Yiquan - Power of the Mind
by Karel Koskuba
In the June 2001 issue of this magazine I described the first step of Yiquan training - Zhan Zhuang (Pole Standing). The purpose of Zhan Zhuang exercises is to develop whole-body connection and eventually whole-body strength. In this article I would like to describe the next two steps, Shili (testing of strength) and Mocabu (friction step). The purpose of Shili exercises is to try out, to test, this whole-body strength during movement. Mocabu training is designed to help us to learn how to keep this whole-body connection when we are stepping. Eventually Shili and Mocabu are combined into one exercise - Shili with steps. These two stages in Yiquan training are closely related and so it makes sense to describe them together.
What is Yiquan
Yiquan (pronounced yee-chuan) is both an excellent martial art and a very effective system of health cultivation. It is designed in such a way that you can progress in clearly defined steps. First you learn how to unify your body to acquire whole-body strength. You combine this whole-body strength with skills for handling opponents, which develops Internal Power. This can then be applied to fighting applications.
There are stages in Yiquan training that parallel Taijiquan and other Internal Martial Arts, but since Yiquan is simpler, these stages are perhaps more clearly defined. The first requirement is to integrate the whole body to achieve whole-body strength (this was the subject of the previous article mentioned above). Next the student has to learn how to move with this kind of strength in a fixed stance and with steps (this is the subject of this article). After moving solo, the student learns how to use it in interaction with an opponent - Pushing Hands. The next step is to learn how to issue power in a single instant - explosive power training. As a supplementary training to the issuing of strength, breath control is learned. Lastly, for those interested in fighting, there are combat training drills and sparring.
The complete training consists of seven steps:
|Zhan Zhuang (Pole Standing)
|- standing exercises, designed to relax and integrate the whole body, used for building whole-body strength (this includes Moli - Sensing of Strength)
|Shili (Testing of Strength)
|- simple exercises for learning how to keep the whole-body connection and whole-body strength whilst moving (this stage is equivalent to practising forms in other Internal Martial Arts)
|Mocabu (Friction Step)
|- learning how to keep the whole-body connection and whole-body strength whilst stepping
|Fali (Release of Power)
|- learning how to 'release' power (fa-jin training). How to release in any direction and with any part of the body
|Tui Shou (Pushing Hands)
|- this stage is similar to Taijiquan's Pushing Hands. Also can be viewed as the previous three stages with a partner
|Shi Sheng (Testing of Voice)
|- learning to augment power and integrate the centre of the body in a more natural way using breathing
|Ji Ji Fa (Combat Practice)
|- fixed and free sparring drills and sparring.
At all stages of training, students must try to follow the most important principle - Use mind, not strength (yong yi bu yong li). Physical effort is used only during explosive power training.
The actual training is done with the help of mental images to coax the body to start working using the right principles.
There are two kinds of mental images that are used. The first type is used to create a tranquil state in our mind that, in turn, will promote relaxation of our body. For example, imagine yourself standing in a beautiful garden with pretty flowers and trees all around you, with birds singing in the trees and white clouds drifting across a blue sky. Any other suitable image can be used. The second type is used to induce some kinaesthetic feeling to promote the emergence of internal connections in the body and to guide our body in movement. For example, in Zhan Zhuang you try to create a feeling of having your whole body supported - your elbows are resting on soft pillows; your head is suspended by a thread; there are cotton pads between your fingers; etc. In training movement, you should try to induce a kinaesthetic feeling as if you were moving against some resistance. This type of feeling should first be experienced in Zhan Zhuang, especially in the Moli (sensing strength) type of exercises (described in the overview of Zhan Zhuang below). The Hun Yuan Zhuang described in the previous article was an example of this type.
I should mention that when creating images or concentrating on the body, there should be no mental 'effort'. The feeling created should be more like observing something rather than striving for something. Too much mental effort is like too much physical effort - it would make us tense.
A Brief overview of Zhan Zhuang
Zhan Zhuang exercises are divided into two categories:
The health postures represent the first training step. Their role is to relax the body and develop whole-body connection. This means that a movement in any part of the body can be felt to propagate through the whole body in a natural fashion. Most of these postures are held whilst standing in a shoulder-width stance with an upright spine (see Embracing Posture in 'Kai He Shili' section below). In addition to standing postures, there are also sitting and lying down postures.
The combat postures are held with most (and sometimes all) of the weight on one leg. These are more advanced exercises used to develop whole-body power. At this stage, students learn and practise what is called Moli (Sensing of Strength) which are very small movements guided by the mind. The 'sensing' is done by very small and careful 'movements' of the whole body. I put quotation marks round the word 'movements' because in reality there may not be any movement! But yet the body is not completely still. What happens is that as we form an intention to move and as we get ready to move, there will be some muscular activity associated with stabilising our body in such a way so as to enable the movement to take place. Normally this muscular activity is not noticed as it gets subsumed in the sensations of the actual move that normally takes place. With some short training and whilst paying careful attention, we can sense it as a subtle sensation deeper in the body. When we detect this 'inner' activity and just before we would actually move, we stop short of any visible movements. We cannot say that we are still as there is some activity taking place but neither we can say that we are moving. I'll call this type of activity 'almost-moving'. When we 'extend' this almost-movement into visible movement, we have Shili.
Having developed the whole body connection when standing, we need to be able to keep this connection when moving. This is not a trivial task. As I mentioned in the previous article, the whole-body connection is developed with the help of our stabiliser muscles. But as soon as we move, we use mobilisers and the whole-body unity is lost. The Shili exercises are simple exercises designed to teach us how to maintain the whole-body connection and whole-body strength whilst moving. Slow, relaxed and flowing movement is used, quite similar to the quality of movement used in practising a Taijiquan form. Initially, the movements are performed in six directions - forward and back, up and down, left and right. Later on these directions are combined to produce movements in any direction.
As examples of Shili exercises, I will describe Kai He Shili - Open and Close Strength Testing, and Zheng Pi Shili - Vertical Cutting Strength Testing.
Kai He Shili
The directions practised in this exercise are Left and Right.
Start by standing in Embracing Posture, that is to say a shoulder-width stance with your arms in front of you in a position of embracing a large ball, hands at about shoulder-height and shoulder-width apart. Keep you fingers slightly bent and the palms slightly stretched. Imagine a number of elastic bands joining your arms together. Slowly open your arms, feeling the resistance of the imagined elastic bands against your movement. Imagine that your arms are connected through the body so that when you open the arms, the chest opens at the same time. Do not bring your shoulder blades together during the opening phase but keep the back wide. During the closing phase of this exercise, imagine that in place of the elastic bands you have now springs that keep your arms apart. Slowly bring your arms together, feeling the resistance of the imagined springs. Your chest and back should again be involved in the closing action. In fact rather than opening and closing your arms, feel that you are opening and closing your whole body of which arms are just the visible manifestation.
When comfortable with this exercise, it should be done in the 'combat' stance. This is somewhat similar to a 'cat' stance found in other martial arts: the weight is mostly on the back leg with the front foot about a foot and a half in front of the rear foot and the front heel raised off the floor. The weight is shifted forward during the closing phase until the weight distribution is 50:50 and shifted back during the opening phase. Even though the main directions practised are still Left and Right, in fact all six directions are now present. When closing the arms, they also go forward and slightly down. When opening, the arms go also back and slightly up. The forward and back direction is just a natural consequence of opening and closing movement. The up and down movement is a result of the way the weight is transferred forward and back. When transferring weight, the front knee is kept still. This results in the body rising when going forward and sinking when going backward. The arms, during the opening and closing movements, are kept at the same level in relation to the ground. Thus they move up and down relative to the body. Even though all the six directions are present, the feeling of moving against resistance is applied only to the movement in the left-right direction.
Zheng Pi Shili
The main directions practised in this exercise are Up and Down.
Start by standing in 'combat stance' (see picture 1) with about 70% of your weight on the back foot and the front heel off the ground. Your arms should be in front of your body, hands vertical and quite close to each other, fingers pointing forward. Imagine a number of elastic bands joining your arms together. Slowly transfer your weight forward and turn your body towards your front foot as you lower the front heel down and lift the rear heel up. At the same time lower your rear arm and lift the front arm, feeling the resistance of the imagined elastic bands against your movement (see picture 2). Imagine that your arms are connected through the body so that when you open the arms up and down, there is a feeling of vertical stretching across your body. Do not tilt your body forward, nor back. Slowly reverse the movements to get back to the starting position (picture 1) and smoothly carry on lifting the rear arm and lowering the front arm whilst turning the body away from the front foot (see picture 3). Again feel the resistance of the imagined elastic bands against your movement. Slowly return to the starting position and repeat the whole cycle several times.
When we perform the Shili exercises, even though we feel that we use effort against the imagined resistance, no muscle tension should be used. The mental focus on overcoming the resistance will slowly start having an effect on the 'inner' muscles of the body that we could feel in Zhan Zhuang. It is best to practise slowly and carefully and the length of practice should be in accordance with your ability to concentrate on the kinaesthetic feeling. There is very little point in just slowly waving your arms whilst your mind is on other things.
Having learned how to move with the upper body, the next step is to extend this skill to moving while stepping. Mocabu (friction step) exercises are designed to do just that. These again are very simple exercises with a strong mental component. The legs should move from the centre of the body. This is achieved by practising stepping whilst creating an image of pushing the legs and feet against some resistance, for example as if pushing legs through mud. Another useful image is that of carrying some fairly heavy object on top of the moving foot.
Mocabu is really Shili for legs. It is, however, more difficult than Shili: we are less aware of our legs and feet than we are of our arms and hands. Because we are so used to moving our legs automatically, we have to pay extra attention that we do not slip into this habit during practice. All the movements should be done very slowly and deliberately - this adds another complication, that of keeping balance on one leg whilst the other is performing exercises.
The first exercise is rolling an imaginary pencil forward and back along the floor. The moving foot should be close to the ground, without actually touching it. You may find that you keep loosing balance quite often at the beginning. It is not much of a problem - the sense of balance will quickly improve with regular practice. To help yourself keep balance better, you can have your arms extended to the sides imagining that your hands are resting on some support (see pictures 4 and 5). After some practice, when the movement gets comfortable, try to feel the resistance of the (imagined) mud on your leg and the sensation of weight on your foot. The sensation of moving against resistance will probably take longer to achieve in your legs than it took in your arms. When you can feel the resistance, start moving the foot in a circle using the same quality of movement.
The next exercise is stepping, both forward and backward. As above for the circling, the stepping is done slowly and carefully. After some practice, the stepping is gradually speeded up and eventually can be done quite fast.
Start by standing in 'combat stance' with about 70% of your weight on the back foot and the front heel off the ground. Your arms extended to the sides as in 'Circling' above. First, transfer your weight forward till the weight is evenly distributed on each leg. During this phase of stepping, the front knee should not move - that means that your body will go up. Lower your front heel and your body and keep transferring the weight forward till all the weight is on the front leg (the front knee now moves forward). Lift your rear foot off the ground and move it in an arc in, forward and out (see pictures 6, 7 and 8). The front toes are placed on the ground and about 30% of the weight is shifted onto the front leg. This constitutes one step.
When stepping backwards, transfer all the weight onto the back leg and lift the front toes off the ground (the heel was already up). The foot moves in an arc: in, back and out (see pictures 8, 7 and 6). Place the rear foot on the ground, transfer to it half of your weight and lift your front heel. During this phase your rear leg should not really bend and thus your body will go up. Keeping your front knee still, transfer weight back till about 70% of the weight is on the back leg. During this phase your body will go down. This constitutes one step.
The supporting foot should be kept flat throughout the exercises. It is quite likely that at the beginning, as you fight to keep your balance, the foot will wobble and thus sometime part of your foot will loose contact with the ground. With practice, your balance will get better and you will be able to keep the foot flat all the time. Also make sure that your toes lightly grip the ground. The ankles will get strengthened considerably during the practice and the resulting stability will be greatly appreciated when practising kicks later on.
This kind of stepping practice is quite similar to the stepping practice in Baguazhang.
Eventually both Shili and Mocabu exercises are combined and practised together. This practice is functionally equivalent to form practice in Taijiquan. Of course, as far as the movements are concerned, the Yiquan practice is far simpler. Because of its simplicity, it is easier to get the correct feeling. Whilst practising complex movements, it is quite easy to get distracted by the complexities of the moves and often the focus of practice becomes nice looking shape of the body and smoothly executed movements. That is why the movements in Yiquan, and especially at this stage are kept very simple. Later on, different Shili exercises can be combined to create more complex movements.
When practising Shili with steps, at first the arm and leg movements are kept separate - when stepping, the arms do not move, when moving arms, the stance is fixed. Later the movements of arms and legs are done simultaneously.
During Shili (strength testing) practice, it is important to keep practising associated Zhan Zhuang exercises, especially the Moli (strength sensing) variety. The task of the Moli stances is to practice gradually extending the inner activity of 'almost-movement' across the whole body. Eventually it should feel as if there is a flow of movement inside the body. This 'flow' is then used to guide the actual physical movement in the Shili exercises. The increased neuro-muscular co-ordination gained during Shili practice will improve the quality of the Moli practice. In this way, these two practices mutually reinforce each other. Eventually the distinction between them will all but disappear. That is why Zhan Zhuang is considered a still variation of Shili and Shili is considered a moving variation of Zhan Zhuang.
Shili and Mocabu are quite similar in concept. In both cases, movement is created against an imagined resistance. The feeling of resistance that is cultivated in Moli and Shili exercises will, with continued practice, get stronger but with further practice it will eventually get lighter again until it disappears altogether leaving the body very light.
The Shili and Mocabu exercises, especially at the beginning, are very simple and thus it is important to take care not to give to the temptation of going from one exercise to the next one too soon. At the beginning it is not easy to judge when to progress to the next exercise and when just keep practising. Later, it becomes quite obvious - when everything starts to fall apart, you'll know that you went too fast! Just go back, for a time, to the more basic exercises.This article first appeared in the US T'ai Chi magazine, Vol 26 No. 1.