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!

 

 

Tai Chi’s Rollback: A deep dive

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Split, like Rollback, is one of Tai Chi’s 8 energies. It’s also one of the most commonly found of the 8 energies in the Tai Chi form. Almost every technique you see in Tai Chi Chuan (Taijiquan) uses Split energy to a greater or lesser degree.

I’ve seen Split described as spiral energy, a takedown or a breaking force. But all of those things miss the point – they describe its effects, not what it really is.

Split is really the energy of two things moving in opposite directions. If you move two things in a circle in opposite directions you create a spiral. When you do applications on somebody with spiral actions the result is usually a takedown. And you can’t break any joint without directing force in two different directions. For example, if you kick somebody’s leg it’s unlikely to break unless that leg is locked against something that doesn’t move, like say, the ground.

This brings us on to how Split is applied in Tai Chi Chuan.

In Tai Chi you want your hands to be clearly differentiated from each other. One hand needs to be active, the other passive. One empty, and the other solid. One Yin, one Yang. If you don’t do this then you enter a state known as being double weighted. As it says in the classics:

Sinking to one side allows movement to flow;
being double-weighted is sluggish.

Anyone who has spent years of practice and still cannot neutralize,
and is always controlled by his opponent,
has not apprehended the fault of double-weightedness.

To avoid the fault of double-weightedness, which hand is the yin one and which is the yang one must change continually and ceaselessly as you go through the movements of the Tai Chi form. Tai Chi Chuan should always be in a state of change, just like the Tai Chi symbol itself is.

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Image by Pixabay.

 

If it’s not in a state of change then it’s stuck. Calling something double-weighted is another way of saying that it’s stuck.

Split is usually applied along with another of the 8 energies. One example I wanted to look at today is Rollback. Rollback, or Lu energy, is the most yin of all Tai Chi’s 8 energies. It’s almost the absence of energy. When being confronted with active Yang energy, Lu is the energy of retreating or yielding. Its movement is usually inwards.

The technique called Rollback in the Tai Chi form gets its name from Lu energy, but also mixes in a bit of Split energy.

If you look at this picture of Yang Cheng Fu doing Rollback you can see the differentiation in his hands.

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This left hand is withdrawing and pulling, but his right hand is pressing downwards.

In the action of Rollback your left-hand starts off as the active one with a guiding pull on the attacker’s wrist, but the right one then takes over as the active hand with a strong pressing down action onto the attacker’s elbow area.

I found a really old video of me doing rollback in push hands, so you can see what I mean:

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At the start of the motion my left hand is the active one, then the right hand takes over with the pressing down movement.

Throughout the whole Tai Chi form, you should be aware of this interplay of energy between not just the palms but the other parts of the body too. If you can notice it in the palms, with one hand being the active one and the other the passive one, and then exchanging positions, you can start to notice it in the feet, the legs and so on.

Once you can do this over the whole body then you can distinguish yin and yang throughout your form and you will no longer be at the risk of exhibiting double weighting.

 

 

The upsidedown world of Tai Chi

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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.

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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.”

 

 

 

 

Stand still, breathe better

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Have you noticed that some people always seem a little bit out of breath? Especially when they talk. I think it’s a problem of posture. Not a huge posture discrepancy, like bending over or tilting to the side, perhaps not even anything visible, but just a slight incline here or slump there that has become ingrained, causing the body to work harder than it needs to draw in oxygen.

I just read a great article that talks about the correct mechanics of breathing, which I’ll quote:

Here’s how breathing is supposed to work, according to the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute:
  • The abdominal muscles relax while your diaphragm contracts downward, pushing all your guts out of the way.
  • Your intercostal muscles contract to expand your rib cage, lowering the air pressure in your lungs and creating a vacuum in the chest cavity.
  • Air flows through your nose and mouth in response to the vacuum.
  • The intercostal muscles and diaphragm relax while the abdominal muscles contract, pushing air out of the lungs.

 

Breathing is an automatic process that should be happening effortlessly, yet we mess about with it far too much.

So what does this have to do with Tai Chi you might be asking? Well the posture requirements needed to achieve the optimum style of breathing are provided by correct application of Tai Chi principles. I find standing upright with the head ‘as if suspended from above’, as it says in the Tai Chi classics and a relaxed upper body is the key. When we slump in even a minor way we impinge the correct functioning of the breathing process.

One of the best ways to train this is in Zhan Zhuang, “stake standing” postures, because it takes the complexity of movement out of the equation. With regular practice your general sense of being upright tends to improve.

One of the best free sources of information on Zhan Zhuang is the Channel 4 TV series Stand Still, Be Fit! that breaks it down into easy 10 minute lessons.

Notice that there’s no specific advice on breathing, but a lot of attention is paid on alignment and posture. The idea is that with correct posture, the breathing becomes natural again and follows what the Taoists called ‘the way’.

Clear as a glass of water. Do you have the patience to wait
till your mud settles and the water is clear?
Can you remain unmoving
till the right action arises by itself? The Master doesn’t seek fulfillment.
Not seeking, not expecting,
she is present, and can welcome all things.”

Tao Te Ching – chapter 15

 

Tai Chi is open and close happening simultaneously

 

Wu Jienquan not lean

Wu Jianquan

Tai Chi is opening and closing happening simultaneously.

That’s one of the secrets of Tai Chi, right there. Unfortunately, as with much of the truths about Tai Chi Chuan, the statement doesn’t make any sense unless you already know what it means.

As an art, much of Tai Chi is self secret like this. In one way that’s frustrating, but in another way it’s freeing because it means teachers don’t have to hold things back. The secrets reveal themselves over time.

Look at the Tai Chi Classics, for example. They’re a collection of pithy martial arts sayings that hide deeper meanings. “5 ounces of force deflects a thousand pounds“, “Walk like a cat.“, “Store up the jin like drawing a bow.”, etc.

Many of the sayings in these documents don’t mean anything to people reading them who don’t already understand them. So, there’s no risk in losing ‘the secrets of the art’ by publishing them, which is perhaps one reason why the Tai Chi classics are in wide circulation, while other martial styles keep their writings secret, held only within families.

Perceiving opening and closing

When you’re doing your form, can you perceive movements that are obvious opening movements, and movements that are obviously closing movements?

It’s good if you can. If you can’t then think about this – roll back (lu) is clearly a closing movement, and ward off (Peng) is obviously and opening movement. Look for the same actions in the other movements. On the opening movements, the body expands outwards. On the closing movements the body contracts inwards.

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Yang Cheng Fu – Roll back

But that’s not the end of the story.

If you’re perceiving the form like this – a series of opening and closing movements that happen one after the other, then you’re not quite on the right track.

The key is that the opening and closing are both happening all the time simultaneously. So, as one part of the body is closing whilst another part is opening.

Look at the yin yang symbol. If you follow it around in a circle with your eye you can see that as one aspect grows stronger, the other aspect diminishes, but is also being born again and growing. It goes on in an endless cycle.

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It’s these cycles you need to pay attention to in the form. It should feel like this cycle of opening and closing movements is going on with one movement giving birth to the next, rather than perceiving them two separate movements where one starts, then stops, then the other starts and stops. The movement is continuous. It goes out, it comes back, it goes out again.

Silk reeling circles

Let’s break this down into something more tangible.

A while ago I made a video course on the basic single handed silk reeling exercise. This exercise is great because it gives you a chance to work on opening and closing in a relatively simple movement.

Out of the whole course, part 1 is probably the most relevant video to explain what I mean:

Here’s what I’m doing in the video: I’m looking for a slight stretch across the front of my body and a slight stretch across the back of my body (the yin/yang aspects). As the arm goes out the front of the body gradually becomes more taught until there’s enough tension there that I can use it to pull the arm back in. As the arm comes back in, the back of the body becomes slightly more taught until there’s enough tension there to use it to expand the arm outwards. This is all integrated with reverse breathing which powers everything from the Dan Tien area. It’s a very stretchy, rubber band-like practice.

You can start with big, crude circles, but work down to smaller more subtle circles.

But ultimately you’re looking for the feeling of the cycle of yin and yang, opening and closing going on in the body.

It’s this feeling that you need to take into the Tai Chi form where opening and closing happening simultaneously through a myriad of different movements.

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.

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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.

 

The concept of ‘flow’ in martial arts

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Tai Chi is infused with the concept of flow, but what does that actually mean? What does ‘flow’ mean in this context?

We are used to seeing Tai Chi practitioners in parks performing graceful, flowing movements. In fact, that’s what we expect to see whenever somebody mentions “Tai Chi”, but as usual, it’s what’s underneath the water that matters, not what we see on the surface.

The Tai Chi classics state:

Chang Ch’uan [Long Boxing] is like a great river
rolling on unceasingly.”

This points to the continuous nature of Tai Chi boxing. Techniques don’t really start and stop, they all merge into one continuous movement.

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Sun Lu Tang, Tai Chi.

 

Acquiring this skill in the Tai Chi form is actually quite difficult. For a start, people tend to speed up or slow down during a form performance. They speed up on the bits they like and slow down on the bits they find hard.

Another common fault is posturing – pausing serenely in postures that are being held, if only for a moment. It’s equal and opposite infraction is too much merging – movements get mushed into each other without one finishing properly before the other begins.

I’d say it takes a good few months of continual practice, focusing on just continuity, to iron these faults out of a Tai Chi form

The deeper lesson in continuous movement is that you are constantly recycling the ‘energy’ in the form. When you break a movement, or stop, you are not keeping everything flowing, and you lose the power of momentum. They fall flat.

This links back to the idea of Yin and Yang being in constant flux, with change as the only constant. These ideas are as old as the hills, but find their expression most often in Taoist thought.

In a recent TED talk Adrien Stoloff looks at what Wuwei (The Taoist concept of non-action, and flow) mean.

Adrien discusses flow and wuwei, and how recent research in cognitive neuroscience suggests what may be happening in the brain when we experience flow or wuwei. Adrien Stoloff is a doctoral candidate in Asian Religious Traditions. He is interested in Chinese religious beliefs and practices from the late Warring States period to the Early Han Dynasty (approximately 5th-2nd centuries BCE). Specifically, Adrien’s research focuses on the Classical Daoist phenomenon of wuwei. Translated as “effortless action,” wuwei is a state of being in which one acts effortlessly yet efficiently in a given situation. His dissertation project uses an approach informed by tools in the field of religious studies – textual and historical analysis – as well as by the fields of philosophy and cognitive science:

 

The dance/fight game

If there’s one martial art that really emphasises the concept of ‘flow’ then it’s Capoeira. The Brazilian dance/fight martial art where two participants enact a kind of spontaneous, improvised martial dance set to music.

Clearly your connection to the other person in Capoeira transcends the physical connection we find in Tai Chi push hands, and it has to be in place or you end up with a foot to the face. That’s Tai Chi’s Ting Jing (Listening energy) on steroids.

Even as an outsider to Capoeira, I can tell when the practitioners are connected to each other, and when they’re not. When the focus is more on athletic ability and directed inwards the two practitioners don’t seem to melt together into one dance – they retain their separate selves. The type of Capoeira I like to watch is where the two practitioners become one – responding and reacting in real time to each other.

And of course, with the rhythm of the music and a focus on connecting there’s all the potential for it to cross over into ‘spirit dance’, where you connect to the wider environment.

I looked for some beginner capoeira videos recently and found these which I thought presented some basic moves that I could copy. I had a go at this video below this morning and I was surprised by how difficult (but also fun) even these ‘basic’ moves are.

I mean, I can do it badly. Anybody can do it badly. But trying to do it with the smoothness and flow that the practitioner demonstrates above is a different matter.

If you wanted to get more ‘flow’ in your movement, I think this could be a good place to start.

Gu Ru Zhang style Tai Chi Chuan

I posted this video of me doing Tai Chi in the rain back in 2012. This is a short form derived from the full long Yang form of Gu Ru Zhang (Ku Yu Chang) the famous “King of Iron Palm” from Hong Kong.

You see the famous picture of him breaking tiles without spacers quite a lot:

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Gu Ru Zhang

Gu Ru Zhang’s style of Tai Chi is still quite rare. It’s from the Yang family originally, but had some input from his friend Sun Lu Tang, and you sometimes see it incorectly called Sun Style.

Gu published a book in 1936 on Tai Chi called “Tai Chi Boxing”, which you can find translated on the Brenan Translation website.

I’ve done various different styles of Tai Chi, but I always come back to this form. It’s my favourite. Anyway, here’s my video:

XingYi footwork explained

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Byron Jacobs has another video out in his XingYi series, this time focussing on footwork. If you’re after the basics of XingYi then this is the best place to start. I think footwork is especially important in XingYi as much of the defending is done not by deflecting things (like you find in Tai Chi) but by moving your feet.

“Chicken leg” forms one of the requirements of San Ti Shi, and refers to the ability to keep most of your weight on one foot so the other is free to move.

Take a look:

Byron also has another episode of his Drunken Boxing podcast out, also worth a watch/listen. This podcast is about what it’s like to actually live and train martial arts in China. This time he’s talking to Michael Ashley Wix, who is a student of Beijing Shuai Jiao Master Li Baoru (李宝如).

“Originally from New Zealand, Michael has lived in Beijing for 23 years learning various Chinese martial arts, including studying for 3 years at the Beijing University of Sport, and studying Yi quan for 5 years.

Michael was involved in the early development of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and MMA in China, and introduced Chinese wrestlers to the sport with champion Yao Honggang being one of them.

One of Michael’s missions is promoting and preserving Shuai Jiao which he used to do through the popular but now defunct website Shuaijiao.tv. Currently, he is working on publishing Master Li Baoru’s extensive body of books and articles.”

 

 

The Tai Chi Miasma, or “No, the fight is not over just because you’ve got me off balance.”

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I had an interesting chat with another Tai Chi teacher this week. Generally, Tai Chi teachers are nice people who have trained hard at something for a number of years and developed a lot of skill in it. They’re often not that into the martial side of the art, (even if they say they are), yet they’ve managed to pick up a lot of what I call “Tai Chi Miasma” along the way.

(If you want to know what a Miasma is, I do a podcast about the subject and how it reverberates through human history. Click the link above. A brief summation of Tai Chi Miasma would be, “a set of unconscious and often faulty assumptions about combat influenced by Tai Chi training”, but I’d also have to include a lot of Chinese miasma about yin and yang, qi and tao that was incorporated into Tai Chi by the influence of the Neo Confucian Zhu Xi amongst the intellectual class.)

For example, I find that there’s a pervasive belief amongst Tai Chi practitioners that the fight is effectively over once they have taken your balance. They’ll say things like, “once I’ve got you off balance I can walk you around the room”.

I’m sorry to break it to you (pun intended) but no, the fight is not over just because you have broken my balance!

It’s not over even if you get me off balance and whack me in the face, unless I’m unconscious or too hurt to continue by your deadly 5 point exploding palm technique.

Yes, I’m sure you’ve seen your master controlling people with the lightest of touches and walking them around the room in a wrist lock or arm control of some kind, but that’s happening in a controlled training environment. In real life, it’s not like that.

Just watch any combat sport with live training against resistance. Say wrestling or judo. The players are in a constant state of flux. They are losing their balance and regaining it over and over. Often they willingly sacrifice their balance for a superior position.

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Judo. It’s crazy.

They get thrown, they get taken down, they get pinned, but they fight their way back up and go again. The fight is not over just because one person takes the other’s balance, however skilfully or with the lightest of touches they did it.

“Ah!”, they say, “but once you get them off balance it’s easy to keep them off balance. ”

No, no it’s not.

Just look at MMA. MMA is an even better example than pure grappling arts because it involves strikes. Sometimes the strikes are controlled and orderly, but a lot of the time, especially after people get hurt and tired, there are wild punches being thrown looking for a KO, resulting in people falling all over the place, people slipping, kicks missing, etc.

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MMA. It’s painful.

The 80/20 rule.

In grappling sports, people spend a lot of time training what to do after the balance has been taken – or “finishing moves” if you like. That’s where 80% of the training is, because they know it’s not easy and they want to secure the win.

In contrast, Tai Chi partner work seems to be 80% about balance taking and 20% about what to do afterwards… if you’re lucky.

That’s fine if you are aware of that, but not fine if you then start to make grand pronouncements about what would happen in a combat situation because you’ve been told about what should happen next in the method you are teaching, rather than your direct experience.

Yes, I’m making a huge generalisation, and I’m sure it doesn’t apply to YOUR school. [wink emoji for sarcasm] But allow me the exaggeration to make my point.

By the way, I’m sure I have my own martial arts miasma too. We all do, but what I’m saying is that we should be aware of it.

Catch yourself saying these things about what should happen next, or what would happen next, if you can. Let your actions speak, not your words.

There’s nothing wrong with focussing on balance breaking. It’s fun, and skilful, and nobody is getting hurt, but also make it a point to spend significant time sparring with resistance.

It keeps you honest.