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.

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

 

 

 

Tai Chi: What moving from the dantien actually means

white ferris wheel under cloudy sky

“Stand like a perfectly balanced scale 
move like a turning wheel.” Photo by Paweu0142 L. on Pexels.com

Uber-malcontent Oliver Gerets, is back in my comments section, this time complaining that my statements are still oversimplified and misleading.” Which I think probably just means that he hasn’t bothered to read much of my blog before, as everything I said in the post he’s referring to on whole-body movement is pretty well explained in previous posts, if you want to look for it.

His issue is that I said the following were the 3 movement principles of Tai Chi, without further explanation:

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.

He’s right – I did exactly that and moved on because I didn’t want to get sidetracked on them and get onto the main point I was discussing.  You see, I’ve gone over those points before, but we might as well use this as a springboard to discuss these ideas again and un-simplify everything. Just like Al Pacino in the Godfather – just when I thought I’d got out, but he pulled me right back in.

Let’s deal with Oliver’s first complaint.

1. There is no generally accepted definition what the dantien is amongst Taijiquan practitioners. Not even in Chen style. “Moving from the dantien” is a hollow phrase with very little practical meaning.”

I don’t know what he means with the “not even in Chen style” comment, so let’s ignore that.

I’d agree that there are no accepted definitions of anything amongst Taijiquan practitioners of what the dantien is, but there are no accepted definitions of anything amongst the practitioners. They’re a strange bunch of people ranging from weekend dabblers to full-on fanatics who have very differing views on everything under the sun, but the people at the top of the family trees tend to disagree much less. They all know what they mean.

I also think most Tai Chi people do know what the dantien is. For clarity, let me add my own definition:

The dantien I’m referring to is simply the lower abdomen area of the body. It encompasses the front, sides and back of the body. It’s a general area, rather than a specific point. When I’m talking about “moving from the dantien” I’m talking about movement originating in this area of the body. You could call this area the waist, if you like, so long as you understand that it’s not a line, like a waistline is. 

out of order text on persons belly

I’ve got no idea why she’s written “out of order”, but there’s a photo of the dantien area for you. Photo by Kat Jayne on Pexels.com

I’m not sure what more explanation I can give of that – it’s fairly simple.

The how of the matter is not so simple. Anybody can move that area of their body without any connection to the rest of their body – the limbs and head, for example. Dancers do it all the time. What’s hard is making it connect to everything else.

In Tai Chi you need a tangible connection between the dantien area and the extremities so that once you move the dantien area, the extremities are also moved as a consequence. This connection is formed by what the Chinese called the muscle/tendon channels in antiquity. These then formed the basis of the meridian system over time.

Mammals usually have muscle/tendon channels on the front and back of the body.  Yin channels on the front and yang channels on the back. They consist of muscle, tendon, ligaments, fascia and skin and can be affected by abdominal breathing (which is also centered on the dantien area).

If you can hold the body in a neutral position (the classic Zhan Zhuang posture “hold the ball” is good for this) then you can keep an equal tension on the front and back muscle-tendon channels. You can then use your breath to create a small pull on these channels when you breathe in and out. The connection starts off as very weak, but grows stronger over time.

So, Zhan Zhuang, Tao Yin and Qigong exercises strengthen this connection over time. Eventually, the connections get strong enough that you can affect the movement of the limbs with small changes in the dantien area, like rotating it left and right, or up and down, all in coordination with the breathing.

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A Tiger showing a stretch along the yin channels on the belly and a corresponding contraction on the yang channels along the back. Photo by Flickr on Pexels.com

In Taijiquan, (which deals with humans standing upright, not tigers), the dantien, legs and feet must form a connection and drive the power of the rest of the body:

From the Tai Chi classics:

“The feet, legs, and waist should act together
as an integrated whole,
so that while advancing or withdrawing
one can grasp the opportunity of favorable timing
and advantageous position.”

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

Movement originating in the dantien, therefore, becomes a real, physical phenomina, rather than an abstract idea.

This is what I mean, Oliver.

The best exercise I’ve seen to help you develop this skill is a single-arm wave from Chen style silk reeling. In my original post I linked to a video showing the basic single arm wave. I’ll link to it again here.

In future posts I’ll address Oliver’s next 2 complaints.

 

 

Two recent stories

I’m still using this blog for posting my ideas and blog posts, but I’ve decided to start putting a few new stories onto my new Medium page.

I’m using Medium as a place to post more polished articles. They’re basically my better blog posts that I’ve tidied up a bit and made more coherent.

Here are the first two I’ve done:

Let me know what you think!

 

 

The punch you didn’t see coming

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Photo by Coco Championship on Pexels.com

I’ve already talked about how we use jin (planet force) all the time. I think there’s a good example from MMA and boxing that sheds some more light on this.

When boxers or MMA practitioners get knocked out by a punch it’s usually from one they didn’t see coming. The counterpunch is a deadly strike in combat because at the very moment you think you are punching them, they’re hitting you. Its effectiveness is partly down to surprise, and often you get a double impact because the attacker is moving forward into the punch of the counter attacker – a perfect example of ‘using their own force against them’.

But the surprise factor and force on force don’t explain why a punch that the guy doesn’t see coming is often twice as effective as a punch he is mentally prepared for.

I believe the answer is to do with jin and the subconscious mind. When you can see a punch coming, your brain can – in the fractions of a second you have available, – make subtle postural adjustments so that the force is absorbed by your body better against the ground. This is similar to the idea of a jin path to the ground we’ve already talked about. I believe we automatically and subconsciously do this in response to any impact we can see coming.

When we can’t see that punch coming it’s more damaging because we are not ‘in position’ to receive it as well.

The next time you watch a boxing match or an MMA match, think about this idea and see if it looks true on the slow-motion replay.

The upsidedown world of Tai Chi

man performing handstand

Photo by Yogendra Singh on Pexels.com

I’d like to give a quick shout out to Cook Ding’s Kitchen who reposted one of my blog posts “Don’t Try“, which gave me the chance to read it again. It was about using less effort and not forcing things. Difficult words to live up to.

This started me thinking about one of the things that can help in using less effort in Tai Chi. A good trick is to turn our normal perspective on the human body upside down. We normally think of doing things with our arms and hands and don’t think much about the legs at all. In Tai Chi we want to reverse that.

If we watch a boxing match, for example, we tend to look at what’s going on with the hands a lot, since that’s where all the action is, and generally miss the subtle changes of the legs.

low angle photo of two men fighting in boxing ring

Photo by Sides Imagery on Pexels.com

Tai Chi is boxing with the legs: You use your legs like arms, and your arms like legs. When you’re doing the Tai Chi form, stop using your arms to ‘do’ things and put all your focus into using your legs to do it. It’s a bit like walking on your hands: your arms and legs swap their normal functions over.

When doing the form or applications, your toes grip the ground, your weight moves fully forward or backward on the feet (no wishy-washy stances floating about in the middle ground, please), you are sunk and slightly low in your stance so you can get fully into your legs. In contrast, the upper body should be empty. Relax. Let the arms go where they need to go, but don’t move them there deliberately. Let your legs, directed by your middle, do the work. Think them into position with a directed focus (yi).

The Press posture is a good example of what I’m talking about:

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Yang Cheng Fu – Press

You put your inside hand on the outside arm wrist and push towards the opponent in a linear direction. Because you’re forming a particular shape with your hands in Press, it’s tempting to do this move with your arms cut off from the body. Instead, the power needs to come from the ground via the legs. Drop down and release from the dantien area to the ground and let the power of the ground rise up to the hands. Done right, you’re hitting the opponent with the force of the planet (jin), not just the force of your body.

As it says in the classics:

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

and

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

and

“All movements are motivated by yi,
not external form.”

 

 

 

 

Staying rounded in Taijiquan

My Xing Yi teacher invented the word “chalicity” as an English equivalent of the Mongol phrase “Bak Tam Stay Saub”, which means (very roughly) “a bit like a capacious container”. So, chalicity means, “a bit like a chalice.”

A chalice, or a cup, is a rounded structure designed to contain a fluid with no leaks, and has parallels for both the mental aspect and physical aspect of a posture in the internal arts.

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Photo by Jametlene Reskp on Unsplash

In the context of his shamanism practice, chalicity is more about the mental parallel – the space inside the cup reflecting the space inside a mind that is empty of thought.

However, in the context of Taijiquan and martial arts, you can think of ‘chalice-like’ as the physical structure of the body creating the space necessary to contain “Peng” energy, that is, the ground force used in internal arts expressed through a rounded structure.

Think of Peng energy as being the fluid inside the cup and your body as being the structure of the cup. Or you can think of it as the air inside a rubber ball. If you keep your body rounded, it holds the Peng energy nicely. If you don’t, it leaks out.

The posture requirements of Taijiquan

All the posture requirements of Taijiquan create a rounded structure for the body. Here are some:

1. Head suspended from above

2. Elbows drooped.

3. Chest sheltered / back lifted

4. Shoulders rounded.

5. Chi sunk to the dantien.

6. Kua rounded

7. Knees bent.

These requirements create the structure for your ‘chalice’ within which you can hold the Peng force.

These days all internal martial arts make use of Zhan Zhuang, “standing like a tree” standing postures, which the practitioner is required to hold for extended periods, work the same way. They all maintain this same Peng shape, with gently rounded limbs and upright spines.

adult and cub tiger on snowfield near bare trees

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Xing Yi Quan uses the San Ti Shi standing posture which has 6 requirements, two of which are bear shoulders and tiger embrace. Together these two requirements mean your torso and arms take up the same chalice-like posture. You maintain the Peng shape. It’s all the same idea.

Maintaining structure while moving.

Structure isn’t something that’s meant to be achieved only in a static posture. Part of what you’re training when you perform a Tai Chi form, for example, is the ability to keep this Peng shape as you move.

If you keep the requirements you can maintain Peng. If you break the requirements then your Peng force will leak out of your body, just as water would leak from a cup with a hole in.

So, if you start to drop your head or stiffen the neck, for example, or straighten your legs or raise your elbows, you lose the natural power of the body working together all powered from the ground, and you have to start muscling it to compensate in your techniques.

So, to work in internal arts, all the techniques need to be expressed within the framework of this structure, and some techniques in martial arts just aren’t suited to maintaining this Peng structure.

Take for example, a side kick.

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Photo by Jason Briscoe on Unsplash

There’s nothing wrong with a side kick, but you physically can’t keep the body ‘rounded’ while performing a side kick to the opponent’s chest because of the angle you need to open your hip to. Just look at the photo.

I think that’s one reason why you don’t often see the a side kick in most Tai Chi forms or in fact in Xing Yi or Bagua. The kicks you do see in the internal arts tend to not take the hip out of alignment with the rest of the body.

Does that mean you can never do a side kick again? Of course not, but generally, you need to keep your rounded structure at all times when practicing internal arts, that way you keep your Peng energy rounded and the true power of the internal martial arts can be expressed.

Tai Chi should be heavy, like a stone

 

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Move your hips! Photo by: Samuel Castro

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Cheng Man Ching, Single Whip posture.

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

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

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

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

basecheng

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

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

 

How to get better at push hands

Today’s Tai Chi tip is all about how to get better at push hands simply by adjusting your posture.

pushing-hands

Push hands should really be an exercise in which we get to test our ability to absorb Jin from an opponent and project it into an opponent as required, to uproot them.

It shouldn’t devolve into a pushing and shoving match to see who can ‘win’. Once it turns into that then I don’t think anybody is learning anything anymore. There are far superior methods of grappling and I think you’d be better off spending your time learning those if your goal is simply to win a grappling exchange.

But before we can focus on using Jin we have to get our body in a position where it conforms to the Tai Chi principles of posture, where we’re not fighting it all the time, and it’s working to our advantage instead.

It is said, “Jin does not flow through tense muscles

So, we need to get our body into a structural position where we can be as relaxed as possible, without collapsing, yet still maintain our connection to the ground. In Chinese terms you would call this a posture where your “qi is strong”, but you are not tensing muscles more than they need to be.

Of course, this optimum qi structure is one of the first things to go out of the window once we start push hands. In push hands we get to test our Tai Chi under a limited amount of pressure. Faults that lie dormant in the form rise to the surface like bubbles.

Here we’re going to go over a few.

1. Head position and leaning

Head position in the form goes hand in hand with the issue of leaning. Some styles of Tai Chi, like Wu style and Yang Cheng-Fu’s Yang style, opt for a slight angling forward of the torso in forward-weighted bow stances. Other styles like Sun style, Chen style and Cheng Man-Ching style all keep an upright posture as often as they can, even in front-weighted stances. (See pictures below)

But the thing is, all styles are upright in their back stances (or should be). And even styles that maintain an upright stance, have to lean forward to do throwing techniques that take the person to the ground like Needle at Sea Bottom or Punch to the ground, for example.

Here are some examples of different Tai Chi practitioners:

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Chen Xiaowang, upright and stable.

 

 

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Cheng Man-Ching, very upright.

 

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Sun Lu Tang, no leaning.

 

A variety of postures from Wu Jian Quan, showing sometimes leaning, sometimes not.

Yang Cheng-Fu showing sometimes a slight leaning, sometimes not.

 

I think it’s time to get to the point of all this:

It’s not the lean itself that matters.
It’s maintaining an unbroken spinal alignment that is the key issue!

All these practitioners have one thing in common, they are not letting their heads droop, and they are not looking at the floor when they don’t need to.

For example, when even a practitioner who is famous for his upright posture does Needle at Sea Bottom, he or she bends forward, she just doesn’t break the alignment of the spine.

Needle at Bottom of the Sea

Needle at Sea Bottom

 

The Tai Chi classics talk a lot of carrying the head as if “suspended from above”. If you let your head droop you break the spinal alignment. You are easy to off-balance in push hands because your posture is broken. But if you hinge properly from the hips then you can still keep this spinal alignment even when you bend forward.

Think of the spine as including the neck (which anatomically, it does of course). If the neck goes offline in relation to the spine then the weight of the head has to be compensated by muscles elsewhere in the body. And this extra tensing of muscles results in a less efficient transfer of Jin from (or too) the ground.

Because we are quite used to this happening while standing or sitting, we don’t really feel our head being off centre so much. Switch to working on the ground, in a yoga posture for example, and you can instantly feel the difference your head position makes.

On a technical level, if you are using Jin you should be able to let the solidity of the ground be apparent at the point of contact with the opponent. If you have to use too much muscle then your pure Jin starts to turn into “Muscle Jin”. Muscle jin, isn’t as adaptable to change as pure jin. You can’t easily change direction, for instance. It also just doesn’t feel as it should. It might help you win a push hands competition, but you’ll find it lacking when it comes to martial technique.

And when it comes to the thorny issue of leaning, I’d recommend trying to stay upright in push hands. As I said before, the leans you tend to see in Tai Chi forms are to do with the application of a technique. Sure, you can lean to apply power according to a technique (just make sure you keep your spine aligned) but for the usual back and forth of push hands I’d recommend trying to keep as upright as possible. You’ll find it gives you more freedom of movement in the horizontal axis.

If you watch this clip of Wang Hai Jun doing some push hands with applications in it, you’ll notice that he’s staying upright during the push hands, but he’ll lean to apply a technique:

 

2. Shoulder usage

I posted before about learning how to sink in Tai Chi Chuan. One of the benefits of sinking is that you can be powerful yet relaxed at the same time. Again, this is a body requirement for the use of Jin. I don’t really care about relaxing the legs so much (although see point 3 later on) they key thing is making sure that all the tension of the upper body is dissolved down into the lower body.

You want to feel like your upper body is empty, while your lower body is full. “Hands like clouds, legs like mountains”, is a phrase that springs to mind.

The big stumbling block here is always the shoulder. Either we use our shoulder too much, and the movement becomes local and isolated from the rest of the body, or we don’t relax it sufficiently, and it becomes a blockage to the smooth flow of power from the ground that you’re looking for.

One really effective way of bypassing the shoulder in push hands, and relying more on sinking and the power of the ground, is to imagine a tube that runs from your hand, all the way up your arm, and down your back to the foot and the ground. Imagine another tube for the other side of the body. Now, when you want to move your arm, you have to move the whole tube. Start your power at the foot.

Over time, once you get the hang of it, it will become intuitive to start to direct your ‘tube movement’ from the waist area, and ‘moving from the dantien’ starts to become your preferred method of movement.

 

3. Using the back leg as a brace

Another trap people fall into is using the back leg like a brace, held stiff against the ground. Again, this leads to muscle Jin, not the relaxed release of power we are looking for. If you engage in the push and shove type of push hands you typically see at push hands tournaments then this is a great way to win. Unfortunately, ‘winning’ makes no difference if your goal is to get better at Tai Chi Chuan.

Don’t get me wrong, a little physical scrap like this is good for you now and again, and it’s good fun to push yourself physically! But these days I tend to let BJJ rolling get that all out of my system, so I can focus more on developing push hands skill in the right way when I’m engaged in push hands practice. .

So that’s a bunch of stuff you shouldn’t be doing. But what should you be doing?

I’d put forward the following 3 suggestions. This is just my personal opinion, of course.

1. Posture, posture, posture.

As you push hands keep your focus on your posture. Mentally note when you lean forward, note when you feel unbalanced sideways. Stop looking at the floor. Look at the horizon, through your opponent. Note when your feet aren’t flat on the ground. Where is your breathing? Low down or up in the chest? I count breathing as a posture consideration since it will affect your posture.

2. Sink.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. Sinking is the key to changing from using Li to learning to use Jin. Learn to relax the upper body completely and drop your weight into your lower body, then use that to power your movements.

3. Listen.

Once you are relaxed and able to sink your weight (Sung in Chinese) you should start to ‘listen’ – Ting Jin in Chinese. This enables you to detect where your partner is weak in their structure. How just a little push here or there will send them off balance. That’s where you need to start experimenting in your attacks.

 

 

Zhan Zhuang tips – standing like a tree

two brown trees

Photo by Johannes Plenio on Pexels.com

In the internal arts, Zhan Zhuang is one of the practices that gives you the most immediate benefits. It’s a practice that (initially) involves nothing more than standing and relaxing, yet this simple practice can produce a feeling of deep calm in the body and mind, and even give you the feeling of having more energy throughout the day.

How is this achieved? I’d warrant that it’s something to do with the effect of the calming action on your nervous system, plus standing for prolonged periods with your arms held away from the body is actually pretty physically challenging, so there are a lot of the benefits you experience from cardio-vascular exercise, but without you getting out of breath.

At more advanced levels of pratice, Zhan Zhuang a great way to practice Jin in different directions.

I came across a very good article recently written by Tony Dove full of good tips for starting a standing practice. Here it is.

Some good quotes:

“Use the breath as your focal point. Whenever your mind begins to wander, gently ask yourself, “Am I breathing? How am I breathing?” Bring your attention back to your breathing. Physiological awareness brings self-awareness. The mind becomes silently attentive to the subtleties of what is happening in the here and now, rather than thinking about the past, the future, or abstractions disconnected with the present.”

and

“Discomfort reveals places of dysfunction and should be welcomed as an opportunity for improvement.”

and

“Build gradually to a minimum of twenty minutes daily Standing, and a maximum of forty minutes. This is a small investment of time considering that you will probably have more energy during the day and need less sleep at night.”

Master Lam Kam Chuen’s TV series of how to begin your own standing practice is on YouTube, and a great way to get started:

Review: Hidden in Plain Sight, by Ellis Amdur (2nd edition)

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Hidden in Plain Sight by Ellis Amdur is a thorough examination of the subject of internal power exhibited by Morihei Ueshiba, the founder of Aikido, and the historical origins of this type of power in martial arts from China and Japan. Ellis has many years of direct experience in Chinese and Japanese arts and also works (or worked) in a field that requires physical restraint skills to be utilised, so in short, he knows what he’s talking about. More importantly, he’s a good writer and thorough researcher. The book gets straight down to business, quickly identifying the different types of power that human beings are capable of producing, then how they apply that in martial arts using methods like whipping power or coiling power, then takes a closer look at exactly what ‘internal power’ is and why it’s different, or more refined, compared to other types of human-generated power.

But here I ran into my only real hiccup with the book. Internal arts are full of Chinese words like Jin, Qi, Shen and so forth, none of which are simple concepts that can easily be summed up in one word. In his descriptions of internal power, Ellis translates Jin to mean ‘intent’ (p.54, 56) quite a few times. To my thinking intent is more properly translated as “Yi” in this context, and is indeed a facet of Jin practice, but not a good direct translation of the word “Jin”, which means literally something like ‘refined strength’. Jin is strength produced by the application of Yi, rather than “intent” itself. The process of using intent in the internal martial arts is using the mind to create a path to the ground for jin to follow. A path which may take it from a point of contact with the opponent, for example, straight down to your feet, where it is supported by the ground. It’s a subtle difference, compared to translating Jin as “intent”, and not one which affects the rest of the book, but one which bugs me all the same

Perhaps reflecting the authors experience of having to restrain people in real life, the book is quite down to earth and honest about the realities of looking for this internal strength ability and what it means in practical terms. The main realisation you get is that it’s going to require a serious amount of practice to get basic abilities in internal strength. Time that could be better spent acquiring other skills that would be much more easily applied and learned say from an MMA teacher. I like that Ellis is quite honest about these important points because it’s something that is sometimes lacking in internal strength devotes, especially if they are trying to sell you something! Internal strength is not like a magic pill that once taken will transform you into a martial arts expert. In fact, any skills you develop in this regard still require placing in a martial context to be of any practical use, and that can take as long as developing the skills in the first place. My personal take is similar. I’d say that if your goal is to be an MMA fighter or you just want to learn self-defence skills,  then the amount of time you are required to invest in developing ‘internal’ skills makes no sense – financially or otherwise.

There’s an impressive amount of research that has gone into this book, but since there are so many unanswered questions left about where Ueshiba got his abilities, a large amount of speculation from the author is added throughout which supports his general premise, which at times ignores other possibilities.

For example, at one point Ellis speculates on how this esoteric knowledge of internal power got from China to Japan. On page 103, in wondering what the famous figure Chin Gempin (a Chinese martial artist who ended up in Japan, just as the country was closing itself off to outsiders) could possibly have taught to three experienced Japanese martial artists, as the story goes, who went on to form their own now-famous Ryu (the historical ancestor of Judo amongst them) using this information. Ellis reasons “whatever he taught had to have had such an effect on such men that they made a foreigner part of their origin story, and furthermore, allowed them to develop such men as Ukei and Takino. Internal strength training is the only such methodology that I can think of.

That could well be true, but I can think of something else, as I’m sure you can. (To be fair, in the footnotes Ellis does offers an alternative explanation – being connected to an older Chinese tradition was clearly great marketing, and the whole thing can simply be put down to advertising.)

That’s true, but there is a simpler explanation: submissions. Existing jiujitsu battlefield grappling methods dealt with grounding an armoured opponent, with the goal of finishing them off with a short knife that could easily be worked through the armour at weak points. As such, submission holds weren’t a priority in existing Japanese grappling methods. Equally, Japan’s native Sumo wrestling was more concerned with gaining a victory by rule set (e.g. pushing the opponent out of a ring, for example), rather than by submission. In contrast, the Chinese grappling methods of the time would have been ripe with Chin-Na techniques for breaking limbs or small joints.

(Edit: In this hypothetical situation I’m not trying to imply that submissions skills didn’t exist previously in Japan – they did, of course –  rather that it could be that Chin Gempin was teaching some new types, or higher quality, types of joint locks that hadn’t been seen before.)

From Daito Ryu to Aikido

The second half of HIPS is history-heavy and I have to confess to skipping a few pages that turn into lists of who taught who in a particular Ryu. The history of Daito Ryu however, or rather the personal history of Takeda Sokaku, who was most likely the arts’ founder (since its history is undocumented) is quite revealing. Everything that it’s possible to know about Takeda is here. Ellis often steps over the bounds of mere speculation and delivers a psychological evaluation of a traumatised individual who grew up during the Boshin war, witnessing horrors on a daily basis. He transformed himself into a jiujitsu teacher after disappearing for 17 years. What he was doing and what he was learning in those 17 years nobody knows, but since it followed an incident in which he killed several construction workers in a brawl, and was almost killed himself, it’s probably better not to ask.

Finally, the book turns its attention to Ueshiba himself and collects as much information about his training as is humanly possible. It’s all here, including anecdotes from those that trained with him. There’s also a biography of his life, looking at what martial arts he came into contact with and when in great detail.

A final technical point: you won’t really learn how to do internal strength from this book. This is not a book of exercises, it’s a book about the exercises, and their historical context. In short, it’s a sit down read, not a ‘get up and practice’ manual.

If you’re interested in any of these subjects, and particularly if you practice Aikido, then you’ll find Hidden in Plain Sight provides plenty of food for thought. It’s a great resource and deserves a place on your bookshelf.

Link to Amazon.