Cultish MA

Learned a new term from reading Cultish : The Language of Fanaticism which is “thought terminating cliche” which is a catchphrase meant to use to halt an argument from moving forward.

Examples would be “It is what it is”, “It’s all God’s plan”, “Everything happens for a reason”, and “Don’t think too hard about it”.

In the context of Tai Chi learning if you asked your teacher what why you can’t do a technique properly and his reply is “you are not sung enough” that’s basically a thought terminating cliche.

A non-cultish teacher would explain the why of your inability and how to work on it to get to a point where you can do it. Blaming it on your inability to sung means the teacher has no interest to teach you or he simply does not know how to get you to move forward hence the need to stop your questions from moving forward.

Other thought-terminating cliches would include :-

a) That’s how it is in our style

b) This is what is transmitted by our grandmaster (or master)

c) This is how it was taught traditionally

d) You need to be an advanced student / disciple to be taught this technique / form

e) This is a deadly skill that has been handed down by our ancestors

Reading the part of the book on the fitness industry gave me some interesting insights because in a way the fitness industry is similar to martial arts schools like are set up like a cult. I can think of two schools that I encountered in the 80s that was like that.

The lesson here for those who aspire to have a successful school that can potentially spin off into many branches within and outside the country is to run it like a cult. It does not necessary mean you must do evil, just that people like to be led. They hate to think. They just want to be told what they can get.

If you want to sell your Tai Chi and rip off students with never ending courses to reel them in here’s a few thought-terminating cliches that I modified from those I read about for the likes of SoulCycle, CorePower Yoga, Bikram Yoga, CrossFit etc which can also be used to promote your internal style whichever you are teaching :-

Fajing to the Max
No Chi, No Power
Keep Up the Qi-Power
Feel Your Qi, Release Your Power
Power is where the Dantian is

Connect The Dots


Thought provoking process.

Connect the dots.

It is my opinion that training in iKali can help one to learn Tai Chi better particularly if you don’t quite know what you have learned in your Tai Chi class.

For example, in iKali the first thing we learn is how to step along the sides of an open triangle. Now if you have been practicing your Tai Chi and wondering how to use it the moment you learn about he open triangle stepping you should experience an Eureka! moment.

This Eureka! moment is what Tuhon Apolo calls the thought provoking process. My Tai Chi teachers would call this insight.

The open triangle postulates a range relationship between you and the opponent. The first range we learn is the long range. As we go on we also touch on the mid range and short range. Proper use of footwork allows you to control the range.

Now what has this to do with Tai Chi?

Firstly, seeing the open triangle should trigger your mind to connect it to the technique of Brush Knee, Twist Step which is the most obvious example of the use of open triangle stepping.

However, the use of open triangle stepping in Tai Chi actually occurs in Grasp Sparrow’s Tail, which is the first technique you learn in the long form.

Tuhon Apolo said that combat is nothing but appreciation of distance. Master Leong is one of the rare Tai Chi masters who use the long range in push hands so most of the time he would get you before you can even close in.

If you do not know how to control the range or unable to do so you would soon find you opponent up close and personal at the close range. At the close range if you are quartered by the opponent then you will find yourself out of options to respond and be opened to attacks. This is why learning, understanding and mastering the open triangle is important.

Secondly, when a beginner starts off his learning of strikes we break down the entire technique into segments. So instead of saying “step forward and strike diagonally” we would break this into “step forward”, “chamber the stick” and “strike diagonally”.

The first instruction calls for the strike to happen as you are stepping forward. The second instruction calls for you to step forward, pause, prepare to strike by chambeing, pause, then do the strike.

If you have learned martial arts before particularly weapons you might find the second instruction laborious. I mean who would want to do it this way which is more for those who have never learned before. However, do not underestimate this way of learning. Why?

You may have learned how to move a weapon and have no problem carrying out a simple instruction such as step forward nad strike diagonally. However, if you are looking to further improve your skills and mastery of attributes you would do yourself a great service by examining how you actually move closely.

Most of us can see how we move. But can you see how you actually move from the perspective of good and proper biomechanics that allows you to execute a movement at optimal speed, power, efficiency and economical motion? Experts call this ability to see problem areas as having a quiet eye. You can acquire this ability by making a lot of learning mistakes, analyzing where and why you made the mistakes and learning to correct them.

In learning to step forward and executing the diagonal strike one movement at a time we are learning to fix the body position first before we move the arm to do the strike. In the beginning you will feel that the strike is not powerful because you are only moving the arm after your body has come to rest. You will only feel the power when you move the arm and body together. Or so it seems.

In terms of practicality we would move the arm and body at the same time. However, in learning there’s value in moving the body first, stop, then move the arm. The reason is quite simple – unless you have a high degree of awareness of how you actually move chances are your body and arm is moving out of coordination with each other.

Stepping first, stop, then move the arm is one way to fix the coordination problem. You do it a few times to learn how to “see” (see by using your eyes and sensing) how you actually move. Then you try to do it by moving arm and body together to see if you can achieve the same alignment. If you can’t then you correct the way you move until you can do it. And you keep doing it until it becomes second nature.

In Tai Chi practice most practitioners would move arm and body together, thus perpetuating the arm-body coordination problem. The smarter practitioner would look for a way to fix this problem.

When I teach Tai Chi to beginners I would teach it one sub-movement by one sub-movement. This is a time consuming way to teach but it checks that the arm and body is aligned properly each and every time. Then after this process is understood we can move on to learning the sub-movements as a flow.

If you do not get the alignment of arm and body correct chances are when you play push hands you will find your opponent constantly invading your defensive space. This is because the absence of proper alignment is akin to leaving your gates opened (or partially opened), inviting the opponent to enter.

This is not an easy way to learn Tai Chi in the beginning but it will make your learning of push hands a lot easier down the road.

What we learn in the form is how we will apply it in push hands. It is common for practitioners to learn a few forms but unable to apply even a single technique freely in push hands. When we learn push hands we learn to apply the techniques one at a time. In this way we have a more indepth understanding of how a technique can work.

The other way of learning is to approach push hands as a game of chess. In this way of doing push hands we have a series of positions from which certain techniques can be used as examples to understand what we can do in those positions. This is not something new but a method employed in some styles to teach application of techniques.

Learning something different is always challenging. It is normal for us to try to see something new from the perspective of something that we are familiar with. This enables us to pick up the information faster. However, we may also miss seeing certain things as we assume that what we know has already enabled us to see everything.

The generation of insights come from seeing broadly and indepth. So always keep an open mind. As the saying goes you can bring a horse to water but you can’t make it drink.

The Internal Principles of Abakada

In my previous post I wrote about Abakada.

What I left out is that Abakada is a good exercise for learning and discovering the physics that we commonly think of as associated with the internal arts.

Here is how I look at it – whether you want to classify your art as internal or external is irrelevant to the question of optimizing body motion for the purpose of speed, power and change in the application of techniques.

It is because different practitioners have different beliefs, viewpoints and understanding that we end up with different models. But if you cast aside the whole style / system argument and just examine the question as one of how to move then you will probably find more consensus than disagreements.

For this reason I prefer to look at books on physics, biomechanics and anatomy cause they are martial arts style free. What matters is that they talk about the body in motion rather than the “my style is better than your style” argument.

What do you find in internal arts that you will also find in Abakada?

Hand leads the body, body leads the hand is a common internal arts principle. In Chen style Tai Chi they say that the first routine is body leads hand and in the second routine the hand leads the body. In Yang style we do both separately at first. Once your practice reach a certain level of skill you will find that you can do both within the same technique.

In Abakada strike number 10 is an example of stick (or sword) leads the body at first then body takes over and lead the stick. Why is it this way?

To move fast the hand (or stick or sword) must lead the body which is what happens at the beginning of the movement. However, to generate power one must use the waist / hip / legs. So towards the end of strike number 10 the body takes over and does a gravitional drop to generate power for the downward slashing motion.

In Chen style Tai Chi this is normally done as a stomping motion. In Yang style our stomping motion is very subtle which is why you can’t really see it. In many versions of Abakada this is performed as a body drop via a squatting motion.

Since I practice stomping in my Yang style I do this as a stomping motion, however, I do not stomp the ground hard. Instead, I use what looks like a stomping action to create an accelerated downward motion. Depending on how I manage the time lag between the movement of the waist, upper body and arm it can either be like a chopping movement or a whipping motion.

The other motion that is used a lot in Abakada is opening and closing of the body. When we do Abakada we have a motion of the hand holding the stick and a motion of the other empty hand. If I practice Abakada at a much slower pace then this opening and closing will be obvious particularly in strike number 7 and 9.

A lesser motion is that of the spiral which is quite obvious in strike number 8. If you take away the stick strike number 8 would resemble Xingyi’s Heng Quan.

Strike number 11 and 12 highlights the use of momentum by massing the body, moving the different parts and stopping the body at the same time. To make the movement stronger for strike number 11 we add a sudden acceleration towards the end of the movement.

Alphabet for the Broadsword

I like this exercise called Abakada in iKali. Abakada means ABC, that is the beginning of words in the Filipino alphabet.

Sometimes Abakada is also called Abecedario by other PTK teachers. I understand that Grand Tuhon taught different versions of Abakada at various times.

A version I always see is this one below :-

When I first saw it I was surprised that it didn’t resemble what I had learned. Then I looked again and realized that the strikes are the same. Its the body structure and footwork that is different.

This popular version looks very smooth. I can understand why it makes for a good introduction to basic strikes.

The version we do in iKali is more dynamic, more aggressive in feel especially when I do it fast.

I find the iKali version a good companion study form for the Tai Chi broadsword. This is what I like about the Abakada exercise :-

a) Good exercise for basic thrusting and slashing attacks

b) Teaches the role of the empty hand in helping to defend, attack and counterattack

c) Rapid stepping and body angling for defence and getting into range to deliver the strikes

d) Smooth transition between strikes even when the strikes are performed with power

e) Good exercise for learning how to use the body and footwork to generate power in the strikes

Imagery vs Scientific Model

There’s something that feels good when you have a model that is explainable using science. Its kinda like having something validated by the establishment and so should be more readily accepted by the masses.

Does this mean that we should slap a scientific model on everything that we do in Tai Chi?

Have you ever read a scientific paper or even watched a video showing a person performing movements with illustration overlaid on the movements showing how the model works? Did you then try the same technique following the model to see how well it works? Try it. It would be interesting to see how far you get with it.

My classic example comes from an old Wing Chun book in which the master said the Bong Sau should be done with a 135 degrees bent in the elbow. I still remember my senior’s reaction when I told him this information – he asked why not 136 degrees? Or 128 degrees? To which I would ask how does a normal practitioner measure this angle and ensure compliance when performing the movement quickly.

In the old days in China they do have science, well maybe not the science that we know but there’s a hell lot of science in China. If you are interested to know more take a look at the information that has been published to date by the Needham Research Institute.

So why did Tai Chi masters not apply scientific models in their explanations? One simple reason is that many are not literate or literate in the sense that we are scientifically literate today. But I suspect, at least from my own experience, that it is probably easier to use imagery to put a point across. I mean, why make complicated what is simple.

Going back to the example of Bong Sau I still have no idea how to ensure that I get that 135 degrees each time I do it. However, it is far easier to use my eyes to line up my fingers and wrist to a reference line that I can easily visualize to perform a Bong Sau that works. The angles can change, the distance can differ but as long as I line up the parts properly I will always get that functional Bong Sau. If you do your Bong Sau this way you will achieve the principle of “Bong Sau does not remain”. If not, you end up with a posing Bong Sau that is commonly seen.

I don’t need a knowledge of science to make it work. Neither do I need high IQ to understand it. Its that simple. Doing the Bong Sau is easy because you can see your own hand in front of you.

It is more difficult if you try to align the different parts of your body to perform a strike. One reason is because due to their position you can’t align the parts in a linear manner. The different parts are positioned such that to draw a line through them would reveal this to be a winding path from the foot to the hand.

So how does one align them in a split second? If you take longer than a split second to do it then this would not be practical to use in combat. This is where the use of imagery will allow you to do so, in this case the image is as if one is trying to string together nine pearls placed in a non-linear path from top to bottom.

When I was writing this I had a look to see how other writers try to explain this principle and man, I can’t believe the number of non-explanations out there passing off as an explanation. Reading them I understand why some masters are reluctant to explain how to achieve this in practice, they just don’t want the snake oil sellers to pass off what they read as their own.

If you use the right imagery you can use the 9 crooked pearls to fajing throughout the entire Yang style form and you can do it such that it is imperceptible, giving the impression that there is no fajing in the form. There is, its just that its not the suddenly slow, suddenly fast type of movement that we think of as representative of fajing, kinda like explosion (outward) vs implosion (inward).

When you practice doing fajing using the 9 crooked pearls you will have some interesting insights on the nature of movement and how it interacts with Newton’s laws of motion.

Updated Outlook on Learning

When you learn a martial art what do you really want out of it? The art, the tradition, the lineage, the applications or the skills?

This sounds like a dumb question in that when you learn a system are you not supposed to get all of them?

Yes and no.

In some schools you do get all of them. In other schools you might get some of one or the other but not necessarily all of them.

It is rare to find a school that offers all of them so the next best thing to do is to decide what we want. I don’t know about you but to me I would rank them in terms of skills, applications first and foremost; the rest would be good to have but not as important.

This is how I look at it. Any art is built around a set of assumptions, principles and strategies. They give birth to the techniques. The training for the techniques when consolidated gives rise to the system. The system is taught under a brand which we commonly know as the style through which the entity, the school, propagates. Over time this becomes a tradition.

In life nothing remains constant. Everything changes whether for better or for worse. Unless we happen to grow an extra arm or leg tomorrow chances are the way we can move will not change, meaning there are only so many ways we can move whether standing upright or along the ground.

What we chose to learn can be due to preference, belief or experiential. Given the right circumstances every style is valid. So is every teaching as long as the teacher is able to explain it properly. Over time the original focus of a style, the reason for its founding can change, inadvertently changing its effectiveness in another direction. Over time the original objective may be lost and what once was, is no longer.

The only constant in all this is the person learning whatever the chosen art is. How well we learn what we learn can be due to how hard and how much we train, just as how well we learn it. Since it takes two hands to clap the role of the teacher is just as important. If the teacher being the beckoning finger points you in the wrong direction or a few degrees off the intended course you could end up being not where you want to be.

In a way uncle Bruce Lee is correct to advocate learning by absorbing what is useful and rejecting the rest. Some things I like but no matter how much I like it I will never excel in it. I like to do high kicks but when I saw how tall everyone else was when I was living in Australia I decided I had to forget about high kicks no matter how much I want to be like Bruce Lee. I still use some kicks but now they follow the principle of not going above my waist height.

Over time I realized another thing – everyone learns differently. Some things others can see and do, I can’t. So I do what I can see and do. Some things are easier to do than others. For example, some people can kick high easily, I could never do that. I mean, its good to be able to kick high but its not me and the only high kick I do is this jumping kick from the Open-Close Tai Chi form.

I also realized that age can dampen the things that we are good at. I noticed that as one ages the balance starts to go so being able to kick high, being able to drop into a really low stance, kneeling down to punch and then quickly standing up or just moving on the ground to grapple becomes more challenging. The mind may be willing but the body is not.

Training hard is laudable but training too hard, too much can only lead to pain possibly in perpetuity. It might sound heroic to live with pain but I think once you actually suffer for your art you may wish otherwise. I think this is why in the old days I commonly hear people say 日子有工 which means skill comes over time.

This is not to say that if you just keep practicing you get the skill. You do need the repetitions, its just that its telling you not to overtrain but to keep working on it. In a way its like how you keep staring at something but never really see it until you give it a rest. Having the details is good but you need to train to make them work and to really get it you need to attain that “it” moment, the insight that in that moment everything clicks together, what we call 心得 in Chinese.

Insights are difficult to generate because you need to do a movement enough to know it, not the mental knowing but the physical knowing, the proprioceptive feel of your body in relation to a mental schema. Learning a movement can be easy or difficult. The easy movements are not always easy, it just looks easy but they conceal hidden possibilities. The difficult movements are so either because they are difficult to do due to physical challenges or they have a lot of steps.

The real killers though are the movements which somehow involve contradictory princples. Let’s say you want to hit your opponent really fast. To achieve this you would want to be be non-telegraphic, able to move fast and be as near to the target as possible. However, being fast can be at odds to being powerful because to have power you need to chamber your strike and having sufficient range for your chosen strike.

If you have to chamber your strike you would need to bring your hand back to your body which means you will telegraph your intention to strike. Of course, now you have a good distance to generate momentum but the same distance also means the opponent can see you from futher away. So what do you do to overcome the conflicting requirements?

This is where with sufficient training and that sudden insight you will realize that the principles don’t actually conflict in the way you think they do. This is where having a teacher will go a long way to helping you solve this problem unless you are smart enough to figure it out. Some of you might think it is difficult to solve the problem by yourself but it is actually possible to do so. If not, how did you think the founder (of whichever style) managed to create his system in the first place.

So when you learn a system, go for the attributes. Learning a complete system, a traditional system is not as important. If your basics suck you will never get far even if you spend decades on learning and practicing. But if your basics are good you can keep improving and reach a good level of skill even if you know but a bit. In one of the arts I am learning they say the way you move is your certificate. This is a good way to look at it.

Innovating or Rediscovering Application

Changing the tradition or rediscovering what was once there?

Still its a good video. Love the part about controlling the distance and example of the pen.

I’m not a Karate expert but thinking from the perspective of using the Tai Chi form a lot of the techniques can’t be used without an understanding of distance, particularly how to use the proper distance and just as important, angle, posture and timing.

Without distance, angle, posture and timing we will end up too close, basically taking away our choices of techniques that can be used. When we are too close wrestling techniques become relevant, not so much the techniques we see in the Tai Chi form.

It is not surprising then that we see pummeling and wrestling throws being used in push hands nowadays. It is not necessarily a bad thing. It is just that we are wasting our time learning the form in the first place.

Instead of learning the form we would be better served learning exercises like pummeling, arm drags, doing ties, level changes, penetration drills, takedowns, etc. These drills can be readily applied to how we do push hands nowadays and they make more sense at that range and distance.

The video below shows arm drag drills that can be readily incorporated into push hands.

Did you have a feeling that the arm drag at 2:04 to 2:14 looks familiar?

You should because the arm drag is basically the first movement that you do when changing from Right Brush Knee, Twist Step to Left Brush Knee, Twist Step.

The stepping forward to opponent’s back, using the left hand to control his lower back, while shooting your right arm across his neck is one example of using Brush Knee, Twist Step to do a takedown.

If you take the time to examine how to use Brush Knee, Twist Step this could possibly be an application you will come up with. Or if you do research, apply Bruce Lee’s absorb what is useful, reject what is useless advice, you might come across the use of arm drags in wrestling, put two and two together and end up with a similar application.

Why Learn E4?

Entry 4 (E4) is a basic technique in iKali. Tuhon Apolo said that techniques like E4 are the bread and butter techniques.

One unusual aspect of iKali is that the more advanced techniques are taught first rather than later. The reason is advanced techniques require a longer period of learning and immersion so nothing better to learn it from the beginning rather than later so that we can chalk up the number of practice repetitions.

If Tuhon Apolo had not said it I might have dismissed E4 as a simple basic technique. I mean what could be advanced about a straightforward strike to the temple followed by a strike to the knee. But as they say the devil is in the details and this will only be revealed as we travel along the path.

I should know that E4 is important because the next technique is Entry 6 (E6) which is basically E4 plus two more strikes. This is followed by what we call Tap for short and is the E4 strike with a tapping movement inserted in between.

In iKali Tuhon Apolo wants everyone to get functional fast so we do E4 as a straightforward series of strikes, first to the temple, chamber back to the hip, strike to the knee, then bring back to shoulder.

What makes E4 a useful technique is not immediately obvious at this stage. But after a number of repetitions which Tuhon Apolo defined as 10,000 repetitions as the minimum then we move beyond the functional stage to the technical stage. This is when we pay more attention to developing the details. These details are the keys to developing the ability to apply E4.

I like to say the opponent is not stupid. So if we try to strike the opponent in the temple using the first strike in E4 it will fail cause opponent is not going to stand there. He will block, deflect, evade, move away, whatever it takes not to get hit and try to hit you back.

Once we understand this point then we know what just trying to hit someone without a plan is pretty much a recipe for failure. We need a strategy if we want to score hits. In the famous 36 strategems it is said “Make a sound in the east, then strike in the west” and this is exactly the first application of E4 in that we feint to the temple and strike to the knee.

If the opponent moves his knee then we follow up with a strike to the arm or temple, whichever target is nearer and this is what E6 is about. If opponent intercepts our first strike to his temple and then attempts to hit our low body instead, then we can tap the stick downwards to deflect his attack and counter with our strike to his knee – this is one possible application of Tap. Another possible application is that the Tap is used as a timing disruptor to cause the opponent to freeze for a split second by attacking his front foot. Then before the opponent can react we quickly go for his knee.

These are examples of how E4 can be used. Once we add in some of the other strikes the possibilities are immense. So never underestimate a simple basic technique. The lessons learned from E4 can also be applied in Tai Chi push hands.

Sinawali Training for Open-Close

Opening and closing is a biomechanical motion used in the internal arts for giving power to movements and issuing power.

I taught a number of arm swinging exercises in SKD which works the opening and closing motion. Some of these drills are embedded in SKD Training Sequence No. 1.

Another way we can enhance the training of opening and closing is via the Sinawali exercise taught in iKali. Why I said iKali rather than FMA is because the thrust and slash motions are taught in a very specific manner in iKali.

As Tuhon Apolo pointed out in the online disussion below iKali is not “my” (as in “I”, that is “me”) Kali but indigenous Kali.

The phrase indigenous Kali is in reference to the flavor of how old masters of FMA would move. This flavor is largely missing in today’s FMA and Tuhon Apolo wants to keep this alive. If you go to this page you can see photos of famous FMA masters and their postures when applying their respective art.

In Chinese martial arts what distinguishes one Tai Chi style from another is not the name or the arrangement of the form but the flavor of the movements.

So when you look at Chen style you would never mistaken it for Yang style because of the low stances and spiral movements. On the other hand, Wu (Hao) style would differ from the other Tai Chi styles in the unique upright body structure, minimalist arm movements.

Why the differences exist is due to how the techniques are applied and the power generation method. At times, the environment in which the art is used also plays a part.

iKali is configured to train us to acquire this unique flavor of moving. The Sinawali exercise is one way of learning to do this.

The basic Sinawali exercise which is performed with all high strikes can work the body to learn how to move with correct biomechanics in place.

From my practice I conclude that :-

a) 1st movement is both sides of the body open and then close, and vice versa

b) 2nd movement is one side close, one side open

c) 3rd movement is like the 1st movement in opening and closing both sides

When you add in the indigenous body structure flavor you can feel the body opening and closing even better.

I don’t like to try to turn Kali into a Tai Chi-like exercise. I prefer to do it as I learned it. The reason is because currently many in the Wing Chun community are adding Tai Chi to their styles but refusing to acknowledge it, instead trying to give all sorts of excuses of how their style is internal. Anyone who has seen the photos of Wing Chun practitioners in the 60s and 70s would no doubt notice a disparity in the flavor of the postures then and now.

Training Kali as is puts you outside the box and presents you with a different perspective of how a biomechanical motion can be learned. In solving the question of how to do Sinawali fast, with power, efficiency, timing, flow, etc you will go through a learning curve.

Some of the things you learn here are similar to what other styles regardless of nationality would also do. In Tai Chi we can find opening and closing in Yang style but its is not easy to learn.

Wu (Hao) style would be a better choice for learning how to do opening and closing but you have to minimize and delete a lot of unnecessary outer movements in order to isolate the opening and closing motion, feel it better and then be able to refine it. It can be quite a tall order for beginners. An alternative is to explore how to learn this useful mechanic via Sinawali. It may be easier or it may not be. I suspect it will probably be easier.

Game of Bridges 2

Bridging with the inclusion of positioning, shifting and aligning the attacking lines.

Why do we learn to bridge using contact? We need to use our eyes when there is no contact but when we come close the sense of contact would work better. More so, if we are older and our eyes can’t see as well or as fast.

Our sense of touch can be educated and refined over time. The older you get the better your sense of touch. Using touch does not mean we have to play a passive game. The use of touching can elevate our active game. This is why you find that when you play hands with masters they seem to be able to react before you have even finished your movement. A master would always seem to be a few steps ahead of you. Someone like Grandmaster Cheong of Ngok Gar Kuen fame can deliver 6-7 movements before I finished processing how to deal with his first movement.

For the learning of Tai Chi you can think of playing hands as the living lab for learning how to use the forms that you learn. You can try out, analyze, test out, repeat many times, increase the speed and pressure, to find what works best for you, and even iron out your weak points.