Monday, December 28, 2009

圆化方进

I don't know why, but this phrase 圆化方进 kept showing up in my mind as I was driving home from pushing hands class today.

When pushing hands with my teacher, I felt that he was drawing out my strength until my arm grew tired. How? Maybe it is because he could sense my force and kept changing his force, so that no matter how I tried to move, he was always one step ahead and his force ended up at an angle to mine, causing my arm to flatten. In an attempt not to let my arm flatten, I tried to shift my force, and when I shifted, he sensed it and changed his angle of approach to continue to flatten my arm. In the end, in order not to let my arm become flattened, I kept changing my force trying to meet his, simply following and ended up continuously exerting force, and making my arm tired instead.

Maybe the trick is to draw circles, such that my force is always changing, rather than to try to react to his force and end up trailing behind.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Tired is Good

Realised something today, after practising taiji for a total of more than six hours. Tired is good. It makes you relax more, not because you want to but because you no longer have energy. So in order to practise, you have to find a way to be efficient with whatever energy you have left. Thus you try to find ways and means to move without excessive use of strength. For example, if my kua cannot sink down, usually I will use a bit more strength to force it down. But when I am tired, I can't afford to waste that energy. Instead, I try to find a way to sink my kua without having to use strength to force it. I try to relax it. In the end, I try to find a way to move using as little energy as possible (which means I waste as little energy as possible, leaving me with more energy to use when I need it.)

But that doesn't mean we should try to make ourselves tired before we start our taiji practice. Instead, we should keep practising taiji until we are tired. So I guess when my teacher said that he got a better understanding of taiji after he did four (or was it six?) sets of Yang-style 108 routine in a row, he probably meant this.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Hold Your Ground

There is a taiji saying, 虚则守,实则攻。What is means is that you hold your ground when your opponent doesn't use force, and when you sense him using force, that is when you attack. Why?

I have been pondering this for a while, and what I think is that when he doesn't use force, he is ready to react, and thus if you try to attack, you are actually walking into a trap. His force is empty, yet to take shape, and thus can be formed into any shape. Once you move, he can sense your attack and counter it by shaping his force accordingly.

However, once he has made a move, he has committed himself (his force now takes a certain shape), and thus if you can discern the magnitude and direction of his force, you will be able to neutralise it and utilise it against him.

Thus, before your opponent makes a move, you should hold your ground to see what he intends to do. Otherwise, you may end up walking into a trap. Once he has made a move, you must be ready to discern it and react to it.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Moving Together Part 2

One of the basic principles of taiji is for top and bottom to move together (上下相随). Being disjointed is a common mistake, and its disadvantage can be seen during pushing hands. And most of the time, I would say the mistake is because of an unresponsive kua.

For example, when our opponent pushes us, because our arm is more responsive compared to our kua, our arm moves back first before our kua moves. The result? Our arm appears limp and allows our opponent to move in. When our opponent moves back and presents an opening, our arm senses it first and move in, without waiting for our kua to catch up. The result? We are not pushing with our leg (whole body) but pushing with our arm muscles (aka brute force).

So the key is still to train up the kua to become responsive, and that means learning how to relax the kua and how to turn it. Which brings us back to the basic foundation skills.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Lack of Practice... Going Backwards

I haven't been able to practise much lately, due to work and tiredness from jet lag. And of course, without practice, I can't improve. In fact, I have gone backwards. A standard pushing hands session was strenuous for me... I ended up with muscles aches on my legs, something that I haven't felt for some time (at least, not this bad...) Just a week without practice, and my legs are no longer as strong.

I guess this goes to show the importance of foundation skills in taiji (and probably all martial arts). As the saying goes, 练拳不练功,到老一场空。(Essentially, if you practise martial arts without practising foundation skills, you will still not get anything after years of practice when you grow old.) I guess it is back to basics again.

Push On or Let Go

One of the things that I wonder about all the time. Once you have managed to get in close to your opponent and think he can no longer ward off your attack, do you push on, or do you let go?

How do you know that you have really got him, if you don't push on? But what if you really got him? Do you need to push on and make him fall just to make a point? Or is it better to just let go, knowing that you have already gotten him?

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Turning My Kua 2

I have written about this before, but after looking at what my teacher was trying to show me, I think I have a better understanding of how to turn my kua.

The kua (both of them) are supposed to be turning inward circles (or outward circles). Just that they are starting at different points on the circle. For example, if the left side starts at the top and turns anticlockwise in, the right side should be starting at the bottom turning clockwise away.

The key to getting this done properly is to relax the kua, such that it is turning as smoothly as possible. At first, because you are not used to it, the circles will be very small (if they can be called circles at all) but after a while, once you have gotten used to relaxing your kua and turning it, the circles will get bigger (or so my teacher told me). This will be the new focus when I do my basic silk reeling exercises.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Moving the Joints

My teacher was talking about peng being turning the wrist and not the whole forearm yesterday, which led to the inkling. I thought a bit about it again today, and remember something that my teacher said before about moving the joints independent of each other. That is, when I want to move my wrist, I don't move my elbow. When I want to move my elbow, I don't move my wrist or my shoulder. Each joint should not move because another joint is moving. That is what relaxing the joints mean. They move independent of each other.

This is important because otherwise, when your opponent is able to move one of your joints, he is able to control the rest of your body. He becomes able to use an action at one part of your body to affect you as a whole, to cause you to move as he wants. If you are able to relax all your joints, when he acts upon a single joint, the action is restricted to that joint and you are still able to control the rest of your body. This is easier said than done, so I guess that is what practice is all about.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

An Inkling

Just an inkling... my teacher keeps talking about getting the opponent's force onto the screwthread. Just what is this screwthread? Could it just be the successive turning of the wrist, forearm and then upper arm? Leading to the turning of the torso, kua, knee and ankle? Just a thought that I wanted to keep alive, as I ponder over it in the days to come.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Up Against The Wall

I think everyone has this feeling once in a while. Sometimes, we just run up against a wall. We may start to ask why are we doing this. Or where are things headed.

I try to practise taiji daily, yet I don't seem to be improving. I tell myself to relax when pushing hands, yet when I push hands with my teacher, my arms still get tired easily (which means I am using brute force still). Is all that practice really helping?

A totally unrelated blog (somewhere, forgot where...) helped me to think things through. Sometimes, when we go up against a wall, we should stop and not try to push on. It is time to review what has been done so far, to work on other things, before coming back to the wall and try to get past it.

In taiji terms, if I come up against a wall, it doesn't mean I stop practising. But maybe it is time to change the focus of practice (work on single moves, work on basics, etc.) before coming back to work on the full routine? Maybe it is time to focus on relaxing the kua rather than trying to discern the opponent's force?

Sometimes, the answer is not in answering the question. Because there may not be an answer. Just the question and the process of answering it.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Learning Self-Defence

A fellow pushing hands student was telling me that he intends to take up aikido to learn some grappling/chin-na techniques, so that he can deal with drunks (he comes across them once in a while in the course of his work). Although he has learnt some martial arts before, he tells me that everytime he encounters a drunk, he feels fear and doesn't dare to do anything. I don't understand his intention for learning aikido, but I think he is trying to get some experience and confidence in using grappling/locks/throws/etc against a partner before trying it out for real.

What I fear is that he will still find himself at square one. Fear.

At the end of the day, using martial arts in self-defence is very different from sparring with a partner in a controlled environment. I have written about learning self-defence (or rather, not being able to learn) through pushing hands. In self-defence, there are no rules. You may have all the confidence gained sparring with a partner, but once the rules change (or disappear, for that matter), how confident can you be that you will come out the winner?

What we learn in class improves our techniques. But to counter fear, to gain that confidence needed to face a real opponent in self-defence, you need more than technique. You need the right mentality.

Before you commit to the fight, ask yourself, are you willing to lose (and either end up hurt or worse)? If not, it is better to avoid the fight (which may mean "Run!") But sometimes, we cannot avoid a fight. That is when our daily life will determine if we can counter our fear. If we live each day to the fullest with no regrets, we can then enter the fight knowing that if we die, we die with no regrets.

Thus, we practise the techniques of self-defence in the classroom/dojo, but we practise the mentality of self-defence through our daily lives.

Saturday, November 07, 2009

Performance at 慈济

We put up a performance today at Buddhist Tzu Chi Foundation in Singapore. It started with a group performance of an excerpt of Yang style taijiquan.
Followed by a performance of Chen style taiji sword.
I think the takeaway from the performance is not the performance itself (though it did give all of us experience in performing in front of an audience), but the additional practice that we went through, which helped us to correct some of our mistakes. Another important takeaway is the ability to practise as a group, so that we follow each other rather than keep to our own individual rhythms.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

How to Neutralise Force

A hint provided by my teacher on how to neutralise your opponent's force. You must not resist his force (that has been said so many times before that it is obvious) and you know that you have neutralised his force when you no longer feel it.

Of course, the next thing to do after neutralising his force, is what to do with it. How do you then deflect it away from you, and then back towards your opponent, or use it against him?

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Taiji and Music

This came up during one of the recent taiji classes.

My teacher likes to play music during taiji classes. Recently, he had to leave class early, bringing along with him his set of music. We students were thus left "musicless".

Someone commented that it feels weird practising taiji without music.

I think music helps to create a soothing environment for practising taiji. Yet we must not rely on the music to create the environment. After all, taiji is about cultivating the inner self. The environment we create for taiji is within ourselves. Music may help, but ultimately, it is we ourselves we have to find our own means to create that inner environment. With or without music.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

How to Improve part 2

This is to add on to the previous post on how to improve.

Besides just practising each move by itself, I need to practise each move many times by itself. Each time, I need to pay attention to certain details to make sure that I am getting it right. I should not pay attention to ALL the details and try to get EVERYTHING right in one go. That is impossible and likely to hinder more than help. Instead, taking it one step at a time, I need to work on a single problem each time until I am able to correct it, and then move on to the next problem.

For example, taking a single move (Single Whip), and practising it 100 times, with the first 10 times focusing on whether my body is straight, the next 10 times on whether my kua is sunk and relaxed, and the next 10 times on whether arm is relaxed, and so on. At the end of 100 times, I would have gone through all the common mistakes. Repeat this for other moves, and repeat over time to revise and review (in case the old bad habits come back to plague me). It is not easy, it is time consuming, but only with hard work, patience and lots of practice can improvements be made.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Force On Force

Someone asked me during pushing hands class about using shoulder to hit someone. For example, when doing single-hand pushing hands, if the opportunity arises, can we use shoulder bash to counter? He proceeded to demonstrate what he meant by shoulder bash, which is basically zhuang . I told him that taiji is about using soft to counter hard, so using zhuang is a bit contrary to that principle. A better way is to use kao 靠.

It got me thinking, though. So why shouldn't we use zhuang but instead use kao? I think it is because if we choose to use zhuang and the opponent returns in kind, one of us will become injured. Why? Assuming my zhuang has a force of 50kg. If my opponent returns in kind with a zhuang of 100kg, the impact will be 150kg. Ouch! And the resultant movement will be against me (because his force is stronger), which means 50kg on force pushing me back. Thus, when we meet force on force, the stronger force wins. The weaker force ends up getting very seriously injured.

I guess this is an oversimplified way of explaining things, but it does serve to illustrate why we shouldn't try to use force, because we never know how strong our opponent can be. If he turns out to be stronger, we end up injuring ourselves instead. So the next time you think about using the hard application of taiji, think again. It may not be worth it.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Chen Style Hu Lei Jia (忽雷架)



This is Hu Lei Jia (忽雷架), which readers of the comic <拳児> ("Kenji") will know. It is slightly different from what you would expect from Chen style taiji.

Sunday, October 04, 2009

Taiji For Health, Fame or Money?

There is a recent taiji boom in Singapore. Not just any taiji boom, but rather, a boom regarding a set of taiji routines developed by a group of doctors, supposedly good for people with arthritis, osteoporosis and even diabetes. I guess doctors, being professionals, know what they are talking about and I don't doubt the results of their research. After all, we all know that taiji, besides being an effective martial art, is also very good for health. I mean, nowadays, taiji is known more for its health benefits rather than its original use as a martial art.

So if you have arthritis or osteoporosis, it may be a good idea to start doing some taiji. Now that research by a group of doctors has proven that taiji is good for those ailments.

What I do not agree with is the method it is being introduced in Singapore.

The People's Association is introducing these sets of taiji routines into all community centres. I applaud their noble goal of making taiji available to the masses, in trying to help the masses overcome their ailments. However, what we have now is a new group of taiji instructors teaching these sets. Till now, in order to teach at community centres, PA required taiji instructors to be qualified by the Singapore National Wushu Federation. To be qualified, would-be instructors have to attend a week-long course, coupled with oral, written and practical examinations by a board of examiners (renown taiji masters). This ensured that all taiji instructors meet certain standards. Yet with this new group of instructors, there is no need to be qualifed by the SNWF. All these new instructors need to do is attend a 2-day training session with the group of doctors and at the end of the session, they are given a certificate authorising them to teach the set of routine for 2 years.

First question is, will this dilute the quality of taiji instructors in Singapore, now that SNWF is no longer the single body handing out qualifications?

Second question is, how well does the new instructor know taiji, to be able to teach taiji to students? After all, he/she only attended a 2-day training session. If taiji can be learnt in 2 days (even if it is only less than 10 movements), no one would spend a lifetime trying to master it. And if taiji cannot be learnt in 2 days, then what makes the new instructors qualified to teach? Won't it be a case of the blind leading the blind? If taiji is not taught properly, won't it hurt the students instead of help them? If that is the case, ethically, shouldn't we stop these new instructors from teaching taiji until they are ready?

Third question is, who authorised the doctors to authorise these new instructors? Doctors, being doctors, are professionals in the medical field. They are obviously subject matter experts on things medical. I have no problems with them authorising people to teach physiotherapy. But doctors are not professionals nor subject matter experts in taiji. It is one thing to share their research with people (so that people are aware of the benefits of taiji proven by research). It is another thing altogether to charge a fee to teach someone something that they have no right to teach. After all, are these doctors qualified instructors certified by the SNWF? How do we know if what they are teaching is even correct?

If the doctors conducted seminars (even charging fees for them) to share their research, I would have no issues. After all, they are sharing the results of their research so that people know the benefits of taiji in helping relief those ailments. People can then find the right teachers to learn taiji to aid their ailments. As doctors dedicated to helping people, this would have been a good approach.

But now, they are charging people to learn from them, and allowing these people to teach others. First, as far as I know, they are not the authority on taiji, so they have no right to charge others. (Maybe the descendants of Sun Lutang should charge these doctors a fee, since the movements are from Sun-style taiji.) Second, as far as I know, they have no authority to authorise others to teach, so they shouldn't charge fees for those as well. Third, how ethical is it to allow just anyone who has attended a 2-day training session to teach taiji? This could cause more harm than good. As doctors having to uphold their set of professional ethics, they may want to seriously relook at how they want to help those with these ailments. It is one thing to have a large following, it is another to have them all doing the movements correctly so that they can benefit from it.

A proposed approach would be for the doctors to share their research results through a series of seminars, target audience being taiji instructors, plus those interested. Participants can then be given a certificate of attendance. Those who want to teach this set of routine can do so, but only if they are already qualified instructors certified by the SNWF. Those who are yet to be certified by the SNWF can of course get themselves certified when they are ready. This way, we ensure that the instructors have a certain standard in taiji and proper understanding of taiji to know what they are teaching, and thus be able to teach it properly to students. The doctors probably won't earn as much directly from this, and are likely to be less well-known, but helping patients is their aim, not fame or money, right?

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

无招胜有招

A fellow student at pushing hands class asked me if pushing hands is the only way to learn how to apply taijiquan. I told him what I have written about before, that besides pushing hands, there is also the use of sparring routines and learning tecnique application. However, these methods train us to react to certain movements, ie. when the opponent moves in this way, I will counter using this move. This is "有招".

Pushing hands trains in the principles of taiji, the fundamentals of taiji as a fighting skill, which is to know force, redirect it, and use it back against your opponent. There are no fixed moves in pushing hands. Yet without fixed moves, by feeling your opponent's force and sticking to the principles of taiji, you are able to counter your opponent's moves. This is "无招".

So which is better? I think pushing hands will bring us to the higher level, because we will not be restricted by fixed movements. If we learn the applications of fixed movements, when our opponent moves in an unexpected way (which we have not trained to counter before), we will not be able to handle it. But if we train in pushing hands, even if the opponent moves in unexpected manners, we will be able to discern the direction of his force, redirect it and use it back against him. Thus, "无招胜有招".

Sunday, September 20, 2009

A Gentle Lock 2

Previously, I have written about my teacher gently locking my arm. Yesterday, during taiji class, he was explaining taijiquan to a few beginners, and was demonstrating arm locks (one hand at the wrist, the other at the elbow). A student commented that the lock felt very strong, which my teacher explained that it was because she was struggling. So she was actually feeling her own force. To show that he wasn't using any force, my teacher proceeded to demonstrate the same lock (one hand at wrist, one hand at elbow), but this time, instead of using his hands, he placed one index finger at the wrist, and the other index finger at the elbow. He was using his index fingers to lock the student's arm!

It will indeed be a long way before I can even get near his level of proficiency.

Yang (Dong/Tung) Style Fast Form 杨(董)氏快拳

Terry asked about the Yang style fast form that I practise. Yes, it is also known as Dong/Tung style fast form, since it was created by Dong Yingjie based on Yang style taijiquan.


This is Master Lin Bo Yan (my teacher's teacher) practising the fast form. You can find more about him here (where I took the video).

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Chinese Martial Arts CCTV Series 《中华武功》 and 《武林传奇》

《中华武功》is a CCTV series on Chinese martial arts that was showing in Singapore a few months ago. For those of you who missed the show, it is now available on DVD. I saw a shop at Bras Basah Complex selling it. Of course, if you don't mind the resolution, it can be viewed on the Internet as well.

CCTV 中华武功 page
CCTV 中华武功 videos online

Another series is 《武林传奇》, which you can find here under the broader series《走遍中国》, introducing the history and development of different Chinese martial arts.

CCTV 走遍中国 page
CCTV 走遍中国 videos online

Friday, September 11, 2009

Imagine The Opponent

A fellow student said something which I felt was very good to share with everyone. When you are practising taiji, you need to imagine there is an opponent there. When you are pushing hands, you need to imagine that there is no opponent there.

I think the basic mentality is correct. However, as with all things in taiji, the "between the yes and no" is very important. So while practising taiji, you should imagine that there is an opponent there, you must not be overly focused on the imaginary opponent. This should allow you to instill spirit/meaning into your movements, without them becoming overly stiff. And when pushing hands, while you should imagine that your opponent is not there, you should not be overly focused on ignoring the presence of your opponent. This should allow you to relax while pushing hands, without becoming limp.

Sunday, September 06, 2009

Yang Style 13 Movements 杨氏十三式

For those interested in Yang style taijiquan 13 movements (杨氏十三式).

1. 起势
2. 云手
3. 单鞭
4. 肘底捶
5. 白鹤亮翅
6. 搂膝拗步
7. 手挥琵琶
8. 高探马带穿掌
9. 撇身捶
10. 搬拦捶
11. 拦雀尾
12. 十字手
13. 收势

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Training Together Part 2

A year ago, I wrote about the importance of training together in a group. Recently, this issue surfaced again. I was too slow for the rest of the class. I was slow because I was trying to enjoy the practice, to complete each move properly. But by being slow, I am not able to react to the changes around me. So should I follow the rest?

Yes, and no. Yes, I need to follow the pace of the class as a whole, because that teaches me how to react to the pace of others. Taiji is about keeping pace with your opponent, and group practice is a good way to learn that.

No, because even when trying to keep pace, you must not end up speeding through each movement without completing it properly. Even when trying to keep pace, you need to continue to complete each movement properly, otherwise, the practice becomes just an exercise to move your bones and does not add to improving your skill.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

What is Relax part 2

I have written about what it is to relax in previous posts (here and here). But that is just the physical portion of relaxing. While physically relaxing the body is part of being able to apply taiji, it is not the complete picture.

Taiji is about the mind. The most important part of this is to relax the mind. Whether you are practising your form, or pushing hands, or facing a real opponent, the most important aspect of taiji is to do it with a relaxed mind. So what is a relaxed mind? It is one which is not overly focused, yet does not wander all over the place. For example, while practising your form, you may be paying some attention to your kua to make sure you sink and relax it properly, yet at the same time, your attention is not so focused on your kua that it becomes your single preoccupation. When practising your form, while you try to practise each move to show its application, you are not so focused on showing the applications of each move. When pushing hands, while you try to listen to your opponent's force, you are not actively seeking to know where his force is going.

This "in between yes and no" is the most important thing about relaxing your mind. The focus is there, but it is not sharp. In a way, it is like aiming your camera at a specific nearby object, yet not focusing the lens to get a sharp image. In this way, while the specific nearby object appears slightly blurred, the surroundings are not lost.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Proposed Training Programme

Just a thought I have on how train from now on.

Basic foundation exercises 基本功 for 30min
Specific movements 单招练习 for 30min
Form/routine practice 套路练习 for 1hr

The first 30min is to build up a good foundation, to instill in the body the correct posture and requirements for taiji, to improve the movement of the joints, etc. This will include basic warmup exercises to increase flexibility, as well as silk reeling exercise.

The next 30min is to rectify and improve the execution of specific movements within a routine. This should help to get rid of bad habits and aid in application. An example will be continuous practice of Grasp Sparrow Tail (拦雀尾).

The last 1hr is to put into practise the principles of taiji, focusing more on the internal aspects such as staying relaxed, using the mind to lead the body, etc.

Comments? I will be happy to hear about how you train too, because I may be able to draw reference from that for my own training.

Sunday, August 09, 2009

Bajiquan Videos

Here are some more baijiquan 八極拳 videos from Youtube.

A sparring routine used to practise application (and response).


Matsuda Ryuchi 松田隆智 performing bajiquan. He is the author of the comic Kenji 拳児, which is a comic about a person's bajiquan learning journey.




This is the competition form used for wushu competitions nowadays.

Saturday, August 08, 2009

Learning to Relax

Just when I thought I had made a bit of headway in learning how to relax, I realised how far away I really am.

When I pushed hands with my teacher, I still feel force, and I know that is brute force coming from me. Yes, it is a bit, very little, but still, it is muscular force that can be used against me when pushing hands. It is muscular force that is preventing me from being able to apply the soft side of taiji properly. It is muscular force that comes about because I still cannot relax.

And I think it is because I am still using a lot of muscular force when I practise my routines. Taiji is about the mind moving the body, but I still end up using my muscles to move the body. While it may sound funny/ridiculous (how else to move if not to use muscles?), the muscles here I am referring to is the muscular force that we are so used to using, the brute force that we are used to using. So, after some thought, I think the way to improve and learn to relax is to go away from the muscular force and work towards using the mind to move the body, to use the mind to make the movements when practising my routines. Once I can do that, maybe I will be able to relax better and not like the muscular force manifest itself when pushing hands.

A Gentle Lock

Just to share an experience I had.

I have previously talked about the hard and soft applications of the same move in taiji. Last night, my teacher was using me to demonstrate a move. When he used lyu 捋 on my arm, placing one hand on my wrist and another at my elbow, I had the strangest kind of feeling. I felt that I couldn't move. I felt that if I tried to move my arm, no matter which direction, the hands being placed at my wrist and elbow would not allow that movement. And all my teacher did was to place his hands on my arm. It was not like he was locking my arm with force. It was what I call a gentle lock. It is because his "listening" is so good, that every small movement that I make, he was able to detect and move in the smallest/slightest way to counter it, while still maintaining his hands at my wrist and elbow.

This is what taiji is about. Winning without having to fight. Just like what Sun Tzu said is the highest form of winning. Without an overt expression of force from my teacher, I (whose arm was being locked) knew exactly what was in store for me should I try to struggle and fight back. And I knew that I had no way out of it.

It will be a long way (if ever) before I get to this stage. But at least it is something to remember, and slowly work towards.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

Trimming Your Fingernails

Once thing that I learnt back in the days when I was learning wushu, and have since been practising, is to keep my fingernails short at all times. Because for someone who practises martial arts, it serves practical reasons to have short fingernails.

1. There is less chance of your nails catching onto your opponent's clothes and breaking at the worst possible time and causing you unnecessary pain and distraction.

2. Your nails won't break when you are trying to punch or poke someone, causing you unnecessary pain and distraction.

3. Your nails won't scratch your practice partners, causing them unnecessary pain and injury.

So, for yourself and the people you practise with, I would advise keeping your fingernails short. It will benefit you (or at least prevent a disadvantage for you) and is a courtesy to others.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Videos of a Younger Chen Xiaowang

Found this on Youtube. It is Chen style old frame first routine, but see how different it is from what we are used to seeing nowadays. It is softer, just like what the first routine is all about.



And here is another video of Chen Xiaowang when he was younger. The video is clip of his first and second routines combined.

Taking Comments

An incident at class. An old man (a friend of my teacher) came over to talk to my teacher, and saw us practising. He saw a fellow student, and commented that his moves were too stiff. After the old man left, the student made a rude remark about the old man. My teacher chastised him for not being open to comments.

I know the old man. He is also a practitioner of taiji, and practises daily (except for rainy days). And he probably has been practising taiji even before I was born. I thought about bringing this up to my fellow student, but decided to keep my comments to myself before he thinks I am trying to be smart.

I think that in order for us to improve, we must be open to comments. Not just from our teacher, but from fellow students and even passerbys. When someone makes a comment, we need to reflect to see if that comment is true, because there is no smoke without fire. Usually, an external party can notice things that we would otherwise miss out. We think we are correct, but when someone thinks otherwise, we need to ask ourselves why is it that someone else is perceiving things differently from us.

Be open to comments, because they can only help to improve you. And be thankful that the person giving you a comment actually bothers to spend his time looking at you and telling you what he thinks can help you improve.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Why Practise Taiji Slowly?

Why do we practise taiji slowly? It is, after all, a martial art, and you don't move slowly at all when you are applying taiji. So why not practise it at the speed that you use it?

I think the answer is because we practise taiji slowly so that we make sure that each movement is done correctly. When we move slowly, we are able to check ourselves to ensure that each movement is carried out exactly as is required, so that we move in line with the principles of taiji. With time, each time we practise a movement, it is correct, meeting the requirements. After practising the same movement a few thousand times, the correct way of moving becomes such a part of us, that instinctively, whether moving fast or slow, we are able to carry out the movement in the exact same way, just at different speeds. Then, when we need to apply that movement, we are able to meet the requirements of the movement, but moving at a faster speed.

But slow is not necessarily good. Each time we practise, while we move slowly, we must not have breaks within our movements. Because one of the main principles of taiji is to move continuously (绵绵不断). If we move so slowly that there are breaks in our movement (usually because we take too much time checking ourselves), and it becomes a bad habit, what happens is that when we try to apply that movement (moving at a faster speed), the same break will happen, because we are so used to it. And then we will find that we are unable to properly apply that movement, because the break in it causes the force to be disrupted.

So while practising slowly is good, remember, the movements must be continuous. Otherwise, it defeats the purpose of practising slowly, and we might as well practise at the same speed as we expect to apply the movements. And then it becomes like changquan.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Questions on Taiji

Do you have a question on taiji? Do feel free to post them here as comments. It will give me ideas on what to write about, and who knows, maybe someone else can provide you an answer as well.

Hard vs Soft

I was watching a video on Chen style fajing training. It introduced 42 methods of training fajing, which can be stringed together to become a continuous training routine. Below is an example taken from here.



The video I watched showed applications as well (I couldn't find it on YouTube, so you will have to make do with the example above), but watching the video, I started thinking about how the applications seem to stress the hard part of application, without touching on the soft part of application.

I think taiji movements can be applied in two ways, hard and soft. By hard, it means striking. Basically, like a punch, you start without contacting your opponent, and suddenly make contact. The force is usually more explosive. Much like what you will see in Chen style second routine.

By soft, you are already in contact with your opponent, then you listen to his force and redirect it to use against him. The movements are more fluid and is what you will find familiar in Chen style first routine.

For example, the double peng can be used to strike away an opponent's arm when he tried to use both hands to push you. That is the hard method of applying it. It can also be used to turn and lift up his arms, and his whole body with it, when he similarly tries to push you with two hands. That is the soft method of using it.

The hard method requires power, which can be developed via constant practice. What you need to remember is that the movement must be smooth and relaxed. Power comes naturally when your body moves as a whole. There is no need to specifically exert force.

The soft method requires the ability to listen for and redirect your opponent's force. This is achieved through pushing hands training. This may be the harder method to train, since it requires that you have a partner available to train with.

So while it may seem more interesting to train in the hard method of application (after all, the explosive nature of the force exerted makes it look more impressive and more "useable"), let's not forget the soft method of application, which is what allows one to use "four ounces of strength to move a thousand catties" (四两拨千斤).

Friday, July 10, 2009

Taiji Mentality

A lot about taiji comes from the mind. After all, one of the basic principles of taiji is to use the mind to control the body (用意不用力). So the correct mentality towards applying taiji is very important, since the mind controls the body.

A common misunderstanding (I would think) is that taiji is about yielding (see previous post about yielding vs following) to the opponent, so that you don't resist him. I would think the correct mentality is not about yielding. Rather, it is about not resisting. But how not to resist? It does not mean to yield, to let your opponent has his way. Rather, in order not to resist, you listen, then follow, then lead your opponent in the direction that you want. Starting out passive, you end up taking the lead. The correct mentality is to remain passive until your opponent makes a move, but all the time you tell yourself to look for an opening to take the lead. You need to end up like water, flowing into every nook and canny available.

Martial arts is about defeating the opponent. That usually means you have to push forward (not to be taken in the full literal sense). If you need to move back to gain an advantage, by all means go ahead. But you need to press forward (need not be taken literally, it can be a mental kind of thing) at some point in time in order to defeat your opponent. If you keep running away, at best you avoid losing.

So the mental model to adopt is to be like water, be like the sea, flowing into every nook and canny, crushing itself upon the shore, retreating only to strike again.

Saturday, July 04, 2009

Learn By Looking

There is a limit to learning by looking at what your teacher is doing. Because when you are looking, you are not able to comprehend what is going on within your teacher's mind/body.

For example, when you look at your teacher pushing hands with someone else, you may notice him moving his hands, his legs, his body in certain ways to neutralise an attack. But when you try to imitate his movements, you find that you are unable to achieve the same effect. Also, everytime you look at him, he seems to be moving in a slightly different way, yet the effect is the same. Why? Because your teacher's movements are a response to his opponent's movements/force. Each situation is a different situation, and thus each response is different from the other. You cannot achieve the same effect imitating him because firstly, you lack his level of skill/understanding of taiji. Secondly, your opponent's movement/force is different. So your situation is different from your teacher's.

It is the same when observing your teacher performing a taiji routine. It is difficult to imitate your teacher because you don't know what is going on inside his mind, what he understands from each movement of the routine and how he visualises applying it. If you try to imitate his movements without knowing how he interprets each movement, you will end up with an empty shell, a form without substance. You are better off performing each movement based on how you yourself understand each movement is applied.

Does that mean there is no value in looking at your teacher? No, there is still value. You look at your teacher is learn the broad movements, after which you must ponder on your own their applications (and ask if you cannot figure it out). You look at your teacher to see what can be achieved, thereby allowing you to set goals for yourself. You look at your teacher to see if you have made any gross mistakes in the movements (usually because when you first learn the routine, due to your lack of understanding, you didn't pick up enough details, and now that you know better, you realise that your hand is too low, your feet too wide apart, etc.)

Pushing Hands For Self-Defence

Is pushing hands a form of self-defence?

If you were to ask me, I would say that strictly speaking, pushing hands is not a form of self-defence. Rather, it is a way to practise taiji skills related to self-defence.

A real attacker is not going to touch hands with you before he continues his attack. So the basic movements (single-hand stationary pushing hands, double-hands stationary pushing hands, etc.) that we use in pushing hands will not be useful when we are really under attack. So if you think you are going to be able to defend yourself just by learning pushing hands, you may need to relook your options.

What pushing hands does is that it trains you in the basics of taiji, which is 掤履挤按採挒肘靠. It teaches you the importance of staying relaxed, and trains you to turn your kua properly to neutralise an opponent's force. You still need to couple this with your taiji routine training (which is a form of shadow boxing), during which you visualise how to apply each movement in your routine. Taiji routine practice allows you to know how to apply each movement; pushing hands training allows you to apply each movement correctly (the correct amount of force, the correct point to make contact, etc.)

So pushing hands alone is not self-defence. Practising taiji routines alone is not self-defence. Only when you put both of them together, can you make taiji a form of self-defence.

Thoughts on Peng

I just wrote about why we need to practise single-hand pushing hands. This post is about additional thoughts on peng related to that article.

As mentioned, the most important thing about single-hand pushing hands is to learn about peng and other basic skills of taiji. So what exactly is peng all about? I think peng is wrongly translated in English when we use "ward off". Because peng is not just about warding off. Rather, the most important thing about peng is learning where to meet an opponent's force. It is about where to make contact, and that is why it is the most important move in taiji. Because only after making contact, can you continue to perform other things, like leading your opponent's force away and thus neutralise it, and then return it to your opponent.

For example, a common mistake is to make contact with your opponent's hand (when he pushes) using the back of your hand. Why? Because when you make contact with the back of your hand, your wrist will become stiff, thus allowing your opponent to make use of your stiff wrist (aka brute force) against you. If instead you make contact with your forearm (near the wrist), your wrist can remain relaxed.

Is peng just about making contact with your hand? No. Any part of your body that makes contact with an opponent can be peng. Peng is about how and where to make contact, and is not limited to the hand/arm. It can be the shoulder that makes contact, or the back, or the shin. Peng is about shifting the point of contact to that which is most advantageous to you, so that you can then make use of your opponent's force against him.

Friday, July 03, 2009

Why Practise Single-Hand Pushing Hands

A fellow student in class today asked me why do we practise single-hand pushing hands. Come to think of it, it is highly unlikely that a real opponent will stand there with you and use only one hand to push you. More likely, he will be moving around and trying to use both hands on you. So what is the value of learning to push with one hand in a stationary position, when it is unlikely to be the case when you really need to apply pushing hands?

I think the value of single-hand stationary pushing hands is learning the most important basics of pushing hands, which is peng, and to turn your kua. Over a prolonged period of single-hand pushing hands, you try your ability to peng and you start to learn how to turn your kua to neutralise your opponent's force, and learn how not to resist. With this good foundation, when you move on to the more advanced forms of pushing hands, and actual application, you will find that peng comes naturally to you, and you are able to turn your kua like second nature, and staying relaxed is easily accomplished without much thought. Once you can do this, you are much better at sensing and neutralising your opponent's force, and returning it becomes easier too.

So the value of single-hand pushing hands is not in its application during a real situation, but because it trains you to become familiar with the most basic movements in taiji which is fundamental for the proper application of taiji in all situations.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Article on Self-Defence Classes in The Sunday Times

An article on self-defence classes was featured in The Sunday Times Lifestyle section on 7 Jun 2009. It started off with an interview of a fellow pushing hands student (the reporter came to visit us during pushing hands class). Below is a scanned image of the article. Those who subscribe to The Straits Times online can view it here.

The side article lists a few self-defence classes available in Singapore. Below is the excerpt from the side article on my teacher's pushing hands class.
Below are two photographs taken by the reporter, but it didn't make it into the print edition. My teacher is the one wearing white, and the one pushing hands with him is the person who was interviewed. The pictures were taken from here.Ever since the article ran, we have seen an increase in the number of students at pushing hands class. Besides the original class at Kreta Ayer CC on Thursday nights 8:30pm to 10pm, there is another class at Kreta Ayer CC on Saturday evenings 5:30pm to 7pm, and at Tampines Changkat CC on Sunday evenings 6pm to 7:30pm.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Taiji and Aiki 合気

In a way, taiji is very similar in principle to the Japanese martial arts of daito-ryu aikijujutsu 大東流合気柔術 (and its better know derivative, aikido 合気道). Taiji is based on neutralising your opponent's force, and so are the other two. Taiji has 化劲 while the other two has 合気. Both are 化劲 and 合気 based on not using the instinctive reaction force (aka resistance) but through giving up on this instinctive reaction force, you gain another type of force (which is 化劲 or 合気).

The means to achieve this force is slightly different, but has similarities as well. Daito-ryu/aikido focuses on partner training, in which two persons will help each other to apply movements. Through the practice of these movements, they seek to understand how to give up on this instinctive reaction force. For taiji, routines are practised by one person alone, yet a partner can also help to train up in the application of the movements (similar to how daito-ryu and aikido do their training), as well as pushing hands to build a foundation in the skills of taiji.

The end result is the same, to gain the ability to use 化劲 or 合気.

Applying Taiji

I have written about the applying taiji before, as well as how to learn the application of taiji via sparring routines.

There are two ways to apply taiji, namely to apply the techniques of taiji (in terms of how to use the different movements that you can find in a routine) and how to apply the skills of taiji (like how to neutralise force and how to return force).

To learn how to apply taiji movements, you need to constantly think about application when practising your routine. That is one method. Another is to have a partner who feeds you with attacks, which you then use a specific taiji movement to counter. You keep practising how to use that movement to counter an attack until it becomes second nature.

To learn how to apply the skills of taiji, it must be done together with gaining those skills. To gain those skills, you practise pushing hands. You feel for your partner's force, and try to discern its direction and magnitude, and then you try to neutralise it and return it to your partner. There is no fixed move, just the basic moves (peng lyu ji an cai lie zhou kao 棚捋挤按采挒肘靠) of taiji.

Both methods are correct in how you apply taiji, yet there is a difference. If you only practise how to apply the movements, you will be able to handle attacks that comes in fixed patterns (those that you have practised with your partner). But when it comes to things outside your usual range of practice, you will be caught off guard without a solution. But if you were to instead be able to apply the skills of taiji, then you will be handle all situations, even if you have never met them before. That is what is meant by "无招胜有招" "No (fixed) movements winning against (fixed) movements".

At the end of the day, in order to master the application of taiji, I think we need to use both methods.

Facial Expressions

In previous posts, I have written about facial expressions and how to add soul and spirit to taiji routines. Today, as I was watching a Japanese drum performance, I once again thought about the importance of facial expressions.

Meaning (意) and spirit (神) is very important in taiji, and practising routines is one of the main ways of learning taiji. So when we are practising our routines, we need to express the meaning and spirit of taiji, else our routines will be empty, and our practice will also be in vain (just actions, aka 摆架子). Watching the Japanese drum performance taught me the importance of facial expressions. When a good drummer plays, his facial expressions matches the rhythm and mode of the piece, because he is fully engrossed in expressing the rhythm and mode of the piece, such that he becomes one with the music. So when the rhythm is fast yet light, his face shows a happy expression, and when the tempo builds up to a thundering roar, his face becomes more serious. When the tempo softens and slows, his facial expression is relaxed.

The same for taiji. You need to match your facial expression with the meaning and spirit of the movement that you are doing. When the movement is smooth and slow, your facial expression should be relaxed, when the movement is small and faster, your facial expression should become more serious. When your facial expression matches your movements, it shows that you understand the movements, and practice becomes meaningful.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Secret Moves (秘伝技)

Is there such a thing as secret moves, that are sure-win moves when used? In aikido and daito-ryu aiki-jujutsu, there are such things as secret moves (秘伝技). But are they sure-win?



I think everyone has his or her own "secret moves". And each of us will have different "secret moves". Just what are these? They are actually movements that we are good at, that we are able to apply properly and thus gain an advantage. We are good at these movements because we have reached a level of training that allows us to apply these movements correctly.

And to round this up, I think the "secret moves" are really the basic moves. These basic moves that we learn right at the beginning are the most fundamental moves, embodying the principles of the system that we are learning. They are simple yet effective, and thus applicable in a wide range of situations.

Xingyiquan (形意拳) Competition Style

A video of the xingyiquan (形意拳) champion in Singapore's 2006 wushu competition.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Sparring Routines

Martial arts is about defeating an opponent. One feature common to Chinese martial arts is the use of routines to train. But one cannot train in the skill of defeating an opponent just fighting empty air. You need an opponent to practise against.

That is where sparring routines (对练套路) come in. These are routines in which one learns how to apply the techniques/movements as well as how to counter/block them. These are practised by two partners. One would practise the movements as found in a normal routine. Another would then use movements from within that routine as well to counter the movements.

An example is the bajiquan sparring routine below.



Once both partners are able to perform the sparring routine smoothly and with proper application of force, they can then move on to free form sparring. Pushing hands is a form of controlled free form sparring, with certain rules, to allow taiji practitioners a controlled environment to slowly build up their skills in applying taiji movements.

Fast But Not Scattered

A common mistake that I keep making when practising my Chen style routine is the habit of flinging my arms about when I try to make my movements fast (in order to have a variation of rhythm within my routine). There is a more pronounced change in speed for Chen style, yet fast doesn't mean swinging my arms around and end up being like changquan. Fast and steady, not fast and scattered (快而稳,不是快而散). To do that, I have to learn to control my movements, to watch this bad habit of mine when practising. The key is in turning using my kua. When I am able to turn with my kua, no matter how fast or slow the movement it, I can control the speed yet not appear scattered. There will be a certain force that can be felt from it.

Back to the drawing board... and more and more practice!

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Thoughts on Performances

Don't be surprised, but there are actually many wushu/taiji performances taking place round the year in Singapore. Most of them are events organised by/at community clubs, though SNWF also organises some activities as well.

Of late, my teacher (and his students) has not been taking part in performances. The last major performance we did was a few years back, when Queen Elizabeth II visited Singapore and he was asked to get his students to perform taiji to showcase as one of the activities that goes on in the neighbourhood of Toa Payoh.

While I don't like the idea of public performance of pushing hands, I think it is important to take part in performances of taijiquan. Firstly, preparing for the performance gives the students an objective to work towards, so there is a reason for them to practise hard and to try for certain standards. At the same time, it exposes us to what other people are doing, so that we don't end up living in our own world. After all, taiji is practised in many different ways by many different people, it is always good to know how others are practising taiji (though we don't necessarily need to follow their style/way).

It is the same with competitions. We take part in competitions not for the glory or the recognition by others, but rather to give a goal for us to work towards so as to focus our energy, and at the same time, ascertain our own standards.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

How to Peng part 3

I have written about how to peng before (see here, here and here). I have written about relaxing before. I have written about how not to resist, and how relaxing is different from going limp.

Today, I am going to write again about peng, because the most important movement in taiji is peng. Peng is not about resisting, yet it is also not about going limp. If you don't use some force, you cannot peng. Yet if you use too much force, you will not be able to peng as well, because you will not be able to listen to your opponent's force.

Peng is what taiji is about, it is how you can use four ounces of force to divert away a thousand catties of force (四两拨千斤). But 四两拨千斤 is not totally going without force. You still need a bit (four ounces) in order to do anything about the thousand catties of force. What it means is that you are able to use a little bit of force to move a very big force. And how you do that is because, when you are relaxed, you are able to sense (listen) the incoming force, ascertain its direction and magnitude, and thus use a small token force to divert away the incoming force.

Blocks in karate and external martial arts attempt to accomplish the same thing, which is to divert away the incoming force. But because they do not differentiate between the direction and magnitude of the incoming force, the force needed to execute a block is always the same. In taiji, because we listen to the incoming force to ascertain its direction and magnitude, we are able to tailor the force we use to block/peng.

And once you are able to listen to the incoming force and use peng, you can then redirect that force back to your opponent.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Yielding vs Following

The important thing in taiji is not to resist your opponent's force. But that does not mean yielding to his force. There is a difference between yielding (譲) and following (随).

When you yield, you are not resisting, and your opponent's force comes in, and you end up with nowhere else to go.

But taiji is not about yielding. First, you need to be aware of your opponent's force, so you listen/feel for it. Then you need to stick to it, so that it doesn't slip away. Then you follow it to where it is going. And then you lead it towards where you want it to go. The reason why you do not resist your opponent's force is so that you can feel where the force is and where it is going, so that you can then lead it towards where you want it to go.

Slow != Correct

For those who don't do programming, the symbol '!=' means 'not equal to'.

A friend of mine said that when driving a car, "slow doesn't mean safe". That is true, but I also have to add that "fast is inherently dangerous".

In taiji, when practising your routines, slow doesn't mean correct. But similarly, fast is fundamentally wrong.

My teacher takes about 40 minutes to complete a set of Yang style 108. For me, I took about 30 minutes. But the difference is that, when I am doing my set, I move so slowly that I seem to have pauses in between, which is fundamentally wrong. Yet my teacher finishes his set in a longer time, without appearing to have pauses. Why?

I think the answer is that he completes each movement fully, while for me, I sometimes move into the next movement without completing the previous one (because my kua is still not relaxed enough to allow me to turn fully). So the important thing is to complete each movement, and keep moving continuous so that there are no pauses.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Taiji is Cruel 2

I was walking home after taiji class, when it occurred to me why the moves in taiji are so cruel. It takes a long time to be able to correctly apply the principles of taiji, to learn how to listen, understand, neutralise and use force. Once you are able to do so, you are able to control your opponent's and your own force so well that you can choose the exact effect that you want, whether it is to make your opponent lose balance, break his ribs or push him back a few feet. But until then, you are unable to properly use "soft against hard". So if you meet up with trouble and really need to save yourself, you will need to rely on technique rather than skill. That is why the techniques in taiji are designed to be cruel and lethal, so that it is one shot one kill. The underlying rule is that a person learning taiji will be a person of martial morals, and thus will not abuse the cruel techniques, instead using them only in times of dire need.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Martial Morals 武徳

Martial morals (武徳) is an important aspect of training in martial arts. When I was learning wushu, my coach would always finish off each training session by gathering the students and talking to us. My taiji teacher likes to talk too, though he doesn't make it a practice to talk to the students together as a group. While the topics vary, the important thing is to glean a bit of understanding about how my coach or my teacher thinks about life in general, about their principles in life, about how they go about dealing with issues. Although they are not 100% correct (then again, who is to judge right and wrong?) they do serve as examples that we can learn from, to build up our own set of martial morals.

One of the calligraphy pieces that I wrote.

While we may have skills that can subdue the world, it is only through our martial morals that we can make the world submit to us. You can defeat an opponent by skill, but you can only win his heart with your morals.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Moving With Kua

I came to realise something last week while observing my teacher as he was explaining something to another student. It has to do with the evergreen issue of kua.

Sinking/relaxing/turning the kua is more than just that. We need to understand why we are doing it, which will eventually help us in being able to transfer the force from the legs to the hands. When my teacher sinks or turns his kua, the action is translated to his hands, i.e. when his kua moves, his whole body moves together, the hands move as well. He is able to use the turning motion of his kua to move his body, his shoulder, his elbow and his wrist. And because he is able to uniformly distribute the force throughout, there is no one location which is "heavier" than another, and thus there is no "edge" for me to leverage on against him. He is like a spinning sphere, touch him at any point and you get thrown away.

On the contrary, when I move my kua, I am unable to properly translate the force to my body and hands. The force is unevenly distributed along my arm (usually being heavier either at my wrist or my elbow) and thus, my opponent is able to leverage on that to return my force to me. I am like a spinning cube, there are points at which if you apply the force in the correct direction, you will be able to push me away.

So the lesson here is that we need to move using our kua, which helps us to distribute the force generated from our legs uniformly across our entire body so that we can become a spinning sphere. For example, when pushing, we move our body forward by pushing with our back leg. Towards the end of the push, we need to sink/relax our kua, but at the same time use that movement to continue pushing (by relaxing our shoulders, sinking the elbows and sitting down our wrists).

Saturday, May 09, 2009

Back to Basics

In order to correct my "Chen style hands, Yang style legs" problem when practising my Chen style old frame first routine, I am going back to the basic of silk reeling exercise, to train up my ability to twist my kua properly so that I can better demonstrate the silk reeling movements that forms the basis of Chen style.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Lineage (again)

I have talked about this issue before, in a previous post. Today, someone asked me again who my teacher was, because the Chen style taijiquan old frame first routine that I practise is quite different from what is being widely taught now.

Is there anything such as a "standard" version of a form? Is what is widely practised the "standard" version? How do we define "standard"?

Some would say that the version being taught by the Four Kings of Chen style taiji is the "standard" version. But if you look at them, each of them have slightly differing movements within their forms. So whose version is the "standard" version?

Is there even such a thing as a "standard" version?

Each of us, through how we were taught and our own understanding of taiji principles and our own experiences will end up with different thinking about taiji and how to express it. Even two students under the same teacher being taught the same form will end up practising the form in slightly different ways. I think the important thing is not being a copycat and just following what your teacher does. The important thing is to understand the style of the form that you are learning, understand what are the special points about it. For example, the fast-slow mixture with soft-hard expressions in Chen style, or the slow and steady and continuous flow of Yang style, or the smooth and light-footedness of Sun style. As long as you are able to express your form following the style, there shouldn't be any right or wrong. There may be small little differences in the small movements here and there, but what is important is that you are able to adhere to the basic principles of taiji while expressing the form using the correct style.

At the end of the day, we should not be mere copycats, but in order for taiji to improve, we need to understand what we are doing and use our form to express our understanding.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Style of Chen Style Taijiquan

For those who are familiar with taiji, you will know that Chen style taijiquan (陳氏太極拳) has many forms, not just one. The most basic is the old frame first routine (老架一路). Others include old frame second routine (老架二路), new frame first and second routines (新架一、二路), the 56-movement competition routine (五十六式競賽套路), as well as the small frame routine (小架).

A common misunderstanding about Chen style taijiquan is that it is both soft (柔) and hard (剛). To say the truth, all styles of taijiquan are soft and hard. What is special about Chen style is the explicit expression of hard. But does that mean a person practising Chen style should always be exerting force? Actually, no. Because within Chen style, each routine has its own style as well.

The old frame first routine is the most basic, and seeks to provide a good foundation. Which is why it is based on soft (以柔為主), with very few expressions of hard. Once a person has built up a good foundation, and is able to properly express his force (发劲) through the use of his kua (instead of using brute force), he can move on to express himself properly in the old frame second routine, which focuses on hard (以剛為主). The small frame has a slightly tighter (faster) rhythm, with smaller actions compared to the old frame.

The new frame places more emphasis on the silk reeling action and is more expressive of the hard portion of Chen style. Which is why you see a lot more expressions of force in the new frame first routine compared to the old frame first routine. This appeals to the younger generation since it makes the routine seem more lively. But such expressions of force must come from a proper base in order to make sure that the force is generated by the kua, otherwise it becomes brute force, which is a wrong expression of force.

The competition routine draws its movements from the first and second routine, making a balanced mix of soft and hard movements. This form is more for show than for training, since there isn't any proper focus.

So if you are practising Chen style, make sure you understand the focus of your routine. The old frame first routine shouldn't be done with a lot of forceful motions, but should instead be graceful and smooth, with the rare expression of force. The old frame second routine must retain the occasional graceful actions, but you need to demonstrate the proper expression of force (it must look explosive without being overly exertive).

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Taiji is Cruel

Taiji is cruel because on the outside (as seen from another person's view), the moves are all meant to maim, break or kill. There are hits to the groin, locking of joints, backfists to the head, etc. Each move in taiji is specifically designed to maximise the damage to the opponent.

But taiji is not just about moves. After all, each style has their own moves, each with their own applications. What sets taiji apart from the external martial arts is that the moves in taiji is not the end. It is the means of cultivating the inner self and inner strength, it is the means of building up the real skill of taiji. The real skill is being able to use an opponent's force against him, in any situations, without being limited by the moves found in one's routine. And the real inner strength that taiji seeks to cultivate is not the force to push others, but the ability to control our emotions such that we remain calm in all situations and curb our desire to win for winning's sake.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Technique vs Skill

It was a lesson for me today during pushing hands. I learnt what is technique and what is skill. And how they actually need to be practised hand-in-hand, so that one can really be said to master the application of taijiquan.

Technique is the technical application of the moves in taiji. That is to say, where to sweep and where to stand and how to turn the body to be able to apply a certain move such as Grasp the Sparrow Tail. One way to train technique is to have a partner for you to continue practising the moves. Well trained, you can easily apply the moves in fluid motions. You can either be leading with your movements, or your partner can be feeding you with moves for you to counter.

Skill is about the understanding of taiji. This is about being able to relax, being able to listen to your opponent's force, being able to neutralise your opponent and being able to use your opponent's force against him. To train skill, you need a partner, so that your partner can be feeding you moves for you to listen, discern, neutralise and return.

If you focus only on learning technique, you will find that you are able to apply the moves in taiji well against the unskilled and even against those skilled up to a certain degree. But the limit is that you are restricted by form (because you only train the application of the moves in the form/routines). And thus against the truly skilled, because they have no form, they are able to listen, discern, neutralise and then return your force.

If you focus only on learning skill, you will find that at first, you will not be able to handle someone good at techniques. Because you are still unable to properly listen and discern his force, thus you are unable to effectively neutralise and return his force. But if you persevere, you will find that not being restricted by form means you will eventually progress further along the road. But it will take a long time...

The compromise? Practise to gain skill when training with a partner, but think about application when practising your form. That seems to me to be the most effective and efficient way to improve in learning how to apply taijiquan.

Sunday, April 05, 2009

Relax, Not Limp

My teacher's hand feels soft during pushing hands not because there is no strength (i.e. the hand is not limp) but because he is able to relax his whole body, especially his kua. So when a force is applied on the hand, because the kua is relaxed, it is able to move and thus absorb the force, which makes it seems as if the hand is soft (retreating when pushed) when actually, it is not the hand that retreats, but the body as a whole (with the joints moving in varying amounts, not to say that they are rigid).

The common misunderstanding when we talk about being relaxed is that we try to be soft like cotton (that's how my teacher's hand feels like) by not using strength. We take the strength out of our arms, and our hands become limp. And then when a force comes, our hands yield to the force, yet we are unable to do anything about the force. Instead, the force continues to come in, and we end up being pushed.

Instead, to achieve the feel of cotton, we should be relaxing our joints, such that when a force comes in, our joints, moving in varying amounts, absorbs the force, and by then turning the kua, we are able to change the direction of the force, turning it away from us. It still feels like yielding to the force, yet it is not a complete yielding because we are not opening the gates for the enemy to rush in. Instead, we are drawing the enemy (aka force) towards where we want it to go (like luring an enemy into a trap).

Saturday, April 04, 2009

Practice Videos

Here are two videos of me practising. The first is an extract of Chen style old frame first routine.



The second video is Chen style sword.



Do feel free to comment, it will only make me better.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Stages of Taiji - Big Strong Fast Light

The book "Flashing Steel" talks about four stages in training, namely "big, strong, fast, light". How does this apply to taiji?

Big: This is the stage in which we are concerned only with the big (aka main, broad) movements. We have yet to start paying attention to details, and we are performing our movements big and broad. We adopt lower stances to build up our leg muscles. This is usually what people call the "big form". The aim of this stage is to know the movements, and build up a good foundation.

Strong: This stage is when we have built up a proper foundation, when we are able to properly transfer the force from our legs to our arms. We are able to apply force without brute muscular strength, with the force being generated from our legs. The aim of this stage is to be able to properly manifest the strength generated by our legs to where we need that force.

Fast: In this stage, we are now longer constrained by the slow movements of taiji, being able to adapt our rhythm to suit the opponent. While in previous stages, moving fast meant using muscular strength, in this stage, we are able to move our bodies as a whole, and can move fast without having to resort to muscular strength. The aim of this stage is to be able to properly manifest the spirit of "fast forms" without having to resort to brute strength.

Light: This is the stage in which, having mastered the fundamentals of taiji, we are able to move our bodies as a whole, to adapt ourselves to suit the rhythm of our opponents, such that we can move fast or slow. The aim of this stage is to be able to move light as a feather such that our opponent cannot figure out where our force is coming from, yet because we are so light, we can react even faster to any changes.

Taiji Classes by Mr Kwek Li Hwa

My teacher is Mr Kwek Li Hwa, and he teaches taiji at a few places in Singapore. Below are some of those places.

Tampines Changkat CC on Mondays, 8pm to 10pm
Toa Payoh East CC on Tuesdays, 8pm to 10pm
Poh Khiu Temple on Wednesdays, 8pm to 10pm
Hong Lim Green CC on Thursdays, 6pm to 7:30pm
Kreta Ayer CC on Saturdays, 7pm to 10pm (see link)
Ang Mo Kio Ave 3 Blk 323 multi-storey carpark (top floor) on Sundays, 7:30am to 9am
Kampong Ubi CC on Sundays, 10:30am to 12noon
Tampines Changkat CC on Sundays, 7:30pm to 9pm

Most of them are at community centres, so do feel free to sign up for these courses if you are interested. For some photos and videos of his classes, you can take a look at the blog for the class at Kreta Ayer CC.

How to Improve

After learning taiji for some time, the question comes up on how to continue to improve, how to break beyond the current level. How do you move beyond technicalities, and move into the realm of being able to show the true flavour of taiji?

I still have mistakes here and there with details, yet when I try to correct my details when practising my routines, I end up focusing too much on getting the details correct that I am unable to relax, and thus lose the true meaning of taiji. So how do you move on from here?

Instead of remaining in my current stage, where I practise routines, I need to change my training style. To change the mistakes in the little details, I need to practise each move by itself. Repeating each move over and over again, each time paying attention to the details, is the way to make sure that it is correct.

Then, when practising my routines, I should just relax, and let the movements flow into each other, without paying attention to the details. I need to trust that in my practice of each move, I have already gotten each move correct, so when I string them up into the routine, all I need to tell my body is what is the next move, and trust that it will perform the next move correctly. That way, my focus is on the overall rather than the minute details, allowing me to relax.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Learning From Books

Two book reviews in my other blog:

The Inner Game of Tennis, which is about tennis and not just about tennis. I especially like the portion that talks about the mentality that we should adopt towards competition.

Flashing Steel, which is about iaido. I especially like the first part of the book that talks about the philosophy behind martial arts and the stages of progression in training.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Being Nervous

I was told to perform Chen style taiji in front of the class today. Somehow, I right after a few moves, my legs felt very tired, ending up that I was struggling to finish the form. When I talked to my teacher about this, he said that it could be because I was nervous, and also it may be due to putting in too much effort during the beginning, and thus not having enough left for the later part of the form. Usually, I don't feel nervous, having performed in front crowds and taken part in competitions before. Thus I guess it might have been the latter reason, in which I was trying to show my best, resulting in me tiring myself out from the start and not having enough energy to properly continue till the end. This is again a shortfall... I was trying to prove myself in front of others, when I should be adopting a more relaxed mentality, and I should have been adopting the mentality that I will just perform what I have always been doing without a need to try and prove that I am good.

Relax Your Expressions

While demonstrating Chen style taiji today, my teacher pointed out that I am closing my mouth too tightly. It is something that I haven't realised on my own, but which I think needs to be looked into. Because taiji is about relaxing, and if I cannot relax my expression, then it means that I have yet to be able to fully relax while practising my forms.

Saturday, February 28, 2009

Meditative Taiji

Taiji is meditation, without having to meditate. It is a form of stress release, a therapy against life's pressures. Because when you concentrate on practising taiji, your mind thinks of nothing else during that short period of time, be it 5 minutes or 2 hours. In taiji, you can find a short break from your problems, so that you can take a rest from them, and face them once again refreshed.

Constant Review

I had thought I had understood what my teacher meant when he said that the weight should be on the left leg when turning from 拦雀尾 to 单鞭, but it seems that I was wrong all along. While my weight was on my left leg, I was still not turning my kua properly, resulting in my backside turning when I was trying to turn my right leg. The correct way is to have the weight on the left leg, and then turn my right leg inwards without turning my backside (which means I have to use my right kua to turn).

This is why even though I have been practising for some time, I still need to let my teacher take a look once in a while on how I do my routines, so that he can point out the mistakes here and there that I have been getting wrong. While it is usually hard to kick an old habit, I am certain that with determination, I will be able to right the wrongs of my past practices (the old bad habits).