Student Notes-The Chicken & The Sparrow

There is a chef who is renowned for 3 dishes. I tried all three before and one in particular, the crispy skin chicken was truly outstanding. Later I tried it a second time and it was still a good experience.

Then one day the chef called it quits and handed the kitchen over to the disciple. So by the third time I tried the crispy skin chicken it was during the period that the chef had left. This time the chicken had the flavor but the skin was no longer as crispy.

So the moral of the lesson is that if I want to have the great taste of this chef’s famous dish again I should wait for the day this chef cooks again or his disciple to up the standard.

Similarly the learning of Tai Chi is about experiencing it. We can debate it the whole day but at the end of it if we never experienced it can we say that we really know what it is about?

So to me this is a teaching dilemma. I can explain and demo but until I can get my student to replicate it he still cannot truly experience what Tai Chi is about. In this sense, learning Tai Chi is like learning to cook. You have to experience to heat, the oil splatter, the urgency of the cooking timing, and so on to really get what its about.

I had a good lesson this week where a student did see the point about Tai Chi not being about fajing only. Unfortunately, he was still unclear about other things especially the use of certain things to compensate for not having to rely on power. So I had to explain the use of Grasp Sparrow’s Tail from the perspective of imagery and qualia to clarify.

Grasp Sparrow’s Tail is literally about the art of catching the sparrow. Yes, I know its sounds ridiculous but its actually an interesting strategy to defuse the opponent’s strength and put him into a position where he cannot apply his power so easily.

To do this involves an element of OODA loop and psychology for those who love terminology. I just prefer to think of it simply as having timing as the main function, backed by sub-functions such as harmonizing, borrowing strength, etc. The explanation and terminology makes it sound logical but until you try doing it yourself you will not understand what is involved in getting it right.

In fact, I just read a passage from the book When Breath Becomes Air that is spot on in this regard; for those who have not read this book it is about a young neurosurgeon who found himself stricken with cancer and talks about his journey from being a doctor to being a patient (P.S. he died in 2015 before the book was completed) :-

….. I had sent nearly every one of my patients to physical therapy. And now I found myself shocked at how difficult it was. As a doctor, you have a sense of what it’s like to be sick, but until you’ve gone through it yourself, you don’t really know.

So one part of the use of Grasp Sparrow’s Tail involved getting the opponent to give you the position. I showed and explained it. But when my student tried it he couldn’t get it. I told him he used too much strength still. I showed what it would feel like if I used too much strength and how he would not yield the position.

Having understood how it worked it is not unusual for a student to try to resist the technique except that they couldn’t do it. Again and again I did it and my student could not help but kept giving up the position. Why did this happen? It is because psychologically speaking he cannot help himself. He had to do it even though he knew that he shouldn’t do it and did not want to do it but certain parts of us, probably the involuntary part, makes us do things we know we should not. Like an itch that had to be scratched.

As a game Grasp Sparrow’s Tail offers different possibilities to capture the opponent’s position. We can have an outer door or an inner door position. The inner position which was what we worked on involved the use of Rollback, Press and Push in a cyclical manner. An important lesson from Sun Tzu’s Art of War is also found here. This is a key to Master Tai Chi Today – knowing ourselves.

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Student Notes – Dang

Bruce Frantzis.

Its not a name that I would think that I should be associated with. Except that my student used to learn from him and mentioned that I was the second person he heard touch on a characteristic that is little discussed in Tai Chi – the Dang or crotch region.

I said that the Dang is IMA 101. In fact, all good CMA body structure should have it regardless of external or internal arts. Its just good biomechanics 101.

For example, it is my theory that one of the skills learned from the traditional enforced learning of the horse stance is how to do a Dang properly. If this part is weak then the power chain would be compromised and you will have a problem getting out the power cleanly.

And if you cannot hold the Dang properly in a normal small horse stance, back stance and bow-n-arrow stance how then will you be able to use it in stances that call for adduction and abduction of the legs in arts such as baguazhang?

Below is a sketch of an arch from an engineering book that shows how load is carried, the forces acting on it and how this results in a stable structure. You can also read 5.8.6  Unify Upper / Lower Body on pages 55-57, TaijiKinesis Vol 2 : Learning the Taijiquan Form for more information on how the arch is used for neutralizing and issuance of force.

arch

The path to Master Tai Chi Today is not about secrets, lineages, styles and master personalities. The true secrets lie in understanding how our body works.

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Student Notes-Test Structure

Many Tai Chi practitioners particularly those who do it for combat love to test their structure for purpose of fajing.

It is not difficult to do fajing structural test if you are standing in Push posture for example. The reason is that these type of postures are structures that allow the student to easily use their muscles. Thus, it is more difficult to detect if a student is using intention or just plain old mechanical power when doing the test as such.

Let’s take an example. Take a look at the screen grab below of a fajing demonstration. Pretty impressive. You can see the person demonstrated on flying backwards.

Pressure2

But if I back up a bit and go through the video slowly this is what I can see is happening :-

Pressure3

Can you see the fajing process? The biomechanical process is quite obvious. Most students can learn to fajing within a short time after learning how to use this type of biomechanical motion. You can take a look at the actual demonstration at 0.19 in the video below :-

If you want to try something more challenging take a look at this test that I showed to my student last week. I was looking at him do the first 13 movements of the Yang style long form. I noticed that the way he was raising his arm in Brush Knee, Twist Step was not correct. The easiest way to prove my point was to do a structure test.

You can see two versions of how this movement is performed in the videos below. The first demonstration is at 6:35 by Master Tung Kai Ying.

 

The second demo by Master James Fu is at 1:34. The other video by Master Fu that was in another earlier post Student Notes-Don’t Look Back is not very clear so I am using this alternative video instead.

 

The difference between both performances above lies in the way the thumb is pointing as the right hand is moving to the side of the body before moving up to the side of the face.

The structural test itself is quite straightforward. Apply a constant pressure vertically downwards on the wrist. Below I have indicated in pictures how to do this.

Take note to apply pressure near the wrist rather than near the elbow. If the student does not do the movement properly he will have difficulty trying to lift your arm that is pressing on his wrist and cause you to lose your balance.

However, if you press his forearm nearer to the elbow it will be so much easier for him to “cheat”. Do you know why?

Pressure1

If not, go take a look in a Physics textbook and the answer will be clear. Or if you have the book “Fight Like a Physicist” which I mentioned in this post you can read Chapter 4 : Levers, Wedges, and Free Lunches.

Below is the part of the movement in Brush Knee, Twist Step that is used for this test :-

Pressure4

This is how I did the test on my student :-

1) When his arm reached the position shown above I asked him to stop.

2) I placed my palm on the position indicated and pressed downwards with an amount of pressure that was enough to stop him from lifting his right hand up to his shoulder level without putting in effort.

3) My student then tried to lift his hand up but unable to.

Did you understand why my student failed to lift his hand and moved me in the process?

The reason is because :-

a) It was not easy for him to lift my body weight against the direction of gravity even though I was not applying strong pressure. This is due to (b) below.

b) The lever due to the shape of his arm made it easy for me to hold his arm down. This is why I said to do this test properly you must press on the wrist. If I pressed on the elbow my leverage advantage will be much lesser making it easier for him to move me.

 

So now that you know what this particular test of structure is like go and try it. See if you can lift your hand up to the position below and at the same time move your training partner off balance.

Pressure5

Want to Master Tai Chi Today? Try moving beyond your comfort zone with a different way of testing structure.

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Student Notes-Blooms the Flower

A student can be like a flower in that you have to give it the time and space to grow and bloom.

Some of the things that X can do with little effort today would not have been possible even two years ago without the constant training in playing form to keep on refining his movements. He still occasionally tries out his skills on friends though to see how he fares. This would give him a more honest feedback than trying the techniques in a group class against cooperative classmates.

I remember one time he showed this interesting circular technique like an attacking version of The Karate Kid’s wax on-wax off movement which one of his friends tried on him during their informal exchange. X didn’t know how to deal with it as he has never been attacked in this manner before.

To me this is a good time to make a point about learning a form to the point of knowing it inside out. If a student only knows how to play form but not understand the obvious applications then he has not learned anything even though he can remember the movements well and even give a form competition level of performance.

Our learning objective for all forms in the syllabus is straightforward – learn it until you know how to apply the movements inside out, and then some. Then when an opponent we meet the first time trots out a strange technique we are seeing for the first time we will not freeze. Instead, we need to train the form to the point where we become formless and without thinking we will automatically know how to respond.

Since I know the forms fairly well the moment I saw the wax on-wax off technique I immediately knew a good response could be. The circular forward wax on, wax off attack had a flaw. In reaching forward the forward leg is wide open to attack. And there is the solution – match the opponent like a jigsaw puzzle in that he attacks high you attack low. I asked X to try his best to at least touch me with his hand. Bear in mind X is a head taller than me but he couldn’t even come near, not without me tagging him first.

I know X is continuing to practice the first form he learned years ago. That form offers a wide repertoire of techniques – obvious, hidden and derivative. If he throws in the principles of the second form particularly on how to apply body angling in weapon play he will have a more effective method of using the techniques of the first form. In addition, training in the third form has made his movements much smaller and economical.

Thus, when I instruct X now on how to use the jing methods to neutralize and attack he can pick it up faster. For example I showed him on how to counter a punch coming right at his ribs. When I tried to have another student, Z, to do the counter earlier he could not do it as his reaction was not well controlled and thus his missed the timing.

With X he could pick it up right away. I just had to caution him not to rush it, to wait for the attack, offer the bait, lure it in and then bring out the counter. Done nicely the solution seems like magic especially when the training partner has (or thought he had) control of your arm before delivering the technique but when his strike was on the way in he suddenly found himself losing control and balance.

To Master Tai Chi Today don’t be like the foolish farmer in the story on Zen fools who kept tugging at the saplings to make them grow faster. Instead of the plants growing faster the farmer only succeeded in killing them.

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Student Notes – Natural to Unnatural

I have noticed this thing for a while now. For some reasons students who have learned Tai Chi elsewhere will have this unnatural elbow habit.

Why would this be so? I can only speculate that this is due to :-

i) Misunderstanding of the Tai Chi Classics principles requirement for the elbow

ii) Lack of understanding of how an optimal body kinetic chain should be formulated

iii) Not able to differentiate between macro versus micro power

Our elbows have a natural way of positioning when we do not use excessive muscular strength. You can see this in young children. However, when we grow older and we start to use more muscular strength and our strength usage base migrates to our upper body we start to position our elbows unnaturally. Take a look at the photos comparison below and you will see what I mean :-

elbow

This habit when it intrudes into our practice and usage of Tai Chi will lead us to apply excessive strength and resist even when it is strategically not smart to do so. So when I get someone with this unnatural elbow habit to get into Peng posture and apply some pressure on the arm I can feel the urge to resist without thinking whether this is the appropriate response. In this manner, none of the other forces can be used easily because the posture has caused other responses to be obstructed.

In this position a careful scrutiny will show though the arm strength seems to be strong, however, it is really localized arm strength rather than integrated strength flowing from the ground. If the pressure on the arm were to be increased you would notice that the arm will starts to tremble as the muscles start to buckle and the balance begins to be affected. In this manner it is not only the elbow principle that is violated but a few other principles as well.

This is why you cannot ignore the Tai Chi Classics if you want to Master Tai Chi Today in an optimal manner. If you cannot get a teacher to correct your elbow position then you can try doing it yourself by first studying books on anatomy and biomechanics before venturing to do a trial and error study of the elbow position. You might not get it right away but if you persist in investigating this topic you will understand more and more over time. I don’t ask students to take what I say on faith. I ask them to feel and try it out. Then based on the feedback I would know if they got it or need to continue studying and refining it until they can finally use it.

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Student Notes – Sung & Fajing

Yang style Tai Chi is not difficult to learn as long as you remember to adhere to the number one requirement of Sung. When you have achieved a certain level of Sung it is easy to do the fajing stuff that is so loved by many students.

X is a student with background in Tai Chi and few other things; certain not a beginner as he has trained for many, many years. So I thought it would be easier for him to pick up fajing mechanics. I was wrong.

Part of the requirement for teaching Single Whip is to explain how the power of the whip is enacted out in the movement. For beginners I normally explain the spiral instead as it is an extension of what they have learned in Beginning Posture.

However, when the explanation comes to the application then I have to explain how to do the whipping power mechanics because the logical use of Single Whip requires a whipping palm to be used. For those who like to read more about this you can refer to the following pages of TaijiKinesis Vol 2 :-

i) page 106 – 110 – basic principle

ii) page 300 – 304 – application of Single Whip

When we think of a technique such as Single Whip we keep associating it with the image below :-

SW-solo

However, the proper Single Whip movement is a sequence that begins after the end of Push until it terminates in the familiar posture that we normally associate with Single Whip as shown below :-

SW-solo 2As you can seen there are quite a few movements to learn in the transition from Push to the posture of Single Whip. I suppose the highlight for many students is right at the end where the fajing with the left palm is.

Coming back to my student X – I first taught the variation of double arm detaining movements, then moved on to the hidden neutralize-attack movements that changed into a holding-detaining move; yet more hidden techniques of how to neutralize using elbow / elbow strike / arm bar before ending with the left palm strike.

After I showed X the left palm strike and how to do the fajing he was thrilled and started to work on this section a lot more. Unfortunately, the more he tried to do the fajing the stiffer his arm became.

So I said he needed to Sung more and one way to do this is by not doing the palm strike with power first. Instead, he should just focus on Sung with the help of the 5-Count which will ensure that he gets each part of the movement correctly.

X’s arm stiffness is the result of his old habits. The way he moved his arm is correct from an external striking point of view. However, for our Tai Chi moving the arm in the manner that X was doing will only cause tension.

Hence, training the form as a whole rather than focusing on only one part of the movement is important because it is a way to replace old habits with new habits on a macro rather than just micro level. I know its fun and empowering to do fajing but we must always keep our eyes on the big picture. That is the secret to Master Tai Chi Today.

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Flow in Tai Chi

For those who love Tai Chi with a dash of science here is one for you :-

F L O W

This is a term made famous by the seminal book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi who is a Distinguished Professor of Psychology and Management at Claremont Graduate University.

flow

Originally published in 2008 this work has opened up the study of achieving optimal performance amongst solo performers, groups and communities in a variety of fields. A related book that pursues the theme of Flow in extreme sports is The Rise of Superman: Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human Performance by Steven Kotler.

supermanHere is a talk given at Google by Steven Kotler. Its pretty informative (he covers many of the same points in his book) and plenty to do with Tai Chi.

After watching the video above you should now understand that understanding how to attain Flow will help you to master Tai Chi. If you still don’t get it read my follow-up post here.

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Intention Exercise 4 – Control of Balance

INTRODUCTION

This is a continuation of the following :-

i) Exercise 1 – Optimizing Sung with Intention

ii) Exercise 2 – Settling the Body

iii) Exercise 3 – Substantial-Insubstantial

We continue our study of the above by examining the usefulness of substantial – insubstantial in the control of our balance.

PRELIMINARY

We continue to stand upright with both feet together whilst mentally separating our body into a substantial half and an insubstantial half.

INTENTION-IMAGERY EXERCISE

1. Imagine there is a stone pillar on your right hand side.

2. Use your intention to command your body to gentle and subtly lean onto it.

pillar3. Use the pillar to help you adjust your balance until it is entirely on your right foot. Your left foot should feel very light.

CONCLUSION

In the internal styles of Chinese martial arts the control of balance is very important. In order to have a firm grasp of balance manipulation the study of the use of single leg balance is essential. So if you want to Master Tai Chi Today do not ignore this exercise.

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Intention Exercise 3 – Substantial-Insubstantial

INTRODUCTION

Craft is what we are expected to know; art is the unexpected use of our craft.” – Ed Catmull, President of Pixar Animation and Disney Animation, writing in Creativity, Inc.  Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration

The previous two Intention Exercises paved the way for the following attainment :-

i) Intention Exercise 1 – how the use of intention can relax the body internally

ii) Intention Exercise 2 – how the use of a mental weighted ball can still the body

In this post we continue expanding on our learning of intention principles by examining how we can use intention to render the body into substantial and insubstantial parts.

Again, the use of intention is paramount. You have to be clear on the use of intention. Otherwise, you will feel stress in your body when you begin to step. If you use intention properly your body will feel light and effortless; yet when your training partner applies pressure on you he will feel as if you are a mountain. All this simply from thinking it.

Simple yet powerful, and so easily abused in the wrong hands. This is the reason why this aspect of Yang style Tai Chi training has been kept hidden from the public’s eyes for a long time and only first introduced into the open with the publication of the book on the Yang family Old Six Routines form by Grandmaster Wang Yongquan.

PRELIMINARY

We are still standing upright with both feet together.

INTENTION-IMAGERY EXERCISE

1. Mentally divide your body into two halves.

substantial

2. Imagine that the left side of the body is being hollowed out and its mass given to the right side. Thus, the right side becomes substantially heavier and the left side becomes insubstantial.

3. When you feel your body becoming heavier on the right, yet the entire body remains relaxed you should feel something. That something will enable you to do the next Intention Exercise 4.

CONCLUSION

Want to know what that feeling is? Send me feedback and I will tell you what it is. Feedback is to let me know that you are a serious student of Tai Chi because only those who are super serious, who have been looking around will know the value of these Intention Exercises because they are essential if you want to Master Tai Chi Today.

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Intention Exercise 2 – Settling the Body

INTRODUCTION

This exercise is a continuation of Intention Exercise 1 which I wrote about here.

If you achieve a sufficient level of relaxation you will feel that you are very light and susceptible to gentle swaying.

To stop the swaying we use our intention to settle the body by using a mental weight. In the traditional teaching of Grandmaster Wei we call this the bell clapper line. Here I am presenting a much simpler, intuitive idea of what the bell clapper line really is; an idea which if you try it a few times you can feel something so that you know that the Yang style principles of the internal are real.

bell

The feelings that comes from training the bell clapper line is much more complex and yields a certain body structure flavor; one that you can see in Grandmaster Wei’s posture. I see the same flavor in my teacher’s posture and after more than a decade of practice I have it too.

This is one way we can tell if someone who claims to be from our lineage has really gotten it or is just saying that he has gotten it but is not really the case. It does not matter if that person is a disciple of Grandmaster Wei or not. You either got it or you don’t; when you do it will manifest itself in many other things that you do.

PRELIMINARY

As before stand upright with both feet together as this is a continuation of what we were doing in Intention Exercise 1.

If you have lost the feeling of relaxation you can repeat Intention Exercise 1 to put you into the proper frame of awareness before trying Intention Exercise 2.

INTENTION-IMAGERY EXERCISE

1. Think of the top of your head as shown in Picture (i).

2. Now think of where your tailbone is. Imagine that just below it is a weighted ball hanging in space (Picture (ii).

3. Visualize a string being lowered from the top of your head to the weighted ball below your tailbone. Once the string reaches the weighted ball it is joined to it (the how and why is not important).

bell24. Still keeping the feeling of the weighted ball hanging by a string in your awareness try doing Intention Exercise 1 again.

CONCLUSION

What do you feel after doing Intention Exercise 2?

The feelings is another confirmation that what you think of (i.e. your intention) can affect the way your body reacts.

It is possible to add a bit more to this exercise to yield other interesting feelings; stuff that is useful in a push hands context. If you like to know more about the additional exercise email me on what you feel from this exercise and I will tell you more. Want to Master Tai Chi Today don’t be shy.

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