Root Bound : Renegade Taiji Writings
Due to some unforeseen circumstances things have been lagging far behind here on my blog. Now I hope to get back on track!
Internal Arts and Rooting
Rooting is a term that I have done a lot of work to understand since I started training internal arts in the 90’s. At first the word made me think about a tree rooted solidly into the ground, the “10 000 catties stance” too powerful to be moved. While this worked as a definition for a time my gongfu brother Shug, who I must thank for a huge part of my Taiji, began doing a lot of moving step pushing and applications with me and easily knocked me around during it. It was he that began my passion for words when training and teaching. He pointed out that when I was fixing my steps, I had decent root but that it would lift when I tried to move my feet. Therefore, he and I discussed the word ‘root’ as a trap in thinking for Taiji players. A tree does not move, sure it sways in the wind and so on, but it cannot take the steps or leaps needed for real use of the art. With both of us practicing Chen and Yang together it was easy to look at Chens cannon fist as a source to see that movement while rooted had to be a goal. The word Shug came up with for the difference between how I felt, and he did was grounding. Like a magnet powerfully stuck to a metal surface but able to slide and move without losing that connection.
Pressing the earth downwards with the feet rather than trying to sink into it was the key to differentiate between ‘rooting’ and ‘grounding’ and immobility versus mobility and more availability of applications. Press the earth and the earth presses back equally so the more we pump our legs and drive them onto the ground the stronger that connection becomes.
After a few years however I began travelling to meet different teachers and try to further my understandings. Different lineages of Taiji all had different points of view and words they would use to describe the skill of becoming heavy and hard to move while still maintaining the ability to remain mobile. When I began Baguazhang training the idea of root changed dramatically as the entire art is constantly in motion and references to a ‘floating root’ started to pop up in my research and discussion with different teachers but I was constantly left with a “What are you talking about?” feeling. But Bagua players felt like a heavy rolling ball, or like a bag of rolling coiling snakes in the case of Victor Fu, I just couldn’t get well attached to and disrupt. Eventually after training a few more years with more teachers it came to a culmination when I got to spend a few hours with Yang Shi Ming, a disciple of Zhao Da Yuan of Liang style bagua. We trained applications and a two-person set that was essentially a way to do full power applications on one another while in motion. The point of the set though was not the ‘techniques’ but the stealing of the opponents balance while keeping your own and remaining in motion at all times. He was heavy and solid, but it was like my power could not reach the ground through his body as it was constantly redirected in his torso to wherever he wanted it to go. It was the moment that I realized what floating root was referring to, like taking the imaginary tree roots under the earth I started out with and bringing them into Dantian. Any force coming into the body needed to be redirected rather than only having a single path to the ground to keep my balance.
So, by this time after studying Chen and Yang Taijiquan through different lineages and finding out how different teachers referred to rooting and working through a few years of utter frustration with Baguazhang and a couple of different lineages of it – although mostly Cheng- I met Xu Guoming in San Francisco. Now I had met with a real elder of these arts decades ahead of myself and skilled in many different arts and lineages and it was he that answered my questions regarding the concept of root.
It came from a question that seemed unrelated at first, I asked him “What do you do now that your teachers are gone to keep improving ?” and he began telling me about himself and his peers in the same situation using different things as inspiration for training when there is no longer a teacher to ask for advice. Aspects of nature like water, mountains, winds, and trees became their examples to follow. I suspect that the tree metaphor used so prolifically in my Taiji training across styles was once a result of an inspiration had by a titan like Xu.
Tree root is where Taiji players start at working to bring their bodies into connection with the earth and take their opponents force downwards on a path to the ground. This tree root or earth rooting is a difficult skill but not so uncommon throughout Taiji players with dedicated practice. Fixed step pushing hands really helps to build this connection in the body and givers players a chance to help one another attain it. Next comes the issue of mobility while remaining heavy, Shug’s grounding method is found again in nature as water root. A river may be fast and mobile and dangerous, but it never weighs a single ounce less than the millions of tons of the water rushing within it. Water root and the effects of the inspirations of water can be seen in the Taiji Classic “On Taijiquan” by Wang Zhongyue. Bagua floats its root from the earth or tree root, through water root and up into the torso itself. Like a heavy steel ball in the belly it cannot be crushed nor can it be stopped from turning and twisting and redirecting incoming force wherever it needs to go keeping a person completely changeable and mobile at the same time. My mental image for this has always been a stone ball in a fountain being suspended on the water from below, rolling and twisting and never stopping yet always remaining a ball of heavy stone.
Master Xu pushed this all forward as well as helping me define the roots, sky rooting was of course next. I say of course as once he discussed it with me it showed me its symmetry. If everything needs to be examined as a yin / yang pairing then it only makes sense that for every root that we train, all heading downwards towards the earth or into our bodies there must be at least one doing the opposite. Taking the opponents force upwards into the sky while maintaining your connection with the earth relies heavily on posture and mind intent (yi 意) working together. The force of the opponent travels into the torso and hits the steel/stone ball and is split into parts some moving downwards and some upwards.
I have been so lucky that I have been able to find many teachers throughout my life willing to help me try to unravel the arts I think we all find to be such wonderful puzzles. But I have to say I am very thankful to those few teachers I have had who truly think outside the box like Shug and George (Xu Guoming) to help me to begin to learn to do the same. On a long enough timeline, we are all going to end up without our elder teachers to guide us anymore. But since it’s an art it would be a shame not to do as they did and find our own inspirations and realizations when the time comes rather than just moving through our training daily repeating only what we have always done.
I am teaching and sharing Shugs and my Renegade Taiji each week through my online classes on my patreon.com/rjma site. Concentrating on the principles rather than simply the forms of the various styles brings them together in a way that let me and Shug and others I have met cross reference everything to see what it is they are all pointing at. Finding ways to explore our bodies and minds through our arts.
Neil Ripski 2019