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, December 02, 2022

Lessons from Steven Seagal's Aikido


Below is a video from Aikidoflow on some lessons learned in Aikido, after training with Steven Seagal.

 

Wednesday, November 30, 2022

The Politics of Olympic Karate


Over at Kung Fu Tea was an article about the politics behind Karate becoming an Olympic sport. Below is an excerpt. The full post  may be read here.

Introduction

We are very pleased to host the following essay on Karate’s appearance in the Tokyo Olympics by Prof. Stephen Chan. This is an important topic, particularly to readers who follow the debates surrounding the inclusion and exclusion of certain sports from the games. Yet his discussion transcends the more common narrative of nationally bounded scorekeeping and instead asks what other sorts of work Karate’s Olympic moment accomplished.

Prof. Chan is a founding figure within the Martial Arts Studies community who delivered the first keynote address kicking-off what has since became our annual series of Martial Arts Studies conferences. He is an accomplished practitioner of karate, martial arts instructor and a distinguished political scientist whose writing I have always enjoyed. It is truly a pleasure to welcome him back to Kung Fu Tea.

The Politics of an Olympic Medal

by Stephen Chan

Among karate practitioners internationally the advent of their sport in the Tokyo Olympics, after years of campaigning, was eagerly awaited – but curiously not so much in Japan itself; and the reason for this was its image of violence, not necessarily in the sport itself with its elaborate (though not always successful) safety rules, but in its perceived sociological niche as a working class pursuit. Ju jutsu was, in the same stereotyping, a pursuit of Yakuza and other gangsters. Ju jutsu’s refinement as judo, alongside sumo, kendo, aikido, kyudo (archery) and above all iaido were the sports of gentlemen, or had been accepted at court, and were, moreover, (with the exception of judo) more authentically and historically Japanese. However, judo had been refined enough to pass muster, but karate was without noble pedigree and never quite lost its tag of origin in Okinawa, the most ‘backward’ of the Japanese islands.

These are generalisations to be sure but, despite all the increasing overlays of sophistication and efforts to render karate a martial art equal to the others, it probably took the modern phenomenon of manga with its heroes and villains deploying karate techniques to bring it towards public acceptance.

In Olympic terms, the success of South Korea’s tae kwon do with its development of clearly derivative techniques (despite the Korean claim to its own historical authenticity) was a goad to having, finally, its karate ancestor placed alongside it as an Olympic sport. The leverage of the previous Japanese prime minister, Yoshihide Suga, long a powerful politician and himself a karate third degree black belt – a person who rose from exactly a poor farming and working class background – helped greatly with the campaign for karate’s inclusion. Suga’s well-advertised physical fitness routine which includes 200 situps every day meant it was difficult for more sedentary politicians to gainsay him.

But karate’s inclusion in the Tokyo Olympics meant that Japan had two martial arts represented – karate and judo. South Korea had one, tae kwon do. China has none of its martial arts in the Olympics. Karate’s entry was always going to be tenuous in the terms of the numbers game as to who gets how many of which sports.

If Japan was in this sense in a weak position to insist on karate’s inclusion in the forthcoming Paris Olympics – it already had judo – then other countries were not going to act as karate’s champion. Karate is strong in France, but the international governing body, the World Karate Federation (WKF), does not command total support from the karate community in the USA; and its affiliate in the UK, the English Karate Federation (EKF) has no throw-weight in UK sporting or Olympic politics.  Without the two Anglophonic giants of world sports insisting on karate continuing in the Olympics its dropping from the Paris agenda was accomplished with barely a murmur of protest from sporting establishments with quite enough already on their agendas. 

Moreover, it has to be said that the Tokyo Olympics featured bouts of sometimes dubious quality and certainly enigmatic judging. As a spectator-friendly event, karate appealed to afficionados but not very many others. There was no wave afterwards of members of the public seeking to learn karate.

As for the WKF itself, it is a strange survivor of internecine struggles that have bedevilled karate since its inception as a sport with international participants. Particularly in the USA there were ‘world championships’ that featured in the 1960s and into the 70s almost entirely American entrants – some of whom went on to become movie stars, such as Chuck Norris, and who certainly featured on the covers of the karate magazines of that era – so that the glamour, and also lack of any international regulatory environment, made karate seem almost splendidly anarchic as the Bruce Lee era dawned. With the dawning precisely of that era, regulatory regularity at least became desirable if only to avoid injuries and their almost random causation.

 

Sunday, November 27, 2022

Mental Toughness


Below is an excerpt from an article about running and developing mental toughness. I used to be a distance runner and I consider the practice to be "Budo with a small 'b'." It's not strictly Budo, but is a practice that serves to enhance your budo training.

The full post may be read here.

A few years ago, scientist Ashley Samson embarked on a project aimed at accessing the darkest recesses of the runner’s mind. What goes on in the minds of people who voluntarily expose themselves on a regular basis to the rigors and stress of long-distance running? Samson is attached to California State University and also runs a private clinic for athletes who wish to avail themselves of her expertise as a sports psychologist. Samson was an athlete herself in her younger years and she still runs ultramarathons, so she knows all about the mental trials of running.

Up until recently the only way to get inside the heads of long-distance runners was to ask them to fill out a questionnaire after a race. Not exactly what you would call a reliable method, as it is always uncertain how well people remember specific information after the event. Samson and her colleagues decided to try something different. They fitted 10 runners with microphones and asked them to articulate their thoughts freely and without any self-observation while out on a long run. The scientists then listened to all 18 hours of the recorded material, searching for patterns. The thinking-aloud protocol allowed only immediate thoughts to be recorded; thinking aloud actually stops the mind from wandering. Nevertheless, the scientists must have had great fun listening to the recordings. “Holy shit, I’m so wet [from all the sweat],” reported Bill. “Breathe, try to relax. Relax your neck and shoulders,” said Jenny. Bill found the going very tough: “Hill, you’re a bitch . . . it’s long and hot. God damn it . . . mother eff-er.” Fred paid more attention to his surroundings: “Is that a rabbit at the end of the road? Oh yeah, how cute.”

Samson categorized the thoughts into a series of themes. Three themes in particular emerged: pace and distance; pain and discomfort; and environment. All of the participants in Samson’s experiment experienced some level of discomfort, especially at the beginning of their run. For example, they suffered from stiff legs and minor hip pain that became less severe the longer they ran. To cope with the pain and discomfort, the runners used a variety of mental strategies, including breathing techniques and urging themselves on.

There is more to running than just training your muscles and improving your stamina. It is also a mental sport, and maybe even more so than previously believed. Most runners appreciate the importance of mental strength. Those who decide to join their colleagues for a 10K run without any prior training are often able to show just how far you can get on motivation and perseverance alone. They run on “mental energy” and spur each other on. Keep going! Never mind the pain! As for ultramarathon runners, instead of ignoring pain they embrace it as part of the whole experience of long-distance running. “Pain is inevitable” is their mantra; it is an essential ingredient of the running experience. So what are the psychological qualities that make you a good runner? To what extent do they influence performance? And most importantly: Can you train mental toughness?

The Psychology of Performance

Anyone who wants to know more about the psychological side of sports would be well advised to talk to Vana Hutter. She is an expert on the mental health of top-class athletes, and she sums up all of the research on the matter as follows: Top-class athletes are armed with high levels of self-confidence, dedication, and focus, as well as the ability to concentrate and handle pressure. Their academic performance and social skills are also often better than that of nonathletic types. According to Hutter, athletes need self-regulation in order to perform. Everyone can learn, to some extent at least, to control their emotions, thoughts, and actions. And it is this aspect — learning to self-regulate — that is of particular interest to runners.

Funnily enough, Hutter began her scientific career at the “hardcore” end of exercise physiology: physical measurements of athletes’ bodies. “As time went on, however, I realized that athletic performance is determined by a combination of body and mind,” she tells me over coffee in Amsterdam. “I discovered that it is far more difficult to predict athletic performance than some physiologists would have you believe. There are so many factors that we just can’t account for.” For example, how do you explain the fact that the times athletes run are so different despite their being physically very similar?

If you were to subject the top 10 marathon runners to a physiological examination, they would probably all have a high VO₂max and excellent running economy. Some top athletes have something extra as well, however. “Measured over a longer period, the trainability of athletes is more or less the same. What really matters during competition is the extent to which their physiological systems are primed and ready to go, and how well those systems cooperate with each other,” explains Hutter. “Whether an athlete can avail of their maximum physical potential at the crucial moment is partly a mental matter.”

 She provides an example. “If your muscles are a little bit more tense because you are nervous, this will have an effect on your movement efficiency. You will need more energy to achieve the same kind of forward motion. This is the biomechanical explanation of the role of psychology in performance. On the other side of the spectrum, nervous anxiety can result in negative thoughts and fear of failure.” In other words, to go far as an athlete you need not only the right kind of physique but also to be mentally strong, primarily because of the influence the psyche has on how the physical body performs. Mental strength may in fact be the thing that separates the winners from the rest of us. Today, no one denies the role played by psychology in athletic performance. However, the extent to which coaches address mental toughness when training their athletes is a different matter, according to Hutter. Most of them do integrate it in their training, but opinions vary greatly on just how trainable mental toughness actually is.

Thursday, November 24, 2022

Steven Seagal's Aikido


Say what you want about Steven Seagal. I like his aikido. Even though he is not the young man he once was, he still moves as smooth as glass. Below is a 15 minute documentary on his martial art.



Monday, November 21, 2022

Was Bruce Lee Right About Fixed Patterns?


Over at JDK HQ|Taekwondo Perth was an article that examined Bruce Lee's ideas on fixed pattern practice and how those ideas impact the practice of a traditional martial art. An excerpt is below. The full post may be read here.

 It's ironic. The Founder of JKD, that's Jeet Kune Do, and attributed as the Father of MMA, Bruce Lee was brought up schooled in Wing Chun. A talented athlete with a keen intellect, he assessed the tactical strengths of his traditional martial skills (based on those fixed patterns), and then reached for and assimilated new skills to round off his fighting base.    


But you don't totally 'empty' your cup of your existing skills. You 'empty' that cup of your preconceptions, your bias, and incomplete assumptions. With new insight, you add to your skills and build your foundation. 

Minus the grandstanding you see in Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story, the quote above which has been attributed to Bruce Lee is correct. Fixed Set Patterns will not help you better deal with a dynamic situation. If you take out the posturing from actor Jason Scott Lee, the quote isn't to pick on those systems that use 'fixed set patterns.' You know why? It's because almost all systems I've come across use fixed set patterns. 

Call them Kata, Hyung, Tuls, Punyo, etc. Even boxing at various levels uses drills that are repeated over and over again. Know what those are called? Those are called Fixed Set Patterns. 

In my tradition, I use Fixed Pattern Sets called Hyungs. Early in my career, I started spreadsheeting individual techniques within those patterns to associate them with every skill I could identify. Neck deep and about a year in, I started to realise that I was just spinning my wheels. Some enthusiasts were impressed but I knew I wasn't on the right path, and appending more words to techniques wasn't creating any value. 

Eventually, there was a threshold that needed to be crossed. That threshold was a Fixed Set Pattern that a 19th century Karateka claimed was all he needed for street combat. It was a kata that I had been obsessed with for a long time. It's simple mirrored techniques seemed superficially simplistic, until I looked at it as a problem solving mechanism. I found I could use just the one technique for a same side attack. Then I saw it applied to an opposite side attack. And extending that train of thought, it would also work if I had guessed either wrongly! That I could recover using that technique! 

The Kata did not produce this tactic. It inspired the insight within me to see this for myself. 

Since then, the more I understood of the technician's situation, of his opponent, and the dynamic situation in an engagmenet, the more value I could draw from our fixed set pattern. 

I know sometimes I seem dismissive of patterns. That I seem more than happy to choose my own flipbook story ending. Nothing can be further from the truth. The pattern is our unchanging benchmark. But it is a benchmark created by an architect who was limited to chunking a few skills into a sequence of about 40 moves. 

The pattern does not show in entirety that architect's skill.

Friday, November 18, 2022

Turning the Waist in Taijiquan


Turning, not twisting the waist is a foundational principal of taijiquan movement. Below is an excerpt from a post that appeared at Thoughts on Tai Chi on that topic. The full post may be read here.

What does “waist” mean in Tai Chi Chuan? Isn’t the waist just the waist? Is it necessary to complicate it and analyse the meaning of this common word?  Well, first, Chinese is obviously another language than English. And we know that words don’t always have the exact same meaning in different languages.

Still, this post might seem provocative, as everyone translate the Chinese character “yao” into “waist”, including the most famous “Masters” today who travel around the World to personally sign their commercial books at two-day seminars for many hundreds of participants, eagerly waiting to learn about the deep secrets of Tai Chi that are reserved for only a chosen few. I guess that having a master, or even Grandmaster(!), signing their book make many students feel as they have achieved “more” through their training.

But as I myself am neither famous or travel around signing books, I couldn’t care less about the commercial aspects of being politically Tai Chi correct. So let’s start from the beginning by explaining the Chinese character for “waist“.

In the Tai Chi Classics, this character is “yao” or 腰. This character, that belongs to 3000 most common characters (Ranked no. 1228 to be precise), or Yao, is indeed a common Chinese word for what we mean by waist, or the area around the back and belly, between the ribs and the hips. This is that makes the upper body rotate horizontally while the lower part of the body remains mor or less stable. In Western tradition the waist is what separate the upper and lower body. And sure, we can use “yao” in this sense as well. Yao can be used for “waistline” and the word for belt in Chinese is yaodai, 腰带.

So where, and in what context, do we use the character yao in Tai Chi? Well, It’s right there in the Tai Chi Classics, in the probably most common and well known Tai Chi saying:

其根在脚,
发于腿,
主宰于腰,
形于手指

Rooted in the feet, ​
fa/issue through the legs,
controlled by the ​yao, 
expressed through the fingers.

What many masters on many books have explained, and what I would believe that most Tai Chi practitioners should agree on, is that everything must move together as a whole, as one single movement. Foot, legs, yao, arm and hand. Well, “shou” 手 or “hand” can be used for the whole arm as well. So you could interpret this character, here in this context, as the whole arm, right out to the fingers. When one part moves, the rest of the parts move at the same time. Everything should have a direct connection through movement.

Okay then, let’s go back to the yao. What you need to know is that Chinese people don’t necessarily associate character yao in the same way Western people do with waist. In Chinese, Yao can mean “waist”. But foremost, this character is associated with the lower back. One common translation you can see in dictionaries is in fact: the lower back.

 


Tuesday, November 15, 2022

Examing the Slow Practice of Taijiquan


Ever wonder why Taijiquan is generally practiced slowly? Below is an excerpt from a post that appeared at Slanted Flying, which examines that topic. The full post may be read here.

A common joke about t’ai chi is about a practitioner who is confronted by a bully to fight. The practitioner agrees to go outside and fight, but tells the bully, “it will have to be in slow motion!” The popular misconception about t’ai chi is that the practice is just a slow motion dance, and many people are surprised that it is also a highly skilled martial art. But what about this slow motion aspect?

Different speeds produce different effects for learning. At fast speeds one can appreciate the momentum of swinging and turning as well as experience the force of strikes, but it is too fast to attend to details and subtleties. Medium speed is perhaps a balance between learning momentum and balance, but still does not provide the detailed attention necessary for exploring nuances of movement.

When moving fast through forms, one set of muscles becomes active to initiate the movement and another stops the movement. Between initiation and stopping there are many other processes occurring, but we move so rapidly we seldom notice them. Slow movement enables us to pay closer attention to relaxing muscles that are not needed for the movement, aligning and sinking the body, relaxing abdominal breathing (we tend to hold it or breathe in the upper chest when concentrating), and linking and coordinating all parts of the body.

Learning t’ai chi is a complex motor process. Consider the principles of posture from the classics: Keep the head upright, hollow the chest, relax the waist, differentiate substantial and insubstantial, sink the shoulders and drop the elbows, coordinate upper and lower parts of the body, and so on. Each of these requires close attention and practice, let alone how they are all finally integrated into the flowing movements of t’ai chi. Slow and repetitive practice allows attending to each one and gradually integrating them into a fluid form.

A common joke about t’ai chi is about a practitioner who is confronted by a bully to fight. The practitioner agrees to go outside and fight, but tells the bully, “it will have to be in slow motion!” The popular misconception about t’ai chi is that the practice is just a slow motion dance, and many people are surprised that it is also a highly skilled martial art. But what about this slow motion aspect?

Different speeds produce different effects for learning. At fast speeds one can appreciate the momentum of swinging and turning as well as experience the force of strikes, but it is too fast to attend to details and subtleties. Medium speed is perhaps a balance between learning momentum and balance, but still does not provide the detailed attention necessary for exploring nuances of movement.

When moving fast through forms, one set of muscles becomes active to initiate the movement and another stops the movement. Between initiation and stopping there are many other processes occurring, but we move so rapidly we seldom notice them. Slow movement enables us to pay closer attention to relaxing muscles that are not needed for the movement, aligning and sinking the body, relaxing abdominal breathing (we tend to hold it or breathe in the upper chest when concentrating), and linking and coordinating all parts of the body.

Learning t’ai chi is a complex motor process. Consider the principles of posture from the classics: Keep the head upright, hollow the chest, relax the waist, differentiate substantial and insubstantial, sink the shoulders and drop the elbows, coordinate upper and lower parts of the body, and so on. Each of these requires close attention and practice, let alone how they are all finally integrated into the flowing movements of t’ai chi. Slow and repetitive practice allows attending to each one and gradually integrating them into a fluid form.

 

 

Wednesday, November 09, 2022

What it is to be a Samurai


Below is an excerpt from a post that appeared at The Budo Bum. The full post may be read here.

So you want to be a samurai, eh? When I ask people who revere the samurai “What is it about the samurai that you find so great?” The most common answer is that they are impressed by the bushido code. There is a lot of good stuff found in what is termed the bushido code. Most of it predates the bushi by 1500 years or more, and the rest was added in the early 20th century when the term “bushido” was first widely used.  Most of the stuff about sacrificing oneself for one’s lord other such more extreme was only added in the early 20th century.

The parts of “bushido” that weren’t added by fascist military promoters in the 20th century are quite good. It's just that they are basically the 5 virtues of Confucius. I have a piece of calligraphy in my living room done by my budo teacher, Kiyama Hiroshi Shihan, that lists them in this order:

智  仁  義  礼  信

In Japanese they are read:

Chi or “wisdom”.

Jin or ”benevolence”

Gi or “righteousness” 

Rei or “ritual propriety”

Shin or “Trust”

 

 These all seem like really good virtues, especially if you understand a little about Confucian thought. I can’t think of anyone who would argue that chi, or wisdom, is a bad thing. Developing wisdom requires having some understanding of the world, so study and learning is encouraged as a means of acquiring wisdom. This includes active, lifelong studying for self-improvement. Once you have some wisdom and understanding, you have to act on it. Wisdom without action isn’t really wisdom.

Sunday, November 06, 2022

Chinese Opera


This is an aria of a Chinese opera styling dated 500 years ago. The soprano sings and performs martial art play in "Kun" style. The story is about an heroine fable killing an evil monster for the good of the people. 

 

 

Thursday, November 03, 2022

Friday, October 28, 2022

Seeking the True Way


Over at Kenshi 24/7 there was an excellent post on they study of Budo through Kendo. I think the post would benefit anyone who studies martial arts. Below is an excerpt. The full post may be read here.

 

Those who seek to study kendo must never forget to follow The Way ("michi"). People follow a path to a destination, there is no need to rush down it; instead follow it correctly. In other words, following a path accurately is something that naturally protects the person who walks down it.

If you truly seek this way, you must first (aim to) cultivate/discipline the self, and with this spirit face your opponent. This is the essential meaning of kendo. All humans have (or have the potential to have) a beautiful spirit; through self cultivation you can work to share this with others.

If you forget this spirit and merely find joy in striking and defeating opponents, well that isn't real kendo.

People who do kendo shugyo should seek the true way their entire lives and become a good *person.


Tuesday, October 25, 2022

French Cane Fighting


Canne de Combat, French cane fighting, is a French combat sport. Below is short documentary on the sport.

 

 

Saturday, October 22, 2022

Wednesday, October 19, 2022

Kagoshima's Samurai Heritage


Below is an excerpt from an article that appeared at the Japan Travel website. The full post may be read here.

Try Jigen-ryu, the martial art practiced by Satsuma’s samurai

The samurai of the Satsuma Domain were known to be some of the strongest in Japan, and they trained every day, practicing a martial art called Jigen-ryu. Their strength is credited to the techniques of Jigen-ryu and the mindset it promotes.

Jigen-ryu instructs its followers that “swords should not be drawn,” and strongly cautions against unnecessary killing. However, it also emphasizes that when danger strikes, a warrior should be prepared to cut an enemy down in a state of mind free of all thoughts and desires. Jigen-ryu places importance on making the first move and putting everything into that first strike to bring about victory in a quick, sharp slash. The martial art was established between the late 16th and early 17th century and has a history of over 400 years. The teachings of Jigen-ryu were considered secret, and the Satsuma samurai had a duty to prevent the techniques from becoming known outside of the domain.

At the Jigen-ryu Swordsmanship Museum, you can bring both your body and mind closer to that of the samurai. Try out tategi-uchi, a basic and essential form of training in which the swordsman hits an upright wooden pole with a wooden stick the same length and weight as a katana. This helps a warrior to swing a katana confidently and with strength, without unnecessary movements of the body. The samurai of Satsuma were instructed to strike the tategi 3,000 times in the morning and 8,000 times in the evening. Visitors to the Jigen-ryu Swordsmanship Museum can experience tategi-uchi with an advance reservation. Loose fitting clothing and a towel is recommended.

 

Sunday, October 16, 2022

Birthday 2022


Today is my birthday. Won't you help me celebrate?


 

I have successfully completed another trip around the sun. 

I have just completed 1 year at my present job. Of course, something had to happen along the way. 

As I was nearing the one year anniversary at work, I received an email from HR (I have come to hate emails from HR). Between my age and my years of service (1), I was eligible for an early retirement incentive program. 

Great. The plan has been to retire in another 18 months (when I hit full retirement age), but with crazy inflation and a recession, it looks like I'll probably want to keep working until I'm 70, if I can. Now I was looking at taking the incentive and rolling the dice that I could find another job, not taking the incentive and rolling the dice that I don't get laid off (as there is obviously a reduction in force program going); and hoping I can get back to work in the event I do, or nothing happens.

Just in case, I made contact with a former customer who is the CEO of a competitor now. I have a lifeboat with him. I'd have to agree to work until I'm 70 and to justify my salary, I'd have to wear many hats; but it's a lifeboat.

My wife and I sweated this out over a long weekend, going over all the scenarios. When I spoke to my boss, he tells me that I wasn't supposed to get that email. Our part of the company was newly acquired and the corporation's intent was to leave the newly acquired companies alone for them to get their legs under them.

It was a relief that I wasn't getting pushed out. But we are in a recession and there is a workforce reduction taking place. I expect anything to happen.

One of my daughters was married this summer. It was a beautiful wedding in northern Michigan. She had one of the best weddings I had ever attended. They did a great job putting that together.

Unfortunately, my other daughter has just been laid off. She's busy looking for a new job, but is also enjoying her time off.

I am practicing the best taijiquan of my life right now. I've had many breakthroughs over the past year. As far as my practice goes, I am in a good place.

I've decided to keep track of how many book I've read this year. I'm on track to read 50 books.

Everyone's health is good. Although we all expect some rocky times ahead, due to the economy, we're all in a good place.  

Friday, October 14, 2022

A Karate Life


 Below is a documentary about Michiro Noguchi, a senior master of Goju Ryu karate. Enjoy.


Saturday, October 08, 2022

A Retrospective of a Senior Teacher's Taijiquan Study


From a Quora post in 2020:


Stages and Basic Principles of Taijiquan Practice

Larry Wall (Practicing and teaching Yang Ben Hao style taiji for 47 yrs)

As a beginner, what were the challenges you faced learning Tai Chi?
I was lucky in a sense because I was my teacher’s only student for close to two years before he had other committed students. For close to the first year I was his only student. Later, people would show up, stick around for a week or so and then drift away. I was also lucky in that my teacher practiced taiji every morning at 6:30 AM, so I had daily instruction.

My teacher first told me that if I study taiji every day, it will take me one month to learn the moves, another month to memorize the moves and about ten years to get any good at the moves. In my fairly unique circumstances, I did indeed learn and memorize the move(s in two months’ time.

How long did it take me to become “good” at the moves? I don’t know. I’ve been practicing taiji now for 47 years and I’m still getting better at it as I go.

One thing that was a challenge, now that I think of it, was getting used to my teacher’s rather oblique method of teaching. He insisted he wasn’t at all “Chinese-y,” in that he was willing to teach non-Chinese the art. On the other hand, he still maintained some of the classical Chinese tests a teacher maintains with his students.

For instance, my teacher would show a move in its most general form. He’d then wait for the student to ask an informed detail question about the move before he’d elaborate on the deeper elements of the move. If a given student never asked a decent detail question, my teacher would quickly write him or her off as somebody who “doesn’t get it” and while he’d never kick that student out of class, he’d more or less ignore that student from that point forward unless the student eventually came back with an intelligent question.

This put the student in an interesting bind: he or she had to be curious and perfectionistic enough to begin with to ask intelligent detail questions. Most students essentially weren’t. They waited for my teacher to correct them, give them feedback on how they were doing and then correct them further. But my teacher wouldn’t do that: he really only wanted to give serious time to those students who were inquisitive and who showed a real desire to learn.

Another thing my teacher did was, if you learned an element of a move or a taiji principle that he didn’t think you were ready for and you asked him about it, he’d tell you that you were doing it all wrong and that you were to never do things that way again.

My teacher did this to me in my first year when I stumbled upon the taiji principle of shuǎi (甩), which literally means “fling” but which has a hidden meaning of “feel the weight at the end” (these days I prefer the term bǎi (擺; 摆), which translates to “pendulum,” because it’s more descriptive for American students). Essentially, when you’re walking with your arms naturally swinging forward and back, if you’re relaxed enough you can feel the weight of your arms dropping down into your hands by the simple process of centrifugal force. If you do this in the summer, you can actually see your hands turn slightly pink and see them swell slightly.

This is shuǎi, which is the pendulum feeling (bǎi) you should have in your hands throughout the taiji exercise form. If performing a kick, you should be feeling shuǎi (bǎi) in that part of the foot that would be delivering the force of the kick.

Feeling shuǎi provides bodily feedback that you are sufficiently relaxing your arms enough (sōng; 鬆) so that your force is at least coming from your torso, if not from your feet.

Anyway, when I first discovered shuǎi I excitedly asked my teacher about it. He promptly told me I was “doing it all wrong” and that I should “never do it that way.” I listened to him respectfully (of course) but on my own started practicing shuǎi anyway.

Roughly six months later, I decided to bring the question of shuǎi up again (of course, back then I didn’t know the word for it was shuǎi; I just asked about the feeling).

This time, my teacher responded “Well of course that’s how you do it! I thought you already knew that!” I guess after that additional amount of time studying, my teacher decided that I was ready enough to be confirmed in that understanding.

My teacher also tested his students to see if they could be trusted. He was extremely adamant he didn’t want what he was teaching to fall into the hands of a potential bully who would abuse the knowledge.

Once about three years into my training, my teacher showed me a very simple variation on a defense, which turned the defense into an attack. Unfortunately for me, a student from another school just happened to have been taught that very same move by his teacher from across town. At the beginning of a class, this student, thinking he had something new and exciting to show me, “taught” me the move.

I caught a single glimpse of my teacher observing this student showing me the move. I knew instantly he believed I had breached his trust and was showing that move to the student from the other school.

My teacher then refused to show me anything new or detailed for a full seven months. He’d written me off as untrustworthy. Whenever I tried to ask him a detail question, he’d very politely put me off with a very generic answer. I felt terrible.

Finally, I asked a fellow student (who I knew still had my teacher’s trust) to tell him in private what happened to me: that I hadn’t revealed the move he told me to keep quiet about to that student from another school but had been an unfortunate victim of coincidence. A month later my teacher began once again answering my detail questions and I was back in the inner circle as though nothing had ever happened (I guess it took my teacher a full month to decide if I was telling the truth).

So those were some of my initial difficulties in learning taiji.

Here’s a portion of an article I wrote for the Marquette (MI) Monthly four years ago. Hopefully, it’ll be helpful.

What is Taijiquan: Understanding the Rectification of the Body

Taiji is very misunderstood. Apart from the artistic depictions of it in the media, taiji is a demanding art that requires a significant degree of dedication and persistence. While taiji looks pretty to an observer, the goal of taijiquan is nothing less than a profound body-mind transformation called shēntǐ de zhěngdùn (身體的整頓) or “the rectification of the body.”

Like a sculptor softens a stiff lump of clay to then transform it into a sculpture of a swan, the goal of the taiji practitioner is to relax and soften his or her body so that it can become a conductor of both physical and psychological energy, called qì (氣; pronounced “chee”). That qì then expresses itself in a multiplicity of “strengths” or skills known as jìns (勁). In taiji, the use of jìn is contrasted with our usual tendency to force things: to push back when pushed, to pull away when pulled; an oppositional attitude that is called lì (力) or wéi (為).

A primary element in transforming or “rectifying” the body involves relaxing deeply enough while lightly creating torque in the limbs and the torso (called chán sī jìn (纏絲勁) or “silk reeling skill”), so that rather than relying on muscle strength as virtually all of us do when under stress, one instead relies on gravity and the natural rebound of walking, as well as the innate elastic strength of one’s tendons, ligaments and fascia to respond to an attack.

The Five Stages of Taijiquan

My teacher Qín Liáng Zhōu (秦梁周) would typically explain taiji to newcomers using the following progression, based on the English translation of taiji as “Supreme Ultimate:”

Taiji at first is the Supreme Ultimate Exercise. Taiji is a gentle exercise which stretches the limbs, loosens the spine and rejuvenates one’s sense of balance and bodily kinesthetics. Taiji enhances one’s breathing and is vigorous enough when practiced correctly to raise a good sweat while being gentle enough that one can continue to practice it well into old age. Most people who begin to practice taiji remain at this level, no matter how many years they practice the art, which is perfectly all right. Most people either have no desire to progress to the next level or else they lack a competent teacher who can help them go further.

Next, taiji becomes a Supreme Ultimate Dance. Only a few people begin to sense the inner rhythm and flow of taiji to the point where they experience taiji as a dance form. For these people, taiji becomes a delightful way to turn on one’s inner happiness and radiance at will. Qín Liáng Zhōu once commented that taiji “is very much like the waltz. It has that rhythm once you feel it.” Most people who experience taiji as a dance are content to remain at this level.

At the third level taiji becomes a Supreme Ultimate Martial Art. The full name of taiji is tàijíquán (太極拳). The word quán (pronounced “chwen”) most directly translates as “fist.” As the martial art of taijiquan relies on a degree of body “rectification” as well as satisfaction by the teacher that one is of “decent character,” going through the Exercise and Dance progressions are absolutely necessary prerequisites before one learns taiji as a means of self-defense. There were many students who never received more than a superficial introduction to the martial aspects of taiji from Qín Liáng Zhōu because he decided they weren’t trustworthy enough not to abuse the knowledge. Others simply never developed the relaxation or coordination to arrive at that level. Many students, as I mentioned, were never interested or were actually emotionally repelled by the idea of using taiji in a martial fashion.

Very, very few taiji practitioners arrive at the martial arts level and for those who do, this level is a major trap.

The goal of taiji at this level is not at all to become a “martial arts bad ass” or to “learn how to kick butt,” even though taiji martial art is extraordinarily comprehensive and allows one to respond to an attack with anything from a no-touch evasion, to a light push or pull, all the way to a killing technique if everything else has failed.

The goal of taiji as a martial art—oddly enough for most people—is stress management. The idea is that if one can remain physically, emotionally and mentally relaxed while someone is trying to grab, hit or otherwise hurt you, you can probably remain relaxed in the normal hassles of everyday life.

This is the interesting part: the various jìns of taiji don’t work if you tense up and try to use muscle strength. Tensing up both slows you down and drastically reduces the power you can produce. Trying to muscle one’s way to a “victory” in the exercise known as “push hands,” for instance, will only result in your resorting to wrestling rather than taiji. Tensing up while someone is trying to hit you probably means you’ll find yourself getting hit.

The other interesting thing about practicing taiji as a martial art (as well as related disciplines such as aikido and Systema) is that skilled practitioners usually come across as very “laid back” and non-aggressive. It turns out that much of the “tough guy” posturing and “woofing” found in the bars and on television is understood as an expression of underlying fear these arts teach you to resolve, just as it resolves the intense fear of injury seen in those who cower and tremble in the face of any expressed or implied aggression.

The main goal of taiji as a martial art is to learn how to listen and respond to another person’s projection of energy. Many of the jìns that are important to develop if one wants to master taijiquan cannot be developed if one only practices solo taiji. It is vital for students to practice cooperatively if they are to understand and develop the higher levels. One of the most popular methods of cooperative taiji practice is called tuī shǒu (推手) or “push hands.” It’s variations begin at the simple and evolve into the complicated and freestyle.

The fourth level of taiji is that of the Supreme Ultimate Meditation. If you recall, I mentioned that the word quán directly translates into “fist.” But take a second: what is a fist? A fist is a “concentrated hand.” In the same way, the word quán can serve as a poetic reference to meditation as a “concentrated mind.” In practicing taiji as a meditation, it is necessary to have approximately mastered the prior three levels of taijiquan. In the meditative level, one focuses on one of the many aspects of taiji practice: the shifting of one’s weight from one foot to the other, the expression of force as it develops in the feet, travels up one leg into the torso and from there travels down one arm and out the hand; one focuses on one’s breathing to further refine the physiology of the inhale and the coordination of movement with the exhale, the feeling of one’s entire body as it moves through space—the possibilities of what to focus on are endless. This is one of the things that makes taiji fascinating: when done correctly, taiji is never boring. One can still be a student after fifty years of practice and while into one’s 70’s or older.

At the fifth and final level, Taiji Becomes Itself. The taiji practitioner at this level easily shifts from levels one through four and also is able to consciously slip into a form of high level non-verbal awareness the Chinese Daoists call wú xīn (無心) or “no mind.” The taiji practitioner at this point can defend him or herself with complete spontaneity, responding to an attacker’s moves in the same effortless fashion that a skilled jazz saxophonist can improvise music in perfect synchrony with the pianist. This ability transfers into every area of the practitioner’s life and is said to have penetrated “into the bones” to the point where the taiji practitioner is performing taiji in everything he or she does, whether it’s driving a car, engaging in self-defense, talking with the boss or washing the dishes.

Some Basic Principles of Taiji Practice

You can begin to practice some of the basic taiji principles of movement without a formal lesson. Here’s how to get started:

Imagine Your Head Is a Balloon Filled with Helium

This will encourage you to “float” your head above your neck and will promote proper upper-body alignment and tension release. This is the basis for the postural alignment discipline called the Alexander Technique, just to point out a connection to Western disciplines. Instead of imagining your head is a balloon, some people prefer the mental image of your head being pulled upwards by a string. Both work.

Pay Attention to The 4 Internal Forces: Fall, Compress, Float & Fling (An, Ji, Peng & Liu)

Taiji is based on four feelings we experience continuously but usually never notice while walking. As we step forward, our foot “falls” towards the ground and then “compresses,” prompting a “rebound” or “float” of force that goes up through the body and out the top of the head. If you relax while naturally swinging your arms, like a pendulum, you can feel the weight of your arms travel down into your hands. All taiji moves are elaborations and developments of these four “forces.”

Pay more attention to these internal “feelings” than how you look.

Taiji primarily involves the feet and legs. The illusion is that the arms and hands are the main points of focus.

All Movement Comes from The Feet, Goes Up Through the Body and Then Travels Out the Hands

This feels very foreign for most people who begin learning taiji. You will probably need to be coached at first to experience this. Once you get the hang of the feeling, however, it becomes very natural.

The Instant You Compress into Your Partner, Feel Your Back or Forward Foot Compress into the Ground

This activates your bodily structure and provides you with a full-body connection between your hand (or hands) and the ground. Most of the time you’ll compress your back foot into the ground as you compress your hand or fist into your partner for a push or a strike but occasionally you’ll compress into your front foot for particular techniques. In the absence of a partner, you can practice using a wall to experience the whole-body connection between your foot and your hand. A variation of this activation also applies to pulls.

Breathe from Your Lower Abdomen (Diaphragm)

This is how you breathe when you sleep. Most people, however, breathe from their chest when they’re awake. If you have ever played a wind instrument, sang in a choir or engaged in public speaking, you already know how to do this.

Bend Your Knees in Line with Your Third Toe. Never Reach Past the Vertical Plane of Your Forward Toes.

Bending your knee in the direction of your third toe protects you from knee misalignment and damage, as does never bending your knee past the vertical plane of your toes. Never reaching with your hands past the vertical plane of your forward toes protects you from losing balance by overextending yourself.

Wednesday, October 05, 2022

Intent (yi) in Taijiquan


Below is an excerpt from an article that appeared in The Tai Chi Notebook that discusses three views of intent (yi) in Taijiquan practice. The full post may be read here.

I’m writing this as a kind of follow up to my previous article on 3 views of qi in Tai Chi. That article contained the 3 different things I think people really meant when they talk about qi in Tai Chi. This article aims to do the same thing with yi. I don’t consider myself an authority on either matter, but I have had some skin in the Tai Chi game for a while now, and I’ve read enough of other people’s writings to come to some conclusions about what I think they’re talking about. Hopefully you’ll find these definitions helpful, and I’d be interested to hear your thoughts in the comments section.

Yi gets a few mentions in the Tai Chi Classics, and is usually translated into English as “intent”, or “mind-intent”, a translation which I think can be problematic because there are at least 3 different things that people mean when they say “intent” in Tai Chi, and while the three are obviously related, they’re also quite distinct from each other.

Before we get into the definitions, let’s have a look at what the Tai Chi Classics have to say about yi:

The most quoted line regarding Yi is in the Tai Chi Classic: “All movements are motivated by yi, not external form”, which can also be translated as “use the mind, not force”. In no.6 of Yang Cheng-Fu’s 10 important points he says:

“6.) Use the mind instead of force. The T’ai Chi Ch’uan Classics say, “all of this means use I [mind-intent] and not li.” In practicing T’ai Chi Ch’uan the whole body relaxes. Don’t let one ounce of force remain in the blood vessels, bones, and ligaments to tie yourself up. Then you can be agile and able to change. You will be able to turn freely and easily. Doubting this, how can you increase your power?”

So, here the emphasis is on relaxing and not using “force”, but why? And What does that mean? I will explain later.

Interestingly, right after that line, the Tai Chi Classic then goes on to say:

“If there is up, there is down;
when advancing, have regard for withdrawing;
when striking left, pay attention to t
he right.

If the yi wants to move upward,
it must simultaneously have intent downward. “

Definition 1: Martial intent

Given the lines quoted in the Tai Chi classics above I find it strange that the most common interpretation of yi in Tai Chi is as a kind of martial intent. Here intent is “your intent to do something”, and in Tai Chi people generally mean a martial intention that needs to be contained within every particular posture or movement. So, for example, when you do the ward off movement, you need to have the intention of deflecting a blow away. If you movement lacks that intention, it is said to be empty.

Now this may all be true, and not knowing the martial applications of a movement inevitably leads to it becoming too abstract and unfocused, but this understanding of ‘intent’ is clearly not what is being talked about in the Tai Chi Classics when it admonishes us to “use the mind, not force”. If all it meant was to have a martial intention behind the movements, then it’s impossible to see how that can match up with lines from the classics like:

“If the yi wants to move upward,
it must simultaneously have intent downward.”

What has that got to do with martial intent?

Clearly this is talking about something else. Yes, a martial spirit is obviously important for Tai Chi, and some Chinese teachers refer to an “eye spirit” which his making sure you are focussed and looking in the right place in form performance, and you look like your actions are martially proficient, but I don’t really think this is what is specifically meant by yi in the Tai Chi classics.

 

 

 


Sunday, October 02, 2022

Kung Fu, the Orginal TV Series Documentary


When I was a teenager, the pilot for the Kung Fu (original) TV series; Way of the Tiger, Sign of the Dragon, aired on ABC. I was hooked. I knew that I wanted to train in martial arts and study philosophy. That show had a huge influence on my life.

Below is a documentary on the development of the show. Enjoy.