Welcome to The Palace Guard, the tai chi chuan and martial arts blog for intelligent martial practitioners. As the blog develops, I hope to feature other writers with a fresh take on the martial arts and related subjects. For now, I hope you enjoy my posts: feel free to leave comments, or email me at the address available on the profile.

Friday, 23 December 2011

Learning without learning

It is not always possible to train directly for what you desire. The whole premise of tai chi chuan is based on this quirk of existence. For example, if we want to be quicker than our opponent, we will need to train sensitivity to movement and balance. We can't just practice a technique more and more quickly, because more crucial than "mathematical" speed is our ability to read the timing of the opponent. We can make ourselves stronger in training, but the best sort of strength is not the kind that we deploy, as if we are lifting weights, but is rather more a habit. We don't want to "use" strength so much as have it appear as the result of good body mechanics and unified force. So to get usefully strong, we have to learn to relax in order to allow the body to work as a unit, and we have to have enough tactical ingenuity to get our feet, hips and the rest into the right position.
Tai chi chuan is full of this style of "indirect" learning, the sort of learning which Daniel-san went through in the Karate Kid with "wax on, wax off". On one level, it is quite useful to go through the motions, to repeat movements over and over with little regard for their context or use, because once the idea of a  martial application is brought in, people add lots of their own strange ideas into the mix. They also tend to worry too much about which foot to step with or how to hit someone, rather than just stepping and just hitting. This indirect learning can be a smokescreen for charlatanism also, where the teacher knows a lot of empty forms but hints at "secret" knowledge being imparted at some stage. This is how we end up with people who practice the handform, thinking that this alone will suffice in a physical conflict. Indirect learning must be complemented with a full and realistic view of actual martial situations.
Another sort of indirect has occurred to me, in the form of weapon practice. The weapons in themselves appear to be outmoded, and impractical: who's going to ever come at you with a sword? But the skills learnt in the handling and sparring with weapons feeds in directly to our pool of empty-handed skills, perhaps without us knowing: spear co-ordinates both hands together and informs our grappling. Sabre trains us to move directly in for the strike, thus closing distance with an assailant. Sword causes us to move hand and foot together, to turn aside force, and to keep moving with delicate footwork. These are all things which will apppear in our empty-hand work, so long as we know and practice the weapons forms sufficiently, and give a little thought as to how the syllabus all hangs together, and how all the disparate elements feed into the centre to create the tai chi chuan body.

Monday, 12 December 2011

Obsessed by the competition

In the latest edition of Tai Chi Chuan and Internal Arts, the official magazine of the TCUGB, there appeared a curious article, which perhaps I misread, misunderstood, or possibly both. It seeemed to suggest that there had been a competition for practitioners of Health Qi Gong.
Now, I don't wish to belittle the efforts of those involved. It's wonderful that people with a variety of medical troubles are training and getting benefit from it. But in what sense can anyone meaningfully compete in such a discipline? Is there a medical expert present measuring the metabolic rate, the heart rate and lung capacity  of each candidate? Or maybe they are interviewed to see which is happier or who has the most productive life? Is someone with, for example, IBS likely to beat someone with a congenital heart defect?
My understanding of Qi gong is that it is a personal practice designed to promote a health body and mind: a competition around it would be rather like a competition for painters to see who has the best brush or easel.
This competition seems that it would suffer from the same troubles associated with the Yoga competitions which are springing up in the States.  Why does everything have to become a contest? Why can we not just come together and enjoy what we do without feeling the need to have it codified in some way? It seems everyone is chasing credentials, and not only that, but that many people are making money from offering these credentials: teacher training courses abound in tai chi and yoga and related areas of interest. Of course, the more credentials that are given away meaninglessly, the more that particular art itself becomes meaningless. The amount of  medal winners that appear in the tai chi press is quite phenomenal, and one can't help but have the feeling that, if one is breathing, conscious, and makes the effort to show up, they will be awarded with something. There are of course, exceptions to this, but exceptions whose  very real achievements will be buried amidst the avalanche of certificate and medal -chasers.
The competition is against the vicissitudes of the unpredictable universe, whether it contains human foes or enemies to one's health and wellbeing. How well you played the game will not be determined by a slip of paper or a medal handed you by someone else. These Health Qi Gong people undoubtedly have put tremendous work into what they do, overcoming physical adversity with their inspiring practice. This is already a far greater achievement than any medal or trophy could reflect. What about those people who perhaps didn't win a medal? How are they supposed to feel about their practice which, though it has improved their health, doesn't look as pretty as another person's form? I looked through the rules to find any mention of a kind of "spirit" category for judging but found none (in fact I couldn't find any judging criteria...). I would suggest, rather than a "tournament", a kind of "Health Qi Gong Practitioner of the Year" where their character and commitment could be better represented. There might be less money in that, though...
As for tai chi in the Olympics, just don't get me started.

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Natural + trained = spontaneous

The above equation is one we've been working through in our Friday night classes, where instead of simply taking people through the "system" of tai chi chuan, we have placed the emphasis on the actual usage of the art. So when new people show up, the list of what we do seems incredibly short: no form, no applications, not really any fixed-step pushing hands, no weapons...
What we want to get to the bottom of is this: can we move, adapt and keep our flow under varying circumstances? We really aren't concerned with "correctness" above and beyond practicality. Did you get out of the way? Did you maintain awareness? Did you defend and keep an appropriate range? The result isn't always pretty, though sometimes it is. The "natural" side of things makes use of people's ability to avoid and evade without thought, like they brush a fly off or step around someone on the pavement. The "trained" movement  ensures they don't collapse and let an attack in, that when they arrive at a target something is there already to strike or do whatever makes sense. What we wish to avoid is the "which foot do I step with?" way of approaching the martial applications.Perhaps later, in the name of a greater technical repertoire, it may be necessary to drill applications like we used to in the old days. This is the difficulty: should we teach as we were taught? Or teach how we would have liked to have been taught? Though we are grateful to our teachers, for the moment we are going with the latter.
I figure that the above equation is the same as the "chi and jing combine to make shen", or at least corresponds very closely. I have always found that to treat "chi" as flow makes the best sense, as to me it seems like a verb and not at all like some ectoplasmic substance generated only in the sphere of certain Chinese activities.
I am not sure that the people who come to our lessons are always convinced about how "tai chi" the proceedings are: indeed, sometimes they are obviously baffled. But in every lesson they have moved and evaded and perhaps even counterattacked, again baffled that they have been able to do so: spontaneity sometimes comes swiftly.

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

The Art of the Small Change

Between fists and palms, fixed and moving, grappling and striking it's all about change isn't it? That may seem a blindingly obvious statement. We spend time trying to find the real style of tai chi chuan, to find its real strengths, and yet I'm beginning to suspect that its strength lies in not having salient "techniques" as such. I know what you'll say next: what about Brush Knee Twist Step or White Crane Flaps Its Wings or any other of the fifty-four major techniques? So there is a level at which certain combinations of tactics seem especially effective. What is more important however is to know how and why those tactics work, to know the smal, steps that make for an effective defense.If you can't identify where the opponent's weight is, how will you know to sweep or trip him? If you can't feel what range the opponent is at, how are you going to hit them? In utillising good body mechanics, and sensitivity, we don't need to wheel out the big guns. Rather than the big money techniques, I think tai chi chuan could be characterised as the art of the small change, as it were. Our currency is made up of nifty trips, clandestine shoulder and elbow hits, small moves to unbalance and distract, rather more like a swarm of bees than a sack of potatoes. It isn't necessarily dramatic, it's not going to win any Wushu competitions anytime soon, nor will it spawn thousands of keen-eyed young imitators. But in a litigious, CCTV and phone-camera ridden society, keeping a low profile is as handy a skill as any; managing to keep a low profile whilst some unfortunate attempts to do violence is a wonderful skill indeed...

Friday, 21 October 2011

Not being there

Sun-Tzu says "Just don't be there, man."
Amongst our tai chi band, it is held that to "not be there" is the highest technique of all, much like ol' Mr Lee when he tricks the fellow into the rowboat and cuts him adrift. Of course, normally we speak of this at a purely physical, spatial level. Not being somewhere means not being present when violence occurs, whether that's avoiding a certain street or not provoking someone verbally. As a "technique", Not Being There means our  use of footwork, evasion and relaxation to avoid what may be coming to us.
It struck me that Not Being There also has a spiritual/psychological component, whereby we are not making some hairtrigger personality or ego for someone to bump up against. Obviously, we all have our sticking points and our flashpoints. But in tai chi we can learn to minimise these. So, when the wide-shouldered youth barges into you in the street you don't become a slave to your own anger.
Having slated the practice of Fixed Step Pushing Hands in a soon-to- be- released article for the TCUGB magazine, I'd like to say here and now that it can be useful for seeing the ego in full effect (we just don't need to make a competition out of it...) and thus lessening our reactivity. The Buddhists have the parable of the empty rowboat. If a boat full of people bumps into you, you may become angry and full of blame. But if the rowboat is empty, you simply nudge it away with your oar and forget it. So tai chi chuan can help us to see more empty rowboats where before they were fully inhabited, and really bloody irritating.

Thursday, 13 October 2011

Do tai chi!

I happily type away, from week to week, blithely pretending that words can somehow explain, or capture some essence of tai chi chuan and the martial arts. To some extent, they can. But there's a good reason that there isn't a huge selection of literature concerning the martial arts (apart from the surfeit of those books full of technique sequences...), and that's because it's inherently experiential and orally/physically transmitted. Really. I don't think I've ever learnt anything about the practice of tai chi from a book. I've learnt about theories and perspectives on tai chi, but nothing that helped me to do it. Maybe I could say I've drawn inspiration from reading, but not much more.
Every time that I have had an "Aha!" moment, it's come from training or discussion with Ian or others in the class.. On occasion, on checking a book or the Classics, I have found them to match my experience. So the literature can add weight to our findings, perhaps.
I haven't attended any tai chi seminars for a little while, but I am told that the fashion now is to record everything either by filming it or writing it down. Writing notes at a tai chi seminar is not doing tai chi. "Collecting" applications on film is not doing tai chi. Reading about tai chi is not doing tai chi. Certainly, writing about tai chi is not doing tai chi. I hope that this blog is mere entertainment between training sessions, just a bit of inspiration for your practice. I really would rather you were doing tai chi chuan than reading this blog. So go and train will you!

Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Fists or palms?

Our most recent tendency has been to emphasise open-hand techniques, for the reason that they seem to be quicker and more adaptable than the good old fist. The trouble with making a fist is that it seems to instantly instil a kind of bad boxing mentality, where we are tempted to stand our ground, toe-to-toe, and slug away forgetting about disrupting the structure of the opponent or attempting to make a break for it. Now our thinking is swinging back the other way, as we realise that the punch is an excellent structure-breaker in itself, and that many tai chi techniques and principles work only if you've already hit or disrupted them in some way. Also, as we have personally experienced, the fist tends to keep people at bay. Maybe an open palm slap would do the same, but I've never tried it. Then of course it may also depend on your target: fist for the body, slap for the face? It seems that you can't really emphasise either without detriment to the other. In the real situation that I experienced, using fists came quickly and naturally, and that seems to be the case for most people. The difference between tai chi punches and boxing punches is that boxers are ultimately trying to stay within a sweet range, so they can keep knocking chunks off the opponent with combinations. Tai chi punches come with the intention to move, whether closing to grapple and "finish" or moving out of range to escape.

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Tai Chi Chuan vs the Mob...

For me, the beauty of tai chi chuan lies in one person weaving through a group of others: they may be people in a crowd. They may be training partners. They may be dedicated assailants.
It seems to me that the "stand-up fight" is a rare thing nowadays, the one-on-one duel, if it ever existed, now seems a thing of the past.
There's a line in the Classics which never sat right with me: "How can an old man withstand the attack of a group of youths?" Our response for a long time was: "He bloody well can't." After a real-life encounter with the hitherto mythical group of youths, the classics didn't seem quite so silly. Perhaps an unfit man of seventy or eighy years of age would be unlikely to withstand such an assault; but a slightly younger, relatively fit and trained individual? Maybe he or she would stand a chance. Notice that the claim was only that the old man would "withstand" the attack. Not trounce, or beat the attackers to a pulp. Merely survive.
Tai chi chuan is difficult to categorise as a martial art. Its strength lies not in competition sparring, nor particularly in striking, and definitely not in kicking. It contains no groundwork. It is a civilian, family art so it had no place on the battlefield. In the eyes of many martial artists, I'm sure this seems to add up to a flawed art. But imagine one person against a small group, and sudddenly it begins to make sense. The emphasis on flow becomes pertinent, because to halt and fix in place in order to deal with a single assailant lays you open to attacks from the others. The same reason deals with the lack of groundwork, although escapes from ground positions I think would be really useful, and are not included within tai chi chuan as such. The emphasis on destroying balance rather than doing damage per se makes sense: it's quicker and allows of more movement than does standing toe-to-toe and knocking lumps off an opponent. If you can strike as you move, well that seems to work just fine, and fits with the tai chi notion of punching like a ball on the end of a chain. Try it for yourself.

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

Yin and Yang

I’ve been thinking about yin and yang recently, and really appreciating the teachings of this now ubiquitous symbol. On a simplistic level it is possible to look at the yin and yang, or tai chi diagram, and see opposites: good/bad, light/dark and so on. “There’s a balance between good and evil” someone might say. Or they might perceive the motion of the diagram, and imagine that we should aim for balance, or that “what goes around comes around”, some sort of “justice” in the way things are (the Buddhist notion of karma is often misunderstood in exactly the same way…what a legalistic bunch we Westerners seem to be.) Neither of these really captures it. The tai chi diagram must be swallowed whole. Where there is one, already there is the other. It’s not so much that we aim towards balance, but that things are instantaneously balanced. In our training for example, if we make effort, then ease appears in terms of better technique and a refined learning process. If we seek to make ease by cutting corners, then difficulty arises as holes appear in our knowledge and confusion and disappointment set in. In the pursuit of strength, perhaps we lift some weights. But at the same time, the weights we lift don’t attend to the body as a whole, so weakness is inherent as we over-refine our musculature. As soon as you act, two sides (at least!) arise in what Buddhists would call “co-dependent arising”. It is not so much that we aim for balance, or that balance will come sweeping in like a supernatural judge, but that balance is inherent: it’s not possible to not be balanced. It’s just that the manifestation of that balance may not be agreeable to us, as with the Gaia theory of climate change where the Earth achieves climatic balance but to the detriment of humankind. The “balance” of overeating might be said to be diabetes or a heart attack. Once we realise that each action contains this dynamism, this multi-faceted quality, then we can hopefully avoid becoming one dimensional in our training, or sharpening one area to the detriment of all others. We may also realise that to feel and embody certain qualities, we may need to approach them obliquely; or if we attack them directly, that we will at some point feel the frustration of diminishing returns.

Wednesday, 31 August 2011

The Yeovil Ninja

I just don't know what to make of this...

Monday, 15 August 2011

The Riots

There will be, over the coming months, myriad theories about why the riots occurred. None of them will capture the whole truth of the matter.
Often in such times of largely youthful unrest, "boredom" is invoked as a contributing factor. In this context,"boredom" to me means "not being able to cope with the plateau experience that constitutes much of existence." No-one has taught these youths how to be bored, or even that boredom can be positive. I am thinking of course of martial arts training, where there are long, long periods of "plateau" on the route to mastery. Attention spans get shorter, as aspirations become shallower and more "sensational". These bored kids want to feel something, but their consumption of passive, sensational and multimedia products has utterly dulled their ability to slow down and feel the sensations of life, let alone appreciate those sensations. This is the route to a deep and gnawing dissatisfaction, which of course dovetails insidiously with the aims of a  rabidly consumerist culture. As Blaise Pascal put it: “All men's miseries derive from not being able to sit in a quiet room alone.”
The martial arts provide a non-materialistic, non-technology approach to enjoyment and fulfilment. They offer a wonderful outlet for the frustrations and energies of young people. If taught well, they can allow the practitioner to hone his or her senses so that all the small, everyday rhythms and textures of bodily life can be appreciated. Most of all, they can put people "back in to their bodies", people who perhaps have been subject to far to much visual-cortical stimulation and not enough real feeling.
I realise however that to enjoy one's life and the sensations therein, it also helps if you have some sort of economic hope for yourself, and that is difficult to see the value in your life when you are angry,  disillusioned, and feel unheard. As I said at the beginning, there's no one simple way to grasp all this.

Saturday, 30 July 2011

The journey of a thousand tai chi miles begins with...

Apologies for the slackness of late, but I'm back now!

My idea for tai chi training at the moment is lightness of foot and swiftness of change. The image and idea that many people have of tai chi is rather ponderous. This I think is because people confuse the benefits of doing the handform slowly, with the actual martial application. In tai chi we learn good balance and structure so that we can then move our feet, not so that we can stand still. If we are out of aignment, our body is biased in one particular direction, and thus our options to move are reduced. We have to "be on our legs" as Ron Sieh puts it in his rather nifty little book "Tai chi chuan: the internal tradition" published by North Atlantic. Stepping is itself slightly neglected by the Classics: of the Thirteen Tactics, five are stepping and they are: centrally fixed, left, right, backwards and forwards. Well, like, duh...There are also the "Seven Stars" and "Nine Palace" methods, and our Da Lu drill also features nifty footwork. Think fencing, think boxing: these arts have masterful stepping methods. Look to them for inspiration. Notice that of the rather lame five steps in the Thirteen Tactics, only ONE is centrally fixed...
The idea of being able to step gives us the idea of following our opponent. We don't always want to follow,as there are two sorts of retreat that the opponent may make:1) He may be retreating or disengaging in order to swing back with something bigger, or to tempt you to come forward so he can hit you, or 2) He may have had enough and be trying to beat a genuine retreat. In the first case you want to stick and smother, in the second you want to let him go andd maintain a ready stance and awareness. The line between these two may not be immediately discernible.
In the next edition of "Tai Chi Chuan and Oriental Arts" I have an article which talks more about people's fixation on fixedness, one which may ruffle some feathers. So look out for that if you're a subsciber, and if you're not...well why not?

Thursday, 7 July 2011

Whose tai chi gang are we in?

I'm physically out of action for a good few days, owing to a minor but painful operation hem hem...
So I can't train. Boo. I can philosophise, however...

We in the Monkey Army can't help but feel that, as far as the "tai chi community" goes, we are outsiders at best. Our opinion of what the art is about doesn't seem to be shared by many (any?), and we are caught between the two camps: the competitors and the healers. Really, we are a third camp all to ourselves. What is best? Try to convince the rest of the validity of ones's view? Or stay as the grey men, content to roam the outskirts and pass on what we know to the interested few? The latter way seems to be the one of integrity to me.

Another beast struggling to survive on its lonesome

I can see why people end up breaking away, and starting up their own thing. It's not that we wish to pioneer a "new style" or anything like that, but it's a question of expression: is there the room to express what interests us within the existing forms of tai chi?
This may all seem very navel-gazing, and it is. It's just a martial art; it's not something that the world would be bereft without...On the other hand, we wish to express our gratitude to those who passed it so carefully and expertly onto us. We want people further down the line to enjoy what we have enjoyed, discover what we have discovered. To us, it would be a great shame if the only tai chi chuan available in the years to come was to grow solely from the most popular forms available today. Tai chi chuan, like so many things, is swift becoming a mono-culture, or at best a bi-culture. We like to think that we represent biodiversity, facing the wave of McTaiChi TM Inc. that's heading our way. And with the construction of the "Tai chi city" in Huairou, Beijing, to look forward to, our work will be cut out for us.

Hopefully I'll be up and about soon and will stop bothering you nice people with this nonsense.

Wednesday, 29 June 2011


In response to an advert in the Tai Chi Union magazine...


You can learn this fabulous martial art of "tai chi chuan" in just a few decades!
You could even be a teacher!
Being a teacher gets you:
-A lifetime commitment to something most people couldn't give a monkey's about
-A very modest or no income at all
-Quizzical looks from people who wonder why you don't do a "proper job"
-The responsibility of handing on a complex and demanding art, which may need to be called upon in dangerous situations.


You too will have to put up with:
-Spurious theories about "chi" and far-fetched health claims from people who don't really know what they're talking about.
-People who have been training for a week trying to make money from something you've been doing for a decade or more.

I do apologise, I'm not normally so bitter about things, but sometimes people really take the goddamned biscuit don't they?

Tuesday, 21 June 2011

The Thirteen Tactics

The Thirteen tactics are the real nitty-gritty of martial tai chi chuan. Yet how often are they overlooked by tai chi writers and practitioners? The Thirteen Tactics are: Peng, Lu, Ji, An, Kao, Zhou, Tsai and Lie, plus the steps of centrally fixed, left, right,back and forwards. In short: you do stuff with your hands in conjunction with moving your legs. This may sound simple, but many of us tai chi people cannot move our arms and our legs together. We fix in one spot and flurry madly, or we dance about in a pseudo-boxing way. It is tempting to think of the Eight Forces (Peng, Lu etc.) as things done from a fixed-step position. They simply will not work in this way, unless against someone very small and weak. The interesting thing is that the "feet" part of the Thirteen Tactics can be done by anyone, straight away. We can all go forwards, left and right and so on. Maybe there is a snob thing going on here: "If everyone can do it right away why bother practicing it?". Or maybe it's so plain and simple, it evades us, like not seeing the wood for the trees. Evasion, arguably the most important part of the martial repertoire, is all about natural movement. There's not much dollar to be made from saying "you don't need to be taught it, you can do it already." Where the art of teaching appears is in designing scenarios and methods that will test and elicit this natural movement, rather than just having someone copy it in rote style. I think sometimes that the best we can do as teachers is show the students how to get out of their own way; the rest really is up to them. Thank the gods, maybe we can all take a well-earned rest...

oops sorry wrong blog...

I thought this might happen...apologies tai chi fans! Let me remove this Zen nonsense...

Sunday, 12 June 2011

I'm sticking with you...

We have been doing a little work on following and adhering recently, and it throws up some interesting things. First and foremost, in practicing sticking and following, the boundaries between who's "in charge" and who is "following" become very blurred indeed. Once you can give up the idea that you are fighting, and you should be doing some particular attack, the whole experience is less stressful, and requires less energy. The better your following ability, the more likely and the more often it is that applications will appear spontaneously. Rather than thinking "I must get White Crane on him", you follow with both hands and feet, and lo and behold, a technique will appear. It may be White Crane, it may be something else. But it is all the more effective for having appeared like a lightning bolt from the cloud of foot/leg/body/arm/hand movements. This is the magic of tai chi, and a true example of wu wei, that much-vaunted concept attributed to the Taoists. It really becomes apparent only when you nominate one partner as the attacker, and one as the defender. This could also be called distinguishing between yin and yang. It also removes most of the Ego from the exercise. Ego, it seems to me, is the chief enemy of spontaneity, because the body stiffens up in trying to deal with commands from the conceptual mind, rather than reacting to circumstance.
So there you go. Easy, huh?

Thursday, 2 June 2011

First Person Tai Chi

A bowl. Obviously.
I've said it before and I'll almost certainly say it again: there's no glory to tai chi. Not that I mind. I'm rather keen on that Taoist approach of keeping a low-key approach, like a turtle in the mud, or like water, finding the low places to maintain one's flow. Tai chi chuan is a first -person exercise, not a third person one. The Monkey Army were discussing this point at training this morning, and we've come to the conclusion that the handform simply isn't a spectator sport. It's not meant to be too pretty, nor too exciting. It needs to have an element of functionality about it, which is hard to pin down. In such discussions, inevitably we  look towards the rough Zen aesthetic of the Japanese arts, at least before they became over-refined and pastiche-like. A rough ceramic bowl, with glaze dripping unevenly around its topmost edge is something like what we are aiming for with the form: useful, plain, yet beautiful through imperfection (or rather spontaneity) and roughness. Many of the forms that one sees in the tai chi world are over-refined and showy, rather as if one made a huge, impractical bowl from gold with platinum handles and diamond embellishments. Tai chi at this point just becomes another form of athletics or gymnastics, something in which to compete and earn medals and rosettes.
The point is how does it feel? Are we actually doing tai chi? There is a form, and a structure to adhere to. Once we have a handle on that, it's about awareness of breathing,  balance and co-ordination. That which we can't feel, we can't use. If we can't feel it in the relatively calm environs of a form class, how will we feel it in more stressful or dangerous situations?
You may say that my form looks bad, and you might be right. But the proof of the pudding is in the feeling, whether feeling the qualities of your own form or feeling another through pushing hands.
This also means that third-person criticism of someone's tai chi after watching their handform makes no sense: so armchair generals beware.

Tuesday, 31 May 2011

A plug for The Stink of Zen: my new blog!

So you may or may not have noticed on the blogroll on the righthand side, that there's a new one there, "The Stink of Zen." I figured that you tai chi and martial arts people shouldn't be troubled with Zen or Buddhist nonsense anymore, so I have made a dedicated home for it. If you are interested, then check it out..
It's a bit of an experiment to see if I can run two blogs at once without going mad. Ta, Nick.

Tuesday, 24 May 2011


It has taken us a good while to truly get a handle on the role of softness in tai chi chuan. Softness is directly related to what we call listening, by which we mean the ability to detect and follow the intent of the opponent through our sense of touch. Ian describes it in terms of volume: we dial the volume right down in our pushing hands drills, so that eventually, any excess force (and that could vary from person to person) seems very "loud" and we react instantly. Sceptics may say "but an assailant won't attack you softly". Indeed they won't: their attack will be akin to someone yelling right in your ear, and thus will definitely activate our honed sensitivity, which hopefully will lead us to reacting appropriately. The corollary of this is that we have have to train safe reactions to such stimulus. If we train say, a series of head level chained punches in reaction to a heavy use of force, we may end up hair-triggering on an innocent bystander. Pushing Hands drills should teach us to move, clear any immediate threat, and control the assailant. At this point hopefully it would be clear if further escalation is required.
This idea of softness relates to the section in the Classics, from the Tai Chi Chuan Ching: 

"A feather cannot be added,
A fly cannot land,
Nobody knows me,
I alone know them,
A hero thus becomes invincible."

Wednesday, 11 May 2011

Zen and the Art of Martial Arts Maintenance

We don't have one of those "showroom" models, in terms of our way of doing the martial arts. You can't just get the finance, grab the keys, and roll her out onto the beckoning highways. The main reason for this is that we're still figuring out exactly how this classic vehicle fits together.
We can move, we can "use" tai chi chuan to a certain degree, and we know this from real experience of people trying to hurt us. So we can drive, a little. We're not like formula-one drivers or anything; we're not killers or MMA fighters or what-have-you.
When  you start to teach others, you look back over not just what you've learnt, but how you've learnt it, and you can't help but think: "Is there a better way? Where did we waste time? Where are the flaws, the blindspots? What would have helped us out back at the beginning all those years ago?" Of course, there's a certain amount of meandering that you can't cut out. Everyone has to put in the work at some point.
Going back to the vehicle analogy, we could say that everyone who trains with us gets to see the whole damned thing stripped, cleaned and assembled. They say there are two things you shouldn't see in the process of being made: laws, and sausages. But I think it's vital to know your martial art inside out in this way.
Zen and the art of Motorcycle Maintenance is a book which now is more often parodied than read, but it's one of my favourites. In it, the main character discusses at length the difference between the way he owns a motorcycle, and the way in which his friend owns one. His friend buys an expensive BMW, a machine expected to rarely break down, and therefore never bothers to learn its workings. When it does break down, it generates huge anger and disbelief in its owner, as well as incurring costly mechanic's bills. The teller of the tale approaches his motorcycle from the inside out, and when it breaks down he can adapt ad-hoc repairs, and tell what's wrong just by listening to the engine turn over. He doesn't freak out because he knows how to fix it, and what that involves.
A martial art can break down, become stale or let you down at the crucial moment. So make sure you know your art for yourself in your bones, and haven't just been sold a slick machine with a convincing warranty.

Friday, 6 May 2011

Tai chi is super duper so there....

It’s easy to complain about tai chi, (as you’ll know if you’ve been following my blog….) but despite my whinings, I feel it’s time to give this art its due. Which other art would have allowed me to explore martial questions without requiring a smart uniform and the bending of my stubborn will to that of an almighty “sensei”? I’ve never been particularly good at hierarchy. When I tried Judo at the age of thirteen, I was used merely as a test-dummy for those larger and more bellicose than myself, and I think that turned me off the martial arts for a long while.

Whilst tai chi has its pedants and its fanatics, it is an art which is growing still: there’s plenty of room for innovation, and each new generation gets to figure out anew just what tai chi means to them.

I love (and at times, hate) the fact that tai chi to most people just looks like some nutty hippy dance-thing, and that people find it ridiculous, because it means I know something they don’t about the effectiveness, precision and intent of the art. No-one is likely to say “You do tai chi: reckon you’re a bit tough then?”…and that’s the great thing, you don’t have to think of yourself as tough. You can just be, as Ian calls it, “the grey man”, and melt into the martial background. I love that the teachers who brought tai chi within my reach were and are hardy and earthy, real people: you’ll find no ethereal snake-oil merchants in our lineage. We’re not training to be killers; but neither are we training to be saints.

I like to play, and tai chi gives me, a thirty one year-old man, the excuse to play for hours every week, to mess about with swords, spears, body mechanics and wildly imagined scenarios of every kind. It’s a game, it’s a craft and it’s an art. It is driven by the highest aspirations, yet is completely everyday and ordinary. There are many worse ways to spend your time, that’s for sure.

Hurrah then, for tai chi chuan.

Next time: back to the customary bemoaning and beefing...

Thursday, 28 April 2011

Get off your land!

So it seems that the Man will soon be charging us for the use of the ground, and the very air that we breathe. If you check out the link below, you'll see that a London Council is charging fitness
trainers a fee for the use of public park space. This could be bad news for any of you tai chi teachers out there who prefer the Great Outdoors, because great money-making ideas like this tend to spread like wildfire to other councils keen to appear "frugal"...
I love the tone of the beginning of the article, which envisages personal trainers as some kind of wealthy parasite, cackling as Joe Public  forks money out of his threadbare pockets with a pained,confused look: "HAHAHA! WE DON'T PAY BUSINESS RATES SUCKERRRS!HA!" These blackhearted instructors are the new bankers, in my opinion, and are not to be trusted. As our American cousins say... Sheesh.



Monday, 18 April 2011

A New Movement

Tai chi chuan is a fighting method: a way of movement in the face of conflict. It isn’t limited to fixed step Pushing Hands, which in itself is training for a mere microsecond’s worth of confrontation, when the adversary first makes contact. It isn’t contained in competition sparring, which has some of the adrenaline and force of a “real” situation, but which lacks the surprise, versatility, openness and the brevity of most likely real situations. Sparring is the “death ground” alluded to in the Sun Tzu, where we have no option but to go toe-to-toe. According to Sun-Tzu, it is to be avoided. Good to do whilst one is young and full of fire, and then good to stop doing. The method of tai chi certainly isn’t contained in the “push the Master in a particular way and he sends you sailing through the air” scenario which abounds in the tai chi world. Absorbing and sinking is good, but try it against a punch, a kick, or a combination of the above. Something more will be needed, namely movement, flowing, thinking-in-all angles movement. Evasion is required, then control of the opponent, then disrupting his balance whether by striking, pulling, sweeping or throwing. To achieve this, listening skills will be needed. Structure will be needed, to make contact without collapsing. The feet really will need to move through the “eight gates” and the hands will need to be able to work together, to work separately, be coordinated with the feet, and apply torque to shock the opponent. It won’t be enough to work on one plane of movement. High and low are needed. Different ranges appear, and sometimes you’ll have no choice but to cover up and take a hit, but all the while moving, brushing past, so as to force the opponent to change angles. Even as he hits you, it’s possible for him to hurt himself if you can manage simultaneous attack and defence.

I say all this because one never reads it, never really hears about it in the tai chi world. Handforms, chi gung, tame Pushing Hands: all these get plenty of press. But the amount of people who assert that tai chi is standing in one place slowly gyrating arms with someone, or feeling for their “centre“, or assert that tai chi is stretching and turning for health far outnumber those who ask how does it really work? Merely copying drills won’t do it. Learning all the applications of the form won’t do it. However much Handform you do, that certainly won’t do it. That’s not to say that these things don’t have worth, and aren’t enjoyable. But aren’t you curious when Four Directions is used? Does it work as it is, “off the peg” as it were? Do any of the fixed or moving drills? Or do they need adapting, breaking down or reversing even? What is Reeling Silk for? Defence against punches, or grabs, or what? What is the link between applications and drills? What is the worth of Fixed Step given that your typical assailant may not be fixed in place as he attacks? What is the difference between a fist and an open hand? What really constitutes a “fight”? Why might “natural” or “subtle” movement be better in a conflict in terms of the law? How does the Handform link in to all this?

Many people, of course, are asking these questions and really mining the rich seams of tai chi chuan. Their voices, by and large, are silent. But please, if you have any light to shed on the real questions of tai chi, it would be excellent to hear about your work, compare notes and see if we can move this art along a little. I personally am ready for some new movement.

Wednesday, 13 April 2011

The Technique of No-technique

 There are those kung- fu wisdom snippets about "technique of no-technique" or "fighting without fighting" and I have never regarded them as more than fortune-cookie nonsense. But they come near to some of the work we've been doing in our Friday night sessions of late.
We've been attempting to boil the syllabus down into essentials, based on honest enquiry and our own experiences of a martial kind. What is tai chi, when you take away the cultural trappings, the philosophies and the mythologies? We have by no means arrived at an answer yet, nor do I suppose we ever will; at least nothing that can be formulated neatly, concisely or even verbally.

It isn't about striking. That doesn't mean there isn't percussion, but it's part of the moving, part of the evasion, part of taking or destroying the oponent's balance. It's not fixing in one place and attacking, then moving on. It's not really grappling, though again this may happen.

As Western boxers have known for years, you fight with your feet, and this is nothing necessarily to do with sweeping or kicking, though those might appear. There's nothing formulaic about it. The recent Sherlock Holmes film, in which Sherlock pre-plans how exactly he will strike and defeat his opponent five "moves" in advance, is how many people perhaps envisage the process of the martial arts. This is because we are taught discrete "techniques": he does this, so you do that. Tai chi chuan is as guilty of this as any other art. But the trouble is that, instead of reacting to what's hapening, we attempt to shoehorn various techniques in to the proceeedings to show what we have learnt, and to please the teacher. But the martial arts is only about reacting to exactly what is happening, not defeating someone according to some pre-ordained "style" "school" or "technique". So we are cutting away technique, to see what we are left with. We are ditching the flow-chart and heading out into open water. I'll let you know how it's going.

Friday, 8 April 2011

What I did on my holidays

The usual "if you couldn't give a monkey's about Buddhism change channels now" warning applies...

If you've read much of what I write, you'll know that I don't have much truck with much of what passes for "spirituality" around these parts. So it was with some trepidation that I made my way to Gaia House in Devon for a three day retreat with two teachers, Vinny Ferraro and Noah Levine.
Being a Zen practitioner, I was expecting this retreat to be...well, a bit lame. A bit hippy-ish maybe. But I'd been curious about Gaia House for a while, and at the moment I am on a bit of a  personal rumspringa , which is an Amish thing where youngsters venture out into the world to see if they want to become full-on Amish or not. Only I'm doing it with Zen, if you get my meaning, by trying out other teachings.
These two rip-roaring teachers,along with my fellow participants, treated me to a weekend-and-a-bit of the most inspiring, useful and goddamned heartfelt practice I've ever done.
My Zen practice has become a little stale, you see, which is no-one's fault but my own.It's become rather a chore, whilst at the same time I'm reaching a point with it where the expectation is that I commit to some degree. Like one of my heroes, Alan Watts, "temperamentally I'm not a joiner". So I have been wrestling with the idea of commitment.
Whilst I'm still not sure about pledging my allegiance, what has been made clear to me is that Buddhist practice is a thing of real value, and real sustenance.
If you don't know anything about these two guys, check out Noah's books "Dharma Punx" and "Against the Stream" as well as a new one that I have yet to read called "The Heart of the Revolution." Vinny apparently has been involved in an MTV production called "If Only You Knew Me" which I've yet to see. Both of them led mixed-up lives as youngsters, getting involved in petty crime and drug misadventures of all kinds. You get the feeling that their involvement with Buddhism is a survival thing, a literal matter of life and death rather than some shallow spiritual trip. You might expect, given their pasts, for them to be somewhat spikey, but I have to say that rarely have I met anyone so open-hearted and kind-natured as these two. Their passion for the teachings, and their black humour and outlook really opened my eyes to what Dharma practice can be: never has "loving-kindness" seemed so cool (!).
Now and then, it's great to take a step outside what you know and see what's on offer.

Buddhist ramblings over and out.

Wednesday, 30 March 2011

Spiritual Tai Chi II : this time it's internal

This is one of those topics that I just can't enough of. Recently,we had a beginner come and try out the class who had left ninjitsu and come to tai chi for the "healing and spiritual side of things." Though I didn't say anything at the time (it's best for me not to get started on this subject...oops), I always want to know what exactly  is meant by this word which haunts tai chi like an exorcism-resistant poltergeist. I wonder if (and it's a big wonder) people just mean they want to feel what they are doing? Is it that other martial arts tend to numb people to their own bodily sensations? Certainly, those teachers who promote the spiritual angle do seem to do a lot of standing still and feeling their qua or whatever. Inevitably, demonstrations of qi involve standing still and paying attention to the body...Have I cracked it?Is it that simple? No-one ever says "oh, I want to learn magic." This, I think, would be more honest. It's not that I don't think that nothing myterious or inexplicable exists, but I am tempted always to think "so what"? Does it make your life better? Does it make anyone else's life better? This is what interests me. I don't like to weigh in with the Zen quotes, but this one I can't resist:

"When Bankei was preaching at Ryumon temple, a Shinshu priest, who believed in salvation through the repetition of the name of the Buddha of Love, was jealous of his large audience and wanted to debate with him.

Bankei was in the midst of a talk when the priest appeared but the fellow made such a disturbance that Bankei stopped his discourse and asked about the noise.

‘The founder of our sect,' boasted the priest, ‘had such miraculous powers that he held a brush in his hand on one bank of the river, his attendant held up a paper on the other bank, and the teacher wrote the holy name of Amida through the air.

Can you do such a wonderful thing?'

Bankei replied lightly: 'Perhaps your fox can perform that trick, but that is not the manner of Zen. My miracle is that when I feel hungry I eat, and when I feel thirsty I drink.'

Friday, 25 March 2011

This from an interview with Luke Shepherd, a tai chi teacher, on the Tai Chi Union For Great Britain website:

What are your views on competition?

"Did you say contemplation or competition? Theoretically, competition could be valuable to test one’s level, if seeking to ascertain if internal practice is truly taking place. Unfortunately, all competitions are judged by external methods i.e. the first to step outside the lines. This may be achieved with either exquisite internal skill or with brute force with no differentiation being made in the points scored. When I see a school has won competitions, I am rarely impressed, as I have no way of knowing if subtle jins are being trained and refined or if the competitors are relying on well co-ordinated contraction and timing to off balance their partner.

I hear of people winning medals after 5-7 years training. Unless they are exceptionally gifted it must be obvious that with this limited training they are using external strength and contracting forces to overpower their opponents. Is this what the classics ask us to train?

To develop stretched elastic forces takes many years of internal mind and body training. To be able to co-ordinate these internal changes (without reverting back to external contracting ie muscular habits) with the timing of one’s partner takes many more years. To empty one’s mind of any idea of pushing and to allow the partner’s force to passively stretch the body takes further training and faith in the deepening process. Will we gain deeper understanding through encouraging the winning of medals – whatever force is used to obtain them?"

First of all, let me make it clear that Mr Shepherd has some twenty years experience over me, and that I have no wish to question his skill, or his commitment to good tai chi chuan.

But I have to take strong exception to many of the points raised above.

 To suggest that “physical” accomplishment can somehow be trumped by something vague and insubstantial is wrong. These words "internal" and "external" make real problems, because they create the illusion that there are somehow two "worlds" in which we practise. The first is the seemingly distasteful, crude and amateurish "physical" world of "well co-ordinated contraction and timing", basically muscles, bones, sinews, leverage, range, timing and intent. Then there's the other world of subtlety, refinement, exquisite skill, and...what exactly? This thinking demonstrates a real Cartesian duality which ill reflects reality. This kind of thinking leads people to tai chi thinking that there is some kind of “power” or “energy” that they should be training. The truth is much simpler: use the body. Use your common sense. Try things out. Lose a lot.

To train skill is to use the muscles, and to use force. Certainly, one can learn to refine the way the force is applied, but if you aren't strong enough to withstand a bit of heave-ho, then you haven't even covered the basics. I will be frank here. To say that you are working “internally”, but are unable to display or enact that work is a good way of doing nothing but pretending that you are. Winning is winning, whether by force or by guile. As martial artists, we are looking to survive conflict by whatever means are pragmatic, and this applies to competitions as well.

I understand. Saying that you have learnt good leverage and balance does not sound very romantic, or glamorous. Understanding range, timing and movement doesn't appear very grand; in all likelihood, it won't attract many new acolytes. But that is what tai chi chuan consists of. Make no mistake. I'm not reducing tai chi chuan to "just" or “merely” the physical: what I'm saying is that the wonderful quality of tai chi is trained through our physicality, not through our concepts. "I am more refined: I should win" is a concept often clung to by tai chi practitioners, even as they are being flung about like ragdolls by uncouth barbarians.

The training and refining of subtle jin is the same as the training of well-coordinated contraction and timing; if there is no ability to attack and defend, whether the opponent uses "external strength" or not, then there is no tai chi ability. Full stop.

Thanks to Mr Shepherd for his comments, and if he should read this, I hope no offense has been caused.

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

A good ole' plug for martial Tai Chi Chuan lesson...

I've not mentioned it before, but for any of you out there interested in training with my teacher and I, we run a class on Friday evenings, from 1830-2000 in the Cornerstone Community Centre, on Church road nr. Palmeira Square, Hove.

This is a martial lesson, not a handform session, so expect to sweat a little and do some (light) contact work.
It's fun. Come along.

It's £7 for an hour and a half, roll up, roll up...

That's not a picture of either of us...

Friday, 18 March 2011

Wobbly weapons and the Police

We were visited yesterday morning, in the park where we train, by a member of the Constabulary. Apparently, the police had received reports that that there were men wielding metal swords in the park, scaring the kiddy-winks and causing consternation for the populous. The fact that some kind of criminal gang had been roaming about in Brighton had lent an extra edge to such compaints, and the police were duty-bound to investigate. We of course were not the offenders. We are sensible enough to know that using metal weapons is the quickest way of drawing the unwanted attention of the Law. We said we'd spread the word amongst our martial neighbours, and actually we had a pretty good idea who the perps might be. The thing is, the metal sabres that these cats use are of the wibbly-wobbly Bacofoil kind, which to my mind are completely unfit for purpose anyway. The idea seems to be that the wibbliness produces a noise not unlike a Rolf Harris Wobbleboard when you stab. The sabre, having a curved, single-edged blade, is primarily not a stabbing but rather a slashing weapon. So if you want a SWOOOSH you had better be generating it with your scythe-like cutting motion, not your stabbing or thrusting. The thing is if you use such a thin weapon, it will make a noise pretty much whatever you do with it, thus it is no indication of "fa-jin" or any other damn thing apart from the fact that the user is a teensy-bit of a show-off. Now that the Fuzz are on to them though, they'll have to use wooden sabres like the rest of us, which is simply better all round. Hurrah then, for both the fearful populace and our Police officers. To cap it off then, this is a public safety announcement: DON'T WAVE METAL WEAPONS ABOUT ESPECIALLY WAFER-THIN ONES for the love of God. It's bad news for us all.

Tuesday, 15 March 2011

The Needle At The Sea Bottom

The game of tai chi chuan is a very human one: evade, divert, escape and survive. What makes the game worth the candle, as the saying goes, I suppose, is the possibility that we may fail. As we are seeing in Japan at the moment, sometimes we face something that can't be played, something which no kind of human cleverness can address in any meaningful way. It's a hollow and horrifying way of learning it, but the best we can generally do is to really appreciate our lives and our world. We all know that we will  be swept away in the end, but to be reminded of this doesn't make it any less painful. For many of us, though, the game goes on. Keep training, keep moving...

Thursday, 3 March 2011

The Big Martial Arts Con

The martial arts are a con. The carrot of "fighting ability" is held out on the end of a long, long stick: it's not uncommon to hear or read the following: "tai chi is alright but it takes at least ten years to be able to use it." On one level, there is truth in this. To learn the art takes a long time: the different forms, fighting concepts and so on. But to be able to use it shouldn't take the averagely fit and intelligent person more than a few months. I suppose it depends on your definition of "use".  If by "use", you mean to defeat a slew of assailants who are seriously intent on maiming you, using  the full range of aesthetically pleasing, identifiable techniques of your school whilst barely taking a scratch, you can damn well forget it. If by "use" you mean have the sense to avoid trouble, evade incoming undesirables whilst looking for a handy exit strategy, well you can achieve this relatively quickly.
The point is not to beat or defeat triumphantly and obviously. Life is too messy for this to occur with much frequency. No, the aim is to survive and carry on. Not very glamourous, I know. But tactically, legally and morally, it's the pinnacle of our art. Evade and escape.
It's not always possible to just evade and escape. Maybe you will have to do nastier things. But the odds will be tipped very little even by years and years of training. If after ten months of training you can't handle an attack by four or five assailants on a dark city street, the likelihood is that your way of training won't bear any more fruit in this particular situation ten years down the line. In fact, your own decent instinct to flee might be marred by the added confidence that many martial arts erroneously instil.
It may seem like I am suggesting that no-one need train beyond the initial stages. I am not suggesting this, but rather a change of viewpoint. We don't really accumulate martial skill, but rather we refresh it every single day, as my teacher says "You are only as good as your last training session." We cannot rest on our laurels. Everyday just the basics: evade, divert, disrupt and escape. This is the difference between learning the techniques of  a martial art, and living a martial art.

Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Why Kung Fu Panda was bad...

Okay,okay, so this film came out ages ago. But I hear there's a sequel on the way...

Kung fu panda was great because it looked beautiful, and it was pretty funny. Anything that features such a devout fan of the martial arts as the lead character can never be a bad thing.
But this panda was a great big fat dude. The Dustin Hoffman creature (was it a Red Panda?) used the panda's love of food to motivate him to train, which was just fine. But why oh why did he teach the black and white oaf to fight like someone slim,lean and with long legs? He'd have been much better at a cool grappling, Bruce Frantzis-style BaGua thing instead of some pseudo-Shaolin nonsense. Of course the message is, no matter what your bodyshape/ability, you should be aiming to do all kinds of gymnastic stuff, spinning kicks and the rest...which is dull. A big guy should train like a big guy.

What do you mean I've got too much time on my hands?

Monday, 21 February 2011

Anger management 101

I have been writing of late (not here...) about the possibilities of tai chi chuan as a way of being evasive and artful when it comes to conflicts of all sorts, verbal, personal and physical.
But the other day, when one of the Union reps at work slung his tuppence worth at me, I slung it right back with added venom. I yelled, I ranted, then I fumed for about a week. Not altogether the coolest way to handle things. Where was my evasion, my control? Nowhere to be seen. Our little contretemps then became an extended meeting with managers present, and I ended up dining out on humble pie filled with patronising jam and sprinkled with bullshit flakes. Boo. So I guess what I'm saying is: it doesn't necessarily translate. When being philosophical about the martial arts, it's great to entertain the broad possibilities of training.But just because you can duck a punch, doesn't mean you can duck an insult. And it's not wise to hit Union guys, however much you might want to.

Tuesday, 1 February 2011

The Big Qi Debate part II

So the trouble with chi seems to be that both chi-lovers and haters present or expect chi as being something special, something extra to the normal range of mundane experience. I would suggest that chi is little more than a category, different in intent and purpose to any other category in our "|Western" experience maybe, but still referring to sensations available to all people.  In my opinion, chi is simply a different way of labelling sensations, in such a way that one can use these sensations to concentrate, feel the tides of the body, and gain energy and calmness from this process. The human body is broken down by Western medicine into the respiratory system, the cardiovascular system and so on. But none of these is a discrete "thing". These systems are all interwoven and interlinked, labelled for convenience, and the expediency of medicine. What "qi" introduces which Western medicine tries to avoid, is some idea of faith. The dictates of qi say "do me, cultivate me, try me and then see if I exist or not." Western medicine doesn't care if you believe or not. Of course, we also know that if someone feels that they are going to get better, this seems to help the process. If you follow the dictates of qi, you will create qi, or you will create the results of the qi system of work.
Really, if we had to boil it down, I'd say qi is flow. I've never come across a use or definition of qi where it wasn't recommended that it should flow. So whether one is talking about hormones, blood, breath, artistic spirit, or martial intent, flow is key. Flow implies interconnectedness; it also implies that any work to be done is about clearing the path to let the stream flow, rather than carrying the water to the destination in a bucket. Whatever qi is, it is "already there", which speaks of potential in all places, situations and beings. We don't need to do Taoist alchemy to benefit from flow. It's not mandatory because it doesn't add anything that's not there, merely changes the way one looks at it. That's all for now on this topic. 

Saturday, 8 January 2011

The Big Qi Debate: what is Qi? does it exist?

In considering Chi ( it's a more elegant spelling than Qi in my opinion...) we have to consider a number of factors. We have to consider the roles of Chinese medicine, of Taoism, modern "alternative therapies", martial arts mythos and the religious attitudes of both Chinese and Western people. So I don't expect to cover it all in one brief and flippant post.
Chi is rarely written about in any kind of specific context. Usually, it is taken as read that the reader "believes in" (and this is far from a satisfactory phrase to use but let's let it stand for the time being...) chi, and the writer usually plunges straight into directions and imperatives: what one should do with ones's chi, whether to sink it or circulate it or what have you. This of course angers a certain section of the readers, who don't "believe in" the notion of chi: for them, it is rather like being given a manual on how to ride the Pegasus. These people are further alienated when members of the tai chi community imply that good tai chi can't be achieved without knowledge of meridians and chi flow, which are the bread-and-butter of the chi-using community. So we end up with a deeply divisive argument which seems never to proceed because one side is blessed with  faith in chi, and the other isn't, and never the twain shall meet. Parallels with the atheist/Believer face-off are appropriate, albeit with a smaller audience.
Both sides suffer from the same affliction in my opinion. They both believe that chi is something special and extra to what I can only call our "normal" world of perception and sensation. Furthermore, both sides are usually ill-informed about  various mechanisms and oddities of religion or spirituality that could shed some light on their dilemma.
First, lets look at the chi-lovers. I shall be generalising, and therefore inevitably offending. For this, I apologise.
The chi-lovers generally are of the opinion that they have discovered something wonderful, something indeed that Western man, in his ignorance, is sorely lacking in. Often, people "find" chi as a result of illness and then overcoming that illness whether by means of chi gung, acupuncture or tai chi itself. This tends to lend a slightly emotional, evangelical air to their relationship with chi, which we will not dwell on for the time being.For them for a variety of reasons, chi is seen as a life-transforming agent, something alien to Western knowledge, and often, something to be believed in. This, strangely, is an attitude they share with their opposite numbers on the other side of the divide. The reason for this belief seems to me because of the West's general post-Christian hangover. The Christian faith, in its drive for accessibility and intellectual respectability, has long since confined it's adherents contribution to that of belief, that's to say  intellectual assent to the existence of things which cannot be proved, namely the existence of God. We have very little experience with forms of spirituality that demand anything other than belief apart from the scientific method, and that's sure not going to help here, for reasons which we will explore later. An introduction to chi is often presented as a revelatory experience by unscrupulous teachers, so it isn't surprising that people get religious about it. As a result of their fervour, the chi lovers present chi as something extra, something that can onlty be found in "special" or "Oriental" exercises, something which can't be manipulated by those who aren't "masters" but which results in fantastic martial and therapeutic abilities. It is at this point that the chi-haters come in to the picture...tune in at the same time for the next thrilling episode.

Friday, 7 January 2011

The Middle Way: Buddha definitely did tai chi...honest.

For a wee paragraph or two, I shall be putting my Buddhist hat on. Apologies to those who couldn't give a monkey's about Buddhism...

It occurred to me that tai chi is the art of following, and of balance. By following, I suppose I mean giving up our superficial intent to harmonise with that of another.
In Buddhism, it seems to me that quite often one must balance, and keep the right tension: for example, between self-regard and regard for others, or between letting our desires have their space, but not letting them run amok. Tai chi I would say is not a method of spiritual cultivation in itself. But it can help at key points in life, at the point where philosophies or systems of cultivation require you to trust yourself, and proceed by feel, by instinct. The Buddha himself said that practice was like keeping the strings of a lute: not too tight, not too slack. Tai chi, through the embodiment of this principle, allows it to be recreated amd imagined in a wide variety of situations, not just martial or physical encounters.
The art of following is perhaps more subtle yet. I posited to the Monkey Army the other night that our movement and its development could be said to describe a circle. We start like ragdolls: whatever the opponent does, we have no choice but to follow, and we lurch and fall from one extreme to the other, from one side to the next.  Then we learn a bit of structure, and perhaps gain a little strength, and we resist, and maybe we start to win a bit here and there. This is the middle stage. Then, however, we relax our ideas about winning. We see that there really is no such thing. So we just follow. If they want to take us there, then there we go. But when we arrive, we still have our balance, and not only that, we are in a better position than them. So they move us again and again we follow, and they end up tying themselves in knots. Following is perhaps an underestimated skill: we are more often taught to be leaders. But as we know from the world's religions, perhaps we could do with better followers, people who have the confidence to give up their own ground but maintain enough poise to turn bad moves into good ones.
The Monkey Army seemed to like this idea.