Many people see Tai Chi as a slow, graceful dance-like exercise and wonder how it could possibly be effective as a martial art - until they feel the power generated by these seemingly "soft" movements or try to attack someone only to find themselves flung off at a tangent or becoming more intimately-acquainted with the floor.
Once you begin to learn about Tai Chi Chuan as a fighting art you will hear the word "jing" mentioned in many different contexts. You may hear different explanations about what jing or jin might be; though few books give you much information, those that do may give you mis-information and a recent search of Wikipedia came up with nothing at all. You can of course, pay a few thousand quid for someone's inner door teaching in an attempt to discover this stuff but then what you receive may be about as reliable as the stuff you get from books, (ie. not very), so you may prefer to read on.
Why does it matter?
One answer is that it doesn't matter at all, but only in as much as it doesn't matter what you call it. Using Chinese words isn't essential if you can think of a suitable name for it in your own language. We could just call it "IT" for want of a better word. If a martial artist has "IT", you tend to know about it.
Another answer is that "IT" matters a great deal, because without it, your Tai Chi doesn't work terribly well as an effective method of self-protection.
Discovering "It" - That springy, jingy thingy
There's an old saying in the Internal Martial Arts: It doesn't matter who your teacher is or what your lineage is, if you haven't got "It". So what is "It"? "It" is that rare quality which you occasionally find among internal martial artists. When someone has "It" you can sense it, when you have "It" yourself you never lose it, and if you could bottle "It" and pass it onto others in a fizzy drink, you'd make a fortune.
Sadly, "It" is one of the hardest things to put into words, and if you showed it to a thousand students for half a lifetime, only a handful would ever see what you were showing them, so it's incredibly difficult to teach to others. If a grandmaster has "It", there's no guarantee that his or her sons or daughters will have it too, which makes family trees and lineages a bit irrelevant if you are looking for the real thing rather than something that will look good on your CV.
"It" isn't something that those who "talk the talk" in published works and costly seminars have ever necessarily experienced for themselves, so a library of learned texts isn't going to help that much, and neither are workshops on distant continents, visits to ancient temples and so forth.
So, if you can't buy "It", steal "It", read about "It" or have "It" genetically or ceremonially bequeathed upon you, how do you get "It"?
Here are a few suggestions:
1. Find a teacher who has "It". You can learn a lot from other teachers (if you are lucky), including good structure and some of the main principles, and it's possible that, with the right foundation, you might then make the intuitive leap that allows you to experience "It" for yourself, but if you really want to go all the way, it's probably more useful to have a teacher who has "It" so that you can see "It" and sense "It" on a regular basis and, with the right attitude on your part, start to notice and absorb "It" like a process of osmosis.
2. "Put yourself in your teacher's shoes". Don't just copy their movements, follow their instructions and try to intellectually figure it all out; move as they move, feel as they feel, remembering that "It" is not so much a "doing" as a "being".
3. Both of the above depend on being able to have even the vaguest idea of what "It" is in the first place, otherwise you won't know whether your teacher has "It" or not. So study and practice diligently.
Study clips on YouTube: HD or blurry black and white, "grandmasters" or "never-even-heard-ofs". Take no notice of how famous their name is, how old they are, how many students they have, what titles they go by, how many books they've had published or what comments have been posted about them by adoring fans or critics. Ignore clever gymnastic feats and yards of verbal waffle. Look at what they are doing. Sense what they are expressing. Feel the quality of how they are moving. Are they stiff and wooden... or frail and wispy... or is there a certain something that you can't quite define, an ease and smoothness combined with a kind of resiliance and a sense of stored, controlled internal power, like a panther prowling through a forest? Is it kind of calm and peaceful and soft but at the same time somehow awesome? Does it send a tingle up your spine? Does it make you feel like you would love to move that way but you wouldn't fancy meeting this dude (or dudette) in a dark alley on less than friendly terms? Make a collection of clips of those who move that way and look at them often until you begin to sense what it is that they all have in common. Then you will have a fighting chance of recognising "It" in a teacher and know who to study with.
So what is jing?
Whatever we call it, let's explore the most important concepts we need to be aware of.
In general, what we are looking at is how to use the human body in the most natural and effective way possible for self-protection, using the laws of physics to your own advantage. This will include:
being able to sense and respond to an opponent's attack;
to absorb, neutralise and redirect force without effort,
and to deliver a strike with explosive power that can unbalance, uproot or incapacitate an attacker in order to increase the odds of your survival and give you time to get the heck out of there and get help. (You don't get extra brownie points for sticking around to further test your combat skills.)
Overall, with proper training, you develop a kind of springy resilience, sensitivity and "internal power" that allows your whole body to respond spontaneously and appropriately to the situation.
Sensitivity ("Ting jing")
A common teaching exercise in Tai Chi classes is the one where you find a partner and take turns to lead each other round the room with only your index fingers touching. The person following has their eyes closed. Students are often amazed by how easy it is to keep the connection and sense where they are being led. With the eyes closed, all the other senses come into play, especially hearing and touch.
It is useful to repeat this exercise with eyes open. Again, students are usually surprised, but this time by how much more difficult it becomes when they can see what is going on! Sight is the dominant sense, so with the eyes open, the intellectual brain starts to take over. Suddenly the follower starts trying to predict where the leader is going and may even start to take over the leading rather than being led. Instead of relaxed trust and instinctive knowing, you get tension and calculation.
In push hands, whether friendly or competitive, or in a fight, the intellectual brain can be more of a hindrance than a help. The deliberations of the intellectual left hemisphere and frontal lobes of the brain, while very clever, are also very slow when compared with the instinctive, more primitive responses of the limbic system and "feeling" right hemisphere.
If a bus is hurtling towards you, it's no use standing there calculating velocities and trajectories and planning your escape route so, fortunately, your fight-or-flight response gets you onto the kerb before there's time for your rational brain to get a look in and mess you up.
Similarly, in a fight, it's not a good idea to stand there thinking about the speed and direction of an incoming punch, kick or pair of hands set on gripping your throat, or scrolling through a list of martial applications and their possible usefulness in this situation!
You need to be able to respond spontaneously as a result of all your previous training, without thinking.
When you touch your opponent, you can sense a great deal about their internal state and intentions. Even before you touch them, you can have a general "feel" of what they are about to do. Bruce Lee (who practiced Tai Chi as well as other martial arts while developing his own system) called this sensing the energy of the opponent. What he was talking about was a general all-round awareness. Takuan Soho referred to it as keeping the attention liquid rather than fixing it on one thing and allowing it to crystallise like ice. This fluid sensitivity allows you to respond appropriately.
A good analogy is a bouncy ball or rubber tyre. You are soft but not soft enough to be squashed flat or blown away. You are strong but not hard like a piece of wood that can be broken or a stone that can't move. You can absorb and bounce people away from you. You can pivot at the waist like the wheel of a wagon on its side and spin an attacker off you without effort. You can redirect their incoming momentum and turn it back on them....
Explosive Power (Fa jing)
...and when you want to knock someone over, you can destabilise them and issue a relaxed, bouncy force from your whole body that blasts them away in a manner that would be impossible if you were using the strength of your arms alone. This is what Cheng Man Ching called "investing in loss", relaxing and sacrificing the brute strength of individual limbs so that the power of your whole body becomes available. You can direct the force through your body and limbs like water through a pressure hose, and you can vibrate your body like a dog shaking off water after a dip in a lake ("shaking jing").
This is where all the principles of Tai Chi make sense and come together so you really start to see their relevance. If you are not rooted, you can fall over; if you are not sunk low into your legs, you won't be able to use your waist or dantien properly; if you are not relaxed, you won't have access to the whole body but will find your power limited to the strength of an arm or leg; and if you have not developed the Tai Chi sense, your attack may be wasted by being directed the wrong way, unbalancing yourself rather than your opponent and leaving you vulnerable to their response.
You also need to be breathing properly and using your dantien efectively. These are both subjects on which a great deal of misinformation is readily available.
So before we go any further, lets have a look at what we mean by proper Tai Chi breathing. The following explanation was first published on our Facebook wall a couple of years ago, as were the fa jing safety tips that follow it.
This week's tip arises from an enquiry received recently from someone who had been advised to meditate while sucking in the abdomen on the in-breath and pushing it out on the out-breath in order to "concentrate the chi". After some diligent practice, the person had become concerned by pains in the bladder and umbilicus. This illustrates the inherent dangers in the common misunderstanding that reverse breathing is just the opposite of abdominal breathing.
As in the previous advice we have given about fa jing safety, we would like to stress the importance of NOT pushing out the whole abdomen on the out-breath. Instead, focus on rolling an imaginary ball filling the lower abdomen (down and under at the back and up and in at the front) while gentlly contracting the pelvic floor muscles, thereby protecting the bladder, bowel, umbilicus and uterus (if you have one).
If you are doing this while meditating, keep it gentle. The purpose of meditation is to calm down, still the mind and gain the freedom to choose what goes on in your own head. Focussing on the breathing helps to calm the mind and in the case of proper, safe, reverse breathing it also has the added advantage of helping to train reflexes that are useful in martial arts, but it's important not to overdo it and to avoid any kind of dodgy practice that could injure you (such as the one described above or anything involving holding the breath or otherwise interfering with it unduly).
We hope we haven't made fa jing and reverse breathing sound frought with untold hazard. Most of it is just common sense. We have taken the time to go into it in such detail because there is so much misinformation around and the (minority of) people who really know what they are doing are often less than eager to share their knowledge or will charge you an arm and a leg for it. Actually, in our experience, those who don't know what they are doing tend to charge more!
Fa Jing Safety Tips
Fa jing safety tip number 1 - Don't overdo it,
either by practicing it too often or by putting too much effort into it. Releasing explosive power too often can cause problems over a period of time. It's enough to know that you can do it and that you can use it if needed, with occasional practice to check your skills and understanding. Too much muscular effort leads to tension which interferes with the ability to do fa jing at all. The body needs to be relaxed and springy in order to issue any real power.
Fa jing safety tip number 2. - Protect your brain.
Brains are not keen on being shaken about inside the skull like a jelly in a tin (which can result in concussion) so when you are using shaking jing, keep the upper body relaxed, your head still and your weight sunk down and feel the waves of force travelling from your centreline outwards along your limbs to the extremities in order to keep vibration inside the head to a minimum. Even then, since you are working with the whole body, there may still be some vibration in the head so, to avoid dizziness and headaches, don't overdo it.
Fa Jing Safety Tip 3 - Protect your pelvic floor and umbilicus.
As you issue explosive shaking jing, the pressure in the lower abdomen is directed forwards by dropping the tailbone and tucking under slightly as the dantien rolls like a football. There is a slight squeezing of the pelvic floor muscles as the force passes above it towards the lower abdomen, thereby "closing the chi gates" and protecting the organs and muscles in this region from the slight risk of prolapse. As the "football" rolls, there is also a pulling in under the midriff, if you are breathing properly, which generates a lot of power and also avoids the risk of umbilical hernia, which can occur when people get the breathing wrong and expand the whole abdomen on the out-breath rather than just the region below the navel.
Fa Jing Safety Tip 4 - Protect your nasal cavity and throat
by opening your mouth on the out breath as you issue explosive power. The sound of the breath is "hwa" which encourages the correct use of the dantien. Although it is possible to fa jing with the mouth closed, it can potentially cause problems with the membranes of the nasal cavity due to the sudden build up of pressure, resulting in an increased likelihood of sleep problems such as snoring and sleep apnoea.
And finally, here's a message from and old friend:
Crouching Tigger, Hidden Dragon
On the subject of spring:
Remember the first rule of Tai (ger) Chi: Never meet force with force - always meet force with bounce, which of course is what Tiggers do the best.
First, relax and crouch low, like a Tigger with a hidden dragon coiled around its waist. And keep your head up and your tail down. Tails are very useful in the process of bouncing.
Remember there are basically five types of spring. The first is called Ting spring or listening spring, but that’s a complicated name for something very simple. Just stay cool and be as alert and sensitive as a Tigger’s whiskers.
Next, remember that springs are circular and can be coiled up. As the force comes in, the dragon absorbs it and tightens it’s tail. If no force comes in, let the dragon sleep. You don’t move till someone comes to wake it up.
Conserve your energy. With any luck, an incoming assailant will fly off the edge of the circle and you won’t need to bounce them at all.
Springs can also be squashed – and Tiggers normally crouch down lower prior to releasing a good bounce.
The next bit is the most fun. This is called Far-spring. It’s amazing how far an incoming heffalump or woozle will spring if you bounce them properly. Just choose the right moment, tuck your tail under and release the dragon.
Of course, you can do this with style, as befits the situation. You can do it slow and controlled, or fast and sudden; you can do it from a standing start or a moving start; you can do it exaggerated, so that everyone can see the build up, or you can do it subtly, so that no one sees it coming; and if you really want to impress, you can let the dragon shake itself dramatically as you bounce.
In the rare event of a failure in all of the above, don’t forget to fall with style, like my colleague Buzz Lightyear, and hit the floor with bounce.
Tai (ger) Chi is, of course, the supreme ultimate path to enlightenment.
I am, after all, the only One.