Fixed-Leg Silk Reeling Exercises
By Nick Gudge
Beginning Training with Grandmaster Wang Haijun: Fixed Leg Reeling Silk Exercises
By Nick Gudge
2. What is Chan Si Jin and why is it important?
3. Teaching Method: My Experience of Grandmaster Wang’s teaching Method
4. Body Requirements:
a. Basic Training Ideas – Looseness, Whole Body Coiling and Peng Jin
b. Knee Motion
c. Waist Motion
d. Arm Motion
e. Developing Leg Strength
5. Pain & Injury
6. The Exercises
Like most Chen style taiji teachers Grandmaster Wang Haijun teaches Chan Si Gong (Reeling Silk Exercises (RSE)) as an aid to helping his students comprehend and increase their Chan Si Jin (Reeling Silk Skill.) Sometimes it is called coiling strength, sometimes twining power. This skill is the basis for all movement and power in Chen Style Taiji. For those who are anticipating training with him or who are already training with him I hope the following helps make their training and his corrections more productive.
The text and pictures provided below are an aid to recalling these exercise but they are no substitute for hands on correction by a skilled teacher.
Each teacher has their own methods of training these skills. As a consequence although different teachers’ exercises may be similar they are not identical. My experience is that each teacher emphasises different elements at various stages of their training method. However, in general, while the goal of all approaches is to train the same basic skills, the overall training strategy is not necessarily apparent from the initial stages of training. In part this article is an attempt to address this.
While some of what I have written below is obvious, some other items will require correction by someone with experience (preferably Grandmaster Wang Haijun), to understand what is being said. In his classes in Ireland Grandmaster Wang commonly and explicitly makes these corrections but students don’t always grasp what he is trying to correct. In many respects I strongly recommend his teaching because his corrections are both simple and direct. If I pay attention to exactly what he is doing (instead of what I think he should be doing) improvement comes quickly with training and much practice. Without this clarity of teaching and learning I think my practice would be much less productive. Also without frequent and extended practice his teaching would be wasted. It takes time, considerable effort and endurance (eating bitter) to gain this skill and its associated power.
2) What is Chan Si Jin and why is it important?
Chan si jin is an unusual strength. It is based on coiling and uncoiling the body. It is counter intuitive in some of its development. For example, if I were to consider pulling someone from my right to my left, typically I would push with my right leg to generate linear momentum to my body, which would be added to the strength of my arms. With good timing a significant amount of strength can be generated this way. This is the normal method of generating strength. A chan si gong might attain a similar strength for the same right to left pull by starting on the left (!) leg, using the push with the left leg to generate rotational (coiling) strength by driving the left hip back and right and the right hip forward and left.
It is difficult to over emphasise the importance of this skill or strength. Grandmaster Wang states explicitly that Chan si type movement is how the body must move in Chen Taiji. My understanding is that it was traditionally trained in the lao jia yi lu; more recently, in the 1980s Chan Si Gong (Reeling Silk Exercises) were developed to help the student isolate the required motions and allow them to be perfected through repetition. Training the co-ordination of the whole body, directed by the waist, to generate this coiling strength is the purpose of these exercises. Individuals who are well trained and practised are capable of generating very significant power using this skill and have this power available in any position.
Perhaps the most significant benefit is that it provides access to the considerable coiling strength that can be trained into the waist and legs. In my opinion this strength is different from that provided from either linear (found for example in weight lifting) or circular motion (found for example in golf, tennis or running,) both of which are predominant in the external martial arts.
One of the benefits of this type of strength is that it maintains better balance than external strength. In the example above, if I were to pull by shifting from right to left and the person I was pulling kept hold of me and pulled me (using the momentum I had provided their body,) I would have a limited ability to neutralise that pull. Using chan si jin in the above situation I would have much more opportunity to neutralise that pull. I would be better “balanced” in Taiji terms. This allows continuous access to this coiling strength.
3) Teaching Method:
My Experience of Grandmaster Wang’s teaching Method
Like other experienced and powerful practitioners, Grandmaster Wang’s teaching method involves 3 elements:
1. Copying him in basic choreography of exercises
2. Practising to gain the body requirements
3. Taking correction to improve training / practice performance
I would add a fourth element: to understand exactly what skills he is trying to impart. While the choreography of his exercise is relatively important it is not the purpose of this training, merely the format (albeit a format with a purpose.) Understanding clearly what the “body requirements” are is a good start to realising the skills gained from those body requirements.
As skills are gained in the simpler exercises, they may be applied or adapted into more complex exercises. Single hand exercises lead to double hand exercises; exercises without foot work (bu fa) lead to exercises with footwork and so on.
Grandmaster Wang’s method appears to juggle several objectives, some of these arising from teaching in a workshop type format. Being aware of these may make what he is doing clearer. For example he may try to achieve some of the following things, some of which may appear to be contradictory:
1. Give enough material so a student has something to practice
2. Not give too much material that a student looses sight of the purpose of training
3. Training exaggerated mechanism to build the right idea
4. Eradicate exaggerated movement to resolve other problems
5. Training one aspect of a specific movement in one exercise
6. Train another aspect of a similar movement in another exercise
In short my experience is that his correction for me are pertinent most to me and I need to grasp what he is trying to get me to do with his correction. I must be able to reproduce it. However, choreography is not the principal objective. Corrections in choreography are merely an aid to getting the body into a more appropriate position to train the body effectively. It is the training of the body which is important. Grandmaster Wang Haijun and Grandmasters Chen Zheng Lei, Chen Xiao Wang and Zhu Tian Cai all use different choreography to achieve the same result: unified and powerful chan si jin.
4) Body Requirements:
a. Basic Training Ideas – Looseness, Whole Body Coiling and Peng Jin
In training chan si jin all the admonitions of Taiji apply. I recognise three distinct, but related, “body requirements” which are emphasised within Grandmaster Wang’s training method:
(they are common to all four Reeling Silk Methods I have experienced.) These three can be listed in order of priority but it should be understood that they are mutually dependent.
1. The first priority is that the body must be loose (fang sung.) No part of the body must stiffen. In particular Grandmaster Wang draws attention to the knees, hips, waist, shoulders and elbows as places where stiffness is regularly found. Frequently stiffening occurs from habit and it may be very difficult to recognise without hands on correction.
2. The second priority is that the whole body must coil or spiral as it moves. No part must move too much or too little to maintain optimum leverage. Some parts of the body move considerably more than other parts, (mechanically due to the natural leverage of the body.) My waist might move 20cm while my fingertips might move 120cm. The body co-ordinations are precise to train the jin from the leg to pass to the torso and from the leg and torso to pass to the arm. This body co-ordination (what might be called choreography) is perhaps best learnt by careful copying of a good teacher while understanding what they are trying to achieve.
3. Peng jin (loose strength) must be maintained to all parts of the body in all directions. This requires an understanding of what Peng Jin is and how it is produced by the body. (Describing this fully is beyond the scope of this article. Put simply, when I use peng or peng jin in this context I mean something like this: in all positions if I imagine someone pushing in on say the outside of my elbow I should be able to “meet” that push without being collapsed or pushing outwards. Also, while still in the same position, if someone were to pull outwards on the inside of my elbow I would also be able to meet that pull without stiffening or resorting to stiffening use of my shoulder.)
The exercises start in a large exaggerated fashion, particularly in the legs. As the skill is refined the movements of some body parts become less obvious, and consequently more efficient in producing and maintaining the correct strength. By then the pattern of movement should have become conditioned. Not only is the pattern of movement required to become conditioned, so must the strength of the body, particularly the legs. Without significant leg strength the upper body and particularly the hips cannot relax correctly or sufficiently.
The first part of training is learning how the lower body co-ordinates to move weight from side to side, while the waist turns, (in order to generate chan su jin) without stiffening in the hips and knees.
b. Knee Motion
Grandmaster Wang uses a wide stance circling exercise to train this (feet slightly turned out). The legs are used in conjunction with the hips to generate a “figure of eight” type movement with the waist. As a result, each knee will move alternately forward, outward, backward and inward in a continual circle. As one leg moves out the other moves in. As one moves forward the other backwards. As one contracts in, the other expands out. Peng Jin must be maintained in the knees at all time. They should not be extended too far out, nor contracted too far in. This is not as easy as it might sound. It takes practice and I would recommend training it as a separate exercise before too much time is spent on the Reeling Silk Exercises. Grandmaster Wang showed the Irish group this leg training exercise (both hands on hips) in the workshop after he had taught us the basic choreography of the single hand Reeling Silk Exercise. I suspect this was his way of correcting the incorrect leg motion of the whole group.
When pushing with the left leg (i.e. the weight is pushed to the right,) as the left leg extends the right hip (kua) closes or contracts, though not so far that the knee would collapse-in if pushed. (Anatomically the right hip moves further than the right knee. So although the right knee should move to the right when the left leg pushes, the right hip moves further/faster. In western anatomy the kua is known as the inguinal crease – the front part of the hip where the muscles from the leg attach up to the torso.) Grandmaster Wang calls this “keeping the outward Peng.” The feeling is like pulling in with the knee while maintaining the potential for an outward strength.
Emphasis is regularly made to keeping the body upright. Two reasons for this are to avoid stiffening the lower back and to encourage the relaxation of the kua. As the weight shifts say from left to right, the left leg straightens and as it does the left kua tends to stiffen or push up. (There is a common saying in Taiji to “sink the kua.”) When the body is held upright this stiffening is more apparent and so more easily noticed and loosened. (It definitely helps to have someone point out these errors repeatedly so that they can become self-identified and to understand the correction so that self-correction can occur.)
Two Errors to look for in the Legs
1. Firstly the knee collapses inwards and too far forward. For example, in double arm silk reeling – side circle, this would be the rear knee.
2. Secondly the hip (kua) must not stiffen, particularly likely in two places: one when the leg is straightening and the other when the leg is receiving weight . In addition, as the legs get tired the kua will tend to stiffen (attempting to take some of the muscular demand from the thighs.) This reaction must be controlled with the mind. My experience is that the top of my kua was much stiffer than I realised. When I began to relax this area after Grandmaster Wang made me aware of the tightness there my legs suddenly were doing much more work and it was very painful – unbearable at times. However, overtime and with practice, my legs have got stronger and it has become easier to see the tension building here and relax it.
Co-ordinating this lower body motion so that it becomes constantly present makes co-ordinating the whole body motion required for Grandmaster Wang’s Chan Su Jin exercises much more straightforward. A strategy I would recommend is to grasp this leg motion without additional waist turns. The turn of the waist should add torque to the leg which will make the exercise more difficult,
c. Waist Motion
The exercises train specific waist rotations. Understand that the waist can move in three planes of motion: a front plane, a side plane and a combination of both of these – a horizontal plane. Grandmaster Wang’s exercises explicitly and specifically train motion in the first two of these planes. My waist must be free to move in these planes. If it is not then it must be loosened so it is free. The waist must be able to move from side to side (left to right) without causing stiffness in the hips: i.e. the waist can move towards and away from the hips horizontally. (One of Grandmaster Wang’s warm up exercises does a good job of encouraging this. Keep the hips and knees facing forwards and turn the waist from side to side.) The waist must also be free to move vertically. This means that the lower spine must flex i.e. the back must not be stiff. If it is stiff it must be loosened otherwise it will cause the hips to stiffen in rotation. I have seen Grandmaster Wang try to correct this by putting his hand on a person’s hip and indicate a rotation of the hip gently backwards.
Errors in the Waist
Aside from basic stiffness in the waist described above, (in my experience these are the most common errors,) the next most common error is in the over-use of the waist. While the waist directs the arm, due to leverage the arm must move much more than the waist. If the waist moves too quickly or slowly (or too much or too little) within the choreography, then the shoulder will stiffen and the coiling from the legs and waist will not reach the arm correctly.
d. Arm Motion
Within these RSEs the movements of the arms are similar so I have gathered the following comments together. Grandmaster Wang frequently admonishes his students to move their hand with their waist, not with their shoulder. (This really has to be shown and I find virtually impossible to describe in a way that other people understand, so I’m not going to try.) As a consequence of this movement from the waist, the arms alternately contract in towards the body (close) or expand away from the body (open). Where two arms are used one will contract towards the body while the other expands away. (There are RSE’s where both arms close or both arms open, as in the posture lan zha yi). The same waist movement drives both arms. As the arms are moved peng should be maintained to the elbow and wrist at all times.
Three Errors to look for in the Arms
Three errors were most frequently corrected by Grandmaster Wang. In order of priority for correction:
1. First, the use of the shoulder to drive the arm rather than the waist, resulting in the shoulder raising or stiffening. (This is difficult to correct without understanding how to move the arm with the waist. This is beyond the scope of this article.)
2. Second, the elbow being too close to the body, his criticism being the loss of outward peng to the elbow. His verbal comment is that the elbow is “away” from the body as the hands comes in.
3. Third, the failure to extend the outward moving arms and bring the jin completely to the hand and fingers, perhaps due to stiffness in the shoulder.
e. Developing Leg Strength
The greatest early benefit I found in Grandmaster Wang’s method was how his silk reeling exercises can be used to “wind” or coil the legs. The characteristic “turn to one side while shifting weight to the other” creates a torque on the legs. To get more benefit out of this, the hips, and consequently lower back, must relax or the turning of the waist will not result in significant coiling in the legs. I would suggest paying particular attention to the top part of the hip on both sides and the front part of the hip on the pushing leg. (This is described above under ‘Leg Errors’.)
Letting the pelvis settle so the body remains upright helps a lot. Bending the knees too much will lead to stiffening more quickly. It is more important that the torso relaxes / lowers into the pelvis and the hips relax, giving the appearance of lowering the body (which most people read as bending the knees more.). I would not suggest letting the thighs go past 450 in angle of inclination. Mirrors can give good clues as to how upright my body is. I arrange my exercise so that at various different parts of the exercise I am facing a mirror and can see if I have started to lean (=my hips have tightened.)
My experience is that when I exercise with my hips (and back) loose my legs start to torque and this is very tiring on the thighs. Initially a minute or two is a lot. The legs need to be ‘shaken loose’ regularly. (A common feature in Grandmaster Wang’s training method. If you have wondered why all this shaking the legs loose is done I assure you it is not some form of ritual: it is really necessary if I have been working correctly.) This type of training is demanding mentally and muscularly. It is painful. However it produces significant increase in leg strength. In training if my legs are not giving me grief within a few minutes I am sure I have a problem somewhere. I use this as a training tool. In a recent conversation with Grandmaster Wang he commented that a minute of working correctly is very hard on the legs. Look to relax the hips to correct initially. Also, and more appropriately, it is a significant tool in training coiling strength from the legs. If the pain in my legs is anything to go by, the leg strengthening is very significant.
(The idea of this can be grasped quite easily with the help of a couple of partners. Stand in a wide stance, approximately double shoulder width, with your weight in (say) your left leg. Your left toes should face mostly forward and slightly left, your right toes face the right diagonal. Have one partner stop your left knee in a position where your knee is facing forward and not beyond your left toes. They will need to stop the knee moving in (collapsing) and forward. Have your second partner hold your torso (say on the lower ribs) and turn your waist to the right. You should concentrate on keeping your hips relaxed. Your shoulders should remain levelled and your body up right. If either of these is not true your hips will have stiffened. Feel what happens in your left thigh. This is the torque you are trying to generate in your legs with the RSEs.
5) Pain & Injury
It is easy with this type of training to strain the knees. The objective is to increase leg strength and pain in the thigh will be a common feature of this training. However, inappropriate over-use of the knee will strain it. There is a common admonition in Taiji to keep the knee over the foot. Particularly in reference to the weighted leg, do not let the knee extend beyond the toes.
6) The Exercises
Using this lower body motion Grandmaster Wang demonstrated six stationary Reeling Silk Exercises (RSEs.)
1. Single Arm Reeling Silk – Front Circle (Zengmian). (Left and Right Side)
2. Double Arm Reeling Silk – Front Circle.
3. Single Arm Reeling Silk – Side Circle (Cemian). (Left and Right Side)
4. Double Arm Reeling Silk – Side Circle.
5. Peng-Lu Reeling Silk.
6. Peng-Lu-Ji-An Reeling Silk.
There are moving step RSEs (Bu Fa) which utilise a similar but not identical lower body motion. These are described in a separate article.
Grandmaster Wang’s RSE set are the best tools I have found to grasp the idea of generating and training coiling in the legs and utilising its connection and application using the waist to generate the movement of the hand. As a step towards this they are an excellent aid to realising the ideas of ‘sung kua’ (relax the hip) and developing the necessary leg strength required of Chen Style Taiji. Without this leg strength Grandmaster Wang Haijun says it is not possible to relax the upper body.
These exercises are tools for developing a certain skill. That skill is called Chan si jin. It is the core skill or strength of Taiji. The exercises are not ritualistic but practical methods if they are used correctly. They need a great deal of practice to grasp the understanding what they offer. Without understanding, much practice and development of leg strength in practice, a student will leave these exercises (treasures) with little skill (empty pockets.)
In retrospect these ideas are there in others’ Reeling Silk sets I have studied with other high level practitioners including the work of Grandmasters Zhu Tian Cai and Chen Xiao Wang and also Zhang Xue Xin (Feng Zhi Qiang’s method) but it is not so apparent and thus more easily missed. In my experience these emphasise more the use of the torso to coil which is of primary importance.
My thanks to John Browne and Warren McNaughton for providing helpful comments and corrections. Any remaining mistakes are my own as are the opinions.
Nick Gudge – June 2003.
Nick Gudge lives in County Clare in the Republic of Ireland. His study with Wang Hai-Jun began in November 2002. He is extremely fortunate to have the opportunity every month to host and train with Wang Hai-Jun in Limerick. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.