Taiji Quan vs Taiji Cao, and Why All Taiji Instructors should Also Teach Taiji Cao!

I just finished my first TaijiFit™ Certification weekend with the highly esteemed David-Dorian Ross, and I must admit: I love Taiji Cao a la TaijiFit™.

What is Taiji Cao, you ask? Well, I’m glad you asked that question.

The best translation for “Taiji Cao” is “Taiji Calisthenics”. We follow David-Dorian Ross, its current and best proponent, in calling it Taiji Cao or TaijiFit™ because we really can’t spell Calisthenics without Spellcheck, and apparently don’t know how to pronounce Calisthenics correctly, either, since Spellcheck tells me it is spelled completely differently than I had imagined. But I digress.

More specifically, Taiji Cao is a much simplified presentation of Taiji movements, organized so that they are easy to follow and easy to practice. TaijiFit™, specifically, introduces movements very gradually and naturally, and simplifies lower body movements to easy knee bends, obvious weight shifts, and simple steps out. Taiji Cao was originally developed in China decades ago for its ease of entry into an otherwise esoteric martial art and its high health benefits (though it was never as easy as David-Dorian Ross now makes it in TaijiFit™). TaijiFit™ helps you to almost immediately enjoy the bliss of letting your breath lead your movements, and making beautifully fluid, symmetrical, expansive Taiji movements in a completely relaxed, stress-free environment.

How is Taiji Cao different from Taiji Quan, then, you ask? Isn’t all Taiji relaxing?

Well, sort of. Practicing Taiji Quan is very relaxing and makes you feel at one with the universe. Learning Taiji Quan can make your head hurt and your muscles scream (if you have a good teacher).

The thing about Taiji Quan, which translates to Taiji Fist (there is also Taiji Jian— Taiji Sword, and Taiji Dao — Taiji Saber, and Taiji Shan — Taiji Fan, and… you get the drift), and one of the things that I love about Taiji Quan, is that it is extremely complex. Good Taiji Quan practice requires continuous fluidly coordinated and perfectly balanced movement in practically every joint in your body, driven by your breath, led by your intent, and filled with your spirit and energy. Taiji Quan is an extremely effective type of moving meditation because it forces the practitioner to concentrate on so many things going on at the same time that the mind doesn’t have any opportunity to wander. You can achieve great health and enter a state of ethereal meditation practicing Taiji…

… but only after hours, weeks, months, or even years of practice. After learning to put yourself in initially unnatural positions (you’re just re-aligning yourself, really!) and forcing strange sets of coordination and timing (which will become natural after you’ve done them 20 or 200 times). And after submitting yourself to the critical eye of your teacher, sweating and worrying that you aren’t up to par while trying to relax relax relax. Learning Taiji Quan is not a stress-free endeavor! It works your brain like it works your muscles, and both brain and muscles get sore! (and strong!)

Please don’t misunderstand – I love taking Taiji Quan class and learning new things from my incredible teacher. I love the history and the philosophy and culture of Taiji; I love that I can hit light switches even when both my arms are full (I use my feet J); I love that six-year-olds think I’m really flexible; and I actually really and truly enjoy the process of going from bewildered and uncomfortable to totally natural and completely relaxed. But I also understand that this long and difficult learning process may not be for everyone all the time. Especially not the first time.

Which brings us back to Taiji Cao and TaijiFit™. In TaijiFit™, there is no getting confused with which hand is in front and which leg is behind; no bewildering turning around and around; no baffling clockwise vs. counterclockwise circling; no worrisome low stances or high kicks; no losing count of your Cloudy Hands! TaijiFit™ requires neither perfect memory nor divine coordination, or even radical flexibility and extreme strength. TaijiFit™ is just the flow. Just the happiness and (most of) the health benefits.

I therefore suggest that every Taiji instructor should teach Taiji Cao a la TaijiFit™, either as a class by itself or as a simple 2- or 5-or 10-minute warm-up for Taiji Quan class. I am now a firm believer in the importance of allowing students to feel the flow through easy Taiji movements before requesting that they memorize my detailed and highly annotated 6-part instruction of “how to walk forward”. Since Taiji Cao is based on actual Taiji movements, I also believe that the easy and stress-free preview of movements in Taiji Cao will aid new students in learning complex and coordinated movements later on, sort of like humming along with a song before you have to memorize how to play it on the piano, with both hands and pedals and full chords and flourishes and feeling. And for experienced students (and teachers), Taiji Cao will help them enter their Flow, or their Zone, sooner, as well as allow them a chance to practice their basic movements in a happy, relaxed, non-critical, and stress-free setting.

Long live Taiji Cao! And may many Taiji Cao students continue on to learn and revel in the bliss of Taiji Quan!

Why you should learn Chinese characters when you’re learning Chinese

A lot of people who want to learn Chinese are intimidated by Chinese characters, and with good reason – there is no simple ABC alphabet, there are tens of thousands of distinct “pictures”, and it really does matter how you “draw” them.  Why not just learn to speak, and ignore the whole Reading and Writing business?

I, however, consider learning Chinese characters an integral part of learning Chinese. Let me explain with my own little story:

I grew up in the United States (San Diego, born and raised!) speaking Cantonese at home with my  mother.  I could speak, but I could only speak “Kitchen Cantonese,” as it’s called — politics and philosophy were beyond my vocabulary (Hong Kong gangster movies were also beyond my vocabulary, for some reason. Something about most of the dialogue being people yelling at each other angrily with, um, “slang.”)

Then, as I was entering teenage-hood, my concerned mother realized just how embarrassingly limited my Chinese was, so she moved our family to Beijing for a year and put me in Chinese-for-Foreign-Born-Chinese-Kids school, where I learned to speak Mandarin Chinese and how to read and write (reading and writing are the same in Chinese regardless of the dialect spoken).   Now, my mother had tried very hard to teach me how to read and write characters when I was little, but my one and only (successful) act of rebellion as a child was to demand the end of my mother’s (math and) Chinese Writing lessons; so upon entering Chinese school, my Chinese literary skills were limited to writing 1, 2, 3, and my name.

But OH what an eye-opener it was to learn Chinese! For example, the word “tiao” (jump): I finally learned that the “tiao” in “tiao sheng” (jump rope) was the same “tiao” as in “tiao wu” (dance).  And the “wu” in “wu dao” (dance) was different from the “wu” in “Wushu” (martial arts)!   And the “da” (active verb) in “da pai” (play cards) was the same “da” as in “da ren” (hit people) and in “da Taiji” (do Taiji).  

Chinese started to really and finally make sense for me.  Whereas previously I was relying on rote memory to speak to my mother and all my Chinese relatives (who always laughed at my funny Chinese), now I could see the patterns and remember them easily; and if I couldn’t remember or didn’t know the word for something, I could infer it or, worst-case-scenario, look it up in the dictionary!   It felt very good to understand what I was saying.

Now that I teach Chinese to a class of children, I also realize how useful it is for even children to learn characters. A lot of words share the same or similar pronunciation, you see, and sometimes kids will ask me about “new” words – if they are the same as ones they have previously learned or not.  If the words are the same, then life is easy and they have a new usage for something they already know – the pattern is deepening.  And if the word is new, then they have just learned another word with the same or similar pronunciation  – the pattern is expanding. 

For example, it’s very helpful to know that the “bu” (no;not) in “dui bu qi” (sorry) is the same “bu” as in “bu yong xie” (no need to thank) and “bu hao” (not good) and “bu yao” (no need / don’t want it)!   And it’s so much easier to remember how to say “panda” and “bear” and “cat” and “dog” when you know that in Chinese, a panda is a “’xiong’ cat,” and a bear is a “dog ‘xiong’”.

Chinese just makes better sense when you know your characters.  The written word is powerful.

Flexibility Training (Stretching) in Chinese Martial Arts (Wushu & Taiji, anyway)

Just about everybody wants to be more flexible.  It’s healthy to be flexible, and having a greater range of motion can improve your quality of life (and having tight muscles can hurt).  Being flexible is good.

Some people join Wushu or Taiji with the express purpose of “improving flexibility”.  Kudos to you.  Many of those students do make impressive gains in how close they can get their noses to their toeses. Others join for that reason, come not often enough, and then say, “You know, I’m thinking about joining a yoga class to improve my flexibility”.  As a Chinese Martial Arts teacher, my response to that is “Yes, if you do go to a good yoga class multiple times a week, I’m sure your flexibility will improve.”

But, gosh darn it, if you came to your Wushu or Taiji class multiple times a week, and stretched for 2-5 minutes every day like we teach you to, your flexibility would improve just as well!  (OK, OK, so sometimes I go over-time in Taiji class and don’t get around to my preferred 12 minutes of conditioning+stretching, but, still…!!!)

About Flexibility: flexibility takes time and work to achieve, and there are as many types of flexibility as there are muscles and joints in the body.  You can be Gumby in one direction and still be C3PO in another.

For example:  when dancers kick, they kick “high” – they turn their hips and do a vertical splits with the top foot well above the head. In Wushu (and Taiji), the key is to keep your hips flat and level to the ground during the kick, which means that Chinese martial artists don’t want to kick higher than their foreheads in practice – they don’t kick “high” so much as “to the head” (more useful, yes? :))  To achieve that, we in Wushu and Taiji use a slightly different set of stretches than dancers do.

Both types of flexibility are extremely impressive, though, and it’s not a big deal to switch from one to the other, so maybe that’s a bad example.

Here’s another example: we have a student who has extremely flexible hamstrings, but terribly stiff hips.  Another has super supple hips for things like center splits, but the front of his hips are stiff like old toffee, so we spend time every week just stretching the front of his hips.

In conclusion, it is good to be flexible, and classes aimed specifically at improving your flexibility will do so if you attend regularly and practice frequently, but also be aware of all the different sets of muscles that need stretching and make sure to get a complete, whole-body stretch!  In essence: come to class!   (And remind me to switch from teaching/forms to conditioning+stretching if I threaten to go over-time in Taiji class again!)

JING Cultural Information Uploaded!

We have finally uploaded some of our culture-class handouts to our website, and added links to more cultural information.  The links are on our JING Class Information page, under each of the Cultural Class descriptions, and the information-handouts are (linked from the Info page and) posted on a new JING Chinese Culture Information page.

The Cultural Events that have been updated are Abacus (link to a great tutorial), Chinese Brush Painting (information added), Chinese Banquet (information added), Dim Sum (information added), Chinese Music (link to a fantastic interview of Liu Fang), and Qigong (link to the Drs. Reid’s website).

If you haven’t already read the articles as handouts during the specific cultural classes, then I hope you will read the essay and links online and enjoy learning more about these wonderful aspects of Chinese culture.

The Chinese Brush Painting information handout is An Ultra Brief History of Chinese Brush Painting, including a few lines about Chinese Brush Painting in general and why I think it is so wonderful, and brief descriptions of the different types of painting as they developed.

The Chinese Music link is to an interview of Liu Fang, a reknown Pipa and Guzheng player. The interview is very good, and discusses how Chinese Music is related to Chinese Language and Chinese Art, particularly Chinese Brush Painting.  I recommend the interview to all language, art, and music lovers.

The Chinese Banquet information includes what to expect at a Banquet and how you are expected to behave, slightly colored by my own experiences in China and in the San Diego Chinese-American community. I have also included a section about Food Symbolism in Chinese food, modern Chinese weddings, and a link to the major food types in China.

The Dim Sum page is a lot shorter than then Banquet page, but I am sure you will also find it fun and helpful if you want to know more about Dim Sum.

And, of course, we would like to tell as many people as possible about the incredible Drs. Reid and their Qigong. Click on our link to their website!

I will continue working to add more information and links for you!

JING launches new Bagua Program in San Diego

We would like to give a special thank you to both Wei Wei and Matthew for working diligently on a new curriculum that launched this past week and is now being offered at JING on Tues. and Thurs. evenings at 7pm. The Bagua “Move like a dragon..” Program is fantastic.  Check out the the website for more information.

http://www.sdtaichi.com/classhours.html

All the best!

Shin Koyamada vists JING Institute and BTSDsd

This past weekend was a great one. Shin Koyamada (“Jolly Good…” from Last Samurai) visited our sister school Bujinkan Taka Seigi Dojo in San Diego.   He was raising money for his foundation and was also signing his new comic : “The Dream Hoppers”.  We invite everyone to check out his new comic.  We wish everyone the best.

The JING Family.