Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Tai Chi Principles: Muscular Quality of Sung

You may think you know the Tai Chi Principle sung (relax) but have you felt how sung is manifested in the musculature?

A few years ago, a group of us from the Wujifa school attended a week-long seminar featuring one of the well-known Tai Chi Grandmasters. Weeks of giving seminars, jetting back and forth across the United States apparently began taking its toll and he requested a massage.

One of my school brothers, who is a certified massage therapist, had what may be the rare opportunity of giving a massage to this well known grandmaster.

Naturally, after the massage session, we were curious: So, what was it like? How did he feel? The gist of his response was something like: His muscles were firm but soft, like I could press all the way to the bone. Didn't feel any tension. It was awesome!

The point of this story for me is that the Tai Chi principle of sung is a palpable muscular quality!

Since most of us will likely never get an opportunity to palpate a grandmaster's musculature, reading descriptions and definitions of sung are probably the closest we will ever get to imagining how this muscular quality might feel. For example, the Quotations section of Michael Garofalo's page on Song: Loose, Relaxed, Open, Yielding, Free, Responsive. A Defining Mind-Body Characteristic of Taijiquan and Qigong offers a variety of descriptions.

However, I think the Tai Chi Society description gets to the point without introducing any useless embellishments:
Sung (pronounced soong) means to completely relax mentally and physically; releasing any tension in the mind and body. The muscles, tendons and ligaments, the joints in the back, shoulders, neck, hands and legs, and all other body parts such as the chest and belly must be sung.
Of course IF you can get your hands on a Tai Chi Grandmaster's body to feel how those muscles feel, THEN you will know sung through your tactile senses and what these descriptions are really talking about.

So then, given all this "third-party" data and our own interpretative filters, what then is the most functional way to develop sung? Through working at the kinesthetic level of your musculature; through practicing Zhan Zhuang.

Sung is not an imagined state of mind. Sung is not a belief about oneself. The imagination and belief processes can dis-associate "oneself" from corporeal reality. Therefore, saying or believing: "I am easy-going. I am relaxed." does not necessarily translate into a sung muscular reality. (You may think you are relaxed but your muscles may tell a different story! You can verify this for yourself now.) The bottom line is, sung is a real, tactile, kinesthetic, palpable muscular quality. Sung can be verified at the muscular level.

Based on my experience, many claim to practice an internal martial art, yet they only see and mimic the external representation of forms because they have not developed the skill to see what is going on beneath the skin. (I have been in this camp.)

Just because you think your form looks the same as the grandmaster's (to your untrained eyes), doesn't mean that the way you move is even vaguely "internal", even vaguely similar. When you calibrate to the external because you cannot yet calibrate to the internal, then it's easy to fool yourself into thinking that you are moving the way the master is moving.

Or said another way, if the chronic tensions and structural distortions of your musculature are invisible to you, and you do not manifest sung in your structure, then you will not see sung in the master's structure.

Therefore, rather than learning (faux) Tai Chi or silk reeling or any other "internal" form and claim to be doing Tai Chi or whatever, it would be better to first develop the palpable, muscular quality of sung. Once having sung and connection, then all your forms will have an "internal" quality.

As for me, for all the relaxing I profess to have worked on over the years, my own muscles still have plenty of chronic tension, plenty of hard spots. Comparing my level of sung to the sung of this grandmaster, well, I have a L-O-N-G way to go! I have a lot of muscular holding patterns to let go of!

For further reading: Functionality and Wujifa

Monday, June 14, 2010

Feel Your Chi Between Your Hands?

The typical instruction on how to feel your chi between your hands typically isolates feeling to the hands; feeling a magnetic force or a pressure between your hands. What does this have to do with Taiji, Bagua, XingYi and developing internal strength?

The "Feel Your Chi Between Your Hands" exercise is both a dead end and an opening. If I focus only on my hands and play in the chi paradigm, I could imagine I'm compressing a ball of chi. And then what's next? Feeling others' chi? Feeling plant chi? "Feeling" I'm cosmically connected because I can "feel" all this chi? From my past experience, this road did not result in building the internal connectedness of internal strength and so to me, this exercise, this 'parlor trick' in this frame leads to a dead end.

On the other hand, when I switch paradigms, and use the basic physical set-up of the exercise as the starting point to noticing the kinesthetic connectedness of my hands, forearms, upper arms, upper body, with my intention to... , keeping my practice grounded in my body, in a way that is verifiable, then this becomes a practice with potential to help me develop a sense of kinesthetic-intentional integration, a sense of connectedness, to build what is described by others in the internal martial arts community as "internal strength".

So let's try this exercise in a different paradigm. Begin as usually suggested with elbows at your sides, hands about waist height and body width apart with palms facing each other. However, without externally, physically moving your hands or arms, now manifest the intention to alternately move the hands together and apart. (If it helps, imagine compressing a ball between your hands and stretching a rubber band looped around your wrists.)

When I first started playing with this, I first noticed a feeling like a pressure in my palms and on the inside of my forearms when "squeezing" and on the back of my hand and outside of my forearms when "expanding". For lack of precise terminology, let's call this the "fascial plane activating". After playing with this a while, the feeling for me now is stronger in my hands and forearms as compared to my upper arms and upper body where it is more subtle.

When practicing this, there is a tendency to engage the muscle kind of like a white crane movement; wings closing and opening. I try to back off as much as possible (remember: relax, structure, balance) and maintain the feeling at the intention level and noticing connection with the intention.

It's only subtle if you haven't noticed it before. With practice over time, what was subtle becomes obvious. Continue playing on the edge of subtle.

Related articles:
The Third Feeling
Functionality and Wujifa

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Musings on My Zhan Zhuang Practice

Your Zhan Zhuang practice can either be a dead post practice or a living, evolving practice.

In a recent trip to northern Michigan, during my Zhan Zhuang practice early one morning while the dew was wet on the grass and bird song complimenting the tranquility, I noticed elements of my surroundings that could visually represent my Zhan Zhuang practice and so I snapped the below photograph.


There is a dead post connected by an "Indra's Net" to another dead post. Yet this faux Indra's Net does not contain a jewel at the intersections and does not reflect any other jewel. Yes, there is a connection, just as the body is mechanically connected, but the connectedness is not alive and not connected to life.

The dead post rests in, and yet is on the edge of the shadows, where seeing and feeling is difficult, where there is confusion, where there is the seed of learning and growing, of emerging into the light.

There is a living, growing tree. Begun as a seed, growing the seed, new growth emerging in this spring summer season. The base of the tree is obscured. Where exactly is the foundation of the tree? I see no roots, yet it stands tall. It moves, yet is immovable. It is connected.

It looks like "Indra's Net" connects the dead post to the living tree, but upon closer viewing there is no connection. The tree, the growing the seed, is independent of the connected dead posts. It is outside the system of dead posts and what connects these dead posts each to the other.

And there am I. A shadow of my self. In the picture, yet not fully present in the picture. On the same plane as the dead post and the growing seed. Closer to the dead post, but not the dead post. Seeing the tree, yet not the tree. Noticing both the dead post and the seed growing. Transitioning.

How would you visually represent your practice?