There are three basic components in partner training: My awareness of my structure and movement, your awareness of your structure and movement, and then the connection between us, manifested in how each of us perceives and responds to our relative changes in direction, position, balance, movement and contact. It is important to draw a clear distinction between your awareness of your own structure and movement, and what you can really only infer is happening to the other person, or of what they are doing, or are about to do.
In this article I attempt to explain why, even in partner training, our focus should be on our own structure and movement, and not on those of our partner. This is mainly, although not exclusively, written for those who already have some experience of Taiji practice, and speaks from only a basic understanding of our own sensory and nervous systems. It is my hope this will assist those who have an interest in the physiological aspects to appreciate the importance of the advice expressed in classes and the Taiji classics.
 From http://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/infer to infer is “to form an opinion or guess that something is true because of the information that you have”
Do you find that the more you try to relax and 'let go', the stiffer your muscles feel? Or perhaps when you try to make small adjustments, the rest of your structure is pulled out of alignment?
A change is as good as a rest.
You might be trying too hard! If you are working at the edge of your current ability, it can be difficult to know whether you are trying too hard, or not trying hard enough. Also, if we are impatient to feel a change or a 'result', it can be tempting to try and 'force' things to happen, even 'just' a little bit. Of course we have to try, and in our search for the optimal approach we sometimes do too little, and sometimes also too much.
The solution to this sort of problem sometimes lies within a deficiency in other aspects of your practice, which may be blocking your progress and will need addressing before you can move forward.
So, perhaps instead of struggling on blindly, or giving up in frustration, you could try a change in approach by working on other aspects for a while. For example, refining your balance and the maintenance of your alignment (centre of equilibrium) will make it easier for you to relax and, in due course improve your ability to feel your internal connections, leading to greater precision and effortless adjustment. Now you can return to your previous work, and move forward.
If we don't try hard enough, nothing is achieved.
If we try too hard, or are too insistent, then it leads back to stiffness.
Wee Kee Jin speaks about this, and so did his teacher. Wise words I think.
Leon C. Megginson paraphrased Charles Darwin thus: According to Darwin’s Origin of Species, it is not the most intellectual of the species that survives; it is not the strongest that survives; but the species that survives is the one that is able best to adapt and adjust to the changing environment in which it finds itself.
Paul Fretter, Norwich, UK
This year's camp was a resounding success and thoroughly enjoyed by all.
More than 40 Taiji students travelled from as far afield as Canada, New Zealand, Germany, Holland and Lithuania, as well as all corners of the UK: Belfast, Isle of Skye, Glasgow, Bristol, Frome, London, St Albans, Cambridge and, of course, Norwich.
Following from the 2014 camp, the training emphasised developing awareness of internal movement in the Short Form, and then translating into the partner training. Wee Kee Jin emphasised that having learned something new, it is first necessary to practice, and then to analyse your practice and not just follow blindly. As a result of analysing your practice, you will discover new things that would not otherwise present themselves.
Arrival at the camp is a gradual affair, with people arriving from around noon until the late afternoon. Some arrive by car, whereas those travelling from afar are collected from the airport or one of the nearby rail and bus stations.
On arrival students were greeted by Sally and Wendy, who take registration details, showed people to their accommodation and explained any domestic essentials.
The first class begins at 7:30pm, after dinner, and Jin gives an introduction to the week.
Early morning training
Morning practice begins at 6am, when the hall is opened for solo training by "the hardy few" until 7am when the whole group assembles for an hour of partner training.
The hour is spent doing "free pushing", with both partners in one of three fixed positions, changing partners every 10 minutes, until 8am ... at which point there is a stampede to get to breakfast in the dining hall!
No sooner has breakfast begin to settle in our stomachs (porridge, full English, toast or croissants), we are training again at 9:30am. The whole group trains together for a while, and then Kee Jin's UK instructors guide the newer students in the first section of the Form, whilst he leads the others through the next sections.
Then the whole group trains a short period of basic partner training in the Seven Point Push, before the morning class concludes at 11:30. There is then a 30 minute break for free practice, or rest, before it's noon and time to eat again.
After lunch people were free to go sight-seeing in Wymondham or Norwich, go for walks locally or just rest and drink tea. On 3 afternoons the school swimming pool was open, and on the other days there was an optional extra class in Fujian White Crane, for those who were interested in trying it out for the first time.
Training begins again at 4pm with a round of the first section of the Short Form, followed by fixed partner exercises such as Rollback and Press, Open-Close, wardoff-rollback-press-push and others.
Before you know it, 6pm arrives and it's time to eat again, so we eagerly eat our fill and then rest before the evening class.
After a round of the first section of the Form, the evening class is where we practice the neutralising and issuing of relaxed force with a partner. Building on the fixed exercises and Form practice earlier in the day, the neutralising and issuing are trained a specific set of exercises.
The highlight of the session was a semi-free exercise, with one partner standing close to the wall providing a varied force and the other learning to 'pick up the signal' and neutralise. The options then are to either pluck the person out to the side/rear, or move in and issue; with the wall preventing them from flying too far.
Chinwag and ch'ai
There are two common rooms situated centrally to the accommodation areas, available 24x7 with seating tea/coffee making facilities, and a plentiful supply of biscuits! We frequently congregate here in between classes to drink tea and talk about training, especially after the evening class. People last out for a while, until eyelids become heavy and sleep beckons.
The food at Hethersett Old Hall School is great, catering for vegetarians, vegans and omnivores alike, and there really is no danger of going hungry!
Michael Reeves, the Facilities Manager at the school, works hard to ensure we have a comfortable stay, and he also doubles as our Chef for the week, doing a fantastic job with his team in feeding us.
The camp is very a much a 'family' atmosphere. The organising team will help with any domestic queries or problems you may have, and several of Kee Jin's UK instructors are on-hand to answer questions about your practice or help you through aspects you are struggling with.
The camp is very much a "retreat" from the demands of work and daily life, but not completely cut off from the outside world. Mobile reception is generally OK and the school has a good guest WiFi system so it is easy to keep in touch with family and friends.
The annual camp concludes with a party, and this year we were lucky to be entertained by a rousing performance from Hugh Lynch and his band. Many students found the energy to dance for almost 2 hours, showing no signs of fatigue in their legs even after a week of rigorous training!
Hugh is also a White Crane Student, and Nick Hurn (drummer) studies both White Crane and Taiji.
All too soon, it's Sunday the 5th already, and sadly it's the last morning of training. After lunch, people begin to depart and the Team ferries students to the rail and bus stations, or the local airport as needed. so that's it ... all over until next year !
The Organising Team
If you have any queries, comments or suggestions about the camp, please contact one of the team: Pete Dobson, Sally Ward, Wendy Rogers, Stuart Lee and Paul Fretter.
Difficulty with alignment of the knee joints is very common and hopefully a few 'pointers' will help you improve your Taiji practice, and reduce the risk of injuries. Yes ... moving slowly can bring injuries too if you move incorrectly; especially to the knee joints.
caveat: I am not a podiatrist, or any kind of medical professional, so the views and opinions expressed here are personal and do not constitute medical advice. The reader is advised to use their own judgement to take professional medical advice where necessary.
The proper alignment of the knee joint is to be central above the foot, approximately along its centreline, such that the ankle joint is level when viewed from the front or rear.
When standing, as the
knee joint is moved forwards, the ankle joint also flexes. The track of the knee joint, when viewed from above, will be a very slight inward curve, not an absolutely straight line.
You should also observe that the flexion of the ankle joint is actually three dimensional, and accounts for (or is taken account by) the curvature of knee trajectory.
A common problem I see with many people I meet, not only Taiji students, is that the knee joints are slightly collapsed inwards; causing the foot to be unevenly weighted on the floor and the knee joint itself to be slightly twisted during forward movement. The immediate result is reduced biomechanical efficiency, and the longer term impact is likely to be injuries to the knee, ankle and hip joints, as well as knock-on effects in the lower back.
The knee joints are more vulnerable to damage when there is weight in the leg, and doubly so when moving.
Again to emphasise, I am not a medical professional, but there seem to be a few causes and I will attempt to list the ones (I think) I know about:
1. Congenital. We are all probably born with a misalignment to a greater or lesser degree.
2. Excess inward rotation of the femur (thigh bone), often characterised by a muscle imbalance (strength, recruitment or flexibility) around the hip joints.
3. Fallen arches of the feet. This could be congenital, or could be due to muscular atrophy in the ankle caused by too much reliance on shoe insoles. i.e. our feet get lazy and the shoe insoles become a 'crutch'.
Addressing the problem
There is no guaranteed fix, even more so for genuinely congenital issues but, in my own limited experience, many alignment problems can be reduced or alleviated by paying attention in a couple of areas, and of course regular practice.
If you have fallen arches, for whatever reason, you may find that after a period of training your knee may feel 'hot' or the muscles on the outside of your thigh may get tight and tired. Wearing flat soled shoes and custom-made orthotic insoles may help to support your arch, to bring the ankle into a level position. This may help to alleviate the knee pain and muscle soreness, as well as reduce your chances of injury and long term damage (osteo-arthritis?), but it will not undo the underlying cause of the problem, and so if you do nothing else you will be reliant upon the insoles. The intermittent use of insoles during practice, combined with exercises (below) might in some cases lead to a reduced reliance on orthotics over time.
1. Loosen, stretch and strengthen the muscles around the hip joints. The primary aim is to enable the femur (thigh bone) to point in the right direction without straining. Consult your instructor, physiotherapist or other exercise professional for specific advice.
2. Train a "new" knee alignment. Stand in a parallel stance, with the feet shoulder width apart and the outer edges of the soles pointing straight ahead, and then visualise a gentle inward turning intention around the shins and calves, and a gentle outward turning intention around the thigh and knee joint. This will begin to establish a balanced muscular structure that will aid in maintaining proper knee alignment.
3. Strengthen the ankle. Press your big toe gently into the floor to level the ankle joint, while keeping the ball of the foot in full contact. Repeat several times each session and then several times a week to build strength and also new habit.
When training the "new" knee alignment in your Taiji, begin in stationary postures and get "good" at managing your adjustments there first, before progressing to adjustment when shifting weight or stepping. You will need to pay continued attention to your hip alignment, such that the femur is pointing to the right place. The knee joint will be wherever the femur points to. I know that sounds obvious, but it is very important to keep it in mind when correcting the knees. If the hips are not true, the femur points in the wrong direction, so the knees are misplaced, and thus the ankle is supinated/pronated, forcing the weight onto one edge of the foot. The muscles in the calf and thigh will then be tense and any attempt at movement will be painful, trying to move against resisting muscles and not in sympathy with the 'proper' angle of movement for the knee joint.
Correcting the knees when moving requires careful attention. A subtle point that is not commonly noticed, is that when the knee joint moves forward/backward along the line of the foot, the trajectory (when viewed from above) is actually a subtle inward curve, not a straight line. Move and turn slowly so that you have time to continually adjust and correct the hips/feet to keep the knees in proper station.
The body will take time to accept the realignments that you train into it. The nervous system needs to learn a new habit and the tissues will need time to adapt, so you will need to be patient; as if you were filling a bucket with water, one droplet at a time.
When you feel the muscles in your legs getting tight, keep your feet in place but straighten your legs for a few moments to let go of the tension, then return to your posture or movement.
When you get too tired to perform the movements or corrections properly, it is best to stop and allow time for recovery. Your understanding will evolve over time, and you will need to
revisit the above many times and re-evaluate what you can take from it ; and how you apply occupational and biomechanical principles.
I sincerely hope this will inspire you to investigate ways to correct problems you have with your knee alignment, and to seek professional medical advice where necessary.
Comment from some of my Taiji colleagues will be welcome here, and especially those who are qualified to offer medical opinion or guidance?
Paul Fretter, Norwich UK.