I think this is one of the best historical videos of Tai Ch you’ll find. I’ve seen this film before, but the quality wasn’t great. This version of the Tai Chi documentary however seems to have been edited to make it smoother and sharper:
In the video you’ll find the most famous masters teaching Tai Chi in Beijing in the 1950s. It’s a good cross section of the different styles being taught. The masters are (and I think I’ve got the order correct): Li Yaochen, Li Bingqi, Chen Zhaokui (the youngest son of the famous Chen style patriarch, Chen Fake), Yang Yunting, who learned from Quan Yu, who was a direct student of Yang Lu Chan. Sun Jianyun (daughter of the famous Sun Lu Tang). Wang Yongquan, who performs the Yang long form and was a student of Yang Jianhou and Yang Shouhou. And finally Li Jing Wu, who was a student of Wu style and Chen style, but here is performing the Beijing 24 step form.
A new YouTube video landed a day or so ago that has caused something of a sensation. It’s a trailer for a movie called The Power of Chi and has some well known UFC fighters and professional athletes in it, all experiencing the power of a Tai Chi master’s “chi”. And there’s a voice over by Morgan Freeman. I kid you not! Yes, the Morgan Freeman!
From the trailer, this mysterious chi is presented as a force that can be produced by the master and defies all explanation. To be honest, this tai chi master has been producing very similar YouTube videos for years now, but he’s usually demonstrating on no-name seminar attendees, this time however it’s a big budget production with well known fighters like Fabricio Werdum and Lyoto Machida being demonstrated on.
You can see the trailer here:
Now I haven’t seen the full film, and frankly, I’m not going to pay to download it, but colour me unimpressed with that. It all seems a bit silly to me.
Friend of the Notebook, Rob Poyton (who I recorded a podcast with recently) has produced his own video response to the trailer and I think it’s hard to argue with his conclusions, but feel free to make your own mind up:
I like Rob’s point at the end, that if you’re going to demonstrate things like this, then what are the functional uses of it? That’s what you should be demonstrating.
I came up with the title of this blog post by bastardising the old Chinese martial arts saying, “Southern Hands, Northern Legs”, but I don’t really have Kung Fu Toes (the mind boggles!) but what I really want to talk about today is your feet.
In Tai Chi we talk a lot about the waist and the joints, the spine and the kua, but we rarely give the feet a mention. Every part of your body is important, but your feet are especially so. You can think of your feet as the gateway to movement. If they are injured in some way, or have foot pain, you are immediately impaired in pretty much everything you do.
Lots of Tai Chi styles pay special attention to which parts of the sole are in contact with the floor. One style of Tai Chi I did instead that the foot had to be in contact with the ground in nine, (yes, nine!) places at all times for you to be ‘on balance’. It was perhaps an excessive number of point to realistically pay attention to. Other styles of Tai Chi talk about a more manageable 3 points of contact with the ground through the foot, and other styles don’t really place that much importance on what points of the foot are in contact with the floor, just that some of it is.
In general in Tai Chi I think it’s pretty safe to say that you don’t want to be rolling the weight of your body onto the edges of your feet. Why? Because it misaligns the ankle and therefore puts you at risk from injury not to mention ruins your body structure and posture, which is so important to Tai Chi.
Remember that style I said that talked about 9 points? Let’s go back to that because it was a pretty thorough guide to keeping your foot aligned. Here are the 9 points:
However, before you start to shift you weight around on your feet to get all nine points touching, let’s just remember the position of the foot is maintained by the muscles of the hips. That’s a key point. If you are having trouble keeping these 9 points (or 3 in a simplified model) on the ground when you stand, or do Tai Chi, the problem could be that your lateral hip, hamstring, gluteal, and adductor (or inner thigh) muscle strength is weak. You may need to take these areas through fuller ranges of motion than a Tai Chi form allows to enable them to losen up. Tight hips are definitely going to be limiting to your foot function. You might want to look into some form of stretchy Qi Gong or Yoga to open up your hips if you want to get your feet to be flatter.
It’s also worth considering what you’re wearing on your feet when doing Tai Chi. Have you ever done Tai Chi barefoot? Do you wear chunky trainers, or (heaven forbid!) shoes with a heel, to do Tai Chi in?
It’s quite possible that the muscles in your feet have atrophied from years of under use. In our shoe-wearing, chair-bound society we aren’t given the chance to give or feet the workout they require from daily use.
Wearing minimal shoes while doing Tai Chi is probably the best option. But remember, we wear shoes these days to protect us from our overly-rigid environment. Training on stone flagstones or hard flooring will come as a shock to your feet, especially if they have been used to being continually protected from these environments, so you may need to take things slowly if you’re doing barefoot Tai Chi for the first time. Don’t push your atrophied foot muscles too far too soon!
Here’s an exercise you can do to help you feel where your weight is on your feet:
Stand as you would at the beginning of the Tai Chi form. Toes pointing forward, knees off lock and weight distributed evenly between your feet.
Now ‘think forward’ and feel what happens to the weight in your feet. Think to the right, feel again, think to the left, and behind and repeat. You may notice a subtle shift in your body weight towards the direction you are thinking. This shows you how important your mental focus is when doing a Tai Chi form.
Now let your weight move around in an anti-clockwise circle. Forward first then around to the left. After a few circles you can change direction. You should notice that as your weight shifts the distribution of it over the 9 points (and therefore down to the floor through your feet) changes. As you move more to the left the right hand edge of your foot loses some contact with the ground.
Now try and centre yourself over your feet so that all 9 points are equally weight baring. That’s your point of balance.
Now do your Tai Chi form and just pay attention to these 9 points of the feet. When do they feel light and when do they feel heavy? Is the weight equally distributed? This might give you something to think about as you do the form.
If you need some additional listening/reading about your feet I’d recommend this podcast/article by Katy Bowman on wearing minimal shoes to go hiking in and how to strengthen you foot muscles.
What makes Tai Chi, Tai Chi? One of the things you often hear said is that whole body movement, or whole-body coordination, is what makes Tai Chi different to other kung fu styles. How this is interpreted in Tai Chi Chuan, however, seems to vary slightly, moderately or even hugely depending on the style of Tai Chi you’re watching or doing.
I was scrolling through the excellent 1932 book by Chen Ziming (I’ve discussed this book before) on Chen style small frame called “The inherited Chen family boxing art”. I did a search of the text for “whole-body coordination” and it appeared 34 times! That gives a good sort of indication on how important he thought it was to his Tai Chi Chuan. In fact, the phrase “The entire movement must have whole-body coordination.”, appears in almost every single description of a move in his form.
Earlier in the book he lists the key points of Tai Chi boxing and says:
 WHOLE-BODY COORDINATION
四肢百骸協同動作此之謂周身相隨故太極拳一動無有不動一靜無有不靜 Your four limbs and hundreds of bones are to be moving cooperatively. This is called “whole-body coordination”. Hence in Taiji Boxing: “When one part moves, every part moves, and when one part is still, every part is still.”
He’s quoting “When one part moves…” from the Tai Chi Classics there. But what does he mean?
In some styles of Tai Chi the footwork is lively and continually moving. Wu (Hou) style springs to mind as a good example. In others, there are moments where the practitioner seems to almost stop in a semi-static posture for a moment or two – Chen style springs to mind. It’s therefore no surprise then that people’s definition of what “whole body movement” actually is can vary considerable.
It clearly doesn’t mean that the feet have to be moving all the time. My belief is that it’s more to do with engaging the whole body in a movement – think of the difference of lifting a heavy weight with just your arms, or getting your whole posterior muscle chain involved with the movement, all the way down to the feet. A Judo hip throw is a good martial example. When picking up a heavy object (like a spear) it’s more obvious when you are engaging the whole body and when you’re not. With a solo bare-hand form it requires an extra level of awareness to discern if you are engaging your whole body, or not, in a movement. You can essentially cheat because with no weight to carry, there are no consequences to using local movement. This is one of the advantages of practicing archaic weapons forms, even in the modern age – they give you direct feedback on your whole-body coordination.
On a more subtle (esoteric?) level, whole-body movement can refer to dantien controlled movement, as often exhibited in silk reeling exercises. This is where you’re controlling the extremities (the limbs) by subtle movements from your dantien. This is a step beyond simply activating the posterior muscle chain in a movement, it’s a different way of moving altogether, and well worth investigating. Find out how to do it here.
Whether you subscribe to the belief that a dantien exists, and can be used to control the limbs, or not, you’ll notice that Chen Ziming only listed whole body coordination as one of the key points of Tai Chi boxing. There are others – 10 others in fact. All of which are worth noting too:
Key Points for Taiji Boxing 性質  The Nature of the Art 方法  Methods 程序  Sequence of Training 姿勢  Postures 動作  Movement 呼吸  Breathing 精神  Spirit 變著轉勢  Whole-Body Coordination 周身相隨  Switching Techniques & Transitional Movements 身作心維  The Body Performs & the Mind Ponders 無貪無妄  Do Not Be Greedy or Rash 十三勢術名及其演練法
Here’s a humorous piece I wrote recently that I thought I’d share. It was inspired by my most recent podcast, in which I had to (again) explain that the Yang style I do isn’t the common Yang style – it’s a much smaller sub style, which meant I belong to the Super Rare Style Club. And then I thought, what if that club was real? 🙂
I just wanted to refresh everyone on the Super Rare Style Club best practice we put together in March.
I’ve noticed some people are still not crediting their Super Rare Style correctly, can we make an effort to be Brilliant at the Basics with our Super Rare Styles, please?
Our content is being shared across the world and it has been flagged to me that when the basics are missing it makes bragging rights and ego boosting more time-consuming than necessary.
In particular, it has been flagged that a number of people are not correctly crediting their Super Rare Style at least once a week. Super Rare Styles need constant reference, not just once a year at the annual Kung Fu Banquet get together.
So, here’s a timely refresher:
1. The first rule of Super Rare Style Club, is that we do not talk about our Super Rare Style, unless nobody has asked about it, in which case we talk about it all the time. Although, if somebody asks you about it specifically, you just reply, “Sorry, it’s secret”, obviously.
2. The second rule of Super Rare Style Club is to be sure to condemn other people’s Super Rare Style as bullshit. Just not your own Super Rare Style, which we can also refer to as “elite” if necessary.
3. At least once a week you must casually mention that your Super Rare Style is no big thing, except that it TOTALLY DOMINATES in all physical encounters.
4. Avoid all sparing type scenarios and sport fighting matches, or anything that involves “testing”, with anybody except your own students. This is not the exclusive venue that your Super Rare Style demands!
5. Remember, the reason your style is Super Rare is that it’s exclusive, special and THE BEST, and not because nobody actually liked it that much, so it all but died out. Those are lies perpetrated by your enemies!
Thank you for your compliance, and have a great day!
Super Rare Style Membership Co-ordinator and Public Liaison Officer (acting up).
I discovered this amazing poem recently and thought it was too good not to share. I think it relates nicely to the world of Tai Chi. I hope John Roedel doesn’t mind me sharing it. Check out his book on Amazon.
“I wrote this poem 8 months ago and it changed my life” by John Roedel
my brain and heart divorced a decade ago over who was to blame about how big of a mess I have become eventually, they couldn’t be in the same room with each other now my head and heart share custody of me I stay with my brain during the week and my heart gets me on weekends they never speak to one another
instead, they give me the same note to pass to each other every week and their notes they send to one another always says the same thing: “This is all your fault” on Sundays my heart complains about how my head has let me down in the past and on Wednesday my head lists all of the times my heart has screwed things up for me in the future they blame each other for the state of my life there’s been a lot of yelling – and crying so, lately, I’ve been spending a lot of time with my gut who serves as my unofficial therapist most nights, I sneak out of the window in my ribcage and slide down my spine and collapse on my gut’s plush leather chair that’s always open for me ~ and I just sit sit sit sit until the sun comes up last evening, my gut asked me if I was having a hard time being caught between my heart and my head I nodded I said I didn’t know if I could live with either of them anymore “my heart is always sad about something that happened yesterday while my head is always worried about something that may happen tomorrow,” I lamented my gut squeezed my hand “I just can’t live with my mistakes of the past or my anxiety about the future,” I sighed my gut smiled and said: “in that case, you should go stay with your lungs for a while,” I was confused
the look on my face gave it away “if you are exhausted about your heart’s obsession with the fixed past and your mind’s focus on the uncertain future your lungs are the perfect place for you there is no yesterday in your lungs there is no tomorrow there either there is only now there is only inhale there is only exhale there is only this moment there is only breath and in that breath you can rest while your heart and head work their relationship out.” this morning, while my brain was busy reading tea leaves and while my heart was staring at old photographs I packed a little bag and walked to the door of my lungs before I could even knock she opened the door with a smile and as a gust of air embraced me she said “what took you so long?”
Rushing is probably the cause of most of our problems. That time you didn’t notice the uneven paving stone and tripped? You were probably rushing. That time you shouted at the kids because they couldn’t get their shoes on fast enough while leaving the house? You were rushing. That time you accidentally emailed a picture of yourself drunk to everybody in the company? You were definitely rushing then.
In nature, wild animals can move a lot faster than we do, but do they ever look like they’re rushing? A rabbit sprinting for its life to avoid a fox still moves with poise, dignity and grace. Compare that to the embarrassment of the average human running for a bus, an act in which the stakes are considerably lower! Even a cat, an animal known for incredible bursts of speeds pauses for a second before it makes that leap onto a table, so it can be aware of the entirety of the situation.
But how can we learn to stop rushing all the time and regain this poise which animals seem to naturally have? One answer is Tai Chi.
If you’ve been doing Tai Chi for a while, a good number of years, then you’ll know the form inside out. It’s no longer a fresh, new and exciting thing. In fact, your mind is probably bored with it. Here we go again, this same old moves. Sigh. Stand for a moment before you do the form and you’ll notice feelings of impatience start to creep in. Part of you will want to start rushing, to get it over with as quickly as possible
This is where your slowness training is useful. Do the form slowly, at an even pace and just keep doing it. Resist the call the start speeding up and rushing sections. Treat all parts with equal importance. Even the linking moves between the classic postures. Notice your breathing. Keep your awareness on what you’re doing. Don’t let the mind wander off – keep it in the body and keep bringing it back. If you do notice that it’s wandered off completely then stop and start the form again, no matter how far you’ve got. Slowly, day after day you build a kind of mental strength, and if you’re lucky you’ll find it seeps over into the rest of your life, and you’ll be less prone to rushing than you were before.
Stop rushing and you no longer slip up,
Stay in the moment and strains are no longer felt,
When strains and no longer felt, stresses start to disappear,
I’ve been meaning to write a post on Shaui Jiao, the Chinese wrestling style, for a while now. We covered Shuai Jiao in one of our Heretics Podcast episodes a while ago, but you can’t say that it was a particularly good primer on what Shuai Jiao is. As usual, Damon found an obscure angle and the episode is really more about the strategies associated with the Azure Dragon in China, and linked somewhat tangentially to Shuai Jiao.
Shuai Jiao is wrestling. It’s done in a jacket, which can be gripped, and consists of a variety of throws and trips, the aim being to get your opponent to touch the ground with any part of their body other than their feet. It’s popular in various parts of China and regional styles have sprung up in different areas.
Almost any book you buy on Shuai Jiao will inevitably start with a history section, where the author links Shuai Jiao back to various ancient Chinese wrestling styles from different points in time – things like Jiao Di (‘Horn butting’) get mentioned. The idea is to establish a link between the Shuai Jiao practiced in China today and ancient wrestling arts spanning back several dynasties. The propaganda arm of the Chinese government would really like you to know that Shuai Jiao is 1) ethnically, Chinese, the ancient art of the Han peoples, and 2) Old.
Unfortunately, neither of these things are true. While things like Jiao Di, and actual wrestling styles existed in the past, there is no connection between them and Shuai Jiao.
Shaui Jiao itself is neither ancient or “Chinese” in origin. It has no direct connection to anything practiced by the ethnic Han Chinese. It was actually imported by the Manchu, the northern tribe who invaded China, overthrew the Ming Dynasty and started the Ching dynasty from 1644-1912. Like the Mongols before them, the Manchu loved wrestling as a form of strengthening soldiers and entertainment.
Byron Jacobs has produced an extensive history of Shuai Jiao over three videos that’s well worth a watch if you want to understand where Shaui Jiao really came from:
Of course, the origins of an art have no direct relationship to its effectiveness. As Damon says in the Heretics episode, being good at any form of wrestling is a big advantage in any martial art. Physical conditioning, being a strong robust person who is fit and good at physical alignment is a useful thing.
But wrestling often has more of a community function than other martial arts, and it’s the same in China as it is in the West – wrestling can be great fun. There is a Chinese Shuai Jiao tradition called Tian Qiao Shuai Jiao, which is an intangible cultural heritage of China. It’s a style of wrestling-based entertainment that any body who is familiar with the same tradition in the West will instantly recognise:
Just a heads up, I’m doing a BJJ seminar on Sunday at Gracie Barra Bath in aid of the Disasters Emergency Committee, Ukraine appeal. It’s open to all and £15 minimum donation. The Justgiving page is here. Thanks.
Let’s take a little diversion into the world of Brazilian Jiujitsu. Here is a video I shot this morning that shows some of my favourite options for getting submissions from side control. For some reason the sound didn’t work, but hey ho, let’s roll.
Here it is:
I’m demonstrating how I like to keep my knees off the mat, so that my body weight is going straight into my opponent, which I use to pin him, freeing up my hands. The hands are then free to see submissions. I show some chokes and armbars. The very last choke, where they get choked by their own arm across their body is my most common submission. It’s quite opportunistic, but the opportunity is there quite a lot if you know to look for it.
If you enjoyed this sort of content then you’ll probably enjoy my chat with BJJ black belt Stephan Kesting of GrappleArts.com. We talk about a lot of BJJ issues and also how BJJ has changed over the years.