To Be A Tai Chi Teacher

What’s your long term goal for learning Tai Chi?

One students wants to teach and I agreed to allow her to do so but on condition that she should know what she is doing.

From my point of view knowing what you are doing is more important than just possessing a certificate that purportedly attests that you are competent. This is because in reality a certificate does not really say as much as you think it says.

I have seen enough incompetent teachers put out by cookie cutter schools to know this. Instead of promoting the art, such teachers end up killing interest in the art when students realize that the art that they are learning is not what it is passed off to be down the road.

To be a proper Tai Chi teacher is not just a matter of being accepted as a disciple, of having a lineage, a piece of scroll, certificate, tons of photos taken with masters and so on. Such things are necessary to be a famous (ming = Chinese word for famous) master but not sufficient to be an informed (ming = Chinese word for understanding) master.

So when picking a teacher to learn from ask yourself whether your teacher is one who is “ming” (famous) or / and who is *ming* (understanding Tai Chi) because ultimately you don’t want to be the blind following the one-eyed master.

So what does it take to be *ming* teacher?

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Talk About Chi….. Not

If you have nothing better to do on a slow day you may be interested to take a look at this video that a student asked me to see.

I found it an interesting talk but it does nothing for me as far as mastering Tai Chi is concerned. The reason – it fails to address the most important part of the process for mastering Tai Chi which is how to use the intention.

Granted the topic is on Chi and not mastering Tai Chi but the speaker talked about flow from the research of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi which I guess is why my student thought is related to what I wrote about in this blog post on Movement. I have read about Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s work. However, what we do in our Tai Chi is more than just flow. To us flow occurs when the variables are finetuned to work optimally with each other.

Perhaps Flow is a good explanation for non-Tai Chi experiences. But does it really apply to Tai Chi? Perhaps. Somewhat. Totally? No.

If you don’t know your Tai Chi well enough you would think that Flow is a good explanation. Here’s a poser – if you think you understand what Tai Chi is about try explaining what the Tai Chi Classics are about and better still demonstrate their meaning in practice. If you can’t give a consistent and rationale explanation then you know where your level of mastery really is.

So that’s as far I would go where flow in movement is concerned. If we are talking about flow in the face of resistance and pressure from an opponent that’s a different matter. In this case Chi is not as important. Instead, the intention and what our mind is doing is more important. As the ancestors in our Tai Chi lineage says “No Yi, No Chi”.

“No Yi, No Chi” should be self-explanatory and most readers would think they understand what this means……….except they don’t really understand it until they can actually do it by proving that they can clearly differentiate the use of Yi versus what I would term murky movement i.e. movement in which the intention is not clearly distinguished.

Another problem I have with this talk is ……….. too much talk. Anyone can talk, going round and round the bush, throwing in lots of buzz words that ultimately doesn’t leave you any clearer to begin with before and after listening to it.

It would have been easier to do a demo, perhaps get the participants to try out and go around to show them what they think and what really is Chi. This talk kinda reminds me of those authors who write Tai Chi books who write tons of words and its fine………… as long as they don’t actually try to show you a demo at which point you can see who really knows their stuff and who is really talking about something they think they understand but not really.

Listen to the part beginning at 45:29 where the speaker mentioned about circle and square with the circle being soft and square being hard. Then the speaker went on about word pairings in this vein instead of explaining further on how the use of Yi can actually render a square soft and a circle hard. This is what my students would consider the non-intuitive aspects of Tai Chi. However, as much as I would like to claim credit for it I am not the first person to write about this paradox of principles.

If I want to put it mystically I would say that the Yi renders the square soft by infusing and surrounding it with Chi. If I want to draw the religious crowd I would maybe draw a parallel with some ancient goddess coming to earth, bestowing magical powers on Tai Chi practitioners who worship her by dancing the form under the rays of the full moon (clothes optional for the nudist New Agey crowd), transforming their Chi as it flows and courses through the major pathways and acupoints to breakthrough the chakras (yeah, while we are at it attract the Yoga feel good crowd too), moving the power through the serpentine spine to exit the crown of the head, soaring through to the heavens and unifying us to the mother earth <pant, pant, I am breathless from merely reading this>.

In discussing a difficult topic like Tai Chi it is a common practice to conceal one’s lack of understanding by talking about the topic sideways, preferably pull in a lot of different threads to distract us from the fact that the main topic was not really addressed. Classic self perception disorder as to one’s actual level of understanding is rife even amongst so-called masters. Fortunately, for them most people don’t know enough about the subject to catch them out. Thus, it is true that in the kingdom of the blind the one-eyed man is king.

After 30 minutes of listening to the talk the speaker has still not clearly defined what Chi is, how to know that Chi is real, what it feels like, how one can cultivate it, how long does one need to train to get it, and so on. As it is the talk is like taking a cruise to nowhere, just sail out to the high seas somewhere and come back. Yet, the best explanations I have heard will hit the bull’s eye within minutes, not meander round and round after 78 minutes. Towards the latter part of the video the speaker even touched on neural networks to which I would still want to know how is this related to Chi?

I know some people would like this talk but it does nothing for me. I actually learned more reading Walter Isaacson’s biography of Albert Einstein, not so much about Chi or Flow but about academic life, thinking, physics, stuff that can help move you along in understanding Tai Chi.

Consider the following examples :-

Example A from the chapter The Light-Beam Rider (page 3 – 4 in my copy) :-

Gravity, he figured, was a warping of space and time, and he came up with the equations that describe how the dynamics of this curvature result from the interplay between matter, motion, and energy. It can be described by using another thought experiment. Picture what it would be like to roll a bowling ball onto the two-dimensional surface of a trampoline. Then roll some billiard balls. They move toward the bolwing ball not because it exerts some mysterious attraction but because of the way it curves the trampoline fabric. Now imagine this happening in the four-dimensional fabric of space and time.

Example B from the chapter The Lovers (page 83 in my copy) :-

The essence of Mach’s philosophy was this, in Einstein’s words: “Concepts have meaning only if we can point to objects to which they refer and to the rules by which they are assigned to these objects.” In other words, for a concept to make sense you need an operational definition of it, one that describes how you would observe the concept in operation.

 

Can you see the parallels between what Einstein talked about and Tai Chi. I have used Example A to explain Tai Chi to one of my students.

Conclusion and recommendation – if you have but 1 hour and 18 minutes to spare (that’s the length of the video) you are better off reading about Einstein than listening to this babble about Chi that was not really. As Donald Trump would say – Sad.

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Relatively Speaking

In terms of skill in Tai Chi it is all relative. This means that the better you can do something than the other person the more you can feel what the other person’s skill is like.

For a long time X’s hands are like the unsettled rooster in Zhuang Tzu’s story of the Fighting Rooster. At the slightest touch X’s hands would resist. It took years of training before he let go of his strength more and become less resisting and more settled enabling him to adhere and listen better.

Now X has reached a level where he said when he felt Y’s hands he could feel it resisting and he could use the resistance against Y. Before when X’s hands were strong and resisting he would not be able to say this because he can only use strength to overcome a weaker person.

With the passage of time he can feel another person’s hands so much better, so much so that relatively speaking the other person, in this case Y, seems to be resisting a lot. This is why in learning Tai Chi time put in leads to the acquiring of kung fu, meaning you can makes theories and debate all day and all night long but without putting in the practice over years the skill won’t grow.

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Meeting Standard of Performance

Last week I had the pleasure to inform a student J that he has met the minimum standard whereby he is competent to give public demonstration of the first section of the form.

This is not the same as saying that he can also go out and play hands with people because push hands is one area that we have temporarily put aside as he was not getting the most benefit from doing it initially.

However, now that J has attained the minimum standard learning push hands should proceed smoother and faster. He has already picked up GM Wang’s waist bowing method of fajing within a few minutes of learning. Now he only has to work this into a few fundamental techniques to raise the level of familiarity and competency in using it.

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About Movement

I remember seeing this video. I was amazed not so much by the study itself but by the fact that the researchers said they were doing a study on Tai Chi but what was shown on the video was not Tai Chi but Baji! There is a write-up here and notice – no mention that it  was Baji that was studied instead of Tai Chi.

 

It is even more astonishing when you consider that the researchers were post-grads and you would think that they should know something about what they were actually studying versus what they thought (or led to believe) they were studying.

How I came to write about this topic today was somehow or rather I was talking about the Tai Chi Classics with my student and mentioned this video. I was surprised to learn that this lab had also done a study on him performing Tai Chi though I can’t find any information on it.

This early study is interesting but seem to miss out on a lot. This could be due to the fact of measurement instrumentation constraint, that the researchers did not know their topic enough to ask the right questions or that their focus is just on a specific aspect. I would say that the research paper here is better by comparison. At least, it really is on Tai Chi.

Still I would think that a proper study on Tai Chi has yet to be conducted. My thinking is that the first step is to identify a master, not so much by paper certificate or claims of lineage but by whether he really knows his topic. Herein, lies the first obstacle in that most researchers would not know enough about Tai Chi to be able to tell the difference.

Assuming that the first hurdle is passed the next part is to determine what is a suitable topic to delve into. I would love to see a study on the role of principles from the Tai Chi Classics in the practice and application of Tai Chi. The objective of the study to prove that these principles are consistent in optimizing the method in regards to movement efficiency and effectiveness.

To study this would require an array of instruments such as a high speed camera, motion sensors, shock sensors, temperature monitors, infrared camera, brain monitoring and software. It would also be important for the subject to narrate what he is thinking of as a movement is performed and correlate that to the part of the brain that is involved.

For example, if you want to study if The Song of Peng is a valid principle or mere flowery words it would be useful to call out each line to the test subject and capture what is occurring in his mind and body. From here you can compare and verify if he is actually doing what the principles called for or doing something entirely different.

For example, The Song of Peng calls for the energy to be like water supporting a moving boat. How should this be actualized? The test subject will narrate his thinking, after which he will demonstrate that the movement just performed is consistent with the real life example of water supporting a moving boat. The video below is an example of how water supports a boat :-

So if the test subject is doing a movement that is consistent with what The Song of Peng said then you will be able to discern at least some of the principles mentioned in the video above in play.

When I was talking to my student we were talking about An (Push). I showed him what the problem was when trying to apply power against a resisting opponent and how to solve it. The way most Tai Chi practitioners do their push is something like what is described below on how to push a cart properly to move heavy objects in an industrial warehouse :-

cart

I am not saying the above way of doing Push (like pushing a heavy cart) is wrong. You can read that the cart pushing posture is consistent with biomechanics (you can read the entire paper here). My question is whether this alone is consistent with the principles outlined in The Song of Push. You can read a translation below taken from Lee Scheele’s website :-

What is the meaning of An energy?
When applied it is like flowing water.
The substantial is concealed in the insubstantial.
When the flow is swift it is difficult to resist.
Coming to a high place, it swells and fills the place up;
meeting a hollow it dives downward.
The waves rise and fall,
finding a hole they will surely surge in.

I am sure after reading The Song of Push you would agree that pushing a cart is nothing like Tai Chi’s Push movement. There are two ways to apply Push. The first is to move in and just apply the push. The second is in the midst of pushing hands you apply the push and your opponent resists hard.

I contend that it is in the latter that we can check our compliance to the principles outlined in the Song of Push honestly. Imagine this – you put both hands on your opponent’s arm and you push hard until his arm is jammed against his body. He should be pushed out and off balance.

But he managed to lean in, place his weight on his front leg and brace against the push. Now you have a problem. You can move back to try pushing in again but chances are your opponent will follow you and counter-attack. You can also dig in and push harder. They are two possible options but again, how are they in compliance with the principles. At this point some practitioners would say the principles are not true, just stuff made up by scholars to fool the gullible and elevate the art for snobbery purposes.

However, what if the principles are true? If so, then how do you prove that they are true and workable? Therein, lies the problem.

In my explanation of one example to overcome resistance without stepping back or changing to another attack I used the principle of “The waves rise and fall,…” to borrow the strength from the resistance and return it. I came across the explanation below which is related to the explanation I provided :-

cart2

I applied this principle through the fajing principle mentioned in Grandmaster Wang Yongquan’s book on Tai Chi (book cover shown below, from TaijiKinesis Official Handbook Volume 2 – Background) :-

cart3

So you see a movement applied properly should be traceable to the principles and not just rely on I say, you say or master says. Otherwise, we could be doing something wrong and not realize it, never mind it looks beautiful outwardly.

Note – doing right does not mean we must all do it the same way – it just means that we should have the proper principles running through it. So if I were to apply Push and using the below principle from Peng as well the flavor would be different :-

The entire body is filled with springlike energy,
opening and closing in a very quick moment.

This then is the thing about the nature of movement in Tai Chi. You can say same, same but not the same. This means that all Tai Chi are the same because the principles are similar if not the same. If the principles are different then we are not the same. No matter, all Tai Chi styles share the same core principles; for example lowered elbows, sunk shoulders. It is the unique principles of the respective lineages that make them stand out.

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Dominoes 3

This is unexpected. Xingyiquan has been touted as an aggressive internal art; like a cannon on wheels. However, in this match the xingyi practitioner is more like a cannon stuck in the mud.

 

I asked my student if he had seen this as he had previously learned xingyi. It was surprising to hear hear him say that he got out of xingyi because of the over-emphasis on power, making him stuck to the spot and unable to move.

I can understand this considering that after so many years I am still working on getting rid of his old habits. For example, when I throw a strike from the side his instinct is to block it rather than to use the angle to absorb the strike. I pointed out the part of the form where we practice this.

The key to nailing this part of the form is the position. However, it is common for students to be obsessed by the strike in the movement. Hence, when they do that they will overlook the importance of the secondary hand.

When the hand is not positioned properly his attempt to block the strike caused his balance to be affected, leaving him vulnerable to follow-up strikes. With proper use of angles and stance he can neutralize the strike with lesser movement and keep his balance intact.

The other point is that if he tried to block the side strike he would be vulnerable to a chain of follow-up strikes from the same hand that he just blocked. This sequence of strikes from the study of Pok Khek Kuen made a nice study in how to link up strikes to overcome attempts to stop it. For the person under attack it is a good practice in not freezing up.

To remedy the problem fortunately his form training has made it much easier for him to pick up on the corrective skill right away. The only thing to do now is to keep drilling it until it becomes second nature.

This was also the right time to re-emphasize and explain again why proper study of push hands is important. An important point to keep in mind is that push hands is not sumo shoving so we should refrain from mindless shoving matches which is not useful.

The study of push hands should include distancing, spacing, angling, positioning, stepping, guarding, changes, flow etc. For example, an old habit that is also commonly seen in other students in the tendency to move back whilst still staying in the path of a strike.

The practice of push hands is to eliminate this response which allows our opponent to continue with the attack. Instead, we should study how the principle and strategy of Step Back, Repulse Monkey is to be used to teach us how to instantly counter-attack and not give a free pass to the opponent.

We should keep in mind that combat is about movement. Hence, in our Tai Chi we do not practice zhanzhuang which can promote a habit of standing there trying to resist an opponent that is moving around and launching missiles at us. No matter how rooted you are or how powerful you are in issuing power if you get tagged in the head you will go down. So learn to move and stop standing there like a punching bag.

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Dominoes

It started with Tai Chi versus MMA.

In the space of the last two days we have two more Style X versus MMA / Sanda / Boxing. And man, its badddddddd…………. so bad that the only thing I can think of is dominoes falling……..

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Last night I saw a link to a Baguazhang versus Sanda – see below :-

 

Did I wish for a video that sees a traditional Chinese martial art prevailing? Yes, that would be nice. But realistically I was not holding my breath and my worst fears came true as you can see above.

And if I thought that was the end of it this morning another video; Wudang vs Boxing. This was worse…….

You might wonder why as a teacher of Tai Chi I would highlight the bad publicity of Tai Chi and other Chinese martial arts. Why not?

Especially when there are lessons to be learned………

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