William C C Chen Q&A 1992 Part 1|4
Happy 90th birthday, Grandmaster Chen!
To celebrate the life and teaching of Grandmaster William C C Chen, we are honored to publish a question and answer session given at one of his teacher trainings in Germany in the 1990s. Celebrating the 30th anniversary of our school, the Tai Chi Studio, ourselves these days, we were quite excited to see how a teacher training looked like around the time Nils opened his school…
Rare footage of Grandmaster Chen
The rare footage of a casual student teacher conversation led by Master Chen has been recorded and transmitted to us by Master Chen’s senior student Detlef Klossow of Düsseldorf, Germany. The original material was recorded for educational purposes using home video equipment. It has originally been recorded on tape and has been digitalized a while ago. Sadly, it could not be improved much more technically, but the tone of Master Chen’s voice remains characteristic. – That said, it is probably not advisable to use headphones trying to understand the questions of the students, as the volume needs to be turned up quite a bit.
Master Chen’s Tai Chi teaching – Content of the video
The video gives an insight into Master Chen’s teaching, his way of communication and interaction with his students and also shows some short sequences of how his Tai Chi form looked back in the 1990s.
It is thus a great resource for those familiar with his style of Tai Chi – to see his roots and retrace the development of Master Chen’s Tai Chi over the years, true to his motto „the bus does not stop here“. Therefore it might also serve as an inspiration for the coming generations of Tai Chi practitioners not to dwell upon the past but instead to evolve one’s practice even further – although others may already address one as „Master“, as it was the case with Master Chen at the time the video has been made.
Compared to some more recent teaching material of Master Chen, the video is also a proof that life-long learning was already lived by Master Chen before it was popularized in the education sector.
Master Chen’s Tai Chi Q and A
Welcome aboard for a short trip through our style’s Tai Chi history…
For convenience, we have split the video into 4 parts.
Find below for every part a short introduction / overview over the topics covered in the videos. We also choose to highlight some ideas of Master Chen which might provide food for thought or practical tips to try out in your own learning and teaching practice. The text is to be understood as a loose excerpt with some editing for clarity and viewer/reader convenience. While some thoughts might be added, all faults are entirely the author’s.
William C C Chen Q&A 1992 Part 1
At the beginning of the video, you will see Master Chen’s characteristic collection of visual teaching aids, which nowadays have been complemented with an electronic teaching aid (yes, the one with the incomplete fruit on it).
Tai Chi for Health – Advantages and mechanisms
The first question touches the topic of Tai Chi practice for health.
The following advantages of Tai Chi as a practical system are touched upon:
- Relaxing the mind
- Slow motion in continuation: According to Master Chen at least 10 minutes of slow and continuous movement help us to unwind and relax. The slow motion’s effects on the brain/nervous system lead to a mind and body harmonization. It is the physical slow action itself that leads the mind to being relaxed.
- Reducing stress
- Furthering circulation by loosening up: Tai Chi improves the (blood) circulation without added heating up of the body as in intensive exercise.
- Rehabilitation after/ during infections: e.g. having a cold leads to a tensing up of the muscles under the lower ribs. Practicing Tai Chi allows us to relax those muscles and helps us to release excessive tension induced by the infection.
Tai Chi’s general effect of wellbeing
Tai Chi Chuan therefore has a general effect on wellbeing. Master Chen clearly states that doing certain exercises for certain specific organs do not match any knowledge from his experience. Tai Chi Chan is thus solely but decisively a wholistic systemic approach – „as far as I know“.
How long should I practice when I have got a cold?
If you have got a cold, but are fit enough to exercise, the recommended time is 35-40 minutes. Short single exercises and 5-minute-programs of any kind (today one would probably say „quick 5-minute body hacks“) are not sufficient (see above).
How should I teach students with anxiety?
The question was how the teacher could react if learning / practicing Tai Chi adds to the anxiety of a student (heart rate goes further up etc.) According to Master Chen this could be a case of too much anxiety in the process itself. – He points out that this might be concerning both sides: While the student might be too anxious to get it right, the teacher might also be too anxious to teach right and to provide instant relieve for the student. Master Chen’s tip: bear in mind that relaxation requires experience – even more so for anxious people. Instead of correcting and adding more and more information, a suggestion would be to walk away and let them try on their own for a change.
Another suggestion for anxious students whose anxiety circles around not being able to memorize the Tai Chi choreography would be to devise exercises that are easier to reproduce.
Working with the elderly (and in rehabilitation training)
Devising simple exercises and using warm-up exercises for challenged students might also be advisable when working with the elderly. Also when students recover from accidents or operations, it might help to devise simple movements that can be repeated slowly and constantly which work with the body mechanics of Tai Chi. – So as a teacher, you would be able to teach the essence, but it is easier for the student to remember and/or to concentrate on a single aspect. Central to this approach is the alternating of collapsing and waking up (today’s preparation and activation / yin yang alternation in the form). Master Chen recommends developing exercises like those shown by him as needed.
Warming up exercises like constant bear / loosening exercises are good in these cases as well and also easy to remember. They are not a part of Master Chen’s usual class schedule, as his classes cover the Tai Chi body mechanics.
Ask yourself: Why should students pay for extensive warm up? – The body mechanics of Tai Chi Chuan are / (should be) the core of teaching Tai Chi Chuan when learning and concentration difficulties are mastered by the students. – Loosening exercises as simple body stimulation exercises or harder conditioning exercises could form part of the solo training of students.
Tai Chi breath work
Asked to clarify guidelines for Tai Chi breathing, Master Chen touches the following aspects:
- The breathing part of the movement has nothing to do with the hands going out (into the desired position / (memory shape) of the form).
- Master Chen stresses not to try to perceive “breathing in“ as providing instant energy that pushes the hands out, and does not recommend to work with the visualisation that the hands are pushed out by the air breathed in.
- The internal breathing process – as chemical body process – does take time. Oxygen is inhaled, transported, used in the body and during this oxidation process energy (for movement) is set free.
- The energy which moves our hands at the time we inhale has already been created by our body before. We eat, we digest, we consequently have the energy to move. That is enough / all there is to it.
- On the body mechanical level, the exhalation takes place during the collapsing (preaction / preparation phase) – the diaphragm passively moves up to allow space for the organs moving. The inhalation – the diaphragm actively moving downwards – creates compression in the lower abdomen to allow us to take up an upright position again.
- Every inhalation just continues the continuous process of energy production: the opposite would be a boxer that throws 15 punches in a row and then has to take some time (taking shots) to come back to the continuous process after overexertion.
- In regular Tai Chi practice continuous breathing – the continuous and uninterrupted process – is strengthened.
- This furthers a regular supply of enough (or more) oxygen (bigger air volume over time) and thereby intensifies the burning process that lies at the core of energy production in the body. The air itself does not burn – one should therefore not overinvest in the concept of Qi concerning Tai Chi breathing.
Training hard or hardly training?
Asked about his past training, Master Chen also talks about living in Grandmaster Cheng’s house at a young age. Prompted about his alleged hard training back in the time, Master Chen answers: „Trained very hard? I don’t know.“ He then proceeds to add that he did not think about it this way – he trained because he liked it. Instead of the well-known „No pain, no gain“, he jokingly refers to himself as an advocator of the idea: „no pain, but still gain“ – the approach of enjoying oneself and still gaining something.
Master Chen states that his own individual training at that time has been about one hour a day. He illustrates that vividly with the surrounding circumstances: going to work, being part of the family life as a young man in Cheng Man Ching’s house and having to cope with the latter’s younger children – to whom he still has a cordial relationship at the time of the recording.
The process of developing the Tai Chi body mechanics
The last question in this part of the video was: How did Master Chen discover or develop the Tai Chi body mechanics?
In the beginning, Master Chen was being captured by what he thought of as the Qi of Grandmaster Cheng – by his way of moving. He started out practicing Tai Chi following this idea.
After a short time practical training – and being used as a dummy by Prof. Cheng – the young Chen began to analyze body movement and alignment in place of seeing the Qi and trying to cultivate it. He started to call the way Tai Chi works with the Qi, the process of organizing the body: body mechanics.
Master Chen’s understanding of body mechanics was also informed and furthered by Push hands training. – It took him two years of training to develop enough skills to unnerve fellow students by them not being able to push him over anymore. This was part due to body mechanics, part experience with his classmates’ pushing hands style.
Still, entering a tournament, he was „beaten up“ – and discovered that he still lacked reflexes adapted to this kind of situation: he was shown that also (free) fighting reflexes come from experience… – an experience he still lacked.
As a consequence, Master Chen began to „put the gloves on“ and studied with a classmate who was also a coach for western boxing. The interaction with him and his students broadened his understanding. This was also the root of Master Chen using gloves in Tai Chi teaching, because – and that is a really good one:“When you hold back too much, you will not know the experience.“
Gloves allow Tai Chi application training without holding back – compared to bare fist application training – while at the same time minimizing the risk of injuries.