There is no dantien…

… unless we build it.

Great video post from Nabil Rene whose work in Chen style Tai Chi I’ve been following for a while now. Take a look:

For clarity, his assertion is that the “dantien” is something that doesn’t exist by default, the way, say, your shoulder exists, but that it is formed by the simultaneous actions of other parts of the body. In this case, the hips, back, spine, breathing and more.

I’ve written here before that this is somewhat similar to the idea of the lap in English. The lap is formed by taking a seated position, and when you stand up it disappears.

So, when you form Tai Chi postures, you are also forming a dantien. Or at least you should be.

You can think of this as being an incredibly complicated prospect, but I don’t think you need to. There is also an implied simplicity to the idea. The problem is that when you start out the feeling of ‘strength’ in that area of the body is inherently weak, but correct practice of Tai Chi should be the training you require to start to build that dantien so that it’s a much stronger feeling.

Correct practice on a daily basis is what you need.

Of course, if you talk to Chinese medical practitioners, to them the dantien is as real as any other part of the Chinese medical system, and doesn’t require ‘work’ to exist. But I think that when talking about Tai Chi things, it’s safer to assume that this is not the dantien being talked about.

Feet-together postures in Taiji (Tai Chi) and Xing Yi

I’ve always been curious about the postures in martial arts forms where both feet are together, because these postures don’t look very martial at all. In fact, it’s hard to imagine why you would want to use a stance like that in a fight, and yet we find them in a lot of Tai Chi forms:

From: Sun Lu Tang, A Study of Taiji boxing, 1921

From: Long ZiXiang, A study of Taiji boxing 1952

Here’s an example of the posture in application in Taiji performed by my teacher Sifu Raymond Rand:

Sifu Rang, Brush Knee, Twist Step.

It seems to be mainly Taiji lineages that have some influence from Sun Lu Tang that do this the most. A lot of people attribute the distinctive ‘feet together’ postures he used to his prior training in Xing Yi, and there could be some truth to this. Xing Yi does have ‘feet together’ postures quite a lot.

Sun Lu Tang showing a selection of postures from , A Study of Xing Yi Boxing, 1915

Of course, the root of Xing Yi is spear fighting, but the modern interpretation of the art is heavily biased towards bare hand training, and this creates a misleading impression. Think about it – if you were at at least one spear length away from your opponent the risk of being tackled to the ground because your feet are together would be greatly reduced. You’re now free to use the power generation advantages that can be gained by letting both feet come together, which is handy when you are holding a heavy object, like a spear.

If you watch this excellent video of Xing Yi spear technique by Byron Jacobs you’ll see that he doesn’t hang out with his feet together all the time, but occasionally he uses the feet together moments for power generation (and of course, also standing on one leg for range advantage and manoeuvrability in a way that makes sense with weapons).

Video:

Example feet together transitional posture:

Byron Jacobs of Mushin Martial Culture

In Xing Yi the most famous example of the ‘feet together’ posture is the Half-Step Beng Quan. Here the back foot stepping up to meet the front foot in place creates a powerful closing action of the body, kind of like a door slamming.

From: Selected subtleties of the Xing Yi Boxing art, by Liu Dianchen [1921]

So, is this the origin of ‘feet together’ postures in Taiji forms? Quite possibly. However, there is one more thing to consider. After first learning Xing Yi, Sun Lu Tang learned his Taiji from Hao Weizhen 1849–1920, who learned from Li Yiyu 1832–1892, who learned from one of the Wu brothers, Wu Yuxiang 1812–1880 who had learned directly from Yang Luchan 1799–1872 and also sought out Chen Qingping 1795–1868 who he learned from in Zhaoboa village.

It’s often thought that the distinctive stepping seen in Sun style Taiji, where the back foot is often lifted and brought up close to the front foot, is a consequence of Sun’s prior Xing Yi training. This makes sense as part of the narrative created as part of the Sun Style Taiji brand, which is that he incorporated his earlier Xing Yi and Bagua training into his Taiji style. However, if you look at the Wu (Hou) style he learned, it already had this distinctive stepping in it.

For example:

From: Wu Yuxiang style Taiji Boxing by Hao Shaoru

While the feet don’t go completely together as much, if at all, in Wu(Hao) style, they are very close together for a lot of the time. Watch this video for an example of the form in action:

One theory about why this is is that Wu Yuxiang was a member of the Imperial Court at the end of the Ching Dynasty, and was therefore expected to wear traditional court dress, which restricted the stepping.

I think you can see that influence extending into Sun Lu Tang’s Taiji, which makes sense since he learned from this lineage.

Finally, I should note that thought this post I don’t want to create the impression that all the steps in either Xing Yi or Taiji performed by Sun Lu Tang are small or restricted. He also had plenty of wider postures in his arts too, for example.

Xing Yi:

Taiji:

However, compare it to postures found in other styles of Taiji whose practitioners didn’t have to wear court dress:

Chen Ziming for example:

From: The inherited Chen family boxing art, Chen Ziming

Tai Chi Notebook Podcast Episode 15 – Centre the Dragon: Tai Chi Talk with Ken Gullette and Graham Barlow

In this episode of the Tai Chi Notebook podcast I’m teaming up with Ken Gullette, to answer the kind of questions that Tai Chi teachers get asked all the time.

YouTube version for people who, er, like YouTube?

Ken is an all-round good guy and owner of the Internal Fighting Arts website where he teaches the arts of Xing Yi, Bagua and Tai Chi at a very reasonable monthly cost. Check him out at www.internalfightingarts.com

Ken is a Chen style guy, and I’m a Yang style guy so it’s no surprise we have slightly different views on a lot of different topics, but that’s part of the fun of it all.

And if you’d like to help out my podcast then you can now become a friend of the Tai Chi Notebook on Patreon. Head over to Patreon.com/taichinotebook and you’ll be able to get a downloadable version of the podcast as well as support my work and get exclusive articles.

If you’ve got any comments on what we say then send them in – we’d love to hear from you!

Getting lost in words like Qi and Yi

Photo by Happy Pixels on Pexels.com

I was observing the usual argument/discussion between two people about ancient Chinese words like Yi and Qi that frequently happen in Tai Chi circles, and it was going down a familiar route..

“Don’t lecture me! I read classic Chinese and Yi means ‘idea’ and Qi means ‘movement’.”

“Really? Wang Yongquan wrote ‘To mobilize Qi, you create an empty space, by Soong and a light Yi to empty the area. The differentiation of yin and yang is what makes Qi flow.”

“Seems quiet different then…”

Confused! Photo by Oladimeji Ajegbile on Pexels.com

And on and on and on…

Recently I had a conversation with a very experienced Chinese martial artist (it will be released as a podcast soon, don’t worry) about how these things are trained in Asia vs how we do it in the West. 

He made the point that in the West we have to understand something intellectually before we will do it. i.e. we have to know we’re not wasting our time, that we will get something out of this. It has to ‘make sense’. And we usually ask loads of questions before even trying it. In contrast, in Asia, there is a lot less questioning and a lot more doing. You just do it. If you’re doing it wrong you hope your teacher will notice and put you on the right track. But generally you just keep doing it secure in the knowledge that eventually you will get it. It’s all in the feel. If you have the feel right, then you are doing it. End of story.

Nowhere is this distinction between the Eastern and Western approach more clearly represented that on discussion forums about Tai Chi that are full of Westerners. We love to argue about what these ancient concept and words like Qi, Yi and Xin really mean. As if one day we will arrive at the ultimate answer. It seems we can’t get enough of it. 

But here’s the secret: it doesn’t matter how you define these words, what concept or theory you use for their implementation, or how well you read Classical Chinese from the Ming Dynasty. What matters is – can you do it? Can you show it to me?

If I said, “Show me your Yi. Let me feel your Jin” Could you do it?

If you can then it doesn’t matter wether you define Yi as “idea”, “mind” or “intent”. I’m sure we’re all familiar with the famous phrase coined by Polish-American scientist and philosopher Alfred Korzybski, who gave a paper in 1931 about physics and mathematics in which he wrote that “the map is not the territory” and that “the word is not the thing”, encapsulating his view that an abstraction derived from something, or a reaction to it, is not the thing itself.

So, all these online arguments about Qi and Yi, are effectively pointless. They are map, not territory. However, I do think that a little intellectual understanding can be useful. Especially if it stops you asking questions long enough to just practice. Also, there’s always this temptation to think that if I can just understand something perfectly, or write it down in the perfect, most simple way, then eventually everyone will go “Yes! That’s it!”

Anyway, as I was practicing this morning a thought popped into my head which I thought felt right, so I thought I’d write down and share it:

“Yi is the direction you’re sending your mind in, and the Jin follows.”

To me, Yi is always about a direction. And it is directed. It’s the opposite of a vague, warm, fuzzy haze. It has a steadfastness and a focus. There. Did that help? Or did it just make you more confused. Answers in the comments section please. If you have your own pithy phrase to summarise a concept as subtle as Yi that works for you, then feel free to add it below.

I’ve written before about Yi in Tai Chi Chuan. So, you can have a read of that too.

The Power of Chi, the movie, and a response

A new YouTube video landed a day or so ago that has caused something of a sensation. It’s a trailer for a movie called The Power of Chi and has some well known UFC fighters and professional athletes in it, all experiencing the power of a Tai Chi master’s “chi”. And there’s a voice over by Morgan Freeman. I kid you not! Yes, the Morgan Freeman!

From the trailer, this mysterious chi is presented as a force that can be produced by the master and defies all explanation. To be honest, this tai chi master has been producing very similar YouTube videos for years now, but he’s usually demonstrating on no-name seminar attendees, this time however it’s a big budget production with well known fighters like Fabricio Werdum and Lyoto Machida being demonstrated on.

You can see the trailer here:

Now I haven’t seen the full film, and frankly, I’m not going to pay to download it, but colour me unimpressed with that. It all seems a bit silly to me.

Friend of the Notebook, Rob Poyton (who I recorded a podcast with recently) has produced his own video response to the trailer and I think it’s hard to argue with his conclusions, but feel free to make your own mind up:

I like Rob’s point at the end, that if you’re going to demonstrate things like this, then what are the functional uses of it? That’s what you should be demonstrating.

How to make your Tai Chi better by using the Tai Chi Sphere

Tai Chi is represented by a sphere.
A sphere is one of the strongest shapes regardless of the direction of force. Photo by Laura Tancredi on Pexels.com

I wanted to talk today about the concept of the Tai Chi ball, or more accurately, Tai Chi sphere. While it might sound simple, I think it’s really an advanced concept because it’s taking the Tai Chi teachings out of the realm of specifics, of things like ‘relax that shoulder’, ‘move that foot’, ‘drop that elbow’, ‘align that hip’, etc…, and into the realm of concepts, which are much harder to pin down into physical details.

The Tai Chi Classics talk about Tai Chi being circular a lot. For example, it says:

“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.”

At a certain point the position of the hands and feet and other body parts in Tai Chi gets subsumed by the general sense of keeping your body and all your movement rounded, like a ball. (Newsflash: despite a thousand form corrections from seminar masters, the exact position off your hands isn’t what’s important.)

What’s important in Tai Chi is that your body is creating a ball-like structure, with ‘you’ at the centre. That’s what determines if you hands and arms are in the correct position, not angles and degrees. If you are making a sphere with your movement and body, then everything will be in the right place, and if you aren’t, it’s not.

The advantage of creating a sphere is that force can comes in and be rolled off without too much interference and muscular tension. A sphere is a Tai Chi symbol write large, in 3 dimensions.

Like the world, Tai Chi is a sphere,
The Tai Chi Classics talk about Tai Chi Chuan being circular. Photo by Sindre Stru00f8m on Pexels.com

The idea of separating empty and solid in the body goes hand in hand with creating a Tai Chi sphere. In fact, I don’t think you can do it successfully without a separation of empty and solid – or yin and yang – in the body.

But here’s the kicker. You can’t just decide one day to do this practice. You can’t go outside right now and do you form and decide to make your Tai Chi like a sphere because it will be meaningless. Instead, it’s a situation where you gradually discover, after many years of practice, that Tai Chi is like a sphere. One day you’re practicing and you suddenly notice it, and bang! Your Tai Chi will never be the same again. It’s like that famous picture that looks a bit like an old man but isn’t:

You either know or you don’t! Can you see what this is a picture of?

Most people are unable to see what that is actually a picture of at first glance, but once you get it, no amount of me trying to persuading you otherwise will prevent you from knowing exactly what it is.

It’s the same with the Tai Chi sphere. Your Tai Chi has always been a sphere, you just didn’t know it, until one day you did, and then it was suddenly obvious to you.

The Kung Fu salute.
Referring to the Tai Chi Classics can help your practice. Photo by RODNAE Productions on Pexels.com

My first time sparring in BJJ

meBJJ

I was reminded recently of a blog post I wrote for Cook Ding’s Kitchen a few years ago about starting BJJ after years of doing Tai Chi. I just re-read it and decided it was ‘not too bad’, so I’m sharing it again here.

Here’s a quote about my first time sparring in BJJ.

We fist-bumped again and went for round 2. He then proceeded to act out a BJJ clinic on me. He was tapping me out using every sort of conceivable lock or choke hold I could think of at a rate of one tap every 2 minutes. And worse, he wasn’t even trying. I quickly realised he’d let me tap him the first time just to see what I could do. This went on for the full 30 minutes. It wasn’t a matter of being out-muscled – it was clear that he possessed a knowledge that I didn’t. I wanted to lie down, curl up and die after about 10 minutes, but something in me refused to give up and I lasted until the end of the class. The black belt running the class was keeping an eye on me, and expressed some concern about the curious wheezing noises my breathing was making and asked if I’d like to sit out, but my pride wouldn’t let me. I kept going until the end. It took me about 2 days to recover fully. My next class was the same, but this time the blue belt I fought was a smaller female, who repeatedly jumped on my back and tapped me out with chokes until time was up.

That was it, I was hooked.

There was a type of knowledge here I could learn, and it worked in a fight, and it didn’t matter if the other person was stronger than you. There were no forms, deadly techniques or imagining ‘what if’ scenarios. You were hit by reality from the first fist bump.

 

Tai Chi whole-body movement revisited

gray dragon statue

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

So, my last post on what ‘whole body movement’ means in Tai Chi Chuan got some interesting reactions on the interwebs. I thought answering the comments might make a good subject for a few more articles. So let’s get going with the first of them.

On the Ancestral Movement group, Andrew Kushner writes:

“Whole body motion” is a lousy coaching cue. It neither helps people move more correctly nor is it an accurate description of what’s going on. It is possible to have “whole body motion” with only one limb moving apparently, and it is also possible to have the entire body involved but still ‘disconnected’ from an IMA perspective.

In fact this is the case with most athletic movements. Do you really think boxers and judoka don’t involve their whole body when they go to express power?

Firstly, yes, I’d agree that ‘whole body motion’ is a bad coaching cue, since it is so undefined. That’s really what my post was about – how there are different possible interpretations of what whole-body motion could mean, and what it actually means in the context of Tai Chi Chuan. Like most of the writings in ‘the classics‘, Yang Cheng Fu’s 10 important points is only useful if you already know what he’s talking about. Which makes them good as reminders, but rubbish as coaching cues.

The second point about boxers and judokas is interesting. Yes, I agree that boxers and judoka involve their whole body when they go to express power. But they do it in a different way to Tai Chi Chuan practitioners. Or at least they generally do. Sure, you could do both boxing and judo with a Tai Chi Chuan type of whole-body power, if you wanted to. But in Tai Chi you want to use as little physical effort as possible to get the job done. It’s difficult to even understand what that means and even hard to actually do it. Tai Chi movement is subtle and tricky and there’s no real incentive to train that way in combat sports where results matter and there are quicker, easier ways to get them.

boxers inside a ring

Photo by Sides Imagery on Pexels.com

It’s not like boxers don’t use their legs when throwing a punch. Of course, they do, but do they do it in the exact way we do in Tai Chi Chuan? I don’t think so. Let’s remind ourselves what the Tai Chi Chuan way of moving is again –

1) moving from the dantien
2) power up from the ground (jin) – rooted in the feet, expressed by the fingers.
3) coiling and spiraling actions from the dantien out to the extremities and back.

That’s difficult. A strong, athletic 20-year-old in Judo can fire his hips into a throw with more than enough speed and power to get the job done. It doesn’t need to have all come from the ground to work.

“Second, there is more in common between the “robot dance” and CIMA than Graham acknowledges. It wasn’t until I learned other ways of moving e.g. Systema and dance that I realized just how blocky and ‘robotic’ the CMA’s are at their core, even flowy and ‘natural’ looking ones like taiji. In fact I think a lot of their power derives from this similarity — simple movements done well.

Still for all the similarities there are important differences between CMA and the robot dance, so it is instructive to consider what those might be.”

That’s interesting. I don’t know what Andrew’s individual experience of Chinese Martial Arts has been, but I’m always a bit wary of using my individual experience to generalise and speak for all of Chinese Martial Art. It’s a very broad church and it contains pretty much every possible version of movement you can imagine.

Is he talking about modern Wu Shu training? The 1920s GouShu experiment that got exiled off to Taiwan? The pre-twentieth century martial arts that were forced underground? Wrestling styles?

I guess, compared to Systema any martial art could be called ‘blocky’ and ‘robotic’ since Systema has no routines or patterns and has no stance, just the four pillars: movement, breath, posture and relaxation. It also looks utterly ridiculous at times. I’m actually not adverse to Systema at all and I think there’s some great stuff in there. I’ve got a good friend who is a teacher and I do want to check out his class sometime. (But it would mean time spent not doing Jiujitsu, and that’s a serious consideration, so some tough choices will have to be made!)

On balance I think there is some merit in Andrew’s criticism of CMA here. A lot of it is just a lot of forms. But again, it depends on how you train it. Are you just training forms for forms sake? I think a lot of Chinese martial arts is like this. I’ve never been attracted to systems that had a lot of forms. A form for this, a form for that. I think that misses the point entirely.

I think of ‘forms’ as being like the raft in the parable of the Buddha crossing the river.

But then Andrew flips it around and praises “Simple movements done well” I think this references to things like XingYi, which has 5 fists as its base. These are quite often practiced over and over, for years. until you get very good at them. Personally, that approach didn’t appeal to me. I found the more varied animals much more interesting to practice and also more alive, less robotic, more spontaneous and useful for actual sparring. I think that’s where real power of Chinese Martial Art lies – not in practicing simple thing over and over, but in not getting too fixed down into any particular method or technique and keeping things fluid and “in the moment”.

But each to their own.

The Drunken Boxing podcast. Episode 1 Marin Spivak.

Screen Shot 2019-07-15 at 9.41.12 AM.png

Byron Jacobs, who produced the excellent XingYi San Ti Shi primer I posted recently, has launched a new podcast that’s well worth checking out.

In the first episode, Byron talks to Marin Spivak, Chen Tai Chi disciple of Chen Yu, about what it’s like going to live and train gung fu in Beijing as a Westerner back in the 1990s and 2000s. Both Byron and Marvin made the jump to live and train in Beijing, so they have a good insight into Chinese culture, and particular gong fu culture.

I really liked the discussion of the tangled network of gong fu culture a prospective student has to find their way through in China, and which the average western student has no idea exists at all.

Enjoy. Link.