What is the point of Tai Chi applications?

Yang Cheng-Fu showing Tai Chi applications from his book.

In the comments section Richard asked a good question in response to my last post. I wrote a brief reply in the comments, but I thought I’d flesh it out a bit as a blog post, because it’s an interesting topic.

The question is, ‘what’s the point of Tai Chi applications?’ Actually, to be fair, he was talking specifically about the one application video in my last post, not about Tai Chi in general. But personally I think you can extrapolate the question to include the wider Tai Chi universe, and that would be where I’d look for my answer.

There are plenty of videos of respected masters of various styles of Tai Chi running though the applications of their form movements and producing a series of very questionable applications that would require a perfect storm of events to happen for them to work. I don’t want to post them here because I think it would distract from the point I’m making, but look up ‘Name of famous master’ and ‘applications’ on YouTube and you’ll find them.

I really like the phrase “a perfect storm” to describe Tai Chi applications because as far as I can see, most (if not all) Tai Chi applications one would require a ‘perfect storm’ of attacker, positioning and timing for the application work. Therefore the one application video I posted previously is not particularly different to any other Tai Chi application video, at least to me.

That might not be a popular opinion, but I think it’s true.

Contrast this with a martial art like Choy Li Fut. I’ll choose CLF because it’s a kind of a typical Chinese Kung Fu style. It’s has some key techniques like Sao Choy – sweeping fist and Charp Choy – leopard fist and Pao Choy, a kind of big uppercut, Gwa Choy, a backlist, for example.

Here’s 10 of the ‘basic’ techniques that you find in CLF:

I wonder – does the man in the mirror ever punch him back?

If you watch a Choy Li Fut form then you’ll see these 10 techniques crop up again and again, but each form enables you to practice them in different combinations:

A great title for a video “Killer Choy Li Fut form!” It’s actually a great performance, especially with the drumming in the background.

Or check out the famous first form of Wing Chun – Siu Lim Tao, it’s a series of techniques performed very, very accurately so you can refine and practice them:

Now when you do those techniques in a form, you are performing a technique that would work exactly as shown. The only thing you need for success is to actually contact with an opponent and do the move correctly at the right time. 

Tai Chi as a marital art just doesn’t work in the same way. We don’t have a toolbag of techniques designed to be pull out and used ‘as is’. Ward off is not a fundamental technique of Tai Chi – instead Peng, the ‘energy’ you use in performing ward-off, is the important thing. And I think this leads to a lot of confusion about what Tai Chi forms are.

So, if we don’t have techniques that exist in the same way as other marital arts, how are you supposed to fight with Tai Chi?

Tai Chi is a set of principles and a strategy that together make it a martial art. In a nutshell the strategy part can be summed up with the 5 keywords of push hands – listen, stick, yield, neutralise and attack. The principles cover how the body is used, resulting natural power derived from relaxation, ground force and a series of openings and closings expressed in the 8 energies. When the principles of Tai Chi are properly internalised you become something like a sphere, which can redirect force applied to you with ease and respond as appropriate. All these things are elucidated in the Tai Chi Classics.

Now that short description probably leaves a lot out, of what Tai Chi is, but at least it’s a starting point.

If that’s your goal, then putting emphasis on individual techniques doesn’t make much sense. Everything you do now exists in relation to an opponent, rather than existing on its own terms. The Tai Chi form then becomes a series of examples of how you might respond to specific attacks. In essence, it is a series of perfect storms, one after the other, put in a sequence that is long enough that you start to internalise the principles of movement and energy use. And obviously the strategy part requires a partner, hence why push hands exists.

I think that’s also the reason why Tai Chi forms are so long and slow, btw, so you internalise things.

As a final note, I’d say the jury is still out as to whether the Tai Chi way is the best approach to teaching people to fight. It’s interesting to note that a lot of martial arts innovators tend towards this same nebulous ‘technique-free’ style of training the further they get into their research into martial arts. Bruce Lee for example, was moving towards freedom and the technique of no technique in his later years – see his 1971 manifesto ‘Liberate yourself from Classical Karate’ for example. Then there’s Wang Xiang Zhai who created Yi Quan by removing fixed forms and routines from Xing Yi Quan and mixing it with whatever else he had studied. See his criticisms of other Kung Fu styles in his 1940 interview, for example.

Photo by Thao LEE on Unsplash

In contrast a lot of the martial arts that have actually proven effective in modern combat events have turned out to be very, very technique based. Brazilian Jiujitsu, for example, is taught through very specific techniques. So is MMA. Karate, for all of Bruce Lee’s criticisms often does very well in competition against other more esoteric styles because it contains some no nonsense techniques.

Another factor to think of is that while Tai Chi may have those lofty goals of producing a formless fighter in its classical writing, it often isn’t taught like that in reality. One of the martial arts that Wang Xiang Zhai is criticising as having lost its way and become a parody of itself in that 1940 essay linked to above, is, in fact, Tai Chi Chuan!

So, as ever with marital arts, I think the answer is: it’s complicated.

The hidden takedown in Ward Off

Tai Chi Ward Off

Most people who do Tai Chi are familiar with the idea of Ward Off as being a block/deflection of an incoming strike, but there’s also a takedown application inherent in the movement.

As luck would have it there is a new series of videos being posted online of my Tai Chi teacher, Sifu Rand, showing various Tai Chi applications. Here’s a video of him demonstrating the takedown contained in Ward Off.

Check out the YouTube channel Spinning Dragon Tao as it looks like there will be more applications posted there soon.

Systema and Tai Chi – similarities and differences

Matt Hill and Vladimir Vasiliev

I had a great visit to The System Academy in Wiltshire last week where I enjoyed a bit of 1-1 Systema coaching from my old friend and owner of the Academy, Matt Hill. I also recorded a podcast episode with him for The Tai Chi Notebook Podcast, which will be coming out in November. Matt trained Aikido in Japan and served as a Captain in the British army, as well as working in crisis management before he became a full time Systema instructor, so he’s got a lot of experience of different types of martial arts and working in pressure scenarios. Because Matt and I live quite close to each other I had the opportunity to get a bit of hands-on work in before we sat down to record the episode. It was great to experience some Systema myself this time, and I particularly enjoyed the striking aspects, which is something I’ve put on the back burner a bit as I’ve got more into grappling over the last few years.

One of those eternal questions that pop up on discussion boards a lot is, ‘how close is Systema to Tai Chi?’, and this was one of the things I’ve been mulling over since I had the lesson. Both these arts stress what Systema calls the Four Pillars – breath, posture, relaxation and movement – but on a basic level I think one of the immediate differences between Tai Chi and Systema is that Systema seems to only exist in relation to something you are doing, whereas Tai Chi has this weighty set of philosophical principles that exist independently to the art, like Taoist philosophy and yin and yang, as well as concepts from the Tai Chi Classics regarding posture, movement and strategy. Tai Chi can certainly be talked about in terms of these abstract concepts and ideas, but in contrast, Systema needs to be shown. When you’re not doing Systema, then where does it go? It’s a bit like your lap – when you sit down you can point to your lap, but when you stand up, it vanishes!

Systema seems intrinsically tied to what you are doing, not what you are thinking. Of course, you can argue that even when you’re doing nothing and not moving, say, just sitting there, you are still doing something, so perhaps Systema is always there: You still have a posture, and you are always breathing, and that means some movement is happening in the body and you can still relax, which is a kind of a movement in itself. But there doesn’t seem to be an underlying theory, comparable to something like Tai Chi’s theory of yin and yang, that underpins it all.

Another interesting difference is that when Systema teachers talk about embodying the 4 pillars – they really mean it! They’re not just paying lip service to the ideas – they are living them. Even outside of the martial art practice, Systema seems to have the potential to pervade everything you do. In Systema you tend to lead movement with your breath, you breathe the tension out of your body as you work and you try not to muscle anything. And that can be applied to anything, not just fighting.

Of course, you could say the same thing is true of Tai Chi, but there’s so much other ‘stuff’ to worry about in Tai Chi – like a form,(and getting the form just right), dantien, and the 6 harmonies or the 8 co-ordinations, etc, etc.. I think inevitably, with so much on your plate, some things slip. But with only 4 principles to keep in mind, you can spend a bit more time really digging into them.

And then there’s the amount of physical discomfort you experience. Tai Chi can be really hard on the legs for sure, but push ups, leg raises, sit ups and squats are the meat and potatoes of Systema, none of which you’ll find in a bog-standard Tai Chi class. Not to mention learning to give and receive strikes. Even more martially inclined Tai Chi classes don’t tend to work on actively standing there and learning how to receive strikes.

Chen Xiaowang, Tai Chi broadsword

Adopting any sort of ‘martial arts pose’ is frowned on in Systema. Again, you can argue that there are no fixed shapes in Tai Chi either, but Tai Chi does put a lot of emphasis on structure – keeping a connection to the ground through a relaxed frame, and there are ‘kung fu’ style postures. Systema seems to prefer you trust in your relaxation and let gravity do its work. For a Tai Chi person, it’s quite freeing and fun not to have any fixed shapes you’re expected to adopt. The emphasis in Systema seems to be on not trapping yourself into patterns of tension that you first have to exit before you can move freely. Fighting somebody else is hard enough already – you don’t want to have to fight seven battles within yourself just to move freely before you even begin!

So yes, Systema is different to Tai Chi. But I think the two work really well together. The Tai Chi practitioner can take from Systema the idea of not being trapped in ‘postures’ – fixed shapes (Ward off, Diagonal Flying, etc) and the value of removing as much tension from your body as you can while still working on moving with an opponent. Also, breathing tends to get only a cursory mention in Tai Chi, but focusing more and more on keeping your breathing smooth and continuous, and noting how that relates to tension in the body, is a great addition to any Tai Chi form, and I think that has to help make your Tai Chi better, by any objective measurement.

For more on Systema have a listen to my chat with Rob Poyton again, and look out for my interview with Matt Hill in the next episode of The Tai Chi Notebook Podcast, coming in November.

I see you, doing Tai Chi in the park

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

I live in the suburbs of Bristol. While Bristol itself is one of the most culturally diverse cities in the UK the suburbs tend towards leafy suburbia where you can feel the crushing weight of normality on your shoulders. So, while seeing somebody in a central Bristol park doing Tai Chi on their own wouldn’t be unusual, it’s almost unheard of in my local parks. I’ve done Tai Chi in my local park of course – usually when training with somebody else and it’s not something I do solo, since I can just imagine the amount of funny looks it would generate around here.

Imagine my surprise then when I saw somebody else doing Tai Chi in my local park this morning. I looked to my right as I entered the park on the way back from the supermarket and facing towards me in the Push posture, just a couple of meters away was a man doing Tai Chi. One glance was all I need to identify that he was doing Yang style, or possibly the Beijing 24-step, which is based on Yang style. He had that large frame posture and super slow movement speed.

He was an older man with striking white hair, brushed back and John Lennon-style glasses, but tinted, so you couldn’t see his eyes. It was that moment where you see something that you recognise but it’s in the wrong place at the wrong time, so your brain takes a moment to process it and you freeze like a rabbit in the headlights. The Germans probably have a word for it.

After over 20 years of living in an area where it would be considered odd, even weird, to do Tai Chi in a local park, it had finally happened. I’d seen somebody doing Tai Chi in the park! And do you know what my first thought was on seeing him?

‘Gee, what a weirdo!’

I just walked off without saying a word and he just carried on, his attention rapt up in his movements.

Calling out Bullshido

Fantasy or reality?

I’ve been involved in a lot of discussions recently (and for years!) about what in Chinese martial art is fantasy and what is real. Realness, keeping it real, being truthful, whatever you want to call it, it is seen as a big deal. The question of the essential realness of a technique, a style or a whole person’s lineage, cuts to the heart of the matter, always.

Discussions of these types have flourished along with the growth of online video and the means to talk about these videos online. These discussions usually go along the line of:

1) A famous practitioner puts up a clip of himself (it’s usually always a male) demonstrating something visually impressive on a student. The purpose of the clip is self promotion for fame or seminars or online teaching material. Maybe they show a student go flying through the air from the lightest of touches, or they resist a strong push without any visible effort – you know the sort of thing.

2) Somebody comments and goes – “that’s bullshit!”

3) All hell breaks loose in the comments section between rival sections.

I can understand the strong urge to want to point these things out. I get involved in these things too. Sometimes I see something that is such obvious nonsense I can’t help but point it out. It’s like this old XKCD cartoon that is funny because it’s true:

The argument is logical: There are so many good things in Chinese martial arts and the fantasy stuff is damaging to that. And it’s therefore up to us to call out the fantasy, not accept it. If we don’t then we just invite ridicule, especially from other martial artists.

However, even when that attitude is adopted I see people tend to be more interested in calling out the fantasy stuff that other people do, or that is in other styles, not their own! And never in anything they do themselves or their teachers do. We all have our own blind spots and biases.

But I’ve been thinking differently about this issue recently…

When you look into the close connection between martial arts and street theatre, or opera troops and (as technology progressed) Kung Fu movies, it’s impossible not to conclude that showbiz (for want of a better word) has always been connected in some way with Chinese martial arts from the very beginning.

That doesn’t mean that Chinese martial arts masters of old weren’t bad ass. They were bad ass! But they also knew how to perform Lion Dance, or put on a show at New Years, or impress a prospective student with a. few tricks if they had to. These things were so interconnected in Chinese culture that it seems impossible to separate them (although successive Chinese governments gave it a good go throughout the 20th century).

Showbiz has always been there in Chinese martial art. It’s what makes amazing movie fight scenes like this one from The Grand Master possible:

Beauty, artistry, story telling. It’s all there. It’s using “real” techniques from martial arts and presenting them in a hyper-real, perfected, way.

Of course, the problem comes when people get conned into believing that the hyper-real is the real and that can take people to some very weird places, involving cult-like practices, exploitation and usually a lot of money being handed over. That’s where the problems start for me.

There are no easy answers, but I think that viewing some of these things that are not quite real as merely a part of the showbiz side to Chinese martial art, is perhaps an easier way to deal with it.

For instance, what is going on in this clip with Chen ManChing bouncing people around?

I can imagine a lot of Chen style Tai Chi people getting upset about that, as the sort of nonsense that doesn’t tend to happen in their style… and yet, what’s going on in this clip:

Is it as bad? Is it worse, even?

I don’t know.

It might just be easier to look at both these clips say,

It’s just showbiz”, and shrug your shoulders and laugh.

Closing in Taijiquan

Photo by Gratisography on Pexels.com

Opening and closing are in every movement of Tai Chi. But what does it mean to close?

To me the closing movements in the form feel like a squeeze. Closing in Tai Chi doesn’t mean shutting off. I think of the movement of Taijiquan as being like a garden hose that’s always on – the water (or if you want to get all mystical about it, the qi) is flowing regardless, and all you are doing with the closing movements is compressing the mouth of the hose a little, or putting your thumb over the lip, to increase the pressure, so the velocity of the water increases. 

Quite often the closing part of the movement is when you form the end of a posture – the finish position of Single Whip, the end of Ward off, for example. When the body closes it’s like the pressure increases and the velocity of the water becomes higher, then as you open again the mouth of the hose opens allowing more water comes out but at a lower velocity. That’s opening and closing.

How do I pick a Tai Chi teacher?

“Hi,

I will understand if you don’t have time for this or are unable to give a meaningful answer. I bumped into your website about a year ago, and since your writing seems to make sense to me, I thought I’ll ask.

I’d been exposed to Tai Chi some years back, and have continued trying to learn a bit more about it on and off since then, but given I’m an inlander in Australia I don’t have any practitioners nearby (nearest is ~over 300 mi away) it’s proving to be a slow process of breaking down videos and trying to assess myself against these.

Which is sort of the ignorant leading the ignorant. I’m making progress, but it’s slow.

I’ve spent a bit of time this weekend watching one of the classes that happens “close” to me, and looking at patterns that are the same but different, so that was my first in person exposure to differences between schools.

Given the distances involved in this, and my general reluctance to travel that much, I’m wondering about how well the online courses work?
But that also leads onto a more basic question, of how do you pick a teacher in the first place?
(I have worked out that at least one of the groups near to me attach to the “lineage” responsible for “Tim” being in a cult so I’m counting that one out.)

Is it just a case of pick one and go until it stops making sense?

Thank you for your time, and the blog posts.

Regards,
Henry.”

Hi Henry,

Firstly, greetings to a reader from down under! What an amazing thing it is that I can write these blog posts here in the UK and on the other side of the world somebody is reading them. That really does make me think my time isn’t entirely being wasted.

Now, to the question of “how do I choose a Tai Chi teacher?” That is indeed a weighty one. A teacher/student relationship can be a big influence on your life, mainly because you will spend a lot of time practicing with them and people tend to rub off on you, so you should be careful of who you spend your time with. I also don’t want to advise you wrongly, and be responsible for you wasting years on the wrong track, or equally missing out on some great possibilities because the teacher didn’t quite live up to some standard I’ve set. People are human, fallible and weak, and they all make mistakes. Even mighty Tai Chi masters.

Members of a group that we might initially write off as a cult, could still be worth checking out. Just keep your wits about you. At the end of the day there are very few individuals who are good enough at Tai Chi to actually teach it, and your chances of finding one of those, especially one who isn’t charging an arm and a leg, is minimal, so we have to work with what is.

I think what we’d all like is to stumble across our very own Mr Miyagi, in a situation where we somehow befriend the keeper of an ancient family martial style who is happy to divulge his secrets to us if we do a bit of fence painting for him. If you manage to stumble across your very own Mr Miyagi then consider yourself to be incredibly lucky, because it’s not very likely to happen. However, we have the Internet these days, and while Mr Miyagis may be in short supply, there are an increasing number of Daniel-sans out there who may, or may not, be able to band together and form a practice group around a similar set of goals or perhaps an online teacher. You see, as well as a teacher to tell you what to train, you are mainly going to need a group of training partners of the same level to practice this stuff with when the teacher isn’t around. The majority of that work will look ugly, be full of mistakes and be unpaid, but it’s essential. That’s what nobody tells you.

Anyway, my top tips when meeting a new teacher are to trust your gut, ask questions and try and get hands on. Ask politely to try and feel what they’re doing. If they won’t let you or start making excuses, there’s your red flag. How do the other students act? Do they behave in an overly obedient way that makes you question what’s being presented? And what about their history? They should be able to answer basic questions about who they learned from and where they trained.

Of course, on the other side of the coin, it’s quite possible that you have entirely unrealistic expectations about what a Tai Chi teacher should be. Just remember: There’s no point checking everybody in the room if you don’t check yourself. Are you sure you’re not letting a good learning situation go by just because the teacher in question only has 3 of the 5 specialist Tai Chi skills you are looking for? A rule of thumb I used to use was “can this guy do something I can’t do and do it well enough that I want to learn it?” If they could then that was a good reason to learn from them. You can learn something from pretty much anybody.

And be clear with yourself what you actually want to learn. Some teachers are better at the fighty stuff than others, but if you don’t want the fighty stuff, then you can save a lot of time by not training it.

But what if the worse should happen and you get taught “wrong”? Well, that’s always a risk, but is it as bad as you think? It could be that you need to be taught wrong a few times, just so you can appreciate what’s right. Think of it as the price of an education.

The big thing I’ve learned over the years is that in the end it matters more how we treat each other, than what special knowledge somebody has access to. At one period in my life I trained with a Tai Chi teacher who was very good at what he did, but was also a complete asshole. I could tell he was an asshole, and the frequent bust ups he had with long term students were a constant reminder, but I wanted to get what he had, so I put up with him. I turned a blind eye to his various escapades into what would be called “bullshido” these days. But in the end I just couldn’t take it anymore and I left. It turned out to be the best thing I could have done. It was like a weight had been lifted, and I realised it was that weight that had been holding me back the whole time, I just couldn’t see it.

Anyway, I hope that helps.

Here are some typical Australians, about to be murdered by sharks. Photo by Belle Co on Pexels.com

Ji – To press or crowd in

I was reading through my latest purchase, Chen Style Illustrated, again recently and I got to something that piqued my interest – it’s the section where they are describing the 8 energies and we get to Press (Ji)

“When in contact the aim of this gradual rolling move is is to unsettle the balance of he opponent.”

It’s not a bad description at all, but I don’t resonate with the word “gradual” there. The most common application you tend to see for Press is of a kind of “bump” that puts the person off balance, but my experience of Ji has been that there’s nothing particularly gradual about it. That bump can be applied in a hard sharp way. Jin done in a forward direction (which is Press) can often be quite jolting and it hurts inside.

The 8 energies are:

掤 peng, 捋 lu, 挤 ji, 按 an, 採 cai, 挒 lie, 肘 zhou, 靠 kao

Google translates 挤 as “press” or “crowd in”. (I’m not sure that another translation you often see of “squeeze” is helpful. I’ve read people writing about squeezing the hands together – that’s not it at all. ) From that you get the sense of a situation where you are already in contact with the person and, perceiving a point of weakness in their defence you press them further on the point. It reminds me a lot of the strategy of Horse in Xing Yi, which is to attack a point of defence that is already defended but has a weakness you can exploit.

Cheng Man Ching doing Press

In the Tai Chi form Ji is usually done with the back of the hand in the typical Grasp Bird’s Tail sequence (presumably because it the easiest way to capitalise on a good position you’ve already achieved), but there’s nothing about the energy you’re using that means it has to be done with the back of the hand. It can be done with a fist or palm too.

And this is where the Tai Chi waters get a bit murky. There is the martial technique Press, which is to do with pressing further forward into an opponent you are already contacted with, and then there is the abstract concept of “jin in a forward direction”. Anytime you express jin (strength derived from the ground through a relaxed body) in a forward direction you could be said to be doing 挤, but when you put it into a Tai Chi context it takes on this quality of crowding in and pressing that attack.

What you can learn from Tai Chi kicks

Tai Chi kicks are a great way of testing your balance. Due to the circular nature of Tai Chi technique the sections of the forms where you are kicking often involve turning the body to the left or right while you are standing on one leg. It’s more challenging than a simple one direction kick and is a great training for your balance.

I shot this during this morning’s Tai Chi practice. It’s the kicking section of the short form that we practice in the Yongquan Tai Chi Chuan Association:

You’ll notice that the kicks are done lower than you see in a lot of modern Tai Chi forms. That’s because we’re aiming at the knee. The classical technique for these moves is to block their knee with your foot and pull their arm in the opposite direction to get a takedown. Effectively using the foot as a kind of brace, not really as a kick.

But it’s the training these techniques offer in balance that is their real value I think – a lot of people end up very wobbly on the standing leg when performing these techniques. The key to making it silky smooth is not to think about sinking down into the ground as you raise the leg, but to ‘raise the back’ as you lift the leg. That upward ‘pull’ holds you in place securely so you can deliver a smooth kick.

Practicing Tai Chi in nature: Being like a teabag in the ocean

On holiday in the southwest of England for a week I managed to find some time each morning to practice Tai Chi in a lovely old wooded area.

So often we have to practice Tai Chi in our front rooms, back gardens or patios because of time pressures. Or maybe we only get to practice at a class in a village hall, gym or community centre. Either way, our surroundings are often far from natural.

Being able to practice Tai Chi in an environment where there were no other people, no human sounds and no interruptions was a blessing. It was possible to really sink into the environment for once, and not just my legs!

It’s a process one of my teachers calls “being a teabag in the ocean”. If you want to take in the good stuff from the natural world around you then you need to adopt the attitude of being like a teabag in the ocean – i.e. let nature move through you as well as around you, so that you don’t feel like something separate to it. Absorb it, soak it in. I’d say most people practice Tai Chi as if they are a teabag that’s sealed inside a plastic bag then dropped in the ocean. They can be doing great Tai Chi, but they are perfectly contained within themselves and not interacting with the environment. Often there’s not much environment to interact with, as mentioned previously, but if you get the chance to practice Tai Chi out in the woods, you should take it and take the opportunity to get out of that plastic bag.

Before you practice the form, stand for a few moments and try to let the barriers between you and your surroundings break down. Your mind should be focused on the moment and on your breathing, after all, that is as much a part of nature as anything else. Stand like that for a while before doing the form and just experience it, don’t think about experiencing it.

Then as you go through the movements of the form, you’ll start to feel like you are moving with the natural patterns around you. Don’t worry if your form takes on a subtly different quality than normal. It’s all part of the process.

I find that I don’t have as much free time for this in my normal life as I do when I’m on holiday, but I’m going to try and make an effort to get out to a secluded place now and again and practice my Tai Chi out there because the effort is well worth it.