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

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.