Well, I was hoping to get this finished before the end of 2015, but it didn’t happen. Never mind.
Of the three topics that most concern this blog – meditation, martial arts, and medicine – I’ve just covered the first in another post, while the third hasn’t really been a focus during 2015. So let’s talk about martial arts, and yiquan in particular.
Back in 2008, an English friend of mine, Hannah, came to a few yiquan classes with me. She wasn’t a martial arts novice; shortly before we met she’d spent a month living in a martial arts school somewhere in the frozen countryside of northern China, training intensively in Meihuaquan. I’d been training in yiquan for a while at that point, so I was quite confident that I wouldn’t have any difficulty with her when it came to tui shou push hands. What happened instead was that my hands slid right off her arms, and she smacked me in the mouth. I’d been expecting resistance but felt almost none at all, so my own force simply pushed my hands into the wrong place, leaving a big gap which Hannah promptly took advantage of.
I’ve been keeping this experience in mind ever since I came back to Beijing and restarted my yiquan training. My main focus, above all else, has been achieving relaxation, correct structure and, through that, whole-body power. The key approach as been the meditative technique of constantly scanning the body with the mind, looking for tension, and then working out why it’s there and how to release it.
As a result, I think I’ve mentioned in a previous post, I went through a phase of constantly being corrected by Master Yao; I would be mentally focussed on what was happening in my back and shoulders, relaxing muscles so that my back would curve in a better way, and my lower back could stretch and extend (something that’s not very easy).
Zhan zhuang, of course, helps to identify where there are misalignments, and I’ve been finding more and more issues. My knees tend to collapse inwards; addressing that has led to my weight falling more naturally to the outside edges of my feet rather than the inside, and that’s made my posture stronger. I’ve been learning to extend and contract the hips, or kua, far better than ever before – and learning how keeping the head level means that raising the torso with the kua means that the back curves to contain and store the force, ready for release.
I’ve also been observing, in the long hours of sitting that my job entails, bad posture that I’d never noticed before: I tend to sit more on the right buttock, with the left kind of tucked under, and that means that my entire lower back skews to the left. I must have been doing this for years. Undoing this habit is taking a lot of effort, but I can already feel the increased freedom in the lower back. Unkinking the lower back is also taking a lot of tension out of the shoulders, so the whole back is feeling the benefit.
Of course, another thing that’s helping is frequent massage sessions. A series of blind masseurs work my back over in different ways, but most of them seem to be using their elbows and full body weight with great vigour! It’s (often very) painful, but it’s really helping in getting my back to the way it should be.
The point of all this is that I’m getting to the point where I can use my legs and kua to charge up my back with power. Slowly, my back is becoming flexible enough, and strong enough, to “ripple” that power upwards to the shoulders. I think that this is what bagua people refer to as “dragon back” – like a snake striking:
The work that I’m doing on relaxing my shoulders and arms mean that I can maintain contact with my opponents without exerting any real pressure. Many of my training partners have, on joining arms, commented on the way they can’t really feel anything. This is what Hannah did to me, and I’m finding now that I can use it to similar effect. I’m coming to think that this is what Zheng Man Qing was talking about when he referred to “Fair Lady’s Hand” – not just the position of the hand, but the softness of the contact.
Putting all of this together, it means that strength generated in the legs and kua, and/or force absorbed from opponents, can be stored and transmitted via the back, acting like a whip. The shoulders, being relaxed, allow the force to be transmitted unimpeded into the arms. The arms, also being relaxed, allow that force to be delivered to any point of contact, and in various directions (and this is where yiquan very closely overlaps with Systema Kadochnikova and ROSS). In many ways, this seems to me to be how a bird uses its wings: full-body power delivered via relatively soft wings:
Which, of course, should remind us of the origin myth of taijiquan…
In writing this, when I mention particular muscles that I’m working on, I do worry that this is all perhaps too specific, but when I consider further, I suspect I’m pretty typical. I’ve observed that some of the people I work with have some of the same problems, carried to a much further degree; one can barely walk upright due to lifelong bad posture, which is an encouragement to me to sort things out now! As further encouragement, the Internal Power Blog has just posted an article on the importance of the Spine Wave, which is just what I’m trying to free up.
Push hands in yiquan is pretty aggressive. Another key understanding I’ve made this year is that it’s important to be aggressive. I used to stop once it became clear (to me at least) that I’d beaten my training partner. Master Yao made it clear, though, that this is bad practice; it sets up a habit of easing off which, in practice, could be dangerous if your opponent isn’t as beaten as you thought he was. So, in training, we aim to throw, drive, or otherwise manoeuver, our opponent into the wall, or a window, as decisively as possible, so that there’s no doubt. We’re definitely resisting each other, and I’m finding that I’m beating my partners more often than not. One commented the other day that trying to stop me was like trying to stop a train – that’s because I’m getting better at rooting myself, at deflecting and redirecting my opponent’s force, and at exerting whole-body power.
In case this sounds too self-congratulatory, let me be clear that my technique is still poor, especially under pressure; I struggle against opponents who are physically very strong, since I have little actual upper-body strength myself; my stamina needs a lot of work, and so do my reflexes. What I can say with some confidence is that I think I’ve got to the point where my basics are pretty sound. My immediate aim is to be able to integrate, and coordinate, everything I’m working on so that I can use fa jin to lift people off their feet and get them bouncing, as I often see Master Yao and some of the better students do.
Back in early November, it was Master Yao’s birthday, and he had a big dinner for members of the school, to which I was invited. It was on a Saturday night, so I went along to the afternoon class as usual expecting to go home afterwards and then go on to the dinner. In fact, the school was packed with people chilling out before the dinner, including a number of guests, and lots of the advanced students who attend the weekday evening classes. I can’t go to these because of work commitments, but I recognized many of the faces from when I previously lived in Beijing. Various sessions of push hands were going on, and I joined in. I was pretty pleased to go through eight sessions in a row, and come out either on top or equal in all of them, closely observed by the senior members of the school. One memorable session ended when my opponent pushed very hard, very suddenly, onto my arms. The force went through my arms, shoulders and back down into my legs – and then bounced back, being transferred right back into his arms. His feet shot out from under him, as if an invisible man had suddenly snatched his ankles, and he pitched forward, flat on his face. That was when I really understood that all the things I talked about above were really coming together.
The meal was interesting; it was held in a big banqueting hall five minutes’ walk from the school. Once the time arrived, everyone started drifting out in an extended crocodile. There are very, very few of the students who speak English, so I don’t really know anyone very well; I just tagged along and found myself sitting next to a couple of guys I hadn’t really met before but who did speak English (one of whom, for reasons I never really understood, was dressed in a 1930s Wermacht uniform). However, I was shortly sought out by one of the senior students and led to one of the upper tables, where I sat with members of Master Yao’s family: I was very honoured.
In the weeks since then, I’ve noticed that Master Yao has called on me to demonstrate in class on several occasions, mainly because during push-hands, I maintain correct position.
One thing that has changed during my time away is that there are far fewer foreign students. In the nine months since I resumed training, there have been a couple of Japanese students, an Austrian, and – to my great pleasure – Frenchman, Jean-Francois, who was a regular attendee in 2009-10, when I was here last. He lived in Beijing then, but has moved back to France; however, his job brings him here occasionally, and he always comes to class when time allows. I enjoy training with him, because we both like to use the other as a crash-test dummy, feeling out how a particular move should feel when applied.
Helping me to get more insight, I’ve been revisiting J. P. Lau’s Manual of Yiquan, which someone (not me) has put online here. It’s also for sale on Amazon. I don’t know if there are any differences between the two versions; I emailed Joseph to ask him, using an email address which has previously worked, but he hasn’t responded. Oddly, when I showed my printed-out copy to Master Yao (with the help of a Hong Kong student who happened to be visiting to train that week), he wasn’t able to identify who Joseph was, or when exactly he trained there. Still, the material is very good.
I’ve also bought The Complete Book of Yiquan, by the Hong Kong-based teacher C. S. Tang. Master Tang trains in a somewhat different version of yiquan to the form we study in the Zhong Yi wuguan, something confirmed by Master Yao, who knows Master Tang and has previously given him training. Still, it’s a very interesting book, with a great deal of historical material that I hadn’t seen before, a useful training syllabus, and lots of insights into a range of zhan zhuang positions, moves, and applications. Certainly, there’s a great deal to read and digest.
So, that’s quite a lot. In short, since coming back to Beijing in the spring, I think I’ve made a lot of progress. In some areas, such as basic fitness, I’m far behind where I was when I left in 2010. That’s something to work on in 2016. However, in terms of grasping and developing fundamental skills, I think I’m making a lot of progress which I need to consolidate and build upon. I didn’t train for four years and yet I’m still able to beat (in tui shou at least) people who I trained with in 2010 and who (as far as I’m aware) have been training in the meantime. That’s a good sign, and I hope that in 2016 I’ll make some breakthroughs.
With that: Happy New Year, and best wishes to you all for 2016!
Shortly after I posted this, I checked my WeChat account, and I noticed that Master Yao had sent out a New Year’s greeting message to all his followers. He included one photo… which was of me! I don’t know why he chose this picture, but I certainly can’t help feeling proud 🙂
The photo was taken at the end of a class, after some fairly serious sessions of tui shou – which is why my t-shirt is drenched, and my hair is all over the place!