Week 4 – breathing. Half way through my 8-week Tai Chi course.

Here’s part 4 of the course. This week we focus on breathing. I cover the topics of normal and reverse breathing, then show a couple of different exercises that will get you on the right track for applying the breathing methods to the movement we are working on. Finally, we integrate the breathing into the movement, preserving all the progress we have made so far. Once you get the hang of it those breathing exercises I show are not required anymore, as you should be integrating it into your main exercise.

This week is more subtle than work showed previously. An inner focus will be required. Good luck! I’m happy to answer any questions you have.

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Natural movement in Chinese martial arts

I just wanted to say a few words about natural movement, and what we mean by it in Chinese martial arts, before I post part 4 of my 8-week course on Tai Chi movement on Sunday.

If you’ve been following the videos you’ll notice that I did a kind of ‘universal’ open and close exercise in part 1, which cycles between two phases

Open:

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and close:

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From: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fV3DaNZz3hI

If you’ve been following up to week 3 you’ll know by now that it’s not a case of just mimicking these postures – you need to be going into and out of them using the elastic connection you’ve been developing by doing the arm circle exercise.

You can see these open and close postures in nature all the time, in movement – when a squid or octopus swims it kind of pulses between open and close.

Octopus:

Open:

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Close:

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From: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oxawhfXGGt8

The classic example in the animal world is the Cheetah, since it’s the most majestic animal when it comes to running. It cycles between open and close quite obviously too, which helps.

Cheetah:

Open:

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Close:

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From: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V8vejjVgIHg

In the Chinese martial arts, all the ‘internal’ martial arts like Bagua, XingYi and Tai Chi should be using open and close. The martial art that best exemplifies it though is XingYi, as all the 5 element fists go through a very obvious open and close cycle.

For example, in Pi Quan:

Closing:

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Opening:

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Closing:

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from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9HNML_k9a-s

When we say “natural movement” is used in internal arts, this is what is being talked about.

Of course, you can use the open and close sequence in everyday life too. Just yesterday I was kicking a ball about with my kids in the park and I started to play around with open and close as I kicked the ball, rather than just doing it with my leg in isolation. When you use open and close your whole torso and back get involved – I was quite surprised by how much extra power and direction I could give the ball when I started to use open and close to kick it. Like everything, it starts off big and clumsy and first, but you soon learn to remove the excess movement and refine it.

Look out for part 4 on Sunday when we’ll be taking a look at how breathing factors into the whole thing.

An irrational fear of dance

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One thing I notice is that the majority of “martial artists” seem to have an irrational fear of the dance or entertainment roots of their arts. While we all like to believe that Kung fu originated in the Shaolin temple under the austere eye and strict tutelage of a high-ranking Zen monk, I think we all know that most of these stories are bunk now.

In fact, it seems that most Kung Fu masters were earning a living as street performers. It’s not as glamourous, is it? If you search back in the lineage of Wing Chun, for example, you soon end up at an Opera company – these were traveling entertainers. In Europe we’d call them a circus. A lot of other Kung Fu styles can trace their origins back to particular rituals and festivals where a martial group put on a demonstration. You still see these sorts of things today with Lion dances at festivals. They are always run by a Kung Fu school.

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And even today, what do most martial arts groups do to attract new students? They put on a stunning demonstration, usually involving breaking something, again another form of entertainment. The martial arts lend themselves to ‘putting on a show’ so very, very easily.

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And don’t forget, these days the most popular martial arts is MMA, which is, after all, a sport done for entertaining large crowds in an arena, in a way that’s very similar to the Roman Gladiator experience.

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How different is this really to the Roman amphitheater?

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But let’s turn it around and look at Europe’s past, not its present. I’m thinking about that killer martial art known as Ballet 🙂

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Our aristocracy’s preferred movement art form came out of its martial art of choice – fencing. The aristocracy was obsessed with fencing, especially to settle disputes. (Is it any wonder our leaders lead us into World War I when this was their preferred method of conflict resolution for centuries?)

But anyway, Ballet, with it’s turned out legs, has clear origins in fencing. As this video shows you:

 

The connection between movement arts like dance and martial arts is deep, and shouldn’t be dismissed because dance is seen as a more feminine expression these days. In 14th century France, Ballet was a very manly occupation.

Remember, Bruce Lee was a dance champion in Hong Kong 🙂 And don’t forget David Branch, a middleweight and light heavyweight champion of the world, swore by ballet classes.

“The first day I went, it was harder than any workout I’ve ever done,” Branch told wsof.com. “I feel it in my balance. I feel it in my overall physical strength. I feel it everywhere. Just in my posture and I feel like when I get into scrambles in a fight or anything fighting wise that involves entanglement and striking, I feel so strong. It’s natural strength, you know?”

Just ask Kate Winslet – she knows:

 

Using movement for self defence, not blocks

I really liked the above clip by Rob Poynton of Cutting Edge Systema. It’s about the idea of using movement, rather than a fixed, rooted stance or hand blocks, to defend yourself.

To break down the message:

  • Your first reaction should be to move.
  • Use the legs for defence (stepping) and not the arms to block.
  • With your arms free you can use them for other things – like takedowns or strikes.

It’s simple, common sense advice when it comes to martial arts. The XingYi I learned was based around exactly the same concepts, incidentally. If you look at a lot of MMA fighters you see the same set of principles in action. If you think about it, you generally don’t see them doing a lot of blocking with their hands. Instead, they are moving and slipping punches. Obviously, there are exceptions – for example, the last MMA fight I watched was Yoel Romero vs Luke Rockhold, at UFC 221 in which Romero did a series of bizarre-looking arm blocks throughout the fight, yet came out on top.

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To be fair though, it wasn’t getting him anywhere – he was getting him picked apart by Rockhold until Romero finally broke through and delivered a knockout blow, possibly by virtue of being one of the toughest human beings alive at the moment.

I think Rob’s right in saying that the traditional arts are slow to teach this concept of movement, though. Generally, you hear things said like “if you don’t spar you’ll never be able to use it”, which is true, of course, but how about actually breaking down and analysing what you learn in sparring, and bringing it back into training to refine it? I think that’s what Rob is showing here.

The point about a fear-based response vs a confidence-based response is also very interesting.

Of course, the counter-argument is ‘where are all the great Systema fighters, then?’ But it’s pretty clear that Systema isn’t really designed primarily for being used in a cage. It seems like a pretty useful life skill though, full of concepts you can more easily transfer to your day to day existence.

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?

Kung Fu: Old style Mantis

There’s a new YouTube channel called Jiang Hu that’s just launched containing ‘old’ types of Kung Fu performed by a couple of Western Kung Fu practitioners based in China. The first video clip posted caught my eye. It’s an old Praying Mantis Kung Fu form called Luan Jie performed by ‘Will’ who also runs the Monkey Steals Peach blog.

The description reads: “Luan Jie 乱接 is the oldest form recorded in Praying Mantis Kung Fu. It is made up of 36 Mother Techniques, the core of the system. Here, Will performs the Luan Jie form from the Taiji Mantis lineage of Zhou Zhen Dong.”

I’ve heard of this “Taiji Mantis” name before, but I’m unsure wether that’s Mantis influenced by Taijiquan, or whether just a coincidental naming convention. Either way, it’s a really nice performance, and I like the hooking techniques done with both the arms and legs.

 

There’s also this informative video about the use of the characteristic Mantis hooking hand (Gou Shou) in application:

Bruce Lee Long Beach Karate Tournament 1967

New footage of Bruce Lee sparring his students Ted Wong and Taky Kimura at the Long Beach Karate Championship in 1967 has recently emerged, and it’s a joy to watch.

The clip was billed on Facebook and even in the national press like the Daily Mail and Mirror as footage of Bruce Lee’s only “real fight caught on camera”, but that’s just nonsense, obviously, as it’s just a sparring session. True, it’s not a choreographed demonstration, but it’s also a long way from being a “fight”. The sparring partner is also frequently, incorrectly, named as Bruce’s other famous student, Dan Inosanto.

I actually trained Jeet Kune Do for a good couple of years, so I can see what Bruce is doing in the clip as it’s pretty much what we trained every class: a strong lead forward fighting stance with the back heel up, the front fist pointing at the opponent, the use of hand trapping, the footwork, the lead leg attacks, but most of all the idea of intercepting the opponent’s attack using superior timing. This is the “Jeet” part of Jeet Kune Do, which translates as the “Way of the intercepting fist”. (Interestingly, I found later on that the Chinese martial art of Xingyiquan is also very big on this idea).

Bruce really was ahead of the game here. His quality of his movement has the same sort of fluidity that you see in modern high level fighters like Connor McGregor, and his timing is excellent. As Connor McGregor says often “Precision beats power, timing beats speed”.

What’s also interesting is the gear they are wearing. When I was training Jeet Kune Do we wore almost identical gear for sparring. I still have it all somewhere in my loft! The lineage of Jeet Kune Do I trained in came down from Tommy Caruthers, who was based in Glasgow, UK, and was influenced by all of Bruce’s students (including Jesse Glover), but at the time I was training it, Ted Wong was a probably the biggest influence.

If you want to get a better idea of what’s going on in the clip then there are videos out there that break down the technique he shows, like this one:

And this one:

Being able to see such good quality clips of Bruce Lee sparring from 1967 is a treat. He was one of the great innovators in martial arts and rightly deserves his place amongst the greats of the art. What would he be doing now if he hadn’t died such an untimely death? We can only wonder.

 

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:

Doing Tai Chi right -the road less travelled

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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.