Tensegrity, the Substantial, and the Insubstantial

When teaching taiji I find I come across two very different body structures in students, and both present their own problems to an efficient study of the art. But first a little background:

Some years back I undertook (but never finished) training as a Physical Therapist. I also trained as, and was certified in Maryland, as a LMT (Licensed Massage Therapist), and had a practice for many years. There are three main genres of body work (and a plethora of sub-disciplines), but in general training as a LMT involves first learning what is generally called “Swedish Massage” (which is generally what you look for when you go on vacation.) Only in the most general sense can it lay claim to being therapeutic.

Next in the study comes the various forms of “Deep Tissue”, which is more interesting, places a greater strain on the therapist’s hands and posture, and is the gateway modality into, to coin a phrase, “the slings and arrows of outrageous muscles aches and pains.” By and large deep tissue modalities, muscle release, and the like, deal with localized structures within the body. For athletes and those who use and abuse their bodies, such modalities are very important.

Finally, there come all the various developments of Ida Rolf’s work, of which there are many. “Rolfing”, Myofascial Release”, and the sort are all trademarked modalities, but these and their ilk all deal with working with connective tissue (myofascial) either directly or indirectly. It is no accident that various cognates of “connective” are implied in these modalities, since it is the interconnectedness of the body that is considered of central interest.

You can research massage modalities at your leisure, but the last above mentioned, myofascial work, gave rise to a very interesting theory of the structure of the human body, namely that it is a tensegrity structure. Tensegrity, simply defined, is the characteristic property of a stable three-dimensional structure consisting of members under tension that are contiguous and members under compression that are not.

 

A very common, albeit outdated, view of the human body is that the bones hold us up, and in particular that the spine is a series of building blocks stacked one upon the other. One can build a structure this way. Think of the Washington Monument, which is essentially course upon course of stone stacked upon each other. All the members are under compression, and essentially none are under tension. Again, it is very common to look upon good posture as the attempt to approach this sort of upright verticality in which all members are aligned and under compression. While this might sound plausible, the human spine, even when standing erect, is not vertically aligned, and has two lordotic, and two kyphotic curves.

Consider the concept of a suspension bridge in which the vertical structures are under compression, but the suspension cables are under tension and “transmit” the load to those members, the vertical structures, which are under tension.

This is the barest of introductions, and again, you can research tensegrity at your leisure. The website below is a good place to start, although there are many, many others:

http://bjjhealthcoach.com/tensegrity-human-body/

The obvious problem with the building block model is that it explains so little of what the spine actually does. Not only do we try to stand, we sit, bend, twist, and a host of other actions which are off the vertical. And yet a healthy spine stays integral. It does so by being much more like a tensegrity structure, wherein the connective tissue transmits the load to those members designed to withstand compression.

Moreover, since this page is about the practice of taiji, I would posit that the taiji classics treat the spine as a tensegrity structure. The image of the head being “suspended from above”, and a host of similar images, may be useful, but they are certainly not anatomically descriptive. What such images are useful for is to adjust the posture to make the most of it’s tensegrity. Although much more complex, when Lu Shengli talks speaks in his Combat Principles of Taiji, Xingyi, and Bagua about the feeling of energy going up the renmai channel along the back, and down the dumai channel in the front, he is speaking of an image which helps maximize the body’s tensegrity structure. Of course, taiji is an internal martial art, and hence the internal components are important and primary, but one might hypothesize that the three external integrations all presuppose the tensegrity structure of the body. To use the example alluded to above, while there is no Archimedean point by which one can support the crown of the head, in tensegrity fashion, the connective tissue influencing, and influenced by, the spine, can give the feeling of being so suspended.

Personally, the concept of a smooth transition between the substantial and the insubstantial implies the notion of a tensegrity in which tension and compression are in equal balance. When the classics mention the notion of being “centered and balanced” I posit that, at least in part, this is what they were describing.

Given that the body is a tensegrity structure, that tensegrity can be compromised on the one hand by those who use too much muscle, and on the other hand by those who use, or possess, too little.

Taking the former first: In his Masters and Methods, Robert Smith mentions that once, while studying Bagua (an internal martial art) from Paul Kuo in Taiwan, the latter noticed him doing an external strength building exercise in which involved tossing a concrete block into the air and catching it using only the finger tips. Kuo sternly admonished Smith that not only would such an activity impede his study of the internal, but that if he persisted in such practices it would be better to find another teacher.

When I first read that some decades ago I thought it rather harsh. In retrospect I think what Kuo meant, at least in part, is that any training that isolates part of the body, and treats that part as simply a series of levers and pulleys (muscular tension) impedes the interconnectedness of the body and destroys the mandate that one’s posture be always centered and balanced.

Of course staying alive forces us to make all sorts of choices. A carpenter, a farmer, a mason, to give just a few examples, are often going to have use a part of their body out of balance with all the rest. Adjustments can be made of course, and while, say, a carpenter can minimize the stress that using a hammer places on his joints, one’s natural responses, including that of simply walking, often places us out of balance, and not centered. As one of my students mentioned in the last class, “We don’t spend most of our life being centered. It’s difficult to start doing so all of a sudden” Indeed it is.

But whether muscular tension comes from the exigencies of one’s profession, or the conditioned success of a natural athletic response to life, the result is often that there is too much emphasis placed on compression side of the tensegrity equation, and not enough on the tension (not muscular tension is meant here.) side. Such an approach makes the avoidance of “double weighting” very difficult.

But while that porridge may be too hot, there are those that, by dint of birthright, or temperament, have too little muscle to give any heat to the mix at all. While it is a very imperfect analogy, there has to be enough muscular innervation to give some tensile strength to the structure. Whereas the former group uses too much muscle, the latter group uses too little.

While each group faces what the taiji classics call a “sickness” in their practice, the remedies are going to be quite different. The former type of student needs to learn, point by point (and here we are speaking of a specific decision procedure) how to relax. The latter group needs to develop enough of a sense of innervation (an awareness of their muscularity) to be able to be create a structure which can transition from the substantial to the insubstantial.

Put differently, the first group is pretty unaware of the insubstantial, while the latter group knows not the substantial.

Hence, when one is teaching, it is important to develop a remedy appropriate to each. To do so is in no wise easy and for me at least the task is very much a work in progress.

The Boa That Swallowed an Elephant: Part II

First, if you are using say, the muscles of the shoulder girdle (even augmented by hips and “taking the center”, or whatever) then you are using the very same utensils that the attacker is using. Unless you are very extraordinary, both you and the attacker are of the same order of magnitude in terms of strength, speed, etc., and hence it is somewhat unrealistic to expect consistent success. It is as though two gunslingers were standing out in the street about to “draw down” on each other. Both have the same implements (pistols), and since it is unlikely that one participant is significantly faster than the other, success cannot be predicted. That is why that scenario, so often portrayed in cinema, almost never happened. And because of the demand for speed, any appeal to principles (sight alignment, sight picture, trigger control) becomes severely degraded when flinching in response to an attack.

Second: The success most of us have with natural skills is both ubiquitous and compelling. To the extent we possess speed, strength, and agility, to that extent the greater our success at physical endeavors. The martial artist I alluded to above was an extraordinary athlete, possessed natural skills in abundance, and had proved himself a fair hand in a fight. Thus, there is nothing second-rate about using one’s natural skills. But it is important to recognize the distinction we are making. The ability to be able override the flinch response, which is necessary to apply principles is very difficult, and requires a significant retraining such that a new set of responses replaces one natural abilities. Therein lies both the complexity and the difficulty of an art like taiji quan. Most martial artists have not met anyone who could apply taiji principles. Like les gens serieux they see a hat, and have never learned to see what is inside of things. If they have met someone, they are convinced that their own skills, or the skills of their teacher are adequate to whatever tasks they feel they need to prepare for. Finally, for those who do study an internal art, many, perhaps most, will not attain a high level of skill. Let me put that less despairingly: Of those who practice an internal art, most will have too much confidence in the natural abilities to devote themselves to cultivating a new set of principles. Those that do so, however, will achieve their goal.

It is easy to talk about principles, it is difficult to elucidate them. For the nonce I’ll restrict the universe to discourse to what taiji calls the “six harmonies” or integrations. There are the three external integrations of: hand and opposite foot, elbow and opposite knee, and shoulder and opposite hip. There are also the three internal integrations of shen, yi, and, qi but these are technical terms peculiar to the internal martial arts.

I am of the opinion that modern Uechi ryu, in its adoption of an overly tense and stiff sanchin kata, leaves no room for the three external harmonies. Modern Aikido, also in my opinion, when push comes to shove, has likewise failed to achieve whole-body integration.  Moreover, whatever tenuous roots modern aikido has with the sword are any longer very difficult to determine.

Principles infuse movement at the cellular level, affect how one organizes the body. Contrariwise, techniques are more like the practice of prearranged scenarios of possible situations. An while Uechi ryu and Aikido practitioners would  assuredly claim to be practicing principle-based martial arts, it is very difficult for me, even after a lot of study, to elucidate exactly what those principles are.  That is not to say either art cannot be effective. I will repeat again that external martial arts are not inferior to internal martial arts. In fact for the majority they are more so.  I also know practitioners of both arts which are truly fearsome fighters. But I remain convinced that even such great ability is the result of the cultivation of natural abilities by a rigorous practice ethic.

Katori Shinto Ryu is at a bit of a crossroads. The art claims a celestial progenitor, Marishiten, a deity brought in courtesy of Shingon Buddhism, and who has a long association with warrior societies. She (or he, the iconography varies) is also said to be able to confer invisibility on her devotees on the battlefield. Moreover, oral tradition includes in katori’s curriculum many of the elements of esoteric Buddhism which, again according to tradition, are essential to the practice of the art.

What is striking of course is the fact that no one practices Katori in that manner today. At least no one I know does. Thus, while at one time someone might have been able to answer the question: “What are the principles of Katori”, at present the best anyone can do is to demonstrate the techniques of the art. But remember, principles are based on understanding, while techniques are based on bodily responses.

The rather glaring dichotomy outlined above is something that I believe my Katori teacher, Sugawara sensei, has thought deeply about. In personal conversations with me, and with others, he has expressed a desire to try to discover what an “original” Katori would have looked like. He also realizes that any solution he comes up with is probably unverifiable. But what I find remarkable is that, in trying to find a set of principles to infuse the tactics or Katori, to give Katori a meta level, if you will, he has drawn deeply on his experiences in the Chinese internal martial arts, in particular taiji quan.

While Katori is not, essentially, an internal martial art, it is quite compatible with the three external integrations. Being external, they are ostensible, can be articulated, and their value can be demonstrated. But as is often the case, for most students, their natural abilities (speed, strength, and agility) are so beguiling, that often Sensei’s observations are given little shrift. This is not so much a criticism, as a statement of the complexity of the task.

Because vision is the most primary of our senses, and people naturally judge on appearances, seeing un chapeau will always be the default over seeing a boa which has swallowed an elephant. Similarly, and for the same reasons, our natural bodily responses will always be the default criteria by which we judge a martial art. And while there is no reason whatsoever to give up a martial art you love in favor of one which I love; there is every reason not to be ignorant of the landscape.

The Boa That Swallowed an Elephant: Part I

In my opinion one of the great novels of the 20th century, or any century for that matter, is Antoine de St. Exupery’s  illustrated classic, The Little Prince. There is a chapter at the outset in which the author relates how,, at the age of six, and after having seen a story in a book about how a boa constrictor would swallow their prey whole, he submits his rendition of “a boa that swallowed an elephant” (the drawing at the top) to the adults for their perusal.  Their usual  response was to exclaim, “how cute, un chapeau (hat)”.  Thereafter when he wanted to distinguish between “les gens serieux” (the serious ones who only saw the outside of things), and those who saw deeply, he would show them his drawing of “the boa who swallowed an elephant”.

The martial arts world as well admits of no dearth of serious people, those who wish to sort out the “classical mess” of traditional martial arts, and refashion them to be more “effective”. Usually these are people who are plentifully endowed with “natural skills” (speed, strength, agility, etc.) and who, by dint of those abilities, have proven themselves quite formidable in whatever competitive arena is associated with their art of choice. I first noticed the trend in the karate world where, in point based competition (or even in full contact for that matter) ninety percent of a given system was jettisoned in favor of a couple of kicks and punches. Since those techniques were not useful in their world, the extrapolation was made that they were not useful in any world. The phenomenon was not limited to the karate world however.  One very famous martial artist, a magnificent athlete (albeit with a dubious resume) made quite a name for himself and even coined the term “classical mess”.

My take on all of this, is not that these men (or women) could not fight, in some cases they most certainly could, but that like “les gens serieux”  they could only see the things that were on the outside, i.e. external.  Put differently, they often failed to distinguish between a principle based martial art, and a technique based martial art.

I will not presume to comment on arts I have not studied, but I do submit the following examples from arts I have some small experience with.

When I first began studying Uechi ryu karate it purported to be a principle based martial art, and having only three kata, it held out sanchin kata as the core of the system. At that time the style had no closed fist techniques (it did, however,  have a one-knuckle fist), and virtually all techniques in the other two kata were preceded by a control technique. Sanchin kata, however, came with no users manual other than to perform it as a dynamic tension exercise in which, not knowing precisely what to tense, everything was tensed so as not to leave anything out. This of course made for great strength and stiffness, but over time  it also had the effect of reducing whatever meta information was contained in sanchin to ones’ ability to tense their muscles. In other words, the system has evolved into a set of techniques making use of the practitioner’s natural skills.

My take on all of this, is not that these men (or women) could not fight, in some cases they most certainly could, but that like “les gens serieux”  they could only see the things that were on the outside, i.e. external.  Put differently, they often failed to distinguish between a principle based martial art, and a technique based martial art.

I will not presume to comment on arts I have not studied, but I do submit the following examples from arts I have some small experience with.

When I first began studying Uechi ryu karate it purported to be a principle based martial art, and having only three kata, it held out sanchin kata as the core of the system. At that time the style had no closed fist techniques (it did, however, have a one-knuckle fist), and virtually all techniques in the other two kata were preceded by a control technique. Sanchin kata, however, came with no user’s manual other than to perform it as a dynamic tension exercise in which, not knowing precisely what to tense, everything was tensed so as not to leave anything out. This of course made for great strength and stiffness, but over time it also had the effect of reducing whatever meta information was contained in sanchin to ones’ ability to tense their muscles. In other words, the system has evolved into a set of techniques making use of the practitioner’s natural skills.

Aikido first caught my attention by promising a set of techniques based on principles. It made frequent mention of ki, circles, and “using an attacker’s energy against them, taking the center, etc. However, whereas karate’s operating system started fail when faced with tournament competition, Aikido, eschewing competition for the most part, begins to self-destruct with a stubborn training partner. It is not that Aikido’s desiderata is mistaken, it is that like Uechi ryu’s sanchin, there is no user’s manual for putting the body’s natural flinch response aside when facing a determined attack. Based on what we know of him I am perfectly willing to admit the Aikido’s founder was able to “penetrate the mist”. And while this was something he probably learned from his teacher, I do not believe it was something he was capable of teaching. Hence, when faced with an unchoreographed attack, the aikidoka will generally resort to his natural allotment of speed, strength, and timing, to apply an aikido technique. I believe Aikido has a very useful set of tactics. As a system of “bone-locking” it is very effective. But after studying the art for several decades I remain unconvinced it is anything but a useful set of techniques. Whatever meta content was envisioned by Ueshiba Sensei I suspect has been lost.

Before I continue, and lest I offend, I am not saying that Uechi ryu, or Aikido, are essentially not principle based, or put differently, simply catalogued techniques, the one of Okinawan progeny, and the other Japanese. What I am saying is that if one is not aware of the difference between a principle and a technique, then one is going to rely on that which comes naturally; namely a flinch response, or what taiji calls “double weighting”. While the term may mean a lack of separation of weight between the substantial and the insubstantial leg, its larger sense is that when one uses a flinch response to deal with “trouble”, then one retreats from the level of principle, and fights on the level of “natural” technique.

And about that, two comments:

Continues in Part II

Teaching Taiji to Beginners is a Little different

Usually teaching is a meta activity such that when I am teaching an activity like  gun handling and safety, or Katori, working on my skills takes a very backseat to the main activity of helping the student work on theirs.  This is in no way to imply that teaching is neither very enjoyable (which it is), nor that one can not learn a great deal about a subject by having to articulate that subject to a student (one can); but for most activities one cannot teach effectively and practice at the same time. Teaching and training are different skill sets, each with their own craft.

For instance, when I teach Katori at my dojo in Mordor (Maryland), there will be 18 -25 students on the mat and the act of concentrating on their technique means that I have little time to train on my own.  Even if I pair off with one of the senior students to train in a two-person exercise, I am primarily evaluating their technique, and only secondarily my own.

And since Katori mandates that all new techniques are taught by those with a teaching license, I spend much of my time on the mat teaching a new kata (form) to students.  When I am thus engaged, there is not much opportunity to work on my own technique.

But teaching taiji is a little different.  Like Katori, when teaching taiji  I spend most of my time working with new students, leading them slowly  through however much of the form they have been shown. But although learning the form is important, and hence I have to lead people through the sequence (the external movements),  learning the sequence is not the end, but rather the means to develop the internal integrations of shen, yi, qi, and jin. Thus, when leading the class slowly through the form, not only CAN I concentrate on taiji principles (internal in nature), I pretty much HAVE to in order to lead the class correctly.

Of course one has to spend some time doing the meta activity of simply observing, and correcting. But much of the class is spent simultaneously both teaching taiji, and practicing taiji.  Hence, after teaching even a very basic class for an hour and fifteen minutes I am quite exhausted – not so much physically, but mentally.

To put all this a little differently:  Although I love teaching Katori I cannot say after a two hour class at my dojo that I have practiced much Katori. Similarly, when I giving instruction on sight picture/sight alignment and trigger control, I am not myself  getting any practice with the fine motor skills involved.

But when I am teaching taiji I pretty much of necessity have to be doing (at least internally) what I am teaching.

That is why even though I sometimes teach at a senior center, where most of my students are older, I can consider the time I spend teaching there not as a diversion from “good practice”, but rather as additional practice time.