Saturday, June 19, 2010

Notes from Taiji Camp: The Art of Smiling, The Science of Motown

I just returned from Yang Yang's Summer Taiji Camp in Blowing Rock, NC. I feel obligated to report on my experiences, but after rummaging through my notes, scanning my poor memory, and buzzing around my home and office with this amazing residual energy, I'm not sure I'm up to relating the depth of my experience. I feel as if I have just had an amazing experience that is beyond words. But on the other hand, the core of that experience was being in the presence of a man who expertly takes the mysterious, the complicated, and the subtle and makes them not only understandable but easily within grasp of us all, regardless of our backgrounds or levels of experience. So in keeping with that spirit, I'll give it a shot.

Taiji Camp ranges over a six day period, Friday evening through Wednesday morning, with four full days and two partial days of training. I have been learning and practicing this system for six years now, but this is my first camp experience. It will not be my last.

"The lessons learned in Taiji are applicable to everyday life, and the way in which you live your life will affect your progress in the art." Yang Yang.

I arrived relatively early on Friday evening, so I had plenty of time to get settled, meet a few folks, and observe as everyone else came together. I noticed quite quickly the fraternal, or better, familial, atmosphere. I felt as if I were at a sort of family reunion. By breakfast of the next day I already felt a part of the family. It was quickly apparent to me that this was going to be more than a couple of days of martial arts training. I was in the presence of people close to one another, who shared not only a lineage, but a philosophy, an approach not only to the martial arts or to health maintenance, but to life in general and the world at large. That is the kind of art this is. It is more than what you do; it becomes a part of who you are: a living art in the literal sense.

"The change of hardness and softness does not happen just on the physical level. It is more important for a student to apply this principle with Yi." Feng Qhiqiang.

Chen-Style Xinyi Hunyuan Taiji was created by Grandmaster Feng Zhiqiang, a synthesis of Xinyi Liuhe Quan, Qigong, and Chen-Style Taiji. As noted on Grandmaster Feng's website, the fundamental principal of Hunyuan Taiji is that "while designed for health and self-defense, it focuses on health; while alternating movements with stillness, it emphasizes stillness; and while simultaneously training the internal and the external, it gives priority to the internal". While this may seem an odd or obscure approach to those outside the system, it is in fact a very efficient and effective approach to Taijiquan. And understanding that statement is the key to understanding Dr. Yang's approach and the experience of his Summer Taiji Camp. Giving priority to the internal and to stillness leads to effective movement, health, and martial ability.

"I'm not afraid of someone who does a thousand forms; I'm concerned with the person that knows one form very well." Traditional Chinese Martial Arts Saying.

The thing that makes Master Yang stand out is his ability to expand one's knowledge of Taiji through simplification. He breaks down the form to its most fundamental elements so that it is easy to comprehend the intention, but he never compromises the original Taiji principles. Once you understand the intention and the underlying principles, you understand the form; Taiji becomes accessible. Additionally, and what I found to be most impressive, he demystifies the sayings we have all heard or read in the classics but find obscure and ambiguous. Concepts like "nurturing true power in Wuji"; "Move the Qi with Yi"; "Executing movement with your Dantien"; "Nurturing your partner through Push Hands". While this may be obscure on the pages of a book, it all comes out and is clarified through Yang's training regimen.

"If you practice brute strength it will break, if you practice Qi it will be stiff, if you practice Yi it will flow smoothly." Traditional Chinese Martial Arts Saying.

Each day of camp began with Wuji standing meditation, Qigong and sitting meditation, and each day ended with sitting meditation. During the day we alternated between form practice, push hands, and lying Qigong. Lying Qigong, a variation of Wuji, is more than a mid-training excuse for lying down or taking a nap. It is a subtle, active, relaxing, and extremely beneficial Qigong practice. Not only does Lying Qigong lead to relaxation, it is training in moving Qi through the body with Yi, intention. In fact, the concept of giving priority to the internal is more than philosophy with Dr. Yang, it is the practice. The majority of questions on form, application, or push hands addressed to Dr. Yang over the camp were referred back to Wuji. It appears the answer to most Taiji questions are ultimately found in Qigong. The classical conception of Taijiquan has it that Wuji is the mother of Taiji. Again, with Dr. Yang these are more than mere words, they are the rule of efficient practice. If your form or push hands are lacking, you should check your Standing Pole or San Ti stance. But this philosophy could lead one to wonder. The foundation of most martial arts practice is technique, and the rule of efficient practice in many systems is constant repetition of technique and fighting skills. Not so with Taiji, at least in the Hunyuan lineage. So, how does that work?

"Thus the external becomes concentrated in the internal, and the internal expresses itself externally." The Yang Family Forty Chapters.

I once, quite absentmindedly, parked my truck on a slight hill in neutral, and forgot to pull the parking brake. As I got out and began to walk away I noticed it beginning to roll ever so slightly. In keeping with my absentminded nature on that particular day I went to the front of the truck to stop it from moving. Since the decline was slight and it barely moved before I caught it, I was able to stop the motion quite easily. I soon realized my folly and went around and opened the door, jumped in, and pulled the brake. But that's not my point. My point is that for a brief moment I held the truck in place. As I noted, the decline was slight and it's a small Toyota truck, so there was no real danger. But standing there holding the front of that truck I could feel the potential energy. The Earth, in its rotation around the Sun, creates a gravitational pull that worked on the weight of my truck. Left alone, given the slope of that decline, my little truck would have accelerated to the point that should I again put my hands on the front I would have experienced much more than potential energy. I would have been victim to actualized energy, derived from the forces of nature, enough to roll over me, or move me off my spot. This potential energy that I felt on my truck that day is the same energy I felt whenever I played push hands with any of Master Yang's senior students. It is there, it exists. And when I, as I will often foolishly do, pushed a little too much into that potential, it quite quickly became actualized, in a fraction of a second, and moved me off my spot. Every senior student that I played push hands with expressed this same energy, regardless of age, gender, physical size. With every one I felt the same thing: potential, natural energy not unlike what I felt on the hood of my truck. In the case of Master Yang, to paraphrase one of those same senior students, it's like laying hands on a nuclear reactor. But here is the key to the whole system: this power is not accumulated through hour upon hour of push hands, fa jin, or sparring practice each week. Quite the opposite, it is accumulated through Wuji and Qigong, giving priority to the internal. Of course a certain amount of time is necessary for martial training in any system. But in keeping with Dr. Yang's training regimen, giving ultimate priority to Wuji and nurture leads to an unbelievable store of energy, ensuring much martial power if and when needed, a healthy body, and an awakened nature.

"Whoa-oa-oa! I feel good, I knew that I would, now..." James Brown

Still, I knew there was a secret to Dr. Yang's Taiji; a trick of sorts. There is always a secret. And I found Yang's. It's the smile. Dr. Yang is always smiling. It appears he is always happy. And it's contagious, because everybody else was always smiling too, including me. I can honestly say this was six days of the most fun I've had in a long time. But just in case, just to ensure that everybody kept on smiling, Dr. Yang pulled out another secret trick. At the end of each training day, before supper, when everybody's legs were turning to Jello from all the Taiji form, and everybody's minds were turning to mush from trying to remember all the new moves, and everybody's backs were turning into Rice Krispies from all the push hands, when enough is enough, Dr, Yang breaks out the boom box, puts on some classic Motown, and everybody dances. Yes, everybody. Even if you are physically, mentally, and spiritually exhausted, James Brown has a way of making it all better. By the time the song is over, everyone has a great big smile and is ready for more. It just doesn't get any better.

(1) All quotes taken from Taijiquan: The Art of Nurturing, The Science of Power. Yang Yang; 2005; Zhenwu, Publications, except the last which is taken from the song I Got You (I Feel Good) by James Brown, King Records, 1965.


Rick said...

Thanks for sharing.

ron said...

Super report.

Rodney said...

Thanks Guys

Anonymous said...

I'll keep your notes in mind as I try camp for the first time, June 2011. I'm expecting to get my butt kicked by all the practice.

Rodney said...

It will be the most enjoyable butt-kicking you ever had. I'll see you there.