Ep 20: Matt Hill on relaxation, breathing and fire ants!

Matt Hill is the owner of the Systema Academy in Wiltshire, England. Matt has a long history in martial arts, starting with Aikido, training under Morihiro Saito Sensei in Japan in the early 90s. From there he joined the Parachute Regiment leaving as a Captain in 2003. After this he started training in Systema under Vladimir Vasiliev and now teaches Systema, Bushcraft and leads groups trekking through jungles all around the world.

Matt was kind enough to give me a 1-1 in Systema before we recorded this podcast at his academy, where he focused on the four pillars of Systema – breathing, relaxation, posture and movement. We discuss all these things in the podcast as well as the next destination for Matt’s jungle trek.

Links:

Systema Academy:

Podcast:

Listen here.

Systema and Tai Chi – similarities and differences

Matt Hill and Vladimir Vasiliev

I had a great visit to The System Academy in Wiltshire last week where I enjoyed a bit of 1-1 Systema coaching from my old friend and owner of the Academy, Matt Hill. I also recorded a podcast episode with him for The Tai Chi Notebook Podcast, which will be coming out in November. Matt trained Aikido in Japan and served as a Captain in the British army, as well as working in crisis management before he became a full time Systema instructor, so he’s got a lot of experience of different types of martial arts and working in pressure scenarios. Because Matt and I live quite close to each other I had the opportunity to get a bit of hands-on work in before we sat down to record the episode. It was great to experience some Systema myself this time, and I particularly enjoyed the striking aspects, which is something I’ve put on the back burner a bit as I’ve got more into grappling over the last few years.

One of those eternal questions that pop up on discussion boards a lot is, ‘how close is Systema to Tai Chi?’, and this was one of the things I’ve been mulling over since I had the lesson. Both these arts stress what Systema calls the Four Pillars – breath, posture, relaxation and movement – but on a basic level I think one of the immediate differences between Tai Chi and Systema is that Systema seems to only exist in relation to something you are doing, whereas Tai Chi has this weighty set of philosophical principles that exist independently to the art, like Taoist philosophy and yin and yang, as well as concepts from the Tai Chi Classics regarding posture, movement and strategy. Tai Chi can certainly be talked about in terms of these abstract concepts and ideas, but in contrast, Systema needs to be shown. When you’re not doing Systema, then where does it go? It’s a bit like your lap – when you sit down you can point to your lap, but when you stand up, it vanishes!

Systema seems intrinsically tied to what you are doing, not what you are thinking. Of course, you can argue that even when you’re doing nothing and not moving, say, just sitting there, you are still doing something, so perhaps Systema is always there: You still have a posture, and you are always breathing, and that means some movement is happening in the body and you can still relax, which is a kind of a movement in itself. But there doesn’t seem to be an underlying theory, comparable to something like Tai Chi’s theory of yin and yang, that underpins it all.

Another interesting difference is that when Systema teachers talk about embodying the 4 pillars – they really mean it! They’re not just paying lip service to the ideas – they are living them. Even outside of the martial art practice, Systema seems to have the potential to pervade everything you do. In Systema you tend to lead movement with your breath, you breathe the tension out of your body as you work and you try not to muscle anything. And that can be applied to anything, not just fighting.

Of course, you could say the same thing is true of Tai Chi, but there’s so much other ‘stuff’ to worry about in Tai Chi – like a form,(and getting the form just right), dantien, and the 6 harmonies or the 8 co-ordinations, etc, etc.. I think inevitably, with so much on your plate, some things slip. But with only 4 principles to keep in mind, you can spend a bit more time really digging into them.

And then there’s the amount of physical discomfort you experience. Tai Chi can be really hard on the legs for sure, but push ups, leg raises, sit ups and squats are the meat and potatoes of Systema, none of which you’ll find in a bog-standard Tai Chi class. Not to mention learning to give and receive strikes. Even more martially inclined Tai Chi classes don’t tend to work on actively standing there and learning how to receive strikes.

Chen Xiaowang, Tai Chi broadsword

Adopting any sort of ‘martial arts pose’ is frowned on in Systema. Again, you can argue that there are no fixed shapes in Tai Chi either, but Tai Chi does put a lot of emphasis on structure – keeping a connection to the ground through a relaxed frame, and there are ‘kung fu’ style postures. Systema seems to prefer you trust in your relaxation and let gravity do its work. For a Tai Chi person, it’s quite freeing and fun not to have any fixed shapes you’re expected to adopt. The emphasis in Systema seems to be on not trapping yourself into patterns of tension that you first have to exit before you can move freely. Fighting somebody else is hard enough already – you don’t want to have to fight seven battles within yourself just to move freely before you even begin!

So yes, Systema is different to Tai Chi. But I think the two work really well together. The Tai Chi practitioner can take from Systema the idea of not being trapped in ‘postures’ – fixed shapes (Ward off, Diagonal Flying, etc) and the value of removing as much tension from your body as you can while still working on moving with an opponent. Also, breathing tends to get only a cursory mention in Tai Chi, but focusing more and more on keeping your breathing smooth and continuous, and noting how that relates to tension in the body, is a great addition to any Tai Chi form, and I think that has to help make your Tai Chi better, by any objective measurement.

For more on Systema have a listen to my chat with Rob Poyton again, and look out for my interview with Matt Hill in the next episode of The Tai Chi Notebook Podcast, coming in November.

Qigong enters the lockdown matrix

Let me just pop up in your feed to recommend you give this video by Paul Bowman a watch – it’s about 20 minutes long, then questions after, but the main part of it is a nice little summary of what happened with things like Tai Chi, Qigong and Yoga over the lockdown period in the pandemic and how the marketing of these things subtly changed. I keep getting adverts for the same sort of Qigong classes in my social media feeds too, so it’s interesting to speculate on why this is happening. Worth a watch!

Practicing Tai Chi in nature: Being like a teabag in the ocean

On holiday in the southwest of England for a week I managed to find some time each morning to practice Tai Chi in a lovely old wooded area.

So often we have to practice Tai Chi in our front rooms, back gardens or patios because of time pressures. Or maybe we only get to practice at a class in a village hall, gym or community centre. Either way, our surroundings are often far from natural.

Being able to practice Tai Chi in an environment where there were no other people, no human sounds and no interruptions was a blessing. It was possible to really sink into the environment for once, and not just my legs!

It’s a process one of my teachers calls “being a teabag in the ocean”. If you want to take in the good stuff from the natural world around you then you need to adopt the attitude of being like a teabag in the ocean – i.e. let nature move through you as well as around you, so that you don’t feel like something separate to it. Absorb it, soak it in. I’d say most people practice Tai Chi as if they are a teabag that’s sealed inside a plastic bag then dropped in the ocean. They can be doing great Tai Chi, but they are perfectly contained within themselves and not interacting with the environment. Often there’s not much environment to interact with, as mentioned previously, but if you get the chance to practice Tai Chi out in the woods, you should take it and take the opportunity to get out of that plastic bag.

Before you practice the form, stand for a few moments and try to let the barriers between you and your surroundings break down. Your mind should be focused on the moment and on your breathing, after all, that is as much a part of nature as anything else. Stand like that for a while before doing the form and just experience it, don’t think about experiencing it.

Then as you go through the movements of the form, you’ll start to feel like you are moving with the natural patterns around you. Don’t worry if your form takes on a subtly different quality than normal. It’s all part of the process.

I find that I don’t have as much free time for this in my normal life as I do when I’m on holiday, but I’m going to try and make an effort to get out to a secluded place now and again and practice my Tai Chi out there because the effort is well worth it.

The most successful martial arts movement of the first half of the 20th century, that you’ve probably never heard of

I find I’m getting increasingly fascinated by the concept of ritual, magic, and how it relates to Chinese martial arts. I think I’ve just never been satisfied with the explanation that forms in Chinese martial arts are there for cataloguing techniques. There are many martial arts in the world that do not require forms to catalogue either their techniques or body methods (Shen fa). When something like that so obviously doesn’t add up, I think there has to be something else going on. But what?

It’s been a long time since I’ve linked to Ben Judkins excellent website Kung Fu Tea, but I’m going to recommend that you give this article a read. It’s about the biggest group of 20th century Chinese ‘martial artists’ that you’ve probably never heard of. They were called The Red Spears. And despite having a membership in the millions (millions!) they tend to get wiped from modern historical accounts of Chinese martial arts. Made up of poor, usually illiterate members, they existed away from the cities and the urban areas, where all the well known marital arts groups like the Jingwu Association and the Koushu Association existed. Urban association tended to write books and leave more newspaper articles as evidence for historians. The Red Spears had the numbers, but they were out in the sticks, and out there, less ‘scientific’, ‘outsider’ and ‘western’ ideas pervaded. There we find war magic, rituals and mystical arts.

Yanan China Peoples’ Militia member.

The Red Spears, as effective grassroots organisers in local areas seemed to perform something of the same function as elements of the historical Yakuza in Japan, stepping in when local authorities overstep their mark and being effective at “getting things done”.

And despite the name Red Spears, let’s not forget that these militia groups, like all militia groups, carried rifles. Performing magic rituals and being in a secret society did not mean they rejected all modern technology. 

The article contains a report called “Background and Doings of China’s Red Spears By Norman D. Hanwell (Asia Magazine), The China Weekly Review, August 19, 1939. Page 381” which talks about practices that don’t seem a million miles away from what we would call chi kung these days, if you made it more secular and removed the practices we would call superstitious.  

“Through the customs of the Red School probably differ from locality to locality and naturally the secret part of their program is difficult to confirm, since no outsider is permitted to attend, there are descriptions by Chinese in print. In some sectors members of the Red School “got to school” in a temple each evening. Arriving with their red-tasseled spears. Reaching the School Hall they come before the incense altar common to all Chinese Temples, bare their backs and kneel to listen to one their leaders lecture. Following this, each one breaths deeply and beats his breast, ending with the shouting of the slogan “Chi Kung lai yeh!”—a phrase difficult to translate. Perhaps it might be compared to “The gods be with us!” a short incantation from which strength may be obtained. Out of this process some of the Red Spears are convinced of their invincibility in battle and immunity to death therein.

The Type of Training

Certain persons profess to find in this type of training some scientific basis. For example, the regular evening attendance, the listening to lectures and the sitting in meditation are good training, they claim, for the development of the quality of serenity or tranquility.  The practice of holding the breath and beating the breast is excellent for developing the lungs. The crying out of the slogans is declared to be good training for breath control. Whether we accept any of these “scientific” values or not, we must admit that there are psychological advantages to be obtained from these practices. The peasant convinces himself of his own ability to undertake certain tasks, and his conviction inevitably increases his effectiveness.

A recently made investigation of the White Spear Society of Anhwei Province, an area now under Japanese occupation, reports that the superstitious “Chu kung lai yeh!” has been replaced by slogans more appropriate to present activities. Among these are “Kill the Eastern Sea Devils”—that is, the Japanese—and “Kill the Traitors”—that is, those Chinese cooperating with the Japanese.”

As you can see, the report talks about breath control, tranquility training, hitting the body to strengthen it and gain invincibility (The shouting of the slogan “Chi Kung Lai yeh!” may have some relevance, but who knows…? That may simply have been the historical equivalent of “Let’s do this!”)

I’m increasingly wondering how much of modern Chinese martial arts is built on all this long forgotten training from a different time and setting. It’s interesting to ponder.

I wrote about cults in marital arts yesterday. I think its pretty clear that The Red Spears would fit the definition of a cult, but by modern standards they are way more extreme than anything the Tai Chi world can conjure up today. Forget expensive training camps. They actually led their members into armed conflicts, battles and more! That’s also an interesting topic to consider.

Saanxi province China Peoples’ Militia

Slowness training, or more accurately, ‘not rushing’, in Tai Chi

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,

Once stresses disappear, you can walk lightly.

Walking lightly, smiling brightly.

Photo by S Migaj on Pexels.com

Three views of qi in Tai Chi

Photo by Greg Rakozy on Unsplash

When it comes to “qi” it seems that every teacher has a slightly different view about what it is. After meeting many martial arts teachers, over the years (and ignoring the clearly delusional amongst them) I’ve paired these various views down to three models that I feel can act as a guide for helping the practitioner sort out what your teacher means when he or she says “qi”, and therefore, what you mean. I don’t think the three are exclusive at all – following one does not negate the others – and all three can be applied at once.

Many people would rather we kept qi out of Tai Chi Chuan teaching altogether, and I respect that view, however the Tai Chi Classics refer to qi quite often, so I think we’re stuck with it. And if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.

Of course, qi relates to things well outside of the realm of martial arts too, so I think that it’s important to say that what follows is from a martial arts perspective. I’m looking at qi with a view to how it relates to the human body in things like Xing Yi and Tai Chi Chuan. If I was thinking about how qi related to, say the universe, or the landscape, I’d be looking in different places. Although, it has to be said that in Chinese thought the microcosm often mirrors the macrocosm.

Biological qi

The first view we’ll call the biological model. This is the view that what the Chinese call qi is simply the energy the body creates in the cells using the ATP cycle. We’re not talking about a controversial “bio energy” here, just the normal way energy is created in the cells of the body.

Adenosine triphosphate (ATP) is the energy-carrying molecule found in the cells of all living things and the universal energy carrier in the living cell. The German chemist Karl Lohmann discovered ATP in 1929.

ATP contains three phosphates and when it is converted to Adenosine Diphosphate (ADP) a phosphate is removed and energy is released that cells can use for processes like movement, synthesis and active transport.

https://www.britannica.com/science/adenosine-triphosphate

While the chemical process of the ATP cycle is hard to explain, the impact on things like Tai Chi and martial arts is quite simple and uncomplicated – qi is nothing mysterious here, and all movement therefore requires qi.
In this model, qi is related to breath because oxygen is required for the ATP cycle, which ties into the Chinese view of qi being related to breath quite nicely. The lungs therefore take over a prominent role in qi production, since oxygen is required for the ATP cycle to work.

Teachers that have this view of qi tend to focus more on the middle dantien in the body, as the the focus of movement, since qi production is higher in the body, towards the lungs, compared to the lower dantien. Stances tend to be higher and not as wide. Mobility is stressed over stability. Arts like Xing Yi and Yi Quan are good examples of these sorts of martial arts.

Qi as strength in a conditioned body

The second view of qi fits in more with Chinese concepts of acupuncture. This view sees the body as containing a number of muscle-tendon channels that run from finger tips to toes. On the soft yin parts on the front of the body we find the yin channels, and on the harder yang parts of the body, the yang channels. These qi channels are the channels along which strength can ‘flow’. By strength we’re not talking about the normal isolated limb movements, but the type of springy whole-body strength exhibited by animals and some marital artists. You can view movement in animals (and humans following this model) as a series of opening and closing movements using these channels. When we contract inwards, for example, we pull along the yin channels and when we open the body outwards we are pulling along the yang channels.

Think of the movements of a Cheetah running – as the legs stretch out the yin part on the front of the body is ‘opened’ and the back ‘closed’. As the legs retract inwards, the front closes and the back expands and opens. The process repeats in a cycle. This movement from yin to yang and back again is the Tai Chi cycle in action.

These channels are not real anatomical structures in the body, but constructed as distinct pathways containing various muscles, tendon, ligaments and fascia groups. (The acupuncture meridians that most people are familiar with are a similar idea, but came later and are obviously based on this idea of muscle-tendon channels in the body.)

In a normal human being these channels are not particularly strong or well developed, and work is required to strengthen them – to give you a “strong qi” – which is what neigong and chigong is for.
Qigong practice is therefore designed to condition these muscle-tendon channels – notice a lot of Qigong practice is to do with stretching along these muscle-tendon channels, using the breathing to assist (e.g. the baduanjin set of exercise). Over time this stretching and breathing can strengthen the channels so that they become a tangible, physical presence in the body. Once they are strong enough to physically manipulate the body with, various martial arts feats can be performed using them, like explosive punching (Fa Jin) or strong twisting and coiling movements.

You most often find this qi model used in arts like Chen Taijiquan, which is known for its twisting and coiling locking and throwing methods (chin na) and its explosive, whole body strikes called Fa Jin. Silk reeling exercises, which are part of Chen style Tai Chi, are excellent for developing this kind of conditioned strength.

Qi as a non-physical body

The final, more esoteric, view of Qi is as a non-physical body. Chinese medicine has the concept of the Sanbao – the three bodies. The physical body – Jing (related to our ability to replicate ourselves by reproduction), the energy or Qi body and Shen the mental or spiritual body. All three bodies are thought to inhabit us at once.

The physical body is the most apparent being the one we use most obviously, but through practices such as Zhang Zhuang Qi Gong, where you stand and hold postures over time, we can gradually become more aware of the more subtle energy body. The Qi body becomes apparent through sensation observed over time. The act of being aware of the qi body, usually in standing Qigong postures, (although seated or lying meditation practice also exists), strengthens your connection to it and your appreciation of it. The same is, presumably, also true of the Shen body, but that is not something I’ve ever experienced myself.

These more esoteric practices tend to be associated with spiritual groups (Taoist internal alchemy traditions), secret societies (exploited in the Boxer Rebellion) and martial arts groups that tend more towards stillness in their practice – like Yang style Taijiquan, or ones that practice seemingly impossible feats of conditioning, like iron palm and iron body practices.

While this view of qi is the one that’s hardest to ‘prove’, it’s also one of the most accessible. Practicing with stillness over a period of time can be done by anybody anywhere and usually produces some tangible results – heat in the hands, etc. But I think this is also the qi model it’s easiest to become deluded with. After all, if your only feedback is judging the things you experience yourself it’s easy to lose your objectivity. This is of course why having a good teacher is important.

Facing adversity

Why do we exercise? It may be that we have been told we must by a doctor because we are facing some sort of health crisis, for which the most obvious solution is to take up more regular exercise. Usually these problems are related to being overweight and the multitude of health problem this can exacerbate, or indeed cause. But sometimes it can be something more subtle, like just not feeling comfortable in our body. We know when our body feels weak, soft, stiff or unused and needs exercise. The sense that we need to move, to stretch or to run is always there within us, if we choose to listen to that inner voice.

The Stoics were very big on the idea of accepting “voluntary hardships” as a kind of “shortcut to virtue”. Like the Cynics before them, or the holy men of India at the time of the Buddha, they would often become beggars, or live like poor people for extended periods of time to refocus on what was important in life, or to simply stop themselves from getting too soft. In life we generally try and avoid pain and discomfort in all areas, and this can lead us into tremendous difficulties in the long run. By seeking to avoid pain we let small problems fester until they become big problems.

Photo by Kelvin Valerio on Pexels.com

“although most people don’t like pain and discomfort, we generally accept that learning to endure it within reason can potentially toughen us up.  That’s what most physical exercise is about, to some extent.  It improves our fitness but also teaches us to endure pain and fatigue.”

Donald Robertston

Which brings me on to Tai Chi. Generally motivating yourself to get out of bed, or off the couch, to practice Tai Chi involves the same mental toughening up process that is involved in motivating yourself to do any other form of exercise. There’s no difference there, but the difference is in the type of exercise.

Tai Chi is a slow burn. It requires a different type of resilience. You need to develop the resilience to work slowly and patiently at something when your mind is telling you that you’re bored now and you should really be doing something much more exciting or intense.

To some extent you can turn your mind off during sets of star jumps, squats and push ups and just blast through them, maybe while listening to pumping music to help keep you going. In contrast, the first thing you are asked to do in Tai Chi is to stand still and connect with your breath before you even lift a finger. Then you are expected to keep your mind on the job throughout.

But if you try it, you’ll find that this “getting in touch with yourself” first before exercising can lead to a different kind of experience. It’s the gateway to marvels. Maybe you won’t burn as many calories as you do down the gym with your mind on autopilot, but your body will feel better for it, reconnecting with the living spirit of nature that flows through you, and (if Obi-Wan Kenobi is to be believed) all things.

It starts with the breath. Become aware of the breath. Don’t interfere with it, just watch it rise and fall. Once you do that you’ll find that facing minor adversity doesn’t feel like such a big problem anymore, and you can just do it.

Sinking the Qi to the Dantien

Jesse Kenkamp (AKA The Karate Nerd) has done another great video on tracing the roots of Karate. Here he is with White Crane practitioner Martin Watts in Yongchun, birthplace of White Crane, which is usually considered an ancestor style to Karate.

What I liked about this video is Martin’s no-nonsense teaching of what are generally thought of as internals in Chinese martial arts and shrouded in mystery (usually by westerners using Orientalism to sell books 😉 )

My point in posting this is that Martin covers “sinking the qi to the dantien” at 4.00 – what it is and, most importantly how what it is not is just as important.

I appreciate Martin’s simple, down to earth explanation.

The Most Important KATA in Karate 🥋

Let the Qi sink to the Dantien

split level photography of man underwater

That sinking feeling. Photo by Jeremy Bishop on Pexels.com

I’ve been doing some work with the Tai Chi Classics lately, which has thrown up an interesting point. There’s only one time the Tai Chi Classics mention the “dantien” by name, which is the admonition to  “Let the qi sink to the dantien”.

Instead, it uses the term “waist”, a lot.

I’ve been wondering why this is.

It’s not like the Tai Chi Classics don’t utilise archaic Chinese language – they do. They mention Chi, Jin, Xin, Shen and Yi all the time. But only that one line about the Dantien.

One of the most quotable lines in the classics is:

“The jin should be
rooted in the feet,
generated from the legs,
controlled by the waist, and
expressed through the fingers.”

Again, it says waist here, not dantien.

I wonder if it’s because “waist” gets across the idea that it’s the whole area of the abdomen that you need to utilise, including the front, sides and back.

The idea of sinking the qi to the dantien is another of those lines from the classics that is often stated and little understood. You’ll find a hundred different interpretations from a hundred different practitioners. So, I might as well add my own.

To me it’s not a particularly esoteric subject. It’s a practical consideration.

It simply means relaxing the upper body enough that your weight seems to settle in your lower body. Your breathing also lowers, as it relaxes, and becomes diaphragmatic breathing, so the abdomen expands and contracts as you breathe. There should be almost no expansion of the chest when you breathe like this.

With your breathing and weight settled around the dantien area you can sense a kind of fullness, or heaviness. Thus your “qi” is sunk to the your “dantien”. It should also help you feel calm. If you notice when you get stressed or anxious, your breathing quickens and raises up in the body. Sinking your qi to the dantien is the opposite of this.

In terms of martial technique, it helps you stay rooted. You’re using your mind to overcome a ‘fight or flight’ reaction. Of course, as soon as you engage with an opponent, the temptation is to react too physically with your arms and shoulders – this would be ‘letting the qi rise’ and the wrong thing to do from a Tai Chi perspective. Instead, you should maintain the sinking feeling in the lower body and try and stay calm and move from the dantien.

Sinking the qi to the dantien will always improve your technique, regardless of what it is, when dealing with an opponent.

two men practicing aikido

Sink your qi to enhance your technique. Photo by Anton Belitskiy on Pexels.com