Using the mind: Pulling earth, pushing heaven, week 6

Happy Father’s Day! (UK version :) )

To celebrate Father’s Day I’ve got my oldest son in this episode, providing a bit of feedback for me to work with. This week we look at the role of the mind in directing forces to your feet (the ground) and sending them back out

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Pulling Earth, Pushing Heaven Part 3

Here’s part 3 of my 8-week course on mindful movements with Tai Chi. Last week we looked at the lower body, this week it’s the turn of the upper body and I throw in a bit of zen wisdom at the end for good measure. Enjoy!

“The teachings of Li CunYi on XingYi’s 5 Elements” – a new translation.

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Paul Brennan of Brennan Translation has completed a new work, that’s worth a look if you’re a XingYi practitioner. It’s called “The teachings of Li CunYi on XingYi’s 5 Elements“, which are said to be the oral teachings of the famous XingYi boxer, Li CunYi as recorded by Du Zhitang of Guangzong [in Xingtai, Hebei]. There’s no date on the manual, but 1916 is a good guess.

The manual covers the 5 Elements of XingYi (Pi, Zuan, Beng, Pao and Heng) together with a “continuous boxing set”, which is a linking form, where the techniques are linked together in one continuous flow.

The linking form presented in the book is very close to this one:

 

Ben Judkins on perfect practice in martial arts

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Really nice article over at Kung Fu Tea by Ben Judkins called Facing Down a Wooden Dummy, and the Myth of “Perfect Practice”.

Here’s a quote:

“Simply going through the motions is not enough. One must be self-aware, actively choose goals when practicing, and strive to improve those one or two things until you could do them “perfectly.”  In a moment of frustration Nihilus called on a student not to “be perfect,” but to make a conscious choice to put himself on a path to mastery.  At its best, this is what the challenge of “perfect practice” can be.”

If you liked this article then you might also like:

How to practice effectively for just about anything

Ben Judkins on Yip Man, Globalisation and the growth of Wing Chun Kung Fu

Angry Baby Gods and Lightsaber duels: A visit to the Martial Arts Studies Conference 2016

Aikido vs MMA – real sparring

This is a follow up post to yesterdays post about Tai Chi vs MMA. As I said in the last post, I thought the Tai Chi guy took way too much damage if the point of it was to discover if Tai Chi worked in an MMA environment. Obviously, it was more of a challenge match involving a clash of egos, so it didn’t go down like that, but there are better and friendlier ways to test your traditional martial arts in a more challenging environment.

That’s why I really like this clip of a 13-year Aikido guy trying his stuff on an MMA fighter in a ring. Nobody gets hurt and the Aikido guy has the chance to let the scales fall from his eyes without suffering brain trauma in the process.

It’s a great video and well worth watching. Well done to both of them – and let’s see more of this please!

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.

Fight Mom

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One MMA fighter I haven’t paid much attention to is Michelle Waterson, “the Karate Hottie”, who fights “Thug” Rose Namajunas in UFC211 tonight. The winner of which will presumably challenge the formidable Joanna Jędrzejczyk, who I have written about before, for the Women’s Strawweight title.

In her last outing with the UFC Michelle made short work of the UFC’s golden girl, Page VanZant, winning by rear naked choke in the first round:

What’s interesting about Michelle is that she comes from a traditional Karate background, although to look at her fight these days she looks more like a Muay Thai/Jiujitsu fighter, but in the Page fight she made frequent use of the sidekick, a staple from Karate.

In the following video she talks about the problems of adapting traditional Karate kicking techniques to the MMA world. It’s interesting on a technical level and very refreshing in its honesty about what happens when ideas meet reality:

In the brash, trash-talking, world of MMA Waterson, with her traditional ideas of martial arts respect and humility, seems like a breath of fresh air. She’s down-to-earth, possessing a natural charm.

Her journey from Karate fighter, to MMA fighter, to world Champion with Invicita then moving to the UFC, having a daughter and her supportive husband, who gave up his boxing career for her are all documented in the brilliant film Fight Mom, which you can watch in full here:

https://www.uninterrupted.com/watch/WjKdtIcH/fight-mom

Win or lose tonight, Michelle has had a hell of a ride to get to where she is today, and I look forward to every chance I get to see what she can do in the UFC.

Life Hack: Brush your teeth in a Horse Stance

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We brush our teeth twice a day, morning and night. It’s a ritual that we don’t really think about, we just do it. But how about this for a little life hack? Stand in a Horse stance while you brush your teeth.

If you brush your teeth for 2 minutes a session, then switching to a Horse Stance will mean that’s 4 minutes of Horse Stance a day you’re now doing. That’s 28 minutes a week, 112 minutes a month and 1,460 minutes (or over a whole day) of standing in Horse stance a year.

So, why do this?

Firstly, why not? It’s dead time that you aren’t doing anything else, so you might as well get a bit of training in.

Secondly, training a Horse stance is really good for your health. It makes your legs stronger. I’ve heard it said that the Chinese believe we die from the ground up. If you look at old men they generally have skinny legs. By working the muscles in your legs in a Horse stance you stop them withering away. It’s a bit like the benefits you get from squats, but more evenly distributed over all of the muscles in the legs, not just the big ones in your thighs. Having well muscles legs helps your heart pump blood around your body – the calf muscle (specifically the Gastrocnemius/Soleus) is often described as a ‘second heart‘ because it helps to return blood from the lower leg.

And for the more superficial amongst us, you’re also working your butt muscles 😉

Thirdly, as your muscles complain and tighten you need to consciously relax them, smile through the pain and after a while it starts to feel enjoyable. You might not be able to do a full 2 minutes to start with, but after a few days, you will. You can feel the gains you make very quickly.

This ability to relax through the tension is essential for any sport or martial activity. You’re programming your responses to change from their habitual reaction of tensing to relaxing.

How to do a Horse stance.

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All you need is an old Chinese master to help you.

There are many varied and contrasting opinions on what a Horse Stance is, but I’m going to show you how to do the one I do, which I feel is the most doable, and has the added bonus of being mechanically sound.

  1. Stand with your feet one and a half times your shoulder width distance apart.
  2. Keep the outside edges of your feet parallel with each other.
  3. Sink down until your thighs are at 45 degrees.
  4. The weight is evenly distributed between right and left feet.

That’s it! If you look down you should see your big toe on the inside of your knee. If you can’t then you might be letting your knees collapse inwards, so just gently push them out a bit.

To stand in this position you keep your lower back relaxed (watch out for tension here) and keep your shoulders aligned vertically over the top of your hips (no leaning forward!) Keep your head aligned as if pulled up by a thread from the crown point (your neck should lengthen at the back and your chin tucks in slightly). The spine is lengthening upwards. Remember, don’t lean forwards. Stay upright so you can work with gravity, not against it.

If you do need to bend forward to pick up your toothbrush, etc, then try and hinge your body from your hips. Keep your spine lengthened and your head in the same alignment with your neck and shoulders. N.B. Don’t curve your spine to reach forward – keep it extended.

There are more extreme versions of the horse stance with the thighs parallel with the ground. Leave that for the young and foolish for now.

Here are some pictures of Tai Chi masters showing the type of Horse Stance I’m talking about:

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Sun Lu Tang

 

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Chen Xiaowang

 

And here’s a picture I found on Pinterest that demonstrates the technicalities:

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and another:

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Taking it further. 

You don’t have to stop at just brushing your teeth in a Horse Stance. I like to also wash my face in the stance as well. I would shave there too, but I can’t see myself in my bathroom mirror when I sink down into a Horse stance, so that’s currently a no go for me. Perhaps I’ll get myself a second shaving mirror…

 

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

Rollback – the unfinished technique

Here’s the best thing to do after you’ve applied Tai Chi’s rollback.

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One of the things that comes up a lot in Tai Chi push hands training that’s geared towards the martial side of Tai Chi is what to do with the opponent after you’ve done Rollback. Rollback uses Lu energy to lead the opponent in and control them, with their arm kind of locked, but not to the point where they’d tap. In the Yang form there’s no ‘finish’ from this position – after controlling them you strike with Press (Ji). This is ok, but to me it seems like you’re giving up the advantage you have over them because of the control that rollback affords in exchange for a quick strike. It looks like this:

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There are several alternative things you can do – turn it into a push away (into a wall?), turn it into a takedown where you keep the pressure on the arm and shoulder, forcing them into the ground, or you can go for my preferred answer, which is to turn it into a standing arm bar as shown in this video:

Key things to note:

1. He puts his elbow over the top of their arm and makes sure the locked arm is snug in his armpit.

2. On the locked arm the little finger edge is pointing to the sky.

3. In the finish position he rotates his wrists around the opponent’s wrist so that both his thumbs point upwards – this gives you maximum leverage on the arm.

4. Once the opponent is controlled you can look around and watch out for further danger from somebody else.

I like this solution because it’s a really powerful arm lock and you can move into it from the end of the Tai Chi rollback posture fairly easily. You can feel it would be easy to break the arm from here, and the opponent is pretty much helpless. Obviously, in a self defence situation the level of force you exert needs to match the severity of the threat you feel you are under, so don’t go breaking the arm of people who have innocently patted you on the back, and also take care of your training partners. Don’t break your toys!