Here at the frontier, the leaves fall like rain. Although my neighbors are all barbarians, there are still two cups at my table.


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 ~


Monday, September 30, 2019

Taijiquan Free Style Push Hands

Below is an excerpt from a post that appeared at Thoughts on Tai Chi on five elements to excelling at free push hands practice. The full post may be read here.

These five points on how to master tai chi free push hands is nothing I myself have seen written down in any book or in any article. The real Masters should know them very well, but sometimes it’s not something they will describe or teach. Often, you need to discover the tactics and strategy by yourself, by understanding what your teacher does when he practice with you or demonstrates his skills. Some people will get it, some people won’t. Anyway, if you understand these five points, you will have a great advantage against any opponent, and not only in push hands. Here are also valuable things to learn for sparring and combat.

But first, remember the basics and fundaments of any tai chi, what always should be remembered at all the time: Be relaxed and always relax more. Never tense your breath and focus all your strength and movements from the dantian. Rely on tingjin, let your touch decide what to do. Always keep the integrity of your tai chi shenfa: i.e. never at any cost compromise your balance and structure. All of these points here and the five important points below, are meant to be turned into practical practice.

Thinking will be of no use. You need to do it practically.

1. Always do two things at the same time.

Whenever you do something in free push hands, whatever it might be, don’t think one dimensional, or that “two” comes after “one”. Instead, blend your movements together, always do two or three things at the same time. When you defend, attack at the same time. If one part of your opponent’s body moves forward, another part will go backwards. This means that at the same time you defend, as evading from an incoming push, you should follow and fill in the gaps. When you fill in the gaps, never let your opponent escape. Keep on following and fill in. In stationary push hands, if he continue to move, he will fall by himself. In moving push hands, you can add a third aspect as by slipping your foot behind his, or trap his body in a compromised structure, to make him fall.

Friday, September 27, 2019

Budo and Natural Movement

Over at The Budo Bum, there was an interesting post that posited the idea that martial arts practice doesn't promote natural movement, but helps us to overcome our natural tendencies to achieve a mode that is better than our natural movement.

I think that a counter argument could be made that we are conditioned since birth to move in an unnatural way and that our martial arts practice helps us to peel away the layers of baggage so that we can return to a state of naturalness.

Below is an excerpt. The full post may be read here.

I’ve heard proponents of various martial arts talk about how “natural” their art is. They proclaim that whatever they are doing is based on natural movements. Some are said to be based on the movements of animals. Others claim to be based on the natural movement of the human body.

I was working with one of my students this morning on some kata from Shinto Hatakage Ryu. His movement is getting good and solid. It struck me that his strong, smooth movement was efficient, effective and elegant, but not at all natural. When I began to think about it, I realized I could not think of any martial art where the movements are natural to human beings. By “natural” I mean that the movements are ones that people make without having to be trained for endless hours.


Along with Shinto Hatakage Ryu Iai Heiho I teach Shinto Muso Ryu Jo and Kodokan Judo. Among the movements and principles taught in those three arts, I cannot think of a movement or technique that I would call natural.  In truth, the hallmark of good, effective budo seems to be how unnatural it is. Developing proficiency in any budo movement requires years of practice with a good teacher. It never just happens. Even with students who have a natural affinity for an art, it takes years, perhaps half as many as a natural klutz like me, but years.


I’ve written before that all I teach is how to walk and how to breath. I was exaggerating a little there, and Ellis Amdur was generous enough to call me out on that point and several others. However, walking and breathing are examples of unnatural budo movement.  There isn’t much that is more natural than walking, and breathing might be the most natural thing we do. Nonetheless, as budoka, we spend years learning to breathe properly from our guts and to stay balanced and stable when we walk.

Why does it take so much effort to learn to do something that we were born doing? Breathing is the first thing we do for ourselves when we are born. We take a breath and let the world know how unhappy we are to have been kicked out of the wonderful home where we’ve spent the last nine months. Once we do that, we never stop breathing. What else about breathing could there possibly be to learn. 

A great deal when you dig into it. Our natural instincts aren’t very good when it comes to breathing.  Even before we get to all the inefficient ways people have of breathing, for all that it is a natural, automatic act, put people under just a little bit of stress and they will actually forget to breathe! I spend too much of my teaching time reminding students to breathe for the first couple of years they are training.


When they do remember to breathe, they usually are doing it poorly; breathing with their shoulders or taking shallow breaths or finding some other way to do the most natural act in the world wrongly. Proper breathing must be taught and practiced until it is an unconscious act. When sparring, you don’t have sufficient mental capacity to think about breathing correctly. If your breathing skills aren’t honed so that proper breathing happens even when you’re not thinking about it, you won’t breathe well under stress.


Walking feels nearly as natural as breathing. No one had to teach you how to walk. You figured it out for yourself, and you’ve been doing it for longer than you can remember. What could there be to learn about walking? From the condition of the students who come to the dojo, or just doing some casual people watching, we can see that most people haven’t learned very much about how to walk properly.  They roll their hips. They slouch their shoulders. They slap their feet on the ground. They lean forward past the point of balance. They stand on their heels. New students spend hours hearing me correct their way of walking. 

Because of all the bad habits people pick up over the course of their lives, learning to walk in a solid, stable, balanced manner takes a long time to learn to do consciously. Learning to do it unconsciously when under stress takes even longer. Good walking isn’t natural at all.


When you consider the discrete movements and actions that make up any budo art, things become even more unnatural. Just about the first thing we teach in judo, and the technique that prevents more people from getting hurt outside the dojo than any other, is how to fall safely. Two year-olds fall pretty well. They are relaxed and comfortable with falling down, perhaps because they do so much of it. By the time we start school though, falling is met with stiffness and fear. There is no technique in judo that we practice as much as falling. Falling well requires coordination of the entire body and I’ve never met anyone besides trained gymnasts who took to it without hours of accumulated practice. It’s an entirely unnatural act: we don’t like to fall.


Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Outside of the Dojo

Training in the dojo is training in an idealized form. It certainly has it's place, but sooner or later we much step outside. How well does your training carry over?

Below is an excerpt from a post that appeared at Okinawan Fighting Art: Isshin Ryu. The full article may be read here.

If you only practice in the dojo; if you only train in the dojo; if you build experience(s) only in the dojo then you can imagine how little you know, understand and have experienced. There is a whole wide world out there and we encounter every day in every moment small things that relate and connect to what it is we strive to achieve within the dojo walls. Many of the small things may seem irrelevant to what we do in the dojo and as you already know and can readily imagine those irrelevances actually provide us experiences that we can then translate to proper trigger concepts to what we do "doah if you will" in the dojo. 

If you only train, practice and apply skills in the dojo and you don't relate that and other studies with an interconnection the the way of the dojo you can understand then how much you short yourself of the possibilities of the dojo, both in and out of the dojo. 

To truly achieve the way to the dojo you have to “transcend” that dojo and take that to the streets. To transcend the dojo one must connect the dojo to everyday life. Even when it seems to stand far from what is in the dojo. If we expect the things we do in the dojo to be relevant and workable, practical if you will, to the streets be it sport competition or self-protection against aggression and violence then transcension  of dojo practice, training and understanding must be relevant and connected to what is done in the dojo. Otherwise the dojo becomes not a dojo but a club where one socializes then leaves the social reality of the dojo at the dojo doors when re-entering the real world. To make the dojo real-world applicable it must transcend beyond the dojo doors. 

To practice, train and understand only in the dojo is to NOT practice, train and understand the martial arts within the dojo proper for martial arts to be understood is to live the training and practice in every moment of life whether obvious or not. 

Saturday, September 21, 2019

Vintage Ark Wong Huey

I've previously posted about the late Master Ark Wong Huey. He was one of the first to teach Chinese Martial Arts to non-Chinese.

Below is a video of a program that was put on by some of his senior students demonstrating various health and self defense aspects of his martial art.  Enjoy.


He appeared in the pilot of the original Kung Fu pilot for the series. Below he is the old monk demonstrating the Dragon form.






Wednesday, September 18, 2019

The 48 Laws of Power, #30: Seem Effortless

One of my favorite books on strategy is The 48 Laws of Power by Robert Greene and Joost Elffers.  Where The Art of War, by Sun Tzu is written as an overview of the whole topic of strategy, seeking to provide an overall understanding of the subject; and The 36 Strategies tries to impart the knack of strategic thinking through 36 maxims related to well known Chinese folk stories, Mr. Greene focuses on how we influence and manipulate one another, ie "power".

Mr. Greene draws from both Eastern and Western history and literature as his source material. Sun Tzu and Machiavelli as cited as much as wonderful stories of famous con men. 

Each of the 48 Laws carries many examples, along with counter examples where it is appropriate that they be noted, and even reversals.

It is a very thorough study of the subject and the hardback version is beautifully produced.

One of the things I admire about Greene is that he not only studied strategy, he applied what he learned to his own situation and prospered.

Today we have #30, Make your Accomplishments Seem Effortless

Your actions must seem natural and executed with ease. All the toil and practice that go into them, and also all the clever tricks, must be concealed. When you act, act effortlessly, as if you could do much more. Avoid the temptation of revealing how hard you work – it only raises questions. Teach no one your tricks or they will be used against you.

Of course we are proud of the hard work and practice that we've put into something, but when we put that on display, it makes our accomplishments seem less wonderful, less special. They'll say that anyone could do it if they practiced that much, then they'll criticize your practice.

Don't reveal why you are capable; just do it.


Sunday, September 15, 2019

The Foundational Kata

The Sanchin Kata is the foundational kata for several styles of karate and kung fu. I have previously posted a video of 3 karate and one white crane master simultaneously demonstrating their version of Sanchin.

Below is a demonstration of the Goju Ryu karate version.



Thursday, September 12, 2019

Improving Your Pushing Hands Practice

Below is a post that appeared at Tai Chi Notebook. The full post may be read here.

Today’s Tai Chi tip is all about how to get better at push hands simply by adjusting your posture.

Push hands should really be an exercise in which we get to test our ability to absorb Jin from an opponent and project it into an opponent as required, to uproot them.

It shouldn’t devolve into a pushing and shoving match to see who can ‘win’. Once it turns into that then I don’t think anybody is learning anything anymore. There are far superior methods of grappling and I think you’d be better off spending your time learning those if your goal is simply to win a grappling exchange.

But before we can focus on using Jin we have to get our body in a position where it conforms to the Tai Chi principles of posture, where we’re not fighting it all the time, and it’s working to our advantage instead.

It is said, “Jin does not flow through tense muscles

So, we need to get our body into a structural position where we can be as relaxed as possible, without collapsing, yet still maintain our connection to the ground. In Chinese terms you would call this a posture where your “qi is strong”, but you are not tensing muscles more than they need to be.

Of course, this optimum qi structure is one of the first things to go out of the window once we start push hands. In push hands we get to test our Tai Chi under a limited amount of pressure. Faults that lie dormant in the form rise to the surface like bubbles.

Here we’re going to go over a few.

1. Head position and leaning

Head position in the form goes hand in hand with the issue of leaning. Some styles of Tai Chi, like Wu style and Yang Cheng-Fu’s Yang style, opt for a slight angling forward of the torso in forward-weighted bow stances. Other styles like Sun style, Chen style and Cheng Man-Ching style all keep an upright posture as often as they can, even in front-weighted stances. (See pictures below)

But the thing is, all styles are upright in their back stances (or should be). And even styles that maintain an upright stance, have to lean forward to do throwing techniques that take the person to the ground like Needle at Sea Bottom or Punch to the ground, for example.

I think it’s time to get to the point of all this:

It’s not the lean itself that matters.
It’s maintaining an unbroken spinal alignment that is the key issue!

All these practitioners have one thing in common, they are not letting their heads droop, and they are not looking at the floor when they don’t need to.

For example, when even a practitioner who is famous for his upright posture does Needle at Sea Bottom, he or she bends forward, she just doesn’t break the alignment of the spine.

The Tai Chi classics talk a lot of carrying the head as if “suspended from above”. If you let your head droop you break the spinal alignment. You are easy to off-balance in push hands because your posture is broken. But if you hinge properly from the hips then you can still keep this spinal alignment even when you bend forward.

Think of the spine as including the neck (which anatomically, it does of course). If the neck goes offline in relation to the spine then the weight of the head has to be compensated by muscles elsewhere in the body. And this extra tensing of muscles results in a less efficient transfer of Jin from (or too) the ground.

Because we are quite used to this happening while standing or sitting, we don’t really feel our head being off centre so much. Switch to working on the ground, in a yoga posture for example, and you can instantly feel the difference your head position makes.

On a technical level, if you are using Jin you should be able to let the solidity of the ground be apparent at the point of contact with the opponent. If you have to use too much muscle then your pure Jin starts to turn into “Muscle Jin”. Muscle jin, isn’t as adaptable to change as pure jin. You can’t easily change direction, for instance. It also just doesn’t feel as it should. It might help you win a push hands competition, but you’ll find it lacking when it comes to martial technique.

And when it comes to the thorny issue of leaning, I’d recommend trying to stay upright in push hands. As I said before, the leans you tend to see in Tai Chi forms are to do with the application of a technique. Sure, you can lean to apply power according to a technique (just make sure you keep your spine aligned) but for the usual back and forth of push hands I’d recommend trying to keep as upright as possible. You’ll find it gives you more freedom of movement in the horizontal axis.

Monday, September 09, 2019

Learning Taijiquan Through the Process of Body Mechanics

Below is an excerpt from a post that appeared at Thoughts on Tai Chi. The full post may be read here.

When you start learning Tai Chi, you start learning as a person who is used to mostly be aware about your head and hands. For some people, the process of starting to learn Tai Chi can be painful. You will become painfully aware about all of your mistakes and flaws, how bad your balance is, how bad your coordination is and how hard it is to coordinate the body with awareness in the most simple ways. Now you will start to use your nervous system in another way than you are used to in daily life’s movements. Through the time, you will deepen your knowledge about yourself. It will be a long journey with plenty of rewards ahead.
  1. Balance and the central axis.
  2. Understanding feet and legs
  3. Use of the kua 
  4. Understanding the lower Dantian
  5. Coordinating of kua, dantian and waist
  6. Opening and closing the lower ribs
  7. Opening and closing scapula 
  8. Coordinating lower ribs, spine and 
  9. Coordinating lower and upper body and all of it together 
  10. Everything moves together spontaneously without focus on any part starting/initiating movement
So, let’s explain these steps further:

Stages 1 & 2 – Balance and centerline

  • Balance and the central axis.
  • Understanding feet and legs
First, you will need to learn how to separate full and empty by weight shifting and moving from posture to posture. You do this while keeping your body straight while getting acquainted to the use of turning around the central axis. You will learn how to use your center and balance.

Now, after learning the basics, you’ll need to learn to become more aware about your feet and legs, not only how to shift weight but to move your body with the feet and legs. You need to try to be as passive as possible with your arms, letting the body push the arms and pull them in. 

These first two steps, the very beginning of learning Tai Chi properly, occur mostly while learning a form. The process of learning a long form might take one or two years of study. If you study a long traditional form, you will probably need to learn it first before being able to deepening your body method further.


Friday, September 06, 2019

The Origins of the Kyoto Taikai and it’s Place in Kendo Today

Below is an interesting excerpt from a post that appeared at Kenshi 24/7

The full post may be read here.


From the very founding of the Butokukai in 1885, there has always been a gathering of budoka in Kyoto once a year for a Butokusai, or a martial arts demonstration. This included not only kendo, but (events changed over time) kyudo, judo, marksmanship, swimming, sumo, naginata, koryu (see below) etc. This has continued over the past nearly 135 years except for exceptional circumstances (Tenran-jiai or war).

Although the main art demonstrated has always been kendo (judo being a close second), nowadays it has become an almost exclusively kendo event (with some ZNKR iaido and jodo).

In the past, the Kyoto Taikai served as THE event that brought disparate and far-flung groups of practitioners together. It was there that shogo (seirensho/renshi, kyoshi, hanshi) were awarded and grades decided (pre-war that would have been up to godan, post war up to judan). Nowadays there are far more people doing kendo, and gradings and shogo are decided across the country, so the Kyoto Taikai’s influence here has been vastly reduced (in the past, shogo and grades were awarded AFTER your tachiai, nowadays it is before).

Today, the Kyoto Taikai serves as a central event for experienced practitioners to meet, do kendo, and socialise. People who are not yet eligible to do a tachiai not only have the opportunity to watch famous kenshi from across the country (world) do their tachiai, but they may even get the chance to keiko with them.

Money-wise, the taikai is a massive source of income for the ZNKR. Thousands of people compete, each paying around 3,000 yen for the privilege.

When thinking about the culture of kendo, however, talk of money goes out the door: doing a tachiai (whether kendo or whatnot) in the Butokuden is a direct link to the history of kendo, and being part of the taikai itself is seen as an honour.


The point of embu

As stated above, initially this particular embu was one to not only friendship and to show your skills, but also served as an event where you could be promoted within the organisation (Butokukai). This has changed over time as gradings have become more democratic, have been moved to other locations as well as placed before the embu itself in Kyoto,

However, some people reading this might think of an “embu” as something where koryu are demonstrated rather than kendo, and usually – but not always – in a shrine or temple. As this is the norm nowadays I can understand why people believe this, but in fact, the whole concept of “koryu” or “kobudo” really only started in the 1920s and 30s in Japan, a good 30-odd years after the Butokukai began it’s embu event. Koryu embu were for self-promotion, that is, to attract people to study the arts so that they didn’t die out completely. They also served as motivation to study about and polish your own ryu-ha’s skills (seemingly, the state of koryu at that time was dire).

So, kendo-wise the point of holding the embu in Kyoto has, since the grading element has been removed, become more of a traditional event. People from all over meet up, do some kendo, and socialise. Koryu-wise, the initial motivation was to basically ensure the survival of the arts (they were about to be eclipsed by kendo, judo, et al), but expanded to include serious historical and technical study.


Tuesday, September 03, 2019

Mental Traps in Taijiquan Practice

"Stop setting snares for yourself. Relax and see where it takes you." - Daoist Drinking Song

Below is an excerpt from an excellent post at Slanted Flying. The full post may be read here.


...Since we were toddlers, we have trained ourselves to lean into, or brace, against force. When first trying to push something, toddlers push themselves away instead, ending in them seated on their diapers. Leaning into the object allows toddlers to use whatever weight they have against the object that they try to push. Our minds have therefore become accustomed to replying to force by applying more force, and to lean or brace when doing so.

But Taijiquan teaches the opposite; to avoid using force against force! We train to issue force from the ground – from our feet, developed by our legs, directed from our waist, expressed in the arms. In push-hands (推手tui shou), interacting like a “butting cow” (顶牛ding niu) is considered to be an error indicative of poor quality Taijiquan. Butting against a partner or opponent reflects our lifetime habit (since we were toddlers) of leaning and bracing, and resisting force with force.

We instead want to “receive” force into our “root” (into the ground). We want to remain comfortable and aligned, and if we conduct incoming forces downward (e.g., by bending our back leg) rather than bracing backwards (e.g., straightening the rear leg), then the incoming force is more aligned with gravity, which healthy human bodies are comfortable with due to naturally “resisting” gravity every time that we stand.

We have habitual mental images of responding horizontally, pushing forward and pulling backwards, instead of pushing/projecting up from, and pulling/absorbing down into, our feet. The horizontal tendency is what produces the “butting cow” posture during push-hands practice. The “butting cow” loses the resiliency of the rear leg which stiffens instead. One would then lose the quality of “loading the spring” (compressing into one’s root – the ground) that is more appropriate for Taijiquan.

When one’s joints stiffen or lock in response to force (either incoming from an opponent, or outgoing from one’s own issuing of force), the body loses its changeability. We may appear stronger (at least in the one direction that the force/resistance is directed towards), but we also become less adaptable.

Taijiquan seeks to maintain changeability/adaptability even when under pressure; we want to maintain the openness of our joints, like they are well oiled and free to move, rather than locking/tightening them in place.

Many people when they want to bend lower or raise their leg higher for example, try to use force or momentum to do so rather than trying to relax more. This “try harder” or “do more” approach seems to be what humans have learned to do rather than relaxing (doing less). Unless someone is taught stretching or yoga, or something similar, the tendency is to bounce harder and harder in order to force a greater range of motion.