One concept which seems to come up in almost every lesson and principle Master Chen teaches is connection. But what does “being connected” actually mean? How do we achieve it and what are the benefits of being connected? I think these are all important questions that any serious Chen Style Taijichuan Practical Method student needs to explore and understand in order to gain a deeper understanding of this complex art. While most practioners seem to focus on the external choreography of the art, which is the first step and the foundation of the , I think the answer to what connection is can only be found by focusing on what happens inside the body. Taiji is, after all, an internal martial art!
I think the easiest way to understand the principle of being connected is through Master Chen’s excellent comparison of the tendons and ligaments found throughout the body to rubber bands. Most of us have surely seen him use these rubber bands in his tutorial videos, or workshop demontsrations and therefore this is nothing new. Master Chen teaches that in order to be properly connected, the tendons in the body must be reconditioned through continuous tension and stretching during the form. Any time this “internal” stretch of the tendons is lost, the connection is broken and therefore only the external aspect of the move is present.
I think most of us don’t realize how important it is to do the form while “being connected” and the amazing and rapid trasformations which occur inside the body if one focuses on this overlooked and misunderstood principle of Taijichuan. I’m sure most of us have felt this internal stretch of the tendons at some point while doing the form, but is it actually possible to do the whole form without breaking this connection or stretch? It is my belief that it is not only possible, but essential!
There seem to be three phases of development to the process of connecting the body as a whole while doing Taijichuan. Based on the detailed lessons I have had from Master Chen on my fulltime courses, the things I have personally felt happen in his body and through my own experimentaion with the , I would like to discuss these three phases and the effects they have on the body and how they relate to a deeper understanding of the art and principles taught by Master Chen.
After having learned the choreography of the, the first stage of learning how to connect the body happens in the upper body, mainly in the shoulders and arms. To begin the process of feeling the internal stretch, Master Chen emphasizes the use of big movements which force the body, mainly the shoulder and elbow joints and ligaments, to stretch out and open.
An important point Master Chen makes about stretching is that in order to stretch something properly, there must be something fixed to stretch against. For example, If you were to extend your arm in a stretch, your torso should stay in a fixed position to stretch against. If the torso moved in the same direction as the stretch, there would obviously be very little stretching going on. Therefore, in the beginning stages, it is very important to constantly be aware that the torso does not “toss” from side to side so that the hand has something fixed to stretch against.
Once a practitioner is able to feel that stretch when the arm is fully extended by sinking through the shoulder, that same tension should be kept on the arm as the elbow comes in to the dantian. Master Chen’s use of the rubber bands to demonstrate this is excellent. If the arm is fully stretched out with the torso locked and the hand is fixed at a point in the air, the turning of the waist and pulling in of the elbow creates even more stretch throughout the arm. This also forces the shoulder to properly turn over and rotate, for if the connection is broken, the shoulder won’t rotate properly. By focusing on this while doing the form, the tendons in the arms, shoulders and upper back become reconditioned and the joints open up to a new level of flexiblity.
At the beginning it almost seems impossible to keep the internal stretch intact while moving, and so it is necessary to slow down and make each movement consciously. With practice and patience, the speed of the form can be increased as the connection becomes stronger and harder to break. Eventually the internal stretch and connection can be kept in the arms, shoulders and upper back throughout most of the form while keeping a steady pace.
Once the upper body is connected throughout most of the form without having to focus on it too much, the attention should be shifted to the lower body. This phase of keeping the body connected seems to be a bit easier than the other two phases. Because the legs are used everyday to support the body, it is my opinion that most people’s legs are more connected than their upper bodies. It seems most of the transformations at this stage happen to the ligaments surrounding the knees and the kua/the hip joints. Again, Master Chen emphasizes using low postures to help everything stretch out and open up the joints.
As one’s flexibilty increases and the ligaments of the knees become stronger, it becomes important to focus on the positioning and angles of the feet and knees. To maintain good inner connection in the legs one needs to keep the kuas open at all times. To ensure this, the feet must be in their proper positions and the knees must not collapse to the ground, as this breaks the stretch and the connection.
Even though at this stage the upper body and lower body are both individually connected and are starting to work together in synchronicity, they are not yet able to work as a whole. However, at this point the principles of separation, proportionality, differential and spiraling that Master Chen always talks about start manifesting in the movements throughout the form. The upper body, which is fixed because it is “internally” connected, can start stretching against the lower body, which is also connected. The relationship between hands and feet, kua and shoulders starts becoming established in the form and the movements start feeling much stronger and more stable.
Once the practitioner is able to complete the form while keeping both the upper and lower body individually connected without much effort, both halves of the body must be connected through the mid section. In my experience, this is the most difficult and painfull phase of the process of connecting the body. Keeping in mind that the upper body and lower body must remain connected and retain their structure, the lower back must be pushed out and the tailbone tucked into the front. This creates a rounded “turtle shaped” back and also forces the chest to hollow out. If this is done properly the waist area should feel totally deadlocked with a very limited. If at the beginning you push out your lower back and are still able to move the waist freely, chances are that either your lower or upper body have lost their connection. This deadlock in the mid section is due to the newly rounded ‘S’ shape of the connected body and the lack of flexibilty in the waist. However, this is a good sign and means you are on the right track because to open up the waist, the body must stay locked so that it will have something to stretch against.
This process of locking the body and stretching is extremely uncomfortable, sometimes painful and most definitely exhausting. As you practice each move while keeping this rounded structure, you can actually feel the two halves of the body beginning to fuse together. The tendons that run from the knees, through the kua, into the waist and up to the back and spine begin to stretch and the mid section of the body begins to open up and connect. If this is done properly, there sholuld be a lot of discomfort and pain in the triangular shaped plate above the buttocks, the kua, the spine and even the abdominal wall. Once flexibilty in these parts starts to build up, the pain will subside a little, but don’t stop there!
To speed up the process of opening up all these heavily locked areas, look for the pain in the stretch and push through it. If you find a certain position is particularly painful, hold the stretch there and slowly move deeper into it. It is very important that the connection in the rest of the body be maintained in order to have a proper stretch. At the beginning it is difficult to do more than 2 or 3 moves while keeping this connection. Master Chen says this is normal.
With a lot of hard work however, the body finally opens up and the tendons in the mid section become more supple and the pain slowly goes away. When the body is able to move through the entire form in this internally connected manner, where each part is connected and powered by another, one can feel the strength, stabilty and potential power produced within the body.
Suddenly, Master Chen’s example of the body moving as a gearbox can not only be understood intellectually, but also be experienced in practice. Initially, doing the form like this might look quite rigid and blocky, but this is because the body is not flexible enough and the tendons not supple enough to allow the body to move fluidly while staying connected.
However, with time and practice, the body develops the ability to move in a deceivably soft manner externally, while remaining rock hard and connected internally. Remember, just as a sculptor might start off with an ugly stump of wood, chop away big chunks to get a rough outline of the shape, slowly work out the smooth edges and finally add in the finer details to complete his masterpiece, I believe the same must be done with the form! The only difference is that we should start from the inside and work our way out.