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Building a martial arts method VI


From broken strength to integral strength

When you do detailed manual work, you activate your hand and arm muscles with precision. The more you concentrate on your movements, the less attention you pay to the other parts of your body, even to the point of not thinking about them at all. The same thing often happens when you do work that is physically arduous. Following a day of hard labour, even if you haven’t worked all your body, you nevertheless feel that your whole body is tired out. «I’m totally fatigued» doesn’t mean that you have worked all the parts of your body equally to the point of utter fatigue.

In both cases, even if you are “totally” fatigued at the end of the day, the physical exercise that you have done is nevertheless partial relative to the meaning that we give to the word “total” in talking about zheng-ti, which I would translate as “whole-body integration”. Zheng-ti, a concept that is essential to yi chuan, does not arise from an impression, but is formed technically through the practice of a method. This distinction is necessary if we are to progress in our reflexions.

But first a clarification. We have begun a reflexion on tai chi chuan, but we keep talking about the method of yi chuan. Why?

Because I believe that the obscure part of the tai chi chuan method can be seen more clearly and directly if we refer to the zheng-ti concept of yi chuan. In my opinion, this concept provides the key to our initial question: “How can we gain in strength and speed through exercise that is apparently supple and slow?”

Until we can explain this question properly, the practice of tai chi chuan, and of what is known in other terms as the “internal” disciplines, can never be freed of the mysticism surrounding it, of the type: “by developing your qi, you can vanquish all opponents.” We think that qi (or ki) in martial art only has value in conjunction with physical and technical functions. Together, they form a mutual relationship: as qi (ki) increases, muscular function increases as well.

This said, let us return to our subject with the help of another example.

Suppose you are looking at a man with big muscles. He works out regularly and methodically at a gym using different weights and apparatus. His entire body is muscular, because he seriously exercises each of his muscles.

For example, to build up his biceps, he places his elbow on a support and lifts a weight in his hand. He works each muscle group in similar ways. So his entire body is covered with huge, strong muscles. He knows how to use well-built strength.

Broken strength and zheng-ti strength

Hàn Xingqiao, whose work I presented earlier, would say that the strength of this man is “broken strength”, since it was built up in parts, bit by bit. In a way, his musculature is made up of a set of muscle groups, each of which has been built up separately. Although each muscle is strong, he needs to integrate his body as a whole. According to Hàn Xingqiao’s theory, all forms of exercise that use outside material are inspired by productive labour, and this fatally limits the work of the body because of the preciseness of the effort that must be made. For this reason, Hàn Xingqiao rejects the method of strengthening the body using outside apparatus.

By contrast, if all your muscle groups are small but you know how to use them as a whole, as if they formed a single long muscle, you could deploy great force, as if your body had become a long, powerful bow. In a way, bearing this image in mind, a body covered with huge muscles can be compared to that of a long bow made of numerous short bows, whereas a fully integrated body (zheng-ti) represents a single, long and powerful bow. Hàn Xingqiao calls the first situation broken strength, and the second fully integrated, or whole-body strength.

If you could link this latter type to “the mad strength of a woman in a fire” (an example explained in my previous article), you could produce a truly remarkable force. These two aspects of strength are built simultaneously in the yi chuan method.

Attaining “fully integrated strength” naturally requires physical training, but mental effort is also necessary. The saying of one of the old masters, i.e., that “martial art is not a matter for imbeciles”, means that we must not train stupidly, but instead must reflect on what we’re doing, because the state of zheng-ti (whole-body strength) cannot be achieved only through a practice that is solely physical. It requires physical training of course, but in association with simultaneous reflection and meditation. If one can talk about philosophy in martial art, this is the only starting point that I can see – because martial art philosophy cannot consist of pure speculation.

So it is with this logic that some people think of the exercise of zhan zhuang as ritsu-zen, or standing zen (meditation), whereas others only see it as a simple exercise for strengthening the shoulders and legs.

By reflecting on the exercise of zhan zhuang (ritsu-zen), we are able to comprehend the following: by working on the sensation that all the muscles in the body seem to form a single unit, we will inevitably be led towards a particular mental state.

Put the other way round, we can also say that unless we attain a particular mental state, we won’t be able to activate our body in a way such that all our muscles form a single, unique whole. To achieve this mental operation, a certain maturity is required so that we can see objectively how our mind is working. Indeed, this is one of the obstacles for practicing an “internal” method. We can verify that there is a correlation between the body and the mind: by striving for zheng-ti, we can become aware of a particular state of mind, and by meditating on “a vision such that you’re able to see a thousand leaves at a time”, you can place yourself at the threshhold of whole-body integration – i.e., zheng-ti.

Concentration in dispersion

Let’s look inside ourselves again.

While doing zhan zhuang (ritsu-zen), let us try, by flexing certain muscles, to focus on different areas of the body: the feet, calves, thighs, buttox, back, shoulders, arms, hands... In doing so, let us observe what happens inside.

When you try, for example, to activate your thigh muscles, you find that certain areas of the body don’t respond to your command, because you can’t control them at will. When you try to exercise given areas, you realise that you don’t know how to activate certain muscles voluntarily. But if you don’t even notice this phenomenon, you certainly won’t have any way of activating them. Becoming aware of a problem is the first thing you have to do to overcome it.

This being the case, when you see that a large portion of your muscles fail to obey you, how can you claim to be able to employ all your body’s dynamic capital?

When you say, “I exerted all my strength”, what you really mean is, “I applied all my strength on an ordinary basis”.  Here, “on an ordinary basis” means “the mental state in which the muscles are only partially activated”. To become aware that we fail to marshal a large portion of our body’s muscles would be the first step towards approaching the state we are striving for. If you can’t understand this, there is obviously little more you can do in this terrain.

In short, whole-body integration is easily said, but very difficult to achieve.

Unless we go through this stage of observing what happens inside ourselves, it is impossible to go on to the next stage. Accordingly, partial exercises are indispensable before going on to global, whole-body, exercise.

The state of whole-body integration reminds me of a zen teaching that I quoted earlier: “To see a thousand leaves on a tree at a single glance.” If you look at leaves one by one, you can’t take in the foliage as a whole. If you look at the whole, you can’t take in the uniqueness of the single leaf. Similarly, in Western countries, you’re advised to take care lest you “can’t see the forest for the trees” or you “can’t see the trees for the forest”…

Here, instead of leaves, we’re concerned with muscles.

So, what should we do?

As a life-long student of this way, I will give the explanation that corresponds to my level of progress. It would be impossible to feel the body’s entire set of muscles without entering into a sort of concentration with dispersion. When we enter this kind of physical and psychological state, our logical references disappear. It is a state similar to a form of meditation and, probably, to the free-floating attention spoken of in psychoanalysis.

The moment we fix our attention on a thought, our perception is polarised on it and is constrained thereby. Consequently, striving for a physical state where we feel “as if all our muscles were joined in a single unit” leads us spontaneously to a kind of state of non-thought, a state close to meditation. Words disappear. This is one of the reasons why we rarely find works explaining this way of exploring such a psychosomatic state.

Accordingly, striving for such a physical state directly implies a certain mental state. If you can’t feel it, then we’d have to say that you are simply a stranger to this method, since no one is obliged to practice it. For you, doing zhan zhuan or ritsu-zen will be nothing more than an exercise for strengthening your legs and shoulders, while work on the yi (or intention) will seem like a waste of time.

The yi of yi chuan implies a physical state that will spontaineously lead to the mental exercise of non-thought. This is one of my personal reasons for prefering to use the term ritsu-zen to designate zhan zhuang, which literally means “standing like a pole”.

Gravity : facility and limitations

If you work out with weights to develop muscle strength, you feel the effect as soon as you pick them up. Similarly, if you do chin-ups on a bar, you are using body weight to get a work-out. In such cases, you don’t need to think because as soon as you get in position, your muscles flex to resist, to push or to lift the weight. So the use of an object (here, weights or a bar) is practical, but limited.

In both cases, you can only exercise vertically, against the pull of gravity.  Consequently, you can only strengthen your muscles in relation to this pull. You can change apparatus and use the rowing machine, for example. The quality of your work will seem to change, but there is no change regarding the directional limitation of your efforts.

To repeat: if you want a perfect work-out with this system, you’ll have to multiply your use of different apparatus. But even if you do, the problem I raised earlier will not be solved.

Let’s recall what I wrote at the end of my last article:

If you’re in the “tree-hugging” posture of zhan zhuang (ritsu-zen), and suddenly, without warning, someone pushes your arms in different ways (downwards, upwards, frontwards, back…), what will happen? If you’ve made progress in whole-body integration, you’ll be able to resist each push more or less without particular effort. You’ve become resistant to forces coming from any direction. However, if you haven’t progressed in this method, with each pressure, your body will give way.

Martial art requires a particular strength. In the work that I presented earlier, Hàn Xingqiao (1909-2004) wrote: “With this strength, you can fight with the power of a large ship colliding with a small boat.”

In yi chuan people build this particular strength by doing zhan zhuang (ritsu-zen). If we compare this exercise with work-outs requiring an object, the latter will seem more practical because the effect is immediate, but it is always limited.

To repeat, the use of muscle-building apparatus like weights, rowing machines, bicycles, bars etc., or training with people who allow you to use such apparatus, will make you work in a well-defined direction: lifting, pulling, pushing, turning, etc. But the more precise the effort, the more limited the effect on the muscles. In order for the work-out to be as complete as possible, you will have to multiply your use of different apparatus and types of exercises.

As we have seen, however, martial art strength must be entirely integrated. Then it will be able to resist any force, no matter where it comes from, and it can explode in all directions too. To get such results, yi chuan uses the weight of intention, or the intention of weight, but not the material weight itself.

The term jia-jié which is used in yi chuan is a training method of just this kind – i.e., a weight of intention, or an intention of weight. I would translate it as follows: “resorting to visual or imagined situations”.


Kenji Tokitsu's video clip  in:

To be continued.


Interesting websites

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