Friday, December 14, 2012

Qi Skills and Western Science

Qi Skills and Western Science

“Qi”, the Chinese word that means a number of things, functionally, has “breath” or “air” as a major definition in English.  But “qi” also is often translated as a vague “life force” or “life energy” and some odd physical phenomena are attributed to it in the traditional Asian cultures.  In western physical sciences we don’t recognize any specific phenomenon of energy or force that could coincide with what qi is supposed to do, so we run into a real problem in understanding what qi might be.

“Qi” in China has pretty much the same meaning as “Prana” does in India and given their geographical proximity and the similarity of attributes of qi and prana, it is reasonable to suppose that long ago there was an exchange of information and belief systems in relation to Qi and Prana.

China and India are the two longest-extant agrarian cultures in the world’s history.  Things that happened before we had written records of them can only be deduced from the limited facts we have about the pre-history of these cultures, but a long cultural history has two benefits that pertain to qi and prana skills and information:

1.  A long-lasting culture means that knowledge can be passed down through generations.
2    2.  Succeeding generations within a long-lasting culture can add innovations to existing knowledge and skills, gradually improving upon them.

Qi and Prana paradigms or theories were used to explain aspects of the physical world, long ago, but ultimately, in more modern times, it turned out that these very early elemental building blocks couldn’t sustain themselves.  In light of the development of Scientific Method, Qi and Prana went the same way as the western (Hellenic) Humours Theory and the Five States of Change (Five Elements Theory).  That is, they were discredited from being scientifically valid theories.

So, to focus on just one topic, the qi paradigm and theory couldn’t be sustained in terms of predictability and it failed as a basic building block and explanation for understanding the universe, because of that.  However, even though the explanation fails, that doesn’t mean that the observed phenomena qi sought to explain didn’t exist. 

The big problem we have faced in terms of qi skills is attempting to understand in western terms those observed and observable phenomena that are traditionally described via the old qi paradigm.

Can we explain the observable “qi phenomena” in terms of the western physical sciences?  We should be able to, unless we believe also that there are observable phenomena that western science simply can’t explain.  Let’s look at a couple of categories of qi-phenomena and attempt to them them in western terms.  Please note that I am aware of a few more phenomena that are also part of the bodily qi skills and which are also explainable in terms of physics, but I don’t want to develop a lot of background theory for some of them, thus expanding this thesis of qi and western-science explication too broadly.

Distance Qi Phenomena

The most problematic discussions about qi phenomena are some areas of body skills that seem impossible and perhaps difficult to grasp in terms of physics.  Some of the qi demonstrations deal with effects that appear to happen over a distance, without physical contact. 

A number of those distance phenomena simply have not withstood close physical scrutiny.  In other words, they appear to be more the result of suggestion and psychology or even perhaps staged illusions.  However some of the phenomena of “distance qi” or “external qi” seem to have some degree of credibility, at least in terms of conveying some amount of “feeling” across distance. 

David Eisenberg wrote a sympathetic but honest book called “Encounters with Qi: Exploring Chinese Medicine” in 1995.  In it, during his investigation of qi over a distance, Eisenberg admitted that even with his back turned to a “qigong master”, he felt something.  However, feeling something and being controlled by something are two different things.  Every credible Chinese martial-artist I’ve ever spoken with says that controlling an opponent over a distance cannot be done and they dismiss a lot of the contrary demonstrations as simply being psychology-related.

For a good (but not overly rigorous) treatment of the distance phenomena and human electromagnetic field-effects, I recommend people read James L. Oschman’s book, “Energy Medicine: The Scientific Basis”.  I can recommend one or two people who are really good at this type of phenomena, but I’d rather to it privately, as I deem fitting.  The main point is that the distance-qi phenomena seem to be related to personal electromagnetic fields and this is a topic that can be described, at least fundamentally, in a western scientific manner.

Body Qi Skills

There are a limited number of body-oriented qi skills:

1     1.    Unusually strong skin areas that resist laceration and puncturing.
<     2.    Ability to take very strong blows to the body.
       3.     Unusual ability to take voluntary control of normally autonomic functions like skin temperature, pilo-erection, heart tempo, and so forth.
<     4.    Unusual strength ability.
       5.     Ability to control a person in an unusual manner when in contact.
Descriptions of some of the qi skills have an arbitrary vagueness to them.  For instance, demonstrations of “unusually tough skin” can often be challenged as showing simple callousing and conditioning. 

I personally witnessed a demonstration from close proximity where a qigong expert placed the pointed end of a cylindrical bamboo chopstick against his throat, between adam’s apple and throat hollow, and then suddenly exploded forward against the chopstick, causing the fibers in the middle of the chopstick to structurally fail.  The fibers were all mostly connected, but the center of the chopstick remained only as a fibrously joined mat.  The expert’s hand remained behind him while this was done.

When asked by onlookers how he did this fairly remarkable feat, the expert replied, “Some people call it qi, but really it is that the body can be conditioned in ways that most people don’t know”.  This expert had majored in Biology during college in Beijing, so he was frankly indicating that while his startling demonstration might be attributed to “qi”, it was actually the result of a physical (hence, describable) method of conditioning.

Most of the demonstrations of “qi” as physical toughening and conditioning that I have seen appear to be describable in a fashion congruent with western physics analyses.  If something physical occurs, there must be a physical explanation, all the way down to incremental levels.  The mystery, if there is any, almost always resolves to the conditioning methods and the physics of force applications.

The Real Curiosity

Generally speaking, most people in the martial-arts are interested in the so-called qi phenomena which are involved in person-to-person martial interaction.  From my perspective, as I’ve learned to replicate more and more physical demonstrations that are traditionally termed “qi”, I’ve found that every physical interaction and response can be described in the terms of western science.

More often than not, if someone can replicate, to whatever varying degree, a physical action normally termed as a qi phenomenon, but they can’t describe it in terms of western physics, then the problem has been that they don’t have an adequate grasp of the phenomenon in some way.

I have seen various people over the years demonstrate a reasonable replication of controlling another person or interacting with another person in a way that fits the qi-paradigm, but they have been unable to explain it in coherent western terms.  Now, generally, I’m of the opinion that agrees with the old statement “if you really know a topic, then you should be able to explain it to your grandmother”.  However, this is not always true, as I’ve found out.

In a number of instances which I’ve encountered over the years, what someone demonstrates physically is not what they’re imagining and describing to others.  In some of the descriptions, there is the added comment that “this cannot be described by western science”.  Usually I find that the problem is that people are doing one thing, but to arrive there they imagine something else in order to put their body and actions into their state of readiness.

In every case I’ve ever seen of one person affecting another person with “qi”, “ki” (the Japanese word of the same meaning), or related exotic terms, the physical interaction was something that could be described in terms of physics, regardless of what anyone was imagining that they were doing.  In other words, what imagery they were using was not descriptive physically of what was really happening.

I read an interesting interview on time on Aikido Journal in which Koichi Tohei described a demonstration where he resisted the upward forces of two people lifting his arms by “sinking his middle”.  At the same time, his teacher, Morihei Ueshiba was describing the demonstration of being an artifact caused by the gods (the “kami”) entering his body.  In reality, neither description is adequate to physically, in western terms, describe what happened.  “Sinking the middle” hints at what happened, but is itself so incomplete as to be potentially misleading.

As I noted in the earlier blogs on Silk-Reeling and Jin, a lot of the qi phenomena and body training has to do with manipulating the body in a way that is different from the way we normally move and motivate our bodies. 

Among the basic skills learned from Qi (in terms of “suit” manipulation of the body involving the dantien: described in the earlier articles) and Jin are ways of training the body so that it can be controlled as one unit, by the middle of the body, and also ways of manipulating force directions within the body.  Various methods of tensioning the body tissues are also used, as well as some pressure-related phenomena that are outside the scope of this discussion.

The point of this discussion is not so much the “how to” of training, but that no matter what physical demonstration is performed, there is a method to physically analyze and describe what actually happened, IF you know what the actual factors involved were.  Sure, using imagery may help a person arrive at the ability to perform a demonstration of “qi” (maybe not a pure one, but in the general neighborhood), but if the imagery is too far removed from what is actually happening, it can cause confusion. 

The worst problem with using confusing imagery and descriptions is that they ultimately hinder further progress.  If you don’t understand exactly what you are doing, but instead think of it in terms of incorrect imagery, you can’t extrapolate accurately what can next be done, so progress is impeded.

“What is really going on here, in terms of physics?” is certainly one of the safest and most productive routes of investigation of the so-called “internal strength” (“neijin”).  All of the really expert Chinese martial-artists that I have met take a very engineering type of perspective.  True, they may use the qi paradigm to describe some of the things that they do, but they know full well that there are explanations, not mysteries.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Focused Fajin

Fa Jin or fajin is a term that denotes an explosive use of power in an attack and in common usage, "Fa Jin" and "Fa Li" ("Li" meaning just "strength") tend to be used interchangeably.  Not all fajin is done the same way, it should be noted, so seeing someone doing some sort of power-release and calling it fajin doesn't mean that it's using the same body-mechanics as other people do.

Once, while watching a somewhat comedic movie about Fong Sai Yuk, I saw one of the experts do a fajin with his sword that penetrated the armor of one of the bad guys.  That potential usage of fajin piqued my curiosity, so the next time I met with an honestly skilled expert (Chen Xiaowang, in this case) I asked about that particular scene in the movie.  Chen Xiaowang said that it could be done, but the power and the sword had to be in one finely-focused line of application so that the sword did not bend.  And of course, to maximize power in any application this must be true.  Practical fajin is applied in a narrow focus.

Recently, I watched a purported european expert in the Chen-style Taijiquan do a broadsword form and I was interested to see that he used one of those very light-gauge broadswords ("dao") that lets loose a nice rattly noise when you shake and thrust it in a supposed expression of fajin.  If you ever watch a lot of people who do various "forms" for demonstration, you'll see that a lot of them use pretty flexible weapons because those too-flimsy-for-real-usage weapons display so well in forms demonstrations.  If you watch very closely, you'll see that many of the forms demonstrators actually assist the shaking of the weapon with a sort of horizontal shake of the arm as they extend the weapon.

In other words, it's not really fajin, it's play-fajin.  Real fajin that uses the dantien, 'suit', and jin uses very different body mechanics.  The same fajin mechanics that apply to a sword apply to the hand or other parts of the body because a weapon is considered to be only the extension of the hand, in terms of body mechanics, jin, suit-control, and so on.

Hopefully, the next time you view someone performing in a contemporary wushu mode (as opposed to doing a form with the more rigid requirements of traditional wushu) and shaking and rattling to beat the band, you'll have a better idea of what is going on.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Back Leg Brace versus Peng Jin

Back Leg Brace versus Peng Jin

One thing I see very commonly in people doing purported “internal” martial arts is that they really don’t have jin, but instead rely on what I call the “Back Leg Brace”.  I see it so often that I tend to expect it,  and it seems to happen in even the best of families.

Yes, you’re supposed to use the “solidity of the ground” in any good Asian martial-art (internal or external), but a lot of people use the back leg braced at an angle and think it’s the same thing as peng jin.  

It’s very, very common for someone doing chi sao, push-hands, spinning hands, rolling hands, etc., to use the forward stability from the back leg to press against the opponent and to think that type of “ground strength” is the same things as jin.  In fact, it’s so common, that I’ve gotten tired of doing so-called “push-hands” with people that use the back-leg brace as the source of their push.  Long ago I started just begging off as soon as I could saying “I’m tired”, rather than endure this too-predictable alternative to jin. 

As soon as they line up on their back leg, you know they’re going to push.  It’s embarrassing to watch, particularly in some of the longtime “teachers” because you know at a glance that if that is the way they use power, everything else they do is going to be a parody of the real thing, also.  Even though they may talk the talk about being “balanced in 6 directions” or “balanced in 8 directions”, their power is in reality to the front, almost exclusively.  A lot of Aikidoists do this same error of fronting their power, also.

And of course it goes without saying that if you really know how to use the dantien to control the arms, etc., it’s very obvious when someone does not, even if they think they’re doing it.... but if they use a back –leg brace, they can’t possibly be using the dantian to control the body, can they?  If you think about it, you’ll understand why.

I watched a video a few years ago of a seminar (in Australia) where a visiting Chinese expert Wing Chun player was talking and demonstrating.  He easily moved the Australian instructor all around because the expert had real peng jing and the teacher did not.  Even though the teacher knew all the forms, applications, chi sao, etc., and I’ll bet he could fight pretty darn well (he was fit lad), he had no real peng jing.  To me, it implies that logically if he was missing basic peng jing then everything else he was doing and teaching was also bereft of peng jing... so it was only an external mimicry of the real Wing Chun.

Most of the southern Shaolin styles all use peng jing.... but they’re not full-blown “internal” styles because they don’t use the dantien to control the arms, legs, torso, etc.  But there’s one thing I really like about some of the southern Shaolin styles like Wing Chun,  Hakka, Southern White Crane, etc.: they do a lot of their close-up practice drills (like chi sao) using parallel feet.  The Hao-style Taijiquan does the same thing.  By using parallel feet to do chi sao, rolling hands, push hands, etc., you are forced to either go complete muscle and arms (and maybe a slight lean forward) or you begin to learn to use peng jing.  Without that back leg to use as a brace, you can develop some pretty darned good skills.  In the meantime, start watching how many people are in fact use an angled back leg to brace from: it's interesting to see.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

"Internal" and Bragging Rights
Perhaps a bit deeper than that?

Let me make one comment up front in order to set the stage.  A lot of the talk about “internal” that is currently trendy assumes that there is a certain grouping of basic elements that is “internal” and that a number of different people have those elements and that they use different approaches.  In other words, essentially all those different approaches are viable for the assumed target-group.  I think that’s where the big misunderstanding is. 

The misunderstanding probably starts from the assumption that whatever internal strength is, it’s reasonably contained in a small group of knowledge and skills (not to mention buzzwords), sort of like martial-arts techniques.  So a person often gets an impression of a topic, for instance “dantian”, and thinks that at least that portion of “internal” is reasonably understood and simply needs some refinement and training. 

Or perhaps a person wants to do “standing meditation” and assumes the general posture, accepting perhaps a few tweaks and adjustments from a real expert (hopefully... an amazing number of people get adjustments from the local self-proclaimed expert and convince themselves that they feel something special).  I’ve seen people spend hours a day for years going mostly on the general shape of a standing posture, convinced that they’re doing the proper ritual.

Another common skillset is standing against a push.  I’ve had various people show up at workshops convinced that what they were already doing as “stand immovable against a push” was what I was talking about.  Their general idea seems to be focused on the simple idea of “several guys at this seminar have tried to move me as I’ve shown them how immovable I am, so therefore I have already arrived and needn’t pay any attention to useless suggested corrections”.   And by gum, they don’t pay any attention.  “Ah yeah, we used to do this with Tohei back in the day”.  Or, “This is the way we do it in our Koryu art and look how good it is”.  We’re talking about very different things, but they’re focused on the idea that the local yokel beside them can’t move them, so mission accomplished for “internal”.

Or perhaps, basic jin.  Rough, muscle-jin is not that hard to learn and a lot of teachers essentially pattern their special teaching around a little bit of jin and a lot of techniques.  Using some bit of muscle-jin along with normal movement is the most common thing I see in people claiming that they’re “internal too”.

“Dantian” has become something suddenly everyone has in the last year or two, it seems.  Look at this quote that someone recently made on a web-forum as part of an argument that his style is "internal", too:

if somebody comes to see me and i can take their center from first contact (and i generally can), then we have nothing else to talk about. if they really understand what "using the dan tien" means, then i wouldn't be able to capture them so easily.

There are several things in the statement that are worth thinking about.  First of all, it’s not “when I meet someone”, it’s when they make the pilgrimage to him.  He can “take their center”.... what does that mean?  Even someone with normal strength can take someone’s center, so that doesn’t mean anything about “dantian”.  Since he “usually can”, there is no more to talk about?  That’s pretty lofty.  How does he mean to take their center?  In a fight or in his favorite game of rou-shou, push-hands, chi sao, etc.?  I.e., his home game on his own turf or does he mean just he and his lowly opponent just touching each other without movement?

How does “dantian” come into what would be a real capture of someone’s center?  The way it’s really done is with jin, which is intent, not dantien.  So we already have an idea how “internal” he is.

Anyway, I hope that any moderately skilled person who can’t be captured at first touch simply walks away without talking anymore.  You certainly don’t want to give this guy any more ammunition to make his brags even worse!

What “dantian” too often becomes is simply a buzzword that is used to impress beginners.  The talkers often don’t really know, but they will still throw out the term, so any thinking martial-artist should take the moment to ask them what they mean.  If there is no clear-cut answer, but only a drift into other areas, you’re probably being strung along with the typical “we’re internal” stuff that has been popular since the days of Wing Chun claims on rec.martial-arts back in the early 90’s.

If you want to see if someone is “internal” who is tossing in words like “dantian”, have them stick their arm out straight and move it with their dantian while you feel their dantian.  I suspect that some of these guys will now start faking a coordinated arm and stomach motion, hoping that is satisfactory and will get them by.

Another thing that needs to be looked at with a lot of the people talking about “internal” is their size and strength.  Back in the days of the old Neijia List, I made some instant enemies by pointing out that the teachers all bragging about how good their “internal strength” was... well, they all happened to be big guys and some of them were pretty strong.  I also happen to be a big guy and pretty strong and I often point out to someone while pushing hands that part of the reason they’re having trouble dealing with me is that I’m big.  Mass and strength count for a lot.  Most of the large “teachers” of internal strength wouldn’t have their purported skill level if they were medium-sized guys.  They’d be using a lot of muscle to make up for the edge their size now gives them.  That should be a common-sense thought that everyone quietly has when looking at a large, strong “teacher”.

So there is a lot of talk about “internal”, but really what most people have is a little bit of muscle or maybe some muscle jin, maybe some neigong training, and a number of nifty techniques.  Techniques are not the criteria for internal strength, though, so they should be left out of any discussion about basic internal strength.

What we have is a spectrum of martial skills ranging from muscle and skill at, say, “rolling hands” or “push hands”, all the way to full-bore use of dantian and suit, jin, pressure, and so on.  The idea that all the people claiming to do “internal” are doing the same thing is simply wrong... and naive.  The “we are internal, too” bragging stuff has been a western mainstay since at least the Wing Chun wars on rec.martial-arts and it’s nothing new except to the newcomers.  

So the next time you hear descriptions about various people all doing "this stuff" or "internal", without making any distinctions about what "internal strength" really is, be aware that you're probably listening to the typical low-level discussions that are a mainstay of discussion boards.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Jin, Energy, and other terms

I want to post an interview from back in the 1990's that was done in Germany.  Andreas Graf, who is/was a Taiji practitioner and had definite jin skills, interviewed Chen Jumin, a Chen-style Taijiquan teacher.  So basically, this interview was done by Andreas in Chinese with intermediary terms being in German.  Andreas, who speaks English as well as I do, then translated the German interview into English:
Andreas Graf: Jumin, how would you translate the term Jin? Jin as in Pengjin.

Jumin Chen: Jin is "Kraft" (In the following we decided to translate the German word "Kraft" with strength, because we do not know which of the Englisch terms power, force or strength Jumin would use.)
AG: In German, "Kraft" has various meanings, for example physical power or muscular power. When you feel exhausted, you also say that you have no energy (in German: "kraftlos").

JC: Usually Jin relates to body strength. It's completely clear. There is another character "Li". Li is the physical strength. For example a machine has a lot of Li. Here you can't say that the machine has a lot of Jin. If I push the table and I am not able to move it (He demonstrates it using not enough strength to move the table.), then you could say "shi yi dian jin" which means use a little more of your strength. In general the term Jin is often used in relation to the body.

AG: When you use Jin in Taiji, you don't want to use normal muscular strength, do you?

JC: You always need muscles for movement. But consider the saying of Wang Zongyue: "Yong jin, bu yong li". In Taiji they have differentiated between Li meaning muscular strength and Jin meaning internal strength. The other internal martial arts Xingyi and Bagua do not use this differentiation. Sometimes they say Li, sometimes Jin. The border between Jin and Li is not very distinct. In Bagua and Xingyi you frequently say Fa li. In Taiji very often you say Fa jin instead of Fa li.

When the border between the two terms isn't clear, it seems that the Jin used in Taiji doesn't exist naturally. Has it to be trained?
JC: Right. Jin has to be trained.

AG: The trained Jin is different from the Jin that you used before when pushing the table? With the sentence "use more jin".

JC: Exactly. There are two specific terms: "Ben li" and "Gong li". Ben li means that you have your own strength for pushing or lifting something. E.i. you can lift your luggage. This is called Ben li. It has nothing to do with Gong li. You acquire Gong li by training. Oddly, you do not say "Ben jin" or "Gong jin" - that wouldn't be Chinese.

AG: That means the Jin that you use in Taiji is different from the usual language usage. Did it become a technical term? Can it be described that way?

JC: A technical term, yes. But Jin is colloquial. You use Li in science, for example in the physics of Newton. An object moves at a certain speed (He moves the ashtray with his finger over the table.). This is called "Guan li". Here you have to use Li. You do not say "Guan jin". Or "Lixue" that means mechanics. In China you say Lixue and not Jinxue. For example you ask: "Ni you jin ma?" - Do you have Jin? You can answer: "Wo you jin." - I have Jin. You don't ask: "Ni you li ma?"

AG: I remember that you often say "Taiji-strength" to differentiate it from normal strength when explaining something.

JC: Yes, that's right. Normally in Chinese semantics Li and Jin are identical. No difference. When used as technical terms Jin and Li are different. This came up one or two hundred years ago to avoid that people were using to much strength (He demonstrates strain of his muscles.). The Li used in Xingyi is more a full Li. Like a pipe that is filled. "Li shi". A strike in Xingyi is rather full. In Bagua you say "Li qiao". Li qiao means skillfull. "Li ling" means soft Li.

AG: And this is used in Taiji?

JC: Yes, Taiji - Li ling. The three are different. But all of them are internal. You cannot say that Xingyi or Bagua would use external strength.

AG: And this specific internal strength used in all the three styles is the same. Every style uses the same internal strength?

JC: Yes. But sometimes it's difficult to distingusih between saying how much internal and how much external strength somebody uses, for example within this strike (He demonstrates a strike.): 20% are external. When 80% are internal strength, it's already well developed. A 100% internal strength is supposed to be very difficult. If somebody accomplishes this, he is very very good - maybe Yang Luchan was able to do it or Yang Banhou. Yang Luchan probably had this skill, Yang Banhou had more Li shi.

AG: A lot of people translate Jin also with "energy".

JC: Energy? You cannot say this. It's a strength skill.

Andreas Graf: In the internal martial arts there is the saying "Kong xiong, ba bei". Please, would you explain it?

Jumin Chen: "Kong xiong ba bei" is the same like "Han xiong ba bei". In the internal martial arts there are three "diseases" which should be avoided. The first one is "ting xiong" (Jumin turns out his chest like a soldier standing to attention). This is one disease. Therefore it has been said han xiong. But then people have done it this way: Jumin shows a collapsed chest with shoulders hanging too much forward.

AG: Too much, then?

JC: Too much. So it was said kong xiong. That means keep free here (Jumin brushes his chest with a hand). Ba bei refers to the back. There is a technicall term "Li you ji fa" that means strength comes from the back. The back plays a large role and functions like a spring. If you don't have the spring in the back, you can't properly apply Li. You have to build up the spring with the whole body going up while the coccyx is going down.

AG: Is this like "rising the head" - "di ding"?

JC: Many beginners have a strange head posture, e. i. like this: He stretches his head in the front. When practicing Taiji this is wrong, as well as in Xingyi and Bagua. For combat purposes it's bad, too. In combat it looks like a golden rooster that fights - it stretches the head up. Have you already seen this - in the movies or so?

AG: Cockfights? Yes.

BaBei - Pulling up the "spring in the back"
JC: Yes, cockfight. That's typical for internal martial arts. In Taiji you say "Tou xuan ding" - push the head up. Then it is more powerful. If you do it this way (He puts the head out of the posture), it is less powerful. The meaning of ba bei is how you can develop power.

AG: What is the "dictionary meaning" of ba?

JC: Pulling.

AG: Do I understand you correctly when saying that you do not actively pull, but that you are relaxed?

JC: Like a spring.

AG: In case you translate ba with pulling, in which direction does this happen?

JC: Upwards.

AG: When you directly translate this with "pulling the back up", one might think that the back moves backwards (points from the back backwards).

JC: Ah. No, this is completely different.

AG: Often it's roughly translated, but it's difficult to understand.

JC: Yes. Some have translated it directly. Some know Chinese, but don't have a martial arts background or only external martial art skills like Wushu. Then you cannot comprehend such things. Han xiong ba bei derives from an early Qigong exercise. There are meditation exercises from the Tang dynasty which use han xiong ba bei. There exists an inscription on the grave of Wang Chengnan. From it comes the term internal boxing and the saying han xiong ba bei. So that the Qi can flow better and you don't block yourself.

Andreas Graf: Do you want to talk about this standing exercise a little bit?

Standing exercise for Pengjin
Jumin Chen: This standing exercise is for "Pengjin". Peng is an elastic strength. It is important, for example, if a push comes from the front, we shouldn't react in this direction (He points in the opposite direction of the push.), but receive it (German: "aufnehmen"). In the back of the body the coccyx sinks and in the front [strength] rises.

AG: Once you have said that the strength sinks from the coccyx downwards along the leg, rises from there to the waist and from there to the arm.

JC: Yes.
AG: You practice it with intent. What do you imagine?

JC: In the beginning two directions. Downwards and upwards (He slowly moves the arm up and down. Note: While practicing you don't move your arm, but think in the two directions.). You imagine that something heavy rests on your arm, there think upwards.

AG: But you don't lift the arm, do you?

JC: We think of the arm, but [the strength] comes from below. It's easier to work directly than to think of body.

AG: Do you think directly beginning from the foot?

JC: Directly you think of the arm.

AG: And you imagine that it is heavy?

JC: Yes, for example you think to carry 500 kilograms (He laughs.) on your arm. How are you able to carry it?

AG: Do you have to be relaxed in the back?

JC: Caused by relaxation a thing can rise.

AG: What is the meaning of Peng for Taiji?

JC: The so called Hunyuan-strength is important. This is the so called "six-directions"-strength. In the martial arts you cannot predict what will happen. For example if we push and pull one by one - this doesn't work. We have to push and pull at the same time - plus opening and closing. These are four directions. And then rising and sinking with the arm - in total six directions. (...) Within Taiji, Xingyi and Bagua it is important to use the whole body. It is only one part to train the technique: How can one method work against another? You can demonstrate a technique. But it doesn't always work. Why? Because it's a technique. It's not the whole Hunyuan-strength. If you use a technique, most of the time it doesn't work - sometimes it does. But that's not the meaning. It's the whole body! This is very very important.

AG: When somebody in push hands pushes into your Peng-position, you perform Lu. Once you have said that within Lu there is always Peng?

JC: Yes, correct.

AG: Can you tell us about this a little bit?

JC: The Hunyuan-strength contains Peng and Lu. Lu is performed to yield. Peng is necessary that it is elastic. When there is a change, immediately there is Lu-strength. Example: When you push me, I have Peng. Push me! Ah! Lu and then return with Peng. This is Peng and Lu changed. At the moment it's Peng, then Lu and then again Peng.

AG: That means at every point of time you can say "now I do Lu, now I do Peng"?

JC: Yes. The quicker the change the better.

AG: Where do you perform Peng? Is it at the point where I push you?

JC: Yes. The contact point is important. With this point you can train a lot. In principle you have the Hunyuan-strength on the whole body, the internal strength in all directions. That's why Feng Zhiqiang called his Taiji "Hunyuan Taiji Quan" - he is the first generation. (He laughs.) Usually a style starts with the second generation.

AG: Once, you have told me that you change the end point of the strength?

To explain Zheng Mian, Jumin had me push a pen in a 90 degree angle at a book that he holds upright in this hands
JC: This is part of the theory. "Zheng Mian" and "Xie Mian" are typical for Taiji. We have a contact - because of this we have a point and a line. Zheng Mian points vertically on the strength, Xie Mian at an angle. Now both points are equal , now I change the point ( he points next to the contact point) - this is Xie Mian. Xie Mian means "slanting". Due to this some masters are able to throw the opponent when they are attacked. They don't use it directly, but at first Xie Mian and then Zheng Mian. This is a left/right-Xie Mian. There is also top/down-Xie Mian.

He shows Xie Mian turning the book and holding it at a smaller angle: the pen slips away.
AG: When you practice stances, do you imagine that the weight lies on your entire arm, or sometimes here, sometimes there?

JC: In principle on the whole arm. If there is contact, it's a little different. When you practice alone, on the whole arm.

Michael Schmidt: Should you do pre-exercises?

JC: No, I practice stances without pre-exercise. Let's say, I have ten minutes time - then I stand for ten minutes.

MS:/b> Alone?

JC: That doesn't matter. It's sometimes easier in a group - I like it better within a group. For me standing is lots of fun.

AG: Jumin, thank you very much for the interview.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

3 Main Blogs: Successful as Aids?

There have been a number of emails and comments indicating that for a lot of people the blogs are a of minimum help other than background information.  That's to be expected, to a large extent, because the information in the blogs was aimed primarily at helping the students of a really qualified understand what the discussion was about.  I.e., the blogs aren't meant as beginning course for the simple reason that a person must have some hands-on training in order to understand the general material.

My interest for a number of years has been in uncovering the principles and material behind classical "internal strength" and I've made it a point to always visit many different Asian teachers in order to see/feel their material, and listen to what they're saying.  In the last few years, one of the teachers that I've visited is Chen Bing, who teaches Chen-style Taijiquan.  Chen Bing apparently sat down and figured a very logical set of steps that he thought people should follow and he adheres to that logic in his teaching, rather than hopping around from subject to subject.  It's his material that primarily motivated me to write on this blog site the material that would accompany his logic... and it bit beyond it so that the larger picture is outlined.  If you get a chance, I'd recommend a visit to one of his workshops at some time.

Unless someone has a feel for what jin is, what suit can do, how the dantian feels as it physically moves, etc., a lot of the stuff on the blog is just words.  However, over time I think that more and more people will encounter opportunities where they can use this baseline material, so I plan on leaving it up for a while.

Another comment I'd make is that I've encountered a number of westerners' theories about internal martial-arts that have mechanical explanations of how punches work, mobilizer and stablizer muscles, "mutually opposing spirals" (a misunderstanding rooted in the ni-shun dichotomy), leverage, momentum, hard-gong training, and so on. 

The main point I'd make is that a correctly-trained body acts differently than those mechanistic explanations are capable of explaining.  In other words, I think people should spend more time on basic training (jibengongs) before they get into "forms" and "applications", good-sounding explanations that use physics terms, and so on.  Most of the western people who claim to do "internal" things don't even have basic dantian or jin skills, so the mechanics are going to be wrong just based on that alone.  Any other partial skills like breath-packing phenomena, "fa jin", etc., are also going to be very limited because the whole body hasn't been trained. 

So, regardless of how many forms someone else can do, a wise person should spend a lot of time on basic exercises and acquire some skills and basic principles before worrying about forms, applications, and so on.  It's easier to get the skills first and then apply them to forms, applications, and so on, then it is to pattern a lot of wrong movements into your body and then try to go back and change those badly-patterned movements.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Not Taiji -- an Opinion Piece

Not Taiji -- an opinion piece.  If you disagree, write a response.

(Not Xingyi, Not Bagua, Not Liu He Ba Fa, Not Wujiquan, etc.)

The main thing to note about the internal martial-arts is that they are a different way of moving.  They use the solidity of the ground and the pull of weight (i.e, gravity giving both of those) as primary forces.  They use air to train and power the body.  The body is moved using gravity, air, and the dantien to move the connection of the body plus jin.  Most people doing “internal arts” are doing the forms, applications, weapons, etc., using normal motion or mostly so.  What it comes down to is that the internal martial-arts are marked by a certain type of movement that is difficult and takes time to learn… and most people purporting to do internal martial-arts are not doing that type of movement.

Rather than reiterating the logic and basis for movement in Asian martial-arts (see the main blogs), I wanted to make a point that I’ve heard many times from various Chinese martial-artists … most of what westerners are doing for Asian martial-arts is at best in incomplete replica of Asian martial-arts that are using much more sophisticated principles, when done correctly. 

Do all Asians do the arts correctly?  No.  Since the heyday of Asian martial-arts there had been a natural degradation.  In other words, just because someone is an Asian martial-arts teacher, we’re not assured that they have or that they are showing complete mechanics.

Of the experts I’ve heard who have said things like, “That is not Taiji” or “That is not push-hands” or things along those lines, most haven’t elucidated their remarks in a public way.  The odd and noticeable thing has been the defensive reactions from the westerners who are sure that what they are doing is not only legitimate, but probably pretty good, also.  Using the criteria that I laid out in the 3 major blogs, I think it should be fairly easy to judge how well the basic criteria and elements of internal-strength are actually adhered to.

Many westerners think that the mark of how good their “art” is can be judged by how well they emulate particular forms, applications, and so on.  Things like Chi Sao, Push Hands, Rou Shou, etc., are often judged by whether they “beat” someone, “won a medal at a tournament”, “we do neigongs” (all arts do neigongs of some sort), and so on.  The Chinese tend to be using criteria that are outlined, at least in a basic way, in the three major blogs on silk-reeling, jin, and breath.

So an art, particularly an internal art, that doesn’t use the dantien to control jin directions and the “suit” (one aspect of “qi”) and which doesn’t train with breath techniques… is not an internal art.  In too many cases, we find that Asian martial-arts are an external copy of the original art. 

I mentioned in a previous blog that a well-known member of the Beijing Wushu Team, a person who had “won gold medals for her Chen-style Taijiquan performances in contemporary wushu tournaments, had demonstrated he form to an expert in traditional Chen-style Taijiquan and he had indicated that it was not correct/complete.  Contemporary wushu has good guidelines based on ancient and accepted Chinese practices of wushu, but the accepted general guidelines are seldom the traditional practices within the specific arts themselves.  The point is that even in China there is recognition that contemporary wushu is not the same as the traditional arts.  Someone who “wins a gold medal in a tournament” has not necessarily exhibited the traditional aspects of an art.

I recognize that some people might take umbrage at the previous paragraph because they feel that their forms are “traditional”.  It might be a good debate, although I’ve never heard a good traditional expert of a Chinese martial-art say anything other than what was outlined about accepted basics, above.

Basic Movement Skills must be present or it’s something else

There’s an old joke that starts with the question of “How many martial-arts teachers does it take to change a light bulb?”.  The answer is: “One Hundred.  One teacher to screw in the light bulb and 99 others to sit around and say, ‘We do it differently in our school’”.  It’s a funny joke, but the implication is a very common one, the idea that there are a number of ways to do a martial-art and that all those ways are acceptable.

First of all, it is logically impossible for all ways to be acceptably correct.  In a collection of “all ways”, some ways must unavoidably be incorrect.  “All Roads Lead to the Top of the Mountain” is a nice statement, but some roads are cul de sacs and some roads lead to Timbuktu, in reality.

There is some good advice about watching an expert: many experts look similar and are mostly correct, so you can only tell their level by watching for what they do wrong, not how good they are overall.  If two experts offer seemingly different views on the same topic, don’t assume that you’re always seeing two views on the same topic.  Sometimes you are.  Sometimes you’re seeing someone giving away the fact that their basic understanding isn’t correct. 

In my various years spent practicing and watching Taijiquan, I’ve encountered a number of “secret” forms that are “lost to most people, even in the original village”.  I’m always amazed that whole villages lost the most powerful form-practice of the ages and some outlander is one of the few who retains it.  In other words, “hogwash”.

The point in all these asides is that the basics of the body movement skills are immutable.  There are not multiple ways to do things at the very basic levels. Once the basics are correct, there is room only for limited modification and application.  Hence the bedrock discussion in the 3 major blogs on silk-reeling, jin, and breath.

While the Yang-style proponents once declared that they did “pulling silk” (chousijin) rather than “reeling silk” (chansijin), the heads of the style later declared that they, too, did reeling silk for the simple reason that all the intertwined skills were impossible, logically, if they didn’t do chansijin.  That is, they understood that the body logic breaks down if they didn’t do reeling silk, which is a variant of the six-harmonies movement.  In other words, if those arts denied the need for silk-reeling’s logic that is intertwined with jin, dantian usage, and so on, they would have admitted they weren’t valid.

Similarly, Xingyi, Bagua, and other internal arts fail to meet the propounded tenets of those arts if they don’t use six-harmonies movement.  There is no way to argue around it.

A lot of teachers know to use terms like dantien, etc., but there is no real way to fake dantien controls, suit control by dantien, jin, etc., and those are the mainstays of internal martial arts.  Anyone with real experience is going to know that.  And that brings up an interesting question in relation to some of the current health claims:  if someone is just doing, for instance, a Taiji “form”, but they don’t have any of the body skills and development of real Taiji, how valid is the claim that “Taiji improves my health” or “Taiji is helping my arthritis”, etc.?  It’s worth a thought, when you see some of the advertised claims about health, arthritis, balance, and so on.

A moderately-experienced martial-arts practitioner should be able to walk up to any purported practitioner of an internal art and ask to see just a brief demonstration of six-harmonies movement, using the dantien to control the body.  A beginner won’t be able to tell the difference, but someone with a little experience should be able to tell almost at a glance. The dantien itself will be developed in a certain way because of the exertions it makes to control the “suit” and jin.  The art itself doesn’t matter for this example “test”, by the way, since all the six-harmonies arts of the neijia are essentially variants of the same body skills applied to martial-arts. 

If a “teacher” of an “internal martial-art” cannot demonstrate simple six-harmonies movement, dantien development, etc., then by logic they cannot possibly do the internal art they claim to teach.  On the other hand, if they can indeed demonstrate a variant of bona fide six-harmonies movement, then things are at least moving in the right direction, no matter what the level of skill.  And by the way, someone who has learned, for instance, Chen Xiaowang’s basic silk-reeling exercises and can mimic them… that’s not what I’m talking about.

Push Hands

The general entre’ into doing push-hands, in traditional Taijiquan, is to first learn how to move correctly using the dantian, body connection, jin, and so on.  However, push-hands is predicated on the idea of always being in complete balance and responding to an opponent’s forces by always remaining in exact equilibrium…. So assuming someone has some jin, dantien, etc., skills, their focus should be on learning to move within central equilibrium. 

Most of what we see as “push hands” is in fact just close-up, fairly safe wrestling and tussling, no matter how well thought-out and trained.  The idea is often that someone’s “Taiji” is validated by moving or shoving someone in a “Push Hands Competition”.  In my experience in the U.S., the push-hands competitions have had nothing to do with the type of strength developed by jin, dantien, suit-connection, breath-power, central equilibrium, and so on.  That’s why I’ve heard too many Chinese say “not Taiji” and I’ve heard too many westerners angrily reject that evaluation.  I think a common understanding of the basic movement principles of Taiji might be able to get us around these misunderstandings.

"Swallow and Spit" and "Neigongs"

I saw a comment on one blog in which someone (a teacher) didn't understand that what I'd written about Open and Close using the muscle-tendon channels, dantien, jin, suit/qi, etc., had anything to do with what Sam Chin of I Liq Chuan teaches about "absorb and project".  That's seems a bit odd to me since "absorb and project" is commonly discussed in a variety of martial-arts, but particularly in those martial-arts that are heavily influenced by southern Shaolin and Yiquan.

I started thinking about it and trying to remember the first instance I could call to mind of the common "absorb and project" topic (it's all over Chinese martial-arts) being in western literature.  The first time I can think of it being published was in 1980 in Robert W. Smith's book, "Chinese Boxing: Masters and Methods".  On page 93 in an interview with Lin Kuo-Chung (Lin Guozhung), Lin says that there are four kinds of qi used by him:

The ch'i of inhalation ("swallow")
The ch'i of exhalation ("spit")
Holding ch'i up ("to float")
Holding ch'i down ("to sink")

In another comment on the same page: "Lin held that the ch'i is not stored in the navel but comes from the sole of the foot through the navel to the head, where it is used as the occasion demands". 

That last would make a good discussion sometime.

But anyway, my point was that Sam Chin's comments about "absorb and project" are simply very common remarks having to do with "Heng" and "Ha", "Un and A", Close-Open, Yang-Yin, and so on.  By constantly pointing towards the commonalities, perhaps we can get away from the fruitless discussions about "we do it different at our school".

Another point worth mentioning has to do with "neigongs" or, literally, "internal exercises".  All the styles, internal and external, have neigongs as part of their practice.  Neigongs are essentially conditioning exercises.  You'll see a lot of Shaolin conditioning-neigongs inserted in supposedly "internal-style" (neijia) arts in a lot of the southern areas like Hong Kong, Taiwan, Fujien Province, Shanghai, etc.   There are a number of people who rely heavily on neigongs to prove, for some odd reason, that they are "internal arts".  Different meaning.

It's commonly stated that when Yang Chengfu, the Wu family, and others went to southern China, they did so because that's where the money is.  They taught a lot of people, but of course they didn't teach a lot of the in-house training methodologies, so many of the gaps wound up being filled by southern Shaolin practices.  Not always, of course, but enough so that people need to be aware that it's a possibility in a lot of the neijia/internal arts that derive from the southern areas.  It's fairly common knowledge among many Chinese.


Mike Sigman

Changing the Order of Blogs from this Point Onward

Most blogs start at a certain place and each succeeding blog at a later date goes on top.  So if you want to copy some blogs in a chronological order, you have to do it one at a time, going upward.  I deliberately jiggered the first seven(?) blogs' dates so that if someone just wanted to copy the blogs in chronological order, it would be a simple matter just copy and paste the whole shebang at once.

From here onward I'm going to leave the blogs alone so that they will stack naturally upward with the newest blog/comment on top.  The reason I'm changing is that the first group of blogs was the general purpose of the establishing the blog and those initial posts represent what I think people should know as a baseline.  The current baseline of knowledge is far too low, for a number of reasons, so rather than just complain I decided to chip in what I personally think should be the baseline.  Hope it helps.

Mike Sigman

Thursday, October 11, 2012

About this Blog


This blog is meant to be an open-source accumulation of basic facts about internal-strength in relation to the arts that use the Six-Harmonies (Liu He) type of movement that is controlled by the dantian.  Those arts would include legitimate styles of Taijiquan, Xingyiquan, Baguazhang, Tongbeiquan, and a number of others. The idea is to base all comments and observations against the very basic logic and facts of internal-strength.   In other words, if an assertion is made there should be the ability to track the assertion back to the basic powers of ground-support, gravity-derived forces, dantian usage, and the use of air and pressure.  From there, it should be possible to argue the position in terms of muscle-tendon channels, accepted dantian usage, and jin forces.  Jin forces are also able to be analyzed in terms of math and physics, so there is no way to escape a logical reasoned argument if we stick to the above.

Comments, criticisms, questions, etc., are a welcomed part of the discussion, but the posters are required to use their real names (like real martial-artists do), and the questions and comments need to adhere to the the traditional theory points indicated above.  "My teacher said this..." is not acceptable unless the comment is support with a "how does it work" explanation that can be logically developed from the accepted basics of Chinese/Asian views on traditional internal strength.

"How does that work?" is meant to be the working basis for all conversations, in other words.

Occasional guest posts, as long as they can be tracked back to tradition and physics, can be posted.  If someone has something they would like posted, please send it to me privately and I will go out of my way to be accomodating, as long as the relationship to the factual world of physics is relied upon.

One of the reasons I decided to do this small series of articles (I have one ready and a couple of more in my mind to develop) is that I'm beginning to see interest in the actual "internal arts" beginning to flag and I think part of the reason for that was that it never got a solid start.  The ultimate problem is that as interest drops because of poor results, etc., in the West, the number of qualified teachers who visit us will decline or be curtailed... and that hurts all of us.  Internal Strength is a fascinating topic and I hope these posts will help sustain the topic.  I hope that you will also do what you can to further the idea of supporting the interest of internal arts' relationship to the physical world.  As my sainted grandmother in Iowa used to say: "Let's cut through the bullshit, guys".


Please note that I encourage people to debate from basic principles.  The martial-arts world is full of people who have "been to China", "Speak Chinese", "Speak Japanese", etc., so please don't clog up the comments with kanji, ideograms, and subtle personal takes on the meaning of words.  Most of us who have been around for a while all know people who are great shakes at the lingo, forms, and all the rest, but who don't even have basic jin skills.  Some of the best talkers are taken as certain experts on some of the martial-arts forum.  And of course, some of these people know some good stuff, but the percentage is disappointingly small.  So let's try to base the comments, etc., on what is actually happening rather that subtle distinctions on meaning.  Think, for instance, about how many year of western Taiji were wasted because the "expert" translators, called jin "energy" or "intrinsic strength".  Every time I see people type in ideograms I get a slight sinking apprehension.  ;)

Silk Reeling, aka Six Harmonies Movement

Once, a Chinese friend and I were discussing the differences between “internal martial-arts” and “external martial-arts”.   He mentioned that in earlier China, many martial arts used the six-harmonies method of movement that is the hallmark of the so-called “internal martial arts”.  Even today you can find a goodly number of old, pedigreed Chinese martial arts that contain the term “Liu He” (“six harmonies”) in their full title, but over time many arts have devolved to less pure usage of the use of qi, jin, and dantian, regardless of the name they use and the classics that they espouse.   Today, because body movement must be completely repatterned, only a small number of arts attempt to use the full six-harmonies movement principles and of course not everyone practicing those arts fully complies with traditional requirements.

Many of the admonitions that are included in the “Taijiquan Classics” from the Yang-style Taijiquan are actually just repetitions of the old lore about six-harmonies movement and are not necessarily specific to just Taijiquan.  However, Taijiquan is one of the arts that use the full six-harmonies movement, even though they normally use the reeling-silk (chansijin) term.

The “reeling silk” movement of Taijiquan is actually just another way of describing focused six-harmonies movement. The same apothegms and injunctions found in Taijiquan lore can be found in the traditions of many other Chinese martial-arts and much of this lore was established back when six-harmonies movement was the classically correct way to move. 

As I understand it, currently all styles of traditional Taijiquan state that they use the silk-reeling forces as the basis for their movements.  All of the so-called internal-styles of martial-arts (the neijia) base their movement on six-harmonies movement, so the below discussion is applicable to Taijiquan, Xingyiquan, Baguazhang, etc., with the understanding that of course there are some minor variations of application within the neijia styles, but no differences of importance.

The Six Harmonies

The six-harmonies are often summed up very tersely as being comprised of the three internal harmonies (nei san he) and the three external harmonies (wai san he).  The three internal harmonies are the essence of using the “intent”, the “yi”, to bring power from the ground or gravity to a place in the body.  The three external harmonies describe how the body is tied together as one unit controlled by the dantian, such that the hand and foot are connected lengthwise by the body’s connective tissue.  Between these two sets of three harmonies, the body has to move very differently than the normal mode of movement we have practiced since we were babies. 

The traditional Chinese lore has it that a fetus in the womb (pre-natal or “pre-heaven”) moves with the ‘natural’ movement of six-harmonies, but that after a baby is born (post-natal or “post heaven”) the movement reverts to what we normally use.  To re-learn the proper six-harmonies movement takes training and practice, though: “this movement is not intuitive; it must be learned” is an old saying. 

So, the six-harmonies movement represents the idealized movement of the human body in accordance with its natural configurations; traditional Chinese medicine’s acupuncture theory adheres also to this idealization of the natural flow of strength through the body.

To the untrained eye, a person who is moving with six-harmonies movement can appear to be using normal movement so it’s fairly common to find many people emulating Taijiquan, Xingyiquan, Bagua, etc., styles using normal movement while focusing on the mysteries of “the form” and missing the point that it is the movement using six-harmonies which is the important thing.  Let’s take a look at some of the implications of six-harmonies movement in Silk-Reeling.

Basic Theory

Although it is easy to get into the weeds with an analysis of silk-reeling movement, muscle-tendon channels, and other things, the basic theory is fairly simple.  As a matter of fact, the idea of tying various phenomena of the body and the universe into a simple theory-of-everything is the basis for the ancient Chinese cosmology, so we should be able to examine some general principles about silk-reeling, fairly easily.

The basic theory of six-harmonies movement starts with the idea of using the powers of the Earth (gravity) and the powers of the Heavens (mainly air and pressure) and combining those powers with the personal developmental -powers of Man’s whole body.  Strength and qi always go hand in hand, according to the traditional perspective, but using strength and qi in the manner of the internal arts still requires specialized training.

Early Chinese studies viewed the strength of the body as being primarily along connected pathways involving several muscles, tendons, and connective tissues, using the skeleton as a base.  Those pathways generally go longitudinally up and down the body and some channels (Yin channels) are involved with weight downward and the Closing aspects of the body; some channels (Yang channels) are involved with conveying the solidity of the ground upward and outward in the Opening of the body. 

Use of isolated, “normal” strength dilutes or hinders the flow of ground-support strength upward and gravity-derived strength downward.  In other words, muscular tension blocks the flow of source-power from the solidity of the ground or the weight via gravity, hence this type of movement training requires that the body be “relaxed”, but connected.

An illustration of the muscle-tendon channels or of the acupuncture meridians while the arms are up in the air is very enlightening about the longitudinal aspects of the strength and qi flow of the body, from hands to feet with the dantian and mingmen in the middle as controllers. If you can find an illustration of the acupuncture meridians (they derive from the muscle-tendon channels, so they’re just thin versions of the muscle-tendon channels), take a look at the way the channels run almost completely longitudinally.

Although the channels run basically longitudinally, the longitudinal channels spiral and wind-unwind as the body expands and contracts because of the natural lay of the muscles, tendons, and joints. 

It’s critical to constantly remember that the solidity of the ground is the basis of all upward forces and that the weight of gravity is primary base of all downward forces.  Imagine holding a book on your head: the body structure should relax so that the weight of the book goes easily through so that it is resting on the soles of the feet.  At the same time there should always be a relaxed tensile connection originating at the feet and connecting upward to every point in the body.

Since the solidity of the ground and the downward pull of gravity are the two primary forces, it is an interesting exercise to think through why even movements (or the arms, legs, etc.) to the sides are actually only aspects of Up and Down coupled with the connective tissues of the body.

What’s not immediately apparent to someone viewing the muscle-tendon channels is that even though not all the channels go from lower-body to upper-body, the channels can combine in the middle of the body and sometimes various channels will coordinate with other channels in the course of performing a particular task or holding a posture.  In other words, while some channels don’t appear to go all the way from top to bottom, by connecting with other channels as needed, the full longitudinal range is fulfilled.   And very importantly, the central dantian/mingmen is positioned to manipulate the muscle-tendon channels, bridging and connecting the channels that stop at the middle and manipulating the body-length major channels.

Mantak Chia, in his book Iron Shirt Chi Kung I, did some excellent illustrations of various postures in which some of the channels are shown forming various frames.  Below are two figures done by Chia which illustrate the body connection via muscle-tendon channels for “Close” and “Open”.  There are a number of other worthwhile illustrations in the same book.

Connections in animals

In the classical sense, the muscle-tendon channels can be looked at as ways to convey the strength of the ground upward and the closing-inward associated with down-weighting, but there is another view that is worth considering at the same time, in terms of where the channels originate.  

In the physical human body, the front of the body and the undersides of the limbs contract in a way analogous to the underside of a running cheetah, greyhound dog, etc., as the legs close together and helped by the sinking weight of the body that is the result of gravity. In other words, the muscle-tendon channels along the front of the torso and the undersides and inner-sides of the limbs generally reflect a contraction, sinking and drawing in.


The back of the body expands as the solidity of the ground is pushed into it (mainly up the bones), in the same manner as the back (and backsides of limbs) of a running cheetah, greyhound dog, etc., at the widest extension.  So, the muscle-tendon channels of the back of the torso and the backsides and outsides of the limbs generally reflect expansion, rising and extension.

The torso of the body normally reflects expansion up the back and contraction down the front, just as in the running cheetah example above, so the directions of qi flow for the microcosmic and macrocosmic orbits can be understood fairly clearly if you think about the expansion and contraction of the body and the powers of the solidity of the earth and the weight of gravity.

‘Suit’ and Balloon Man models

Reiterating the primary ideas so far, the basic forces of the ground-support and gravity from the earth are used as much as possible for power and muscle-tendon channels convey the power, with the dantian manipulating the channels and body as needed.

In order to keep a simple view, instead of using the confusing array of muscle-tendon channels we can simplify our view of Opening and Closing (expansion and contraction) by picturing a layer or “suit” of elastic material covering the body.  The front of the suit is the contractile side and the back of the suit is the expansive side. 

If we move the center of the torso, we can move the hands or feet as long as a slight tensile connection exists over the whole surface of the suit, connecting the hands/feet to the center. Moving the hands or feet without this connection is simply bringing normal muscular strength into play. 

As a brief aside, our imaginary suit that covers the body has two weak points: the anus and the mouth.  The integrity of the suit is maintained by closing the mouth while placing the tip of the tongue to the upper palate; the anus/perineum area is slightly pulled upward.

In the same way that the muscle-tendon channels go longitudinally top to toe, connecting the suit lengthwise, the tensile connection of the body also goes from the top of the body to the toes, so it is important to understand that while a movement of the dantian can move the hand, the connection to the feet insures that the same movement of the hand simultaneously affects the foot -- usually the foot on the same side, but since most of the muscle-tendon channels are more or less “half channel” (not fully lengthwise), they can join and cross-coordinate as needed at the dantian/mingmen, the nexus and controller of the channels and body in the ideal six-harmonies movement.  

Because of the lengthwise connection of the body, the winding inward of the elbow (as an example) by the dantian turning  is reflected in a near-simultaneous winding inward of the knee on that side; the winding inward of the shoulder is matched by an inward torsion at the hip-joint because of the tensile connection; the inward winding of the wrist is reflected by an inward torsion at the ankle because of the lengthwise connection of the body.  This is what the Three External Harmonies refers to.

If you’ve followed the general logic up to this point, you can more or less imagine yourself as a well-inflated human-shaped balloon (head lightly held up with a string to assist the elastic tension; feet glued to the floor) with an elastic skin or “suit”. If someone twists your arm, the twisting tension in the arm will affect the elastic suit of the torso and legs, all the way to the floor. The idea of one part of the body having a tensile connection to all the rest of the body is the basis of silk-reeling practice. The whole body’s elastic connection and coordinated muscles, using the ground support and gravity, are stronger than “normal” strength.


The Balloon Man model gives us a good feel for understanding a connected, global-body elasticity, but it can also help to understand more about what a “dantian” does, physically.  For instance, if we imagine a well-inflated Balloon man, it’s easy to understand the main/central dantian-mingmen area as being the logical place to control forces, etc., via elastic connection, to the extremities of the body-whole. 

Similarly, it’s fairly easy to see that there is a nexus of control of the Balloon Man’s elastic suit between the legs: this is where the lower dantian is and it is indeed an area of control that is deliberately developed in martial training.  However, the lower-dantian is itself only a secondary nexus because its movements are initiated first by the main dantian.  I.e., the dantian/nexus inside the perineum area is “slaved” to the main dantian.  The lower-dantian is the lower endpoint of controlling nexuses, but it connects elastically to the feet.

The central chest the area directly opposite on the back are another secondary area of control, slaved to the main dantian, and this represents the chest dantian.  Flexion of the central body’s ‘suit’ or elasticity out to the arms, down to the main-dantian and upward toward the head happens in the torso.

The hollow of the throat is also a nexus, or dantian.  The upper endpoint of the various elastically-connected nexuses is the dantian between the eyebrows at the yintang.  There is a relationship between functional dantian-nexuses and the idea of chakras that probably extends far back to ancient times.

The ancient Chinese and Indians view of how the body worked is more complex than just these simple physical representations, of course, but it has to be understood the full discussion of the human body using the qi-paradigm, channels, dantians, etc., does include these very functional relationships that we’re discussing.  Once the physical interrelationship of dantians, connectivity, channels, etc., is understood, the larger understanding is not that far away.

Ni and Shun Windings

An arm or leg (or even a part of the torso) can wind outward or inward.  In the traditional view the body opens and expands upward from the earth while winding outward; the body sinks/closes with gravity while contracting inward.  During expansion and opening, the back of the suit is the main driver with the spine straightening and the joints like the elbows and knees straighten and wind outward.  During contraction (Close), the front of the suit is the main driver with the spine bending and the all the joints bend and wind inward.  A number of the old illustrations in various internal arts illustrate the two different potential winding directions by showing spirals on the body going in opposite ways.

Remember that no part of the body winds or moves without all parts of the body winding and moving if the connection of the body has been practiced and developed.  Most beginners who do not have some development of the body-connection (or “suit”) are reduced to simply coordinating the body until exercises and breath-training have developed the connection.  So don’t be discouraged if you don’t feel all of these connections at first; as the connections develop it is easier to do everything correctly and naturally because it is easy to feel that that is simply the way the body works.

Silk-Reeling and the Taiji of Yin-Yang

There are two basic martial-arts postures in Asian martial-arts: Open and Close.  In “Close” there is stress inward along the front of the body and the inward parts of the limbs;  the knees and elbows and the joints bend and are generally under contractile forces of the front.  Wing Chun’s basic stance, Uechi Ryu karate’s basic stance, “Play PiPa” (in Taiji), the closed aspect of “Squatting Monkey” (in Dai Family Xinyi), and in many other martial arts can be found variations of the Closed position of stances. 

In “Open” the expansive forces from the back of the body and the outsides of the limbs pull the knees and elbows outward and the body lengthens, joints opening.  Postures like “Single Whip” exemplify Open.  In classically correct postures there is always a balance of the forces of Close and Open or Yin and Yang.

The body, when moving from the dantian and connected together as a whole, is constantly moving from Close to Open to Close to Open, and so on, no matter the posture or application.
So, as an example, in the opening of a Taiji form with the raising and lowering of the arms, the arms are raised by the solidity of the ground pushing up as the back of the “suit” expands, the dantian turns, and the body Opens.  As the expansion of the back and Open reach their limits of power, the front of the “suit” has been stretched to its limits and is now ready to take over with the Close of the body, the dantian turning downward, and so on.  As the Close of the body reaches its limits, the back’s elastic power is then once again positioned to begin to Open. 

This cycle of Close to Open to Close to Open, etc., is Taiji, just as the Yin-Yang symbols indicate with their constant cycle of one element increasing to its limits and the other element assumes dominance. 

Naturally, the previous explanation is simplified in order to illustrate the general idea; a complete treatment of all the components of whole-body movement, breath/pressure, weight-shifts, etc., isn’t needed in order to convey the basic Yin-Yang concept that is Taiji.

When the body Opens and Closes sideways, for instance in “High Pat on Horse”, the same forces of the solidity of the ground and the downward weight are used, so sideways movements always have an element of up and down to them.  The body naturally winds inward on Closing and unwinds outward on Open, but if you pay attention, it is easy to see that the expansion of the back of the elastic, imaginary “suit” is powering unwinding and the front of the imaginary “suit” is powering the inward winding.  So the general rule is “Upward and unwinding/expanding, Downward and winding inward”. 

Arm Wave example of Reeling Silk

There are only 2 intrinsic directions in which the body winds and unwinds (the Ni and Shun windings previously mentioned).  One direction of winding is controlled by forces expanding up the back and closing down the front (the normal direction of movement, as in the Microcosmic Orbit).  The other direction of winding is controlled by forces pushing up the front of the body and then pulled down the back and sides (the reverse direction of movement).

To illustrate silk-reeling winding within the concept of Yin-Yang (Tai Chi) in an overly simplistic example of basic reeling-silk movement, imagine waving your straightened arm horizontally out to the side of the body (keep palm facing inward or frontward) and then waving it back in front  to your centerline.  Imagine an elastic ribbon from your mingmen to the little finger that controls the outward wave until the elastic tension runs out.  If you also imagine an elastic ribbon going from the dantian point, up the ribs and out the inner/under part of the arm out to the thumb, this front ribbon gradually gets tensioned as the arm swings outward to its limit and is therefore ready to pull the arm back in.  So in this simple 2-dimensional example of two elastic ribbons, one in front from dantian to thumb and one in back from mingmen to little finger, the idea of Tai Chi as the exchange of energy from one to the other becomes clearer as first one ribbon’s tension is dominant and then the other ribbon’s tension is dominant in a constant cycle.  Of course, bear in mind that in reality the ribbons would connect from the mid-body down to the feet, but let’s keep things simple. 

Real dantian movements tend to be more 3-dimensional than the above example and involve up and down components and connections in which gravity and the solidity of the ground drive all movements. 

In the normal “circulation” of the energy of movement, movement/qi comes upward out of the mingmen and returns downward, pulled by the dantian, according to traditional tenets.  This theory of movement also relates to the microcosmic orbit for the torso or to the so-called macrocosmic orbit of movement if the limbs are involved.

In three-dimensional movement there are four components of the arm-wave: up, across and outward, down,  toward the body.  When the arm is brought downward in the circular movement, both shoulders and both hips relax; the weight from the body, focused at the dantian is being added to the arm to bring it down. 

Everything is either powered with the solidity of the ground going through the body or the weight from gravity.  This simple relationship of cycling tensions controlled by the dantian and the Up and Down powers from gravity results in the outward swing of the arm actually being Up power from the ground combined with the back’s expansive unwind; the lower inward swing of the arm is the down-weight of gravity coupled with the natural contraction of the front of the body.

In the full 3-dimensional arm-wave exercise, the hand flips over twice.  Imagine again the two elastic ribbons, one from the dantian along the ribs and underside of arm to the thumb and one from the mingmen diagonally up the back to the shoulder and out the upper-outer side of the arm to the little finger.  As you push (with dantian turning) the hand across the front of the body, the ribbon from the back shortens and pulls the elbow upward, pulling the little finger upward: that’s the first hand flip.  As you pull the arm out to the side (dantian turning controls ribbon) with the back ribbon, you gradually run out of front ribbon, so the elbow is pulled downward and the hand flips for the second time.  At first, it is important to keep a slight extension in the arm so that the connection from dantian to fingertips is never broken.  The dantian pulling on the connective tensions of the entire body is what drives these particular aspects of movement and all reeling-silk movements.

In actual silk-reeling there is slightly more winding than the linear Expansion and Close used in the simple example above.  Instead of the linear case of Expand using the mingmen to little finger, the twist pulls around to the thumb, so in the classical pictures a spiral is always shown.  In the close, the pull goes all the way around to the little finger on the inward winding.  The linear expansion and close is referred to as "pulling silk".  The winding open and close is the "reeling silk".

The example of an arm wave can be seen in the embedded video of Chen Bing.  John Prince has been kind enough to provide English subtext to the video which was originally posted to YouTube by ChenTaijiMilano.  All of the limbs and body wind in the same basic manner as the arm wave that is powered by the solidity of the ground and/or the weight of gravity, through the intrinsic elastic connection of the body as manipulated by the dantien.

Chen Bing Reeling Silk from John Prince on Vimeo.

Using Reeling-Silk Movement

Reeling-silk movement,  where the dantian is physically involved in manipulating the body is different from the type of movement people have done since babyhood, so it’s difficult for people to grasp that their movements must be totally changed to dantian-centered movement. 

Most people tend to emulate the movements of Taijiquan, Xingyiquan, Baguazhang, push-hands, etc., with the common strength that we’ve used so long in our lives, but someone who actually does Taiji well, like Chen Xiaowang and many others, actually has a very strong and articulate dantian and can demonstrate the windings of the body on a larger scale at whim.

The general approach to learning reeling-silk motion in Taijiquan is to start large in order to learn the coordination and then the gradually decrease the size of the overt windings in order to further develop the intrinsic elastic strength of the body.  The “Small Frame” forms practices were actually originally developed by and for people who had developed beyond needing the larger training movements of the large and middle-frame forms.

Although there are certainly other aspects of Taiji training (holding postures, breath-pressure devices, physical training, and so on), the major point about silk-reeling/six-harmonies and use of the dantian is that without accomplishing it, it’s not truly an internal martial-art.  As an example, someone can do a “Tai Chi form” and something resembling “push-hands” and also know some of the pressure-pulse mechanics varieties that are common in all Chinese martial-arts, but without dantian, body-channel connections, and silk-reeling, it won’t really be Taijiquan in the classical sense.

There was an incident back in the late 1980’s or late 1990’s when a famous member of the Beijing Wushu Team came to the noted Chen-style practitioner, Feng Zhiqiang, and asked him to grade her performance. Feng diplomatically said that he would grade her “C”. The grading criteria in contemporary wushu performances are different from the evaluations used in traditional wushu by accomplished experts.  A traditional expert is going to look for true reeling-silk movement, jin, qi, and so on.

When learning to use reeling-silk movement, the first problem is keeping the channels relaxed for the propagation of “qi”.  If you don’t use the dantian to move the channels, you cannot, by definition, be allowing the optimum flow of power because without the dantian doing the work, local muscular motion must be in use.  Remember that many channels stop at the dantien and it is the dantien that connects channels as needed for strength and qi propagation.

It takes a lot of practice for using the dantian and whole-body connection to become the natural mode of movement, but it does happen.  Doing a thousand forms using the dantian, ground-support jin, gravity-jin, and the whole-body connection, though, is much more effective at learning to move with the dantian than to do a thousand forms without reeling-silk movement.  Once the mode of moving with reeling-silk is learned, though, there is a beautiful complexity in the feeling of the surface and deeper windings of the body as you move through the form.