Odd Strikes

What is odd to one is normal to another.

I have learned different styles and also examined many more styles. Among those styles I have learned I have picked up different ways of skinning the same cat. By spending years to practice the same form I have also discovered a lot more details such as non-obvious techniques and hidden techniques  than is apparent at first glance. And if you happen to have a good teacher you will also learn a lot of stuff you will never discover on your own.

Over the years as these movements become natural to me they start to manifest themselves in how I use techniques. In this way what is not normal becomes natural to me. However, to my student who has never learned broadly or taught to look beyond the obvious what I do seems odd to him.

If I apply the art shallowly without referencing the full range of techniques that is found in forms then it is easy for my student to catch up to my skill. With a huge repertoire it is more difficult for him to catch up, which is why I kept reminding them to practice forms.

For example, in the straight sword form we have a movement called Wind Sweeping the Lotus Leaves (風捲荷葉). Though it is a weapon technique it can be readily used for emptyhand striking in line with the principle of hand is the sword, sword is the hand. So when I use this in push hands my student is suddenly confronted with a technique he has not seen before. But if he had been diligently training the straight sword he might have made the mental connection right away when he saw the waving, side-to-side movements.

This is why when we study any art we should first study it in depth. After we reach a certain level of competence we can begin working on acquiring breath of knowledge. In this way a simple technique can conceal a certain level of sophistication that allows you to keep using it despite your training partner’s efforts to resist it.

When he finally manages to overcome it he will find that this simple technique can become something else and continue to go through his defense. This is one of the key teachings I picked up from Master Leong and a reason why I finally used his Pok Khek techniques even though I didn’t really like it in the beginning.

In this sense, Pok Khek seemed odd to me at first but given enough time it has become natural and it is actually quite practical and handy.

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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.

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Impermanence

Last week was a long week. A sudden visit from the Grim Reaper led to days of mourning and tears for those who suffered the loss. My takeaway from this is that never take your health for granted, never overwork yourself and do what you want to do NOW.

You can seem to have it all. Until the day the blue crab comes crawling into a nook in your body and digs its claws in. If you make the wrong decision you will pay for it down the road. By then it is no use lamenting the wrong decision.

If in doubt, seek a second opinion. Certain illness can be cured or contained for a long time. If you fail to check around for more information you can end up making the wrong decision, one that leads to your early demise. Don’t believe everything people tell you even if they are close to you and appear to have your interests at heart. Check for yourself and decide.

Life is impermanent. We all have to go some time. But if you have a choice wouldn’t you want to be able to enjoy life a little longer? Do what you like, achieve whatever goals you set for yourself before you lay to rest or nowadays be sent into the incinerator to be turned into ashes.

I know what I am setting out to do. Do you? Don’t wait till your time runs out before you do it.

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7 Minutes

It took a 7 minutes and few seconds video to bring together most of what I had said before in learning push hands.

Backtrack – at various times when teaching push hands I would bring up different points, basically stuff to understand how to use push hands as a training platform for understanding how to use the emptyhand form, essentially a means to test your knowledge and skill in using the techniques in the form freely.

One day my student said he would be meeting his senior from another style, someone bigger and taller. It was an excellent chance to check his progress. I suggested things he could try on top of those he had learned before, not to mention taping it for his own analysis of his performance.

So I saw the video and yup, basically he didn’t use the stuff I had taught; not even remotely tried. It was as if he had not learned anything. To me it looked like giving the game away too easily.

The video I saw may be a short 7 minutes plus but I pointed out the many things I had taught before that was useful in his encounter. That he didn’t use any of them was like a baby offering candy to an adult. Yeah, it was worse than an adult trying to take candy from a baby.

This was a good learning moment, for me to say again the importance of knowing how to play push hands like a game, how what I taught him fitted in.

For example, when we play push hands the way we configure our posture dictates our strengths and weaknesses, informing ourselves and perhaps the opponent what could be exploited and used against us. When beginning push hands all students have this habit of inadvertently giving a free pass for a knowing opponent to open the door and come right in.

I would think having done this many times keeping the door closed would have become second nature. But no, I saw it, once, twice and each time his senior moved forward to enter. I didn’t say this in hindsight but in foresight having brought it up ages ago. Like I said the first step to master Tai Chi is know yourself.

I also pointed how that he did not follow our method of engaging. What he did was basically giving up candy without a fight. The way we play push hands follows a certain approach, the first amongst many is to carefully and knowingly guard our space. If you do not do so then your opponent can just enter easily without you being able to offer much resistance even if you wanted to.

I saw his senior used a Biu Jee escape technique. To me this was a bad technique, easily exploited but if one failed to pay heed to the details then this was another giveaway technique.

When we practice push hands we are very careful how we position ourselves, how we yield, how we set up a response, and so on. This would enable us to play different games of strategy to capitalize on what our opponent is giving us. A strong person is formidable but amidst the strength there are weak spots. What are they? Learning push hands is a way of understanding our own strengths and how to use it against the opponent’s weaknesses.

Lastly, we always remember that the opponent is not stupid. What you can think of he can too and then some. You want to beat him you have to use a different set of tools. If you use the same tools then apply with a new twist so that your opponent cannot anticipate it. Remember combat is a game of wits too, not just strength. Otherwise, we might as well pack it in and call it a day.

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Ding!

Ding!…………

That’s how I imagined it must have sounded when my student said there was a noise in his head right after I flicked the back of my palm against the side of his head. The weird part was I had tapped the right side of his head but the noise was heard in his left ear!

I didn’t know what to make of it except to assume in hindsight that the tap must have rung his head like a bell and projected the sound to the other side. To me the more interesting reaction was how the tap caused him to stop immediately. Though, I did not intend to actually made contact, that it did inadvertently yielded this observation.

So if you ever wonder if a flick of the wrist is effective this anecdote suggests that it is. Of course, the other question would be how would it be if the target struck had been the face head-on. Silly question. A tap to the face can stun and with a bit more force can break the nose.

Fun fact to know. Just be careful when practicing this way.

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Fifth Lesson – Games of Strategies

In the book on the 22-form there is a chapter entitled 拆架拆手 (Dismantle Frame, Dismantle Hand). This chapter offers examples on how to apply the strokes (招中术) and force methods of the 22-form.

The 21 examples can be considered as step-by-step studies on the use of intention force against an opponent who provides resisting pressure but not necessarily actively resisting.

The 21 studies of the strokes of the techniques are useful to spark off your journey to learn the use of intent in your push hands. As you make progress you will need to practice against opponents who resist more actively, who will vary the amount of resisting pressure and who will try to counter your fajing attempts with their techniques.

In other words, not a dummy partner who will allow you to get away with anything. You certainly do not need to have a compliant training partner who at your slightest touch (or perhaps a non-contact dismissive wave of your hand) jump like a grasshopper.

Your progress is only as good as the way you train. When you have more realistic resistance from your training partner you will understand why the use of techniques and power go hand-in-hand. This information is captured in the way a good form is organized.

Sometimes the information is obvious but many times it is not. We can only speculate why this should be so. If you ask me it is to prevent someone, perhaps an interloper who is peeking through a hole in the wall, who managed to see the form being played from figuring out how to use the techniques easily. In other words, you can steal the movements but you cannot steal the applications.

The movements of the form are not cast in stone. They have obvious, hidden, derived and situational applications. Many times a demonstration of fajing can be good but totally suck at being a proper combat application. When you play push hands against a less cooperative training partner, someone who will push you back or strike you, then you will understand this point better.

Though the form does not always tell you the strategy being employed explicitly it does not mean it is not present. As long as your opponent is not a dummy he will not allow your attacks to go through so easily. You will have to intelligently use your wits, techniques and power to make your technique work.

In the beginning you will find that even though you can visualize the workings of the force models in the various strokes, however, you are unable to use them freely. In fact, most of the time during push hands the timing to apply a technique is very short making it next to impossible to get your strokes together.

Until and unless you can do the various requirements in a split second you will never be able to use the force models. This is why you need to internalize the requirements by constantly working on your 22-form. There is no shortcut to mastery here.

Keep to your daily practice. The goal of using the force models within the strokes of the form is not impossible. It just takes persistence and intelligence to master them.

So what are the games of strategies you can learn from the 22-form? Let us take a brief look at one example. You might have seen this drawing at the beginning of this site :-

Yangstyleintention

This fajing model is the last model presented in the chapter 内功勁法 (Internal Power Strength Method). The full name of this model is 大氣球澎脹法 (Big Chi Sphere Inflated Method). I like the use of this model because it is simple yet comprehensive. Since the topic here is about strategy rather than force models I won’t discuss how it works in the context of power. Instead, I will just write about its use as a strategy in a broad context.

I have heard Tai Chi practitioners describe how their body needs to be rounded so that they can be like a fully inflated ball that can rebound an opponent. This is a nice analogy though it is rare to see a practitioner or master actually use it. Master Cheng Man Ching’s Cheng Tzu’s Thirteen Treatises on Tai Chi Chuan has a chapter entitled Strength and Physics that discusses how a sphere can be used for attack and defense.

I have read it a long time ago and always wondered how to actually apply the information. I tried out ways to make the sphere work for me but I could never truly make it work in a manner that is consistent to what is written in the Tai Chi Classics, at least not until I have learned and practiced the method of 大氣球澎脹法 (Big Chi Sphere Inflated Method) for some years.

I won’t describe in detail how to cultivate the 大氣球澎脹法 (Big Chi Sphere Inflated Method) as it is outside the scope of topic here. What I would like to say is that you need to use the fundamentals to build the necessary intent to bring forth the Big Sphere until it is for all intent and purpose, feels real to your opponent.

When you arrive at this stage your can use the Big Sphere to carry out the ways of neutralizing and attack that Cheng Man Ching describe in his book. However, this is still only the basic stage of usage. From my experience there are at least two more stages that you can go through, that can expand and refine your ability to use the Big Sphere.

To put it in a nutshell, the 大氣球澎脹法 (Big Chi Sphere Inflated Method) allows us to use the following games of strategies in a game of push hands :-

a) Go with the flow, harmony and outflank

b) Rotate and rechannel

c) Load and release like shooting an arrow

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First Lesson – The Most Beautiful of Theories

The theories of Tai Chi as recorded in the body of writings known as the Tai Chi Classics are not just that.

If anything, they are beautifully written theories containing workable principles. That they are widely quoted, even borrowed by other styles to explain their art testifies to their wide applicability.

I once had a surrealistic experience listening to veteran Wing Chun masters, first generation masters who learned from Grandmaster Ip Man, attempting to explain sticking hands using the principles of Tai Chi! This was in the 90s during a Wing Chun tea party in Hong Kong hosted by Grandmaster Chu Shong Tin.

Whence the Tai Chi theories / principles come I have no idea. However, my teacher said that they are written experiences of Tai Chi masters of the past. That many practitioners do not understand them or can apply them in their Tai Chi do not make the theories / principles any less true.

If we walk the path of past masters through the valid transmission of a recognized lineage and style we should have no problem understanding the theories / principles and using them. My own learning experience shows that the secrets of Tai Chi are within the principles as understood in the mind and realized in the body. This verifies what my teacher told me to be true.

What makes the theories / principles of Tai Chi beautiful?

Let us explore a simple example from the Play Pipa posture of the 22-form which calls for :-

静 中 求 动
周 身 一 家

The above can be translated to read :-

Within stillness, seek movement

Entire body, one family

 

If you try to do what this principle calls for you will find that it is not easy to do so. Why is this so?

The reason is because the first sentence is a paradox in that within stillness, which many Tai Chi players will interpret to mean not moving, one must seek movement. You can try to achieve this within the practice of zhanzhuang in that by standing still you try to seek movement.

This begs the following questions :-

a) What movement is the principle referring to? If you stand still then the only movement is that of your mind. This leads to the second question below.

b) What is the practicality of only your mind moving? Obviously, there is no practical use unless you can apply it in a practical context through a technique. This then leads to the third question.

c) Can you when moving to apply a technique still achieve movement within stillness?

The principle above is commonly found in many Tai Chi texts. Despite it being prevalent and well known it is the rare master who can actually demonstrate what it means in the context of fajing and application of a technique.

The reason is because the principle as commonly found lacks something. This something is the intent component and this is where the beauty of Tai Chi manifests itself. As transmitted by Grandmaster Wei Shuren this principle in full, at least in our Yang style variant, should be written as :-

静中求动
周身一家

竖立三关
腹松气圆

Within stillness, seek movement

Entire body, one family

Vertical upright, three passes

Relax abdomen, chi rounded

Considered together the four sentences provide the necessary and sufficient conditions for the use of intent to govern the physical body to actualize the requirements of the principle in the following manner :-

a) Sentence 1 (intent) ——> Sentence 2 (physical actualization)

b) Sentence 3 (intent) ——> Sentence 4 (physical actualization)

 

The easiest way to learn and master this principle is by playing your form many, many times while paying close attention to the requirements for performing the form. There is no room for practicing blindly, what we call waving the hands in the air, with no clear cut idea as to what we are trying to practice and achieve.

This is why if you attempt to understand them by blindly practicing you will not get anywhere. In the book on the 22-form Grandmaster Wei Shuren wrote “开始就讲明拳架理法” which calls for the beginning student to learn the logic of the principles alongside the learning of movements.

From here we understand why Grandmaster stressed “Yi Zai Xian” which can be translated to mean “Intention Comes First”. The phrase “Intention Comes First” can mean one or both of the following :-

a) In whatever you do in Tai Chi you must first know what you are doing

b) Every movement must be preceded by a deliberate intent

By exercising our intent when we play the 22-form over the years we slowly but surely learn to control our body in a different manner; in ways that allow us to grasp and finally master the principles elucidated in the body of writings known as the Tai Chi Classics.

As outlined by Grandmaster Wei your progress will be from external to internal as follows :-

从无到有
从有到繁
从繁到空

From none to have

From have to many

From many to emptiness

 

The three sentences lay out what you will experience as you make progress. It points the way to master Tai Chi. When your physical skills reach the level of the third sentence you will understand what  (emptiness) in this context means, particularly its critical role in allowing you to express the range of force models explained in Grandmaster Wei’s book on the 22-form.

To learn Tai Chi is not difficult. To bridge the gap between not grasping the intricate nature of the art as outlined in its theories / principles and mastering Tai Chi is the key challenge.

When one day you get there you will look back on your journey and be amazed at how the ancient masters managed to configure this wonderful art that utilizes the intention to enable you to master physical skills of combat.

For now, commit yourself to practice and be ready to discover this wonderful and beautiful art of human expression.

 

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