Ji – To press or crowd in

I was reading through my latest purchase, Chen Style Illustrated, again recently and I got to something that piqued my interest – it’s the section where they are describing the 8 energies and we get to Press (Ji)

“When in contact the aim of this gradual rolling move is is to unsettle the balance of he opponent.”

It’s not a bad description at all, but I don’t resonate with the word “gradual” there. The most common application you tend to see for Press is of a kind of “bump” that puts the person off balance, but my experience of Ji has been that there’s nothing particularly gradual about it. That bump can be applied in a hard sharp way. Jin done in a forward direction (which is Press) can often be quite jolting and it hurts inside.

The 8 energies are:

掤 peng, 捋 lu, 挤 ji, 按 an, 採 cai, 挒 lie, 肘 zhou, 靠 kao

Google translates 挤 as “press” or “crowd in”. (I’m not sure that another translation you often see of “squeeze” is helpful. I’ve read people writing about squeezing the hands together – that’s not it at all. ) From that you get the sense of a situation where you are already in contact with the person and, perceiving a point of weakness in their defence you press them further on the point. It reminds me a lot of the strategy of Horse in Xing Yi, which is to attack a point of defence that is already defended but has a weakness you can exploit.

Cheng Man Ching doing Press

In the Tai Chi form Ji is usually done with the back of the hand in the typical Grasp Bird’s Tail sequence (presumably because it the easiest way to capitalise on a good position you’ve already achieved), but there’s nothing about the energy you’re using that means it has to be done with the back of the hand. It can be done with a fist or palm too.

And this is where the Tai Chi waters get a bit murky. There is the martial technique Press, which is to do with pressing further forward into an opponent you are already contacted with, and then there is the abstract concept of “jin in a forward direction”. Anytime you express jin (strength derived from the ground through a relaxed body) in a forward direction you could be said to be doing 挤, but when you put it into a Tai Chi context it takes on this quality of crowding in and pressing that attack.

The head kick from hell! Leon Edwards UFC 278

Congratulations to the UK’s Leon Edwards for becoming the new UFC Middleweight Champion of the world with his stunning head kick victory over Kamaru Usman. After a great first round Edwards was clearly losing on points having been dominated by the champion in each round since, but in the fifth and final he pulled off a near perfect head kick as you’re ever going to see, sending Usman crashing to the canvas and making him the new champion.

As the photos show, he set it up with a left that tells Usman to dip his head to the right, but that kick is already coming and it’s all over.

1. Feint the left.
2. Usman dips his head.
3. Kick connects!

Internal power and the 3 internal harmonies: Going beyond words like Xin, Yi and Qi to direct experience

Almost by accident I watched Onama vs Landwher from UFC: Marlon Vera vs Dominick Cruz this morning and heavens above, that was one hell of a fight! Possibly the fight of the year. I’ve no idea how you’d score it. Landwher won by decision, but it was possibly the MMA fight of the year. Wild exchanges throughout with both fighters being so tired they could hardly stand up, but somehow kept going. It looked like they both had almost beyond the levels of human endurance, going from looking so tired they could barley move to pulling off flashy 3 move combinations.

You could almost see their spirit rising within to propel them on. It reminded me of all the phrases about the internal harmonies (san nei he) that we use in the Internet arts. The Xin (heart) leads the Yi (intention/mind), the Yi leads the Qi (energy to work) and the Qi leads the Li (physical movement). Initially this seems rather simplistic, say if you want to do something like make a cup of tea then you first have a desire to do it (heart) that travels to the brain (yi) that decides and then it ends up in a physical movement (li) and you find your feet moving you towards the kettle.

But that process happens automatically in humans and all animals, so why do we need to make a big deal of it and describe all the parts that build up to making an automatic process happen?

It’s often explained as putting the intention and will (the brains and heart) behind the movement. You can do things with a sense of purpose, or you can do them absent mindedly. In the internal arts, like Xing Yi, Bagua and Tai Chi, your actions need to have a sense of purpose. Your mind needs to be on the job, not half engaged. That’s one reason, but I think there’s more to these internal harmonies than just this.

I remember in BJJ training sometimes being so exhausted it was like my mind left my body and I became somewhat detached from my surroundings. It’s at moments like that that you start to be able to feel your “spirit” or mind as an identifiable thing. Through a sheer act of will you can force your mind to not give up and get back to the job and it can give you the energy you need to carry on fighting. That’s what I saw happening in Obama vs Landwher. A sheer force of will was being used to make them continue – their internal was leading the external.

Frankly, most people training only internal arts without hard sparring pay a lot of lip service to the internal co-ordinations, but do they ever reach an intensity of training where they can actually feel these things as tangible elements?

I’m not saying that you need to get an an MMA cage to experience your internal state under extreme physical stress before you have any idea what it is, but you can experience it in a safer way through things like Jiujitsu. Maybe Systema, too. Just some food for thought, and another reason why I think all Tai Chi instructors who re physically able should try and get a blue belt in BJJ if they are teaching the art beyond the health aspects.

There’s a risk, when reading this that people might think that using your Yi, or Xin in Tai Chi technique simply means to furrow you brow, put on a mean face, stare hard at something, get really tense and act like you really mean it, man. Because that’s not it either. That’s not what using “martial intent” or Yi means in internal arts at all. If I see people practicing internal arts like that I think it’s just bad karate. Not that there’s anything wrong with karate, of course.

Your internal state can be serious, but come from a place of calm. It’s a strange contrast between being expansive, yet laser focused, like the eyes of an eagle who is high up in the sky looking for prey. He’s taking in all his surroundings, but can pinpoint down on a single point when required. That’s using the 3 internal harmonies properly.

I think this is a Kite, not an Eagle, but you get the idea. Photo by Flo Maderebner on Pexels.com

The Tai Chi classics say:

To fajin,
sink,
relax completely,
and aim in one direction!

There it is – the (sung) relaxed body is the first requirements, once you have it you can ‘point your mind’ in the direction you want your power to go, so that the internal movement matches the external movement. When the inner and outer harmonise together, then you have internal power.

What you can learn from Tai Chi kicks

Tai Chi kicks are a great way of testing your balance. Due to the circular nature of Tai Chi technique the sections of the forms where you are kicking often involve turning the body to the left or right while you are standing on one leg. It’s more challenging than a simple one direction kick and is a great training for your balance.

I shot this during this morning’s Tai Chi practice. It’s the kicking section of the short form that we practice in the Yongquan Tai Chi Chuan Association:

You’ll notice that the kicks are done lower than you see in a lot of modern Tai Chi forms. That’s because we’re aiming at the knee. The classical technique for these moves is to block their knee with your foot and pull their arm in the opposite direction to get a takedown. Effectively using the foot as a kind of brace, not really as a kick.

But it’s the training these techniques offer in balance that is their real value I think – a lot of people end up very wobbly on the standing leg when performing these techniques. The key to making it silky smooth is not to think about sinking down into the ground as you raise the leg, but to ‘raise the back’ as you lift the leg. That upward ‘pull’ holds you in place securely so you can deliver a smooth kick.

The inherent potential of the Tai Chi form

More thoughts inspired by Chen Taijiquan Illustrated

“Training the form helps one to learn the core substance of Taijiquan. Practicing the various push hands methods trains how to apply its inherent potential.”

The function and reason for forms (tao lu) in Chinese martial arts continues to fascinate me. Were they planned to be like this all along, or is the usage of tao lu a happy accident born out of ancient religious ritual festival celebrations and the hiding of marital arts in theatrical traditions? The answer is probably a bit of both, and more of the “wrong” answer than you’d like to admit, no matter which of the two views you take.

I think all Tai Chi practitioners, beyond the mindless followers practicing in parks, 12 rows deep from the front, have a basic understanding that the Tai Chi form contains martial applications which can be brought out in push hands. But it’s the wording of the quote above that caught me: “the inherent potential” of the form.

That’s exactly it – the form isn’t explicitly martial. Certain compromises are necessarily made to maintain an aesthetic and flow to the movements. If it wasn’t then Tai Chi would look more like more practical Shuai Jiao solo drills or jiujitsu kata. And I think that’s what bugs a lot of people who laugh at the idea that Tai Chi can be used as a martial art. The martial essence is there in the movements, but it’s not on the surface. It’s buried, inherent potential that you’ll need to mine if you want to discover it.

How to make use of your dexterous and non-dexterous hands in Tai Chi

Except for that tiny minority of ambidextrous people, most human beings have a dexterous hand and a non-dexterous hand. We use our dexterous hand for things that require precision, like writing and the non-dexterous hand for holding and framing. I’m sure we’ve all tried to write with our non-dexterous hand before and found it almost impossible, but here’s another thing to try…

Put your non-dexterous hand behind your back and try to write as normal with your dexterous hand. You’ll find it’s hard because you use your non-dexterous hand more than you think, in this case, to steady the paper you’re writing on and stop it moving. Both hands are actually involved in writing, but both have different jobs. If you wanted to get all “Tai Chi” about it we could call it a Yin and Yang split between the hands, which work together as a whole, and talk about the sword hand, but layering a bit more philosophy on the concept is probably not necessary, I prefer the phrases dexterous and non-dexterous hands.

Large-Scale Postures Boxing Set by Huang Hanxun 1959

It’s the same in martial arts. I’m sure we’re all used to doing a technique quite competently on one side, then swapping it to the other side and feeling like a complete beginner. For this reason I’m quite against the idea that we should be able to do everything equally on both sides. Learning to do a technique on your non-dexterous side will be arduous, time-consuming and you’ll never be able to do it with the same flair, so why invest all that time in a pointless campaign?

If you look at the Tai Chi form (I’m thinking of Yang style, here since it’s the one I’m most familiar with) then you’ll see that some techniques are done equally on both side (brush knee, for example) but some techniques are only done on one side (all the grasp bird’s tails, for example go to the right, while all the single whips end to the left). I believe this is because the creators of these movements were well aware of the difference between our dexterous and non-dexterous hands.

In stand up arts of punching you see the same thing – people generally poke a jab with their non-dexterous hand to set up the big overhand from the dexterous side. I find if I put my dexterous side forward (southpaw) it results in a jab I can hit harder with but a cross that is less accurate.

But how do you choose which techniques to do on one side and which to do equally? The answer is simply to feel what works. And for this you’re going to need to do a lot of practice on another human, not solo form.

For example, in jiujitsu I have developed this one-sided approach through countless hours of practice. It’s most noticeable in my guard passing, but it also applies to my guard playing, although I’m not sure the idea extends to the legs – they both seem equally non-dexterous when compared to our arm! But in guard passing I notice that I naturally do some passes to my left and different passing to my right. For example, I knee cut with my right knee on both sides of the opponent’s body, so if I’m going left, I lead with my right knee and if I’m going to the right I also lead with my right knee – this naturally leads to two different techniques being used.

So, the answer is to feel, and don’t try to force yourself to do techniques that feel awkward because they are on the “wrong side” – look to see if there is something else you can do in that situation that fits better.

Thoughts on Chen Taijiquan Illustrated #1 – Yang style vs Chen style

The newest addition to my collection!

My copy of Chen Taijiquan Illustrated arrived, and I’ve almost finished it. It’s an easy read since the word count isn’t very high – it’s essentially a series of high quality training notes, illustrated, which I think really helps to convey the message in a way that text alone cannot. I’m not going to do a full review for a while, I’m going to let the book sink in first, but I might do a series of posts on ideas it has sparked in me.

Here’s the first one.

The thing I wanted to talk about today was how similar Chen style (as described in this book) is to Yang style. I think a Yang stylist would get almost as much out of this book as a Chen stylist. While the content and methods described in the book all clearly derive from Chen style, as do the illustrations, I’d say 90% (or more) of what’s described here is exactly the same as Yang style.

So what’s different? Bits and bobs on silk reeling, some stepping methods and stance details and the bits on fajin. But even then, they’re not something alien to a Yang stylist, and would be easily within reach of anybody who wanted to take their practice in that direction.

What’s the same? The emphasis on posture is really good here – how to round the back, contain the chest, round the kua, the eight energies, the 5 steps, push hands strategy and training methods, quotes from the classics, being centred and upright, rooting, the dantien, martial applications, etc.

What was I surprised not to find more of? Opening and closing using the 5 bows, and empty and solid. Perhaps more on using the force from the ground… There are mentions of these things throughout, but the book never really goes deeply into them. Perhaps it was too complex for the illustrated book-based approach? There’s only so much you can fit in one book, and there’s plenty of content here.

However, the emphasis on the body requirements of Tai Chi, and explanation of why these things are done, is excellent and transfers effortlessly across Tai Chi styles. It’s reminded me a lot how similar Yang style and Chen style are ‘under the hood’, so to speak. I wrote a post recently where I talked about them being similar but different. I still kind of think that. My view is that at some point Chen style incorporated the ideas contained in “Taijiquan” wholesale from Yang Luchan’s lucrative teaching business in Beijing into its larger, pre-existing, village style (which was more militia fighting and weapons-based) – it absorbed it whole – a bit like a whale swallowing a smaller fish. It was easy because all Chinese styles are similar to some extent. But of course, this means that the Yang style is still there inside Chen, and it’s impossible not to see how ‘almost the same’ they are when reading this book. (I think the spiraling and silk reeling stuff was from the pre-existing Chen style). Your opinion may be different. Food for thought!

New book alert! Chen Taijiquan Illustrated

Thanks to Ken Gullette at Internal Fighting Arts I just caught wind of this new book that’s just come out called Chen Taijiquan Illustrated. I had a quick look on Amazon using the “Look Inside” feature and the illustrations look fantastic. It looks like it’s designed to be halfway between an instruction manual and a comic. It’s a very cool style that’s quite unlike any Tai Chi book I’ve seen before.

Chen Taijiquan Illustrated – available now!

I think that often Tai Chi books, with pages after pages of printed text, can be a bit off putting for people who are learning an art that is all about feel, movement and “doing it”, not “reading about it”. And when they do have photographs in them they are often black and white and a bit dull and lifeless. So, for the visual learners out there, I think the colourful and imaginative approach found in Chen Taijiquan Illustrated will work very well.

Here’s an example:

An extract from Chen Taijiquan Illustrated by David Gaffney and Davidine Siaw-Voon Sim

Here’s another thing: Looking at the contents page, this is the first Tai Chi book I’ve seen that mentions the concept of Man, which translates as Slowness, apart from the book written by my Tai Chi teacher. Man is a concept my teacher talks about a lot, and it’s nice to see it mentioned in another Tai Chi book – I was starting to think that it was a concept that was unknown to the rest of the Tai Chi world!

Tai Chi Chuan a comprehensive training manual by Raymond Rand

Obviously everybody and their dog knows that Tai Chi is done slowly, but Man is more of a mental quality than a reference to the speed of the form. It can be thought of as “not rushing”. The speed you are moving at is irrelevant to the concept of Man, but if you want to acquire the ability of Man then the best way is by slowing the form down and focusing on keeping your mind on what you are doing. Whenever you find your mind wandering off you just stop the form (no matter how far through it you are) and start again. After a few weeks or months you’ll find you are much better at staying focused on your form than you were before. By adopting the qualities of “not rushing” you open up the headspace required to be aware of other things going on, things that you would simply miss otherwise. I’ve written about not rushing before.

At £16 Chen Taijiquan Illustrated is not particularly expensive for a colour book either. And I’d love it if there was a book on Brazilian Jiutjisu that was written and illustrated in the same manner because I think it would also benefit from this approach. Incidentally, there was a good book written about Brazilian Jiujitsu recently, that has colour photos (and very nice ones too) that I still dip into now and again called Nonstop Jiujitsu, by Stephan Kesting and Brandon Mullins. I reviewed it on my blog recently, so check out my review.

Nonstop Jiujitsu by Brandon Mullins and Stephan Kesting

I’ve ordered my copy of Chen Taijiquan Illustrated so will review it at some point in the future.

What’s better in martial arts – Body Methods or Foundational Movements?

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.

Sweaty work – a fun class!

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.

How to do a Technical Stand Up

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.

Torso Flung Punch by Chen Zhaopi, 1930,

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.

Tim, tell me you’re in a cult without telling me you’re in a cult.

Tim, tell me you’re in a cult without telling me you’re in a cult:

A comment from “Tim”:

“I’m disappointed in your entire take on internal power, as indicated by your dismissive way of talking about those who actually do possess some genuine internal power as using “tricks”. To be blunt, you’re just ignorant–that is, you have no personal experience with real practitioners and assume everyone showing such power must be a charlatan. Yes, there are many fakers out there and also many brainless critics who are not truly skeptical but just reactionary and dismissive. You haven’t seen this film but you lump everyone doing demos of internal power into one category of fakers using cheap tricks. I suggest you seek out one of the genuine Tai Chi practitioners who possess such power and experience it for yourself. Otherwise, you don’t represent Tai Chi Chuan as your little blog suggests. You just stand for the Tai Chi meditation approach and teaching form, which is OK but very limited and in denial of the original purposes and uses of Tai Chi Chuan. It’s not that difficult to find those who are the real deal. Start with the Martial Man series and see some who have taught at their “camps”–Adam Mizner, Liang de Hua and many others who are authentic practitioners of internal power approaches. Those people are themselves the former students of even higher-level masters whose powers are phenomenal. Tai Chi Chuan is a martial art that can be practiced for health and well-being, but it remains an extremely effective and powerful self-defense system that includes the use of various forms of “jin”–an energy converted to force that can be issued against any opponent. Take a breath, lose the cheap tricks of your dismissal, and try to seek out some contact with those who can show you what you’re missing.

Let’s just go over a few things from this:

  1. Tim (the owner of an anonymous sounding Yahoo email address) has no idea who I am, has never met me, and has certainly not read much of my material beyond my one post about the film “The Power of Chi”, which has got him so upset. That post contained an excellent video by Rob Poyton (who has appeared on my podcast before) showing how those things are done, and that anybody can do them with a bit of training. It’s well worth a watch.
  2. I can do the “internal power” things he’s talking about.
  3. I’ve done the “internal power” things he’s talking about on a stage in front of people.
  4. They are just demonstrations of ways to use power, not divine miracles done by a guy who needs to be paid thousands of dollars while being treated like a master of the universe.
  5. What I object to is the conflation of these things with real fighting skill, not the things themselves.
  6. Tim, you’re in a cult, and you don’t know you’re in a cult. One day you’ll look back and think, wow I was in a cult!
  7. Namaste.