Guest Blogger: Experiencing Sam Tam
In September 2016 I was feeling that I had stopped developing in my taiji practice and doubted how I could move forward. At that time I had been playing around with the I Ching for a while and asked how I should approach my taiji practice to improve faster. What stuck to me in the answer was “to connect and seek mastery with a great person”. This inspired me to contact master Sam Tam to see if it was possible to organize another stay with him. I spent a week with Sam in 2015 and was overwhelmed with his skill and willingness to teach (see my blog from back then here).
Before going (as Sam generously agreed to have me again) I asked the I Ching what I should be aware of during my stay. My interpretation of the answer (“seeing” or “contemplation” depending on the translation) was best framed in the question “if you had no presumptions, what might you see” and the sentences “need nothing, but remain committed” and “stay with uncertainty”.
I went to Vancouver on the 4th of January. Sitting in the airport on my way back to Copenhagen, these two answers from the I Ching seems like a good context for my stay with master Sam Tam. I have tried to describe the central elements of my experience here.
The first days of my stay were not all that easy. Sams comments on my practice were quite clear although not exactly what I wanted to hear:
– “You are leaning”
– “You are holding your breath”
– “You are using force”
In addition I again experienced how skilled Sam really is and again I found myself completely helpless in his hands, unable to move him at all, while he could throw me completely effortlessly from every position. However, after the initial humbling experience I found myself opening for learning.
“You would not come here to learn if you were better than me, so why do you experience it as a problem that you can do nothing against me?”
During my days with Sam I started noticing how I hold my frame with relatively stiff arms, holding myself up to be balanced. At the same time I hold my breath (just a little bit) to keep the position. I do this to stabilize myself, but I also lift myself in the process, ruining my grounding. I also found myself in many (many!) situations where I was leaning forward to brace myself from being pushed, which of course does absolutely no difference when you are in the hands of Sam. After some time I also started noticing how I have a tendency to use hand force to (try to) push my opponent when doing pushhands, something I now realize will be a constant struggle to let go in the coming times.
Before I arrived Sam had asked what i wanted to focus on during my stay, and I asked for “the basics”. In practice this translated into learning how to yield.
Yielding is the foundation of everything in taiji and implies moving with and neutralizing the force that is moving towards you. Yielding is not “giving space” for the will of the other but rather recognizing that we are 2 in the space no matter what and putting yourself in the beneficial position of the relationship. Paradoxically you don’t do that by trying to move the other into a position which is beneficial to you, but rather wait for them to move and then yield until they have to adjust – and then you are in the beneficial situation without much effort. You don’t try to decide what the other person does, but allow them to do whatever they want without allowing them to “lean on you” or connect with your center.
As Sam says “If you have 1000 techniques, you will need to practice them all to be good. I only have one trick. Don’t let them lean on you.” If you are able to yield, you can move with whatever comes at you and you don’t have to think about what to do, you just allow your opponent to do whatever they want and then yield to their force.
Yielding implies that the body moves as a whole unit and that you do not make any unnecessary movement. To do that I need to let go of my premeditations of what is going to happen (how I am going to be pushed) in the attempt to react properly and instead relax and respond to whatever is actually there – in other words stop trying to control the situation, relax, and trust that I can yield to what is coming, or allow myself to be pushed.
When yielding you stick to your opponent from the moment he touches you and do not let go again. You keep the point of contact (what Sam calls “bone contact”). When they move, you move and fill out the gaps in the space between you.
Yielding is also the requirement of issuing (or “pushing” without using force). Without yielding you will meet force with force and the strongest (or fastest) will win. When doing pushhands I found myself struggling with not “coming out” or using force and thus revealing my intention and planned direction. Gradually i got a better hold on how to shift, sink and expand instead. Shifting implies moving the whole body as one unit. Sinking the chi implies expanding from the center which is not easy at all.
Thoughts and reflections
I have realized (again maybe?) that the biggest potential to develop my taiji practice is to stop cheating myself by not recognizing the mistakes I make, because it seems too much work to deal with them (a realization which connects to many other aspects of life than taiji I guess). The notion of “good enough” is holding me back from learning something new and improving. The taiji shortform in Sam Tams system felt quite short before I arrived. Now it feels very long. I think that is a good measure for how much I am learning while doing it.
“Practice means weeding out mistakes, not just repeating the same movements over and over again.”
If I knew what I should learn I wouldn’t need a teacher, but just practice. After visiting Sam I feel like I can improve my private practice, but I will also focus more on receiving guidance from my Danish teacher Torben Bremann.
My focus for the coming time will be to let go of my desire to use force (and to win). When doing the form some central elements (apart from the many many small and large corrections I have received) will be to work with “sinking the chi”, shifting and investigating how I can use less force to hold up my arms and hands and “use the chi instead” as Sam has adviced.
“Don’t let taiji run your life.”
Taiji is a philosophy meant to contribute to life, not dominate it and I was very pleased to hear master Sam talk about taiji as a practice meant to teach practitioners about life. When talking about how to practice at home Sam emphasizes that you should see taiji as an art and treat it that way – keeping it precious. For me the challenge will be to remember what I have learned during my stay in Vancouver and allow that to remind me on how to develop my practice.