A blast from the past – Yongquan demo 2003

 

This video is a blast from the past (for me, at least). It was filmed in 2003 and I’m in it!

It’s the film of a demonstration the Yongquan Chinese Martial Arts group did in London. There are lots of the arts I was training at the time shown off here – Choy Lee Fut, Northern Shaolin, Tai Chi, Push Hands, then some breaking demonstrations. I’m doing a broadsword form in the demo that I can’t even remember anymore! There’s some Iron palm (a granite pebble broken with a chop) from Donald and a kerb stone gets broken over Doug’s head with a sledge hammer!

Since I was actually in this demo I know that none of these materials are faked – they’re all the genuine article. Real bricks, etc..

At the end of the demonstration there are some clips of us practicing for the demo. These are more enjoyable for me to watch as they bring back some good memories of training with my teacher and the rest of the guys back in the day.

What I like most in the video is the very last clip, where Doug is practising the Press (Ji) technique from Tai Chi on a line of people. Done right it’s meant to be very minimal physical effort with a big results (using Jin not Li) – the power should penetrate through the line of people so that the people at the back of the line fly away first. He does a ‘not very good’ version of it (too much Li – physical force) so it all looks very physical. Donald comes over to tell him off and show him how it should be done, and without any set up does a perfect Ji – really minimal effort and the guy at the end of the line flies off – then Doug has another go and gets it right. I’m glad that got captured on video.

 

 

 

Full contact Tai Chi. A painful lesson in reality.

A video clip has been doing the rounds on the Internet recently about a “Tai Chi master” called Lei Gong who accepted the challenge of a Chinese MMA fighter/coach called Xu Xiaodong to an actual fight. Here’s what happened:

As you can see the Tai Chi master had his bell rung very quickly and very convincingly. The whole video lasts 47 seconds. It’s clear from the first few seconds of the actual fight that Lei Gong is way out of his depth and shouldn’t be in there with Xu. He had no idea how to deal with an opponent who was actually attacking him, not just dancing around making strange shapes in the air, like his student presumably do for him.

(The stoppage by the ref was a bit late for me, and Lei Gong ended up taking more punishment than he should have. The effects of head trauma are all too real, but it seems that this is the price he had to pay to be woken from his dream of magic fighting ability).

Generally, I think that this fight was a good thing for Tai Chi as a whole. Let me explain.

The challenge arose after Lei Gong appeared on a Chinese Television programme called “Experiencing Real Kung Fu” claiming to have sparring and fighting ability with Tai Chi. He spared one of the hosts of the show in the programme. See below at 9.30:

Xu’s beef with the show was that people claiming these sorts of abilities better be able to back it up.

The sad truth is that most things in China are fake, including their TV shows! I’ve seen so many of these types of shows now where Tai Chi masters go up against Muay Thai or Karate people, or wrestlers. They’re all fake. Does that mean Tai Chi is fake too? I don’t think so, but I think it exposes the complete lack of realism that is prevalent in the Tai Chi culture. It’s not rocket science: if you want to be able to actually fight with any art, then you have to practice actually fighting with it.

Xu seems to have a particular problem with the big dogs of Chen village who charge a lot of money for people to become disciples to learn their special skills. I can see where he’s coming from – if you look at what you learn in a typical seminar from a big name in the Chen style, then none of this is going to prepare you for an encounter like the one Lei Gong was in.

Xu’s argument, which I think is logically valid, is that if you’re going to charge all that money for something you better be able to prove it works. He’s now challenged the son of Wang Xi’an, one of the “4 tigers of Chen village”, but Wang’s son will only send his student, who has also been trained in SanDa (Chinese kickboxing with throws as well) to fight Xu. Xu, understandably says this will not do, because he wants to test Chen style Tai Chi. This will probably rumble on a bit and lead nowhere.

I was chatting with a friend about the whole thing and he said something like “I think that all martial arts, once they actually spar end up looking like some version of MMA”.

I think he’s probably right. I’ve written before about the delusion of grace under pressure and how so many people’s idea of what Tai Chi should look like in a fight is so way off.

MMA is what martial arts look like when stripped down to pure functionality. When all the cultural trappings have been removed. Chinese Martial Arts does contain its own bad-ass martial artists, but still, those arts contain things that are not purely about fighting. And for a good reason – they perform a useful social function. MMA also performs a useful social function, but more in the same way that Western boxing does, not in the way that Chinese Martial Art does.

Perhaps we’re all missing something. There are special skills you can only get from Tai Chi, and I think people have a right to teach these things without having to fight MMA to prove it works. I also don’t believe that all the people who are paying lots of money to become indoor disciples of Chen style masters think they are being given a kind of ‘master-key’ to martial arts that will mean they will be able to fight 21-year old athletes without ever having to spar first. It’s more like they are buying into a tradition. Once they buy in they’ll (hopefully) get the skills the tradition is famous for*, and be able to set themselves up as teachers. The problem comes when they get delusional and start to see themselves as bad-ass fighters when they don’t have a right to. This situation is made worse by the acceptance of fakeness, or cheating, in Chinese culture and TV shows.

It’s a messy situation, but it is what it is. Welcome to the world of Tai Chi. What matters is you and your training. Use your own reasoning to asses what you’re doing and what skills it is actually giving you, and don’t start to claim you can do things you can’t, otherwise you might suffer a painful wake-up call, like Lei Gong did.

*Of course, whether somebody who is not Chinese and not even from Chen village would ever really be taught the real skills of the family is open for debate anyway.

Fist Under Elbow, and natural posture

Here I want to discuss what a natural posture means in Tai Chi Chuan. I was working on the posture we call ‘Fist under elbow’ with a student today. The posture looks like this:

fist-under-elbow

Fist under elbow – Yang Cheng-Fu

The word translated as ‘fist’ could also mean ‘punch’, so you could equally call the posture, ‘Punch under elbow’. It looks a bit like the Judo Chop I talked about recently, but it’s not done like that at all in application. Instead of a chopping, downward, movement it’s a forward and outwards, palm strike done with the left hand. You can see this immediately when you see it done in motion. Here’s Yang Jun, the grandson of Yang Cheng-Fu who is pictured above, teaching the movement in his family’s style of Tai Chi.

You might ask why your other hand is punching under the elbow. I was always taught this was a hidden technique, where you’d turn the left hand into a deflection of the opponent’s attack and punch them with your right, but in the Tai Chi form it wasn’t show explicitly, and the punch was hidden away under the elbow… In application, it looked a lot like a little bit of Wing Chun Kung Fu.

I always have doubts about the validity of these sorts of explanations though. Firstly, I don’t know why you’d want to hide a technique like this? Who are you hiding it from, and why? And it’s not an especially deadly technique, so it’s not like it is dangerous for people to see it. There are much more dangerous techniques shown openly in the form. And secondly, if you don’t actually practice it then you’ll never actually be able to do it under pressure, so hiding things away is not an ideal practice method.

I think it’s much more likely that the posture itself has special cultural significance (as say, part of a religious ritual, or maybe it relates to Chinese cosmology), so was included in the Tai Chi form sequence, or perhaps it’s something of a signature move that was handed down over the generations from an older martial art, and has lost its original meaning, but remained as a kind of nod of respect to the forefathers.

Either way, it’s in the Tai Chi form now, and shows no sign of being removed, so we might as well get on with learning it properly.

My point in writing this article was that I find students generally don’t perform this posture particularly well. Perhaps it’s something to do with the arm position being slightly uncomfortable unless you can relax sufficiently, but it seems particularly suited to making mistakes. Maybe it’s because it looks a bit like an “on guard!” posture, but if you ask a student to take up this posture they will invariably hunch the shoulders, or make their leading arm too stiff and aggressive, or get the angle of the hand and fingers all wrong.

Here’s an example of what I mean. Look at how tense this guy’s arms are:

1906042-tai-chi-posture-fist-under-elbow-art-of-self-defense-stock-photo

He’s holding up his right elbow instead of letting it drop. His left arm is almost locked straight and both arms are too high: Instead of ‘sinking the chi’ he’s letting it rise up, which makes him unsteady.

In Tai Chi the shoulders should naturally round and the elbows should drop – this makes your posture softer and more relaxed – ‘sung‘, as we say in Tai Chi.

If I was to walk up to the person above practicing on the beach and at the moment they formed their Fist Under Elbow I was to slap their arm away at the elbow then the chances are that I’d severely compromise their structure and balance, possibly knocking them over, giving me ample room to attack.

In comparison, if you look at the picture of Yang Cheng-Fu above again, then you can see he is much more relaxed and comfortable in his stance. You get the feeling that if you tried to slap his arm away he’d be able to just let his arm go with your motion, and let it swing back around and slap you in the face! (This was exactly what happened to me the first time I got hands-on with my Tai Chi teacher, so I can talk from experience!)

Yang Cheng-Fu’s more natural posture means that his centre of gravity is within himself in the area of the dantien. And because mind and body are linked, it’s more likely that his mind is focussed and aware of what’s happening. Once your physical centre of gravity starts to shift out of your base, so too does your mental focus. And equally, if your mind is all over the place when you’re doing your Tai Chi form then, more than likely, your physical balance will suffer for it.

In an ‘internal’ martial art we try to harmonise what’s happening between the external and the internal parts of the body. That’s what I’m trying to do in each posture of the Tai Chi form – become more centred,both mentally and physically. I want to have a more natural body that is free from artificial posturing. Postures that look ‘held up’, as if from invisible wires from the ceiling, are not as useful for combat as natural, rooted, aware postures that can meet the demands of the moment.

(A quick tip for getting a more natural posture is to take up a posture from the Tai Chi form, put your arms in what you think is the correct position, then take a big breath in, all the way up to your shoulders then let it all out in one big gasp. Let your arms settle to where they need to be, rather than holding them up. That relaxed, sunk, posture you now have is what you should be looking for in Tai Chi Chuan.)

As it says in the Tai Chi Classics:

“The postures should be without defect,
without hollows or projections from the proper alignment;”

“Stand like a perfectly balanced scale and
move like a turning wheel.”

“The upright body must be stable and comfortable
to be able to sustain an attack from any of the eight directions.”

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.

Two points on a circle

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.

antipodal-points-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.

Cracking the Code: Tai Chi as Enlightenment Theatre

Scott Park Phillips’s much anticipated film about the connection between Tai Chi and Chinese Ritual Theatre is finally here.

I met Scott last year, when he introduced me to his theory of Tai Chi as Ritual Theatre for the first time. His ideas were so ‘out there’ compared to the usual history of Tai Chi that I’d encountered, and his presentation so enthusiastic, that I found both him and his ideas fascinating, and I think you will too. As well as being a historian, he’s a performer and entertainer (and third-wave coffee drinker). He presents his ideas as such. I’ll never forget him spontaneously standing up in the pub and demoing his Chen style form walkthrough (during which he explained his Theatrical interpretation of the postures) for me, and the rest of the pub, whether they wanted it or not! 🙂

It’s hard to grasp these ideas in the written word, so I asked him at the time if he could put down his Chen style walkthrough, on video and he said he was already working on it. Well, it turns out he was, and he’s finished the video project!  Here it is:

The video is professionally produced and does a good job of presenting his ideas (although I’d have liked some parts to be a little slower, as there’s so much to absorb). The parts about the Boxer Rebellion I found particularly interesting, for example.

I’ll leave you to decide what you think about his ideas, but personally I think he’s onto something, and (importantly) I don’t think we need to be threatened by these ideas as somehow undermining the seriousness or effectiveness of Tai Chi as either a martial art, a health-giving art, or as a vehicle for delivering internal power.

I can see how some will think that it detracts from the effectiveness of the art we have today, with retorts like, “I don’t practice a dance!” or “I’m not doing a ritual!”

I raised this issue with Scott myself, and his response was along the lines of ‘If you’re a serious martial artists who practices Tai Chi (that puts you in the 0.00004% of practitioners!) then I’d say it doesn’t matter – a skilled martial artists can use anything to make good training out of’. That’s not a direct quote, I’m paraphrasing from memory here. But logically I think he’s right –  I don’t think it makes Tai Chi any less martial or any less effective if the ‘form’ that is being used as a vehicle to deliver Six Harmonies movement (to borrow Mike Sigman’s nomenclature) originally came from a theatrical ritual. Also, in the west we have a different association of the words ‘theatre’ than they do in China, where ‘theatre’ always had much more of a religious element. Everything arrises out of a culture, so it’s interesting to look back at the culture that Tai Chi arose out of. Academically there are already several good theories for why the Taoist Chanseng Feng always gets associated with the history of Tai Chi, from politics to spirituality, and Scott’s theory is just another to add to the pile. If you don’t want to add it to your pile, then don’t.

Remember, looking back into the murky origins of Tai Chi isn’t relevant to your actual practice today, or the subsequent direction Taijiquan went in, just keep on doing your thing. If you’re using Tai Chi form to practice fighting applications, or silk reeling, or to clear your meridians, etc, then you’re still doing just that.

For more information on Scott check out his weakness with a butterfly half step twist martial arts blog (or whatever it’s called these days), and he’ll be in the UK giving a lecture at the second Marital Arts Studies Conference in July, which I’m hoping to attend.

Enjoy!

 

Wave hands like clouds

A look at the Cloud Hands movement of Tai Chi, and what it’s really all about

11_cloudhands

Cloud hands, or ‘wave hands like clouds’ as it’s also known, is one of those classic Tai Chi movements that characterise the art. It’s done in slightly different ways in different Tai Chi styles. Take a look at the variations:

Master Yang Jun, (Yang Cheng Fu, Yang style):

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Master Chen Zhen Lei, (Chen style):

i-wa5

Master Sun Ping, (Sun style):

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I’m not comparing myself to the masters above, but here’s a GIF of me doing it, since I have that on video I might was well add it to this post:

Me: (Old yang, also called Gu style)
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As you can see, the Yang style is more of a vertical arm block, the Chen style is more of a horizontal elbow strike while the Sun style has the palms facing outwards. It’s a case of different horses for different courses, but  while there are subtle differences between them, they all involve the common theme of stepping to the side while rotating the arms in circular motions (presumably like clouds on a windy day).

Martially speaking, I think of this movement as intercepting an opponent’s strike and throwing the attacker out, or applying a lock to their arm through the action of turning your waist. To the attacker it should feel like they’re putting their hand into a blender – it gets caught up and crushed and it shouldn’t feel easy to retract your arm once it’s trapped.

It’s easy for beginners to make the arms ‘flat’ in this posture – instead they need to be continually projecting outwards. I think of them as being like the antlers of a stag, or the branches of a tree – they grow outwards, and are slightly curved. If you’re going to intercept your opponents strike with this technique, then it’s going to help ‘catch’ their attack if the intent in your arms (your antlers) is to project outwards.

The real lesson of Cloud hands though is to turn the waist. It’s a common mistake to not turn the waist enough in Tai Chi, and I find that, for the beginning student, a breakthrough in this area often only comes about through a study of Cloud Hands as an isolated technique, repeated over and over. Notice that if you removed the stepping from Cloud Hands then it wouldn’t be a million miles away from the stationary silk-reeling exercises that go along with Tai Chi, with one hand performing a clockwise circle and the other an anticlockwise circle. Indeed, performing Cloud Hands repeatedly can serve a similar function to basic Silk Reeling exercises.

As it says in the Tai Chi classics, the body should be directed by the waist at all times, so as you turn from side to side in Cloud Hands (let’s not worry about the stepping for now) your arms should only be moving because your waist is moving. If your waist stops, then your arms should stop too. This especially applies at the crossover points, when you’ve turned all the way to the side and the arms swap position, so that the lower one becomes the upper one, and vice versa. This is the point that beginners usually drop the principle and use some isolated arm movement, instead of keeping it all coming from the waist. It’s usually a revelation to the student here that you need to turn the waist a little more than you think you do to keep it as the commander of the movement – you should feel this using muscles in your lower back you normally don’t reach.

Remember, in Tai Chi you’re looking to continually maintain a connection (a slight pull) from the toes to the fingers, with movement directed by the dantien like the spider at the centre of a web. If you keep this connection (or slight tension) and the waist control at these crucial crossover points in Cloud Hands then you’ll be well on your way to keeping it throughout your whole form performance.

Don’t push the river, listen to it instead

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Bruce Lee was onto something with his water analogies…

I recently read the phrase, “Don’t push the river, listen to it instead”, and it resonated deeply with me because it’s a great way of summing up my approach to jiujitsu’s rolling and tai chi’s push hands. The water analogy was famously used by Bruce Lee and also crops up a lot in the Tai Chi classics, for example “Chang Ch’uan [Long Boxing] is like a great river rolling on unceasingly.”

The flow of water is analogous to the flow of energy, or movement, when performing a Tai Chi form, or between two people engaged in a martial activity . In both jiujitsu and tai chi your ultimate goal is to ‘go with’ this flow in such a way that you come out on top. You want the opponent to be undone by their own actions.

In jiujitsu that might mean not using excessive strength to press home a collar choke from mount if your partner is defending it well, and switching to an armbar instead, then switching back to the collar choke (and hopefully getting it) when they defend the armbar.

In push hands it could mean not resisting your partner’s push and using Lu to let it pass you by, then switching to an armbar to capitalise on their over extension.

Of course, this is for when you’re engaged in the ‘play’ mode of both these arts, which is the mental space you need to occupy if you want to get better at either of them. This is the relaxed practice that nourishes the soul. It kind of goes without saying that in competition or in a self defence situation you’d be better off in Smash Mode. But when winning isn’t the only thing that’s important you need to open up your game a little and keep it playful. Or ‘listen to the river’ as the phrase has it. It takes a lot of expertise to be able to be that relaxed in a real situation, but as your experience in the art increase so too should your ability to remain relaxed under increasing amounts of pressure.

Rickson Gracie said, ‘you can’t control the ocean but you can learn to surf’ and that’s the heart of what I’m talking about.

To be aware of the way the river is flowing, and not waste futile energy pushing it in a direction it doesn’t want to go you need a degree of self awareness, and the ability to be aware of the situation you are in. And to get that you need to slow down and stay calm. Or, as the ancient Taoists said:

“Do you have the patience to wait

Till your mind settles and the water is clear?

Can you remain unmoving

Till the right action arises by itself?”
Lau Tzu, Tao-te-Ching