Centering, like other combat training exercises in Taijiquan, should not be practiced as though it were an end in itself. Always keep in mind that it is a step in a progression to building skills in Taijiquan fighting. When I participate in or watch centering, I often see gross violations of Taijiquan principles, which will become dangerous bad habits if allowed to continue into subsequent levels of combat training.

One common violation is the departure from the principle of centered and upright (no tilting, no leaning). Here the partner contorts himself forward or backward to avoid losing his balance and “losing” the centering “contest.” These contortions expose the groin when bending backwards and expose the back of the skull when tilting forwards. Very bad habits indeed.

Another very common violation is resisting, the use of force against force creating mutual stagnation and turning centering into Sumo. The skilled practitioner will quickly resolve mutual stagnation by turn Yang to Yin, but this if difficult to accomplish when the rules do not allow stepping.

Butting, the use of excessive force as noted by Yang Ban Huo, is another common mistake. When a partner attacks with excessive force–in effect throwing his center into the attack–a skilled practitioner can send him stumbling across the room by directing his attack to the side, but practice is necessary to develop effective reaction and timing.

Finally, there is the failure to give up ego and accept Cheng, Man-ching’s principle of “invest in loss.” Don’t look at centering as competition. Look at it as training. You are supposed to make yourself vulnerable so that you can increase your skills. Thus, the suggestion to stand high rather than low. If you consistently “win” at centering–and especially if you resort to violation of essential Taijiquan combat principles to “win”–you learn nothing except that your partner is not skilled enough to make you improve.

Posted in martial arts, pushing hands, tai chi chuan, taijiquan | Leave a comment

Who controls your life?

Master Yang often asks, “Do you control your life or does your life control you?” I think that for most people the answer isn’t either or but a question of degree. I think that there are some people that have very little control over their life. Their life mostly controls them. On the other hand, I find it hard to imagine that anyone would be able to have total control over their life, unless they have isolated themselves from society and all attachments.

During my previous career, I set my life up so that my job controlled only 40-50 hours of my life per week, except as I like to say, when tanks were in the streets of Moscow. Now, as a Taijiquan and Qigong teacher and school owner, my life controls most of my time–teaching, training, and studying. But I set my life up and made my choices so that my life would control me in that way. For example, this morning I taught my Qigong class with only one student, but we did 1/2 hour of Primary Set, 10 minutes of liver Qigong, 15 minutes of White Crane Qigong and 20 minutes of Taiji form. If no students had shown up, what would i have done–train or not train? Maybe not train.

Having set my life up to control me in this way helps me deal with another of Master Yang’s frequent observations: “The hardest thing is to conquer your own laziness.” With the help of my students and the way I have set my life up to control me, I can say, “yes, I can conquer.” Does your life control you in ways you approve of or not? If not, maybe you should make some changes.

Posted in living the taiji life, martial arts, taijiquan | Leave a comment

Taiji Cane

During the past two years I have been developing a Taiji Cane program for Qi Elements Taijiquan curriculum. We have been teaching Taiji Saber for a while, but our saber lacked foundation. I have to admit to a serious prejudice when it comes to turning martial arts into modern dance, which is the outcome when bare-hand or weapons are taught without martial foundation. Of course, some people may say that learning the martial foundation of saber or sword is not a productive direction for kung fu (time and effort) in the modern age. After all, in some places carrying a sword or saber is illegal whereas carrying a firearm is not. But you can carry a cane legally everywhere. So kung fu applied to Taiji cane is very practical.

If anyone has developed fundamental training for Taiji cane, I have yet to find it. I took the techniques of Taiji saber and sword from Master Yang and other sources and employed them in Taiji cane. The vast majority of weapon and supplemental hand techniques of Taiji saber and easily applicable to cane. Even some of the sword techniques like dian and beng (flick down and flick up) can be used with cane.

We demonstrated our Taiji Cane at World Tai Chi Qigong Day last week, and it attracted a lot of interest. The demonstration of le zha (rollback and poke) evoked several gasps from the audience. Yes, it is nasty.  Our simple level one beginner cane form is on our You-Tube channel qielements1 as are our techniques from level one and level two. I am still working on creating a more complex form incorporating all of the level one and two techniques as well as a cane vs cane matching set (you know, for when we are all in the old-folks home jockeying for place in the dinner line).  Go to Qi Elements’ You-Tube Channel

Posted in martial arts, self defense, tai chi chuan, taijiquan | Leave a comment

Regulating the Spirit: Moderation in attachments

If you want to build up and maintain a calm and steady spirit, it is a common tenet of philosophy that you have to avoid attachment to the things of the world.  This is why monks retreat from society and go to the mountains for self-cultivation.  Of course when most people think of detachment from the things of the world, they think of material things, but it is also necessary to avoid excessive attachment to living things.  They are all subject to the cycles of growth and decay. In the case of a pet, the cycle of growth and decay can be as fast as 10 or 20 years.

In addition, people are subject to their own fate or destiny.  People can change their own destiny with effort, but most don’t make the effort.  You can help someone change their destiny, but you can’t do it for them.  If you become attached to changing someone’s destiny, you are likely to suffer disillusionment.

Excessive attachment to another person or a pet can make your spirit vulnerable to their fate.  Thus we must be moderate in our attachments.

Posted in living the taiji life, martial arts | Leave a comment

Regulating the Spirit

If you wish to maintain a calm and steady spirit, you must embrace the fact that the world moves in cycles of growth and decay.  The cycles may last days, years, centuries or millennia, but they are inevitable and unavoidable.  During my visit this weekend to my former home town, I was reminded again of how this little city, once bustling, is now decaying.  Experiencing the cycles during your lifetime, you will see things that you love bloom and decay.  You will see things that you hate, rise and prosper.  You yourself will rise and then fade away.  If you cannot train yourself to accept these cycles with equanimity, how can you maintain a steady spirit?

Posted in living the taiji life, martial arts, taoism | Leave a comment

Staying Healthy

Rats!  I caught a sore throat over the holiday break.  I don’t regard it as normal to get sick, and if you accept the principle that you are responsible for your own health, as I do, then if you get sick, you look for the reasons why.  What did I do and what did I neglect to do that caused this illness?  What lessons can I draw from the experience?

In analyzing the experience, I find on the “what did I do” list first of all is that I was traveling.  Eating every meal in a restaurant and neglecting to specify no ice in my iced tea.  Since I should have kept in mind that my throat has always been an Achilles heel for me, I should have specified no ice, which is what I do when I eat at my familiar local restaurants.  Second, for one meal I had black pepper chicken, another assault on the throat, this time by hot spices.  I did stay hydrated, got enough sleep and took my herbal supplements, which usually protect me, but on this occasion were not sufficient.

On the “what did I not do” list, I have my daily nasal rinse, which is another effective means of cold prevention.  The rinsing device is bulky to pack and requires distilled water, which is not available everywhere.

Bottom line–if you, too, accept the principle that you have a tremendous influence on your health, be careful about your daily activities, particularly when you are away from your usual habitat and usual routine.  Remain aware of your vulnerabilities and protect them.

Posted in staying well | Leave a comment

Prevention vs. treatment

Every October, breast cancer awareness month, I am reminded that the American approach to illness is still heavily biased toward an attitude that goes something like this: “first I have the bad luck to get sick, then I go to the doctor and it is up to him or her to fix me.”

Most of the discussion about breast cancer in the media focuses on early detection with very little if any attention given to prevention. The Chinese approach is focused on prevention of illness. There was a doctor in the small city where I grew up who had a reputation as a very good physician. His waiting room was full of sick people, coughing and looking miserable. Wall to wall, when you came in you could hardly find a chair. My first Taiji teacher told us that when she went to Taiwan with her teacher, they visited a village doctor’s office. The waiting room was empty. Her teacher said, “see, here is a good doctor. His patients are not sick. He has taught them how to stay healthy.”

Getting sick has little to do with bad luck, and if your attitude is that your doctor is responsible for your wellness, you are making a big mistake. If you want to stay well, you have to take responsibility for your health and make your own luck by following a healthy lifestyle. This concept is slowly catching hold in America, but still has a long way to go.

Posted in breast cancer, living the taiji life, qigong, staying well | Leave a comment

Lessons from the Yin-Yang symbol and Taoist philosophy

yinyangThe Yin-Yang symbol tells us that nothing lasts forever.  The universe and human kind are in a constant state of change.  We can see this in nature every year as the seasons turn.  Things will sprout, flourish, wither and then die.  The same thing happens in human affairs.  Good times will be followed by bad times.  Progress will be followed by regress.  Remember that the Tao Te Ching tells us that the ugly and the beautiful are both natural because they give measure to each other.    If you are enjoying any current state of affairs, beware that within the current state is the seed of change (those little dots in the symbol), which sooner or later will take root and give rise to change.  Understanding and accepting the constant cycles of change talked about in the Tao and represented in the Yin-Yang symbol is an important step to succeeding in regulating your emotional mind and in creating a strong and steady spirit.  If your wisdom mind can understand and accept the cycles of change, then your emotional mind can remain calm and your spirit remain steady as you view and experience change.  It’s not easy, particularly not easy if you are attached to the things of the human world.

Posted in living the taiji life, meditation, taoism | Leave a comment

Sayings of the Taiji Classics applied to partner work

Here is the handout I used today in the special Sunday class on pushing hands.  We went over the five learning points in centering and pushing hands exercises.  Many of the points, of course, also apply to solo form.

Sayings of the Taiji Classics in Application

Study wide and deep. Investigate, ask. Ponder carefully. Clearly discriminate. Work perseveringly. (The Five Mental Keys to Diligent Study, anonymous)
Point 1: No part should be defective . . . deficient or excessive and no part should be disconnected. . . . From the feet to the legs to the waist must be integrated and one unified Qi. (Taijiquan Treatise, Zhang, San-Feng). Qi should circulate and move through your entire body. (Three Important Theses of Taijiquan, anonymous; Taijiquan Fundamental Key Points, anonymous.) Take care that the Qi circulates through the entire body without the slightest stagnation. (Song of the Thirteen Postures, anonymous) You want the entire body’s Qi to circulate smoothly, it must be continuous and non-stop (Three Important Theses of Taijiquan, anonymous.) The entire body and all the joints should be threaded together without the slightest break (Taijiquan Treatise, Zhang, San-Feng).
Point 2: An insubstantial energy leads the head upward. Body central and upright. (Taijiquan Fundamental Key Points, anonymous.) An insubstantial energy leads the head upward . . . (Thirteen Important Keys, Gu, Liu-Xing.) Stand like a balanced scale, move lively like a cartwheel. (Taijiquan Classic, Wang, Zong-Yue.) An insubstantial energy leads the head upward . . . No tilting, no leaning (Taijiquan Classic, Wang, Zong-Yue.) How can you practice Taijiquan without paying attention to the body’s shape, the torso upright . . . the crown of the head suspended? If lacking any one of these, you do not have to put more effort into Gongfu [it will be in vain], (Forty Taijiquan Treatises, Yang, Ban Hou).
Point 3: If there is a top, there is a bottom. . . . If there is a left, there is a right. If the Yi wants to go upward, this implies considering downward. This means if you want to lift and defeat an opponent, you must first consider his root. When the opponent’s root is broken, he will inevitably be defeated quickly and certainly. (Taijiquan Treatise, Zhang, San-Feng). Suddenly disappear, suddenly appear (Old Taijiquan Classic of Qing Qian Long Dynasty, anonymous; Taijiquan Classic, Wang, Zong-Yue)
Point 4: If you fail to catch the opportunity and gain the superior position, your body will be disordered. To solve this problem, you must look to the waist and legs. (Taijiquan Treatise by Zhang, San-Feng).

Point 5: No excess, no deficiency. Following the opponent, bend, then extend (Taijiquan Classic by Wang, Zong-Yue). When the opponent is hard, I am soft. This is called yielding. When I follow the opponent, this is called adhering (Taijiquan Classic by Wang, Zong-Yue). When the opponent presses sideward or downward, then follow. When there is double heaviness (mutual resistance), then there is stagnation. Often, after several years of dedicated training one still cannot apply this neutralization and is controlled by the opponent. The reason for this is that the fault of double heaviness is not understood. To avoid this fault, you must know Yin and Yang. To adhere means to yield. To yield means to adhere. Yin not separate from Yang, Yang not separate from Yin. Yin and Yang mutually cooperate, understanding this is “understanding Jin” (Taijiquan Classic by Wang, Zong-Yue).  Butting means overdone (excessive force). Deficiency means not enough. Losing means separating. Resistance means using excessive force to responding to the incoming force. . . . The reason why it is so difficult to learn the skills of attaching, adhering, connecting and following is because it is not easy to avoid the faults of butting, deficiency, losing and resistance (Forty Taijiquan Treatises, Yang, Ban Hou).
Adapted from Tai Chi Secrets of the Ancient Masters, Selected Readings with Commentary, Dr. Yang, Jwing Ming; and Tai Chi Secrets of the Yang Style, Dr. Yang, Jwing Ming.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Alertness and Awareness

My master often mentions the principles of alertness and awareness when he talks about martial spirit.  As an assistant Scoutmaster, I stressed the same ideas to the Scouts.  What I observe, however, is that many of us in the human race are forgetting the importance of those principles.  From distracted driving, to obliviously texting while walking, to dropping your guard too much at social occasions even when you think you are with friends, we are forgetting the need to remain alert about who is around us and what is happening and aware of potential hazards that might arise.

Today I watched the shooter’s video of his murder of the news people in Franklin County, Virginia.  I watched it because personal safety is my business as a martial arts instructor, and I try to learn and pass on lessons that can be drawn from violent events.  It struck me watching this video that the murderer approached fairly close and had his gun out and pointed at the people for many seconds before he opened fire.  They did not notice the situation until he opened fire.  They were busy interviewing and videoing the interview.  It is probably part of their training as news people to concentrate on the job at hand an ignore things going on around them, probably not when covering a civil disturbance, but maybe when doing a story on tourism by a lake in rural Virginia.  Even the person being interviewed, who is not a professional journalist, did not appear to notice the man approaching with the pointed gun.

News people should be able to do a story on tourism without worrying about someone coming up to them and shooting them.  A young college woman should be able to drink a bit too much and still safely walk the sidewalks of a college town.  Passengers on a DC subway or a European train should be able to relax on their journey and not worry if someone is going to shoot or stab them.  People in a church ought to be able to conduct their Bible study also free from such fears.  A Congresswoman ought to be able to meet with constituents in a shopping center without someone murdering those around her.  The world ought to be a safe place for all of us.  It isn’t.

The odds are slim, but real, that at almost any time and place about three seconds might separate any of us from life as usual and total mayhem.  Whether it’s a distracted, aggressive or incompetent driver or a terrorist on the train or a poisonous snake on the hiking trail or candle too close to a curtain or an obstacle on the sidewalk, we need to be alert and aware of our surroundings.

In a potentially violent situation, say a person with a drawn gun approaching, we have just seconds to decide what do to:  run and try to evade, take cover and hide or take counteraction against the threat.  (Freezing in place in not a decision but indecision.)  Being alert and aware will give you a bit more time to decide the best course.  It might make the difference between life or death.

Posted in assault prevention, martial arts, Uncategorized | Tagged | Leave a comment