Guest Blogger: A month with Sam Tam
For about the last month I have had the privilege of living and practicing taiji with grandmaster Sam Tam. This was my third stay with Sam and the longest so far (I have written a bit about my previous experiences on this blog). I have largely only been out of the house to eat or to take short walks in the local area, as my days has looked something like this:
7.30: Get up
22.30: Go to bed
It has been quite amazing to have so much time to dedicate myself to the practice, but it has also shown me with great clarity that a lot of practice is needed. Sam has pointed out many things that I can improve and I have had the pleasure of touching hands with quite a few other students, which has every time led to some new discovery – for example that I am not turning enough from the center when rolling back or that I am really fooling myself when I think that I can yield to strong physical force.
This blogpost of course only reflects my current level of understanding and should not be seen as any kind of “truth” about what taiji is or how to practice it. It is simply my best attempt at communicating my understanding of the art, as I am seeing it right now, based on what Sam has tought me over the last month.
My experience of Sam
Sam is a friendly and nice teacher, but you feel that there is deadly power behind the soft surface. When he goes from “teaching mode” (where he obviously slows down so I understand what is going on) to showing a little bit of his fighting skill it feels quite overwhelming (terrifying even), even though he has never actually hurts me.
Very casual right?
Sam yields effortlessly and without any tension, and that means that he can return the force to me at will. When he stops guiding my movements to help me out and shows a little bit of his fighting skill instead it feels like i am only “in the fight” for a brief moment after which I am in full retreat and bodily panic – I imagine this is what it feels like to be mauled by a tiger.
Respond. Technique is subordinate to the principles.
Sams system is a combination of taiji and yi chuan. When touching him he can feel very dense or very light depending on what he wants to show. Sam can convincingly demonstrate many different aspects of yielding, from something that feels very firm (his arms become hard as steel and completely impossible to move) while still being “suspended in the air” and without direction, to being so soft that I am barely able to touch his skin. Furthermore he is in complete control as soon as we touch and obviously knows more about what is going on in my body (and mind?) than I do.
When doing pushhands with Sam a very common experience is that he “fills up the space” and limits my freedom of movement when I don’t am collapsing or using force. It feels like being “herded” into a limited movement space. This usually ends with me standing in an unbalanced position or going into some sort of lock.
When they come forward, you yield. When they go back, you follow.
Sams can also demonstrate issuing at many different levels. Simply shifting the weight with a solid frame, sinking the chi into me (feels like being pinned down in my own center), softly bouncing (which feels like being sucked in and thrown like a ball) and more Yi Chuan based bouncing (which feels like having your insides punched) are some examples. All involve some degree of yielding, sticking, frame and shifting, but the levels are different.
One thing that is imporant to note is that his power doesnt come from the feet. Sam can convincingly demonstrate issuing while sitting down with his feet of the floor. It i all about expansion from the center. I still don’t feel that I fully understand how “chi” works, but what I can say with great clarity is that it works for Sam and that he can convincingly demonstrate the “sinking of the chi”.
Sam doesn’t “do” taiji, he embodies it. He moves effortlessly in the spectrum between soft/firm and fighting/teaching and inspires a holistic understanding of the art.
I have focused a lot on standing meditation during my stay. According to Sam, the standing meditation is what makes it possible to work with the chi and he attributes his own power to working with the standing. The analogy is that the standing is like putting money in the bank, so you have something to use of when you are fighting.
One of the first things Sam pointed out how I was not connected in my upper body – something I have worked a lot on during my stay. Sam has helped me correct my rather crooked standing meditation, where I had gotten used to standing with my left hand around 5-10cm closer to my body than the right hand. This has led to a lot of interesting experiences with tensions and pains at different spots in my back, but also to a sensation of being able to sink more inside the chest. This feels like an important start of a longer process as I still feel quite tense around the ribs. Sam says that my chi is stuck in the ribs and around the solar plexus.
Sam emphasizes that the standing meditation is meant to be a tool for developing and cultivating chi, lightness and expansion – and for distributing chi evenly in the whole body. This also implies that you should not sink physically when in the standing meditation, but focus on sinking on the inside – to the dantien (the center). A good focus for me has been to imagine “shrinking” and chi going to the dantien on inhalation and expanding chi to the whole body (“to the fingertips”) on exhalation.
I will give you a pass for the mechanical part, but you need to bring in more of the chi.
We started off from this statement. The outer physical movements in my form was ok, but it was (and largely is) lacking that which makes it useful for martial art. Of course there were lots and lots of details to correct that I won’t go into here and Sam has shown me many applications for the movements that, although I can’t remember most of them and wouldn’t be able to perform them anyway, is helping me to understand important details of the individual movements. At some point Sam mentioned about “waiting for the chi” rather than moving with external force. For me this implies a sense of feeling into waves of softness in my body that seem to make my movements feel lighter when I manage to hold this focus.
I have worked throught the whole form a couple of times with correction and gone into particular depth with a few movements – grasp sparrows tail, cloudhands and single whip.
When I asked Sam how I should work on my form when getting home, he said to 1. do the mechanical right (he says that I am doing around 70% right now, which for me feels pretty good) and 2. focusing more on the chi in the parts that are right. He also mentioned that heat (“raising of the yang chi”) is a good sign.
My work on the form in the year to come:
– Bringing the standing meditation in. Only move the upper arms in accordance with the upper body (it seems obvious, but it is making a big difference for me to focus on this).
– Not holding the breath. (again a bit obvious, but that doesn’t mean that I am not doing it.)
– Moving from the dantien and shifting from the center instead of using the hands to push.
– Stepping out before I shift the weight.
– Hand and foot coordination. The shifting should be timed with the application.
– Sinking the chi instead of sinking down physically.
– Keeping the back straight rather than leaning forward.
Furthermore, Sam has made it quite clear (when doing pushhands) that “holding the ball” in the form translates to holding your partners wrist and elbow. So I need to remember that. Another nice little detail, that I had not understood before, is that there are many places in the form (single ward off, grasp sparrows tail, brush knee etc.) where the heel of the foot should be placed where the toe was before. For me this has given a greater stability in the form.
A big part of the daily practice has consisted of doing Sams single and double hand pushing hands exercises, experiencing his yielding by pushing his body and being bounced to the mattress on the wall a few hundred times.
For me these experiences has given a lot of insight into my own limitations when it comes to yielding and also how much there is to learn from the exercises if I do them with full consciousness and not just as external exercises (which I realize that I have often been doing). I have had many experiences where I have noticed how I use force, lean or change pace in the single hand pushhands exercises and have again and again failed in issuing from these without using force (it still doesn’t work for me – very frustrating). Similarly, doing the pattern (rollback, press, push) I noticed how much work my rollback needs as I am simply not able to yield if a good measure of force is applied.
Sam has several times demonstrated different ways of doing the single hand bouncing:
1. From using some handforce (to show me how it feels).
2. To yielding completely (where i can’t feel him at all).
3. Adding some chi in the hand (where his arms get very heavy to move)
4. Sinking the chi to partners center (where I feel pinned down in my center).
5. Bouncing the partner by shifting the weight (where I don’t feel him coming before I am moving backwards).
In the following sections I have written a bit about some of my core learning experiences, when it comes to pushing hands and yielding.
Getting “under the radar”
Sam emphasizes “evenness” when doing the pushhands exercises, as you will otherwise be felt by your partner when you change your speed, pressure etc. You should be able to match the energy of your partner, nothing more, nothing less. For me something has gotten clearer around responding to the whole situation/relationship when doing pushhands. Speed, angle, direction, force etc. must be constantly responded to, so when Sam says “I only move when you move” he is referring not only to external movement, but also to pressure, leaning etc. Thus there is a greater level of detail/sensitivity that has opened up for me. Furthermore this means that you don’t stop moving while doing pushhands unless your partner does. Stopping most often implies that you are readying yourself to attack instead of yielding.
I think I now have understood how it is the softness and evenness that makes it possible to “get under your partners radar”, meaning that they don’t feel that you are coming and thus have no inclination to respond, and why it thus doesn’t make sense to use force as it will be noticed and possibly countered.
Furthermore Sam tells me that his experience when I feel him as very heavy is that there is “nothing” in the arms and says that when you feel light it means that the heaviness is on the partner and conversely that if I am heavy, nothing comes out to the partner.
Sticking makes more sense to me after my stay with Sam. It is clear to me now, that as long as I am not sticking I am either fighting or fleeing from the force, and thus not really yielding. Consequently collapsing means “not sticking” and makes it impossible to return or counter your partner. I often noticed how Sams yielding is always perfectly timed and that my own is almost always to fast (running away), but also often to slow (using force). Sam has an almost magnetic effect when he brings the chi to his hand. It becomes impossible to move away. When he “sinks the chi” to his arm i cant move it at all. It feels like a rod of steel hanging in the air.
Always yield to the dantien.
I notice that I, especially when my arms are pushed upward, have a tendency of forgetting/loosing the connection to the dantien. On the other hand I have found that it really improves my yielding to always try to yield to the dantien, but that is not as easy as it sounds.
The center of equilibrium
Of some reason it only dawned on me, when Sam explained it, that center of equilibrium is not the same as the centerline. The centerline is physical and static where the center of equilibrium is moving and dynamic depending on your relationship to another body.
All positions and moves has a counter. That is why you have to move continously.
During my stay I often noticed how I have to move physically to get into a position to push, where Sam can push from any position, because he is connected at all times.
Some pointers for working with the center of equilibrium is:
1. Keep the back straight
2. Fill the body (For me this is better experienced as the opposite – don’t “forget” parts of the body. I have a tendency of being empty in large parts of my body – especially when having my full weight on one leg.)
3. Move the center for equilibrium (You can move to positions that are not straight, but only if you stick to the hand that pushes you. You have to keep the center of equilibrium.)
When pushing hands the core challenge is to permanently be in a state of resting comfortably (as in the standing meditation) while responding to the partner.
Developing my yielding
There is a lot of stuff to work on for sure. I move (much) more than necessary when I try to yield, I lean (brace up, use force) when pushed and when I want to push, I have a tendency of putting weight on my partners and should look for a more suspended feeling in my arms, I also have a tendency of “folding” my body forward when pushed. I have also begun to notice how I, even though I am not actively conscious about it, have a tendency of “locking my mind” into an idea of what is going to happen and investing in that. My body then follows and I fail to respond to what is actually there.
My leaning edges:
– Be vulnerable and allow my partner to push me rather than leaning forward or bracing up to try to avoid it.
– Practice lightness, sinking of the chi and shifting rather than force, leaning and sinking physically.
– Always yield to the point with the most force or to the point closest to the body.
– Always yield in a curve.
– Don’t move the arms to yield or push. When doing the pushing hands the arms should only move within the frame of the standing meditation (unless pushed somewhere else) and the upper arms shouldn’t move (much).
– Don’t try to sink physically and then push to “get under” your partner. Sink the chi instead. If your partner sinks the chi, you respond/yield by sinking the chi.
– Keep the back straight and either turn from the center or shift the weight.
– Don’t move down or back without being pushed.
And something that resembles a process:
1. Finding my center of equilibrium (through standing meditation)
2. Learning to move my center of equilibrium (through the form and pushhands)
3. Finding the right balance between firmness and softness (through pushhands)
4. Learning to do the same in awkward positions (through pushhands)
5. Learn to do it when meeting a lot of force. (through pushhands)
You need to stop using tricks to get people. It will set you back.
Sam warns me against being triggered to use force in my pushhands practice as it will set me back a lot.
I have too much intention when I push, so my partner feels it. In other words I need to stop trying to push my partners, but focus on the yielding instead. Yielding is not a “doing”, but rather a “responding”. I tend to want to do too much. As long as I want to fight (or “get”) my partner, I will be using force. He also encourages me to get as many people to push me as possible – and then yield instead of using force.
So when I get home from Copenhagen, this will be my project: “Do not fight and do not let anyone fight you. Just respond effortlessly to what is there.” The problem of course, is the “just”.
Learning taiji is difficult. Not because it there much to learn, but rather because what needs to be understood (or rather embodied) is very simple. The core problem is that merely thinking that I have understood it is not enough – the understanding needs to pervade my body-being. Furthermore, the practice is holistic. You cannot yield if you are rigid or using force, you cannot be soft and “stick” without having a frame and none of those elements are attainable without working with the “chi”. That means that I can change my focus to understand one aspect better, but I still need to be able to do it all at once.
Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away. (Antoine de Saint-Exupéry)
The western exoteric (you give the student the right answers) and the eastern esoteric (the student should ask the right questions) forms of teaching have very different approaches to how you learn best.
For me a combination seems to be useful. It can be helpful to compartmentalize and analyze, but in the end everything has to go together. So on one hand it can be helpful to get exoteric pointers about which direction to go in, but on the other the best way to learn for me will be constantly revealing my uncertainty to the teachers, so they can help me to improve – asking the questions which enable the teacher to understand what I need to be shown. In other words, practice beginners mind.
If something is not working. Go back to the basics.
Learning taiji is not about understanding something abstract or “getting it”. Neither is it simply “doing something differently”. Learning taiji implies that I (as in my being) needs to be transformed – or maybe even “purified” if we are talking alchemy. Practicing taiji should make my practice more finely tuned and precise. After staying with Sam for almost a month I feel that I have access to a lot of unexplored territory and that there is space for exploring in all parts of my practice. In other words, some doors have been opened an now it is up to me to discover what is on the other side.
As another student of Sam that I met during my stay said: “taiji is the hardest thing I have ever tried to do”. I fully agree. Luckily it is also a practice that seems to make other aspects of life much more pleasant – at least I give my taiji practice credit for a lot of the happiness and ease I have found in my life.
Leaving Canada soon, I have a lot of work to do developing my practice. It has dawned on me that the Yi (mind) part of Yi Chuan implies a deep focus when doing the practice, but also a state of non-distraction outside of the practice. At least I notice how often my mind can fly away from my body-being and I have a desire to bring the stillness of taiji even more into my everyday life.
Luckily I have a great friend and teacher in Torben Bremann, one of Sam Tams senior students, who can follow up on the guidance where Sam left off.