Big Rock

I feel you are like a big rock” or words to that effect, so sayeth my student. She continued to elaborate that when she tried to push me her hands would slip off.

Well, I would actually like to think I am more like the ball riding the wave that Takuan wrote about in his treatise on Zen and the martial arts, The Unfettered Mind.

But yes, it would not be wrong to describe it this way. Or after a few days of training I would say perhaps like a stone ball coated with slimy moss. Why? There is a deeper implication here.

Seriously, it is a rock but is not a rock. The true model for what she is feeling can be summed up below in the model of the Large Sphere :-

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I think after seeing this model no words are required further. Like I said our Tai Chi approach is not something that can be easily made up and the process of Master Tai Chi Today no accident but a deliberate process of learning and practicing.

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Enjoy the Pressure

Different students react differently to pressure. Some will become agitated whilst some will start getting to run away.

However, if you want to master push hands you have to calm yourself down and learn to enjoy being pushed around. This is because the more ways you are attacked the better and bigger your database of movements will be.

I know, I know, no one likes being pressured. But if you over-react you will lose control of your movements and you will be unable to formulate a proper response to the pressure. For example, the same technique on two students with two very different reaction.

One student tried to hold me at arm’s length so I cannot do the usual attack. This is good because I get to explore a different way of countering and attacking. However, its not a good learning experience for my student because he was but an inch away from being overcome but he did not realized it though to an onlooker it would seemed he was in control. I only had to bait him a bit to cause him to overextend and then I could get back into his space.

On the other hand another student kept a bent elbow in fending off my attacking arm. This is good because its adhering to the principles but his body position was wrong so kept getting tagged. I pointed it out to him and advised him how to close the position.

After the adjustment I could not longer freely hit him. But then he inadvertently opened the other side and I quickly slipped in to attack. So now he’s got one door opened and one door closed. I kept attacking the newly opened door and when he tried to defend it his closed door started to open up but he was not aware of it. Ah, happy times as I had two open doors to exploit.

I emphasized again the important lesson on defense principles culled from Grasp Sparrow’s Tail to nail down how to keep both doors closed after feeding his chest a number of strikes. At one point he tried to step forward to smother my arm’s extension but I was able to keep my range so the only thing achieved was getting hit even more times.

I explained how to control one’s space and position against a swift attack such as the one we were working on. A well executed strike is like a snake darting in and out quickly. So the question was how to entangle a snake which called for good, precise control of space. One opening is all it takes to render the response useless.

This is why mastery of the 5-Count is paramount if only to enable the body to move the relevant parts in the right sequence when called for. Otherwise, it will be close one door only to open another. There are no shortcuts to Master Tai Chi Today merely good, diligent careful study of the principles.

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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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