Sunday, April 25, 2010

"Martial Shapes" Of Internal Arts

In this post, we'll take a look at a series of e-mails between myself and Christopher Dow, author of "The Wellspring, An Inquiry Into The Nature of Chi".
I tried to edit it for length and keep the key concepts intact:

Chris Dow: I want to say a little about a tai chi-related concept I’ve been thinking about lately. For the last few years, I’ve occasionally played with the movements in a free-form context, originally with a rooted stance but more recently also with moving steps. I guess it’s sort of like Chen style reeling silk exercises, but instead of tracing the tai chi diagram, I just mess around with the different ways that the leg thrusts and waist turns can launch the arms through the various tai chi applications. The more I’ve added the moving component, the more I’ve come to realize something that sort of links to what you’ve written about in relation to the more static martial arts (karate, tae kwon do, etc.) being somewhat limited and the more mobile ones (particularly the Chinese internal martial arts) less so. It’s also, perhaps, an ancillary to what I wrote in “The Wellspring” about the way chi is generated by the entire body in tai chi but only in a localized manner in the hard styles.
Techniques are embedded in all martial arts, certainly, but it seems to me that some marital arts engage the entire body in ways that transcend techniques isolated to specific areas of the body. And more importantly, they provide a natural flow from one technique or type of technique to another in ways that allow the techniques to be put together ad lib.
This line of thought has led me to the idea that a major difference between some types of martial arts and others is that some forms teach isolated techniques—or, perhaps, a series of techniques—while others encode a method of movement that contains techniques. Most (but not all) of the karate and taekwondo I’ve seen falls into the former category, and many (but not all) kung fu styles—especially tai chi—fall into the latter, though this isn’t to imply that technique-oriented arts aren’t effective or that movement-oriented arts always are.
When a person first comes to tai chi, he learns this posture and that posture and the way to get from the one to the other (which often is the most important aspect) in a sort of isolation, as with the technique-oriented arts. But the more the person practices, the more he gains a rhythm and flow from movement to movement. For me, it’s taken a long time to get from that to seeing the method of movement that has been masked by my overall concentration on performing the different movements and the tai chi set as a whole—and even by my concentration on technique. Now, I’ve begun to see the method that underlies not just the different movements, but the form itself, and it’s made me realize how powerful a teaching tool the form is and why it is so important to practice it daily. Only through repetition can the method of movement the form encodes become ingrained in the practitioner’s body. I’m thinking that this might be what makes tai chi such a powerful tool for self-improvement as well as self-defense.
Maybe I’m making too much of a simple idea, or maybe I’m wrong. Or maybe I’m just not making sense. But if I am, I’d like to hear your thoughts—and also the thoughts of others, as you did with the on-guard epistle—on how some forms encode a system of movement rather than simply imparting a series of techniques. And how could forms be thus categorized? To pick two internal Chinese styles: Bagua obviously is a movement-based style, but it seems to me that Hsing-I is a technique-based style. Again, the skill of the practitioner or the martial effectiveness of the art is not the question here. What I’m interested in is the fact that, with some martial arts, you can learn a series of movements that, at first, are disconnected elements but that eventually meld into a system of body dynamics that go beyond the particular elements or techniques of movement.

D.R. : I think I have mentioned it in writing before, but it might bear repeating. I think the internal arts appear to me now as shapes. That is, how does my shape fit the shape of my training partner (or attacker).
Some shapes flow naturally into patterns. But picking the correct shape so that patterns can be created is the tricky part. I think that's what the masters said about "listening with the skin", an innate feeling that allows for success.
- does this fit with where you are trying to go with your idea?

Chris Dow: Yes, I remember your post regarding the internal arts as shapes, and I thought, yes, that's pretty interesting. I visualized a sort of meshing with the opponent in a way that put him at a disadvantage and at the same time allowed one to use one's power appropriately. But I think of the internal art of Hsing-I, and while I can see the shapes, I don't see the same sort of flow of movement that I do in Tai Chi or Bagua. But then, I'm not terribly familiar with Hsing-I and have only seen practitioners doing repeated executions of particular movements. Maybe there's a form I'm not familiar with that embodies a true flow. Maybe you can clue me in. If there isn't, then, even though it's an internal art, it seems more like the various arts that train the practitioner through repetition of specific movements, such as standing in horse stance and doing a bunch of reverse punches that aren't connected to any other movement.
It seems to me that the internal arts, by and large, foster spontaneous movement and an almost psychic awareness (listening with the skin) of one’s surroundings that makes spontaneous, anticipatory movement possible. But I want to know more about your shapes concept. Over the past few days, I’ve been trying to visualize what that might mean, but I found myself getting stuck on “posture.” By this, I mean something akin to photographs in forms manuals that show, say, Single Whip or Cloud Hands or some other movement. I think my problem isn’t with your concept, per se, but with the word “shape,” which, to me, implies something static. I’m sure you really mean movement blending appropriately with movement and, thus, following the shape of the opponent.
I’ve also been pondering where or not the question I asked in my original e-mail is really valid. All movement arts—martial arts and dance—probably teach flow, not just technique. If I learn to rumba really well, then I will rumba through life. It’s just that Tai Chi and some others emphasize flow, where others emphasize technique. But now I look back at your quote above and think, well….

D.R. : When I think of "martial shape" I think of how an amoeba moves, or osmosis, flowing from an area of high concentration to an area of low concentration.
Water seeking it's own level.
A naturally occuring event that is not forced.
In TKD and Karate, we were "forcing" our "action" onto our opponent, even if we were just responding to movement.
If we try to use the martial shape definition above, then we are using the listening skill you and the classics describe.
Of course, it's easy to talk about and hard to perfect.
So I think we are perhaps describing the same event with different terminology. For some reason, the mind picture of "Shapes" is what is sticking with me.
When I have my crew doing fruit tree pruning in old orchards with hundred-year-old trees, I tell them they will start seeing "patterns" rather than cut-and-clip arrangement. Patterns. Shapes. Something that is innately perceived and felt.
Now, a true master of hard-style arts can achieve this, I have seen it. But it tends to come with power and eventually when the master's physical power is faded (hey, I'm 50), his skill is minimalized.
By the same example, some internal stylists have an unreal expectation of their progress or fighting ability.
With one foot in the hard-style camp, I have now chosen the internal method ( I started with Taiji in 1996, Tae Kwon Do in 1979). I find internal arts superior for longevity, but we gotta' keep it real.

Chris Dow: Okay, I understand your shapes concept better. The amoeba did it for me. I think you’re right, at least with regard to Tai Chi. I’ve seen enough Bagua and Hsing-I to identify them, but I don’t really know more than the basics about them—not enough to know if the shapes concept applies. I take your word for it, since you know them better. But regardless of which martial arts style you can apply it to—Tai Chi being one—“shapes” is the perfect word.
It is partly what I was talking about. I was originally interested in how Tai Chi—and presumably some other martial arts, but maybe not exclusively internal styles—teach a method of movement, while some just teach a series of techniques. The former lends itself to greater flexibility/diversity in movement—what you might call the ability to shape—over the latter. Where our two concepts meet, then, is that learning a method of movement, rather than just a series of techniques, confers greater ability in naturally executing shapes, which are the forte of superior martial styles, particularly the Chinese internal martial arts. Though, as you point out, you’ve got to work like hell to make your method of movement be a truly effective shape-shifter.
Before I go, back to the amoeba for a moment: If you trained two amoeba in Tai Chi and had them “push pseudopods,” would they eventually end up in a perfect Tai Chi sphere?

I know this ran a little long, even with editing. This has been a great discussion, if anyone else has some thoughts to add please help us continue in the comments section.


Nicola said...

Hi, this is an amazing post ! I do taekwondo (which I learn formally in classes and practice outside) and still very new to tai chi, which I just practise following a brief introduction to Beijing 24 last summer.

I often wonder about the shapes - after the repetition in taekwondo - how that might affect, almost unconscious movement - say when I'm waiting on a train platform and my hands just naturally start to form something like a pushing hands movement. When I am not making any effort at all to breathe in a particular way. And how much the shapes of architecture in our environment affect it - such as round or straight edges of street furniture that we move past - how the rhythm of the walking movement changes with each one.

Dojo Rat said...

I really like your suggestion of the shapes of archetecture and environment around us, a great thought to add, thanks!

Zacky Chan said...

Hail the amoeba's infinite array of shapes!

To the generalized difference that external arts teach techniques that will later evolve into wholistic movement, while internal arts teach movement that will later evolve into applicable techniques ... my experience in Aikido thus far has been a strange combination of the two.

My groups' training consists of showing a technique, and then practicing the prescribed technique with partners as is. However, the focus of the technique is less martial-efficiency (devastating an opponent, or even doing what seems to be the "most practical") and more just "doing it right", doing the correct movement and flow of the body. So we only practice techniques, but the focus doesn't seem to be the technique but the movement.

A strange third option it seems to the opposing worlds of "internal" and "external" training philosophies.