Timing in Striking

I was explaining to my student about the use of timing to render strikes workable during push hands. The issue is this – in push hands because your arms are in contact with your opponent every move you make can be felt and read by him. Move fast, move slow, use more strength, use less strength, and so on can be detected by each other.

This means that its difficult to strike your opponent in push hands because each time you try to do so he can feel it. Unless he is slow to react most of your strikes will not land. Chances are after a while you end up disengaging arms before you throw a strike because this is the only way you can prevent him from reading you.

It is not wrong to use this method to stall your opponent’s reaction. However, it then defeats the purpose of training your ability to listen and understand through the sense of touch. This means that at some point you should still learn how to use contact to overcome your opponent’s ability to read your moves.

When we train push hands we do not only go faster to try to beat the opponent’s reaction. This is too easy. To challenge ourselves we make it a point to go slower and still be able to prevent the opponent from reading our moves and land our strike where we want it to land.

To up the challenge you can tell your training partner where you want to hit so that he can make it harder for you to do so now that he knows where you are going to hit. This is to train a traditional martial arts principle of hitting where the defense is the strongest as opposed to going for the weakest defense.

One of the key factors in being able to land a strike whether slow or fast is through the use of timing. The olden principle of timing is associated with keywords to teach you how to do the strike properly. Actually, if you train forms a lot you will be able to understand this at some point.

Sometimes when you cannot “see” the timing it may help to hear it. Listen from 0:00 to 1:10 in the video below.

This is an example of the use of odd time signatures in music. If you are my student and you can remember what I have told you about striking timing I would recommend to listen to this part of the music and you slowly think through what I said. At some point you will get what I mean about timing. This is one way to examine the topic from another angle.



Straw Man

I’ve been watching videos of people teaching push hands. So many interesting methods and approaches.

The only thing that seems to be missing is treating the opponent as an intelligent person instead of like a straw man. What do I mean?

Just today I saw a video of a workshop. The master asked the student playing the opponent to put his hands on his chest and apply pressure. The master then placed his leading hand under the opponent’s leading arm’s armpit.

When the student applied more pressure the master let him push his body back a bit before using his other free hand to push the opponent’s elbow, augmenting his hooking hand’s motion to cause the opponent to go off balance.

It is a nice, impressive neutralizing technique to basically a static attack, meaning the opponent is pushing in a dead manner. But is that how a real opponent would attack?

This is the problem of push hands teaching in that they are taught techniques that work as long as the opponent is a straw man providing one dimensional responses. However, to elevate our own progress I would think it makes more sense to treat the opponent as an intelligent, learning person, one who will do his best to oppose you every which way.

Using the same example this means if you put your hand under his armpit to hook his arm you stand the risk of him clamping your hand, sinking down and levering your elbow up, causing you to go off balance instead.

Of course, you can ask why can’t you attack quickly and apply your technique first. The reason is because once his hand is on your chest he is already in a better position. That you have to reach under his armpit means you are venturing into his territory and if he knows his stuff then the moment you put your hand in is when he will spring the trap.

If I were to back track a bit I would say that if I were the opponent I would not just push with both hands blindly. In fact, the moment the master drops his leading arm to move to your armpit you can easily use your rear hand to follow and pin his leading arm instead so that he will not be able to use his hook.

Of course, how you respond is how he responds and so on. But at least the response is on an intelligent level and not give away your positions freely.

If you are learning push hands for combat you should think about this. In fact, right at the beginning of the clip you can see the student’s arm posed right in front of the master’s face, unhindered.

This is something we try to avoid, giving the opponent a free pass to strike our face, because if you do it too many times you risk cultivating a bad habit. For the use of push hands to learn self-defense we always stress cover yourself up. If you must leave something open, know what it is and use it to your advantage.

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Wake Up


If you are a Tai Chi practitioner did you get a wake up call after watching the MMA versus Tai Chi video in this post?

I’ve read negative and positive comments on this. Some are indignant and want to challenge the boxer. Will they succeed? Or they be another feather in the cap of the boxer? Stay tuned.

On the flip side others say this is a good wake up call to those Tai Chi players who have lost their way and still live in the land of the delusional. How did we get here in the first place? I found the following passage in the book The Emperor of All Maladies : A Biography of Cancer to be illuminating :-

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This is more ironic in the light of the video below which gives us some background information on the Tai Chi master who got his ass handed to him by the boxer :-

At 19:38 in the video you can see this master demonstrate power. As I would tell my students you got power so what? Are you fast enough to hit a moving opponent? So we should not be too smug with our fajing ability because ultimately it may mean nothing if our opponent does not stand still long enough for us to hit him not to mention that he will be trying to hit us back.

We should take this video as a wake up call to take a long hard look at what we do if self-defense is what we are looking for. Success in combat require certain skills. What works against one person in one environment may not work against another is a different environment.

There is no point making excuses for failure in combat. The only sensible thing to do is to move forward. Take a long hard look, examine why we failed, how we can fail, open up our mind; a punch, a lock, a submission – they are blind – get caught by any good technique and you are toast.

I had a student look at the video. I wanted him to see that he had the same habits as this Tai Chi master; habits that I have told him are not desirable and make him easier to hit. But how did he get here in the first place?

One factor is, I suspect, old habit from training xingyiquan where the way he stood made him easy to get hit if he had to step back. The learning of weaponry such as the Tai Chi straight sword is meant to help him eradicate this linear back stepping and replace it with a stepping that will remove him from the path of an attack and at the same time move into a better position.

Those time we practice jousting with the straight sword was meant to teach this lesson – step the wrong way and you end up in the wrong place, and you get poked and slashed. These principles are meant to be global, to be infused also into the application of emptyhand techniques; to be poked, examined, tested in push hands under controlled experiments to educate our responses.

Touching is a phase in learning. Not touching is another phase. That’s why I taught him Pok Khek Kuen so that he can see an alternative to not touching. However, snobbery can be problematic. Don’t look down on Pok Khek Kuen. If not for it, Grandmaster Nip’s star might not have risen as high during his teaching period in Malaysia. Pok Khek Kuen’s success in full-contact tournaments demonstrated the efficacy of Grandmaster Nip’s approach.

We should not forget this. If we do we are in danger of ending up like so many other Tai Chi schools, nice to look at but crumble under pressure. We should not shy from self-criticism. Its better to take a hard look than to see what we learn through rose tinted glasses. Otherwise, one day an opponent will shatter our glasses. It is time to wake up, if you have not done so already.


Push Hands Flow & Change

Six years ago I took some videos with the objective of using them for TaijiKinesis Vol 3 which is on push hands.

I started work on Vol 3 but for certain reasons I did not continue. Now I have started looking into Vol 3 again and dug up the old videos.

For those who have been waiting for Vol 3 I have put up the first video that I shot. This was an unrehearsed run through of some of the techniques we practice at the basic level for the first method of circling.

You would notice that all the techniques are worked off the Grasp Sparrow’s Tail posture. From this posture we could change into different techniques depending on the entry technique and position acquired after entering.

For the purpose of push hands practice we normally use a small frame posture to enable us to be nimble on our feet. We can also keep the pressure of our hands lighter so that we do not engage in strength versus strength competition in which the stronger person would invariably win. From here we can focus on working on our techniques, flow and how to change when given different pressures, angles and speed of attack.


Get It

Some get it.

Some never get it.

But if you have faith and dare to try then you will get it, that is how to use minimal strength in Tai Chi to fajing.

Students keep thinking that to fajing they must develop thigh muscles to fajing but this is a misunderstanding of how physics work. It is also a lack of understanding of strategy especially the part where your opponent will try to hit you back.

I divide fajing into 3 types :-

a) Using localized muscles

b) Using entire body muscles

c) Using muscles still but with minimal exertion


The phrase “use no strength” in Tai Chi principles refer to (c) because your body will collapse if you use no muscles.

The (a) approach is inefficient and will tire you out fairly quickly especially if you are doing vigorous push hands. This is why students find the idea of doing push hands non-stop continuously for an hour because they know that its tiring and they cannot last for more than a few minutes.

Yet, when I was learning from one of my Tai Chi teachers we used to do push hands like that. If you don’t learn not to conserve strength and use your entire body you will tire out fast and end up with sore muscles.

Approach (b) is better but there are implications that will affect your balance and speed. You only have to think carefully about Newton’s three laws of motion to know what they are.

One immediate implication is that if you miss and lose your balance your opponent will have an easy time counter-attacking you.

Approach (c) sounds wimpish and ridiculed by those who misunderstand it. I call it the high heel approach because a woman’s high heel shoes embody efficient use of the physics of power. If you don’t know what it is ask a lady to wear a high heel and “gently” stomp on your foot.

When you use strength intelligently you can play longer because you are not wasting strength. Its common knowledge that a bigger guy will typically beat a smaller guy. This is why we learn martial arts, to learn a way to use what we have, max our strengths versus the weaknesses of our opponent. If we don’t we lose. Its that simple.

Lucky for us, not everyone is good at everything so we have some play. Push hands is where we learn what the plays are. So for example, you can learn how to make your training partner do something without realizing that he is doing it. You also learn how to get a position from which you can easily make him lose his balance with the use of little strength.

All this takes careful learning after you believe its possible to do so. Rome was not built in a day and neither push hands learned in a lesson. You first have to understand the problem and what the solutions are especially the why of a solution. Then you have to learn how to implement the solution, paying attention to all the nuances required to make it work like magic. If not, the technique will fail. The solo form is where we learn the controls necessary to move ourselves in certain manners.

Once you have everything in place you should get it. If not, then maybe Tai Chi is not the art for you and its better to move on to something else.




A, B or C

Being able to instantly respond correctly will help you to master push hands.

Some students take too long to react. When pressure is applied they instinctively resist instead of responding. Their hands are too “kayu” (wooden).

To simplify learning sometimes I take a simple decision mechanism approach. If you have scenario A then you react this way. If scenario B then another way.

So the student must learn to recognize the scenarios right away and respond correctly. However, having two scenarios is too simple and does not train the mind to process input signals faster.

We do this by learning how to handle three scenarios instead, what I would term as A, B or C decision making. Students tend to find the A, B scenario easier to handle since the probability of each occurrence is 50%, thus they either respond one way or the other. But when there are 3 scenarios it is more difficult to react quickly.

This is where the learning trick comes in. To master the ability to react quickly you first learn not to resist but to just listen, in essence you must give yourself up in order to be able to read the other person correctly. Then when you get an input signal you don’t have to decide what to do because your opponent will tell you what to do. If you have to do it then you are not listening to the input and you then have to wait for the signal, interpret it, hopefully not misread it and react accordingly.

In this manner you can change at will and create techniques out of what is offered to you. Otherwise, each time you have to quickly find the right response and if the scenario is slightly different to what you are used to then you may respond incorrectly and instead of prevailing you end up giving away the game.


Let Go

Let it go. Take a leap of faith.

To break out of our self imposed prison sometimes we have to let go that which is holding back our progress.

Not hard. Not soft. Where is the in-between? The middle path where soft meets hard. Why is it that we have trouble finding it?

Mostly, the problem lies in lack of practice of form. If so, our mind will lack the mental cultivation necessary for us to break through the self doubts to a zone of awareness and the beginning of a new feeling, that of the mind clearly separated but yet with the body.

Wanting to fajing is a grave error. It will hold back your progress instead of accelerating it. When you fajing you infused your body with strength. You feel strong and think you can break through your opponent’s defenses.

But what if your opponent is in a state of void, of emptiness; such that when you try to exert your power there is nothing for you to issue against. The mighty wind blew hard against the willow to no avail as it gently bent with the force of the wind and turned it back on itself.

When you hold on to your strength you cannot feel properly, you cannot follow and you will move in error. Let yourself go, no strength, no ego, no mind. Be the willow. Accept the blowing of the wind. Go with it. Bend, absorb and return the force of the wind back to it. The form shows the way to do this.

To discover the secret you have to immerse yourself into its study. Knowing and not practicing will lead nowhere. Neither will hanging on to your own view and not taking the plunge. Let go of the past, let go of preconceptions, let go of your ego. The grand mystery awaits.