Zhan Zhuang (Post Standing)

Although it may be a somewhat imperfect description, a taiji teacher of some reputation has described the process of “post standing” (zhan zhuang) as precipitating “song jin” (releasing, relaxing, letting go) one drop at a time. Of course there is a balance to all things, but he opined if you stand only a little, you only get a few drops of song jin; if you stand a lot, the accumulation builds up. A somewhat quantitative, but still useful analogy.

Contrarewise, a senior student of my teacher has said that while he cannot gainsay that analogy, there is probably more benefit to pursuing song jin while doing the form.

I think both comments are correct, except that without having some degree of mastery, seeking song jin as integral to the form adds a degree of difficulty to an already difficult task. On many occasions Shifu has told me that after you understand “it”, it is not so imporant to take this principle, or that principle quite so literally. The operative word here is perhaps “after” , and in so many things we are best described as “before” – or at least “struggling with”. Also, some rather substantial mention of the benfits of standing are given by Lu Shengli in his book “The Combat Techniques of Taiji, Xing Yi, Ba Gua“.

All that having been said, I am finding a dedicated practice of zhuang gong, outside of the form, to be very salutory. I agree that it is easier to achieve song jin when there are fewer variables (like working with a partner) involved, but still, one has to begin somewhere. And while in my personal practice I attempt somewhat more extended times per the adivce of the above-mentioned teacher, given the demographics of my class we generally limit ourselves to four to five mintues. I believe even in such small doses post standing can be very beneficial.

And, in direct proporton to the amount of time one spends standing, one comes also to understand the very apt Chinese colloquialism “to eat bitter”. Not only does one’s body scream and burn, but there is the added frustration that you have the ability to end the torment instantly if you so choose. Being able to stick with the practice, and to override your body’s “natural” objections is part of the task.

But I am finding my 70 year old legs becoming very noticibly stronger. My posture is improving, and I find that when practicing the form I can achieve complete separation of weight much more smoothly and easily. And I also find that when I do demonstrate in class I am less diverted by attempting to “achieve some result” and can just let go, release, and relax. Maybe not buckets song jin just yet, but surely a few drops here and there.
So, for the present I am convinced of the benefits of such a practice and it will remain a part of both my private and my class practice.

Grandmaster Wang Peisheng’s Book on Wu Style Taijiquan

Taiji, being an internal art, is very difficult to write about descriptively.  One can of course describe the movements and many have done so.  But to attempt to map out what goes on internally is notoriously more challenging. The Taiji Classics do try of course, and are an essential resource, but they were written according to the aesthetic standards of the time, are verse rather than prose, require an interpreter, and, while they do sometime mention specific techniques,  they are not particularly technique specific, but are more description of the general principles of the art.

Written in 1983, Grandmaster Wang’s book: “Wu Style Taijiquan” was an early, and in my opinion an excellent attempt to write a detailed description of the art for a modern audience.  And while I doubt that this, or any book, could take the place of direct transmission, once one has “entered the door” so to speak, the book is a trove of helpful advice.

Personally I find line drawings (which this book uses) to be almost always more clear than photographs when depicting martial arts movements.  Master Wang’s 37 Posture Form is described in detail, movement by movement and that description includes both what is, or should be, happening internally as well as externally, and guidelines for application of the movements.

A couple of caveats when reading the book:

First, the applications depicted in the book assume that one understands taiji principles, and those principles are being used in the execution of the techniques.  Looked upon externally the applications will seem highly arbitrary and likely not work as intended. Without understanding the relationship of shen, yi, qi, and ji, as well as other principles, one will be merely trying to do external punching, bone locking, or whatever, and they will be disappointed by the results.  Contrariwise, I can personally attest that when executed by someone who does understand the art, the applications work just fine.  All that having been said, the applications are guides  not absolutes, and are best looked upon as indications how to do the form correctly, and not as how to defend oneself.

Second: If you learned Grandmaster Wang’s form from a teacher, you will notice that the sequence of Grasp Bird’s Tail shown in the book is somewhat different from how we practice it. You may look at things this way:  As you come to understand the art you will see that with most techniques all eight of the cardinal and ordinal techniques (peng, lu, ji, an, cai, lieh, kao, tsou), ward off, roll back, press, push, etc. can be found hidden within most movements.  Somewhere along the way Grandmaster Wang simplified the sequence to its current form but an astute observer can still see all eight of the techniques implied. The form depicted in the book following Grasp Bird’s Tail is identical to the form as we practice it.

For me the biggest value of the book is found in the preface, and the appendices.  These are devoted respectively to Grandmaster Wang’s advice on how and what to practice; the advice of his teacher, Great Grandmaster Yang Yuting, and a commentary by a Taiji master who was 98 years of age at the time of writing.

The book is of course older, and not glossy by any means, but for me it is a very valuable resource on my chosen art.

Excellent resource book on Taiji Quan

The book, by Andrew Townsend, is entitled “Cultivating the Civil, and Mastering the Martial:  The Yin and Yang of Taiji Quan“, and I highly recommend it.  It is not intended to be a “how to” manual (itself a problematic idea for any kinesthetic endeavor) but rather a three part discussion of the theory, philosophy, and practical goals of the art.  Studying taiji quan, even with hands on access to a teacher, is always difficult, and it is wise to take advantage of any help one can find.  And while my teacher’s translation and commentary of the Taiji Quan Classics, is clearly the definitive  work to date; it is a bit daunting when one is first starting out.  Townsend’s book is a very accessible distillate with a great deal of good advice and information.  The Kindle edition, which I have, is quite affordable.  You can find it here on  Amazon.com.

Well, I Did Ask:

2018-8-5: Hour of the Dragon
So two stories from my visit with Shifu yesterday.
Taiji, because it seeks to replace natural and instinctive reactions with, well, new natural and instinctive reactions, is very difficult, and very small mistakes with the essentials at the beginning, can make the entire endeavor miss the mark, even after many years. Whatever level of skill I may, or may not have (the latter, more probably) I am continually frustrated by Shifu’s ability. Feeling thus after not being able to reproduce a skill he was demonstrating, I asked him at one point if,  was I at least on the right path? In respons Shifu told me a story about his son, who is a musician. He had a Chinese piano teacher (who was old school, from China) and an American cello teacher. The Chinese teacher would always exclaim how Shifu’s son did everything wrong and his skill was very bad, and he needed to work harder. By contrast the American teacher would say that there was some progress, but that perhaps more work was needed on this, or that. “So”, rejoined Shifu, “do you want an American taiji teacher or a Chinese taiji teacher?” “A Chinese teacher”, I declared. “Ah! Your skill is not so good, so work harder”, he declared.
At a different point in the training I was asking his assistance on explaining how, during a seminar with a visiting teacher last week, that teacher was able to capture my shen so easily. The gentlemen in question is very skilled, and I learned much, but still though there was something going on besides just a differential in experience. Shifu explained quite nicely the mistake I was making, and how when working “in someone elses house” (my expression) you need to be careful. “Essentially”, he said, “you were too yin, and running away.” Then with a smile he added, “That is surprising, since it is almost always too much yang you have a problem with.”
But as he has also said in the past, “You didn’t drive three hours just to find out what you’re doing right, did you? Indeed, I did not. Thank you, Shifu.

The Economics of Taiji practice

I remember asking a trainer many years ago, “What if I don’t have time to train”.  I have never forgotten his rejoinder. “You know what”, he declaimed, “I don’t have time to train either.  I have to make time.”

This does not imply as much heavy lifting as you might suspect. It goes without saying that the more impassioned about an activity, the easier it is to get motivated, but even with activities about which we care deeply, familiarity breeds, if not contempt, then at least lassitude.  Life, energy, and at the moment, excessive heat, all tend to get in the way of training.

Finding time to practice is easier, however, if we do not look at things in an “either/or” fashion.  By that I mean, that there is a tendency to oscillate between the extremes of either having enough energy to sweat and get a workout, or, barring that, to forgo practice altogether.  Both of these are described as “sicknesses” by the taiji classics, namely, doing too much, or not enough.  Both are to be avoided.

Insofar as taiji does not use “natural” abilities, taiji skills are not developed like activities that are developed via exercise. For instance, physiologists tell us that to increase aerobic capacity it is necessary to elevate the heart rate in a certain manner, for a certain period of time.  Perhaps, to the physician those parameters are fixed, but taiji is a different sort of activity and does not make use such extremes.

If we look at just one aspect of taiji, relaxation (and there are many more) then while you might not have time to post- stand for thirty minutes, you might well have time to post- stand for five, or even two minutes. To the extent that you are able to relax, and attend to the internal and external requirements of the activity, then to that same extent you have done good practice.

Historically, taiji was taught to professional security personnel and hence they trained for hours each day.  Training was in a sense their job, and they worked at it on a quotidian basis. The original Wu form was eighty-three movements and took roughly forty five minutes to perform. Master Wang’s form is thirty seven movements and takes, depending on how you approach it, between twenty and thirty minutes.  According to Master Wang the original form was shortened precisely to accord with the demands, and the tenor, of modern living.  Additionally there are short “Essential” forms which take between seven and fifteen minutes to complete.

My reason for bringing all this up is to indicate that while using taiji (or any martial art for that matter) for combat is have developed skills to a virtuosos level.  But the masters would have never shortened the forms to the detriment of the other benefits to be derived.  While a concert pianist needs to practice hours each day, the amateur can develop good skills, and enjoy what they do immensely with much less practice, – as long as it is good practice.

Paradoxically, while taiji has many salubrious effects on the body, it does not train the body as does conventional exercise.  In fact, while attending to the postures and the internal and external integrations your mind may well become far more enervated than your body.  That is why the taiji classics say that all techniques begin with the heart and mind (shen and yi) and not with the muscles.

This being so, then any practice, regardless of the duration, which ATTENDS to the taiji principles, is better than no practice at all.  Of course, the more one trains the better, but any training, so long as it is attentive, is better than none.  Thus if you are tired, or achy, or just worn out with the days tribulations, and you are not up to training for an hour, you can at least do something.  Train for a minute, if that is all the time you have.

Below are some of the suggestions I have made to students:

If you work all day at a desk, then perhaps once an hour, stand, attend to the nine points of posture and do a minute or so of post standing.

Do the first third of the form, or the Essential form, if you are short of time.

If you are learning a weapon form, and in the office all day, then take a pencil and practice what you know of the form.  If you are learning the empty hand form, then just go over the mnemonic exercise of the sequence that you know so far.

Practice push hand (four hands) solo for a few minutes.

These will suffice, and you get the idea.  There is an old Zen saying which goes something like: “An inch of Zazen, is an inch of Buddha”. Transcribed we might say something like: “An minute of good taiji practice, is a minute of good taiji”.  And while it is true that you might not become the incarnation of Yang the Invincible with just a few minutes investment per day, if you cannot find at least a few minutes then perhaps you are in the wrong business.

Taking the time to train, even a little time, is a virtue.  And as Aristotle points out, virtues are a function of habit.  So one needs to start simple, within the bounds of what they can do, but one does need to start.  Remember, taiji does not look for the “burn”, but rather seeks to get rid of tension and increase energy.

In conclusion: a former teacher of mine, a true prodigy who became, most unusually, a disciple in a very reclusive taiji lineage that ( prior to him) did not train non-Chinese, once gave me some very good advice:

“Every day you train it is like putting a dollar in the bank.  And every day you don’t it is like taking a dollar out of the bank.  If you only train every other day you will not end up with any money.”

The economics are obvious.  Train for a dollars worth every day and at the end of the week you have seven dollars.  Train a quarter’s worth every day and at the end of the week you still have nearly two bucks.  Your savings grow slower to be sure, but you are still saving.