Saturday, December 26, 2009

Milestones in the Practice of Taijiquan

People who practice the Japanese martial arts have a ranking system that gives them some sort of feel for their progress in learning the system. Taijiquan is different. Most practitioners are not interested in learning how we compare to other people but how what we are now compared to how we once were.

The loss of muscle definition:

When I took my first taijiquan class I was probably in the best “shape” I'd ever been in my life. I had just finished a very intensive self-imposed exercise regime in an unsuccessful attempt to qualify for a career in the armed forces. I had built myself up to the point where I could run three miles every day, could do seventy-five “marine style” push-ups (you bounce up off the floor and clap your hands together in mid-air) at a time, was doing regular laps in a swimming pool, etc. I have never been an athlete, but for once I had some of the attributes including significant muscle “definition” on my arms.

When I began taijiquan I focused on my arms because even though I though I was in pretty good shape I found some of what looked like some “easy” exercises maddeningly difficult. In particular, I found it very hard to do one that involved simply holding my hands up and rotating them and my fore-arm back and forth 180 degrees back and forth on the the axis that extends from my elbow to the tip of my middle finger. So I set myself a goal of doing this one for fifteen minutes a day---even if I had to do it in fifteen one minute increments. Eventually I was able to do the whole time at one go but in doing so I noticed a very significant change. I had lost all the muscle definition in my arms!

This experience puzzled me for years until I heard that there are two different types of muscle fibers: “long-twitch” and “short-twitch”. Reading up on these two different types of muscles, it became clear that “long-twitch” muscles are the ones we use for taijiquan whereas “short-twitch” ones are those used by weight lifters. The transition from one type to another may explain the difference in look. Moreover, this decline in definition explains the reason why people often suggest that men who practice taijiquan develop a “feminine” look. They lose their muscle definition which smooths-out the lines on their body---not because of the woman's thin layer of fat that they naturally carry under the skin, but because the skeletal muscles on the man are less well-defined. I believe that it is also partly the basis of the claims that someone who practices internal alchemy is able to reverse the process of aging and develop some of the physical attributes of a baby.

The Beginners Plateau:

The second real milestone was the fact that after some very significant physical changes in my body while I was first learning the gross movements of the open hand set, I stopped seeing any results from continued practice. I had “learned” the set, and now all I seemed to be doing was going through the motions. Being an obstinate sort of person, I stuck with my practice even though it seemed to be going nowhere. Whenever possible I tried to augment my practice by doing things like learning weapons forms, push hands, tumbling, more and more warm-up exercises, meditation, and even some sorts of odd variants in practice such as doing the set on the side of steep hills, backwards or in “mirror image”.

This “dry spell” went on for years and years until I decided to actually give up doing taijiquan as a New Years resolution. When I stopped, however, I found that I started getting migraine headaches again. I had had these on and off for years before I started my regular practice but they almost completely disappeared when I began to regularly do taijiquan and I'd forgotten about them. But with the prospect of their return, I went back to regular practice. This brought back a saying that had been common in the club where I learned the art: “the only people who stick with taijiquan are the sick ones”.

Eventually I realized that the practice of taijiquan is not about constant dramatic improvement, but more about living a specific type of life. The school of Soto Zen suggests that the meditation is itself enlightenment. In the same way, the goal of taijiquan is itself taijiquan. And once I began to chip away at the goal-oriented attitude that I had brought to the art, I began to realize that there were subtle changes taking place in me that I had been too obtuse to notice. Eventually I realized that taijiquan is not just about changing the body, but it is also about changing the mind. And part of that change is learning to be much more sensitive to the nuances of being a human being. Once I came to this realization, I could see that I had been making progress all along.

Strange Body Sounds:

There came a time in my practice when I started to get weird sounds in various parts of my body. For example, for about a month or two I noticed that I when I flexed my chest it created very loud “crunching” sounds. They were very noticeable to those around me and sounded like someone breaking a bundle of dry sticks over their knee. Eventually it went away. For another period of time my hip started making an odd “clunk” whenever I did a “separation kick” or a “snake creeps down”. Eventually that too went away. And twice I had a very odd feeling at the very base of my spine that felt and sounded like something in my tail-bone was breaking loose.

I believe that the traditional Daoist terms for what was happening is “tendon changing” and “marrow washing”. In modern medical language, I theorize that what was happening was that by specific exercises I was reversing the effects of an unhealthy lifestyle.

My family has a disposition towards a stooped posture which Daoists have traditionally identified as “the scholar's hump”. In my case the title is well-deserved as it was made worse by years of sitting at a desk (this was before computers.) My brother actually has the condition worse that I ever did, and he probably gets it from his work repairing sewing machines. The loud “cracking” sound, therefore, was the loosening up of long-tight muscles and tendons in my chest.

With regard to my hips, I noticed that as my exercise progressed I was changing the way I worked. I used my back less and less to do things like pick up heavy objects and instead used my legs. Moreover, I found that when doing things like breaking concrete with a sledge-hammer I used my legs and the weight of the hammer instead of my upper body. I started paying more attention to the way people use their bodies and noticed that most people have lost a large amount of flexibility in their hips which they compensated for by using their backs. This means that all the accident prevention instruction that people receive at work (i.e. life with your legs, not your back) is pretty much useless unless they also start working on opening up their hips. The conclusion I came to was that from lack of use my hips had lost a great deal of mobility. The “clunking” was the ball and socket joint working beyond the limited area of movement I had previously used.

Finally, I have been told that the snapping sound in my tail-bone (or “coccyx”) was two segments that had been fused together snapping apart. My quick searches on the Internet would seem to indicate that this might not be totally correct. Contrary to old opinions, it appears that for most people the tail-bone doesn't actually fuse together. Nor does it seem to be a useless appendage. Instead it serves a very useful purpose in anchoring a wide variety of muscles in our abdomens and legs. It is also supposed to be very important to the process of sitting and squatting, which means that it too is important to opening up the hips. Whether or not some of the segments in my coccyx had fused, the process of doing taijiquan had loosened it up and the result was a lot more mobility.

Moments of Grace:

Several times in my life I have experienced what could only be called incidents of “grace” in my taijiquan. By this, I mean that spontaneously I have been able to do things that seemed totally remarkable and seem to validate the “wild history” that people talk about kung-fu masters. For example, once I was clowning around in my school with a practice sabre in my hands. I noticed a poster on the wall of the club for an organization that I don't like so I stabbed it with the tip of my sabre, tore it off the bulletin board, tossed it in the air and sliced it into two pieces in mid air as it floated down---all this with a totally blunt aluminum sabre. Another time I was demonstrating “live” push hands with another fellow for a visitor to the club. At one point I spontaneously grabbed onto the other fellow's arms and executed a back roll. He tumbled over on top of me and he ended up on his back with me sitting on his chest with both his arms pinned.

The important thing to understand was that these maneuvers were totally spontaneous---if my life depended on it I couldn't recreate them. It was if taijiquan was doing me rather than I was doing taijiquan. I don't like the word or idea of “master”, but I think that this is the sort of thing that lies at the root of the notion. I suspect that someone like Yang the Invincible was able to manifest this sort of state very often, which would explain the extra-ordinary feats attributed to him. Moreover, I have met people from other traditions who have said that they have had similar experiences.

Dropping the Chest and Finding the Bubbling Well Springs:

The latest milestone is finally being able to achieve something that I was told in the first year of practice---over 30 years ago. I have always been told that my weight should be on the entire sole of my foot instead of concentrated on the heel or ball. No matter how much I tried to figure out how to do this, it always seemed beyond my ability. A year or so ago I started saying a rosary while doing walking meditation most mornings. (Primarily, I was using reverse breathing techniques in order to cure constipation.) It did this, but I also noticed other significant mental and physical advantages, so I have stuck with the practice.

As almost a side benefit, I noticed that in doing so I made a significant change in my posture while doing the taijiquan set. I was in a totally vertical posture, but because of the concentrated experience in reverse breathing, I'd gotten into the habit of sinking my rib cage at the same time. This allowed me to drop my buttocks while being totally vertical, which in turn allowed me to put all my weight onto the entire sole of my foot. I had finally found out how to access the “bubbling wellsprings” in my feet! This has totally changed my practice and allows me a whole new level of control and balance in my form.

These milestones are my own personal ones. I could have mentioned others, but they were the ones that came to mind as I was writing this essay. I suspect that others could have written a different set because they have had different experiences. But I have heard other people who practice either taijiquan or other forms of kung-fu say similar things.