Never let your knees go over your toes… or should you?

I remember when I started Tai Chi in the 90s, one of the things that was talked about a lot was that you should never let your knees go beyond the line of your toes in a forward stance.

YCF: Knees not extending past the line of the toes.

Letting this happen was always seen as unequivocally bad. Not only was knees beyond toes seen as structurally unsound (your weight is too far forward making you easy to pull off balance), but this was seen as the primary cause of the epidemic of so many Tai Chi people having bad knees.

The Snake Creeps Down posture in particular was quite often used as an example of a badly done posture by Western dilettantes.

But it always struck me as a bit odd that it was seen as being such a dangerous thing to do. If you were training the martial side of Tai Chi then you were being punched, thrown and armlocked on the regular. Worrying about your knees going over the line of your toes seemed a minor danger in comparrison.

Fast forward to 2021 and today I found out that a lot of BJJ people (an art that specialises in slowly destroying your body over time) were raving about the benefits of the method espoused by the Knees Over Toes Guy on YouTube, who had achieved great results reparing people’s knees using a traning methods that empahsises, yes, you guessed it, putting your knees beyond the line of your toes as much as possible.

Interesting. Here’s what he says:

A year went by with no results. In fact, I was certain I needed another surgery when a spark of truth finally presented itself…

“The athlete whose knees can go farthest and strongest over his or her toes is the most protected.”

Everything I had been taught up to this point by dozens of trainers and physical therapists was very clear: NO KNEES OVER TOES — but when I read this statement, I immediately knew it was true.

Knees Over Toes Guy

The write up of his method is here. And here’s a video of his basic method is here:

The logic seems sound to me, so if you’ve got knee trouble, you might want to give it a try.

It makes me think – is the epidemic of Tai Chi people with bad knees (if it really exists) caused by the knees going over the toes? Or is it more likely because that group self-selects for other unhealthy behviours?

Kung Fu work out with David Rogers

Michael Rook posted about an online course in Hap Gar that’s starting in January, so I thought I’d check it out and had a go with one of the free videos as my morning workout. The teacher is David Rogers of Rising Crane, and the workout is a nice, not too heavy, way to start your day while learning some Kung Fu. Plus it’s free, so give it a go! I really enjoyed it. After a warm up you’ll work on the first 5 basic punches of Hop Gar and some stances.

Richard is a teacher of Tai Chi and Hap Gar Kung Fu through the Rising Crane. David only takes one or two student groups a year for online learning, and it’s a very interactive, personalised training session so a whole group can move through it together, getting feedback as they go.

Registration is open for the next 7 days at Rising Crane Kung Fu Virtual Academy. He also has a Rising Crane Tai Chi Virtual Academy course starting this year as well.

I haven’t done Hap Gar before, but I’ve done a lot of Choy Lee Fut, and to my eyes there appears to be very little difference between the two. Hap Gar looks like a version of Choy Lee Fut to me, even the same names are used for the moves, so it was great to experience a Kung Fu style I was already familiar with, but from a slightly different perspective. I also liked his thoughts on fighting strategy for these long range styles that he gives at the end, around the 35 minute mark, plus I liked his thoughts on MMA.

That is one mean looking crane. Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Tai Chi and the Corona Crisis

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Bored at home? Photo by Valeria Ushakova on Pexels.com

Like a lot of people in the UK, I’m working from home for the foreseeable, uncertain future. I don’t want to talk about the virus itself – that’s a job for experts. The less of us that decide we are experts and voice our opinion, the better, I think. Instead, let’s talk about how staying at home can impact your Tai Chi practice.

Without my daily commute, I’ve noticed that there’s more time in my mornings for practice. If you haven’t added daily Zhan Zhuang to your practice then now is a good time. Just follow along with Master Lam on YouTube:

When it comes to online tuition there are all sorts of freebies and offers on right now, so check them out. For example, Ken Gullette is doing daily Facebook Live Chi Kung exercises.  Spirit Dragon is offering 30 days’ free instruction.

There have been some videos circulating online of Coronavirus patients in China using Tai Chi to help get some exercise while they recover in isolation:

Now is a very good time to work on your health, so a little investment in Tai Chi and Chi Kung about now could pay dividends in the long term. Every setback is an opportunity to try something new.

Get outside and move more

Tai Chi wants you to create a balanced approach to life. You can tell this from the way the form itself is balanced; the posture is balanced, the mind is balanced and the breathing is balanced. Therefore it makes sense to look at your whole life, not just the part of it spent doing Tai Chi, if you want to get the best out of it.

Matt Haig, who wrote one of my favourite books How to Stop Time, shares his top tips (from his new book Notes on a Nervous Planet) for leading a balanced life here:

Matt talks about the importance of getting outside in that video.

Another Matt that I know is Matt Hill of the Systema Academy in Wiltshire, and he’s all about getting outside more. He wrote a recent blog post I’d like to share about the importance of getting outside for a good 3 hours at least once a month.

Finally, here’s a podcast by movement biomechanist Katy Bowman about How To Integrate Movement Into Your Life – And Enjoy It There are lots of tips here on how to integrate more movement into your day to day life.

 

Natural movement in Chinese martial arts

I just wanted to say a few words about natural movement, and what we mean by it in Chinese martial arts, before I post part 4 of my 8-week course on Tai Chi movement on Sunday.

If you’ve been following the videos you’ll notice that I did a kind of ‘universal’ open and close exercise in part 1, which cycles between two phases

Open:

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and close:

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From: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fV3DaNZz3hI

If you’ve been following up to week 3 you’ll know by now that it’s not a case of just mimicking these postures – you need to be going into and out of them using the elastic connection you’ve been developing by doing the arm circle exercise.

You can see these open and close postures in nature all the time, in movement – when a squid or octopus swims it kind of pulses between open and close.

Octopus:

Open:

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Close:

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From: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oxawhfXGGt8

The classic example in the animal world is the Cheetah, since it’s the most majestic animal when it comes to running. It cycles between open and close quite obviously too, which helps.

Cheetah:

Open:

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Close:

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From: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V8vejjVgIHg

In the Chinese martial arts, all the ‘internal’ martial arts like Bagua, XingYi and Tai Chi should be using open and close. The martial art that best exemplifies it though is XingYi, as all the 5 element fists go through a very obvious open and close cycle.

For example, in Pi Quan:

Closing:

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Opening:

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Closing:

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from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9HNML_k9a-s

When we say “natural movement” is used in internal arts, this is what is being talked about.

Of course, you can use the open and close sequence in everyday life too. Just yesterday I was kicking a ball about with my kids in the park and I started to play around with open and close as I kicked the ball, rather than just doing it with my leg in isolation. When you use open and close your whole torso and back get involved – I was quite surprised by how much extra power and direction I could give the ball when I started to use open and close to kick it. Like everything, it starts off big and clumsy and first, but you soon learn to remove the excess movement and refine it.

Look out for part 4 on Sunday when we’ll be taking a look at how breathing factors into the whole thing.

The Forgotten Style: Moral Art!

This is a guest post written by Justin Ford  of Cup of Kick (cupofkick.wordpress.com) a great martial arts blog you might like to check out.

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Close your eyes. Now imagine the best student ever:  They are always on time. They always take notes.

They absolutely LOVE learning. They ask really thought provoking questions that lead to even more learning. They work hard, in class and outside of class.

Just keep thinking about how amazing they are. Are you ready to teach them?

Oh, but…I forgot to mention something. They have a couple of flaws: They are arrogant and egotistical.

They are always bragging and showing off. They never show respect. Heck, are their lips staying closed together when somebody else is teaching or talking? They tell lies and are hard to trust because of it. They really couldn’t care less about anybody other than themselves.

Not so perfect now, are they? In the beginning, they sure sounded like an angel that fell from heaven. If their traits ended there, they would learn lots in life, both academically and martially. I mean, who wants to teach an A-hole? Not many people would, happily. Especially not somebody who is teaching because it is sharing a passion of theirs, not so that they can take tuition money.

Most teachers would agree that rather than new knowledge and skills, lesson number ichi would be about respect and proper conduct. Especially if the skills they would be learning are ones they can potentially use to harm another being.

That’s not to say that it would just be the teacher denying them new knowledge though. A bad student stunts their own growth as well. An arrogant mind learns very little.

Let’s turn our eyeballs to feudal Japan and the code of conduct the warriors of that era kept. Bushido.

HEADS UP: Keep in mind that these tenets were never written down and that you will see a different number of them depending on where you look.

If you look at Nitobe Inazo’s famous book published in 1900, Bushido: The Soul of Japan, you will hear about eight tenets of bushido. If you look into other texts that are older, you might only see seven.

A major part of these principles is that they were naturally absorbed into the Samurai class and always expected of them. Therefore they really didn’t need to be written down to remind them of how they were expected to act.

Regardless of the number, each is an important principle that the Samurai were expected to uphold, so let’s take a look at how they lived.

義 (Gi: Righteousness)

The top half is a radical (building blocks for the character) for ram. That might sound like some bull-sheep but rams in China (where the writing character originated) not only represented justice but also frequently represented respect because of the way they often kneel.

The character for ram can also be combined with the character for “big” to mean beautiful. The bottom half of the character means I/me/my and can be used when talking about ourselves, but can also be separated to mean a hand and a spear or a halberd. In a poetic sense, we can picture finding the path of beauty or respect even amongst conflict or struggle.

Even while fighting or arguing, I don’t sweat, I sparkle.

There is even a mythological unicorn-goat in ancient China called Xiezhi that can always tell who is innocent and who is guilty, kicks criminal bootie and – depending on where you hear the legend – even chomps down on the bad guys. Read that sentence again and just let the words sink in.

No matter where we are or what is happening around us, as martial artists we need to uphold our morality and always do what is righteous. Seek justice in the small acts and large acts we perform in our life.

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勇気 (Yu Ki: Courage)

The top half of the first character can mean path and the bottom half can mean power. They come together to characterize bravery, or perhaps the path of strength. Understand, that the character for bravery is only a piece of the character for courage or valor.

Bravery is a characteristic of somebody, an attitude. They are willing to be the hero and do what others may be fearful of. Courage is different.

Courage is when somebody is just as afraid as everybody else but accepts what they need to do anyway, whether for personal reasons or for somebody else’s benefit and health.

Did you ever watch the cartoon from the early 2000’s called Courage the cowardly dog? It was about a purple dog that was absolutely afraid of just about everything around it. But when his owners got in trouble, he acted to save them anyway. That’s the kind of courage we are building up to etymologically. That purple dog kind of courage.

The second character can actually be written a couple different ways. The Japanese version is what I listed above. The traditional Chinese version would be 氣 . The character is composed of the radical for uncooked rice and steam.

Stick with me now. I promise I haven’t gone too crazy.

There is a connection between courage and cooking rice. Pinky promise.  You see, the two radicals for the last character combine to mean a lot of different things: steam, air, gas, and more. It’s pronounced “ki” in Japanese and “qi” or “chi” in Chinese.

Yep.

The same “mystical” ki us martial artists always make a big deal about. It simply means energy. Not in an “ooooooollld chinese secret!” manner, but rather in a scientific way. The steam rising off of rice. That can be looked upon in a lot of different ways, philosophically and otherwise, but we’ll cover that in a later blog post.

To sum it all up, the two character together can represent the energy to be brave. Being brave while facing down somebody trying to brunoise dice you takes effort. It takes energy. It takes ki.

仁 (Jin: Benevolence)

I love this character! So. Much. If you wanted to describe benevolence, how would you do it? It takes some thinking but it is actually a lot simpler than one might think. There are two parts to this character. The radical on the left which represent man in the general humanity sense. The other radical (the two horizantal lines) means two.

Jin, benevolence, is the connection between two humans beings. It is how we treat the people around us, whether they are a hobo or a Hollywood celebrity. It represents what unites two people living on this planet earth together.

I suppose it should extend to a visiting alien or ghostly spirit as well though…

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禮 (Rei: Respect)

“REI!”

Admit it.

You just bowed, didn’t you?

Plenty of martial arts, especially Japanese ones, know rei to mean show respect. Let dive into the meaning a little further though.

The character is composed of two different radicals:

 

  • Abundance or plentiful
  • Demonstrate or manifest

 

Together, they are seen to represent a plentiful sacrifice for a ritual or ceremony. An act done in reverence and respect for somebody or something. An act that has importance. I find it worth noting that the modern simplified character (simplified Chinese came to existence around 1950’s) uses the radical for mysterious/small. The small things we do should be treated as a part of a rite with importance. Respect should be shown in every action we demonstrate and word we speak.

 

誠 (Makoto: Sincerity)

Half of the character is a radical meaning words or speech (it represents a mouth with a tongue sticking out or sounds coming out). The other half means complete or finished.  Together, we get “the complete speech”. Nothing hidden. Nothing left out with ill will.

Every martial artist (as well as decent human) should thoroughly practice integrity in their everyday living. Your students need to be able to trust you. Your classmates should be able to believe you. Your words, actions, and intents should never misalign.

This only becomes more important as the amount of McDojos increase around the world. Remain honest and sincere.

Perhaps most importantly though, you should be able to be honest with yourself.

Don’t pretend your favorite technique is invulnerable. Don’t make up an answer to your student’s question because you don’t know the answer. Admit when you make a mistake. Only then can you begin to really learn and grow.

Learning something new means admitting you didn’t know something before.

There is an unfortunate disease that spreads through any top level athlete or artist: ego. And that ego often leads to a lack of integrity in ourselves.

  • “Oh, I didn’t finish Bassai Dai perfectly because I’m just still tired from yesterday’s workout!”
  • “I could have beaten that guy in sparring but I wanted to go easy on him.”
  • “The other guy won the tournament because of favoritism from the judges!”

Just as we strive to be honest to the people around us, let’s be honest to the person inside us.

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名譽 (Meiyo: Honor)

The first character means position or rank/place (in the manner of where you stand among winners. 1st place, 3rd place, etc.) and can be broken down to mean…evening and mouth.

Y’know, it actually kinda makes sense.

I don’t know about you but I’m not getting out of the bed in the middle of the night unless the person calling my name is somebody really important. My dog and my teacher would get very different reactions to calling me and interrupting my beauty sleep.

The second character means praise or reputation. Break it down and you get “the words one carries on their shoulders”.

You can put the two characters together to mean “a position that is praised or carries a reputation” My question is this: Where does your reputation start?

Does your title give you meaning or are you the one giving it worth and weight?

Meditate on this deeply.

 

忠義 (Chu Gi: Loyalty)

This is another set of characters that can be viewed in a very poetic and beautiful way. The first character has two parts, heart and middle. It means devotion, something your heart is centered on.

The next character means righteousness. Yep. The same character we talked about at the beginning.

Remember? Man-eating justice obsessed unicorn goat? Yeah, we’ll just keep it moving.

Together, they can mean devotion to justice. It is interesting to note that the righteousness character can also mean adopted. We can also view this as staying devoted to the what and who we adopt.

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What’s important to remember is that being a good person leads to being a good student and a good martial artist because of it (in addition to many other reasons).

If you teach kids classes, then that is one of the most important lessons you can teach. Heck, it applies to grown adults as well.

Martial arts are about living, not just surviving.

I don’t know about you but I don’t have a guy around the corner trying to punch me or stab me every minute of my waking day. I can’t recall but hopefully not in my sleeping nights either.

The part of your martial arts training that you get to use most is the moral and ethical side. Every day, we have to make decisions about how we act and just like most anything else, we can train to improve.

Ethics along with ability is such a universal idea that it is even prominent in other cultures and arts, not just in the east where respect is an inherent part of the country:

  • Chinese martial arts have a similar code of conduct called Wu De
  • European knights had chivalry
  • The pirates of the 17th and 18th century commonly had Articles of Agreement on how to conduct themselves
  • The Bible lists the Ten Commandments
  • Ancient Rome had the Corpus Juris Civilis Or Body of Civil Law
  • The medical field has the Hippocratic Oath
  • Modern courts in the US go by Common Law

 

It doesn’t matter what your “power” is, you have a responsibility to not abuse it.

It is a gift. Not just a powerful weapon.

 

Walk like an Anglo Saxon

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I do enjoy Roland Warzecha’s high-quality videos on medieval weapons and their usage. I’m not entirely sure how to feel about this one, however. He’s suggesting that medieval people walked with a different type of step than us modern humans, because of the different footwear. The old way (he suggests) was to land on the ball of the foot first (but put the whole foot on the ground, not just the ball) instead of heel striking first. In a way it’s similar to the type of stepping you find in the Chinese martial art of Baguazhang.

I just tried this way of walking on a little trip around the office and I did notice that it was possible to walk around like this, and it definitely works the calves in a way that ‘normal’ walking does not. For me it’s still a big ask to believe that people used to do such a fundamental human activity, like walking,  in a very different way to the way we do it today. Either way, it’s interesting. Have a watch and see what you think:

Roland also has some great videos on medieval posture and fighting with weapons that are also worth watching if you haven’t seen them before:

The thrusting posture does look odd, especially for combat,  but I can see what he means about it developing different muscles in the back.

This video about Viking arts is also a good watch:

How to use Taijiquan to heal anxiety

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Writing for Jetli.com is taking up more of my free time, so I haven’t posted too much original content here, but I guess I’m waiting for the muse to find me before I do.

In the meantime, here’s my latest article for Jetli.com

How Wushu and TaiJi Serve As a Path to Mindfulness to Heal Anxiety and Stress

There are so many technical aspects to Taijiquan, that it’s easy to forget to simply breathe and enjoy the practice, keeping that awareness of the breath as you go.

“If you are depressed you are living in the past.

If you are anxious you are living in the future.

And if you are at peace you are living in the present.”

– Lao Tzu.

 

Thoughts on Push Hands, by Mike Sigman

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Mike posted his thoughts on push hands recently on the 6H forum. I really liked what he wrote, so I’ve received permission from him to post it here as a guest blog post. Enjoy!

Thoughts on Push Hands
-M. Sigman.

Push Hands is designed as a way to practice using jin with and against a partner. The four jin directions are Up, Toward the Body, Away from the Body, and Down …. or Peng, Lu, Ji, An, respectively. You first learn to use jin in your own movements by learning forms, traditionally in Chen Village, before you begin learning to use that jin with a partner. Since most people claiming to do Taijiquan can’t really use jin skills while simply moving themselves, it is obvious that most “push hands” is usually more about some vague competition than it is about continuous jin skills. The closest most people get to jin skills is usually a sudden, impulsive tossing away of their opponent.

Beginning push hands involves the persistent use of push-hands patterns so that people can practice long periods of attempting to move while maintaining jin in the four directions of Peng, Lu, Ji, An. That’s why it’s such an eye-roller to hear some tournament rowdy say something like, “Oh, I don’t do patterns … I just do free-style”.

So basically, push hands is about Peng, Lu, Ji, An more than anything. It’s about practicing jin and imbuing jin in your body’s movements at all times. Arm/hand techniques, dramatic uprootings, etc., are nice, but they miss the point of what push-hands is really about.

I asked a teacher of mine (a student of Feng Zhiqiang’s) once “what is the philosophy of Taijiquan as a martial-art?”. Stupid question, but I asked it anyway. He responded to me: “The philosophy of Taijiquan is to crash through to the opponent’s center and kill him”. Of course he meant that half in jest, but it’s still true and it’s also the general philosophy of almost any martial-art. In much of the push-hands we see there is a lot of maneuvering at arms’ distance from the opponent, looking for a way to effect a technique or push on the opponent … you seldom see someone simply slip through the arms and apply a massive Kao to the opponent. That’s considered a “no-no” by many people, but since I see so many people do so many “no-no’s” already, I just get confused. If my partner is not doing good push-hands, adhering to the technical aspects, why should I waste time accommodating his not-so-good push hands? I think more people should think more about “what is push hands really about?”.

There are many things you can focus on while doing push hands: throws, joint-locks, “winning”, and so on. I tend to focus foremost on jin and using jin through all of my movements. I am not fully successful yet, but I keep working on it.

If you are moving your arms, you want to look for areas where you slipped into muscle and try and correct that area back toward good jin. You want to check your movement in terms of Open and Close and whether you are using the dantian to move or whether you suddenly went into an arms-only mode for a second. Moving with the dantian is what reeling-silk is about and that’s why reeling-silk movement is the core/basic of Taijiquan.

You want to not provide any resistance for your partner to push against, if possible … but that’s not always possible, so while I focus on that avoidance of resistance, I also enjoy practicing letting my partner push me. As I’ve said in the past, I often/usually will maintain a peng-jin direction that is upward and in a direction that will off-balance my partner if he pushes me. I don’t necessarily do the up-jin thing all the time, but I do it enough that it is an easily-accessed tool that is sort of second-nature.

Most of all I enjoy a casual interplay (win-some, lose-some is best for everyone, I think) where I make it a game to see if I can apply an effective jin response against any push my partner can manage to slip in. I don’t care if I lose some … the idea is to get better and better, so I “invest in loss”.

It’s a fun game to allow an opponent to push you and see if your jin skills are good enough to turn the tables simply by making his own push defeat himself. I would recommend and suggest that this strategy will get people away from always trying to win while at the same time giving them a true skill-set of actual Taijiquan.

I remember a comment from a Chinese friend of mine who was challenged in a nasty way to do some push hands. He looked at the guy and said, “No, let’s fight. Push-hands is just for exercise”.

 

If you liked this post you might also like:

Internal Judo

In Tai Chi you have to go down to go up

The basics of Tai Chi movement

Defining Tai Chi Chuan

How to practice effectively for just about anything

All martial arts tend to be big on repeating movements over and over – BJJ-ers practice hip escapes and triangles, Wing Chun-ers practice Su Lim Tao, Tai Chi-ers practice form movements over and over. We intuitively recognise the benefits that repeating a sequence of movements gives us – we become more fluid and after a while it feel like these moves could be something we could actually pull-off under pressure. Well, it turns out there is a science behind repetition, and this TED video explains what it is: