Tai Chi is open and close happening simultaneously

 

Wu Jienquan not lean

Wu Jianquan

Tai Chi is opening and closing happening simultaneously.

That’s one of the secrets of Tai Chi, right there. Unfortunately, as with much of the truths about Tai Chi Chuan, the statement doesn’t make any sense unless you already know what it means.

As an art, much of Tai Chi is self secret like this. In one way that’s frustrating, but in another way it’s freeing because it means teachers don’t have to hold things back. The secrets reveal themselves over time.

Look at the Tai Chi Classics, for example. They’re a collection of pithy martial arts sayings that hide deeper meanings. “5 ounces of force deflects a thousand pounds“, “Walk like a cat.“, “Store up the jin like drawing a bow.”, etc.

Many of the sayings in these documents don’t mean anything to people reading them who don’t already understand them. So, there’s no risk in losing ‘the secrets of the art’ by publishing them, which is perhaps one reason why the Tai Chi classics are in wide circulation, while other martial styles keep their writings secret, held only within families.

Perceiving opening and closing

When you’re doing your form, can you perceive movements that are obvious opening movements, and movements that are obviously closing movements?

It’s good if you can. If you can’t then think about this – roll back (lu) is clearly a closing movement, and ward off (Peng) is obviously and opening movement. Look for the same actions in the other movements. On the opening movements, the body expands outwards. On the closing movements the body contracts inwards.

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Yang Cheng Fu – Roll back

But that’s not the end of the story.

If you’re perceiving the form like this – a series of opening and closing movements that happen one after the other, then you’re not quite on the right track.

The key is that the opening and closing are both happening all the time simultaneously. So, as one part of the body is closing whilst another part is opening.

Look at the yin yang symbol. If you follow it around in a circle with your eye you can see that as one aspect grows stronger, the other aspect diminishes, but is also being born again and growing. It goes on in an endless cycle.

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It’s these cycles you need to pay attention to in the form. It should feel like this cycle of opening and closing movements is going on with one movement giving birth to the next, rather than perceiving them two separate movements where one starts, then stops, then the other starts and stops. The movement is continuous. It goes out, it comes back, it goes out again.

Silk reeling circles

Let’s break this down into something more tangible.

A while ago I made a video course on the basic single handed silk reeling exercise. This exercise is great because it gives you a chance to work on opening and closing in a relatively simple movement.

Out of the whole course, part 1 is probably the most relevant video to explain what I mean:

Here’s what I’m doing in the video: I’m looking for a slight stretch across the front of my body and a slight stretch across the back of my body (the yin/yang aspects). As the arm goes out the front of the body gradually becomes more taught until there’s enough tension there that I can use it to pull the arm back in. As the arm comes back in, the back of the body becomes slightly more taught until there’s enough tension there to use it to expand the arm outwards. This is all integrated with reverse breathing which powers everything from the Dan Tien area. It’s a very stretchy, rubber band-like practice.

You can start with big, crude circles, but work down to smaller more subtle circles.

But ultimately you’re looking for the feeling of the cycle of yin and yang, opening and closing going on in the body.

It’s this feeling that you need to take into the Tai Chi form where opening and closing happening simultaneously through a myriad of different movements.

Tai Chi should be heavy, like a stone

 

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Move your hips! Photo by: Samuel Castro

One of the most frequent things you hear in BJJ is “move your hips“.

Brazilian teachers tend to say “escape your hips“. Which is an odd-sounding translation of presumably something that sounds better in Portuguese. In American and English it usually gets turned into “hip escape“, as in, “do a hip escape here“, “it’s not working because you need to hip escape more“.

 

We hip escape up and down the gym as a warm up (also known as “shrimping”) because it’s a fundamental movement you need to have in your tool box that you can pull out without having to think about it.

But why? What is it? Simply put: It’s designed to create more space between you and your opponent on the ground.

You can use hip escapes for escaping bad positions like side control and mount. But it also has benefits for attacks too. Basically a good rule of thumb is that if what you’re doing isn’t working try doing a hip escape and doing it again. The change of angle and leverage will probably fix it.

Now we know what a hip escape is, let’s get to the point of all this.

When we say “move your hips” that’s not the part of the body that you need to move from. If you just moved from your hips you’d never go anywhere.  You’d just spasm on the floor like a dying fly having its last buzz. What you actually need to do is push with your toes and feet on the ground so that your hips move.

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Your hips moving is the result of the action, not the action itself.

Which brings me onto Tai Chi Chuan and the dantien (the lower abdomen area of the body).

All wise and knowledgeable Internet-enabled Tai Chi practitioners know that we need to “move from the dantien” in Tai Chi Chuan. (This is the supposed secret to Tai Chi that you get told by your wise master only after you have paid the required tuition fees for a number of years. 🙂 )

 

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Cheng Man Ching, Single Whip posture.

But again, where does the action originate? I would say that, just as in JiuJitsu, you don’t actually “move from the dantien” by originating action there. Your dantien moves, but it’s your foot that provides the impetus. Your foot pushing against the ground is where the ‘power’ comes from in Tai Chi Chuan.

(A side note here for the Order of Advanced Tai Chi Wizards of the Internet: When you get this concept of the power from the ground you will find that you can actually originate the movement in the dantien as a kind of dropping force that is then rebounded from the ground, so it’s less of a push with the legs. File this under “advanced” if it makes no sense right now and come back to it later).

What Tai Chi Chuan specialises in is transmitting this power to the extremities without interfering with it as much as is humanly possible. We know that in Tai Chi we need to be relaxed (song), which seems like the last thing you’d want to be if you have to hit something hard, but there is a method in the madness.

In Tai Chi Chuan you are trying to transfer that power – the ground reaction force – from your foot all the way to your fingers as smoothly as possible and directing it with the dantien. This is called ‘threading a pearl through the 9 crooked gates‘ in the Tai Chi classics. The gates here are the joints of the body. All the breaks in connection between your foot and fingers are the points where power leaks out. Usually we cover these things up by using muscular strength to get by – you can spend years fooling yourself with this, and it’s a very hard habit to stop.

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Points of interest, where we generally mess this up, are the lower back (keep it open) and the shoulders (stop using them as a power source). The whole body should be Song.

‘Relaxed’ doesn’t mean light and floaty. It means heavy and rooted like a stone.

 

The concept of ‘flow’ in martial arts

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Photo by KML on Pexels.com

Tai Chi is infused with the concept of flow, but what does that actually mean? What does ‘flow’ mean in this context?

We are used to seeing Tai Chi practitioners in parks performing graceful, flowing movements. In fact, that’s what we expect to see whenever somebody mentions “Tai Chi”, but as usual, it’s what’s underneath the water that matters, not what we see on the surface.

The Tai Chi classics state:

Chang Ch’uan [Long Boxing] is like a great river
rolling on unceasingly.”

This points to the continuous nature of Tai Chi boxing. Techniques don’t really start and stop, they all merge into one continuous movement.

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Sun Lu Tang, Tai Chi.

 

Acquiring this skill in the Tai Chi form is actually quite difficult. For a start, people tend to speed up or slow down during a form performance. They speed up on the bits they like and slow down on the bits they find hard.

Another common fault is posturing – pausing serenely in postures that are being held, if only for a moment. It’s equal and opposite infraction is too much merging – movements get mushed into each other without one finishing properly before the other begins.

I’d say it takes a good few months of continual practice, focusing on just continuity, to iron these faults out of a Tai Chi form

The deeper lesson in continuous movement is that you are constantly recycling the ‘energy’ in the form. When you break a movement, or stop, you are not keeping everything flowing, and you lose the power of momentum. They fall flat.

This links back to the idea of Yin and Yang being in constant flux, with change as the only constant. These ideas are as old as the hills, but find their expression most often in Taoist thought.

In a recent TED talk Adrien Stoloff looks at what Wuwei (The Taoist concept of non-action, and flow) mean.

Adrien discusses flow and wuwei, and how recent research in cognitive neuroscience suggests what may be happening in the brain when we experience flow or wuwei. Adrien Stoloff is a doctoral candidate in Asian Religious Traditions. He is interested in Chinese religious beliefs and practices from the late Warring States period to the Early Han Dynasty (approximately 5th-2nd centuries BCE). Specifically, Adrien’s research focuses on the Classical Daoist phenomenon of wuwei. Translated as “effortless action,” wuwei is a state of being in which one acts effortlessly yet efficiently in a given situation. His dissertation project uses an approach informed by tools in the field of religious studies – textual and historical analysis – as well as by the fields of philosophy and cognitive science:

 

The dance/fight game

If there’s one martial art that really emphasises the concept of ‘flow’ then it’s Capoeira. The Brazilian dance/fight martial art where two participants enact a kind of spontaneous, improvised martial dance set to music.

Clearly your connection to the other person in Capoeira transcends the physical connection we find in Tai Chi push hands, and it has to be in place or you end up with a foot to the face. That’s Tai Chi’s Ting Jing (Listening energy) on steroids.

Even as an outsider to Capoeira, I can tell when the practitioners are connected to each other, and when they’re not. When the focus is more on athletic ability and directed inwards the two practitioners don’t seem to melt together into one dance – they retain their separate selves. The type of Capoeira I like to watch is where the two practitioners become one – responding and reacting in real time to each other.

And of course, with the rhythm of the music and a focus on connecting there’s all the potential for it to cross over into ‘spirit dance’, where you connect to the wider environment.

I looked for some beginner capoeira videos recently and found these which I thought presented some basic moves that I could copy. I had a go at this video below this morning and I was surprised by how difficult (but also fun) even these ‘basic’ moves are.

I mean, I can do it badly. Anybody can do it badly. But trying to do it with the smoothness and flow that the practitioner demonstrates above is a different matter.

If you wanted to get more ‘flow’ in your movement, I think this could be a good place to start.

Gu Ru Zhang style Tai Chi Chuan

I posted this video of me doing Tai Chi in the rain back in 2012. This is a short form derived from the full long Yang form of Gu Ru Zhang (Ku Yu Chang) the famous “King of Iron Palm” from Hong Kong.

You see the famous picture of him breaking tiles without spacers quite a lot:

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Gu Ru Zhang

Gu Ru Zhang’s style of Tai Chi is still quite rare. It’s from the Yang family originally, but had some input from his friend Sun Lu Tang, and you sometimes see it incorectly called Sun Style.

Gu published a book in 1936 on Tai Chi called “Tai Chi Boxing”, which you can find translated on the Brenan Translation website.

I’ve done various different styles of Tai Chi, but I always come back to this form. It’s my favourite. Anyway, here’s my video:

XingYi footwork explained

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Photo by Đàm Tướng Quân on Pexels.com

Byron Jacobs has another video out in his XingYi series, this time focussing on footwork. If you’re after the basics of XingYi then this is the best place to start. I think footwork is especially important in XingYi as much of the defending is done not by deflecting things (like you find in Tai Chi) but by moving your feet.

“Chicken leg” forms one of the requirements of San Ti Shi, and refers to the ability to keep most of your weight on one foot so the other is free to move.

Take a look:

Byron also has another episode of his Drunken Boxing podcast out, also worth a watch/listen. This podcast is about what it’s like to actually live and train martial arts in China. This time he’s talking to Michael Ashley Wix, who is a student of Beijing Shuai Jiao Master Li Baoru (李宝如).

“Originally from New Zealand, Michael has lived in Beijing for 23 years learning various Chinese martial arts, including studying for 3 years at the Beijing University of Sport, and studying Yi quan for 5 years.

Michael was involved in the early development of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and MMA in China, and introduced Chinese wrestlers to the sport with champion Yao Honggang being one of them.

One of Michael’s missions is promoting and preserving Shuai Jiao which he used to do through the popular but now defunct website Shuaijiao.tv. Currently, he is working on publishing Master Li Baoru’s extensive body of books and articles.”

 

 

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.

 

Tai Chi Marmite man: Scott Phillips on Taijiquan as dramatic storytelling

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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.

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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

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…and makes videos too.

 

Don’t try! The paradoxical approach of Tai Chi Chuan, Charles Bukowski and Yoda.

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:

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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:

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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 PengLuChi, 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.

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.

 

Tai Chi, Baguazhang and The Golden Elixir: Internal Martial Arts Before the Boxer Uprising

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Scott Park Philip’s new Bagua book is out!

As somebody said: “From the sample pages it looks as bonkers and brilliant and polarising as the last one. Better than being boring!

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I’m really looking forward to seeing how he supports his theory (from the back cover) that Baguazhang was created after the failings of the Boxer Rebellion (1900) when the founder of the art, Dong Hai Chuan, died in 1882. I’ve been assured he tackles this point in the book…

If you click the Amazon link above you can click “Look Inside” to read a bit.