The Tai Chi Miasma, or “No, the fight is not over just because you’ve got me off balance.”

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I had an interesting chat with another Tai Chi teacher this week. Generally, Tai Chi teachers are nice people who have trained hard at something for a number of years and developed a lot of skill in it. They’re often not that into the martial side of the art, (even if they say they are), yet they’ve managed to pick up a lot of what I call “Tai Chi Miasma” along the way.

(If you want to know what a Miasma is, I do a podcast about the subject and how it reverberates through human history. Click the link above. A brief summation of Tai Chi Miasma would be, “a set of unconscious and often faulty assumptions about combat influenced by Tai Chi training”, but I’d also have to include a lot of Chinese miasma about yin and yang, qi and tao that was incorporated into Tai Chi by the influence of the Neo Confucian Zhu Xi amongst the intellectual class.)

For example, I find that there’s a pervasive belief amongst Tai Chi practitioners that the fight is effectively over once they have taken your balance. They’ll say things like, “once I’ve got you off balance I can walk you around the room”.

I’m sorry to break it to you (pun intended) but no, the fight is not over just because you have broken my balance!

It’s not over even if you get me off balance and whack me in the face, unless I’m unconscious or too hurt to continue by your deadly 5 point exploding palm technique.

Yes, I’m sure you’ve seen your master controlling people with the lightest of touches and walking them around the room in a wrist lock or arm control of some kind, but that’s happening in a controlled training environment. In real life, it’s not like that.

Just watch any combat sport with live training against resistance. Say wrestling or judo. The players are in a constant state of flux. They are losing their balance and regaining it over and over. Often they willingly sacrifice their balance for a superior position.

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Judo. It’s crazy.

They get thrown, they get taken down, they get pinned, but they fight their way back up and go again. The fight is not over just because one person takes the other’s balance, however skilfully or with the lightest of touches they did it.

“Ah!”, they say, “but once you get them off balance it’s easy to keep them off balance. ”

No, no it’s not.

Just look at MMA. MMA is an even better example than pure grappling arts because it involves strikes. Sometimes the strikes are controlled and orderly, but a lot of the time, especially after people get hurt and tired, there are wild punches being thrown looking for a KO, resulting in people falling all over the place, people slipping, kicks missing, etc.

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MMA. It’s painful.

The 80/20 rule.

In grappling sports, people spend a lot of time training what to do after the balance has been taken – or “finishing moves” if you like. That’s where 80% of the training is, because they know it’s not easy and they want to secure the win.

In contrast, Tai Chi partner work seems to be 80% about balance taking and 20% about what to do afterwards… if you’re lucky.

That’s fine if you are aware of that, but not fine if you then start to make grand pronouncements about what would happen in a combat situation because you’ve been told about what should happen next in the method you are teaching, rather than your direct experience.

Yes, I’m making a huge generalisation, and I’m sure it doesn’t apply to YOUR school. [wink emoji for sarcasm] But allow me the exaggeration to make my point.

By the way, I’m sure I have my own martial arts miasma too. We all do, but what I’m saying is that we should be aware of it.

Catch yourself saying these things about what should happen next, or what would happen next, if you can. Let your actions speak, not your words.

There’s nothing wrong with focussing on balance breaking. It’s fun, and skilful, and nobody is getting hurt, but also make it a point to spend significant time sparring with resistance.

It keeps you honest.

 

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Stop fighting in push hands

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

I don’t really enjoy push hands.  I used to, I used to enjoy it much more when I saw it as a medium for exploring arm locks, takedowns, wrist locks, throws. In short, when I saw it as a way to practice techniques. I used to love it.

In more recent years I’ve reframed my view of what push hands is. Partly this is because I took up BJJ, and found I got more than enough scrapping in my diet to satisfy my craving to try out locks, throws and sweeps. That’s essentially what we do in BJJ, we practice locks, throws and sweeps over and over until we get very good at them and can do them under full resistance.

Inevitably the BJJ player ends up going one of two ways over the years. Either he (or she) gets softer and more flowing. So, when the other person is pushing you should be pulling, and when they’re pulling you should be pushing. By learning to flow with the dynamic movement between two people you learn to blend, yield and overcome. Or they end up getting very good at smashing people. Whatever is in front of them they can just smash through it using precise, accurate bursts of speed and power.

Inevitably all BJJ players tend towards the first approach as they age, if they want to keep training, that is. Or they give up either through injury or changing life circumstances.

But back to push hands. Once I had found a way to get my regular fix of fighty, I found I could step back and view push hands as something else. Perhaps what it was originally intended for.

Now when somebody pushes on my arm I don’t immediately think “how can I lock this arm?”, I am thinking, “where is his force going?”. Is it going to my feet? If not, I try and send it there, turn and yield. When it’s my turn to push back I ask myself where I’m pushing from. Is it the ground? If not, why not? What am I doing that’s stopping that? Where am I tense?

Pushing hands like this might not be as much fun, but I think overall, it’s more satisfying.

Proper push hands lacks the thrills of the fighty approach, but it instils qualities in you that make your fighty better.

That’s a difficult concept to really understand, and even harder to do when the other person just wants to fight. If the other person wants to fight then I sometimes just fight back. Inevitably I slip into BJJ mode and we end up in some armlock on the ground, and it’s fun…

…but it’s probably not what we should be doing.

 

Brush Knee Twist Step: Tai Chi application and style comparison

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Yang Cheng-Fu Brush Knee Twist Step

Brush Knee Twist Step (called “Walk obliquely with twist step”, which was probably its original name) is a fundamental movement in all Tai Chi styles.

Chen Zheng Lei performing “Walk obliquely with twist step”:

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The Yang style Brush Knee looks like a slightly simplified version of this. Here performed by Yang Jun, grandson of Yang Cheng-Fu :

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And Sun Style looks like the Yang style, but with added steps. Here performed by Sun Peng who is Sun Lu Tang’s grandson :

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The version I personally do is somewhere between the traditional Sun and Yang styles. It’s got a step, but it’s most like Yang. Here’s a little GIF showing me doing an application of Brush Knee Twist Step in push hands from the Tai Chi style I practice.

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Here’s how it looks in my form (a Yang style variant from the Gu Ru Zhang lineage that had input from Sun Lu Tang).

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Of course, there are many possible applications of this movement, and I’m just showing one, but hopefully, that gives some indication of the usage.

How to get better at push hands

Today’s Tai Chi tip is all about how to get better at push hands simply by adjusting your posture.

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Push hands should really be an exercise in which we get to test our ability to absorb Jin from an opponent and project it into an opponent as required, to uproot them.

It shouldn’t devolve into a pushing and shoving match to see who can ‘win’. Once it turns into that then I don’t think anybody is learning anything anymore. There are far superior methods of grappling and I think you’d be better off spending your time learning those if your goal is simply to win a grappling exchange.

But before we can focus on using Jin we have to get our body in a position where it conforms to the Tai Chi principles of posture, where we’re not fighting it all the time, and it’s working to our advantage instead.

It is said, “Jin does not flow through tense muscles

So, we need to get our body into a structural position where we can be as relaxed as possible, without collapsing, yet still maintain our connection to the ground. In Chinese terms you would call this a posture where your “qi is strong”, but you are not tensing muscles more than they need to be.

Of course, this optimum qi structure is one of the first things to go out of the window once we start push hands. In push hands we get to test our Tai Chi under a limited amount of pressure. Faults that lie dormant in the form rise to the surface like bubbles.

Here we’re going to go over a few.

1. Head position and leaning

Head position in the form goes hand in hand with the issue of leaning. Some styles of Tai Chi, like Wu style and Yang Cheng-Fu’s Yang style, opt for a slight angling forward of the torso in forward-weighted bow stances. Other styles like Sun style, Chen style and Cheng Man-Ching style all keep an upright posture as often as they can, even in front-weighted stances. (See pictures below)

But the thing is, all styles are upright in their back stances (or should be). And even styles that maintain an upright stance, have to lean forward to do throwing techniques that take the person to the ground like Needle at Sea Bottom or Punch to the ground, for example.

Here are some examples of different Tai Chi practitioners:

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Chen Xiaowang, upright and stable.

 

 

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Cheng Man-Ching, very upright.

 

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Sun Lu Tang, no leaning.

 

A variety of postures from Wu Jian Quan, showing sometimes leaning, sometimes not.

Yang Cheng-Fu showing sometimes a slight leaning, sometimes not.

 

I think it’s time to get to the point of all this:

It’s not the lean itself that matters.
It’s maintaining an unbroken spinal alignment that is the key issue!

All these practitioners have one thing in common, they are not letting their heads droop, and they are not looking at the floor when they don’t need to.

For example, when even a practitioner who is famous for his upright posture does Needle at Sea Bottom, he or she bends forward, she just doesn’t break the alignment of the spine.

Needle at Bottom of the Sea

Needle at Sea Bottom

 

The Tai Chi classics talk a lot of carrying the head as if “suspended from above”. If you let your head droop you break the spinal alignment. You are easy to off-balance in push hands because your posture is broken. But if you hinge properly from the hips then you can still keep this spinal alignment even when you bend forward.

Think of the spine as including the neck (which anatomically, it does of course). If the neck goes offline in relation to the spine then the weight of the head has to be compensated by muscles elsewhere in the body. And this extra tensing of muscles results in a less efficient transfer of Jin from (or too) the ground.

Because we are quite used to this happening while standing or sitting, we don’t really feel our head being off centre so much. Switch to working on the ground, in a yoga posture for example, and you can instantly feel the difference your head position makes.

On a technical level, if you are using Jin you should be able to let the solidity of the ground be apparent at the point of contact with the opponent. If you have to use too much muscle then your pure Jin starts to turn into “Muscle Jin”. Muscle jin, isn’t as adaptable to change as pure jin. You can’t easily change direction, for instance. It also just doesn’t feel as it should. It might help you win a push hands competition, but you’ll find it lacking when it comes to martial technique.

And when it comes to the thorny issue of leaning, I’d recommend trying to stay upright in push hands. As I said before, the leans you tend to see in Tai Chi forms are to do with the application of a technique. Sure, you can lean to apply power according to a technique (just make sure you keep your spine aligned) but for the usual back and forth of push hands I’d recommend trying to keep as upright as possible. You’ll find it gives you more freedom of movement in the horizontal axis.

If you watch this clip of Wang Hai Jun doing some push hands with applications in it, you’ll notice that he’s staying upright during the push hands, but he’ll lean to apply a technique:

 

2. Shoulder usage

I posted before about learning how to sink in Tai Chi Chuan. One of the benefits of sinking is that you can be powerful yet relaxed at the same time. Again, this is a body requirement for the use of Jin. I don’t really care about relaxing the legs so much (although see point 3 later on) they key thing is making sure that all the tension of the upper body is dissolved down into the lower body.

You want to feel like your upper body is empty, while your lower body is full. “Hands like clouds, legs like mountains”, is a phrase that springs to mind.

The big stumbling block here is always the shoulder. Either we use our shoulder too much, and the movement becomes local and isolated from the rest of the body, or we don’t relax it sufficiently, and it becomes a blockage to the smooth flow of power from the ground that you’re looking for.

One really effective way of bypassing the shoulder in push hands, and relying more on sinking and the power of the ground, is to imagine a tube that runs from your hand, all the way up your arm, and down your back to the foot and the ground. Imagine another tube for the other side of the body. Now, when you want to move your arm, you have to move the whole tube. Start your power at the foot.

Over time, once you get the hang of it, it will become intuitive to start to direct your ‘tube movement’ from the waist area, and ‘moving from the dantien’ starts to become your preferred method of movement.

 

3. Using the back leg as a brace

Another trap people fall into is using the back leg like a brace, held stiff against the ground. Again, this leads to muscle Jin, not the relaxed release of power we are looking for. If you engage in the push and shove type of push hands you typically see at push hands tournaments then this is a great way to win. Unfortunately, ‘winning’ makes no difference if your goal is to get better at Tai Chi Chuan.

Don’t get me wrong, a little physical scrap like this is good for you now and again, and it’s good fun to push yourself physically! But these days I tend to let BJJ rolling get that all out of my system, so I can focus more on developing push hands skill in the right way when I’m engaged in push hands practice. .

So that’s a bunch of stuff you shouldn’t be doing. But what should you be doing?

I’d put forward the following 3 suggestions. This is just my personal opinion, of course.

1. Posture, posture, posture.

As you push hands keep your focus on your posture. Mentally note when you lean forward, note when you feel unbalanced sideways. Stop looking at the floor. Look at the horizon, through your opponent. Note when your feet aren’t flat on the ground. Where is your breathing? Low down or up in the chest? I count breathing as a posture consideration since it will affect your posture.

2. Sink.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. Sinking is the key to changing from using Li to learning to use Jin. Learn to relax the upper body completely and drop your weight into your lower body, then use that to power your movements.

3. Listen.

Once you are relaxed and able to sink your weight (Sung in Chinese) you should start to ‘listen’ – Ting Jin in Chinese. This enables you to detect where your partner is weak in their structure. How just a little push here or there will send them off balance. That’s where you need to start experimenting in your attacks.

 

 

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.

 

The problem with push hands challenges

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This is a really interesting article from Practical Method Tai Chi about the passive-aggressive world of Tai Chi push hands challenges in China – I really try to avoid pushing hands with people I don’t know for many of the reasons described here.

I think the best use of push hands is as a teaching tool, where it is invaluable. Used as a method to compare skills it inevitably turns into ‘Wrestling Lite’, and the best wrestler wins.

Check out the article here.

You might also like: Thoughts on Push hands by Mike Sigman

 

Learning becoming a part of you

I was doing some push hands today, trying to work on integrating the spiral movement of silk reeling force into the movement pattern of push hands. It became obvious to me that you ability to do this is directly proportional to the amount of silk reeling exercise you’ve done in the past, not how well you understand it. It’s not just an idea that you can intellectually grasp, then apply instantly. With an opponent to deal with you have no time to think how you’re going to use spiral force to deal with their incoming pushes and attacks, changes in weight distribution and changes in force. There’s simply no time – it has to be a feel thing.

The equation is simple. The more silk reeling exercise you’ve practiced in the past the better you’ll be at putting that spiral feel into the myriad of changing circumstance you encounter in push hands. Your only option, if you want to get good at it, is to practice it every day until it the learning becomes a part of you.

Push Hands: Wu Wei in action

Another Classic that often gets quoted in connection with Tai Chi Chuan is that mainstay of Taoism, the Tao Te Ching (The classic of the way and its power) * . While debate continues to rage in academic circles over whether you can truly say Tai Chi Chuan is a Taoist art or not, I’d like to neatly sidestep the whole issue completely. It’s obvious that you don’t have to be signed up card carrying member of a Taoist sect to read and enjoy the Tao Te Ching. What’s more its philosophy of “know the Yang, but stick to the Yin” has direct relevance to many martial arts, and Tai Chi Chuan in particular. To say that Tai Chi Chuan hasn’t been influenced in some degree over the years by the type of thinking found in this giant of Chinese literature is simply incorrect.

In this article I’d like to talk about how one particular verse from the Tao Te Ching can help you understand how the combat strategy of Tai Chi Chuan can be applied in Push Hands practice. Push Hands is a type of 2-person sparring exercise that belongs to Tai Chi Chuan. There’s a lot of subtlety to it, but in brief, one person pushes on the other’s arms, they try and deflect the push and then push back and so it continues in a circular pattern. In a lot of classes it’s the only type of 2-person training available. Push Hands is not fighting, but it should be practiced in a competitive way – you’re meant to be actively trying to unbalance the other person when you push. If you’re both simply moving your arms around in circles then nothing is really going on. You need to help your partner out by giving them something to work with. If you don’t have any force to work with then how can you ever hope to understand that “A force of four ounces deflects a thousand pounds” (as it says in the Tai Chi Chuan Treaste)?

The problem with push hands is that as soon as the idea of actively seeking to push the opponent is introduced the whole thing can descend into a very physical pushing and shoving match. In an effort to unbalance the opponent it’s human nature to try to impose your own will on the situation, which usually results in that great sin of Push Hands: Double Weighting (using force against force). It sounds contradictory, but to be truly good at push hands you need to try to not impose your own ideas on the situation – “Fundamentally, it is giving up yourself to follow others”, as it says in The Treaste on Tai Chi Chuan. Of course, that’s easier said than done, but I’ve found that reading the Tao Te Ching can add some great insights into how that is achieved. In particular I’d like to look at verse 15:

The ancient Masters were profound and subtle.
Their wisdom was unfathomable.
There is no way to describe it;
all we can describe is their appearance.

They were careful
as someone crossing an iced-over stream.
Alert as a warrior in enemy territory.
Courteous as a guest.
Fluid as melting ice.
Shapable as a block of wood.
Receptive as a valley.
Clear as a glass of water.

Do you have the patience to wait
till your mud settles and the water is clear?
Can you remain unmoving
till the right action arises by itself?

The Master doesn’t seek fulfillment.
Not seeking, not expecting,
she is present, and can welcome all things.

As soon as you touch your Push Hands partner’s hands you are “a warrior in enemy territory”. If you let your guard down you will be easily pushed, and this applies as much to the mind as to the body. You need to cultivate your sense of awareness. A calm, steady, but receptive mind is what is needed. Verse 15 describes the actions of somebody with this type of mind, the “ancient Masters”, whose wisdom was “profound and subtle”. They are sensitive and receptive to conditions, so they can act correctly. In fact, it’s almost as if they don’t act themselves, instead the “right action arises by itself”.

Here we see the philosophy of Wu Wei in action – literally it means “doing nothing”, but I like to think of it in the terms described in Verse 15 – it’s effortlessly doing the right thing at the right time. Essentially, you don’t do it, instead it does itself. It’s not about acting when the self-centred ego-mind tells you that you should (usually for its own gain) – it’s about having the “patience to wait till your mud settles and the water is clear”. The metaphor of a glass of muddy water is well used here. Once its stirred up it becomes cloudy and impossible to see through. However, by doing nothing and waiting for the mud to settle you will be able to see through it.

If you are “Shapable as a block of wood” then there’s no way you can be trying to impose your own will on the situation. Let your opponent shape you. Or, as I once heard it put, “Bow to their superiority, then show them who is boss!”

If can learn to take your ego-based desires out of the equation and learn to follow your opponent’s actions then correct action should arise naturally. When you can get that feeling into your push hands you’re really getting somewhere. This is indeed a lofty goal, but everything you need to do it is right here with you, right now, not off in some far away land of abstract thought. As the Treaste on Tai Chi Chuan goes on to say:

Most people mistakenly give up the near to seek the far.
It is said, “Missing it by a little will lead many miles astray.”
The practitioner must carefully study.
This is the Treatise

* The Tao Te Ching is one of the most translated of all Chinese texts, and there are hundreds of translations available. By far my favourite is the one by Stephen Mitchell that I link to here. You can also buy a wonderfully illustrated hardcover version from Amazon here. I’d recommend the hardback with illustrations.

Tao Te Ching, An Illustrated Journey

It should be noted that his translation is by no means a literal one. However, he explains himself very well in the forward:

“With great poetry, the freest translation is sometimes the most faithful. “We must try its effect as an English Poem,” Dr Johnson said; “that is the way to judge of the merit of a translation”. I have often been fairly literal – or as literal as one can be with such a subtle, kaleidoscopic book as the Tao Te Ching. But I have also paraphrased, expanded, contracted, interpreted, worked with the text, played with it, until it became embodied in a language that felt genuine to me. If I haven’t always translated Lao Tzu’s words, my intention has always been to translate his mind.”

You can compare his translation of verse 15 above with the James Legge version below, for example. I know which translation I prefer.

The skilful masters (of the Tao) in old times, with a subtle
and exquisite penetration, comprehended its mysteries, and were deep
(also) so as to elude men’s knowledge. As they were thus beyond men’s
knowledge, I will make an effort to describe of what sort they
appeared to be.

Shrinking looked they like those who wade through a stream in
winter; irresolute like those who are afraid of all around them; grave
like a guest (in awe of his host); evanescent like ice that is melting
away; unpretentious like wood that has not been fashioned into
anything; vacant like a valley, and dull like muddy water.

Who can (make) the muddy water (clear)? Let it be still, and it
will gradually become clear. Who can secure the condition of rest?
Let movement go on, and the condition of rest will gradually arise.

They who preserve this method of the Tao do not wish to be full (of
themselves). It is through their not being full of themselves that
they can afford to seem worn and not appear new and complete.