Tai Chi should be heavy, like a stone

 

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Move your hips! Photo by: Samuel Castro

One of the most frequent things you hear in BJJ is “move your hips“.

Brazilian teachers tend to say “escape your hips“. Which is an odd-sounding translation of presumably something that sounds better in Portuguese. In American and English it usually gets turned into “hip escape“, as in, “do a hip escape here“, “it’s not working because you need to hip escape more“.

 

We hip escape up and down the gym as a warm up (also known as “shrimping”) because it’s a fundamental movement you need to have in your tool box that you can pull out without having to think about it.

But why? What is it? Simply put: It’s designed to create more space between you and your opponent on the ground.

You can use hip escapes for escaping bad positions like side control and mount. But it also has benefits for attacks too. Basically a good rule of thumb is that if what you’re doing isn’t working try doing a hip escape and doing it again. The change of angle and leverage will probably fix it.

Now we know what a hip escape is, let’s get to the point of all this.

When we say “move your hips” that’s not the part of the body that you need to move from. If you just moved from your hips you’d never go anywhere.  You’d just spasm on the floor like a dying fly having its last buzz. What you actually need to do is push with your toes and feet on the ground so that your hips move.

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Your hips moving is the result of the action, not the action itself.

Which brings me onto Tai Chi Chuan and the dantien (the lower abdomen area of the body).

All wise and knowledgeable Internet-enabled Tai Chi practitioners know that we need to “move from the dantien” in Tai Chi Chuan. (This is the supposed secret to Tai Chi that you get told by your wise master only after you have paid the required tuition fees for a number of years. 🙂 )

 

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Cheng Man Ching, Single Whip posture.

But again, where does the action originate? I would say that, just as in JiuJitsu, you don’t actually “move from the dantien” by originating action there. Your dantien moves, but it’s your foot that provides the impetus. Your foot pushing against the ground is where the ‘power’ comes from in Tai Chi Chuan.

(A side note here for the Order of Advanced Tai Chi Wizards of the Internet: When you get this concept of the power from the ground you will find that you can actually originate the movement in the dantien as a kind of dropping force that is then rebounded from the ground, so it’s less of a push with the legs. File this under “advanced” if it makes no sense right now and come back to it later).

What Tai Chi Chuan specialises in is transmitting this power to the extremities without interfering with it as much as is humanly possible. We know that in Tai Chi we need to be relaxed (song), which seems like the last thing you’d want to be if you have to hit something hard, but there is a method in the madness.

In Tai Chi Chuan you are trying to transfer that power – the ground reaction force – from your foot all the way to your fingers as smoothly as possible and directing it with the dantien. This is called ‘threading a pearl through the 9 crooked gates‘ in the Tai Chi classics. The gates here are the joints of the body. All the breaks in connection between your foot and fingers are the points where power leaks out. Usually we cover these things up by using muscular strength to get by – you can spend years fooling yourself with this, and it’s a very hard habit to stop.

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Points of interest, where we generally mess this up, are the lower back (keep it open) and the shoulders (stop using them as a power source). The whole body should be Song.

‘Relaxed’ doesn’t mean light and floaty. It means heavy and rooted like a stone.

 

Russell Brand on BJJ communities

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Here’s a very nice video from actor, comedian and all-round philosopher guru person, Russell Brand, about getting his blue belt in Brazilian Jiujitsu from the Roger Gracie school. There are no shortcuts for celebrities in BJJ (or at least there shouldn’t be), so just like everybody else he’s had to work hard for this. This is a great example of hard work paying off. Well done Russell!

In the video, he talks a lot about the community feel of BJJ.

What he’s talking about in the video (I believe) is the gap in modern society that used to be filled by either religion or secret societies and mystery religions – the idea of a brotherhood (and sisters too) that is created in a group where people are no longer viewed by the labels that society creates for us – father, doctor, immigrant, lawyer, builder, student, etc… but by what we have achieved on the matt.

“We all come through the door for different reasons, but we are all the same once we’re inside”.

It’s a very valuable thing to be viewed without societies cultural baggage weighing us down.

BJJ especially seems to fill that void in modern life. Other martial arts do too, but I don’t think they create quite the same sense of brotherhood as BJJ for a variety of reasons – perhaps it’s the close physical contact, where we’re constantly almost killing each other but paradoxically helping each other succeed.

In BJJ you see the huge changes in people’s personality happen before your eyes, they become more humble, warmer, and you feel it happen to yourself too.

Whatever this process is I just think BJJ does it better than other martial arts, and is more accessible than the old fashioned secret societies which don’t really exist in the same way in our more secular society where mainstream religion is a lot more tolerant than it used to be.

Anyway, he talks about it here:

 

Don’t try! The paradoxical approach of Tai Chi Chuan, Charles Bukowski and Yoda.

Is there a secret to Tai Chi? To martial arts? To life? If there is I think it might be encapsulated in the two words, “Don’t try”.

Famously offensive American poet and author Charles Bukowski had “Don’t try” written on his gravestone:

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It makes you wonder what he meant. Did he mean just give up? I don’t think so. Underneath “don’t try” is a picture of a boxer, indicating a struggle.

Mike Watt in the San Pedro zine The Rise and the Fall of the Harbor Area interviewed his wife Linda about, “Don’t try”:

Watt: What’s the story: “Don’t Try”? Is it from that piece he wrote?

Linda: See those big volumes of books? [Points to bookshelf] They’re called Who’s Who In America. It’s everybody, artists, scientists, whatever. So he was in there and they asked him to do a little thing about the books he’s written and duh, duh, duh. At the very end they say, ‘Is there anything you want to say?’, you know, ‘What is your philosophy of life?’, and some people would write a huge long thing. A dissertation, and some people would just go on and on. And Hank just put, “Don’t Try.”

As for what it means, it’s probably best to let Bukowski tell us:

“Somebody asked me: “What do you do? How do you write, create?” You don’t, I told them. You don’t try. That’s very important: not to try, either for Cadillacs, creation or immortality. You wait, and if nothing happens, you wait some more. It’s like a bug high on the wall. You wait for it to come to you. When it gets close enough you reach out, slap out and kill it. Or if you like its looks, you make a pet out of it.”
– Charles Bukowski

Now that’s starting to sound like Tai Chi to me…

I was working on an application of diagonal flying yesterday. The one where you get underneath their shoulder, arm across their body and lift them up and away. There’s a sweet spot as your shoulder goes under their armpit where you have leverage. Where they move easily. You go an inch or so in the wrong direction and you lose it. The technique doesn’t work.

Compared to wrestling and judo I think there are different factors to consider in making a Tai Chi throw work.

You have to think more about your posture. Say, your chest position (is it sheltered? Are the shoulders rounded?) and if you are sunk and in contact with the ground correctly. Is your butt sticking out? Are your legs bent enough?

All these factors matter more in Tai Chi than in Judo and wrestling because Tai Chi is a less physical art. (Whether that’s a good thing or bad thing is debatable, but it either way, it just is.)

With a less-physical art it’s much easier to notice when you’re having to “try” more to make a throw work. Having to “try” too much is a sign you’re muscling it, not letting posture, correct position, leverage and Jin (power from the ground) do the work. Judo and wrestling incorporate these elements too, but Tai Chi relies on them. And without them it just falls apart.

In BJJ I also really like the philosophy of “don’t try”.

For example, if I’ve got the knee on belly position on my opponent I love to go for the baseball bat choke:

The problem is that once you set your grips up on the classic baseball bat your opponent doesn’t just lie there – he defends. He grabs your arms, shifts his hips and generally does everything he can to prevent you from getting the finish.

Now the video shows you three ways to do this – they’re clever little counters to his counters. (I really like the last one actually – I’m going to try that).

But I tend to prefer a slightly different approach. Rather than think of each technique in isolation I like to think of them as being paired. Quite often when I go for a baseball bat choke I set up my grips and immediately my partner has cast iron grips on both my hands. Now sure, I could fight through this – ie. “try” to make the choke work – or I could just go, “you know what? The way he’s defending this means he’s lifting his far elbow – I’ll use that instead”. I give up the baseball choke entirely, but before you know it I’ve spun around and I’ve got a successful kimura grip. He defends the kimura and guess what? It leaves his neck open, and I go back to the baseball choke, so on.

I’m not trying to make anything work, I’m just going with what he gives me. And eventually all the pieces fit together like a jigsaw and it’s done.

I don’t always get it right. More often than not I get it wrong, but that’s what I’m aiming for. If you’re going to adopt this attitude you have to have a really flexible mind. You can’t get fixated on one thing. In fact, you can’t think too much. Just go with what you feel is available.

What I’m talking about is getting off the baseline and onto the middle and top lines. For a full explanation of what this means you’d need to listen to the Woven Energy podcast, but in a nutshell, it means you stop using the thinking, rational part of your brain and just use direct feedback from nature (your partner in this case, who is as much a part of nature as you are) and that gives you access to the midline (body) and topline (spirit).

In Chinese culture the topline, midline and baseline form a trigram, which can have broken or unbroken lines, as so:

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And since we’ve returned to China we should note that the Taoists were all about this “Don’t try” philosophy. They called it Wu Wei – to do by not doing.

From the Tao Te Ching chapter 2:

Therefore the Master
acts without doing anything
and teaches without saying anything.
Things arise and she lets them come;
things disappear and she lets them go.
She has but doesn’t possess,
acts but doesn’t expect.
When her work is done, she forgets it.
That is why it lasts forever.

 

Or as Yoda put it, “Do or do not, there is no try”.

 

And to return to the topic of Tai Chi, it is also exemplified in the short but concise classic on push hands:

Song of Push Hands (by unknown)

Be conscientious in PengLuChi, and An.

Upper and lower coordinate,
and the opponent finds it difficult to penetrate.

Let the opponent attack with great force;
use four ounces to deflect a thousand pounds.

Attract to emptiness and discharge;
Zhan, Lian, Nian, Sui,
no resisting no letting go.

And to finally return to Bukowski, he might be a strange role model, but I kind of like the old guy. His poems aren’t beautiful, but at least they are honest. He was always, exactly himself. He didn’t need to try.

Stop fighting in push hands

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

I don’t really enjoy push hands.  I used to, I used to enjoy it much more when I saw it as a medium for exploring arm locks, takedowns, wrist locks, throws. In short, when I saw it as a way to practice techniques. I used to love it.

In more recent years I’ve reframed my view of what push hands is. Partly this is because I took up BJJ, and found I got more than enough scrapping in my diet to satisfy my craving to try out locks, throws and sweeps. That’s essentially what we do in BJJ, we practice locks, throws and sweeps over and over until we get very good at them and can do them under full resistance.

Inevitably the BJJ player ends up going one of two ways over the years. Either he (or she) gets softer and more flowing. So, when the other person is pushing you should be pulling, and when they’re pulling you should be pushing. By learning to flow with the dynamic movement between two people you learn to blend, yield and overcome. Or they end up getting very good at smashing people. Whatever is in front of them they can just smash through it using precise, accurate bursts of speed and power.

Inevitably all BJJ players tend towards the first approach as they age, if they want to keep training, that is. Or they give up either through injury or changing life circumstances.

But back to push hands. Once I had found a way to get my regular fix of fighty, I found I could step back and view push hands as something else. Perhaps what it was originally intended for.

Now when somebody pushes on my arm I don’t immediately think “how can I lock this arm?”, I am thinking, “where is his force going?”. Is it going to my feet? If not, I try and send it there, turn and yield. When it’s my turn to push back I ask myself where I’m pushing from. Is it the ground? If not, why not? What am I doing that’s stopping that? Where am I tense?

Pushing hands like this might not be as much fun, but I think overall, it’s more satisfying.

Proper push hands lacks the thrills of the fighty approach, but it instils qualities in you that make your fighty better.

That’s a difficult concept to really understand, and even harder to do when the other person just wants to fight. If the other person wants to fight then I sometimes just fight back. Inevitably I slip into BJJ mode and we end up in some armlock on the ground, and it’s fun…

…but it’s probably not what we should be doing.

 

Japanese martial arts: from the battlefield to MMA

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I’ve written a guest blog post about my Heretics podcast and our history of Japanese martial arts series for Holistic Budo, a blog run by my friend Robert Van Valkenburgh.

Here’s a quote:

After the Tokugawa-era ended with the bloody Boshin war followed by the Meiji Restoration (1868), Japan slowly opened up to the outside world. In fact, it was forced open by the British and Americans using violent gunboat diplomacy, but eventually the new era was embraced by the new rulers and also reflected in a new spirit of openness within the martial arts. Aliveness was back in fashion and innovators like Jigoro Kano breathed new life into the martial arts they inherited using the practice of randori (free sparring). His approach was so effective that Kano went from never having trained martial arts at all, to founding his own style in less than 6 years. Ultimately Kano’s Judo would outshine all the other styles of Jiujitsu and change the course of martial arts in Japan entirely, not to mention the rest of the world.

Check out the whole post here.

My podcast with Ken Gullette – BJJ, XingYi, Tai Chi and Choy Lee Fut

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I was interviewed for Ken Gullette’s Internal Fighting Arts podcast recently. It was a fun show and Ken is a gracious and generous host and a new friend in martial arts. We had a really wide-ranging discussion about so many different subjects. I’m sure each topic we touched on could have been a podcast in itself, but Ken did a great job editing it to keep it on track.

We start talking about what it’s like starting BJJ later in life, then move on to Chinese martial arts like Tai Chi, Choy Lee Fut and XingYi and if they are still relevant today for self-defence. Hopefully, you find something here of interest.

Thanks to Ken for the opportunity. I’d suggest checking out his other episodes, too.

Here’s the link to mine.

 

Early morning class

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Photo by Spencer Selover on Pexels.com

There’s always that moment after we bow out.  After we shake hands. After the sparring where we’ve played at killing each other until one of us taps. After we’ve collapsed exhausted at the merciful interjection of the buzzer. When we’re letting the body catch up with itself. Stream rising and puddles of sweat appearing.  Hard stares into the blue vinyl, waiting for the breath to return.

I look around the emptying mats, still glistening with sweat. I see the people getting changed, leaving, ready to get on with their day.

But some remain. Now the work is done the defences can come down. The body relaxes and we can reflect. People get philosophical and start asking the big questions. Questions like, ‘Why do you do this?’

“I see it as a form of self defence,” says Mike. “I don’t want to miss a single class because I might miss that one technique that saves me in a real fight”. He goes on to talk about all the ways that self defence is important to him and how it could save his life. Or maybe the life of his wife and child. How it could be the most important thing he ever learns.

Mike looks at me, wordlessly, expecting me to contribute my own details and honorable reasons for studying the noble art for so long. For so many years. Pushing myself. Accumulating techniques and polishing them until they work under the worst sort of pressure. Finally earning a black belt, yet not stopping there. Still continuing.

I stand up and head to the changing room.

“I just like to fight”.

The ultimate guide to the guillotine choke

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Just look at those two guys and tell me they aren’t having fun! Nothing says “macho martial artist” quite like standing on one leg and having a guys head wrapped under your armpit in a guillotine choke while he’s pulling your leg into his groin.

But seriously, I think every martial artist should know how to do a guillotine choke, not just grapplers. The power of the guillotine is that it’s a very versatile choke. You can do it standing, on the ground and in all the positions in between. It looks like a deceptively simple technique – you just wrap your arm around their neck and squeeze – but as you’ll discover, there’s a whole load of subtle variations, tricks and positional requirements you need to know about to make your guillotine effective.

Rob Biernacki has produced a series of video clips that form a great free online instructional on Grapplearts about how to perform this simple choke. Trust me, it’ll be a great use of 30 minutes of your life and it’s good enough for them to have charged for it, but they’ve kindly provided it for free.

Confessions of a hobbyist Black Belt

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Incidentally, I heard a story from a long time black belt this weekend. He was talking about a bout he refereed at a tournament a while back. The match was between a well known world champion black belt who’s name everyone would immediately recognize if I said it. The black belt was matched up against a no name purple belt. The black belt got destroyed by the purple belt. It happens. Black belts aren’t indestructible and the cult that exists around the belt is unhealthy as it sets up unrealistic expectations. We all lose. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Nice article that gives a fresh perspective on what it means to be a black belt in BJJ when you’re just a hobbyist, not a world champion. The comments are worth reading too.

It also inspired this podcast by Brandon MC.