He tells me that I am pushing back. I almost laughingly say that it is not me pushing back, it is my body doing it; I do not want to do it, but it is doing it anyway.
When I asked about root, he said, “Oh, that’s easy. Just drop off.” The “drop off” is an exercise that he gave us to do several years ago. Practicing that and getting some skill with that is responsible for quite a bit of the T’ai Chi martial application skill that I have. However, over time, because of using it in application, I got away from the original intent of the exercise and came to depend on at least a small amount of movement in order to start the process of the application. It is that small amount of movement that has been causing a reaction in my training partner or practice opponents, which I was then able to borrow and use to complete the application. It is that small amount of movement that someone song (relaxed) such as my teacher interprets as me pushing or moving. I now have a better sense of just how still I must be in order to actually be still. No external or visible movements means just that, not a tiny movement that people miss because of the larger movement that follows. So, I was using the drop off to move people instead of using the drop off to increase my root and level of song (relaxation). In those cases, my drop off, and therefore my root, only had to be good enough to be better than my opponent’s errors when engaged in a drill. Through my seeking clarity, Chung-jen mentioned that dropping off is the same as releasing or song(ing), and that it should be happening during both the “roll up” and the release. “Roll up” is what we call it when the intention of tailbone is causing the lower abdomen to sort of roll up on the inside. Release is when we let that go. However, in letting that go, things should still remain “rolled up.” All the while, dropping off is happening. It is a very subtle process and if one involves one’s conscious mind to keep track and check up on any one aspect, the whole thing gets messed up. As usual, Chung-jen said that to work on this skill, just practice the sequence; it is all in the sequence. Yes, it is all in the sequence if I do it the way he taught me. So, I must not forget that dropping off is root. When he demonstrated on me, Chung-jen was perfectly still, touching me, but not pushing into me at all, and off I went, simply from him dropping off. I have been aware of this phenomenon for some time, but in my haste, I started to jump ahead before fully developing it, depending upon other skills to make up for my lack of root.
Because the topic came up, I also wanted more clarity on this dropping off / releasing. I asked if dropping off / releasing was always done the same, regardless of where I was being touched or what I was trying to do, or if I change it based on those parameters. Chung-jen stated that I should always do it the same way. I had suspected that, based on my previous experience, but I just wanted to make sure. I started to get a sense for it again, and Chung-jen warned that I not wait too long before returning for another lesson, or I would lose the sense again and go off in another direction again: off by an inch, miss by a mile. I will state at this point that the roll up and release while dropping off is the specific “internal engine” used in the type of T’ai Chi on which I am working. There are other internal engines out there, and jin manipulations can be done without a specific type of engine; one need only have open and loose joints and a certain degree of song.
The rooting topic led nicely into and was intertwined with the roll up and release topic, two of the three topics I wanted to cover. I then brought up the third topic, how to move my arms around. He laughed and said that I have been all along, but that I just needed to get better at it. I told him that I did not want to keep practicing incorrectly, so he got serious again and went on to explain. Up until this point, I have been moving my arms in a way that allowed freedom of movement and conduction of forces. Basically, I have been keeping my joints open and loose and releasing tensions in my torso that would otherwise form due to changes in limb positions. It feels like they float around where I want them to be based on what I think in regards to where they should be. You could say that I was hua (neutralizing) my own limbs and their movements. If someone put hard force on one of my limbs, I just did the same thing. It was no different than if my limb weighed more; I treated it the same. The connections from the limbs to the rest of body were from the sinking and hua. From an application point of view, this method seems to work well until I practice with someone who has better internal skill. Then, they perceive it as me using force, the wrong kind of force. My teacher uses the word fake: “Your movement is fake;” or “Your touch is fake.” Basically, I was not completely whole, somewhat disconnected.
So, how I am supposed to be moving my limbs? Well, it is tied directly into the internal engine that I mentioned above. Chung-jen used the word balloon quite a bit during the explaining. He has mentioned to me before about the head being like a balloon, but this was more inclusive. Although I am not sure they are the same thing, it brought to mind something that I have read on various internal arts forums that Mike Sigman writes about: the balloon man. Admittedly, I have not read his more in-depth expositions on the balloon man found in his blog. I will, however, be reading that soon. Although the internal engine behind his balloon man is a little different than the internal engine that I am working on, I think the balloon man aspect is probably very similar to the balloon that Chung-jen mentioned. Mike provides solid information in a very readable way, so I look forward to it, and I recommend his blog to you as well.
Let me get back to my lesson with Chung-jen now. He stated that the roll up from the tailbone, which connects huiyin (Ren-1 acupuncture point at the perineum) to baihui (Du-20 acupuncture point at the crown of the head), starts the “inflation” process of the balloon. At this point let me say that I have no doubt about this connection from huiyin to baihui. When I roll up, especially with an inhale, I can feel a sensation at huiyin that almost simultaneously “hits” the top of my head. Chung-jen instructed that as the balloon inflates, my yi (mind intent) should connect that to my fingertips (in the case of moving my arms). This will raise them and my arms to where I intend. During the lesson, I was able to do this, and I must say, it felt very different than what I was used to doing. It felt even more like I was doing less. I was psyched from that new experience. I was even able to do it against his pressure on my arms. This got me thinking.
I know in T’ai Chi, we are supposed to hua (neutralize) our opponents. Because they are alive and have nervous systems, they can be manipulated in ways that inanimate objects (such as a heavy box) cannot. Would the balloon hold up against inanimate objects? I asked if the balloon could be trained to become a very strong balloon so that you could lift or move objects with it, and he said yes. I also asked if that strong balloon could then be used to move a person as if they were an inanimate object, just moving their mass away from you with raw balloon power, and he said yes. Of course, that is not how he approaches things, and that is not how he teaches me. Remember those 3 things I mentioned above: 1) more emptiness; 2) better structure; and 3) less doing. Emptiness and hua should be the focus.
Still, I am going to isolate this balloon thing so I can get used to moving my limbs that way. After I get comfortable with that, I will add inanimate resistance to the training in order to develop a stronger balloon. I will still be working on emptiness and hua, trying to be as soft and subtle as possible, but it is good to have a backup plan.
I did ask another question about the balloon feeling just for clarification, and I think it is important to mention here. I told him that when I am practicing and I inhale, I can feel a sensation in my limbs as if they are being filled, and that when I exhale, that sensation dissipates. I asked if this was related to the balloon thing. He said, “No. That is just your feeling of things.” I knew just what he had meant by that because he had told me that before in other situations. He was letting me know that what I was feeling was just my mind’s interpretation of the qi sensation in my body that I have linked with my breathing. Qi in this sense has to do with the kind of qi used in healing or the channel qi in acupuncture. That is different than the martial qi talked about in T’ai Chi.
Time was up for the 2 hour lesson. I wish we would have done more. As is usual for us, we three continued with discussion over lunch at a Chinese buffet. I overate, partially because I like the food so much, and it is “all you can eat,” and partially because Chung-jen is able to eat so much and he jokingly remarks, wondering why we cannot eat that much. After lunch, we hugged and said our goodbyes. Chung-jen told us to not wait too long for our next lesson because he did not want us to lose the sense of correctness that we obtained during that lesson. I understand and agree. I would see him weekly if I could. I think I will try to see him again in the first week of May.
Overall, I am pleased with the lesson I had. As usual, I left there feeling like a dummy, knowing how little I knew (in my body) and how much I needed to work. I do remind myself, though, that it is relative. I am certainly not a beginner, but I am far from Chung-jen’s level. I gained some good clarification on rooting and the internal engine that we use. I will work a lot on this, however, I know I will encounter problems. When I isolate an internal mechanism like that, I tend to lose sight of all of the other things that my body is supposed to be doing correctly in order for the engine to be able to be expressed. If the engine is working but there are tensions in the body and forces are not conducting well, then the effects of the engine do not come through. Likewise, if I am just open and loose like I used to be, conducting forces, but with no real engine, I will be lacking and not doing what I am supposed to be doing. I have to combine those, and it is going to take some time. Those things are not new to me, but my understanding is a little different. Each lesson, things make just a little bit more sense to me. I also must work on awareness of the balloon phenomenon in regards to moving my limbs, and I must work that and the engine into the T’ai Chi form sequence so that I have a vehicle for regular solo practice. As usual, I will continue with my training partner so that we may test one another and provide increasingly difficult challenges.