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 – 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:


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.”

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!


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.



Monkey see, monkey do

A visit to Monkey World gives me new insight into the name of one of the most famous Tai Chi sequences – Repulse Monkey.


Yesterday we had a family trip to a local ape rescue centre called Monkey World. All the larger apes were suitably majestic, and the little ones suitable cheeky. The ones that stole the show though, were the white cheeked Gibbons. In terms of dancing through the trees these guys have got it made – they look so totally effortless with their arm hanging and swinging. They have no tails, so they swing in the classic way that humans attempt when using the monkey bars, but it looks so utterly effortless for them, because their arms are extrodinarily long when compared to the length of their body and their shoulder and wrist joints are different to ours. They swing one hand at a time, like this:


Gibbon, swinging

That’s when it occurred to me that this must be where the famous Repulse Monkey sequence in Tai Chi forms gets its name.


Me, doing Repulse Monkey

The “repulse” bit I’ve always thought was kind of obvious, because you’re pushing (or striking) something away, but I could never understand what was monkey-ish about this sequence, since you are used large extended postures, rather than what I’d come to associate with monkey styles of kung fu, which are usually full of small crouching postures and darting and rolling about. However, if you look at Gibbons swinging from branch to branch, it makes sense.

Of course, Gibbons are native to south China and were even kept as pets:

“Interactions between humans and gibbons have a long history in China, as reflected in the Chinese literature and art. Especially in early China, gibbons made the objects of many literary and artistic compositions.

The popularity of captive gibbons being kept as pets appears to go as far back as written history, although a proverb by the philosopher Huai-nan-tzû (died 122 B.C.) stated: “If you put a gibbon inside a cage, you might as well keep a pig. It is not because the gibbon is then not clever or swift anymore, but because he has no opportunity for displaying his abilities” (van Gulik, 1967, p. 40).”

An example of Gibbons in historical Chinese painting:


Unknown artist from Southern Song Dynasty.

Moving away from Gibbons, one unique character I observed in all the apes was a kind of nonchalance. One Gibbon came to the edge of their enclosure, on the farthest out branch and hung there for a few minutes by one arm looking at the strange humans who had come to see her. They are really unhurried and unbothered by anything. The Chimpanzees on patrol walk the edge of their territory unconcerned with all the people watching. Apes don’t ever appear stressed or worried by thoughts – they just do. Perhaps they’re the ultimate masters of mindfulness.

XingYi, the great internal martial art from China, has Monkey (Hu) as one of its 12 animals. I often find myself doing this sequence in a hurried way, since the movements are inherantly quick and fast, but now I think I’m going to try and slow down a bit and add an element of nonchalance to the moves as well. I think to really get that monkey character right you need to appear unconcerned about the attacker – after all, a monkey can often retreat to the safety of the higher branches after engaging, a luxury other animals don’t have when hunting or defending themselves. I think this nonchalant feel is be a key element to being able to master the XingYi animal in the correct way.


The professor

I can’t let the new documentary on Professor Cheng Man Ching, one of the early pioneers of Tai Chi in the West, slip out without giving it a mention on this blog.


Much has already been said about it, so there’s not too much more to add, except that I haven’t seen it yet, and I might blog again after watching it, because it will probably stimulate some thoughts.

Cheng Man Ching is one of those contentious figures who splits opinion. By being one of the very few people in the US publicly teaching Tai Chi in the 1960s, and thanks to the gushing endorsement in books by his student Robert Smith, and his ability to push big, heavy Westoners around with comparative ease, Cheng very quickly achieved a big reputation.


Cheng modified the Yang Tai Chi form he learned from Yang Cheng-Fu, creating one of the first short forms of Tai Chi. His Tai Chi also had a distinctive look compared to his teachers – in (I believe) an effort to stick as closely as possible to the writings of the Tai Chi classics, he changed some of the postures slightly, adopting a more upright body, and a softer hand and arm position. Some would say his Tai Chi was too soft, and his influence is responsible for the typical ‘soft like a noodle’ style of doing Tai Chi often found in the West. But if you watch  him do his form, you can see that he looks solid as hell. He exudes the ‘peng’ quality of energy rising upwards and outwards, and being rooted in the legs.

Undoubtedly he was an example of what happens when a small fish in a big pond suddenly becomes the only fish in a very small pond, but he was also a skilled practitioner of Tai Chi. Of that there can be no doubt. Was he also a world class martial artists? No, probably not. Did his students put him on an unrealistic pedestal? Yes, undoubtedly they did. But that’s what happens with human beings. We’re like that with people we admire.

You can watch the trailer here:

On knowing your lineage

Because only geeks care

Excellent article on lineage in martial arts:

in my experience of TCMAs, it always seemed to me that the vast majority of practitioners had only a very vague and shaky relationship with the notion that their styles had either a history or a lineage. Rather, most practitioners seemed most inclined invoke vague allochronistic ideas, about ‘Nature’, ‘Taoism’ or ‘the East’. Those who did believe that they knew their history, those inclined to talk about it, discuss it, dispute it, had one thing in common. They were all (in my experience), universally, and ‘to a man’, men.

The old master and the young apprentice

’twas ever thus

The Karate Kid – master and apprentice.

I love this clip of Master Helio Gracie teaching a private lessons, and it follows on nicely from my previous post about martial arts as theatre.

Here we have Master Helio Gracie, a thousanth degree red belt, probably in his 80’s, teaching a private lesson to a fresh new white belt kid. (The pupil shown here later went on to become a world champion in his own right.)

It’s a dynamic as old as time – the old master and the young apprentice. The whole thing is a performance of sorts, and they both play their roles perfectly – the wise, generous old man knows all the tricks, and teaches the young, enthusiastic beginner who makes all the stupid mistakes, time after time. And again, it’s being filmed, so it’s impossible to ignore the fact they both know the camera is there and they have their roles to play.

Enjoy the show.