In June 2018, Cold Mountain Internal Arts (CMIA) - Kitchener held a workshop on taiji sword. The workshop included three sections: (i) Sword Qigong, (ii) Sword Postures, and (iii) Eight Points of Fence. These sections were led, respectively, by Tanya Korovkin (associated instructor), Steve Higgins (chief instructor), and Bob Wiljer (associate instructor). In this article, Tanya Korovkin outlines Sword Qigong’s principles and examines their possible applications to sword techniques.
Dr. Yang Jwing-Ming’s Sword Qigong: Breathing and Coiling
Qigong is an art of sensing and guiding the internal energy (qi). In the human body, this energy is generally seen as associated with blood and breath. Indeed, it is often said that qi travels with breath. One of the most influential proponents of the concept of qi in the healing and martial arts community is Dr. Yang Jwing-Ming whose work has influenced more than one generation of martial artists.
Among several types of qigong, he developed a Sword Qigong. It is designed specifically for sword practitioners. And, yes: learning how to use sword effectively and without effort takes time. Paradoxically, the main challenge is often not sword techniques, but the body dynamics that animates and empowers them. One probably had this experience... We are doing a hand form -- and the body feels free, loose, filled with energy. But then we start doing sword – and all this freedom and energy disappear. The focus of our attention is now the sword and right arm attached to it. The rest of the body does not seem to exist any more.
This is not exactly what we want though. In taiji, it is the entire body that moves the sword. And this is what Sword Qigong is good for. It helps us understand the flow of the internal energy in sword work. The focus here is on breathing and coiling. Section 1 of this article outlines the types of breathing used in Sword Qigong. Section 2 examines the notion of coiling. Section 3 deals with Dr. Yang’s Sword Qigong movements. Sections 4 describes applications of Sword Qigong’s principles to sword techniques.
1 – Breathing
It is hard to underestimate the importance of breathing in both qigong and Taiji. It is not exactly the movement of the air that we are concerned with in this case. By breathing, we mobilize the internal energy within our body, leading it to taiji weapons.
In qigong, the two most commonly used types of breathing are the normal and reverse abdominal breathing. Both have to do with the expansion and contraction of the lower abdomen, traditionally associated with our energetic center, the lower dantian.
Simply put, when we practice the normal abdominal breathing, we expand the abdomen on inhalation and we contract it on exhalation. This type of breathing is also known as the post-birth or Buddhist breathing. It is often used for collecting energy, as well as for meditation and general relaxation. However, if we want to use this energy (as we do, e.g., in taiji sword), we may resort to a different type of breathing, the reverse abdominal breathing. In this case, as we inhale, we contract the abdomen and indeed the entire body, including the hui-yin cavity at the bottom of the torso. And, as we exhale, we expand them. As a result, we collect energy on inhalation and release it on exhalation. It is sometimes said that this feels like pushing a stalled car: you inhale, gathering all your strength, and then exhale and push as much as you can.
The reverse abdominal breathing is what we mostly use in Sword Qigong (Yang Jwing-Ming, Taiji Sword – Classical Yang Style, 1999, p.34). One of the most important types of reverse breathing in this case is the Four Doors Breathing. The Four Doors (or Gates) are the four cavities that connect our energy with that of the environment. These are the laogong cavities at the center of the palms and the yongchuan cavities at the center of the soles of the feet. In the Four Doors Breathing, we breathe in and out through them.
The second, related type of breathing used in Sword Qigong is the Sword Secret Breathing. Here, we also engage the lower abdomen and the soles of the feet. But, instead of the palms, we use the sword secrets (sword mudras) of both hands. The sword mudra is a hand formation with the ring finger, the pinky and the thumb forming a loose circle; the index and middle finger are straight. This is a highly efficient structure: the energy moves first in the circle and then on the straight line, a little bit like a bullet in a rifle.
2 – Coiling
Generally, the word “coiling” refers to any winding or spiraling motion that creates a set of concentric circles. The coils of a spring are a good example. Smoke can coil too, and so can mythical snakes and dragons. Sam Masich suggests that a certain amount of spontaneous, almost imperceptible coiling is inherent in the human body, especially when it is relaxed.
But not all coiling in qigong and martial arts is spontaneous. We can also use it deliberately, as a way to empower our movements. In his article on coiling published in Terra Rosa E-Magazine in March 2011, Yang Jwing-Ming defines it as a preparatory counter-movement in the opposite direction. In other words, if we want to push forward, we have bring our hands back first. In the same vein, if we want to strike to the right, we have to turn to the left first; if we want to press down, we have to rise slightly up. Finally, if we want to press, push, or strike in more than one direction, we should coil to the lower abdomen.
The kind of coiling Dr. Yang is talking about has to do with the connective tissue known as fascia. The fascia envelops all our muscles; it is highly elastic and very strong.
If we twist or tighten the fascia in one direction, its unwinding results in a powerful movement in the opposite one. This phenomenon is known as the catapult effect or the elastic recoil property of the fascia. Curiously, research indicates that some animals (e.g., kangaroos, gazelles) can leap so far not because they have strong leg muscles, but because they employ the elastic recoil property of their fascia.
Yang Jwing-Ming suggests that the idea of coiling has been known and used in taiji training for centuries. It is present in the classical image of bow and arrow: to shoot an arrow, one has to draw the string back. In Chen Style, this idea is associated with the concept of silk reeling. It is also close to the notion of whipping often used to describe a combination of soft and hard powers, characteristic of taijiquan. Indeed, according to Sam Masich, Yang Jwing-Ming used these two terms (coiling and whipping) interchangeably. And, yes: it is the coiling motion of the handle of a whip that makes the tip to lash out with a tremendous force.
3 - Dr. Yang Jwing-Ming’s Sword Qigong Movements
The above mentioned principles of breathing through the limbs and coiling lie at the core Dr. Yang’s Sword Qigong. A detailed description of the entire sequence can be found in his Taiji Sword – Classical Yang Style, 1999, and Taiji Sword for Beginners, 2015.
The Four Doors and Sword Secret Breathings are included in his sequence as two separate movements. The other movements follow the same principles. For instance, in Forward and Backward Coil (Movement 10 in the 1999 edition) we coil back, collecting energy, on an inhalation and we send this energy forward through the sword mudras of both hands on the exhalation. In Upward and Downward Yin and Yang (Movement 11) we coil to the center and then expand simultaneously upward and downward. The two hands are in the yin formation (palms in) while collecting the energy, and in the yang formation (palm out) when releasing it.
Both movements (10 and 11) engage not only the sword mudras, but also the soles of the feet, something that gives one more power and stability. The feet become even more important in Movement 12, The Fairy Points the Way. Here, as before, we first coil to the center, collecting energy. Then, on the exhalation, we turn the torso to the side, still looking forward, and release this energy through the mudras forward and backwards or sidewise, depending on the flexibility of the torso.
The release of energy through the right mudra in this movement is accompanied by pushing with the left foot, and viceversa. One may recall the famous stanza from Taiji Classics in this connection: “Its [qi’s] root is in the feet, its issuing - from the legs, its control - from the yao (waist) and its shaping - in the fingers. From the feet, to the legs… the yao [and the fingers]: there must always be completely one qi” (Barbara Davis, The Taijiquan Classics, 2004, p.93).
4 – Application to Sword Techniques
When we do sword forms, we usually pay attention to the sword techniques. We draw, we thrust, we block, we split… That’s good! It is also good, though, to pause and feel what our body is doing while we are doing all these cuts. Interestingly, we often practice the open-hand forms as qigong: slowly, deliberately, focusing on the breath. Doing sword forms in the same way is less common. However, this can benefit one tremendously not only in terms of health, but also as a way of improving the effectiveness of sword techniques. Significantly, in taiji the terms “sword techniques” and “sword energies” are used as synonyms. In other words, to be effective a sword technique has to be imbued with the internal energy of the human body.
Let us take a couple of frequently used sword techniques and apply the Sword Qigong principles to them. Chou (Draw, Pull, Slash), the first energy on General Li Jinglin’s list of the 13 energies of the sword, can be one of them. It is used in a drill known as Horizontal Cuts as well as in a number of sword form movements, including Uppercut in Sword 16 and Falling Flowers Yang Sword 54.
Chou involves a long, smooth cut with the middle portion of the blade. It is done either on the horizontal plane or on a diagonal, from left to right. To collect energy for this technique one should first coil, compressing the fascia, to the left. This is done on an inhalation. The collected energy is then released, on the exhalation, into the right hand (which does the cut) and the left hand (which does the balancing). As in case with the Fairy Points the Way, it is important to exhale into (push with) the left foot. It is by pushing with this foot that we make the waist to turn and the compressed fascia to unwind to the right. This unwinding generates a catapult effect which results in a more powerful cut.
Another good example is Ci (Thrust, Stab). Like Chou, Ci is a widely used offensive sword technique. It is performed, though, with the tip of the sword. Ci is often used in sword drills and forms, including the 16. In the Yang family's 54, for example, it appears in Clever Cat Catches the Rat, Send Birds to the Trees for Lodging, and Yellow Bee Enters the Honeycomb (Wasp Flies into the Hole in Modern Sword 32).
This technique may require even more energy than Chou. The catapult effect in this case is generated by coiling mostly to the center of the body. From there, the energy is released in at least three directions. One is, of course, forward towards the tip of the blade. The other is backward (and often upward) to the left hand sword mudra. The third is down and back through the left foot. The left hand and the left foot are tremendously important here. In fact, while explaining Ci in his DVD on the 13 energies of the sword, Nick Gracenin mentions Newton’s third law of motion: to each action there is an equal and opposite reaction. This is how rockets fly and how swimmers start their first lap. We have to push back in order to move forward, an idea also present in the notion of coiling.
One should remember that, when we practice techniques (or form movements that go with them) as qigong, it is good to use the both the right and the left mudras as well as alternate both hands. Working with the two mudras prepares one for leading energy into the sword, something that reportedly can be achieved by only the most accomplished practitioners. At the same time, by alternating the hands we develop a more agile left hand, reducing in this way the body imbalances typical of the predominantly right-hand activities.
All in all, Sword Qigong has a potential to make our sword practice more effective and more rewarding. The techniques or movements that we choose to practice as qigong -- side by side with Dr. Yang Jwing-Ming’s Sword Qigong sequence -- may vary but, no matter which techniques we choose, the breathing and coiling principles remain the same.