Brothers in arms – Rickson Gracie and Tai Chi

A discussion of the similarities between BJJ and Tai Chi

rickson333

So, finally, here’s my much delayed look at the similarities between BJJ and Tai Chi. This is probably an impossible topic to give justice to fully, but I’ve given it a go and hopefully my perspective will be useful to others. I’ve already attempted to define Tai Chi in a previous post, so the next logical question is, ‘what is Brazilian JiuJitsu?’ Well, explaining what the art is, how it evolved and where it came from is not a simple job but luckily a lot of people have made a lot of (very long) documentaries that explain the whole story of the Gracie family, the in-fighting, the out-fighting and everything else in-between, so you’re better off watching those than having me explain it all again here. If you don’t fancy watching them all then the (very) short version is “it’s an off-shoot of Judo that has more emphasis on ground fighting”.

Try these for size:

The Gracie Brothers and the birth of Vale Tudo in Brazil:

If you want to find out how the art evolved once it entered the United States, and how it compliments other grapplings arts, then check out Chris Haueter’s incredibly entertaining speech at BJJ Globetrotters USA camp:

And finally, don’t miss the excellent Roll documentary on the spread of BJJ in California:

Fighting fire with water

But my concern here is not really the history of the art. I’m more interested in the technical similarities between Tai Chi and BJJ. I’ve heard Brazilian JiuJitsu described as being “like Tai Chi, but on the ground”. I understand where people coming from with that sentiment, but I can’t quite go down that route myself, or rather, I’d settle for saying that it is like Tai Chi, but also explicitly not the same. The one central idea that both BJJ and Tai Chi share is that it’s smarter to not oppose force with force, and instead “yield to overcome” (from a Tai Chi perspective) or “use leverage”, from a JiuJitsu perspective.

As it says in the Tai Chi classic “Treaste on Tai Chi Chuan”:

“There are many boxing arts.

Although they use different forms,
for the most part they don’t go beyond
the strong dominating the weak,
and the slow resigning to the swift.

The strong defeating the weak
and the slow hands ceding to the swift hands
are all the results of natural abilities
and not of well-trained techniques.

From the sentence “A force of four ounces deflects a thousand pounds”
we know that the technique is not accomplished with strength.

The spectacle of an old person defeating a group of young people,
how can it be due to swiftness?”

I’d disagree with the classic on one important point though – most of the traditional martial arts in fact do go beyond the strong dominating the weak, because without that key principle there is not much of an art left in the martial art at all. And I don’t know about the idea of defeating a “group” of young people either (that would be a tall order for any martial art, or martial artists), but to me the classic is suggesting that skill and technique can supersede the natural advantages of youth, such as speed and strength. And when it comes down to it, it’s hard to find an art that can deliver on this promise as well as BJJ can.

BJJ is one of the few martial arts where an older man (or woman) can be expected to regularly beat a younger man (or woman) by having more skill and technique, in a fully resisting scenario, thanks to techniques that manage the distance (a critical self defence skill) and use leverage and technique to overcome brute strength. That’s not to say that no strength is required, but you don’t necessarily need more strength than your opponent to make it work.

Rickson Gracie

To me, the BJJ practitioner that best exemplifies a similarity between Tai Chi and JiuJitsu is the legendary Rickson Gracie. He’s generally agreed to be the best of the Gracies. Compared to the acrobatic extravagances of today’s sport JiuJitsu champions, who favour inverted guards and bermibolos, Rickson’s style of Jiujitsu seems surprisingly simple, yet effective. There are no flashy moves, just basics done at a very high level.

The Rickson documentary “Choke”, which shows his training for a Vale Tudo fight in Japan, is essential viewing if you haven’t seen it before:

In the documentary you can see a young Rickson doing Yoga on the beach. Rumour has it that he also said he studied Tai Chi in a magazine interview, although I’ve not been able to find a transcribed version online to confirm this. Either way, it’s clear that he’s not averse to stepping outside of “pure jiujitsu” to add elements to his exercise, martial and health regimen. The cost of upholding the reputation of JiuJitsu and the Gracie family has been heavy though, and he has several herniated discs in his back, but he’s still on the mats teaching his family art, cornering his son Kron in his MMA fights and giving instruction through his JiuJitsu Global Federation. He also spends a lot of time surfing these days, instead of fighting.

If you read a Rickson seminar review, like this one, you can see that he keeps returning to two common themes – “connection” and “invisible jiujitsu”. The invisible part refers to what you can’t see happening; you can’t see where he is putting his weight and making his connection to his opponent, but you can feel it when he does it. He has detailed ways of making a connection in each position in BJJ.

This sort of teaching from Rickson, to me, is where I find the crossover between Tai Chi and BJJ to be strongest. In Tai Chi Push Hands, for example, we constantly seek to make a connection to the other person, through touch, so its a very familiar concept.

Here’s me doing some push hands:

 

Forget about the thing I’m trying to teach in the video, just look at the Push Hands routine we’re doing. As you can see, Push Hands very concerned with ‘feeling where the other person is’ and ‘yielding to their force without opposing it’ to neautralise the opponent. From this perspecitve, Push Hands starts to sound a lot like what Rickson is talking about in his seminars, but in a different format.

But the similarities don’t end there. When employing standing techniques Rickson also utilises some of the postural work found in Tai Chi and makes makes subtle nods towards the ‘internal’ method of body movement favoured by Tai Chi. He talks about making a connection to the ground through the feet. I’m not suggesting his ‘body mechanics’ ideas fully embrace everything you’d find in Tai Chi, but I can see the foundations of it being built.

For example, in a Rolled Up episode (3/4) from last year Rickson shows Budo Jake how to use some basic body mechanics to create a better root to the floor when meeting an incoming force while standing. He’s talking about transferring the force applied to the arm down to his foot and into the ground, then back up to move the opponent backwards. This is basic Tai Chi 101.

See here, from the beginning:

At.4.26 he starts to talk about ‘invisible jiujitsu’, specifically at 5.55 about ‘putting the weight in the hands’.

I was taught a very similar drill in Tai Chi – a kind of wrestling game, where you had to stand square on to the opponent and try to unbalance them with a push as they did the same to you. The key to doing it is to ‘put your weight into your hands’, so that when you push, it’s coming from the foot, not the shoulder. And when they push you root the push into the ground, instead of letting it push you over.

Here’s a video of me doing it from a few years ago. The camera is on the ground and not straight, so it looks like I’m leaning forward, but I’m not really:

 

I’m not an expert at it, and use too much arm strength, but hopefully you can see the similarity between this and what Rickson is talking about in the Rolled Up video.

Of course, Tai Chi takes this idea of creating a path from the foot to the hand to further levels of detail – first the idea of ‘pulling silk’ where you create a stretch from the fingertips (and toes) to the dantien and maintain that connection while moving, so it remains unbroken. Incidentally, the silk analogy refers to the way silk weavers pulled raw silk thread from a cocoon – you had to pull with an even pressure or the thread would break.

The next stage after ‘pulling silk’ in Tai Chi is to create windings on the muscle-tendon channels in the body, controlled from the dantien – the famous ‘silk reeling’ of Tai Chi. I think you can view this as the point where BJJ and Tai Chi diverge and head off along different paths – Tai Chi becomes highly specialised in this type of movement, while BJJ becomes more interested in the practicalities of actual fighting, and taking the fight to the ground (or just dealing with the fight on the ground) where it enters a whole new arena.

Realistically, and practically, there is no need for the type of highly specialised and, frankly, difficult, method of moving the body that Tai Chi employs for actual fighting, and also it’s questionable whether you can actually do ‘silk reeling’ type movement when on the ground, since it relies on using the power of the ground to push up from via the legs. Does that mean one art is better than the other? Well, they both are what they are, and they’re good for different things. I’ll probably leave it at that.

 

Conclusion

Interestingly, when I started BJJ (almost 5 years ago now) I found that my all years of experience in Tai Chi meant nothing at all on the mat when rolling against an experienced practitioner – even if they were a smaller, weaker person. Fighting on the ground is a completely different animal compared to stand-up. I was submitted as regularly as the next white belt, but I did find that my previous experience in Tai Chi meant I could learn quicker than average (I got my blue belt in a year). It let me see the concepts and principles hidden within the techniques of jiujitsu. And it helped me relax under pressure, which is a huge part of getting better at BJJ. Also, doing the Tai Chi form helped me recover quicker from the physical wear and tear which is characteristic of your first 6 months of BJJ, while your soft, squidgy body is still toughening up.

Unlike Tai Chi, which has, in a sense, become set in stone in terms of its evolution, BJJ is a constantly fluid and evolving art. Thanks to the highly competitive environment of the BJJ competition circuit, new techniques are always being created and being discarded. It’s becoming highly specialised towards what works in the most common competitive rule sets. Where I see the connection to Tai Chi is in the older, ‘original’ BJJ that was more self-defence orientated, as exemplified by Rickson Gracie. Where BJJ is headed next is anybody’s guess. Quite possibly it will evolve in several directions all at once, and it will be interesting to see if the legacy started by Rickson Gracie and his ‘invisible JiuJitsu’ lives on, or even gets expanded upon.

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One thought on “Brothers in arms – Rickson Gracie and Tai Chi

  1. Pingback: My story – to BJJ from Tai Chi | The Tai Chi Notebook

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