How Doing Taijiquan is Like Flying a Stealth Bomber

Let me say from the very start that this is not an attempt on my part to be cute, regardless of how much the title of this article might seem to support that case. Nor is it intended as simply a flattering comparison of adjectives sometimes applied to both subjects, of which invisible would be the most obvious example. On the contrary, I consider the comparison to be illuminating in a way that is highly enlightening, instructive, and in fact even a bit profound. 

I will start by pointing out the major danger and therefor principle consideration of airplane design, namely that they fall out of the sky and crash. From its very beginning, designers had to fashion almost every feature of an aircraft around this problem, which concerns mainly the question of in-flight stability. In these circumstances (flying), changes in wind speed and direction create completely unpredictable and potentially devastating forces that are far too sudden and powerful for any pilot to anticipate and prepare for, and therefor the plane must include in its very design features that automatically increase stability and minimize the effects of turbulence. 

From the Wright Brothers on, the obvious solution pursued by airplane designers was entirely congruent with the reasoning of the designers of ocean-going craft. The earliest and most primitive ocean explorers utilized the outrigger principle, using the leverage of horizontal extensions to steady the craft against rolling over on its transverse axis. From the outriggers of the explorers of Polynesia to the modern catamaran, this concept has proved a reliable way to achieve steadiness and reduce danger. In the case of aircraft, it adds an additional function to the wings, over and above their duty to provide lift and maintain the flight of the plane in the first place, and this is one of stability. The less immediate control the pilot has over the craft, the greater the need for an automatic tendency to such stability, and a large wingspan is the most obvious solution. Gliders, which, because they are powerless, allow the least control possible, have the largest wingspan, while fighter-jets, because they have the greatest immediately available power and the highest potential acceleration, manage to make out with the smallest. 

This quest for stability has its parallel in the martial arts, especially of the oriental variety, where it is associated with a secure base from which to project force. The sudden and unexpected forces produced by an aggressive opponent are analogous to the buffeting effect of wind, and It does not take a genius to conclude that, in addressing this problem, standing on two feet is a better solution than balancing one’s weight on one. Following such logic, the less equal the proportion, that is, the more the degree to which one is supporting the total force on the body with one foot, the less stable the stance, and therefor the more equivalent the pressure on the feet, the better. This total force is the combination of gravity and the force received from the opponent, whether this force is generated by his aggression or by his resistance to our own. When gravity is the only force applying, the greatest equivalency is found when the center of mass is positioned exactly midway between the two feet. The other two stabilizing influences available to the boxer are the width and height of the stance, and this leads to the familiar wide horse stance. When the opponent directs his force exactly at right angles to the line defining this width, his force is automatically distributed equally, and the geometric positioning is the same as when gravity alone was the only influence. This symmetric horse stance is the most efficient in accomplishing the desired result. When the angle of attack becomes more oblique, equivalency of pressure is only maintained by shifting the center of mass more in his direction, leading to the so-called “bow-and arrow” stance. 

It should be understood that these stances not only fit the definition of double-weighted behavior, they are in fact the source of the original meaning of double-weight. We students of Taijiquan are so used to hearing double-weight referred to as a fault, we might easily overlook the fact that, for a large part of the martial arts world, double-weight is not a fault. It is a method. The legs are performing the same function as outriggers, and creating the most stable and secure platform that any fixed system can provide. I say fixed because, even though there may be a shift from the horse stance to the arrow stance in accommodation of the opponent’s input, the method is fixed in that it seeks always to deposit the resolution of all forces exactly at the midpoint between the feet, and to do so with a structure that is, at least for the moment that it receives force, completely unchanging. 

Now, were I not apprehensive of losing the thread of this little article, I would take this moment to explain in more detail the method that Taijiquan utilizes to address the underlying problem with which double-weighted behavior is concerned, a problem that seems at first glance only solvable through the achievement of greater and greater degrees of structural stability. For the moment, however, I will skip the elaboration of the Taijiquan method (which can be found in other writings), except to say that it satisfies the purpose of double-weighted behavior, not by means of a rival structure, but through a mechanism that is entirely dynamic.

This purpose might be expressed in a variety of ways, depending upon the exact martial art and technique to be applied, but probably its most fundamental rendering is this: that all horizontally applied force, whether produced directly by the opponent or by his resistance to our own application of force, be redirected to the vertical in its reception. The theoretical ideal of this process would be a one hundred percent conversion, which would produce a result that no matter how hard the opponent applied force (or resisted it), it would only succeed in pressing one’s feet that much harder into the floor. It should be noted that no static structure can accomplish this ideal, but some can come closer to it than others. The horse and arrow stances, which, by this analysis, may be seen as simply two versions of the same stance, represent the furthest refinement of such a static structure in terms of human anatomy and posture, and is based for its success upon maintaining a complete equality of pressure between the two feet. 

In contrast to this, the Taijiquan method causes the force to travel in the form of a wave, allowing for its dynamic redirection due to sequential internal readjustments of the body. This allows it to accomplish the ideal of one hundred percent redirection, which results in a feeling of complete effortlessness. This method does not depend upon stability; in fact, it reliesupon constant change, which might be said to be definitive of instability, for its very workability. Instead of equalizing pressure in the feet, it functions with any proportional weight distribution, from complete double-weight to one hundred percent on one leg. Since any permanent structural fixation will interfere with the continual readjustments necessary to the method, it is easy to see that these two methods are in compete contradiction. 

This discussion inevitably leads to a recognition of two equally accepted definitions of the word balance. One definition virtually depends upon the concept of double-weight. When someone talks of “regaining his balance,” he is most often referring to going from dynamic instability, in the form of falling, to a condition of secure and unchanging structural stability, by attaining a static double-weighted position (a perfect equality of forces between the feet). A key element of Taijiquan technique and strategy is based upon the fact that even in the midst of the most energetic and fast-moving fight, an opponent who attempts to exert force by employing even a fraction of his weight to do so, in other words, by leaning, experiences a momentary feeling of instability if this weight is neutralized by simply refusing to provide such support (yielding), and will with absolute reliability revert to this double-weighted condition, even if only for a moment, and even if it is immediately followed by a fast moving display of footwork. 

In contrast to this, the Taijiquan adept’s method is entirely dynamic at all times, and is completely devoted to and could even be said to be partially defined by an absence of leaning. This method is very challenging to understand and time-consuming to learn, and, most importantly, is the only means of addressing the problem of instability and redirecting the opponent’s force to the vertical other than double-weighted behavior. Taijiquan students not acquainted with this method, which I refer to in my writings as airball adherence, and who engage in any sort of competition based upon “pushing” and the resistance to such pushing, are practicing double-weighted behavior, and if they imagine that any sort of meditation or manipulation of qi that they are doing has even the slightest chance of excusing them from this group, they are kidding themselves. 

The most immediate contrast to conventional aircraft noticeable in the stealth bomber is that it seems to have no wings, resembling, more than anything, a flying poker chip. This is because its method of dealing with instability is, like that of the Taijiquan adept, dependent upon constant dynamic readjustment, a readjustment that is severely impeded by any inherent structural stability, provided in aviation by wings, which would, the larger they were, only impede the ability of the plane to respond. In fighting this is analogous to the consistent or even momentary employment of double-weighted behavior. To make a point, these two methods are completely mutually exclusive and reciprocally contradictory. The method of the stealth bomber is only made possible by virtue of the high-speed processing capability of the computer, which can make corrections of thrust and subtle adjustments of shape that the human brain could never be fast enough to execute through manual control. The Taijiquan adept’s method is only made possible by extensive practice in the construction of continuous three-dimensional adherence, which habituates a mental process that eventually operates reliably on the subconscious level, where it operates fast enough to compensate for ever-changing and high-speed activity on the part of the opponent. One reason that Taijiquan practice is so rooted in low-speed activity is that this process of adherence must be first accomplished on the conscious level, only possible at such reduced speed. To follow our analogy here, our brain, like the on-board computer that processes and compensates for random and unexpected forces acting on the stealth bomber, must also be programmed to do so, and the entire purpose and thrust of Taijiquan practice aspires to the installation of such a program. As such, it is a mental practice in a way that is equaled by no other martial art, and requires a training process that is entirely dissimilar. (This process is analyzed in The Theoretical Basis of T’ai Chi Ch’uan, connected to the other relevant practices of the art in the soon-to-be-published Structural Fundamentals of T’ai Chi Ch’uan, and with the curriculum of the Yang family in the nearly completed Methodology of the Yang Style of T’ai Chi Ch’uan.)

Unfortunately, the accuracy of this analogy of Taijiquan to the stealth bomber confirms the rationale behind one of the art’s more possibly annoying requirements, that is, the well-known and fairly universal demand that the student eschew all other martial training. Fighting, certainly at any level of reasonable skill, is highly dependent upon deep physical habits, habits that are required to be deep enough to function even under the strain of possible mortal combat. One great source of misunderstanding of Taijiquan by the general public is the natural assumption that, as with other martial arts, training consists of a rehearsal of what one does when fighting. Tajiquan, by contrast, targets the process by which fighting techniques are constructed, by identifying a universal principle uniting them all, and thereby allowing smaller increments of change in response to the opponent’s attack. Such a process leads to a natural smoothness and grace of movement, just as the increase of the number and the decrease of the size of the sides of a multi-sided figure draws it steadily towards the figure of a circle. Even the use of a solo form is deceiving in that it appears to program into the student’s head the pre-planned and structurally powerful positions and movements that it mimics. In reality, it only provides an opportunity to develop certain unconscious habits that support the very esoteric techniques of yielding, adherence, and discharge. These habits, being completely dynamic, are in complete contradiction to the habits that support conventional and structurally powerful movements and positions. This is not a matter of switching styles, as many teachers of gung-fu would like to assume. Taijiquan is not another style, but a technique that calls for completely  different subconscious reactions. The elements of style can be the subject of conscious choices, but the efficiency of a fighter is dependent upon a reliable set of deeper reactions, and these must not be contradicted, and cannot simply be switched on and off at will. 

In short, one cannot stick wings on a stealth bomber and expect to now enjoy the benefits of both systems. Double-weighted behavior is as natural for the human being to employ as covering one’s head in a storm, and, by contrast, the method of Taijiquan is about as esoteric as they come. If one ever expects to master it, they must reprogram their responses without ambiguity, because, in fighting, such mental ambiguity spells hesitation, and hesitation spells defeat.

Video Blog

We just posted the first of a series of informal videos in which I will discuss aspects of Taijiquan that do not require demonstration or advanced understanding on the part of viewers to understand and appreciate. These may be of either a technical or philosophical nature, the kind of topics that might come up and be discussed over a leisurely dinner, things like “why do we do the form so slowly?,” “what is the relationship of Taijiquan to qi gung?” or, in a more technical vein, “what is ‘broken’ jing?” In my writing I tend to be deliberately formal, in an effort to produce something that will stand the test of time. I understand that my teaching is in contradiction to much current practice, but I would hope that future practitioners will recognize my efforts, not as an attempted repurposing of the art, but as an effort to return it to its original roots and method. These videos give me a chance to be more casual, and not as intent upon packing each moment of my audience’s time with as much information as possible. 

Three weeks in Moscow

Three weeks in a Moscow winter should qualify me for lots of sympathy – should, but then I’d have to get in line behind all those Russians. I was very impressed with the condition of the school and the Russian students, who have proven to me once more that their passion. When called in the service of any facet of their lives is, once ignited, almost impossible to extinguish.

Despite my extended absence, their goals appear to remain faithful to the true spirit of Taijiquan, that is, a complete and well-rounded approach to he entire art of boxing, built on a foundation of elegant footwork, with very healthy interpersonal contact.

California Dreaming

I once wrote a poem called “A Dream of California.” I seem to have lost the poem, and it was longer, but it went something like this:

I dreamed one night
That life was long
And roamed through golden hills
Like fog

I was a man
I had a tan
I moved easily
Across the land

I dreamed, I think, of California

 

Well, I just got back from two weeks in the SF, Marin County, Sonoma area, and I guess I’m California dreaming again. After fifty years of teaching (my first class was in Seattle in the Spring of ’68), fifty years of experimenting, theorizing, and wondering if I would ever get to the bottom of this seemingly unfathomable art, I have evolved a vision of Taijiquan that I consider to be absolutely classical, that I would with confidence present to its founders and creators without a single apology or caveat. These past two weeks of classes have convinced me that if I am ever to make this vision live anywhere but in the far-off reaches of Mother Russia, it will be with the students who have stuck with me through my various self-imposed exiles to Moscow and Honolulu, and who, like me, just find this vision compelling enough to feel that it must be a true rendering of the art, just on the basis of its results. Certainly my inclination in this direction was being put to the test, for California did not show its most inviting face to a man spoiled by ten years of surf, sun, sand, and pristine air quality. 

But in spite of this, I realized that it is in California that I should probably be teaching, and so plans continue to percolate towards a residence there. Workshops in Mill Valley, organized by my student of over forty years, Tom Maxon, were in my mind outstanding and the greatest pleasure, despite the looming threat of fire and air pollution. We had a little international contingent there, including Vlasta Pechova, who runs a school in Prague and has been offering my ultra-cooperative, non-competitive method for over a decade. In this time we touched upon Sanshou, Solo Form, Tuishou, Da Lu, and that most neglected of Yang Style protocols, Three-step and Circular Tuishou. Despite the ongoing fires to the east and dangerous air quality, students from the whole Bay Area were in evidence, and my wife Olesya (who assisted me in the classes) and I had more than enough work to fill our days. 

In memory of Ben Lo

I have just this hour received word of the death of my “big brother” and former teacher, Ben Lo. When this famous student of my first teacher, Zheng Manching, arrived in San Francisco, I went to see him and declared that I would not continue to teach at my San Francisco School, The Inner Research Institute, until I had his full authorization. We met on the basketball court in Dolores Park for many mornings until he granted me his blessing, and for many mornings after. It would be hard to imagine more different personalities than Ben and myself, he so conservative in every way, me, in his eyes, a little bit on the wild side, but I spent literally hundreds of hours doing tuishou with him, and he, confronted with any real dedication to the art of Taijiquan, clearly held nothing back and was finally very open in his affection for me. After two years of meeting every Saturday with Ben, Martin Inn, and Susan Foe, (my partners in the Inner Research Institute), we released a new edition of the Classics of Taijiquan, still, I feel, the best available, and now that he has departed I am forever grateful that our names will be linked by this effort. I am only one of thousands today who are mourning the passing of one of Taijiquan’s most passionate students and teachers. Goodbye, Ben. We love you.

Taijiquan Meditations for the Solo Form is Published!

I am very excited about the release of my new book, Taijiquan Meditations for the Solo Form. In the course of my fifty years of teaching, there is a question that I have been asked many times: “what should I meditate on while doing the form?” This usually indicates a concept of the form as a background for some sort of profound mental state and is, I fear, a rather pervasive temptation for the average student. Unfortunately, it belies a fairly common misunderstanding of meditation in general, in that it seems to presuppose the imposition of a consciousness that represents an elevation above the mundane and ordinary reality of our day-to-day existence. Actually, true meditation is instead the elevation of this mundane and ordinary reality to its proper position in our awareness. The ultimate goal of this practice, in virtually all sophisticated schools of meditation, is emptiness, known as samadhi, shikantaza, or by various other names. And in fact, despite the almost infinite variety of rituals, chants, and even gods themselves that seem to separate these schools from one another, they all actually share the same basic method, known as seeding. 

In the Japanese practice of Zen meditation, which I was privileged to pursue for several years under the guidance of the famous Yasutani Hakunn Roshi (immortalized by Phillip Kapleau in The Three Pillars of Zen), one is presented with two models, the Zen master and the head monk (and, ideally, all the other monks as well). Simply stated, the monk demonstrates how one acts in order to get enlightened, and the roshi demonstrates how one acts when he’s gotten it. Whatever profound mental state the roshi may or may not be enjoying, it is made clear that one does not attain it by imitation, regardless of how well-informed or skillful that imitation might be, but rather through the mechanism of seeds, which, in terms of content, can have a pretty low bar, profundity-wise. The necessary association of proper meditation with any particular seed or situation is a mistaken notion, beautifully expressed by the words of Vimalakirti, the author of the only sutra in the Buddhist Cannon that is written, not just by a lay person, but by someone who is not even a Buddhist. Shortly following the death of the Buddha, this simple woodcutter on the island of Ceylon, when walking past a meditating monk from the nearby enclave of Ananda, the late Buddha’s cousin and now head of the newly formed church, stopped and shouted at him: “You think meditation is sitting under a tree with your legs crossed, but I say to you: meditation is not sitting under a tree with your legs crossed.” The monk immediately experienced kensho (enlightenment). 

Meditation is, put most succinctly, total mental absorption, pretty much the polar opposite of multi-tasking. For mental absorption, one needs a focus, something to be absorbed in. Beyond that, it is doing what you are doing, nothing more, and nothing less. There is no sophistication that supersedes that simple formulation. There are lotus postures, vegetarian diets, compelling religions that may aid meditation, but none of them are what meditation is.  A great Zen master of the last century said once: “I used to meditate; now, I just sit.”

One’s ultimate involvement and mastery of Taijiquan is the result of a gestalt combination of technical details that combine to produce a result that, as I am quite fond of saying, looks like natural talent. Virtually every one of these details cannot be considered learned until they become completely unconscious and internalized habits, so thoroughly internalized, in fact, that they continue to function adequately even under the stress of life-threatening conflict. Anything capable of such a dissolution has met the minimum qualification for a legitimate seed, be it an object or an activity. Many of the technical details mentioned above, the smaller ingredients of the greater whole, are complex reactions to externally generated input, and may be practiced and developed when playing with a partner, but they themselves represent a gestalt of even smaller, totally personal habits that are so internal that both their cultivation and the result of that cultivation is, to all but the most sophisticated eye, simply invisible. These smaller ingredients require a protocol that is slower and more deliberate, undistracted by a partner’s whims, and expanded in size for easier examination. They require the solo form.

From the point of view of meditation, the form may be regarded as a ritual, insomuch as it is deliberately productive of a state that is entirely uncreative and, once sufficiently memorized, without the need for any external direction for a period of twenty minutes or so. I should stipulate without resistance that the form, even learned from totally uninformed observation, executed so as to merely imitate some model’s rendition to a reasonable degree, may be used to dissolve one’s day-to-day stress and personal identity for twenty minutes or so, with corresponding salutary effects on future health and happiness. If this is the extent of your desired involvement with Taijiquan, then this book is definitely not for you. 

Taijiquan Meditations examines the form from the opposite end, the smallest pieces of the gestalt that forms the gestalt that forms the gestalt, the seeds of the seeds. It attempts to inform the student as to the proper use of the solo form, not as a performance or a demonstration, but as a reliable platform for the most effective concentration, the moving version of an old and trusted meditation cushion. Taijiquan Meditations represents only a small sample of the possible targets of our concentration, ones that I have observed, in my years as a teacher, to be perhaps especially useful, or especially difficult. I will be so bold as to say that it should be of equal use and interest for the beginner and the most advanced practitioner alike. 

Hope you like it,

Robert Amacker

Seminar in Prague

June 22 – June 24 2018
Taijiquan school Taiji Pod Lupou (Czech Republic) (http://www.taijipodlupou.cz)

Penglujian and Da Lu variations, Yang Style Sword Form
led by Olesya Amacker. 

In this seminar we explored Penglujian and Da Lu variations, such as cloudy hands, elbow, slanting flight, looked for connections between Penglujian and Da Lu exercises. 

In the Sword class we reviewed the sequence of the form and practiced sword exercises in couples.

My greatest thanks go to the director of the school – Vlasta Pechova for inviting me and giving me the opportunity to be part of the school life. Many thanks to the students for creating a warm and positive atmosphere in class.

Trip to California

Just returning from a very productive trip to California. Most of my time was devoted to private lessons for my advanced students in the San Francisco Bay Area, but I also taught several classes for my student of over forty years, Tom Maxon, at his Tamalpais School in Mill Valley. I was very pleased with the progress there and the appearance of several promising beginners. One of Taijiquan’s biggest problems, from a methodological perspective, is the almost logarithmic progression of skill as one proceeds. From a personal point of view, this is gratifying, especially since one’s initial impression of Taijiquan is that one will never live long enough to master it. But it produces a kind of “expanding universe” effect, in which the gap between students is widening, rather than becoming smaller. This effect almost demands a separate class for every student. However, one of the most important and significant features of Taijiquan is that it concerns itself principally with personal interaction with others. Separate classes for everyone, even if logistically feasible, would be completely missing the point. The only solution to this dilemma is for every student to cultivate the skill of learning, not only from his betters, but from those whose skill is inferior to his own. Since my own teachers are either dead or beyond my immediate reach, only this possibility allows me to continue my own personal improvement. On the contrary, I feel that my own technique has done nothing but accelerate in its progress, more and more in the most recent times. The real technique of Taijiquan is a compilation of a great many skills, and a deficiency in any one of them can make the others seem ineffective. Only when one’s progress is well-rounded does this ever disappear, but once the various elements of one’s training start to work together pieces of the puzzle that seemed far in the distance suddenly fall into place, and what was strange and enigmatic becomes somehow natural and obvious. 

This ability to learn from one’s own students, or at least to improve as a result of interaction with them, is possible precisely by virtue of the discreetness and technical rigor of Taijiquan’s various elements, these fundamentals. The good student seeks not only to improve, but to isolate and clarify the reasons for such improvement, in a specific manner. He should not regard any skill to be sufficiently developed until he can completely control its presence or absence in his technique. At this point he can concentrate on those skills most appropriate to the level of his partner, his own discipline providing positive feedback for them without developing bad habits.  As students learn to make use of such sophistication in the realm of personal interaction, they become more and more capable of offering each other positive reinforcement, rather than utilizing a “zero-sum” concept to punish each other for perceived mistakes. Such an attitude, when acted out physically, leads inevitably to a parallel sophistication of interaction on all levels, including those intellectual and emotional, and such an atmosphere resembles, more than any other model, a family. I am happy to say that the Mill Valley school is starting to demonstrate this level of practice.