Stay tight, but not too tight

Teaching jiujitsu class this morning I found myself saying a phrase that I feel like I’ve said a million times before.

“Don’t hold too tight because if they roll, then you roll too.”

Photo by Timothy Eberly on Unsplash

It’s one of the fundamentals of controlling somebody on the ground when you’re on the top, but it’s not really a technique, so it’s never taught specifically, you just kind of pick it up as you go. In fact, most of these little pearls of wisdom feel like they could belong to Tai Chi as much as Jiujitsu.

Inevitably the new white belt, overjoyed that they’ve actually managed to get on top for once, (perhaps it’s even the first time they’ve got somebody in side control or mount), will hold on like their life depends on it and inevitably be rolled over because they are holding too tight.

Imagine sitting on a horse for the first time – you’d hold on pretty tight, right? Well it’s the same thing with a person. Your brain is telling you to squeeze hard and not let go. The problem is, the harder you squeeze, the more tense you are and more tense you are the lighter you feel and the easier you are to move. You’re effectively joining your body to their body in a way you don’t want to.

One of the most basic escapes from a bad position on the bottom is to try and roll over. The escapes that are usually taught in jiujitsu class are more technical and go in stages, – a grip here, a leg there, a hip movement – but a complete beginner will often just try and grab the person on top and roll them over out of instinct. And the thing is, quite often it works.

Rolling people over is not basic or wrong – and there are more technical and skilled ways of doing it, of course. You can subtly bump their weight forward so they are slightly off balance without realising it, and then trap an arm or a leg that’s in the direction you want to go, so when the roll happens they can’t reach out with the limb to widen their base and prevent it.

But whether done out of pure instinct or with technical precision, the roll often works because the person on top is squeezing too tight.

If you are on top then ideally you want to let your relaxed weight sink into them, not hold them with muscular tension. That’s how you feel heavy. And that way, when they do an explosive bridge or a sudden roll, you can surf the movement like a wave and not get carried along with it. You might need to change position on top, but that’s the best way to control somebody from the top – go with their movements, and keep changing position so you are always behind their force, not in front of it where you get pushed off.

Stay tight, but not too tight. That is the way.

I see you, doing Tai Chi in the park

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

I live in the suburbs of Bristol. While Bristol itself is one of the most culturally diverse cities in the UK the suburbs tend towards leafy suburbia where you can feel the crushing weight of normality on your shoulders. So, while seeing somebody in a central Bristol park doing Tai Chi on their own wouldn’t be unusual, it’s almost unheard of in my local parks. I’ve done Tai Chi in my local park of course – usually when training with somebody else and it’s not something I do solo, since I can just imagine the amount of funny looks it would generate around here.

Imagine my surprise then when I saw somebody else doing Tai Chi in my local park this morning. I looked to my right as I entered the park on the way back from the supermarket and facing towards me in the Push posture, just a couple of meters away was a man doing Tai Chi. One glance was all I need to identify that he was doing Yang style, or possibly the Beijing 24-step, which is based on Yang style. He had that large frame posture and super slow movement speed.

He was an older man with striking white hair, brushed back and John Lennon-style glasses, but tinted, so you couldn’t see his eyes. It was that moment where you see something that you recognise but it’s in the wrong place at the wrong time, so your brain takes a moment to process it and you freeze like a rabbit in the headlights. The Germans probably have a word for it.

After over 20 years of living in an area where it would be considered odd, even weird, to do Tai Chi in a local park, it had finally happened. I’d seen somebody doing Tai Chi in the park! And do you know what my first thought was on seeing him?

‘Gee, what a weirdo!’

I just walked off without saying a word and he just carried on, his attention rapt up in his movements.

Chinese armour breakdown

I try not to do too many posts that are basically just a video, but I thought this one from Kung Fu world showing how the various parts of Chinese armour were worn was pretty good. There’s not much information provided with the video, but from looking at it I think it’s based on Song Dynasty (960 – 1279AD) armour – I could be wrong about that, but what’s interesting about it is that your average person saw this they would probably think this is Samurai armour from Japan, especially because she’s holding a sword that looks a bit like a katana.

Chinese armour really reached a peak in terms of technology in the Song Dynasty because the Chinese were fighting their most difficult opponents at the time, the Mongol army. This was the time of the folk hero General Yue Fei, who is traditionally associated with the martial art of Xing Yi and Xin Yi. Eventually the Song Dynasty collapsed and the Mongols took over, creating the Yuan Dynasty which only lasted from 1271 to 1368.

Review: @chaos_wrestling , Bristol, September 2022

I’ve written quite a lot on this blog (and upset plenty of people in the process!) about the deep connections between performance, ritual, religion, theatre, entertainment and martial arts, particularly in the Chinese martial arts traditions. But it’s not only the Chinese martial arts that function as this one-size-fits-all container for self defence techniques, self development techniques, pugilism and good old-fashioned raucous entertainment. There are strong traditions of wrestling-based entertainment in almost all cultures. Whether it was the gladiators of Ancient Rome or the Jujitsu mania that swept early 1900s Victorian England and America alike, or the recent ADCC 2022 grappling championship with a 14,000-strong audience, for as long as men (or women) have wrestled, sparred or boxed there have been other men working out ways of getting people to pay to watch it.

A section of Qing Dynasty (1644-1912) court painter Lang Shining’s painting depicting a wrestling contest in the royal court, performed as entertainment for the emperor.

England is no different, and so I find myself at Total Chaos, in Kings Oak Academy, a secondary school in Bristol, England, for my first visit to a real life Pro Wrestling event. I’m here ostensibly because of my 13-year old son and his obsession with WWE, which he watches almost every day, but I can’t deny I’m curious to see what all the fuss is about myself; to see what martial arts looks like when the performance elements aren’t hidden, disguised or denied, but brought to the fore and celebrated.

It begins: the first match is between the heel – the obvious bad guy – Tate Mayfairs – and the face, the obvious good guy, Joseph Connors. In terms of audience participation knowing who you need to boo for and who you need to cheer for takes a lot of the mental load off you, and you can just relax and enjoy it going along with the various chants that spontaneously break out amongst the crowd. In that way it’s a lot less stressful to watch than MMA, and a lot more family friendly and less bloody.

Tate Mayfairs about to be thrown by Joseph Connors

And the skill level is really impressive. Mayfairs and Connors are engaged in a ‘strap match’, in which they are tied together with a strap at the wrist which they both utilise in very technical ways that reminded me of the rope dart techniques found in Chinese marital arts.

As a child I used to watch wrestling religiously on World of Sport every Saturday morning in the 70s and early 80s, when it was on one of the only 3 TV channels you could watch in the UK. That was the era of Giant Haystacks, Mick McManus, Catweazle and Bid Daddy.

Things have come on a long way since then. Joseph Connors really looks the part of a modern day WWE wrestler: he’s lean, strong and his hair is long. Although Chris Hemsworth-lookalike Charlie Sterling who comes on next has even more hair, and even tighter pants.

Charlie Sterling being dropped by Sam Doyle

There are surprises throughout the night. The central conceit of Total Chaos is that you don’t know who is coming on next, you have to see who the Chaos Generator throws out – we get to see current King of Chaos champion Danny Jones vs Mulligan (who was a properly nasty heel) in a match to be decided by who got smashed through a table first, and then there is the surprise inclusion of “Jack from the bar” a comparatively skinny teen who had been serving drinks all evening from a small hatch in the foyer. Jack gets thrown into the show to make his Chaos debut in a male vs female match against the formidable Ava White, which was great fun. The poor boy didn’t stand a chance, but what a way to go.

Ohhhh Jack from the bar-ohh.

There was an all-female match up with Kanji vs Rayne “Make it rain!” Leverkusen, a tag-team event featuring the DEAD SAD BOYS and, surprisingly, 3 other wrestlers, (whose names, I apologise, I forget) and then a surprise final bout – Wait! It’s not over! – as “All Wales Champion” Brendan ‘Bronco’ White storms the stage to take on Eddie Dennis. These guys really brought the house down with incredible back flips from the top ropes.

Verdict: The athleticism and skill is real and it’s fantastic entertainment. There are moments of comedy, danger, tragedy, heroism and the wrestlers put it all on the line. Throughout the show the plot line of two rival wrestling factions, personified initially by Mayfairs and Connors, is weaved and developed into a feud, building to a grudge match tag team event bringing in Danny Jones and Mulligan, that will be decided in November at the next Total Chaos event: All or Nothing. I can’t wait! I just hope my 13-year old son still wants to go, or I’m going to have to go on my own…

But that’s not all – there are two shows that day with the first being to decide the new Maiden of Chaos Champion. Don’t miss it!

Basic Shuai Jiao exercises for the waist (Yao) and Fa Jin

There have not been many updates to the blog recently, but don’t worry, I’ve been busy working hard behind the scenes. I’ve just recorded a great conversation with Matthew Kreuger of the Walking with the Tengu podcast. “A podcast exploring classic writings as they relate to the modern martial artist.” We covered all sorts of topics including warriorship, philosophy and of course, martial arts. Matthew is going to be my guest on the next episode of the Tai Chi Notebook podcast, so look out for that, coming sometime in October.

One of the things we talked about was how Matthew has integrated Shuai Jiao throwing techniques into the standup component of his Brazilian Jiujitsu training. This is a really interesting approach, as you typically see BJJ integrated with wrestling or Judo, but mixing it with the stand up Chinese jacket wrestling style is not something I’ve seen before.

Shuai Jiao contains a lot of solo exercises for conditioning the body, and my ears pricked up when Matthew said that these exercises had really helped him with a back injury that had dogged his training.

Matthew has been a studying from the online school of Sonny Mannon, co-founder & Head Trainer for Guang Wu Shuai Jiao. I looked him up and found this basic introduction to Shuai Jiao warm up exercises video that he did in 2020.

Having just followed along these exercises I can see how they benefit the waist, core and lower back area. But also the flexibility in the legs – my hamstrings and calf muscles were particularly stiff the day after! That video follows on into this one, which is about ‘belt cracking’.

Belt cracking is less about stretching and more about developing that explosive shake that you see in a lot of Chinese martial arts, sometimes called Fa Jin. It’s interesting stuff, but in Shuai Jiao you’re generally not trying to hit with it, you’re using it to disrupt the opponent’s structure to create openings. You can see some applications of it on Sonny’s Instagram account:

ADCC 2022 wrap up

We’ve just had the Olympics of grappling, ADCC 2022 and as always, there were some great matches. Unsurprisingly, Gordon Ryan dominated the 96kg+ division. He just walked through every high level opponent they threw at him, even finishing Andre Galvao in the Superfight and making it look easy in the process.

Here’s his quickest (11 second!) victory on his way to the final!

Despite Ryan’s absolutely horrible social media personality, it was refreshing to see how calm and respectful he was to his opponents on the mat. Even when Galvao resorted to dirtier tactics, like slapping him, Ryan didn’t get angry. He just laughed.

For me the Kade Ruotolo was a standout this year – he submitted all his opponents on his way to the 77kg crown. That’s a 100% submission rate on his first attempt. And he’s only 19, making him the youngest ever champion, and he’s 100% natural (i.e. no juice). I really enjoyed his match with Lachlan Giles especially because it was a perfect match up of guard player vs guard passer. The finish picked up some criticism because it looked like Kade was kicking Lachlan in the face to secure the armlock, but meh, Lachlan didn’t seem too upset about it, so it can’t have been that bad. See what you think:

Shout out to Ffion Davies who becomes the UK’s first ADCC champion. A great results for the UK and for Wales.

ADCC runs trials all over the world for people to qualify and is open to everybody who does any form off grappling, but once again no Tai Chi players made the finals…

Let’s be honest though, the only people who made it to the finals were Brazilian Jiujitsu guys and girls, because the rule set is designed to favour them. Nobody stands you up if you end up on the ground and almost all submissions are legal. Obviously, despite Push Hands being a form of grappling there is no Tai Chi on the ground, and leg locks aren’t part of the art.

Once again, I think it’s worth noting that if you want to be a well rounded martial artist, you really need to address the ground aspect otherwise there will always be a massive hole in your game.

Simplicity in martial arts (and Choy Li Fut)

Master Tam Sam, founder of Buk Sing Choy Li Fut.

Recently I’ve been training a lot of a short drill-like form that Phil Duffy taught me years ago. It’s a little sequence that contains about 8 or 9 basic Choy Li Fut techniques (depending on how you count them) and runs in a loop so you can just keep doing it over and over. If you wanted a good introduction to Choy Li Fut, that’s it. There’s pretty much everything you need in there to get proficient at something that at least resembles Choy Li Fut. There are no complicated animal methods or anything too fancy, just practical blocks, deflections and strikes done in a CLF style and using the basic Choy Li Fut stances.

And then I started wondering about what it would be like if a person only ever practiced that little form, but drilled it intensely every day over and over and also spared the techniques for a year. I wonder how good you could get if you just did that? I think you’d actually get pretty good! You’d need other conditioning drills, of course, and stretches, but you’d definitely have the essence of something.

And that got me thinking about the whole concept of simplicity in martial arts. Quite often we make martial arts overly complicated, especially in Chinese internal styles. There are basics to master first – fundamental principles of body movement, posture and breathing, that all need to be coordinated together with the internal elements like mental intent, jin and calm focus, etc. Then there are long forms to master, and then other forms on top of that. And that’s not even touching on the techniques you need to master. And push hands and weapons forms. It just goes on and on. It’s like Tim Cartmell said in our recent podcast conversation (and I’m paraphrasing him here) “in some of these styles you do so much body work that you forget the other guy is actually going to throw a punch!”

The heavy sparring emphasis I’ve experienced in BJJ has taught me that martial techniques can’t be too complicated if they’re going to stand a chance of working when the rubber hits the road. A six move combo to sweep somebody, pass their guard and choke then out is pretty unlikely to work in sparring just the way you drilled it in practice because no plan survives contact with the enemy. What works in real life are techniques and strategies that hit that sweet spot somewhere between the level of “too dumb” and “too complicated”. Those sorts of techniques, drilled to become second nature, have a real chance of working when you need them to. That’s the simplicity you want to aspire to in martial arts, and to me that’s the real power of martial arts like Choy Li Fut – they have enough subtly to make them interesting, but not enough to make them too complicated and impractical.

When I get time over the weekend I’m going to film my little mini Choy Li Fut routine and put it in the Patron’s area, so you can check it out there.

Choy Li Fut mini form. Video available at patreon.com/taichinotebook

The Balance Tai Chi Brings To Your Weight

Have you ever been in a situation where you suddenly felt a subtle change in your body? Maybe your body is feeling a bit weaker, sluggish, or even a tad stiffer than usual? Maybe you’ve put on a bit of weight, and your body decided to send you a little message. It is interesting how you always have the sense that you need to move, as if your body is trying to tell you something.

Your mind is a powerful instrument. It knows exactly when you need a push and how much push you should be giving your body. One great way to harness your mind’s capability is to channel it through Tai Chi. Tai Chi requires a type of resilience that no other exercise can provide – it requires you to develop the resilience to work slowly and methodically even when your mind is telling you that it would rather do something much more intense. During high-intensity workouts, you can easily tune out and smash your way through them as you blast out tunes to keep you going. Tai Chi requires that you stop and reconnect with your breath before you go through your routine. You are then expected to keep your mind present and engaged throughout. The mental fortitude you develop while doing Tai Chi – which even the British Heart Foundation points out is required for a healthy lifestyle – will better serve you as you face more daunting tasks, like losing weight.

Here are a few beginner-friendly routines to get you started in Tai Chi, if you haven’t started already:

Exercise #1: Tai Chi Walking

As you go through this routine, concentrate on shifting your weight smoothly and without wobbling. Pay particular attention whilst you’re shifting forward onto the turned-out foot as you are twisting your torso. Complete beginners will often find this challenging, so don’t feel frustrated if you have a hard time. Your body will get used to this movement the more often you practice. To make sure you are getting the most out of the workout, try to keep your centre of gravity levelled. Be aware of how much you bend your legs and keep your body from moving up and down as you shift weight.

Exercise #2: Wild Horse Parting Mane

The key to this Tai Chi exercise is to try to combine the weight transfer, torso twisting, and arm separation and perform them in a flowing motion. Be mindful that your legs should be driving the pelvis forward. Feel your spine being in charge of rotating your shoulders as your shoulders propel your arms.

Exercise #3: Cloud Hands

As much as you are able to, draw circles with your arms in a smooth, continuous motion and keep your speed uniform all throughout the routine. With constant practice, you will begin to notice the overhand arm pulling while the underhand arm pushes/stabs. This movement activates the posterior chain on one side of the body while simultaneously engaging the anterior chain on the other.

Committing to a regular exercise routine, like Tai Chi, helps bring you closer to your ideal weight. Moreso, small lifestyle changes like being aware of what you put in your body will also help you tremendously. WeightWatchers notes that the best weight loss programmes work optimally when their main goal is to help you find movement you enjoy. This way, your decision to move becomes a healthy habit that sticks.

If you are still not convinced of the weight loss potential you can get from Tai Chi, you might be surprised to find out that the calm, rhythmic flow of Tai Chi works equally as well as cardiovascular exercise and strength training. The results from Tai Chi are comparable to the mentioned exercises in terms of reducing waist size and cholesterol improvement. A trial published by the Annals of Internal Medicine showed that three 1-hour weekly sessions of this low-impact practice helped the participants lower their level of triglyceride (a type of fat found in the blood). This eventually led to greater drops in body weight.

When it all boils down to it, the best way for you to lose weight is to find an activity that you enjoy, and that makes you feel good. If you are looking for a workout that would help you strengthen your mind as you strengthen your body (and lose weight in the process), give Tai Chi a try.

Calling out Bullshido

Fantasy or reality?

I’ve been involved in a lot of discussions recently (and for years!) about what in Chinese martial art is fantasy and what is real. Realness, keeping it real, being truthful, whatever you want to call it, it is seen as a big deal. The question of the essential realness of a technique, a style or a whole person’s lineage, cuts to the heart of the matter, always.

Discussions of these types have flourished along with the growth of online video and the means to talk about these videos online. These discussions usually go along the line of:

1) A famous practitioner puts up a clip of himself (it’s usually always a male) demonstrating something visually impressive on a student. The purpose of the clip is self promotion for fame or seminars or online teaching material. Maybe they show a student go flying through the air from the lightest of touches, or they resist a strong push without any visible effort – you know the sort of thing.

2) Somebody comments and goes – “that’s bullshit!”

3) All hell breaks loose in the comments section between rival sections.

I can understand the strong urge to want to point these things out. I get involved in these things too. Sometimes I see something that is such obvious nonsense I can’t help but point it out. It’s like this old XKCD cartoon that is funny because it’s true:

The argument is logical: There are so many good things in Chinese martial arts and the fantasy stuff is damaging to that. And it’s therefore up to us to call out the fantasy, not accept it. If we don’t then we just invite ridicule, especially from other martial artists.

However, even when that attitude is adopted I see people tend to be more interested in calling out the fantasy stuff that other people do, or that is in other styles, not their own! And never in anything they do themselves or their teachers do. We all have our own blind spots and biases.

But I’ve been thinking differently about this issue recently…

When you look into the close connection between martial arts and street theatre, or opera troops and (as technology progressed) Kung Fu movies, it’s impossible not to conclude that showbiz (for want of a better word) has always been connected in some way with Chinese martial arts from the very beginning.

That doesn’t mean that Chinese martial arts masters of old weren’t bad ass. They were bad ass! But they also knew how to perform Lion Dance, or put on a show at New Years, or impress a prospective student with a. few tricks if they had to. These things were so interconnected in Chinese culture that it seems impossible to separate them (although successive Chinese governments gave it a good go throughout the 20th century).

Showbiz has always been there in Chinese martial art. It’s what makes amazing movie fight scenes like this one from The Grand Master possible:

Beauty, artistry, story telling. It’s all there. It’s using “real” techniques from martial arts and presenting them in a hyper-real, perfected, way.

Of course, the problem comes when people get conned into believing that the hyper-real is the real and that can take people to some very weird places, involving cult-like practices, exploitation and usually a lot of money being handed over. That’s where the problems start for me.

There are no easy answers, but I think that viewing some of these things that are not quite real as merely a part of the showbiz side to Chinese martial art, is perhaps an easier way to deal with it.

For instance, what is going on in this clip with Chen ManChing bouncing people around?

I can imagine a lot of Chen style Tai Chi people getting upset about that, as the sort of nonsense that doesn’t tend to happen in their style… and yet, what’s going on in this clip:

Is it as bad? Is it worse, even?

I don’t know.

It might just be easier to look at both these clips say,

It’s just showbiz”, and shrug your shoulders and laugh.

Closing in Taijiquan

Photo by Gratisography on Pexels.com

Opening and closing are in every movement of Tai Chi. But what does it mean to close?

To me the closing movements in the form feel like a squeeze. Closing in Tai Chi doesn’t mean shutting off. I think of the movement of Taijiquan as being like a garden hose that’s always on – the water (or if you want to get all mystical about it, the qi) is flowing regardless, and all you are doing with the closing movements is compressing the mouth of the hose a little, or putting your thumb over the lip, to increase the pressure, so the velocity of the water increases. 

Quite often the closing part of the movement is when you form the end of a posture – the finish position of Single Whip, the end of Ward off, for example. When the body closes it’s like the pressure increases and the velocity of the water becomes higher, then as you open again the mouth of the hose opens allowing more water comes out but at a lower velocity. That’s opening and closing.