Robert Tangora discusses The Internal Structure of Cloud Hands, his upcoming book about how this important Tai Chi exercise completes a well-rounded practice.

Full Transcript (with approximate times):

00:14 Dan: So you talk about Cloud Hands as a way to sort of encapsulate a lot of the different things that you do internally and externally when you practice Tai Chi. Can you say a little bit about why Cloud Hands is...

00:27 Robert: It's really primarily because Cloud Hands is one of the few movements in the Tai Chi form that has both internal and external symmetry. That's why it's a very good model for how you change and how you do different things because, in a sense, it's one of the simpler places where it takes place. As an example, the opening movement or commencement. Commencement teaches you how to do different things internally and it does it through this nice sort of vertical circle, it doesn't incorporate turning your waist, it doesn't incorporate stepping. And so it ultimately is not a complete paradigm; it's a partial paradigm for it. Cloud Hands which contains all those internal changes that are done in commencement, albeit in a slightly different pattern but they're done, is symmetrical, side to side--although the two sides are out of phase by 180 degrees as a way to think about it, at least conceptually--But it also really importantly contains weight shifting and stepping. And if you go to the Tai Chi Classics there are the 13 postures, there's eight basically postures or Jins and there are five stepping methods. And Cloud Hands is the posture that is associated with the Zhong Ding stepping method, which is turning and stepping around your center. And because of that, it actually... All the other stepping methods are derivatives from that methodology. Cloud Hands teaches you quite clearly how that methodology of stepping is related to the other changes that are going on in your body. And it goes back to symmetry. Because of the symmetry, you can get to it a lot easier than you can elsewhere in the form. And that's really why I decided to use Cloud Hands as a model for understanding.

02:38 Dan: So the symmetry and the repetition really make things clear and that you would really easily miss if you're just doing the form.

02:45 Robert: Very easily miss and it's extremely difficult for people in the learning process to kind of attach these different kind of internal practices to something that is as varied as it actually is throughout the form.

03:01 Dan: Inside Cloud Hands, in terms of the learning process, is there a developmental progression for the three different types of power you talk about?

03:12 Robert: Yeah, there is. Although I don't think it's progressive in the sense of you master part A then you start part B and then you start part C. I think it's more like... There's no reason you couldn't be working on some of the aspects of like Zhong Ding power which is really the kind of the most central but also probably the last to develop right away. But the fact is, it's not really going to develop until a lot of what happens in the cross body power and a lot of what happens in the left and right alignments of the power that comes from your joints is pretty well developed. So it's kind of... It's nothing you can't work on it and make it progress with it, but until those other things were in place it's not going to kind of really come to fruition. There are a lot of reasons for that. It has to do with some of the more advanced practices and stuff that's just you've got to have like certain alignments together... I mean really precisely. Not just kind of sort of there. It's got to be very, very precisely. And you've got to have a lot of capacity to like really articulate your spine and you have to have a lot of capacity to open and close all your joints. And you have to do all those really consistently and harmoniously through your entire system. And so, I mean in the book, I kind of worked through it. I mean there are places where there might be a piece that... If you went for it or after it, it wouldn't really matter very much but the basic progression, I think, kind of needs to be there because you need the start... You need to kind of develop the foundation of internal strength that comes from developing, what I call, cross body power, before you can really develop subsequent points. And cross body power is in a simple sense, it's the one that you see in most Tai Chi book. I think they draw a picture...

05:18 Dan: Easiest to diagram?

05:19 Robert: It's easiest to diagram. Well, actually the left-right is pretty easy diagram too, but the cross body is the common one. The reason is, is because it's the one that is really associated with what is going on with your waist. So as simplest element of kind of cross body power is your waist turning and how your waist turning is coordinated with how your weight shifts--which is very important--and how turning your waist is coordinated with how your body is stretched and lengthened and released. So that... Those kind of two things, in terms of your waist movement, are very important. Well there's another aspect to cross body power as well which is unfortunately often overlooked. And if you think about it, if I'm trying to get power from one leg up around my back and out through the other hand, which is basically what you're doing, if my torso only turns but it doesn't expand and contract, my waist is basically just a rotation rather than a rotation and compression-expansion. What happens is I don't nearly as efficiently transfer power from my lower body into my upper body. And because of that what happens is I can kind of simplify Tai Chi and make it cylindrical.

06:57 Dan: Yeah.

06:58 Robert: And that's fairly efficient, it actually can be quite efficient at handling forces basically working more or less in a horizontal plane. But if I want to handle forces working in other dimensions, like vertically and stuff, I really have to have the capacity for my body to move in that direction and it'd be integrated with what's happening in my legs and waist. So that's the other component, that's very important in the cross body training that probably 90% of the people doing Tai Chi they don't do it.

07:34 Dan: That sounds really interesting. I mean you're talking about the point of your internal strength, power generation, handling forces, but when you're talking about the middle of the body going like this, what I immediately think of is, that's where a lot of your internal organs are.

07:48 Robert: Exactly. And that comes back to why it's important as a health practice. Because... And it's not the complete kind of thing that goes on with your organs, but it's an important step and it's an important piece to have. Ultimately everything kind of moves in these oblique ellipses and circles from your abdominal cavity. But at first, the difference between doing this and doing this, is different because you're working different dimensions. Well if you're doing both simultaneously, you start developing these kind of pulls and compression's that massage and loosen up your organs, and it begins to develop that. It's not that if you just relax and you stay really loose and you turn, you get some of that. You just don't get as much. And the place where, from a martial standpoint what happens is, you tend to be able to project power from certain angles, pretty efficiently.

08:51 Dan: Yeah.

08:51 Robert: But you don't have as much range of what you can do. So in some ways it kind of just limits the capacity that you have. And so that's another reason for making sure you get that connection. What it also does, it also starts working to develop a coordination between what's happening in your spine and what's happening in your legs and waist. And if you do it as a static kind of torso practice, you don't develop that. You don't engage your spine. I mean you do, but it's static. It's like you have this kind of lump here that's not moving. As opposed to your spine actually; it's quite articulate and quite strong.

09:36 Dan: So is it fair to say the other powers that we were talking about in the book and the way you describe them can also maximize other sorts of health benefits?

09:47 Robert: Yeah, I mean they all contribute to one another. I mean in one sense, if you go into the next which really happens along the left and right sides of your body. It has to do with how everything twists in and out. Well from a health standpoint, you're also... What doing is you're learning to close and open all the joints and all the cavities in your body. From a health standpoint, that has a lot to do with just the health of your joints and everything. The flip side of this from a martial standpoint, it helps you heal stuff a lot faster. [laughter] Because if you really engage in martial arts, you're gonna get hurt. [chuckle] If you think you're not going to get hurt you're fooling yourself. And you haven't done it if you haven't been hurt. So you're going to get hurt and having that capacity really increases your ability to heal yourself. On like soft tissue injuries, joint injuries, things like that. It's really very, very productive for that type of thing. The other thing that it does... I kind of talk about this a little bit in the book. This is kind of the place where I say, you can do the cross body power stuff and you can do it just purely as bio-mechanics. And it's quite effective. It's actually very efficient. And actually I allude to this in the book, but a good example of this if you want to see it, watch the documentary 'When We Were Kings', which was the Foreman-Ali documentary that was done before the fight in Zaire, and there's a scene where they show Foreman hitting a heavy bag. And it's the biggest heavy bag that you can get, something like about 150 pounds. And he's hitting it and he's basically indented it, like it was a basketball or watermelon from just hitting it. And what George Foreman did very well is exactly what cross body power is.

11:52 Dan: Yes.

11:53 Robert: So it's not like it's weak by any stretch of the imagination. It can be very powerful. The second thing that you want to try to incorporate there, and this is the left right kind of alignment stuff, it starts kind of getting into the range where there... Yeah there is physical aspects to it, like there is certain alignments you really need to kind of put in place, but there's also kind of some more energetic things that don't really necessarily have a real good physical counterpart. And it's kind of the first place where you really start kind of encountering that.

12:33 Robert: As an example, if I'm like doing something on the left side of my body, the other left side, and it creates like a twist in a spiral like down to the ground. And I can reverse that, bring it up. Well, eventually this starts actually stimulating the Chi in my body. Just kind of start doing the same type of thing, but it does it actually probably at a different pace than my physical tissue because I can't actually make my physical tissue twist like this. But it helps induce it. So at some point it's physical, but it also has these other components energetically that it's starting to really develop.

13:13 Dan: It seems like just another really solid argument for having a simplified routine or Cloud Hands to explore that stuff where you can just do the form forever and...

13:21 Robert: It's very very easy to do the form for a long long time and not access the stuff because of the complexity of it. Because from... Ward off in the very beginning of the form or play guitar if you're doing Wu style, you're asymmetrical. You're doing different things on different parts of your body. And the whole point of why you're doing and the way you're doing then is to maximize power at a particular place, or to maximize the absorption of power from a particular place. And so that whole kind of matrix that's the martial side of it is what really dictates the shape. And it also dictates the internal configuration. So this is why on one level you can do Tai Chi purely as a health practice, but you're not going to understand why you're doing a particular thing. You probably won't even really do the particular thing really precisely because you just don't have a sense of where it's going and what it's function is.

14:29 Dan: So because of the way that Tai Chi develops more precision with the martial arts applications means you're getting a return on your health practices.

14:39 Robert: Yeah, absolutely. The people I've met who really have the health stuff of Tai Chi really well-developed were all very respectable martial arts... Those are the people who have that most developed.

14:56 Dan: So we talked about sort of three different types of power trying to integrate. We've pared it down with a simple movement or a simplified movement and a derivative form, I sort of then wonder about sort of mindset it takes to organize all that, to experience all that. Is that sort of where the meditation comes?

15:17 Robert: No. [laughter] The third piece of the power component which is really Zhong Ding and the power of associated with gathering into and discharging from your Zhong Ding. It doesn't really have a physical counterpart. I mean yes if you you're your Zhong Ding, it roughly is to the center of your body. If you align certain things correctly you can get your lower dantien to be aligned with your Zhong Ding. Although most people don't have enough flexibility to probably do that, but you can. It's purely internally energetic and there's things you can do like some of the exercises I teach people to train that have to do really what's happening with your mind and your internal Chi, not what you're doing with your body. And to take that and actually have that ultimately become kind of the foundation of your strength has to do with a couple of different things. One has to do with becoming very physically aware of how you're turning so that you don't turn randomly. You turn very precisely around that center. And this is true whether you're expressing cross body power or left-right body power or the power of the Zhong Ding, the turning is very precise around the center. And what you will watch, this is one of the things as you get more practice, you can watch somebody doing the form. If their center is wobbling around, they don't have it. It's not developed.

17:00 Robert: So that has to be very clear and very stable. Because if it's not clear and stable on the physical level there's too many internal breaks for it to be able to do anything with it internally. If your kind of external structure isn't there, the internal isn't going to be there. So this is one of the reasons why I also really advocate doing some sort of moving practice and the Cloud Hands is an example of that. Some of the other things I do like the Cat Walk is another example of it. But you have to have something that allows you to go from what you develop energetically while you're sitting and standing and take that into motion. Otherwise you tend to just jump into the form and the things you're doing internally in meditation practice are gone.

17:52 Robert: Well, in terms of kind of health and martial meditation this very important. And I'll kind of... At least for a moment, I kind of address them as separate things, although they're really intertwined. From a health standpoint, meditation is very important because it develops a lot of sensitivity to what's going on inside you. And if you want to be able to kind of fix something, you've got to be able to feel it. If you can't feel it, you can't fix it. Well, most of us feel things because we have pain reactions rather than feeling things that aren't painful. Well, through meditation you actually learn to feel a lot of things that aren't pain reactions and you learn how those things end up being interrelated with pain reactions. And if you want to become really efficient at kind of healing yourself, or for that matter if you're doing some sort of healing of somebody else, you've got to be able to distinguish those two. And so you have... Because what you want to be able to do is you want to utilize what is energetically strong and use it to help what's injured. And so, you have to be able to read those things and you have to be able to map those things in yourself. If you can't map them yourself, you're going to be able map somebody else's. I mean, this is sort of a chicken or egg kind of thing because as you develop it, you develop it in both aspects, but certainly, you can't like... If you can't feel what's going on in your own body, you ain't going to feel what's going on in somebody else's.

19:37 Dan: Do you mean some martial arts point of view?

19:39 Robert: Well no, from a health point of view. Well also from the martial arts standpoint. And from the standpoint of martial arts versus health practice, I mean if I'm doing something with somebody, I may almost do the identical thing. But it's a lot of ways governed by my intent. In other words, I could do something... If you had like a vertebrae that was out of alignment, for instance, well I could do something with your arm that would attach to that vertebrae and manipulate it. Well if I'm doing that to help you. I'm going to be manipulating and so it's trying to bring it back, pokes it back into alignment. If I'm doing it martially, I'm going to do just the opposite. I'm going to try to jerk it really hard so it messes it up completely. That's why it's very different in terms of your intent. In terms of feeling into the person and feeling what's inside of you, it's the same thing. There's not really any difference; it's just a question of whether you feel it or not. But in terms of how you're applying it, it's very different.

20:49 Dan: And so much of that comes back to having a sitting practice, having a standing practice where you begin to...

20:54 Robert: Yeah. I mean they're very important for just kind of getting your brain to get out of ... The problem with the form, from the standpoint of just practicing form which is you got to do. If you just practice form, it's so many things that distract you from listening to yourself. And that's... And I think that's the value of doing something like Cloud Hands as sort of a practice that bridges a lot of the things you would get from sitting and brings it into motion but does it in a much more simplified context than most other places and form. The other side of Cloud Hands, I think, also is kind of one of the things that initially kind of got me interested in just kind of exploring this a lot more, is if you talk to a lot of people who have done Tai Chi a long time, they'll all say, "Oh yeah, Cloud Hands." They may not have any idea why Cloud Hands seems really kind of special, but almost universally they go, "Yeah, there's something there that's going on that I can't quite put my finger on it but I know it's there." And well, what's going on is it's this hidden relationship between the symmetries on what you're doing externally and internally. And so, that's in one way what makes it very special because you just don't have that elsewhere. Actually, there's a couple of move that do. Repulse Monkey has it. I'm trying to think.

22:30 Dan: Any of the other sort of repetitive stepping action where the Cloud Hands improves...

22:34 Robert: Well, no. They are really asymmetric, much more so. I mean, both Cloud Hands and Repulse Monkey are asymmetric; Repulse Monkey even more so than Cloud Hands. The beauty of Cloud Hands is what's going on on the two sides of your body are basically the same thing they're just out of phase with one another. Whereas like in Repulse Monkey, you're not doing the same thing on both sides. There's asymmetry around it but externally there's asymmetry. But internally, they're actually not asymmetry.

23:09 Dan: I see. It sounds like a lot of what you're talking about is all question of degree, sort of how do you get things to integrate a little bit more smoothly? How do you get one facet of the practice to help and to make this more sensitive or give you insight into the meditation side, how to use Martial Arts to maximize the health benefits. What's really common, though, it is a lot of people come to Tai Chi as a practice for just one of those reasons. So what would you say to somebody who's in that kind of situation?

23:48 Robert: Well, I mean...

23:49 Dan: And doesn't want to put gloves and hit a heavy bag or doesn't have a sitting practice.

23:55 Robert: Do it. [laughter] Do it. It just means you're probably ultimately not going to get all of the... All the pieces. And as an example of that, if I come into Tai Chi just for... As a martial practice, I have no interest in meditation, I don't care about the health practices, well I'm probably not going to get very much of the meditation benefit. I may... I'm going to get a little bit probably. Because simply to be effective as a martial artist, even if you're not trying to, you have to have some degree of being able to kind of calm your mind, and keep your minds kind of still when you're in the heat of things. So, you're going to get some of it. You may not get all of it, but you're going to get some of it. You're not going to get the more, what I would refer to as kind of esoteric things that the correct meditation practices allow you to do martially. But you're going to get that kind of core basic stuff.

24:49 Robert: Same with the health. Let's say my only interest is doing Tai Chi martially. Well, I'm going to get a lot of health benefits from it. Because in order to effectively do it martially, I have to be able to do all these things; I have to be able to get my waist really open; I have to get my pelvis really open; I have to have a very, very good connection between what's going on in my lower and upper body; I have to integrate that movement. Otherwise, it's martially ineffective. And so, I have to do all those things that are the things you do that make Tai Chi work for your health.

25:18 Robert: So, you're going to... And if you do it martially, you're going to get a huge amount of health benefit. Yeah, there might be a few little things here and there that you maybe... You might tweak a little more if you're just purely practicing as a health practice. But, by and large, you might even get... The people who really get the full health benefits are the people who also do it martially. Because it opens their body up in a way that just doing it as a health practice doesn't happen. You get like 80% there. You get 85% there. But you don't... And the real difference is... And this also comes back to the kind of correlation with meditation. You don't deal with the level of adversity when you're doing it as a health practice that you're doing it when you're doing it as a martial art. And so, it constricts your mind in some ways. Your mind doesn't get as loose and opened up. And your Chi doesn't get as loose and opened up.

26:18 Dan: From the lack of that.

26:20 Robert: From the lack of just kind of psychologically and energetically dealing with confrontation.

26:28 Dan: Yeah, yeah. No, that's sort of the equivalent of always just lifting a one pound weight and expecting to get stronger at some point.

26:34 Robert: Right, right. I mean, it's not that you don't get a lot from it because you do. But you just don't quite get... You don't quite get that last really big jump because too many things are still bound up energetically and physically.