Webmaster's note: This article was written by a Bagua sister of mine. Enjoy.
LIGHTER SIDE OF NEIJIA
"Q" -- What Is It and How Do I Get Some?
by Beth Snowberger
(Beth Snowberger studies Bagua and Xingyi with Luo De Xiu in Taipei, Taiwan. Author's Note: Q is used to describe a vast variety of products. As I finished writing this piece, a commercial began to appear on Taiwanese TV advertising the "Q Bra." This amazing product (in reality a Wonderbra copy) is marketed as being specially designed to increase the Q of a woman's bosom!)
To earn a little extra credit, one of the students in my English class at a university in Taipei, Taiwan, described his hometown. One specialty there, he told me, is a dish made from pork that is very "Q." Q? "Yes, you know, it's an English letter--Q." "But what does it mean?" I asked. He couldn't say, instead making facial motions like a contented llama eating some very nice hay.
To my astonishment, a few weeks later the very same term arose in the Ba Gua Zhang class I attend, taught by Mr. Luo De Xiu. One student's movement was looking good, but still needed to be more Q. I couldn't let it go I needed an English translation. "Chewy." Really? Chewy? Absolutely. Actually, Q is Taiwanese slang, but it sounds like "Q" and is usually written that way. I immediately began using Q often in jokes and conversation for my own amusement.
After the infantile novelty of that wore off, however, I began to seriously wonder how chewiness could possibly relate to a person's style of movement, particularly in the three major internal Chinese martial arts (i.e., Xing Yi Quan, Ba Gua Zhang, and Tai Ji Quan). Taiwanese people, having grown up with Q as part of their language, naturally understand its meaning. Some non-Taiwanese also seem to have an instinctive understanding of chewiness as a bodily quality.
As a literal-minded person, when I hear a Chinese-style instruction such as, "The arm should be straight but not straight, curved but not curved," I immediately have to translate for myself: "Extend the arm, hollow the elbow a little bit." To me, chewy is for food, period. But after discussing the nature of Q with Mr. Luo, observing him and others whose movements are Q, and experimenting with my own movements, I have arrived at some basic conclusions that may be of interest to other literal-minded students of the internal arts.
What Does Q Mean?
To get me started, Mr. Luo told me to watch my senior classmate, Lin Guo-zheng, who apparently has exemplary Q. Lin seems (to me) to regularly defy the laws of physics, so I had no problem keeping my eyes on this astounding person. What did I observe?
Lin has very highly developed body control and unity of movement. He can move very far very fast without visibly gathering himself to go. He does not fudge; each movement is clear and intentional, even when small or fast. His movements are also powerful, as his practice partners can confirm, and his power seems to possess a profound compactness. Finally, he never appears tense (except perhaps when a female junior classmate begins to stare at him for no apparent reason).
So how do these characteristics relate to Q? To my mind, the qualities that seem most relevant are the ability to begin movement almost instantaneously, without outwardly telegraphing it, and the combination of accuracy and relaxedness. The first of these qualities causes me to visualize a coiled spring powering Lin's movements from the inside. A thick, strong spring needs only a small amount of compression to provide powerful explosive force. A thin or loosely coiled spring (think of an old, stretched-out telephone cord) can provide only weak outward force, even after large compressive force is applied. Likewise, it is much more effective to snap someone with a thick rubber band than a thin one.
Perhaps this metaphor can help describe why some experts seem to expend almost no time or energy to get a large movement started: the coil is already fairly tight and only needs a small tap to be sprung. If, like me, one had an old telephone cord inside, one would need to double the gathering of force (an outwardly visible and time-consuming step) in order to travel half the distance.
It is not only in large movements that my senior classmate reveals these qualities. His small movements are exact and controlled but not rigid or jerky. The same largeness of power that is visible in his big movements seems to be present in the small movements, only in condensed form. These movements are brought off with not only speed but also such a seeming casualness and lack of deliberation that they never seem lumbering and muscular, so it is hard to see where the power is coming from.
We know that chewy foods are difficult to bite into smaller pieces by virtue of their elasticity. They're soft and flexible, but hard to break. As I saw with Lin and Luo Laoshi, chewy movements are also unified and elastic; rarely does a limb move in an isolated way.
Mr. Luo confirmed that the concept of a strong, elastic inner coil was important, being the first step on the path to Q. I was missing the second and most vital step, however--tempo. If an internal martial artist can find the proper, natural tempo when changing direction, he or she can greatly intensify the power of a series of movements.
With repetitive practice of movements, he says, the proper rhythm will naturally come out if the practitioner is relaxed and maintains the correct basic body structure. (In the Chinese internal martial arts, this structure is defined basically as dropping the shoulders and elbows with a somewhat hollowed chest and rounded back.) Fine-tuning of minutiae can come later; if one thinks about that constantly or too early, one won't be relaxed enough for a natural rhythm to arise within the movement.
Precision is important for the advanced practitioner, of course, but it must not lend itself to stiffness of body or monotony of rhythm. Most of us have seen at one time or another a dance-craze-of-the-moment movie in which a technically brilliant classical dancer only comes into her own as an artist when she allows herself to "feel the music." The same unfortunately clich é d maxim can be applied to the pursuit of Q.
Q, then, arises from this combination of springiness and tempo. It is characterized by both a state of relaxedness and an absence of slackness within the basic formal structure.
How Can Q Be Developed?
Although one probably will not hear martial artists use the term "Q" outside of Taiwan, as a concept it is fundamental to Chinese internal martial arts no matter where practiced. The means of developing it are fittingly basic.
The first method can be undertaken from Day One of practice. Many teachers of internal martial arts, including Luo De Xiu, provide their students with a set of basic movements to be practiced repetitively. These exercises provide foundation training in the basic movements of the art being taught. Because foundation exercises are easy to learn and do, students may come to think of them as only warm-ups or beginner tasks and shrug them off once they start learning the more difficult "real" stuff.
This is a huge mistake. Once the movements are mastered, they must be continually trained, preferably at every practice session, in order to impress an increasingly strong physical memory on the body. Deep, down-to-the-bone adoption by the body of the art's formal structure takes hold. More complex movements of the art can thus be constructed from very firm, solid building blocks. This is the way to make the whole art part of one's body, not merely one's mind and understanding.
Foundation exercises also allow one to continue to experiment with the physical sensations of the body. Because the movements are simple, one's attention is not entirely absorbed just by execution of the movement; one can instead focus more fully on body placement and structure.
According to Mr. Luo, the center of the body's gravity should be a triangular area bounded by the perineum, the navel dantian, and the point between the kidneys at the L5 vertebra. A bit of trial-and-error experimentation and a great deal of practice are needed to find that triangle and have it become the automatic center of gravity.
After it is found, however, it becomes possible to feel that inner coil tighten slightly, particularly when doing foundation exercises or Bagua circle walking, for example. At those times, the mental visualization of the spring is transformed into a physical sensation. That is the kind of steady practice that can help develop the coiled springiness of Q, which can be then expressed in more complex movements. And to my mind, this, just as much as forms and applications, is the real stuff.
Once the martial artist possesses a solid structural foundation and starts to tighten that inner coil, he or she can begin to focus on tempo. An effective way to do this is to select a few of the forms one has learned (or, in Taiji, sections of a form) that contain especially marked changes in direction.
For example, someone studying the circular xian tian (pre-heaven) forms of Gao style Bagua might note the graceful swoop toward the center of the circle in the Tianjin Sparrow Form, or the swift reversal of direction on the circle's circumference in the Tiger Form. Or a Xingyi specialist might focus, for instance, on the explosive burst from down/in to up/out in pao quan.
Each artist can choose the forms or movements that suit him or her best. Then, while maintaining the correct structure, one should relax within that structure and practice the form repeatedly (i.e., 20 to 30 times within one short stretch of time, not breaking the reps up into short sets). While practicing, one should focus on the flow of the movement and let its natural tempo, its surges and pauses, emerge unforced. A syncopated rhythm rather than a uniform beat will likely unfold.
Both structure and tempo can be additionally improved by executing forms as if one's body is underwater. If one gets too far into "dancer mode," movement might become floppy or florid, so the addition of self-imposed resistance will help get rid of slackness in the structure. Visualizing this resistance in the form of water can improve the flowing quality of one's movements.
To delve into this idea a bit further, water visualization serves a two-fold purpose. First, the slowness of the practice assists one in uniting the mind, movement, and power. Also, the fact that water exerts equal pressure on all parts of the body from all directions helps develop unified whole-body movement. After much practice, the center of focus contracts into a small core within the larger sphere of the body. Perimeter movement is controlled from the core.
Tempo can also be developed while practicing martial applications with a partner. The method is similar: repeat a fixed cooperative drill about 15-20 times in quick succession with a relaxed body. For the purpose of learning the tempo of an application, the following guidelines are useful:
- One need not strike an opponent with a lot of force.
- One should not break the flow of the repetitions to experiment. ("Now if I put my arm here and you defend there, what would happen?")
- One must find the happy medium between robotic mindlessness and mental nitpicking.
Tempo practice is not the only way to approach forms and applications. The other aspects one normally focuses on are as valid as ever, of course. But this method of practice should be added to one's repertoire if tempo is to be significantly developed.
These, then are the building blocks of Q--structure and tempo. By developing these qualities, one can continue to upgrade the quality of his or her internal martial arts movement skill. After determined practice, a practitioner may attain the next level and discover the chewiness within.