Twisting the Towel

by admin on 2012/01/21

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{ 18 comments… read them below or add one }

dave pearce January 22, 2012 at 1:28 pm

the clearest teaching i have seen.wonderful.would love to study with you. thank you


cshum00 January 22, 2012 at 3:20 pm

I found an interesting way to do it. If i am wrong please correct me.

The Setup:
-First i sat down on the floor against the wall: this way i can’t move my lower body including my hips, knee and ankle.
-Then i put my elbow directly under and aligned with my shoulder. My forearm 90 degrees from the upper-arm and parallel with the floor.
-The forearm and fingertips are pointing forward. Because the elbow is half-chest apart from the spine, so are the fingertips.

The semi-rules:
-Your entire arm is not allowed to move, only your forearm is allowed to twist. The shoulder is not even allowed to rotate.
-The neck is not allowed to bend nor twist.
-The spine is not allowed to bend nor twist (but twisting will be used as a guide to learn which muscles we are working on).

The semi-objective:
-Move certain portions of your body so that your fingertips aligns with your spine and nose.
-If you are allowed to rotate the spine (which is not allowed), you can align your fingers with your spine. But because your neck is not allowed to rotate, your neck rotates with the spine so your fingertips is not aligned with your nose.
-At first allow only your spine to twist so that you realize that specific muscles on your abdomen and lower-back move in order to twist your spine. Then concentrate doing the same action without allowing your spine to twist. You realize that those same muscles will both contract and stretch; and your fingertips slightly moved towards the center-line trying to align with the spine and nose.

The real-objective and improvements:
-The real objective is to workout your abdomen and back muscles without your body to displace in space.
-When sitting down, your abdomen and back muscles can’t move your hip-bone. But when standing up, contracting such muscles will want to pull your hip-bone and therefore moving your knees. So the next stage is doing the same exercise standing up without moving your hip-bone or knees.
-The twisting in the forearms is not really needed but serves a purpose as a guide for simulating the contracting and stretching of the abdomen and back muscles. It is like when people tell you to lift your arms when breathing-in and lower your arms when breathing-out; you will be guiding your lungs to expand and contract.
-And when you feel comfortable that your body remember which muscles to pull, take away the twisting of your arms so that you can pull your muscles even without any guide.

When done correctly without any body part moving at all, it will look like from your clothes that your entire body is standing still but your abdomen is spinning and swirling around; as if there is a creature inside your stomach.


cshum00 January 22, 2012 at 3:31 pm

I take back the part of removing the forearm. Without the forearm it is just moving the abdominal muscles. With the forearm, it establishes a relationship between the abdomen and the hands.


Khamserk January 27, 2012 at 7:55 pm

Cshum00, what you have written is very in-depth, but according to the Practical Method there is a major problem here. The teaching is that whenever we deviate from the lesson ie. add to, theorize about, change the method etc. we inevitably get it wrong. We must go from physical understanding to mental understanding, the other way will not work. The words of the lesson must be preserved verbatim even if they are not understood. As Master Chen has said, it is better to forget a lesson than to remember it incorrectly. Once the concept is implanted incorrectly and you practice according to your misunderstanding, it is incredibly difficult to correct later. It is far better to copy the exercise as best you can repeatedly (thousands and thousands of times) with the rules in mind even if you don’t really
understand what they mean. Eventually the body will be ready to do the moves correctly. Master Chen has also said that if you want to develop taiji which is good for fighting, then you must learn from copying what is seen. Trying to unravel taiji intellectually, while fun, is ultimately meaningless.


Khamserk January 27, 2012 at 8:46 pm

I guess maybe all I’m trying to say is don’t be tempted to look for shortcuts. But I am not a master, and maybe there is value in your method. It’s just that I’ve been told many times that expanding on a partial understanding is dangerous in terms of making progress. Something about reinventing the wheel comes to mind here.


cshum00 January 29, 2012 at 10:26 am

I understand what you are saying and it is quite a complicated topic to debate too.

Some people are best starting at mental while others at physical. Usually, it is best when we get a taste of both. For those who are physical, theories will expand their understanding. While for mental ones, physical practice will solidify their experience.

Although it does not take one to understand how thing works to be able to use it; it sometimes necessary to re-invent the wheel in order be able to apply the knowledge elsewhere else. Some may feel there is too much information for them to absorb. While others may feel that there is too little information to work on.

Some may debate that we are dealing with human habits and habits die hard; therefore it is best to avoid mistakes. Others may debate that it is alright to make mistakes and the more the better; as long as you keep room and an open-mind to correct the mistakes.

So, it is hard to debate one over the other. Some say start with learning the theories, others say start practicing, and others say do both; there may be even other group telling you not kill yourself and do neither.

It is impossible to make a one size fits all teaching curriculum when dealing with large group of students. I mean heck! Even with our career academia, we all complain on our school system because we all have our own flavor when it comes to studies. So many things i had to correct even when learning math and science and it took me years to realize some i have been doing wrong.

P.S.> I wanted to make it short but ended up making it a long rant. Sorry about that.


Alex January 27, 2012 at 10:14 pm

While initially sounding like the restricted circle exercise
it doesn’t sound like the same intent is there (ie, in the exercise you mention the forearm doesn’t need to rotate, shoulder doesn’t move, etc). If that’s the case, I am not sure how useful training the center is like this. The waist needs to act like a connection between the upper and lower body, it’s not very helpful to move it without it acting in its proper role.


cshum00 January 29, 2012 at 9:48 am

You guys are right. My theorization are rather too restrictive and ended up removing “connections” within the body. I started to realize it too towards the end and which is why i took back my word on taking away the twisting of the forearm.

The problem with the way i theorized was that, at the beginning i did not understand how to move the internals of the center. So once i understood, i got too excited and carried away with it by removing the connections. In other word, the next step is gradually put back the connections in the right manner.

I guess the learning process of Taiji the following steps:
-Doing external movements to get an idea what internal muscles are deployed
-Start restricting external movements to train and enhance internal movements
-Start removing external restrictions little by little to deploy connections among body parts


studentofmethod January 29, 2012 at 12:03 pm

… or just do what Master Chen says to do.


Alex January 29, 2012 at 5:02 pm

not 100% clear, do you mean keeping the rotation you’ve experienced and work back in everything else?


cshum00 January 29, 2012 at 5:24 pm

I am sorry. I am a little confused on your question and where you are not clear. Can you be a little more elaborate?


Alex January 29, 2012 at 5:39 pm

What got me asking this was this “In the beginning i did not understand how to move the internals of the center. So once i understood, i got too excited and carried away with it by removing the connections. In other word, the next step is gradually put back the connections in the right manner.”
It seems you mean keeping the center rotation you’ve learned in your exercise described above, and put back other things in twisting the towel (more core movement, arms spiraling, legs spiraling, etc).


Alex January 29, 2012 at 5:34 pm

I am just saying this cause if that’s the case, I wouldn’t bother. Best to stick with the other ‘known’ rules and ways of moving, and have the rotation develop naturally. The main problem being, with the rotation that you’ve come up with, you don’t know if it’s correct or not. It’s best to experience something within the established exercises (of course, doing them correctly). I first noticed something of a circular rotation (not very distinct, and very small) in the center when the joints weren’t wobbling as much and the stretches were big enough. I think the first exercises I noticed this in was fetching water foundation exercise done at a moderate (not fast) pace.


cshum00 January 29, 2012 at 6:38 pm

Well you see, it is possible to stretch and spiral your arms and legs without any involvement of the center. Before i learned to involve the center, I even tried to open/stretch the kua while doing the twisting of the towel but i could not connect my legs with my shoulder. The opening of the kua only connected my knee to my upper-abdomen at most without the involvement of the chest which is connected to the shoulder and arms.

So my shoulder and arms were involving my chest and hands as one group. While my kua was involving my abdomen and legs as another separate group. They would work at the same time but not together. It took me to twist/rotate/turn my spine sideways to get the feeling on how to involve the kua with the chest.

The way i explain things might sound like rushing or making the pace faster but i don’t really mean that there is a shortcut. Even if i understand and know how things work it does not necessarily mean that all of the sudden i become powerful. The training and practice we all need is irreplaceable. Even in external martial arts, i may be able to punch correctly with all the sharpness but if my body build does not allow it; i will end-up doing more damage to my hands than my opponent.

I am just saying that it is important to learn what gets involved. Put some restrictions so you learn what other ways you can get those involved without excess movement. Too many restrictions will just lock up the connections on one body part to the other, so gradually learn how to involve multiple body parts by loosening some of the restrictions.

I don’t think it is too different from what Master Chen teaches. I always see him talk that you first imitate the moves. Then you gradually learn that you can do things on certain new ways by putting up restriction. Like how he lets himself getting pushed around. Then he tells how one learns one can just give away by moving back. And then we can give away without moving back but only by moving our arms and elbow back. And then we gradually learn that while moving our elbows back we can step forward.


Alex January 30, 2012 at 12:17 am

I understand where you are coming from. To be fair, your variation was sounding less like a restricted version, and more like something pretty different, which is indeed not the way to go.

From my experience, A bit of a litmus test would be to check the thighs. If they are rotating as well and you have a straight spine, then you are probably on the right track. If they are not rotating, I am guessing your tailbone is wagging from side to side, or your mid back is contorting from side to side.


cshum00 January 30, 2012 at 1:46 am

Thanks for the tips Alex.

Well, in my first post there is far too many restrictions for twisting the towel. After understanding that with all the restrictions i put in place lead to simply abdominal movements, i started to understand that i had to engage also my forearm. Proper twisting my forearm would eventually lead the elbow towards the center, which the elbow pulls down my shoulder. My center would pull-in my ribs-cage which also pulls down my shoulder. That is how i managed to connect the center with my hands.

So as you can see, that is how i seem to get the thought of less restrictions over time. The thing is that with all the restrictions i had, either i am moving only a single part with no connections or i am all tensed and locked up. I believe that the idea is to be able to replicate the same feeling and intention while the flow of movements are natural.

As for the thighs, i believe that in other to push into the ground without displacing the knee; I have to rotate the thighs so that the force get past the knee to the foot. As for the tailbone, when i began learning opening the kua i did indeed move it. But i gradually thought of it being not quite right so i started focusing pulling-up the abdominal muscles. Although pulling the abdominal muscles up while stretching the legs muscle down did connect the center with the foot, it doesn’t connect the chest nor anything above.


Xavier Santiago January 30, 2012 at 3:05 pm

An interesting sub-topic that has come out of this lesson of “twisting the towel” is whether Taiji is learned first intellectually and then physically, or first physically and then understood intellectually. Here is my two cents worth into this discussion. I frankly recommend that the best way to understand Chen style Taijiquan Practical Method is to practice and follow Master Chen’s instructions to the letter, and not try to verbally explain or interpret his lessons. I use to try to explain to myself what I was supposed to be doing in each movement and Shifu’s answer would always be “you are thinking opposite of the correct way”. From my experience discussing Taiji with many people in the last few years is that I realize that many people think the object of Taiji is first to understand it intellectually in order to understand it physically. However, as a physical art form, the understanding only comes by being able to physically apply it at will. I eventually came to realize what Shifu has always been telling me is that just practicing and following instructions and nothing more is actually the correct way to learn. When we try to explain or interpret what Shifu teaches we are actually adding or subtracting to his lessons based on what we knew before learning the Practical Method. When we add or subtract to Master Chen’s instructions, we are no longer doing Taiji. We are doing our own exercise with our own movements. My advice to all new students learning from Shifu Chen Zhonghua is to just follow the instructions to the letter and practice, practice, practice and keep on practicing.

When I trained full time in Edmonton in 2008, Shifu once told me to practice 800 repetitions of the circle and the only thing that can happen is that I can only get better. When he makes a correction, he told me to focus only on that correction. Other corrections will be given by him in time. At the beginning, we will inevitably move wrong. The only way to make corrections is to just practice, even if in the beginning you are wrong. The movements will eventually become ingrained and we will be ready to receive corrections as the body is able to physically apply those corrections.
One of the methods I use in training the new students in our Puerto Rico group is that when, for example, questions are asked about the circle I tell them to just focus on “in with the elbow, turn with the waist, and out with the hand.” That simple. With Yi Lu, just copy the routine and let’s repeat it over and over again. As we come in contact with Master Chen, he is then able to give each one in our group the correction each person needs in order to progressively improve their Taiji. When our bodies have changed through training and are able to do the proper Taiji movement, we will understand the principles. Trying to learn the other way around will only stall progress. That is opposite to what is normally believed. One of the biggest lessons I have received from Shifu is that in order to learn Taiji we have to think in the Taiji way, and that way is totally opposite to “normal human thinking or intuition.” That is my advice to all the new people 🙂

Best of success in your training.


studentofmethod January 30, 2012 at 4:47 pm

Good advice Xavier. Thank you very much.


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