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:
A Tai Chi Chuan performer dong a form, as viewed by an observer, is not in a binary right/wrong state. If it were then everyone would be ‘wrong’ because Tai Chi is that point of perfection that everybody is striving towards. I’m not talking about superficial things that form competitions are judged on, like the wrong height for an arm, or the wrong length of stance. I’m talking about maintaining a perfect state of equilibrium (yin/yang balance) throughout the movement. Constantly going from open to close in perfect harmony. Even the best experts are making little errors constantly as they perform a Tai Chi Chuan form, they’re just so much better than the average person that we can’t see or appreciate them.
But equally, all roads to not lead to Rome. Not everyone doing Tai Chi is on the right track. There are so many side roads you can wander off on, especially with so many other tempting martial arts available on the high street that are a bit like it, but not the thing itself.
There’s one particular side road I want to discuss here that is so close to Tai Chi, but also, so far from it, that you’ll never get there if you go too far down it.
“a hair’s breath and heaven and earth are set apart.”
One thing you’ll find a lot of people, particularly instructors who are into the martial side of Tai Chi, doing is putting their weight into things, rather than moving from the dantien.
So what do I mean? Well, think of it like this: if somebody is doing a Tai Chi form and each time they lift and arm they keep their body relaxed and let their body weight fall into the arm they can generate a significant amount of power, while appearing to remain relaxed – all the things Tai Chi is supposed to be.
It’s impressive, and will convince a lot of people of your awesome martial prowess, but it’s not really how Tai Chi is supposed to work. If you’re committing your weight into a technique then you get a lot of power, but you also get a lot of commitment. As an analogy, it’s rather like swinging a lead pipe to hit somebody. If you make contact then fine, you’ll do a lot of damage, but if you swing and miss then you can’t change and adapt quickly enough to deal with the opponent’s counter.
In contrast Tai Chi is supposed to work like a sharp knife – you can generate power without committing your weight into the technique, so you can change and adapt, just as if you were switching cuts with a blade. The knife is so sharp it doesn’t need a lot of weight behind it.
To get this curious mix of non-committed movement and power you need to move from the dantien. This requires a co-ordinated, relaxed body, that’s driven from the central point. This type of movement really does involve re-learning how to move and is developed in things like silk reeling exercises and form practice.
Learning to put your body weight into techniques is comparatively much easier to grasp, and may even be a useful first step, but it should never become the goal of your practice. It’s only when you come up against somebody well trained in dantien usage that you realise the inferiority of other methods.
So, a while back I mentioned that I’d been contacted by a major martial arts website about writing some articles for its launch. Well, today that website launched!
Please check out Jetli.com
Yes, that’s the famous martial artists and film star Jet Li!
At Jetli.com we strive to bring you content that is exciting and inspiring. We are drawn to stories that highlight people all over the world that chase their dreams no matter what. From the boxing gyms of London to the favelas of Brazil, we have found heroes who live with the values of martial arts at the center of their lifestyle. You’ll see dedication, courage, humility, and generosity. Amazing stories await you at Jetli.com!
I’ve written quite a few articles for Jet already – it looks like two have been published, so here they are:
Look out for more from me coming soon here:
Happy New Year!
Just browsing through the Internet on a lazy New Year day’s morning I noticed once again how my feeds tend to bring together the old and the new in one continuous stream of “Internet”, showing me videos and writing that are almost 100 years apart, yet seem to be talking the same language.
For example, we’ve just had UFC 207 in which (warning, SPOILERS) Ronda Rousey made her come back for a not-so-glorious 48 seconds, and was hit with 27 punches from Amanda Nunes (that connected) without landing a single blow back and was saved by the referee from further damage. She looked totally outclassed in the striking department. This was further highlighted by the previous championship bout between Cody Garbrant and Dominic Cruz, which was like an exhibition match, showing incredible timing, footwork and striking ability over 5 truly glorious rounds. The belt went to Cody via decision in the end, but Cruz fought like a warrior and his footwork was as outstanding as ever even if it occasionally left him open.
The two matches couldn’t have been more different; one a display of how bad footwork and poor defence meeting strong striking results in total domination, the other a display of perfect timing and offence mixed with defensive footwork on both sides resulting in a game of inches.
I don’t know how long these links will last but here are the full fights:
And here’s the ‘old’ I talked about at the start: this morning I received a notification that there’s a new Brennan translation out. Here it is:
Brennan translations are free translations of old Tai Chi manuals. This is one from a Yang Cheng-Fu student published in the 1940s. I’ve skim read a few parts now of this new one, and I really like it, and the translation is done in a way that you can read it without being perplexed at obscure phrases.
For example, here’s a good quote:
“Every movement in Taiji Boxing is always half empty and half full, and is like a round sphere. This is not only the case for large movements, but also for the smallest movement of any part of the body. From beginning to end, movement is continuous, like the ceaseless movement of the universe through the sky. Taiji Boxing uses the abdomen as the axis of the whole body, so that whatever way your are moving – forward and back, side to side, up and down, or reversing direction – the limbs and trunk are all being moved from the abdomen, going along with its movement like the stars following the setting sun. Therefore Taiji Boxing is an exercise that conforms very much to naturalness.”
Ok, stars don’t strictly “follow” the setting sun, but I think it gives a nice poetic metaphor.
In particular, I like chapter 7, in the manual “SEVEN: METHODS OF PRACTICING EMPTINESS & FULLNESS” Personally, I think getting an understanding of empty and full, as a strategy, is key to applying all martial arts in a live situation.
In chapter 7, it says:
“Empty to defend, then fill to attack. This is the key to the art.
If you spot the moment to become full and yet do not issue, the art will be difficult to master.
There is emptiness and fullness within emptiness and fullness.
When your “fullness” is really full and your “emptiness” is really empty, you will attack without missing.”
And right away I’m reminded of the fights this weekend at UFC 207. Dominic Cruz is a master of this principle. He creates a fullness, enticing the opponent to strike him, then as the strikes come, takes that fullness away and gives them only emptiness to hit – usually thin air, but at the same time (and this is the key to making it really successful) hitting them with a ‘full’ strike from somewhere else. To be fair, Cody Garbrant displayed some equally good demonstrations of this concept, but he did it more by bobbing and weaving on the spot, while Cruz displayed his rare talent for doing it while moving in and out, which makes it even more exciting to watch.
In contrast, Ronda had none of this. Her footwork was plodding, her body movement stiff and she continually met the fullness of Amanda Nunes’ punches with the fullness of her own face, with predictable results.
As Wu’s book goes on to say:
“Practitioners of martial arts have to study the principle of emptiness and fullness. It is not only a feature of Taiji Boxing, all other martial arts have it too.”
Indeed – it’s not really a Tai Chi-specific concept I’m talking about there, but it is part of Tai Chi Chun as a martial art. Indeed, the concept of emptiness and fullness forms the title and theme of chapter 6 in the classic military text, Art of War, by Sun Tzu.
Wu goes on to explain the two key phrases:
“Empty to defend, then fill to attack. This is the key to the art.
If you spot the moment to become full and yet do not issue, the art will be difficult to master.”
“These two phrases form the theory of how to apply emptiness and fullness. When it is time for emptiness, defend, and when it is time for fullness, attack. “Empty to defend. Fill to attack.” This is an unchanging rule of attack and defense in martial arts, the highest skill. If the opponent attacks with fierce power (i.e. fullness), I do not resist him directly, instead I avoid his main force to let it dissipate. Once he has missed and switches his fullness to emptiness, I immediately enter while he is empty. To “spot the moment to become full” means that when he empties, I fill. But if I do not attack at that moment, the result will be that I have let opportunity pass me by. To “not issue” in such a moment indicates that you are unable to determine emptiness and fullness, and the techniques will naturally be difficult for you to master.”
It seems to me that a lot of what has been preserved in the Tai Chi classics is a distillation of many popular martial arts sayings, and not phrases created specifically for Tai Chi Chuan. In this case they come from Sun Tzu in the 5th century BC. And, as the fights from UFC207 at the end of 2016 prove, they’re as relevant today as they were thousands of years ago.
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.
Let’s look at how moving in a circular way can produce effortless power.
If you rotate a circle then different parts on the circumference will move in different directions relative to each other. This is crucial to the art of Tai Chi Chuan. Let me explain.
This video of rollback from Yang style is very nicely done. Although I don’t speak Chinese, so I have no idea what he’s saying, the application is nicely shown and very clear.
Let’s take a circle.
Notice that the two points in black on the outside that are directly opposite each other.
If you rotate the circle clockwise, or anti clockwise, then the two points will rotate relative to each other. And from the perspective of the centre of the circle, they will be moving in opposite directions.
Now, if you imagine the circle is the view of a Tai Chi practitioner in the video of rollback, but viewed from above, you can see that if they rotate around their centre then the parts of the body on the opposite sides of their circle will be moving in opposite directions.
Now, unless they are spinning constantly, they won’t keep this up for long in the same direction, but it will be happening continually throughout a Tai Chi form, just in different directions and with different parts of the body.
So, while his left hand is rotating backwards to the left, clockwise direction, his right shoulder is moving equally forward to the right, still clockwise. They are the points on opposite sides of the circle. Obviously he then hits the limit of his rotational possibilities (without stepping) and stops.
Obviously Tai Chi is more of a sphere than a flat 2D circle, but hopefully the point stands and shows how circular movement around the centre point can produce power from the whole body.
The writings in the Taiji Classics really only make sense if you understand what they’re saying already. As we’ll see…
Everybody who practices Taiji and has read the Taiji Classics is familiar with the idea of using the legs as primary generators of force, rather than the shoulders and arms.
As it says in the classics:
“The chin [intrinsic strength] should be
rooted in the feet,
generated from the legs,
controlled by the waist, and
manifested through the fingers.”
Reading that, you’d think that it’s talking about simply pushing off the ground with the legs to generate force. But that’s not the whole story. It couldn’t be – I mean, a good boxer punches from his legs in a similar manner, getting the force of the whole body into the shot. Taijiquan is supposed to be ‘internal’ and involve a different way of moving than regular athletic human movements. Isn’t it?
This mention of ‘controlled by the waist’ here is the key. It’s referring to the fundamental idea in Taijiquan that the dantien area of the body (basically, the waist, but inside, not just on the surface) is controlling the actions of the arms and hands, so they don’t move independently of the movements of the body. This should be true of any Taiji movement, regardless of the particular style of Taijiquan being practiced.
This is such an important concept to Taijiquan that in a lot of interviews (like this one) Chen Xiao Wang, the head of the Chen style branch of Taijiquan, calls it his “1 principle”:
CXW: “There is just one principle and three kinds of motion. The one principle is that the whole body moves together following the Dantien. In every movement the whole-body moves together but the Dantien leads the movement and the whole body must be supported in all directions. This is very important. One principle, three kinds of motion: the three kinds of motion are as follows…First, horizontal motion, the Dantien rotates horizontally. The second kind of motion is vertical motion, the Dantien rotates vertically. The third kind of motion is a combination of the first two. Any movement that is doesn’t follow the principle is a deviation. So when we are training every day we are trying to find and reduce our deviations from the Taiji principle.”
You could also sum up this concept using the phrase, “Hands follow body”. (Later on you get ‘body follows hands’ – but let’s not worry about that right now).
It’s important to note that this mode of movement is contrary to the way we normally move in everyday life. It’s very common for people to be able to understand it intellectually, but not be able to physically embody it. It’s also very difficult to do it consistently. In Taijiquan you need to do it all the time, and without cheating! Take your mind of it for a second and you’ll find you revert to using your ‘normal’ movement again; you’ll use your shoulder and upper body to move your arms. Throw in working with a partner who is providing resistance and it becomes even harder to always move from the dantien.
Incidentally, I think one of the reasons for the incredible amount of solo form work found in Taijiquan is that you need to practice this stuff for months and years for it to become ingrained in your body, so that it becomes the default way you move, even under pressure. Hence the need for regular form practice.
So, the dantien moves, and it moves the hands. So far, so good. The next question is ‘how?’ How, exactly, can moving your legs, hips and dantien control the actions of the arms and hands?
The answer lies in the muscle tendon channels that connect the body internally. They (generally) stretch vertically from the hands (fingers) to the feet (toes) either on the front of the body (yin channels) or on the back of the body (yang channels). It’s important to note that the channels themselves don’t really cross over the body from side to side – they generally run vertically. Credit needs to go to Mike Sigman here, for introducing me to this concept of muscle-tendon channels.
The theory is that muscle-tendon channels were the precursor to the acupuncture channels that we’re all familiar with these days, and are a roadmap of the strength flows and forces of the body. If you really want to get into it, there’s a fuller explanation of the theory on Mike’s website, but the TLDNR (too long, did not read) version is basically that if you create a stretch on the muscle tendon channels from end to end, so they are somewhat taught, then you can start to manipulate them via their central nexus – the dantien – so that a movement of the dantien can power a movement of the hand (or foot). Yes, it’s more complicated than that (there is more than one dantien, for example), but that’s the basic idea.
If you remember back at the start of this blog post, I quoted some lines from the classic that says the progression in generating movement in Taijiquan starts from the bottom and goes upwards, yet at the same time we’re being told that all movement starts in the dantien, which is definitely not in the feet. So, we have a contradiction. Or do we?
Here’s the thing: If you use your legs to push upwards off the ground to generate force you get a kind of “muscle jin”, since you’re not using the power of the dantien, as described by Chen Xiao Wang. To really get to the meat of what it means to use Jin (refined force) in Taijiquan you need to learn how to send force downwards from the dantien to the ground, and bounce it back up simultaneously. So, the originator of the upwards force is still the dantien, and the general direction of force is still upwards from the feet.
For example, when you’re loaded onto the rear leg, and ready to push forward you’d actually start by sending force from your dantien area downwards, “sink the qi”, and the bounce back force that comes up from the ground is what you use to push the opponent away. It should be noted that sending forces down to the ground from the dantien and bouncing it back into the opponent is simultaneous – there’s no time delay.
The next time you go swimming dive down to the bottom of the deep end and stand on the bottom then push off the floor and send yourself upwards to the surface. What you’ll notice is that you naturally want to drop your weight down before you push up. This is a crude kind of approximation of what’s going on in a Taiji push.
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:
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.
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.”
How to put the juice into Rollback and Press
Tai Chi contains advancing and retreating movements, combined with circling left and circling right. Of course, in Tai Chi all movements need to be powered by the dantien. That’s easy to say, but on a practical level, how does this work?
One way I like to think about this is that as you retreat you can think about the arm movements being pulled by the dantien and as you advance they are pushed by the dantien. You can think of ‘rollback’ and ‘press’ from the Yang Tai Chi form as being a good example of this. As you shift the weight backwards in rollback you can imagine ropes attached from your dantien to your hands that are gently pulling them as the dantien moves. Rollback is usually performed with a turn of the waist to the side as you do it, so rather than being pulled completely in towards you, the pulling makes the hands go past you and ready to circle into the next movement… which is ‘press’. At this point you can imagine the ropes snap hard and become ‘rods’, which push the hands away, so the ‘press’ is powered by a pushing from the dantien into the hands. It looks like this:
In all of this your shoulder joint is moving, and power is going through it, but the key thing is that it is not the source of the power. The power source is the triangle formed by the two feet, legs, kua and dantien. The power goes through the shoulder to get to the hands, and if you tense the shoulders then you stop the flow.
Of course, these ropes and rods I’m talking about don’t actually exist, but they do give you the idea of a kind of pressure that is either pulling or pushing your arms and hands, which I think is useful. Once you use reverse breathing to pressurise your body you can start to feel this push and pull in the arms and hands. This isn’t imaginary, it’s a genuine feeling.
If you stand in a relaxed stance you can feel the pressurisation that reverse breathing gives you. Pick the classic ‘hold the ball’ Zhuan Zhang position, then stand for a few minutes while doing reverse breathing*.
You need to feel a connection all the way to the fingers and toes that’s connected to the breathing. It should feel like a slight pressure. Then try to get the feeling of pulling that connection in towards the dantien on an in breath and pushing out towards the fingers on an out breath.
The usual disclaimers apply to any type of work with pressure in the body – don’t do anything crazy with the pressure – you don’t want to tear anything in the body, and don’t direct it into your head. That way lies madness, or at least a pretty decent headache 🙂
(* All breathing in Tai Chi is done lower in the body than normal, so that the diaphragm extends downwards when you breath in, as opposed to the chest expanding. In ‘normal’ Tai Chi breathing the abdomen expands as you breathe in, in reverse breathing you change this around so that you contract your abdomen as you breathe in – this creates a kind of pressure in the body, that you can then use to power movement.)
Once you have a handle on the feeling of being pushed and pulled you might like to experiment with a basic arm wave silk reeling exercise – as the arm moves away from you it’s the ‘push’ from the dantien, and as the arm circles back towards you, you are looking for a basic ‘pull’ from the dantien. You need to maintain the pressurised connection at all times.
Here’s Chen Xiao Wang showing some silk reeling exercises – he starts with the basic single arm wave. Unlike me, he’s an actual expert, so pay close attention.
Of course, there’s more going on than this in Tai Chi, but as a basic fundamental it’s a good place to get started. Going back to the example of rollback and press – it’s a good section of the form to work with as both hands move in the same direction. Other Tai Chi movements, like Repulse Monkey for example, are more complex, with one hand going towards you, – a ‘pull’ – and the other going away from you – a ‘push’. Of course, it’s easy to mimic the movement on a surface level, but you need to be doing it from the inside. For now I’ll leave it up to you to think about how Repulse Monkey might work when it’s powered from the dantien.