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By, Murali Sharma

Zhang Yun, a teacher in the Wang Pei Sheng lineage, taught an excellent one day seminar in New Jersey recently.

I had really enjoyed an earlier (Aug 99 Philly) weekend seminar by Zhang Yun, but was too lazy to write a review, especially because of the density of material he covered. Much of this appeared in a recent issue of Mike Jones'Internal Martial Arts magazine (on 'Seven Stars' standing).

The seminar was rather unusual, perhaps because most of the attendees were ZY's students when he was teaching in the area. (He recently moved from Princeton, New Jersey, and now teaches in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania). The theme was not so much a form, or applications, but a higher-level discussion and demonstration of 'how to practise'. I suspect he chose the theme to guide his students' practice during his absence.

The first thing that sticks out is that his seminars are almost like academic classes: he comes well prepared, with handwritten outline and notes, fills up the blackboard (!) with material even before the seminar begins, entertains questions at any time, gives nuanced explanations replete with quotations from texts and anecdotes of masters, and has a broad exposure to the field. I couldn't help but think of the phrase 'scholar-warrior'.

The following is an attempt to summarize the material; in some cases I include details I found interesting. Naturally, these are my recollections, some could be inaccurate. Perhaps Mike Jones will coax out more stuff from the horse's mouth!

There are different aspects of Taiji: the martial aspect, the inclusion of Chi Gung, and personal development. But the martial aspect is fundamental to understanding Taiji.

Physical movements in martial arts are basically similar.

What then distinguishes Taiji? The difference is 'inside'.
In most arts, the goal is to increase power; in Taiji however one should constantly be asking oneself how to reduce the force and still win.

The goal is 'highest efficiency', the appearance is of 'small force', and the effect is of a physically less powerful person winning over a bigger opponent. To attain this, a specific method of practice is needed.

Taiji uses Taoist principles. There is a distinction between Taoist religion, which isn't relevant, and the Taoist philosophy, which permeates Chinese culture, and is what is being referred to here. Yin and yang are both present, and present simultaneously. As opposed to a 'block and then punch', a single move should achieve both purposes.

There is a mechanical aspect, but Taiji is not just mechanics:

There is psychology involved. Yang Lu Chuan is supposed to have said he could defeat anybody but someone who is made of metal, wood, or is simply dead! Taiji depends on the natural reactions of a (living) opponent. That is, there is a physiological aspect involved also.

There is also a basic knowledge of Chinese medicine that is useful, as well as awareness of military strategy (e.g. when Zhao was attacked by Wei, Qi agreed to help, and rather than reinforcing Zhao's troops, attacked Wei's depleted territory instead).

What is the correct method of practice? In traditional times, one had so much time for practice that one could hope to improve simply by putting in adequate effort. But now, people practise so little that correct practice is critical for any progress.

Several steps can be enumerated. Not all the levels below are distinct stages, some overlap and are interrelated.

The final goal can be pithily proclaimed as:

1. Four ounces beating a thousand pounds.
- This simply means small beating big, not a literal 'weighed in the scale' statement. If you are using a 100 pounds to beat 200, you are already in the right mode of practice, further effort will improve your skill.
To be able to do this, one must necessarily

2. Borrow the force of the opponent.
This requires the skill of being able to

3. Seduce the opponent into emptiness.
A necessary prerequisite for this is
(These three skills are related. Once one is practising correctly, they all improve).

4. Good Timing and Direction.
To achieve this, one needs to understand

5. where is Yin, Yang, and the Jin.
Such an understanding requires the ability to

6. Yield and follow,
which is possible only if one is able to

7. Know oneself and the opponent
This requires

8. Sharpened sensitivity.

1-8 are abilities that can be got only from push hands practice. Forms alone cannot give you these results.

To get such sensitivity one needs to (again, each requiring or interrelated to the succeeding point)

9. Relax the body, concentrate the mind, collect the qi, focus the shen.

10. The body should be stable, the step nimble and the force powerful.

11. The six 'coordinations' ('harmonies') must be present.

12. The eight methods of application of the force must be understood.

13. Movements must be relaxed, slow, smooth and even, and 'alive'.

14. The movements must be correct.

9-14 are abilities that are developed by practising forms, and improved by push hands practice.

One begins at the last stage, and moves up. After explaining these concepts, Zhang Yun proceeded to explain each one in detail, by having us practice the opening move of the Wu form for 9-14, and by demonstrating the push hands concepts on a dummy (I got lucky).

For instance, first get the movements correct. That is, think where the arm and leg should be, (e.g. in the Wu form opening move, if the thumb in the '7 stars' posture is not aligned with the nose, the center is not properly covered), how wide should the moves be (for instance, in the next move, too wide a circle isn't proper balance), etc.

An interesting comment was not to try to coordinate the movement with the breath; i.e. don't do 'breathe in, arms up, breathe out, arms down'.
In a fight, you will be too slow - an opponent will 'beat your breath'. Instead, adjust your breath during the opening move and forget about it. Let the breath take care of itself. This adjustment naturally led to reverse breathing - one brought attention to the mingmen, subsequently to the navel, and repeated. The movement of the navel unconsciously coordinated with such reverse breathing.

There was much emphasis in both this and his previous seminar on where one put one's mind. One did not move without an explicit movement of the mind, the external moves were concomitant and natural. e.g. the point of intent if it went from shoulder to elbow to hand, would reverse that path, then move to the other shoulder etc., and the weight shifts would accompany.

Moving to the push hands items, Zhang Yun had me push his chest with both hands repeatedly, and illustrated a different aspect each time. For instance, sensitivity was required to judge which hand was pushing stronger. One understood where the opponent's force was directed, as well as what one was communicating to the opponent. One forgot this stronger (opponent's yang) pushing point (becomes yin for you), and focussed on the other point (yang for you). Yielding at this point however does not mean withdrawing there! Instead, the opponent feels resistance there, and believes his push is beating you back. This is the 'understanding of yin, yang, and jin'. But this is not enough! You need to understand at what point in this movement continuum the opponent becomes weak, and suspicious of something amiss. And you need to know which direction you should act. There are directions in which you would actually end up helping the opponent recover. There are many options to how one acts, depending on one's skills, and even one's personality! When one gets an understanding of these skills through practice, one is now practising correctly, i.e. can improve the first three abilities.

The same principles apply for instance to chin na. He invited participants to ask questions about specific locks. For instance in a 'Nikyo' that is applied against you, the point of application is 'yin', you could choose your middle finger as 'yang' (if you are not trained to bring your mind there, you could visualize moving your middle finger toward the opponent's belly). Depending on your skill level, this could resist the Nikyo or even apply a counter Nikyo. Against several aikido locks that one participant tried, that Zhang Yun said he had not necessarily seen before, Zhang Yun demonstrated how the same ideas could be used to recover and escape.

What about against a punch? Again the same principles, but a higher level of skill was required because of the speed. He mentioned seeing Wang Pei Sheng calmly following a quick finger jab at the eyes with his hand, and bringing down the opponent with a finger chin na applied at the right moment. Depending on one's skill and personality though, one might have to use different approaches, but using the same principles.

To a question on Fa Jing, Zhang Yun replied that while Fa Jing was important, it was not the most important skill to train.
It was more important to understand the aspects mentioned above, and fa jing just enough in the right direction, rather than just training to increase one's power. He mentioned parenthetically that the most spectacular fa jing he had seen was in fact from Ba Ji and Tong Bei masters.

It is important in push hands to try to practise correct principles. In a real fight, it doesn't matter how you win. But in push hands, if you choose to win using tricks, you are losing an opportunity to improve your real skill.

I was very satisfied with the contents of the seminar. I also found Zhang Yun very admirable: an unusual combination of real (and subtle) skill, the willingness to teach it, and the ability to do so. He is especially inspiring because he is, like many of us, juggling a professional life with an interest in martial arts. I found him modest (he often mentioned limits of his skill), cheerful, very accessible and enthusiastic (lunch time was filled with stories and historical discussions). The kind of teacher you wished lived in your neighborhood.

Of course, these are MY opinions. Talking to other non-students I found that there were those who felt they could have read these principles in a book (perhaps since I was the dummy for the push hands portion I am biased), who thought they understood these already, or simply wished for a greater proportion of practice to theory.