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The Great 'Straight' Debate

For a time, it was my fate to travel and teach Tai Chi in Spain and the Czech Republic.  Looking back on those times, my fervent hope is that those attending the workshops learned something useful.  I know I did.

I was there representing Wolfe Lowenthal's Long River School as it began to reach across the ocean to Europeans seeking an alternative to the Tai Chi available over here.  It is an inevitable fact that teachers, being individuals, will develop their Tai Chi uniquely, and with each successive generation, Tai Chi becomes more and more varied.  Ultimately we will not be able to recognise each other's practice as Tai Chi, and unless we are careful, each of us will feel honour-bound to defend the 'real' Tai Chi that our teacher handed down to us.

This was something of an issue for me when I first went to the Czech Republic to conduct a workshop for some Long River students who, drawn to the Cheng Man-ching way of practicing, were trying to establish their fledgling school in Prague. 

As a result of their history, at least in the opinion of one my hosts, Czech people have had to accommodate lots of different influences over the years, even prior to their recent inclusion in the EEC.  Along with other disciplines, they have not been slow in embracing Tai Chi, but not all of them found their spiritual home in the 24-Step Form or Yang style taught by the first wave of teachers invited in to spread the art.  Like so many of us, they were looking for a Tai Chi that lived up to the hype of the soft overcoming the hard, but were not convinced by what they were studying and sought an alternative.  What did they get? Me!

This is not to decry my own abilities at the time, but on entering the workshop space I was confronted by a group of about 30 people, one third of whom were dedicated to the harder edge Tai Chi that they had already been studying.  Their faces were hard and their eyes glared out, challenging me to 'walk the walk, or get out of town.'  They were there to see if I could prove that what I was doing was better than what they were doing.  Clearly, I failed in this respect as I only ever saw one of them again on subsequent trips.

I cannot be critical, of course, because how I respond to somebody else's frostiness is my business, not theirs.  I have to deal with what I find, where I find it.  A stony expression often comes from life in a hard city or from hard training.  It is a defence against often very real threats and challenges.  It says, 'Respect me and keep your distance, for I am capable.'  I still see it, from time to time, when students of hard martial arts come to class to add to their skill-base or to change to this softer style they have heard about.  It is a lesson that Tai Chi can teach to tough, capable men that a soft countenance and gentle smile only adds to their capability.

Standing there confronted by the group, I began with a little talk and scanned the room.  The reception went from encouragingly receptive to frigid hostility from the 10 who had grouped together, for solidarity, on my left.  I learned something very important in that instant.  I learned that I was not good enough to change their minds.  The primary reason was they did not want to change, having invested some years in studying Yang style or 24-Step.  Many of them had also heard that Cheng Man-ching was an alcoholic who had left for America because he could not cut it back home in Taiwan.  It would have needed the genius of Cheng Man-ching himself to inspire a change of allegiance.  Frankly, I had neither the genius nor energy to evangelise and later gained the good sense not to try.  We all simply decided to try and not get on each others' wick.

I could not even get too agitated about the slander of Cheng Man-ching for they were only saying what they had been told by their teachers and, even then, I had heard worse from a Chinese doctor and Tai Chi teacher in London.  He told me, in a private meeting, that Cheng Man-ching had a mental illness which made it impossible for him to stand properly, nor flex his wrist back in the Push position, hence his 'unusually' straight posture and insistence on the 'Beautiful Lady's Hand' in the Form.  I said that I had never heard of such a mental illness despite some knowledge of the field.  He added to his revelation, telling me that all Cheng Man-ching's Chinese students knew of his illness, but conspired with him to keep it all secret from the Americans.  I concluded that if Cheng Man-ching's great skill and fame in the Tai Chi world was the result of an illness, I was in search of someone who could infect me with even a modest amount of it.  I left the doctor in search of someone suitably contagious.

Back in Prague, I acquitted myself well enough in the series of workshops over the next 18 months or so, promoting the Cheng Man-ching Form and the PengLuChiAn Push Hands, until fate decided that chapter would come to a close.

If I have regrets concerning those workshops, they centre on dealing with the thorny problem of what a 'straight back,' is supposed to be.  It is not unlike the situation I got into when asking a teacher where the crown of the head (ni wan) actually was.  It is an important question, since the crown is supposed to be uppermost and the angle of the head can change quite a lot depending on where we think it is.  His answer dismayed me, 'it's different for different people.'  I felt my heart sink.  If we cannot even define parts of the body, how are we ever going to understand anything internal and less overt?

As far as I could see, the students at the Prague workshop had the slight forward tilt which I associate with Yang style or 24-Step students and indeed some practitioners of Cheng Man-ching's Form.  It was not as definite as the Wu style forward-lean but, for my money, was still there.  I ventured the observation to one of their number.  He replied 'But you lean back.'  There followed the pantomime experience of 'Oh no I don't,' 'Oh yes you do,' to which I eventually thought 'Sod it, stand whatever way you want.'

Later I remembered a consultation I had with a doctor in Edinburgh after I was hurt in a car accident.  After months of pain and seemingly no remission and with a pending holiday to Australia in the offing, I paid the hefty going rate to visit this back specialist, a western trained doctor, acupuncturist, yoga teacher and the most healthy-looking man I had ever met.

After the prodding of my back had ceased, I asked him what was wrong with me, hoping for a 'condition,' or 'syndrome,' to hang my malady on, or at the very least, a Latin word or two.

'Sore back,' he replied casually.

'Worth the money, this guy,' I thought.

'What should I do to help it recover?' I persisted. 

'Keep your back strong,' he advised.

'Every penny, this guy,' I said to myself.

Finally I asked, 'Does posture have anything to do with the problem.  Is my back not straight enough or something?'

'Ah,' he replied, 'there are about four different ideas regarding what a straight back should be.  It really doesn't matter; back problems arise from weak back muscles.'

Underwhelmed by his advice, I said goodbye to the memory of the consultation and the fee for his services.  It was only after the Prague episode that I recalled the incident and tried to refine what I meant by a straight back.

I remembered hearing that the posture we should aspire to is one, where standing against a wall, the lower spine, the middle of the spine, and the back of the skull should all be touching the wall simultaneously.  Perhaps some people can do this; when I try, however, it looks like the proverbial poker is well and truly in place.  I guess this is because I do not have perfect spinal alignment and am faced with either trying to force myself into position, or accepting I am never going to be able to stand this way.

I also remember a well known teacher once telling me that the classics advise that the lower spine and the middle of the spine should be in line and vertical in relation to the ground.  This fellow, however, had a pronounced 'chicken neck,' which made his chin jut forward quite alarmingly when he followed his own advice, thus compressing the back of the neck in the area of the Jade Pillow (yu zhen - i.e. where the neck meets the skull.  Since this part of the neck should be gently elongated, I am not over-convinced by his assertion - leaving aside the questionable aesthetics such an alignment produces.

I am most convinced by the advice to line up vertically, when in a 100% posture, the energy centres at the crown of the head (ni wan), below the navel (tan tien) and bubbling point in the foot (yung chuan), if for no other reason than we are practising an energy development (chi kung) system.  (Clearly, in a front posture, only the crown of the head and tan tien should be aligned.)  Even this advice is not without its difficulties since the tan tien, being inside the body, is not visible and not easily measured relative to the crown.  The tan tien is supposed to be 1 to 2 inches below the navel, and 3/7 of the way in from the front of the body to the back.  I am assured that the position does not change even if we grow fatter!  In other words, we do not have to extend our head further forward for every increment to our waistline.

It seems so much of the advice concerning straightness of the spine is open to interpretation.  Perhaps the only instruction which avoids these pitfalls is Cheng Man-ching's advice - i.e. to feel as though suspended from above by the crown of the head.  To find the crown of the head, I suggest the following method:  draw an imaginary line along the centre of the head from front to back.  The crown is where this line is intersected at a 90 degree angle by a second line drawn up from the middle of the ear.  As a working definition, it is close enough to be getting on with.

Standing as though suspended from this point does not force the spine into a shape that is not right for it, but allows any changes in spinal alignment to occur without tension.  Furthermore, it counters the tightness produced in shoulders and neck by imagining the 'crown pushing up to heaven,' another oft quoted suggestion.

Theoretically, this should be all the advice needed to discover the optimal position for the spine.  In reality, it rarely is.  The equally difficult problem of the lower spine must be considered.  The classical instructions are easy to repeat and give the semblance of knowledge on the subject: drop the sacrum; feel as if the ten thousand things are hanging from the tailbone; sit down in the posture.

Unfortunately, they may be easy to say but not so easy to understand.

In effect, dropping the sacrum evens out the curvature of the lower spine for the time we practice Tai Chi.  However, the curves in the spine have their function - i.e. distributing weight more evenly and protecting from everyday stress when walking, running or jumping - so we are not trying to remove them permanently.  Although a low impact exercise, Tai Chi is performed with knees bent.  This encourages the lower spine to stick out as when we bend our knees to sit on a chair.  The result is either a forward tilt or strain on the lower spine as we tense the muscles to keep the upper part vertical.  To avoid these faults we must we 'drop,' the lower spine.

Sometimes, as in my case, the lumbar curve is not particularly pronounced which means that when the lower spine is dropped, the sacrum appears to 'tuck under,' rather than hang down, giving the appearance to of leaning back, especially in the 100% postures.  While it feels right for me, the tucked under look is not the fashion in haute Tai Chi.

In trying to understand the position of the lower spine, I found the ideas of Mr. Liu Hsi-heng very useful.  He explained the difference between a 'true root' and a 'false root': dropping the spine correctly allows the body to link from the sole of the foot, up the leg to the hip, and from there into the spine, creating a true root - not one 'broken' at the hip.  A correctly dropped spine changes the feeling in the foot in relation to the floor.  By rotating the pelvis forward and back, the optimum position of the pelvis and lower back can be found from the feeling in the feet.  Experimenting with this movement and feeling for the place where the bubbling point (yung chuan) has the best contact with the ground gives the correct position for the lower spine without relying on someone's opinion of how it looks.

This is by no means a simple matter and requires practice to feel when the foot is truly flat on the floor and weight is passing directly through the bubbling point on the foot.  (The bubbling point, incidentally, is a short distance back from the ball of the foot, not the physical centre of the foot.)

Studying this point has profound implications for the serious student.  Firstly, it makes it possible to relax the unweighted leg correctly when doing the Form, allowing the separation of substantial from unsubstantial.  This makes the Form more difficult to do and more physically taxing, but without this separation of weight AND relaxation of the unweighted leg, there is no true single weighting, and therefore a major fault in our Form.  Secondly, there are real benefits in Push Hands since the correctly dropped spine allows the body to turn without tilting forward into the force of the push.  It becomes possible to keep the spine fairly straight even in more demanding Push Hands practice.

Perhaps it is appropriate that a straight spine is more about how it feels to the student, rather than how it looks to an observer.  In support of this assertion we have only to examine the posture of T. T. Liang, the famous teacher and student of Cheng Man-ching, in the photos at the back of Professor Cheng's 1967 book written with Robert Smith.  In this series of photographs showing the Push Hands postures, T. T. Liang's spine is clearly well curved yet he is straight.  This contrasts starkly with Cheng Man-ching's posture, even though his long jacket partially obscures the spine from view.  Looking at those photographs begs the question - 'Is one of them wrong, or could both of them be correct?'

If we conclude that both are correct, then a narrow definition of straightness based on the shape of the spinal column, is clearly insufficient.  The alignment of the 'three treasures': ni wan, tan tien and yung chuan must be taken into consideration.  Bearing this in mind, we can understand Cheng Man-ching's assertion: 'Follow The Three Treasures, and you do not have to worry about your practice being true.'

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