Stand still, breathe better

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Photo by Engin Akyurt on Pexels.com

Have you noticed that some people always seem a little bit out of breath? Especially when they talk. I think it’s a problem of posture. Not a huge posture discrepancy, like bending over or tilting to the side, perhaps not even anything visible, but just a slight incline here or slump there that has become ingrained, causing the body to work harder than it needs to draw in oxygen.

I just read a great article that talks about the correct mechanics of breathing, which I’ll quote:

Here’s how breathing is supposed to work, according to the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute:
  • The abdominal muscles relax while your diaphragm contracts downward, pushing all your guts out of the way.
  • Your intercostal muscles contract to expand your rib cage, lowering the air pressure in your lungs and creating a vacuum in the chest cavity.
  • Air flows through your nose and mouth in response to the vacuum.
  • The intercostal muscles and diaphragm relax while the abdominal muscles contract, pushing air out of the lungs.

 

Breathing is an automatic process that should be happening effortlessly, yet we mess about with it far too much.

So what does this have to do with Tai Chi you might be asking? Well the posture requirements needed to achieve the optimum style of breathing are provided by correct application of Tai Chi principles. I find standing upright with the head ‘as if suspended from above’, as it says in the Tai Chi classics and a relaxed upper body is the key. When we slump in even a minor way we impinge the correct functioning of the breathing process.

One of the best ways to train this is in Zhan Zhuang, “stake standing” postures, because it takes the complexity of movement out of the equation. With regular practice your general sense of being upright tends to improve.

One of the best free sources of information on Zhan Zhuang is the Channel 4 TV series Stand Still, Be Fit! that breaks it down into easy 10 minute lessons.

Notice that there’s no specific advice on breathing, but a lot of attention is paid on alignment and posture. The idea is that with correct posture, the breathing becomes natural again and follows what the Taoists called ‘the way’.

Clear as a glass of water. Do you have the patience to wait
till your mud settles and the water is clear?
Can you remain unmoving
till the right action arises by itself? The Master doesn’t seek fulfillment.
Not seeking, not expecting,
she is present, and can welcome all things.”

Tao Te Ching – chapter 15

 

Update: New URL = no more ads!

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Just a quick site update – I’ve opened up the purse strings, watched the moths fly out and blown away the dust, put my hand in my pocket and upgraded the site to a proper URL – www.thetaichinotebook.com

That means there will be no more adverts spoiling your viewing pleasure (hurrah!),  and maybe I’ll get a few more visitors.

If you like the sort of content I’m producing feel free to donate to keep the site going Disclaimer: nobody has ever donated 🙂

That’s it, no other news, except that I’ve updated my post on my History of XingYi podcast series to include all episodes. We’re now up to part 9 and we’re not even out of the Song Dynasty!

Oh, and the latest episode of my Heretics podcast showcases a really rare Japanese religion called Pana-Wave. Check it out.

 

The King (Netflix 2019), a short review

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The King (Netflix 2019) is the story of the rise of King Henry V and the battle of Agincourt against the French (1415).

Prince Henry is portrayed as a wayward teenager, who dislikes authority and has no desire for the throne or the complications of court politics and international diplomacy. Suddenly this emo teenager has the full weight of the English crown thrust on his shoulders, and pretty soon, against his will, he is at war with France and the famous field in Agincourt is calling.

There are virtually no women in this film. It’s as study of men. How men rule, how men lead and how men fight. And ultimately, how they lie.

The fight scenes are not bloody. They’re muddy. Smack, bang, wallop in the mud. But they feel realistic. I think the makers of The King have spent a lot of time talking to medieval armor experts and thinking about how fights in armor, between armored knights, would actually have played out.

While Agincourt is remembered for the English archers securing victory with their longbows, their effect in the battle, while important, is not portrayed as the decisive factor by a long way. It’s the use of the terrain, strategy and hand to hand combat that secures victory.

And the grappling. There is so much grappling. Specifically, grappling with weapons and armour. Forcing the opponent to the ground and working a blade in or bashing their head with a hammer.

The key factors seem to be, wrestling, impact from momentum (blunt or sharp edged weapons), and finally the environment – the mud.

Xing Yi, a Chinese martial art which I talk about a lot on this blog, has battlefield origins and seems equally obsessed with weapons, armour and the environment. The strikes in Xing Yi’s 12 animals all target weak points in armor. The bits where the joints in the human body are and the armor is, by necessity, weak to allow the limbs to move – up under the armpit, the inner thigh and the neck are obvious examples.

Another thing that Xing Yi emphasis is the stepping. So much emphasis is placed on making sure you don’t slip or trip in Xing Yi training. My XingYi teacher would insist on us stepping with the whole foot landing flat, never the normal heel toe action of walking.

Back when I was learning from him regularly we used to train outside (whatever the weather), so often this was on wet grass. Trust me – you don’t appreciate that heel toe stepping is vulnerable to slipping until you try it at speed on wet grass.

Over time we seem to forget these little things in our training, because in our modern life they are rather unimportant. People don’t wear armor these days and we usually train martial arts on flat wooden floored gymnasiums or village halls, in the dry. Watching The King was a good reminder of their importance. It’s the simple things like this that make the difference between living and dying on a battlefield.

When it comes to grappling in armor, The King suggests that tripping or simply unbalancing the opponent is the decisive factor. Forget the big hip and shoulder throws of judo, and think more about the little leg hooks and sweeps you find in folk style wrestling. It makes me think of those jacketed styles of folk wrestling which have survived today in isolated corners of the world, or the descriptions you read of Irish collar and elbow wrestling (sadly now lost), which start from a position of already being in a clinch with the upper body and the leg tricks where the art is found. Suddenly the reasons for training wrestling like that makes much more sense.

I enjoyed The King for all these reasons. Perhaps the closest we’ll ever get to a battlefield type situation in modern civilian life is a game of rugby. Either being in one or watching one.

In short, The King is great, war is a muddy business, and I need to start thinking about my stepping again.

Tai and Tuo Xing videos (part 1 and 2)

As I was reading Glen Board’s excellent new book Xing Yi: A study of Tai and Tuo Xing I thought there really needs to be a video of these linking sequences he’s presenting in the book so people can see how the moves work and get a flavour of it. So I made one myself in a bit of free time instead of my usual morning practice.

During filming I got a visit from a local village Peacock (we call him Peter) who decided to bless my video with his presence. Tai is the flycatcher, a small to medium bird with a long tail. Now, while Peter may also have a long tale, he’s a very large bird. Also, he’d be more like Chicken Xing (Ji Xing), so he’s a not a perfect fit with Tai, but you have to use what you’ve got.

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Peter, standing proud.

Here’s the first video:

The problem is, (as I discovered) if you want make a video of animals Xings that if useful for people to follow along you have to take a lot of the character of each animal out, and it becomes a bit bland and (dare I say it….?) more like Tai Chi…

So I did another video that had less emphasis on relaxed movement and accuracy and more on expressing the Xing of each animal. Glen described the Xing well in his book, but in short, I’m trying to generate more torsion through the dragon body in Tuo and more agility, abrupt change of direction and surprising strikes in Tai.

My Xing Yi is always a work in progress, and I’ve been out of the loop with it for a few years, but Glen’s book has inspired me to pick it up again, so I’m not presenting myself as a “Laoshi” or expert here or anything, just a glimpse into my personal training. Anyway, here it is and hopefully people who buy the book will find it helpful in some way:

 

Staying rounded in Taijiquan

My Xing Yi teacher invented the word “chalicity” as an English equivalent of the Mongol phrase “Bak Tam Stay Saub”, which means (very roughly) “a bit like a capacious container”. So, chalicity means, “a bit like a chalice.”

A chalice, or a cup, is a rounded structure designed to contain a fluid with no leaks, and has parallels for both the mental aspect and physical aspect of a posture in the internal arts.

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Photo by Jametlene Reskp on Unsplash

In the context of his shamanism practice, chalicity is more about the mental parallel – the space inside the cup reflecting the space inside a mind that is empty of thought.

However, in the context of Taijiquan and martial arts, you can think of ‘chalice-like’ as the physical structure of the body creating the space necessary to contain “Peng” energy, that is, the ground force used in internal arts expressed through a rounded structure.

Think of Peng energy as being the fluid inside the cup and your body as being the structure of the cup. Or you can think of it as the air inside a rubber ball. If you keep your body rounded, it holds the Peng energy nicely. If you don’t, it leaks out.

The posture requirements of Taijiquan

All the posture requirements of Taijiquan create a rounded structure for the body. Here are some:

1. Head suspended from above

2. Elbows drooped.

3. Chest sheltered / back lifted

4. Shoulders rounded.

5. Chi sunk to the dantien.

6. Kua rounded

7. Knees bent.

These requirements create the structure for your ‘chalice’ within which you can hold the Peng force.

These days all internal martial arts make use of Zhan Zhuang, “standing like a tree” standing postures, which the practitioner is required to hold for extended periods, work the same way. They all maintain this same Peng shape, with gently rounded limbs and upright spines.

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Xing Yi Quan uses the San Ti Shi standing posture which has 6 requirements, two of which are bear shoulders and tiger embrace. Together these two requirements mean your torso and arms take up the same chalice-like posture. You maintain the Peng shape. It’s all the same idea.

Maintaining structure while moving.

Structure isn’t something that’s meant to be achieved only in a static posture. Part of what you’re training when you perform a Tai Chi form, for example, is the ability to keep this Peng shape as you move.

If you keep the requirements you can maintain Peng. If you break the requirements then your Peng force will leak out of your body, just as water would leak from a cup with a hole in.

So, if you start to drop your head or stiffen the neck, for example, or straighten your legs or raise your elbows, you lose the natural power of the body working together all powered from the ground, and you have to start muscling it to compensate in your techniques.

So, to work in internal arts, all the techniques need to be expressed within the framework of this structure, and some techniques in martial arts just aren’t suited to maintaining this Peng structure.

Take for example, a side kick.

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Photo by Jason Briscoe on Unsplash

There’s nothing wrong with a side kick, but you physically can’t keep the body ‘rounded’ while performing a side kick to the opponent’s chest because of the angle you need to open your hip to. Just look at the photo.

I think that’s one reason why you don’t often see the a side kick in most Tai Chi forms or in fact in Xing Yi or Bagua. The kicks you do see in the internal arts tend to not take the hip out of alignment with the rest of the body.

Does that mean you can never do a side kick again? Of course not, but generally, you need to keep your rounded structure at all times when practicing internal arts, that way you keep your Peng energy rounded and the true power of the internal martial arts can be expressed.

Xing Yi Quan, a study of Tai (Flycatcher) and Tuo (Crocodile) Xing, a review

I finally got myself a copy of my friend Glen Board’s new Xing Yi book: Xing Yi Quan: A study of Tai and Tuo Xing. It arrived in the post today:

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UK link to Amazon.

US link to Amazon.

Firstly, the book looks great. It’s thick, there are a lot of photos, some of which are colour, but most are black and white. They’re well taken and it’s easy to see what’s happening. In terms of content, there is lots of historical information about how Xing Yi was created in the book and the philosophical and martial ideas that lie behind it, but there’s also lots of very practical real-world applications of the movements shown as well. Glen even covers that tricky subject of how Qi is used in Xing Yi Quan as well as taking in the Xing Yi Classics, San Ti Shi and weapons. It’s a pretty hefty volume.

The real focus of the book though is on two of Xing Yi’s 12 animals: Tai and Tuo, but it also covers an awful lot of general Xing Yi theory. The inclusion of a full translation of the two most important Xing Yi classics writings – the Classic of Unification and the Classic of Fighting, from Yue Fei’s 10 Important Thesis – is particularly welcome. As is the inclusion of an Appendix on the I Ching, which explains the 8 trigrams and how you can use them to post-analyse martial arts movements or situations in Xing Yi Quan.

Full disclosure: Glen and I have the same Xing Yi teacher and this book follows on from my Xing Yi teachers first attempt to write a book on each of the Xing Yi animals. He only got as far as Bear Eagle, before stalling on Snake. So, it’s good to see that Glen has picked things up in our lineage and got something into print on a couple more of the animals. I’d like to see him do the same thing for Horse and Snake (if you’re taking requests Glen? 🙂 )

(You might also like the podcast series I’ve been doing with Damon on the history of Xing Yi).

Tai and Tuo

Tai is a fly-catching bird from Asia with a long tail. It’s sometimes referred to as “Phoenix” in English. It’s quite an agile little bird that’s good at evading predators by using its long tail to confuse the attacking bird and also good at catching insects in flight. As you’d expect, there are a lot of changes of direction and spiraling type actions amongst its martial applications.

Tai uses a special fist formation to strike with where you protrude the middle finger knuckle ahead of the others when you form a fist. You use it to strike with in the same way that a “Phoenix-eye fist” can be used in Shaolin arts to strike with. The book explains all these aspects of Tai.

Tuo is the Crocodile. Sometimes you see it translated as “Water lizard”, (but come on people – just put the pieces together 🙂 )

Tuo doesn’t have any specific fist shapes, but emphasizes the ambush nature of the crocodile when hunting. It also makes use of the side to side rolling action that a crocodile performs when trying to drown and rip apart any prey it has captured in its jaws.

The book has a linking sequence (a form) for each animal as well as applications of the movements in a huge amount of detail. There are 31 applications shown for Tai and 22 for Tuo with photographs of the steps involved in each. They’re all bare-hand applications rather than weapons applications, but that’s fine by me.

Overall I’d say that this book is one of the most accessible and practical books you’ll find on Xing Yi Quan. It doesn’t matter if you’re new to the art or pretty experienced – you’ll find something new here to pique your curiosity. If you’ve got any interest in the art of Xing Yi Quan at all then I’d suggest you get yourself a copy, because you’ll really enjoy it.

Here are some photos of what it looks like inside:

 

 

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Tai Chi is open and close happening simultaneously

 

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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.

Kung Fu Tea on Sun Lu Tang

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There’s a great article over on Kung Fu Tea about the life of one of the most influential Chinese martial artists of all time, Sun Lu Tang.

One of the persistent problems that I see in amateur discussions of “Chinese martial studies” is a lack of understanding of how broad the traditional martial arts really were, and the variety of life experiences that they encompassed.  In fact, rather than discussing China’s martial culture in the singular, it would probably be better to think about these cultures in the plural.  The martial arts never were just one thing, and our experience with the modern “traditional” arts tends to seriously skew our perceptions of the past.

It’s a good read, so sit down with a cup of tea and put your feet up with your laptop.

Link.

Real world uses for Taijiquan, Aikido and XingYi, from a real police officer

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I love this article by Bill Fettes, a retired Australian police officer, I came across recently on Ellis Amdur’s blog. It discusses real world uses for the techniques found in the Internet Arts he has trained- Aikido, Tai Chi and XingYi. I like the mix of no nonsense description and practical demonstration.

What’s great is that Bill gives clear recollections of the techniques he actually used “on the streets”, then provides demo pictures of how it played out with a partner. Take a look!

My overwhelming observation is that what he’s showing looks exactly like the kind of techniques my Tai Chi teacher does all the time in push hands/sparring. In fact, I recall being on the end of them several times!

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A lot of the time I see people training Chinese Martial Arts with too much emphasis on getting a single hit in, as if that would be the end of everything. It won’t. “One strike one kill” is a nice idea in theory, but I don’t think you’re meant to take that idea litterally.

One thing my Tai Chi teacher emphasises is that he wants the fight to end with the other guy controlled at his feet, pinned to the ground in some way so he can be incapacitated or restrained. If you want to run away then why not give yourself a head start by breaking something first, or calming them down? Or if you want to hold them in place until help arrives you need to have trained that skill.

You can’t just keep hitting people – it prolongs the conflict and turns what started as a self defence situation into an assault by you on the attacker, even if you were the original victim. Just imagine how it’s going to look on CCTV, which is everywhere in the UK.

Homework time

Tai Chi people! I would suggest you incorporate these techniques into your push hand if you are not doing so already – it’s not hard to see where you could fit them in.

XingYi people! – Note, there’s also a nice reference to one of my favourite XingYi animals, the bear eagle, in the article. And also check out the quote below about the observation of wild animals – this is your homework 🙂

Everyone! One more thing to consider about this article – he’s not really talking about weapon assaults or multiple opponents. How do you think that would change outcomes and what he’s doing? Discuss.

Animal observation

Quite often in martial arts like XingYi we are encouraged to observe actual wild animals and the way they fight. I really like the part of the blog post where he describes a similar instruction from a teacher, and real world example of usage:

When living in Japan, I attended several meetings of martial minded fellas, organized by Phil Relnick. Phil was kind of a godfather to most of us non-Japanese martial artists, having lived and trained in the country since 1955. At once such meeting, a U.S. student living in Singapore, who was studying the Shaolin animal forms, was invited to speak. He told us that his teacher had him go to Singapore zoo each day and study his animal: the boar. He then had to report back with anything he had learnt. I thought that was a pretty cool idea until Master Wang Zhong Dao designated me a ‘tiger,’ and gave me the same instructions. Then it became hard work. I was not sure why he designated me a tiger, maybe my big paws or shoulders, or maybe because I was always pacing or prowling, never being able to keep still. Most masters don’t explain their reasoning to plebs, anyway, so I spent a lot of time observing my namesake behind bars. One thing I did notice about the tiger was that when attacking, it generally uses its weapons on the throat; I used this a couple of times on the street with quite unusual results.