Your daily Tai Chi ritual – creating order out of chaos

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Scott posted some answers to various questions he gets over at Strengthness with a Twist, his blog. I thought the first one was most interesting:

What do you mean when you say martial arts are rituals?

Rituals are ways of making order out of chaos. Martial arts are about unleashing the greatest forces of chaos and bringing them into order. It is a daily ritual that has deep, lasting, and profound effects on every aspect of our being. This is true of martial arts world wide, but it is particularly clear in the structure of Chinese martial arts as they were understood before the Boxer Uprising.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this quote since it’s pretty clear to anybody who does a daily practice of Tai Chi (or related martial/yoga/chi kung type practice) in the morning, that it soon becomes a kind of ritual, whether you like it or not. Not a ritual in the Western religious sense, but a ritual for your body (which Scott is arguing is, in fact, the true essence of religion in the Eastern sense).

I like his definition of “bringing order from chaos” even if it does sound a bit Jordan Peterson fan-boy-ish 😉

But if we can separate the phrase from the alt-right ideology it has become attached to, that phrase is what you are doing to your body when you practice Tai Chi in the morning. Having just woken up in the morning you can consider your body to be in a state of ‘chaos’ – you’re not yet functioning at 100%, your tendons will be shortened from lying down for so long and your body might ache from uncomfortable sleeping positions, and it needs to stretch. In fact, we stretch as a reflex action once we wake. Mentally you are also not yet “with it”, at least not until you’ve properly caffeinated.

A morning Tai Chi “ritual” (or “routine” if you like), can bring you back into occupying your body properly and get it ready for the demands of the day. When I think about what the main health benefit of Tai Chi is, I think it’s this. People tend to treat Tai Chi as a panacea that cures everything from a bad back to an ingrowing toenail. I take all the latest ‘scientific’ research about the miraculous healing benefits of Tai Chi with a pinch of salt. I think its best feature is simply this: it’s a way of gently ordering and strengthening the body in the morning, ready for the day.

I also like Scott’s later quote,

Martial arts are about unleashing the greatest forces of chaos and bringing them into order

This one brings to mind a whirling Baguazhang practitioner spinning in circles, taming the elements he is working with, or two sword fighters caught in the midst of a leaping blow.

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Photo by ginu plathottam on Pexels.com

It all sounds a bit fantastical, but again, I think there’s some truth buried here.

Through techniques in martial arts, we are bringing order to the chaos of the fight. This is perfectly demonstrated in a Jiujitsu match – it’s all scrambling, spinning madness, then order is established as a joint lock or choke is put in place, as one practitioner controls the limbs and body of the other through correct position, leverage and technique, and the ‘fight’ ends.

Performing the Tai Chi form is an analogy for how the whole universe was created out of chaos, and order established. When you start the Tai Chi form, in a still, standing position you are in a state of Wu Chi – the undifferentiated primordial state of emptiness, but always with the possibility of giving birth to something. Then the big bang happens and you start to move – Yin and Yang become differentiated and you are continually moving between these two opposite poles. The body opens and closes in a continuous spiral. As one part of the body is opening, another is closing until the final movement – often known as “Carry the Tiger back to the mountain”- when you return to stillness. The mountain here represents that primordial stillness. You have brought order to chaos and returned to the mountain.

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Photo by Krivec Ales on Pexels.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Proving Tai Chi works in ‘da streetz’

In this exclusive clip of outtakes from my Tai Chi course I show how to use Peng Jin against a kick to the groin and a variety of other attacks including bribery, throwing shade and street dance. Enjoy!

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.

 

 

Thoughts on an interview with Wang Yan, head coach of the Chenjiagou Taijiquan School

Born in 1990, Wang Yan became head coach of Cheng village training centre in 2013 and is as a Taiji fighter as well as a coach, not to mention an expert in forms. He was one of the “nine tigers” – the best nine students of Chen ZiQiang. There’s an interview with him in English on Chen Taijiquan blog, with some great pictures from his private collection. The interview is pretty long, but there are lots of really interesting insights into his daily training, San Da competitions training and how exhausting it all was!

I’ve cherry-picked a few quotes below:

from:

https://chentaijisi.wordpress.com/2018/03/07/if-you-give-more-you-receive-more-an-interview-with-wang-yan-head-coach-of-the-chenjiagou-taijiquan-school/

On his own training:

“Our daily routine started in the morning with running and warming-up excercises. In the first morning class we studied forms, in the second class we did strength excercices, in the third class we did push hands exercises, kicks, punches and other self defense techniques, and during the last evening class we were again doing push hands exercises, and sometimes weight lifting.”

“When a student grows a little older, reaching his late teens and early twenties, then the school starts putting much more attention to learning taolu (forms).”

“When I was a young student, the training was more strenous then now. The approach has changed nowadays towards a somewhat softer way. Students now come from more comfortable backgrounds and are, generally speaking, often more interested in computer games than in serious training.”

 

“Some of us developed more in the direction of Taiji fighting, while the others became the very best in various Taiji forms.”

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Competition training:

“To develop stamina we would practice frog jumps, running in a crouched position, running while carrying someone on our shoulders etc., until the point where I would be absolutely exhausted.

One method of practicing tuishou was, for example, being in a circle of about twenty students, who would challenge you one after another. When I knock the first one down, the next one would attack, and so on till the last one, after which the circle repeats itself. I also practiced the same circle exercise blindfolded in order to sharpen body sensations. Sometimes during wintertime, shifu would take us outside, dressed just in trousers, to train in the snow. One of exercises was to hold each other by the legs while ‘hand walking’ on the cold or frozen ground.

Before tuishou competitions I always have to control my weight, so during preparation time I would eat less and avoid spicy and very greasy food. Finally, after hard training, it is also important to have a proper rest.”

 

Training:

“There is a saying: “By missing one day of practice, your skill regresses for three days”. So, I make sure that I practice every day.That means that I go at least through forms. And when I have some more time, I do also some fitness exercises like running and weight lifting.”

It really does sounds beyond what most people could have physically and mentally endured at a young age, and more extreme than the training is in Chen Village these days.

There’s a lot of controversy in Tai Chi circles about the role of weight training in internal arts. It’s often dismissed as either unnecessary or worse, damaging to progress. It sounds like the antithesis of the frequently heard advice to relax more. Yang Cheng Fu’s “10 important points” essay is often read as a warning of the dangers of following an “external” path. (I think people often miss the meaning of that text though, so I’ll return to it at a later date.)

When the Chen Tai Chi masters teach seminars to Westerners they keep the focus on traditional conditioning exercises, like silk reeling, or zhan zhuang and forms, which do not involve weights, and emphasize things like relaxation and internal conditioning. Traditionally of course, training with heavy weapons would have been a form of weight training, and village farmers would have naturally been very strong people from all the physical labour, but there still seems to be a contradiction between the methods espoused to Western students in seminars and the content of the syllabus for training young fighters in Chen village itself.

There are also the ‘internet famous’ pictures of Chen ZiQiang doing weight training, and looking very ‘cut’ that spark off these debates, for example:

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So, it’s interesting to read the above interview, where Wang Yan makes clear the role that weight training played in training his generation of Chen village teachers, especially when preparing for San Da competition. It’s also interesting to note that they may be the last generation to be trained like that, as “Students now come from more comfortable backgrounds and are, generally speaking, often more interested in computer games than in serious training.

That’s an interesting point in itself, that makes me wonder if that generation was a kind of high point for martially trained Tai Chi fighters from Chen village. “May the children of your enemies live in luxury!”, as the famous Cynic philosopher Antisthenes said; a quote that echoes the famous poem/meme:

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Of course, it’s all a matter of perspective. The people Wang Yan is training now are probably working a lot harder than most people could tolerate, even if they’re not doing wheelbarrows in the snow in winter wearing only their trousers 🙂

Full-time training

If I was training full time to be a fighter and I had a fight coming up in which somebody was going to try their best (under the rules) to hurt/beat me, then you can bet I’d be weight training too! You can’t fake fitness. And no matter how good your Tai Chi skills, if you get out of breath in a fight and your conditioning fails then you can’t fight back. Also, extra muscle mass doesn’t stop you from doing internal movement, although speaking realistically I don’t think that would have been the focus of training going into a fight.

Wang Yan was training as a full-time athlete. As well as doing all the hard physical training he would have been training in traditional Chen family methods at the same time. One does not preclude the other. While some might look down on all that physical training, it appears that the Chen village plan is to develop physical attributes first in its young people, including fighting skills, and later the more subtle Tai Chi skill is focussed on.

Here’s a video of Wang Yan doing some traditional Chen forms:

And here he is looking pretty good in a San Da match from 2013:

He’s a great inspiration for all Tai Chi practioners everywhere.

Week 4 – breathing. Half way through my 8-week Tai Chi course.

Here’s part 4 of the course. This week we focus on breathing. I cover the topics of normal and reverse breathing, then show a couple of different exercises that will get you on the right track for applying the breathing methods to the movement we are working on. Finally, we integrate the breathing into the movement, preserving all the progress we have made so far. Once you get the hang of it those breathing exercises I show are not required anymore, as you should be integrating it into your main exercise.

This week is more subtle than work showed previously. An inner focus will be required. Good luck! I’m happy to answer any questions you have.

Natural movement in Chinese martial arts

I just wanted to say a few words about natural movement, and what we mean by it in Chinese martial arts, before I post part 4 of my 8-week course on Tai Chi movement on Sunday.

If you’ve been following the videos you’ll notice that I did a kind of ‘universal’ open and close exercise in part 1, which cycles between two phases

Open:

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and close:

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From: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fV3DaNZz3hI

If you’ve been following up to week 3 you’ll know by now that it’s not a case of just mimicking these postures – you need to be going into and out of them using the elastic connection you’ve been developing by doing the arm circle exercise.

You can see these open and close postures in nature all the time, in movement – when a squid or octopus swims it kind of pulses between open and close.

Octopus:

Open:

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Close:

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From: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oxawhfXGGt8

The classic example in the animal world is the Cheetah, since it’s the most majestic animal when it comes to running. It cycles between open and close quite obviously too, which helps.

Cheetah:

Open:

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Close:

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From: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V8vejjVgIHg

In the Chinese martial arts, all the ‘internal’ martial arts like Bagua, XingYi and Tai Chi should be using open and close. The martial art that best exemplifies it though is XingYi, as all the 5 element fists go through a very obvious open and close cycle.

For example, in Pi Quan:

Closing:

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Opening:

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Closing:

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from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9HNML_k9a-s

When we say “natural movement” is used in internal arts, this is what is being talked about.

Of course, you can use the open and close sequence in everyday life too. Just yesterday I was kicking a ball about with my kids in the park and I started to play around with open and close as I kicked the ball, rather than just doing it with my leg in isolation. When you use open and close your whole torso and back get involved – I was quite surprised by how much extra power and direction I could give the ball when I started to use open and close to kick it. Like everything, it starts off big and clumsy and first, but you soon learn to remove the excess movement and refine it.

Look out for part 4 on Sunday when we’ll be taking a look at how breathing factors into the whole thing.

Chen village has grown

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I found an interesting post on Slantedflying.com about Chen village and how it’s grown. There’s a video in it that shows an aerial view of the village and the massive training hall. It’s more like a small city than a “village” now!

It’s incredible how the popularity of Tai Chi has transformed this “rural backwater” (as I’ve often heard it described) into a bustling, modern, mini-city.

Here’s the video:

 

 

Tao Te Ching, chapters 8 and 61

 

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I was giving the Tao Te Ching the cursory glance I occasionally give it recently. I’ve got the copy shown above. I usually flick to a random chapter, read it three times and ponder it deeply. Well, as deeply as I am able to. I landed on chapter 61, and the next day I landed on chapter 8. These two seemed to be linked in theme, so I thought I’d say something about them.

Incidentally, I really like the Stephen Mitchell translation. I’ve no idea how accurate it is compared to the Chinese, but all translation seems to involve some interpretation, and I like the way he’s done it.

Here’s chapter 61:

61

When a country obtains great power,
it becomes like the sea:
all streams run downward into it.
The more powerful it grows,
the greater the need for humility.
Humility means trusting the Tao,
thus never needing to be defensive.

A great nation is like a great man:
When he makes a mistake, he realizes it.
Having realized it, he admits it.
Having admitted it, he corrects it.
He considers those who point out his faults
as his most benevolent teachers.
He thinks of his enemy
as the shadow that he himself casts.

If a nation is centered in the Tao,
if it nourishes its own people
and doesn’t meddle in the affairs of others,
it will be a light to all nations in the world.

 

and chapter 8:

8

The supreme good is like water,
which nourishes all things without trying to.
It is content with the low places that people disdain.
Thus it is like the Tao.

In dwelling, live close to the ground.
In thinking, keep to the simple.
In conflict, be fair and generous.
In governing, don’t try to control.
In work, do what you enjoy.
In family life, be completely present.

When you are content to be simply yourself
and don’t compare or compete,
everybody will respect you.

 

So, firstly let’s look at the imagery of water, one of the classic symbols of the Yin side of the Taiji diagram. Both chapters use water as a metaphor for the correct way of acting or being in the world.  It’s a theme that repeats through the Tao Te Ching, and also throughout the history of Asian martial arts, even in modern times. I’m thinking of Bruce Lee in the infamous interview where he says “Be water, my friend!”

 

I was reading another article about Wing Chun today by Ben Judkins, which also expanded upon this idea of softness overcoming strength, and how this idea has permeated Asian martial arts:

Early reformers in martial arts like Taijiquan (Wile 1996) and Jujitsu sought to shore up their own national identities by asserting that they brought a unique form of power to the table.  Rather than relying on strength, they would find victory through flexibility, technique, and cunning (all yin traits), just as the Chinese and Japanese nations would ultimately prevail through these same characteristics.  It is no accident that so much of the early Asian martial arts material featured images of women, or small Asian men, overcoming much larger Western opponents with the aid of mysterious “oriental” arts.  These gendered characterizations of hand combat systems were fundamentally tied to larger narratives of national competition and resistance (see Wendy Rouse’s 2015 article “Jiu-Jitsuing Uncle Sam” .

but as the author notes, the situation is often muddied

Shidachi appears to have had little actual familiarity with Western wrestling.  It is clear that his discussion was driven by nationalist considerations rather than detailed ethnographic observation.  And there is something else that is a bit odd about all of this.  While technical skill is certainly an aspect of Western wrestling, gaining physical strength and endurance is also a critical component of Judo training.  Shidachi attempted to define all of this as notbeing a part of Judo. Yet a visit to the local university Judo team will reveal a group of very strong, well developed, athletes.  Nor is that a recent development.  I was recently looking at some photos of Judo players in the Japanese Navy at the start of WWII and any one those guys could have passed as a modern weight lifter.  One suspects that the Japanese Navy noticed this as well.

But while the idea of the soft overcoming the hard has already fallen to the level of a cliché, especially when it comes to martial arts, and mixed with political ideas, should we ignore it as a way of being in the world?  I’d say not. It does point to a truth.

Anyone with any familiarity in martial arts is aware of the feeling of having to ‘muscle’ a technique to make it work, as opposed to executing a clean technique based on good leverage. This points towards what I think these chapters of the Tao Te Ching are talking about.

When it comes to Tai Chi one of the hardest things to grasp about the techniques exemplified in the forms is that they shouldn’t necessarily feel powerful to you as you do them. My teacher often uses this phrase: “…if you feel it then they don’t – you want them to feel it, not you“.

If you can give up the need to control and struggle with a situation, then you can relax and access your own inner power. See what acliché that statement sounds like already? It sounds like one to me as I wrote it, but I guess all cliches were probably based on something real, otherwise, they wouldn’t be a cliché.

In Chinese martial arts that sweet spot between doing and not doing (to bastardize some more Taoist terminology) is called Jin. I’ve written a bit about that before:

The 6 directions and Jin

Rickson Gracie using Jin

Mike Sigman on basic Jin

Jin in Chinese martial arts (and tennis)