T’ai Chi – Chi Gung Journals

The Tai Chi form

The Tai Chi form

Tai Chi as a path towards piano technique

Alan Fraser has been practicing T’ai Chi for over twenty years. It was T’ai Chi that first moved him to investigate the possibilities for transformation of piano technique through attention to the phyical. He studied with Tom Brown and later with Sam Slutsky in Montreal, both of them students of Master Lee, one of the first to bring T’ai Chi to a wider group of Montrealers in the 1970′s. He also studied with Sun Zhen Zhun, who lived in Novi Sad from 1993-95. After these excerpts from his Tai Chi journals follows his musings on Chi Gung, a related “energy” discipline…

January 12, 1995

What Sam Slutsky said…..

A pronounced structure that lacks function

Your chest is too full… too proud! If your chest is that open your breathing can’t descend, your lower structure is cut off.

If all the upper joints are freed then the lower base can be stable. You can sink into it.

At the end of form: stand like a monkey – Pelvis is back but shimmied forward at the bottom. Chest ‘sunken’ compared to what I am used to.

Beginning of form: hands by side to put you over your feet.

Movement arises from the center outward

You must stop using external energy, force, relax so the internal energy can flow through you and out.

Alive palms: 3rd fingers awake, energy flowing through them. In the palms, not the shoulder.

The base: you’re over the knee but the pelvis is behind it, sunk down. The yin leg is not dead, not empty. Bend the knee so it’s all a part of structure.

The yin hand supports the body. Don’t leave it empty of you collapse internally. Gently press to the floor as if lifting the body. The structure stands on the yin hand, the yang leg, (the yin leg).

Cloud hands: The hands/arms make a geometric structure, one hand at a half-way point to the other. Step, and as the weight shift begins the arm sweeps. Don’t drop the shoulder – this bends the spine, destabilizes the body. Find a way to sweep leaving the shoulder neutral.

Be like Sam – express yourself with it. Don’t be cautious, studied – express!

Pull/push: really sink into back foot, gather everything into yourself, then peel off, roll out.

Every movement: large to go small, small to open. Lighten before moving. The center doesn’t actually rise but it frees itself.

April 22, 1995

Every day continues to bring revelation. At the competition in Nizhny Novgorod, the morning of the second round I did form 3 times; in the middle of the third the silence started of its own, and it was quite easy to maintain it within myself. A gift.

I am thinking that working on the alignments as Sam is wont to do is excellent, but people don’t get why. They think it is about the alignments, which it is not. The alignments merely serve to put you in a position where it is finally at least possible to function properly.

Skeletality is not bones alone

I am finally entering the long stage of activating my muscles to work properly, after spending an inordinately long time (6 years) in the initial phase of relaxing their strictures, becoming more sensitive to skeletal structure, investigating skeletal mechanics, finding the place where the muscles can move the bones in paths for which they were designed. Finally I feel as though I am beginning to wrap layers of flesh onto those bones which work so awkwardly alone.

Being in the hands allowed me to ascertain where I was blocked in the lower structure. Now sensitivity to the lower frees my arms and hands.

I am learning the effectiveness of keeping my pelvis on the inside of my legs. When that is in place the sense of connection all the way up the side of the body is felt. The layer of muscle, activated, running from the outside of the thigh up over the side ribs to the shoulder and arm is clearly perceived.

Sunday, August 20, 1995

Every day continues to provide new learning – wonderful! I’m now working with Dragan Petrovich as Sun has gone back to China. Dragan is a black belt Karate instructor who ‘learned the soft’ with Sun. With Dragan it is back to the drawing board. My stance is still weak, ineffective. It is like a ‘mana’ that Iris talked about, a habitual flaw that we address then become blind to it again, allowing it to creep back into our action.

Regarding levels of perception or function (just bones and structure, bones plus muscles activating structure, center activating all, breath activating all, etc.), now it is a mixed bag. Different movements have reached different stages of evolution. Sometimes I must return to the bony structure because it’s not yet clear when I thought it was, other times I naturally discover the next level, discover actually that I’m hungry for it!

Monday, April 8, 1996

Well well here we are again. Many wonderful things still happening every day. Much has to do with my stance. It has been apparent for some time that I should sink my stance — I’m a big guy and need to distribute more of me horizontally and less vertically if I want to satisfy both proportional aesthetics and function. But I didn’t know how!

What do you mean, how can you not know how? To sink your center simply bend your goddamn knees and that’s all there is to it! Well, not quite… For instance, if you bend your knees but your pelvis stays ‘on the outside’ of your hip joints then you lowered your center but you didn’t sink it. That feeling of the pelvis falling in between the hip joints comes from a loosening in those joints. Something releases which was previously, obliviously held, inadvertently impeding both sensation and movement.

Releasing the hip joints is key – in Tai Chi and in piano technique

When that ‘something’ releases it also triggers or releases or enables a flood of new feelings, kinesthetic sensations. Every movement involves not only the main muscles of the moving limb but a host of other smaller, subsidiary muscles, many of them located elsewhere, possibly quite far removed, adjusting the relation of other parts of the body to the moving limb, maintaining balance. When the pelvis area is released, I feel for instance the wrapping of muscles all up and down my ribcage much more distinctly and finely, and can feel where some in proportionate adjustment is impeding movement of an arm, for instance. Once I can feel it I can fix it!

Reduce effort to access your innate power

How do you fix it? Fix, for instance the cricking of muscles in your back associated with certain arm movements? Find a way to move the arm totally neutrally, as if totally purposeless, with absolutely minimal apparent effort. Often the cricking will disappear when you find a path for that movement radically different from the one you were using before. The old path had certain tensions inherent in it which you couldn’t feel and thus couldn’t eliminate. The new path was found by eliminating the supposed purposefulness (which was actually stupid, non-productive effort) and finding a path which wasn’t obstructed by a counterproductive attempt at effectiveness. For instance if I want to punch I will be preoccupied with the strength needed to wham my opponent, and thus will never get to the point of effectively using the mechanical strength inherent in my own structure. I will neutralize any real effectiveness with tensions intended to strengthen which actually only inhibit.

Then to generate that quality of movement from the center, simply begin the movement with a slight turning or shifting of the abdomen, and feel how that impulse enervates and prompts the movement in question.

Let’s say you want to design a machine, a robot which simulates human movement. The more components are degrees of control you can design into each movement, the more effective the machine. For instance, a mechanical arm with three joints and a computer to control and integrate their coordination will not be as flexible, capable and sophisticated as one with two hundred joints. We use ourselves as if we have three joints when we actually have two hundred!

What I mean is that our muscles have the capacity for a vastly greater differentiation in function than we generally give them credit for. Any one muscle possesses a close to infinite number of possible degrees of contraction. We generally use almost none of them, just as we generally use only 5-10% of our brain capacity. We don’t feel those degrees of sophistication because they are very fine and we do not see the need to cultivate our capacity to feel them. When a movement looks completely effortless and flowing yet possesses far greater strength than its clumsy counterpart, one reason is because that movement has two hundred components in it instead of twenty.

The simple conclusion, which appears to state the obvious yet the implications which people by in large ignore, is that the better you can feel or sense what you are doing, the better you can do it!

After a long period of being over-relaxed and ineffectual I am finally beginning to put things back together again. Wonderful feeling! Sinking my stance effectively is giving me greater power and flexibility simultaneously, more strength and stability than I ever had, and it spills over into my emotional life as well. That relaxation and release of power in the abdomen results in an actual warmth, a feeling of energy literally cooking down there! When I release energy in my wrists by simply stopping effort and letting them be truly neutral but not dead!, I feel heat generated from within them. Amazing!

How to apply Tai Chi to piano playing

What does all this have to do with piano? How can you do what you do in T’ai Chi, when the central principle, generation of all action from the center, appears to be un-implementable because the center is immobile – you’re sitting! You can keep your center ‘full’, that is potently neutral, full of energy. That helps you to cultivate that quality of movement – to have two hundred components instead of twenty. There is a corresponding increase in tonal differentiation — your tonal color palette explodes! Because you can feel what you are doing!

Another point: none of this happens without a clearly directed attention. You won’t achieve anything if you are thinking about something else. Absolute clarity of perception is essential. When you do get that clarity you can hear much better!. Also, when superfluous muscle tension is lowered so dramatically it has the effect of opening your ears — as if there was tension in your ears which is now gone, allowing you to perceive degrees of tonal color never before imagined. Listening has taken on a whole new meaning for me; it is now totally interrelated to that state of muscle tonus which allows effective action — each facilitates the other.

Some teachings of Sun Zhen Zhun

The meanings of T’ai Ji

There are five meanings besides the one I knew, the way of energy. T’ai also means universe, ji also means end, thus universe without end. It can also mean world in the sense that each of us is a world which reflects in its form the essence of the globe earth. That the material of which we are made is similar to that which forms the world. It also reflects ecology, that in order to receive material from the world (such as fresh oxygen etc.) we must give to the world. T’ai Ji Bagwan means the world divided into 8 sections or directions or dimensions as the yin-yang symbol divides all into positive and negative. Earth – sky, water – earth, man – woman, all these are expressions of the fundamental polarities which constitute our universe.

October 21, 1994

Words and thought are not synonymous

Before starting, stand and gaze five hundred miles away, ‘to Croatia’ for instance. This is to empty your mind of all other concerns except doing form well. When you actually succeed with this you will understand for the first time that your mind and your consciousness are not synonymous. When you actually manage to stop the flow of words for a moment you will see that words and thought are not synonymous.

When you really simply pay attention to your hands, to remembering your intention and fulfilling it, then you may hear silence, which is more real than anything inside your head. None of those words you think is actually sounding in reality! Uh-uh, the reality is this eerie silence in which you can hear the sounds of the outside world. When you really watch your hands you may also notice that your perception of your surroundings increases in sharpness and richness of colour.

Don’t just watch your hands, feel how their movement affects and is affected by the various parts of your body. How free, natural and vital are the wrists? Where are the elbows in space? Are the shoulders working too hard or are they really neutral: how are the muscles branching out from the shoulder girdle down over the ribs involved in the movement? How is your trunk sitting on your pelvis, and how does the pelvis rest on the legs? How does the bending/straightening of your knee correspond to that of your elbow? Are your feet flat and splayed, or is there unnecessary tension in them?

If you can pay attention to all this then it would be a bloody miracle if you had any space left in your brain for words!

October 22

I did form for several years before I ‘heard’ that silence for the first time. It is different from the silence of meditation because you are engaged in movement. Your attention is directed inward and outward simultaneously and is not only passively observing but engaged in ‘doing’.

When I lost my ‘silence’ virginity it was only for a fleeting moment; then followed the many repetitions of form where I couldn’t get it back. But by a month later I could count the times when I stopped listening to the silence and let my mind wander. The best I did was only five times in one form.

Then I lost it again.

It was the same with ‘gas’. When Sun showed me the first time I could feel the warm, almost hot point on my palm. Now, nothing. He simply told me to imagine the gas flowing out of my hand as I pushed, and to intensify the feeling by really pushing the heel of the hand forward firmly. Then to draw in as described above. Presto! I could feel it!

Sun says there are five gas channel holes: in the palms, the soles of the feet, and the fifth in the Dan Tien which means energy pool. The warm-up exercises we do beforehand are important: they open up the gas channels and make the form more effective.

The first is always hip rotations. The lower edge of the pelvis is thrust back when you move back; when you thrust it forward, collapse the sternum and head forward and down to increase the effect of stimulating and opening the Dan Tien.

October 29

Gurdieff talks about the three ‘centres’, the thinking, feeling and moving, as if there actually existed three brains. He means that we have three modes of functioning which all work simultaneously but one of which is always primary. Thus if you use your thinking function to control movement your movements will be very slow and clumsy. But if you allow your consciousness to literally sink down from your thinking center to your moving center, your movement becomes clearer, more powerful and more effective.

This first happened during form quite near the beginning. All at once I felt as though my abdomen were running the show, that all my movements were directed by it and designed for its convenience. I could actually still think words but if I allowed them to predominate then I lost the feeling. Now, that function is to a certain extent associated with the enhanced clarity of vision I get from purposeful observation of my surroundings.

November 3

Sun was angry today. Everybody is against him – his family, his government, his faculty. But when we started form he said, ‘Now only I exist.’ I thought, ‘but how can he do form if only he exists? Where did he learn it?’ However, when I tried thinking likewise, I saw its effectiveness. If only I exist, and any immediate surroundings which I perceive, then any thought which has to do with something outside of that reality really doesn’t exist – it’s just a thought. Its only function is to remove my consciousness from reality (as here defined) and to spoil my form.

The ‘I’ which earlier on learned T’ai Ji does exist – that knowledge now exists in me, not only in the person whom I learned it from. Thus in this present moment really only ‘I’ exist, and ‘I’ constitutes the sum total of my physical presence, my awareness and my experiential learnings. My ability to think about other realities also exists, but if I employ it I of necessity impinge upon my consciousness of this ‘real’ reality.

Using this distinction my form was more powerful than ever today.

The aim of this continual softening and refining of sensation: when the muscles “dissolve” only then can you feel the structure, stress and sheer factor of your bones. Subsequently you can learn movements which use that structure most effectively, which don’t go against it. When you go against it then muscular effort is needed to maintain ‘stability’, thus reducing the power of the movement.

Employing this principle in form I have normalized that state which I first experienced at the end of my first year Feldenkrais training – that wonderful, incredibly open, full and alive posture which prompted me to exclaim, ‘I want a personality to match this!’ My chest is alive! This is one foundation stone, a precursor or prerequisite to the physical aspect of Gurdieff’s true man, the man who can ‘do’.

Sam Slutsky.com

Tai Chi Chuan Website

another T’ai Chi Site

Chi Gung Journal

Chi Gung is a Chinese discipline that uses certain postures and breathing to “clean the energy” of the body. Alan Fraser had the good fortune to learn Chi Gung from Sun Zhen Zhun, a Chinese professor visiting the University of Novi Sad in the early 1990′s. These excerpts from Alan Fraser’s Chi Gung journal document the lessons he received from Sun Zhen Zhun, and at certain points echo aspects of the philosophy of movement that he is bringing to the piano.

April 29, 1995

To facilitate the operation of the gas circulation system, envisioned as existing similar to the blood, nervous and digestive. This chi gung is called heueh shyed gyyy, meaning crane (symbolizing stillness, slow, calm movements, deliberation) angel (happiness, all-owningness) post (standing upright).

Stand, feet together, the tongue pressed lightly against the upper teeth, and first clear the mind of all garbage. You are king, you are God, all that you see around you exists only for you. Awareness of this should make you very happy, and already relax you, improve your physical well-being. Thinking, “Megan is so far away” doesn’t help or empower you. Thinking, “I am God, if I really want it then I can do it!” is much more useful.

There are three energy centers or pools, the xhia dan tien (lower), the drung dan tien (middle, at the breast bone between the nipples), the shong dan tien (upper, about the top half of the skull). Chi gung concerns itself with three types of circulation: within the body, excretion of waste gases and drawing in of fresh materials.

These materials enter and leave the body through five doors: two in the palms, near the mound of the thumb, one on the skull, that place which wasn’t yet joined when you were born, one at the xhia dan tien, and two in the soles of the feet (I know, that’s 6 not 5). There are two others on the hand, in between the edge of the palm and the hand’s outer ridge. These are the devil’s doors, very useful for breaking stones, trees and other Karate activities. Dr. Liu will often use the angel’s doors in the hands to rejuvenate someone who is tired, run down. By massaging and opening them it helps waste gas escape.

You must imagine this. If you create it with your mind, your attention, it will have the desired effect, no problem. You will feel warmth, even heat on your palms. You wouldn’t feel it on the backs of your hands because the gas doesn’t pass there.

Chi gung 1:

Introductory visualization (always the same): Imagine the gas flowing to the xhia dan tien: from the toes up through the legs, from the shong dan tien down through the torso, the yin me, from the fingertips up through the arms and down the torso. Imagine that you are  reaming out the channel from the extremities to the center  through which the gas can flow. All gas balances to the xhia dan tien for two minutes…..  Then imagine a channel from the xhia dan tien down the front, through the hui yin point, the reproductive organs, around and up the back of the pelvis, up the spine, the du me, to the top dorsal vertebra, then branching outwards to the shoulders, down the outsides of the  arms and out the fingers, lao gung. The gas goes out that channel.

1) Then to expel gases: raise wings: step with the left foot to the left, feet now shoulder width with the toes turned slightly inward, like the Chinese number 8. Raise arms to horizontal, then raise hands to vertical, wrists ideally at an angle of 90 degrees. Draw hands towards chest (not all the way) and push, keeping the angle of the wrist maximal. Three times.

2) Then move hands to the sides; do the same pushing movements three times to the sides.

3) Fold wings, hands come to the sides of the body, the arms are still open 20 degrees.

4) Turn hands fingers pointing forwards. Move forearm back, as if pressing back against a wall.

5) Take a bird beak, beginning with only the thumb and fifth, bringing other fingers in one by one. Draw beak up to kidneys, rising up on tiptoes at same time. Finally throw out hands forward, opening them and sinking down, bending knees.

6) Continuing we now draw in fresh gas. Imagine a large balloon in which the gases are so compressed, concentrated that it is very heavy. This rests on your arms. Slowly raise it up until you draw in all those new gases and deposit them in the shong dan tien. Then interlace the fingers and turn palms outward. This closes the door in the head.

7) Three rotations clockwise then counterclockwise, with three fulcrums (fulcra?): first a point on the cervical spine, then a point on the back behind the drung dan tien, then on the 3rd lumbar, the xhia dan tien. Then the torso and arms, hands still interlaced, lower to the ground, three times push to the center, left foot , right foot.

8) Bringing your right hand to protect the dan tien, to prevent the energy from leaking out, cup it in, step forward left 45 degrees, then the left hand goes out, palm up, filling and holding energy, Arm rises to bring that energy finally to the shong dan tien, then hand comes down to join the right, make a ball. Walk, do the same on the other side.

9) Then slide the hands out behind, to the sides then forward and draw energy in to xhia dan tien.
Stand. The first of the five Chi gung’s is finished.

T’ai Chi needs many years’ study to be done well. Chi gung can be learned quickly, in a few hours, and is as effective as is the clarity of focus and intention of your mind.

May 2 – Chi Gung 2: tyen dyu di toung (sky earth pass through)

This chi gung is called ‘Earth and sky connected by a pole’. Preparatory thinking is the same.

1) Then raise wings but hands vertical (palms facing each other). Curl the lower two fingers and join the thumb to them, turn the hands palms down with the first two fingers pointing forward, joined, making a sword. Arms move to sides, then 3 times do this waving movement as seaweed undulating in a gentle ocean swell.

2) Open the palms and face them forward, lean forward, rise slightly on tiptoes, reach forward then turn palms upward, raise arms upwards, lean and look as far back as possible, opening the chest.  Return to normal and then repeat steps (3)-(6) from chi gung #1:

3) Fold wings, hands come to the sides of the body, the arms are still open 20 degrees.

4) Turn hands fingers pointing forwards. Move forearm back, as if pressing back against a wall.

5) Take a bird beak, beginning with only the thumb and fifth, bringing other fingers in one by one. Draw beak up to kidneys, rising up on tiptoes at same time. Finally throw out hands forward, opening them and sinking down, bending knees.

6) Continuing we now draw in fresh gas. Imagine a large balloon in which the gases are so compressed, concentrated that it is very heavy. This rests on your arms. Slowly raise it up until you draw in all those new gases and deposit them not in the shong dan tien  but in the third eye on the forehead.

7) Walk left 45 degrees, arms open, then turning to right the left arm makes a wide circle embracing as  much air as possible to place hand on right chest, fingers at the shoulder. Return left, right arm arcing to place hand on left chest. The arms are crossed, folded on the chest. Left hand rises, fingers pointing forward, right hand descends, palm down. The hands press vertically, one to the sky the other to the earth. Turn right foot outward, shift weight to right, turn left heel back, open arms and repeat on this side.

8) Turn right foot in, body to the left, arms to sides, palms up, slide the hands out behind,  then to the sides then forward and draw energy in to xhia dan tien. Finished.

May 3 – Chi Gung 3: Chi tung guan

1) The visualization is the same. Then step left to spread the feet shoulder width. Lead with your chin maximally high, leaning forward, then drop it, draw it into your chest, retract, come to neutral. It describes a big circle.  The chest is involved as well: It collapses as chin drops, then moves up, opening as the chin returns to normal. 3 times.

2) Drop head side to side lightly, the shoulders drop as well, just to relax the neck. Continue this movement but rise up, quicken it to a shake as you reach forward with your chin, stretch the whole upper spine, go up on tiptoes. 3 times.

3) Raise arms palms up, gather energy balloon into shong dan tien, draw hands down to sides, palms down. Draw backs of hands to rest on the kidneys, do three pelvic rotations in each direction, activating the horizontal flow of gas.

4) Fold the thumbs to protect the lorum, bring hands forward, retract them slightly by bending elbows, then hands descend to the knees. When thumbs press on the knees open the hands to grasp the knees. Knee rotations 3 times in each direction, then in opposite directions (mirror image).

5) Chi tung guan: keeping spine as erect as possible, visualize the gas not able to burst through into the ground pools of energy. Squat more and more until, ahhhh it releases. Then visualize the same in the head, the shong dan tien, straighten as much as you can with the hands on the knees, until you feel the release upwards. 3 times.

6) Conclusion: arms forward, palms up, gather energy to the third eye, hands come down, to the hips, back, out and around, draw in, finish.

May 4 – Chi gung 4: guang heuh diu syi (crane walks drinking water)

Same preparatory visualization. Draw hands up, palms up, Gather energy to 3rd eye, down to dan tien.
1) Arms come up forward, horizontal, left thigh as well. As the hands rise slightly bend the right knee until the left toes touch the ground. The wrist relaxes as you rise again to neutral. 3 times.
2) Make the sword with your hands, touch them then spread arms. Left heel kick, walk like a crane, bend right leg at the knee so calf is horizontal, heel back, toes pointing relaxed to the ground. Wave your swords like seaweed undulating in the water. Open the hands.
3) Flap your wings again gently as you bend left leg to touch right toes to ground. 3 times.
4) Arms sink down then flow out in front of you and up (palms down), as you draw the right knee forward to horizontal thigh position, arms forward. Repeat (1), (2), (3) on this side. Arms sink again, conclude by gathering energy to 3rd eye then down, out and around as usual.

May 6 – Chi gung 5: huan yuan guiyee (mixture – cycle – integrate)

1) Intro the same. Gather energy the same. Then a funny movement: turn to the right, left hand comes to touch its back to the left shoulder, the right hand touches its back to the right kidney, look as far to the left behind you (i.e. extremely to the right). Then the same on the other side. 3 times.
2) Left foot toe kick, heel kick then toe rotations first to the outside then inside. Same on right. All this 3 times.
3) Gather energy to 3rd eye again, then arms to the left. Make vertical arm circles counterclockwise 3 times, arriving at the same place on the left, then clockwise 3 times,. Open the hands to draw in gas from the sky, expel gas into the ground, then draw in again as you come up.

May 7 1995 – The quiet chi gung: shrong hui chi

Your head is suspended from a string. Your neck feels this too. Your arms are rounded and horizontal – under each arm you hold a big balloon. Your hands as well hold a very large balloon. Your knees are bent because they too hold big balloons. Everywhere balloons.

Just think about the xhia dan tien. Don’t try to move the energy, to circulate the gas, just focus on the main energy pool.

For the first five minutes you might feel fatigue but then it passes. Half hour minimum for good results. The first five chi gungs are preparatory for this one. After the first five all gas passages should be open, the gas flowing freely. You need a quiet place to do this, no people around, outside.