The real secret to martial arts – Bruce Lee and the concept of Jeet

Today I want to talk about a very useful martial arts teaching called the 3 timings. In many ways, these teachings are the secret to all martial arts, so you’re getting some pretty good value out of this free blog post! 🙂

The three timings have been handed down in many different martial arts lineages under different guises, but it’s all the same teaching. I suspect the 3 timings are as old as time itself.

Personally, I’ve found the three timings most applicable to weapons work, but they are obviously important for barehand too.

Photo by Yaopey Yong on Unsplash

The version of the 3 timings handed down in my Chinese lineage was called “Yi timing, Chi timing and Xing timing”, but in English you’ll find them explained perfectly well by Paul Vunak here as simply, before, during and after:

Paul Vunak is a Jeet Kune Do teacher. Bruce thought the concept of “Jeet” was so important he named his martial art after it. The “Jeet” in Jeet June Do means to intercept, and intercepting is what the 3 timings are all about.

The 3 timings is a pretty simple concept. You can hit somebody:

  1. After” they have completed their technique (xing timing), for which you obviously have to move out of the way before you respond. This is the slowest timing and easiest to perform.
  2. During” their attack (chi timing). This is a much shorter timing and it could end up in a simultaneous death strike where you both hit each other, but ideally you would just sneak in first and beat them to the punch.
  3. And finally, “before” they strike you. This is the hardest timing to achieve, because it’s very easy to mess up. You need to hit them before they launch their attack, but equally, it does need to be in sync with a genuine attack. If you fire on Yi timing (”intention” timing), and they are faking, or not attacking, you’ll end up out of position and vulnerable. Yi timing therefore requires immense practice and sensitivity so that you can accurately read the whole situation in the blink of an eye, and be sure they were really going to attack.

Timing, I think, is the ultimate skill in martial arts. If you are a master of timing, then you almost don’t need any technique. If we are both holding swords and I can always time my attack to hit you anytime you come towards me then I can forget about “Green Dragon Scoops the water” or whatever fancy technique I know. It all becomes irrelevant.

So how do you practice the 3 timings? Well, I’d suggest that the first stage would involve getting a partner, like Mr Vunak has done in that video, and practicing responding to set attacks, so you can develop a feel for each timing. Obviously this would need to be done predictably at the start then slowly more variation can be introduced and the sparring can become freer. Instead of the other person just feeding attacks, they can try to start to make their own attacks and counters.

If you practice barehand and with weapons then you’ll notice how much quicker the timing needs to be with weapons. You have so much less time to react. In fact, going back to barehand after using weapons you will almost feel like you are moving in slow motion, which is a handy skill to have for obvious reasons.

With the timings at the heart of your practice you might also change the way you think about moving in martial arts. Ways of moving that require a unity of body and mind become much more important. You need to move everything together, and as one, to hit your timings.

The words of the Xing Yi Classic of Unification become more important:

“When the upper and lower move, the centre will attack.
When the centre moves, the upper and lower support,
Internal and external, front and rear are combined,
This is called “Threading into one”,
This cannot be achieved through force or mimicry.”

Hundreds of years after these words were written, Bruce Lee came to the same conclusions, and based his new martial art around the concept of timing.

Lost in translation: The Xing Yi Classics

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Thanks to Richard Johnson for commenting on my last post, which had a section of the Xing Yi classics (The 10 Thesis of Yue Fei) translated by my teacher. My teacher’s translation definitely differs from others you find online – it includes many more references to weapons that are omitted in other translations I’ve seen, specifically a haft-grip and a bow, in these sections.

It matters, because reading other translations I’ve seen you’d get the impression it was about gripping your opponent, not your spear.

I thought it interesting that Richard called it “quite interpretive rather than a strict translation“:

The first quote is quite interpretive rather than a strict translation. I found it in the manual attributed to Yue Fei. It could also be instructions to curl one’s fist tight with the same energy as gripping a handle.

Richard Johnson

I’d agree with him, but, with a rather large caveat: I think all translation is an interpretation.

There is no such thing as a “strict” translation of these Chinese classics into English, because a literal translation of characters often comes off looking like the work of Yoda. Confusing, it is!

To get at the meaning of the text you have to rejig it into English, and here you need to know the context of the work, the time period it was written in and also have some working knowledge of the subject to do it in a meaningful way.

Thanks to Paul Andrews of Xing Yi Academy (they’ve just relaunched with a new subscription service, so check them out) who has done the following literal translation of these sections of the Jianshou Lun (Classic of Fighting), so you can see what I mean:

“I’m looking at my translation of the Jiaoshou Lun now.  So the first quote is: 

用拳要卷緊 Yòng quán yào juǎn jǐn, 

用把把有氣 Yòng bǎ bà yǒu qì. 

Literally –  Use fist must roll tight. Use grip must have Qi.  

So fist could be the fist or it could be “boxing”.  There is no mention of a haft here, there is nothing immediately before or after, but a little bit further on we get this:

手以心把 Shǒu yǐ xīn bà, 

心以手把 Xin yǐ shǒu bà.  

Literally – Hand uses xin to grip.  xin uses hand handle (shou ba together means handle/haft).  

In my own interpretation Shou (hand) can also mean “a technique”. So my take on this is: The methods use the xin to grasp and the xin transmits through the haft. Given this later reference to a haft/handle it is legitimate to understand that the entire section is talking about weapons so D earlier use of haft is in context.

Second quote:

一握渾身皆握, Yī wò hún shēn jiē wò,

一伸渾身皆伸, Yī shēn hún shēn jiē shēn

伸要伸得進, Shēn yào shēn dé jìn

握要握得根 Wò yào wò dé gēn

如卷炮, Rú juǎn pào

卷得緊, Juǎn dé jǐn

崩得有力, Bēng dé yǒu lì


One grasp mix body (hunshen together means “everything” or whole body) all grasps.

One extends everything all extends

Extending important to extend while entering

Grasping important grasp must root

As reeled (rolled up/coiled) cannon (explosion)

Reel must be tight

Collapse/compress must have power/strength


When grasping [the haft], the whole body grasps [the haft]. 

When one part extends, the whole body extends. 

The key is to extend while entering.

When grasping the grasp comes from the root, as if coiled ready to explode. 

The coiling becomes tight, Compressing to store power.

The first two phrases could also be interpreted as:  Grasp with the whole body and everything holds.  Extend with the whole body and everything extends.The last phrase is tricky.  Damon like the alternative 绷 – beng meaning to draw tight. But the character used in the text I have is 崩 – beng same as “Beng quan” meaning to collapse/crush/compress.This phrase could mean that the reel must be tight, like something compressing to store power (or if the alternative beng is used – like a bow at full draw).Or collapsing could refer to releasing the reel, letting go. Meaning that when released the power has to transmit. That phrase isn’t easy it could mean both.”

Tai Chi history: What could Wang ZongYue and Zhang SanFeng represent?

Li’s handwritten copy of the Tai Chi Classics (1881) – Brennan Translation

I think I’m going to start referring to the theme of our recent Heretics podcasts (that Taijiquan was started by the Wu’s and Yang LuChan in 1851, then continued to evolve over the following decades, getting more commercial as it went, and was finally ‘completed’ as a coherent philosophy, martial art and national art in the 20th century), the Heretical Hypothesis.

It stands in contrast to the conventional lineages for the art. Which were first:

i) Zhang SanFeng was the originator. Then it goes into Chen village via Wang ZongYue, and then to Yang LuChan.

Then when this fell out of favour you get either:

i) Various ancient lineages of Taijiquan from Wudang some of which end up in Chen village, others continue to the present day and miss out Yang LuChan.

ii) Obviously Zhang is a fiction, so we start in Chen village (via Wang ZongYue) to Chen Wanting (16th century) and onwards to Yang LuChan.

What’s in a name?

There is an absolute dearth of writing about Taijiquan until after the Ching Dynasty ends. Why there are no published works during this period is an interesting question, but we’ll leave that for another time. All we have in that period is really the group of writings know as the Tai Chi classics, also called the Salt Shop Classics, that Wu YuXiang alleges he found in a Salt Shop, but most people think he actually authored.

In the Salt Shop Classics we see two names pop up – Zhan SanFeng and Wong ZongYue representing a historical lineage. Zhan SanFeng’s name is dropped in the Li copy of the original by 1881, but that’s a good 20 years after Tai Chi entered its commercial period (1861), so a lot has happened and the fortunes of the Ching Dynasty has changed.

Douglas Wile (‘Lost Classics…’ page 111) expresses that view that Zhang SanFeng was already associated with pro-Chinese and anti-foreigner sentiment, and that was the reason for his inclusion in the original version of the Salt Shop Classics. And by the time the manuals were copied by Li (1880s) it is removed because politically it looks more likely the Ching dynasty is going to survive at that point.

It’s an interesting idea, that makes sense. But what of the name Wang ZongYue? There’s no historical evidence that Wang ZongYue existed. Again, Wile points out that using the name “Wang ZhongYue” could have a more political than factual origin. Wang ZhongYue is a euphemism for Marshal Yue Fei of the Song Dynasty, who again stood for anti-foreign sentiments and pro-Chinese nationalism.

Wang = King,
Zhong = Revering.
Yue = Yue Fei, either himself or his lineages (his army).

That would make sense if (following the Heretics Hypothesis) the original purpose of the Wu’s was to create an essentially Chinese martial art practice to bind the Confucian Elite together against all the threats they were facing – Taiping rebellion, Nian rebellion, Foreign powers, etc.

General Qi Jiguang: On fighting pirates and his connection to Taijiquan


I’d like to point you to an excellent article by Sascha Matuszak on the Ming Dynasty General Qi Jiguang. In his 1560 book Jixiao Xinshu (“New treatise on disciplined service”), which contains a chapter called “Quanjing Jieyao Pian” (“Chapter on the fist cannon and the essentials of nimbleness”). This chapter is famous because it contains the first written reference to Kung Fu written by a military person.

(You’ll find a translation of the chapter here if you would rather just read the original source material.)

In his article Sascha says:

“There is a lot of speculation as to why Qi Jiguang included martial arts in his military treatise, but it is most likely that several trends converged to make including martial training a sensible thing to do. A few of them would be the rise of taijiquan during the late Ming Dynasty, the superior close combat skills of Japanese pirates, an incredible lack of disciplined, trained Chinese troops, and Qi Jiguang’s own experience training martial arts and developing farmers into soldiers.” – Sascha Matuszak

While I love the article, I’m puzzled by the inclusion of the rise of Taijiquan as a reasoning device for the inclusion of the chapter on kung fu, since 1560 was three hundred years before anybody had even heard of Taijiquan. The great populariser of Taijiquan, Yang LuChan died in 1872.

Interestingly, the chapter written by General Qi does contain references to some things that crop up in Taijiquan centuries later… Does this sound familiar to Yang stylists?

“The Golden Rooster: stand on one leg and cock the head askew.”

“Golden Rooster stands on one leg” is a well known Taijiquan posture.

“The Ambush Crouch posture: it is like using the hunting bow to lie in wait for a tiger;”

I’m thinking of the posture known as “Bend the bow to shoot the tiger”, also found in Yang style Taijiquan.

“Change to a lower position and momentarily take the single whip stance”.


Yang Cheng Fu showing Yang style Taijiquan “Single whip”.

While Qi seems to have a love/hate relationship with Kung Fu, it’s interesting to note that Qi incorporated “Chinese individuals capable of acrobatic performance including boxing instructors and Buddhist monks” into his army to meet the challenge of fighting Japanese pirates, who were much better versed in close-quarter combat skills than uniformed Chinese soldiers.

In chapter 14, he makes criticisms of the existing martial arts of the time as being too specialised, and that by combining them you can cover all bases better. My feeling is that although he does say he engaged in training at Liu Caotang’s Striking Fists school,  he’s a military man, an outsider looking at civilian arts he isn’t involved with personally or practices, so you get an interesting perspective.

He’s continually judging what is credible and what is not – something that continues to this day on martial arts forums on the Internet!




Journey to the West – revisit the classic text on taming the monkey mind


In the world before Monkey, primal chaos reigned!

I grew up watching Monkey on TV. This Japanese TV series based on the ancient novel Journey to the West was dubbed into English and run by the BBC from 1979 onwards. It was hugely influential in introducing Kung Fu and Taoist/Buddhist ideas to the West via a children’s story.

It’s quite fitting that I watched it as a child, because it is a story for children, but if you look closer, you’ll find that it deals with a lot of deeper issues.

Journey to the West follows the story of a Buddhist monk and three immortal animal spirits (four if you count the horse) who follow ‘him’ (this was always confusing to me, as the actor in the TV series was clearly a woman) on a journey to ‘the west’, which was India, in search of the Buddha. Along the way, they have to endure various trials and tribulations.

Journey to the West is a classic work of Chinese literature, and can be read as an allegory for all sorts of things – is it about the taming of the ‘monkey mind’? Is it a criticism of Buddhism by Taoists? Or Taoist by the Buddhists? Or is it a religious text that acts as a guide to spiritual enlightenment?

As you’ll discover from this fascinating discussion between Chinese language and literature professors Katherine Alexander and friend of the Tai Chi Notebook, Scott Philips, all things are possible!

Katherine Alexander is a professor of Chinese Language and Literature at the University of Colorado at Boulder, and has a PhD from the University of Chicago. Her PhD dissertation, “Virtues of the Vernacular: Moral Reconstruction in late Qing Jiangnan and the Revitalization of Baojuan” addresses popular religious literature and culture in Jiangnan during and after the Taiping War.…

Why you can’t learn Tai Chi from a book

woman holding newspaper while burning

Photo by Bruno Moretti on

I’ve been talking a lot about how to move from the dantien recently, and you might be wondering how easy this is to teach or do.

As it happens, I was trying to get a friend to understand how to do it today. I’ve been trying to get him to do this for a while actually (more than 2 years), but despite practicing diligently, he’s never really got it before. He’s got better at parts of it, but never the most important bit – moving from the dantien. It’s a very difficult thing to teach. You can describe it in words, but they’re open to misinterpretation. You can show them what you mean by doing it yourself, but its very hard to see unless you know what you’re looking for. You can even try and move their body for them in the right sort of way, but again, it’s not really the same thing as them doing it for themselves.

For some reason, today the penny dropped and he got it! You could almost see a light bulb appear above his head. The key seemed to be a combination of using the phrase “the arms trail behind the dantien” and trying a double-handed silk reeling exercise for the first time and watching me do it. For some reason, this time, it worked. It was a real Eureka! moment.

Of course, he can’t do it perfectly yet, but at least now I know he’s on the right track. He’s letting the pull of his dantien guide his arms. It sounds so simple, but it’s very hard to actually do. You can lead somebody to the gate as best you can, but they need to go through it themselves.

What was interesting was that with this new way of moving, he instantly felt muscles in his abdomen and lower back moving in ways they hadn’t done before. They were being worked. Instead of this area being ‘dead’ it was now full of movement. So much so that doing a Tai Chi form in this way was suddenly physically demanding. What had once been empty, floating movement was now full, rich and damned hard work. It was also mentally demanding. If he stopped paying attention, he stopped doing it.

His immediate observation was, “You can’t learn this from a book”.

Yes, he’s right. You can’t.

To learn Tai Chi you need to practice, under the guidance of somebody who has gone through that ‘move from the dantien’ gate. Once you’ve got through the gate it’s much easier to practice on your own, as that is the basis of everything that follows.

What you can find in books, like the Tai Chi Classic, which I recently produced a commentary on, only really makes sense once you’ve gone through the gate.

A lot of the requirements of Taijiquan that you find in writings are really external rules to encourage you to go through that gate. For instance, the rules about feet matching the hands, and knees the elbows, etc. These are all external requirements for dantien-driven movement. If you truly are moving from the dantien then your feet and hands will already be co-ordinated. Your knees and elbows will already be in harmony. All these rules will make sense. Before then there are still too many possibilities of going down blind alleys or faulty understanding.

In that sense, books and rules are useful in that they can help you stay on course, but they’re also a trap that you can get stuck in.

Tai Chi is also not an intellectual process. It’s a feeling. As human beings we tend to want to define everything and label it so we can think we understand it that way. Tai Chi isn’t like that. You need to do it, not think it.

I heard about a teacher once that used to confiscate any Tai Chi book that he saw on sight for the benefit of the student attempting to read it. He was probably right.

The Tai Chi Classic [Part 2] – a new interpretation

The Tai Chi Classic [Part 2]

Attributed to Chang Sanfeng (est. 1279 -1386),
interpretation and commentary by Graham Barlow.

girl thumbs through the old book

Photo by Kaboompics .com on



All movements are motivated by Yi,
not external form.

[Yi is usually translated as “intent” and refers to the mind. It doesn’t mean ‘your intent to do something’ – a closer English translation of that would be “will”, and it definitely doesn’t mean what a lot of people end up thinking it means, which is your intent to hurt or attack. People talk about having this kind of killer, or predator, mindset. No, that’s not what it’s talking about.]

[What these lines are saying is that the guiding action for a movement comes from your mind leading the body. It’s your internal self leading your external self. In Taijiquan your dantien leads the physical movement, with your body kind of trailing behind, but here we are told that before that happens, your mind starts the movement, with your dantien kind of trailing behind that.]

[It’s important to note that we’re not talking about the thinking part of your mind here. I quite often liken Yi to thinking in directions. You want to raise your arm up, you think in that direction and let the body follow. What this does is dispense with the intellectual, thinking, part of the brain, and just gets you in touch with the physical body directly, with no barrier in between.]



If there is up, there is down;
when advancing, have regard for withdrawing;
when striking left, pay attention to the right.

If the yi wants to move upward,
it must simultaneously have intent downward.

[I think there are two, related, ideas going on here. The first is that (paradoxically) if you want to push somebody up and away, you first let your dantien area sink downwards and connect to the ground, then the power comes up from the feet]

[Previously we talked about power up from the ground. Now we get into the nitty-gritty of how we make that actually work without just using brute strength from the legs. If you sink the dantien area – think “drop” – then there is an instant ground force reaction that comes back in the opposite direction. Provided the body is ‘threaded together’ and relaxed enough, where force this goes is guided by the part of your brain the Chinese called Yi. Here are two photos attempting to illustrate this, but remember, it’s all happening simultaneously, rather than in two separate steps.]

drop 1

Sink down from the dantien.

drop 2

Issuing force with jin.


[The other idea presented here is that of being aware of the left and right, and when advancing being aware of withdrawing. On a simple level, it’s saying don’t overcommit, but I connect this idea to a phrase in one of the other classics which says “if you empty the left, you must fill the right”. Just like the Taiji symbol, everything in Tai Chi is circular and in harmony. So if you move something left, then another part of you must move to the right simultaneously, as you rotate around a central point, otherwise, you will be out of balance]

[The Taiji symbol is perfectly balanced, and you need to achieve the same state in your body].




Alternating the force of pulling and pushing
severs an opponent’s root
so that he can be defeated
quickly and certainly.

Full and empty
should be clearly differentiated.
At any place where there is emptiness,
there must be fullness;
Every place has both emptiness and fullness.

[Here we are getting towards the fault of double-weighting. In Taijiquan, you need to have your weight more on one leg than the other at all times. If your weight settles in an equal position then your Taiji symbol has stopped ‘moving’ and is now flat – it has become two separate halves, not a spiraling mix of energy. There’s more to double-weighting than that, but see the link above for that. ]

[As your weight shifts from one leg to the other in push hands, for example, you are ‘alternating the forces of pushing and pulling’. If you can do this while staying in balance then your opponent will become disrupted.]

[But again, you must stay in balance. So if you advance something – here represented by fullness – then you must withdraw something else – here represented by emptiness – at the same time.]


The whole body should be threaded together through every joint
without the slightest break.

[This is a return to the theme at the start of the classic of threading the body together, making it connected and keeping everything balanced. After reading the words between the start and these lines you should have a better idea of what that means. The emphasis on keeping the joints open and relaxed in particular is that these are usually the problem points where we lose connection.]


Long Boxing is like a great river
rolling on unceasingly.

[It’s interesting that the classic calls the art “Long boxing”. These days there are different martial arts in China called Long Boxing (Chang Quan) that aren’t Taijiquan.  Perhaps this indicates that the name Taijiquan was not universally adopted when the classic was written, but more likely it is simply that the classic is a collection of already popular martial arts sayings. The Taijiquan form is a long sequence of movements, so “long boxing” is quite descriptive of the art.]


Peng, Lu, Ji, An,
Tsai, Lieh, Zhou, and Kao
are equated to the Eight Trigrams.
The first four are the cardinal directions;
Ch’ien [South; Heaven],
K’un [North; Earth],
K’an [West; Water], and
Li [East; Fire].
The second four are the four corners:
Sun [Southwest; Wind],
Chen [Northeast; Thunder],
Tui [Southeast; Lake], and
Ken [Northwest; Mountain].
Advance (Chin), Withdraw (T’ui),
Look Left (Tso Ku), Look Right (Yu Pan), and
Central Equilibrium (Chung Ting)
are equated to the five elements:
Fire, and
Taken together, these are termed the Thirteen Postures

[This last section is almost a bit of admin. It lays out the fundamentals that define Taijiquan – the 8 energies and the 5 directions].

The Tai Chi Classic [Part 1] – a new interpretation

The Tai Chi Classic [Part 1]

Attributed to Chang Sanfeng (est. 1279 -1386),
 interpretation and commentary by Graham Barlow.

brown book page

Photo by Wendy van Zyl on


1. In motion, the whole body should be light and agile,
with all parts linked as if threaded together.

[Here the Classic is connecting the ideas of being ‘light and agile’ with ‘threading the body together’. It is referring to being relaxed and without stiffness or excess local muscle tension in your movement. If you can be relaxed then your movement can flow and be connected together via the muscle-tendon channels. Any stiffness you possess will prevent you from moving in this unique way, which is key to Taijiquan. Particular problem areas to look out for that can prevent your body being ‘threaded together’ are the shoulders and lower back where we tend to store tension.]


2. The chi should be activated,
The mind should be internally gathered.

[In the first line I’ve chosen the word ‘activated’ when referring to the chi, rather than the usual ‘aroused’ or ‘excited’. This is to give more of a sense that you are switching to dantien-driven movement, using the muscle-tendon channels, rather than using normal movement, which is unconnected to the waist.]

[The second line originally says Shen, which refers to the spirit, rather than mind, but I think that this line is really referring to ‘paying attention to what you’re doing’ in a calm yet focussed way, rather than letting the mind wander or become distracted.]

[Taken together these two lines are a way of saying, ‘in Taijiquan we move the body in an internal way, and to do that we need to use the mind and keep it on what we are doing, rather than letting it wander’.]


3. The postures should be rounded and without defect,
without deviations from the proper alignment;
in motion, your form should be continuous, without stops and starts.

[These lines start by addressing the physical posture considerations of Taijiquan. I’ve added ‘rounded’ here, because you need to round your posture to make it properly relaxed.]

[The second part talks about the movement itself. Developing the skill of being able to move without ‘stops and starts’ takes a while and is one of the fundamental reasons for practicing the Tai Chi form every day. Of course, we are talking about moving from the dantien without stops and starts, not just normal movement.]

[The phrase ‘dawing silk’ is often used to describe this quality of continuous movement you find in Taijiquan. If you were drawing silk from a cocoon then you need to do it at a constant rate – speed up and you risk the thread breaking, slow down and you risk it collapsing.]

[By linking these two ideas in the same section the author is drawing a parallel here between having no breaks in the physical posture (keeping it rounded) and having no breaks in the actual movement either (keeping it continuous).]


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

[These are the lines most often used to describe how power should be expressed in Tai Chi Chuan. So, when issuing a punch or a push you should be going through this sequence. It uses the ground force (jin), so the first part of the body mentioned is that which is closest to the ground – the feet. Next it links together the legs and waist as the parts of the body most associated with delivering that force to the hands – or fingers as it says here.]

[Obviously, this part is not talking about kicking. Notice that the palms are not mentioned either. In Tai Chi your hand technique is usually a punch or a push. Occasionally a back or hammer fist is used, but it’s mainly pushing or punching to the torso or head, both of which use the fingers to make contact with the opponent.]

[When you push (to the chest) in Tai Chi you shouldn’t use your palm. Instead, you push with your fingertips. If you try pushing hard on a heavy bag with your palm you’ll soon discover why – pushing hard with your palm risks serious injury to your wrist. Of course, pushing on an arm, as we do in push hands is different, and you can use your palm without risk.]

[Taijiquan goes beyond simply using the raw power of your legs to augment the power of punches and kicks – it’s not talking about just doing this physically and externally. Instead, it’s talking about making use of the power of the ground through a relaxed bodyused as a coordinated whole. This passage also makes it clear that the ground force and the force of the legs are the only power inputs permitted to create jin, so, don’t try and punch or push from the shoulder.]


5. The feet, legs, and waist should act together
as an integrated whole,
so that while advancing or withdrawing
one can take the opportunity for favorable timing
and good position.

If correct timing and position are not achieved,
the body will become disordered
and will not move as an integrated whole;
the correction for this defect
must be sought in the legs and waist.

The principle of adjusting the legs and waist
applies for moving in all directions;
upward or downward,
advancing or withdrawing,
left or right.

[I’ve grouped these lines together as I think they need are all on the same subject. Following on from the previous point about the feet, legs and waist producing power from the ground, the Classic now makes it explicitly clear that they need to be used together. They all related to the supreme importance of the trinity of the feet, legs and waist (dantien area) all working together to power movement. If you can power your movement like this then you can produce Jin (power from the ground). Once you break this trinity, say by using local muscle in your shoulder, then your power has become separte, and lacks the connection to the ground which is required by Taijiquan.]

Part 2 is now available.

Tai Chi whole-body movement revisited

gray dragon statue

Photo by Pixabay on

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.

boxers inside a ring

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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:


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).


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:


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.