Review: Heal Yourself and the World with Tai-Chi by Bob Klein

Heal Yourself and the World with Tai-Chi

Bob Klein

Bob Klein first studied Tai Chi Chuan fifty years ago with Grandmaster William C. C. Chen, and also owned an animal importing business, which gave him a ready supply of exotic animals to test his martial skills against. In a method that sounds similar to the legendary founding tales of many Chinese martial arts, Bob observed the wild animals, and learned their fighting ticks. Bob describes the process as learning the “pattern of attention” of each species, which he then tried to adopt in himself in sparring and Chi Kung, creating his own system, Zookinesis, along the way.

“The imported animals were often not in a good mood as they emerged from their shipping containers and I was attacked frequently.”, explains Bob.  “Many of the animals were stronger and faster than I so I had to use my skill in controlling their attention. There were many close calls and I had many scars”, he observes.

Klein also traveled to the jungles of Central America several times to study animals in the wild. “I would buy a dugout canoe and spend a few months paddling along rivers, meeting the wildlife and people.”

The result of this study is the system of chi kung he calls “Zookinesis” (“animal exercises”) and the fighting system called “Phantom Kung-fu”, which is the result of his Tai Chi Chuan influenced by Zookinesis. Zookinesis seems to evolve into the wider world of healing and being in harmony with nature.

The book, Heal yourself and the world with Tai Chi is as much about Zookinesis as it is about Tai Chi. It’s not a “teach yourself Tai Chi” type of guide, or a deep dive into history. Instead, I’d describe it as a kind of stream of consciousness on the subject of animism, Tai Chi, energy flow and spirituality. There are headings and there are chapters, but I don’t really feel like they matter much. You could dip in at any point and just start reading. Stop, flick on 20 pages and read a bit more. Go back 40 pages. And so on. That’s not to say it’s not a well written book, but a reader looking for a more organised, practical or logical system to unpick will be disappointed.

Here are some examples of paragraph I’ve picked at random to give you an example of the sort of text it contains:

“Small children in our society usually draw people as big heads with tiny arms and legs sticking out of the heads. I wonder if they are just seeing the distribution of attention in a person, and drawing their pictures accurately from that perspective.”

In fact, Klein’s work makes a nice contrast to the often fractious world of online Tai Chi discussion. His musings are marvelously inofensive and do a good job of framing his points of reference. He has no interest in denigrating other styles of Tai Chi or teachers, exposing face histories or arguing with anybody else about what ‘real’ Tai Chi is. 

No egos were harmed in the making of this book. If you’re looking for a philosophical meander through many of spirituality’s greatest hits then you’ve come to the right place. Step inside, pour yourself a cup of green tea and let the zookinesis flow.

Heal yourself and the world with Tai Chi is available through Amazon, and Bob’s website: https://www.movementsofmagic.com/

Never let your knees go over your toes… or should you?

I remember when I started Tai Chi in the 90s, one of the things that was talked about a lot was that you should never let your knees go beyond the line of your toes in a forward stance.

YCF: Knees not extending past the line of the toes.

Letting this happen was always seen as unequivocally bad. Not only was knees beyond toes seen as structurally unsound (your weight is too far forward making you easy to pull off balance), but this was seen as the primary cause of the epidemic of so many Tai Chi people having bad knees.

The Snake Creeps Down posture in particular was quite often used as an example of a badly done posture by Western dilettantes.

But it always struck me as a bit odd that it was seen as being such a dangerous thing to do. If you were training the martial side of Tai Chi then you were being punched, thrown and armlocked on the regular. Worrying about your knees going over the line of your toes seemed a minor danger in comparrison.

Fast forward to 2021 and today I found out that a lot of BJJ people (an art that specialises in slowly destroying your body over time) were raving about the benefits of the method espoused by the Knees Over Toes Guy on YouTube, who had achieved great results reparing people’s knees using a traning methods that empahsises, yes, you guessed it, putting your knees beyond the line of your toes as much as possible.

Interesting. Here’s what he says:

A year went by with no results. In fact, I was certain I needed another surgery when a spark of truth finally presented itself…

“The athlete whose knees can go farthest and strongest over his or her toes is the most protected.”

Everything I had been taught up to this point by dozens of trainers and physical therapists was very clear: NO KNEES OVER TOES — but when I read this statement, I immediately knew it was true.

Knees Over Toes Guy

The write up of his method is here. And here’s a video of his basic method is here:

The logic seems sound to me, so if you’ve got knee trouble, you might want to give it a try.

It makes me think – is the epidemic of Tai Chi people with bad knees (if it really exists) caused by the knees going over the toes? Or is it more likely because that group self-selects for other unhealthy behviours?

The future of push hands

I think push hands is completely flawed as a competitive sport, which is why it ends up as a shoving match, but somebody (Jet Li?) is trying to change the rules to make it work better as an Olympic sport…. So here it is! It’s essentially more like wrestling, which is probably a good thing as it means you can move your foot.

And it’s got takedowns, but I think the question is then always … why not just compete at Shuai Jiao?

Martial arts, Bruce Lee and philosophy

“I’m not aware of too many things,
I know what I know if you know what I mean.”

Edie Brickell

I was listening to the Drunken Boxing podcast recently in which Byron Jacobs and Phil Morrell were talking about Phil’s training history in Fan style Baguazhang. At one point he mentioned two of his teachers and how different their approaches were. One, the daughter of the old master, would deal with tricky questions by showing the answer with a physical demonstration, but if you asked for an explanation of the technical details she would sometimes struggle. She could however, just do it. The other he mentioned had been a professional martial arts teacher all his life, and as such had a more varied teaching method. He could answer questions at a variety of levels, from physical demonstration to a discussion of theory.

Most people’s first introduction to Kung Fu was through the work of Bruce Lee – either his films, or the TV series Kung Fu, which he didn’t write, but was based on his idea. The TV series was full of flashbacks to Master Po teaching his Shaolin philosophy, and Enter the Dragon has the classic master and student discussion at the start, which anchors the whole film in a kind of generic Taoist philosophy. So, from the very beginning in the West, Kung Fu and philosophy arrived hand in hand.

Photo by Man Chung on Unsplash

Theory is one of those things that martial arts is chock full of, whether it’s yin yang symbolism or lofty philosophical ideas of the merits of the soft defeating the hard or the theory of the meridians and Chinese medicine. It’s impossible to deny that Kung Fu is built on theory.

But there’s an opposite view that theory has a limited place in the grand scheme of things and it’s inherently prone to misinterpretation.  It’s an aid to understanding at a certain point, but quite a limited one. 

Theory is an undisputed source of dispute in martial arts, especially online. The typical online argument about martial arts (as we discussed in our most recent Heretics podcast on martial arts and shamanism) is usually about the definition of terms. Different styles and different teachers tend to say the same things in slightly different ways, which are correct from their own perspective – provided the teacher understands it of course – but appear opposite when written down.

I think we can all agree that it’s perfectly possible to learn the practical application of kung fu without ever hearing the theory, but could most people could learn the theory and deduce the practical application?

The repurposing of Kung Fu postures

I really liked this video by The Wandering Warrior on Instagram:

True or not, he makes a good case for the move not being the backfist or punch it is usually shown as, and being a throw instead. In a way, there’s no right answer – the move is whatever you use it for.

But it made me think a lot about how Kung Fu postures are repurposed and reused through the years.

If we go back to one of the earliest written descriptions of Kung Fu by General Qi Jinguang in his “Boxing Classic” of 1560 we can see that all he’s showing are a series of still postures with written verse about the move in question.

You can see that the first posture shown, “Lazily pulling back the robe” shares some similarties with the posture discussed above.

Lazily pulling back the robe, Qi Jinguang, 1560

A Confucian cuture of respect for tradition and elders would naturally lead to respect for older kung fu postures, and you can see how they would get reused and repurposed to fit new needs over the generations.

I bet the current Yang style Single Whip posture is not chosen because it’s the optimal way of pushing forward with a single palm. Instead, it’s more likely a posture that has been passed down from older generations. Maybe it’s original meaning (if it had one) has been lost, over the years. Maybe it was once a Suai Jiao throw? Maybe it was once a posture from Chinese theatre or religious ritual? Who knows.

The important thing is, as always, what can you do with it now?

Kung Fu 2021

The classic TV series is back! This time the lead is female and the cast is almost all Asian. I’m looking forward to seeing what they’ve done with it. I thought the trailer was pretty good. Not sure how I watch this in the UK though…?

Suspended from above. Bringing a sense of lightness to your Tai Chi.

One admonition from Yang Cheng Fu’s 10 important points, that has become something of a law in Taijiquan, is to ‘keep the head suspend, as if from above’.

This has produced all sorts of controversies in the Yang style side of the Tai Chi world. If you look at ChengFu’s student Chen ManChing, who did so much to popularise Tai Chi in the West, you see that he changed his form to truly embody this principle. His head, neck and back are vertical in all positions where he is not bending at the waist.

Whereas, if you look at pictures of his teacher, Cheng-Fu you see that he holds his back with a slight incline in forward postures.

Lineages derived from ChengFu’s peer Wu Jianquan, hold an even more inclined position.

I used to ponder these discrepancies a lot, but these days I have become more interested in the relation of the back (including the neck) to the hands and arms. When we lift and use our arms our tendency is to bend the top of the spine and drop the head forwards, a fact that can be proved each and every time you type on a laptop. Our head wants to move towards the object we are interacting with.

I was watching an excellent performance of a child doing Bak Sing Choy Li Fut shot in the 1960s. Young children doing martial arts can be great teachers because they effortlessly keep their posture as they move. It is only as we become adults that we seem to lose this ability.

Here’s the video. Watch the good posture he keeps – his back remains still in relation to the movement of his arms allowing his neck to stay extened and space and awareness to be present.

Choy Li Fut, 1960s

This is what I think is being asked for in Yang Cheng-Fu’s writings and the Taiji Classics, not mere fussing about how vertical a posture is. The freedom to move our arms but to keep our back still, and maintain our head and neck relationship without falling into the trap of bending towards the object of our attention.

But how to train this? Get a 4 pint carton of milk out of the fridge and swinging it in a figure of 8 in front of you. Now do it again and notice how you head wants to be pulled forward. Resist the pull and feel the work done by the torso muscles to prevent it from happening. It shouldn’t feel like they’re straining, but they are active.

You can do the same thing with a heavy Jian. Or if you feel like you can capture the same feeling without a heavy object, then in a silk reeling exercise, or in the Tai Chi form.

When you are standing still or sitting you can achieve the same torso and arms relationship but with even less use of muscle to maintain the position. You can let the weight of the upper body rest on the lower body, and down into the ground through the centre of the foot or the sitting bones.

Shoulds you have your head in that position to fight? Probably not – you want to tuck your chin a bit more, but the question is how you tuck your chin. The idea of the extended neck that you’re training by working on your posture can be transferred into the way you tuck you chin.

There are a lot of movement disciplines that also work on keeping the neck extended and the back still. Alexander technique and stage acting spring to mind, for example.

In a way the neck being tense, or feeling tired, after we’ve been doing something is a sign that we’re not doing it to the best of our ability. Especially if the shoulders get involved as well. If we can maintain the relaxed, neutral, position of the neck through movement, then it’s a sign that we’re using ourselves in a better way. Our breathing will be better, and we don’t lose that sense of lightness that the kid in the Choy Li Fut video from the 1960s so effortlessly demonstrates.

Keep your head up. Walk lightly, smile brightly!

Kung Fu and firearms

“Western enthusiasts often feel impelled to strip away these religious trappings and construct a version of the martial arts that is neither simple gymnastics nor religion, but emphasizes true hand-to-hand combat skills. The question remains, is this an authentic understanding of the martial arts?”

Charles Holcombe, Theater of Combat (1990)

I think it’s important to bear in mind Charles Holcombe’s classic article, Theater of Combat, when thinking of Chinese martial arts.

One recurring trope that I encounter from, as Holcombe puts it, “Western enthusiasts”, (a label I would apply to myself) is the idea that the Chinese martial arts styles evolved as effective fighting systems in a purer time, before the use of firearms became widespread, and that they gradually went out of favour as practical self defence arts in the face of modern weapons, and turned their attention instead to the more lofty goals of attaining physical fitness, health and spiritual enlightenment.

The idea gives credence to the original version of these arts being purely pugilistic. It follows that once the evil West showed up with their firearms the martial arts needed to find some other way to survive, so it tended towards gymnastic displays or spiritual attainment. It’s a neat idea, but it doesn’t really hold sway with reality.

People forget that China is credited with inventing gunpowder and that the ‘older’ version of its martial arts was intricately embedded within a culture whose religious expression was revealed through performance at festivals and ceremonies, often officiated by a priest performing a ritual with a sword or a troupe of performing martial artists acting out conversations with the gods. 

Also, I think the “whiff of ancient mysticism” (as Judkins calls it) around the martial arts makes people think of them as being  incompatible with modern methods of warfare, like the gun. A popular theme within marital arts films, for example, is that of the introduction of guns destroying the old order, usually involving the death of an old master at the hands of a less skilled and resentful disciple who only had to pull the trigger. 

But, as Judkins explains, these media perceptions have twisted the truth:

“Historically speaking, this is totally backwards.  First the guns came, and then the modern martial arts developed.  What we see in China is quite similar to the puzzle that made life difficult for Perrin when he discussed Japan.

Firearms have been a fact of life in China since the 1300s.  At first they were difficult and expensive to manufacture, but the government employed large numbers of hand cannons, field artillery pieces and even massive rocket launchers from an early period.  If you are curious about what early military gunnery looked like you should check out the Fire Dragon Manual.  At the start of the Ming dynasty Chinese firearms were probably the most advanced in the world.  So what happened?”

Clearly there is more to this story of Kung Fu and firearms than we are aware. I’d recommend reading Ben’s full article: Forgetting about the Gun: Firearms and the Development of the Southern Chinese Martial Arts. and also his other article: Tools of the Trade: The Use of Firearms and Traditional Weapons among the Tongs of San Francisco, 1877-1878.

Enjoy!

Weapons of Chinese highbinders. 1900

Why you should train your martial art like a sport

“Sport” is kind of a trigger word for a lot of martial art practitioners, at least some of the ones I’ve met! So telling them they should train their martial art more like a sport usually goes down like a cold bucket of sick, but really I think they should listen.

“There are no rules on the street!”

“I train for the street, dude!”

“You mean a sport like netball, right?”

Photo by Artem Podrez on Pexels.com

When here’s the thing: Training your martial art like a ‘martial art’ is often an excuse for not working very hard and not really pressure testing anything you do.

Sport is a sweaty, dificult, thing to do that usually involves doing something pretty athletic (unless you count darts). Sport is also structured. Quite often in a martial art there is no real training methodology. People just turn up, do a few forms, practice a few safe applications against little or no resistance then go home again. The learning process can be a bit random.

I should stress, I don’t really think that there’s anything wrong with that, depending on your motivations for training, which often change as you age. Just feeling good about doing something is certainly reason enough to do it, but I think you should ask yourself, what progress are you really making? And, worse, are you becoming delusional?

Sports, in contrast, tend to be very structured. You train attributes specifically, and you engage in a focussed practice where you can drill to increase your ability in tightly defined things. Sometime those things are measured. You sit down and discuss progress with your coach. You troubleshoot and then you give it a go against somebody who is going to be uncooperative and gives you feedback. That’s real testing against nature – the sort of thing a human shaman would engage in 10,000 years ago.

Martial arts also have strange rules that sports don’t have – we have to call people odd titles like Sifu or Professor. There’s bowing and etiquette that looks strange to people outside the system. I can understand the cultural reasons for a lot of these things, but I often wonder that when these arts are put into a different culture, whether some of these things should be left behind because they’re not helpful and, in fact, can stand in the way of progress. For example, the little quirks like bowing to photos of dead guys or using a 1-2-3 clap system can gradually breed a cult-like quality of obedience that makes us stop questioning things.

I saw a brilliant video of a Muay Thai coach recently. I love the tiny details he’s giving. Muay Thai is an interesting martial art because it’s probably the most traditional martial art remaining on the planet, but it’s also a sport. It is undoubtedly effective and trained at the highest level in popular combat sports. I think there’s something to learn from that.

As I said earlier, I don’t think we need to make all martial arts into competative sports, but I think we can take elements of the sporting approach and apply it to what we’re doing, regardless of the martial art we’re doing.

Finally, the inspiration for this post is the latest brilliant episode of the BJJ Mental Models podcast to featuring Priit Mihkelson, about how to train your martial art like a sport. Give it a listen.

It’s also on YouTube:

The great mystery of Kung Fu forms

One of the frequent criticisms I hear of the idea that there is a connection between Chinese martial arts and Chinese theatre and religion is that no respectable Chinese martial arts teacher has ever implied their work comes from dance or spiritual ritual, so the idea is laughable. I have experienced a pretty negative reaction from some of my Chinese martial arts friends to these ideas. The thought that the rough and tough martial art they genuinely suffered to learn and dedicated their lives to had religious or (worse) theatrical origins is anathema to their world view, akin to an insult.

But the question really is, how can they not be theatrical? Just look at Chinese martial arts – of course they’re theatrical!

Here are some questions to ask yourself: Why do we do long complex, showy forms at all? Why is Chinese martial arts still so strongly associated with Lion Dance? Why do its modern day performers so often put on demonstrations for the local community, on stages? Why do performances sometimes have chaotic drumming soundtracks?

I’m sure any competent Chinese martial arts practitioner can produce answers to all these questions based entirely in the physical realm of pugilism – it’s all physical training at the end of the day –  but when you put all these questions together an obvious picture begins to form.

Nobody looks at Capoeira and says, “this has nothing to do with dance”. So, why do most Chinese martial arts practitioners look at their long theatrical forms and say, “this has nothing to do with theatre or religious practice”?

There’s an inherent mystery to Tao Lu, or “forms” found in Chinese martial arts. This great video by The Scholar-General hopes to provide some answers: