The Tai Chi Magician, redux

I wrote about this phenomena before in one of my most popular blog posts called The Tai Chi Magician, but these guys keep coming back for more, so here we go again!



I’ve just watched another YouTube video where a ‘Tai Chi master’ makes his student hop all over the place at the merest touch. I was going to link to it, but after talking about it with a friend I’m considering that might be unnecessary – maybe these Tai Chi masters that do this don’t need to be taken down – if the student is happy being made into a jumping bean, then maybe there is some sort of valuable social function being performed… even if I don’t know what it is.

As an aside, philosophically it could be strongly argued that Chinese martial arts have always had a strong performance element (via Chinese Theatre), both culturally and historically, and that the magic show is part and parcel of the deal.

But at the same time, I feel I have a responsibility to the general public about the perception of what Tai Chi is, and to the beginner looking to start learning Tai Chi, so I’m going to say something.

So, let me just say, for the record, these reactions are not what you can expect without a high degree of co-operation from your push hands partner. Tai Chi will not give you superpowers like this against a determined attacker. These problems are not unique to Tai Chi, obviously Aikido springs to mind as suffering the same ‘dive bunnies’, but somehow the vibe is different in Aikido – because of the different setting – in a Dojo, with uniforms and mats – people don’t automatically think it’s quite as ‘real’ as it is in Tai Chi superpower demonstrations. The even more dramatic flips and somersaults of Aikido Uke’s also indicate that there is compliant training going on. At least that’s how it appears to me.

Common traits:

These videos are done with the same tricks you find in stage hypnotism – the power of suggestion. And it you look at all these videos you start to see common traits. Here are a few you’re going to need if you want to set yourself up as a Tai Chi Magician:

1. Physical cues are important. Adopt a slight air of arrogance. Look beyond the opponent, into the distance, as if they are not there. In fact, this whole enterprise is beneath you, so remember they are nothing to you. You are looking beyond this physical realm into the spiritual, where you are dancing with the immortals. They need an enlightened master to follow, so act like one.

2. Condition your partner to be ridiculously over compliment. Maybe tell them that if they don’t ‘go with’ what you are doing, by hopping away to dissipate your force, then they will injure themselves, probably severely! This conditioning process can be subtle and take many months until they are ready for a primetime video. A few cold stares when they resist here and there, a few subtle shakes of the head when they don’t fall correctly. That sort of thing. After a few weeks or months you’ll notice they start to understand their role and act accordingly. Having a cult you’re getting them to join helps too! Get the group to reinforce your position as leader and ensure their subservience.

3. Your narrative is important – remember to say what you are about to do before you do it – key words here being things like, “down”, or “away”, so they know which direction to throw themselves in. Also say “I” a lot – remember, it’s all about you, not them.

It’s interesting that he says in his YouTube comments that he’s not very interested in fighting. (Guys that do this stuff never are, are they?) Of course, that line of reasoning is always a convenient excuse for getting out of a situation where they are asked to demonstrate these powers on somebody who is not as compliant!

The Tai Chi customer needs to treat these videos as valuable warnings. I can see how a beginner could easily start out looking to learn “Tai Chi”, not knowing what it is, and ending up in something that’s a bit cult-like with a teacher who subtly conditions and directs you to fall over at the merest touch. Trust me, manipulation is subtle and you wouldn’t even know it’s happened to you.

Don’t be that guy.


Fighting goes to the clinch. Why don’t people know this?

The clinch is going to happen, so learn to deal with it.

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Do you remember the mantra, ‘statistics say that 90% of all fights go to the ground’? That meant we all had to learn ground fighting, and everything else was useless. Then there was the backlash to this mantra, which was, essentially: ‘that’s bullshit, what about knives and guns and multiple attackers?’, which meant that traditional martial arts still had a place even if they couldn’t succeed in the UFC.

Both camps had some hold on the truth, and these days traditional martial arts are used in the UFC more than ever before, but the problem is that the original premise was flawed – fights don’t always go to the ground, they go to the clinch, as this video showing real fights demonstrates. Unless there is a quick KO, fights go to the clinch because nobody wants to get punched in the face. It’s as simple as that. If you’ve ever done any sparring then you’ll know how instinctive it is to grab and pull the other person close, so that they can’t punch you.

Crucially, from there the most dominant grappler will always win, unless there is an intervention from a third party. I experienced this again myself this week when I met up for some ‘push hands’ with a friend. From my perspective I was trying to do push hands, but he seemed more intent on just attacking me, so I ended up just trying to deflect his strikes until I got bored of that and moved into a clinch, at which point I could easily take him down and submit him on the ground, as he has no grappling experience.

So kids, learn some form of grappling, OK?

This point deserves repeating and emphasising, as so many people don’t seem to get it, especially people who train an art full of ‘deadly’ striking techniques.

Today I watched another video of a guy lost in a Kung fu fantasy land where he deflected the non-committed attacks from his compliant demo partner, then performed a number of deadly moves on the guy’s face and neck while he just stood there and let him do it.
People, please wake up! This is not going to work!

Sadly, in my experience,  you can’t change these people’s minds using something as unglamorous as logic and reason. They have a teacher who they trust more than you who is deeply invested in this stuff. Thankfully a real encounter with violence or resistant sparring session can always provide a wake up call.

Kung Fu is full of really interesting stuff, with deep cultural and historical links, and it’s fun to practice. I love it. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with it so long as we understand what it is, and what it is not. Just try to remember the realities of fighting when you practice it. That’s all I ask.

Angry Baby Gods and Lightsaber duels: A visit to the Martial Arts Studies Conference 2016

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Well, hello delegate! A brief sojourn at the 2016 Martial Art Studies Conference in Cardiff…

As somebody not involved in academia or academic publishing, I’ve viewed Martial Arts Studies from afar for a while now, slightly scared of getting too close, in case I get bitten by the big words, like “phenomenological” and “liminoid”.

So, it was with some trepidation that I boarded the train to Cardiff for the Martial Arts Studies Conference 2016. Happily my fears were unfounded. This was my first time getting amongst the martial arts studies crowd, and what a lovely bunch of people they turned out to be! Academics are open minded, intelligent people looking to increase their knowledge through discourse. Contrasting views are often encouraged, treated with respect and pondered rather than rejected. It’s a refreshing change from the bitchy world of online discussion forums I’ve inhabited, which seem grumpy, trite and shallow in comparison. Or maybe it was just that meeting people in the flash is always so much more genuine.

Talking of which, the day started well, when I introduced myself to the random stranger I had sat next to for the first keynote and he said “Graham? Wait… are you THE Graham? The nice, funny guy from Rum Soaked Fist? Man, that place has gone downhill!” Ha! Ha! (By the way, yes, that genuinely did actually happen.)

I’ve been trying to think of how to define what martial arts studies is exactly, and I think one of the best ways to describe it is that these people are not interested in the practical ‘how to’ of martial arts, but rather what it means when people do martial arts. For example, what do the kata (or forms) of martial arts signify? What’s really going on when people perform a kata? And are they really performing, or practicing for their own sake? What are the participants of a sparring session actually engaged in? What are they really there for? How is the media selling this? Those sorts of questions.

Here are some of the titles for the talks given, to give you some idea:

“Embodied Enquiry: reflecting on embodied practices as ‘dynamic events’.”

“From Martial to the Art: Slow Aesthetics in Transnational Martial Art-house Cinema”

“Masculine identities and the performance of ‘awesome moves’ in capoeira class”.

Since we’re dealing with a subject that is physically practiced there’s always the opportunity for tactile engagement within the subjects, although this isn’t encouraged officially within conference itself (I can imagine the insurance nightmare this could lead to). But while there was no scheduled ‘hands on’ sessions, there was a bit of push hands outside in the rose garden before the conference started, which I sadly turned up to just as it finished, but I did manage to exchange some Choy Lee Fut techniques with Daniel Mroz who practiced the same style for a while, but through a different lineage. Indeed, I thought that the majority of participants in the seminar were also probably martial artists themselves. In short, it wasn’t all pie in the sky.🙂

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Ben Judkins with group photo of the CLA (Central Lightsaber Academy)

This line of thoughtful enquiry into martial arts mixed with real world interaction, humour and observation was typified by the opening keynote speech of the day by Ben Judkins, the author of the excellent Kung Fu Tea” who delivered a talk entitled “Liminoid Longings and Liminal Belonging: Hyper-reality, History and the Search for Meaning in the Modern Martial Arts”, which was about a class on Jedi lightsaber fighting that had sprung up in a mall in America, a trend that is appearing in Europe too, with Ludo Sport at the forefront. How does a lightsaber class fit into a martial arts school’s syllabus? What sort of people are attracted to it? What are they identifying with? All these questions were asked.

They take this lightsaber duelling seriously, too. I’ve got to be honest and say that it looks like great fun – I want a go.


Ludo Sport in action!

Aside from the keynotes, 4 different lectures went on at the same time, so you had to choose what you went to. So, I missed a lot of stuff I’d have like to have seen, like “Yin Yang, Five Elements and Rhymed Formulae: Traditional Chinese Concepts in the Teaching of Wing Chun”, and “Capoeira Bodies, Two Movies and Every day ‘Realities’”. I could go on – there were a lot of interesting talks I missed, but hopefully a lot of it was video taped, so I can watch it later.

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Scott Park Phillips, doing his slide show thing.

I did however get to see my old friends Scott P Phillips deliver his impossibly titled, “Baguazhang: The martial dance of an angry baby-god“. As you can tell from the name of the talk, Scott likes to hit controversy head on, but give his ideas time to percolate in your mind and they start to make sense. Using copious historical examples, photos and videos, Scott exposed the theatrical and religious roots of Baguazhang, and how they are at odds with the conventional theories of the arts development, which you’d have to agree are unsatisfying and incomplete. Linking Baguazhang to the Chinese god Nezha opens many new lines of enquiry. For instance, Nezha is often depicted holding a cosmic wheel:


Look familiar?

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Perhaps a bit like this?


Li Zi Ming with wind wheel swords

And those big weapons associated with Baguazhang… what do they do to the practitioner? How do they make him look?


One of the oversized weapons associated with Baguazhang.

I can’t go into the whole thing here. Scott had 3 hours-worth of material, (which had to be crammed down to 30 minutes), so he had to leave a lot of it on the table. I’d love to watch the full 3 hour version of his talk, and I hope he gets the funding he’s looking for to get it turned into a proper film. If you’re interested in his theories or helping with the project then, drop him a line or buy the book.


Daniel Mroz starting his keynote on taolu.

I also got to watch Daniel Mroz’s excellent keynote on “Taolu: credibility and decipherability in the practice of Chinese martial movement” which kind of took off from Scott’s ending point and looked a new perspectives from which the practice of taolu can be understood. Fascinating stuff, including a practical demonstration of how to add credibility to a taolu performance.

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Daniel shares a method for adding credibility to taolu performance.

I noticed there were a lot of talks discussing whether or not recreating martial arts from European medieval instruction manuals – “fight books” – by groups such as HEMA can be considered a sound scientific method. I caught a couple of these talks – (the short answers seems to be “no, but it’s not without merit”). The most interesting talk I saw however didn’t seem to care about the pervading academic opinion, and was all about recreating the moves described in ancient Icelandic sagas as modern day wrestling techniques. There was some great detective work going on there.

The conference actually lasted for 3 days, but I only managed to get to the middle day, which made me wish I had more time there. There was so much I missed and so much more I’d liked to have seen.

Overall, it was a refreshingly and fascinating day that will stay with me for a long time, and it was good to meet up with old friends as well as make new ones from across the seas.

Thanks to Paul Bowman for putting on a great conference. I hope to go again.

Muskelkater: Taiji cures the muscle hangover

Feeling beaten up the morning after martial arts practice? Tai Chi is the answer.


The Germans have a special word for that beaten up, tired and sore feeling you get when you wake up the morning after BJJ class – “Muskelkater” – it literally means “muscle hangover”.

That word accurately reflected how I felt this morning after we did 10 x 6 minute rounds of sparring last night in BJJ class. I had no injuries, just an overwhelming sense of body tiredness and stiffness. The feeling is so common that it’s quite often known in BJJ circles as the Jiujitsu Hangover.

I looked at my Yoga mat, but the thought of doing something as strenuous as a downward dog made me wince. Instead, Tai Chi was the answer. Gentle, soft movements that ease the body back into motion. Even after just one run through the form I was feeling 50% better.

Doing the Taiji form slowly and gently can be as relaxing as a hot bath. As a recovery method from a Jiujitsu hangover, or any sort of muscle fatigue, I’m convinced there’s nothing finer. I just wish more people knew about it.


Joanna Champion: It’s all in the legs

You get hurt, hurt ‘em back. You get killed… walk it off.


There’s a moment in Marvel Avengers: Age of Ultron when Steve Rogers addresses his assembled superheroes before going into battle against impossible odds with: “You get hurt, hurt ’em back. You get killed… walk it off.”

I’m not saying Poland’s Joanna Jędrzejczyk is a Captain America fan, but she must have been listening to the same advice when she fought  Cláudia Gadelha in Friday’s TUF 23 Final at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas.

As a perfect example of fighting back from a bad start, this fight was unmissible, and far better than any fight I saw in the UFC 200 show the following day. Cláudia, a BJJ black belt, spent the first two rounds on the offensive, with clinch followed by takedown after takedown, totally dominating the fight, but Jonanna always found a way to get back to her feet without ever sustaining any real damage. Eventually Cláudia’s repeated takedown attempts took their toll and her gas tank veered perilously close to empty. By the third round the tide was turning and Joanna had Cláudia on the run. With Cláudia too tired to continue the takedown attempts, Joanna could open up with her strikes and kicks. She unleashed hell.

Joanna is well known for her unpredictable staccato style of striking mixed with devastating flurries, like this:



And the accuracy of her strikes. Like this:


and this:



Her hand speed is often the big talking point, but watching her move, I am always struck by how much her legs are involved in everything she does. Whether it was getting back to her feet again, or resisting the constant stream of takedown attempts from Claudia, her legs and hips are always being used. And when it comes to punching, she never just launches with her body or arms, as her opponents always seem to do. Her legs are never the passive carriers of her upper body – she’s always driving every action from them. Look at the clips above again and see if you can get what I’m talking about.

I’m not suggesting she’s doing Tai Chi movement, but I do think there are parallels to observe between what she’s doing and the way we are taught to use our legs in the ‘internal’ martial arts.

As for her heart and ability to come back from adversity. I don’t think you can teach that. She’s a real life superhero.

The Grand Poobah

Let’s be honest: Not everything in the martial arts garden is coming up roses. There’s still a lot of bullshit out there.


I find it uncomfortable when ‘normal’ people find out I do a martial art. The problem is that they usually want to talk to me about it. For example, they want to tell me about their nephew/son or daughter who does “What’s that one like Karate but with the kicking in?” And 99 times out of 100 I have nothing to say about that because it has no connection with anything I do at all. Also 99 out of 100 times I find that everything they think about martial arts is based on the image of it projected by the media, thus entirely a fantasy. I try my hardest to not sound disinterested and quickly change the subject.

It’s often even worse when you do meet people who practice a martial art themselves, because quite often they’re not exactly what I’d call ‘normal’ either. They can be the sort of people who flock to “combatives” training so they can learn to defend themselves from a machine gun attack, or maybe they like wearing a uniform, hierarchy and belts, or standing in lines screaming and punching the air. Oh, and by “people” I mean “men” here. I’ve found that women who practice a martial art are usually on the level (with a few notable exceptions). Women are usually attracted to martial arts as a way to prepare themselves for the physical reality of conflict.  They need to have some sort of defence if they ever find themselves in an uncomfortable situation with a larger, stronger male.

In a way I find that admitting you do a martial art to another person (if you’re a man) can be a bit like saying “Hi! There’s a high probability I’m a little odd!”

But let’s ignore the larger martial arts world and look at the small subset that is the Internal martial arts (IMA)- things like XingYi, Bagua and Tai Chi and other Chinese martial arts (CMA). I was talking about this with a friend recently. And in his own (paraphrased) words:

The problem is a lot of IMA people are looking for the “holy grail”. They are drawn to obscure jargon, high prices, “special” training and the idea that if it doesn’t work it is YOUR fault.

Certain teachers capitalises on all that very well, along with the bullying persona, being the alpha male in the room full of aiki-bunnies. People have bought so much into a particular view of MA it’s difficult for them to understand or appreciate anything outside of that view. I’m sure we both know people who would take apart 99% of IMA “masters” in a “relaxed” way, yet their work is ignored because they don’t “do it properly”.

If an IMA teacher is making constant reminders of “choking out” MMA guys and “destroying” people then it highlights his main area of worry – he knows he would struggle in either of those environments, yet he is not man enough to admit it or even – heaven forbid – go train with any of the top guys. Big fish small pond. This attitude is supported by some because it feeds into their inferiority complex and/or need to feel “special” by being accepted by the Grand Poobah. It’s largely this attitude that has almost destroyed CMA in this country – at one time CMA classes were heaving….these days…?

You can go a long way in the Chinese martial arts world, and specifically the internals, by being the guy who doesn’t mind punching civilians in the face at your seminar, to show who is top dog. If you encounter one of these controlling and manipulative individuals I’d suggest just walking away, and fast. You can’t change them, and nothing good will happen to you when you point out their obvious lies. Their followers have usually brought into the lie 100% and just shift their reality to accommodate the latest half truth or nonsense they spew.

Walk away – you don’t need these people in your life.

Strikes: Soul meets body

The new book by Vladimir Vasiliev and Scott Meredith has arrived. Mood: excited!


Yesterday, the new book on Systema striking “Strikes Soul Meets Body” by Scott and Vladimir I’d ordered arrived. First of all, at over 300 pages this book is an absolute beast! It feels a lot thicker than their last one on Systema breathing (“Let every breath”) so it’s going to take me a while to plough through it and do a full review, but before I do I wanted to post my initial reactions.

Firstly, the production values are high – nice cover, good photo quality (black and white) inside, and nicely produced pages in a relaxed looking typeface that makes reading easy.

Secondly – what’s it all about? In Scott’s own words “In this book, we are presenting the Russian martial art of Systema through the focused lens of one of its key skills”. That’s important, because it’s not just about striking. In Systema, it seems that each of the main skills is like a finger on a hand – meaning it’s impossible to separate each one out and still have a working fist. So, it discusses everything to do with Systema, including massage, stick work, mobility training and, most importantly, breathing.  Striking in Systema is unique in that it requires huge degrees of freedom, which can only come from a body and mind that moves freely, and that’s what this book is concerned with creating in you.

The book contains lots of drills and exercises, many of which requite a partner, so it’s quite practical, not just theoretical. I also think it looks like it’s going to be of interest to any martial artist who is interested in the details of how things work, not just a Systema practitioner, (although they are obviously going to get the most out of it). For example, the introduction starts of by analysing what a strike really is, looking at how legends like Rocky Marciano produced so much power. It’s also very well written. Scott has a great writing style, as you’ll know from his other books. The majority of the book is written in his voice, but with lots and lots of interjections from Vladimir, usually relating directly to training, and he’s quoted by name, so you can tell who has written which bits.

In short -if you’re wondering if you should buy this book, then yes. Just get it. From my initial scan it looks very, very good. But does it actually live up to its promise of teaching you how to move, strike (and live?) with absolute freedom? Those are bold claims. More on that later when I’ve read it all!




Does BJJ work on the street?

Chris Haueter’s new speech at BJJ Globetrotters addresses the seemingly eternal question people have about Brazilian Jiujitsu.

Chris Hauter is one of the original 12 American black belts in the art of Brazilian Jiujitsu. In this new 1.5 hour (yes, 1.5 hour!) speech he addresses a question which continually dogs BJJ:”Does BJJ work in the street?” He tackles the subjects of sport Jiujitsu compared to self defence Jiujitsu. It’s interesting because he might not say what you expect him to say…

Have a watch:

Cracking the Code: Tai Chi as Enlightenment Theatre

Scott Park Phillips’s much anticipated film about the connection between Tai Chi and Chinese Ritual Theatre is finally here.

I met Scott last year, when he introduced me to his theory of Tai Chi as Ritual Theatre for the first time. His ideas were so ‘out there’ compared to the usual history of Tai Chi that I’d encountered, and his presentation so enthusiastic, that I found both him and his ideas fascinating, and I think you will too. As well as being a historian, he’s a performer and entertainer (and third-wave coffee drinker). He presents his ideas as such. I’ll never forget him spontaneously standing up in the pub and demoing his Chen style form walkthrough (during which he explained his Theatrical interpretation of the postures) for me, and the rest of the pub, whether they wanted it or not!🙂

It’s hard to grasp these ideas in the written word, so I asked him at the time if he could put down his Chen style walkthrough, on video and he said he was already working on it. Well, it turns out he was, and he’s finished the video project!  Here it is:

The video is professionally produced and does a good job of presenting his ideas (although I’d have liked some parts to be a little slower, as there’s so much to absorb). The parts about the Boxer Rebellion I found particularly interesting, for example.

I’ll leave you to decide what you think about his ideas, but personally I think he’s onto something, and (importantly) I don’t think we need to be threatened by these ideas as somehow undermining the seriousness or effectiveness of Tai Chi as either a martial art, a health-giving art, or as a vehicle for delivering internal power.

I can see how some will think that it detracts from the effectiveness of the art we have today, with retorts like, “I don’t practice a dance!” or “I’m not doing a ritual!”

I raised this issue with Scott myself, and his response was along the lines of ‘If you’re a serious martial artists who practices Tai Chi (that puts you in the 0.00004% of practitioners!) then I’d say it doesn’t matter – a skilled martial artists can use anything to make good training out of’. That’s not a direct quote, I’m paraphrasing from memory here. But logically I think he’s right –  I don’t think it makes Tai Chi any less martial or any less effective if the ‘form’ that is being used as a vehicle to deliver Six Harmonies movement (to borrow Mike Sigman’s nomenclature) originally came from a theatrical ritual. Also, in the west we have a different association of the words ‘theatre’ than they do in China, where ‘theatre’ always had much more of a religious element. Everything arrises out of a culture, so it’s interesting to look back at the culture that Tai Chi arose out of. Academically there are already several good theories for why the Taoist Chanseng Feng always gets associated with the history of Tai Chi, from politics to spirituality, and Scott’s theory is just another to add to the pile. If you don’t want to add it to your pile, then don’t.

Remember, looking back into the murky origins of Tai Chi isn’t relevant to your actual practice today, or the subsequent direction Taijiquan went in, just keep on doing your thing. If you’re using Tai Chi form to practice fighting applications, or silk reeling, or to clear your meridians, etc, then you’re still doing just that.

For more information on Scott check out his weakness with a butterfly half step twist martial arts blog (or whatever it’s called these days), and he’ll be in the UK giving a lecture at the second Marital Arts Studies Conference in July, which I’m hoping to attend.



Brexit blues


I’ll be honest, I’m so depressed about what just happened to my country (voting to leave the EU) and the inevitable break up of the United Kingdom that will follow that I don’t feel like contributing to the world in a positive way right now, so I’m going to shutter my blog until I feel differently.

Britain, I am disappoint. You used to be better than this.