My friend Byron Jacobs has added another video to his excellent Xing Yi Ten Minute Primer series. This time it’s on the water element, Zuan Quan, known as Drilling Fist.
The other parts are linked below:
My friend Byron Jacobs has added another video to his excellent Xing Yi Ten Minute Primer series. This time it’s on the water element, Zuan Quan, known as Drilling Fist.
The other parts are linked below:
As you may know I co-host the Heretics podcast with my old XingYi teacher Damon Smith. (Our last episode was pretty rad, so check it out. It’s on Heraclitus, the pre-Socrates Greek philosopher who was as Taoist as Chang Tzu – but we manage to cover Mongolian metal music and martial arts amongst other things).
It’s almost impossible to explain what a high level martial artists Damon is, so I’m not even going to try. He does a particularly good job of hiding it as well, so you’d never know unless you saw him perform some sort of martial technique just how good he is.
One of Damon’s favorite sayings is “there’s no correct technique, there’s only appropriate technique”. The first time I heard this it kind of annoyed me. I mean, a technique either works or it doesn’t, right? So in a way there is a ‘correct’ technique… however, the deeper meaning is that if you apply a ‘correct’ technique at time that is inappropriate then it’s as useless as an incorrectly performed technique.
If you watch martial art competitions you see this all the time. The perfectly executed jab/cross combo gets completely nullified by the opponent changing level and going for a body lock and takedown; the beautiful double leg that goes straight into a waiting knee to the face or the perfect hook punch counter that leaves the fighter open to the straight cross. The list goes on.
Another way I’ve been thinking about this recently is to do with styles. In BJJ everybody talks about their ‘game’. My game is this, my game is that. “I’m a butterfly guard player”, “I’m a top player”, “I like half guard”.
In Chinese martial art whole styles are dedicated to a particular type of fighting. Tae Kwan Do is kicking; Wing Chun is close range and Choy Lee Fut is long range, etc..
That’s great, but what if this thinking is holding us back? Perhaps a better way of thinking about martial arts is that you need to build up a variety of skills in different situations or positions. The more skill sets you have the easier you will be able to respond to what the opponent is doing in an appropriate way.
If, for instance, you’re in a self defense situation and the attacker is grabbing you, then you need to have some grappling skills. If you lack those skills then sure, you can fall back on your striking skills, but there might be a much easier solution you are completely missing. And equally, if you are in a situation where somebody is attacking you with a knife and you have to fight back, grappling them can be quite counter productive, if not fatal. If you knew how to use a short weapon, like a stick, and one was available then that might be a much better solution.
In the end, it’s appropriate technique that is required, but (and here’s the clincher) you can only access appropriate technique if you are already skilled in a variety of different positions and situations.
If you haven’t thought about this before then now might be the time to get out there and expand the limits of your training.
Here’s a very nice video from actor, comedian and all-round philosopher guru person, Russell Brand, about getting his blue belt in Brazilian Jiujitsu from the Roger Gracie school. There are no shortcuts for celebrities in BJJ (or at least there shouldn’t be), so just like everybody else he’s had to work hard for this. This is a great example of hard work paying off. Well done Russell!
In the video, he talks a lot about the community feel of BJJ.
What he’s talking about in the video (I believe) is the gap in modern society that used to be filled by either religion or secret societies and mystery religions – the idea of a brotherhood (and sisters too) that is created in a group where people are no longer viewed by the labels that society creates for us – father, doctor, immigrant, lawyer, builder, student, etc… but by what we have achieved on the matt.
“We all come through the door for different reasons, but we are all the same once we’re inside”.
It’s a very valuable thing to be viewed without societies cultural baggage weighing us down.
BJJ especially seems to fill that void in modern life. Other martial arts do too, but I don’t think they create quite the same sense of brotherhood as BJJ for a variety of reasons – perhaps it’s the close physical contact, where we’re constantly almost killing each other but paradoxically helping each other succeed.
In BJJ you see the huge changes in people’s personality happen before your eyes, they become more humble, warmer, and you feel it happen to yourself too.
Whatever this process is I just think BJJ does it better than other martial arts, and is more accessible than the old fashioned secret societies which don’t really exist in the same way in our more secular society where mainstream religion is a lot more tolerant than it used to be.
Anyway, he talks about it here:
He’s the ‘Marmite‘ of the Tai Chi world (well, one of the Marmites anyway, you could argue the Tai Chi world is made up of Marmite personalities all the way down 🙂 ), but this free article is a nice neat summation of Scott Phillips’s theory of Taijiquan as dramatic storytelling.
It’s easy to dismiss Scott as “he’s just a dancer”, but to me those Chen style movements he’s talking about look so stylistic and deliberate that they’re clearly not just martial movements. If you’re arguing that Tai Chi is just a martial art and nothing else then I think you’ve got a lot of explaining to do. It’s pretty easy to see what fighting looks like these days, since sport fighting is on TV every weekend.
I think the idea that ‘Ok, this might be true, but does this matter?’ has much more validity. If Scott is right and he’s tracked down the origins of Tai Chi, then it clearly been forgotten over time, and Tai Chi these days has become something else.
In fact, it had become something else over a hundred years ago. China has gone through several major political and cultural shifts over that time that changed their society completely (often resulting in the deaths of millions of people and associated trauma). The Boxer Rebellion, the 1912 Chinese Revolution, the Communist rise to power, the Cultural revolution and the current rise of nationalism under the guise of Communism, etc…
Anyway, the article is in-depth and it’s worth a read if you have an interest in the possible origins of Tai Chi:
“The Zhang Sanfeng Conundrum Taijiquan and Ritual Theater”— from The Journal of Daoist Studies at Academia.edu.
You can still buy the paper version from Three Pines Press.
The article is on page 98.
Want more? Scott writes books…
…and makes videos too.
Is there a secret to Tai Chi? To martial arts? To life? If there is I think it might be encapsulated in the two words, “Don’t try”.
Famously offensive American poet and author Charles Bukowski had “Don’t try” written on his gravestone:
It makes you wonder what he meant. Did he mean just give up? I don’t think so. Underneath “don’t try” is a picture of a boxer, indicating a struggle.
Mike Watt in the San Pedro zine The Rise and the Fall of the Harbor Area interviewed his wife Linda about, “Don’t try”:
Watt: What’s the story: “Don’t Try”? Is it from that piece he wrote?
Linda: See those big volumes of books? [Points to bookshelf] They’re called Who’s Who In America. It’s everybody, artists, scientists, whatever. So he was in there and they asked him to do a little thing about the books he’s written and duh, duh, duh. At the very end they say, ‘Is there anything you want to say?’, you know, ‘What is your philosophy of life?’, and some people would write a huge long thing. A dissertation, and some people would just go on and on. And Hank just put, “Don’t Try.”
As for what it means, it’s probably best to let Bukowski tell us:
“Somebody asked me: “What do you do? How do you write, create?” You don’t, I told them. You don’t try. That’s very important: not to try, either for Cadillacs, creation or immortality. You wait, and if nothing happens, you wait some more. It’s like a bug high on the wall. You wait for it to come to you. When it gets close enough you reach out, slap out and kill it. Or if you like its looks, you make a pet out of it.”
– Charles Bukowski
Now that’s starting to sound like Tai Chi to me…
I was working on an application of diagonal flying yesterday. The one where you get underneath their shoulder, arm across their body and lift them up and away. There’s a sweet spot as your shoulder goes under their armpit where you have leverage. Where they move easily. You go an inch or so in the wrong direction and you lose it. The technique doesn’t work.
Compared to wrestling and judo I think there are different factors to consider in making a Tai Chi throw work.
You have to think more about your posture. Say, your chest position (is it sheltered? Are the shoulders rounded?) and if you are sunk and in contact with the ground correctly. Is your butt sticking out? Are your legs bent enough?
All these factors matter more in Tai Chi than in Judo and wrestling because Tai Chi is a less physical art. (Whether that’s a good thing or bad thing is debatable, but it either way, it just is.)
With a less-physical art it’s much easier to notice when you’re having to “try” more to make a throw work. Having to “try” too much is a sign you’re muscling it, not letting posture, correct position, leverage and Jin (power from the ground) do the work. Judo and wrestling incorporate these elements too, but Tai Chi relies on them. And without them it just falls apart.
In BJJ I also really like the philosophy of “don’t try”.
For example, if I’ve got the knee on belly position on my opponent I love to go for the baseball bat choke:
The problem is that once you set your grips up on the classic baseball bat your opponent doesn’t just lie there – he defends. He grabs your arms, shifts his hips and generally does everything he can to prevent you from getting the finish.
Now the video shows you three ways to do this – they’re clever little counters to his counters. (I really like the last one actually – I’m going to try that).
But I tend to prefer a slightly different approach. Rather than think of each technique in isolation I like to think of them as being paired. Quite often when I go for a baseball bat choke I set up my grips and immediately my partner has cast iron grips on both my hands. Now sure, I could fight through this – ie. “try” to make the choke work – or I could just go, “you know what? The way he’s defending this means he’s lifting his far elbow – I’ll use that instead”. I give up the baseball choke entirely, but before you know it I’ve spun around and I’ve got a successful kimura grip. He defends the kimura and guess what? It leaves his neck open, and I go back to the baseball choke, so on.
I’m not trying to make anything work, I’m just going with what he gives me. And eventually all the pieces fit together like a jigsaw and it’s done.
I don’t always get it right. More often than not I get it wrong, but that’s what I’m aiming for. If you’re going to adopt this attitude you have to have a really flexible mind. You can’t get fixated on one thing. In fact, you can’t think too much. Just go with what you feel is available.
What I’m talking about is getting off the baseline and onto the middle and top lines. For a full explanation of what this means you’d need to listen to the Woven Energy podcast, but in a nutshell, it means you stop using the thinking, rational part of your brain and just use direct feedback from nature (your partner in this case, who is as much a part of nature as you are) and that gives you access to the midline (body) and topline (spirit).
In Chinese culture the topline, midline and baseline form a trigram, which can have broken or unbroken lines, as so:
And since we’ve returned to China we should note that the Taoists were all about this “Don’t try” philosophy. They called it Wu Wei – to do by not doing.
From the Tao Te Ching chapter 2:
Therefore the Master
acts without doing anything
and teaches without saying anything.
Things arise and she lets them come;
things disappear and she lets them go.
She has but doesn’t possess,
acts but doesn’t expect.
When her work is done, she forgets it.
That is why it lasts forever.
Or as Yoda put it, “Do or do not, there is no try”.
And to return to the topic of Tai Chi, it is also exemplified in the short but concise classic on push hands:
Song of Push Hands (by unknown)
Be conscientious in Peng, Lu, Chi, and An.
Upper and lower coordinate,
and the opponent finds it difficult to penetrate.
Let the opponent attack with great force;
use four ounces to deflect a thousand pounds.
Attract to emptiness and discharge;
Zhan, Lian, Nian, Sui,
no resisting no letting go.
And to finally return to Bukowski, he might be a strange role model, but I kind of like the old guy. His poems aren’t beautiful, but at least they are honest. He was always, exactly himself. He didn’t need to try.
Tai Chi Chuan has the 13 postures as its basis, which consist of the 8 powers and 5 directions.
The first 4 powers are well known – peng, lu, ji and an – while the second 4 tend to not be so well known. Li (split), Tsai (Pull down/shock), Zhou (elbow) and Kou (shoulder).
These 8 ‘powers’ are the most common expressions of power in Tai Chi Chuan. No technique in Tai Chi Chuan is really purely a single power – they’re all combinations of all 8 of the powers.
It’s this pull down, or shocking, power I want to talk about today.
Shock is often called Pull down because that’s the direction it’s most often used in, however, it’s actually directionless. I prefer “shock” as a description as that’s what it feels like, rather than a pull. Even if performed while pulling, it’s a sudden burst of focussed energy rather than a long expression of energy over time, like say a push.
A lot of people practice Tai Chi with its soft flowing movements yet are unable to coordinate the body together to produce a single isolated burst of power that’s required in the application of many of the movements of Tai Chi Chuan. Depending on how a Tai Chi form is done it’s quite common to see all the shock power removed altogether in favour of soft, flowing, relaxed movement. Yet without it, something is lacking. You’ll never make your techniques effective.
Take an armlock that’s supposed to break a limb. There’s no way you’re going to get that to achieve the desired effect if you can only do the move slowly and softly.
I’m not talking about a sudden burst of tension there either. A good ‘shock’ is delivered by coordinating the body movements together and generating power from the dantien, legs and waist.
Here’s a video I made whilst working on some Tai Chi – see if you can spot where the shock energy is.
An interesting side point to my previous post on wrapping in the legs and the crotch dantien in Tai Chi is the subject of the feet and gripping the ground.
There’s an old adage that the Tai Chi practitioners of Chen village used to “tear up the sandbanks” of the river bank when they practiced their form there. This indicates how much force was being produced by the legs twisting.
It’s often said in Tai Chi that your feet want to grip the ground. This is achieved by slightly raising the arch of the foot so the toes perform a clawing action that affords you improved stability, balance and grip.
The question is, how do you do it? It doesn’t sound very relaxed to ‘grip’ the ground with your toes, and we all know that in Tai Chi we need to be Song (‘relaxed’).
In fact, the arch of the foot and the grip of the toes is achieved through softness, rather than hardness. The answer is found in the wrapping of the legs we mentioned earlier.
If you point your knees outwards slightly you create a kind of gentle wrapping in the legs as you move, and, if you let it, this wrapping will encourage the toes to grip the ground and the foot arch to form. Of course, it should be emphasised that the action of the knee pointing outwards is achieved not by pointing the knee itself, but by rounding the inner thigh area – the Dang, in Chinese. We covered this in that last post.
The gripping action of the toes gives you better than normal balance, especially in one legged postures. If you’ve ever looked at a Tai Chi practitioner stand on one leg without wobbling and wondered how they do it, then look at their knee and see if it’s being gently pointed outwards. That’s usually the key.
There’s not really any point in seeking the extra stability this leg posture affords if you’re only practicing Tai Chi for health reasons, which is why “rounding the crotch” or gripping with the toes isn’t talked about much in styles that predominantly focus on health matters, but it should form part of martial Tai Chi Chuan. And indeed, if you are making this all happen using too much tension, then you might end up causing more harm than good, so buyer beware.
None of the postural considerations of Tai Chi should be achieved through tensing parts of the body. That’s the key. You need to walk the middle way between trying to make something happen too hard and not trying hard enough. That’s the enigma of Tai Chi.
After smashing our first Patreon target on the Heretics Podcast we have delivered on our promise by providing a special podcast episode that’s exclusive to our Patreons.
The episode called “Self Defence and the Miasma” features Graham and Damon talking about a subject that’s close to both their hearts – martial arts. We view how its practice in modern times has become influenced by the Miasma, and where lessons from Shamanistic technique can be applied.
To get the episode you need to become a Patreon. Even $1 Patreons get access to the exclusive podcast episode! There are various tiers of membership, higher levels of which give you access to Damon’s copious episode notes, (which are really good) and we’ll soon be launching a private discussion area.
P.S. If you’re wondering what the hell this Miasma thing is then check out this new episode of the Woven Energy podcast:
I thought I’d bring your attention to a great little video series written and directed by Felix Biederman that’s been produced by SBNation called Fighting in the age of loneliness. It’s a kind of history of MMA and the UFC, including all the influences from Japan to Brazil and elsewhere, including the Pride period, set against the social/economic backdrop the USA and Japan.
One particular quote I liked was:
‘Your home belongs to the bank, your gas tank is lining the pockets of those who had more to do with 911 than the country your brother just died fighting in and you’re told the economy is in high gear even though your paycheck is buying less and less but what you just saw in the cage was unambiguous. One person hit another and the other fell. Nothing about it lied to you.’
Here are the episodes:
Just wanted to give my readers a quick heads-up. I’m starting a new podcast!
Since I appeared on Ken Gullette’s Internal Fighting Arts podcast a couple of weeks ago I’ve been contacted by various people about different things and one of them was my old XingYi teacher Damon Smith who runs the Woven Energy podcast. He wanted to see if I’d like to help him out with his new Heretics Podcast.
The Woven Energy podcast is about Shamanism and contains frequent calls to action, so they give ideas you might like to try out and techniques. In contrast, the Heretics podcast is going to be a place where subjects that don’t fall under the banner of Shamanism can be discussed, like, say, martial arts. There will also be no call to action.
The name is in reference to the origins of the concept of heresy, back in Gnostic Christianity, and the fact that we will probably be talking about things that are against society’s commonly held beliefs. Starting with martial arts.
In the first episode, I make the mistake of asking Damon, ‘what is the history of Jiujitsu?’
Covers: Kempo, Jiujitsu, Japan-China trade, Yakuza, Samurai, Shoguns and much more….
Anyway, expect the first episode…. soon…