Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Tai Chi Training

There is a defined course in Tai Chi Chuan training that is followed by most traditional schools.
The first step is training for force and skill.
This is the place everyone in any martial art needs to begin. Here we work on health and fitness. In Tai Chi we learn Qigong as a basic training method. Usually a moving qigong is taught first, then a static one called Zhan Zhuang or standing post is taught next. Then we move onto skills such as learning to unify the body to manifest what in Taijiquan we call Chan Si Jing, or silk reeling strength. This is a way of learning to move from the feet, through the legs, to the arms. We take the time to relax and unify the body as one whole unit. After this we begin practicing exercises for flexibility. We begin breathing and stretching rhythmically. Perhaps my favorite example of this ind of training comes as a story from the Tai Chi Master Kuo Lien Ying who spoke of how in the old days his teachers before him would insist you practice stretching until you could put your teeth to your toe. After these skills are trained then the students begins to learn individual movements from a Tai Chi form.
There is a saying that I have heard over and over again throughout my years of learning Tai Chi: Until you have practiced a movement 5000 times, you do not own it.
This is very true. This repetitive practice of the same movements over and over may seem boring but with a good teacher you will learn how to breathe, how to move mind and energy, how to manifest power from this portion of the training.
After you have reached a standard that the teacher is pleased with (note that in Asia it is unthinkable to ever tell your Sifu that you "know something already" if he or she is a good teacher then trust that this is not a stalling tactic but a time to refine movements and sensations.) your teacher will then begin to teach you the form. The form is an extended qigong exercise, a concise encapsulation of highly effective combat techniques, and a moving meditation. However, for it to be these things, you must have followed the training schedule and have already developed force and skill. Without force and skill your form is an empty dance or as the Chinese saying goes "Brocade legs and flowery fists." You would probably get more benefit from going to a swing dance class if you only practice form.
After the form is learned we move onto Tui Shou or Pushing Hands exercises. This work is done with a partner to help teach you distance, timing, and the application of force in a safe, controlled environment. Eventually the push hands becomes a freestyle affair, but you need the proper foundation learned in the basics to make it to that point.
After Push Hands you will move on to learn a weapon form or two to teach you how to project your energy past your physical body. Then you will spend much time learning applications in prearranged sparring patterns until finally we reach the stage of San Shou or free hands wherein you can fight freely and creatively with the techniques, principles, and movements you have learned.
So there you have it. The proper way to learn Tai Chi. Anything else is as TT Liang once said: A blind alley.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Returning from a long time away...

Well I'm back after much research and hard work. I have spent 23 years studying the Internal Martial Arts and I've come to a singular interesting conclusion recently. The problem with the state of the Internal arts and martial arts in general is that everyone has become obsessed with having more and more forms, more and more techniques. I'm guilty of it myself.
So in the spirit of trying new things I went back to the first form of Taijiquan I ever learned. That is the Yang style 37 of Cheng Man-ching. I modified it some to suit my own ideas and discoveries. (the most obvious one is the Roll Back posture I find that I prefer Yang Cheng-Fu's larger movement to Professor Cheng's smaller more understated move, and I find that for me in application, the larger movement works better.
Another aspect of my research and work has been that Taijiquan players do not spend enough time with basic movements or Ji Ben Gong. These days we do some standing and vaguely hope to develop some internal force. We need to be clear that internal force means energy or qi manifested as strength, stamina, and vitality. And to practice internal arts we must work with this invisible energy. Fajin is not "body mechanics", it is not physics as we understand it. It is an explosion of energy guided by the mind and breath. If you disagree with me, then find a qigong master who can show you precisely what I mean.
Too often in the martial arts world, especially on the internet, you hear people say that something is impossible. Some masters claim t0 disperse clouds and cure incurable diseases. Most martial artists say "That's impossible." Without ever directly experiencing these things for themselves. Many Qigong masters are charlatans. But does this mean that all qigong healing and extraordinary abilities are fake? Many medical doctors are incompetent. Does this mean that all doctors are fakes? Heavens no.
So before we say something is impossible let's give the method a try and see if we don't get the benefits.
Back to the topic at hand. I'm focusing on one Taijiquan form, and one weapon the Straight Sword. Add in Fajin practice, qigong, and extensive stretching and my basic Baguazhang exercises and you have a full training schedule.
So basically I have time to practice two forms. I have learned literally dozens over the years. So find a small section of the huge corpus of material and really focus. This is the key to becoming truly outstanding in Chinese martial arts.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

After a bit of a Hiatus

After a bit of a hiatus on the blog and a bit of soul searching I took stop of all the forms I have learned over the years and I realized that I really only practice a few of them regularly. With this in mind I'm working on a syllabus for my classes to let students know where they are in my estimation and to see where they are heading to. I'll be back with more on this later but I would like to wish you all a wonderful day and to let you know there will be many more Tai Chi Thoughts!

Friday, March 19, 2010

The Learning Process, Perseverance

Confucius once said that if one man could learn something by one try then you knew it could be done. It might take more time and effort on your part, say ten tries, but you could do it if you persevered in the activity.

Throughout school and in our jobs we hear things like learning curve and progress reports and other such silly, fictitious things. These things are rules in the game of school and work. They should not apply to daily life at all. And yet... we tend to feel bad when we don't get something as quickly as someone else does. We feel stupid, slow, behind. All of this is because we are basing our idea of progress on either the accomplishments of our peers or on some imaginary charting system.

In my martial arts practice and teaching, there are no belts of certificates. This is probably not the soundest marketing strategy because people love marks of accomplishment, but I prefer the more traditional approach where ranking is based on amount of time practiced and your level of demonstrable skill. To give you some perspective, I've known a large number of Black Belts in various martial arts who cannot even defend themselves against simple attacks.

This being said when you start Tai Chi in one of my classes you don't follow me in class doing the form. You learn one movement per week. Maybe two if they are repeated movements or closely linked and that is it. Then it is up to you to practice. If you practice and I am satisfied with the technical aspects of the move, then the next week, you learn the next move. If I'm not happy with it we stay on that one move until you have reached an acceptable standard of skill. It's not a value judgment. It's not a critique of your character or who you are as a person it is simply my concern for doing what you are paying me to do which is to teach you a martial art for health and self-defense.

In the scheme of things let's say Sally in your class learns the movements about one per week, she is fairly skilled at memorizing choreography, where you spend six months learning two moves. Does it really matter? No, not at all. You have to put in more effort but in the end you and Sally have learned the same moves.

In fact, I'd have to say that Sally is less likely to ever become truly adept at Tai Chi. It was easy for her, like walking or breathing. She thinks nothing of it... and fails to practice regularly. You on the other hand have to work extremely hard to make progress. It's an investment of time and energy. You have struggled to get where you are, so the form is meaningful to you. So you practice everyday and surpass Sally's skill by progressing an inch at a time.

So when you join a Tai Chi class be willing to work for what you want, make your goals realistic in line with your current ability and most of all practice a little bit each day.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Wu Wei

There is a concept found in Chinese philosophy called Wu Wei or doing-not doing or effortless action. If you have ever played push hands with me you will have a small taste of what wu wei is. Effortless action is where you do only what is required to perform the action and then stop. This is a powerful counterpoint to the idea of "Going the extra mile."

My students often comment in pushing hands practice that the harder they try, the more they get thrown backward or up into the air. This is correct. This idea this counterpoint to going above and beyond and putting in the effort to do something may seem like an invitation to laziness. Putting extra effort into doing a thing is pointless. The only work that is required is that required to perform the action. This however is not the only thing going on in the action.

When you see a Kung Fu master throw someone effortlessly, or you see a chef prepare a wonderful meal, or a writer produce an outstanding piece of work you are not seeing their efforts. The throw, the cooking, the piece of writing are in essence effortless. Does this mean that no work was involved? Not at all!

The Kung Fu master has put his or her effort into the practice and honing of the craft. The effort is expended not in the action we see but in the roots of the action. In the thousands of hours of learning movements, practicing stances, analyzing the movements of more experienced practitioners. The same goes for the chef and the writer. Thousands of hours of work and practice go into the meal or the writing.

What is the difference between this effort and the effort invested in performing the action? Simple... the effort of practice is a sustained, daily. It is spread over time and this means its results are more profound and far reaching. The amateur, the one who only puts forth effort when he or she is performing the action, can never hope to match that kind of effort.

I suppose the essence of Wu Wei lies in this: Small sustained efforts create actions of great power. Large, sporadic efforts create actions of little meaning and great strain.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Doing what we can

Oftentimes I am in class and people marvel at some of the things my body can do. To me it's nothing special but to them it seems almost like magic. Then I look at someone who has been practicing longer than I have and say precisely the same thing but to these men and women it's nothing special.

I have contemplated this for a long time and a term pops into my head just now as I commit thoughts to writing. The term is gradual gains. If we want to master Tai Chi, or music, or cooking we don't leap up one morning and become masters of any art. We have to begin with something small. A single movement, a simple set of notes, an omelet. Then we can begin to grow our knowledge. cultivate it carefully by practice and attention. Practice is repetitive. Nothing thankfully is like in the movie The Matrix where we can simply download skills to our minds. We have to work for it. We have to use our creativity and our effort to accomplish the skillfulness we desire.

Desire for skillfulness is important. Without it we do not master anything. How many wonderful talented people are just sitting around unemployed or unappreciated simply because they lack the desire for skill? We all want instant returns. The lottery win, the inheritance, the windfall, the magic pill that makes us well without effort. Sadly none of those things exist. We all have to work at it to make things happen. So... we come to the newly coined phrase gradual returns.

Anytime you practice you make a very gradual gain. You are given something new each day you put in the time to practice. The trick is to appreciate it. Appreciate the small gains and remember what one of my teachers always drilled into my skull: "The years will see what the days may never know."

So do what you can and practice everyday. It's that simple.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Breathing and Health

I have mentioned before how important power training or force training is. Well in this entry we are going to talk about some specific techniques of power training. The first step is to learn abdominal breathing. Without this step you are hopelessly lost. Basically abdominal breathing is the act of expanding the abdomen when you inhale and contracting it upon the exhale. This expansion and contraction will feel somewhat forced at first. The best way to start to get the hang of this is to place your hand on your upper abdomen. (Many people recommend the lower abdomen but this is stomach pushing, not abdominal breathing) Once your hand is on the upper belly you practice expanding it outward and trying to feel your diaphragm, a large plate like muscle under your rib cage.

Once you get the knack of expanding and contracting your upper belly, relax and start trying to breathe in when the diaphragm expands and out when the diaphragm contracts. This is quite difficult to do for most people and really is most easily learned in a class situation. However, any effort is very, very useful. You will begin to get more air into the lungs on inhale and then you will push out waste gases on exhale. This is so valuable that you cannot underestimate its worth.

Most people are chest breathers, they take shallow sips of air while leaving poisonous carbon dioxide and other wastes in the lungs. This is a terrible state of affairs. Only with real, deep abdominal breathing can we even begin to talk about being healthy, let alone having internal force.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Goals and aims in training

In order to get the best from Tai Chi training, or from anything else in life, you have to have a clear idea of what it is you are trying to accomplish with your training. In the beginning of your training you may have a simple overarching goal like "I want to learn a Tai Chi form" or "I'd like to improve my health," or perhaps "I'd like to lose some weight." These are good general goals to have but they are the kinds of vague goals we set all the time. The biggest problem with them is that they lack specificity. They are general ideas not concrete destinations.

A goal has to be achievable in order to be useful. Learning a Tai Chi form has an end but learning the form is not an easy thing as anyone who has been to a Tai Chi class for more than five minutes will tell you. So in the beginning I try to give my students a very simple goal. They will learn one new movement per week. This enables them to have a concrete gain at the end of each class session. A good teacher strives to help you with your goals but the process is helped immeasurably by your consciously setting and discussing goals with your teacher. Then the two of you can work in tandem to accomplish whatever it is you want to accomplish.

So the next time you consider starting anything, or setting a goal for yourself please take the general idea and get into specifics. Be specific about what you want and you will find yourself getting it far more often.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

The I Ching, Change, Awareness

The I Ching (Yijing) is a very old and very interesting book. In an earlier entry I talked about Yin and Yang. And that is precisely what the I Ching is about. Yin and Yang are two variables. The I Ching is a book of relationships between those variables. The name I Ching means Book of Changes. According to legend a prehistoric emperor name Fu Xi created Eight Diagrams or trigrams, three lined figures that depicted Yin as a broken line and Yang as an unbroken line. (Yes these are the Eight Diagrams referred to in Baguazhang the martial art. In Chinese the words for Eight Diagrams is Ba Gua.

Change is an important theme in all the internal martial arts. We accept and realize that we cannot be strong all the time. We have periods of strength an periods of weakness, we have times of good fortune and times of ill fortune. Cleaving to one side or the other is not an option. Not because we aren't good enough or strong enough but because the universe isn't built around standing still. Everything is in motion. Tides ebb and tides flow. No bad situation is hopeless and no good situation will last forever. The real art lies in recognizing this fact and using it to our advantage. When things are good, enjoy them... but put aside something for when times are bad.

As I tell my students when they train the applications "Never stand there and congratulate yourself with an 'Ooh I got them!' Because your attacker will take advantage of it. Always move forward, keep attacking until the threat is neutralized." This applies not only to martial arts but to life itself. Am I saying I have it down? Not at all. I get depressed, I get sad... I spend too much money sometimes. But the key is that the more I practice changing myself with the changes that occur, the less those things happen. And that's the key here really.

Awareness makes us better able to cope with change. Remember you cannot control the situation most of the time but you can control your reaction to it.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Force Training, Brocade Legs and Flowery Fists

Force training is the basic prerequisite of any martial art. Without sufficient strength and power your hits and kicks and grapples are what the Chinese colorfully refer to as "Brocade legs and flowery fists." As an example of this I got the pleasure of refereeing some MMA friends of mine as they challenged each other to a friendly match. One is technically very skilled, having made a deep study of Brazilian Jujitsu and Muay Thai. He looks good. He also smokes and practices three times per week and then just works on his moves and some grappling. The second one has relatively little training but runs daily and does some strength training through a combination of free weights and body weight exercises.

During the match, our second erstwhile hero takes a few hits in the first round but bloodies up number one's nose. The second round is when it ends. Number Two charges, grounds and pounds Number One. This is an elegant demonstration of how important conditioning is.

In Tai Chi we use Chi Kung for conditioning. We use it to develop strength, stamina, and incredible force in our strikes. I prefer this route because my strength derives from my mind which is limitless... not from my muscles which have limits.

I'm not saying that these arts are better or worse than one another, what I am saying is that no matter what you practice an internal art like Tai Chi or an external art like BJJ or Karate you need to develop force first and foremost.

If you are a karateka, you need to run, swim, lift weights, do push ups, and hit Makiwara to develop the right kind of force. If you do MMA, then run, skip rope, shadowbox, grapple, and do extensive bag work.

Generally when someone comes to my class and they have some martial arts experience I will invite them to hit my hand. If they can hurt my hand then they have some force behind them and we can proceed from there. If they can't then we have to start from ground zero training them to have the power to make a technique work.

Force training is hard. It takes time and effort but it pays off in the end. Your techniques and movements will have meaning and not be empty.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Exercising the inside and Chi

The famous Tai Chi Master TT Liang once said that the part of Tai Chi you see, the forms, the steps, the movements is only 10 % of the art. The other 90% is internal happening inside the mind and body of the student.

When we practice out Tai Chi it is very important that our teachers have given us the most basic skill of moving energy. Now some folks out there will say Tai Chi and internal force is about body mechanics, not energy. Well I make no bones about it: Those people are dead wrong. Energy is as real as my hands, as real as this computer I'm typing on and its effect is powerful. However don't take my word for it, learn some Chi Kung. Try out the exercises and see what happens.

In the West we tend to focus on BMI, heart rate, dietary advice from hard scientific study. I know I spent much of my life studying and following those things. What were the results? I ballooned to over 300 lbs despite exercising and doing what the nutritionists say is reasonable. I practiced Tai Chi as an external art. I had learned to imitate the actual art but I never learned the essence of it.

I had the good fortune to learn about energy or chi and how to work with it and how to regulate my life in such a way that I am losing weight gradually and safely. I'm healthier, stronger, and more fit than I have ever been in my life. My students are also feeling the benefits. Because now we exercise the inside and the outside.

I can do no better than to post here my favorite quote concerning chi by the great American martial arts writer Mr. Robert W. Smith: "On the subject of chi, however, I have no open mind. I am as biased as a scream from the dentist's chair. I believe it exists. The only reason one has for doubting it is that he has never experienced it."

There you have it, the challenge is here. Try genuine Chi Kung and find out for yourself.

Monday, February 22, 2010

A moment of bliss

I had a late night last night. And when I got home I was quite tired from the evening's events. I wanted nothing more than to crawl into bed and sleep for a long time. However... something inside me, I suppose the deeply ingrained habit of training daily went off. I had done nothing that day except research, work, and then go out with friends. I had to remedy this situation. I didn't think I could do an entire Tai Chi set, nor did I think I could do stance training for a meaningful period of time so I chose one of my favorite Chi Kung Patterns, Lifting the Sky and performed it followed by some spontaneous Chi Movement and then some standing meditation. At the end I felt great. My mind was calm, not frazzled and my body felt that usual deep bliss I experience from longer practice. All that benefit in about seven or eight minutes.

I include this experience to encourage all of my readers to take a little time and practice whatever they can. It is definitely worth it.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

What are Yin and Yang?

Yin and Yang... if you study Tai Chi or any other Chinese martial art you are going to encounter the concepts of Yin and Yang. A lot has been said or written about these concepts some of it good, some of it complete hokum. At the most basic level Yin and Yang are simply variables for expressing complementary and opposite relationships. Most people are familiar with what in the West is called the Yin-Yang symbol but is more properly known as the Tai Chi Tu or Supreme Ultimate symbol. Yes this Tai Chi is the same one as the martial art name. Meaning that Tai Chi Chuan is based upon the concepts of Yin and Yang.

Yin is a variable representing one half of a relationship. Yang is the other half. Some people say that the black half of the diagram or yin represents the bad or negative aspects and the white half or Yang side represents the good or positive aspects. Well that is one point of view and a viable one depending upon what you are talking about. However to assume you know what Yin and Yang are by saying Yang is good and Yin is bad makes about as much sense as walking into an Algebra class and saying X is good and Y is bad.

Traditionally Heaven is Yang and Earth is Yin. The sky, sun, moon, and stars are both considered Yang when compared with the Earth which is Yin. This time we are measuring light. The more light an object gives off, the more Yang it is. The less light it gives off the more Yin it is.

Now if we decide to say that movement is what we are measuring then stable things become Yang and mutable things become Yin. In this case Earth would be Yang and Heaven would be Yin.

Yin and Yang balance and complete one another. In other words once you recognize one, then you automatically recognize its opposite. All well and good, but what does this have to do with Tai Chi.

Quite a lot actually. In Tai Chi we start with Chi Kung exercises that help us to become strong and fit for applying Tai Chi. Chi Kung deals with breathing, energy, and the internal organs and systems of the body. It could be considered Yin. Without the Yin training the Yang cannot be effective. The structure of the Tai Chi diagram indicates movement. Meaning that when Yin reaches its extreme then Yang is born and vice versa. Our task in Tai Chi is to become cognizant of this constant ebb and flow and to take advantage of its movement.

In daily life when someone becomes angry at you, you have two options. One is to stand up and defend yourself in righteous indignation. This is considered double heaviness in Tai Chi terms. We have opposed the angry person's force with our own force. The second option is to listen to what the person has to say and be receptive to the argument. Accept that they have a grievance without judging it and then respond logically without resorting to meeting the attack head on. In other words you have applied Yin to overcome the angry person's Yang.

In martial arts terms this means that if you attack me I will accept the attack flow around it with the utmost softness, using only the minimum force to circle around you and find the places where you are Yin. If you are not mindful I will apply an attack to those unguarded places.

So you see, Yin and Yang mean a good deal more than just good or bad, desirable or undesirable. They are philosophical concepts that underpin a profound and useful understanding of the world. This understanding makes a major component of modern life possible. Computers actually work with Yin and Yang all the time. Binary computer code uses 0's and 1's or on and off to make all the marvelous things from the internet to I phones possible.

Knowing this, then perhaps an understanding of Yin and Yang is more useful than we can imagine.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Strength in softness...

In addition to Tai Chi, I also teach the martial arts of Ba Gua Zhang (Eight Diagram Palm) and Xing Yi Quan (Mind Shape Fist.) Sometimes people look at me and say "That's a lot, how could you have learned all that?"

The answer lies in the fact that I studied Sun Style Tai Chi. Sun Style was created in the early 20th century by Grandmaster Sun Lu Tang. His style of Tai Chi is a result of blending Hao style Tai Chi with Xing Yi and Ba Gua, he was a master of both styles and quite adept at them. Master Sun was a genius and as geniuses often do, he found something startling. He found that these three arts, what the Chinese often call the Nei Jia or Internal Schools, all share the same principles.

This is a very interesting idea because Ba Gua and Xing Yi often look nothing like each other and not at all like Tai Chi but the principles of rooting, relaxation (song in Chinese), and the use of yi or mind to lead the chi run throughout them. Armed with this knowledge Grandmaster Sun took his knowledge and created his own Tai Chi form using the best techniques of the three styles that he knew.

This is the key difference in the way a really good teacher teaches martial arts and the way a mediocre teacher imparts his knowledge is this. The good teacher focuses on the principles that allow you to understand why the forms are as they are. The mediocre teacher focuses on the forms and their shape, never the why and how the forms work as they are supposed to work.

Many of my students are advanced martial artists with many years of training under their belts. However, when they get to my class and I invite them to show me how their techniques work I am always able to get free or to simulate hitting them very quickly. The answer lies in softness and relaxation. In internal kung fu we never want to match force against force. We want to skillfully blend with an attack and then use our own force sensibly and directly to end the altercation as quickly as possible.

Herein lies the heart of the matter. In Kung Fu, as in life, if we meet an obstacle and seek to batter ourselves against it and resist then we may succeed in getting through it or we may not. If we do wonderful, if we do not we become frustrated and depressed. The key here is softness... to relax and flow around the obstruction and then with seemingly little effort uproot it wherever it is weakest.

Always remember that when you interact with a person, a place, or a thing you cannot control that thing. However you can control your response to it and that means that even a small change on your part changes the relationship. We will discuss this more next time when I talk about the move "Too Lazy to Tie Coat."

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Missing Practice

There comes a time in everyone's life that you will be forced to miss practicing your Tai Chi, or Kung Fu, or Musical Scales, or what have you. This will happen no matter how dedicated you are to the practice. And now I'm going to share my little piece of wisdom on the subject. It's ok. Forgive yourself and carry on practicing at the next opportunity.

However, the other side to this is that you cannot lean on this crutch too often. Practice is necessary for any progress to come. As my friend and colleague Dennis Stanfill, who was once a professional musician, said to me of music: "Playing is the reward you get for practicing." If you want to be good at anything, or in the case of Tai Chi get the tremendous benefits available, then you must practice everyday. Make your practice an anchor.

In 2001 my mom passed away after a fairly short battle with a particularly aggressive type of cancer. It had been a very hard six months indeed. Curiously enough after all the emotional turmoil, after all the heartache and general weirdness that comes with a realization... I came home and practiced my Tai Chi. I thought it was strange at first that my first impulse was to practice kung fu after an event like that but as I relate this it dawns on me. Things like Tai Chi or playing the scales, or tending your garden things you have made a daily habit of provide a normalizing factor. These are repeated actions that calm us during times of stress. The key to remember is that practice isn't punishment. Practice is the heart of the matter.

Tai Chi is an art to be practiced, not simply learned and stored away like an academic subject. That said, have a wonderful time practicing. It will improve your life immeasurably.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Tai Chi with Dennis Beck DVD Review

My friend and colleague Dennis Beck asked me a while back to take a look at his DVD of basic Tai Chi exercises. After the obligatory warnings that I would mercilessly savage the thing if it ended up looking like so many other Tai Chi and martial arts DVD's out there (They look like they were filmed in some ramshackle garage or an empty storefront) he still wanted me to review it so here it is.

Technically the DVD is beautifully produced, the camera work is great and the sound is superb.

There are two sections, one on the Eight Pieces of Brocade. This version is a simplified routine that lacks the deep horse stance work you see in other performances and as such is perfect for anyone of any fitness level. The real gem here however is that Mr. Beck actually includes a very important and often left out point on the postures in Eight Pieces of Brocade. He talks about the mind and energy aspect and acknowledges that without this information you are simply waving your arms.

The second section consists of useful acupuncture points that you can use to relieve some common ailments like jet lag, headaches, etc. The only flaw with this section lies not in the information but with the almost comical inattention of the video editor where the menu option reads "Self Touch with Dennis Beck." That little quibble aside there is a lot of good information here for both the beginner and the intermediate student.

The energy work for the Eight Pieces is worth ten times the cost of the DVD and we must be thankful to Mr. Beck for sharing it so freely.

I suppose my only other problem with this DVD is that it's too short. Mr. Beck promises he will remedy that with some more DVD's in this series highlighting various Yang Old Style forms and applications. You can buy the DVD and learn more about Dennis Beck and his classes by visiting his website at www.taijichuan.com.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Stress, Change, Tai Chi, and Meditation

Our lives are incredibly fast paced today. Everything changes at a far more rapid rate than anyone previously imagined. I recently joined Twitter, the enormously popular web site that lets you fire off a mini blurb informing my friends of my every single move if I so choose. Friends of mine are using this site as a wonderful tool to find jobs and make connections for work. This is great, it's well and good and it's also another rapidly changing environment to keep up with.

This is where Tai Chi and Chi Kung find a special place in a modern person's life. Last time we talked about the components of Tai Chi training and how you are taught to relax in progressively faster changing activities from moving forms of meditation, to gently trying to keep your balance while unbalancing a partner, to full speed fighting. All of these activities are increasingly stressful and the focus in Tai Chi is to relax through the stress, to maintain an organic efficiency that allows you to respond quickly and effectively with a minimum of effort. One might say that in Tai Chi the effort is not expended so much in the actions themselves but in the process of relaxing during those actions.

As a martial art Tai Chi is incredibly effective and produces a superior form of self-defense if practiced diligently. But unless you happen to be getting into bar fights or taking on challengers in a no holds barred competition the self-defense aspect is not all that important. But the training to become an efficient fighter is invaluable. Imagine you get called into your boss's office and he or she begins to take you to task over some situation or another and you have no idea what he or she is talking about. Without training you become nervous, stammer and stutter, and then offer some apology often being left bewildered. Unless you happen to be one of those disgustingly calm and together people who can face any situation with equanimity, in that case disregard this whole thing and go about your life. For the rest of us we get a little flustered to say the least.

Once you have trained in Tai Chi you can have several subtle techniques to calm you down and help you to deal with the situation in a more effective way than the standard: "Uhm... Sorry. I'm very sorry."

You take a deep breath, calm yourself, and focus on the situation at hand. This sounds like wonderful advice and it's very simple. Unfortunately, as I tell my students, simple and easy are not the same thing. Studying Tai Chi is an exercise in meditation and awareness.

Meditation is nothing mystical, it's simply the act of paying attention to something.
Awareness is learning how to pay attention to what is going on at this very moment.

In Tai Chi we work with these faculties everyday. Like muscles, the more they are exercised the stronger they become and well the stronger they are the more genuine peace and calm we can enjoy in this fast paced world of constant rapid fire change.

You can follow my rapid fire updates under jhtaichi on Twitter.

Monday, February 15, 2010

What does Tai Chi entail?

Tai Chi is a tremendous system for health and self-defense. But what does this system consist of?
Well there is the solo exercise that is most commonly seen. But that is not even a tenth of the Tai Chi syllabus.

Traditionally, and in my classes, students start off learning breathing and basic chi kung so that they may begin working on developing internal force. This step is sadly omitted oftentimes today. If you learn a form without learning how to cultivate and utilize internal force, then you have got what the Chinese call "Brocade legs and flowery fists." Your forms may look good but they lack power and substance.

A lot of people out there may say I don't want to learn to fight I'm interested in health. Well without the basic Chi Kung you will not get good health and all the form training in the world will not help you. I know this very well I practiced Tai Chi for years without any real internal force training and I got two things: I was somewhat flexible and very overweight. Tai Chi form is not sufficient exercise without the basic form training. It has been a while since I thankfully learned the proper Chi Kung exercises and breathing techniques and the pounds are steadily shedding off my frame and all the nifty forms I learned have gone from being empty movements to powerful substantial gestures that have a new grace and beauty.

After you have learned the proper Chi Kung foundation, then you move on to learning individual movements. You practice these over and over again, infusing them with power and stability until they become natural ways of moving for you.

Once the basic movements have been drilled sufficiently, you learn to apply them in isolation, learning how these movements would work in self-defense. After this training has taken hold then you learn the Tai Chi Form.

Tai Chi forms are interesting things. They are like textbooks or poems handed down for generations, sometime for over 1000 years. They are the crystallized combat experience of generations of fighters. Many people today say that forms are simply fancy dances, and without the previous Chi Kung foundation , they are.

Once the Form has been learned the student begins to learn Tui Shou or Sensing Hands. This exercise tests your relaxation and balance. As I have often heard and said myself it is one thing to relax by yourself it is quite another to be relaxed and calm in interaction with another person.
Sensing hands is in many ways the most beneficial exercise in Tai Chi because it takes out meditative relaxation built through Chi Kung and allows us to carry it with us in a more active setting.

After Sensing Hands is understood and regularly practiced, applications of the form movements are revisited and the student learns how to respond to aggression in a self-defense situation.

When the bare hand portion of Tai Chi is well understood, then the student may choose to learn to use the Chinese straight sword, the saber, the staff, and the spear.

As you can see there is a lot to Tai Chi. It's been around a long time and has grown into a fascinating, complex, and complete art. So take your time and absorb it in small bite sized chunks. Work on each small piece your teacher gives you. Polish it and really build up your Kung Fu!

Happy Training!

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Kung Fu, patience, and commitment

Happy Chinese New Year! This is the year of the Metal Tiger!
Also Happy Valentine's Day!

Last time we talked a bit about Tai Chi and what it is and about the Chinese concept of Internal Martial Arts. This time we are going to discuss the popular term associated with Chinese martial arts in general. Kung Fu or Gong Fu in pinyin means work and time. These two words combine to mean skill that is gained or work that is done over time. The words kung fu can apply to any endeavor from music to writing to cooking to martial arts.
If someone has practiced a lot and has attained a high level of skill then he or she can be said to possess large or great kung fu. If someone has not practiced enough and they cannot perform the skill well then they are said to have no kung fu or that their kung fu is very small.

This leads us into the idea of patience. In any skill especially martial arts or sports, you must proceed gradually little by little. If you are in a hurry to do more faster then at best you will have no skill at all and at worst you may cause yourself an injury. Tai Chi is not something you can pick up in a weekend. It is not even something you can master in three years. Tai Chi or any style of kung fu takes commitment. Robert W. Smith, the famous martial arts writer, had this to say about commitment versus involvement. "Being involved or committed is like bacon and eggs. The chicken is involved but the pig is committed."

What does commitment mean here? Well in the case of Tai Chi it's simple can you take 10-20 minutes to practice every single day? That is all that the art requires and it gives incredible benefits like strength, agility, improved immune system, flexibility, and a peerless framework for self-defense. Realistically, committing to practicing Tai Chi is committing to being healthy by the most efficient means available. Take the time to learn Tai Chi correctly and you have something that you can do everyday for the rest of your life.

The great Tai Chi Master Cheng Man-ching said that people would learn from him and then they would fail to practice what they had learned or they would practice a few times a week not daily as the old masters recommended. These people he said were like paupers who walked up to a mountain of treasures and having looked at all the gold that was there for the taking, failed to stoop down and take a single piece.

Cheng also said that there were 3 requirements for mastering Tai Chi:

1. Talent- This is your natural coordination and it is really almost trivial. It's a gift from birth. You either have it or you don't. However if you are talented or not you can still succeed in mastering the art.
2. Right Teacher with the right method- A good Tai Chi teacher is someone who can impart to you the basics of the art, who has the attributes that you want to achieve. We will talk more later about the qualities of a good Tai Chi teacher.
3. Perseverance-This is the most important aspect. This is the quality you have to develop if you want to master Tai Chi. You have to practice a little bit everyday if you want the benefits. If you can't do that then Tai Chi is probably not a good choice for using your time.

This being said, a properly trained Tai Chi student will have glowing health, great strength, a cheerful positive attitude, and an abiding confidence that comes from the ability to defend oneself at will. You can achieve all of this without the muss and fuss of gyms, weights, sandbags, etc. With just a little daily practice.

A little commitment is worth a big payoff.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

What is Tai Chi?

Welcome to my blog. It's dedicated to helping you know a bit more about me and a little bit more about Tai Chi and other internal martial arts.
Tai Chi means "Supreme Ultimate" or "Grand Terminus" depending on which English words you like to use to translate the Chinese characters. Its full and proper title is Tai Chi Chuan or using the pinyin Romanization: Taijiquan. The name is pronounced "Tie- Jee- Chuen" regardless of how it's rendered in English.
Tai Chi Chuan is a Chinese martial art which means it is one of the different schools of quanshu or fist arts. Most people in the west use the words Kung Fu to denote Chinese martial arts and maybe in a later blog we will get into what Kung Fu means but for now we will restrict ourselves to Tai Chi and the internal martial arts.
Now then this segues nicely into the question: "What does that mean? An Internal Martial Art?"
Well specifically we can look at martial arts as being divided into roughly two categories:
External and Internal.
An External Martial Artist runs for stamina, does push ups or weightlifting for strength, and hits bags to build forceful strikes.
An internal martial artist relies on building up chi (qi in pinyin pronounced "chee") to create glowing health and tremendous physical power. Chi is cultivated through breathing and specific exercises that create effects on a par with the External methods at the basic levels. When an internal martial artist progresses further he or she will find that their strength grows with age. That they become more formidable the older they get.
The External martial artist will start to see a decline in their performance and their tough training will have to slacken as their bodies age. Where an internal martial artist of advanced years will have glowing health and be far more powerful than his or her external appearance will show.
Inevitably, people have opinions about chi and internal training. They will pontificate for hours how it is not this or it is not that. That is rather sad. The best thing to do is find a real teacher who can show you how to use and harness chi and then practice for a while and see what results you find.

Until next time remember to breathe from your belly.