YANG STYLE CURRICULUM
By Robert Amacker
Around Nineteen-Eighty I was living in San Francisco and, among other things, studying African drumming with teacher Kwaku Dadi. One day, while addressing a group of about thirty assembled students, he asked the question, “Why do you play the drum?”
Now Kwaku was given to the somewhat annoying habit of demanding very specific answers in response to very general questions, annoying mostly because he seemed maddeningly unaware of it, and so it was understandable that no one ventured to attack this obviously outrageous example. The need for such caution was confirmed by his reaction to the answer from the first student to which he applied the question directly, in one far corner of the room.
“I play to express myself,” said the student, with some attempt at confidence.
“Wrong,” replied Kwaku, with an obvious attempt, on his part, to restrain his scorn. “You,” he continued, pointing to the next student, “why do you play the drum?”
This one said that he played to induce a special state, a kind of meditation. This was also wrong. Successive answers became even more philosophical and abstract, involving telepathic states and the collective unconscious, healing, all-male drumming circles, etc. They were all wrong also. I was at the opposite corner of the room, and he came to me last.
“Robert,” he said in a pleading tone, “I’m counting on you to know the answer. Why do you play the drum?”
“To hear the drum,” I answered.
“Yes,” he sighed, “that is the only possible answer.”
In the same way, there might be many answers to the question, “why do you study T’ai Chi Ch’uan ?” or “what is the goal of the boxing arts?” Only one, however, could qualify as comparing to Kwaku’s preferred response, which would be, “to make it possible to box.” Other responses carry with them the tacit assumption that this stipulation is rather automatically satisfied, and that methods are qualified by their long range effects upon one’s total being, and comparative effectiveness in self defense. Cheng, Man-ch’ing remarked once that the goal of T’ai Chi Ch’uan was the same as that of Yoga, to awaken kundalini. Even loftier and more spiritual goals are, no doubt, entirely possible, and immanently desirable. But the immediate goal, the bottom line, so to speak, is really just an attempt to answer a very simple question. Can we create an abstraction of fighting that allows us to somehow study it, practice it, even enjoy it, without suffering the long range physical, emotional, spiritual, altogether Karmic dangers and consequences that are such an inevitable result of any activity so rooted in violence for its very conception? In other words, is there really any such thing as the art of boxing, actually distinguished from just another word for testing male power and dominance? And further, is such a study relevant to the reality of actual combat, in other words, does it have any practical value (in testing male power and dominance, that is)?
Students are universally intrigued by the question of what martial art is “superior,” and “which would beat which,” despite the fact that such questions can never be answered by two individuals, neither of whom can ever be relied upon to “fairly” demonstrate the measure of their art, but only the measure of themselves. But even if this question could be answered in terms of some abstract measure of relative effectiveness, this alone would not reveal the degree to which a specific art allows for and promotes the actual practice necessary to successfully perform the relevant techniques. In other words, how effectively would it make it possible to box?
To conform to this definition, it would have to have a progressive method of training culminating in the ability to engage in entirely spontaneous encounters with others of the same style, encounters lasting some reasonable length of time. How well this style would fare in actual combat, or against other styles, would have to depend on other factors relating to its “absolute” effectiveness, but my only point here is that it is usually better to be good at something “bad” than to be bad at something “good.” Regardless of the deadliness of various techniques, they are of little use if they cannot in some way be practiced as effective changes, rather than in isolation, and this means boxing. Most martial art schools are places where people with natural talent can find willing victims upon whom they may perfect their attacks, and meet each other. These individuals succeed in reaching the goal of real practice, and raise their art to the highest level, but this says little for the ability of the art to actually train those who are not so gifted.
Since adherence to the “rules of engagement” is actually definitive of any real practice of a martial art, the measure of its effectiveness is the reliability with which it produces that result in a natural way, and the degree to which that result survives in more and more dangerous and extreme situations. Ideally, the “rules” that one follows when “sparring” should not be something to be abandoned in “real” situations, but should somehow benefit the boxer’s unconscious habit of following them. This might seem to some to logically hamper the boxer’s ultimate potential and freedom, and in fact they would be right, in almost every case. T’ai Chi Ch’uan is the only art that I know of that avoids this problem, and it does so in an a highly logical and enormously clever way, but this is another subject altogether.
The only reason that I feel it necessary to clarify this point is that there is a perhaps natural tendency in the martial arts to define styles or systems by certain powers or signature techniques, and those demonstrating these isolated feats are then presumed to be qualified to teach others to do the same, becoming, by definition, “masters” of the system. I would prefer to define a style or system by its curriculum, and as the various skills necessary to “master” each element of that curriculum.
The ultimate goal of T’ai Chi Ch’uan practice is achieved not when one reaches a certain level of power, or even in the advent of the appearance of jing, which may take twenty or thirty years to develop, but when one’s natural and unthinking response to any attack reliably and visibly demonstrates what is definitive of T’ai Chi Ch’uan, that is, the clear creation and use of actual t’ai chi “objects” in the formation of the eight trigram changes. When two people reach this level, they can be said to express the true “art” of T’ai Chi boxing. A proper curriculum is one that develops this ability in clear stages. Each stage should lay down a logical foundation for the next one.
In the so-called “external” systems, these stages are marked by the development of certain behavioral skills, which are then integrated with previous ones, finally evolving into a complete system. In T’ai Chi Ch’uan, these stages represent internal habits, which are then integrated into entirely new behavior patterns, leaving the old ones behind. Nevertheless, the old patterns are still retained in the practice of the more elementary exercises.
In Yang Style T’ai Chi Ch’uan, there are five different behavioral models, each one forming a separate element of the entire curriculum. These are the Solo Form, T’ui-shou, Three Step T’ui-shou, Ta Lu, and San-shou. Although this is the order in which they are learned, because each is a preparation for the next, they are more logically understood when explained in reverse.
San-shou, properly speaking, is simply the generic Chinese term for actual fighting, or as close to it as the combatants chose to come. It is “free hand,” in the sense that one may do as one likes, and also in the sense that the hands may become free from contact with the opponent. The San-shou exercise invented by the Yang family is simply a highly informative but ultimately arbitrary collection of techniques, techniques that, in their pairings of offense and defense, allow for the possibility of practice at the most realistic level. Although the sequence of the exercise is clever in terms of revealing certain logical patterns of exchange, it is ultimately of no importance; in fact, and with no deliberate attempt to be obscure, I can honestly say that one has only learned it, in a very real sense, when one has forgotten it. It definitely stakes out the highest ground as far as allowing more freedom, in terms of both tactics and power, than the sparring standards of any other martial art. If both players are at a high enough level, they may actually release and receive jing at exactly the range and speed of actual fighting, without fear of injury, but with clear results. This ability proceeds from the rote performance of the exercise to a greater and greater randomization of the sequence, finally resulting in true boxing of a spontaneous but highly disciplined nature. Many of the techniques of San-shou cannot in fact be performed except at a speed and using a level of power at least approaching that of actual combat. It is only at this level that two critical goals are achieved. One is the final model of correct behavior, which is, in both appearance and feeling, extremely natural and free from any of the unusual affectations of either form or attitude that are associated with most martial arts (for example, the mechanized look of Japanese Karate, the animal characterizations of Shaolin, or the hyper-extended positions of Choy-lai-fut). The other goal is the complete sublimation of all considerations and “principles” that may have occupied one’s thinking in the past, and their absolute subjugation to the “one” and only priority that should survive, that is, the active use of the T’ai Chi principle in determining our every move with the opponent. A real understanding of these goals will reveal them to be actually the same.
For this level of practice to actually manifest both players must have entered that realm of boxing that is considered to be possessed of an almost mystical obscurity, the realm of footwork and timing. Every martial art depends ultimately upon this skill, without which no technique, no matter how powerful, is of much use, but most are without any real method of training it, short of simply providing an opportunity for natural talent to manifest. I consider T’ai Chi Ch’uan to be unique in its method of actually cultivating this skill in those with little “natural talent” in this direction, and leaving them with no traces of the process that produced the natural and apparently untrained result. The students' techniques are refined and educated by the variety of steps necessary for the execution of the san-shou exersize, but the basic requirements for correct stepping are, one might say, the “hidden agenda” of the entire curriculum of T’ai Chi Ch’uan, along with the more exposed one, that of receiving and expelling jing in the form of discharging and being correctly discharged by one’s opponent. Interestingly enough, both results are cultivated by the same actual practice, that of neutralization, which is trained most effectively by t’ui-shou, in which steps are not allowed, and neither, despite the almost universal disregard paid, should attempts by the players to “discharge” each other be.
This latter skill is also a basic requirement for the performance of the san-shou exercise, as many of the changes require and demand the application of the opponent’s force, and the resultant conversion of the discharge of one’s own body into the complimentary and defensive technique, for their execution. As with stepping, san-shou may provide a variety of examples, but the basic internal habits necessary must be already there. These two skills (stepping and discharge) are brought to their required level by the refinement of the Ta Lu exercise, which includes in its own special curriculum a formal execution of one of the most difficult examples from san-shou, one impossible to fake.
Mostly for the reasons stated above, Ta Lu is considered the most “important” of the five basic exercises of T’ai Chi Ch’uan. By the nature of its position it is the point at which the true martial “sense” of the art is revealed, the place where it becomes “real.” It is also distinguished as having the greatest “range” of intensity with regards to speed and power. One way of looking at T’ai Chi Ch’uan is simply the study of how waves may be passed through the body. Postural training is necessary simply to channel and direct those waves, and training with others is necessary to learn how to receive them from others. The learning process proceeds by beginning with large, slow moving waves of low frequency, and then, in successive exercises that demand one’s ability, increasing the frequency, reducing the wavelength, until it becomes smaller than one inch, at which time it can be called jing. Since, true to the paradoxical nature of the art, one’s own skill is devoted actually to preventing these waves from appearing, and only when they are produced accidentally are they useful, they appear naturally only when the external speed of the exchange increases, in proportion to its effect upon one’s skill. Each of the five basic exercises has a certain speed, or range of speeds, associated with it, which naturally increases as one progresses through them. Ta Lu has the greatest of these ranges, extending from the speed of t’ui-shou, wherein it resembles nothing so much as a waltz, up to that of san-shou, where it requires at least a simple version of everything required in san-shou. Except for learning, san-shou is something that past a certain point simply cannot be slowed down, while Ta Lu can. Ta Lu is where the steps must, as the Classic says, truly “follow the bodily changes.” It requires complete changes of bodily attitude in response to pulls or pushes that begin in the middle of a natural step, where the body is fully committed to the step and one foot is in the air, and this requires real root, in the technical sense of that word, and a quickness of response that requires real spirit.
Some taste of all of this is provided by the more fundamental exercise called three step t’ui-shou. This is where the feet move for the first time, and also where many of the behavioral habits acquired in earlier training are deliberately broken. T’ai Chi Ch’uan is unique in this method, which seems frankly crazy by most logic. If one is going to break a habit, why acquire it in the first place? Most martial arts are simply a collection of behavioral habits, and a process of selecting the one appropriate to the situation. In T’ai Chi Ch’uan we want to shape and modify our positions in exact conformity to the moment by moment changes of the opponent. There are no behavioral habits, at least no external ones, that will satisfy this literally infinite catalogue of possibilities. There is little chance that any move made by any opponent will, if accurately followed, produce any position that one has ever been in, except in the most approximate sense. What we want is a single rule, principle, or, in the mathematical sense, function, which we can apply to every move of the opponent, that will provide us with a new and unique position that changes continuously through time. For this there are no external behavior patterns that are useful, but only internal ones, that is, internal rules dictating our body’s response to the application of this principle or function.
A natural and common reaction by beginners to the solo form is surprise at the very unnaturalness of the movements. These somewhat strange feeling positions are for the purpose of training internal habits of posture and movement. They are absolutely essential to one’s ultimate implementation of the t’ai chi principle, but they are not intended to be external behavior patterns for general movement. They are in fact discarded for movement that feels entirely natural, but in fact only feels that way after years of training. Advanced students, I have noted, always experience at some point in their training a kind of enlightenment, in which they realize that the end result of all of this training has been, in fact, something that seems almost effortless, and completely natural. Since one of the most practiced behavior patterns involves not moving the feet, students are a bit startled by the fact that when the feet are allowed to move, they move at almost the slightest change of the opponent, with no restrictions whatsoever. Three-step t’ui-shou is where this leap of technique is made, and although it is little more than the standard form of t’ui-shou (p’eng, lu, chi, an) done while stepping, it is both enormously instructive and deceivingly difficult. Although it is possible and even common to leave this practice out of the curriculum and go directly from t’ui-shou to Ta Lu, I have found it to be an invaluable tool for the student’s development.
T’ui-shou, or hand-pushing, is the deepest and most fundamental of the five basic practices, and the one that should take up the majority of the T’ai Chi student’s total practice time. It is the first place that the student is faced with listening to another person, and the first time that he has the opportunity to actually create t’ai chi relationships with the physical aggressions of another, which is really what the art is all about. It is done at a slow speed, effectively training the body to deal with large, slow moving waves, and cultivating internal habits that will later translate correctly to completely different situations. It is the first time that a student has the opportunity to practice softness, which is really a skill and not a condition, and is actually defined only in relation to another person. This softness, however, must not be completely undisciplined, but must manifest even while the student adheres to certain rules of posture and form. These rules and habits are acquired in the practice of the solo exercise.
The solo exercise is, like san-shou, clever and informative in many of its individual transitions, but ultimately an arbitrary sequence. It was the practice in the Yang school to create “loops” of continuous movement linking two or more techniques, both in solo practice and with partners, and the formal sequence, length, and even posture selection of the so-called “public form” underwent continual changes, until it was effectively frozen by media recording. Indeed, there is a great and almost comical misunderstanding of the significance, or I should say insignificance, of creating shorter, longer, or rearranged versions of the same movements, and the idea that this signifies a new “style.” This happened to Cheng, Man-ch’ing, despite his most earnest efforts to prevent it. This altering of the form to fit convenience was, as I said, a common practice in the school that Cheng attended. Any suggestion there that merely this change was of any stylistic significance would have been laughable. Because of other elements of Cheng’s teaching, and I can say as his former student that it is largely because of unauthorized exaggerations of those elements, it may be fair to say that at this point there is a Cheng “style,” but he did not intend such an anointment, at least not when I was there, and certainly not for the creation of the “short” form.
The solo form is marked by its slowness. This is not any sort of attempt at “slow motion” in the visual sense, that is, doing what you would do at a fast speed, only slower. It is slow because only at that speed can one be in the proper condition of relaxation and still make the extreme movements found in the form. And the movements are extreme, despite their conservative appearance, requiring stretches similar to yoga. As the speed of one’s movements increases, their amplitude decreases, and only in this way can the body be in the same relaxed state when moving fast or slowly. In actuality, even the above description of destroying old habits was a bit incorrect, although this is exactly as it appears to be to the student while it is happening. This is due to the fact that we do not naturally assign habits of behavior to select speeds of movement. The exercises, from the form to san-shou, gradually increase in their speed, and at some point one realizes that actually one is always behaving the same, except that that “internal” behavior naturally manifests externally in a different way at different speeds. As the movement speeds up, there is greater and greater separation of yin and yang, but smaller and smaller total amplitude, and the feet move with more and more immediacy, but still obeying a natural evolution of the “rules” of behavior previously practiced; thus the skill of footwork, and at the same time of timing that footwork, is learned, for the most part, before one takes a single step.
Though the behavior appears to change, and as I have said this is mainly a function of speed, the condition, by which I mean a very sophisticated form of relaxation, is always the same in every exercise. They are in a sense a test of whether one’s condition is correct, because it must work equally well in all of them. The most common mistake in this direction is that of stagnancy, the result of accepting too simple a definition of relaxation, and being content with a condition more resembling laziness, and characterized by leaning. Without the demands in terms of liveliness encountered in san-shou, it is doubtful that many would recognize their fault, and indeed many, certain that their stagnant condition is the ultimate in practiced relaxation, reject the validity of the san-shou exercise altogether. Indeed, if Ta Lu is practiced only in its simplest, waltz-like form, neglecting what I feel to be its most important purpose, it will also fail to properly reveal this fault.
I hope that the foregoing has helped to inform the reader as to my reasons for stressing the importance of a graduated curriculum that plots a step-by-step path to the art of boxing. As far as the importance of that particular path itself goes, this is connected to the wisdom with which it informs the entirety of the art. The Classics state, “Remember always the ultimate purpose of the exercise, to live forever and be forever young.” All of the health benefits attributed to T’ai Chi Ch’uan are in perfect conformity to its effective cultivation as a martial art, and the desired “condition” of which I have spoken is also synonymous with the healthiest state of the body, and of the spirit, as well.