January forms challenge!

New Year, new form

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Due to a nasty training injury, I’ve had to lay off the “rough stuff” for a while, which means I’ve got more time to spend on forms practice than usual. The latest little project I’ve been amusing myself with is learning the start of a different Taiji form than the one I know.

I’ve picked Chen style, since this is the oldest style, and pretty different to my Yang style form.

It’s often hard to see the connection between Yang and Chen style since they look so different, but as I’ve discovered, if you start to learn the beginning of one after already knowing the other it’s very easy to see how they have the same root. This has already provided lots of insights into my regular form by looking at how Chen style treats familiar movements.

To be clear, I’m just learning the first few moves of the form. Probably I’ll get up to the Crane Spreads Wings move (or whatever they call it in Chen). After that, I think the law of diminishing returns starts to kick in and the time spent working on a new form and remembering it starts to outweigh the benefits you get from practising it.  I already know a long form, so I don’t think there’s much to be gained by undergoing the arduous process of learning another one.

This little project has made me think about a few side issues, which I’d like to go over below:

  1. Learning from video

There’s this unwritten rule in martial arts that learning anything from a video is bad, or so the conventional wisdom goes. Learning from a real person is preferable, but not always practical. If you’ve got enough experience in an area then I think you can learn a lot from video. Also, let’s not forget, that there are videos on YouTube of recognised experts, like Chen Xiao Wang, doing the form, who are doing it a lot better than any local teacher you’ll find.

For instance, here’s the renowned Taijiquan expert Chen Zheng Li doing the Chen Lao Jia Yi Lu form in a nice relaxed pace that’s easy to follow:

Of course, there will be fine details I’ll miss by copying him, but I’m doing this more as an exercise in personal exploration, rather than in trying to get the Chen form perfect. In fact, I’ve already modified one move I felt would work slightly better in a way I’m more familiar with. (I’m a heretic, I know)

2. Distinguishing ‘energy’ from ‘moves’

Taiji uses the four primary directions of Jin – Peng (upwards), Ji (away from the body), Lu (towards the body) and An (downwards) in various combinations. It’s often hard for people to separate this ‘energy’ direction from the physical movements themselves. So, a “ward off” posture is one thing, but the energy that you usually use with it – Peng – is another. Confusingly, Peng is often translated as “ward off”, so the two become conflated. By doing a new form with different moves, you get to see how the same ‘energy’ is used in a different arm shape.

For instance, in Yang style the ‘ward off’ movements tend to have the palm pointing inwards towards the body, while in Chen style, they are pointed outwards, away from the body.

 

3. Spotting similarities

So, while a Chen form may look very different to a Yang form, once you start thinking in terms of which of the 4 energies you’re using, you start to see the similarities, even if the postures look different.

For example, both forms start with a Peng to the right, a step forward, another Peng forward, a splitting action, then another Peng to the right, then into the Peng, Lu, Ji, Lu, An sequence known in Yang style as “Grasp Birds Tail” in Yang and “Lazily tying coat” then “Six sealing four closing” in Chen style. (Apparently, the Yang naming came from a mistranslation of the original Chen name, but this matters not to me).

(Note: In some performances, of Chen style – like the one above by Chen Zengli, he misses out the “Lu then Ji” move of the sequence. In others, like this one by CXW below, it’s in there. I don’t know why. Personally, I like to put it in, because it connects me to the Yang style I know.)

Doing Peng in a different arm configuration than you’re used to is, frankly, good for your practice, because it helps you break out of the mould a bit, into a freer execution that is not dictated to by the conventions of your particular style.

The New Year Challenge! Do it yourself

I’d like to challenge you to do the same thing in January. If you’re a Chen stylist, then learn the start of the Yang form up to White Crane Spreads Wings. If you’re a Yang stylist, then give the Chen form a go. Alternatively, investigate the opening sequence of Sun, Wu or Wu(Hao) style. Give it a go!

Here’s a video of Yang and Chen forms done side by side that I’ve posted before because it helps show the similarities:

 

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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:

“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?

Hands off! Stevie Nicks goes full Crane Kick

Fleetwood Mac star Stevie Nicks appeared in a women’s self defence book “Hands off!” back in the 1970s! Here she is on the cover:

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From the Openculture article:

“The book itself was written by Bob Jones, an Australian martial arts instructor who doubled as a security guard for Fleetwood Mac, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, David Bowie, Joe Cocker and other stars. And it featured what Jones called “mnemonic movements”–essentially a series of nine subconscious/reflexive self-defense moves (like a swift knee to the groin). See Jones’ website for a more complete explanation of the exercise routine that also provided, he notes, a great cardio workout.”

 

Check out the heels – no can defend!

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Fleetwood Mac’s classic track, The Chain, was featured heavily in Guardians of the Galaxy 2, a reminder that they really don’t make ’em like they used to:

 

How to practice effectively for just about anything

All martial arts tend to be big on repeating movements over and over – BJJ-ers practice hip escapes and triangles, Wing Chun-ers practice Su Lim Tao, Tai Chi-ers practice form movements over and over. We intuitively recognise the benefits that repeating a sequence of movements gives us – we become more fluid and after a while it feel like these moves could be something we could actually pull-off under pressure. Well, it turns out there is a science behind repetition, and this TED video explains what it is:

Life Hack: Brush your teeth in a Horse Stance

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We brush our teeth twice a day, morning and night. It’s a ritual that we don’t really think about, we just do it. But how about this for a little life hack? Stand in a Horse stance while you brush your teeth.

If you brush your teeth for 2 minutes a session, then switching to a Horse Stance will mean that’s 4 minutes of Horse Stance a day you’re now doing. That’s 28 minutes a week, 112 minutes a month and 1,460 minutes (or over a whole day) of standing in Horse stance a year.

So, why do this?

Firstly, why not? It’s dead time that you aren’t doing anything else, so you might as well get a bit of training in.

Secondly, training a Horse stance is really good for your health. It makes your legs stronger. I’ve heard it said that the Chinese believe we die from the ground up. If you look at old men they generally have skinny legs. By working the muscles in your legs in a Horse stance you stop them withering away. It’s a bit like the benefits you get from squats, but more evenly distributed over all of the muscles in the legs, not just the big ones in your thighs. Having well muscles legs helps your heart pump blood around your body – the calf muscle (specifically the Gastrocnemius/Soleus) is often described as a ‘second heart‘ because it helps to return blood from the lower leg.

And for the more superficial amongst us, you’re also working your butt muscles 😉

Thirdly, as your muscles complain and tighten you need to consciously relax them, smile through the pain and after a while it starts to feel enjoyable. You might not be able to do a full 2 minutes to start with, but after a few days, you will. You can feel the gains you make very quickly.

This ability to relax through the tension is essential for any sport or martial activity. You’re programming your responses to change from their habitual reaction of tensing to relaxing.

How to do a Horse stance.

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All you need is an old Chinese master to help you.

There are many varied and contrasting opinions on what a Horse Stance is, but I’m going to show you how to do the one I do, which I feel is the most doable, and has the added bonus of being mechanically sound.

  1. Stand with your feet one and a half times your shoulder width distance apart.
  2. Keep the outside edges of your feet parallel with each other.
  3. Sink down until your thighs are at 45 degrees.
  4. The weight is evenly distributed between right and left feet.

That’s it! If you look down you should see your big toe on the inside of your knee. If you can’t then you might be letting your knees collapse inwards, so just gently push them out a bit.

To stand in this position you keep your lower back relaxed (watch out for tension here) and keep your shoulders aligned vertically over the top of your hips (no leaning forward!) Keep your head aligned as if pulled up by a thread from the crown point (your neck should lengthen at the back and your chin tucks in slightly). The spine is lengthening upwards. Remember, don’t lean forwards. Stay upright so you can work with gravity, not against it.

If you do need to bend forward to pick up your toothbrush, etc, then try and hinge your body from your hips. Keep your spine lengthened and your head in the same alignment with your neck and shoulders. N.B. Don’t curve your spine to reach forward – keep it extended.

There are more extreme versions of the horse stance with the thighs parallel with the ground. Leave that for the young and foolish for now.

Here are some pictures of Tai Chi masters showing the type of Horse Stance I’m talking about:

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Sun Lu Tang

 

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Chen Xiaowang

 

And here’s a picture I found on Pinterest that demonstrates the technicalities:

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and another:

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Taking it further. 

You don’t have to stop at just brushing your teeth in a Horse Stance. I like to also wash my face in the stance as well. I would shave there too, but I can’t see myself in my bathroom mirror when I sink down into a Horse stance, so that’s currently a no go for me. Perhaps I’ll get myself a second shaving mirror…

 

Live hard, train soft

Notable voices in the fitness industry are pointing out the gap that Tai Chi can fill, we just need to make them notice it

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Joel Snape of the always excellent Live Hard blog has written a rather nice piece for The Telegraph about a new exercise class called Flatline, and the problem with health trends like this that promote the idea that you have to almost kill yourself to exercise.

He surmises the problem simply and elegantly as:

“every time you post a ‘Go hard or go home’ meme on your Twitter feed, someone chooses ‘home’. There are biscuits there.”

The problem is making exercise seem difficult just puts people off. And that’s dangerous since most of us could use a bit more exercise for the sake of our health, and as a society the amount we have to spend on corrective measures in hospital once it’s already too late is slowly strangling our NHS.

As Joel says:

“…if all you want to do is trim down, reduce your risk of Parkinson’s or be able to play five-a-side with your kids without wheezing, please believe me when I tell you that it doesn’t need to be hard at all.

Move around a bit more, eat a bit better, drink more water and sleep a lot. …”

And, I would add, try Tai Chi.

You see, Tai Chi is “moving around a bit more”, it isn’t difficult and almost anybody can do it. It isn’t just for old people, or Chinese people, or hippies.  And you don’t need any equipment or gym membership to do it. Just need a bit of time with no distractions and some space. Essentially, it’s the missing piece of the puzzle for the fitness industry.

In my utopian vision of the future, everyone will be doing 10 minutes of Tai Chi in the morning, so we all leave the house refreshed and feeling in perfect harmon, ready to spread peace and love with everybody we meet… Ok, this possibly sounds like a dystopian nightmare, but at least think the gap in the fitness industry has been identified – it just needs Tai Chi to have an image makeover so it can fill it.

Maybe I’ll call it Flatline Tai Chi….

 

 

Quadruped movement flow

Loosen up your spine and hips with this movement flow that takes less than 10 minutes

Been feeling a bit still in my hips lately, so I’m giving this simple movement flow a go for 10 minutes each morning. Try it yourself and let’s see what difference it makes.

 

Muskelkater: Taiji cures the muscle hangover

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

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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.

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From Russia, with love: Systema

A quick shout out to my friend Rob Poyton of Cutting Edge Systema, who has started a new blog, which hopefully he’ll update regularly.

Starting with a background in various martial arts Rob moved into Tai Chi, then later discovered Systema, the Russian system, and quickly converted. I’ve always been impressed with the practical and down to earth way he approaches training. He’s also very generous with his information and produces lots of videos showing the sort of work he gets up to. Whatever they do, it always looks like they’re having fun, which is a lot more important that you’d imagine in martial arts!

Anyway, his most recent post is about reality in training and contains this great quote:

“Ultimately though, if you want your training to be “real” I suggest you work on a behavioural level.  Rather than learning some techniques, or even working on the principles behind the techniques, you train in such a way to make your work something you are rather than something you do. Under any kind of stress, your breathing works as it needs to – rather than you going into a breathing pattern. Your body responds to hostile contact as it would a hot object.  No thought required. No plan or technique, just appropriate action.  Freedom of thought and freedom of movement go hand in hand. Not clouded by assumptions, fear or agression, just doing what needs to be done.    Training in this (Systema) way develops faith in the body, leaving your mind free for other things. Not blind faith, but faith developed over a wide and deep range of training which challenges us on all levels.

It’s difficult to overstate the benefits this has on our overall life. Whether applied tactically, combatively, sporting, or just everyday living, your training becomes reality and reality becomes your training. The world is your gym. No constructs, no wishful thinking, no fooling ourselves, but a powerful way of dealing with life as it unfolds before us.”