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Tai Chi Essential #7: Unify Your Body

13 Mar 2015

Yang Cheng-fu's straight back leg as shown by son/successor Yang Zhen-duo

Cheng Man-ching's bent back leg as shown by disciple Ben Lo
When I wrote about using the mind to guide the body in essential #6, I referred mainly to the idea of using the mind to issue all power from the center of the body, and to keep the mind away from the arms and legs. In just a moment I would like to discuss the idea that the body should function as one piece. The "one piece" concept can be applied at many levels, but it is of particular importance in regard to essential #7:

Unity of the Upper and Lower Body

As Yang Cheng-fu explains it, the upper and lower body must be unified into a single whole (hence one piece) as energy that comes from the root in the feet "is issued through the legs, controlled by the waist, and expressed in the hands." (Douglas Wile, Tai-chi Touchstones, p.13). This wave-like motion is possible only if the upper and lower parts of the body are connected as a seamless whole. The chi moves through the body in a single circuit comprising a portion of the grand circulation.

While I am applying the one piece concept here to the entire body, it may be easier if we start by isolating the discussion to the leg only. Beginning students, and some intermediates, spend some time stabilizing their legs, which tend to be wobbly. Usually the problem is partly strength and muscle tone, and partly mental attitude. They must be taught to hold the legs open in a strong structure that cannot collapse in upon itself.

This collapse is avoided by making one leg "one piece" where the other is not (yang and yin), such as in a forward (bow) stance. Many teach that one piece means straight. For instance, the straight back leg in all frames of the Yang style is taught with that in mind. However, Cheng Man-ching learned from his older kung fu brother Zhang Qing-lin that the back leg could be one piece without being perfectly straight; this allows some interesting opportunities for power expression through the legs. When Cheng created his own form out of Cheng-fu's, the "one piece bent" is what he preferred.

To see how a bent leg could be one piece, think of a piece of wood. A straight stick is obviously one piece. But suppose you have a tree branch with a bend in it; the bend is a wide angle and the strength is fully sustained. That is one piece. As long as any opposing force can be directed along the natural lines of strength, it is one piece. If the bend is too acute, however, the branch becomes two pieces which no longer work together effectively. For a leg, how wide an angle is that? Every leg is different, but it should be obvious that a strong leg can do more than a weak one. So the bent leg is one piece, a unity, as long as the bend does not "break" the leg into two pieces.

What does all this have to do with unifying the entire body in movement? First, the idea of unity is noteworthy because we learn early in our training to separate our motion at the waist, so that the lower body is firm and rooted, and the upper body is loose like the branches of a willow tree. Now we see that those two pieces are not truly separate. Second, the how of unity derives directly from our previous lesson to apply our mind to guide the body. It is important to understand that the mind, properly directly, guides the unity of the body, but when improperly directed, breaks it into pieces so that it is easily defeated.

How does this happen? It happens whenever you direct the mind to any spot other than the lower dan-tien in your body's center. Instead you must first direct the mind to the dan-tien, then direct it outward into the limbs and the digits as if exploding out from the center and filling it like a balloon.

This is a tricky matter. The minute you try directing your chi outward from your center to fill the body, there is a temptation to make it happen by applying force. When you do this, typically you focus your mind directly on a point without going through the body. This breaks the one piece into two pieces at the point of focus by moving your center of gravity to that spot. If you send your mind to your chest to fight with your upper body strength, you will be top heavy and broken, easily twisted or upended. If you send your focus through the limb by radiating it from the center, you will have no problem.

You can test yourself for this problem while you train for fa-jing. Master Yang Jun, head of the Yang family, teaches an exercise that makes this point easy to understand. To perform the exercise, begin by standing with your feet parallel, shoulder width apart.

Hold your arms straight out to the side, parallel to the ground, fingers open, palms facing forward. The exercise alternates between a right side and left side palm strike. To perform the strike, twist your waist strongly to the left (counter clockwise), allowing your right arm to follow your body so that the palm swings out in a palm strike at chest height. Stop the palm at the mid point, not by using the arm but by arresting the waist twist to the left and suddenly changing to the opposite direction. Turn the waist back to the right so that the right arm/hand returns to the original position. Do the same with the left arm, twisting the waist first clockwise, then back to the left.

You can perform this exercise correctly to develop effective fa-jing power only if you do not use your arm or hand muscles to swing the palm, or to stop it. If you use a muscle, you will feel the hand or arm tighten up. Often the tightening will be severe enough to cause painful cramps at some spot. When this happens, move your mind away from the hand, away from the arm, and focus entirely on the waist movement. The hand and arm should feel totally relaxed at the moment they stop.

Apply this approach to any fa-jing training. If the movement comes from applying the mind to anywhere other than the center, the center of gravity moves to that spot, and you will feel your body cramped and broken there. When you get it right the result is a single effortless whipping movement, with no part of the body vulnerable to attack.

This time we unified the upper and lower. Next time around we will talk about unifying the inner and the outer.

You may also like this related article: Tai Chi Essential #6: Mind Over Matter (207)
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