Tai Chi Chuan is One Family

 

An interview with Grandmaster Yang Jun

By Bill Walsh

 

2014 is an important year for Tai Chi Chuan. Once again, leading exponents of the traditional styles will come together for a Tai Chi Chuan Symposium, where they will share their families’ long-developed treasures. Master Yang Jun will represent the Yang Family, as his grandfather has retired. At the end of the 2009 Symposium, Master Yang was recognized as the fifth generation lineage holder of the Yang Family.

Grandmaster Yang Zhenduo has been teaching in the United States since 1991 and Master Yang Jun has assisted him. In a recent talk with Master Yang Jun, I asked him about what he has learned in this long apprenticeship and his thoughts about the gathering of the leading teachers of the traditional styles. He also discusses the importance of two primary skills necessary to advance in Tai Chi Chuan: relaxing and using the waist.

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BW: You have made a huge investment of time and energy to create and support a Tai Chi Chuan Symposium this coming July of 2014. You will be bringing together the leaders of  the different styles of Tai Chi. Why is this so important to you?

YJ: Many of today’s Tai Chi meetings are centered around competitions. I would like to see more events with the emphasis on teaching. Today there is so much focus on styles because each style has a different flavor. Seventy years ago there was only one Tai Chi Chuan, just individual teachers of Tai Chi, not identified styles. As their different methods became more apparent over time, Tai Chi divided by styles. But we all come from one Tai Chi; we all come from the same root with the same principles and similar techniques. We all talk about the same energy, each style just performs differently. This diversity gives students more choices, and maybe it makes it more interesting, but it splits Tai Chi into factions. I want to create the highest level of showcase so people can see how the styles are distinct. They will meet the acknowledged representatives of these styles and realize that we are all together as one Tai Chi family.

BW: You have made a huge investment of time and energy to create and support a Tai Chi Chuan Symposium this coming July of 2014. You will be bringing together the leaders of the different styles of Tai Chi. Why is this so important to you?

YJ: Many of today’s Tai Chi meetings are centered around competitions. I would like to see more events with the emphasis on teaching. Today there is so much focus on styles because each style has a different flavor. Seventy years ago there was only one Tai Chi Chuan, just individual teachers of Tai Chi, not identified styles. As their different methods became more apparent over time, Tai Chi divided by styles. But we all come from one Tai Chi; we all come from the same root with the same principles and similar techniques. We all talk about the same energy, each style just performs differently. This diversity gives students more choices, and maybe it makes it more interesting, but it splits Tai Chi into factions. I want to   create the highest level of showcase so people can see how the styles are distinct. They will meet  the  acknowledged representatives of these styles and realize that we are all together as one Tai Chi family.

BW: Why would someone come to the Symposium to learn from styles other than their own style?

YJ:  There are many reasons. First, we expect that you will not be shopping for a style and that you will continue to practice your own style. You can also learn from the other styles. You will see that each style has its own flavor. Second, they perform differently and yet you can see from the principles that they have a very close similarity. Third, each style  has different methods of practice. These perspectives can help you to understand your  practice from a different angle.

BW: Can you give me an example?

YJ:  For example, when we are talking about the Chen style, they use the method they call “silk reeling”. We don’t use the term silk reeling. If you look at the way thread is made from the fibers, you have to twist and you have to pull evenly or the silk will tear. The Chen style explains that you must unify straight movements with circular movements to create  spiraling movements.  They have a more detailed way to talk about when to have this type of coordination through the waist, through the back, through the arm rotating, which  angle is inside, which angle is outside, and the balance of the positions throughout the movement. They have clearly defined this. For the rest of us, we have a simpler idea. We don’t talk about when and where, but actually, we are doing something very similar. By studying this method with the Chen family, you can gain a deeper understanding of where this exists in other forms. Our rotating and circling is similar to theirs in theory, but we do it differently. In the end, you will find out that even though we don’t have a name for it, we are working with the same idea.

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BW: What are the unique characteristics of the form in each of the different styles?

YJ: Yang style is practiced using a large frame with slow, graceful, and even movements. Our movements are not flowery, but are designed to be simple and clear.

The Chen style moves both fast and at other times slow, with lots of circling, spiraling and the delivery of explosive energy (fajin).

The Wu/Hao style is a small frame stressing the idea of opening and closing. Their movements are small but very strong. You will feel when you practice the Wu /Hao style that it will bring your energy up.

In the Wu (Jianquan) style, they seem to have a distinct forward leaning but actually their leaning is around their center. They are very rooted. They have different requirements  for their body shape, footwork and leaning. You can compare these methods to your own footwork, and it may improve your footwork and make your practice more stable.

The last style is the Sun style. Their footwork incorporates the techniques of Xingyi, and they borrow the body turning methods from Bagua. Their hand  techniques are based on the Wu/Hao style. This is all combined into one style and so you see a Tai Chi flavor from the Wu/Hao style combined with these other techniques.

All the styles can give you ideas to improve your own style. Each style has its flavor and we can learn from each, by  paying attention to the techniques that each style makes prominent. Then we can decide whether to add this flavoring to our own style.

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BW: How have the teachings of your grandfather, Grandmaster Yang Zhenduo, influenced the way you teach and work with groups? You were an apprentice to him for many years; he taught and you observed.

YJ: My grandfather gave me calligraphy with the words: Zheng mai cheng chuan: “To receive the teachings and carry on and hand them down directly from the vein.” I feel the responsibility to pass on this body of knowledge, this transmission, but I must find my own way of delivering the information. My grandfather has influenced my thinking, my understanding of the classroom, the philosophy of my family and Tai Chi, and so many things.

For instance, in China, the Yin Yang theory suggests you need to be sensitive to both the group and the material. Also, you need to follow the timeline. As you teach, over time, you need to change the material. So, in the relationship between the teacher and student, there is always the question, what is the best way to learn?

Yes, I watched my grandfather, not thinking about how I would teach, but   observing how he interacted. I studied not only how he presented the material, but also how to be a genuine person. I learned about generosity and patience. I remind myself all the time how my grandfather expressed humility, generosity and patience.

How you organize the material should fit the level of the group you are working with. Everything is flexible, not fixed. My grandfather taught me that your success comes from your hard work but your method of teaching is individual; you need to find your own way. He would say, “Your training and the development of your skills never ends. There is no way to copy another person’s teaching 100%.”

The population studying Tai Chi is different today in both their age and their environment. The culture is different  everywhere now. Tai Chi has spread all over  the world and I must adapt to the various cultures. Today, I do have more communication with the students and we use more of the  question and answer methodology.  I must be flexible and realize that there is no one way to teach.

When my grandfather came to the U.S.A., most people were focusing on learning just the sequence. From an external point of view, we needed to make a lot of corrections. As students learned our form, they couldn’t help keeping the  flavor of the form they came with. This  created a need for correcting the external form. Now after twenty years, we have a lot  of students who can teach the movements and provide the flavor of traditional Yang style.

Now I am focusing more on the methods and applications. It is now more important to explain how we apply the ten principles into our practice, into our form and into our movements.  If you do not have a basic understanding of the form, this kind of explanation will be hard to comprehend. From the very beginning we emphasized the importance of using your waist. Now we must explain more clearly exactly how to use the waist, how to make the upper body coordinate with the waist, how to make the middle body coordinate with the waist, and how to make the lower body coordinate with the waist. We must also explain how to connect our footwork with our waist.

Another example is that we understand the bow stance and we understand the empty stance, but do we understand exactly what is the similarity in the footwork, and what is the basic method?

My challenge is to teach these ideas. There are three requirements to experience the flavor of our style. First, we have straight/diagonal footwork. This means the front foot is straight and the back foot is diagonal and there is a space between the feet. In the bow stance, we refer to this as shoulder width apart. Second, the weight should be put in the  bubbling well. And third, your crotch should be open and rounded. It doesn’t matter what movements you are doing, all three elements should be present.

These concepts take time and practice to incorporate into the form. I must be patient with the process. My grandfather reminds me of the Confucian saying that you must teach to the level of the group. You cannot teach something that people cannot understand or you will frustrate them. At the same time, you cannot teach something they already know or you will bore them.

BW: What is the most difficult concept for students to understand?

YJ: Actually, in our method, there are two concepts that we have emphasized from the very beginning. These two ideas are a priority for the student and need to be done correctly.  These ideas are relaxation and how you use your waist to make the coordination of the upper body, the lower body, and the middle body. Sometimes students are having trouble with a particular coordination and feel they cannot perform it correctly. But, actually, it is because they do not understand the first two basic requirements. They feel they cannot make this coordination and it is because they are not moving from the waist. Or they feel they cannot transfer the energy, and it is because they are not relaxed. Either they are too limp or they are too stiff. We talk about this from the beginning and we do make progress,but this is the area that causes fundamental problems.

BW: What do you think students need to do to relax more?

YJ: Relaxation has two parts: solo and partner practice.  First is the physical body’s practice. Through the daily practice, the length of time we practice over time, conscious repetition will make your body more familiar with the style’s movements and flavor. You must pay attention to how you use your body and do this in accordance with the ten  principles. This is one part of the relaxation that you do by yourself. Even when you do standing meditation, this is a form of relaxation practice. Through these exercises, students become more relaxed in their solo movements. But, they still have problems when they work with somebody else. When they practice with someone else in push hands, if the other person has a different speed than they are familiar with, their coordination may not be comfortable. This is because the mind has been distracted or because they haven’t had enough experience with this kind of partner. Then they tighten up and become stiff. It is important to practice by yourself, but also you should practice with someone else, with different partners, skill levels, and at different speeds.

Tai Chi follows the Ying/Yang theory. If you only do the forms by yourself, you only learn one side. So, to follow the theory, one side you do by yourself, but this does not  provide an understanding of the other side. You should also understand the other side, working with others. This gives you a different experience of coordinating your  movements, your position, and your energy. This kind of practice teaches how you can  relax yourself so that you can be like a liquid, so you can fit into any shape, and therefore you will have balance with your opponent.

When you are pushing with your opponent, it is important to join with your opponent. You must be relaxed, so you can be soft, so you can join with your opponent. We all know that liquid has no shape. If water is in a cup, the container shapes it. If it is in a saucer, it is flat. When you practice with different partners, you will gain experience. When you are soft and relaxed and your mind is calm, you will find the balance and you can join with your opponent.  If you become stiff, you develop corners and you cannot join with your opponent. Relaxation sounds so simple but is hard to master.

BW: Can you be more specific about explaining this idea of relaxation and how it affects the different parts of the body?

YJ:  In Tai Chi, we want you to be rooted, so you can be stable and balanced. In Chinese we say Song Chen, which means you relax then sink. Chen means sink.  Relaxing and sinking are important steps in unifying the energy. We unify by using the waist to lead the body. The rest of the body should be relaxed so the body can follow. It is like the whip. The waist is like the handle of the whip and the body is the rest of the whip. We must transfer  the energy to the tip. Depending on your speed, you must have the right amount of relaxation.

What is the right amount of relaxation? If one is too stiff or too limp then we are not expressing the Yin/Yang dynamic. We want balance of these forces on both sides, not too stiff, and not too limp. There is actually a range within this balance. Some people can be a little harder and softer and  this is not a mistake, but a personal preference. By yourself, it is hard to know if you are doing it right. Are you agile? Is your empty and full clear? Is your breathing deep, and your energy unified? These questions help you to know if your body is unified.

You can understand more when you work with an opponent. When you are too stiff, he can push your hand and affect your root. When you are too limp, you have no guard on your circle and your opponent can move into you body and your center. When a student is too limp, they are not extending the energy into their limbs and they cannot fend off an attacker.

BW: How can a person get feedback when they are working by themselves to know if they are working with a unified body?

YJ: We have a method using a staff to extend  your energy to the tip. This trains your  delivery of energy. If you can send the  energy to the tip, you can see it; it will quiver. A staff can be very long; it can be ten for even twelve feet long. It is a spear  without the tip on it.

BW: How do the joints play a part in the body being like a whip?

YJ: From the joints and tendons there is an extension of energy. This kind of  extending is like our definition of  relaxation.  If the whip does not have enough speed, then the rest of the body of the whip just hangs there because it is too limp. My grandfather said this many times, “Relaxing  is not limp; it is connecting the joints and tendons.” Make your whole body’s  movements as even as you can. Do not put too much emphasis on one joint. There is an  internal feeling of linking your body  together when the energy is transferred.

BW: When the whip moves, it has no joints, no folding along its length?

YJ: Yes, no joints. That is why we want you to practice in a way that is unified, so the energy can transfer to the tip. We don’t want you to put stiffness into your joints. The way is to open the joint and extend through the joint. If you put the whip down on the floor, it lays there in a heap.

BW: You have mentioned speed several times.

YJ: Your speed must be coordinated with your movement. If you are too stiff, you won’t follow the initiation from the legs and  waist. If you are turning quickly, your body following your waist will not respond the same as when you turning slowly. As you turn more quickly, it will more like a whip; the challenge is to get the body of the whip to coordinate the speed with the handle.

BW: How can we create this unified  coordination of the body?

YJ: You have a center and you open in  another direction, for example, extend from inside to outside. By following the ten  principles, you refine your body  shape: head lifting up, chest tucking in, your back  rounded, and your shoulders and elbows dropped, your waist relaxing down. For instance, your head lifting up and your waist going down, gives you two directions. When your head lifts up, your spine lengthens up allowing the  spine to move in two directions as the spine lengthens down. From your middle back rounded, you extend left and right. The body shape’s feeling is one direction up,  one direction down, one going left and one going right. You extend through the arms to round the back. Then you feel extended. Your body leading up, through your head, and the rest of your body moving down. This is how you create continuity by using opposing directions.  Now, when the body coordinates well with the waist, this is unified movement.

BW: If we return to the beginning student, and to people who would like to study  Tai Chi so that they can teach it in a gym or a club, at a school, or in some  environment where their Tai Chi students will not engage in a very long term of study but do want the experience of studying traditional Tai Chi. These institutions are  asking for certified teachers. How will you respond to this need?

YJ: This is a difficult question to give a  simple answer to. Our Association has worked hard to help people to become instructors. We have a system of ranking and students study and are tested to progress through the levels. They work hard to get through the first level, which requires a specific accuracy in performing the 103 form. To progress to the fourth level and become certified teacher can take more than five or six years. This is the traditional approach.

Elsewhere, there are many teachers  giving out certificates in a short time.  Our family has always been interested in  developing the highest quality instructors. We are struggling to maintain our standards  yet respond to this demand. We have  created a teachers academy to organize all our training and are now experimenting  with a short form certification. At the  Symposium we are initiating a certification program in the new sixteen movement Yang form. We are encouraging all the other styles to participate in this endeavor and to produce their own certification process. I am not sure the other styles are ready yet but this is our goal. They are interested, so I think we will be able to work this out. We are trying to find a practical solution with the hope that we will stimulate the interest of these new teachers to continue on in the traditional training. We are keeping an open mind.

BW: I have a different kind of question, which concerns people who have been practicing Tai Chi for a long time. As they age, sometimes they do not practice as much. I have heard some people say that as they get older they think about Tai Chi more than they practice Tai Chi. Is it important to continue to practice the physical forms?

YJ: No matter how good you are you must practice. My grandfather, he still practices.

Here are the steps in learning Tai Chi: First, practice the movements until they are familiar. Extend from movements that are familiar into an understanding of energy.  After you understand the energy, you reach a stage where the mind is clear. This is called Shen Ming: Shen is spirit and Ming is clear.  You don’t have to think about the body’s  coordination; your body already understands this.  When you achieve this, you don’t need to think, you just need to keep your mind in the center.

It is similar to driving a car. When the mechanics of driving are familiar, you just focus on what you want to do. If you have to stop suddenly you don’t say, “I will now raise my right foot and put it on the brake.” You just think it and the body understands and  performs the task. In the scenario where the car is in a dangerous situation, and starts to slide, you must relax and stay centered until you see what should be done to solve the problem. Then, you choose an action and your body performs your intention. It is the same in Tai Chi.

Tai Chi is alive, and flexible; it is not fixed. You can be relaxed when you push with a beginner, but when you do push hands with someone who has more experience and skill, your mind might not be so calm. If you cannot understand their energy, your mind will lose the center. So the way you continue to improve is through the physical practice. There is a Chinese saying, “Behind one mountain is another higher mountain.” Gongfu means the skill you develop from the effort and time you put into your training. Therefore one day’s practice equals one day’s Gongfu. Whatever level you have reached you must continue practicing. There is always more. This is why my grandfather  is fond of saying, “Your Gongfu; it never ends!” ☯

This article appeared in Journal 34, Spring 2014

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