Push Hands Training (1/2/17):


The senior students in my school have been studying push hands over the last six months. They started with single fixed-step push hands and then fixed-step double push hands before moving onto moving steps. This is known as tui shou and emphasises listening energy (ting jin) and four energies from the form (ward off, roll back, press and push) used to four sides like the sides of a box. They also started a free-style form of push hands at this stage sometimes called sensitivity.

Lately they have been practising Da Lu (Great Pull), which emphasises using the other four energies of push hands (pull down, split, elbow and shoulder) to the corners (of the square). It also emphasises footwork to the four corners and together these are designed to compensate for any failures in the use of energies to the four sides.

Push hands is one of the foremost strategies in Tai Chi for overcoming disadvantages of size and strength because it teaches you to listen to what the opponent is doing. If you can sense through touch what the opponent is doing you can counter more quickly than through using visual perception. Also you don’t need particular techniques to counter particular attacks. It also teaches you the best angles and leverage to counter rather than using force against force.   

After this the students will move on to Free Hands (san shou) which is an 88 movement two-person form of attack and counter-attack using movements from the solo form but emphasising listening, sensitivity and adapting to the situations. It is very fluid and dance-like. 

What is wrong with Hard Work? (10/6/16)


The fundamental purpose or goal of Tai Chi Chuan training originally was to develop a unique force based on spiral qi or jin to overcome disadvantages in size or strength in defending yourself in combat. This became my main aim in the training I undertook with Master Chu King hung. It takes hard work and a lot of repetitive training but it also yields great health benefits and spiritual benefits (like developing mindfulness). So gaining these health and spiritual benefits have become some of the other purposes of taiji training.

As a consequence people now train in Tai Chi for a variety of purposes or goals. But not everyone has thought deeply about why they are studying Tai Chi. Initially that is fine, but after a while the lack of a deeply motivating goal can lead to dissatisfaction with your training.

Authentic taiji training for the spiral qi force has been likened to that of an elite athlete and there are plenty of stories within the Yang family of how hard they trained (Yang Sau chung having to do the form 36 times a day under supervision from a young age). They were pushed by their family in traditional Chinese style (sometimes to the point of wanting to commit suicide!).

Of course we don’t do that these days. But the word in Chinese for developing any worthwhile skill is gongfu, which does have the connotation of hard, meritorious work.  Master Liu used to say ‘’what’s wrong with hard work’’?

But you have to be clear about your purpose as well. For me it was a desire to develop this power for martial usage and a recognition that it would not come without the repetitious training. Internal power requires time and effort to attain, it can’t be achieved overnight. You have to find the right balance in your practice, like learning to ride a bicycle. Either you’re trying too hard, or you’re not trying hard enough. And then you eventually find where that right expression is. The next stage is lots of practice. The times when it seems things are falling apart and your movements are feeling very awkward is when you’re about to go to the next level. Just don’t give up. 


Detail in Training (19/3/16)

Tai Chi was developed with the espoused aim of being able to overcome advantages of size, strength and speed in combat. If your martial art is based on size and strength it is limited because there is always someone bigger and stronger than you. Tai chi and other ‘internal’ arts use something else other than crude, physical strength. This type of strength is known in Chinese as li. The internal arts use an intrinsic strength that is natural to the human body. This type of power is known as in Chinese it qi-based jin.

It is considered that a baby in the womb relies on the qi of its mother circulating through its body to keep it alive. This type of qi is known as prenatal qi or original qi (yuan qi). Just after it is born a new born baby still relies on this qi and is able to lift itself up when holding on tight to your finger, even though the physical muscles are undeveloped. A few months later, the baby is unable to do this when it starts to rely on physical strength, as the muscles are not able to cope with its weight.

There is a limit to one’s physical strength but the power of original qi is considered unlimited. However, this type of power has become inaccessible to most people because of our conditioning. From a very early age we begin to rely on external muscle strength. Most people don’t realise the extent to which our bodies and mind have been conditioned to use force against force. We use reactive strength to reflexively push or force the muscles and weight into an object of resistance or oncoming force. This causes a tremendous amount of muscular tension.

To tap into the natural, intrinsic strength needs a complete re-education of the body and mind to regain it. First one has to learn to deeply relax and surrender awkward strength. Then one has to align the body in the right way so that the qi is not blocking or wasting and the postures have this natural strength. Needless to say there is an enormous amount of detail that must be learnt and must go into the postures. There is a saying in the tai chi classics “if you miss by an inch you miss by a mile”. In a system not based on strength, but something else, this is vital.

This detail is missing in most ‘popular’ schools of tai chi and is really selling the students short. Over the next couple of months a series of articles on the detail of internal training will appear on this site. 



Tai Chi's Unique Approach to Martial Arts (24/3/15)


Tai Chi has its own unique approach to martial arts and self-defence. In ‘popular’ tai chi these skills are basically unknown. But even instructors, who claim to teach tai chi as self-defence, or a martial art, seem to have rarely been exposed to the unadulterated kungfu of the art as taught by Yang family disciples. They may be able to perform genuine tai chi forms, but when asked to demonstrate their uses in fighting they can’t demonstrate the unique approach of the art, instead they box or do karate or some other style, like Systema. They do not use the ‘real’ kung-fu of tai chi - the skill has become neglected. Also it is very common these days for instructors to ‘mix and match’ applications from other styles to the tai chi form.

This is absolutely unnecessary as tai chi has its own complete repertoire of applications that span all the main areas of throwing, locking, kicking and striking. For example, one unique aspect of tai chi self-defence taught to us by Master Chu King hung (see lineage article) was that every posture of the form could be used as a simultaneous interception (block)/counter-strike/vertical takedown. The vertical take down itself, which is also found in other internal styles (like Xingyi and Bagua), seems little known in the martial arts world. For example, I have had students, experienced in Judo, Kick Boxing and Mixed Martial Arts (MMA), who have said they have never come across anything like it before and are truly impressed with it as a technique.

Then there is fold up technique where if, for example, you strike with the fist and it is blocked you let it fold up and strike with the elbow, if the elbow is blocked you fold up and hit with the shoulder, if the shoulder is blocked, you hit with the head. It is part of Tai Chi’s strategy of using softness (and flexibility) to overcome hardness.

The popular idea that Tai Chi uses large yielding movements meeting strength with weakness in self-defence misses the mark completely. In the hands of a real Master, at the instant of contact the attacking force is subtly neutralised whilst a simultaneous counter-attack is delivered. The speed and magnitude of the power of the counter-attack can be quite extraordinary.

The essential strategy of tai chi is to flow and adapt to the opponent, and combat situation, and respond as fluidly and spontaneously as possible, letting the situation dictate the appropriate response. Tai Chi emphasises energy development rather than special techniques because in a real conflict there is no time to think about an appropriate technique. Training to learn basic, specific techniques for specific attacks, as is the case in most traditional martial arts and self-defence training, can be disadvantageous. You can never know all the possible techniques and strategies of all the martial arts. Also you cannot afford trying to remember or trying to replicate a specific technique in a particular situation - it’s too slow.

Instead you must be able to respond effectively and immediately to the situation at hand flexibly and spontaneously. Rather than attempt predetermined responses Tai Chi trains listening energy (tingjin) through push hands training. By listening you adapt to any situation and then deploy one of the eight energies (jin) - ward off (peng), roll back (lu), press (ji), push (an), split (lie), pull down (cai), elbow strike (zhou), and shoulder strike (kao) - at the point and moment of contact to break the opponent’s balance and use their energy against them. Each application of these energies involves the transfer of the whole body mass along force lines in the body (jin lines) to the point of contact (hand, foot, elbow, shoulder, etc) to destabilise the opponent. Thus tai chi is an energy art. Again listening skills, which were developed over a long period of time to survive on the battlefield by all high-level Chinese kungfu systems, have become neglected.

The postures in the form are used to practice the deployment of these energies. The deployment, however, is not restricted to how the physical movements of a particular posture are performed, even if it has the name of an energy. For example, Ward Off (Peng) can certainly be done as a ward off and simultaneous counter-attack with a back fist, but is can also be done as an elbow strike using Zhou energy.

To be able to respond calmly and spontaneously to combat situations requires a lot of training, as this comment from well-known Western Tai Chi Master Bruce Frantzis suggests:

I have seen a lot of comments about why we don't see tai chi being used in MMA (mixed martial arts) and because it is not seen in that arena, it therefore must not be very effective. My own view is that tai chi can be as deadly as many other martial arts, in fact I would say it is better than most, but to be effective you have to go through the classical training progression, which few in the West undertake[1].


[1] http://www.energyarts.com/blog/bruce-frantzis/tai-chi-martial-arts

October 31, 2014 The First revision – Yin/Yang Form

Our intermediate students, having just completed the long form, started recently on the first revision of the form known as the Yin/yang form. This involves going back over the whole form and dividing the movements into yin and yang movements. Master Chu taught that there were three yin - backwards, inwards and downwards, and three yang – forwards, outwards and upwards.

As well as differentiating these divisions this form also emphasises developing a felt sense of the rhythmic contracting and storing of energy in the yin movement and expanding and releasing energy in the yang phase. It also teaches about harnessing ground-support force (Earth Energy Di Qi) and gravity-derived force (Heaven Energy Tian Qi) and mixing them at the centre (Tantian) which is human energy (Ren Qi). It relates to the principle in the Tai Chi Classics of stillness in motion – stillness (yin) is potentiality and movement (yang) actuality.

The form training also emphasises squaring the hips to the front by tucking in the kwa in the yang movements and releasing them in the yin movements. This begins to help the student use the core to direct whole-body movement and connect the upper body to the lower body, which is Yang Cheng Fu’s principle # 7. It sets the scene for a later revision that emphasises centre movement.

It is important to “feel” the relationship between the alternating yin and the yang movements, for example, in the legs and feet as the rhythmic movements act as a pump to stimulate qi flow along the meridians. The yin/yang form is the gateway to the deeper secrets of the traditional Yang style.

I asked the students if it felt like a workout and they said it certainly did. They really enjoyed it. This is the type of workout that is hidden in the choreographed movements of the form. Because it tends to be hidden in the movements, or hard to see, it is left out of ‘popular’ tai chi or simply unknown.

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