A new take on an old challenge video…

For a while now (10 years in fact!) there’s been a video on YouTube purporting to show a push hands challenge match that went down between Chen Xiao Wang, the recognised head of Chen style Taijiquan, and a XingYi practitioner from Taiwan called Liao Bai.

The challenge is often cited as a rare example of an uncoperative push hands exchange featuring Chen Xiao Wang, and one in which he doesn’t come off looking as proficient as he normally does. While nothing of substance happens at all in the clip, the fact that Liao Bai is able to launch a couple of strong attacks through Chen Xiao Wang’s defences, and occasionally make Chen move a foot is seen as some sort of a victory for him.

Firstly, I find the idea that this is some sort of victory slightly bizarre to begin with – I mean, he made him move his foot? Really? Is that it?

Secondly, the explanation that accompanies the YouTube video is written by only one side of the two parties involved, and heavily partisan. The clip is described as a “freestyle push hands”. However, it may turn out that what we’re seeing is nothing of the sort.

Mike Sigman posted recently:

Liao came to a workshop of CXW’s and bragged that no one can take his Tiger Fist releases. The video pretty much starts where CXW calls him on it and says, “OK, you do it”. Liao attempts a number of times to release his Tiger Fist (you can see it is the same release every time) and CXW attempts to absorb and instantaneously release back into Liao Bai, by CXW’s use of Receiving Jin. A lot of people embarrassed themselves and their reputations by publicly posting this video and saying it was “push hands”: it wasn’t even close … it was an example of CXW trying to use Receiving Jin in an open, unrehearsed setting, thus making it a good video to study.

OK, Mike is clearly a paid-up member of Team Chen Style :), but even so, I find his explanation persuasive. What they’re doing in the clip is clearly not push hands in any way, shape or form.  There’s just some awkward feeling out – a touching of the arms, then Liao Bai tries to launch attacks, while CXW tries to absorb them, without attacking back. Chen is clearly not even trying to attack back. If his only aim was to show he could absorb the attacks (using Receiving Jin), then this makes sense. And for the most part he succeeds.

Either way, it’s rare to find a clip of Chen Xiao Wang that’s not cooperative, so it’s instructive. Most of the time Chen succeeds, but not always. That’s what ‘real’ looks like. It’s not going to sell seminars or generate income, and it comes with risks to both health and reputation so I can see why he does so little of it, but you know it when you see it.

I created this blog post to counteract the popular narrative that surrounds this video. If we’re going to get to the bottom of it then it’s important to hear from both sides, and so far the idea that it’s a push hands challenge has gone pretty much uncontested.

It might be time to view it again, with fresh eyes.

 

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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:

alone autumn branch cold

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

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

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Yang-single

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

nature animal grass meadow

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

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

cat outdoors

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

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.

ycf_fair_lady_2

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?

selective focus photo of cherry blossom

Photo by Tim Gouw on Pexels.com

There’s a lot to learn from nature.

 

The whole Chen Tai Chi curriculum, in video form

Well, this page is interesting. It’s from Chen Bing, a Chen family member who is based in Los Angeles, USA, and from the looks of things, and it looks like a video reference for the whole Chen style Taijiquan curriculum!

https://chenbing.org/videos

​Chen Bing Taiji Academy (陳炳太極院) was established by Master Chen Bing who is a 20th generation representative of Chen Family Taijiquan.   Its headquarter is located in Chenjiagou, Wenxian County, Henan Province, China. – the birth place of Taijiquan.  Master Chen Bing is a direct descendant of Chen Wangting (陳王廷), the creator of Taijiquan.

That’s very generous of him to share these videos. It’s fascinating. Things I’ve noticed so far:

  1. The advanced stepping and silk reeling he shows shares a lot of similarities with Bagua (the tea cups-style exercises of Bagua Zhang are obviously silk reeling exercises, so this should be no surprise, but it’s the first time I’ve seen a Chen guy walking a circle, like they do in Bagua).

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j8JBxWQz3bg

  2. The advanced push hands videos look a lot like ‘wrestling without being allowed to grab the legs’. Looks like good basic training in stand-up grappling:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gjiw-JAl9YI

  3. The ‘primary explosive power’ video combines all the basic ‘fa jing’ moves you find in the Chen ‘old frame’ form into a nice little sequence:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LqcFfZaYPYA

  4. There’s a Yoga sequence at the end! Obviously he finds that a useful addition to Tai Chi. More weight to the idea that the primary origins of the ideas of body movement in Tai Chi and Yoga originate from the same source (or at least are compatible).

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FXT67_vgncw

Jin, by definition, requires intent

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My post called Don’t put power into the form, let it naturally arise from the form got a few nice reactions, so I wanted to write a follow up because as always in Tai Chi, today’s epiphany is tomorrow’s half truth.

In the last post I was talking about how, if you let the power of the movements naturally arise, it just works, as opposed to trying too hard to put power in them, which always leads to you screwing it up. But that doesn’t mean that if you just sink your weight and relax that your Tai Chi will become naturally powerful all on it’s own. If you want to send force outwards using Jin you need to be consciously aware you’re doing it.

I was reminded of this recently by a post by Robert Van Valkenburgh:

Jin, by definition, requires intent. If you don’t know you’re doing it, how can you be doing it?

As I explained in the last post, using Jin (ground-based force) as opposed to Li (muscle-based force) requires a relaxed body with the ability to sink the weight down to the ground, so it can rebound into the hands.

What I neglected to mention was that if you just sink the weight downwards, then that’s the direction it will go. It’s not going to magically just appear in the hands. So how do you get it there? The answer is, using the Yi.

The Yi is one of those hard-to-define Chinese terms we so often come across in Tai Chi. The most general ‘catch all’ translation you find is “intent”. But you can also think of it as “the mind directed to do something” or “the mind directed in a direction”.

So how do you get the force of the ground into the hands? By using the mind to direct it there. In fact, you want to direct it outwards and past your hands and into your opponent. I like to think of directing it from my foot (the part of me that is nearest to the ground) all the way to the horizon, through my hands, when I do an outward expressive movement, and down and in towards my foot when I do an inwards movement.

Don’t think of the path of power ( a Jin path) as going up the leg, through the torso and then down the arm and out – trapping the mind inside your body like that will not help the energy go outside it, which is what you want.

So, don’t worry about the path it takes, just ‘think’ in a straight line from your foot to your hand and out. The Jin path you create with your mind usually goes from your foot, through the air (at some point) and to your hands and in a straight line, since that’s the quickest route.

In the picture of Yang Cheng Fu below you can imagine that the Jin path goes from his back foot to this hand like this:

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Jin path

So when you run through the form, your mind needs to be creating these jin paths as you practice. As well as you doing everything I said in the last post – relaxing, sinking the chi and coordinating the body so all the separate parts arrive together. That’s the Tai Chi form in action.

Of course, that’s a tall order, and I’d suggest that beginners who are interested in this type of training pick a favourite move (a simple Push movement is a good one) and just practice it over and over, paying particular attention to mentally directing the path of forces in the body.

Without a teacher who can show you what it feels like it will be a bit like fumbling for something in the dark when you don’t know what it is or looks like. So get out there, try and get ‘hands on’ with a good teacher and you’ll get a better idea of what it feels like. If you find somebody who can do this then you can recognise it. It doesn’t feel like normal strength.

Ken Gullette, whose book I recently reviewed, has a good video that I hadn’t seen before which I think can give you a sense of what you’re looking for – the feeling of the ball under the water. That’s the main thing to focus on in this video.

Once you understand this concept then some of the lines in the Tai Chi classics will start to make more sense. Like, for example:

“The jin should be 
rooted in the feet, 
generated from the legs, 
controlled by the waist, and 
manifested through the fingers.”

“All movements are motivated by Yi, 
not external form.”

“6.) Use the mind instead of force. The T’ai Chi Ch’uan Classics say, “all of this means use yi and not li.” In practicing T’ai Chi Ch’uan the whole body relaxes. Don’t let one ounce of force remain in the blood vessels, bones, and ligaments to tie yourself up. Then you can be agile and able to change. You will be able to turn freely and easily. Doubting this, how can you increase your power?”

“The yi and ch’i must interchange agilely, 
then there is an excellence of roundness and smoothness.
This is called “the interplay of insubstantial and substantial.”

 

Don’t put power into the form, let it naturally arise from the form

singlewhip

 

I don’t know if this is a famous quote from a master of old, or if it’s just something that Wayne Hansen thought of himself, but he uses it in his signature, and I was musing on this phase recently:

Don’t put power into the form let it naturally arise from the form

It’s such a great quote, because it’s absolutely true!

I was reviewing somebody’s form recently and the big thing I noticed was that they were trying to put power into the movements, rather than just accepting that the movements on their own are powerful, and don’t need anything extra to make them work. In fact, when you try and make Tai Chi movements powerful, it just messes them up, because you inevitably revert to tense, isolated muscle use, instead of a smooth flow of connected power, like a river.

(I think I should mention here that I’m not talking about the explosive bursts of power you typically see in Chen style forms. These are different. Instead, I’m talking about the general movements found in Tai Chi, typified by Yang style and it’s variations, which opt for a smooth form with an even pace throughout).

What that quote doesn’t do however is explain how it’s done. Tai Chi is full of these mysterious sayings, with very little explanation, so let’s break this one down and see where we get.

Fang song

Firstly, in Tai Chi we are frequently admonished to Fang Song or “relax” as we would say in English. We all instinctively know that a relaxed body can be a powerful body.  Think of how heavy a small child can make themselves if they don’t want to be picked up by going all floppy. Similarly, a baby’s grip is surprisingly powerful, but not tense.

Being too tense results in a kind of rigid and brittle strength. It’s strong, but it’s not deep. It tends to lie on the surface, like ice on a lake, but break through the surface and it’s nothing but water underneath. Relaxation can be more like thick sea ice all the way down.

But to be powerful a relaxed body needs to be a coordinated body. On a purely mechanical level that means moving so that the coordinated power of the body arrives at the right place at the right time. There’s no point punching with just the arm, but if you can coordinate your body so the legs, hips, torso, and arm are all working – arriving – together it creates a kind whole body power that doesn’t rely much on tension at all. But that’s still not the whole story.

That sinking feeling

This sort of whole body power on its own is not enough. The next stage is to get used to sinking into the movements. This sinking – dropping the weight of the body down into the ground through relaxing – paradoxically, enables power from the ground to come up into the hands. It generally moves in an upward and outwards manner, which is the Peng Jin that Tai Chi is famous for. All the movements of Tai Chi need to contain this Peng Jin.

I often read people who critique this method, thinking that “pushing from the legs” will just be too slow, but frankly, they just don’t know what they’re talking about 🙂

True, the legs are very much involved, but when you effectively sink – drop the weight down – it’s not a physical movement. It’s an internal movement. And the power of the ground arrives in your hands instantaneously, so there’s no delay. It’s not too slow to use.

Once you get used to doing this sinking you can feel it. It requires practice, probably daily practice to get it. But that’s why you do the form every day. Every day you are practicing movements where you drop the weight and put the power of the ground in your hands.

Remember, the movements themselves are powerful – you don’t need to add power in. Instead you need to learn to relax, coordinate and sink your ‘energy’.

Just look at that picture of Yang Cheng Fu above.

He’s got it.

 

 

 

Book review: Internal Body Mechanics for Tai Chi, Bagua and Xingyi, by Ken Gullette

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Anybody who has attempted to learn Tai Chi in any depth instantly realises that the choreography of a form is just that – choreography – and that the devil is in the details. Internal Body Mechanics is all about the details: How you move, what you move and where you move it to.

It’s author, Ken Gullette is a veteran of the Internal arts, having started with Yang style Tai Chi way before China opened up to the West and before the Internet appeared. Over the years he’s trained with some of the best, especially in Chen style. He’s interested in the practical use of the internal arts as actual martial arts, rather than a method of communing with the universe, feeling your Qi or healing your body. While he’s been presenting this information in DVD and video format for years via his website kungfu4u.com, this book is his first attempt to capture the “body mechanics” of the internal arts in print.

Like most Western Tai Chi enthusiasts who started when Tai Chi was just breaking into the West, Ken inevitably ended up going down many dead ends before he could find good quality instruction, which is why he’s written this book. Ken’s ambition is to write a Tai Chi book that is all killer, no filler, which immediately sets him apart from 99% of Tai Chi teachers out there, whose books usually give you a lot of boring history and then try to teach you a form, which is impossible to learn from a book in the first place.

Instead, Ken is going straight to the meat of the matter, for which he deserves recognition and praise. Internal Body Mechanics covers 6 core principles of the internal arts:

  1. Centred stance and Ground path
  2. Maintaining Peng Jin
  3. Use whole body movement
  4. Use spiraling movement of silk reeling energy
  5. Internal movement and the Kua
  6. Dantien rotation

The book is structured so that one chapter leads naturally into the next, so once you’ve grasped one principle you are ready for the next one. The chapter on the Kua, how to open and close the kua, and what it is, is especially good. This is a tricky subject to convey in text and Ken does it through telling stories of training with Chen Xiaowang and quoting what he said to him during form corrections. I felt like I “got it” immediately. So much so, in fact, that when Ken used the posture “Sweep the rider from the horse” to demonstrate how Chen Xiaowang was saying people close the Kua “too much”, I immediately put the book down, tried out the posture and realised I was making the same mistake. There you go Ken – you got me! It’s not often you can instantly improve your Tai Chi and correct your form from reading a book, but Internal Body Mechanics proves it is possible.

The book also comes with a website containing videos of all the techniques and demonstrations that are pictured. Obviously a video is superior, but I found the pictures sufficient to get the points being made… except for the large silk reeling chapter of the book – that is where you’d really need to access the videos to ‘get it’ – especially if you’ve never done silk reeling exercise before. But the videos are not free – you have to pay an additional one-off fee to access them.

Qi and Jin

When you get down to the heart of the matter with Internal arts, I find that you are dealing mainly with two things: Qi and Jin. Because these are initially obscure Chinese terms, that don’t translate easily into English and require thought, experimentation and good teaching to master, they become the initial stumbling blocks for all Tai Chi practitioners. Ken spends a lot of the book dealing with the subject of Jin – with chapters on the ground path and Peng Jin specifically. He covers it really well. There are lots of partner exercises to try out that are illustrated with photos from his DVDs. Jin often accounts for the overly-theatrical demonstrations that Tai Chi ‘masters’ like to do on their overly compliant students at seminars, where they send them bouncing away at the slightest touch. Once you understand how Jin works you can see what is really going on, and it stops being so mysterious. Ken’s book will give you that kind of understanding.

It’s on the subject of chi/qi that I find I depart a little from Ken’s thinking. Ken has little time for mystical thinking on qi. By the time Ken gets to his Dantien rotation chapter he is slaying sacred Tai Chi cows like he works in an abattoir and the concept of qi takes a bolt through the head early on.

“As a 21st-century college educated American who applies critical thinking skills and expects evidence before I cling to a belief, there is no evidence whatsoever that our bodies contain Chi or a Dantien…”  – Ken Gullette

I’d agree with him on the critical thinking, but there’s always the danger of throwing the baby out with the bathwater when this staunchly non-mystical approach is adopted. Especially when it comes to qi.

Is qi a mystic substance in our bodies, as some would like us to believe, or is it just a term that the ancient Chinese used to describe parts of the body that is still functionally useful when learning how to move in non-standard ways?

Ken sees the use of Qi and Dantien as merely useful mental visualization tools, so that’s the approach adopted in the book. He also dismisses the idea that you must control your fascia to control your dantien as “poppycock”. This pleases me, and I raised a wry smile as I’ve got into similar arguments with fascia fanatics on the Internet, who attribute almost magical powers to it. He’s right, of course – you cannot consciously control the movement of your fascia or skin, only muscles (let’s not get into the sticky issue of consciously making the hair on your arms stand on end or subconscious control of body functions). However, you can use your muscles to stretch both skin and fascia (and tendons and everything else)  to create a feeling of connection, and that feeling of connection can be slowly built up into something tangible that you can use to manipulate the body from the dantien area. To me, this is the real meaning of Qi, and means it still deserves its place in the creation of whole body movement.

So, while Ken’s Dantien rotation chapter is purely about manipulating the musculature in the area of the lower abdomen, which of course, it is, I’d also add in that you can also use it to connect to the arms and legs via this “qi” connection, which you can build up over time. I went over this idea in my video series, but anyway, I digress.

Conclusion

Ken’s approach is not that of an almighty Tai Chi teacher who is imparting precious wisdom to you, his lowly disciple, from on high, but rather, a healthy attitude of “we can all learn together” flows through the pages. You never feel like you are being preached at. Instead, you encounter a fellow traveler on the path who is as curious as you are to see what lies ahead. Most importantly, he wants you to avoid the dead ends he’s ended up in.

So, while I find myself at odds slightly with Ken on the issue of how Qi relates to internal body mechanics, I don’t find that stops me enjoying the book and learning from it. In terms of practicing Tai Chi as a martial art, grasping the idea of Jin and how to use the power of the ground in your techniques, not local muscle, is the most important thing, and Ken’s book excels in this respect.

It should also be noted that if you’re a fan of “martial” Tai Chi (like me) then you’ll love this book. It doesn’t teach you any martial techniques (that’s Ken’s next book, apparently) but everything is looked at through a lens of why this body method is useful for combat. I actually find that more valuable.

There’s not much Xingyi and Bagua presented in this book really, so while I appreciate the catch-all requirement of the title will widen the book’s appeal, it’s really focussed on Tai Chi, and Chen style in particular. Sure, the body mechanics of Tai Chi cross over into XingYi and Bagua, but the sayings of Chen Xiaowang to the author are repeated frequently through the book and this is really a detailed explanation of his Tai Chi teachings so I would have been happier if that had been reflected in the title.

Don’t let my minor points of contention put you off. This is one of the most practical books on Tai Chi on the market right now and you need to get it. It annoys me that there aren’t more Tai Chi books like Ken’s around that actually deal with the mechanics of movement that you need to develop for Tai Chi, and I hope that Internal Body Mechanics is the first of a turning tide, because the world needs more Tai Chi books like this one.

Ken’s blog: www.internalfightingartsblog.com

Amazon link on US and UK.

Ken Gullette’s new book: Internal body mechanics

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A quick heads-up for internal martial artists: Ken Gullette has a new book out that looks really interesting called, “Internal body mechanics for Tai Chi, Bagua and Xingyi”.

I haven’t read it, or even seen a copy, but I thought I’d give it a mention because it looks pretty good. It sounds like it gets straight down to the business of teaching you how to move and dispenses with the usual boring histories and form photos. Ken’s bio of how long he’s trained and who he as trained with looks pretty good too.

In Ken’s own words:

Basically, I wanted to write the book that I wish I had when I began studying the internal arts back in 1987. If I was able to read it back then, it would have saved me many years and thousands of dollars in class fees. Based on some of the martial artists I have met during the past 20-something years, I know there are millions of internal arts students who are not learning these skills.

The six fundamental body mechanics for internal power include:

** Establishing and maintaining the ground path at all times.

** Using peng jin at all times along with the ground path.

** Using whole-body movement — when one parts move, all parts move.

** Silk-Reeling “Energy” — the spiraling movement that adds power to techniques.

** Dan T’ien rotation — guiding the internal strength and power as the body moves.

** Using the kua properly — opening and closing the kua, like a buoy in the ocean, helping the body stay balanced as incoming force changes.

You can find out more details about the book here, and it’s on Amazon US and UK.

Week 5 – moving from the middle.

Here’s week 5 of my course Pulling Earth Pushing Heaven, on mindful Tai Chi movement.

OK, so to recap, we’ve started off looking at building the elastic connection along the channels. We’ve looked at relaxing the lower back and getting the power to come from the lower body. We’ve talked about not compromising the movement in the arms. We’ve added in reverse breathing. Now we’re going to try to keep all that and get the movement to be directed from the middle of the body – the dantien.

Week 5: Moving from the middle.