Tim Cartmell

Back in June of this year while I was attending the Daoism Today conference in Los Angles I had the opportunity to visit and take a Sun style baguazhang lesson from Tim Cartmell.  Tim is one of the most well known teachers in the American internal martial arts world.  His book Effortless Combat Throws is widely acclaimed.  His more recent book The Method of Chinese Wrestling, which is a translation of Tong Zhongyi's book first published in 1935, is one of the most beautiful books on the market.

I made my way down to Tim's studio in Huntington Beach around noon.  His studio is all mats with big windows and great lighting.  It turns out that he currently only teaches the Chinese Internal Arts (Taiji, Xingyi, Bagua) in private lessons and workshops.  The classes held in his studio are all Jiujitsu Mixed Martial Arts oriented stuff.  There were a few guys in their twenties hanging around and a few showed up around the time I did.  Tim told them they could practice their grappling over on the side while we used the center of the space for my lesson.

My sense is that Tim has created a sold institution.  His studio is a place where mostly guys in their twenties can come and let loose.  A place where it is safe to learn ethics and explore natural aggression.  This kind of milieu is an enormous gift to any community and I was both impressed and inspired by it.  If students are interested, the internal arts are their for them too, but they are not the main product he is selling.  I like that, it takes the economic pressure off of a tradition which really requires adoption levels of intimacy to learn.

Personally Tim was warm and welcoming.  His teaching was very clear and it matched his theory.  He showed me the first two palm changes of the Sun style of Baguazhang and tested my structure through out the movements.  He showed a couple of applications which involved close contact throws.  Over the years I've learned many versions of the single and double palm change but each time I learn a new one it is like opening a different window into the original physicality of this arts distant past.

At one point in the second palm change there is a heel spin with both feet turned out.  A bit like Indian Classical Dance but since we were working on a mat I was having trouble with the spin.  So Tim showed me a straight line practice in which turning in (kou) and turning out (bai) alternate with a spin.  I immediately recognized the stepping pattern from a diagram for walking an Yijing (I-Ching) hexagram found in Jo Riley's book Chinese Theatre and the Actor in Performance.  We had a short discussion about it and he seemed genuinely interested but obviously it was a much longer conversation for another time.  (I don't have Riley's book handy but if anyone does and wants to scan that page for me I'll post it in an update.)

I only had one lesson with Tim so it is quite likely that I misunderstood something or only saw a small part of what he does.  But this is what I got.  Tim's idea is to use a very soft-light touch with precise footwork to attain a strategically superior position.  From there he uses superior structure to close in, at which point an effortless throw happens.  During the throw I noticed him melting his structure some what, becoming heavier like water.  So he appears to have three modes: soft-light touch, structure, and water.

I think this is an excellent method and I highly recommend Tim as a teacher for anyone living near Huntington Beach.  The method is very close to the one I practiced for may years but I've since changed my theory.  However, I still believe that what Tim is teaching is necessary to learn, it is probably more exact to say that that I think of it as a developmental stage in a larger theory.

I've explained my theory countless times but it comes out a little different each time, so once more with gusto.

Structure training is necessary because everyone is already using structure even without any training.  Structure training teaches you exactly what the best possible structure is so that 1) you can break someone else's structure when you encounter it and 2) so that you are familiar enough with the feeling of structure in your own body that at a more advance level you can totally discard it as a strategy for yourself.

Water training is a necessary stage leading to total emptiness.  Water is not very effective for fighting on its own, but it is a superb aid to fighting in close contact --throw or be thrown-- situations because it allows you to add weight anywhere at will.  Water is also useful for avoiding strikes and for rolling on the ground.

The importance of learning to achieve a spatially and structurally advantageous position should not be underestimated.  The best way to learn this is to practice with a very light sensitive touch, weakened, so as not to rely on strength.  In this weakened state you will lose unless you truly have the best position, the position of dominance.  With practice you will slowly get better at finding that position.  Once you are good at this, you will always know if you have a great position or a terrible one.  The next step is to always practice from a terrible position, that way no matter what position you get into you can still fight.

In order to fight well from a terrible position you need to transform from water to steam and from steam to emptiness.  Steam will give you the superior power but it is slow.  Emptiness will make you fast again and make it impossible for your opponents to feel your intent until it is too late.

Most of my current theory developed from recent encounters with George Xu, and since he is constantly changing his theories I suspect my theories will keep changing too.

Tim has tons of videos and discussions available on the web...Check it out.  Tim was very cool about setting up lessons, so if you are near Los Angles drop him a line.