Byron Jacobs is a teacher of Xing Yi and Bagua based in Beijing, China. He’s a student of the famous Shifu Di Guoyong and is heavily involved in the martial arts scene in Beijing. As well as training traditional martial arts he’s also a BJJ practitioner and competitor.
In this wide ranging discussion we talk about training Xing Yi, Bagua and Tai Chi and whether Wu Shu will ever get into the Olympics. We also find out what it was like to train martial arts in Beijing during the Corona virus pandemic, and what the Chinese BJJ and MMA scene is like.
I seem to have entered a little phase of practicing Tai Chi in the morning then immediately doing some Xing Yi straight afterwards. I’ve never really been into doing Tai Chi especially slowly, as some people seem to love to do, but the contrast with Xing Yi straight after has really accented the speed differences, and it’s made me think about the strategy of each art.
Tai Chi forms are performed much more slowly than Xing Yi links. We all know that Tai Chi should be done slow-ish, but how fast should Xing Yi be? Because it’s an “internal art” (check out my podcast for some thoughts on what that means) people often think that Xing Yi should be done relatively slowly too. My teacher recalled to me a story of one of his teachers who would always shout at them “Faster! Faster!”, whenever they did Xing Yi. The rule was, the faster, the better. They could never be quite fast enough to satisfy him.
Xing Yi works as an intercepting art – ideally you want to be attacking inside the opponent’s attack. It’s a very different approach to standing your ground and trading blows with an opponent. Once you’re ‘inside’ their attack you want to keep on pressing forward, which is why Xing Yi ‘forms’ are generally done in a straight line. The hardest thing is getting that inside position, but once you’ve got it you don’t want to give it up until you’ve got in several decisive blows, all the while moving forward with full body connection. Nobody said it was an easy strategy to achieve, but that is the strategy.
Doing Xing Yi quickly helps you develop that fast footwork you need to rush forward when required, without falling into disaray. It says in the Xing Yi classics somewhere that when standing you want to stand like a mountain – solid, unmoving, but when it’s time to move you want to move like the sound of thunder or a landslide.
Tai Chi – at least the Yang style and its sub-styles – in contrast seems more interested in doing as little work as possible. Relaxing, using natural body motions and letting your body weight do the work are the order of the day.
When you do Tai Chi you shouldn’t really be getting out of breath*, when you do Xing Yi you should. As such the two arts compliment each other nicely.
The blossom is out on my tree and spring is in the air! So, it’s time to record a new video.
Yesterday was St. Patrick’s Day, the saint who drove the “snakes” out of Ireland (a country which has never had snakes). I see a lot of people doing Xing Yi snake forms and generally I don’t like most of it. Sorry. It always seems a bit “dumbed down” to me. Linear and basic, and not very representative of the actual animal. Snakes coil, they twist, they wrap and they strike suddenly and swiftly. Those characteristics need to be present if you are going to embody the Snake (She Xing).
But rather than post videos of other people’s work and criticise it, (which seems to be a favourite pastime of people on the Internet), I thought I’d make my own and try to promote my mate Glen’s Xing Yi Snake book in the process:
Somebody commented on another of my videos that they liked the weapons work I’ve included previously, so I put some Snake sword in there too. As with all Xing Yi, you can see the barehand work is simply a translation from the weapons work. The application pictures are from Glen Board’s book Xing Yi Snake, (which I’ve reviewed here), that I worked on with him.
I actually recorded this video just before I did my regular Tai Chi practice, and I noticed that my Tai Chi form became infused with the flavour of the Snake Xing I’d been practicing previously and became very coily indeed! This is what the Xing Yi animals are like – they’re like strong flavours of tea, that you add to your hot water. Ultimately you should be able to blend all 12 freely. I don’t think there’s enough lifetimes left for me to do that though, which is why I tend to stick to the ones I prefer. Different Xing Yi practitioners tend to be heavily ‘flavoured’ by the animals they prefer.
But why snakes? What’s the advantage in studying them? There are many legends about snakes, but not many actual snakes to be found in the UK, so we don’t generally know too much about them, but it’s pretty clear from watching this YouTube video showing python attacks that they’re absolutely fearless predators:
What surprised me most about that video is how close the python manages to get to its prey before it strikes. I guess it must be to do with being absolutely silent as it moves? I don’t know. Either way, a python is a terrifying grappler and an ambush predator combined into one. You can see why horses, monkeys and man has a built-in snake phobia.
As Wikipedia notes: “Historically, serpents and snakes represent fertility or a creative life force. As snakes shed their skin through sloughing, they are symbols of rebirth, transformation, immortality, and healing. The ouroboros is a symbol of eternity and continual renewal of life. … In Hinduism, Kundalini is a coiled serpent.”
Carl Jung had a lot to say about snakes. The ouroboros is cool symbol, a Western Yin/Yang, but the most recognisable snake symbol in our daily lives is the caduceus, the traditional symbol of Hermes and a symbol used in many esoteric religions and associated with healing:
“Some accounts suggest that the oldest known imagery of the caduceus has its roots in a Mesopotamian origin with the Sumerian god Ningishzida; whose symbol, a staff with two snakes intertwined around it, dates back to 4000 BC to 3000 BC.“
So, I decided to make a short-ish video to clear up some confusing points of discussion in my previous posts, about transfer of weight between legs. This lead me on to talking about the store and release of power in the body that Xing Yi can produce and how you don’t need to “load up” because you should always be “loaded”.
N.B. This is not the same as the jin – ground power – produced by down power on the front foot (that’s going on as well, obviously) but it’s more analogous to the 5 bows concept in Tai Chi, except this is the Xing Yi version, which I think is more suited for continuous striking, not a big “one shot kill”. We call this way of producing power the Dragon body in Xing Yi.
As always, I’m not saying this is the only way to do it, or the best way, or that you suck, or I’m brainwashed, or you are brainwashed. I’m just presenting some information, feel free to reject it if you don’t like it. And all the best in your training.
Today I want to talk about a very useful martial arts teaching called the 3 timings. In many ways, these teachings are the secret to all martial arts, so you’re getting some pretty good value out of this free blog post! 🙂
The three timings have been handed down in many different martial arts lineages under different guises, but it’s all the same teaching. I suspect the 3 timings are as old as time itself.
Personally, I’ve found the three timings most applicable to weapons work, but they are obviously important for barehand too.
The version of the 3 timings handed down in my Chinese lineage was called “Yi timing, Chi timing and Xing timing”, but in English you’ll find them explained perfectly well by Paul Vunak here as simply, before, during and after:
Paul Vunak is a Jeet Kune Do teacher. Bruce thought the concept of “Jeet” was so important he named his martial art after it. The “Jeet” in Jeet June Do means to intercept, and intercepting is what the 3 timings are all about.
The 3 timings is a pretty simple concept. You can hit somebody:
“After” they have completed their technique (xing timing), for which you obviously have to move out of the way before you respond. This is the slowest timing and easiest to perform.
“During” their attack (chi timing). This is a much shorter timing, and it could end up in a simultaneous strike where you both hit each other, but ideally you would just sneak in first and beat them to the punch.
And finally, “before” they strike you (yi timing). This is the hardest timing to achieve, because it’s very easy to get wrong. For true Yi timing you need to hit them before they launch their attack, but equally, their attack does need to be a genuine attack. If you fire on Yi timing (”intention” timing), and they are faking, or not attacking, you’ll end up out of position and vulnerable. Yi timing therefore requires immense practice and sensitivity so that you can accurately read the whole situation in the blink of an eye.
Timing is the ultimate skill in martial arts. If you are a master of timing, then you almost don’t need any technique. If we are both holding swords and I can always time my attack to hit you anytime you come towards me then I can forget about “Green Dragon Scoops the water” or whatever fancy technique I know. It all becomes irrelevant.
So how do you practice the 3 timings? Well, I’d suggest that the first stage would involve getting a partner, like Mr Vunak has done in that video, and practicing responding to set attacks, so you can develop a feel for each timing. Obviously this would need to be done predictably at the start then slowly more variation can be introduced and the sparring can become freer. Instead of the other person just feeding attacks, they can try to start to make their own attacks and counters.
If you practice barehand and with weapons then you’ll notice how much quicker the timing needs to be with weapons. You have so much less time to react. In fact, going back to barehand after using weapons you will almost feel like you are moving in slow motion, which is a handy skill to have for obvious reasons.
With the timings at the heart of your practice you might also change the way you think about moving in martial arts. Ways of moving that require a unity of body and mind become much more important. You need to move everything together, and as one, to hit your timings.
The words of the Xing Yi Classic of Unification become more important:
“When the upper and lower move, the centre will attack. When the centre moves, the upper and lower support, Internal and external, front and rear are combined, This is called “Threading into one”, This cannot be achieved through force or mimicry.”
Hundreds of years after these words were written, Bruce Lee came to the same conclusions, and based his new martial art around the concept of timing, naming it Jeet Kune Do, the way of the intercepting fist.
“When the opponent expands, I contract. When he contracts, I expand. And, when there is an opportunity, I do not hit – it hits all by itself.” ― Bruce Lee
Practicing both Xing Yi and Tai Chi together helps you gain insights into both arts. Here’s what occured to me this morning: If you were to strip down Tai Chi and Xing Yi forms to their essentials then Tai Chi is a series of deflecting moves interspersed with occasional punches or kicks, and Xing Yi is a series of punches or kicks interspersed with occasional deflecting moves.
That’s a gross simplification, but I think it’s true to some extent. It’s what makes the two arts good companions for each other.
I’ve written before about not putting power in the form, but in a related note I think the idea of not using your arm to punch is another way of looking at it from a more Xing Yi perspective. It’s the same nut, just another way to crack it.
The famous Tai Chi practitioner, Cheng Man Ching, is said to have had a dream in which he had no arms, and it was only after that that he grasped the secret of pushing hands. The secret was that pushing hands had nothing to do with hands at all, and he credited this dream with in his ability to push people.
But I find it a lot easier to understand the ‘not using your hands’ thing when you are constantly pushing and deflecting. It’s a lot harder to do it when you are striking.
Xing Yi is obsessed with striking. Most of the forms are a series of strikes linked together (called “links” – Lian Huan). I’ve come to appreciate however that the key to it is to not use your arm to strike. I mean, yes, your arm is doing the striking, of course, but it’s like it’s not involved in the process. I’m thinking about what Bruce Lee said when he said “it hits all by itself”. But while I believe Lee was talking about a more spiritual process (the top line of the hexagram), I’m thinking about a more mid-line process that’s rooted in the body. The hand moves into the position you want, but what moves it there has nothing to do with the arm at all, it’s all from the body. I find that when Xing Yi becomes “too much in the arm” it ceases to be the art it’s supposed to be.
Paradoxically by trying to hit hard, you ruin it. You’ve got to ease back a little bit – take your foot slightly off he gas and let the body do the work, almost as if you are a craftsman using a tool skillfully (your body) rather than making a great effort to get things done and just making a mess in the process.
“When the haft is gripped, this grip is done with the whole body” – Xing Yi classics
I am still trying to make sure I do some sword practice every day. Specifically I’m using Bear Eagle from Xing Yi as my main practice.
One of the big issues that becomes apparent when you do a lot of sword practice is the grip. My experience is that a solid grip means less wear and tear on your wrist.
I was therefore quite pleased to read this blog on how to grip a sword by Scott Rodell, since it confirms what I was taught and have found to be the best way to practice in terms of logevity. He recommends the same grip that I use.
The way I was taught was to grip the handle with all my fingers, not any kind of thumb/finger arrangement as you often see, and make sure all the fingers are below the guard, for obvious reasons. I think one of the keys to making your grip strong is to grip really hard with the little finger, that way you make sure it never sips off, because once it does the rest of the fingers tend to follow. As the Xing Yi classics say, “When the haft is gripped, this grip is done with the whole body“. With a strong, stable, grip you can start to connect the sword to your centre, so that movements from the torso can be reveald in the extremities – in this case, the sword.
“I am curious to find why Bear and Eagle are always together. Have you come across or know of any reasoning behind this?
Thank you in advance for your time!”
This is a good question – if you practice Xing Yi you’ll notice that all the animal forms are practiced as individual animals, yet Bear (Xiong) and Eagle (Ying) are often mixed together as something called a “harmonious fist” (He Quan). (Although you also find them as separate links too). There are a few reasons why this is so.
Firstly, although Xing Yi has no particular connection to Taoism, it does make use of the concept of Yin and Yang. All the animals have Yin aspects and Yang aspects – this can be most clearly seen in something like snake, where the yin aspects are represented by the pythons – crushing, choking and coiling, and the yang aspects are represented by the vipers – quick, darting and venomous.
In Bear and Eagle, each animal represents an extreme of the postures found in Xing Yi – Bear should be the most extreme Yin (softer, heavier, shorter posture) and Eagle the most extreme Yang (hard, powerful and big). Bear is only ever Yin and Eagle is only ever Yang. So, to have a balance of Yin and Yang, both are practiced together to produce the optimum fighting strategy.
Bear is used at close range, rolling on and around attacks through your structure and position the attacker should naturally lands on the end of your blows. Think of slipping a jab in boxing and landing an uppercut. In contrast, the Eagle actively goes out to strike the opponent using long piercing strikes at a longer range. So, as a strategy they work well together.
That’s the most basic reason.
Secondly, 英雄(hero) and 鷹(eagle)熊(bear) have the same pronunciation in Mandarin and Cantonese. This may just be a coincidence.
Now we can slip into the more esoteric reasons. This is something I’ve only ever heard from my teacher, but it makes no difference to the first theory, so let me present it.
There is an animal native to China and Japan called the Bear Eagle (Xiong Ying). In the west we call it the Mountain hawk eagle. (Spizaetus nipalensis in Latin.)
From Wikiepdia: “ it is usually perceptibly bulkier and more massive than most other members of its genus. It is seemingly the largest member of the 10 currently recognized species in the genus Nisaetus, notwithstanding the recently recognized Flores hawk-eagle (Nisaetus floris) (which was separated from the changeable hawk-eagle).”
You can see its powerful legs in this picture. I always like the little tuft it has on its head.
The bear eagle gets it’s name from the way it will grapple with prey on the ground – a bit like a bear. So this single animal represents both qualities. If you believe that the Xing Yi animals were derived directly from observing nature (which was the thrust of the Li movement in the Song Dynasty) then it’s possible that the hunting and fighting tactics of the Mountain Hawk eagle were studied to produce what we have handed down to us in Xing Yi. It’s an unprovable theory, but there you have it.
Ultimately, it doesn’t matter to me if you think of the Xing Yi animal as representing a separate bear and an eagle, or a mountain hawk eagle. It’s all the same thing, and you can gain a lot of insight into the Xing Yi link by observing all 3 animals. Sadly, YouTube is probably your best bet for that these days.