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Top Five Myths About Chinese Martial Arts – and Why YOU Need to Know Them…

You personally may or may not be interested in martial arts. As you know, though, the link between Chinese internal martial arts in particular and the radical health benefits of Qi Gong is extremely close. Understanding more about how these arts really function can open whole new vistas to you in your own quest for health, personal resilience and Warriorship. Read on and see for yourself!

It looks so pretty, but it’s not really practical in combat:

While it’s true that many Chinese martial arts in many places are taught as forms of health maintenance or gymnastic exercise, and it is useless for combat when it’s taught that way, many of them were in fact combat-tested. Internal martial arts like Tai Chi Chuan (“Grand Ultimate Fist”), Xingyi Chuan (“Mind-Form Boxing”) and Bagua Zhang (“Eight Trigram Palm”) were used by caravan guards against bandits and even by imperial palace guards. Xingyi itself originated as a battlefield martial art, which explains why it moves straight ahead and never retreats. This is not to say that Wushu, the official, state-sanctioned Shaolin hybrid in China, hasn’t perverted the arts into a mere gymnastic exercise or that there aren’t martial arts, particularly in the north, that waste far too much energy to be practical. The point is, authentic combat training is still practiced alongside exercise and health-oriented teaching methods.

Something else not widely understood is that these arts were developed with melee situations in mind involving multiple opponents. Much of the ethos of movement evolved from this. Bagua, for example, is designed to take on up to eight opponents at once, the maximum number that can practically fight against you at the same time.

Why do they fight so close? In real life you’d have to keep your distance or it would be suicide!

Quite the opposite. Many Chinese systems, especially the Taoist internal systems, as well as Wing Chun (which was designed explicitly to defeat the Shaolin system), prefer to move in close whenever possible. There are several reasons for this. One is that these martial arts specialise in controlling the close-in space, something that makes them lethal against anyone not taught to do that. Another is that they use methods such as Push Hands and Sticking Hands to train sensitivity and responsiveness to the slightest movement in the opponent’s body. When you practice these arts, you don’t even need to see what the opponent is doing; you can feel it and allow your body to react instantly – this is much faster than reacting to visual cues. Again, this is part of the martial arts’ melee mentality. They’re not thinking about fighting in a ring where opponents can dance around and keep their distance. They’re thinking about fighting multiple opponents in melee situations such as on the battlefield or in confined spaces, where that’s not an option and you have to finish off your opponents one after another and very quickly.

Experience shows time and time again, that people trained exclusively in martial arts that habitually stay at medium to long range, such as Japanese/Okinawan Karate or Korean Taekwondo, are almost invariably defeated in short order by people trained in these Chinese systems. This video, showing the legendary Wing Chun master, Ip Man (played by Donnie Yen) is a case in point. Warning: it’s a bit brutal in places, although Master Ip is positively sportsman-like compared to his Japanese captors! Ip Man, by the way, was the one who taught the legendary Bruce Lee.

 

All those flourishing movements they do with their swords are just for show and would be completely impractical in real life:

The essential difference between almost all Chinese fencing styles and almost all Western fencing styles is the emphasis in terms of number of opponents. In all the Chinese sword forms you see people twirling their blades very rapidly and turning very rapidly, and the Western reaction is, “oh, that’s just for show and completely impractical in real combat.” But what they don’t realise is that the reason for this twirling action and rapid turning is that the form assumes you are fighting multiple opponents in melee combat in quick succession.

Almost all Western sword systems, while used in combat, found their greatest systematisation in duelling, beginning with judicial combats, and therefore their emphasis was always one-on-one, plus or minus a few suggestions on how to deal with multiple opponents. In China, sword forms like those of Xingyi, Bagua and Tai Chi were actually used in pitched battle right up to the end of the 19th Century (against bandits by private security firms), and most duelling was between martial arts masters themselves in order to demonstrate their abilities. There was never a compelling reason to develop a one-on-one system.

Therefore, the Chinese assumption was that the primary purpose of a sword was to be used in close melee combat, because there were better weapons for every other kind of combat anyway. One visible result of this tendency was that the jian, the straight sword, lost popularity compared with the curved dao, precisely because you could rapidly pivot and flourish the dao in close quarters without it getting caught on anything. The Chinese fight in a three hundred sixty by one hundred eighty degree hemisphere, where European styles focus on one slice of the pie at a time. That’s what all the flourishing and pivoting is for- rapid repositioning against multiple opponents in close quarters.

Chinese martial arts are inferior to more practical modern systems like Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and Krav Maga:

Modern systems have two advantages over many Chinese martial arts. First, they were designed with modern considerations, like firearms, in mind, and second, they have very short learning times.

Chinese martial arts are designed to be taught from childhood and many (though not all) require several years of practice to reach combat effectiveness. Wing Chun and Xingyi are notable exceptions. Many of these systems stand up very well in modern self defence situations, and those two especially. It’s simply a matter of how much time you’re willing to put in. They should be annotated with updates dealing with modern topics such as handguns, of course.

Modern martial arts tend to rely on fairly simplistic breakdowns of combat situations, because this facilitates rapid training. The basic question for the Israelis, for example, has been “If I have to train the whole population, how do I make them ‘dangerous’ in just 2-3 weeks?” The answer to that question explains the “brutal simplicity” of systems like Krav Maga and Haganah, systems optimized for short term results.

Internal martial arts, on the other hand, come from much more sophisticated breakdowns of combat situations, which allow much higher potential effectiveness in the long term. And, in fact, we see a similar dynamic in other high level martial systems, such as the Tai-Jiutsu of the Ninja and even modern Russian Systema (Система).

The question now is whether these ancient Chinese arts can adapt to teach the tremendous principles they embody in a direct way accessible to a modern audience. Is the overly long time line to combat competence you typically find with Tai Chi, for example, really necessary? Can’t internal principles be assimilated more quickly? Xingyi and Systema both provide convincing evidence that they can.

Shaolin and the external systems are for self-defence and Tai Chi is for health maintenance:

Nothing could be further from the truth. First of all, very few systems are solely “external,” and the Shaolin temple traditionally put a great deal of emphasis on cultivating Qi. Secondly, one of the distinguishing features of the internal martial arts is a highly nuanced understanding of body mechanics. This understanding allows very economical movement with low energy expenditure on the part of the defender, and rapid neutralisation of most forms of attack. This element alone gives internal styles a level of sophistication and growth potential exceeding most external styles.

A number of martial arts families historically taught their children an external style such as Shaolin first, which rapidly brought them to combat effectiveness, and then introduced them to internal styles, which embody long-term growth potential and don’t depend on muscular strength.

One thing that does distinguish the internal systems, though, is the consciously devised, multi-dimensional health system built into them. Simply put, the more you practice, the healthier you get! And this includes your muscles, tendons, ligaments and joints, as well as your internal organs, nervous system, energy system, etc. By contrast, practicing a very “hard” / “external” system like Okinawan Karate, for example, will often result in significant repetitive strain injuries over time so that your joints in particular just won’t be able to keep up.

Utter Genius

Who would ever have thought that we could devise a system of physical exercise that would optimize your long-term health on every level AND give you a high level self-defense capability at the same time? Even better, there is significant evidence that the time-line to combat effectiveness can be radically reduced, for those who want that.

The obstacles? Mainly poor educational approaches and a plethora of teachers whose knowledge of either the health dimension or the martial dimension of their arts are extremely limited.

~ Dr. Symeon Rodger
~ Anthony S. Rodger, M.A.


The Secrets, and Secrecy, of Chinese Internal Martial Arts

Millions of people around the world practice Tai Chi, mainly for health, but neither they nor the handful of people who practice it for its original martial purpose tend to have any knowledge of the deeper benefits of the tradition, either for maximising health and longevity or for combat.

In fact, without a good fifteen years of practice and the help of a top-notch master – of whom there are perhaps half a dozen outside of China – it’s pretty much impossible to come to grips with the real essence of the art. The same goes for the other two main Chinese internal styles, namely Bagua and Xing Yi. Similar problems obtain in the study of almost any ancient Chinese martial art or health practice or spiritual discipline worth pursuing.

But why are these arts so inaccessible? Why do people who have been taught the forms and practiced them for long periods of time never reach anything like the historical combat potential of these arts, which were used professionally by armies, caravan guards and imperial bodyguards in Chinese history?

Well, the short answer is pretty simple really: the form is not the art.

For the long answer, we need to really look at the histories of these arts:

Going back to the beginning, both Tai Chi and Bagua were created from a small set of Taoist moving meditation exercises. In Bagua, this was circle walking and the Single Palm Change. In Tai Chi, it was five postures similar to the opening movements of most of the later forms, movements that embodied specific energies. Over time, these core elements grew into complex systems.

So what about the forms as we know them now? Well, to understand that, we need to understand that the traditional teaching method is not the one we now use in the West. In the West, people have the idea that it’s all about learning the forms. In the real martial lineages, that never happened.

In Chen Village, spiritual home of the original Chen style of Tai Chi (from which the Yang, Wu and other styles developed later), teaching begins by learning to root and stand in proper posture, followed by exhaustive practice of individual movements long before any forms are taught. Since training begins at eight years old, the ten to fifteen years it takes to reach combat potential are not viewed as a burden. In Bagua, real masters teach their students basic circle walking and the single and double palm changes long before they move on to anything more involved. This attitude of mastering the basics pays dividends later, and such people end up vastly far ahead of anyone who has practiced the form from day one.

In the meantime, masters work on teaching the principles underlying the arts and repetitive individual and partner exercises that are used to practice them. Many traditions employ an easy-to-learn external martial art as the first system to teach children before moving to internal styles. The forms, once introduced, are simply a shell, a way to embody and practice the elements of physical and energetic movement that are the essence of the internal arts.

This is the Neigong or “internal power” system, and it covers everything from postural alignment to breathing to power generation. By focusing on these elements one at a time while practicing the form, the practitioner gradually integrates all of them, improving health, fitness and combat potential. In a combat situation, it is these elements having become second nature that make the art formidable. In previous generations, masters used to tailor the forms specifically for the use of an individual student according to their character and aptitude.

By being aware of these dynamics, we can direct our energies more profitably by:

– Using the forms properly as a tool to embody the Neigong system
– Taking time out from the forms for other exercises
– Focusing attention on fully developing the potential of a small number of key principles and movements

Now here’s the part that applies to Chinese traditions generally. There is always an exoteric tradition for the ignorant masses (which includes many so-called masters) and an esoteric tradition for the real practitioners. There are the strains of Traditional Chinese Medicine that seem able to cure just about anything and do amazing things with the human body… and then there are the deviations that have the masses eating body parts of endangered animals rather than changing their lifestyles to improve their health. There are the Tai Chi masters who teach the internal dynamics, and those who teach nothing but the forms. The same goes for most martial arts, and for Qigong, and for Taoism itself. Finding the real thing is always a challenge.

It has to be admitted that the Chinese approach to knowledge is the major obstacle here. Traditionally in China, any sort of practical knowledge from carpentry to fighting was considered primarily a family inheritance, meaning that the “real secrets” got passed down strictly from father to son, or perhaps to one or two privileged people selected to carry on the lineage. Anyone else only had access to a lower level of teaching. It was also assumed that the lineage disciple would be with the master learning from him until he died, and so the custom of “deathbed secrets” came about, along with very, very long timescales for training. This is beginning to change, but unfortunately, much of the damage has already been done.

For a different take on another factor that has limited transmission of the real Tai Chi in China, watch what Chen style master Joseph Chen has to say:

 

The difficulty in finding the “real thing” applies not only to martial arts, but to any manifestation of Authentic Ancient Traditions, including and especially spiritual teachings and methods. That, however, is a story for another time…

~ Dr. Symeon Rodger


HOW DOES TAI CHI REALLY WORK?

To learn Tai Chi is to learn to move with the attention in the body.

To practice Tai Chi is to learn to connect the body’s internal structure so that it moves together, to coordinate breathing and movement, to move without muscular tension, to align posture, and many other elements of movement which constitute one of the most sophisticated kinesiological systems in the world.

This system facilitates meditation, mental and emotional health, as well as unique health benefits and martial applications very far removed from those of styles that rely on muscular force.

The forms of Tai Chi are designed to embody inner work. By doing the forms while focusing on one internal principle at a time, you can advance your practice of the form to the benefit of both internal and external health.

Each time you do this, the form will feel different depending on the principle you have chosen to focus on. Assimilating these principles is a matter of attention. Your mind can only focus on one at a time. As you perform the movements, you can do so with emphasis on integrated whole-body movement, then on rooting, then on moving from the dantien, then on projecting power, then on spinal alignment and so on.

All of these different elements will combine in your subconscious as your body learns them, and collectively they will improve your movement in daily life, your health, your inner state and, if you wish, your martial arts practice as well.

HAVE A LOOK AT HOW THESE PRINCIPLES REALLY WORK

In order to show you what this kind of movement looks like when it really sinks in, here are some videos that show the Tai Chi exercise known as push hands practiced at a very high level. What you will see is the direct application of movement or posture, translating immediately into a person’s ability to stand their ground, or conversely get uprooted.

The first video demonstrates two Tai Chi principles: maintaining a rounded, sphere-like structure without muscular tension, and the principle that when someone applies physical force against you, they are internally connecting their limbs to their all-important “center line” – a fact you can easily use against them!

 

The second video shows short clips of Master Chen Zhonghua demonstrating applications of numerous Tai Chi internal principles, including sinking weight, rooting, projecting intention through various parts of the body, and the difference between a connected and disconnected body.

I should add that Master Chen is totally extraordinary and the finest Tai Chi master I’ve personally trained with.

 

Finally, after all that competitive push hands, here’s a slightly more sedate version that nevertheless gives a good view of the internal structure behind the movements.

 

IN CONCLUSION…

Our hope is that, even if you are not interested in the martial applications of Tai Chi, these videos have given you some insight into the principles of movement and posture that play such a key role in the meditative, health and emotional benefits of the system.

Incorporating these dynamics into everyday life is one of the greatest and most neglected “game changers” of all time.

If you are interested in the martial applications, please do not attempt to throw anyone around unless both of you have proper training!

Now, how do YOU move during YOUR day?

~ Dr. Symeon Rodger


Bagua and Tai Chi: Exploring the Potential of Chi, Martial Arts, Meditation and the I Ching

Bruce Kumar Fratzis; Blue Snake Books, 2012.

bagua-and-tai-chi-book

People more in tune with their own preconceptions than the inner teachings of Taoism continually find reasons to dislike Bruce Kumar Frantzis. Here is this blunt-talking, fat American with crazy hair who actually teaches the internal martial arts for use in real self-defence situations and is completely unapologetic about his manner presuming to teach Taoist meditation and philosophy. Given that he has practiced seventeen different Chinese and Japanese martial arts since the 1960s and studied with the most important lineage masters of the internal martial arts, one might conclude that he’s worth listening to anyway.

And we have another reason to listen, because this book is the real thing. In it, every level of the practice and purpose of the Taoist martial arts is aligned and explained. This is the roadmap for anyone serious about practicing the internal martial arts as internal martial arts, period, whether for health, defence or spiritual purposes. Without a doubt, hundreds of thousands of Tai Chi practitioners around the world have practiced for decades without gaining the slightest inkling of the reality laid out in this book.

The Great Enterprise

The greatness of this book is in its integrative alignment of every level of practice in these martial arts. While they can be used for specific health goals or self defence goals, neither of these is the fundamental purpose. The physical body is first healed of its illnesses and then strengthened. The mind is healed of its illnesses and then learns to relax to the point where the temporal conditioning that we mistake for our personality dissolves and we reach the stable, nondual mind, still but infinitely creative. The energy system is systematically activated and strengthened to the point where it can be used for healing and defending others and the spiritual pursuits of inner alchemy. Rather more is happening here than a relaxing form of exercise or relief from chronic disease. It is a carefully methodical sequence leading to the goal of Taoism, the reconciliation of yin and yang and the five elements into the nondual original consciousness.

The Roadmap

This book explains how all the stages of this sequence fit together. It is a guide above all to the practitioner’s attention. Attention is the all-important key to results, and knowing where to put it at each stage is essential.

At the health stage, Frantzis describes not only how to practice, but how to know which art and which exercises in each art will have the most beneficial impact. Bagua, for example, generates more yang energy and is better for low blood pressure, while Tai Chi is better for lowering high blood pressure.

Frantzis goes on to discuss the ways in which energy and power are gathered, and concealed so that with high level practitioners, it is impossible to see how they are generating power.

He describes in detail the use of these martial arts as meditative practices, the links between physical, energetic and mental states and using the forms to deal with blockages, mental resistance and negative emotions. The three stages of this kind of inner work involve restoring psychological health, reaching inner stillness, and finally the great enterprise of merging with the Tao. Each of these is dealt with in detail.

All of these levels of practice are united by the Sixteen Part Neigong System, which allows the practitioner to add layer upon layer of subtlety to their practice of the system by focusing on one element at a time. From basic breathing practices to advanced energy work, this system benefits health, martial prowess, qi development and meditation in turn.

In addition, Frantzis offers plenty of information and advice that’s useful along the way, from how to find a qualified to teacher to why it’s better to perfect one movement than learn a hundred to exactly what the difference is between “small frame” and “large frame.”

So What Is Bagua Anyway?

Bagua is the least known of the three internal martial arts. It was developed originally as a practice for health and meditation in Taoist monasteries, and later expanded into a martial art which reached the Chinese public abruptly during the 19th century and proceeded to become a favourite of caravan guards in northern China. Bagua is named after the circle of eight trigrams, drawn from the I Ching, the Taoist Book of Changes, which represent the possible combinations and transformations of yin and yang energies. A key objective of Bagua practice is to master these changes on physical, energetic and mental levels in order to be able to flow effortlessly through any situation in life.

Frantzis emphasises the root exercise of Bagua, the Single Palm Change, as the key practice for health, energy work and meditation, as it is capable of embodying all of the other energies of the art.

The Hard Truth

Frantzis is known for his bluntness, and he does illuminate some difficult truths along the way. His expectations of what sort of teacher is necessary to actually learn the upper levels of energy work and meditation will and should scare the crap out of anyone who thinks that they’re on the path of the Taoist Immortal just by going to a few Tai Chi lessons put on by their local community center.

Frantzis, writing from deep inside the real inner tradition of Taoism, says straight out that mind-to-mind transmission and direct qi transmission from teacher to student are and must be natural prerequisites of high-level energy work, and especially of bridging from energy work to spiritual work, because these aspects of practice cannot be fully described in language and must be directly experienced. There are also four to five thousand energy channels in the body, and to work with them requires a master who can literally show you how to use them one at a time. This he offers as a defence for the traditional Chinese lineage system, saying that it was a bulwark against people who lacked this direct transmission but would pass themselves off as representatives of the lineage.

Another truth that hits closer to home for people who study these arts is Frantzis’ perspective on spontaneity and adaptability. He describes how the original teacher of Bagua could give each student a version of the movements suited for their own psychoenergetic state. The form was adapted to achieve the energetic content that was needed. This stands in stark contrast to the ossified state of these arts today, in which eternal arguments spring up between different schools about the “right” way to do a movement, while little attention is paid to the energy work it is supposed to embody.

Conclusion

This book can be viewed as a smorgasbord of information that can enrich your practice of the Taoist martial arts no matter what your reason for practicing, but more importantly, it brings you face to face with their full purpose and depth of possibility.

~ Dr. Symeon Rodger


How Tai Chi Radically Improves Your Joint Health

Joint health is often a neglected factor in exercise regimes, and indeed many highly-trained sportspeople end up wrecking their knees, back and other joints because their training regime simply doesn’t account for the health needs of the joints. Tai Chi Chuan (Taijiquan in the more modern transliteration) and Qi Gong exercises, on the other hand, are known for their attention to joint health.  Take a moment to watch the video below and note how the practitioner is taking all his joints gently through their complete range of motion while keeping his muscles deeply relaxed.

Healthy joints are essential to the body’s energy system, and ultimately, of course, to movement, while joint problems underpin many chronic diseases. An effective joint health regimen is an essential part of exercise for everyone. The Tai Chi approach to joint health contains several interrelated elements.

1. Range of Motion

By taking the joints slowly and rhythmically through their complete range of motion, several birds are killed with one stone. Not only are mobility and flexibility enhanced through gentle manipulation, but by working the joints, they are oxygenated and lubricated with synovial fluid, the body’s joint tissue lubricant and shock-absorbing fluid.

2. Opening and Closing

Tai Chi movements rhythmically open and close the joints, which means that they are extended and contracted, working the cartilage of the joint and encouraging production of synovial fluid.

3. Energy Circulation

Both the joints and the connective tissue around them are an important medium for the body’s energy system. Tai Chi not only encourages energy flow by maintaining the health of the tissues, it actively uses that energy, circulating it throughout the soft tissues and projecting it outside the body.

4. Alignment

Tai Chi principles of postural alignment, as perfectly incarnated in the Qi Gong posture Embracing the Tree, do several important things for the joints. They align every element of the skeleton perfectly so that incoming force is redirected as efficiently as possible into the ground, meaning that neither muscular nor joint resistance is required. They allow force to be generated in such a way that the joints are protected. These postural principles allow us to align our bodies optimally in motion, putting minimum unnecessary stress on the joints.

800px-Joint

5. Strengthening Tissue

The joints and their cartilage are surrounded by connective tissues, and their health depends on strengthening these tissues. These are tendons, which join muscle to bone, and ligaments, which attach one bone to another, and fascia, which wrap around the muscles. These connective tissues are an extremely strong and efficient load-bearing mechanism, far more so than the muscles, provided they are healthy. Tai Chi systematically strengthens the connective tissue while promoting its flexibility through gentle twisting or spiraling motions and extensions, an effective approach to avoiding stiffness. Because of Tai Chi’s emphasis on muscular relaxation, movements tend to focus primarily on the connective tissue. It is possible to go through the Tai Chi form with an internal focus on the joints and tendons.

Conclusion

Conditions related to poor joint health, diminishing range of motion and connective tissue degeneration are among the most common and debilitating complaints associated with aging. Joint injuries are likewise one of the most common debilitating injuries both among athletes and among older people. Tai Chi’s gentle, systematic and whole-body approach to joint health is an excellent way to ensure that your joints remain strong, flexible, resilient to injury and retain their range of motion for a very long time to come.

 

~ Dr. Symeon Rodger


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