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 ~


Friday, September 02, 2022

Heavy Bags and Taijiquan


Below is an excerpt from an article that was posted at Thoughts on Tai Chi. It has to do with practicing actually striking things as part of one's taijiquan practice. Whether you agree or not, it is a thought provoking topic. The full post may be read here.

There are many different opinions about hitting objects in Tai Chi Chuan, and especially about punching heavy bags. Some people absolutely do not believe in them and say that punching a bag goes against Tai Chi principles. Others say that if you are not allowed to punch a bag, how would you be able to punch an opponent? So what should we think about all of the contradicting views?

Why would punching a bag be wrong?

The most common objection is probably that you should not use external strength when you punch, and this is perfectly true, in the sense of that you should not use the type of power, that is common in most so called “external styles”, a type of strength that relies on tensing up the limbs and the body. People who have this kind of objection have never been introduced to the type of strikes we actually use in Tai Chi. And some people don’t even believe that strikes and punching exist in Tai Chi.

Another thing that I have heard Tai Chi stylists speak about, is the common idea that you never attack in Tai Chi. Many believe that you should never initiate an attack and only respond to what the opponent does. Some of those people don’t believe in punching at all as a separate practice, and believe that the mind-set of punching itself is a contradiction to tai chi principles.

Even if they recognise punching as a part of Tai Chi, they mean that a response as a palm strike or punch should happen naturally, and use borrowing energy from the opponent. As an example, imagine if someone punches or pushes at your shoulder. Then the movement of evading or following the opponent’s attack on one side of the body should be enough to power up a punch using the other side of the body. This would work as wind and rewind, or storing energy and releasing it. But you use the opponent’s attack to store and release your own movement – or specifically in this case – a punch.

I can easily dismiss some part of this problem of mind-set by reminding you of what I said in the earlier post about punching without the mind-set of punching. But even if we leave this aside, we still have a problem. That is: you won’t understand how your body reacts when it meets another body until you meet a real punch. Will you be able to respond in such a way, that you can keep your body aligned, and support a fist upon contact? First, in order to gain confidence of your evasion skills, you would need to practice some sparring against people who actually know how to punch, right?

But to return to the original question about punching “dead stuff”, as hitting a punching bag, there’s a whole other issue: If you haven’t practiced punching at some kind of surface, how will you know what it means to meet a target with your fist? Will you understand how to use it to penetrate the target and do enough damage? Or will your fist just bounce off? You always need to do something to know it. To learn something, you need to gain practical experience. “Thinking” that you can punch something is not enough, you need to experience it with your own body in order to know. This is the plain truth.

A realistic and scientific approach

So, regardless type of punch you want to use, or if using any kind of offensive technique, you really need methods to first measure and evaluate what you do, to really know that you can actually do something. When you practice other types of techniques as pushing, throws, takedowns, qinna etc, those techniques and methods are all very easy to practice against a partner. You can throw each other around, and practicing joint-locks without hurting each other.

But this kind of realistic training is much harder with striking as you can’t really do a realistic punch against an unprotected partner. Strikes and punches are meant to break and damage things, right? So if you don’t have any way to measure what happens when your palm or fist meets a target, then how do you know that you could hurt a real opponent? How do you know if you have a method to actually finish someone off?

Yes, on the other hand, I get what some people are saying; that in Tai Chi, you should achieve so much control that you would never need to really hurt someone. Generally, I would agree with this assessment. This is very much the real strength of Tai Chi as a combat method. The control you gain with Tai Chi practice means that you can often find ways to use your methods in fighting so that you don’t really need to hurt someone very much at all. (In fact, I truly believe that the focus on a high level of control in Tai Chi Chuan might be a heritage from the Buddhism idea to never hurt and never kill.) And of course, if you can avoid lawsuits, going to jail or pay fines, by not hurting your opponent, this is obviously the wisest thing to strive for.

But, FFS, this is still a martial art we are practicing! The point of training “how to fight” is not about being able to count how many arms or noses we have broken, but about knowing that we have what we need in every kind of situation. Our practice should lead us to build confidence in what we do. And if we want to have real confidence, we need to know that we have things in our toolbox that actually work. And if we want to know that they work, well, then we really need methods to measure and evaluate what we do.

This is exactly the advantage with practice on heavy bags and similar. We can use them in our training to measure and evaluate what we do. If we know that we can use a strong punch, when it is needed, we can gain confidence by this knowledge, by knowing that we have a finishing strategy that works when it counts. Hopefully we will never need to use this capability against a person, but we can face someone with much greater confidence if we know that our tools really work.


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