The Essential Energies: Cloth

I’ve been spending a lot of time lately studying the taiji “silk-reeling exercises,” a Chen-style set of movements that are named after the process of reeling silk, harvesting silk fiber from silkworm cocoons.  The idea of reeling silk describes the quality of motion to pursue in the exercises: smooth, circular, continuous, no jerks or breaks, not too fast or slow.

Taiji training is full of metaphors seeking to describe the characteristics of the right kind of motion.  Reeling silk.  Water, in many forms — water flowing in a river, water in a lake, water seeking equilibrium, water parting around an obstacle and reforming on the other side, water that gently but relentlessly follows its own path.  The idea of manipulating a ball, and the forces at work within an inflated ball.  These are just a start.  All of them have something useful to say about the ideas and practicalities of taiji movement, but they are nonetheless metaphorical.  They are slanty-wise descriptors, pointing in the direction of the truth without saying it explicitly.

There’s a very good reason for this.  So much of taiji is internal; the external form is more a result than a cause, the end expression of something that happens within the body, out of sight.  It relies on sensing and feeling things that cannot easily be seen — which makes it less-than-straightforward to teach.  An instructor can demonstrate a set of movements clearly and correctly, with great personal clarity about the internal forces and energies at play, and yet a classful of inexperienced students can still miss the point entirely.  The instructor can’t transfer their own internal senses into the student, so the student can experience what the movements are “supposed” to feel like.  An instructor can demonstrate correct external form and can help fix their students’ external forms, but the internal energies and forces are so much harder to convey — and it’s the internal energies that bring taiji to life, that make it what it is.

So I was working on the silk-reeling exercises, pondering the metaphor of reeling silk and the idea of qi (pronounced “chee”), the body’s internal energy that animates taiji and other martial arts, and wondering once again what on earth it feels like, how you find it and nurture it.  I know the body is full of energy, full of the motion of blood rushing and breath blowing, tiny cellular tides and electrical signals zipping along nerve highways — all of the processes that make up a human body.  I know all of that stuff is in there happening, all the time, but other than the process of breathing you can’t really manipulate it consciously.  Qi must need all of that, because without it the body can’t live and function as a body, but that can’t be the whole idea.

I focused my attention on feeling the motion of the single arm silk-reeling exercise, trying to remember everything I’ve been taught about doing the form properly.  Push with the feet, direct the motion with the waist, let the movement be expressed through the arms and hands.  Sit back into the stance, pelvis straight, posture straight and relaxed.  Turn the waist.  Relax the arm, let it be moved by the rest of the body, don’t muscle it along.  Relax.  Let the arm follow the movement.  Connect the energy, the whole way from the foot pushing off the ground up through the body and out through the arm, one connected motion, one connected energy, moving like … moving like …

Then it came to me.  Moving like cloth.  That’s when everything changed.

The image flashed in my head; making a bed, spreading out fresh sheets.  I always wrangle a flat sheet into place by snapping it out, giving it a good hard flick from the bottom edge in order to flip it roughly into place.  I’m familiar with that feeling — lifting the edge of the sheet and bringing it sharply down, sending a ripple of energy the whole way through the sheet to flick off the other end — and suddenly that same ripple of motion was there inside my body, from my left foot pushing off the ground, through a straightening leg, a turning waist, uncoiling my arm, running smoothly the whole way through my wrist and hand and rolling off my fingertips.  In the same way I feel energy run through a sheet, I could suddenly feel it running through myself.  Energy.  Qi.

I’m under no illusion that I suddenly know everything there is to know about qi, but in finding my own metaphor, I feel I’ve taken a big step toward deeper understanding.  The silk-reeling movement instantly smoothed out, became more connected and even; when I look for the same feeling in other movements, I can feel them doing the same.  I’m starting to sense how the energy of individual movements connect into one long, seamless motion in my forms practice.  I’m noticing places that still need work by the absence of fluidity, the clunkiness of motions which lack that feeling of connection and flow.  In some ways, learning this one new thing just shows me how little I really know. But it also makes me hungry to learn more.

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1 comment so far

  1. Gloria Flory on

    I enjoy reading your posts. Thank you for publishing them.


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