Possible Origins: Free for the next 5 days!

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Scott P. Phillips’ book about the origins of Tai Chi Chuan, Possible Origins, is free in digital format for the next 5 days, so make sure you get yourself a copy!

So far I’ve only done a part 1 review, but I’ll do part 2 soon (I promise!). As you can see, I think it’s worth your time.

 

 

 

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Walk like an Anglo Saxon

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I do enjoy Roland Warzecha’s high-quality videos on medieval weapons and their usage. I’m not entirely sure how to feel about this one, however. He’s suggesting that medieval people walked with a different type of step than us modern humans, because of the different footwear. The old way (he suggests) was to land on the ball of the foot first (but put the whole foot on the ground, not just the ball) instead of heel striking first. In a way it’s similar to the type of stepping you find in the Chinese martial art of Baguazhang.

I just tried this way of walking on a little trip around the office and I did notice that it was possible to walk around like this, and it definitely works the calves in a way that ‘normal’ walking does not. For me it’s still a big ask to believe that people used to do such a fundamental human activity, like walking,  in a very different way to the way we do it today. Either way, it’s interesting. Have a watch and see what you think:

Roland also has some great videos on medieval posture and fighting with weapons that are also worth watching if you haven’t seen them before:

The thrusting posture does look odd, especially for combat,  but I can see what he means about it developing different muscles in the back.

This video about Viking arts is also a good watch:

The problems with being a teacher

 

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This is something I’ve seen happen a lot in martial arts. After a period of being a “teacher” or a “coach”, you somehow start to believe your own hype, and end up as an “expert”, or you allow others to see you as such (i.e. you become complicit even if you don’t announce yourself as the expert). Of course, you might legitimately be an expert. There’s no problem with that, or with acknowledging somebody’s skill at something (belts in martial arts have their uses), but for your own development, taking on the mantle of ‘expert’ can be an absolute dead end to your progress. Let me explain.  

You start out at something, and get pretty good at it. After a while people start asking you for advice and you end up as the teacher. After a lot of experience of teaching you get pretty good at that too and you go and turn what you’ve got into a system(™), online course (™) or book (™) and whatever you’ve produced ends up being codified, systemised, named, labelled and becomes a kind of law. Maybe you even develop followers (also known as customers these days) who go around championing your cause. I’m pretty sure that Jesus (if he existed) didn’t start out with the aim of having followers or producing the Bible. In fact, he wrote nothing down! (Well, that we know of anyway).

That’s all great until you are faced with some new information, far too late into your career, and realise that you’ve got something terribly wrong. Or perhaps you meet a real expert, and find that your knowledge isn’t as all encompassing as you thought it was. What do you do? Suddenly your ‘fame’ means nothing. You can’t go back to all the people that have invested their time, their money and their belief in your system and tell them ‘“sorry guys, I got it wrong, we’re going to start again with this new idea and take it from there…” Well, I mean, you could, theoretically, but very few people in human history have ever done that. Instead what usually happens is you either reject the new information, because it doesn’t fit your model, or you try and incorporate it into your world view, when in fact, it doesn’t fit that either, because it contradicts what you’ve previously been saying, and you end up with this sort of bastardised half truth…

The people I most admire in martial arts are the ones who are happy not to have everything all worked out. The ones who are constantly open to new ideas and retain a kind of ‘beginner’s mind’.

So what should we do? Yes, we should have ideas and theories. But we should always be testing them against nature, against resistance and against each other. We should never end up ‘locked in’. Unfortunately, as soon as you hit the publish button on your course, your video, your article or your online course, you are, effectively, locked in.  

Having said all that, I publish blog articles, I make videos and fully intend to write a book about this stuff one day, I’m just going to make sure (at least in my head) I have a massive disclaimer at the start of anything I do along the lines of ‘Warning! Some of these ideas may not reflect reality’ 🙂

 

Jin in Chinese martial arts (and tennis)

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Looking at Chinese martial arts from our stand point in today’s modern world is very confusing. There are so many styles – so many different approaches and so many different theories of its evolution. In fact, it’s bewildering!

Human beings like patterns. It’s our nature to see patterns in things. So, naturally, we start to classify these myriad arts in different ways – Northern or Southern is a popular way to do it since you can generalise some characteristics about each branch. Internal and External is another way to do it. So is ‘long range’ and ‘short range’. And so on.

Without exception, however, all these classifications ultimately break down. They’re good for talking in the general sense, but once you dig down into individual cases it soon becomes a little murkier. For instance, you’ll find a style that is known as a ‘kicking style’ has a few punches in one of its forms. A style that is ‘long range’ actually contains quite a few short range techniques in one of its obscure forms, and so on.

But perhaps there is one all encompassing thing we can say about the subject. All Chinese martial arts make use of Jin ‘refined strength’ to great or lesser extent. Now, as always, language is a problem. It would be foolish to suppose that what a professional boxer is doing isn’t a highly refined method of punching. Of course, it is. In fact, under boxing rules, it’s obviously the best way to punch. Secondly, which ‘Jin’ are we talking about? A lot of Chinese martial arts have a long list of ‘Jins’ that they contain and practice, so which one do I mean? Also, a lot of them also don’t even use the word at all.

What I mean is using the ground as a path to power, rather than your physical structure or power derived primarily from your local muscle use. This is my definition of “basic jin”.

Obviously we need to use our muscles to stand up at all, but in the case of punching, for example, most punches originate from the shoulder. In contrast, I’m talking about using the power from the ground and bypassing the shoulder as a generator of power completely when punching. Instead, the shoulder switches function to a transmitter. for the power coming up from the ground.

So, how do you do this?

Well, let’s start in the most sensible place – Tennis. 🙂

It should be no surprise that if this method of using force exists and can be done by humans, then its use isn’t limited to martial arts. I’ve noticed recently that sports coaches are starting to catch on to these Tai Chi, or Chinese Martial Arts, concepts these days. Watch the following video:

Now, while he doesn’t explain what’s happening much, he’s getting across the concept of pushing down into the ground to increase the upward force that bounces back. If your body is relaxed (‘Song’) then this is upward rebound of force can be utilised as power.

From www.feeltennis.net/ground-force-for-power/

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By “sending the force” downward – which you can see on the weighing scale – you can generate more upward force.

This is the basic mechanics for the Tai Chi “Push” you see demonstrated so often. Instead of pushing into the person you first push ‘down’ from the dantien into the ground and use the rebound force as the power generation.

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It requires a relaxed frame – which is the “Song Jin” of Tai Chi Chuan. The more you can push ‘down’ from the dantien, the more force you can exert back up. Try it!

To return to my subject about Jin in Chinese martial arts. The Tai Chi example above is what I’d call a very ‘pure’ example of using the ground force. Tai Chi specialises in this very relaxed ‘song’ way of doing it. Other Chinese martial arts use different postures and different methods and can augment the pure ground force with specific trained muscle use in various ways – which is one of the reasons you see the characteristic rounded back in Southern Chinese marital arts. You could called these a type of ‘muscle jin’.

I found a video recently that I thought really showed this ground force being very nicely used in Wing Chun. It’s by a master called Chu Song Tin, who is now sadly deceased. I posted it on a discussion forum and it got me in some very hot water, as I’ll explain below.

 

In the video he says the following:

“now let my force go to the ground,…. don’t fight me by pulling up.”

“now it’s going down to his feet(i.e the ground)”

“if i use strength to push on him and he use strength to fight me.”

“now pull up, and can you feel it in your shoulder? and this way the force can’t go down to his feet.”

Now, it turns out that CST didn’t ever use the word “Jin” to describe what he was doing – he created his own term “nim tao”, and if you suggest that what he was doing was Jin… then people in his lineage will get really upset with you because you don’t have the necessary lineage to comment and it is disrespectful if you do. It becomes a lineage and politics game and there’s no way to really get anywhere once that happens, better to just yield.

According to the next video, CST never felt he could adequately describe what he was doing, which I find really interesting. His students have kept the lineage alive and if the following video is to be believed are still trying to work out exactly how he did it.

I’m happy that they’re continuing the research, and I don’t really have any desire to get involved in the politics of lineage, but my question would be, if it isn’t ground force, then what is it?

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: