Fa-jin: pulling everything together!

Cold Mountain Blog #15 (Thanks to Doug Haas for the photograph and to Allan Haddad for assisting.)

It’s kind of weird that there should be anything controversial about fa-jin. Simply put, in Tai Chi it is how we kick or punch someone (or elbow, or shoulder, or deflect, or uproot, or grab or….) Nevertheless, I know of one Facebook site dedicated to disproving its existence! Fa-jin also has significant therapeutic value as a means of rectifying the body and addressing various physical ailments. For one instance, I credit fa-jin with helping me get my early-onset arthritis under control.

One area of confusion is that fa-jin, which loosely translated just means “expression of energy”, is usually thought of as having an explosive or snappy quality. One example is what I do at the 20 minute and 20 second point at: www.youtube.com/watch?v=fjhdHeAYodc But really, all of the slow movement I and my companions (Lisbeth Haddad and Peter Reist) are showing is fa-jin too. My example is from the Old Yang tradition of the 19th Century in an improv performance combining different styles of Taijiquan.

From the traditional Yang family tradition of the early 20th Century we have Grandmaster Fu Zhongwen’s demo at: www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ff64ZBnj9MA , and from the Chen family tradition here is Grandmaster Chen Zhenlei: www.youtube.com/watch?v=8KS_VZm4QWs&spfreload=10

Each of these three demonstrations has that explosive quality we were speaking of. But one of the most beautiful non-explosive examples I know of comes from the Wu family tradition and is shown here in application by Grandmaster Ma Yueh Liang: www.youtube.com/watch?v=l_gmMqzf2I8 What we see here, performed very gently, is the pinnacle of the art. What is on display combines all of the different energies or powers of the art in a non-explosive context.

I think the contraversiality of fa-jin is based on our feeling that physical power is the result of muscular exertion and that exertion means contraction. Fa-jin in the internal arts is based upon relaxation. But relaxation in this case is something different from limpness or mushiness. It instead involves a sense of extension and loosening outwards from the centre -- a release of tension like a sneeze or like a dog shaking itself on emerging from a lake. It is a quality accessed through correct Tai Chi practice.

It is initially counter-intuitive to see and experience expressions of power rooted in whole-body relaxation rather than muscular exertion, and some folks resolutely persist in believing this to be somehow fake. In this they are validated by practitioners and ‘masters’ who are indeed faking it.

When my Old Yang teacher Dr. Shen Zaiwen left Canada for Japan in 1994 I knew that my Tai Chi was still only half baked; I needed another teacher. At that time I did not have Tai Chi contacts in Toronto. But I knew The Dao of Taijiquan by Grandmaster Jou Tsung Hwa in the U.S., so I gave him a call. “What do you want from me?” he asked. On the spur of the moment I said, “Fa-jin!” “OK,” he replied, “You come here and I will teach you Pao Chui (Cannon Fist).” Chen Pao Chui, the second long form in the Chen tradition, is specifically designed to teach fa-jin.

The reason I told Master Jou that I wanted fa-jin was that I thought that my lack of competence in that area was symptomatic of a more general lack of development. I felt that going after fa-jin would help me pull it together, and I still feel this was a good decision. Taijiquan fa-jin represents the integration of the Tai Chi values of central equilibrium, qi being ‘sunk’, groundedness, alignment, extension, mental focus, and relaxation. It tests one’s ability to assimilate all these into one harmonious experience.

Dr. Shen taught me that fa-jin is not peculiar to Tai Chi nor to the internal martial arts. Most of the Tai Chi fundamentals examined above can be found in high level practitioners of other martial arts wherever looseness, whole body connectivity, integrated movement, and correctly sunken qi are found. He said that in Shaolin and Karate, fa-jin was big; that it was big but a bit more compressed in Xing-yi; that it was twisty and spiraling in Ba-gwa; and that it was smallest of all in Old Yang. Grandmaster Jou taught me alignment, joint loosening, and intensity of focus – all essential ingredients.

Fa-jin can be controversial and is often a subject of fakery. Some demonstrations, such as those where the master touches the student and the student immediately falls down or hurls himself backwards generally involve a mutually shared delusion, or psychological issues, or fraud. But it is possible to emit fa-jin from a subtle touch and to achieve effects that seem disproportionate to the observer. An excellent example is the candid footage of old Grandmaster Ma Yueh Liang cited above.

Tai Chi fa-jin is never dependent upon muscular effort, although some muscular effort may be involved in creating the conditions for its expression. In some ways it is like a sneeze. The real effort is in the preamble to the act of sneezing, which itself is then a spasm of relief. It’s a matter of collection and then release! In some cases the collection may even involve a short leap into the air, fa-jin occurring on landing.

There are different kinds of Tai Chi fa-jin. Fa means to express. So peng-jin (bumping), kao-jin (shouldering), chou- jin (elbowing), etc. can all be expressed in this way. In addition, long-jin in the Yang style has a whipping quality going from foot to hand while sinking or short jin in the Old Yang has a very compressed shuddering quality as the centre sinks into the foot and the jin is emitted from the palms like a pulse as the joints are simultaneously loosened / opened outwards. There are also expanding jins, where the arms lash out from the centre in opposing directions, like the head and tail of a dragon, and crunching jins where the enemy is drawn in and crushed or thrown.

One characteristic of much effective fa-jin is that its seemingly disproportionate effect is dependent upon a secure root and on the ability to relax into one’s centre and sink the qi.

Another point is that, whenever possible, it should be preceded by na-jin. Na-jin means the act of seizing. It can mean seizing and locking a joint or taking control of the opponent’s centre of gravity, so that he is destabilized immediately prior to being struck.

In conclusion, I remember being present when a somewhat mystified Yang stylist asked Grandmaster Chen Zhen Lei why explosive fa-jin should be practiced? After a moment of thought, the Grandmaster smiled and replied, “Well, it lightens the heart!”

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