Tai Chi is still too deadly for the cage

I’m going to have a bit of a rant today, so bear with me.

I read this quote today:

“Why should everything always be measured by competition MMA standards? Rules and protections so people won’t get hurt, judges, mats, doctors standing beside the ring, and months for the people to prepare before a fight… So those are the standards of “high level fighting”?

Now, don’t get me wrong. I tend to agree with his idea that not everything should be judged by MMA standards. There are lots of reasons to do a martial art, and it doesn’t all have to be about competition in a ring, but then he immediately self immolates by implying that MMA is safe, tame or sanitised, compared to the glorious killing art he practices. This “my art is too deadly for the ring” argument is as old as the UFC. We often hear it from internal martial artists – particularly Tai Chi people. And despite it being obvious nonsense, it never seems to go away.

People who talk like this simply don’t know what they’re talking about, so I really should just ignore them and go and do something more interesting instead,but just for my own sanity, let me flesh out my argument a bit.

MMA at all levels, but particularly the professional level, is ridiculously dangerous. People die, and they’re doing it for your entertainment and crappy wages. I like to watch MMA as a form of entertainment as much as anybody else who practices martial arts as a hobby, especially if I know who the fighters are and have been following them for a while. There are moments of brilliance that get pulled off in the cage, and they’re astonishing to see. To see one person successfully implement a fighting strategy against another and for it to work is as much a triamph of brain as it is brawn. As with all sports, there are rare moments of pure drama in the cage that cannot be replicated even in the highest levels of theatre.

If you’re a jiujitsu fan then there’s the added bonus of seeing your favourite grapplers transition to MMA to see if they can work their wizardry in the cage with the threat of punches added. Ryan “The wizard” Hall is one of my favourite fighters for this very reason:

But there’s also a lot about the sport I don’t like – I hate the way fighters keep hitting their opponent’s head after they have gone unconscious. I hate how much punishment the referees sometimes let the fighters take before waving the bout off. The weight cutting is ridiculous and dangerous. I don’t like watching violence for the sake of violence. But most of all I don’t like the fact that these people are putting their health and, let’s be honest, their lives, on the line for not a lot of money when compared to other sports that have similar viewing numbers, but don’t have anywhere near the same risk. No professional MMA fighter is getting out of the game unscathed. The effects of repeated blows to the head in competition or training often only reveal themselves as life-changing brain damage years after the fighter has hung up his or her gloves.

And that’s not to mention all the potentially life-changing injuries you can suffer inside the cage in the few short minutes of a fight. Just take a look at Chris Wideman’s shin from a couple of weeks ago:

Jack Slack gave a glorious rant (from 38.22 minutes) about the crazy situation of being an MMA fan and knowing the fighters are doing themselves serious damage for your entertainment. I agree with everything he said.

But it is what it is and we are where we are.

It’s not like a lot of other combat sports are much safer. Just a week ago a Sumo wrestler slipped and fell face down. He never got up again. There were no doctors present at the match and nobody checked on him for about 5 minutes as he lay there. You can watch it on Youtube if you’re feeling brave. His medical care, or lack of it, was an absolute disgrace and clearly the safety procedures (which seem hamstrung by tradition in this case) need urgently reviewing. Again, Sumo wrestlers are generally compensated appallingly for the amount they give to the sport, and then discarded after their career is over.

While football stars, golf pros, runners and basketball players can command huge salaries, professional fighters (with the exception of boxers) are just not getting the recognition they deserve.

So the last thing I want to read about is some Tai Chi expert telling me he thinks that MMA is too soft and safe compared to the “deadly” art he practices. If he’s even raised a sweat in training in the last 10 years, I’d be surprised.

Review: Heal Yourself and the World with Tai-Chi by Bob Klein

Heal Yourself and the World with Tai-Chi

Bob Klein

Bob Klein first studied Tai Chi Chuan fifty years ago with Grandmaster William C. C. Chen, and also owned an animal importing business, which gave him a ready supply of exotic animals to test his martial skills against. In a method that sounds similar to the legendary founding tales of many Chinese martial arts, Bob observed the wild animals, and learned their fighting ticks. Bob describes the process as learning the “pattern of attention” of each species, which he then tried to adopt in himself in sparring and Chi Kung, creating his own system, Zookinesis, along the way.

“The imported animals were often not in a good mood as they emerged from their shipping containers and I was attacked frequently.”, explains Bob.  “Many of the animals were stronger and faster than I so I had to use my skill in controlling their attention. There were many close calls and I had many scars”, he observes.

Klein also traveled to the jungles of Central America several times to study animals in the wild. “I would buy a dugout canoe and spend a few months paddling along rivers, meeting the wildlife and people.”

The result of this study is the system of chi kung he calls “Zookinesis” (“animal exercises”) and the fighting system called “Phantom Kung-fu”, which is the result of his Tai Chi Chuan influenced by Zookinesis. Zookinesis seems to evolve into the wider world of healing and being in harmony with nature.

The book, Heal yourself and the world with Tai Chi is as much about Zookinesis as it is about Tai Chi. It’s not a “teach yourself Tai Chi” type of guide, or a deep dive into history. Instead, I’d describe it as a kind of stream of consciousness on the subject of animism, Tai Chi, energy flow and spirituality. There are headings and there are chapters, but I don’t really feel like they matter much. You could dip in at any point and just start reading. Stop, flick on 20 pages and read a bit more. Go back 40 pages. And so on. That’s not to say it’s not a well written book, but a reader looking for a more organised, practical or logical system to unpick will be disappointed.

Here are some examples of paragraph I’ve picked at random to give you an example of the sort of text it contains:

“Small children in our society usually draw people as big heads with tiny arms and legs sticking out of the heads. I wonder if they are just seeing the distribution of attention in a person, and drawing their pictures accurately from that perspective.”

In fact, Klein’s work makes a nice contrast to the often fractious world of online Tai Chi discussion. His musings are marvelously inofensive and do a good job of framing his points of reference. He has no interest in denigrating other styles of Tai Chi or teachers, exposing fake histories or arguing with anybody else about what ‘real’ Tai Chi is. 

No egos were harmed in the making of this book. If you’re looking for a philosophical meander through many of spirituality’s greatest hits then you’ve come to the right place. Step inside, pour yourself a cup of green tea and let the zookinesis flow.

Heal yourself and the world with Tai Chi is available through Amazon, and Bob’s website: https://www.movementsofmagic.com/

Never let your knees go over your toes… or should you?

I remember when I started Tai Chi in the 90s, one of the things that was talked about a lot was that you should never let your knees go beyond the line of your toes in a forward stance.

YCF: Knees not extending past the line of the toes.

Letting this happen was always seen as unequivocally bad. Not only was knees beyond toes seen as structurally unsound (your weight is too far forward making you easy to pull off balance), but this was seen as the primary cause of the epidemic of so many Tai Chi people having bad knees.

The Snake Creeps Down posture in particular was quite often used as an example of a badly done posture by Western dilettantes.

But it always struck me as a bit odd that it was seen as being such a dangerous thing to do. If you were training the martial side of Tai Chi then you were being punched, thrown and armlocked on the regular. Worrying about your knees going over the line of your toes seemed a minor danger in comparrison.

Fast forward to 2021 and today I found out that a lot of BJJ people (an art that specialises in slowly destroying your body over time) were raving about the benefits of the method espoused by the Knees Over Toes Guy on YouTube, who had achieved great results reparing people’s knees using a traning methods that empahsises, yes, you guessed it, putting your knees beyond the line of your toes as much as possible.

Interesting. Here’s what he says:

A year went by with no results. In fact, I was certain I needed another surgery when a spark of truth finally presented itself…

“The athlete whose knees can go farthest and strongest over his or her toes is the most protected.”

Everything I had been taught up to this point by dozens of trainers and physical therapists was very clear: NO KNEES OVER TOES — but when I read this statement, I immediately knew it was true.

Knees Over Toes Guy

The write up of his method is here. And here’s a video of his basic method is here:

The logic seems sound to me, so if you’ve got knee trouble, you might want to give it a try.

It makes me think – is the epidemic of Tai Chi people with bad knees (if it really exists) caused by the knees going over the toes? Or is it more likely because that group self-selects for other unhealthy behviours?

The future of push hands

I think push hands is completely flawed as a competitive sport, which is why it ends up as a shoving match, but somebody (Jet Li?) is trying to change the rules to make it work better as an Olympic sport…. So here it is! It’s essentially more like wrestling, which is probably a good thing as it means you can move your foot.

And it’s got takedowns, but I think the question is then always … why not just compete at Shuai Jiao?

Suspended from above. Bringing a sense of lightness to your Tai Chi.

One admonition from Yang Cheng Fu’s 10 important points, that has become something of a law in Taijiquan, is to ‘keep the head suspend, as if from above’.

This has produced all sorts of controversies in the Yang style side of the Tai Chi world. If you look at ChengFu’s student Chen ManChing, who did so much to popularise Tai Chi in the West, you see that he changed his form to truly embody this principle. His head, neck and back are vertical in all positions where he is not bending at the waist.

Whereas, if you look at pictures of his teacher, Cheng-Fu you see that he holds his back with a slight incline in forward postures.

Lineages derived from ChengFu’s peer Wu Jianquan, hold an even more inclined position.

I used to ponder these discrepancies a lot, but these days I have become more interested in the relation of the back (including the neck) to the hands and arms. When we lift and use our arms our tendency is to bend the top of the spine and drop the head forwards, a fact that can be proved each and every time you type on a laptop. Our head wants to move towards the object we are interacting with.

I was watching an excellent performance of a child doing Bak Sing Choy Li Fut shot in the 1960s. Young children doing martial arts can be great teachers because they effortlessly keep their posture as they move. It is only as we become adults that we seem to lose this ability.

Here’s the video. Watch the good posture he keeps – his back remains still in relation to the movement of his arms allowing his neck to stay extened and space and awareness to be present.

Choy Li Fut, 1960s

This is what I think is being asked for in Yang Cheng-Fu’s writings and the Taiji Classics, not mere fussing about how vertical a posture is. The freedom to move our arms but to keep our back still, and maintain our head and neck relationship without falling into the trap of bending towards the object of our attention.

But how to train this? Get a 4 pint carton of milk out of the fridge and swinging it in a figure of 8 in front of you. Now do it again and notice how you head wants to be pulled forward. Resist the pull and feel the work done by the torso muscles to prevent it from happening. It shouldn’t feel like they’re straining, but they are active.

You can do the same thing with a heavy Jian. Or if you feel like you can capture the same feeling without a heavy object, then in a silk reeling exercise, or in the Tai Chi form.

When you are standing still or sitting you can achieve the same torso and arms relationship but with even less use of muscle to maintain the position. You can let the weight of the upper body rest on the lower body, and down into the ground through the centre of the foot or the sitting bones.

Shoulds you have your head in that position to fight? Probably not – you want to tuck your chin a bit more, but the question is how you tuck your chin. The idea of the extended neck that you’re training by working on your posture can be transferred into the way you tuck you chin.

There are a lot of movement disciplines that also work on keeping the neck extended and the back still. Alexander technique and stage acting spring to mind, for example.

In a way the neck being tense, or feeling tired, after we’ve been doing something is a sign that we’re not doing it to the best of our ability. Especially if the shoulders get involved as well. If we can maintain the relaxed, neutral, position of the neck through movement, then it’s a sign that we’re using ourselves in a better way. Our breathing will be better, and we don’t lose that sense of lightness that the kid in the Choy Li Fut video from the 1960s so effortlessly demonstrates.

Keep your head up. Walk lightly, smile brightly!

Chasing perfection: Yang Cheng-Fu’s roll back posture

I thought I’d start a series of posts commenting on what I like about photos of famous masters of the past. I thought I’d start with this photo of Yang Cheng-Fu doing rollback from the Yang long form.

Yang Chengfu, Rollback.

Yang Cheng-Fu comes in for a lot of criticism, mainly I think because of his weight. He was a big man, but I’ve always been impressed with how precise and delicate his postures seem to be. What I like most about this picture is that you can almost feel the heaviness and sinking in what he’s doing, yet at the same time there is the precise placing of his hands and feet.

Tai Chi is a paradox in that you are supposed to feel light yet also heavy. According to the Tai Chi Classics your head needs to feel like it is being pulled up “as if suspended from above”, and yet your body needs to also have the feeling of sinking, “Make the chi sink calmly” and “The abdomen relaxes, then the chi sinks into the bones.”

You can see both these qualities in Yang Cheng-Fu performing Rollback, head upright, light and nimble, yet also firm and heavy. With the placement of his hands you also get a sense of the yin and yang being distributed throughout his body. The back hand has the intent of pulling and the front hand has the intent of pushing. He is not “double weighted” – each hand is expressing a different energy. The weight on his feet is on the back leg – again, not in no man’s land in the middle, but clearly distinguished.

You also get a sense of calm. This is not a frantic and hurried performance. It’s slow and deliberate, like a great river rolling.

There’s a lot you can learn from a photo.

The new American Boxer Rebellion of 2021

Jack Slack was the first person to draw my attention to the parallel between rioters storming government buildings that happened in China’s Boxer Rebellion around 1900, and the storming of the Capitol Building by Trump Supporters in 2021. Both involve a kind of “spirit possession”.

Of course, America, along with many European nations, was involved in the Boxer Rebellion:

“In 1898 the Yellow River burst its banks and destroyed the harvest in much of Northern China, but this misfortune was followed by an agonizing drought which dried out the land and hardened the dirt. As young men went hungry and without work, some Chinese noted the connection between the anger of nature and the construction of train tracks, telegraph lines and churches since the arrival of foreigners in the Qing Empire. Anti-foreign sentiment brought together groups of peasants practicing martial artists and calling themselves the Righteous Society of the Harmonious Fists—though the West came to know them as “The Boxers”. The Boxers attacked and murdered missionaries across the Empire and in the summer of 1900, Tianjin and Beijing were plunged into chaos as the Boxers received the blessing of Empress Dowager Cixi and the Imperial army. 400 foreigners and 3000 Chinese Christians endured a two month siege in Beijing’s legation quarter—a stone’s throw from the Imperial Palace but completely helpless. The Boxer Rebellion is a story about agriculture and diplomacy, magic and court intrigue, and it stands as both the last great event of the Victorian Era and the beginning of the end for the Qing Dynasty. ” – Jack Slack

Of course, I’d contest that the events that lead to the end of the Qing Dynasty had started much earlier, back in 1860s. It was these conflicts with foreign powers and internal rebellions which lead directly to the creation of Tai Chi Chuan, as we discussed on our History of Tai Chi podcast series. Yes, I’m sorry, the myth of a Taoist inventing Taijiquan after a dream about a snake and a crane, is just a fairytale. The real reason is much more pragmatic.

Jack has done an excellent podcast episode on the Boxer Rebellion, which he’s just released to the public, instead of being behind his Patreon paywall. If you want to find out more, have a listen:

Another one bites the dust (the latest Xu Xiaodong vs Tai Chi master)

The Tai Chi ‘master’ lasted 10 seconds this time.

In the video above amateur Chinese MMA fighter Xu Xiaodong is fighting Chen Yong, the self-proclaimed sixth-generation Tai Chi Master of the Wu lineage. It’s the latest in a long line of fights between Xu and people who claim to be martial arts ‘masters’.

If we analyse the 10 seconds of action we can see Chen takes a forward weighted stance with his hands up in a high guard. It leaves him completely imobile and open for a kick. Xu kicks him low, Chen drops his guard and that was all she wrote.

Presumably Chen thought that whatever he had been doing for the past few decades was good enough training to actually fight with. But whatever Chen has been practicing… it wasn’t fighting.

Some of my Chinese Martial Arts colleagues get really upset with these fights. They think the whole thing is set up to make Chinese marital arts look bad and promote the UFC, and I’m somehow complicit in a plot designed to bring the whole Chinese martial arts down. Or that Xu won’t fight anybody young and fit and only challenges old men. It’s classic conspiracy theory nonsense.

I find this attitude odd because, frankly the UFC doesn’t give a crap about any of this. And nobody is making these delusional ‘masters’ fight anybody – they’re doing it of their own free will and more often than not, they are the challengers in the fights, and put up all the money required to make them happen. They clearly think they are going to win with their martial skill despite a huge age gap or a gap in fighting experience.

There is a strong tradition of Chinese Kung Fu masters appearing in faked fights on Chinese TV and seeming to be all-powerful. It’s that delusion that Xu fighting against. Watch this:

serpentza and Byron Jacob explain what’s happening in China.

A common thing I’ve hear is that nobody has heard of these ‘masters’ before. Again, that’s true, but there are a lot of delusional people in martial arts, so I don’t think that’s surprising. China is a big place. Perhaps it’s the use of the term “master” that gets bandied about so freely? In light of all these fights there has been a government move in China to ban the use of the word. Xu Xiaodong has been heavily persecuted – being forced to hide his face in clown makeup and have an insulting nickname in one fight. It didn’t stop him beating these ‘masters’.

But it’s not just Xu doing it. Here’s another video from a couple of years ago. In white pyjamas we have “The 47-year-old expert Zhu Chunping, who has been practising tai chi for decades” vs Yao Hantian “The 22-year-old Yao has been training kick-boxing for just six months”. Read the report in the South China Morning Post. From the 5 seconds of action in the video we can see Zhu takes up what looks like a version of the San Ti Shi stance from Xing Yi while Yao immediately starts moving, establishing range and holding his hands in a modern guard position. One right hand from Yao, which goes right down the middle of Zhu’s guard and he doesn’t react at all to, and it’s all over.

As for the attitude of trying to pretend these fights aren’t happening… I believe it’s some misguided implementation of Wu De – martial virtue. Why shouldn’t people watch these fights? If you engage in a bout with a ring, a judge, and cameras involved, that’s designed to be streamed or televised then clearly you are now in the entertainment industry. That’s what prize fighting is. If this was some sort of battle for honour or revenge it would all be played out in a dark alley somewhere and nobody would ever know about it.

I think the lessons these videos teach is so valuable that they’re worth posting. You need to keep it real (to some extent at least) if you want to teach “martial arts”. Even if that “real” is realising your limitations, and that you shouldn’t be fighting a 22 year old in a ring when you’re 47 and don’t have any fight experience.

Chinese martial arts are full of fantastic skills and valuable content, but if you spend all your time doing your “body method” training and no time doing fighting training, then don’t expect to be able to fight with it.

And let’s not keep hiding this stuff away – you don’t fix your problems by pretending they don’t exist.

“Here is where you’ll be falling down”.

Just say “no!” to self cultivation

Before the Internet, back in the early 90s, there were only a few books on the subject of Tai Chi in the West, so the authors of these books achieved a kind of fame and notoriety that wasn’t really proportional to their actual importance, or impact on the Tai Chi world. Or maybe their fame became proportional because of the books themselves, in a kind of self fulfilling prophecy. It’s hard to say.

Either way, one book title that always stuck in my mind was “Master Cheng’s New Method of Taichi Ch’uan Self-cultivation”.

This idea of “self cultivation” is kind of the main reason that people practice Tai Chi in the modern world. It’s kind of like exercise, but a little deeper, involving something a little more like meditation. This idea of using eastern spirituality to go on a personal odyssey, or journey into your self is sold to us all the time in the world of Tai Chi, Yoga and health or spiritual practices.

The fact is, it’s nonsense. I hate to break to to you, but individually, we are really not that deep. Scratch our surface and there’s really not that much to us. The idea of cultivating yourself is really a huge waste of time. Our depth lies in our relationships to other people, places and non-human animals. And to find our connection to the world, to the land, the first thing you need to do is get rid of this little self that you’ve been busy cultivating with your various yoga, tai chi and martial arts practices.

Just look at what the Zen or Tao masters of old wrote. They were telling us this constantly in their writings.

When you do something, you should burn yourself up completely, like a good bonfire, leaving no trace of yourself.

– Shunryu Suzuki

One must be deeply aware of the impermanence of the world.

– Dogen

The practice of Zen is forgetting the self in the act of uniting with something.

– Koun Yamada

Those were literally the first three quite in an article I just searched up called “25 Zen Quotes“.

I feel like I could quote any chapter of the Tao Te Ching too, but let’s go with chapter 3:

The Master leads
by emptying people’s minds
and filling their cores,
by weakening their ambition
and toughening their resolve.
He helps people lose everything
they know, everything they desire,
and creates confusion
in those who think that they know.

Practice not-doing,
and everything will fall into place.

Don’t stick out your bottom!

I had an interesting conversation with a reader recently about Tai Chi and butts, which I thought I’d share as it’s a good topic. A lot of Tai Chi people, me included, tend to stick out their bottom slightly during form and push hands. Maybe more so in push hands… either way, it’s a fault that inhibits relaxation.

Photo by Jamie Haughton on Unsplash

I think in push hands it happens because people try to “brace” against the incoming force to stop themselves being pushed backwards, but by going for a short term solution they are inhibiting their progress in the long term.

Q: Do you have any experience of Chen style TCC? I’ve been to a few lessons. Seems like, in order to soften the kua sufficiently, you need to stick your backside out more than in Yang….?! Having spent a whole lifetime trying not to do this, it feels weird…..!

A: I’ve never really done Chen style, but I’ve looked into their silk reeling exercises quite a bit – just the simple one hand “wave” – I really like that and do it quite often.

I’ve seen some Chen stylists that stick their butt out a lot, but to be fair I’ve also seen a lot of Yang styists do the same. I think as part of an opening and closing movement it’s ok (like in Yoga, for example), but leaving it “stuck out” all the time can’t be right. Tai Chi requires you to move from the waist (or the dantien, if you like) and that encompasses both the front (belly), sides and back of the body around the waist line – the lower back is part of that. If you put your hands on your lower back then stick your butt out you can feel your muscles contract and tighten – having a tight lower back as your default means you can’t effectively “move from the dantien” so everything else you do, no matter how clever or artful looking, has to be wrong because the foundation is wrong.

When doing silk reeling exercises I try to keep my lower back relaxed and “hanging down” – that’s the right feel – so the movement can originate there. The form should be no different. I feel like the people who stick out their butt have simply missed an obvious problem with their Tai Chi.