Possible Origins: Free for the next 5 days!

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Scott P. Phillips’ book about the origins of Tai Chi Chuan, Possible Origins, is free in digital format for the next 5 days, so make sure you get yourself a copy!

So far I’ve only done a part 1 review, but I’ll do part 2 soon (I promise!). As you can see, I think it’s worth your time.

 

 

 

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Walk like an Anglo Saxon

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I do enjoy Roland Warzecha’s high-quality videos on medieval weapons and their usage. I’m not entirely sure how to feel about this one, however. He’s suggesting that medieval people walked with a different type of step than us modern humans, because of the different footwear. The old way (he suggests) was to land on the ball of the foot first (but put the whole foot on the ground, not just the ball) instead of heel striking first. In a way it’s similar to the type of stepping you find in the Chinese martial art of Baguazhang.

I just tried this way of walking on a little trip around the office and I did notice that it was possible to walk around like this, and it definitely works the calves in a way that ‘normal’ walking does not. For me it’s still a big ask to believe that people used to do such a fundamental human activity, like walking,  in a very different way to the way we do it today. Either way, it’s interesting. Have a watch and see what you think:

Roland also has some great videos on medieval posture and fighting with weapons that are also worth watching if you haven’t seen them before:

The thrusting posture does look odd, especially for combat,  but I can see what he means about it developing different muscles in the back.

This video about Viking arts is also a good watch:

Taoist Baduan Jin (8 section brocade)

This set of eight exercises is a popular Qi Gong exercise in China, probably the most popular. There are hundreds of different variations. This one I particularly like because although the reeling movement she’s doing is hidden to the point of invisibility, the arm movements are being used very obviously to enhance the subtle tensioning from fingers to toes throughout in a way you can see. Very nice.

The problems with being a teacher

 

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This is something I’ve seen happen a lot in martial arts. After a period of being a “teacher” or a “coach”, you somehow start to believe your own hype, and end up as an “expert”, or you allow others to see you as such (i.e. you become complicit even if you don’t announce yourself as the expert). Of course, you might legitimately be an expert. There’s no problem with that, or with acknowledging somebody’s skill at something (belts in martial arts have their uses), but for your own development, taking on the mantle of ‘expert’ can be an absolute dead end to your progress. Let me explain.  

You start out at something, and get pretty good at it. After a while people start asking you for advice and you end up as the teacher. After a lot of experience of teaching you get pretty good at that too and you go and turn what you’ve got into a system(™), online course (™) or book (™) and whatever you’ve produced ends up being codified, systemised, named, labelled and becomes a kind of law. Maybe you even develop followers (also known as customers these days) who go around championing your cause. I’m pretty sure that Jesus (if he existed) didn’t start out with the aim of having followers or producing the Bible. In fact, he wrote nothing down! (Well, that we know of anyway).

That’s all great until you are faced with some new information, far too late into your career, and realise that you’ve got something terribly wrong. Or perhaps you meet a real expert, and find that your knowledge isn’t as all encompassing as you thought it was. What do you do? Suddenly your ‘fame’ means nothing. You can’t go back to all the people that have invested their time, their money and their belief in your system and tell them ‘“sorry guys, I got it wrong, we’re going to start again with this new idea and take it from there…” Well, I mean, you could, theoretically, but very few people in human history have ever done that. Instead what usually happens is you either reject the new information, because it doesn’t fit your model, or you try and incorporate it into your world view, when in fact, it doesn’t fit that either, because it contradicts what you’ve previously been saying, and you end up with this sort of bastardised half truth…

The people I most admire in martial arts are the ones who are happy not to have everything all worked out. The ones who are constantly open to new ideas and retain a kind of ‘beginner’s mind’.

So what should we do? Yes, we should have ideas and theories. But we should always be testing them against nature, against resistance and against each other. We should never end up ‘locked in’. Unfortunately, as soon as you hit the publish button on your course, your video, your article or your online course, you are, effectively, locked in.  

Having said all that, I publish blog articles, I make videos and fully intend to write a book about this stuff one day, I’m just going to make sure (at least in my head) I have a massive disclaimer at the start of anything I do along the lines of ‘Warning! Some of these ideas may not reflect reality’ 🙂

 

How silk is actually reeled, by hand, in China

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In his chapter on silk reeling, in the book on Chen Style Tai Chi Chuan (1963) (A snip at only 828 pounds on Amazon in the UK!), Shen Jiazhen writes:

…Tai Chi Chuan movements must be in a shape like pulling silk. Pulling silk [from a cocoon] is done by a circular motion, and because it combines pulling straight and circling, naturally it forms a spiraling shape, which is the unification of the opposites of straight and curved. Silk reeling energy or pulling silk energy both refer to this idea. Because in the process of unreeling, extending out and pulling back the four limbs likewise produce a sort of spiraling shape, therefore the boxing manuals say that whether in large, extended movements or compact, small movements, one must absolutely never depart from this type of Tai Chi energy which unites opposites. Once one has trained in this thoroughly, this silk reeling circle tends to become smaller the more one practices, until one gets to the realm where there is a circle but no circle is apparent, at which point it is known only by intent. 1 This is why the third characteristic of Tai Chi Chuan is that it is an exercise which unifies opposites with silk reeling, both forward and backward.

Thanks to Jerry K for the translation. If you’re interested he’s also translated other chapter of the book – like this one on Empty and Full.

With this in mind I thought it would be beneficial to investigate exactly how silk is pulled from a cocoon. The Chinese have cultivated silk worms for more than 5,000 years. Here’s video showing how silk is cultivated today in Shanghai:

 

Like any industry, silk production has been automated, but you can still see how people did it using a hand reeling machine in some parts of China:

 

I’m guessing that the initial spiralling action of her hand she uses to get the starter threads off the brush is where the analogy starts to happen with what you’re doing in silk reeling exercises in Tai Chi Chuan? It reminds me of the way you can play with an elastic band in your hand. With 5,000 years of silk production in China I’m pretty sure the hand reeling machines would have existed at the time Chen style was creating these exercises, some 300-odd years ago, but without a machine then you’d have to be doing it with your hands in that manner.

Either way, I don’t think the silk worm gets out of this alive 😦

Jin in Chinese martial arts (and tennis)

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Looking at Chinese martial arts from our stand point in today’s modern world is very confusing. There are so many styles – so many different approaches and so many different theories of its evolution. In fact, it’s bewildering!

Human beings like patterns. It’s our nature to see patterns in things. So, naturally, we start to classify these myriad arts in different ways – Northern or Southern is a popular way to do it since you can generalise some characteristics about each branch. Internal and External is another way to do it. So is ‘long range’ and ‘short range’. And so on.

Without exception, however, all these classifications ultimately break down. They’re good for talking in the general sense, but once you dig down into individual cases it soon becomes a little murkier. For instance, you’ll find a style that is known as a ‘kicking style’ has a few punches in one of its forms. A style that is ‘long range’ actually contains quite a few short range techniques in one of its obscure forms, and so on.

But perhaps there is one all encompassing thing we can say about the subject. All Chinese martial arts make use of Jin ‘refined strength’ to great or lesser extent. Now, as always, language is a problem. It would be foolish to suppose that what a professional boxer is doing isn’t a highly refined method of punching. Of course, it is. In fact, under boxing rules, it’s obviously the best way to punch. Secondly, which ‘Jin’ are we talking about? A lot of Chinese martial arts have a long list of ‘Jins’ that they contain and practice, so which one do I mean? Also, a lot of them also don’t even use the word at all.

What I mean is using the ground as a path to power, rather than your physical structure or power derived primarily from your local muscle use. This is my definition of “basic jin”.

Obviously we need to use our muscles to stand up at all, but in the case of punching, for example, most punches originate from the shoulder. In contrast, I’m talking about using the power from the ground and bypassing the shoulder as a generator of power completely when punching. Instead, the shoulder switches function to a transmitter. for the power coming up from the ground.

So, how do you do this?

Well, let’s start in the most sensible place – Tennis. 🙂

It should be no surprise that if this method of using force exists and can be done by humans, then its use isn’t limited to martial arts. I’ve noticed recently that sports coaches are starting to catch on to these Tai Chi, or Chinese Martial Arts, concepts these days. Watch the following video:

Now, while he doesn’t explain what’s happening much, he’s getting across the concept of pushing down into the ground to increase the upward force that bounces back. If your body is relaxed (‘Song’) then this is upward rebound of force can be utilised as power.

From www.feeltennis.net/ground-force-for-power/

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By “sending the force” downward – which you can see on the weighing scale – you can generate more upward force.

This is the basic mechanics for the Tai Chi “Push” you see demonstrated so often. Instead of pushing into the person you first push ‘down’ from the dantien into the ground and use the rebound force as the power generation.

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It requires a relaxed frame – which is the “Song Jin” of Tai Chi Chuan. The more you can push ‘down’ from the dantien, the more force you can exert back up. Try it!

To return to my subject about Jin in Chinese martial arts. The Tai Chi example above is what I’d call a very ‘pure’ example of using the ground force. Tai Chi specialises in this very relaxed ‘song’ way of doing it. Other Chinese martial arts use different postures and different methods and can augment the pure ground force with specific trained muscle use in various ways – which is one of the reasons you see the characteristic rounded back in Southern Chinese marital arts. You could called these a type of ‘muscle jin’.

I found a video recently that I thought really showed this ground force being very nicely used in Wing Chun. It’s by a master called Chu Song Tin, who is now sadly deceased. I posted it on a discussion forum and it got me in some very hot water, as I’ll explain below.

 

In the video he says the following:

“now let my force go to the ground,…. don’t fight me by pulling up.”

“now it’s going down to his feet(i.e the ground)”

“if i use strength to push on him and he use strength to fight me.”

“now pull up, and can you feel it in your shoulder? and this way the force can’t go down to his feet.”

Now, it turns out that CST didn’t ever use the word “Jin” to describe what he was doing – he created his own term “nim tao”, and if you suggest that what he was doing was Jin… then people in his lineage will get really upset with you because you don’t have the necessary lineage to comment and it is disrespectful if you do. It becomes a lineage and politics game and there’s no way to really get anywhere once that happens, better to just yield.

According to the next video, CST never felt he could adequately describe what he was doing, which I find really interesting. His students have kept the lineage alive and if the following video is to be believed are still trying to work out exactly how he did it.

I’m happy that they’re continuing the research, and I don’t really have any desire to get involved in the politics of lineage, but my question would be, if it isn’t ground force, then what is it?

“The rotation of the waist/pelvic region is like the turning of a wheel on an axle”

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I ran (ha!) across this article by Sam Wuest, thanks to the Steve Morris Facebook page. It’s a really interesting look at how Usain Bolt is the fastest man alive despite not conforming to accepted wisdom on running mechanics.

It turns out Mr Bolt makes clever use of waist rotation when he runs, in contrast to the normal admonitions to reduce rotational movement and increase forward and back movement you’ll get from a lot of running coaches.  By turning his waist in coordination with the running motion Mr Bolt is creating a longer lever to the floor, and everybody knows that longer levers create more power than shorter levers over the same distance.

There’s a famous line in the Tai Chi Classics that goes “The waist is like the axle and the ch’i is like the wheel“.  At one point in the article, Sam Wuest says

“The rotation of the waist/pelvic region is like the turning of a wheel on an axle. The hip joints are rotating around the imaginary centerline of your body parallel to your spine at about the elevation of the sacrum. It is not a perfect rotation, as the free leg hip will come through higher than the support leg’s hip if the lateral chain is firing correctly.  Perhaps it would be better described as a rolling rotation. Which brings us to reason #2 of why this piece of technique is important.”

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Reason #2 is interesting too:

Reason #2: Better Muscle Sequencing/Activation

Often, those that rotate better whilst sprinting will look smooth and relaxed. Their strides won’t just look longer, they’ll look more relaxed.  Think of Carl Lewis’ famously effortless stride.  This is how we are designed to move – the center moves first, then the extremities follow, much like a whip.

The muscles around the pelvis have high muscle-to-tendon ratios (force producers) while the extremities have relatively much more tendon and elastic structures (force amplifiers). In a correctly aligned body, a small movement of the waist can produce large amounts of force elsewhere in the body.

This sounds awfully close to the Tai Chi idea of the dantien as a nexus of muscular and tendon power in the body.

As somebody interested in muscle tendon channels and their effect on movement and silk reeling exercises from Tai Chi I can see the correlation here. Tai Chi uses the same principle of movement coming from the centre (the dantien) and that controlling the movement of the extremities through elastic tissue. We usually think of this sort of movement as having to be learned, rather than occurring naturally, however it appears to be exhibited in high-level athletes, as we see in the article linked to above. Are they just naturally doing it? Have they tapped into the way the body is designed to move? Have they stumbled upon it, or have they had to learn to move this way on purpose?

Silk reeling and Shen Jiazhen (1891-1972)

Shen Jiazhen (1891-1972) co-authored the book Chen Shi Taijiquan (1963), which contained the famous silk reeling diagram below:

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Silk reeling is the essential skill of Chen style Tai Chi Chuan and involves learning how to wind the body so that all movements arise from the dantien, and that when ‘one part moves, all parts move’. Other styles of Tai Chi do pay lip service to this idea, of course, but I think only the Chen style really gets into it in the level of depth that’s required because they have a deliberate method (Silk reeling) that’s all about this concept.

When I look at family members of other Tai Chi styles perform Tai Chi I don’t see the same type of movement that you find in Chen style. It’s hard to evaluate of course since a lot of Tai Chi masters can hide the details of the movements. I’ve been told that the current head of the Chen style, Chen Xiaowang, is very good at hiding the movement so you don’t see it. But if you look at videos of Wu and Yang family members I don’t believe that the same silk reeling is really going on there. I see lots of really smooth movement (sometimes called “drawing silk”) but not the dantien control that you typically associate with Chen style.

If you understand the concept of silk reeling I see no reason why it can’t be added to these other styles of Tai Chi, of course. In fact, my own lineage started as a Yang style, but it is more of a hybrid style, as it has gone outside of the bounds of a single “family style” and added in elements from elsewhere, including silk reeling from the Chen style. It doesn’t pretend it got it from elsewhere.

When my Tai Chi teacher introduced me to silk reeling he used the pattern in the diagram above from the Shen Jiazhen book on Chen style. Looking back now I realise that this was actually a very difficult place to start with silk reeling because of the pattern’s complexity. It mimics the Tai Chi diagram… but not quite completely. If you look at the bottom of the diagram you’ll see that there’ s an extra little circle going on. The changes from open to close are also really frequent and quick, compared to a standard single arm wave silk reel.

The way my teacher taught me you stood in a forward bow stance and did one arm at a time. Then change stance for the other arm. The illustrations of the hands are pretty accurate and show the way the palm turns nicely. The numbers are important because these indicate the positions where the body changes from open to close and vice versa (with accompanying weight shifts). The diagram on the left is for the left hand and the diagram on the right is for the right hand.

A portion of Shen’s book on the subject of silk reeling has been translated into English and can be read here.

As I said, I don’t think this exercise is good for beginners. A better starting point for learning the basics of silk reeling would be a simple single arm wave. The best instruction I’ve seen on this is by Mr Mike Sigman. In this video (which I’ve posted before, I think) he explains the concept of muscle/tendon channels, open and close and goes over a basic single arm wave and what you should be doing in very clear terms:

Hagakure – wisdom of the Samurai

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“Hagakure is the essential book of the Samurai. Written by Yamamoto Tsunetomo, who was a Samurai in the early 1700s, it is a book that combines the teachings of both Zen and Confucianism. These philosophies are centered on loyalty, devotion, purity and selflessness, and Yamamoto places a strong emphasis on the notion of living in the present moment with a strong and clear mind.”

Not being too familiar with Japanese writings I hadn’t come across this book before, but it was brought to my attention by a quote I stumbled across that I really liked:

“There is something to be learned from a rainstorm. When meeting with a sudden shower, you try not to get wet and run quickly along the road. But doing such things as passing under the eaves of houses, you still get wet. When you are resolved from the beginning, you will not be perplexed, though you still get the same soaking. This understanding extends to everything.” 

The book seems to be full of pithy, simple, wisdom like that.

I’m not familiar with which translation is the best – probably one you can buy on Amazon since that’s usually the way things work –  but there’s certainly a free version of the book you can read here.