How Not to Progress

Once upon a time there is a movement in a form that one of my teachers taught me. The way its done seems impossible to do.

I tried and I tried to figure out how to do it but to no avail. The movement is impossible to do given the laws governing balance. After a while I gave up and just did it the way most practitioners would have done it.

Except that was one troubling little fact – my teacher could do it.

So why couldn’t I do it?

What did I miss?

Tried to figure out what it was that I missed? Poured through books. Thought about it a lot. Still couldn’t do it. What was I missing?

My students today are going through a similar learning experience as me. It is common for them to try to figure out how to do something. This is why they could never really get it no matter how much figuring they tried to do.

In learning Tai Chi there are some things you can figure out on your own and there are some things you can never figure out. Yang Chengfu was not kidding when he said that certain things cannot be figured out even after ten lifetimes of learning if the information was not revealed.

In the end I managed to do what I teacher did. And I didn’t need to figure anything out. After a while I just realized that I did not have to crack my head over how my teacher did it. I only have to follow his instructions on how to do it, never mind how it really worked as this was not the issue here. As I would say sometimes when it comes to learning Tai Chi its better to err on the side of stupidity then be overly intelligent.

The answers can be laid before you but if you refuse to look at them and instead choose to follow your own way even though you do not know what that is then it is your decision to impede your progress. There is a reason for knowledge to be transmitted. If you don’t understand what transmission of knowledge means then you are depriving yourself of the full benefit of learning.

Example – my student pinpointed one learning issue correctly when he said he was trying to figure out how to shift his weight the way we do it in order to apply the techniques effectively and efficiently. The point he missed is that he already has the knowledge. One part of the knowledge is in the procedures on how to perform the form.

The other part is waiting to be revealed to him once he makes a breakthrough in certain of the principles he has learned. As my teacher said skill is dependent on time. If you don’t put in enough practice then you will need get it. There is one other factor that my teacher mentioned but I won’t write it here since not many students will believe it today.

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A Plan to Win

I hate repeating myself. But its a necessary evil if I am to drum what I want to teach into my student’s head.

I learned that he is going to meet his buddy again for push hands. He is not optimistic that he will be able to do well since his bud has learned longer, taller, bigger and more skilful. He expects to be able to perform better than previously that is before learning from me. But not expecting earth shattering results.

Its my opinion that if you do not believe that you can do something you will never be able to do it. A first step to being able to do something better is to know what you are doing.

Once I had brought this question up – how to be better and start winning at push hands. I think my student has forgotten what I said. At that point in time previously and this time again I asked him the same question “so what’s the plan to win?” and he still cannot answer.

Note – we use push hands as a training tool so mostly the winning is not the most important thing. Actually, you can learn more by losing. However, at a certain time you must learn how to win too. This is because if you ever have to use it for real your push hands training can be an asset but only if you train it properly in the first place. Of course, it goes without saying that in a real situation you don’t want to be on the losing side.

Coming back to the topic on another occasion I had explained to my student a plan to win at push hands. That he still cannot answer means that my explanation had gone in one ear and out the next. Which was good because now I can have some fun showing him what I meant, all over again.

So yeah, Game 1. Then Game 2. And he resisted and tried to push back. But his less than stellar grasp of the basics and absence of a game plan meant that he could not control his position and he ended up like a boat rocked by a wave. Like I told him a game is needed if you want to come out tops.

He tried to fight against my Game 1 and ended up in a place where I could use Game 2. Like a ping pong game I moved between Game 1 and Game 2 until in trying to defend against them he created the opportunity for me to use Game 3. This is what I meant by having a game plan.

You cannot win if you cannot think and move at least 3 steps ahead. And you can’t do this if you don’t know your own movements well enough. Knowing them well means you must know what to do even before you can think about what to do. You need to train to the point where true intention manifests in the form of no intention. Its like a computer program that can predict what you want to do next before you even thought of what you want to do.

The inability to move when playing hands is what some of my teachers referred to as a stunted hand. This is why in the days of yore a lot of our training was on doing the form again and again, so that we understand the nature of change and in time change becomes us. Then we can start learning how to win.


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Stepping Precision

Worked with my student on a few movements today, amongst them “Step back to ride the tiger”.

I like this movement because it conceals an interesting step, what one of my teachers called the 9-Palace Step. The name may not mean much to outsiders but most who see it will recognize it as similar to the circle walk of Baguazhang. The only difference is we do not walk the circle to train the ability to walk the circle.

Turn, place, position.

No, no. My student’s position is off. To be able to use the 9-Palace Step in push hands a degree of precision is required. If you get it right you will find yourself automatically walking in a circle. Otherwise, you will be stuck and be vulnerable to the opponent’s follow up attacks.

The beauty of precision is that once you get it you will be able to get behind your opponent with the 9-Palace Step before he even realizes that you are here now and suddenly gone. It takes some practice but not impossible to master. Just pay attention to the details and never lose sight of them.


The journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step here.

Carry The Boat

When you come to a river how do you cross it?

You could swim or you could use a boat, assuming you can get your hands on one.

After you cross the river do you continue to carry the boat with you?

I guess it depends on whether you are going to cross another river sometime soon.

What if you need to scale a mountain first before you will come across another river? Should you bring the boat along?

This is a philosophical question but it’s relevant to our learning of Tai Chi. For example, how long do you keep working on a form?

For some the answer is simply as long as you need to whereas for others it could be indefinitely. What’s wrong with both these answers?

Well, they fail to address a critical question – what’s the objective or is there none?

For some teachers the basics from the form should be learned properly before going on to applications. This is a reasonable requirement for those time when society didn’t have the distraction of television and now the internet.

Today most students won’t have as much time or the inclination to train as hard with so many competing distractions in their life. So does this mean that they should not be able to master the art?

I looked at my student. For the short time she spent learning punching in a self defence course she can move reasonably well and even copied the flavor of how to move the body to throw certain punches. But she could still not do a good enough imitation of how we move in Tai Chi that can imbue her with the skills.

If I impose a strict linear learning requirement this would mean that I cannot teach her any self defence applications or push hands. If so, would I be failing her should she ever have to use the art?

This is where some teachers don’t give a hoot about it. They are too caught up in preserving what I see as a useless tradition which might have meant something once but is becoming increasingly out-dated today.

The way I see it the objective is competency is using the art whether for demo, self defence or playing physical chess. The requirements are one and the same. We should not keep a double set of accounts such that what you do in push hands is useless for self defence.

To get to this stage each form is a vehicle to bring us to a different level. We work it to the point where the returns are marginal then we move on. Don’t carry the boat along to climb the mountain.

When you eventually come to another river perhaps one more raging than the previous one then you may realize that the old boat is useless for crossing this river. Had you carried the boat along you would have either wasted your time or if you are lucky you can still modify the boat to handle this new river.

Since the learning is non-linear this means we can approach it from different directions. If you can’t see it from the perspective of doing a form perhaps learning the application will help you to see it.

Stuff like timing, how much to bend, angle, twist are not immediately obvious when doing the form. However, trying to apply the technique will make this more obvious.

For example, if you block wrongly you open more doors for your opponent to attack you. You may think your response is correct but your opponent’s ability to follow up or not with another attack will answer your question.

Carry the boat if you like to but know when to set it down, when to come back to it and when to leave it behind and walk on. There is a time for everything and knowing when is a key to your successful learning of Tai Chi.

It would be a great pity if you one day discover you had wasted your time pursuing a way that took you off the path just because you were fixated on a way. Some teachers can be well intentioned but as experience sometimes prove the road to hell can be paved with good intentions.


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Wanna Eat Bacon

Knowledge liberates, faith enslaves seems to be the take away lesson here. This is something we can apply to the study of Tai Chi.

My student was just telling me about what her self defence instructor taught her about boxing punches. Being an educated and intelligent person she had doubts about certain things she was taught about punching.

I said instead of assigning a right or wrong label why not just ask a simple question – is it effective? Is it optimal? Does it conform to (fill in the question)? And so on.

From there we can examine each question and at the end of it decide which way would work for us while enabling us to optimize what we have. Or perhaps we need to tweak our body to do more.

So a thing like punching is it better to do a 1-2 strike or 1 & pause 2 strike? Why yes? Why no? Or the answer is depends on the circumstances. Why do we need a black and white answer when the real answer could be grey?

So an enlightened teacher can open up your insights to the possibilities and enrich your learning whilst a narrow minded teacher will restrict and hold back your progress.

You can stay and be enslaved by your continuing faith in the teacher or you can try bacon!!! Ultimately the choice is yours to make. I’m already past 50 and I’m not waiting till 90 to try “bacon”…..,.


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Making Progress

How do you make progress in your training?

One way is to discard that which does not contribute to your progress.

Let’s take a simple example – Teacher A tells you to punch with your elbow up and using a horizontal fist. Teacher B tells you to use a vertical fist instead and keep your elbow down.

You find that Teacher A’s method a bit shaky and doesn’t quite inspire confidence. Teacher B’s method works fine for you. The thing is that when you attend Teacher A’s class you are told that Teacher B’s method is not the proper one.

What should you do?

In Rome do as Romans do so naturally when you are in Teacher A’s class you make sure you use his method whether it is really good for you or not.

However, does this really help you to progress? Or hold back your progress?

Quite a dilemma eh?

For me I err on the side that allows me to progress. So if I am taught a method that holds me back then I have to ask why I am sticking to it. This is because a day that I am not progressing is a day lost and time cannot be gotten back.

Sometimes you are torn between Teacher A and Teacher B? What should you do?

I would research and research. Then ponder, test and check before making a decision.

So for punching I am lucky that a champion like Jack Dempsey has written a book on boxing. If you don’t know who Jack Dempsey is then take a look at the clip below :-

Dempsey’s book on boxing is chock-ful of good advice and more important good common sense; stuff you can try out quickly to see if its effective.

Look at Dempsey’s advice on power. You only have to try it out to check if the elbow down or elbow up position is better. However, don’t think that Dempsey is asking you to punch with a vertical fist only – read his book and you will see that his advice on fist position is very practical.


Below is Dempsey on how to aim. I use the same method but I didn’t get it from Dempsey. Instead, I got it from a Hong Kong master and my students who have felt this method before knows how painful and penetrating a light tap can be.


The funny thing is that the style that this method came from typically does not advocate aiming this way. In fact, 99% of the practitioners and masters in this style do not do it this way. However, once I understood the logic and more important, felt for myself its effectiveness its hello new method, goodbye old method style and lineage be damned.

Look at the picture below from Dempsey’s book. Notice the punching fist position. Someone I knew tried to throw a punch like this in a self defence class and was told that it was wrong, and that punching this way is a Wing Chun method. I cannot believe how shallow the instructor’s knowledge of boxing is. Lucky for me Dempsey’s book is there to show that this is not true.


And to balance out the argument read what Dempsey wrote about punching with a horizontal punch below :-


And of course, Dempsey also brought up a shortcoming of this punching method :-


Pretty good advice huh? You can’t go wrong with it, at least from my experience in researching different arts.

Of course, I should also tell you that the punching method I use is different and is rooted in Tai Chi principles but that’s a story for another day. End of the day now. Time to prepare to go for early dinner.


Ancient Science

Today with our knowledge of physics we tend to think that we are able to take a scientific approach to the training of Tai Chi. Of course, with a scientific approach we can validate what we do.

However, there is a problem with this thinking. Do you know what it is?

The first problem lies in assuming that with our knowledge of science we know better how Tai Chi works. However, if this is the case then why has the success rate in mastering Tai Chi not increase exponentially?

The second problem lies in thinking that science must be couched in today’s science-speak. Must this be the case?

Take a look at the video below and ask yourself why we have not invented better earthquake proof buildings today yet in ancient China they have already done so and this simulation is a good example.


If you can figure out whether by using scientific formulas, models and concepts, or as I would argue it if you are able to tie what you see to the understanding of the principles of the Tai Chi Classics then you will see parallels in what we do in TaijiKinesis for the stance and how it enables us to be stable despite using a stance with narrow width.