Book review: Internal Body Mechanics for Tai Chi, Bagua and Xingyi, by Ken Gullette

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Anybody who has attempted to learn Tai Chi in any depth instantly realises that the choreography of a form is just that – choreography – and that the devil is in the details. Internal Body Mechanics is all about the details: How you move, what you move and where you move it to.

It’s author, Ken Gullette is a veteran of the Internal arts, having started with Yang style Tai Chi way before China opened up to the West and before the Internet appeared. Over the years he’s trained with some of the best, especially in Chen style. He’s interested in the practical use of the internal arts as actual martial arts, rather than a method of communing with the universe, feeling your Qi or healing your body. While he’s been presenting this information in DVD and video format for years via his website kungfu4u.com, this book is his first attempt to capture the “body mechanics” of the internal arts in print.

Like most Western Tai Chi enthusiasts who started when Tai Chi was just breaking into the West, Ken inevitably ended up going down many dead ends before he could find good quality instruction, which is why he’s written this book. Ken’s ambition is to write a Tai Chi book that is all killer, no filler, which immediately sets him apart from 99% of Tai Chi teachers out there, whose books usually give you a lot of boring history and then try to teach you a form, which is impossible to learn from a book in the first place.

Instead, Ken is going straight to the meat of the matter, for which he deserves recognition and praise. Internal Body Mechanics covers 6 core principles of the internal arts:

  1. Centred stance and Ground path
  2. Maintaining Peng Jin
  3. Use whole body movement
  4. Use spiraling movement of silk reeling energy
  5. Internal movement and the Kua
  6. Dantien rotation

The book is structured so that one chapter leads naturally into the next, so once you’ve grasped one principle you are ready for the next one. The chapter on the Kua, how to open and close the kua, and what it is, is especially good. This is a tricky subject to convey in text and Ken does it through telling stories of training with Chen Xiaowang and quoting what he said to him during form corrections. I felt like I “got it” immediately. So much so, in fact, that when Ken used the posture “Sweep the rider from the horse” to demonstrate how Chen Xiaowang was saying people close the Kua “too much”, I immediately put the book down, tried out the posture and realised I was making the same mistake. There you go Ken – you got me! It’s not often you can instantly improve your Tai Chi and correct your form from reading a book, but Internal Body Mechanics proves it is possible.

The book also comes with a website containing videos of all the techniques and demonstrations that are pictured. Obviously a video is superior, but I found the pictures sufficient to get the points being made… except for the large silk reeling chapter of the book – that is where you’d really need to access the videos to ‘get it’ – especially if you’ve never done silk reeling exercise before. But the videos are not free – you have to pay an additional one-off fee to access them.

Qi and Jin

When you get down to the heart of the matter with Internal arts, I find that you are dealing mainly with two things: Qi and Jin. Because these are initially obscure Chinese terms, that don’t translate easily into English and require thought, experimentation and good teaching to master, they become the initial stumbling blocks for all Tai Chi practitioners. Ken spends a lot of the book dealing with the subject of Jin – with chapters on the ground path and Peng Jin specifically. He covers it really well. There are lots of partner exercises to try out that are illustrated with photos from his DVDs. Jin often accounts for the overly-theatrical demonstrations that Tai Chi ‘masters’ like to do on their overly compliant students at seminars, where they send them bouncing away at the slightest touch. Once you understand how Jin works you can see what is really going on, and it stops being so mysterious. Ken’s book will give you that kind of understanding.

It’s on the subject of chi/qi that I find I depart a little from Ken’s thinking. Ken has little time for mystical thinking on qi. By the time Ken gets to his Dantien rotation chapter he is slaying sacred Tai Chi cows like he works in an abattoir and the concept of qi takes a bolt through the head early on.

“As a 21st-century college educated American who applies critical thinking skills and expects evidence before I cling to a belief, there is no evidence whatsoever that our bodies contain Chi or a Dantien…”  – Ken Gullette

I’d agree with him on the critical thinking, but there’s always the danger of throwing the baby out with the bathwater when this staunchly non-mystical approach is adopted. Especially when it comes to qi.

Is qi a mystic substance in our bodies, as some would like us to believe, or is it just a term that the ancient Chinese used to describe parts of the body that is still functionally useful when learning how to move in non-standard ways?

Ken sees the use of Qi and Dantien as merely useful mental visualization tools, so that’s the approach adopted in the book. He also dismisses the idea that you must control your fascia to control your dantien as “poppycock”. This pleases me, and I raised a wry smile as I’ve got into similar arguments with fascia fanatics on the Internet, who attribute almost magical powers to it. He’s right, of course – you cannot consciously control the movement of your fascia or skin, only muscles (let’s not get into the sticky issue of consciously making the hair on your arms stand on end or subconscious control of body functions). However, you can use your muscles to stretch both skin and fascia (and tendons and everything else)  to create a feeling of connection, and that feeling of connection can be slowly built up into something tangible that you can use to manipulate the body from the dantien area. To me, this is the real meaning of Qi, and means it still deserves its place in the creation of whole body movement.

So, while Ken’s Dantien rotation chapter is purely about manipulating the musculature in the area of the lower abdomen, which of course, it is, I’d also add in that you can also use it to connect to the arms and legs via this “qi” connection, which you can build up over time. I went over this idea in my video series, but anyway, I digress.

Conclusion

Ken’s approach is not that of an almighty Tai Chi teacher who is imparting precious wisdom to you, his lowly disciple, from on high, but rather, a healthy attitude of “we can all learn together” flows through the pages. You never feel like you are being preached at. Instead, you encounter a fellow traveler on the path who is as curious as you are to see what lies ahead. Most importantly, he wants you to avoid the dead ends he’s ended up in.

So, while I find myself at odds slightly with Ken on the issue of how Qi relates to internal body mechanics, I don’t find that stops me enjoying the book and learning from it. In terms of practicing Tai Chi as a martial art, grasping the idea of Jin and how to use the power of the ground in your techniques, not local muscle, is the most important thing, and Ken’s book excels in this respect.

It should also be noted that if you’re a fan of “martial” Tai Chi (like me) then you’ll love this book. It doesn’t teach you any martial techniques (that’s Ken’s next book, apparently) but everything is looked at through a lens of why this body method is useful for combat. I actually find that more valuable.

There’s not much Xingyi and Bagua presented in this book really, so while I appreciate the catch-all requirement of the title will widen the book’s appeal, it’s really focussed on Tai Chi, and Chen style in particular. Sure, the body mechanics of Tai Chi cross over into XingYi and Bagua, but the sayings of Chen Xiaowang to the author are repeated frequently through the book and this is really a detailed explanation of his Tai Chi teachings so I would have been happier if that had been reflected in the title.

Don’t let my minor points of contention put you off. This is one of the most practical books on Tai Chi on the market right now and you need to get it. It annoys me that there aren’t more Tai Chi books like Ken’s around that actually deal with the mechanics of movement that you need to develop for Tai Chi, and I hope that Internal Body Mechanics is the first of a turning tide, because the world needs more Tai Chi books like this one.

Ken’s blog: www.internalfightingartsblog.com

Amazon link on US and UK.

Ken Gullette’s new book: Internal body mechanics

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A quick heads-up for internal martial artists: Ken Gullette has a new book out that looks really interesting called, “Internal body mechanics for Tai Chi, Bagua and Xingyi”.

I haven’t read it, or even seen a copy, but I thought I’d give it a mention because it looks pretty good. It sounds like it gets straight down to the business of teaching you how to move and dispenses with the usual boring histories and form photos. Ken’s bio of how long he’s trained and who he as trained with looks pretty good too.

In Ken’s own words:

Basically, I wanted to write the book that I wish I had when I began studying the internal arts back in 1987. If I was able to read it back then, it would have saved me many years and thousands of dollars in class fees. Based on some of the martial artists I have met during the past 20-something years, I know there are millions of internal arts students who are not learning these skills.

The six fundamental body mechanics for internal power include:

** Establishing and maintaining the ground path at all times.

** Using peng jin at all times along with the ground path.

** Using whole-body movement — when one parts move, all parts move.

** Silk-Reeling “Energy” — the spiraling movement that adds power to techniques.

** Dan T’ien rotation — guiding the internal strength and power as the body moves.

** Using the kua properly — opening and closing the kua, like a buoy in the ocean, helping the body stay balanced as incoming force changes.

You can find out more details about the book here, and it’s on Amazon US and UK.

VIDEO: Yi Jin Jing – The Muscle Tendon change classic (Exercises 1-12 with full explanations)

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Below is a nice explanation video of the Yi Jin Jing by Shi Heng Yi of the Shaolin Temple Europe,  recorded during a Qi Gong Retreat in July 2018 at the Shaolin Temple Europe located in Otterberg / Kaiserslautern in Germany.

I don’t practice this set myself, but I tend to think of it as a kind of expanded version of the Ba Duan Jin, a set I do practice. As with the Ba Duan Jin, you need to keep in mind the ideas of muscle-tendon channels, and the suit idea, when you practice all qi gongs. In fact, that’s exactly what the monk is explaining in the video – “when you do this exercise you must feel which part of the body it affects, which muscles and tendons it is stretching”.

Without the understanding of muscle-tendon channels and the suit, these are just repetitious exercises, but the understanding of what you’re looking for can transform them.

Here’s the explanation video:

And here’s the complete routine performed by Shi Heng Yi.

The 12 Exercise / Posture Names are:

1) Wei Tuo Presenting The Pestle (Frontways)
2) Wei Tuo Presenting The Pestle (Sideways)
3) Wei Tuo Presenting The Pestle (Upwards)

4) Plucking Stars On Each Side
5) Pulling 9 Cows By Their Tails
6) Displaying Claws and Spreading Wings

7) 9 Ghosts Drawing Swords
8) Placing 3 Plates On The Floor
9) Black Dragon Shows It’s Claws

10) Tiger Jumping On It’s Prey
11) Bowing Down In Salutation
12) Swinging The Tail

Turning qigongs into functional qi exercises

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Reconstructed Daoyin tu Drawings of Guiding and Pulling in the Mawangdui Silk Texts

The Daoyintu “Drawings of guiding and pulling” were uncovered in the Mawangdui site in ChangshaHunan, in 1973. The texts were written on silk. From Wikipedia:

“They include some of the earliest attested manuscripts of existing texts (such as the I Ching), two copies of the Tao Te Ching, a copy of Zhan Guo Ce, works by Gan De and Shi Shen and previously-unknown medical texts, such as Wushi’er Bingfang (Prescriptions for Fifty-Two Ailments).[1] Scholars arranged them into 28 types of silk books. Their approximately 120,000 words cover military strategy, mathematics, cartography and the six classical arts: ritual, music, archery, horsemanship, writing and arithmetic.[2]

The tombs date from 206 BC – 9 AD, which puts them in the Western Han Dynasty (this was mentioned in a previous post of mine on Buddhism), and contained the burial tombs of Marquis Li Cang, his wife, and a male believed to have been their son. The site was excavated from 1972 to 1974.

The scroll above was found in 1973 and dates to 168BC. Again, from Wikipedia:

A painted scroll on display at the Hunan Provincial Museum and known as the Daoyintu found in tomb three at Mawangdui in 1973 and dated to 168 BC shows coloured drawings of 44 figures in standing and sitting postures doing Tao yin exercises. It is the earliest physical exercise chart in the world so far and illustrates a medical system which does not rely on external factors such as medication, surgery or treatments but internal factors to prevent disease.

What they are doing in the scroll is clearly related to what we call Qigong today – an exercise system that has come out of China. These exercises are still found all over China, and in many cases, the theory behind them has merged with martial arts, and they tend to be practiced together.

The question still remains – what are they actually doing? How is this good for health?

I believe you need to understand “suit” theory to get a handle on what they’re doing. I first heard the “suit” theory from the writings of Mike Sigman. He just posted about it again recently:

Mike: The “suit” idea is that the connective tissues throughout the body and muscles can be developed and conditioned to the point that they wrap the body like a snug spandex/lycra “suit”. The “suit”, however, is not just a passive connection: it can be controlled, conditioned, etc., as an aid and support to strength and movement. The “suit” is just a model that can be used to illustrate the functional qi of the body. As “qi”, the suit responds to controls and actions from the subconscious mind. 

First of all, if you’re looking for an explanation of what “qi” is, when it comes to martial arts, or its functional usage, then I think this is where you should be looking. Qi is not some mysterious energy that flows through the universe and through invisible channels in the body – it’s the physical connections you can create through conditioning exercises where you stretch this “suit” and gradually learn to manipulate the body using it. This naturally leads to the idea of the body being moved by “qi” not muscle, which is a phrase we hear given lip service to in Tai Chi, but rarely explained. It sounds initially like magical qi thinking, but if you can understand the “suit” theory you’ll see that it’s actually grounded in a solid practice that builds up over time. Another of the meanings of the word “Qi” is simply breath. However, if you realise that using the breath is one of the key methods you can use to stretch the suit, that also makes sense. 

Mike also has videos where he explains the suit ideas further:

 

Mike: Think of the “suit”, for a moment, as the plastic coating/skin on a child’s soft, plastic-coated doll. Imagine that you can take a doll’s legs in each hand and twist and manipulate the whole doll, including the arms, by the way that you twist the legs of the doll. The connection of the arms to the legs via the plastic “skin” of the doll allows for the conveyance of the twist to the arms. That’s not a great example, but it gives you an idea about how the twisting and control of your own lower body (from waist downward) can be conveyed through the “suit”/functional-qi to effect movement in your arms and upper body.

Looking back at that picture on the silk painting from the “Drawings of Guiding and Pulling” in the Mawangdui Silk Texts, you can see that these are clearly stretching-based exercises – the arms are lifted to either shoulder height or above the heads and stances are being deliberately taken. So what are they doing? My answer would be that they are conditioning this suit.

 

Suit theory

A good way to think about the suit is by splitting it into yin and yang – the yin parts cover the soft, ventral,  areas of the body – the front, the insides and backs of the legs, inside of arms, and the Yang parts are the harder, dorsal, parts – the back, outside and front of legs and arms. “Breathing in the Qi” is usually done by “pulling” in on this connection on the yin parts of the suit, and expansion is usually done by releasing the pressure and stretch that this has built up using the Yang parts of the suit  – “guiding” – as you breathe out and open the body. Remember, Tao Yin was called “pulling and guiding”.

John Appleton’s Posture Release Imagery web page is a good source for seeing how this ventral/dorsal split works in both humans and other animals.

The point of qigongs is to develop the connections in the body to the point where you can feel them and move the body with them through natural cycles of open and close.

Mike: It’s a little bit difficult to feel the connections of the “suit” at first, so the first thing you have to do with qigongs is begin to develop the connections of your body by using breathing techniques to strengthen the connective tissues. Gradually, you develop your qi/”suit” all over the body and you learn to control it as an aid and support to your musculo-skeletal strength. There is an interesting thought mentioned in some Chinese thought that wild animals still have this rapport of qi and musculoskeletal strength; humans (it is opined) have evolved out of this rapport and have to be taught to control and develop their qi in this manner.

So, there’s the hint for what you’re looking for in your qigong exercises: “using breathing techniques to strengthen the connective tissues.”

At all times the body length connection  – the slight stretch on the suit – must be maintained  – “don’t break the qi”.

(Credit to Mike Sigman for the quotes, and the suit concept).

Ground force without tension

Mike Sigman posted a video on how to use the power of the ground in your movements recently and it’s one of the best explanations I’ve seen. I’ve shared it below. It’s a simple concept to understand (but hard to do under pressure) so I think this can be applied to any martial art.

I like videos like this because they take a lot of the mystery out of Asian martial arts. Quite often you’d need to be training in a system for a number of years before you were taught these concepts, mainly due to a traditional culture of secrecy. In contrast, Mike’s approach is to start with these concepts right at the beginning of your training, so you don’t go off on the wrong track. Take a look:

Week 4 – breathing. Half way through my 8-week Tai Chi course.

Here’s part 4 of the course. This week we focus on breathing. I cover the topics of normal and reverse breathing, then show a couple of different exercises that will get you on the right track for applying the breathing methods to the movement we are working on. Finally, we integrate the breathing into the movement, preserving all the progress we have made so far. Once you get the hang of it those breathing exercises I show are not required anymore, as you should be integrating it into your main exercise.

This week is more subtle than work showed previously. An inner focus will be required. Good luck! I’m happy to answer any questions you have.

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.