Real Soft

This video shows a real world example of the use of soft and empty spaces in material to absorb hard impact.

In Tai Chi we apply the same principles to absord and neutralize an opponent’s attacking force and pressure.

If you train using model-free learning you might have a hard time figuring out how to do this. More so, if you do not take into consideration the principles of the Tai Chi Classics.

The Tai Chi method of Grandmaster Wei Shuren as taught through my teacher uses model-based learning to learn how to cultivate softness and emptiness to the point where it can actually be used.

Grandmaster Wei Shuren demonstrating 太極功法

For example, the principle of “receive strength do not use wrist” contains the method of receiving the opponent’s strength into emptiness. This same method is also contained in the short Skill Method (太極功法) exercise that has been passed down from Yang Chien-hou.

It is said that Yang Chien-hou used to sit on the grassy ground in the evening to practice this exercise. Though we learned it standing up it can also be practiced sitting on a chair. The key is not so much the external movements or the breathing method (there’s no special breathing method or Hen-Ha sound employed here) but in the use of intent.

The Skill Method exercise is divided into three subsets namely :-

a) Spirit Skill Method (神功法)

b) Intent Skill Method (意功法)

c) Energy Skill Method (气功法)

Learning Plan

Recently I had a quick discussion with a student on how to learn our Tai Chi.

I told him to look at Appendix B in TaijiKinesis Vol 1 at the following :-

a) Song of Form Play

b) Song of Push Hands

Song of Form Play is a general road map for what we want to achieve in training the form.

This learning is put into practice to realize the Song of Push Hands. In return what is learned in Song of Push Hands is used to further refine the learning goals of Song of Form Play.

For example, 3.1 to 3.4 in Song of Form Play is to help achieve 4.1 to 4.4 in Song of Push Hands.

This of course begs the question of what 3.1 Song of Form Play means exactly in practice. In form training one very important detail stands out to realize this objective – the positioning of the elbows.

In this regard, we avoid doing zhanzhuang because the elbow positioning in zhanzhuang is an obstacle to achieving 3.1 Song of Form Play.

If so, then it will be difficult to put 4.2 Song of Push Hands into practical usage.

This is how we can learn our Tai Chi effectively and efficiently by using the road map that is available to see the trees from the forest.

Move Less to Move More

Learning how to use the intent to control the movement of the body takes a lot of effort. The question is how to have economy of motion while being able to generate a functional force.

To solve this problem requires an examination of key issues such as :-

a) Difference between pushing and rotating

b) Addressing the key components of structural alignment and connection

c) How to rapidly and efficiently deploy the power

This video shows the learning of the above and the effort required to do a lot internally while moving very little outwardly. This is how we define our “internal” approach to Tai Chi.

End of an Era

Tong Lian Shu Dian Supplies was incorporated on 10 May 1986. When I first got to know about this book store which was dedicated to martial arts, particularly Chinese martial arts the late Mr Loh (the boss) and Ms Koh (the assistant) was running it.

Ms Koh in 2013

Ms Koh continued running the book store after the passing of Mr Loh. Though the focus was still on Chinese martial arts the declining readership for books and increasing competition from other book stores in Bras Basah Complex rendered Tong Lian a shadow of its former self.

A young Ms Koh in a photo taken with the famous Master Fu Zhongwen

Still as Ms Koh was running the book store the legacy of Tong Lian continued. And so it did until today I learned that Ms Koh passed away at home in December 2019 after a fall. The news was conveyed to a tenant on the same level as Tong Lian by the cleaner.

A young Ms Koh in a photo taken with the famous Master Sha Guozhen

The passing of Ms Koh is likely to also be the end of the road of Tong Lian Shu Dian. I know there is a financial backer who kept the shop opened and had Ms Koh running it. By now, with Ms Koh gone I don’t know if the backer will continue the business.

Ms Koh in a Tai Chi posture

Anyway, however it may be, whatever may be, will be. Rest in peace Ms Koh.

Mr Loh (2nd row, 5th from left) and Ms Koh (1st row, 5th from left)

Physical Intelligence

….rationalizing won’t get the job done.”

I love this sentence in the Introduction of the book “Physical Intelligence” by Scott Grafton. Similarly, I would say that the only way to master Tai Chi is to engage in things Tai Chi i.e. you gotta practice the form, gotta do push hands, gotta learn to apply the techniques, gotta do deep study.

Complaining about how difficult it is to master Tai Chi, how you can’t seem to understand it, how it seem unattainable, and other complaints will not get you anywhere. You just gotta do it.

Do it, do it, do it. No matter how difficult it may be.

The problem always starts when you want to master the elusive fajing. The more you yearn for it, the more elusive it gets. Hence, my teacher said it best when he said the objective is just to practice daily, not master fajing, not win medals, not get ranking promotions.

When you get your priorities right you begin to move forward. As Scott Grafton writes :-

Skills such as these are informed by “physical intelligence”: the components of the mind that allow anyone to engage with and change the world.

So don’t try to think your way to mastery. The thinking has already been done in the past (hint : Tai Chi Classics); if anything you have to do it, keep doing it, and do it some more. Otherwise, you will get stuck for a long, long time in Tai Chi non-mastery hell.

Do you know why you need to practice the solo form alone, without the joys of being part of group who share the same interests, engaging in banter, shared physical interactions?

Solo form training is a way of allowing yourself to find a way to be free of internal and external chatter, of the monkey brain and of friends. As Grafton pointed out :-

Rather, the solitude provides time for reflection and an opportunity to examine the kind of intelligence that informed human action as our species evolved.

Thus, solo training allows you to focus your mind, develop a better awareness and feel for what your body is doing. This familiarity deepens with the passage of time, that if you keep working on the same movement over and over again, using the same form so as to have a consistent frame of reference, will allow you to experience the insights hidden behind the principles of the Tai Chi Classics.

Grafton also mentioned :-

1) Physical intelligence is absolutely ruthless in requiring that knowledge be gained from direct physical experience.

2) …physical intelligence reflects learning processes that constantly tinker with a person’s performance. One never stops learning to cook, to drive, or even to walk, for that matter. It is also a knowledge that is lost from disuse; without practice you will fall on ice or off ladders.

3) …physical intelligence provides the means to establish a sense of control. Humans acquire their skills and learn to solve problems through constant experimentation.

4) There is no end to the sensing, adapting, anticipating, and accommodating that must take place for a person to act intelligently. It takes practice and know-how to do even the little things in life…

The funny thing is that I have been telling students to learn push hands as well as they study the form but most of them don’t want to do it. They don’t listen as they know what they want, or so they think. Points (3) and (4) is basically what push hands is teaching and I am glad that a scientist has pointed out the importance of such learning to acquire a skill.

Maybe now students will believe me, or maybe not. People can behave irrationally, they know that they have not mastered a skill and they seek out a person to teach them the skill and by extension how to master it, but they just don’t want to listen to how to master it. Strange behavior that I would like to see a scientist write a book on.

In the meantime, life goes on. Another lunar year, the beginning of a new lunar year cycle will soon begin. What will be, will be. What won’t be, won’t be.

Developing Range Awareness

There’s one thing I like to mention to students who come from a different Tai Chi background. Their liking for rushing in can be useful in competition emphasizing the use of wrestling but can be limiting outside of competition particularly when weapons are involved or when they are faced with the wrong opponent.

The point is this – if I have a short dagger or a pocket knife then I want to come close to you to stab and slash you. On the other hand if I have a long pole then I don’t want you to be too close otherwise I cannot take advantage of the pole’s length.

In application this means if I have a pocket knife and you like to charge in real close like the way you normally do in push hands then you just made it easy for me to stab you. But if I have a long pole then your ability to rush in can nullify my pole’s advantage.

Similarly, if I like to grapple then I want to be real close to you. But if I prefer to strike then I will need a certain distance to make my strikes effective.

The moral of the lesson here is that we should learn to control the distance between us and the opponent because the type of techniques or weapon we can use depends on a suitable working distance.

In Tai Chi we are first introduced to the idea of controlling the distance in Grasp Sparrow’s Tail. We use the movement to train our mind to focus on the opponent, being aware of the change in distance as the opponent is closing in, knowing when to react, or how to react depending on the distance we get. This depends in turn on when we respond and our speed of reaction is a function of our ability to get to the position we want quickly.

When we train the solo form students frequently do not quite grasp the importance of this point and fall short of being more rigorous in their execution of the movement. When this point is revisited subsequently in weapons training they grasp it better because if they make a mistake in controlling the range then they get their wrist tapped by the opponent’s weapon.

So do yourself a favor and pay attention to this point from Day One. In this way you have less areas to correct as you progress in your training.

Time

Ticking away the moments that make up a dull day
Fritter and waste the hours in an offhand way.
Kicking around on a piece of ground in your home town
Waiting for someone or something to show you the way.

Tired of lying in the sunshine staying home to watch the rain.
You are young and life is long and there is time to kill today.
And then one day you find ten years have got behind you.
No one told you when to run, you missed the starting gun.

So you run and you run to catch up with the sun but it’s sinking
Racing around to come up behind you again.
The sun is the same in a relative way but you’re older,
Shorter of breath and one day closer to death.

Every year is getting shorter never seem to find the time.
Plans that either come to naught or half a page of scribbled lines
Hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way
The time is gone, the song is over,
Thought I’d something more to say.

Home
Home again
I like to be here
When I can

When I come home
Cold and tired
It’s good to warm my bones
Beside the fire

Far away
Across the field
Tolling on the iron bell
Calls the faithful to their knees
To hear the softly spoken magic spell

In Singapore we never have enough time. We are constantly busy, too many things to do. However, if you want to master an art you need to find the time. Trying to say that you are really interested in an art, wanting to master it and in the next instance trying to give excuses that you have too many things on your plate is at odds with each other.

For you see, either you are interested to learn and master it or you are not. Excuses are not going to cut it unless you do not really want what you say you want.

As the song “Time” from Pink Floyd’s 1973 classic album “The Dark Side of the Moon” goes “…….every year is getting shorter never seem to find the time” and before you know it you are left behind, spent the time but not gotten anything out of it, a year older but not a year wiser.

The study of Economics will tell you that time is an opportunity cost in that the time you spend doing one activity is the time you cannot spend doing another activity. So the more time competing activities you have the less time you spend on each. Those that contribute to no gainful skill end up being time frittered away and those that contribute to gainful skill end up lacking because you were not able to put in enough time to actually make serious progress.

Your time is your time. How you use your time is up to you. How busy you are or want to be in your non-working time is under your control. Not having the time is a convenient excuse. The choice to re-allocate and re-prioritize your activities is your choice.

Learning a martial arts requires a substantial investment of your time. If you can’t put in the time you will never become really good at it. You can have the best teacher, the best training equipment, the best training partner, the best everything but until you commit to putting in the time and effort the best amounts to nothing.

Sometimes you can think a few minutes practice a day will cut it. It won’t.

Every teacher I know who is way above the average practitioner had spent hours a day for up to a decade to master their chosen art. The average time spent can be between 4-8 hours. You can do the maths – assuming 365 days X minimum 4 hours daily X 10 years = 14,600 hours.

I know some who have learned their art for more than 10 years. However, they only put in irregular practice and about 1-2 hours per session. As a result, they still lack usable skills after more than a decade.

We can chose to be like them or we can choose to elevate our skills. Either we put in the effort or we don’t. The choice is ours.