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.
I got asked once by a CMA practitioner what the “Shen fa” (body methods) of Brazilian Jiujitsu were and I drew a blank. The only answer I could come up with was “we don’t have any”. What I think we have instead though are foundational movements. Let me explain.
While Chinese martial arts like Tai Chi, Xing Yi and Bagua all have “Shen Fa”, which are “body methods” that need to be internalised before the practitioner can be considered sufficiently proficient in the art, Brazilian Jiujitsu doesn’t have them in the same way. Instead, it has a series of foundational movements that crop up so often in techniques that they are considered the foundations of the art, and are usually done in class as warmups.
I taught an interesting Jiujitsu class this week. (Well, I thought it was interesting – I think you’d have to ask the students themselves what they thought!) I started with the group practicing the basic Technical Stand Up both forward and reversed (which is doing it backwards, so you go fro standing to sitting down), then with variations like a knee or an elbow on the ground instead of a foot or hand.
A Technical Stand Up is a way of going from sitting on the ground to standing up that exposes you to the least risk if you’ve got an aggressive person attacking you. It minimises your chances of getting kicked in the head and also affords you the ability to kick back at the attacker’s knee, possibly hyper extending their leg painfully.
Once everybody in the class could do a Technical Standup well enough we went on to practice applications that utilised it as part of the technique. A good example is a basic X Guard sweep, or a way of returning to base after completing a tripod sweep. (I’ll not explain what those are here, because I don’t want to get lost in the details of these techniques in this post, because that’s not what this is about.)
Foundational movements in Jiujitsu include the aforementioned Technical Stand Up, but also things like a bridging movement, a hip escape (shrimp), a triangle, a forward (and backwards) roll and an inversion. If you can’t perform these basic movements correctly then your chances of doing any technique correctly are going to be severely limited.
In contrast, Chinese martial arts “body methods” include things like dantien rotation, opening and closing the chest and rounding the kua. These body methods are postural observances and ways of moving that need to be kept in place during all movements.
Why one art should have developed body methods, and the other not even have that concept, is worth thinking about, and I think it relates to the role of form in Chinese martial arts. Practicing solo movement in the shape of a form done in isolation from other people allows the possibility of subtle things like body methods to be developed.
There are no forms in BJJ. Sure there are solo exercises you can practice to warm up or condition the body, but they don’t have the same function as form (tao lu) does in CMA. BJJ is heavily partner orientated. All the drills and sparring need another person physically there to do it with. To practice BJJ we literally have to get together with other people in nice matted areas and throw down. There is no other way.
These body methods in CMA have resulted from forms, but my suspicion is that this was never planned, rather they have grown out of a situation that happens when you are required to practice forms. Why CMA started practicing forms in the first place is a different question – there are some clues as to why that might be in the video I shared the other day by Simon Cox on the Taoist concept of the Subtle Body.
It’s analogous to the situation in China between Shuai Jiao and Kung Fu (Wu Shu). Shuai Jiao has no extended tao lu (forms), like Kung Fu does, but it has an awful lot of solo conditioning exercises with and without weights and belts. I’m not a Shuai Jiao practitioner, but I think you’d be hard pressed to say that Shuai Jiao has Shen Fa in the same way that the various Kung Fu (Wu Shu) styles do.
Is one approach better than the other? I don’t know. They’re just different and personally I enjoy practicing both.
In Tai Chi we all know we are told we should “round the crotch area” – sometimes called “Kua”, but more accurately called “Dang” in Chinese – but why? What does that mean anyway? I’m going to try and point you in the right direction with this post.
The three dantiens
There are three main dantiens in the body that Tai Chi is concerned with. Firstly there’s the main one in the lower belly, which acts as a nexus, or control point for the whole body, but slaved to it are two other dantiens – the chest dantien and the crotch dantien.
There are clear parallels here to the idea of chakras in Yogic folklore, and indeed there are more “dantiens” in the Chinese system that relate to the other chakra locations in the body too, but for the purposes of internal martial arts, it’s the crotch and chest dantiens that are most important.
The crotch dantien is located at the Hui Yin point, and shown in the drawings from Chen Xin’s book:
These dantiens are points where you can use to store force that can be used in the release of power in the way that the internal martial arts express it – i.e. from the ground to the point of application.
It’s often said that Tai Chi is “boxing with the legs”, and this relates to the use of the crotch dantien. The knees are also in the domain of the crotch dantian, so, you need to think of the legs, hips and crotch all working together.
So what is that supposed to feel like? Well, It’s a bit like sitting on a space hopper – that feeling of grasping something with the inside of your legs, but not too forcefully.
When you take up your stance in Tai Chi you should feel this ‘energy’ inside that leg arch, as if you are sitting on a space hopper. That’s not exactly a scientific way to describe it, but hopefully, you get the idea.
So your knees are involved too: when you rotate one leg forward, the other leg must rotate backwards to keep the grip on the ball. This forms the action of opening and closing, and is part of the overall action of opening and closing that is going on all over the body.
Squeezing the ball
As you move through the Tai Chi form you ‘squeeze’ this ball between your legs (just as you do a space hopper). So the crotch (the part of the body where the legs join the torso) can close on one side of the body and open on the other, but the feeling of there being something there is maintained throughout.
In Zhan Zhuang practice you get a lot of people describing holding a balloon between the legs, or a ballon supporting your limbs – that’s the same idea, and with enough practice it can actually start to feel like this.
While the space hopper or balloon may be imaginary, the feeling isn’t. It reminds me a lot of the verse in the Tao Te Ching about the value of what’s not there:
“Thirty spokes share the hub of a wheel; yet it is its center that makes it useful. You can mould clay into a vessel; yet, it is its emptiness that makes it useful. Cut doors and windows from the walls of a house; but the ultimate use of the house will depend on that part where nothing exists. Therefore, something is shaped into what is; but its usefulness comes from what is not.”
This feeling of buoyancy in the crotch dantien forms part of the way the power is transferred from the legs to the torso, and ultimately out to the fingers.
Store and release
In terms of training this power, traditionally it’s common to stand in a low horse riding stance for a long period of time. I think this is more about building leg strength than the sort of power I’m talking about though, so while there’s nothing wrong with it, I think you need a moving exercise to practice what I’m talking about.
Trying to focus on just developing this power while doing the whole Tai Chi form isn’t optimal, as there are too many other things going on at once.
It’s important to stress again that there is no actual ball of energy between your legs – it’s just a useful metaphor for helping you get the right feeling for the particular winding in the legs and hips that helps produce power through the store and release mechanism in the horizontal plane.
As you turn one way then the other, the windings of the legs results in opening and closing actions which store power, that can be released into movement.
This is another reason why you really need to turn the waist a lot in side-to-side motions in Tai Chi Chuan (usually a lot more than you think). Without sufficient turning of the waist, you’re just not getting the hips and legs involved enough and activating their store and release potential for power.
The Tai Chi move ‘Wave hands like clouds’ is a good example of this. Notice that I’m turning all the way through to the sides to get the most store and release out of the legs:
My teacher always admonishes me to ‘relax the waist’ when he’s critiquing my form. Over the years I’ve learned that what he’s really asking me to do is increase the range of movement that my waist goes through. Obviously, stiffness inhibits the range of motion of the waist, but just realising that you need to turn more than you are currently doing is a valuable insight in itself. And now hopefully you can understand the reasons why.
I generally try to avoid telling people to “sink” in Tai Chi for the simple reason that they usually try to physically lower themselves in the postures, inevitably resulting in using too much force and sticking out their butt, or putting their knees at an odd angle.
Sure, you do need to have a lower-than-normal-standing posture, so you can relax the lower back and centre the coccyx, but when people start to get uncomfortably low (usually combined with too much tucking of the hips) that’s when things break down.
I was doing some push hands recently, and I was trying to work on the idea of reacting to being pressured with a push with the action of sinking as your initial response rather than by trying to do something with their push.
By sinking I mean internally sinking – letting go of tension and letting it all drop, rather than by physically lowering yourself. In a way – it’s a kind of non-action. You’re taking something away rather than adding it to the situation. If you can do that then the tension that is created between you and your partner – the pressure – when they start to get too close with their push just dissipates, and the right action arises spontaneously by itself. It’s easy to redirect them because you have ‘got underneath them’.
Sun Lu Tang
It’s a difficult concept to grasp. It reminds me a lot of reading the Tao Te Ching, the Taoist classic of the way and its power. The Tao Te Ching constantly advises us to take the path of no resistance, which initially seems like a passive response to a situation, but when done skillfully, is anything but.
By taking ‘you’ out of the conflict, it can often resolve itself, and usually in your favour.
“Therefore the Master Acts without doing anything And teaches without saying anything. Things arise and she lets them come; Things disappear and she lets them go. She has but doesn’t possess, Acts but doesn’t expect. When her work is done, she forgets it. That is why it lasts forever.”
I spent my lunch hour practicing Tai Chi with the leaves falling around me, which made me realise that Autumn is definitely here. Practicing under the trees also made me think about the strong parallel between the postures of Tai Chi and the structures of nature.
Take trees for example – the branches grow upwards and outwards:
The spine is always extended, the eyes engaged and the posture directed upwards and outwards.
The following is a Yang Tai Chi form video. Notice that his body structure is always opening outwards and upwards:
So why do we do this in Tai Chi? Well, natural structures are inherently strong structures. Nature has been working on trees, plants and animals for millions of years, and they have evolved into strong shapes that can take a battering from the elements and survive. In terms of postural considerations of Tai Chi we are aiming to mimic natural structures to take advantage of their inherent strength. For example, with the arms, the elbow is usually kept below the wrist in Tai Chi, when the hand is going up and outwards, this enables your arm to create the same sort of shape as a tree branch that grows outwards and upwards.
If you collapse the structure of your arms – say, close your joints like the elbows and shoulders too much, you don’t get this effect of mimicking natural structures. Instead, the structure needs to be supported by more muscle usage if it is going to withstand pressure.
Think also of stretching the ‘body suit’ of skin, fascia, tendons. If you bend the joints too sharply you lose the stretch from feet to toes. If you look at a picture of a fower, plant or tree, it looks kind of ‘stretched out’, doesn’t it?