The autumn leaves are falling like rain. Although my neighbors are all barbarians and you, you are a thousand miles away, there are always two cups at my table.

T’ang Dynasty poem

Ten thousand flowers in spring, the moon in autumn, a cool breeze in summer, snow in winter. If your mind isn't clouded by unnecessary things, this is the best season of your life.

~ Wu-men ~

Sunday, June 29, 2014

The Intersection of Two Martial Arts

Over at the Mokuren Dojo blog, Pat Parker had an interesting article about two martial arts he practices at an advanced level Judo and Aikido. An excerpt is below. The full post may be read here.

 Judo and Aikido are related arts - you might even say they are sister arts.  We often go so far as to say they are the same thing (sometimes we qualify that by adding, "but not really.")  This relationship between judo and aikido goes right back to the beginning - both were at least partially derived from Kito-ryu.  The relationship can be seen more recently in that the judo that our group does (1950's Kodokan judo influenced by Kotani and Osawa) is highly-related to the aikido that we do (as taught by Tomiki at Waseda in the 1950's).  It is difficult to examine Kodokan Goshin Jutsu and not see Tomiki/Ohba Koryu no kata and vice versa.

So, you might say that 1950's judo and Tomiki aikido are different arts with highly-overlapping domains.  In a Venn diagram, they would have a large intersection set, including...

    Basic posture (shizentai) is predominant instead of jigotai or hanmi
    The same ukemi skills are taught and used in both
    Many ukiwaza/tewaza are shared between the two arts

There are, of course elements that find themselves in the domain of one art but not the other (not intersection set).  For instance, the domain of judo includes ...

    greater variety of koshiwaza
    kumikata (gripfighting)
    resistive randori
...while the domain of aikido includes more...
    solo exercises (tankdoku undo)
    connection practice (hanasu dosa, musubi renshu)
    weapons work
    hand randori

But hang on here for a minute.  There is nothing saying that these things have to be the domain of one art or the other.  Why cant we start (judiciously) moving more of the material into the intersection set such that players of both arts have explicit permission to make use of it.

Monday, June 23, 2014

A Martial Acupuncturist's Perspective

Today we have a guest post by Ioannis Solos. Mr Solos studies Traditional Chinese Medicine and Yiquan in China. He has a new book coming up, Developing Internal Energy for Effective Acupuncture Practice: Zhan Zhuang, Yi Qi Gong and the Art of Painlessness. 

Please check out his work!

Making a difference, finding your path in the western acupuncture world – A martial acupuncturist’s perspective


How do you leave your mark on the ever-growing western TCM world? How do you distinguish yourself from the so many other acupuncturists that seem to know every technique and Asian healing approach under the sun?

Before moving to Beijing, I studied TCM in London for 5 years. Back in those days, the TCM literature available to us westerners was so limited, that it only filled a couple of shelves in the basement of the Dillons Bookshop (later Waterstones) on Gower Street. Those who had access to the “Wellcome Institute” Library “on the nearby Euston Rd, could access a larger collection of TCM and Sinology books going back to the colonial years. However, there were still limits to what was accessible to researchers and western students.

Being discontent with this situation, I decided to eventually travel to China and learn at the source. When I finally came to Beijing in the early 00’s, besides joining the BUCM, I also started taking private Yiquan lessons from master Cui Fushan. 

Although I first picked up “Mind Boxing” in the late 90’s, my repertoire up to that point only included a series of various Zhan Zhuang postures, a few Shi Li in the health and martial positions and some limited Fa Li and Tuishou. My encounter with Master Cui changed all of my earlier training perceptions. From the very beginning he stressed about exploring various families of exercises with similar shenfa (身法), combining many training elements together, internalizing external exercises, and finally deriving to zhengti xietiao (整体协调) - whole body coordination.
Most of his teachings came along with imagery and rhymes to allow for ideas to sink in easier.

For instance:

Yiquan movement summary in 8 characters:

松活圆整  relaxation, agility, roundness, whole body [movement]

旋摇摆荡  [moving in] circles, shaking [rocking] and swinging       

…or the classic:

吞吐沉浮       swallow, spit, sink and rise

After a while, I started living in my teacher’s house with his family, where I had the chance to meet several of Bu Enfu’s shuaijiao and western boxing students and also the late Yang Shaogen, a student of Wang Xiangzhai. Their vivid discussions allowed me to get a rare insight of how the old-timers used to train.

Around that time, Master Cui told me that the best of my abilities would come not only from training hard, but also from reading the boxing classics, reflecting on the insights of others, and most importantly, forming my own ideas. 

These words resonated deep within me, and eventually transcended the realm of martial arts to enrich my TCM approaches too.

These days, many of my acupuncture ideas and also the way I currently practice derive from a very personalized synthesis of Yiquan philosophy with Chinese medical theory.

In Yiquan, we often say that we should “practice large, but perform small”, or “think big and do small”. In training this translates as mentally performing each exercise very large in our minds, while the external movement is tiny. When this attitude is applied to Yiquan pole, or Bu Enfu’s Yiquan long ruler (da bangzi), then it is hard to miss the direct link between these tools with the acupuncture needle. Although the mental demands for training martial and medical tools have their obvious differences, the similarities are also overwhelming.

Over the years, I have developed various exercises that take advantage of numerous Yiquan pole theories, while trying to enhance my acupuncture skills. In my new book “Developing Internal Energy for Effective Acupuncture Practice”, I managed to almost methodically put together some of my notes and ideas, and anthologize the best of the Yiquan theories as I apply them towards my acupuncture needling.

Now, back to the first question,  “How do you leave your mark?” – In my experience, I believe that the best approach is by developing your own understanding and analysis of the theory, based on personal experiences, investigation, and creative interpretation of the acupuncture classics, while keeping faithful to the tradition.

Or, as Master Cui summarized it:

 “To succeed in this art, you must develop the ability to discover and apply your own fresh ideas, through meticulously reflecting upon the classic theories.”

Friday, June 20, 2014


The Tang Dynasty was a high point of culture in ancient China. Especially esteemed were poems. 

Some of the best poems of that period have been collected into an anthology known as The 300 Tang Dynasty Poems. A online version of the anthology may be found here.

Li Bai

I am the madman of the Chu country
Who sang a mad song disputing Confucius.
...Holding in my hand a staff of green jade,
I have crossed, since morning at the Yellow Crane Terrace,
All five Holy Mountains, without a thought of distance,
According to the one constant habit of my life.
Lu Mountain stands beside the Southern Dipper
In clouds reaching silken like a nine-panelled screen,
With its shadows in a crystal lake deepening the green water.
The Golden Gate opens into two mountain-ranges.
A silver stream is hanging down to three stone bridges
Within sight of the mighty Tripod Falls.
Ledges of cliff and winding trails lead to blue sky
And a flush of cloud in the morning sun,
Whence no flight of birds could be blown into Wu.
...I climb to the top. I survey the whole world.
I see the long river that runs beyond return,
Yellow clouds that winds have driven hundreds of miles
And a snow-peak whitely circled by the swirl of a ninefold stream.
And so I am singing a song of Lu Mountain,
A song that is born of the breath of Lu Mountain.
...Where the Stone Mirror makes the heart's purity purer
And green moss has buried the footsteps of Xie,
I have eaten the immortal pellet and, rid of the world's troubles,
Before the lute's third playing have achieved my element.
Far away I watch the angels riding coloured clouds
Toward heaven's Jade City, with hibiscus in their hands.
And so, when I have traversed the nine sections of the world,
I will follow Saint Luao up the Great Purity.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

The Key Ingrediant in Martial Arts Training


There is something about marital arts training. Once it gets hold of you, you may think  you can escape it and maybe you can for a while, but it always pulls  you back.

Below in an excerpt from an article that appeared at Plum Publishing. The full post made be read here.

The Single Ingredient

Many (many) years ago a teacher asked me, “What do you think is the most important attribute of a Kung Fu student?” He continued, with suggestions, “Speed? Strength? Intelligence?” I voted for the last. I had seen so many students who, if they only understood what they were doing, everything would have been fine.

He shook his head. “Perseverance.” It was my first lesson in teaching and it took some while to understand why this was so.

So, decades later, I’m talking with one of our school’s top instructors. We are discussing a new student. He has come to us, supposedly, with a few years of Praying Mantis. The truth is that he can hardly stand up straight. Even his basic punches are weak, flimsy and tentative. When he turns from horse stance to bow stance he leans away from the actions, rotating his front foot on the wrong pivot point, shifts off-balance, sticks his butt out, and even has a fairly strange expression on his face. I am almost admiring that he can gather so much rotten fruit in one basket.

But we begin talking, as instructors do, and after thinking of teaching tricks that might help, I remind her, “It’s always hard when the student may not be talented but is determined. Then they are really ok with reps, being put off to the side, given few instructions. Trouble is,  if they are willing to stick, so are we. It’s our obligation.” I mention the old adage about perseverance but she’s never heard it. So I tell her the saying and how I learned it. “It’s an old teaching adage,” I say as I arbitrarily pick up a book from the shelves. It’s the “Cheng School Gao Style Baguazhang Manual.” As we chat, I randomly crack it open to page 116 and read…
“Teachers should have a soft spot for endurance; students should have modesty and perseverance. Teachers should regularly demonstrate, often explain, and diligently make corrections. Students should regularly practice, often ask questions, and diligently receive instruction. …”

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Character in Martial Arts

The noted author Steven Pressfield had a great post at his blog about character. While he was writing about writers, it applies every bit to martial arts practice as well. An excerpt is below. The full post may be read here.

Olympic Character

By Callie Oettinger | Published: February 21, 2014

Jean-Dominique Bauby, Stephen Hawking, Francis Tsai—a journalist,  a theoretical physicist and an artist.
The similarities? Olympic character.
Olympic Character
In his column DNA of Champions, Joel Stein wrote about having his DNA compared with Olympic Gold Medalist Sergei Bubka’s DNA. It wasn’t surprising to read that there are certain genes that are common within Olympic athletes.
However . . . “The key Olympic success,” said Bubka, is that “you need to have character to go to your goal, to do your work, to be a hard worker.”
The Journalist
Twenty days after having a stroke, Jean-Dominique Bauby woke from a coma, able to control his mind and one part of his body—his left eyelid.
“In the past, it was known as a ‘massive stroke,’ and you simply died,” wrote Bauby in his memoir The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.
But improved resuscitation techniques have now prolonged and refined the agony. You survive, but you survive with what is so aptly known as “lock-in syndrome.” Paralyzed from head to toe, the patient, his mind intact, is imprisoned inside his own body, unable to speak or move. In my case, blinking my left eyelid is my only means of communication.

On its own, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is a magnificent book (it became an international bestseller and then a Golden Globe-winning and Oscar-nominated film of the same name), but knowing how it was written—that blink by blink Bauby “dictated” his book to Claude Mendibil, who transferred his blinks to words on paper . . .
Each reading is the release of a story that was born in a prison.
Though Bauby was “locked in,” through blinking his voice was released, to be heard within the heads of readers around the world.
In the beginning of the prologue, he described  “something like a giant invisible diving bell [holding his] whole body prisoner.”
As his day unfolds . . .
My diving bell becomes less oppressive, and my mind takes flight like a butterfly. There is so much to do. You can wander off in space or in time, set out for Tierra del Fuego or for King Midas’ court.
You can visit the woman you love, slide down beside her and stroke her still-sleeping face. You can build castles in Spain, steal the Golden Fleece, discover Atlantis, realize your childhood dreams and adult ambitions.
Then he starts into the actual writing of the book.
My main task now is to compose the first of these bedridden travel notes so that I shall be ready when my publisher’s emissary arrives to take my dictation, letter by letter. In my head I churn over every sentence ten times, delete a word, add an adjective, and learn my text by heart, paragraph by paragraph.
Blink by blink his voice escaped, his passion continued.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Neigong Demystified

Today we have a guest post from Paul Shackleton, who teaches Taijiquan and Qigong in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. He is also the author of the Riyadh Taiji Qigong and Internal Chinese Arts blog. Please pay a visit.

Neigong Demystified  

Neigong is difficult to describe and define in a few simple sentences. Much of the information available is vague and romanticised. It’s often made out to be mysterious and esoteric. There are examples of Internal Martial Arts Masters who have used it to deliver and withstand massive blows without using excessive muscular force and tension. Traditionally martial artists were reluctant to reveal their ‘secrets’ (i.e. the bio-mechanics of their neigong exercises) to the general public and only passed them on to a few trusted disciples.  Additionally, often the people translating texts from Chinese or writing articles haven’t practised the material so can’t describe it effectively.  The aim of this article is provide a relatively simple definition of neigong and to introduce and describe some of its key components. It shouldn’t be viewed as a complete or comprehensive guide. 

Wang Shu Jin and Robert W Smith
Translation ( )

The character nei () means internal or inside. Gong () means time/effort or in this context skill. (It’s the same character as in gongfu or qigong.) Therefore ‘Internal work’ or ‘Internal skill’ are the simplest translations. However it’s not clear what this means or refers to. It can mean different things to different people. Often Chinese terms (such as qigong, gongfu) are not used in the same way in English as they are in Chinese, for example ‘Gongfu’ actually means skill not martial arts in Mandarin Chinese. Wikipedia translates it vaguely as “any set of Chinese breathing, meditation and spiritual practice disciplines associated with Daoism”; this definition could encompass a wide variety of exercises and activities. It’s more common to hear the term used to describe specific exercises (resembling qigong) that aim to increase ‘internal strength’.  

What is the difference between neigong and qigong?

I’ve often heard the terms used interchangeably and for many years had no idea how to answer this question. I still don’t have a simple or concise answer. Both terms are somewhat vague, ambiguous, and flexible. Therefore any attempt to answer this question is subjective and involves semantics i.e. the answer depends upon how you choose to define them. I’ve heard a variety of answers to this question these include:

  • ·They’re basically the same 
  •  Qigong starts from the outside and works inwards, while neigong starts from the inside and works outwards
  • Neigong is a type of qigong (and even that Qigong is a type of Neigong)
  • Qigong is to improve health, while neigong is to increase internal power
  • Qigong moves of energy using body using body movement while neigong moves energy using the mind
  • Neigong is the alphabet (or building blocks) of all qigong, taijiquan, baguazhang and xingyiquan.

These can all be considered valid answers. If pushed to give an answer I would be inclined to describe qigong as being energetic exercises mainly practised to improve health. And say that neigong is a type of qigong that focuses more (but not exclusively) on generating ‘whole body strength’. This strength comes from a synergy of precise alignments, internal stretching and a pulsing of joints and cavities rather than through merely building up individual muscles. 

Paul Cavel performing the ‘Marriage of Heaven and Earth’ neigong set

Neigong components versus Neigong sets

I think it’s necessary to differentiate between neigong components and neigong sets. Components refers to training elements, such as abdominal breathing, pulsing joints and cavities, internal stretching of soft tissues etc. Whereas neigong sets are specific exercises, like ‘Marriage of Heaven and Earth’ or ‘Energy gates’ that are designed to practice these components. These are relatively simple and repetitive in terms of their external movements. Once students are able to perform the components in the neigong sets they can then integrate them gradually into any taijiquan, xingyiquan and baguazhang forms that they practice.  Although it’s possible to integrate components directly into forms it is much more difficult, because their movements are much more complicated than those of the neigong sets.

Few schools teach neigong openly or in public. It’s usually only taught to ‘inside the door’ students who may have to swear an oath of secrecy and not be permitted to teach or disseminate the material they are taught.  Naturally different schools and styles have their own unique systems that they want to protect and promote. So the elements described this article may not be present in all neigong systems. For example although Mantak Chia’s ‘Bone Marrow washing neigong’ contains breathing methods, fascia stretching and stimulation of the lymphatic system, but it uses very different methods to those described in this article.

Bruce Frantzis perhaps the most well-known westerner teaching neigong

My first neigong teacher Paul Cavel has identified two primary streams for the early stages of neigong practice:
·         Gaining conscious control over the soft tissues of the body
·         Developing the ability to pulse (or open and close) the joints and cavities of the body

Both of these streams contain various layers of practice (for example gaining control over soft tissues includes bending, stretching, lengthening, rotating, wrapping etc). The number cavities and amount of soft tissue means that mastering these streams is a formidable task. Although there are other important elements/components of neigong, I believe that these are two of the most beneficial for beginners.    

What is Internal stretching?

Stretching the soft tissue is one of the most important components of neigong. ‘Soft tissue’ can refer to anything in the body that is not bone. It includes tendons, ligaments, fascia, synovial membranes (fluid in joints), muscles, nerves and blood vessels.  Relatively few people know about fascia- the glue that holds everything together. It is a stretchy layer of fibrous tissue that surrounds every muscle, blood vessel and internal organ - an interconnected web that holds all the soft tissues and organs in place. This means certain internal stretches have the potential to gently massage the internal organs (by pulling on the fascia that surrounds them). 

Fascia under magnification. The translucent, white, stretchy membrane that we see in meat is fascia.

How can we stretch fascia and tendons?

The easiest way to experience an internal stretch is to gently move the shoulder blades and elbows away from the spine. If you stand up straight and hold your arms out in front of you, and then slowly move your hands away from your body without straightening your elbows; this should generate an internal stretch in the upper torso. This stretch can be amplified by rotating the arms as you move your hands. Ensure the spine remains straight and upright and make sure that the stretches and rotations remain balanced (i.e. don’t stretch one arm more), smooth, and relaxed. More powerful internal stretches can be generated in the lower body using kwa (kua) squats and weight shifting. 

When the stretches of the upper and lower body are combined with other neigong components such as breathing methods, pulsing (opening and closing) and precise body alignments this can generate a powerful ‘internal pressure’ in the abdomen. 

If the elastic represents the tendons, fascia and muscles, the ball would represent the feet and hands then the bat would be the spine. A shift in body weight that moves the tailbone should initiate the stretch (this was not the case in the exercise I described as the spine did not move).  The movement of the hands is sequentially behind that of the spine. There is a brief lag time between when the spine begins moving and when the hands begin to extending out and when the spine stops moving in one direction the hands should continue moving in that direction for a split second before they are pulled back by the elastic (i.e. the tendons and fascia).     

Opening and closing (also called pulsing)

Openings encourage stretches and closings should be performed as the stretches are released. To begin with the easiest parts of the body to open and close are the 5 bows (the spine, 2 arms and 2 legs). The next phase could be to include larger cavities such as the palms and armpits. Eventually we want to be able to pulse every joint and cavity of the body simultaneously. Of course there are hundreds of these and pulsing smaller cavities and joints, like the spaces between the vertebrae requires a very high level of awareness and control. It’s much easier to develop this in neigong sets such as ‘Circling Hands’ or ‘Marriage of Heaven and Earth’ where the movements are relatively simple, so all the attention can be focussed on the openings and closings. All Chinese internal martial arts forms contain openings in the yang movements and closings in the yin movements. However it’s often made more complicated by the turning and weight shifting. For example as the weight shifts onto the right side that side of the body may close causing the left side to open and vice versa. 

Increasing the number cavities that you are able to pulse will increase your ability to expand and open when emitting force (fa jin in Mandarin), thus increasing the power of your punches, kicks and pushes. But more useful benefits include releasing tension, removing toxins, stimulating the movement of fluids and improving the functioning of the immune system 

The Lymphatic system

The lymphatic system is a series of vessels throughout the body that drain fluid from tissues. It has a number of functions. It transports white blood cells to help fight infections. It absorbs and transports fatty acids from the digestive system. And it helps remove toxins and waste materials from the body by removing interstitial fluid from the tissues.  The lymph system relies on body movement to pump the lymph (a colourless fluid that is similar to blood) around the body.  Pulsing cavities, especially those of the armpits, neck and inguinal groves, which contain lots of lymph nodes, will enhance the movement of fluids and improve the functioning of the lymphatic system. Rhythmic contractions of all the lymphatic vessels and the tissues that surround these will pump the lymph much more effectively than external movements.

Diagram (a) shows the major components of the lymphatic system. Diagram (b) shows how waste material is removed from tissue cells, and diagram (c) is a lymph node.


Correct alignments are a pre-requisite for effective internal stretching and pulsing. The spine should remain as straight as possible. The sacrum (the tailbone at the base of the spine) should be tucked under at all times. If the lower back becomes arched the internal stretching and pulsing in the lower body will be greatly diminished. The shoulders and hips should remain parallel (with each other and the ground). One common mistake is for people to turn the shoulders more than the hips.  The feet, knees and hip joints should remain in line. If these alignments are not correct the student risks damaging joints and ligaments.  Although these alignments seem simple, maintaining them precisely at all times is surprisingly difficult. Even a minor deviation can dramatically reduce the effectiveness of your practice. It is much better to maintain these alignments and only perform very small (external) movements rather than to perform much larger movements that compromise these alignments.

Conclusion and health warning/disclaimer

If your taijiquan, baguazhang or xingyiquan doesn’t contain any neigong elements then it shouldn’t be considered an ’internal martial art’. Unfortunately, as many taijiquan forms have been simplified and proliferated much of the neigong material has been neglected or lost. Synthesizing the neigong components and integrating them into martial arts forms requires a great deal of honesty, patience and awareness. It’s easy to kid yourself and visualise that you’re doing them correctly. Neigong also requires a lot of physical exertion, many people don’t expect this as the external movements are slow, smooth, and relaxed. Studying neigong isn’t easy or without risk. The ‘internal pressure’ needs to be built up gradually. Sometimes traumas (both physical and emotional) can cause blockages deep inside the body. Practising neigong may release these blockages, which may lead to a release of negative emotions. So neigong should only be studied under the careful supervision from experienced teachers. The feats of strength shown in the pictures of of Bruce Frantzis and Wang Shu Jin are the results of years of study under high level teachers followed by diligent daily practice. It should be noted that the potential benefits are much more profound than simply hitting hard or withstanding blows. They include being more consciously aware of what going on inside your body. Energising the immune system, and releasing toxins and tension from the body. 

The definitions provided of the lymphatic system, fascia, soft tissues and interstitial fluids are simplified and incomplete. More information can be found at the links below. 

Further reading and references


Fascia and the Lymphatic system