The Importance of Sometimes Being Obscure

The process of discovery, like the process of returning to simplicity, requires some wandering and fumbling about.  Part of that involves being, saying, and doing what may appear to others to be obscure.

Ben Lo famously said that one of the most important aspects of Taijiquan is that we make our hands like the hands of a beautiful woman.  What?  You mean like Paris Hilton?  Or Emma Stone?

Stanford Ortho 22

I blogged about this six months ago but I didn't notice the video at that time.  There is a class at Stanford called Anatomy of Movement Ortho 22 that works with the Motion and Gait Analysis Labratory.  Last Winter they worked with Taijiquan master Chen Xiang.  The results in the video are funny.  They seem to have zeroed in on 0.05% of Taijiquan and have succeeded in saying almost nothing.  Hey, that's good science, don't get me wrong.  We have to start somewhere.

Here is the problem for you my dear readers.  What hypothesis about Taijiquan can be tested with this equipment?  Can you propose a better test, or a more relevant hypothesis? What other questions does this inquiry raise?  What evidence would disprove their hypothesis?

I'll get you started:Mass

--Can this much force be generated by this much mass using another method?

--Is his force easier to inhibit at certain locations?  Or is his force continuous despite the fact that his speed is changing?

--If he carries a weight in the non-striking hand will it increase his force in the striking hand?  (Fluid dynamics hypothesis).

--Does this sort of power require uniformity of muscle relaxation/tension?  Can it be inhibited by electrically stimulating a random muscle while he is in motion?  Can we get some sensors on a range of muscle groups to see to what degree they are "firing" and in what order?

Note:  I am available for scientific evaluation.

Muscle Training Questions

questionBelow I have answered some questions that were sent to me via email about the post I wrote last week, 5 Levels of Internal Muscle Training.   I love getting emails.  For reference the 5 levels are:

  1. Moving and Coordinating

  2. Static Structure

  3. Continuous Structure with Movement

  4. Empty and Full at the Same Time

  5. Whole Body Becomes a Ball

Why do the steps laid out in the "5 steps of muscular training" post seem so rigid and schematic?

You are correct that the "5 Steps" are schematic and rigid.  They are part of a larger project in which I am developing ways to communicate with people who have some physical training background other than martial arts.  Martial artists rarely frame what they do entirely by the muscles;  However, weight-lifters, Pilates, and many athletes do frame their understanding of activity in terms of muscle development.
The whole truth is a much fuzzier type of logic.  I will stand by the notion that muscle training must follow the 5 level progression.  However, there are many other aspects of martial development which transcend and traverse these levels.  I tried to make that clear in the "notes."  Also, it's always possible to go back and fill in gaps in one's development later.
At which point does one start "grounding force?"

At level 2, you practice transferring your opponent's force directly into the ground.  This must be done for the entire surface of the body and with forces going in every direction.  It requires the aid of a teacher or partner.
At which point in the five level progression does a person touching you--give you the feeling that his/her force is directly going to the floor through your body?

Your opponent is not doing that, you are.  If I make my body very stiff and rigid, my opponent's force will move me like it would move a piece of heavy furniture.  If  I make my body very soft and mushy, my opponent's force will plow right through me.  If there are stiff places in a soft body, they will be broken--they will not transfer force to the ground.  The only way your opponent's force will go to the ground is if you direct it there (however, the process may be unconscious).

This is a common problem for students beginning level 3 training.  Level 3 is essentially level 2 in continuous motion.  In Aikido, for instance, this falls under "blending with the opponent."  At level 3 our body has superb structural integrity but we use sensitivity to avoid ever using that structure against any direct force.

If I try to push directly on someone who has good level 3 skills they will blend (or connect) with me, move out of the way of my force, and then "position" their structure so that I have no leverage or momentum for an attack.  If they are fighting they will use that "position" to injure, disarm, or throw me.

In Taijiquan, this is the continuous and spontaneous linking of the four jin: peng, ji, lu, & an.  If there is a break in the execution of jin-- a sensitive opponent and a strong opponent will both be able to "find it" and exploit it.
I'm totally losing my muscular strength, as well as my weight... in your training did you experience weight loss? I'm 12 pounds less than I used to be when I started training taiji one year ago, and this is not necessarily going to stop. Teacher said, oh, you'll replace that with taiji strength, don't worry?

Did I experience weight loss?  Yes, there was a period long ago where I lost some weight but not 12 lbs.  Weight gain or loss can vary a lot from person to person; however, the practice of internal martial arts will make your digestion more efficient and your appetite more sensitive! Ignore this at your own peril.  Many martial artists have gotten fat because they responded to improved digestion by eating more instead of less.

If you are paying attention to your appetite, you will simply want to eat less.  It's also a good idea to experiment with different types of food, and different styles of cooking.  I'll go even farther, if you are under 35 and having this experience, you need to learn how to cook.  It's not necessary to learn how to cook with Chinese herbs, but if you are in a place where that is easy, I do recommend it.  Learning how to cook any tranditional cuisine will include in-depth knowledge about ingredients and cooking methods.  Without this part of the practice all that appetite sensitivity training that the Daoist tradition infused in the martial arts will be wasted.

(Of course, make sure you are not losing weight because of some disease or parasite.)

While it isn't popular to say it, you are actually getting weaker and no, it will not be replaced by strength.  We don't need strength; humans are strong enough as we are.  That being said, if you have a big "appetite" for movement, if you like to practice a lot, you will develop superior integration, denser bones and sinew, more efficient dynamic muscles, new types of power, and the second of Laozi's treasures: Conservation.
Training with my Chinese "uncles" is at times pretty much not funny.  Sometimes I think their biggest goal is not losing face.  Their understanding of cooperative training seems quite different from mine.  I mean, I don't have to use muscular strength, but  this Chinese man in his 60's is stiff as hell, and strong too, so the natural reaction would be to use more strength than him. I see these gentleman (and ladies as well) who have been training for years but still rely on muscular, stiff strength, and I guess they are happy like that.  How should  the transition from muscular strength to a more song, tongtou, strength feel?  How does it work?

That's a tough one.  Your question is more about intimacy than method.  Intimacy and betrayal are kissing cousins.  My advice?  Make yourself more vulnerable.  Forget about trying to learn and just hang out.  The fruition of weakness is sensitivity.  The fruition of stillness is freedom of movement.  The fruition of not controlling the future is spontaneity.  The fruition of  trusting your body's "appetites" is that life no longer feels like a struggle.
My Chinese "uncles" seem to have only "success/fail" exercises.  I'm not getting "learn to feel" or "get more sensitive" exercises.  Am I just too un-sensitive or are they giving me inappropriate exercises for that type of development?

Another tough one.  Being un-sensitive is often just using a yard stick where a micrometer is called for.  Most of us have the "tools," it's just figuring out which one to use.  Chinese culture is big on "Hao, Bu hao," types of learning.  It's easy for someone from a Western culture to get frustrated.  Remember there is no moral content, failure says nothing what-so-ever about your character, you are just doing it wrong.  The more you enjoy your failures, the faster you will learn. Yes, learning methods can always be improved, sometimes you have to teach your teachers how to teach.

Yes, it is possible your "uncles" are teasing you, or patronizing you, or even intentionally screwing you up.  It's possible they themselves are confused and it is also possible that they are jealousy guarding what took them decades to learn.  None of that would be surprising.  But honestly I don't know.

Five Levels of Muscle Training

This is a description of internal martial arts from the point of view of muscles.  These five levels apply to taijiquan, baguazhang, xingyiquan and (applied) qigong:

  1. Moving and Coordinating; running, jumping, rolling, lifting, stretching, etc.

  2. Static Structure; The ability to hold a static shape for a long period of time, and transfer force applied on any part of the body to the feet, the back or another limb.

  3. Continuous Structure with Movement;  All muscles must move in twists and spirals following the flow of the bones and ligaments.  Muscles weaken and become sensitive.  Force can be applied in motion at any angle from any part of the body.  Force can be avoided without losing whole body integration.

  4. Empty and Full at the Same Time;  All muscle tension must be discarded along with all intention to move.   Any solid concept of body structure must be discarded or melted away.  Muscles function like liquid and air.  (Power becomes unstoppable but unfocused and difficult to direct.)

  5. Whole Body Becomes a Ball.  Resistance training for big muscles only.  Small muscles are used mainly for sensitivity and force transfer (ligament support).  Muscles move only by "ten directions breathing," they move in all directions using expansion and condensation, not lengthening and shortening.


The separation of jing and qi, which happens automatically in stillness, needs to be available in motion to enter level 4.

In order to act through a body, that body must be felt as a dream.  Dreaming is not like the conscious mind.  If you think about running, you are likely to stumble.  In order to run, speak, or do any of these types of muscle training, you must first dream it.  In order to reach level 5, levels 1 through 4 must be felt as dream.  In other words, they can be done spontaneously by feeling, without thinking, or willing.



From my experience, this order is essential.  Each level takes a minimum of two years training.  Some internal traditions attempt to start their training at level 4 and then go back and fill in gaps in levels 1 and 2 through diligent forms practice.  The attempt to fill gaps in level 3 through push-hands training.  That seems like a mistake.

The quickest way to get level one skills is through rough play or dance (forms with speed and rhythm).

Level 2 can only be learned through a teacher/partner who tests your structure.

Levels 3 and 4 will be inhibited by strength training.

The key to transitioning from level 3 to level 4 is non-aggression, wuwei.  Aggression is refined to perfection and then discarded.  This transition probably requires working with emotionally mature partners.

Applications do not work at level 4.  Period. But paradoxically, the ability to use weight and momentum improves.

The good news! Yes, it takes at least ten years (two years for each level, and a minimum of three hours everyday), but levels 2 through 5 can be practiced at any age.  Levels 2 through 5 actually get easier with age because muscles become weaker and skin becomes looser!

What Are All the Different Styles of Chi Kung?

I'm working on a web page that will be a clear and thorough explanation of Qigong.  It will include links to articles which explore various details in greater depth.  The following is a short section I have been working on:

Below is a list of all the styles of qigong.  Nearly all qigong practices are named after a cosmological principle (like hunyuan, which means original chaos) or a metaphor which is specific to Chinese culture like Wild-goose, (which means lots of weird movements stuck together in one form).  I haven't included every single name because the same type of qigong sometimes goes by different names, this is a list of qigong by characteristics and type.

I first started studying qigong in 1977 when I was 10 years old because it was considered a basic requirement of Northern Shaolin training.  I first heard the term qigong when I was about 20 in the late 1980's as qigong fever was sweaping Mainland China.  By 1995 I had seen every type of qigong on this list.  Every year I hear someone claim to have discovered a new, yet ancient, type of qigong that is more special that all the rest.  Inevitably what they are practicing is just one the following repackaged.  While I find the claims a little pretentious, the trend itself is positive.  All forms of qigong become very personal over time because all dedicated practitioners will naturally combine and integrate the following types of qigong to suit their needs, values and in accordance with their temperament.  I myself have created two "new" types of qigong; Tiger Skin Qigong and Chicken Toe Qigong.  Here is the list:

Zhangzuan (Standing Meditation, done in various postures)

Wu Xing-Five Organs (While the movements themselves may differ from school to school, the basic idea that each organ generates, and is tonified or depleted by, a particular quality of movement is the same.)

3 Dantians (the use of swinging movement generated from, and integrated with, the three centers of the body, abdomen, chest and head) (Note: Swinging the arms from the lower dantian while shifting weight from foot to foot is the most widespread form of qigong.  Variations are used in almost all martial arts schools.)

Cloud Hands (a simple asymmetrical movement of the arms which can be use as a base for integrating other types of qigong)

Muscle Tendon Lengthening (The art of stretching)

Golden Ball (Moving qi around the dantian)

8 Extraordinary Meridians (Exploring how qi moves around the surface of the body at the moment of birth)

Heaven & Earth (Micro/macro cosmic orbit, three dimensional pulsing & elasticity, usually symmetrical movement)

Spine training (Bend the Bow and Shoot the Arrow; drawing qi into the spine for healing, power, and for connecting the movement of the limbs to the spine )

Chan Su Jing, (Silk Spinning --joint releasing & spiraling movements) go

Immortals Dancing in the Clouds (Bone Marrow Washing, Sinew integration, and development of spherical movement)

Daoyin (Orthodox Daoist Lineage Hermit Practice which uses extensive stretching, with rolling slapping jumping, pounding, scraping and self massage.  Sometimes broken into pieces, sometimes combined with circus training or monkey kungfu.)

Hunyuan (Prenatal movement rediscovered with an emphasis on the movement of fluids and the development of the qualities of empty and full.  Often asymmetrical.)

8 Silken Brocade (8 Sinew lengthening and integrating movements)

Wild Goose (A particular teacher's 'list of favorates' put together into a form linking them together.)  (Geese in the wild do lots of different types of movement.  They run, hop, swim, fly, flap, squawk, root, gargle, preen, stretch, stand on one leg, etc...)

Tai Chi--(Taijiquan, the martial art, can be practiced purely to get the benefits of improved balance, mobility, flexibility, and circulation.  In this case it is often simplified and/or made symmetrical. )

Conditioning Techniques  (Iron shirt, Gold Bell, iron palm--toughening exercise for forearms,shins, and torso)

Taoist (Daoist meditation is sometimes taught as stillness qigong.  Particularly jindan, the golden elixir, and various tension dissolving techniques).  (Sometimes the deity visualization intermediary practices are taught without explicit naming of the deities-- only their attributes as visualized.)

Now that I've released the comprehensive list I encourage people to challenge it!  Have you seen or practiced a type of qigong not on the list?  Can you describe it's attributes?

Note: Obviously I've discarded the standard Communist Government organization.  I've never seen Buddhist, Confucian, or Neo-Confucian qigong.

Update: We had a discussion on Facebook, where my blog now appears (search for Scott P Phillips if you want to be my friend).  I decided that the last category "Taoist" is an identity, and therefore not suitable as a category because it opens up the possibility of naming techniques after identity groups of regions.  Therefore, I am changing the "Taoist" Category to "Inner Alchemy."

Not Your Grandmother's Tai Chi

(Someone out there is probably thinking, "you never met my grandmother."  My apologies to those of you who are the offspring of an unrestrained warrior woman.  Here is an alternate title for you: Pure Fighting.)

Kids have less of a filter, they often say what adults are thinking but are too reserved to say directly.  In a way, the practice of Taijiquan is about trying to be less reserved.  I know that sounds funny; aren't softness and weakness near synonyms for being reserved? But the goal of practicing Taijiquan is to reveal your true nature, if you are by nature reserved, than fine, but I think most people have what Freud called the id, a wild unrestrained, unrefined, spontaneous nature waiting underneath their ego.

But it's wrong to say that we are "trying" to be less reserved, it's more like we are letting go of the need to control, temporarily dropping our social guard, in order to rediscover how our body works.

One of the most popular questions kids ask, particularly about slow circular Taijiquan, is, " Can you use it in a fight?"  I have 100's of posts on this blog talking about Taijiquan as a healing art, a performing art, a pantomime art, a dueling art, a wrestling art, a throwing art, a religious ritual art, a spiritual development art, a game, a form of social engagement, a tool for developing police type threat control skills, a self-defense tool, a way to deepen intimacy with oneself and others, a way of managing stress associated with overwhelming guilt, embarrassment, or fear, a mental relaxation tool, a movement meditation tool, and best of all, a way of revealing our true nature--the way things actually are.

But I would be remiss if I did not occasionally address the Pure Fighting aspects of Taijiquan.  (I believe you can practice in all these ways simultaneously, especially if you set aside a lot of time for it, but it's just as beautiful to choose just one of these ways of practice.  If you don't care about Pure Fighting, that's great!  It is not important.  Really if you want to do something to reduce your chances of ending up in the hospital, wearing reflective clothing while crossing the street is a much better use of your efforts than studying martial arts!  Please skip the rest of this post and plug one of the phrases from the last paragraph into the search box!)

Pure fighting requires discarding restraint.  As an act of necessity it requires being truly wild yet totally committed.  Pure fighting presumes (and this is a huge and difficult presumption to make) that all the moral or psychological restraint one may possess has been discarded.  (Can you tell I'm a big fan of horror movies?)

For Taijiquan to "work" as a pure fighting training system it must be "practiced without pretense" (the first precept of religious Daoism).  I say this because it is very easy to fall into bad habits when practicing with a partner.  Push-hands (tuishou) is the most common two person exercise people use to practice taijiquan.  There is a school of Push-hands which has popularized the expression, "Invest in Loss."  This is absurd, ironic, and also wrong.  They mean that if you practice loosing for a while, you will eventually figure out what your partner is doing and start winning.  This is a fools errand.

To train for pure fighting you must completely discard the notion of winning.  In pure fighting you must be capable of vanquishing multiple threats who are bigger stronger and have longer arms.  In fact, you have to assume that every attack is a potential sacrifice move, meaning the threat is risking everything in order to either, strike you in a vital area, knock you into something hard, get you on the hard ground, or make you vulnerable to one of the other attackers.  Sacrifice moves work, but martial artists don't usually train them because the risk is too high; however, dangerous people can and do use them.

All this while remaining light-hearted, good-natured, and lovable.  All this without becoming possessed by aggression.

The possibility of our art becoming a fantasy is ever present.  For instance, one cliche I hear batted around is that in order to learn fighting you must practice with a non-cooperative partner.  That is a sure way to create pretense.  In order to train for pure fighting your partners must be supremely cooperative.  They must expose all your errors to the light of day.

So now that I've gotten all that out of the way, we can talk about push-hands.  Obviously push-hands can be practiced for one or all of the reasons I listed above in the third paragraph of this post, but I'm talking about push-hands as training for pure fighting.  Of course, I'm only scratching the surface of this subject.

There are an enormous number of push-hands conventions, or rule sets.  Each one trains different things.  If you fail to acknowledge this you will train yourself for a fantasy.  For instance, there is a convention that if your partner moves their foot at all, they have lost.  In the convention, moving your foot is a stand in for being knocked to the ground.  In order to not make this convention a fantasy, you have to sometimes practice it all the way to the ground.  In a pure fighting situation moving your foot doesn't matter very much, as long as you can see where you are moving your foot.  And for this reason, in a Pure Fighting situation, moving forwards is often better than moving backwards.  (With multiple opponents, moving backwards exposes you to being tripped by an opponent on the ground.)

However if you step forward or lean forward without first finding an opening, your partner must show you that you can be struck; usually with an elbow strike, a slap to the head, or a hand on the neck or spine.  In training this doesn't have to injure your opponent, but it must convince them that they have made themselves vulnerable to damage.  Of course, in a Pure Fight, you can still continue to fight with some damage, so be careful not to presume that one strike is enough (but if you know how to chop, a chop to the back of the neck will sever the vertebra).  Similarly, if your opponent over extends, you must show them that you can dislocate their shoulder (cai).  If your opponent leans in, you have to presume they are willing  to sacrifice.  You have to presume that they are willing to take a strike to the head in order to strike you with their head, or wrap their arms around you and break your spine.  A partner leaning in with momentum, like a sumo wrestler, must be struck.  So in Pure Fighting training the better you get, the less you lean.

Tabby Cat actually had the audacity to say Taijiquan doesn't use strikes.  He says it isn't a striking system.  Look Tabby, in Taijiquan we fight using a ball, like a cat.  We don't point strike, or line strike, as Wang Xiangzhai put it, our "intent stays spherical."  This is because allowing our intent to come to a point, a line, an arc, or a ring will leave an opening. But that doesn't mean we don't strike.  Every movement in the Taijiquan form is a potential strike.  Period.  (Jianghu commented on that the same post.)

With multiple opponents, grappling is only used for sudden joint breaks.  You can damage and throw your opponent in less time and with less effort than it takes to seize and throw them.  In a Pure Fight you don't try to get your opponent to submit.  While it is always possible that a Pure Fight could happen in the shower or on the beach, chances are you and your opponents will be wearing strong clothes.  Grabbing or yanking clothing can be very effective, but it is not grappling.  Grappling gives the advantage to the bigger fighter.  Grappling in a multiple person fight leaves you vulnerable.

Now check out this video from the 60's.  They are training for a game, not Pure Fighting.  Watch at the end when the "loser" demonstrates how easy it is to get Stan Israel (the big guy) in a headlock.  Striking the neck would have been even easier.

Now jump ahead 40 years and watch Stan Israel's student Mario Napoli sweep away all the competition at an International Competition in the "birth place" of Taijiquan, Chen Village.

My hat is off to Mario Napoli.  Shirts off too!  A beautiful performance.  "Jiayou" America!  That must have been a load of fun.  But what did we learn?  First of all, the competition doesn't look very good.  Why?  Perhaps the old masters in China are too secretive.  Perhaps the highest levels of internal training never existed in Chen Village.  Perhaps the higher level masters had all left for Shanghai and Beijing by 1920.  It's pretty hard to avoid the conclusion that the training in New York has been better and more consistent over the last 40 years than it has been in Chen Village.

I don't blame Napoli for this, obviously Chen Village set the rules.  He played the game and he played it well, but that rule-set doesn't look like push-hands.  It appears to give the advantage to the thicker competitor.  Having long arms and legs is a disadvantage because you aren't allowed to slap, kick, or strike.  It looks a lot like Sumo.  Don't get me wrong, I love Sumo, especially "Skinny Sumo," but nearly everything they do seems like the opposite of what a Pure Fight form of push-hands would train.  If they were to put on Gi's, would they all lose to Judo guys?  How would a couple of college Greco-Roman wrestlers do with this rule-set.  I'm betting pretty good.

Despite my mellow temperament and fun loving, parlor game, deepen your intimacy approach to push-hands.  I've never lost sight of the Pure Fight.  Among my teachers George Xu, particularly, has never let me loose sight of it.  On the other hand, despite the fact that this is a really long post that took me all morning to write, I care a lot more about dancing than I do about push-hands.

I've never been to a push-hands competition (or a Pure Fight for that matter!), but  I wonder if there is a rule-set that would make me happier.  Would disqualifying a competitor for grabbing, or leaning, or taking a step back, or losing their frame make a more interesting game?  That would be giving a whole lot of power to the judges wouldn't it?

I stubbornly believe it is possible to create a push-hands milieu where everyone agrees that the fruition of competition is to set everyone free by revealing our true nature-- through the cultivation of weakness.  Training for Pure Fighting, does not require aggression, it does not require us to give up even an sliver of our true nature.

Oh well, it's a good thing we have so many fun things to try.

Tai Chi and Science

Chen XiangHere is a fun article about the Motion and Gait Analyisis Laboritory at Stanford University.

"Stanford Researchers Record 'Optimal Force' of Tai Chi Master"

The picture is of Chen Taijiquan teacher Chen Xiang, I don't know much about him but he is a senior student of Feng Zhiqiang so he is the gongfu brother of one of my teachers Zhang Xuixin.

I love these devices they have for learning about human movement. I also love that we now have scientific "proof" that Taijiquan is the most efficient movement in the world. (OK I think the article gets a little too enthusiastic but it's still a fun quote.)

It also raises the idea that taijiquan is a form of technology itself. Theory, and there is a fair amount of it, is subordinate to the technology. In fact, the technology is just a continuous transmission of movement experiments and experiences.

Medicine can't explain taijiquan, and probably these scientists won't be able to either, but they may accumulate some really interesting data that could lead to new technologies. And by technologies I mean both tools and movement techniques.  (My modest dream is that a Stanford scientist will someday say that muscle building is not necessarily smart.)
Since this center also studies gait, I would love to see what they think of baguazhang walking technique.  I think this is their main public website, look they have blogs too!

Update:  Here is the Video