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.

Great Grandmaster Yang Yuting Video

Master Yang was, of course, Wang Peisheng’s teacher.  There is not a lot of video footage of him extent, but what there is, is simply marvelous.  Tremendous shen clothed in stunning elegance.

Song Jin – Sinking and Relaxing

The ability to relax and sink, not simply go limp, but to get rid of all unnecessary tension without degrading structure, is very much a difficult and hard learned skill.  Grandmaster Wu Jianquan (who took Wu Taiji south to Shanhai) once admitted that it took him twelve years to get his shoulders to sink and relax.) Hence, to learn such a skill there must be both the necessary instructions, and an accessible method of practice.

A related, and equally elusive skill is learning how to move from the “center” or the “dantien”. Ask most people to demonstrate using their hips, or moving from the center and they will, almost invariably do what the video below calls “swimming knees”, which is essentially wiggling the legs on top of the ankles.  Key here is understanding that joints only articulate in one of two ways – they either flex or extend. Thus, the hip joint only flexes and extends, it does not turn laterally “from side to side”. When you sit in a chair, you flex the hip joint. And when you stand up you are extending the hip.  (Anatomy is a little more complicated.  For instance, there is lateral extension, and medial flexion of the hip, but for our purposes the two movements are flexion extension, which are initiated respectively by contraction of hip flexors and the hip extensors.  The more you can keep the proper alignments which facilitate these two movements, the longer the joint will last.

It is similar for your knee joint. Properly aligned flexion and extension of the knee does not erode the integrity of the joint. Improper movement, what most people do when they try to move “from the center” will get you an early date with the surgeon.

The attached video, narrated by Adam Mizner, I consider to give excellent instruction on both relaxing and sinking, along with proper alignment and use of the hip not only for taiji purposes, but also for any martial art. Mizner is from a different Taiji lineage and was a student of Huang Sheng Shyan, who was himself a senior student of both Cheng Man-ch’ing and Yang Shao Hou. Eventually Huang emigrated to Malaysia where Mizner studied from him.

Mizner, although young, seems to have some ability, and as mentioned above I really like the both the exercise shown in this video, and Mizner’s ability to articulate what he is doing.

Pay particular attention to both his assistance on proper alignment, and his repeated valediction that the movement is “over, sink, and rotate”, not side to side.