Monday, May 31, 2010

Book Review: Taijiquan: The Art of Nurturing, The Science of Power

In preparation for Yang Yang's Summer Taiji Camp, I decided to re-read his book, Taijiquan: The Art of Nurturing, The Science of Power. It is a good read for someone interested in the complete art of Taiji. By complete art, I mean not just bits and pieces, as is often the case, at least in the West. According to Yang, Taiji is a martial art, a healing art, a spiritual practice, and a physical regimen. Yang, a disciple of Grandmaster Feng Zhiqiang, finds it odd that there is even a discussion in America as to whether Taiji is a healing or a martial art. The practice of Taijiquan, if one follows a complete curriculum, leads to martial skill and good health concurrently. Attempting to separate the two leads to something that is not balanced, and not Taijiquan.

For Yang, Taiji has three integral components: Qigong; Taiji Form; Push Hands. Of course there is much to each of these individual categories, but they do form the basis of correct Taiji practice. In the Chen Hunyuan System, which Yang teaches, Qigong includes moving and static practices. Of these, the static practices are the most important in building gong, the foundation of Taiji. Static Qigong is basically sitting and standing Wuji meditation. Form of course varies depending on the school, or style one is practicing, but should be composed of the eight forces and five steps noted in the classics, and typical of all Taijiquan. The Taiji form is moving, choreographed Qigong, and it is key to combat applications. Finally, Yang covers push hands. For Yang, push hands is a training tool. It is a tool for learning to fight efficiently--among other things--but it is not fighting. Push hands is a very important partner exercise, and done correctly benefits each partner. Push hands was not intended to be a competitive venture. Yang does not broach this subject here, but the implication is clear.

For Yang, as with Grandmaster Feng, nurturing is primary in the art of Taijiquan. We begin by nurturing ourselves, through meditation and Qigong exercises, which builds gong and provides us with the foundation necessary to practice Taiji. In push hands practice we nurture ourselves and our training partners. There is much to this concept of nurture as an indispensable component of Taiji practice. To be able to function at our highest level, we must attend to our basic needs first. Everything else follows from there. Early in the book Yang quotes the classical Song of Real Meaning to make his point: "With your whole being, develop your life"(1). That kind of says it all.

Most important for Western readers, Yang demystifies Taijiquan and presents hard solid scientific evidence for what is and is not possible. Yang has a Phd. in Kinesiology, and wrote his dissertation on the practical benefits of Taiji practice. There is no magic or superpowers implicit here, no throwing anyone across the room with intention only, or some mysterious Qi power. This is the art we experience explained in a logical fashion that makes a lot of sense. He does not devote a lot of time to the martial application of Taijiquan, but he doesn't overlook it or disregard it either. All-in-all it is a balanced explication.

I realize this is a short summary of an excellent book. But better than reading my review, buy the book. I highly recommend it for any serious practitioner of Taijiquan, regardless of style. It presents a complete holistic view of this wonderful art in a sane no-nonsense manner.

(1) Taijiquan: The Art of Nurturing, The Science of Power. Yang Yang; 2005; Zhenwu Publications.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Reflections on the 2010 WTBA USA East Coast Workshop

I attended the 2010 WTBA Workshop in Salisbury, MD. May 8th and 9th. It was amazing, to say the least. I should note this was billed as the WTBA USA Workshop. I prefer to refer to it as the East Coast Workshop because Eli Montaigue will be presenting another workshop in Montana in September of this year.

The workshop was very well attended. There were several students and assorted martial artists from across the globe. In addition to WTBA founder, Erle Montaigue, his son and current head of the WTBA, Eli Montaigue was there; UK Chief Instructor, Nasser Butt; USA Chief Instructor, Al Krych; Canada Chief Instructor, Josephine Anderson; and Workshop host and Maryland WTBA Representative, Brian Alexander. I must say I have never been in the presence of so many talented martial artists at one time. There was no shortage of high caliber instruction and competent assistance.

This was my first workshop with Erle; in fact it was my first WTBA event ever, as there are no active WTBA groups in my immediate area--yet. My exposure to this system has been via books and videos to this point. Apparently the turnout was so great that this is now going to become an annual event. Needless to say I am already planning on next year's event.

The focus of this workshop was the Yang Lu'chan form, or Old Yang form, at the small frame level; The River, a Wudang Dim Mak Cornerstone Form; and Combat Push Hands. Although the majority of the information was new to me, the most challenging aspect was the small frame approach to the form. I learned the first third of this from via video, but not at this level. The movements of small frame are subtle and all but incomprehensible to the observer. We did not spend as much time with this as Erle had intended, or as I personally would have liked. But it was enough to pique my interest. I definitely see this as a future challenge, an addition to my ever-expanding list.

The Wudang Dim Mak Cornerstone forms are predecessors to Taiji and Bagua, but contain noticeable elements of each and lots of Fa Jin. As I have been practicing a Chen style for some time now, Fa Jin is not foreign to me, and not as challenging as it is to some contemporary Yang stylists. This, for me, is one of the more comfortable things about this system. Legend has it that Yang Lu'chan learned Taiji from the Chen family (or along with the Chen family, if you prefer that version). So it follows that his Taiji would be more similar to Chen style than the contemporary Yang versions that dominate the Taiji world. I have always found the contemporary Yang system to be awkward and lacking, thus my attraction to Chen. This system does not have that awkward feel--for many reasons. Although the Wudang forms predate Taiji, and are not a part of Yang-style Taiji, per se, they are a part of the WTBA curriculum. There are four forms, each representing a natural element. We learned The River or Water Form, complete. This is a good fighting form. I like it--a lot. We went over it enough that I retained all the basic moves in memory. Erle has added an overview/outline of the form to his website, which helps to clarify. I will have to work on this for some time to polish it and get it right, but it has definitely become a part of my regular practice.

The WTBA version of Combat Push Hands is also new to me, but not so totally foreign that I had trouble comprehending the intention. It is beyond a doubt a different approach to push hands than I am accustomed to, but the fundamentals are there. I have already shared this with my regular Taiji group and we are integrating it into our training routine. Push Hands is an important practice to me and this system gives me another level of approach. Compared to most common styles of Push Hands, WTBA Push Hands is more direct, faster, and closer to free fighting than most approaches. With the free-style Push Hands that I am accustomed to it is easy to enter and transition to grappling. This is a noticeable trait in Chen Village Push Hands. With the WTBA system, any such attempt at entering should be cut off with a strike. Of course that limits the strategies, but makes those available all the more potent. Again, I am impressed. This system will not supersede my other training methods, but it will be a potent addition.

In summary, I have found a new training regiment. Since injuring my leg in Aikido a few months back, I have not been doing any cross-training. I decided after that accident to focus my training on Taiji. Now I have found an acceptable cross-training system. I will be integrating the WTBA system into my existing--primarily Chen Hunyuan--system. Hopefully I will be able to get together with some of the other workshop attendees for training before next year's event. In any case, I have much new material with which to work, and new challenges to address. My Taiji world has expanded.