The Just One Thing series from Dr Michael Mosley is a radio show on little ideas that might make a big difference to your life. This week he’s looking at Tai Chi, and seeing what difference 15 minutes a day can make.
Dr Mosely looks at the scientific evidence for Tai Chi being as effective as conventional exercise. It’s quite interesting. One study said Tai Chi was better than brisk walking, for example, which is something I’ve always wondered about. He also looks at Tai Chi’s effect on the brain.
Here’s the blurb
“If you’re looking to add more exercise into your lifestyle why not consider Tai Chi. It’s an ancient Chinese martial art – it’s sometimes called “meditation in motion”. It’s a series of different postures that gently flow into each other in slow movements. One of the big benefits to Tai Chi is that it can significantly enhance the activity of our immune system. And although it looks gentle, it can be a surprisingly good workout! Michael Mosley speaks to Dr. Parco Siu from the University of Hong Kong, who has been studying the health benefits of Tai Chi for over a decade. His research has revealed that Tai Chi can lead to faster brain benefits than other exercises. He also found that Tai Chi was as effective as conventional exercise like moderate-intensity aerobic exercise or muscle strengthening activities for reducing body weight and visceral fat!”
This is the second Priit Mihkelson seminar I’ve attended, the first being on back defence up at Chris Paines’ gym in Stafford. This latest one was on guard playing at Blue Dog Jiujitsu in Yeovil a really nice gym in deepest darkest Somerset. Like last time, this was a massive 8-hour seminar split over 2 days. Priit explained that this is how he likes to present his work, so that there’s plenty of time to drill and practice to really let the lessons sink in. It’s a very different approach to pretty much every other BJJ seminar teacher out there, most of whom like to get their message across in a single 2 or 3 hour block. I only attended the first day this time because I have other commitments in my life, and frankly, 2 days feels like too much! But, that made me the exception here – pretty much everybody else in the room was going to go back for day 2. So, I guess most people are more obsessed with Jiujitsu than me, or they probably just lived a lot closer!
Priit has all sorts of heretical views on the problems with the way BJJ is generally taught, and can talk about any of these aspects at length. In fact, I interviewed him on my podcast last year and you can get a flavour of his views on BJJ there:
Interestingly, the Sideways Open Guard seminar started in exactly the same way as last time – an initial intro by Priit to his approach to BJJ, then a demonstration of a particular posture, an explanation of key details and then he asked you to practice it solo for a little 2 minute burst, then you regroup and he goes further into the details, and we repeat.
The details are deceptively simple:
Sideways open guard is like an extension of Priit’s “Grilled Chicken” guard – the original Grilled Chicken was a supine guard – lying on your back in a position that resembles a rotisserie chicken. Sideways Open Guard is (surprise, surprise) lying on your side. The important details are:
1) Up on your elbow – not flat on your shoulder, or propped up on your hand. 2) The top leg is key – the angle (45 degrees) has to be just right and the toes must point upwards, so there’s a slight twisting in the calf/shin. We did a lot of experimenting with this angle and why it’s important. 3) The bottom leg is your jab in boxing – so you can move it where you need to. 4) Constant forward pressure – you should be always moving forward in this guard, pressuring the passer. 5) Keep the opponent in the right segment.
Sideways Open Guard. Photo: Roger Karel – Blue Dog Jiu-Jjitsu (c) 2023
But ‘simple to explain’ doesn’t necessarily mean easy. As the seminar progressed it gradually became a 2-person drilling position with an attacker and a defender, building up through various repetitious drills of “adaptive resistance” to get closer and closer to what most people would call “specific sparring”. It became very apparent along the way that there were plenty of mistakes you can make while trying to hold even a simple set of postural principles when under pressure, and Priit’s repetitious drills were designed to expose them.
We’d do something, get feedback from our partner, then do it again, in short 2 minute bursts, with new aspects being added in occasionally by Priit – defence to a leg drag, defence to a toreando, defence to an over/under pass, etc… Priit’s approach to teaching is very different to most BJJ coaches. He does walk around offering advice, but really he wants you to be given the information, then work it out in practice on the mat with as little help from him as possible. The aim is that your drilling partner gives you feedback on where things are going wrong, so you can correct them. You drill, have a chat about it (get feedback), then drill again. I was luckily enough to get paired up with a good partner (shout out to Mark!) who was skillful, thoughtful and intelligent.
Maybe it was just me, but I found the teaching method a little confusing and difficult at times – sometimes we were allowed to talk, sometimes not, and sometimes we could pass guard, sometimes not. I found it frustrating not quite knowing what the rules were at all times. Also the expectation to give feedback on positions that I wasn’t completely familiar with myself was pretty difficult. How do I give good feedback on what my partner is doing “wrong” on something I’ve only just started learning myself, especially while engaging in a ‘live’ type of practice? I find that when doing Jiujitsu my brain is either in “flowing” mode when sparring, which doesn’t involve much thought, or in “thinking” mode which is usually when I’m sitting back and analysing a situation. Having to do both at once I found hard. Sure, I can figure it out over time, but short 2 minute bursts don’t give me enough time to get my brain into that sort of gear. I felt like we’d often just be getting into something interesting and then get called back.
Priit is all about going into microscopic detail on the fine points that make something work. And most importantly, why those details matter. Because they do – the exact angle of a foot can make the difference between a leg that feels impossible to move, like trying to push on a massive tree trunk, to something that would get knocked over by a light breeze. In a way, this reminded me of the focus on posture you find in martial arts like Tai Chi, rather than Jiujitsu, and I suppose that means it’s also open to the same criticisms that Tai Chi gets – that under pressure these small details are too fiddly to be practical. But then, Priit could demonstrate exactly what he was teaching under pressure, so theoretically it should be possible for others to do it too!
Sideways Open Guard is an interesting position because it looks like a very open position where a pass should be pretty easy to do, but it’s not. Priit asked the room to suggest passes to defend against and demonstrated how he could shut down almost any attack. I suggested a simple step over pass, which Priit then demonstrated the defence to effortlessly on me. I really appreciate teachers who take questions from the room like this and let you try things out on them without any ego.
Priit presents himself as a scientist of jiujitsu. His aim is to teach only the optimal posture for each position, which he has worked out through testing, rather than his personal style. His scientific approach can appear a little harsh in teaching style at times, and he sometimes doesn’t seem to have much patience for people who keep getting it wrong or who he perceives as training in the wrong way. He wants you to slow down, really focus on the details and get them right, not blast through the drills without thinking. This hopefully makes you become fully aware of your own blind spots, which is obviously quite difficult, because they are… your blind spots.
With the Sideways Open Guard, a lot of the time the answer to people getting too close was to grab a leg and wrestle up, and Priit constantly used analogies with boxing and wrestling throughout the seminar, comparing the jiujitsu guard to the boxing guard, for instance. This connecting of jiujitsu back to the universal principles of other combat sports, and away from the “if he does this, you counter with this” approach of many other marital arts, is really a great insight and truly valuable to the BJJ community.
After initially gaining popularity for his approach to turtle and other defensive postures, it’s great to see that Priit is still innovating in the world of jiujitsu. I’m a big fan of his work, and it feels like he’s still working on his masterpiece. A Priit seminar is a rare chance to see the master at work, so I’d recommend them to anybody. He has an online site too, Defensive BJJ, so you can follow his work even if you can’t make it to a seminar. His free BJJ Globetrotters videos on YouTube are another great source.
Overall, this was another great seminar. I caught up with some Bristol friends (shout out to Artemis BJJ ) and I’ve learned some fascinating details that are going to change my game for sure. I already played a lot of sideways open guard, but now I know the flaws I had in my posture, I’ve got plenty to work on. So, I’m sad to miss Day 2 and whatever insights Priit was going to share there (I think Z Guard, and even inverting were on the table), but in the spirit of Defensive BJJ, I’m not afraid to have a go at working it out for myself.
The Xing Yi classics don’t tend to get as much play as the Tai Chi Classics, perhaps because they’re not as easy to read and ramble a bit, but they’re older, and as every good Confucian scholar knows, older is better!
The origins of the writing known as the Xing Yi classics is uncertain, but they’re often attributed to the Song military hero Marshall Yue Fei who is also the apocryphal founder of Xing Yi. Many people dismiss him as the originator of Xing Yi, thinking of it as merely a folk tale, but as our History of Xing Yi podcast series is trying to show, while there is no literal teacher/student line that traces back from modern day Xing Yi practitioners to Marshall Yue Fei, there is a history of ideas that can be traced back.
But however the Xing Yi Classics came down to us, they have been hugely influential, so can’t be discounted. Pretty much all the manuals written about Xing Yi from the high point of the martial arts manuals creation period (the Republican era) quote from them extensively. So, if you want to find the source of the ideas that have seeped down into modern Xing Yi – things like elbows protecting the chest, all parts moving together, or all parts remaining still together, the six harmonies connecting and coordinating the different parts of the body together – they’re all here. And I think that the XingYi classics have been hugely influential on other internal martial arts, like Tai Chi. The Tai Chi Classics use similar phrases and ideas all the time. The Xing Yi classics are where we get our ideas of what makes internal martial arts different to external martial arts from because they contain the important idea of “Internal and external are combined, the front and the rear mutually required. ” And this was written long before people had heard of Tai Chi (Taijiquan).
Over and over the classic, which contains 10 ‘songs’, talks about how to coordinate the body so that a kind of whole body power is being delivered. Because of the amount of writing about it in the classics (including Tai Chi Classics), we have to assume that this ‘whole body power’ is not just a trivial, or easy to do. And if it was then I’d see a lot more people doing it, and I don’t. It’s hard to get a foot in the door of whole body power, and it’s even harder to do it very well.
Being relaxed and not overly tense is important for whole body power, and I think Tai Chi is very good at teaching that, but the footwork tends to be lacking. Xing Yi is good for teaching you how to move with this whole body power. A lot of the Xing Yi classics are devote to talking about stepping.
But over and over, the overarching theme is of unifying the body, of “threading into one”. This is the whole body power that internal martial artists seek.
“About what one means; from top to the bottom of the feet, internally there are viscera, bowels, tendons, and bones. Externally, there are muscles, skin, the five sensing organs, and hundreds of bones of the skeleton, mutually combined and become one. When struck will not open, when hit will not decompose. The top wishes to move, the bottom automatically follows. The bottom wishes to move the top will automatically lead. The center section moves, the top and the bottom will coordinate. Internal and external are combined, the front and the rear mutually required. This is what is called threading into one.” – Thesis of Integrity from Mike Patterson’s website.
If you’d rather have somebody demonstrate the concepts contained in the Xing Yi Classics than read through them, then I’d recommend this new video by Byron Jacobs – he talks and demonstrates the content very well here:
Acclaimed rock ‘n’ roll icon Lou Reed (Walk on the Wild Side, Perfect Day) was also a Tai Chi fanatic, practicing Chen style since the 1980s. Sadly, Lou passed away in 2013 from liver cancer, but his writings about Tai Chi, meditation and music are about to be published by HarperCollins. The Art of the Straight Line: My Tai Chi, is out on March 14 via HarperOne, and features a foreword from the late artist’s partner, Laurie Anderson.
If you’d like to get a flavour of Lou’s Tai Chi and his thoughts on Tai Chi then check out this short video called Lou Reed – The Voice and The Practice. It’s nice to see that he was into the martial side of Tai Chi as much as the performance side – there’s a nice clip of him pushing hands with his teacher Ren Guang Yi, for example. I quite like the “New York vibe” he brought to the practice.
ChatGPT is an artificial intelligence that can answer questions. Don’t worry – it will not be a threat to academics and journalists they say! I’m not so sure. See what you think… is there a future for even blogging now?
I for one, welcome our new robot overlords…
Me: Can you write me a 500 word blog post about using Tai Chi to get better mental health?
ChatGPT: Sure, here is a 500-word blog post about using tai chi to improve mental health:
Tai chi is a traditional Chinese martial art that involves a series of slow, graceful movements and deep breathing. It is often described as a “moving meditation,” as it can help to cultivate a sense of calm and clarity in the mind. In recent years, tai chi has gained recognition for its potential to improve mental health and well-being.
One of the key benefits of tai chi for mental health is its ability to reduce stress and anxiety. The slow, flowing movements and mindful breathing of tai chi can help to regulate the body’s stress response and promote relaxation. Research has shown that tai chi can significantly reduce stress and anxiety levels in people with anxiety disorders, as well as in healthy individuals experiencing stress.
Tai chi may also have a positive effect on mood and emotional well-being. The meditative nature of the practice can help to promote feelings of calm and contentment, and may have antidepressant effects. Some research has also suggested that tai chi may have a positive impact on symptoms of depression and improve overall quality of life.
In addition to its stress-reducing and mood-boosting effects, tai chi may also have other benefits for mental health. For example, some research has indicated that tai chi may improve cognitive function and reduce the risk of cognitive decline in older adults. Tai chi may also have a positive impact on sleep, as it can help to regulate the body’s natural sleep-wake cycle and improve sleep quality.
Overall, the mental health benefits of tai chi are thought to be due to the combination of physical movement, deep breathing, and mindfulness that the practice involves. By helping to regulate the body’s stress response and promote relaxation, tai chi can create a sense of balance and well-being in the mind.
If you are interested in using tai chi to improve your mental health, it is a good idea to seek out a qualified instructor and start with beginner classes. Tai chi can be adapted for people of all fitness levels, and many instructors offer classes specifically tailored for people with stress, anxiety, or other mental health concerns. As with any physical activity, it is important to listen to your body and stop if you feel any discomfort or strain.
Incorporating tai chi into your weekly routine can be a simple and effective way to promote mental well-being and reduce stress. Give it a try and see how it can improve your mental health and overall sense of balance and well-being.
Amongst the documents is “The Song of Pull down”. “Pull down” is the name of one of the ‘8 energies of Tai Chi’, there’s a song, meaning verse, for each of the energies in the book. Here’s the Pull Down song:
The verse is not talking about something mystical, it’s quite clearly talking about the principle of leverage. A lot of Tai Chi people don’t like the idea that ‘Pull down’ might be about something as mundane as leverage, which is found in all other martial arts. Well, tough! The verse is clearly talking about leverage.
You’ll see the reference to four ounces moving a thousand pounds in this verse. This also appears in the ‘Treatise of Tai Chi Chuan’, one of the main Tai Chi classics, where it says:
Leverage, of course, is different to pure strength. As Archimedes said about leverage:
“Give me a place to stand on, and I will move the earth.” (quoted by Pappus of Alexandria in Synagoge, Book VIII, c. AD 340)
By using leverage you can significantly increase the amount of power you can generate. The martial arts that will teach you the most about leverage are all grappling arts – Shuai Jiao, Judo, BJJ, etc..
For an example of leverage in marital arts – look how much pressure is required to break the elbow at the end position of an armbar in BJJ – you could say that it’s about….. 4 oz.
When looking for the energy of Pull Down in the Tai Chi form you find it all over the place. A classic posture its used in is the Raise hands/ Play Guitar type of movements. Here you hold the wrist and elbow of the attacker, and apply pressure to hyperextend the arm. Again, this is another example of leverage.
My Tai Chi teacher tends to call the energy “shock” rather than “Pull down”, but its application is the same. It’s a short sharp jolt to the system that usually has the effect of getting you up on your toes, or moving forward or backwards whether you want to or not. And the only way to do that to somebody, without being significantly stronger than them, is through the use of leverage.
Look out for the movement in the video where he pulls the attacker’s arm down to uproot him and says “this is shock” (around the 1 minute mark).
Now, all these different applications of ‘pull down’ or ‘shock’ energy looked very different to each other, however, they’re all applications of the same principle – leverage. The technique can look very different, but the principle (or as Led Zeppelin would say, the song) remains the same.
Great video post from Nabil Rene whose work in Chen style Tai Chi I’ve been following for a while now. Take a look:
For clarity, his assertion is that the “dantien” is something that doesn’t exist by default, the way, say, your shoulder exists, but that it is formed by the simultaneous actions of other parts of the body. In this case, the hips, back, spine, breathing and more.
I’ve written here before that this is somewhat similar to the idea of the lap in English. The lap is formed by taking a seated position, and when you stand up it disappears.
So, when you form Tai Chi postures, you are also forming a dantien. Or at least you should be.
You can think of this as being an incredibly complicated prospect, but I don’t think you need to. There is also an implied simplicity to the idea. The problem is that when you start out the feeling of ‘strength’ in that area of the body is inherently weak, but correct practice of Tai Chi should be the training you require to start to build that dantien so that it’s a much stronger feeling.
Correct practice on a daily basis is what you need.
Of course, if you talk to Chinese medical practitioners, to them the dantien is as real as any other part of the Chinese medical system, and doesn’t require ‘work’ to exist. But I think that when talking about Tai Chi things, it’s safer to assume that this is not the dantien being talked about.
The world is full, or so it seems, of marital artists trying to fix Aikido by making it more practical/better/not as weird. I’m proud to say that my Xing Yi teacher, Damon Smith, (who studied Aikido himself for years) is joining the fray with a new podcast called (wait for it) Fixing Aikido! It’s a podcast where Damon gets together with another friend of ours, Tammo Trantow who is a highly ranked Aikidoka from Austria, and they set about the enormous task of, well, fixing Aikido and creating an Aikido 2.0.
Will it work? Is it a fruitless task? Even if you don’t practice Aikido, or you don’t think it needs “fixing”, it’s quite an entertaining podcast so give it a listen!
Oh, and while you’re here, you can also listen to the now infamous and highly controversial episode of our Heretics podcast that possibly inspired the whole venture. Aikido Heresies
Alan Watts – what a guy! As the public philosopher entertainer de jour he spearheaded the Eastern spirituality movement of the 60s that took America by storm and forever gave Tai Ch its hippy associations. The lectures on Eastern religions, particularly Zen, he did for a local radio station in California have provided endless motivational video fodder for advertising-packed YouTube videos, and they’re all very good. For example:
He had such a good speaking voice, and could articulate mystical ideas, particularly the idea that existence was simply consciousness playing an eternal game of hide and seek with itself, in ways that Westerners could understand. Of course, the downside of that after you die your words get used to advertise all sorts of things you may or may not have been in favour of. For example, he’s currently doing a voice over for a company selling cruises on UK TV at the moment. I’m not sure what the old guy would have thought of that, but there you go. That’s life! It’s never what you expect it to be.
I’ve heard people say that Alan Watts was a good communicator, but a poor example of the Taoist ideas he espoused. This is mainly because he was an alcoholic who died at the relatively young age of 58 due to related health complications. However, if I look at the 60’s popular philosopher entertainers like Alan Watts and Joseph Campbell, they’re so much more interesting and interested in their ideas than today’s sorry crop of pitiful, grifting, sophists like Joe Rogan, Scott Adams and Jordan Peterson. All of them are usually trying to convince you of some terrible conspiracy theory with one hand while selling you something with the other. At least Alan Watts had enough self respect to be dead before he started trying to sell me cruises!
I saw one of Alan Watts’ videos on YouTube recently, that sparked a few ideas in me. It was to do with the Taoist idea of Wu Wei. It’s called “Alan Watts – The Principle of Not Forcing”
“Not forcing” is Alan’s translation of the Taoist idea of Wu Wei, which is usually translated as “not doing”, or “doing nothing”, however Alan’s translation is much better for martial application. In martial arts, like Tai Chi, it is forcing things that is bad. Alan even mentions Judo in his explanation above.
In English, the idea of doing nothing sounds too passive. Tai Chi isn’t passive. You can’t do a marital art by doing nothing, so I much prefer the translation of “not forcing”. It’s what we aspire to in Jiujitsu as well as Tai Chi. If you feel like you have to force techniques to work in Jiujitsu then it’s not the right way. It might be required in a time-limited competition, but the Gracie family were always famous for not wanting time limits on their matches, mainly because, with their hyper-efficient style of Jiujitsu, they knew they could survive longer than their opponent, exhausting them in the process. When you are forcing things to work you are burning energy, and wearing yourself out.
I think different styles of Tai Chi might look at this situation differently though. Yang style, and its derivatives tend to effortlessly breeze through the form. The emphasis is on efficient, continuous movement and relaxation. And while it may look effortless, you feel it in the legs, even if you are not visibly out of breath. Chen style seems to want to work a little harder. The stances are lower, there are occasional expressions of speed, power and jumping kicks. But there is still that emphasis on being like a swan moving through the water – graceful up top, but the legs doing all the hard work below the surface.
But regardless of style, all Tai Chi forms follow the same principle: Wu Wei.
I’ve always been curious about the postures in martial arts forms where both feet are together, because these postures don’t look very martial at all. In fact, it’s hard to imagine why you would want to use a stance like that in a fight, and yet we find them in a lot of Tai Chi forms:
It seems to be mainly Taiji lineages that have some influence from Sun Lu Tang that do this the most. A lot of people attribute the distinctive ‘feet together’ postures he used to his prior training in Xing Yi, and there could be some truth to this. Xing Yi does have ‘feet together’ postures quite a lot.
Of course, the root of Xing Yi is spear fighting, but the modern interpretation of the art is heavily biased towards bare hand training, and this creates a misleading impression. Think about it – if you were at at least one spear length away from your opponent the risk of being tackled to the ground because your feet are together would be greatly reduced. You’re now free to use the power generation advantages that can be gained by letting both feet come together, which is handy when you are holding a heavy object, like a spear.
If you watch this excellent video of Xing Yi spear technique by Byron Jacobs you’ll see that he doesn’t hang out with his feet together all the time, but occasionally he uses the feet together moments for power generation (and of course, also standing on one leg for range advantage and manoeuvrability in a way that makes sense with weapons).
In Xing Yi the most famous example of the ‘feet together’ posture is the Half-Step Beng Quan. Here the back foot stepping up to meet the front foot in place creates a powerful closing action of the body, kind of like a door slamming.
So, is this the origin of ‘feet together’ postures in Taiji forms? Quite possibly. However, there is one more thing to consider. After first learning Xing Yi, Sun Lu Tang learned his Taiji from Hao Weizhen 1849–1920, who learned from Li Yiyu 1832–1892, who learned from one of the Wu brothers, Wu Yuxiang 1812–1880 who had learned directly from Yang Luchan 1799–1872 and also sought out Chen Qingping 1795–1868 who he learned from in Zhaoboa village.
It’s often thought that the distinctive stepping seen in Sun style Taiji, where the back foot is often lifted and brought up close to the front foot, is a consequence of Sun’s prior Xing Yi training. This makes sense as part of the narrative created as part of the Sun Style Taiji brand, which is that he incorporated his earlier Xing Yi and Bagua training into his Taiji style. However, if you look at the Wu (Hou) style he learned, it already had this distinctive stepping in it.
I think you can see that influence extending into Sun Lu Tang’s Taiji, which makes sense since he learned from this lineage.
Finally, I should note that thought this post I don’t want to create the impression that all the steps in either Xing Yi or Taiji performed by Sun Lu Tang are small or restricted. He also had plenty of wider postures in his arts too, for example.
However, compare it to postures found in other styles of Taiji whose practitioners didn’t have to wear court dress: