Yes, Shifu!

When I started in Tai Chi I was taught that “Sifu” was a rank you were awarded only after years of dedicated practice when a certain level of mastery had been obtained in your martial art. Then one of my students took a trip to Hong Kong and it turned out that everybody was called Sifu! Your taxi driver, your chef in a restaurant, a car mechanic, etc. it just meant somebody who was skilled at something.

Sifu is Cantonese, Shifu (simplified Chinese: 师傅 or 师父; traditional Chinese: 師傅 or 師父; pinyin: shīfù) is Mandarin.

The character 師/师 means “skilled person” or “teacher,” while 傅 means “tutor” and 父 means “father.”

From Wikipedia:

So, it wasn’t wrong to call your martial arts teacher your Sifu, but it wasn’t a rank that could be awarded. Something had got lost in translation.

Photo by Artem Podrez on

In Brazilian JiuJItsu (BJJ) we don’t have Sifus or Shifus, but we do have Professors. That sounds even grander than Shifu, yet how many people know that Professor is just the Portuguese word for teacher? It’s like saying “coach”, but in a culture like ours that has real Professors (i.e. people working in academia) it gets a sort of elevated status. (Actually, professor is a slippery term in the West as well, because in North America it can mean anybody who is a researcher or teacher in a university, whereas in Europe it is generally used to indicate distinction in a field.)

Professor is, unlike Sifu a rank that can be awarded mainly because BJJ has a belt culture. (I’m sure that if Chinese marital art had a belt/rank culture then Sifu /Shifu would inevitably become the black belt rank.)

But BJJ has its own weird cultural oddities. Certain BJJ teams and academies have rules that every black belt must be addressed formally as Professor by lower ranked students at all times. How seriously these rules are taken tends to be up to the academy owner though.

I’m a professor myself, but I never insist somebody call me professor. That would be nuts. I just let them call me whatever they’re comfortable with, but I don’t object to it if they do call me professor. There are some black belts who make a big fuss if you call them professor, going as far as making fun of the person who said it or going on a mad rant. I think that’s just rude. It’s just as bad as being one of the people who insist on being called professor!

I prefer a middle way. Some people like the whole rank and respect thing, I get that, and they’re just trying to be respectful by calling me Professor, so I appreciate their effort. I just don’t make a thing out of it.

I’ve always believed that trying to control what other people do or say too much never turns out well in the long run. The same can be applied to martial technique. Whenever I try and force something to happen in a sparring situation, it rarely turns out well, even if I’m really good at it! And this is where my personal philosophy in BJJ aligns perfectly with Tai Chi. I find it much better to ‘go with what the guy is giving you’ rather than to try and impose your will on them. If he’s giving you his leg then stop trying to go for his arm and take his goddamn leg and do something with that instead!

It’s amazing how simple this strategy sounds, but how hard it is to apply against somebody really trying to get you, with real resistance. It’s so tempting to try and ‘just do your thing’ and impose your will on the opponent. Yes, sure, this can work, and you see it work all the time in competition. The problem is it requires serious amounts of athleticism and effort to achieve. It’s a high risk, yet high reward strategy. And one of the risks is that you might get injured because you’re usually going to have to use some force against force. I’m too old for that type of game, and I’d also like to say, too wise, but that sounds a bit pompous, especially when I’m the same guy who just this morning tried to feed that cat my (human) breakfast cereal by mistake.

When you catch yourself doing that, it’s hard to think of yourself as a Sifu, Shifu or a Professor. You’re just a guy who wasn’t paying attention to what he was doing, and who now owns a cat with a newfound taste for Chocolate Chip Mini Weetabix.

Now bow to your Sensei!

Photo by Kelvin Valerio on

New podcast featuring… me! The Tai Chi Classics: Part 1.

In the latest episode of the Tai Chi Notebook podcast host Graham is left all on his own without a guest, so he’s decided to pick up a book and read it to you! He’s gone for The Tai Chi Classic, one of the core works which make up a collection known as The Tai Chi Classics. Graham goes through the text a paragraph at a time and gives his interpretation of what the classic is saying. We hope you enjoy!

The Tai Chi Classic

In motion, the whole body should be light and agile,

with all parts linked as if threaded together.

The chi should be activated,

The mind should be internally gathered.

The postures should be rounded and without defect,

without deviations from the proper alignment;

in motion, your form should be continuous, without stops and starts.

The jin should be

rooted in the feet,

generated from the legs,

controlled by the waist, and

expressed through the fingers.

The feet, legs, and waist should act together

as an integrated whole,

so that while advancing or withdrawing

one can take the opportunity for favorable timing

and good position.

If correct timing and position are not achieved,

the body will become disordered

and will not move as an integrated whole;

the correction for this defect

must be sought in the legs and waist.

The principle of adjusting the legs and waist

applies for moving in all directions;

upward or downward,

advancing or withdrawing,

left or right.

All movements are motivated by Yi,

not external form.

If there is up, there is down;

when advancing, have regard for withdrawing;

when striking left, pay attention to the right.

If the yi wants to move upward,

it must simultaneously have intent downward.

Alternating the force of pulling and pushing

severs an opponent’s root

so that he can be defeated

quickly and certainly.

Full and empty

should be clearly differentiated.

At any place where there is emptiness,

there must be fullness;

Every place has both emptiness and fullness.

The whole body should be threaded together through every joint

without the slightest break.

Long Boxing is like a great river

rolling on unceasingly.

Peng, Lu, Ji, An,

Tsai, Lieh, Zhou, and Kao

are equated to the Eight Trigrams.

The first four are the cardinal directions;

South; Heaven, North; Earth, West; Water, and East; Fire.

The second four are the four corners:

Southwest; Wind, Northeast; Thunder,

Southeast; Lake, and Northwest; Mountain.

Advance, Withdraw,

Look Left, Look Right, and

Central Equilibrium

are equated to the five elements:




Fire, and


Taken together, these are termed the Thirteen Postures

The military roots of Xing Yi

So, as a kind of counterpoint to my previous post questioning whether all Chinese martial arts come from military methods, I’d like to focus on one that definitely does – Xing Yi. Although, this really just emphasises my previous point because Xing Yi looks very different to most other Chinese martial arts and the reason it looks different is because it comes from weapons-based military methods and is therefore more concerened with military engagements than civilian. As our podcast series is showing, there is a verifiable historical connection between Xing Yi and soldiers – for example, the oldest historically verifiable practitioner linked to Xing Yi – Ji Long Feng, was a real life soldier in the Ming Dynasty army.

But the real reason you can tell Xing Yi descends from military methods is that you can simply look at it. The arms and legs are generally close together and close to the body, the posture is narrow and the direction of techniques is straight in front of you. Everything is done within the profile of the body. There are two main reasons for this 1) you were wearing armor and had to accommodate for the weight of it, and 2) you were using weapons, which were probably quite heavy, since they had to penetrate armor.

The Xing Yi we have today is what military arts would look like if you did them without wearing armor and using hand techniques instead of weapons. Of course, many people still do Xing Yi with a spear, but it’s rare to see anybody wearing armor doing it these days, which I think leads people to get the wrong idea about it.

Take a look at this video of my friend Byron Jacobs from Beijing doing Xing Yi Zuan Quan (Drilling fist). Look how tight everything is to the body and how the hands are kept within the profile of the body:

Here’s an example:

All this leads me to this excellent new video by Karate Nerd, Jessie Enkamp called “I trained like a Samurai for a day”. Here he gets Dr. Kacem Zoughari, a Japanese martial arts expert to take him around the Samurai Museum Berlin. It’s pretty interesting then half way through, it gets super interesting because he gets to wear old Samurai armor and have a go with a few authentic weapons. Now this is really valuable because he tries to do Karate movements in the armor and very quickly realises that it’s completely inefficient and exposes all the vital parts of the body to strikes from the opponent. The expert, Dr. Kacem Zoughari, gets him to change his movements so that everything happens within the profile of the body and makes him use the footwork, momentum and body to power the arm movements. The strikes become hidden, and tight to the body rather than telegraphed and open… and bingo! It starts to look just like Xing Yi! He suggests a cross step at one point and it looks a lot like Xing Yi Dragon step. The strikes he has to do start to look like parts of the 5 Elements – Pi, Beng, Tzuan.

Take a look:

Now you may be thinking Japanese armor isn’t the same as Chinese armor and therefore none of this is relevant, but you would be wrong. That armor at the top of this post is not Samurai armor, (although I bet if you took the average person off the street and asked them what it was they would think it was Samurai armor). It’s based on Chinese armor from the Song Dynasty. This would have been officer armor, not what your average soldier was wearing, but the same principles would apply – you want your movements to protect your vulnerable areas – the neck and joints in particular.

Xing Yi is based on these principles – minimal movement, a tight profile, using the body, momentum and the step to power the arms, strikes based on timing rather than speed, etc. And that’s why it looks so different to something like Karate or Norther Shaolin or Long Fist, etc.

Further reading:

Listen to parts 7 and 8 of our podcast on Xing Yi which focuses on Chinese armor and its influence on Xing Yi.

Internal elements of Wing Chun

Had another great Wing Chun lesson from Bear this week. This time we seemed to look at more and more principles that I would call “internal”, which again calls into question if these terms are really useful for describing martial arts…

I mentioned last time that he calls the Wing Chun straight punch a “sun punch” because the fist looks like the character Ri for Sun. Today we looked at two exercises for helping with chaining punches together. For the first one you use a towel. Hold both ends, and punch so it makes a kind of cracking sound. I’ve seen videos of “belt cracking” before, usually associated with Chinese Wrestling, but I have also seen videos of it used in Wing Chun before as well. The emphasis is on being relaxed and getting a nice sharp, crisp movement. And here’s the key – the pull back of the other hand is the important bit, not the punching hand.

In the second exercise you hold a rope around something vertical and solid, (we used a wooden drumstick from the drum kit in the lockup) and you punch holding the ends of the rope. The key to this one is that your rope should not pull on the object it is around, so you’re keeping everything inside a very fixed space. Again, the pull back hand is the initiator of the action, and if you focus on that you get a more relaxed, faster, punch.

While the first exercise was all in front of you, this one involves a muscle/tendon chain going up your arm and around your back and into the other arm. I’ve seen this described before as “tongbei” or “though the back” power. I’m sure I heard Bear say “Bu Bei” which means back or rear, so I’m going to assume we’re talking about the same thing.

He does these punches very, very fast and explosively. Faster than the eye can see. He points out that it’s all about being relaxed, so the power can be “all though the arm” not just in the fist, which it is if you are tense. And the initiator of the punch is the non-punching hand moving backwards.

At one point he says “arrow punch”, and looks at me. I say “Beng Chuan?” And he says “yes!”. He seems to be saying that this is the same as Xing Yi’s Beng Chuan, just without the footwork. That’s something to think about.

When he punches he seems to also emphasise the root in the foot, so the power is coming up from the ground (sound familiar?) and he uses all the joints of the body, in a chain, ending in the fist.

I asked him why, when he punches, he uses his whole body in a very expressive way, with this ‘through the back’ kind of power and dynamic footwork, the “Little idea” form is different? When we train “Little idea” the requirements are very strict – the body stays still and the arm just punches on its own. I think (through translation) the answer was that you are learning to release tension in “Little idea” and not expressing power, so think of it as a conditioning exercise to give you the sort of body that can be used later for more expressive Wing Chun punches and kicks.

So, it appears that once you look beyond the surface-level things about Wing Chun, I’m finding principles that fit right in with Tai Chi and Xing Yi. I look forward to whatever we learn next.

Are all Chinese martial arts really ex-military arts?

I think this post is perhaps a little half formed, but I want to get on to writing up my last lesson with Bear, so I’m going to put it out as is. Let the pieces fall where they may…

An interesting new video has been released by Will (a recent guest on my Tai Chi Notebook podcast) about his recent visit to Taiwan where he got to talk to various Taiwanese martial arts masters. It’s the start of a series and it looks like it’s going to be great – Will gets to walk down the smokey back alleys of Taiwan to find the martial artists and martial arts schools in Taiwan you wish you could. What’s not to like? Watch it here:

The blurb reads: “In the first episode, I meet up with my friend John Eusebio @longfistmantis to visit the bookstore of Liu Kang Yi. Mr Liu’s bookstore, Wuxue Shuguan has a huge collection of martial arts books, in both Chinese and English, and he has also spent decades collecting old and rare manuscripts. In this video he shares his insights on the development of martial arts from a military combat art, to an integrated system of both combat and health practice, as we see it today. He also shows us a copy of the Bubishi, the foundational manual of Okinawan Karate.”

Mr Liu talks about internal training, and how it relates to strengthening the tendons and fascia of the body, so that it can toughen and that can lead to more strength “qi” in the body. This all seems fairly accurate to me. (There’s discussion to be had about whether these methods were always a part of Chinese marital arts, or added in later from a different tradition, but that’s by the by). Then he talks about the 3 phases of development of Chinese martial arts, which is the part I wanted to pick up on.

To paraphrase, he says, the first is only martial training and not cultivating: it’s pure combat. No focus on health. This is the military period. The second is once it entered the civilian population. They train both combat and cultivate health, but separately, developing things like Yijinjing and Baduanjing. The third evolution was to combine combat and health, to bring both aspects together. Taijiquan is a good example of this.

Now, this is not a bad way of looking at the evolution of Chinese martial arts, but I think it’s a bit reductive, and crucially, it misses out a lot of other influences.

It’s a view that is not dissimilar to Peter Lorge’s in the book Chinese Martial Arts: From Antiquity to the Twenty-First Century which is that marital arts were all originally military arts and over time were simply dispersed from the army into civilian life.

Lorge’s position is laid out clearly in the introduction to his book starts with this:

I actually really enjoyed Peter’s lecture about the history of Chinese martial arts at the Martial Arts Studies conference 2017, but it seems that both Mr Lorge and Mr Liu both view Chinese martial arts as a kind of offshoot of military training, and nothing more, and in both cases the subject doesn’t even seem to be up for debate, it’s just presented as self obvious. The parallel between both of them is that they are relying only on written sources as their research into the matter. In fact, a lot of the cultural traditions of ‘common folk’ were not recorded, since writing belonged to the upper classes.

Now, I’ll admit, there can be no doubt that the intermingling of civilian and military life had a massive influence on martial arts practiced by people in villages, particularly after the Ming Dynasty army was disbanded and returned to civilian life after its defeat by the invading Manchu’s, who seized control of Beijing in 1644. Xing Yi in particular is one of the martial arts that traces its origins to that event, to military methods kept alive by ex soldiers who were now civilians who had had their weapons taken away. A review of Xing Yi’s existing methods and techniques today reveals a clear bias towards methods that work with a spear, which would have been the dominant weapon in the military for soldiers, and also a concern for facing an attacker who is in front of you, not to the side, which is another feature of military arts. However, most other Chinese marital arts are more biased towards barehand actions than weapons, contain sometimes elaborate sequences that would appear to be more at home on a stage than in a street fight, or involve making specific hand gestures or actions that hint at a ritual quality, that it’s clear, to me at least, that something more is going on here. Rather than just military methods being translated into personal self-protection methods, we are seeing other influences.

In China, there is a long history of martial arts being used in religious ritual, festival culture, spirit possession, street entertainment, Xiqu (Chinese theatre) and Wuxia (which literally means “martial heroes”, a genre of Chinese fiction concerning the adventures of martial artists in ancient China). I think those traditions have as much influence on the martial arts passed down to us today as the military does, and in a lot of cases, more. But, if you mention this to proponents of the “pure pugilism” brand of martial artist, they usually try and explain to you that all these things came out of marital arts. i.e. martial arts came first, and the dance/performance/theatre/ritual, etc came second. In fact, Lorge argues exactly this at 43.00 minutes in his lecture (which I still enjoyed!), despite cataloging wrestling going back centuries as pure entertainment for the Royal Court. This attempt to explain away the obvious flaw reminds me of when people present funky martial applications to form movements that clearly don’t look like marital movements. There are some frankly ridiculous martial application out there from well know teachers who, rather than just admitting that there’s no real martial application of this move that makes any sense, come up with something that just looks silly.

I’ve talked to a lot of martial artists on my podcast (20 episodes so far!) and I quite often broach this subject to see what kind of reaction I get, and I’ve found that the martial artists who live in Asia, or have lived there for some time, tend to have no problem with the idea that Chinese martial arts is a broad church of methods derived from various traditions. It tends to be the people outside of that culture who have a problem with what they’re learning not being a super-deadly killing art created for one purpose only – to be the best fighter! I suppose it’s because so many of these cultural traditions are still alive and well in Asia today that it’s hard to deny their existence. Just look around you. Martial arts training halls tend to have shrines in them where incense is burned as part of a religious ritual. Or the martial arts school participates in local religious festivals by enacting Lion and Dragon Dance routines, or giving a demonstration of martial arts. Or there is a semi-religious ceremony involved in becoming an indoor disciple, etc.

I think two things are going on here. First there’s a reaction against the modern Chinese trend of turning marital arts into a gymnastic demonstrations instead of fighting arts, and secondly there’s a reaction against the modern trend for making Chinese martial arts appear as spiritual and mystical in the same way Yoga is.

As Charles Holcomb wrote in 1990 , “Everywhere in China the martial arts either present themselves in the guise of simple exercises or are shrouded in arcane religious mysteries. Western enthusiasts often feel impelled to strip away these religious trappings and construct a version of the martial arts that is neither simple gymnastics nor religion, but emphasizes true hand-to-hand combat skills. The question remains, is this an authentic understanding of the martial arts?” [1]

I think that process of trying to present the martial arts as true hand-to-hand combat skills is very much alive and well today, I mean, its probably what most people are looking for when they start Kung Fu. I certainly was. But I think it’s also something of a reaction to the introduction of Chinese martial arts to the West, which came off the back of the Kung Fu TV series (which presented martial arts as mystical from Shaolin monks) and followed off the back of mystics like Alan Watts who presented a very counter culture sort of take on Eastern religion.

While there’s nothing wrong with that, my feeling is that it misses out on the wider, and weirder, historical context of the arts we practice today. They’re a rich blend of various traditions, and we should treat them as such.

[1] Theater of combat: A critical look at the Chinese martial arts by Charles Holcombe, Historian. Vol. 52 No. 3 May.1990. Pp. 411-431 Copyright by Michigan State University Press

[2] Photo by Kevin Jackson on Unsplash

Starting Wing Chun

Due to a series of fortuitous events, this week I ended up learning Wing Chun for a couple of hours from a teacher from Hong Kong in a cold, damp, lockup somewhere off the beaten track in an industrial estate. As we ran through the opening sequence of the “little idea” form, (Siu Lim Tao), the glare of the electric light bulb cast our stationary shadows out through the open door into the dark, rainy yard outside and I remember thinking that this really felt like the real thing. I could feel the magic of Kung Fu here.

We are learning from “Bear”, a nickname we have created from his family name (Xiong). Bear has long hair and glasses and has a kind of laid back vibe. He seems more interested in being friendly and making friends than fighting. He speaks very little English, but YaYa his girlfriend does and acts as his translator. I’d say about 60% of it gets through, the rest I can hopefully work out thanks to my previous martial training.

He’s built a bit like a bear too – he takes his top off so we can see his arms – his tendons and muscles are clearly very conditioned and big, yet his arms feel soft to the touch. He used to train “5 hours a day when I was reading”, which I think means when he was a student.

He doesn’t have an ego at all. He demonstrates his speed all the time, but without hitting us, just stopping short – but at the same time his instruction is incredibly precise and demanding. Parts of the body have to move and other parts must stay still. He touches my arm and says “Ooooh! Very sung”, which I’ll take as a compliment 🙂

The concrete floor is damp and slippy, but luckily we are not doing footwork yet. We have to bend our legs all the time, as if sitting on a stool and grip with our inner thighs as if riding a horse. The night air is cool and the breeze blows in through the open door as we go through the opening movements of Siu Lim Tao, over and over.

I’m used to bending my wrist back so the fingers are vertical to form “praying hand”, and sitting down into my stance as if riding a horse, thanks to years of training other styles, but my companions are not, so there is a lot of stretching out aching legs and talk about how to condition tendons so wrists can be bent back further.

The three of us have ended up here after a chance meeting, and a lot of mistranslation. I was initially told that my friend had met Bruce Lee’s nephew who was going to teach us Wing Chun. OK, I thought, it was unlikely but theoretically possible that he could be Bruce Lee’s nephew, but the “nephew” bit turned out to be a mistranslation based on the word “Sifu” meaning both father and teacher. So, he’s a “marital nephew”, but not a family nephew. But who cares, we are all here now learning together and we’re having a great time, so I’m going with it. You can learn from any good teacher, and the chance to learn a new martial art is always a great opportunity.

Bear pulls out a book, which looks like a hand-written training notes, and starts to tell us the story of the creation of Wing Chun, which YaYa translates. It was, we are told, created from “the observation of a snake and a goose fighting”. (I suspect he really means crane). The goose(!) uses its wings in a kind of sideways swiping action, like Wing Chun’s Bong Sau. The key feature of the snake, Bear emphasises, is that it doesn’t retreat to strike, it just strikes from where it’s at. Bear pulls out his phone and shows us this clip from ‘Enter the Dragon’ where Bruce fights O’Hara to demonstrate:

I’d thought of Wing Chun as being more based on lots of relaxed arm trapping, but Bear seems much more interested in striking as quickly and explosively as he can, with minimal movement, which I think he was trying to tell us was the point of training the “little idea” form, very much like Bruce in this clip. Not big movement – minimal movement. There seems to be a snap on the end of everything, too, and he says the words “fa jin”, which Tai Chi people should be familiar with, quite often.

Having read all these snake and crane origin stories for years, not to mention hearing stories of many of my own British teachers having to work out what their Chinese teacher was actually saying through the limitations of translation, I’m finding this experience of living the tradition quite magical.

Towards the end he starts showing us some kicks and these are fast, low and look very cool. He wants us to fix some tires on the wall to practice kicks on. He seems to pendulum his upper body backwards as his legs flash forward, as if avoiding a head strike and countering low. The impression I get is that whatever we are learning it’s not designed for a long protracted engagement. It’s quick, to the point and you get it over with then move on. I’m looking forward to learning more next week.

To be continued.

A simple exercise for opening and closing in Tai Chi

The plum tree in my garden is blossoming, and that can mean only one thing: Spring is here!

Without getting too poetic about it, the potential energy trapped within the tree over Winter is releasing and opening out to the world. So, in keeping with the cycle of the seasons, let’s return our Tai Chi practice to a similar aspect – opening and closing.

All Chinese martial arts contain movements that open and close the body, but I’d go as far as to say that a repeated pattern of opening and closing your body in movement is the fundamental action of Tai Chi Chuan. It’s perhaps the one thing that makes Tai Chi Chuan (Taijiquan) different to other Chinese martial arts.

For instance, a lot of Southern Chinese arts contain movements where the body is tightly closed under tension and then this tension is used to produce a tightly focussed sort of short power. White Crane is a good example – I really like this video of Martin Watts showing the connection between Chinese White Crane and the roots of Japanese Karate, for example.

Then there are also Chinese martial arts that use ‘open’ postures a lot, and produce power from the big turning actions of the waist and shoulders – Choy Li Fut is a good example of this.

Of course, both these arts make use of both opening and closing movements in application, but what makes Taijiquan different is that it seems to have a rule that the body must constantly cycle through a series of opening and closing postures. You can see this when you look at Tai Chi forms – it shouldn’t matter which style you’re looking at, the opening and closing movements should follow each other in a cycle, very much like the Yin Yang symbol. If you imagine the Yin Yang symbol turning in a clockwise direction then the white fish becomes the black fish, which becomes the white fish, and on and on.

Silk Reeling exercises are a great way to focus on understanding open and close movements, as you just keep repeating the same pattern over and over, so your brain doesn’t get occupied thinking about the movement you are doing next (as it would in a Tai Chi form) and you can focus on the opening and closing actions.

So, what are the opening and closing actions? Well, I went over it in a video series a while ago. You can watch it here:

But it takes a while to watch all that series, so long story short, here’s a written explanation: an opening movement generally stretches out the front of the body (the Yin side – the soft parts, like the inside of the arms, and thigh, calves, and belly) and a closing movement generally stretches out the back of the body (the Yang side – the harder parts, like back of the arms, back and outside of the thighs and shins).

You can see these actions everywhere in nature: Cats tend to stretch along the front and back (yin and yang) of the body when stretching. (And it’s the same with the Yoga “Cat stretch” posture). But you see them in humans too – when you do one of those involuntary yawning/stretching movements in the morning, it tends to be opening the chest (yin stretch), occasionally followed up by a Yang side stretch.

It’s been noted that animals running are opening and closing the Yin and Yang sides of their bodies in sequence. So, this opening and closing action is fundamental to human and animal movement and the more we can utilise it, the more we are returning to our own natural systems of movement. Now, I don’t want to get sidetracked into a debate on what exactly “natural” movement is, but simply put, this opening and closing movement done in the human body feels good, it seems to put you in a good mood and you feel like your body and mind are returning to the way they are supposed to work. It requires less effort to perform tasks using it because it’s very efficient and it feels natural. If you watch skilled workmen and women then you’ll notice that they tend to gravitate towards easy body movements that have this natural opening and closing quality. Many of the people in ancient China who practised kung fu systems would have been agricultural village works who were familiar with natural movement patterns through necessity.

4 Directions Breathing exercise

Silk reeling exercises belong to the Chen style of Taijiquan, and while I (a Yang stylist) have no problem borrowing what works from other styles, a lot of Tai Chi practitioners might not want to do something from another style. However, almost all Qi Gong/Tao Yin type breathing exercises follow the same idea of opening along the Yin side of the body and closing along the Yang side that you find in Silk Reeling exercises.

You probably have some sort of exercise already that’s in your system to try this with, but let’s try one simple exercise to get our heads around the idea of open and close.

Stand in a Horse stance,

  1. Breathe in as you bring your hands up facing you and then move them around a large imaginary ball that’s in front of your chest, so that your hands are facing away from you.
  2. Push the imaginary ball forward away from you as you breathe out.
  3. Turn the hands over and bring them back in towards you as you breathe in, going around the outside of the ball.
  4. Push to the sides as you breathe out.
  5. Bring the hands back in, circling the ball, getting underneath it as you breathe in.
  6. Push upwards as you breathe out.
  7. Bring the hands back in, circling the ball, getting on top of it as you breathe in.
  8. Push downwards as you breathe out.
  9. Bring the hands back in, going around the ball as you breathe in.
  10. Let the palms face down and hands return to your sides as you breathe out.

Adding the opening and closing:

As you bring your arms up and towards you and go around a big ball that’s the opening movement. You can feel the slight stretch opening around the chest area, and you use that slight tension to help push your hands forward. As you do you’ll feel a slight stretch developing along your back. That’s the closing movement. You then use that slight tension to help bring your arms back. This is opening. Then as the arms push to the side, this is closing, and so on.

Here’s a video of me doing it:

Don’t use muscle

You often hear Tai Chi teachers say things like “don’t use muscle”. Normally this drives me mad, as you can’t physically make a movement without using muscles! However, what they’re really talking about is using that slight stretch you can feel to power the movement instead of just moving as you normally would, which results in making it “too physical” for Tai Chi. Finding the right words here is a delicate balance, but what we’re looking for is more of a whole body movement.

Final words

It helps to work on this in a stationary exercise, as described, but when you try your Tai Chi form, try and focus on keeping that feeling of opening and closing going throughout the whole form. The opening and closing movements are already there in the form, it’s up to you to reveal them. It’s a way of approaching the form from the inside, rather than the outside. So, if you’ve been struggling to get a movement to feel right in your form, it could be that the method described here will solve the problem for you. For it to work you have to be “sung” (relaxed) and focused on what you’re doing and the feelings inside the body. If your mind wanders off then inevitably so will your form. This is the start of what we call in the Tai Chi Classics “internal and external combine”.

Further reading: Turning Qigongs into functional Qi exercises

Xing Yi 5 Elements Fighting drill

Compared to solo forms in Chinese martial arts, a lot of questions you might have about why we do this, or don’t do that, are immediately obvious in application on a living, moving human being. And if they don’t make sense in that context, then you have to start asking yourself if what you’re practicing really has any point at all?

Switching the emphasis away from solo form doesn’t mean you have to be doing a sort of life and death battlefield combat every time you practice, it just means you need to be thinking about the other person, not yourself, so much.

Here’s one drill we practice in our Xing Yi system, called “5 Elements Fighting” – in its most basic form (shown here) it’s two people following the creative/destructive sequence of the 5 elements, so for example, your partner attacks with metal, you respond with fire, he responds with water, and so on. Later on you can improvise and vary the elements more so that you respond to metal with wood, or earth, for example. You can also add methods in from the 12 animals. But the idea is to keep a spontaneous feel, even if you’re following a set pattern, as we are here.

Which is a better compliment to Taijiquan – Judo or BJJ?

Occasionally, I get questions and this one was a good one, so I thought I’d post my answer here. The question was: Is Judo or BJJ a better compliment to Taijiquan?

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“It’s an interesting question! BJJ has less rules about what you aren’t allowed to do, and is therefore closer to self defence, but it depends on the school you go to – Judo is pretty much the same everywhere you go. I’d say both are good. My personal preference is for BJJ because it isn’t as hard on the body and I prefer ground work to throws. If you’re more interested in throws then do Judo.

If you want something that is Chinese, then Shuai Jiao would be a good compliment to Taijiquan, however, it’s hard to find outside of China. There are some online courses available.

But I think my real answer is that it’s not the art that matters, it’s the teacher. Find a teacher you like who is skillful at something, and learn whatever they have to teach you is my advice. I think in the long run that matters more than what art you choose.”

Tai Chi Notebook Podcast Episode 21: Will Wain Williams on Taiji Mantis, BJJ and travel in Asia

My guest for this episode is Will Wain Williams. Will has a background in Taiji Mantis Kung Fu, which he trained in China, where he also lived for 13 years. He’s traveled around Asia documenting ancient Kung Fu systems for his YouTube Channel Monkey Steals Peach ( ).

I talk to Will’s about his travels documenting kung fu styles, as well as his upcoming trip to Taiwan and how he’s recently started Brazilian Jiujitsu.

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