Taiji and Me, Part Two: Finding My Way

I have many thoughts on taiji, obviously. In my previous post, I detailed what led me to start practicing taiji and some of the benefits I’ve received from it, as well as some of my struggles with it.

The Sword Form is a delicate form, despite being deadly. It’s more about getting someone’s attention with a prick of the point than to hack them to death*. It’s considered a higher form of weaponry, and my favorite move, one in which you split your opponent’s head open with the sword, is considered low-level because it’s so crude. A higher-level move would be one in which you slice the tendon under someone’s armpit, for example.

I love my sword. I love the feel of it in my hand. I love doing the Sword Form and feeling as if I’m dancing. While the Solo Form is a struggle with me excruciatingly aware that I’m Doing Something Good For Me, the Sword Form is pure joy. It comes from within, whereas the Solo Form feels more external (though I’m getting better at internalizing it). That’s not to say that my Sword Form is perfect–far from it, but I’m just amazed at how natural it felt from the start and how easily I learned the sequence. It reminds me of ballet (which I took for twelve years), and it makes me feel graceful, which I don’t often get to feel.

During the same time, we also started learning Push (or Pushing) Hands,** which I absolutely hated. You have to face your partner with your front toes overlapping, which is really fucking close. You have to touch that partner and be touched by her/him in return on the shoulders and hips to begin with, and then the chest, the stomach, and the back. In Willow One (where I’m at), the goal is to move your partner to stretch her out. If you’re the one being moved, you can’t step or use your arms, but just have to allow your partner to ‘push’ you in different directions. It’s a weird feeling on either side, but it’s the basis for sparring, in which I’m exceedingly interested. The fourth class I take every other week is a Push Hand class, and I’m taking it so I can get over my distaste for the practice. In addition, it’s not something that it intuitive to me, so I actually have to think about what I’m doing.

I’ve always been a quick study, which is both a blessing and a curse. It’s a blessing for obvious reason, but it’s a curse because it means I don’t have to work hard to get to a certain level of competency. Which is fine, until I want to move past competency and attain mastery. Then, i’m at a loss because I actually have to work at it, damn it. Talent can only get you so far, after all. I’m trying to be appreciate feeling lost and being OK with not knowing how to do something immediately. This is a weak point of mine, as I’m quick to give up something I’m bad at after one or two tries. I don’t like feeling stupid, and not being able to do something in one go makes me feel stupid.

Side road: It’s the downside to priding myself on my intelligence. My brains were the only thing I was proud of as a kid. I thought I was fat, ugly, slow,and a freak in a bad way. I didn’t have many friends and spent most of my spare time reading. I even read the dictionary on a regular basis, and I fell in love with words at a very early age. I was and still am a voracious reader, which is why I know the meanings of many big words, but i don’t always know how to pronounce them. Since my intelligence was the only thing I liked about myself, I was uncomfortable with anything that took that away from me.

Push Hands elicit all those feelings in me. Anger, resentment, fearfulness, fear of failure. In the Push Hands class, there are two women who have been doing it for several years. I am always nervous practicing with them because I don’t want to look stupid in front of them. I am so aware of not wanting to make a mistake, I end up being tenser than I normally would be. I also am aware of how much a newbie I am in this area, and it makes me even more self-conscious.

I try to tell myself it’s good for me to be lost and to not know what I’m doing, but I don’t believe it. Even though rationally, I know it’s a good thing because it reminds me of all I have to learn and that I do not know everything, I still hate it. It makes me feel like that seven-year-old girl again who hid in her room with her books because no one wanted to play with her. I will say that I’m more comfortable with Push Hands than I was when I first started, but it’s a matter of degrees.

The other form we’re currently learning is a new version of the Two-Person Form. My teacher’s teacher, Sifu, created it himself, and it’s been an honor to learn it directly from him. The first section of the form, anyway. The Two-Person Form is also a sparring form, and I love it as I love anything that has to do with the martial aspect of taiji. it’s a series of postures that has one side attacking and the other side defending or neutralizing the attack. All the movements are based on postures from the Solo Form, and it’s helped me appreciate the Solo Form more. Again, applications are the way to my heart. Show me how to break someone’s arm, and I’m yours!

The Two-Person Form mostly feels natural to me for the most part, but there was one posture that I could not get, even after several times practicing it. I started getting down on myself because I had learned the other postures fairly easy up until that point. I stuck with it and eventually learned the posture, and I felt good that I didn’t give up. We are in the beginning of the second section, and in the newest posture, I get to kick my partner in the thigh. Not really, of course, but close enough to make me excited. I can’t wait to see the neutralization for it, and it’s this excitement to learn new postures that really keeps me going.

See, I’m more frustrated with my taiji now than I’ve ever been. The truism that the more you know, the more you realize you don’t know has never been more apt. In the beginning, it was enough just to learn the sequence of the Solo Form and to remember that my bow stance (front foot pointing forward, back foot at a forty-five degree angle) should be shoulder-width apart. If my teacher had tried to give me refinements on my Solo Form while I was learning it, I would have either given up in despair or not fully understand what she was trying to tell me. Your mind can only digest so much at a time, and my teacher is wise enough not to overload her students.

Once I learned the Solo Form and now know enough about it to be given refinements, I’m seeing all the flaws in my form (and my Form). They are bad habits solidified over time and while there was no way to correct for them when they first started happening, it makes changing those bad habits now even harder. One of my biggest flaws is that I’ve been over-shifting when moving from one leg to the other. When you shift your weight forward, you should never move your knee past the base of your toes. When you shift your weight backward to sit on your heel, your ass should not be sticking out. I over-shifted in both directions to the point where I now have tendonitis in my knees. It’s been greatly reduced since I started concentrating on not over-shifting, but my knees still ache if I don’t shift properly.

In addition, my knees don’t go straight over my toes when I bend them. I think might be a structural issue with my bones, but my teacher thinks it’s because I took 12 years of ballet lessons. I can turn my toes out past 180 degrees, which isn’t useful in taiji because we mostly keep our toes parallel or 45 degrees outwardly. I have difficulty with keeping my feet parallel because my knees turn inward when I do that. After all these years, I can make my feet stay parallel, but it’s still uncomfortable. Once I adjust so that my knees are over my toes, however, any discomfort disappears. It feels strange, however, because my thighs feel so open. I’m hoping I’ll get used to that eventually.

My teacher pointed out another bad habit of mine–rushing through the beginning of the postures. This is not an uncommon issue, but it’s not easy to change. Another problem is that you can only focus on one refinement at a time, so I’m currently mostly concentrating on not over-shifting or keeping my knees over my toes, but I’m very conscious when I’m working on one that I’m not working on the other. Progress in taiji is so damn slow sometimes. In the beginning, it was slow, yes, but I still felt like I was accomplishing something every time I learned a new posture. Now, much of what I’m doing is refinement, which is much less glamorous. Instead of thinking, “Hey, I learned three new postures today”, I have to think instead,”Hey, I remembered not to over-shift for most of the first section of the Solo Form.” Believe me, it’s much less satisfying, even if it’s more fundamentally important.

The rest of my bad habits are mostly incorrectly-learned postures. I’m not too down on myself for that because that happens. Taiji is complex and layered, even though it appears simple, and it’s easy to think, “Hey, I got this”, when I really don’t. I’ve been doing some tutoring lately of the newer students at my teacher’s request, and it’s a great way for me to hone my own form, be it the Solo Form or the Sword Form. It’s easy to get into a rut or just do things by rote, and when I have to teach a posture, I put more thought into what I’m actually doing. I also have to think about the real names for postures and not the ones I make up for them instead. There’s a posture called, “Embrace Tiger and Return it to the Mountain”, which I call, “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” instead. “Fair Ladies Weaving at Their Shuttles” has morphed into, “My Fair Ladies”, etc. I’m even worse at the Sword Form in that I can’t think of the postures as I’m counting the beats or trying to explain the movements in the postures. I’m working on it, but it’s taking some time.

I’m taking private lessons once a month with my teacher in which I’m learning the Saber Form. The video at the beginning of this post is of Master T.T. Liang doing the Saber Form With Tassel. He loved everything with tassel (he was a ballroom dancer before he was a taiji instructor), and yes, there are actual forms with the tassel. I’m learning without the tassel, but the basic form is the same. I watched this video this morning before going ┬áto class, and it was informative because one of my bad habits (already!) in the Saber Form is waving my saber around in the air like a swashbuckling pirate. If you watch Master Liang, his movements are so minimal, and the saber is almost incidental as he practices. As my teacher says, it’s the feet that are important (in any form). Get the feet right, and the hands will follow. Or the saber in this case.

Before I started learning the saber, I naively thought that because I had such an aptitude for the sword, the saber would be a cinch as well. I was wrong. It felt good in my hand, but it didn’t feel as natural as did the sword. As I continued with the saber, I felt frustrated as well as thrilled. Thrilled because there is a raw power in the saber that is absent in the sword. Swinging around makes me feel like a Mongol hording around; it’s pretty badass. I want to pound on my chest and gnaw my way through a turkey drumstick. It’s a primal feeling that makes me feel as old as time. However, it’s frustrating because I feel that while I know the saber movements fairly well, and I know the footwork nearly as well, I am not integrating the two, thus not tapping into full power of the saber. My last private was strictly focused on refinement, even though I’m roughly halfway through the form, and while I needed it (oh, how I needed it), it got me down because I felt as if it were halting my progress.

It wasn’t, of course, as it’s best to correct a problem before it becomes a habit, but it still didn’t feel good at the time. I got a very helpful tip as to improving my footwork, and my teacher reminded me to focus on the feet and not the saber. I’m trying to incorporate the tip into my practice, but it’s not coming naturally to me. As I’ve stated before, that’s means my impulse is to quit the activity because it makes me feel stupid, but I’m trying to hang with the frustration because I do really like the Saber Form. It’s more explosive than the Sword Form, and I have to think about it in a completely different way than I do the Sword Form. This is a good thing, even if it foiled my expectation that I would learn the Saber Form easily because I had little problem learning the Sword Form.

I’ve missed my sword, though. I haven’t practiced as much with it now that I’m learning the saber, and I think it feels neglected. A few times, it’s poked itself out of my weapons bag and refused to be put back inside. I’ve taken to doing a round of it at the studio, at least once a week, during the break, which I hope will placate it. I know I feel better after doing a round of sword, and while I’m temporarily infatuated with the saber (it’s a difficult, tumultuous relationship), the sword will always be my true love. In my last post, I wrote about the difficulties I have with meditation. The sword is my meditation, and I’m never more at peace as I am when I’m doing the Sword Form.

I’ve been on my taiji journey for six or seven years,*** and while I’m in what I consider a plateau right now, I know I’ll continue down this path for many more years to come. Taiji is a lifelong study and something you can do well into your eighties if not nineties, which means I have forty more years to practice. I can afford to make mistakes and correct them because if there’s one thing I have in taiji, it’s time.


*That would be the saber. More on that in a bit.

**I practice Yang-style taiji, so it’s not exactly the same, but the basic principle is similar.

***I think. Or maybe even eight!

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