Tuesday, 5 February 2013

Taiji seminar revisited...



Following my last posting on taiji, Joe Harte has kindly written to me and filled in a few gaps in my understanding. I thought I would share them with you. Below is a re-post of part of my original post with Joe's comments inserted in blue type....

Joe Harte
Last Saturday my husband and I attended a taiji seminar in Durham with experienced taiji instructor Joe Harte, whom I met and become acquainted with through my activities with the annual Marfest event last year.

We like to talk about internal and external arts and generally find our own art categorised into one of these groups without fully appreciating why or what it really means. I’m well aware that karate is categorised as an external art yet in karate we talk about (a lot) and practice (to a lesser extent) breath control, mind-body-spirit unity, altered mind states such as mushin (empty mind) and zanshin (aware mind). On the surface these seem like ‘internal’ elements yet karate remains doggedly an external art! Why? And what, therefore, is an internal art?

[ Internal / external? Originally I’m told the Chinese would refer to arts from outside china as external. But that has changed over the years and now usually is a way of referring to arts that train the mind to use intention, awareness, and energetic responses, sometimes with breath. Few however know or use the stretching muscle to generate power which has far greater potential than using contracting muscle states to develop power. See my teachers recent interview where he discusses what makes an ‘internal’ art:  http://www.taichination.com/latest.php?id=117  ]

These were questions I wanted to answer. Joe had intrigued me with something he said last year along the lines of “…Master Huang changed this form so that on the outside it looked exactly the same but on the inside felt very different….” How can something be changed to look the same on the outside but be very different in the way itfeels?

[ Master Huang 1910-1992 had studied Fujian White Crane from the age of 14 with some of the famous masters of the time. It seems the Yang Fast form died out so later in his life he introduced the Form  Er shi Ba from the white crane to the Taiji world. Slowly he changed the emphasis of this fast form over a lifetime of study to internally harmonize with the Taiji principles. So now the Quickfist that we train is externally the same, but internally changed  towards that of Taiji]

I knew the only way I was going to gain any insight into what an internal art really is was to go and experience it for myself. Having fortuitously met Joe I now had the means and opportunity to do this so I booked us onto the seminar….

Joe had warned me to dress up warm – several layers, hat, gloves, scarf etc, and wear flat shoes. “You won’t get sweaty in a taiji class,” he warned nor could he guarantee the heating would be on. Like many people I had a mental image of doing forms in a slow, relaxed way. I knew that more than that must be going on but wasn't quite sure what.
[sorry about the hall heating!]

We arrived a bit late due to the adverse weather conditions- the heavens had decided to drop another 3 inches of snow all over Britain on Friday night meaning there had been very little time for the gritters and snow ploughs to get the roads clear. The class was already doing some gentle warm up exercises so we just quietly got ready and joined in at the back.

The general etiquette and atmosphere in the class was much more relaxed and informal than in a karate class – no waiting to catch sensei’s eye to bow you onto the training area or giving you punishment press-ups because you are late! In fact, no bowing (or press-ups) at all.
[The relaxed atmosphere is more typical in Taiji classes. Also rather than belts people are recognized by the subtlety of their training, although some Taiji schools use uniforms and belts we don’t.  People are more or less free to express themselves allowing to see more of their true nature, whereas strict etiquette or outer rules would potentially block this. Seeing this helps people understand themselves in their effort to slowly change]

After the warm up exercises Joe explained that we were going to do Master Huang’s 5 loosening exercises. My interpretation was that these exercises are partly designed to help you relax your body and muscles properly and partly to start you on the path to discovering your ‘deep mind’. Joe talked us through these exercises instructing us on the external movements required and how we were supposed to be thinking and feeling on the inside, teaching us how to listen to our internal senses rather than just relying on our external senses.
We are all familiar with our external senses – sight, hearing, touch, smell and taste but not very familiar at all with our internal ones, which were defined as temperature, pressure, pain, muscle state and joint position. The idea seems to be to try and connect with the part of the unconscious mind that generally controls these senses automatically – the deep mind or Joe sometimes referred to it as the ‘body’s mind’. So as we went through the loosening exercises we were encouraged to think about the pressure experienced on our feet as our weight shifted about or about whether certain muscles were in a state of contraction or relaxation. [ the shift from external senses to internal ones is not at all easy. As the body moves the superficial mind ‘listens’ more easily to the gross outer movement, this masks the much more subtle internal sensations which are listened to by a deeper part of the mind – this takes long long training – discussed in part in my article Milestones in the Mist http://www.communigate.co.uk/ne/taijiquan/page9.phtml  ]
See my previous post for the rest of my discussion about this seminar

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2 comments:

Kamil Devonish said...

This stretching expansion of muscle that Mr. Harte discussed is something that I have experienced first hand. It was from a karateka though, Kenji Ushiro. He does this demonstration where he stands in Sanchin kamae, and then pulls back his arm in hikite and extends it in a slow punch.

He then asks you to take firm hold of the forearm of his extended arm. It was the most surreal feeling I've ever experienced - you're holding his arm and then, without any discernible outward movement, you can feel the tension inside of his arm disappear, like it sank away from the surface that you're holding. He changed the tension in his muscle absent of movement or flexion! Because you can't feel the tension, you can't keep a proper hold of him and he downs you with a simple movement of the shoulder. He says that karate is supposed to be this softness inside of the hardness, like a japanese blade, the hard steel keeps the edge but the soft carbon core gives strength to the blade.

I'm curious, Sue, are you going to explore Tai Chi going forward? Your posts are giving me serious ideas.

SueC said...

Kamil, a lot of people have told me how beneficial their study of tai chi has been to their karate practice and I can understand why they would say that. I can definitely see the potential benefits and I have been practising some of the exercises I learnt at the seminar. However, without a teacher to guide me I fear I may practice the wrong thing or practice in the wrong way. Unfortunately I can't train regularly with Joe as he is to far away from where I live. There is also an issue of time. I just don't think I have time at the moment to commit to a second art. However I am definitely interested in exploring tai chi further and will probably attend more seminars with Joe. Perhaps some time in the future I will have more time to take it up seriously.

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