Monday Morning Tai Chi Training Tip # 379
Kan and Li
One of Tai Chi’s guiding principles is the idea of balance – always balance for me and never balance for the opponent. One of the terms to describe this balance so it can be more easily understood is Kan and Li. Lets explore them a bit.
Kan translates as “Water”, and is Yin with all the yin qualities. It is soft but penetrating, able to cut through the hardest substances, as evidenced by the Grand Canyon. Yet Kan easily engulfs and covers everything and anything. It is generally cool and dark, especially in relation to something that is warm or hot. And in Tai Chi movements, Yin moves towards the body, yielding and sinking.
Note: Temperature, like most everything else, is relative when discussing it. Port Townsend is usually coolish. 80 is considered hot here. We could call it Yang, but not compared to Tucson where it stays over 100 for months. So our temperature is yin and Tucson is yang compared to each other.
Water can flow in any direction depending on the amount of gradient. If a pond is level with no water entering, it won’t flow. But have one side of the pond a bit elevated and it will flow. Doesn’t need much. Or have a snow pack on level ground and, as it melts, the water will move. We can use this natural awareness to help us understand Tai Chi Chuan philosophy.
Li translates as “Fire”and is Yang with all its qualities. It is hot, expands, rises, moves away from the body. Think of a fire burning in a forest. It is usually a fist compared to the open hand of the yin move. Of course, most movements use a combination of yin and yang (the open hand to neutralize combined with the fist to return the energy, for instance). But one energy will be more predominate.
When thinking about balance, we always need to add up the yin and yang to end up with 100% – (for instance we generally use 70-30 or 80-20 for the weight distribution of the legs). There are no moves in Tai Chi that are 100% yin or yang, yet we call the moves yin or yang because that is the major energy expression for that move at the end of that move. Just like the pond should not be level, our form is never 50/50. We always need to have and keep some difference. If you are 50/50 (called double weighted) you have to make two moves to step. First, you have to shift all the weight onto one leg, then step forward with the other foot and shift the weight. If you have more weight on one foot or the other, you skip the first step, and save that valuable time by just stepping. You will mostly see Tai Chi players starting movements by sitting on the strong, rear leg ready to use the insubstancial (Empty Stance on Toe) front leg to block, kick, move, step in or out.
If I am standing alone, there is no telling where my energy lies. But as soon as I attach to the partner, we will both know how the weight is distributed. Is he or she lighter or heavier than me? Is he or she adding or subtracting from our total interaction. This is a skill that can only be gained by practice. You can’t gain much knowledge by just looking at someone else. You need to touch, or if you are a master, one can feel the partner’s aura (energy field) which extends out up to 2 feet in all directions.
The process of attaching your bodies energy to someone else’s has been discussed before. The image is like jumping on to a moving train. If you stand still by the side of the tracks and a train comes by a moderate speed, and you try to jump into a freight car where the door is open – very difficult, almost impossible.
If you want to jump in, the best way is to start running along the side of the car you want to enter, and when you get going about the same speed, you hop in. It is the same with attaching to the partner. As his arm starts towards your body, outreach with one of your arms and match his forward speed with a backward speed by your body while touching his skin as lightly as possible so as to feel his energy, not change his direction (just like jumping on the moving train). Once on the train, there are many ways to react to take control of the situation.
One of the (many) negative consequences of the covid pandemic, is that we aren’t able to practice all the skills necessary to understand, in our bodies, all the ideas presented as they relate to working with a partner. Someday soon, I hope!
I enjoy thinking about balance. More on Kan and Li next week.