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:

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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.

 

The Drunken Boxing podcast. Episode 1 Marin Spivak.

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Byron Jacobs, who produced the excellent XingYi San Ti Shi primer I posted recently, has launched a new podcast that’s well worth checking out.

In the first episode, Byron talks to Marin Spivak, Chen Tai Chi disciple of Chen Yu, about what it’s like going to live and train gung fu in Beijing as a Westerner back in the 1990s and 2000s. Both Byron and Marvin made the jump to live and train in Beijing, so they have a good insight into Chinese culture, and particular gong fu culture.

I really liked the discussion of the tangled network of gong fu culture a prospective student has to find their way through in China, and which the average western student has no idea exists at all.

Enjoy. Link.

 

 

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.

 

Stop fighting in push hands

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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.

 

Shock and awe (in Tai Chi)

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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.

 

Twisting root: Gripping the ground in Tai Chi

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Tai Chi’s crotch Dantien: store and release in the legs

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Cheng Man-Ching doing his Single Whip posture.

In Tai Chi we all know we are told we should “round the crotch area” – sometimes called “Kua”, but more accurately called “Dang” in Chinese – but why? What does that mean anyway? I’m going to try and point you in the right direction with this post.

The three dantiens

There are three main dantien’s in the body that Tai Chi is concerned with. Firstly there’s the main one in the lower belly, which acts as a nexus, or control point for the whole body, but slaved to it are two other dantiens – the chest dantien and the crotch dantien.

There are clear parallel’s here to the idea of chakras in Yogic folklore, and indeed there are more “dantiens” in the Chinese system that relate to the other chakra locations in the body too, but for the purposes of internal martial arts, it’s the crotch and chest dantiens that are most important.

The crotch dantien is located at the Hui Yin point, and shown in the drawings from Chen Xin’s book:

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These dantiens are points where you can use to store force that can be used in the release of power in the way that the internal martial arts express it – i.e. from the ground to the point of application.

It’s often said that Tai Chi is “boxing with the legs”, and this relates to the use of the crotch dantien. The knees are also in the domain of the crotch dantian, so, you need to think of the legs, hips and crotch all working together.

So what is that supposed to feel like? Well, It’s a bit like sitting on a space hopper – that feeling of grasping something with the inside of your legs, but not too forcefully.

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When you take up your stance in Tai Chi you should feel this ‘energy’ inside that leg arch, as if you are sitting on a space hopper. That’s not exactly a scientific way to describe it, but hopefully, you get the idea.

So your knees are involved too: when you rotate one leg forward, the other leg must rotate backwards to keep the grip on the ball. This forms the action of opening and closing, and is part of the overall action of opening and closing that is going on all over the body.

Squeezing the ball

As you move through the Tai Chi form you ‘squeeze’ this ball between your legs (just as you do a space hopper). So the crotch (the part of the body where the legs join the torso) can close on one side of the body and open on the other, but the feeling of there being something there is maintained throughout.

In Zhan Zhuang practice you get a lot of people describing holding a balloon between the legs, or a ballon supporting your limbs – that’s the same idea, and with enough practice it can actually start to feel like this.

While the space hopper or balloon may be imaginary, the feeling isn’t. It reminds me a lot of the verse in the Tao Te Ching about the value of what’s not there:

“Thirty spokes share the hub of a wheel;
 yet it is its center that makes it useful.
 You can mould clay into a vessel;
 yet, it is its emptiness that makes it useful.
 Cut doors and windows from the walls of a house;
 but the ultimate use of the house
 will depend on that part where nothing exists.

 Therefore, something is shaped into what is;
but its usefulness comes from what is not.”

This feeling of buoyancy in the crotch dantien forms part of the way the power is transferred from the legs to the torso, and ultimately out to the fingers.

Store and release

In terms of training this power, traditionally it’s common to stand in a low horse riding stance for a long period of time. I think this is more about building leg strength than the sort of power I’m talking about though, so while there’s nothing wrong with it, I think you need a moving exercise to practice what I’m talking about.

So, I’d recommend focussing on it while doing a simple single arm wave silk reeling exercise. (Like the one I use in my silk reeling course).

Trying to focus on just developing this power while doing the whole Tai Chi form isn’t optimal, as there are too many other things going on at once.

It’s important to stress again that there is no actual ball of energy between your legs – it’s just a useful metaphor for helping you get the right feeling for the particular winding in the legs and hips that helps produce power through the store and release mechanism in the horizontal plane.

As you turn one way then the other, the windings of the legs results in opening and closing actions which store power, that can be released into movement.

This is another reason why you really need to turn the waist a lot in side-to-side motions in Tai Chi Chuan (usually a lot more than you think). Without sufficient turning of the waist, you’re just not getting the hips and legs involved enough and activating their store and release potential for power.

The Tai Chi move ‘Wave hands like clouds’ is a good example of this. Notice that I’m turning all the way through to the sides to get the most store and release out of the legs:

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My teacher always admonishes me to ‘relax the waist’ when he’s critiquing my form.  Over the years I’ve learned that what he’s really asking me to do is increase the range of movement that my waist goes through. Obviously, stiffness inhibits the range of motion of the waist, but just realising that you need to turn more than you are currently doing is a valuable insight in itself. And now hopefully you can understand the reasons why.

I hope that helps.

 

 

The Tai Chi form of Yang Shau-Hou

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Yang Shou-Hou

Below is a video, shot in 1977, of the Tai Chi form of Xiong Yangho who was a student of Yang Shau-Hou, the (much) older brother of Yang Cheng Fu. Born in 1862 he was effectively of a different generation than his brother Yang Cheng-Fu who was born in 1883, which is 21 years later.

You can see that the form follows the same pattern as the Yang Cheng-Fu version but has a few unique characteristics. Again, this hints that there were different ways of doing the form before Yang Cheng-Fu standardised it into “Yang style”.

These different interpretations are a bit like the Gnostic Christian gospels – they’ve been rejected from the main orthodox canon, but they have just as much validity as any ‘official’ version of the form.

The description reads:

“Taiji Grand Master Xiong Yang He (1889-1981) The Interpretation of Taiji Quan The Teaching Frame of Hundred & Eleven Styles in Taiji Quan Video & voice edited by Li Ri Xing 28th September 1977”

 

 

What’s particularly interesting is the second video, at 7.51 onwards, after the form has finished, he does what looks like a couple of silk reeling exercises in which he traces a Yin Yang symbol in a manner described in Shen Jiazhen’s book.

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In the video Xiong Yangho then does some fast moves that look a lot like Southern Kung Fu – Pake Mei or Wing Chun, that sort of thing:

Edit: A comment on this post from Bai Yiming reveals that these are from another martial art called “Xiyangzhang”

“What Xiong Yanghe shows in the later vids has nothing to do with TJQ; those “5 little hands”, as they are called, originate form Xiyangzhang, another style. Xiong has cross-trained a lot and taught a huge curriculum. There is no Taiji symbol traced, it is purely an application. I know as I’m training in the Xiongmen, the Xiong system, do the Xiyangzhang and also those hand moves!”

Here’s a video of Xinog Yanghe doing some more Xiyangzhang:

 

Here’s another video of Xiong Yangho doing Tai Chi:

 

Originally from the mainland, Xiong Yangho was a military man who escaped to Taiwan with the nationalists once the Communists took over in China. There’s a short biography of him here.