The 1930’s, or, Are you analyzing your Taiji inappropriately?

by Paul Janssens on 2010/09/10

You might wonder why I bring the 1930’s into the equation. Well, to my mind, the 1930’s is where all the trouble started for a lot of students.  So what happened in the 1930’s you may ask.

Well, much of our understanding of anatomy stems from research conducted in the 1930’s.  Research scientists discovered that you put a current into a muscle, the muscle twitches.  Using electrical equipment, these ‘researchers’ were able to stimulate individual muscles of dead bodies, to study the effect these muscles have on the bones and joints.  Thus the world learned that the triceps extends the elbow, or that the biceps flexes the elbow.

Fast forward to the 1950’s.  In their fight against the then polio epidemic (polio produces muscle wastage), research scientists apply the knowledge from the 1930’s to analyze progress of polio in living subjects. Again, individual muscles were targeted, and exercises where prescribed to ‘help’ the patients build muscles.   This knowledge got out into the public domain, and saw he start of the ‘scientific’ approach for body building purposes.

In the 1970’s, some bright spark came up with the idea of making machines that enabled one to change the variable for muscle hypertrophy by allowing you to change the amount of weight or load.  Fantastic!  And for some exercises you don’t even have to stand up!  To this day, gyms are full of all sorts of machines that enable you to ‘target’ those areas you want to enhance, sculpt, or whatever name you may wish to give it.

The current approach is integration. Whilst they found that isolation can indeed stimulate muscle hypertrophy, it lacks the multi-level approach that the body needs to perform tasks in an effective manner.  Despite these findings, there are still plenty people out there, sweating and puffing away on the machines, who fail to understand that isolation of muscles leads to dysfunction and chronic pain.  Its actually bad for you.  So now you see a flurry of micro-gyms without machines.  No more targeting of specific muscles, but the ‘whole body movement’ approach with exercises using kettle bells, elastic bands, et al, and more attention to the anatomy trains that are supported by the fascia of the body. The concept is simple, while muscles act between near and far attachments, they also operate within myofascial tracks/planes and form anatomy trains that spiral along the body.

Why am I telling you all this?  Well, when Master Chen discusses movements, there are invariably students who ask questions along the line of: “And what muscle do you use for this?” And the answer always is “That is the wrong question.”   The questioner, in the knowledge that “if you make that one muscle stronger, I’ll be able to do this technique better” is in effect applying the kitchen and garden variety science from the 1930-1990’s by only looking at one part of the issue.   Instead of isolating the movement, they need to return to the integral view of what is happening with the movements.   In modern integration ‘speak’, Taiji consists of the following elements:

  • Movement occurs in three planes.
  • Movement is integrated, not isolated.
  • Movement should enrich your ability to sense movement (if you proprioceptor abilities are limited, you cannot ‘feel’ what you  are doing)

One of the keys that Master Chen talks about is the energy alignments.  This sounds very much like the ‘latest’ discoveries of ‘kinetic chains’.  A kinetic chain is the concept that each part of the body is interconnected.  Sounds familiar, right?  To those students who ask the question: “And what muscle do you use for this?” a different answer is “Your body knows nothing about muscles, it only knows about movement.”

So, in order for those students to understand what is required in their Taiji practice, I’ll put it in different words:

  • You can move any part of your body in three planes of motion.  Master Chen has demonstrated this amply during the three month training course.  Even Nick from Hong Kong (who apart from being a disciple is also a noted Salsa dance teacher) was staring in disbelief when Master Chen did the movements.  This motion, allowed Master Chen to control forces placed on the body, and allowed him to load assisting body parts to control movement.  Get rid of the idea of pure ‘saggital-plane’ exercises that dominate your local gym, and seriously think about adding the frontal and transverse plane.
  • Isolation is dead. When you attempt to learn you rotation of the movements, do not isolate the spiral in one limb, leg, etc.  Find the spiral that covers your body.  Properly check out what you do when playing with the Positive/Negative circle. And yes, if you can’t get you Kua to work, then it is time you started, because its in the middle and you need it to make that spiral work for you in your Taiji.
  • When one is pushed by Lee Hrappsted, and you do the incorrect movement, the muscles have to deal with a load.  This is know as an eccentric phase.  In this phase, the muscles are lengthened, and are placed under stretch.  Research suggests that the demand on the muscular system is higher than when the muscles work in a concentric stage.  Now, from what I can gather, if you do the movement correctly, you do not end up in the eccentric phase, but the arm/body is immediately placed in the concentric stage. The opponent thinks he is pushing, but in fact he is touching an action point of you body that hides the oncoming rotating concentric movement.

So there.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Nicholas Fung September 10, 2010 at 11:39 pm

Hey, Paul! You are not just good with the camera!

I might add that this noted Salsa dancer (thanks for the plug) was, and still stares puzzled at Shifu’s movement. I have been studying for over 5 years under Shifu, and I am pretty sure that there are many more 5 years of this staring to come.


Jay September 11, 2010 at 9:39 am

Yes Nick, I don’t think the staring will ever come to an end.


Tim Duehring September 12, 2010 at 3:41 pm

Paul, thanks for the knowledgeable insights.
After 10 years I still stare in disbelief at some of the positions he allows us to get him into and then he bounces us from there. But I am getting to the point where I can see how it is done, I just hope someday to be able to do it.


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