Is there really only one style of Tai Chi?

Time to address some more comments generated by my Whole body movement post. Oliver Gerets writes:

“The body can move/coordinate in an almost unlimited number of ways. These kind of oversimplified comparisons are useless and misleading. There is no general/right way of “whole body movement” in Taijiquan. Every school/lineage is at least slightly different. “

This is an interesting point. Are all the different styles of Tai Chi actually different martial art styles, or are they all one? The generally accepted wisdom on the matter (Chinese government-backed) is that (in theory) there is only one style of Tai Chi. But when you get on the ground, in amongst the weeds, then it’s really hard to see how somebody doing Sun style Tai Chi is doing the same thing as somebody doing Chen style, and how either of them are doing the same thing as somebody doing Yang style. Sure, if you follow the sequence of their long forms, they follow roughly the same order, but the stances are all different and the type of body movement looks different. They might have had the same starting point, but over the years, they seem to have diverged significantly.

Or have they? Let’s return again to the three principles I listed as the essence of Tai Chi whole body movement in my last post.

1) moving from the dantien
2) power up from the ground (jin) – rooted in the feet, expressed by the fingers.
3) coiling and spiraling actions from the dantien out to the extremities and back.

You can argue that these 3 things are happening in all Tai Chi styles. 

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Sun style.

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Yang style

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Chen style

 

But, the hard truth is that number 1 is not always observed in most practitioners, and number 3, is most often dropped entirely in the styles that don’t start with a letter C in their name.

Is that a bad thing? It’s point 2 that is the most important. Point 2 can be done without point 1 and 3 and you still have a functional martial art. Point 2 is also the thing I see that ties together all the “internal” arts in the most obvious way – Bagua, XingYi and Tai Chi Chuan.

We only have so many hours to train a week. I think you could make an argument that if you want to get anywhere in Tai Chi, then you’re better off spending most of your time working on point 2 anyway.

If you add in points 1 and 3 then you get even better movement. It’s a different type of movement. I think it’s worth investing time in learning points 1 and 3 as well, but make no mistake – it’s a significant investment of time. A good place to start is a simple single arm-waving silk reeling exercise:

Oliver’s final point is:

“There is no sense in moving like a cheetah, only if you want to run in a similar way. Which is not useful as a human being.”

It’s peculiar that he’s written this in a Facebook group (Ancestral Movement) which seems to enjoy looking at the way animals move and what we can learn from them. As mammals, our bodies really aren’t that different. Generally, we all have a spine, 4 limbs and a head.

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I’m not suggesting that we should pretend to be a horse or a cheetah, but the principles of movement in mammals are shared amongst all species. Even us.

Here’s a review of an Ancestral Movement seminar, if you want to find out more about it.

Tai Chi whole-body movement revisited

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So, my last post on what ‘whole body movement’ means in Tai Chi Chuan got some interesting reactions on the interwebs. I thought answering the comments might make a good subject for a few more articles. So let’s get going with the first of them.

On the Ancestral Movement group, Andrew Kushner writes:

“Whole body motion” is a lousy coaching cue. It neither helps people move more correctly nor is it an accurate description of what’s going on. It is possible to have “whole body motion” with only one limb moving apparently, and it is also possible to have the entire body involved but still ‘disconnected’ from an IMA perspective.

In fact this is the case with most athletic movements. Do you really think boxers and judoka don’t involve their whole body when they go to express power?

Firstly, yes, I’d agree that ‘whole body motion’ is a bad coaching cue, since it is so undefined. That’s really what my post was about – how there are different possible interpretations of what whole-body motion could mean, and what it actually means in the context of Tai Chi Chuan. Like most of the writings in ‘the classics‘, Yang Cheng Fu’s 10 important points is only useful if you already know what he’s talking about. Which makes them good as reminders, but rubbish as coaching cues.

The second point about boxers and judokas is interesting. Yes, I agree that boxers and judoka involve their whole body when they go to express power. But they do it in a different way to Tai Chi Chuan practitioners. Or at least they generally do. Sure, you could do both boxing and judo with a Tai Chi Chuan type of whole-body power, if you wanted to. But in Tai Chi you want to use as little physical effort as possible to get the job done. It’s difficult to even understand what that means and even hard to actually do it. Tai Chi movement is subtle and tricky and there’s no real incentive to train that way in combat sports where results matter and there are quicker, easier ways to get them.

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It’s not like boxers don’t use their legs when throwing a punch. Of course, they do, but do they do it in the exact way we do in Tai Chi Chuan? I don’t think so. Let’s remind ourselves what the Tai Chi Chuan way of moving is again –

1) moving from the dantien
2) power up from the ground (jin) – rooted in the feet, expressed by the fingers.
3) coiling and spiraling actions from the dantien out to the extremities and back.

That’s difficult. A strong, athletic 20-year-old in Judo can fire his hips into a throw with more than enough speed and power to get the job done. It doesn’t need to have all come from the ground to work.

“Second, there is more in common between the “robot dance” and CIMA than Graham acknowledges. It wasn’t until I learned other ways of moving e.g. Systema and dance that I realized just how blocky and ‘robotic’ the CMA’s are at their core, even flowy and ‘natural’ looking ones like taiji. In fact I think a lot of their power derives from this similarity — simple movements done well.

Still for all the similarities there are important differences between CMA and the robot dance, so it is instructive to consider what those might be.”

That’s interesting. I don’t know what Andrew’s individual experience of Chinese Martial Arts has been, but I’m always a bit wary of using my individual experience to generalise and speak for all of Chinese Martial Art. It’s a very broad church and it contains pretty much every possible version of movement you can imagine.

Is he talking about modern Wu Shu training? The 1920s GouShu experiment that got exiled off to Taiwan? The pre-twentieth century martial arts that were forced underground? Wrestling styles?

I guess, compared to Systema any martial art could be called ‘blocky’ and ‘robotic’ since Systema has no routines or patterns and has no stance, just the four pillars: movement, breath, posture and relaxation. It also looks utterly ridiculous at times. I’m actually not adverse to Systema at all and I think there’s some great stuff in there. I’ve got a good friend who is a teacher and I do want to check out his class sometime. (But it would mean time spent not doing Jiujitsu, and that’s a serious consideration, so some tough choices will have to be made!)

On balance I think there is some merit in Andrew’s criticism of CMA here. A lot of it is just a lot of forms. But again, it depends on how you train it. Are you just training forms for forms sake? I think a lot of Chinese martial arts is like this. I’ve never been attracted to systems that had a lot of forms. A form for this, a form for that. I think that misses the point entirely.

I think of ‘forms’ as being like the raft in the parable of the Buddha crossing the river.

But then Andrew flips it around and praises “Simple movements done well” I think this references to things like XingYi, which has 5 fists as its base. These are quite often practiced over and over, for years. until you get very good at them. Personally, that approach didn’t appeal to me. I found the more varied animals much more interesting to practice and also more alive, less robotic, more spontaneous and useful for actual sparring. I think that’s where real power of Chinese Martial Art lies – not in practicing simple thing over and over, but in not getting too fixed down into any particular method or technique and keeping things fluid and “in the moment”.

But each to their own.

Tai Chi: One part moves, all parts move

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I’ve been thinking of the way to describe what ‘whole body movement’ means in Tai Chi. The problem is describing a specific feeling, or body movement using words, which leaves the meaning open to interpretation and misunderstanding.

In Yang Cheng-Fu’s Ten Important Points, No. 7 says:

“7.) Coordinate the upper and lower parts of the body. The T’ai Chi Ch’uan Classics say “the motion should be rooted in the feet, released through the legs, controlled by the waist and manifested through the fingers.” Everything acts simultaneously. When the hand, waist and foot move together, the eyes follow. If one part doesn’t follow, the whole body is disordered.”

This is an expanded version of the more condensed and often heard phrase: “One part moves, all parts move”. But it’s also misleading.

If you take the line “Everything acts simultaneously” at its literal meaning you don’t have Tai Chi movement. You have robot dancing.

Now don’t get me wrong. I like robot dancing as much as the next Peter Crouch fan, but it’s not Tai Chi. When you see a performer doing the robot dance she often swivels the waist sideways, or dips the hip with the arm locked to the body. With the dip the whole torso and arms all move downwards together, simultaneously. Something like this:

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It’s fairly obvious that this is not what is meant by Yang Cheng Fu when he says to move the body parts simultaneously, and yet I do see people falling into this trap quite often. They obviously had no intention to set out moving like a robot, but when the brain gets the idea that the body must move as a unit, the resultant expression can often end up far from the mark.

Instead, the way the body moves in Tai Chi should be more like ripples emanating from a stone dropped in a lake. The central point is the dantien. The waves begin there and ripple out to the extremities (feet, head and hands).

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When you move, the dantien moves first, and the rest of the body follows in a coordinated action, almost as if dragged by the dantien. It is loose, connected, relaxed and powerful, rather than stiff, jerky and ’empty’.

The parts of the body don’t all move together at exactly the same time, otherwise you’ll end up like a robot. Instead, you want to be more like the way an animal moves. Animals demonstrate some of the best, most graceful, full-body, co-ordinated movement you’ll ever see.

The Cheetah is the classic one that’s used to illustrate open and close in the body, but also the directed head position. Just look at how the head helps with the coordination when running here:

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While we run with a torso held in the vertical plane and the Cheetah runs with the torso in the horizontal plane, the head position remains key.

Point 1 of Yang Cheng-Fu’s 10 Important Points is:

1.) Head is held upright to let the shen rise to the top. Don’t use li, or the neck will be stiff and the chi and blood cannot flow through. It is necessary to have a natural and lively feeling. If the spirit cannot reach the headtop, it cannot raise.

In the Cheetah, the engine is the dantien area. The torso does big opening and closing movements as it sprints and the head points the way, keeping the spine flexible, but extended.

Be less robot, be more Cheetah.

Two recent stories

I’m still using this blog for posting my ideas and blog posts, but I’ve decided to start putting a few new stories onto my new Medium page.

I’m using Medium as a place to post more polished articles. They’re basically my better blog posts that I’ve tidied up a bit and made more coherent.

Here are the first two I’ve done:

Let me know what you think!

 

 

Tai Chi’s Rollback: A deep dive

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Split, like Rollback, is one of Tai Chi’s 8 energies. It’s also one of the most commonly found of the 8 energies in the Tai Chi form. Almost every technique you see in Tai Chi Chuan (Taijiquan) uses Split energy to a greater or lesser degree.

I’ve seen Split described as spiral energy, a takedown or a breaking force. But all of those things miss the point – they describe its effects, not what it really is.

Split is really the energy of two things moving in opposite directions. If you move two things in a circle in opposite directions you create a spiral. When you do applications on somebody with spiral actions the result is usually a takedown. And you can’t break any joint without directing force in two different directions. For example, if you kick somebody’s leg it’s unlikely to break unless that leg is locked against something that doesn’t move, like say, the ground.

This brings us on to how Split is applied in Tai Chi Chuan.

In Tai Chi you want your hands to be clearly differentiated from each other. One hand needs to be active, the other passive. One empty, and the other solid. One Yin, one Yang. If you don’t do this then you enter a state known as being double weighted. As it says in the classics:

Sinking to one side allows movement to flow;
being double-weighted is sluggish.

Anyone who has spent years of practice and still cannot neutralize,
and is always controlled by his opponent,
has not apprehended the fault of double-weightedness.

To avoid the fault of double-weightedness, which hand is the yin one and which is the yang one must change continually and ceaselessly as you go through the movements of the Tai Chi form. Tai Chi Chuan should always be in a state of change, just like the Tai Chi symbol itself is.

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Image by Pixabay.

 

If it’s not in a state of change then it’s stuck. Calling something double-weighted is another way of saying that it’s stuck.

Split is usually applied along with another of the 8 energies. One example I wanted to look at today is Rollback. Rollback, or Lu energy, is the most yin of all Tai Chi’s 8 energies. It’s almost the absence of energy. When being confronted with active Yang energy, Lu is the energy of retreating or yielding. Its movement is usually inwards.

The technique called Rollback in the Tai Chi form gets its name from Lu energy, but also mixes in a bit of Split energy.

If you look at this picture of Yang Cheng Fu doing Rollback you can see the differentiation in his hands.

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This left hand is withdrawing and pulling, but his right hand is pressing downwards.

In the action of Rollback your left-hand starts off as the active one with a guiding pull on the attacker’s wrist, but the right one then takes over as the active hand with a strong pressing down action onto the attacker’s elbow area.

I found a really old video of me doing rollback in push hands, so you can see what I mean:

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At the start of the motion my left hand is the active one, then the right hand takes over with the pressing down movement.

Throughout the whole Tai Chi form, you should be aware of this interplay of energy between not just the palms but the other parts of the body too. If you can notice it in the palms, with one hand being the active one and the other the passive one, and then exchanging positions, you can start to notice it in the feet, the legs and so on.

Once you can do this over the whole body then you can distinguish yin and yang throughout your form and you will no longer be at the risk of exhibiting double weighting.

 

 

The non-shakers and movers of the XingYi world

Byron Jacobs just posted the latest in his excellent XingYi primers, this time on the last of the XingYi elements Heng Quan:

 

Byron got into a discussion on the XingYi Facebook group when asked when he was going to show “an advanced version with the “fajin” motions.”

His reply was so good I’m reposting the whole thing here, with his permission, as I feel the same way and he explained it very nicely:

A: these are Primer videos to get people to understand the basics in order to begin practice, so that’s their purpose, fundamentals. Maybe in future I’ll release some other ones with function and application etc. I would like you to clarify what your are asking for with “an advanced version with fajin motions”?

Q: the shaking motions in your strikes where penetrates internally?

A: A couple of things. Its a misunderstanding to think that Fajin means something like a specific method or something. It simply means to issue force. That is all it meant in the past, and that is all it means today. Its real meaning has been twisted and misunderstood, even more so in the west. In more recent times some strange focus on shaking has come into CMA which is not how things were and definitely this too has been twisted into something that it never was. The Xingyi classics never discuss “shaking” and in fact older generation teachers will admonish you for this telling you overtly shaking makes “power leak” from your target. An example is even quoted from Feng Zhiqiang talking about how Chen Fake taught them “While issuing power the body should be relaxed, but one should be very conscious about so-called “Shaking Power” (Dou Jin). This power has to be focused and not scattered all over the body. The more advanced one is, the smaller the shaking. When we were learning Taijiquan from Chen Fake shaking the body in Fa Li was the greatest taboo to be avoided.”

Good issuing of force is firstly dependent on the correct structure, then the correct method and finally using body mechanics to assist with generating optimal force. This is all covered in those basics, and its the long term practice of these key points I put in those videos that will enable you to develop strong issuing of force. Strong issuing of force penetrates

Shen, Xin, cats and the Tai Chi classics

brown tabby cat

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In this post I’m continuing with my current theme of the mind and Tai Chi Chuan.

Animals don’t “think” like we do most of the time. I bet you could argue that the species known for problem-solving like crows, chimpanzees, dolphins and dogs do their fair share of thinking, but in my previous post I was describing a state where you are doing Tai Chi without thinking. Just being.

You can see it in their eyes. Just look at that cat above. Cats are great examples of this, because they are around us often they’re easy to observe, but if you can observe animals in the wild you’ll see that they are in this state most, if not all, of the time.

There are various references to cats in the Tai Chi classics.

“The Form is like that of a falcon about to seize a rabbit,
and the shen is like that of a cat about to catch a rat.”

Shen, we can loosely translate as spirit, but if you just substituted the words “inner state” there instead I think it would better equate to what the author was trying to convey, but he or she did did say Shen for a reason, as we shall see.

The word “Spirit” in English is tied up with all sorts of (organised) religious connotations which get in the ways and are not helpful.

A better understanding of what is meant by Shen would perhaps be, ‘underlying spirit of nature’. The part of you that is connected to this underlying spirit of nature is known as the Xin in Chinese. If it’s aligned with nature your Xin can produce your Yi (intention), which in turn can produce the physical movement (Qi) which in turn produces action (Li) all working in harmony with nature. You and your environment are one, working and acting together.

There are various versions of this ‘working in harmony with nature’ sequence written about in old Chinese writings – the Xin harmonises with the Yi, the Yi harmonies with the Qi and the Qi harmonises with Li being the most common and also forming the 3 internal harmonies of the famous Lie He, the 6 harmonies with are written about in all sorts of Chinese martial arts.

My Xing Yi teacher, Damon Smith did a whole podcast episode about the word “spirit” and what it means in Asian traditions connected to shamanism, which I find helpful in understanding. I would listen to the whole thing, but around the 8-minute mark he talks about this sequence and how Shamans use it to act in harmony with nature in their own lives or when practicing shamanism:

 

Cats and the Tai Chi classics

To me, the section of the classics that says “The Form is like that of a falcon about to seize a rabbit, and the shen is like that of a cat about to catch a rat”, alludes to the idea that on the outside the victory in combat may look overwhelming and great – like that of the falcon seizing a rabbit triumphantly, but on the inside, you need to be quiet and calm and in harmony with nature – the exact qualities you can see in a cat patiently stalking a rat.

Of course, the flacon is like that on the inside when catching a rabbit, but it’s not easy to see on the outside. Human-loving cats, however, are easier to observe.

A cat crops up somewhere else in the Tai Chi classics too:

“Walk like a cat.”

That doesn’t mean get down on all fours, it means to adopt the same mental qualities as mentioned earlier to your stepping. Don’t just rush in blindly or recklessly: be calm, patient and at one with your environment.

Remember, as it says in the classics:

“All movement is motivated by Yi and not by external form”.

But perhaps Bruce Lee said it best in Enter the Dragon:

“Don’t think! Feel!”

 

 

How to use the mind in Tai Chi

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All movements are motivated by Yi, not external form”,

I’ve talked a lot on this blog about things to do with the body in Tai Chi, but I’ve not really said much about the mind before. That’s because it’s a lot harder to talk about, since, as you’ll discover, the requirement for correct use of the mind in Tai Chi has nothing to do with “thinking”, which makes it especially hard to talk about because as soon as you verbalize or write down your thoughts you are, in effect, thinking about it. See the problem?

The classics use three words to describe the mind in Tai Chi:  Shen, Xin and Yi.

We’ll leave Shen and Xin off the table for now, but the important point is that different words are being used to describe different aspects of the mind.

Let’s look at the big one: Yi.  The Tai Chi classics are pretty unequivocal about the importance of Yi to Tai Chi:

All movements are motivated by Yi,

not external form.”

But what is meant by Yi? The English translation given is usually “intention”. However, I think this is cause of more confusion about Tai Chi than anything else. People take it literally and think it’s the intention you have when performing the movements of Tai Chi – like the intention to grab and arm, or the intention to fight, or the intention to break a wrist, etc..

When people try to demonstrate this correct intention they simply pull a mean face and try to look a bit stern and aggressive while punching or doing something dramatic. That’s not it.

The word “intention” is definitely related to what Yi really is, but it’s not what is meant by Yi, not by a long way.

If you look at the face of somebody good performing Tai Chi they never look like they’re straining, aggressive or mean. Instead, they look like they are full of awareness, absorbed in what they’re doing, but open to their environment at the same time.

Yi has nothing to do with thinking, in the conventional sense at all. If you look at somebody doing Tai Chi who is thinking at the same time their movements look a bit empty, their eyes fidget all over the place, they are absorbed in themselves but not really ‘in’ their bodies. The mind and body have become separated.

In Tai Chi you want to achieve a unity of mind and body, so that there’s effectively no difference. You are just one unit doing the work, or rather, letting the work be done through you. You are present, but simultaneously aware.

I like to call Yi “directed mind”. It’s all about directions. When I’m performing the opening movement of Tai Chi for example, I am performing an opening of the body as the hands raise and a closing of the body as the hands fall. My mind is performing the directions up, in, down and forward in that order.  I am directing where the body is going with my mind and eyes. Your eyes have to be working in harmony with the whole process, not distracted, or looking in the wrong direction for the movement you’re doing. Don’t look at your hands, look through them. When you do press for example you are pressing towards the horizon, not just at your imagined opponent.

All of this direction thinking – the quality of using the mind this way – is impossible if you are thinking thoughts. As soon as you notice you are thinking thoughts you’ve lost it.

When attempting this type of training my Tai Chi teacher would advise me to stop the form altogether if I noticed my mind had wandered off and go back to the start. After repeatedly doing this, your mind kind of gets the message that you’re not kidding. You really want it to stay with the body and what you’re doing for the next 5 minutes, and it quietens down and takes a back seat, allowing your awareness to come to the fore.

“Focussed awareness” is another good phrase to use to describe Yi.

Hopefully this post has helped you understand what is meant by the phrase, All movements are motivated by Yi, not external form”, a little better. As you can see, it’s tricky to talk about. The only way to ‘get it’ is by practice. What I’m describing is a quality that isn’t a physical object or movement, so it’s hard to grasp, but with repeated practice over time it will become as real as the very device you’re reading this on.

The Jing Cheng Wushu archives

Screen Shot 2019-12-30 at 9.22.07 AM.pngI just wanted to give a quick shout out to the work Byron Jacobs is doing preserving old Chinese TV performances of Chinese martial art from the 1980s.

“Jing Cheng Wushu” (京城武术) is a series that ran on Beijing TV in the 80’s. The title “Jing Cheng Wushu” means ‘The Wushu of Beijing’. Each episode focused on a Chinese martial art style popular in Beijing at the time and featured many prominent older generation practitioners, many of whom have passed away since.

He’s done three episodes so far, digitising and adding English subtitles. They are:

XingYi Quan

 

Bagua Zhang

 

Taiji Quan

 

 

 

 

The punch you didn’t see coming

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I’ve already talked about how we use jin (planet force) all the time. I think there’s a good example from MMA and boxing that sheds some more light on this.

When boxers or MMA practitioners get knocked out by a punch it’s usually from one they didn’t see coming. The counterpunch is a deadly strike in combat because at the very moment you think you are punching them, they’re hitting you. Its effectiveness is partly down to surprise, and often you get a double impact because the attacker is moving forward into the punch of the counter attacker – a perfect example of ‘using their own force against them’.

But the surprise factor and force on force don’t explain why a punch that the guy doesn’t see coming is often twice as effective as a punch he is mentally prepared for.

I believe the answer is to do with jin and the subconscious mind. When you can see a punch coming, your brain can – in the fractions of a second you have available, – make subtle postural adjustments so that the force is absorbed by your body better against the ground. This is similar to the idea of a jin path to the ground we’ve already talked about. I believe we automatically and subconsciously do this in response to any impact we can see coming.

When we can’t see that punch coming it’s more damaging because we are not ‘in position’ to receive it as well.

The next time you watch a boxing match or an MMA match, think about this idea and see if it looks true on the slow-motion replay.