A great talk by Daniel Mroz on Tao Lu (“forms”) in Chinese Martial Arts.

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I was in the audience for this talk by Daniel Mroz at last year’s Martial Arts Studies Conference in Cardiff – (and I think I asked a question at the end). Daniel is a great orator, so if you’re looking for a good example of how to deliver an engaging and entertaining talk, then look no further. Plus, he quotes the legendary Steve Morris, so he gets some extra cool points. 🙂

I’d bumped into Daniel earlier in the conference and he instantly felt like a kindred sprit – just before his talk we were busy demonstrating Choy Li Fut moves on each other!

The full video of Daniel’s talk is available to watch for free.

Here’s a blog post about it by Plum Blossom about it with some comments from Daniel.

If you liked this post you might also like:

Angry Baby Gods and Lightsaber duels: A visit to the Martial Arts Studies Conference 2016

Adam Frank keynote 2016

Ben Judkins on Yip Man, Globalisation and the growth of Wing Chun Kung Fu

My story – to BJJ from Tai Chi

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Rick Matz of Cook Ding’s Kitchen blog asked me to write a little thing about my story and how my Tai Chi and BJJ fit together, so I did! Unfortunately, it turned out to be quite a big thing. In fact, it’s a bit of an essay.

You can read the whole article here.

Have I summed up all the ways that Tai Chi and BJJ fit together? Not at all. There’s still much more to tell, but I hoped I’ve shined a light on to a part of it for you.

Here’s a quote:

“Learning Tai Chi is a constant process of having your mistakes pointed out to you, trying to correct them, then moving on to the next thing. The key to getting good at BJJ is similar – you don’t want to focus on winning, since you end up muscling things instead of being technical and correct. But just like in Tai Chi, it’s learning from your mistakes that matters.”

You might also like my previous article on Tai Chi, BJJ and Rickson Gracie.

Review: Possible Origins, Scott Park Phillips – Part 1

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I’ve been meaning to review Scott Phillips’ book on the origins of Chinese Martial Arts for some time now, but there always seemed to be something else for me  to read, or to do… Ok, I admit it, I’m just a terribly slow reader. However, the recent uproar over the fight between Tai Chi “Master” Wei Lei and MMA coach Xu Xiaodong that has dominated the Chinese Martial Arts scene has made me pick up Possible Origins, A Cultural History of Chinese Martial Arts, Theatre and Religion, and give it the attention it deserves.

A bit of background to the current situation: Xu (who had to go into hiding after the fight once the government got involved) had started to make a name for himself as the debunker of Kung Fu masters who he claimed lacked the skills required for actually fighting while charging students large sums of money to learn these (nonexistent) skills. He wasn’t particularly respectful in his debunking either – in fact, his profanity filled rants were uncomfortable to watch and hard to follow, but his point was simple.

Wei, the subject of a documentary on Chinese television about his Tai Chi powers,  took umbrage to the implied insult and challenged Xu in an effort to defend the honour of traditional martial arts. It sounds like the plot of every kung fu movie, but it actually happened. Anybody who has seen the fight (which lasts about 10 seconds ending with Wei’s face being ruthlessly pummeled on the ground by Xu) will have realised that Wei was utterly delusional about his fighting abilities. Even after his beating, in his post fight interview, Wei still seemed to be delusional about his fighting ability, proclaiming that he was only hit after he “tripped’ and fell”. In reality he was knocked to the ground by a punch which revealed him to be a bumbling amateur in the realms of pugilism.

You can easily make the argument that Wei was never a proper Tai Chi Master anyway, so his poor performance is irrelevant, but a lot of people obviously did think he was a legit martial artists. What’s interesting to me is how we got here.  How did we end up with a generation of Kung Fu (especially Tai Chi) masters who think they can fight, but can’t? If you went to a boxing coach in Glasgow to learn how to box, he’d teach you how to box, and regardless of how good or bad you were, you’ll at least end up with some fighting skills. But if you go to a Tai Chi master in Taiwan, asking to learn to fight, he’ll teach you a lot of fancy arm-waving stuff, mystical qigong and forms, but after several years you might actually be no different from an untrained person in your fighting ability. In fact, you’ll probably be worse.

Nothing ushers in a period of self reflection like a catastrophic failure, so it’s at this point that we should turn to Possible Origins to see how we got here.

Scott’s book at least proposes some answers to this curious situation that Chinese Martial Arts finds itself in – which is to embrace it. His basic premise is that once upon a time in China, martial arts, theatre and religion were all one thing. Over time, and due to various political and cultural shifts they became separated out, but never truly lost their connection to each other, even if the arts lived on as a pale reflection. The book examines how that process happened, why it happened and what we can do about it. In a way it’s a call to arms for the reader to embrace parts of their practice that have hitherto remained untapped and to restore these connections.

I know plenty of people amongst the martial arts that I know who just laugh at Scott’s theories. (“Oh, no, not that guy…”)*. They tend to be practical people who are more interested in how something works than why it is the way it is in the first place. That’s fine, and there’s no reason to go ‘backwards’ in martial arts. I think it’s equally valid to not worry about any of this, and just focus on what you can do with what we’ve had handed down to us. But the book does open a door to a fascinating world of demons, spirits and ancestors that we’ve left behind. You’d also be surprised by how much evidence there is for his interpretations. He can’t be conclusive about anything (hence the title) but I’ll be damned if he doesn’t present a wealth of information to support his case.

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Martial arts originated so long ago that almost everything about that time is lost to us, and survives only in fragments. I think the strongest ‘evidence’ Scott has for his theories is the Boxer Rebellion of 1899, which happened relatively recently, and was a kind of a last gasp of the old world where martial arts, religion, theatre and ritual were all tied up together. There are documented cases in the Boxer Rebellion of martial arts practitioners combining martial arts techniques with spirit possession and mediumship to help overthrow foreign powers. Unfortunately it turns out that invoking the spirits of demons to give you fighting ability doesn’t, in fact, stop bullets and the Boxers were wiped out, and many of the ‘old ways’ and knowledge with them. Further cultural, political, and repressive regimes buried them deeper and deeper until today we’ve lost all concept of why we do what we do in Chinese Martial Arts.

Besides all this, Possible Origins is a damn good read, and an entertaining, book in its own right. It’s not an academic tomb, it’s an easy to devour. I’m halfway through and loving it. Even if you don’t agree with Scott’s theories, you’ll learn a lot about things you never even knew existed from Possible Origins.

Everybody who practices a Chinese Martial Art should read it.  I’ll post a ‘part 2’ follow up when I’m finished.
Links: Scott’s blog. Scott’s video

* In case you were wondering, Scott’s martial arts lineage is actually legit, and explained in the book.

Review: Notorious – The life and fights of Conor McGregor (Jack Slack)

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I’ve been a fan of Jack Slack’s fight breakdowns on Vice.com for years now. He’s got a keen insight into the fight game and a knack of knowing exactly why, on a technical level, one fighter just beat another. I’d go as far to say that he’s totally changed my appreciation of the depth of the technicalities of Mixed Martial Arts, and even inspired me to write a few breakdowns of my own.

So, I was really looking forward to this, his first proper foray into the book world, in which Jack (that’s his nom de plume) applies his writing sharps to tackle the MMA phenomena that is Conor McGregor. But here’s the thing – in short articles, his keen observational style shines, especially when backed up with video or GIFs of the situations he’s describing. In book format he’s limited to a few scrappy cartoon style drawings to illustrate his points. The result is a bit like listening to a boxing match on the radio – you just end up thinking this would be so much better if I could see what was going on.

The book is essentially Jack describing every single Conor fight in detail – right from his humble beginnings in Cage Warriors to to his title fights in the UFC. The endless blow by blow accounts of every match become something of a battle to get through themselves, and I found myself skipping paragraphs just to get to the more interesting and high profile fights later in the book.

It’s also noticeable that Conor the man is entirely missing from this book. There are no new interviews with him, no interviews with his friends or coaches. With no access to the star of the book all we have is a few quotes from other people’s interviews and UFC press conferences. We don’t really get any insight into the mind of McGregor. I’d love to know exactly how a kid with a background in pure boxing picked up all those Taekwon Do and Capoeria kicks. Where did he get them from? What was his inspiration? And how, exactly did he get so good at them? What are his training secrets?

What we have here instead is a straightforward analysis of every fight Conor has ever had. Perhaps I’m being too harsh because there are plenty of fun moments to be had in these pages, especially later on when he gets into MMA politics, but Jack is more of an analyst than a Booker prize-winning writer. In a longer format, and without video clips to illustrate his points, he slips too easily into cliche  – repeatedly calling blood “claret” – or churning out questionable analogies, like “with arteries closing faster than those of a Glaswegian chain smoker”.

If you want to find to exactly how the conflicting styles of Nate Diaz and Conor McGregor’s produced two of the most entertaining MMA fights in history then read on, for glimpses of what inspired the creative genius behind the techniques, we’re still waiting.

Rating: 3/5 glowing Tai Chi Notebook orbs

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.

I’m now a writer for Jetli.com

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:

Coming Full Circle: How Movement Culture is Taking Martial Arts Back to its Roots

 

How to Avoid Being Attacked

 

Look out for more from me coming soon here:

 

The Judo chop

shutoFrom the ever-enlightening Urban Dictionary:

Judo Chop

The act of taking your hand and making a chop motion on a persons shoulder near the neck area while saying in a loud manner, “Judo chop-HAI!”

1. Find a victim.
2. Creep up behind them.
3. Make sure palm/hand is flat and straight.
4 Raise your hand and chop the victim’s shoulder, making sure it is close enough to the neck.
5. Say the phrase, “Judo Chop HAI!” While doing so.
6. Walk away.

Following on from my last post about Internal Judo, I’ve been thinking about the (stupid) “knife hand” attack you commonly see in Aikido, Jiujitsu and Judo – “Shomen uchi”

 

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I say “stupid” because , well, it is. Nobody is ever going to attack you like this in reality. You even see it done with bottles and knives, but it’s pretty obvious that this technique is derived from a much more practical origins – an overhead strike from a katana:

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One of my friends does Judo. He loves it, except for the time when the teacher says they’re going to do “self defence” and the class has to learn how to defend against an overhead strike using a knife, or defend a haymaker by turning their back on the attacker and doing a hip throw. The first situation is ridiculous, the second, possible, but unlikely.

It’s hangovers like this, relics of the weapons-focus of the past that are left behind in martial arts, that provide more weight to the theory one of my old teachers used to have that what we recognise as “martial arts” didn’t used to exist a few hundred years ago when people could freely carry weapons, and soldiers were trained in how to use them. The invention and evolution of the firearm changed things a lot, and then once it was no longer considered civilised to carry a bladed weapon in normal daily life, things changed again. If it was acceptable to carry a sword nowadays, you can bet the local Tae Kwon Do class would be changing its syllabus.

If you think about it, the idea of defending yourself against somebody with a weapon, when you don’t have one, is a pretty hopeless task. Especially if they’ve got a knife. The only thing you can say about knife fighting for sure, is that they’re definitely not going to attack you with a big overhand strike to the temple. So why keep training it?

 

Kung Hey Fat Choy!

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Kung Hei Fat Choy! Welcome to the year of the Fire Rooster. If you’re looking for some tips to survive in this alternative reality we seem to have entered, then Scott P Phillips has a Fire Rooster survival guide. In short: get organised.

I’d also like to kick off the Chinese new year by directing you to this excellent interview ‘It’s not what you think: what serious martial artists want you to know about tai chi‘,with Chen Huixian,a Chen villiage Taiji practitioner who has moved to the US and is teaching there. It’s good to see Taiji from the source reaching a wider audience.

Also make sure you take the opportunity to read the excellent talk by Paul Bowman on ‘Taoism in bits‘ about the transplanting of ideas around Taoism and martial arts from East to West.

I often wonder to myself if the concept of ‘styles’ in Taiji has reached a kind of end point. These days, with the floodgates to information wide open, thanks to the Internet, everybody has access to everything. Silk reeling exercises are no longer the secret teachings belonging to the Chen family. Zhan Zhuang standing meditation is no longer the preserve of Yi Quan practitioners. Fast stepping patterns are no longer the speciality of XingYi and Bagua, and slow movement no longer belongs to the Yang family. These days you’re as likely to see a Yang style practitioner doing silk reeling exercises as a Chen practitioner standing in Yi Quan postures for extended periods.

It’s like it has come full circle, and there is just Taijiquan again.

 

 

New book arrives! Possible Origins

I was pleased to get an early Christmas present yesterday – my review copy of Scott P Phillip’s Possible Origins has arrived!

I’m currently simultaneously listening to the Art of Learning by Josh Waitzkin and reading Happy by Derren Brown, so I can’t wait to add a third book to my list of ‘books I haven’t finished yet’. But seriously, I need to get myself together, because Possible Origins looks like a great for anybody involved in Chinese martial arts. It’s not academically written – it’s highly  readable, controversial and mind expanding.

It’s hard to pin down exactly what the book is about, but my quick summation of the point of Scott’s research is that over the years, and thanks to several different political movements, Chinese martial arts (including Taijiquan) have been stripped of their cultural associations so much that a lot of things we do today don’t make sense anymore. Only by researching the previous connections to Chinese folk religion, ritual, theatre and opera can we make sense of the arts that have been handed down to us today.

My explanation above probably doesn’t get exactly to the heart of the matter, or present the argument in exactly the right way, but it’s a good start. I look forward to reading the book and finding out more. One thing I’ve noticed by skimming through already though is that he answers all the obvious questions you might have about this theory, or at least does his best to tackle them, right away.

Full review to follow!