By Jon Woodward
In many styles of T'ai Chi there is a fascinating movement often called "Grasp The Sparrow's Tail." It might also be called "Grasp The Swallow's Tail" or "Grasp The Peacock's Tail" or simply "Grasp The Bird's Tail." This move is different than many other movements in T'ai Chi as it has four distinct parts that relate to some deeper aspects of T'ai Chi. These four parts are:
- Ward Off
- Roll Back
T'ai Chi is an internal martial art, meaning that instead of using our muscles to generate force, the thought is that we use a relaxed structure and "internal energy" to generate force. In T'ai Chi, the expression of this energy is broken up into eight categories, often called the "8 Jin" (or "8 Jing"). Within these 8 Jin, the first four are considered the so-called "primary" ones. These 4 Jin are:
- Peng (pronounced "Pung")
- Lu (pronounced "Leeu")
- Ji (pronounced "Jee")
- An (pronounced "Ahn")
- Peng-- Ward Off
- Lu-- Roll Back
- Ji-- Press
- An-- Push
However, the translations and the movements can be a little deceiving. So let's take a moment and go through each of these four Jin and try to figure out what they actually are doing.
Peng-- Ward Off
You may have noticed that I bolded this first one (again, very astute of you). That is because Peng is the basis for all the other Jins. Everything else derives from, or grows out of Peng.
Peng is an outward and expanding energy. It has a somewhat elastic or bouncy feel to it but is very substantial at the same time. You can imagine a balloon as having Peng energy. If you imagine pushing on the balloon that is against a firm surface, such as a wall, it would give a bit. But however hard you push, it is as if your push is getting returned right back to you-- as if your energy is being redirected back to you. A better translation of Peng might be "Boing." This is the feel of Peng.
When performing "Ward Off" within Grasp The Sparrow's Tail, we ideally want the warding off arm to expand outward and upward with the use of Peng. We want to strive for a feel of this arm moving as if there is a balloon sitting between our arm and body that is being inflated. As the balloon inflates, the arm floats outward and upward.
Lu is a feel of opening up a space. If you imagine that you have expanded a bubble of Peng around you, and that someone is pushing on that bubble, Lu would be an opening of space that they would then fall into. Lu uses a state of Peng to create that opening. Without the Peng, we could not create the opening.
We can also create different expressions of Lu. For instance, as an alternative to simply creating a void for someone to fall into, if someone were to push on our arm when we are in the Ward Off position, we could open up space (Lu) while maintaining a small amount of Peng. If done well, they would feel as if they were pushing on a soft balloon and would simply roll off the balloon.
When we perform the Roll Back part of Grasp The Sparrow's Tail, we want to open up a space within our Peng. If we imagine an opponent coming at us, we open up the space and allow them to come at us and then just softly redirect or "re-guide" their energy so that it flows past us instead of directly at us. We want to do this in a relaxed state without using force to guide or pull them. If done well, your opponent will not notice the redirection. It will feel to them as if they are following their natural path right at you, but you simply just vaporized. To them it feels as if they are pushing into nothingness.
Ji is a compressing or squeezing type of energy. It takes the expansiveness of Peng and compresses it to focus it. It takes the opponent's energy and redirects it right back at them in a very channelled and penetrative manner.
You can imagine it as squeezing through a small space between your opponent's arms to deliver a penetrating blow.
When we perform Press in our Grasp The Sparrow's Tail move, it is as if we are gathering up a whole bunch of Peng that we have built up, and then compressed that Peng into a focused point at our wrists. We then express that focused energy forward.
Push is much less about actually pushing and much more about rooting and sinking and bringing your opponent's energy down into your root. Push is like a downward expression of Peng with some qualities of Lu. The downward expression of Peng is done effortlessly, and to your opponent it can feel as if they are falling into a hole.
If an opponent is coming at you, then you simply redirect their energy downward. When done well, this will result in the opponent losing their root and becoming off balance. From there you could execute a roll back and let them fall on by you, or you could turn their energy around and expand your Peng energy, thus uprooting them and throwing them backward.
When we perform Push in the Grasp The Sparrow's Tail move, we want to be very aware of the sinking of the elbows and hands as we withdraw. This is the part of the movement (as opposed to the actual pushing forward) that expresses the An quality of the move.
When we are practicing Grasp The Sparrow's Tail, it is helpful to know how these energy expressions relate to the different part of the movement. This gives us an opportunity to experience the movements while directing our internal energy, rather than simply moving our limbs around our body.
So as we can see, the four parts of Grasp The Sparrow's Tail relate very closely to the 4 Primary Jins. It is also interesting to note that on a more subtle level these 4 Jins can exist in every movement of T'ai Chi--especially in the Traditional Form (it might be a bit more difficult to find each of these in every move of the T'ai Chi for Balance program since these moves have been modified to focus on balance). This gives us the opportunity to be aware of the expression of energy and to look for it as we are moving through our form.
If you have not yet done this, give it a try. Choose a movement (it might be helpful to start with Grasp The Sparrow's Tail) and explore that movement to see if you can find how the energy is being expressed in it. On a deeper level, once you become accustomed to the energy, see if you can have the energy generating the movement, rather than the movement generating the energy.
Jon Woodward is a certified T'ai Chi instructor who has been practicing T'ai Chi for over 30 years. He has been teaching classes in Metrowest for over 5 years.