Brush Knee Twist Step (called “Walk obliquely with twist step”, which was probably its original name) is a fundamental movement in all Tai Chi styles.
Chen Zheng Lei performing “Walk obliquely with twist step”:
The Yang style Brush Knee looks like a slightly simplified version of this. Here performed by Yang Jun, grandson of Yang Cheng-Fu :
And Sun Style looks like the Yang style, but with added steps. Here performed by Sun Peng who is Sun Lu Tang’s grandson :
The version I personally do is somewhere between the traditional Sun and Yang styles. It’s got a step, but it’s most like Yang. Here’s a little GIF showing me doing an application of Brush Knee Twist Step in push hands from the Tai Chi style I practice.
Here’s how it looks in my form (a Yang style variant from the Gu Ru Zhang lineage that had input from Sun Lu Tang).
Of course, there are many possible applications of this movement, and I’m just showing one, but hopefully, that gives some indication of the usage.
In Tai Chi we all know we are told we should “round the crotch area” – sometimes called “Kua”, but more accurately called “Dang” in Chinese – but why? What does that mean anyway? I’m going to try and point you in the right direction with this post.
The three dantiens
There are three main dantiens in the body that Tai Chi is concerned with. Firstly there’s the main one in the lower belly, which acts as a nexus, or control point for the whole body, but slaved to it are two other dantiens – the chest dantien and the crotch dantien.
There are clear parallels here to the idea of chakras in Yogic folklore, and indeed there are more “dantiens” in the Chinese system that relate to the other chakra locations in the body too, but for the purposes of internal martial arts, it’s the crotch and chest dantiens that are most important.
The crotch dantien is located at the Hui Yin point, and shown in the drawings from Chen Xin’s book:
These dantiens are points where you can use to store force that can be used in the release of power in the way that the internal martial arts express it – i.e. from the ground to the point of application.
It’s often said that Tai Chi is “boxing with the legs”, and this relates to the use of the crotch dantien. The knees are also in the domain of the crotch dantian, so, you need to think of the legs, hips and crotch all working together.
So what is that supposed to feel like? Well, It’s a bit like sitting on a space hopper – that feeling of grasping something with the inside of your legs, but not too forcefully.
When you take up your stance in Tai Chi you should feel this ‘energy’ inside that leg arch, as if you are sitting on a space hopper. That’s not exactly a scientific way to describe it, but hopefully, you get the idea.
So your knees are involved too: when you rotate one leg forward, the other leg must rotate backwards to keep the grip on the ball. This forms the action of opening and closing, and is part of the overall action of opening and closing that is going on all over the body.
Squeezing the ball
As you move through the Tai Chi form you ‘squeeze’ this ball between your legs (just as you do a space hopper). So the crotch (the part of the body where the legs join the torso) can close on one side of the body and open on the other, but the feeling of there being something there is maintained throughout.
In Zhan Zhuang practice you get a lot of people describing holding a balloon between the legs, or a ballon supporting your limbs – that’s the same idea, and with enough practice it can actually start to feel like this.
While the space hopper or balloon may be imaginary, the feeling isn’t. It reminds me a lot of the verse in the Tao Te Ching about the value of what’s not there:
“Thirty spokes share the hub of a wheel; yet it is its center that makes it useful. You can mould clay into a vessel; yet, it is its emptiness that makes it useful. Cut doors and windows from the walls of a house; but the ultimate use of the house will depend on that part where nothing exists. Therefore, something is shaped into what is; but its usefulness comes from what is not.”
This feeling of buoyancy in the crotch dantien forms part of the way the power is transferred from the legs to the torso, and ultimately out to the fingers.
Store and release
In terms of training this power, traditionally it’s common to stand in a low horse riding stance for a long period of time. I think this is more about building leg strength than the sort of power I’m talking about though, so while there’s nothing wrong with it, I think you need a moving exercise to practice what I’m talking about.
Trying to focus on just developing this power while doing the whole Tai Chi form isn’t optimal, as there are too many other things going on at once.
It’s important to stress again that there is no actual ball of energy between your legs – it’s just a useful metaphor for helping you get the right feeling for the particular winding in the legs and hips that helps produce power through the store and release mechanism in the horizontal plane.
As you turn one way then the other, the windings of the legs results in opening and closing actions which store power, that can be released into movement.
This is another reason why you really need to turn the waist a lot in side-to-side motions in Tai Chi Chuan (usually a lot more than you think). Without sufficient turning of the waist, you’re just not getting the hips and legs involved enough and activating their store and release potential for power.
The Tai Chi move ‘Wave hands like clouds’ is a good example of this. Notice that I’m turning all the way through to the sides to get the most store and release out of the legs:
My teacher always admonishes me to ‘relax the waist’ when he’s critiquing my form. Over the years I’ve learned that what he’s really asking me to do is increase the range of movement that my waist goes through. Obviously, stiffness inhibits the range of motion of the waist, but just realising that you need to turn more than you are currently doing is a valuable insight in itself. And now hopefully you can understand the reasons why.
I posted yesterday about a translation of Chen Ziming’s book “The inherited Chen family Taiji boxing art” that is available on the Brennan translations website. I’ve just started reading it and noticed a couple of interesting things I thought I’d post about.
(It should be noted that I often read critiques of the translations by P. Brennan, saying there is too much of the author’s own interpretation in there, rather than a literal translation, so take that into consideration.)
Firstly, who was Chen Ziming?
Chen Ziming was the same generation of Chen family boxing as Chen Fake, who moved to Beijing and made Chen style famous in the capital. Chen Ziming really rose to fame as being the student of Chen Xin, who (unusually for the time) was literate and wrote the first book on Chen style Taijiquan Taijiquan Illustrated, which contained several drawings of silk reeling energy which are still used today. The book was published after the death of Chen Xin by the historian Tang Hao and others. Chen Xin died in 1929. Some extracts of Chen Xin’s book are available on Jarek’s China from Inside.
There are various subdivisions of styles within Chen style. There is a big frame, small frame, old frame and new frame. As a student of Chen Xin, Ziming promoted what is known as the “small frame” of Chen Taijiquan. This sub style was born in the Chen village and uses smaller circles as a feature of its practice (it uses the same forms other Chen styles use).
While the small frame is often said to be the more ‘traditional’ method because it stayed in the village longer, all Chen substyles share the same principles, so they’re not really separate styles, just each has a different emphasis, reflecting the person who passed them on.
“The increased interest in Chen-style t’ai chi ch’uan led Tang Hao (唐豪; 1887–1959), one of the first modern Chinese martial art historians, to visit and document the martial lineage in Chen Village in 1930 with Chen Ziming. During the course of his research, he consulted with a manuscript written by 16th generation family member Chen Xin (陳鑫; Ch’en Hsin; 1849–1929) detailing Chen Xin’s understanding of the Chen Village heritage. Chen Xin’s nephew, Chen Chunyuan, together with Chen Panling (president of Henan Province Martial Arts Academy), Han Zibu (president of Henan Archives Bureau), Wang Zemin, Bai Yusheng of Kaiming Publishing House, Guan Baiyi (director of Henan Provincial Museum) and Zhang Jiamou helped publish Chen Xin’s work posthumously. The book entitled Taijiquan Illustrated (太極拳圖說 see classic book) was published in 1933 with the first print run of thousand copies.”
“Chen Xin initially trained with his father but his father ordered him to study literature rather than the martial arts. It was only later that he decided to use his literature skills to describe his understanding of the secrets of Chen style. In Chen Xin’s generation, his older brother, Chen Yao and his cousin, Chen Yanxi(陈延熙, father of Chen Fake) were considered masters of the Chen style. Chen Xin’s legacy is his book and his student, Chen Ziming (陈子明). Chen Ziming, went on to promote Chen style small frame throughout China and wrote books  promoting the art. Chen Ziming was in the same generation as Chen Fake.”
At the start of the book Chen lists 9 ‘general comments’ about Taijiquan.
The first 6 are a kind of an orientation to the subject and a guide to what is in the book. From point 7 onwards it gets interesting. He makes some very good observations about Taijiquan that are worth reflecting on.
7. The boxing art called Taiji seeks an appearance of ease. Once you have practiced it to familiarity, you will be able to understand its subtleties and your body’s actions will never depart from the principles. If in the beginning you overanalyze each technique, you will come up with strained interpretations of them and will only get yourself stuck in your ideas, and this will instead hinder your progress. However, if you are able to abide by the principles, then after practicing for a long time you will naturally enter into a transformation of spirit. Therefore the solo set in this book is presented only as postures and movements, giving guidance in skills without lapsing into contrived profundities. As long as you do not forget that this boxing art is called “Taiji”, then through gradual practice the art will come to conform to the taiji concept.
He further elucidates on the idea of “conforming to the Taiji concept” in point 8:
8. Learning Taiji Boxing, regardless of beginner or advanced practitioner, never goes beyond the methods of movement and stillness, opening and closing, rising and lowering, turning side to side. As a beginner, you have to clearly distinguish between these opposites. Then after a prolonged period of training you will achieve such skill that at any time you will be able to alternate between them with your whole body all at once, which is the most delightful aspect of the advanced level.
This reiterates an important point in Taiji practice. Your body needs to be going through a process of going from one ‘extreme’ to another to be practicing Tai Chi. (I put extreme in quotes because there are no physically extreme positions in Tai Chi, unlike Yoga, for instance). You do need to arrive at a closed position, then move to an open position and then close and so on. That action is what makes the Chen boxing art “Taijiquan”. That action can also only really be achieved by doing what Taiji people call “moving from the dantien”.
That’s one of the profundities about Taijiquan. Everything is tightly packed together into the simple concept of “Taiji”. Like Dr Who’s Tardis, it’s bigger on the inside. There’s a lot of stuff in there and you need to unpack it bit by bit to understand the profound simplicity of the whole.
Mike Sigman posted a video on how to use the power of the ground in your movements recently and it’s one of the best explanations I’ve seen. I’ve shared it below. It’s a simple concept to understand (but hard to do under pressure) so I think this can be applied to any martial art.
I like videos like this because they take a lot of the mystery out of Asian martial arts. Quite often you’d need to be training in a system for a number of years before you were taught these concepts, mainly due to a traditional culture of secrecy. In contrast, Mike’s approach is to start with these concepts right at the beginning of your training, so you don’t go off on the wrong track. Take a look:
I was giving the Tao Te Ching the cursory glance I occasionally give it recently. I’ve got the copy shown above. I usually flick to a random chapter, read it three times and ponder it deeply. Well, as deeply as I am able to. I landed on chapter 61, and the next day I landed on chapter 8. These two seemed to be linked in theme, so I thought I’d say something about them.
Incidentally, I really like the Stephen Mitchell translation. I’ve no idea how accurate it is compared to the Chinese, but all translation seems to involve some interpretation, and I like the way he’s done it.
Here’s chapter 61:
When a country obtains great power, it becomes like the sea: all streams run downward into it. The more powerful it grows, the greater the need for humility. Humility means trusting the Tao, thus never needing to be defensive.
A great nation is like a great man: When he makes a mistake, he realizes it. Having realized it, he admits it. Having admitted it, he corrects it. He considers those who point out his faults as his most benevolent teachers. He thinks of his enemy as the shadow that he himself casts.
If a nation is centered in the Tao, if it nourishes its own people and doesn’t meddle in the affairs of others, it will be a light to all nations in the world.
and chapter 8:
The supreme good is like water, which nourishes all things without trying to. It is content with the low places that people disdain. Thus it is like the Tao.
In dwelling, live close to the ground. In thinking, keep to the simple. In conflict, be fair and generous. In governing, don’t try to control. In work, do what you enjoy. In family life, be completely present.
When you are content to be simply yourself and don’t compare or compete, everybody will respect you.
So, firstly let’s look at the imagery of water, one of the classic symbols of the Yin side of the Taiji diagram. Both chapters use water as a metaphor for the correct way of acting or being in the world. It’s a theme that repeats through the Tao Te Ching, and also throughout the history of Asian martial arts, even in modern times. I’m thinking of Bruce Lee in the infamous interview where he says “Be water, my friend!”
I was reading another article about Wing Chun today by Ben Judkins, which also expanded upon this idea of softness overcoming strength, and how this idea has permeated Asian martial arts:
Early reformers in martial arts like Taijiquan (Wile 1996) and Jujitsu sought to shore up their own national identities by asserting that they brought a unique form of power to the table. Rather than relying on strength, they would find victory through flexibility, technique, and cunning (all yin traits), just as the Chinese and Japanese nations would ultimately prevail through these same characteristics. It is no accident that so much of the early Asian martial arts material featured images of women, or small Asian men, overcoming much larger Western opponents with the aid of mysterious “oriental” arts. These gendered characterizations of hand combat systems were fundamentally tied to larger narratives of national competition and resistance (see Wendy Rouse’s 2015 article “Jiu-Jitsuing Uncle Sam” Pacific Historical Review, Vol. 84 No. 4, November, pp. 448-477).
but as the author notes, the situation is often muddied
Shidachi appears to have had little actual familiarity with Western wrestling. It is clear that his discussion was driven by nationalist considerations rather than detailed ethnographic observation. And there is something else that is a bit odd about all of this. While technical skill is certainly an aspect of Western wrestling, gaining physical strength and endurance is also a critical component of Judo training. Shidachi attempted to define all of this as notbeing a part of Judo. Yet a visit to the local university Judo team will reveal a group of very strong, well developed, athletes. Nor is that a recent development. I was recently looking at some photos of Judo players in the Japanese Navy at the start of WWII and any one those guys could have passed as a modern weight lifter. One suspects that the Japanese Navy noticed this as well.
But while the idea of the soft overcoming the hard has already fallen to the level of a cliché, especially when it comes to martial arts, and mixed with political ideas, should we ignore it as a way of being in the world? I’d say not. It does point to a truth.
Anyone with any familiarity in martial arts is aware of the feeling of having to ‘muscle’ a technique to make it work, as opposed to executing a clean technique based on good leverage. This points towards what I think these chapters of the Tao Te Ching are talking about.
When it comes to Tai Chi one of the hardest things to grasp about the techniques exemplified in the forms is that they shouldn’t necessarily feel powerful to you as you do them. My teacher often uses this phrase: “…if you feel it then they don’t – you want them to feel it, not you“.
If you can give up the need to control and struggle with a situation, then you can relax and access your own inner power. See what acliché that statement sounds like already? It sounds like one to me as I wrote it, but I guess all cliches were probably based on something real, otherwise, they wouldn’t be acliché.
In Chinese martial arts that sweet spot between doing and not doing (to bastardize some more Taoist terminology) is called Jin. I’ve written a bit about that before:
I really liked the above clip by Rob Poynton of Cutting Edge Systema. It’s about the idea of using movement, rather than a fixed, rooted stance or hand blocks, to defend yourself.
To break down the message:
Your first reaction should be to move.
Use the legs for defence (stepping) and not the arms to block.
With your arms free you can use them for other things – like takedowns or strikes.
It’s simple, common sense advice when it comes to martial arts. The XingYi I learned was based around exactly the same concepts, incidentally. If you look at a lot of MMA fighters you see the same set of principles in action. If you think about it, you generally don’t see them doing a lot of blocking with their hands. Instead, they are moving and slipping punches. Obviously, there are exceptions – for example, the last MMA fight I watched was Yoel Romero vs Luke Rockhold, at UFC 221 in which Romero did a series of bizarre-looking arm blocks throughout the fight, yet came out on top.
To be fair though, it wasn’t getting him anywhere – he was getting him picked apart by Rockhold until Romero finally broke through and delivered a knockout blow, possibly by virtue of being one of the toughest human beings alive at the moment.
I think Rob’s right in saying that the traditional arts are slow to teach this concept of movement, though. Generally, you hear things said like “if you don’t spar you’ll never be able to use it”, which is true, of course, but how about actually breaking down and analysing what you learn in sparring, and bringing it back into training to refine it? I think that’s what Rob is showing here.
The point about a fear-based response vs a confidence-based response is also very interesting.
Of course, the counter-argument is ‘where are all the great Systema fighters, then?’ But it’s pretty clear that Systema isn’t really designed primarily for being used in a cage. It seems like a pretty useful life skill though, full of concepts you can more easily transfer to your day to day existence.
It’s quite ‘Zen’ and deconstructionist to talk about labels not mattering. But over long years I’ve come to the conclusion that labels (for martial arts) exist in the world because they do matter. If they didn’t matter (to whatever extent) then they wouldn’t exist.
I was reading recently (an idea from Mike Sigman) that the best way to view a martial art with regard to the question of “How internal is this?” is as a sliding scale of 1 through 10 from just using local muscle on the left (0-1), through to external martial arts in the middle (5) that use Jin (ground force) to some extent, on to internal martial arts at the end (10 being the highest) that use full dantien control of movement.
I’d put things like Wing Chun or Karate that go beyond just using basic movement in the middle of the scale. These things often get called the true ‘internal’ versions of the arts, but they don’t really use the dantien. The official version of Yang style Tai Chi that you see done by Yang Jun I don’t think is a full 10 either – it just doesn’t use the datien for full control all the time. I think Chen style Tai Chi would be a 10 – of course, that’s the theory. Most practitioners would be bottom to middle of the scale at best.
There was some talk recently on internal aspects in arts like BJJ. I think BJJ and Judo have the potential for being in the middle of the scale – some Jin usage. Often this is what you see termed as ‘invisible jiujitsu’. I think that’s exactly what you need for groundwork (and for fighting generally) – beyond that it’s a case of returns vs time spent. If you want to make your living as a pianist you don’t need to become a master of the very hardest pieces of classical music. It’s almost irrelevant. Of course, if you want to devote your life to it then, it’s your life and it’s a world of discovery.
This is a really interesting article from Practical Method Tai Chi about the passive-aggressive world of Tai Chi push hands challenges in China – I really try to avoid pushing hands with people I don’t know for many of the reasons described here.
I think the best use of push hands is as a teaching tool, where it is invaluable. Used as a method to compare skills it inevitably turns into ‘Wrestling Lite’, and the best wrestler wins.
I found this article recently that I thought was pretty interesting. It’s about massage and the often used phrase “you’re really tight” by therapists.
Statements like “you’re really tight” are a bit of a verbal tic, something automatic — even expected — that massage therapists to say to pass the time and make conversation with clients. Tightness doesn’t even actually have a clear meaning.3 In this context, it is trivial and harmless.
Being “Sung” (translated as “relaxed”) is one of the things we get told to do all the time in Tai Chi, and it’s open to a lot of misinterpretation. Really, what it’s talking about is not overly tensing muscles, so that the power of an incoming force can be directed to the ground without the muscles taking the load. If you can get the ground to take the load then your muscles are free to do other things.
Due to a nasty training injury, I’ve had to lay off the “rough stuff” for a while, which means I’ve got more time to spend on forms practice than usual. The latest little project I’ve been amusing myself with is learning the start of a different Taiji form than the one I know.
I’ve picked Chen style, since this is the oldest style, and pretty different to my Yang style form.
It’s often hard to see the connection between Yang and Chen style since they look so different, but as I’ve discovered, if you start to learn the beginning of one after already knowing the other it’s very easy to see how they have the same root. This has already provided lots of insights into my regular form by looking at how Chen style treats familiar movements.
To be clear, I’m just learning the first few moves of the form. Probably I’ll get up to the Crane Spreads Wings move (or whatever they call it in Chen). After that, I think the law of diminishing returns starts to kick in and the time spent working on a new form and remembering it starts to outweigh the benefits you get from practising it. I already know a long form, so I don’t think there’s much to be gained by undergoing the arduous process of learning another one.
This little project has made me think about a few side issues, which I’d like to go over below:
Learning from video
There’s this unwritten rule in martial arts that learning anything from a video is bad, or so the conventional wisdom goes. Learning from a real person is preferable, but not always practical. If you’ve got enough experience in an area then I think you can learn a lot from video. Also, let’s not forget, that there are videos on YouTube of recognised experts, like Chen Xiao Wang, doing the form, who are doing it a lot better than any local teacher you’ll find.
For instance, here’s the renowned Taijiquan expert Chen Zheng Li doing the Chen Lao Jia Yi Lu form in a nice relaxed pace that’s easy to follow:
Of course, there will be fine details I’ll miss by copying him, but I’m doing this more as an exercise in personal exploration, rather than in trying to get the Chen form perfect. In fact, I’ve already modified one move I felt would work slightly better in a way I’m more familiar with. (I’m a heretic, I know)
2. Distinguishing ‘energy’ from ‘moves’
Taiji uses the four primary directions of Jin – Peng (upwards), Ji (away from the body), Lu (towards the body) and An (downwards) in various combinations. It’s often hard for people to separate this ‘energy’ direction from the physical movements themselves. So, a “ward off” posture is one thing, but the energy that you usually use with it – Peng – is another. Confusingly, Peng is often translated as “ward off”, so the two become conflated. By doing a new form with different moves, you get to see how the same ‘energy’ is used in a different arm shape.
For instance, in Yang style the ‘ward off’ movements tend to have the palm pointing inwards towards the body, while in Chen style, they are pointed outwards, away from the body.
3. Spotting similarities
So, while a Chen form may look very different to a Yang form, once you start thinking in terms of which of the 4 energies you’re using, you start to see the similarities, even if the postures look different.
For example, both forms start with a Peng to the right, a step forward, another Peng forward, a splitting action, then another Peng to the right, then into the Peng, Lu, Ji, Lu, An sequence known in Yang style as “Grasp Birds Tail” in Yang and “Lazily tying coat” then “Six sealing four closing” in Chen style. (Apparently, the Yang naming came from a mistranslation of the original Chen name, but this matters not to me).
(Note: In some performances, of Chen style – like the one above by Chen Zengli, he misses out the “Lu then Ji” move of the sequence. In others, like this one by CXW below, it’s in there. I don’t know why. Personally, I like to put it in, because it connects me to the Yang style I know.)
Doing Peng in a different arm configuration than you’re used to is, frankly, good for your practice, because it helps you break out of the mould a bit, into a freer execution that is not dictated to by the conventions of your particular style.
The New Year Challenge! Do it yourself
I’d like to challenge you to do the same thing in January. If you’re a Chen stylist, then learn the start of the Yang form up to White Crane Spreads Wings. If you’re a Yang stylist, then give the Chen form a go. Alternatively, investigate the opening sequence of Sun, Wu or Wu(Hao) style. Give it a go!
Here’s a video of Yang and Chen forms done side by side that I’ve posted before because it helps show the similarities: