It makes sense. The circle is the strongest form possible. Connecting circles using interlocking gears means the coordination of parts in order to support and connect the structure. Master Chen gives us yet another analogy of structure. Imagine holding a rock away from your body with a straight arm. It requires muscles and strength and this eventually weakens. When I think of the practical use of martial arts, I am resolved in the belief that pitting muscle against muscle is not the answer. There will always be someone stronger, someone bigger and there is always the chance of injury yourself in the process.
A group of about 20 of us have been meeting in Langley for four years now. It’s become routine for me now. I take the exit off the #1 highway and travel for the last few kilometers past farmer’s fields and well maintained country style homes. I arrive at the white hall and take the stairs up and through the doors. The hall has a spacious wood floor area with wood covered walls and ceiling. There is a wood stage at the back with washrooms on either side. There are windows on either side with long wooden benches underneath and along the left wall there are hooks to hang your coat or pack. Over-head there are steel support lines attached to each side of the sloped ceiling. I can’t help but think that this old hall was made for dancing and community gatherings.
We arrive, set down some snacks for our breaks, greet one another, place our belongings along the left wall and bench and some of us catch up and talk or we informally warm up or practice. Most mornings Master Chen leads us with basic circles and this takes us to application and discussion. On other mornings he is engaged in a discussion on taiji mechanics with hands on demonstration and we gather round. This becomes our starting point. By the end of the day, I drive away from the white hall and I marvel at how we fill a full day with so much practice and information. And yet there is no lesson plan that we are following. We do not follow some schedule with 30 minutes of this and 30 minutes of that and 10 minutes rest.
If there has been some pattern to our workshops I would say that we followed the Yi Lu form for the first years and we have added Cannon Fist in the past year. To keep the forms in context and to hone our mind intent, we learn basic applications using partner drills. And of course, there are the circles – positive and negative and combinations thereof. Fill in the gaps with discussion on the mechanics of taiji, teachings from grandmasters Hong and Feng, and – my personal favourite – fundamentals on Taoism, and you have a general feel for the Langley workshops.
One such lesson in mechanics involves the three main rings – the peripheral circle from the feet and hands, the circumference of the elbows and knees, and the lateral circumference of the waist, shoulders and head. We have to keep these rings from overlapping and crossing over. Otherwise the gears of the structure are clogged and points of vulnerability are created.
From the simple to the profound – it all makes sense. Now we are faced with putting it into practice… to make it real.
These last two workshops have been about application. Team up in partners and put the theory into practice. Partner up and get an idea of how others apply what they have learned. Find a partner and try out a pushing drill. The conversation takes the form of: “Step in closer.” “No, I am feeling you push from your shoulder. Try rotating more and use your front kua. Sink down.”
Feedback and deconstruction of what has been demonstrated to us time and time again from feeling and seeing Master Chen first-hand as he continues to give us the sensation of yin yang separation and using spiral rotation in a desynchronized way. He points at areas of the body, he directs us to put our hands on certain areas of his body to feel what is going on, and he re-enacts how we are doing it incorrectly like a gifted dance-instructor stepping out of his role for a moment to trip on his partner’s feet.
After getting an idea of how we look – a very accurate representation actually – he shows us the right way of doing it. He uses analogy, creates drawings, and uses props in the room all in an effort to bring about comprehension. My notebook is filled with diagrams and analogies. And then there is the wrestling and falling on the floor time and time again. As I get up I think of how well he has set up my imbalance – created an empty space, an uncomfortable area in my body – before moving me past the point of stability. When we attempt to re-enact this with a partner we fall short as we try to muscle our opponent to the ground.
So how steep is this learning curve? The progress is there. We have made gains and we have an implicit knowledge of what is correct. It is becoming easier to see and feel the mistakes and offer feedback to others and yet there is such a gap between know-how and applying it correctly. We struggle with years of conditioning and are faced with re-learning how to move without leading our movements with large muscle groups but instead trusting form and structure. A delicate balance between firm and yet not stiff. Master Chen tells us that stiff at the wrong time is stiff; stiff at the right time is power. We have to be firm to have power.
It all comes back to the circle. We continue to get feedback on how to do the basic positive circle. Master Chen takes turns offering each of us feedback and corrections:
- The elbow pulls in and the front hand drops and so does the front kua. After the rotation the front hand goes out and the rear kua drops. If both kua’s are moving at the same time or are locked into place then this is “double heavy”. One kua must lock and the other opens.
- Bring the elbow in and the kua goes down. The power goes to the ground. Power does not escape out the back.
- The kua has to be in position and engaging – it moves but does not move away. Technically it is rotating.
- When the shoulders move outside of the waist this is leaning and there is crossover with two of the three main rings.
- The upper body and the lower body need to match; you push without opening.
- Move the hand less. It can’t move separately from the body.
The greatest challenge for most of us is how to “get back”, how to make the turn. We can pull the elbow in and drop the hand (the yang section), but the transition involving rotating and spiraling the hand out (the yin section), is problematic. The timing is off or, in many cases, the shoulder is moving out of position when the hand is extended. The hand moves out but the center point, the pivoting point between the hand and the shoulder, is lost. We lose it when we rely on powering outwards with large muscle groups (mostly from the shoulder and upper arm). The distance between the two remains fairly constant. There are situations when the hand moves away from the shoulder, but it is a result of taking up slack when the opponent retreats. This is adjustment, not a point of isolated and disconnected power.
I remember Master Chen first correcting me on the circle once in Victoria. While completing the circle he said: “You see. He is outside.” I didn’t understand this at the time but I am beginning to. The way I see it, when issuing outwards and making the turn back, the power that was focused on the elbow needs to be transferred to the hand by the wrist area. It needs to spiral as though it is traveling through a keyhole. The opponent is locked in the “catch” from when they pressed on the outside of the elbow during the withdraw yin section. They were deflected away from your power source. Once they are locked in, you slip through the keyhole by directing power with the fingers – leading with the pinky finger.
These little moments of understanding are reassuring. The challenge is to use it in practice with our partner work and during the forms. We also take comfort in knowing that corrections and instruction are near at hand. Often times we check to see where Master Chen is in the hall to get further clarification and hands-on validation.
In my mind and from my notebook, I reflect on the axioms from grandmaster Hong imparted to us via Master Chen. You are not hurt by others. When you are hurt it is from going to the wrong place. The answer is in you and not in the other person. Taiji is not reacting or responding to something, it is adjusting. In the end, I have to change me.
This past workshop, at lunch time, Master Chen used a phrase that he himself coined: “I hit the Tao” – like hitting the jackpot. Those of us who are fortunate to be witness to Master Chen’s tutelage at the Langley workshops all implicitly know we have hit the Tao. This is not like watered-down versions of tai chi. These lessons are authentic. Although it could take us time and dedication before it takes hold, before we trust the structure at a physical level, before we adapt our movements, we know that there is something at the core that is real and that is solid. Master Chen is living proof of that. We are on a path and we will continue to do circles until we one day make the leap. We will make the turn and truly hit the Tao.