My podcast with Ken Gullette – BJJ, XingYi, Tai Chi and Choy Lee Fut

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I was interviewed for Ken Gullette’s Internal Fighting Arts podcast recently. It was a fun show and Ken is a gracious and generous host and a new friend in martial arts. We had a really wide-ranging discussion about so many different subjects. I’m sure each topic we touched on could have been a podcast in itself, but Ken did a great job editing it to keep it on track.

We start talking about what it’s like starting BJJ later in life, then move on to Chinese martial arts like Tai Chi, Choy Lee Fut and XingYi and if they are still relevant today for self-defence. Hopefully, you find something here of interest.

Thanks to Ken for the opportunity. I’d suggest checking out his other episodes, too.

Here’s the link to mine.

 

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Natural structures in Tai Chi

I spent my lunch hour practicing Tai Chi with the leaves falling around me, which made me realise that Autumn is definitely here. Practicing under the trees also made me think about the strong parallel between the postures of Tai Chi and the structures of nature.

Take trees for example – the branches grow upwards and outwards:

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If you look at the postures of a Tai Chi form you can see the same ‘outwards and upwards’ structures:

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Animals have the same quality too. The horns on a deer are a good example:

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But the alert, ready posture of most animals (when they’re not sleeping) also mirrors this:

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The spine is always extended, the eyes engaged and the posture directed upwards and outwards.

The following is a Yang Tai Chi form video. Notice that his body structure is always opening outwards and upwards:

So why do we do this in Tai Chi? Well, natural structures are inherently strong structures. Nature has been working on trees, plants and animals for millions of years, and they have evolved into strong shapes that can take a battering from the elements and survive. In terms of postural considerations of Tai Chi we are aiming to mimic natural structures to take advantage of their inherent strength. For example, with the arms, the elbow is usually kept below the wrist in Tai Chi, when the hand is going up and outwards, this enables your arm to create the same sort of shape as a tree branch that grows outwards and upwards.

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If you collapse the structure of your arms – say, close your joints like the elbows and shoulders too much, you don’t get this effect of mimicking natural structures. Instead, the structure needs to be supported by more muscle usage if it is going to withstand pressure.

Think also of stretching the ‘body suit’ of skin, fascia, tendons. If you bend the joints too sharply you lose the stretch from feet to toes. If you look at a picture of a fower, plant or tree, it looks kind of ‘stretched out’, doesn’t it?

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There’s a lot to learn from nature.

 

Interview series with Jarek Szymanski

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Jarek Szymanski’s website, China from Inside was one of the first and best resources on the web for the history and practice of Chinese Martial Arts, written by a European living and working inside China. It was particularly good for finding out how internal martial arts, like XinYi, XingYi, Bagua and Taijiquan were actually practiced in their native environement.

I remember reading his website back in the 1990s, and it’s still there!

Nick at Masters of the IMA has been working together with Jarek over the last few months on recording some of his experiences in China back in the 90s – how he came to end up living in China, his experiences investigating the history of various CMA, etc.

He’s posted the first parts of the interviews on his website, and it’s well worth a read. You can find out all about his experiences on Mount Wudang and Beijing, and get his opinions on how modern Chinese martial arts related to the older traditions, and how they differ. I really liked his insights into places like the Shaolin temple and Mount Wudang (see part 5) and how they’ve changed over the years compared to his visits there in the 90s.

It’s well worth a read.

Jarek Szymansk interview part 1

Jarek Szymansk interview part 2

Jarek Szymansk interview part 3

Jarek Szymansk interview part 4

Jarek Szymansk interview part 5

Jarek Szymansk interview part 6

Fun quote:

“When we got there, we saw some Shaolin monks (wuseng) giving performances not in a stadium, but just in an open space outside the temple. As far as I can tell they were demonstrating some forms and hard qigong, iron shirt (tie bu shan), etc. My Polish friend and I had great fun ‘testing out’ the iron shirt guy – when he invited members of the audience out to test his iron shirt, I don’t think he was expecting to be punched full force in the stomach by two 6-foot Polish guys (laughter). It was at that point that I realised so-called iron shirt is not that special, most demonstrations of iron shirt are just a combination of timed breathing and muscle contraction, similar to what I had practiced in my early karate years.”

Early morning class

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There’s always that moment after we bow out.  After we shake hands. After the sparring where we’ve played at killing each other until one of us taps. After we’ve collapsed exhausted at the merciful interjection of the buzzer. When we’re letting the body catch up with itself. Stream rising and puddles of sweat appearing.  Hard stares into the blue vinyl, waiting for the breath to return.

I look around the emptying mats, still glistening with sweat. I see the people getting changed, leaving, ready to get on with their day.

But some remain. Now the work is done the defences can come down. The body relaxes and we can reflect. People get philosophical and start asking the big questions. Questions like, ‘Why do you do this?’

“I see it as a form of self defence,” says Mike. “I don’t want to miss a single class because I might miss that one technique that saves me in a real fight”. He goes on to talk about all the ways that self defence is important to him and how it could save his life. Or maybe the life of his wife and child. How it could be the most important thing he ever learns.

Mike looks at me, wordlessly, expecting me to contribute my own details and honorable reasons for studying the noble art for so long. For so many years. Pushing myself. Accumulating techniques and polishing them until they work under the worst sort of pressure. Finally earning a black belt, yet not stopping there. Still continuing.

I stand up and head to the changing room.

“I just like to fight”.

Podcast: Byron Jacobs on what martial arts in China are really like

 

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I’ve blogged about my friend Byron Jacobs before – he’s a Westerner deeply immersed in Chinese culture and martial arts and living in China at an interesting time.

We’re currently in the era where Chinese martial arts are opening up to the West in a way they’ve been prevented for doing for a long time. MMA and Jiujitsu (BJJ) is finally making an impact and people are starting to realise that modern training methods offer something that traditional methods are lacking. It will be interesting to see how the future plays out for Chinese martial arts, and what happens to traditional arts and skills.

Byron has just recorded an episode of the Real Fake Swords podcast where he addresses these issue and tells you what it’s actually like in China when it comes to martial arts. It’s fascinating (and probably different to the way you think it is) and well worth a listen. (If you are pushed for time start listening at around 15 minutes in.)

I hadn’t heard of Real Fake Swords before, but it looks like a good podcast series. I notice they’ve got episodes with other interesting martial arts personalities.

 

 

Your daily Tai Chi ritual – creating order out of chaos

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Scott posted some answers to various questions he gets over at Strengthness with a Twist, his blog. I thought the first one was most interesting:

What do you mean when you say martial arts are rituals?

Rituals are ways of making order out of chaos. Martial arts are about unleashing the greatest forces of chaos and bringing them into order. It is a daily ritual that has deep, lasting, and profound effects on every aspect of our being. This is true of martial arts world wide, but it is particularly clear in the structure of Chinese martial arts as they were understood before the Boxer Uprising.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this quote since it’s pretty clear to anybody who does a daily practice of Tai Chi (or related martial/yoga/chi kung type practice) in the morning, that it soon becomes a kind of ritual, whether you like it or not. Not a ritual in the Western religious sense, but a ritual for your body (which Scott is arguing is, in fact, the true essence of religion in the Eastern sense).

I like his definition of “bringing order from chaos” even if it does sound a bit Jordan Peterson fan-boy-ish 😉

But if we can separate the phrase from the alt-right ideology it has become attached to, that phrase is what you are doing to your body when you practice Tai Chi in the morning. Having just woken up in the morning you can consider your body to be in a state of ‘chaos’ – you’re not yet functioning at 100%, your tendons will be shortened from lying down for so long and your body might ache from uncomfortable sleeping positions, and it needs to stretch. In fact, we stretch as a reflex action once we wake. Mentally you are also not yet “with it”, at least not until you’ve properly caffeinated.

A morning Tai Chi “ritual” (or “routine” if you like), can bring you back into occupying your body properly and get it ready for the demands of the day. When I think about what the main health benefit of Tai Chi is, I think it’s this. People tend to treat Tai Chi as a panacea that cures everything from a bad back to an ingrowing toenail. I take all the latest ‘scientific’ research about the miraculous healing benefits of Tai Chi with a pinch of salt. I think its best feature is simply this: it’s a way of gently ordering and strengthening the body in the morning, ready for the day.

I also like Scott’s later quote,

Martial arts are about unleashing the greatest forces of chaos and bringing them into order

This one brings to mind a whirling Baguazhang practitioner spinning in circles, taming the elements he is working with, or two sword fighters caught in the midst of a leaping blow.

two man in white shorts fighting using sword during daytime

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It all sounds a bit fantastical, but again, I think there’s some truth buried here.

Through techniques in martial arts, we are bringing order to the chaos of the fight. This is perfectly demonstrated in a Jiujitsu match – it’s all scrambling, spinning madness, then order is established as a joint lock or choke is put in place, as one practitioner controls the limbs and body of the other through correct position, leverage and technique, and the ‘fight’ ends.

Performing the Tai Chi form is an analogy for how the whole universe was created out of chaos, and order established. When you start the Tai Chi form, in a still, standing position you are in a state of Wu Chi – the undifferentiated primordial state of emptiness, but always with the possibility of giving birth to something. Then the big bang happens and you start to move – Yin and Yang become differentiated and you are continually moving between these two opposite poles. The body opens and closes in a continuous spiral. As one part of the body is opening, another is closing until the final movement – often known as “Carry the Tiger back to the mountain”- when you return to stillness. The mountain here represents that primordial stillness. You have brought order to chaos and returned to the mountain.

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Fearing and Loving: Making Sense of the Warrior

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Why do men and women fight and go to war? This is one of the Reith Lectures by Margaret MacMillan. There is some great history on the War of the Roses, and also what it means to be a “warrior”. This will be of interest to everyone who does martial arts.

Historian Margaret MacMillan asks why both men and women go to war. “We are both fascinated and repulsed by war and those who fight,” she says. In this lecture, recorded at York University, she explores looks at the role of the warrior in history and culture and analyses how warriors are produced. And she interrogates the differences that gender plays in war. Anita Anand presents the programme recorded in front of an audience, including a question and answer session.

Link: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b0b88hl4#play

Get outside and move more

Tai Chi wants you to create a balanced approach to life. You can tell this from the way the form itself is balanced; the posture is balanced, the mind is balanced and the breathing is balanced. Therefore it makes sense to look at your whole life, not just the part of it spent doing Tai Chi, if you want to get the best out of it.

Matt Haig, who wrote one of my favourite books How to Stop Time, shares his top tips (from his new book Notes on a Nervous Planet) for leading a balanced life here:

Matt talks about the importance of getting outside in that video.

Another Matt that I know is Matt Hill of the Systema Academy in Wiltshire, and he’s all about getting outside more. He wrote a recent blog post I’d like to share about the importance of getting outside for a good 3 hours at least once a month.

Finally, here’s a podcast by movement biomechanist Katy Bowman about How To Integrate Movement Into Your Life – And Enjoy It There are lots of tips here on how to integrate more movement into your day to day life.

 

The (real) secrets of the Ninja

 

The duck test is a form of abductive reasoning, usually expressed as:

“If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it probably is a duck.”

The test implies that a person can identify an unknown subject by observing that subject’s habitual characteristics.

 

Ninja warrior

I was browsing through my Facebook feed recently and a friend had posted a funny martial arts video from a page called McDoLife. It came with the description:

“The most savage and terrifying form known to man!!

In the video a western male, who doesn’t look particularly young, strong, or athletic, and is dressed up in Asian atire, introduces a martial form he’s about to perform with the immortal words (delivered in a Southern drawl, and without a hint of irony), “it’s composed of 27 of the deadliest poison hand techniques ever devised. Each one of which is guaranteed to kill, cripple, or main any attacker. It is not for the squeamish nor the weak at heart.

Guaranteed!

Then, after a formal bow, he and a doomed student run through a frankly baffling performance of screaming, flailing arm attacks and kicks, to which his student makes no attempt to resist.

I found a copy of the same clip on YouTube here. Watch for yourself:

The man in the video is known as Ashida Kim (real name Radford Davies), who wrote several books on Ninjutsu, including Secrets of the Ninja, first published in 1981, which contains such gems as how to use a “cloak of invisibility”. It looks like the video was shot on VHS which would make it 1980s (?), probably. The YouTube title is “Kinji-Te, the Forbidden Fist of the Ninja.”

Despite there being no record of him ever have being trained by anyone (according to this Wikipedia page) Kim/Davies because famous in martial arts circles for teaching ninja skills during the ninja craze of the 1980s.

To modern eyes his videos look ridiculous. Back in the 1980s when access to quality martial arts instruction from the East was rare, and the Internet hadn’t been invented, these sort of things were common. It’s just a man flailing his way through a series of “deadly” martial arts techniques on an unresisting opponent – pretending to rake his face, rip out his throat, gouge his eyes, etc.

In the modern age of social media, we’re all used to funny videos like this popping up, and I was laughing along with the rest of the Internet, until I suddenly stopped and thought, hang on, “poison hand”… that rings a bell…

Then I watched the clip again and thought, “Hey, I know some of these moves!”. Before the video descends into a 100 move Monty Python-esque kata against a guy lying on the ground not fighting back, he was definitely doing the start of a form known as “Duck Sau” from a martial art I used to practice in my youth called “Feng Sau Kung Fu”. We pronounced it “Duck Sau”, but in written form it was presented as “Tu Shou”, which translated as “Poison hand”!

Here’s a video of the Tu Shou form being performed:

Note the similarities – after the initial bow to his student, Kim settles himself back into a riding horse stance, just like the Tu Shou performer does. His student attacks with a blow with his right hand and Kim steps back with his right leg into a back stance (known as “Duck stance” in the Li family system), raising his left hand as a deflection, and then proceeds to perform a sequence of arm attacks.

Feng Shou (“Hand of the wind”) is the kung fu section of the Li Family System of Taoist Arts taught by a figure famous in the British martial arts scene, Chee Soo (who died 1994). Since he was in Britain, and one of the few Chinese teachers openly teaching kung fu to the public during the kung fu boom of the 1970s, Chee Soo’s martial arts society became really popular in Britain in the 1970s and 1980s, before another styles of Chinese martial art could really get a foothold in the country.  Of course, it’s popularity dwindled as the kung fu boom died out, and after Chee’s death his society fractured into different, smaller, groups, but they are all still teaching his system today.

Having practiced the Tu Shou form myself, I think that it’s essentially what Ashida Kim is using as the inspiration for his Kinji-Te form in the video.

Of course, it’s entirely possible that both forms are identical to an old karate, or Aikido form I don’t know, and if they are, then please tell me. The origins of Chee Soo’s martial arts are hard to prove themselves, the story being that he was taught everything by an old Chinese gentleman he met in London, who later adopted him as his nephew. However, it is documented that Chee Soo studied Judo, Aikido and Kendo and mixed with many other martial artists of the era.

But Occam’s Razor (and the use of the phrase “poison hand”) would suggest that one of these individuals probably copied the form from the other. (Another thing about the video that struck me was that the salute he does right at the start is exactly the same salute that I learned in a Feng Sau class).

The question then becomes…. who stole what from who?

 

Tu Shou in print.

You can read Chee Soo’s biography on the Amazon page of “Taoist Art of Feng Shou”. I think it’s pretty accurate and gives dates for various things. Of particular interest here:

“In 1973 Chee Soo and his daughter Lavinia made an appearance on BBC One’s Nationwide where they demonstrated Feng Shou Kung Fu to presenter Bob Wellings in the studio giving practical demonstrations of the power of internal energy or Chi. He also talked about the history of Chinese Martial Arts. The hallmark of his style was the relaxed technique and the emphasis on non-competition.”

You can view this video here:

So we know that he was teaching this form in the early 70s. In 1974 Chee Soo published “Teach yourself Kung Fu”, which contained the Tu Shou form. So, the Tu Shou form would have been available in print for people to view in the ‘70s, and also was being taught in public classes.

This would lead me to conclude that Kim obtained this form, if only by reading a book, from Soo, and used it as a basis for his “Kinji-Te” form. After all, the book was called “Teach yourself Kung Fu“…

If it quacks…

This whole investigation has made me really consider the role of lineage in martial arts. What exactly constitutes a lineage? Can martial arts really be created out of nothing? If not, then can they legitimately be considered as part of the lineage of a previous art, even if there has been no direct human connection between them – no teacher and student relationship – and it all came out of watching a video or reading a book?

But what if it was only an idea that formed the link? Ideas about martial arts can inspire. Tai Chi is a perfect example of an art that appears to be inspired by Taoist ideas, yet there’s not actual, provable, Taoist connection beyond the realm of myth. And what if modern day Tai Chi is being practiced by somebody who identifies as a Taoist, or even has lineage in a sect of Taoism. Is it then a Taoist art?

Was Ashida Kim’s Kinji-Te form an original, old, Ninja form, or was it in fact, his creation based on Chee Soo’s book?

Perhaps the safest model to use is, in fact, the Duck (Sau) Test. If it looks like a duck sau, swims like a duck sau, and quacks like a duck sau, then it probably is a duck sau (Tu shou)!

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Photo by Saeid Anvar on Pexels.com

 

 

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.