China Daily recently ran a story on how the government is planning to replace lots of traditional squat toilets with Western-style porcelain thrones. This is a tragedy for Chinese martial arts, in my view. (I’m actually quite serious about that). What’s more, not squatting is a big reason why there are so many bad martial artists in the West. So, although a discussion of pooping is perhaps a bit too much for some readers, it’s a very good place to discuss being a good martial artist. Don’t worry about inadvertent offence, though: in this post, I’m probably going to upset lots of people with this one.
First of all, let’s at squatting properly.
That is a proper squat. Look at the shape of the back: a proper ‘C’ shape (as I discussed in a recent post). The leg muscles aren’t taking any weight at all; the body is supported by the bones, and by the tendons, and particularly the Achilles Tendons. The pelvis is tucked naturally underneath the body; the perineum and lower stomach muscles are lifted. All of this is the ideal state of the body when performing taijiquan, and the other internal martial arts.
In this position, it’s easy to spend long periods. Every single day, I pass numbers of people in this kind of squat at the side of the road: playing with their mobile phones, smoking, reading a newspaper, or just letting time pass.
Now let’s look at ‘bad’ squatting, at least from a martial arts point of view. I can’t embed the image here for copyright reasons, but take a look. The lower back is compressed, the bum is sticking out, and the weight is being held by the leg muscles in an inefficient manner. This position can’t be effortlessly maintained for long periods. Nevertheless, it’s the kind of squat you’ll see being done by a large proportion of Westerners if and when they do squat.
Let’s try it, shall we? If it’s possible, I’d like you to try going into a full, deep squat (if not, try it later). There are two conditions:
- The soles of your feet must remain completely flat on the floor.
- You should be quite relaxed and comfortable so that, if necessary, you could read a newspaper for a while.
How did that go?
Chances are you struggled. If you’re a Westerner, that’s likely for one of these reasons:
- You have lots of tension in your neck/shoulders/upper back, although you probably aren’t aware of it. This draws the rest of your back upwards, collapsing the base of your spine inwards, and creating a little ‘ski jump’ as your bum sticks outwards. This is a bad thing, as I described in the post mentioned above.
- Your Achilles Tendons are short, stiff, and inflexible. If you go into a full squat with your bum tucked under you properly, these tendons are going to have to stretch and bear your whole weight. If you can’t do this, you’ll tend to balance on the front of your feet and/or stick your backside out.
- If you’re a typical desk-bound Westerner, you spend a lot of your time leaning forward at an unnatural angle, supported by the chair under your bum, and you’ve come to think of this as normal. It’s not. When you try to squat, the natural position requires you to lean backwards much more than you do in your chair; your back muscles simply aren’t used to it, and you’re afraid of committing. As a result you try to keep your head and shoulders leaning forward, so your backside sticks out to compensate.
By coincidence, a friend on Facebook has just posted this article on squatting, which I find really interesting:
- The first thing that raised my eyebrows was the statement that “Some experts say the squat isn’t functional”. Obviously, this isn’t the view of the article’s author, but still, it’s quite shocking to me; a squat is great training for developing powerful tendons and a flexible spine, and these (in my developing understanding) are essential for the martial artist.
- The second thing was the idea that “a two-footed squat takes place every day”. I get what the author was trying to convey but, as outlined above, it’s not enough: a full, Asian-style squat is what’s needed.
I was amused, when I mentioned to the friend that I might be mildly rude about the article, to get the response: Cool. Love well written and researched rudeness. Hehehehe. I live and work in old-school China, readers. In any given week, I without doubt spend a lot more time holding a deep squat than almost any of you do (and, even so, I really ought to be spending a lot more time standing in zhan zhuang than I currently do).
So, speaking as someone who is primarily exploring the Chinese internal martial arts, if you can’t hold a deep squat like this for an extended period of time without effort or discomfort, you have a problem. Speaking personally, when I first came to Asia I started having to use squat toilets; my taijiquan also improved dramatically. I believe there’s a direct connection between the two!
That’s probably quite a bold statement, so let’s explore it a bit.
At the core, being fully grounded, sinking your weight right into the ground, which is a key aspect of neijiaquan, is right there in the Achilles tendons. Now let me be very clear: this blog is very much a learner’s journal but, as I mentioned in my last post, I’m applying these theories and getting good results.
So let’s try another experiment: do a standing jump, for as comfortable distance as you can. If you pay attention, you may well notice the tendon loading up before you jump.
If force = mass * acceleration, then my legs, and if I can get my rather too many kilograms leaping for a metre or two, then my legs, and in particular my lower legs, are capable of generating a lot of force.
This is one of the key differences between the internal and the external styles. External styles focus more on the forms and techniques; internal styles focus on relaxing the body so that the force which anyone can generate as they perform a standing jump can be transmitted into the opponent.
Neijia styles such as yiquan and taijiquan work by strengthening the tendons; yiquan does it through its standing postures, taiji by moving very slowly. This isn’t to say that techiques aren’t important: of course, they are. Similarly, training for strength and stamina are very important: but, unlike the external styles, they are supplemental, not core.
Get the power of the leg muscles, load it into the tendons, then release it through the spine; ideally the big back muscles can amplify it on the way out through the arms… This is why the myth of the “little old man” exists: the big muscles that everyone has are sufficient, if the relaxation is there, the back is properly flexible, etc.
So, this is what I’ve been working on and, as I mentioned, it’s what allowed me to break my training partner’s root and send him flying in a recent class.
I’ve also done something similar in a rather more spectacular fashion. It was in yiquan class back in 2010, shortly before I went back to the UK. My training partner was new to yiquan; I think he was a farmer or a labourer, judging from his tan, and he was very, very strong – but he was also tense. He rushed me, and pushed with all his strength. I managed to maintain my position, with my right arm (the one he was pushing on) maintaining relaxed, dynamic tension. I absorbed all of his power; I could feel my tendons stretching and taking the force, loading up until they made popping noises. At the moment when my partner stopped pushing and started to withdraw, I released his force back into him, adding my own to it. It went out of my right arm and into his. Because he was stiff and tense, he couldn’t absorb it; it had nowhere to go. So what happened? The only way he could get rid of that energy was to turn it into kinetic energy: he flew backwards across the room, with his knees up against his chest.
It was a fluke, but it opened my eyes to what the neijia styles are capable of. Being an accomplished neijia practitioner would mean being able to do this reliably, against opponents who are themselves fare more relaxed than my opponent on that day, or more recently. I have my objective, though: I know what I’m trying to achieve.
And this leads me on to another reason for writing this post, because I’ve seen, and been drawn into, flame wars on Facebook recently, because there are people saying that what I’ve just described, and the experiences I’ve had, are impossible, and that the pictures, and videos, available online are charlatanry.
They’re not. Or at least, not all of them are.
There are several different problems here.
First, of course, there are charlatans: teachers or others who are pretending to have abilities they don’t actually possess.
Secondly, there are teachers who do have the ability, but their students have a learned nervousness, leading them to jump before any actual power has been applied.
Thirdly, though, and the one that worries me the most, is teachers and practitioners of the internal arts who have come to believe that because neither they nor anyone they know can do anything like this, this kind of power is a myth. This would seem to be the rationale for various teachers who have appointed themselves as witchfinder-generals, hunting down and ridiculing anyone who claims to have these abilities. There are loud denials that “qi” exists. One of them, who I won’t name, recently posted this picture on Facebook:
The problem? This kind of thing can be done. A non-cooperative opponent can be made to hop. I’ve done it myself.
Up until very recently, squatting for long periods was a simple fact of life for every single person in China. Doing it builds powerful tendons, and relaxes the back in ways that are critical for neijia. The training methods don’t address this, because why would they need to? Every single student had been doing daily squatting training since childhood.
Most Western students of internal styles, I would guess, very rarely squat, and even more rarely hold the position to load the tendons and tuck the lower back in. In consequence, it’s likely that few of them really have the ability to whip the power of their legs up through their back and through their arms. I also suspect that a lot of them are tending to rely simply on the techniques of the different internal styles (which exist and are effective), but using them only with muscular strength – effectively turning them into external styles. I fear that if Western-style toilets spread in China, it’s going to undermine the internal styles here, too.
So, hey. These blog posts are a learner’s journal. I have a target in mind. I want to take what I’ve done by chance and experiment and turn them into reliable skills. Some people say that what I’ve done is impossible. Perhaps they’re right and I’m wasting my time. Perhaps I’m right, and they are closing their eyes to the most powerful aspect of the internal martial arts.
Image credit: Old Man & Phone by user See-Ming Lee on Flickr. Used under a Creative Commons license.