Tolerances

According to Wikipedia :-

Engineering tolerance is the permissible limit or limits of variation in: a physical dimension; a measured value or physical property of a material, manufactured object, system, or service; other measured values (such as temperature, humidity, etc.)

Do you know the amount of tolerance required for you to master Tai Chi at different levels of skill?

Before I go into this let me relate something that I heard somewhere. Apparently, in a particular school of Tai Chi you are required to first learn a short form, then a long form and after five years be admitted as a disciple before you can learn how to apply the art.

The skeptic in me just wanted to know “Why?“.

Indeed, why do you need to jump through three loops and lose 5 years of your life before you can learn the real thing? Even then how do you know you are getting the real thing?

Everyone will claim they are teaching the real thing even if they are not unless they don’t care about having students. And of course, the student not knowing what he does not know will not be able to tell if he is learning the genuine stuff or not.

As far as standards go it is still a wild, wild west out there in Tai Chi la-la-land. Anyone can claim to have the real stuff but they can’t tell you exactly what qualifies their Tai Chi as genuine. The only thing they can do is fajing the clueless, gullible beginner into worshipful belief.

In the field of engineering such practices would not be accepted. This is because there are reference standards, manufacturers’ standards and tons of ways to check and verify if a piece of machinery can be accepted for use in manufacturing. In aviation the level of tolerance would be even more stringent, up a few notches at least, because mistakes can lead to loss of lives. But in Tai Chi mistakes are OK cause no life lost, only time and money, and maybe loss of your innocence once you’ve been fleeced one time or maybe a few.

Let me tell you what I know. The practice of Tai Chi can be exact. The principles in the Tai Chi Classics can be regarded as a set of reference standards. If you come across a Tai Chi teacher who does not refer to it, does not know what it means, and tries to downplay its importance to avoid having to explain it then the best favor you can do yourself is walk away, no, run away………… quickly.

The principles can only be fulfilled if you have a defined set of practices. These set of practices at the beginner level need to be exacting, in order to meet the requirements at various levels of tolerance. If you are a beginner a tolerance level of 15% can be acceptable. However, if you are an instructor you need to meet a tolerance level of 5%, for starters.

This is why it is meaningless for us to define a practice as acceptable at an absolute level particularly for beginners. You could be right at the 15% tolerance level but wrong at the 5% tolerance level. So if you think by 15% tolerance level you have already hit an absolute level then you are condemning yourself to be stuck at this level.

Those of us who want to go higher will aim for the 1% tolerance level. When you reach here then the Tai Chi Classics will make a lot of sense. On the flip side, those who read the Classics and tell you its not important or nonsense is indirectly telling you how much they really know about Tai Chi.

On a related topic though we want to be exact from the word go, chances are we will still make mistakes, tons of it, as part of the learning journey. Mistakes are your friends but only if you are made aware what is wrong, you work on the problems and you fix them. It is not uncommon for students to keep making the same mistakes even after it has been informed to them REPEATEDLY.

Yes, I know. We can be stubborn when it comes to mistakes. We say we don’t want to make mistakes but we just keep making them anyway. Most of the time this can be attributed to our unconscious action. But a number of them are due to our inability to maintain our control over our conscious actions.

This has implications on our mastery. How often have you heard that it takes years to be able to fajing. Let me tell you – this is a lie, perpetuated to prevent students from getting there too fast and losing a cash cow. If you understand standards of performance in relation to tolerances you would know that anyone can learn to fajing and be able to do it the first time they learn it. Its just that they cannot freely do it and this is because, yes you guess it, the inability to maintain the standard required of that particular movement.

Example, I taught a student to do Press and he said is that it, cause he didn’t feel powerful. There is logic fallacy here that most students and even masters fail to understand. To use an engineering logic if a motor is rattling, and running with increasing temperature is the motor running properly and within operational tolerance?

The ordinary practitioner is conditioned to think of the human body trying to fajing as huffing and puffing, swaying, shaking and jerking violently. But this is wrong. You can easily understand the reason by examining parallels in the field of engineering and natural disasters in which violent forces are at work.

When your thinking is able to make a breakthrough here you would right away understand why you can fajing the first time you learn it by strictly adhering to the requirements which are very straightforward, clear and unambiguous. It is our natural tendency to refuse to listen, to see, to stop and ponder, to rein in our natural habits that cause us to keep slipping out of tolerance that prevents us from being able to fajing all the time, all night long. Quite a tragedy, isn’t it? That something natural and easy is difficult to attain but something unnatural is regarded as correct and easier to grasp.

So there you have it, a rant, a lecture, call it whatever, on an important topic, at least to me it is, relating to mastery of Tai Chi.

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New Biography of Bruce Lee

Published on 5 Jun 2018, Bruce Lee : A Life, by Matthew Polly is a new biography on the late kung fu movie superstar.

Polly

Nowadays I don’t really have that much interest in books on Bruce Lee. I guess you can say I have outlived my interest. However, I read an excerpt from the book and I found it enjoyable.

So I ordered the book and it proved to be a compelling, enjoyable read despite its thickness (656 pages). Even the Notes contained many interesting information.

Some of the information have been published elsewhere but even then Polly managed to shed greater light on the old information. There are some information that are new such as that beginning on page 393 on Wong Shun Leung and his exchange with Bruce Lee following Bruce Lee’s visit to Ip Man’s gym where he sparred with two junior students and humiliated them to the extent that even the senior students refused to spar with Bruce Lee.

Master Wong was not there on that day but he heard about how Bruce Lee made the Wing Chun clan lose face with his Jeet Kune Do and wanted to teach Bruce a lesson. Polly went on to describe what happened.

I don’t have a problem reading what followed but if I were a student or disciple of the late Master Wong I sure like hell would be mad with what Polly wrote. Except Polly mentioned in Notes that his information came from an interview conducted in 2013 with Master Wan Kam Leung, a disciple of Master Wong, who was there and witnessed the exchange between both masters.

Both asked Wan for his opinion after their sparring and he gave a diplomatic reply that both are on a similar level of skills. In 2013 when he was interviewed by Polly he gave his honest opinion of the exchange and what followed after Master Wong and him returned to their studio. Read it. It is a good reminder to us on our martial arts journey, echoing what is written on page 135 :-

Classical methods like these are a form of paralysis. Too many practitioners are just blindly rehearsing these systematic routines and stunts.

In another chapter on page 147 there is another quote from Bruce Lee :-

Teachers should never impose their favorite patterns on their students. They should be finding out what works for them, and what does not work for them. The individual is more important than the style.

This reminds me of what my student, R, asked me last week about teaching a group class. I said that in a group class I would not be able to teach Tai Chi on a detailed level. I have found that in a group class everybody is basically monkey see, monkey do. The small details matter for our personal development of the art.

No two persons are alike. So some can move in a similar manner but more often than not, most students are not able to do so. We can only use a form as a template to teach principles and along the way prompt them to discover different principles by understanding how a different tempo, a different angle, a different alignment and so on can lead to a different result. Thus, a movement like White Crane Spreads Wings might be a throw to one student, a hand strike to another but a kick to a third.

In discovering the general principles we can then understand what makes each style of Tai Chi great. We can also understand how other styles work. After all an arm movement is an arm movement in the context of anatomy unless you are someone like Troy James below.

Today, in Tai Chi and in many other styles we have a great divide. This divide can have a useful purpose taken the right way. However, in reality the divide has caused us to be blind. I am sure Bruce Lee is not the first person to know this or even to bring it up but he is certainly the first to be in print saying on page 203 :-

Styles separate men, because they have their own doctrine and then the doctrine becomes the gospel truth. But if you do not have styles, if you just say, ‘Here I am as a human being. How can I express myself totally and completely?’ Now this way you will not create a style – because a style is a crystallization – this way is a process of continuing growth.

We are guilty of this in many ways. Some of my students would say isn’t that punch with a vertical fist a Wing Chun technique without knowing that in Yang style we use a vertical punch. The vertical punch is also found in Pok Khek Kuen and many other styles. In a way it shows their ignorance, in a way it shows their discriminatory mind and in a way they seem to value style over practicality.

This is wrong. Styles are an outcome of the gathering and consolidation of information to create a style for ease of teaching. It is a means to an end. If you even wonder why you are stuck in your progress check your values. No one forced you to worship a style except that you willingly do it and end up imprisoning yourself in a mental trap of your own making.

Knowledge is important to free ourselves and advance our learning. If you do not know and more importantly you do not know what you do not know that you potentially will end up in a rut. Jesse Glover is quoted on page 201 about Bruce Lee’s skill :-

The thing that made him so effective was the fact that he could pick up a potential movement before it happened. Many of his advanced concepts were based on this type of detection.

Glover’s statement reads like the truth except that the part about advanced concepts. Anyone who practiced contact type of skill in styles such as Tai Chi, Wing Chun, Southern Mantis, BJJ, etc would know what this is just a basic skill, the skill of quieting yourself to listen to the opponent, a basic skill honed to a sensitive level such that it feels magical to the lower level person encountering it.

We can choose to be fooled or we can choose to learn the truth. For those of us who are seeking the truth in the combat arts there are many nuggets of gold in between the politics, the backstabbing, the frustrations, the sex, the lies behind the remarkable life and death of Bruce Lee in between the pages.

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Wisdom of Carnegie

My student, R, asked a question which I had filed away. Then this evening I read a passage in a book which reminded me of his question. This is what I read :-

I believe the true road to a pre-eminent success in any line is to make yourself master in that line. I have no faith in the policy of scattering one’s resources, and in my experience I have rarely if ever met a man who achieved pre-eminence in money-making – certainly never one in manufacturing – who was interested in many concerns. The men who have succeeded are the men who have chosen one line and stuck to it.

The above is a quote from Andrew Carnegie. If you do not know who he is read more about him here.

How Carnegie’s quotation is related to my student’s question is this – he asked if he should continue learning in the other Tai Chi public class. Since its his time and money I said its really up to him. The really pertinent question is what does he want to get out of what he is learning.

This reminds me of one student who came to learn Tai Chi with the idea of improving his Wing Chun. I brought up the question of learning dilemma back then. In his Wing Chun class he had to keep the elbows tight but when this is applied in push hands he ended having his structure rocked for obvious reasons (hint – Newton’s third law of motion).

But should he try to use Tai Chi’s elbow positioning without mastering it properly he would get clocked in his Chi Sau. He would be told that the kind of opened elbow position we use is wrong.

So poor chap – go to Wing Chun class he is told his Tai Chi habit is wrong. Come to Tai Chi class he is told by me that his Wing Chun habit is wrong. This is one of those instances where you cannot be smart and try to straddle two boats. You really have to make a decision as to where you want to be and stick to it.

This of course depends on what you want out of your learning. This is especially relevant if what you learned from one teacher contradicts the teaching of another teacher.

I know, I know, I want to have my cake and eat it too but sometimes we can’t. That’s life. This is the relevance of the point made by Andrew Carnegie.

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Secret of Finger Power

On the first lesson with my student, R, I showed him my hand. I compared it to his hand where the knuckles are darker from the few years he learned Muay Thai. Then I jabbed him with my fingers to demonstrate to him the power that can be developed using the Tai Chi hand shape.

After the second lesson this week I was making a point about something and again “tapped” him with my fingers. Then he asked again if I had learned Iron Palm and I showed him my hand.

Today I have decided to unveil the secret of how to project power to your fingertips. The picture below is self-explanatory!!!

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So you see sometimes we shouldn’t laugh at keyboard warriors because there is a benefit to all that typing after all.

Am I kidding?

Yes and no.

Typing a lot can help you to control your fingers and the amount of power needed to hit the keyboard. However, to practice projecting power to your fingertips you really need to practice your Tai Chi form properly using the correct hand shape.

To quote the famous Russian painter Karl Bryullov who said “Art begins where the tiny bit begins“.

Do not neglect the small details when you practice your Tai Chi form. Today you may think its inconsequential but it will affect the quality of your progress so do not, I repeat, do not overlook the small details.

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Single Whip Coordination

Last week I was teaching my student how to do Single Whip properly, particularly the last bit of the movement which calls for the whole body to turn in a particular manner to generate circular and spiral power.

Below is the illustration from my eBook “TaijiKinesis Vol 2 : Learning the Taijiquan Form” demonstrating the point I made :-

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To generate the power requires precise coordination involving moving the arms, waist and legs to turn as a unified whole.

You can check if your movement is correct by getting a training partner to give you pressure to test your power generation.

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Hakka Kung Fu

This is a gem of a video on the Chu Gar system from this Facebook page “Traditional Chinese Martial Arts Confederation“.

 

The following are some of the things that came to mind as I was watching it :-

a) 1:45 – lifting of the foot reminds me of how we begin the first qigong set known as 行功吊勁 as shown below. The camera was too slow to catch Master Cheong doing it but managed to catch my leg still up in the air.

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b) 1:53 – that movement of the belly reminiscent of how one particular lineage of Ip Man does their power as mentioned in my eBook “The Ip Man Questions : Kicks, power & strategies in the martial art of Wing Chun“. This sucking in of the belly is similar to an essential component of the practice of the first qigong

c) 2:20 – another similiarity to first qigong hard-soft alternating practice

d) 2:47 – I see this squatting down and standing up in front of some of our forms. The last part of the first qigong set also has something similar except we do punching as demonstrated by Master Cheong below :-

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e) 4:44 – I had a similar feeling from the first qigong set in terms of power

f) 6:31 – I just love traditional styles; they just go straight in for the kill; no techniques that require you to do 2-3 movements before ending with the technique. Ngok Gar Kuen techniques are similar – an example is shown below – just smack them balls, man!

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g) 7:29 – despite looking like he has balance on both legs many times his balance is really on one leg and it is good that he mentioned it specifically. Again similar to this particular Ip Man Wing Chun style that also emphasizes keeping the balance on one leg most of the time

h) 8:54 – buttock tension is also an important part of the first qigong practice

i) 9:28 – on the agile wrist – this is why this is the first step to mastery of this particular lineage of Ip Man Wing Chun as I explained in my eBook “2-Dots : Six Learning Steps for Mastering Wing Chun’s Kicking Model” – an example of one of the wrist exercise is shown below :-

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j) 10:01 – Wing Chun follows this practice but today it is common to see many Wing Chun masters break this rule. In Tai Chi we use open fingers to project power in solo form practice. For push hands we stress never to keep the fingers apart unless you are doing a holding action

k) 11:41 – the two palms facing up posture – so similar to one of our Ngok Gar Kuen first qigong posture as seen below :-

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In hindsight, we should not be surprise that there are similarities between Chu Gar and Ngok Gar given that they are both Hakka systems.

Intermediate Level Learning

The Kai-He (Open-Close) form is the intermediate level training routine in our Tai Chi syllabus.

It is designed to further internalize outer movements learned at the basic level from the Yang style 108 form. This is achieved in Kai-He by the use of simple abstract movements to conceal one’s intent to achieve a clear separation between intent and movement.

The use of intent is also paramount in the control of balance, aligning the body internally to move through the use of small circles and spirals, and controlling the 5 bows to generate power.

The simpler outer movements make Kai-He look like an easier form to learn. However, it is actually more difficult to learn because the use of unadorned movements require a heightened sense of qualia to feel the coordination between intent and movement.

On my student’s first lesson I covered three movements of the long form namely :-

1) Lazy to Tie Coat (left)
2) Lazy to Tie Coat (right)
3) Single Whip

On the second lesson I added two movements :-

1) Lift Hands
2) White Crane Spreads Its Wings

Below is the video I took to show my student what he not doing properly. Outwardly, he has remembered the movements, however, we are after the essence of Tai Chi rather than external appearances.

Sometimes I think he is a human rubber band because no matter how I try to shape him he would inadvertently spring back to his original shape. I think it is easier to forge a sword. At least, with iron once you hammer into shape it stays in shape.

But with rubber forget it. It literally takes a ton of patience to keep at it until the rubber changes and retains the new shape. This is why the proper transmission of Tai Chi requires literally hands-on teaching in that the student needs to be corrected, bent into shape, then have his posture subject to pressure so that he gets feedback on what wrong and right feels like.

Lucky us, its early days yet and there is a long journey ahead. As long as he keeps at it then by golly we will forge rubber. This is why my teacher said easy to learn, difficult to train. Its not even eat bitter in the sense of train till your muscles ache.

On the contrary, to seek comfort is our objective which in mechanical engineering parlance means to set up a machine train and its attendant machines to run with minimal mechanical problems such as misalignment, imbalance, looseness and so on.

I did the following demo to show my student. Certain sub-movements have been exaggerated to make it clearer to see and to emphasize certain points.

The main points I wanted to highlight were :-

1) No flowery movements; every movement has a reason for being

2) Strict control of balance, alignment and position

3) Strong and constant awareness of intent and movements governing usage and power

Learning Tai Chi is like climbing a high mountain. With Mount Everest at least we know where the peak is. With Tai Chi the peak is somewhere up there. The challenge is there for the Tai Chi Adventurer.

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