Archive for the ‘Taiji’ Category

The Essential Energies: Focus

A topic that’s come up in class recently is focus — particularly, where one should be looking while doing a movement.  The basic idea is that you look where you want the energy of your motion to go.

In the context of fighting, it’s probably a good idea to keep your eyes on  your opponent, and you probably want the energy of your movement to somehow connect with your opponent, so there’s this sensible parallel of eyes and energy.  It’s more than that, though.  Wherever the eyes are focused, energy automatically goes.  If you want your movement to be unified, your eyes need to be part of the equation.

This is a taiji idea that, so far, I’m pretty terrible at.  I have very little intentional focus; I spend so much time wondering if my body is moving correctly that I have little attention left to give my eyes.  I’m sure I’ve developed habits regarding where my eyeballs are pointed at different points in my forms, but not intentional habits intended to fit my body’s motion.

It’s bigger than that, even.  Focus matters through all of life.  It matters where you point your eyes, and it matters what you put in front of your eyes.  Wherever your focus is, energy goes.  Whatever you allow to enter your gaze affects your energy.

What do I focus on from day to day?  Goodness knows.  I have little continuity in my daily obsessions.

What do I put in front of my eyes?  I look around me, and what do I see?  Dust.  Clutter.  Unfinished projects, unpursued intentions.  Things I’ve been meaning to get to for months, even years.  What do I see, looking around my home?  What am I teaching myself about who I am, what I want, what I’m capable of and what I deserve?

Focus matters.  What you point your eyes at matters; what you allow to be in front of your eyes matters.  What are you looking at today?  Is it something good for you, something that makes you better?

The Essential Energies: Balance

At the beginning of the year my taiji class shifted back to Fu-style taiji, returning to a form we’ve studied within the past couple of years and introducing a few very useful, but quite strange exercises. I think some of the class had encountered them before, but they are all new to me: waist-sieving, four-corner kicking (which has been compared to a bizarre cross of taiji with irish jig), and waist rotation.

That last one begins with assuming a horse stance, arms raised as though hugging a big rubber ball. (If you go to this link and scroll down to the picture titled “Sifu Wong practicing the Three-Circle Stance,” that’ll give you a fair idea of what I’m talking about.) Then you start to rotate the upper body from the waist: lean forward, then to the side, back, other side, and front again, describing a big circle with your upper body. The waist doesn’t twist, the body always faces forward, just leaning in different directions. Only the upper body moves. The legs and hips hold still, supporting the movement.

(Whew, this stuff is hard to describe in words. At least I’m not talking about the four-corner kicking one. I’m afraid “Irish taiji jig” is all you’re going to get from me, use your imagination.)

This movement was a little weird when we started, but I didn’t think it was too bad. Horse stance is nice and stable.

And then we changed to bow stance. Then sit stance, then empty stance, and then one-legged stance. Try to imagine doing this: standing on one leg, and rotating the upper body in that big circular movement. Or in a little circular movement. Or any kind of circle or movement at all, without losing your balance. There have been times in my life when I thought the standing-on-one-leg part was hard enough on its own, thank you very much.

Those times, however, were all before I started studying taiji, because taiji has taught me a lot about keeping my balance. Keeping the body relaxed, not trying to be stiff and still, sitting back a little bit to lower my center of gravity, using my core and the big muscles in my legs (or in one leg) for stability. But maybe most of all, learning what to think about and what not to think about.

When you stand on one leg, it’s natural to think about the leg that’s off the floor. One foot is dangling, and feet don’t normally dangle. It draws the attention, but it’s exactly the wrong place to put your attention.

In order to keep balance, I’ve learned, the thing to think about is the leg you’re standing on. Think about where your strength and stability come from. Never mind about the dangling foot, it’s fine. Let it mind itself for a bit. When you think about the leg that isn’t helping you balance, you shift yourself out of balance. Think about the leg that’s supporting you, and your balance automatically improves. Putting your mind on what keeps you stable helps the body to be stable.

Brilliant, brilliant metaphor. Because taiji isn’t the only practice which needs balance. Sometimes life feels like a high-wire act, with all the circus lions on the loose and prowling down below. Except never worry about those, because your wire is fraying. Except never worry about that, because the frame holding it all up is on fire.

What on earth do you look at, when everything is going crazy? What do you put your attention on? Chances are, the thing you’ll want to focus on is the craziness. It’s so compelling, it’s hard to focus anywhere else. But it’s exactly the wrong place.

The place to put your attention first is on what makes you feel stable. Whatever that is for you, whatever habits or routines or practices or people make you feel stable and strong, focus on those first and keep coming back to them as often as you can. If you can stay connected with your own center of balance, the craziness won’t tip you over. You can develop the ability to move with it, to use it, maybe even to direct it.

Don’t focus on the leg that gets knocked out from under you, focus on the leg you’re still standing on. Because you are still standing.

The Essential Energies: Intention

My taiji class is at the point with our latest form that we’ve learned the basic choreography, and now we’re refining details and asking questions. This is the part where I usually get annoyed because some motions lack life and energy, and I can’t figure out what’s wrong. This time around is no exception.

One of the most annoying movements for me is called “Curved Bow Shoots the Tiger” in Sun style, and similar things in other family styles. This is the third time I’ve met this movement this year, with minor variations, and I still don’t feel like I get it. When I come to this bit, I feel like I’m just waving my arms around for no apparent reason. No sense of energy or flow. It’s aggravating.

One evening, after getting to spend a lot of time on the section of the form that includes Curved Bow Shoots the Tiger, I walked to my car after class, still thinking about this movement. I thought about the step, the shift of weight, the forward-stretching arms, and suddenly realized: I have no idea what this thing is for. I have no idea why I’m stepping this way or standing this way or moving this way. The basic shape of Curved Bow Shoots the Tiger doesn’t convey anything to me, inexperienced martial artist that I am. If I don’t know what it’s for, then of course I can’t feel any energy in it. I’m not directing any energy sensibly through it. I don’t have a point of focus. I can’t possibly know what’s right and wrong about it.

All through my study of taiji, I’ve been told that intention matters. When I finally realized my problem with Curved Bow Shoots the Tiger, that understanding clicked a level deeper. I’ve been trying to think of questions regarding the “what” of the movement, to help me perform the details of it better, in hopes that would solve the problem. What I really needed to ask first was about the “why” — why does this movement exist? What is it intended for? Asking that question has done so much more toward helping me understand this movement and find the energy that was missing. I needed to learn the “what,” the simple basics of how to move, but I also need the “why” in order to give that movement life, to fill it with purpose and energy.

Intention is the “why” behind an action. You need to have the “what,” the basic action itself, in order to make anything happen. But in order to focus the “what” in any kind of purposeful way, you also need a “why.” The “why” changes the “what” in important ways — sometimes subtle, sometimes blatant, but always important.

Consider an example my coach has used. In a class of taiji students, there may be a wide range of goals and reasons for why people are studying taiji. One person may be training to compete, wanting to win medals at the highest possible levels of competition. Someone else may be trying to learn how to relax in the midst of a stressful work or family situation. Those different intentions should inform each student in how they approach their practice. The person who wants to learn how to relax may not be best served by training and thinking like the person who wants to compete. The competitor needs to have a serious focus on details; the stressed person may need to let go of details and just move. Two people can perform the same sequence of movements, without a ton of external differences, and yet what’s happening inside those movements and those people can be completely different, because of intention.

So I’m learning to ask “why” more often about my taiji practice, and I’m starting to also ask “why” about other things, especially any part of my life that seems to have a faltering or wandering energy, anything which doesn’t have a sense of purpose or isn’t moving forward toward success. I need to think about my intentions in addition to my actions, as a way to tune my actions and fill them with purpose, as a way to choose my actions wisely and not waste energy. I only have so much time and energy; if I don’t know why I’m using them, a lot of them disappears without much to show for it. That’s not what I want the sum total of my life to be, so I need to get intentional about understanding my intentions.

The Essential Energies: Core

In class last night I briefly discussed an issue I’ve been having with one of my coaches; in trying to “sink” into my stances, I have been struggling to find the balance between really sinking my center of gravity, and feeling like I’m going to tip over backwards. She reminded me to use my abdominal muscles to support the motion, which so far has made a real difference (I still have work to do in order to incorporate the change into my movement).

I needed the reminder that the abdominal muscles, or core muscles, are vitally important in taiji movement. All movements involve this part of the body; most are initiated and directed by it. The core is literally the center of the body, the crossroads where everything connects. In order for the entire body to move in a connected, fluid way, the core needs to be strong and active.

I’ve been paying more attention to my core muscles since last night, as I move through my ordinary activities. On the treadmill this morning I really noticed it at work; as I pushed my walking speed up over 3 MPH, my core muscles naturally engaged to support the effort the rest of my body was making, where at slower speeds I can get away (and commonly do) with not actively using my core. I’ve observed before that I have a tendency to slouch, and if I need to stand for long periods of time my lower back typically gets very stiff. I’ve just realized that when my core muscles aren’t engaged, all of the weight of my abdomen effectively hangs off my spine in a way that makes it practically impossible to relax and lengthen my lower back. When I use my core muscles to support the abdomen, the extra stress on my lower back is released.

I’m not done observing how my body uses and needs my core to support it, but I am already reminded of some global life-lessons. Do I have a strong sense of my “core” as a person — who I am, what I believe in, who and what I love, who and what I am committed to, what I am good and bad at, what I enjoy? Do I have clarity about these things, and am I doing anything to increase that clarity? Am I working to strengthen these fundamentals? Am I using this core of my being to support and guide what I do in life?

Taiji teaches me I need a strong physical core in order to have a healthy physical body and in order to move well. It also reminds me that I need a strong core as a person, if I want to be healthy in every aspect of life and in order to move effectively through the world.

The Essential Energies: Tension

Lately I’ve been thinking about tension, which in taiji movement is often considered “the enemy.”  Sometimes it is, but not universally.  There’s more to the story.

Tension itself is a neutral physical force; whether it is helpful or harmful depends on the situation.  One delightfully ridiculous real-life example of harnessing tension and putting it to (good?) use are the yearly “Punkin Chunkin” contests, where people build machines to throw pumpkins and hold competitions to see which can throw the farthest.  Many of the machines are based on the design of ancient siege engines, catapults and trebuchets, which work by storing potential energy and then releasing it to launch some kind of missile.  The storage of energy creates tension in the machine; the release of that energy/tension causes the desired action.

Taiji incorporates the same idea.  Some form of twist or compression can be introduced to an area of the body and then released to power a movement.  In this respect, the human body is very like the pumpkin-throwing machines:  potential energy is stored, then released.  The storage of energy involves tension.  That being the case, there are some critical taiji lessons and life lessons to be learned from (of all things) pumpkin-throwing siege engines.  

First, an effective catapult design can handle a great deal of tension, but only if the machine is used in the right way.  The arm of a basic catapult is intended to be pulled back and held in only one direction.  Try to pull that arm sideways, perpendicular to the direction in which it’s supposed to move, and the machine isn’t going to throw anything.  It’s more likely to break completely.

The human body is likewise designed to move and handle tension in particular ways.  In order to be effective, taiji movement (or any kind of movement) has to work within the limitations of the body’s design.  Twisting the waist is often a good idea.  Twisting the knee is never a good idea.  In order to work with our body-machines safely, let alone efficiently or powerfully, we have learn to work with their structure, strengths, and weaknesses.

Throughout life, there are positive and negative types of tension.  The kind of tension caused by taking on a new challenge, the sort that helps us grow and learn, can be a really positive experience.  Tension that comes from poor environments, poor relationships, or poor self-image is negative and destructive.  We’re not designed to live and grow under those conditions.

The second lesson we can learn from pumpkin-throwing machines is that the creation and storage of energy may take an extended period of time, but the release of that tension happens immediately and completely.  When the moment of launch comes, there’s no restraint on the machine’s action.  Imagine slowly pulling back the arm of a catapult, and then releasing it just as slowly, cranking the tension off just a bit at a time.  No pumpkin is going to get air that way.

In taiji, any storage of energy via tension needs to be released immediately and completely in order to be effective.  When the body relaxes, stored energy can move freely.  If any degree of tension remains, then energy is being trapped inside the body, where all it can do is create unhelpful stress, fatigue, and even injury.  Tension is only a useful concept for managing potential energy.  When that energy becomes active, tension is no longer helpful.

Outside of taiji, tension can be a really useful motivator to make things happen.  Deadlines are a prime example: people work overtime when projects are due, students pull all-nighters to finish papers and study for tests, housecleaning happens when a guest is about to arrive.  Sometimes it takes the pressure of a “must be done by” date to push us into action, and that pressure is a sort of tension.  We feel our available time compress, and it makes us get to work.

Deadlines aren’t the only way to create motivating tension.  I think inspiration is a really interesting form of tension — the pull of a new idea can be utterly compelling.  The very earliest stages of a project are often the most productive for me, because of this can’t-wait-to-see-what-happens tension that can only find release in doing the work.

Regardless how it comes about, tension is still only useful for managing potential energy, potential action.  Tension can help get us going, but once we’re on the move, tension is no longer helpful.  For example, if a student studies for a test while tense and worried about whether she started early enough, whether she will pass or not, whether she is going to be able to absorb the material, she is hindering her ability to learn.  When studying begins, tension must be released — the best thing the student can do is relax and focus on the task at hand.  Holding on to tension after the work begins can only make things harder; it can only waste energy and cause fatigue.  When tension is released, then one’s energy can go fully into doing the work.

Finally, tension is a force with a short “expiration date.”  Even machines that are built to create huge amounts of tension are seldom built to contain that tension for long.  Imagine taking our pumpkin-throwing catapult, pulling the arm back, and then leaving the machine alone for a year, cocked and ready to throw.  Depending on the design and materials used, a year spent under tension will break the machine.  The breaks may be literal, if any components aren’t up to the strain over a long period of time.  But even if the machine’s parts remain intact, constant tension will affect its structure, changing its shape, causing it to lose resiliency.  If a catapult arm is cocked for an entire year, it may never spring back again, and so its value as a catapult disappears.

As I’ve discussed before, one of the most fundamental energies of taiji movement is peng, a relaxed sense of fullness and resiliency.  Peng is incompatible with constant tension, because constant tension saps resiliency.  The value of tension in taiji movement only comes in brief doses — compress the body, release the energy created, and then return to peng.

Also, the body’s resiliency depends on mobility and flexibility.  Long-held tension leads to rigidness and immobility, as the structure trying to contain tension adapts itself by taking on a new shape, new characteristics.  Brief moments of tension can help promote mobility; constant tension will destroy it.

Some people seem to live with constant, self-inflicted states of frantic energy, stress, and tension.  They may believe they are getting more done, being more effective, even being virtuous.  In reality, they are wrecking themselves.  It may be possible to gain a temporary burst of productivity or satisfaction from living in a tense, highly-strung state, but it can’t last.  They will lose their resiliency, become brittle and unable to cope with life’s inevitable surprises and problems.  That tension will eventually take its toll on mind, body, spirit, relationships, work, energy, mood, health.  It will warp the life that tries to contain it.  Tension is a powerful force, a tool to be used, not a state-of-being to embrace.

Tension is a great motivator, giving a boost of energy and momentum when used sparingly and correctly.  Understand tension, and it can help one achieve one’s goals effectively — whether those goals are powerful physical movement, finishing a work project, creating a new work of art, or just launching a squash down a long field.  Who says all goals should be serious and practical, anyway?

The Essential Energies: Enough

There have been phases in my taiji practice where my knees want to ache, which is never a good sign.  If knees or any other joints hurt, something is out of whack.  I think there have been a few different reasons at different times for my achy knees, but I’m discovering one of the most typical ones is that I push things too far.  Either I twist too far in some direction, putting stress on a joint that isn’t designed to be twisted, or I lean too far out of balance, and my body must strain to remain stable.

I’m not surprised to find this tendency cropping up in my taiji practice, because it’s common for a lot of things I pursue.  I push things farther than I need to, in order to make sure I’m actually doing them.  If I’m walking for exercise, my inclination is to walk really hard and really fast for as long as I can, so when I’m done I feel really tired and can tell that I worked.  If I’m working on a big fiber-arts project, especially at the beginning, I pile in tons of time and effort to get the thing going and feel like I’m making progress.  In my writing, I’ve had periods where I wanted to write for hours and hours, hacking out multiple articles in one day, publishing on a really aggressive schedule.  The common factor is that unless I’m working really hard, I can’t quite believe that I’m doing the right thing, that I’m going to make any progress.  And in every case, what I actually end up with by over-working is some degree of burnout, either physical or mental or both.  At some point, I collapse.  I can’t keep going at the rate at which I began, and often end up in a bad emotional state, feeling like a failure because I’m not maintaining an unreasonable pace.

Taiji is helping me unlearn my proclivity for doing too much.  Taiji is not about working hard, it’s about being efficient.  It’s about achieving physical results in ways that avoid wasting energy.  If I want to get out of an opponent’s way, I don’t need to leap the whole way across the room.  If I want to redirect an opponent’s energy, I don’t need to do it by throwing them across the room.  All I need to do is relax, listen, and apply an appropriate amount of energy for my intention.  How much energy do I need?  Enough.  That’s all.

I need that lesson badly.  I feel like I don’t know what “hard work” looks like, so if I go about pursuing my goals by trying to “work hard,” I never actually give myself credit for the work I do.  Taiji shows me that it’s less about the amount of effort invested, and more about doing just what’s required to achieve a specific, intentional result.  For nearly any goal in life, that’s a better place to focus.

The Essential Energies: Ji

For more information about the essential energies, start with this introductory post.

The third essential energy is ji, pronounced “jee” and translated as “squeeze.”  It is an advancing movement, created by placing one hand against the opposite wrist or forearm and using that hand to push forward against one’s opponent.  It is a natural opposite of the energy lu, which rolls backwards and away from an advancing force; ji moves forward to pursue an opponent, or in order to disrupt an oncoming force.

Ji is often indirect or oblique.  Being a taiji energy, it never takes the form of a simple shoving match, force pushing directly against force.  Instead, ji seeks a hole, an opening, and then focuses hard at that place and advances.  Returning to the metaphor of an inflated ball, my teacher has described ji as the idea of squeezing a ball into a pipe or tube that is slightly smaller than it in diameter. The ball has to squish around the middle, which has the effect of amplifying the ball’s energy along its open axis, enabling it to advance.  Ji finds its own space, chooses its own direction, and proceeds with focus and intention.

As lu can be described as a kind of yin energy, ji is a yang energy, one that is assertive.  It is a decisive motion, but nonetheless keeps in contact with the present moment; it is an active energy, but it still listens.  Ji is neither bullish nor blind.  It remains sensitive to what is happening around it, holding itself ready to change and respond as needed.  It is yang with a kernel of yin.

Just like the other essential energies, the principle of ji can be applied throughout life.  In the face of adversity, ji chooses to advance, not with brute force but with sensitivity and intention.  It doesn’t let pressures or perceived limitations keep it from moving; rather, it searches out the place of least resistance and focuses its energies directly there.  Ji seeks to make forward progress in the most efficient way, whether or not it is the most direct way.  When presented with a solid wall, ji doesn’t try to batter it down.  Ji looks for a door, and goes confidently through.

I think this idea of finding the path of least resistance is neither unfamiliar nor surprising.  What I keep needing to remind myself is that in order to be ji, a movement must first rely on peng, the sense of relaxed fullness and internal resiliency which underlies all taiji movement.  Too often in life I push forward in a way which is too hard, or too fast, too unbalanced or tense.  I might make some progress, but I leave myself open to being knocked over, and I struggle to hold on to what I gain.

Ji, on the other hand, maintains a sense of relaxation and resilient strength.  Peng is what enables ji to keep listening, to sense whether it must continue as begun or make a change.  It pushes far enough, hard enough, and no more.  It stays balanced, moving from the center of energy and strength, and so when the need for movement is over it can stand firm, already balanced, already calm and prepared for whatever comes next.

The major lessons of my life right now all involve this idea of moving forward in an intentional, relaxed, forceful-enough-yet-soft-enough way — facing solid walls calmly, seeking doors and walking through them with confidence.  Today I’m reminding myself to be centered first in peng, and then continue moving forward in the spirit of ji.

The Essential Energies: Momentum

In Saturday morning’s class my teacher briefly discussed the idea of momentum. My school publishes a weekly video series and accompanying article about a “word of the week,” with topics that relate to both martial arts practice and real life. Momentum was last week’s word; to hear some other ideas about using momentum, see this video or read the writeup on the school’s blog here.

Momentum is an integral part of correct taiji movement. A form may be composed of many separate motions, and yet the whole needs to be one movement — one connected whole, from beginning to end, with no interruptions in the flow of energy. Each movement needs to be both fluid and smooth in itself, and also to lead to the next movement — every movement contains within it the beginning of the next, because the energy simply continues from one to the other, with no break.

So momentum is a key idea. Newton’s law of inertia applies here as well as to any other physical body: an object in motion will stay in motion, an object at rest will stay at rest, unless force is applied to change either state. So once energy is applied to begin the motion of a form, the most efficient way to continue is not to break the flow of energy. Don’t stop and start, relax and let the movement carry you along.

There are two halves of the law, though, two possible states. Motion and rest. Every taiji form begins in wuji, the state of “no extremes.” Standing still and straight, with relaxed posture, arms at the sides, feet either together or naturally separated. Standing at rest. Wuji is stored potential. Out of the stillness of wuji movement can arise, movement that is not influenced by any prior energy or motion. Wuji gives one a fresh start.

A couple of weeks ago I was starting to form plans and goals, starting to gain momentum in my writing and in other areas of life. And then came a busy period of travel and frantic house-cleaning and a special guest arriving and vacation and more travel and visiting family and spending time with people, and in the process of it all I lost the momentum I had gained in my personal goals. At the end of it I found myself feeling turned-around, lost and distracted, uncertain where to pick up and start again. I loved the time that I got to spend with friends and family, but resented what felt like lost time in chasing my own goals.

In thinking further about momentum, though, I find myself looking at things differently. I lost my momentum, yes, but instead I have arrived back at a point of wuji — a place of stillness, a place where old motion has been let go of, a place of potential. I will have to build my momentum up again, yes, but now I have a chance to adjust my course and my goals, to refocus my intentions and energy in the direction that I want. Everything is possible, and it’s up to me to choose where to look next, how to start to move again. I’m not stalled, I am poised. I’m ready to begin something new.

The Essential Energies: Lu

For more context about the essential energies, start with this introductory post.

July 7, 2011 update: I have been informed since publishing this article that the Chinese word for this energy is correctly spelled “lu” rather than “liu,” and I have edited appropriately. Apologies for the error.

The second essential energy is called lu (pronounced “lee-YOU” with a very short initial syllable, the two sounds run together). If you know the saying “you’ve gotta roll with the punches,” then the basics of this one should be familiar.

To describe lu, let’s return to the metaphor of an inflated rubber ball, one with enough internal pressure to make it bouncy and resilient (in other words, a ball that is peng). Imagine setting this ball on the floor, and then pressing down on it with one hand — if you have such a ball handy, try it for real. As you press harder and harder on the ball, it starts wobbling under your hand, trying to roll out from under the pressure you are putting on it. If you press on it off-center, it will roll you off. This energy of rolling away from an advancing force is lu. In my school, taiji movements which engage lu are thus called “roll back.” They depend on first assuming peng, that sense of relaxed fullness and expansion that enables the body to be resilient and strong. Then when an opponent attacks, one responds by staying relaxed and turning the body, channeling the force of the attack away by rolling with it, redirecting it to the side and past.

Lu is a type of yin energy, it is responsive rather than assertive. It is a receptive energy, but not a passive one. Lu responds to force by motion, it receives energy in order to deflect it, so as not to be bowled over by it. It is yin with a kernel of yang, a reaction that creates opportunity.

As with the other essential energies, lu shows up throughout life, not just in martial arts. There’s a reason “roll with the punches” is a familiar saying, because it’s a valuable life skill. Bluntly stated, stuff happens: things break, plans go wrong, people argue, luck runs out. Life creates challenges, and we choose how to respond — by becoming tense and stressed, by blowing up with anger, by trying to force our own way through, by giving up and becoming despondent … or by rolling with it.

When the electricity goes off, lu may build a campfire and roast hot dogs. When a little league game is rained out, lu brings the team home for pizza, games, and movies. If a car breaks down in the middle of a long road trip, lu means exploring the town you’ve washed up in while it gets fixed, rather than pining for the destination you didn’t reach. Good customer service agents (bless them) become masters of lu, accepting whatever problems and moods come at them without taking anything personally, refocusing on what they can do to resolve problems and make their clients happy. Lu never engages in a shouting match, it sidesteps manipulation, it shunts aside negativity. It prevents one from wasting energy on what cannot be changed. It is utterly practical, requires one to stay engaged with the realities of the moment, and is intentional about seeking out new possibilities when old ones close. Powerful stuff, lu.

The thing I’m realizing about lu that I didn’t see before is that, just as in taiji movement, you can’t engage lu as a practical life skill unless you first have peng. Until you develop that sense of relaxed fullness, it’s practically impossible to respond well to life’s casual disasters. For most of my life, I’ve been too deflated, too insecure, too timid to bounce back quickly from difficulties; I had no internal fullness, no assurance and confidence in myself, and so I’ve been prone to depression and passivity, letting life sweep me along and sometimes knock me over, rather than choosing my own course and responses. The more I learn how to express the fullness of peng in my daily life, the more I become able to look for new opportunities, to let go of perceived slights and misunderstandings, to roll with hardship and experience life as it is, with the help of lu.

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.