Relaxed Chain Punching

In our SKD Zoom training of 11 Jul 2020 I touched on how to be able to hit faster, even throwing chain punches, by using just the right amount of movement.

When we apply the principle of 2 4 points from Grandmaster Wei Shuren’s Tai Chi we can actually whip off punches one after another very quickly while remaining relaxed and be able to turn the body to optimize momentum.

Moving Exactly

In SKD we don’t just become fajing crazy to the exclusion of everything else.

To us techniques are just as important. To make the techniques work we need to work on moving precisely so that we can be where we want to be when we want to be.

In this lesson from our Zoom session of 11 Jul 2020 I offer a correction to eliminate unnecessary body movement.

The topic of not wasting movement, not moving unnecessarily is one of the most difficult part of learning Grandmaster Wei Shuren’s Tai Chi.

In SKD by learning to be precise with the assistance of a simple learning tool such as a tripod we can reap the benefit of what GM Wei’s style has to offer without having to go through the frustration that comes with learning his Uber complex 22 form.

Basic Stance Formation

Here’s another Tai Chi essential that is part of our SKD training that I covered in our Zoom online training on 11 Jul 2020.

I’ve talked about traceability in the past. In this instance when we do the salute we are not just doing a greeting.

In the salute there are a few things to learn including how to form a basic high horse stance with attendant structural arch.
This arch forms the two leg bows which provide the foundation for the type of power found in Grandmaster Wei Shuren’s Tai Chi. In SKD I teach this concept as foundation habit.

With a proper leg structure we can move with proper upper body and lower body coordination, with good structural efficiency and economy of motion while keeping the body primed to generate power when required.

Resolving Double Weightedness

One of the topics from our SKD online lesson on 11 Jul 2020 is on the importance of not being double weighted.

In this clip you can see the principles of Tai Chi at play in SKD to solve the problem of double weightedness.

In this instance, I am explaining the application of the “2 4 points” in the use of footwork to illustrate why it is important to avoid double weightedness as it affects our ability to move.

One Peak, Many Paths

This week I got a pair of Bahi hardwood sticks that was brought in from Cebu for my iKali practice. They truly are a lovely pair of heavy and solidly hard sticks.

I got a lovely bonus from the seller in the form of an interesting introduction to the version of Filipino martial arts (FMA) that he practices. Let me start by saying that I can see from his movements that he is a very skilled practitioner.

If I did not know that he is an FMA player the stuff that he told me could well pass off as things we talk about in the Neijia arts. But as it is it is a pleasant surprise to hear of this aspect of FMA.

I find it interesting that their art is heavily concept based in that they don’t teach drills. Instead, they teach you to respond by giving you pressure to teach you to react properly.

When I listen to someone talk I try not to bring my own bias and knowledge into it. Instead, I try to keep an open mind. Let him tell it as it is. Then later after I have a chance to think it over properly then I can have a better opinion.

Though his art takes a radical approach to the training of FMA, on reflection it is similar to iKali in the teachings. I have outlined my impressions and conclusions below :-

1) Concept based – his art begins with a concept and keeps to this path instead of moving on into drills. In iKali we begin with a concept and use drills to learn how to use the concept

2) His art has no drills. In iKali we do have drills, lots of it. Their art looks upon drills as not realistic and in this I agree, that is, if drills are taught wrongly then they are next to useless. However, in iKali drills actually teach us usage. In fact, though I am only a month into it and I am still doing the most basic drills I am constantly amazed by what I discover.

Beginners keep working on the basic footwork and Open Series drills. Today I was out and for some reason my hands went to work on the salute. I mean the salute is the first thing we learn. We are told what it means and even about the hidden application inside. So what else is new?

Well, as it is I kept moving through the salute without a stick in hand but a machete in mind. I went through the movements and kept the application in mind. The more I did it the more the Open Series drills I have been practicing now came to make sense. I had also looked through a video from the Flow section particularly the Umbrella Series and now I get it, at least I think I did, the salute is an Umbrella movement followed by an Entry 4 cut.

And once the butt of the stick or should I say the butt of the machete handle comes to the heart I can have possibilities of continuing on with the attack, perhaps a jab then Entry 6 cut (or even disarm using Sagang Labo), or a hip load into a cut to the knee (and change into Entry 6), or even a tap (feint) and change to a horizontal cut. I have seen Tuhon Apolo explain these things in different videos but seeing is seeing, and experiencing for myself is a different thing.

3) He mentioned that when striking the other non-striking hand is important. I won’t mention that this is a common knowledge in Chinese martial arts. Certainly, I had learned this in the early teachings in iKali when I learned about the shoulder loading position. Tuhon Apolo also pointed this out in the teaching about the use of the blade specifically the importance of learning to check.

4) He pointed out that a concept can be expressed many ways by illustrating different ways to attack Number 12. Interestingly, I had seen an earlier video of Tuhon Apolo explaining the concept of Meet and Merge in the Flow section.

Here Tuhon Apolo demonstrated a few ways that Meet and Merge can be applied conceptually instead of as a fixed technique. When I think of it a number of the techniques in the Wing Chun Bart Jam Dao that I know are essentially ways to apply Meet and Merge.

5) Feeder – this was the term he used to describe how they used pressure to teach students. Tuhon Apolo has also said that iKali is a feeder art. But then so is any Chinese martial art that trains sensitivity drills.

Sometimes the teaching can also begin from the other end of the spectrum. When I learned Tai Chi push hands my teacher didn’t try to feed me energy first. Instead, he had me attack him any way I like so that I can learn how he responded. It was only after some time had passed that I reached the stage of him attacking me, feeding me the energy to train my reaction.

By this time and in this manner I had learned to control my reaction and so is in a better position to learn how to use techniques to respond instead of panicking and twisting and turning to get away from the feeding attacking.

A different art can sound different, look different at first glance. However, when you get into it you may realize that different styles are essentially many paths to lead to the same peak even as the flavors taste different. So diversity is the spice of life.

Time Paradox

Reading widely is important because it helps us to reconcile traditional teachings to new discoveries in science that can help us to explain what we do to today’s practitioners who lack the imagination to learn abstract concepts.

The Greatest: The Quest for Sporting Perfection by Matthew Sayed has some information that helps us to explain what we do in Tai Chi.

One of them can be found in under the chapter The Paradox of Time. Sayed wrote :-

Psychologists talk about the time paradox. This is the well-versed observation that the greatest of performers seem to play at a different tempo to everyone else….. In the latest rounds of his bout with Marvelous Marvin Hagler, Sugar Ray Leonard was fighting at what seemed like half-speed.

This paradox has been well studied by cognitive psychologists and there is nothing mystical about it. It emerges from a highly sophisticated form of perceptual awareness. Great sports-people are able to ‘read’ the subtle cues of their opponents, extracting information about their intentions through early-warning signals (postural orientation, tiny alterations in body language, etc). When you know what an opponent is going to do before he actually does it, you have all the time in the world.

Pretty amazing skill wouldn’t you say. Many masters display such skill. In Tai Chi there are two ways to learn this :-

a) The easiest way to do so is by pushing hands. In this context I am not referring to the competitive type of shoving, wrestling type of push hands that is popular today.

Instead, I am referring to the use of pushing to develop a sensitive feel as to what the opponent is doing. At a certain stage the opponent may feel as if you are reading their mind.

However, I would postulate that it is more of the case of your hand acting as a 6-axis accelerometer (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Accelerometer) that is sensitive to how fast your opponent is moving, where he is moving towards, how much strength he is using, when he is speeding up, changing direction, and so on.

b) The more difficult way is to study is by training the solo form. Form training requires us to achieve a certain level of sung. The more sung we are the more we can feel even a very light amount of pressure acting on us.

At another stage when you have developed the use of intention to map out mental grids in front of you as you are performing the techniques it becomes possible to use them to predict the movements of the opponent.

This is something we study in our Push Hands Game. As Sayed mentioned this is not mystical, rather it is how you apply principles to your training. On the same page Sayed also wrote the following which is highly similar to what we do in Tai Chi :-

Messi has started basking in this capacity during this World Cup. He takes the ball, and literally stops. He stands there, like a mongoose facing a snake, daring his opponent to take a bite. These are fascinating moments in the game because they demonstrate that almost all the important action is going on not in the feet, but in the brain. The ball is stationary, the players are stationary; Messi’s eyes are trained on his opponent, scanning and rescanning, picking up on clues that nobody in the world football is able to see. Then his opponent lunges at the empty space where the ball used to be. It is beautiful and revelatory.

Learning iKali 2

I left out some parts I wanted to write yesterday. These are more of the technical parts.

One thing that is frustrating about learning Chinese martial arts is that teachers either don’t address the applications or they teach applications that are not that practical once you really try them out against a partner.

A long time ago I learned my first pole form. My training partner was my physical education teacher from school. We wondered whether we can actually use the pole if someone were to rush us with a parang (since this is a common weapon back then). So we tried it out and let’s just say that we can fantasize about our prowess but don’t ever try it for real.

Of course, after so many years I have a much better idea, much better reflexes and much better power on the pole so my chances of getting away with it has increased. But still you won’t find soldiers in ancient China (for those who love to brag about being traditional, battlefield arts, blah, blah) using pole.

If anything, when I thought of soldiers in ancient China I thought they used broadsword and spear. Then one day I read a book on martial arts in ancient China and the writer said that troops actually used axes for a long time before they changed to broadsword and spear.

I can’t verify the writer’s claim but this would make sense. Nowadays we know that it takes years to be good in any art but if you are a general or village head tasked with the training of soldiers this wouldn’t be very practical. You would be overrun and long killed before your soldiers are competent enough to fight.

But using a pair of axes or even a single one makes sense. Much easier to train in terms of technique, power and deadliness. And broadsword and spear techniques can be made up of singular movements which when stringed together can give rise to combinations and multitude of changes.

The collective knowledge and experience can be recorded and stored away by writing or by compiling them into training forms. The forms can be broken down back into individual techniques for training when required. So there is much more to training a weapon than just playing a form. Even with a common weapon such as the pole we have partner reflex drills, power drills, accuracy drills and so on.

One power drill is using the tree to practice our strikes. In Singapore unless you have your own backyard, ideally sound proof, you will have a problem doing this type of practice cause the sound made by a pole striking a tree is loud. Same with striking a tyre. I did it a long time ago when I lived in a house in Malaysia. The sound bounced right off the walls of houses across the road.

Yeah, so there’s a lot of knowledge and practices in Chinese martial arts that’s slowly forgotten unless teachers continue to teach and make students practice them instead of obssesing with being traditional, lineage wars, demonstrations strength and conditioning feats, etc.

For those of us who are interested in the combative parts learning can be like a treasure hunt. You either keep looking for teachers or you do your own research and from trial and error figure out what makes it tick. For example, there is a turn and stab technique in Tai Chi broadsword after what seems like a block with broadsword and palm strike with the other hand.

I have seen teachers demonstrate the broadsword block and palm strike pose and it always seem to be that they are doing exactly that. Until one day I wonder why we would use a palm strike when we have a broadsword in hand. Granted, if you are really close you would do a palm strike or maybe its a pushing action. But then why would we turn 360 degrees right to left and do a stabbing action? Is the follow up movement a new technique or a continuation of the earlier technique.

I suspect many would do these two movements without ever wondering how to use them and in the process end up performing just a beautiful weapon dance. After looking into them I have some ideas of how I can use these two movements. This takes time and effort to do the research. Wouldn’t it be nice if I could just learn them in the first place from my teacher? Or at least have an alternate source to turn to for research.

The late Bob Orlando wrote something about how if a technique is workable chances are other styles from other cultures, or words to that effect, would end up with a similar if not the same solution. Its like the old Ed Parker experiment to prove that a punch is a punch despite arguments of stylistic differences once you ask a blindfolded person to feel the punch and see if they can tell which style’s punch they had just felt.

As I mentioned when I was looking at FMA (Filipino martial arts) I was looking into the use of a knife. However, Tuhon Apolo changed my focus when he said that the stick is a representation of a blade and went on to explain about this. One example is when he explained why we cradled the sticks the way we do rather than hold them in a manner that I have seen some practitioners hold them. Interestingly, that’s how we hold a broadsword too in Tai Chi and this can be seen not just at the beginning of the form but in a few other techniques in the form. Bob Orlando must be grinning in Kuntao heaven……

In my research into the broadsword techniques of an old famous Northern Chinese style the master showed a technique which was a feint with the top part of the blade being used to give a quick tap to the opponent’s weapon from the bottom before suddenly circling to the top and descending into a cut. We have the same two movements in the long pole and these two are but part of a series of three core techniques that we practice all the time.

It took me time to find out about such things. But this information is there in the iKali courses. I could have saved a lot of time if I had this information earlier. One could argue that if I had learned FMA earlier I might have learned about it. Maybe. But I have looked into FMA over the years and didn’t see this information.

I have a course from a master who is the direct descendant of a very important figure in the history of FMA. Whichever style of FMA you belonged too this person is always mentioned at the dawn of the art. Knowing what I know of FMA I saw parts that looked like feints but it was not taught the way it is taught clearly and explicitly and part of a body of knowledge in iKali.

A friend sent me some info to other sources of information. I know there is a lot of information out there. Even in China alone you can spend three lifetimes and never finish researching what they have. On the internet you have just as much information. Sifting through them requires not just reading but time to practice and apply the techniques to see how they hold up.

When you are young you have a lot of time. When you are older you will find that you have very little time. For example, the time I spent writing this is the time I could have spent practicing or even doing work (yes, we do have to work to earn a living and pay off loans). Since time is limited we have to make wise choices to use the time wisely. I could keep on doing what I do or I could change my perspective by looking outside the box.

Growing old, being old also means that you are no longer as fit, no longer as strong. As Tuhon Apolo mentioned this during our Zoom training a blade, a weapon is an equalizer. Forget that Hollywood fantasy of one old guy taking on 10 young able bodied guys by trading blows or even going through a series of impressive choreographed moves. There is an old saying about fearing the fists of a young man and fearing the pole of an old man (or words to that effect) in Chinese martial arts.

What do you think this means? I can give you an example – when I learned from Grandmaster Cheong Fook he was nearing his 90s. There is no way he could trade blows at that age with a younger person and win. If you are willing to stand on the spot and not move away then he can win because his hands then were just as swift and they could find the soft targets naturally.

But if his opponent were moving? Then it would be a case of young fists beating old fists. But give the grandmaster a pole and the moment you launch an attack you will eat his pole. So yes, a weapon is an equalizer. That’s why you don’t send troops into battle with their bare hands. Look at the history of battles. Can you name a battle in which bare handed soldiers fought armed soldiers and won? Let me know if you find one.

Learning iKali also confirmed another thing for me. There is a movement in the long pole in which we hold the pole vertically upwards as if holding a flag. Now why would we hold the pole this way? Wouldn’t it make more sense to hold the pole forward? This makes an interesting question. Does this have a practical application?

My teacher said that this pole is for big fight, meaning fighting against multiple opponents when I asked him what is the difference between this pole form and another form. Ah, of course, against multiple opponents you must be able to deal with them quickly whichever direction they are coming from even if its from behind (assuming you can see, or at least, sense them coming).

In Wing Chun my friend who is very good in the knives taught me an exercise in which I can turn to any direction quickly. The question is does it make practical sense to have to turn to face the incoming opponent especially if its against multiple opponents. Wouldn’t this slow down the reaction time?

So the way we hold the long pole in the vertical position is to allow us to quickly hit behind without having to turn the entire body first. In this way, we can hit someone in front, hit to the rear, hit to the right, left or any of the eight directions very quickly.

In a way this is similar to the broadsword technique above of turning the body 360 degrees from right to left. Just as we turn the broadsword drops down towards our shoulder, slow down and then we launch the attack. So why did we not launch the attack right away? Better still, why not turn left instead of to the right? When you consider some of these factors then the movement made sense.

In iKali we learn how to strike out then bring back the stick. Simple movement. Then we are told how to bring back the stick to the shoulder loading position. What does this mean, how to bring back the stick?

Then Tuhon Apolo delivered the explanation and a light bulb lightsed up. Familiar territory. If I had learned this earlier it could save me a lot of time when researching broadsword and pole applications. So its little things like this that makes me appreciate iKali and how nicely laid out the training is. Sure, the research can have its advantages in adding and expanding how I view certain things.

But time is a cost nowadays in a fast paced society. I started writing this around 8.36 am and now its 11.57 am. In between I had to answer calls, had a quick meeting with a customer, made coffee and now I am going to cook lunch.

OK, that’s it for me. The kitchen calls.

Learning iKali

It is now half past one in the afternoon on Sunday, June 14 as I began to write this.

I had spent 6 hours each day over the last Friday and Saturday from 10 pm to 4 am attending Zoom training in a combative art.

Now after so many years of training if there is one thing I should be skeptical of that would be the effectiveness of virtual training.

I’ve been looking into this way of delivering training in Tai Chi long before COVID-19 hit countries all over the world. Back in 2016 a student already brought this subject up.

My logic is straightforward – if I have a problem trying to teach a student in front of me what are the chances of me being able to teach live over the air to a student, much less a few students.

Well, I am glad that I am proven wrong in this respect. In this post I would like to share my learning experience in this brave new world of martial arts training.

The process of signing up for online training is quite straightforward. More of them would comprise the following steps :-

a) Sign up for the course

b) Work through the videos

c) Attend the Zoom training

Before you sign up, you would want to identify what you want to learn. This is the easy part. For some reasons I decided I wanted to learn about the use of blades. In Tai Chi I practice a straight sword and broadsword. Can their principles be applied to the use of knife fighting since it is easier to carry a knife around than a sword (not that I do so as it is illegal to do so in Singapore)? I think so but I am no expert in this topic. I wonder what it is that I do not know.

A second reason is that I like to investigate the application of weapons. I practice long pole applications with students when I teach them this weapon as I didn’t want them to just commit to memory another “useless” form. Since the pole is blunt you can say that it is safer (as long as we remember not to hit too hard cause a hard wood pole can shatter bones). But bladed weapons are another thing. I have taught how to use the straight sword to some students and I always have to be super careful when it comes to using the straight sword to stab. Is there a better way to learn how to use a bladed weapon?

So I did the next best thing. I looked for information, for learning. One thing I learned – there are a lot of information on the internet. If you are doing casual learning, picking up bits and pieces here and there, and trying to put them together yourself then this is fine. Anyway, its free and who doesn’t like free (that’s the economist in me talking). But if you are serious about learning then structured learning is so much better.

I googled for topics related to knife fighting. Since I knew that FMA (Filipino martial arts) is well known for this. I had known this from as far back as 1984 as that was the year I saw the series The Way of the Warrior on Australian television, particularly the episode that featured the Doce Pares club. I also had the opportunity to attend a seminar by Master Ernesto Presas in 1986.

Nowadays FMA has a much bigger presence in Singapore. There are groups that practice together, instructors teaching it and even Filipino masters have come over from the Philippines to do seminars. The problem with too much information is that it can be confusing when it comes to picking a school to learn from. I tried googling. Again, tons of choices. I had sporadically looked for this information over the years and though there are many possible teachers and sources to learn from I didn’t sign up. Somewhere there was a nagging doubt that stopped me.

Then in June 2019 I tried searching again. This time I found a website. I read the credentials of the master instructor. As with many biographies that I have read it is impressive. What I liked about it is that it did not try to do a hard sell. In fact, a marketer looking at the website would say that there are rooms for improvement. As for me, I am wary of websites that try to sell to me.

So here’s a potential source of learning that I could learn from. I did more research. I found some videos on Youtube. Watching them I am reminded of what one Italian Wing Chun practitioner once said about wanting to learn from a teacher rather than a fighter. He made this comment as he was learning from a Wing Chun teacher who is good at fighting and would think nothing of hitting the students hard. Being knocked about may make it seem that you are learning something but good teachers don’t teach this way. They really teach and this Italian practitioner found out when he visited the Hong Kong HQ of his teacher where he met his teacher’s junior who is an amicable person but a great teacher and had good fighting skills too.

I have had the pleasure of learning from good teachers. A good teacher tends to have the following traits :-

a) They are open minded not only about their own art but to other arts

b) They are willing to share what they know even to the lowest ranking practitioners

c) They know how to teach effectively

To a mature learner (mature as in old) like me I don’t want to spend time jumping through hoops or trying to climb ranks to learn. I want to learn and I want to learn now. Now, a student does not always know what he wants. This is where an experienced teacher comes in to tell you what you want and how you can get it.

I tried out the free course. Its short, not so much of a course, but more like an introduction to the learning possibilities. So I signed up for this short 3 months course on the use of the knife. I expected the course to be like a pop song but it turned out to be a full symphonic rock song with strings and all. The lessons were dripped, meaning you get enough to work on for a period of time before you get the next lot. I may wish to see everything at once but this is actually the better approach because it made me work on what I had rather than try to learn everything and end up learning nothing.

The blade course was like the appetizer in a full course dinner. It made me wanting more. And there was more, an extension to the course except this time it was on the sticks. So another 3 months of training.

As I approached the end of the 2nd training I wondered if there was more as the website back then did not offer anything after this. So I asked and I received information that there was more. In fact, a lot more, a 12-months virtual course for instructors. The list of topics is extensive. But I didn’t sign up right away. First, there was the cost. Second, there was the matter of commitment. This is not a course where you just go through the videos and that’s it. No, no, you are expected to fulfill certain requirements, all of them to make you a better practitioner and teacher. Finally, after a few months of thinking I took the plunge. By then, COVID-19 had hit and I couldn’t teach Tai Chi so why not take the time to learn something.

Even with the two shorter 3-month course I found that I could learn a lot and actually pick up something, not just superficially but attain a good level of competency (at least I like to think so). So in June 2020 I signed up for the instructor course. I was asked if I would be joining in the Zoom training which ran in the morning in the United States (but over here it starts two hours before midnight and ends at 4 am). I thought about it and thought if I did not try I would not know what I would miss out. So I did and this is what I have learned and continue to learn from a combination of videos and live Zoom training :-

a) Defined, deep knowledge laid out in a bit-size, modular, systematic manner

b) Accelerated learning; seriously!

c) You can actually learn something even if you don’t have a training partner, but better if you do

Let me give you an example of the learning. I have bought a series of video lessons on another FMA. This master is super powerful in his strikes. There is one movement he did, an upward diagonal cutting movement, which I couldn’t get. On Friday night I learned the same movement in the Zoom class.

Not only did I learned how to do it properly and with key details, I could actually get the hang of it within that time frame that I spent learning it. On Saturday we did a review and I still kept the learning. For those who are curious I am referring to the movement REVERSE which is part of the Broken Strike, Fluid, Reverse sequence.

I also learned one long empty hand sequence that combines striking with locking last night. I didn’t have a training partner. It was no problem as I was taught to use a stick to learn. Surprisingly, I managed to learn and do it fluidly on both sides. Even as I am writing about it now I can still remember it.

I like the philosophy of “Learn to Teach, Teach to Learn”. I like how the information is broken down and taught in a way that it can be picked up right away. This is a good approach which I shall adopt too for the teaching of Tai Chi.

There is one other thing that is good about the program. You get a mentor assigned to you to help you with your training. This is good for those who are serious about learning. And there is an active Facebook community for those who want to just learn and for those who want to learn to teach. You learn by sharing and by getting advice by other fellow practitioners.

I also learned one long empty hand sequence that combines striking with locking last night. I didn’t have a training partner. It was no problem as I was taught to use a stick to learn. Surprisingly, I managed to learn and do it fluidly on both sides. Even as I am writing about it now I can still remember it.

I like the philosophy of “Learn to Teach, Teach to Learn”. I like how the information is broken down and taught in a way that it can be picked up right away. This is a good approach which I shall adopt too for the teaching of Tai Chi.

There is one other thing that is good about the program. You get a mentor assigned to you to help you with your training. This is good for those who are serious about learning. And there is an active Facebook community for those who want to just learn and for those who want to learn to teach. You learn by sharing and by getting advice by other fellow practitioners.

So even as I continue with my Tai Chi journey I am also embarking on another journey for which I have my teacher, Tuhon Apolo Ladra (https://fkanewjersey.com/Instructors/Tuhon-Apolo-Ladra), and fellows brothers and sisters from the iKali community to guide me along. Some of the sisters are more frightening than the brothers. Each time they move, their hands automatically go for the knives, exactly the way they have been trained. The teaching is clear and the process and targets are there to help me and anyone who is interested to really learn.

Actually I have more to write about but I think it is better for those who want to know more to actually try it out. More information at the Art of Blade website here (https://www.artofblade.com/). I would recommend starting with the iKali Blade Course Part 1 – Thrust + Slash. Once you go through it you will be hooked!