Meeting Tabby Cat

YangtaichicarI have much neglected writing about my meeting with Billionaire Genius Tabby Cat.  First off I should say that in person he is warm, worldly, charming, thoughtful, generous, agreeable, and a great conversationalist.  I am truly delighted to make his acquaintance.  We fully agree on 99% of everything!  But as I’m sure my readers are aware the fiercest, most contentious arguments happen with people you very nearly agree with.  That 1% of difference starts to seem like the key to everything.  So I will take the liberty, in the interest of furthering the evolution of all human knowledge, and trusting that he will do the same for me, of making my case raw, without niceties.

It was 8:30 AM on a warm Thursday.  After about 20 seconds of friendly posturing, we squared off for some fixed foot push hands.  Seconds after contact I found my hand around the front of his neck, slowly and gently lifting him backwards.  “We could do that,” he said and then proceeded to jump around like a feather weight boxer.  “No, no,” I said, “I want to learn your game.”

yang-chengfu-tuishouThe base idea of Tabby Cat’s theory is that push hands is not a game, it is a single attribute training drill.  The attribute it trains is so key to Tai Chi, that until you acquire this attribute, nothing else matters (except money and sex).  Before we discuss what that attribute is, lets address the consequences of this type of view.

Since historically speaking it is quite clear that the serious fun of martial arts developed in a social environment with theater, religious ritual, health ideas, and a wide range of prowess inspiring everyday problems, both social and asocial--the notion that a single attribute drill could be at the center of what defines Tai Chi is a profoundly Modern notion.

We tend to think of people like Yang Chengfu and his student, Zheng Man Qing, and his student, Ben Lo (Tabby’s teacher) as representatives of tradition.  But Yang Chengfu most likely saw himself as a modernizer, and Zheng Man Qing even more so.

SpockVulcanThe idea that a profuse, weirdly complex, theatrical fighting art like Chen style Tai Chi could be whittled down to just an attribute drill and a simplified 37 move form with, as Ben Lo put it, “Fair-ladies hands,” could only have come about as the result of a Dr. Spock-like inspired purging of all irrational impurities.

Now that’s not necessarily a bad thing.  But it gets weird when all your students think you are the representative of a long and stable tradition.  When in fact you represent only a small part of it.  When in fact you were just playing around with language, trying to find words to describe your practice which were clear, simple and direct.  The huge problem here is that words get stale.  “Go with the flow,” was a great expression when it was first uttered, but now it is cracked and tasteless.  The instruction, “Just relax,” has become as polysemous as “You’re so spiritual.”
So there we are in the park and I’m trying to understand what this single attribute is and how I can tweak the game of push hands in order to use it as a tool for acquiring this all important attribute.  We cross hands again, this time I ignore the fact that Tabby is curving his chest inward making his head and neck vulnerable to any upward expanding movement.  I let him lead me around and then suddenly he pushes me and I move my foot.  I lose.  We do it again, I lose again, and again.  He says, “See, you’re really tense.”  I reply, “Should I try to melt my tension when you push on me suddenly?”  “Yes," he says.  I try it, it doesn’t work.  Then I push him without giving him a chance to lead me around.  It works, I win.  He says, “You can’t do it that way.”  I’m confused, I say,  “Your attacks are all straight forward and sudden.  Can you do them slowly?”  “Okay, he says.”  When he attacks even a little bit slower, I have time to melt, and he has a much harder time getting me at all.  His slower attacks sometimes reveal a connection to the ground and I win.  But mostly I lose.
He clearly has a special attribute.  The attribute is a wave, or surge that hits me before I feel his mass pushing me.  But only just before, which is why he can’t do it slowly.  If the wave could hit me a full second before his mass did, it would be way more impressive.  The surge comes forward from belly height and seems to have influence all the way down to the feet.  But it comes in the same way every time, so when it’s slow, or if I’m allowed to move my foot or if I attack any part of his body besides his belly or chest, the “attribute” doesn’t work.
I point this out and challenge him to do push hands flank to flank.  He says, “The point of the drill is to acquire the attribute and then you can do anything you want with it.”  “Okay,” I say, lets do it on the ground then.  “Systema has drills like this, in every possible position and angle.”  (Later I learn that he literally wrote the book on Systema!)

He doesn’t want to do it on the ground, so I offer, “I clearly see that you have acquired a valuable attribute, but for it to have any martial significance it would have to work in a surprise attack, in which you begin to fight from a terrible position.  Can you do it if I’m grabbing you from behind?”  I circle in slowly for the kill but he retreats to, “Ben Lo can do it from any position.”  He describes a bunch of examples, but if I understand him correctly, Ben Lo is generally attacking fast.

I’m a little disappointed, I really want to be literally ‘blown away!’  I venture that what he is actually doing is leading me around until I make a mistake and reveal some structure or tension at which point he suddenly attacks.  He agrees that he is basically doing this.  I counter that it is quite divergent from fighting because in a fight, action trumps inaction.  He asserts that it is an essential attribute drill which, once mastered, creates a quantum shift in movement and understanding.
I spend the rest of my time with Tabby in the park trying to do exactly what he is doing.  I figure, I might as well try to learn as much as I can right there and then.  His preferred position is one hand on my elbow and one hand reaching for my chest.  I match this, as well as the inward curve of his chest.  He says, “That’s a better position.”  We push some more and then he treats me to a wonderful breakfast and an even better extended conversation on everything under the sun.

It’s been about three months since our meeting and I must say that in the process of deeply considering Tabby Cat’s ideas and developing my critic of them, I think I’ve improved a lot.  I've been learning from both of our mistakes.

What was happening?
The idea of a single attribute drill is a brilliant Modern innovation.  But shouldn’t there be some kind of limit on how long it takes a person to learn it?  I mean at least with single attribute zazen, the practice of sitting still is the fruition, so there isn’t much pressure to prove you are enlightened.  But with Tai Chi there is a reasonable expectation that at some point some serious ass kicking attributes will kick in.  Really, if the single attribute takes more than ten years to acquire is it worth it?  If it were only two years of training we were talking about I’d be like, “Yeah that’s the way to go.  Attribute drills baby!  Drill baby drill!”

But we are talking about less than a handful of Ben Lo’s students having acquired it over a period of 50 years.  Yikes.  Tabby mentioned that two students were super achievers, Terry Li (recently deceased) and Lenzie Williams.  I have yet to meet them, but even if these guys are the cats meow, they are only two in how many 1000's of students?
Zheng-ManqingZheng Man Qing promoted Tai Chi for health, entertainment, and the cultivation of wuwei generally, and that’s awesome wonderfulness.  I’m right there with him.  I am not promoting the idea that there is anything special about me or that learning Tai Chi will make us superheros or enlightened or even better people.  Tai Chi is art, Tai Chi is beauty.  I'm with anyone who recognizes that.  But as promoters of beauty we have a duty to make plain our flaws, and to correct them.

The five training principles Tabby promotes are simply inadequate to communicate the internal aspects of the art.  They are:

  1. Relax

  2. Body Upright

  3. Separate Weight

  4. Turn the waist

  5. Beautiful Lady's Hand

To illustrate this I will describe two problems Ben Lo has had teaching that I learned about talking with Tabby.
After years of teaching push hands, Ben Lo realized his students were getting worse.  Students were simultaneously searching for tension in their opponent, when he found it, he would suddenly blast his opponent.  This caused the loser to fear the sudden shock and develop chronic defensive tension.  Meanwhile the winner was being rewarded for being more aggressive (more on why this is a problem below).  Ben’s solution was to create a new game.  He gave each partner a different role, one would only try to look for tension and the other would only try to evade it, after twenty minutes they would reverse.  This resulted in improved yielding skills but it didn’t solve the problem.  (The first time I pushed hands with a 5 year student of Ben Lo’s, I put my hand on top of his head and he yielded all the way to the ground!  We were playing a completely different game.)

The second problem was that two types of students were coming to him, the jocks with “tense” full chests, and nerds with “collapsed” chests.  Neither one was relaxed and he told them so, but after a while the “tense” students started to become collapsed too.

Here is what’s going on.

We have two bodies.  An outer body, the thing with muscles that most people normally think of as a body,  and an inner body.  The inner body feels like empty space in the torso.  I suspect that the inner body is more primitive in the evolutionary sense.  Obviously this implies a composite body theory. The inner body is clumsy, very strong and innocent.  It is somewhat like Freud’s Id.  It has very simple primal desires.  It lacks artifice, memory, and preferences.

Anyway, all normal human activity is a war between these two bodies.

The jock type of movement uses a tough outer body shape with a lifted chest in order to limit, direct, and constrain the inner body; however, the jock type uses the inner body for power.  In the battle between the bodies the jock type of movement represents the inner body overpowering the outer body.

The nerd type of movement uses a collapsed but tense chest in order to de-power the arms by disconnecting them from the liquid mass of muscle.  This is necessary for fine motor control.  The nerd type of body has a strong collapsed chest and weak arms (the chest and arms have different liquid densities).  In the nerd type of movement the inner body is sneaky and fairly quiet, but it can also manoever all around evading and repositioning to get to tricky angles.  In the battle between the bodies the nerd type movement represents the outer body overpowering the inner.

What we actually want to cultivate in “internal arts” is each body doing a separate job, working together, but completely distilled from each other.  So the outer body is dead, totally quiet and devoid of intent.  The internal body is totally active and free.  The internal body is moved indirectly by the spacial mind moving around in space.  Once you have this conceptual framework it is easy to see Tabby Cat’s mistake.

Tabby Cat actually has a dead external body and a free internal body.  That part he is doing correct, but he moves his internal body by keeping his mind in his belly.  The more he can expand out from his belly in the direction of the ground and his opponent, the more effective his push is.  The more his spacial mind extends down, the more force he has to float his opponent. To the extent that his spacial mind extends past his own hands into or beyond the opponent he can move the opponent without them feeling any structure in the attack.  This is what we call internal power (neijing).  Because his mind stays in his belly it is always pushing his mass, and given a moment to adjust to the unfelt attack, the secondary mass attack is easy to deflect.  In fact, if the secondary attack is resisted and he presses it anyway, he will reveal a structure.  And structure once revealed, can be crushed.

To use different language, he has huajing (transforming power), but he doesn’t know how to use it (not much ling--inner agility, intelligence).  So when he goes to attack he sometimes uses huajing by accident but mostly retreats to anjing (hidden power).  In the brief moment his mass is being pushed forward by his mind inside his dantian, he is exposing his jin, his structure and his root.  This is why he can not attack slowly. This means that although he has reached the level where he can completely distill jing and qi in solo movement, he still mixes them under pressure.

What he should be doing is keeping his mind outside the body all the time.  This will eliminate the initial need to lead the opponent around because the only way an opponent can go directly against outside the body force is if they have the same mind-outside-the-body skill set.  His mistake is that he is leading his internal body in a direct way, when in fact he should be leading it in an indirect way.

The strongest indicator that this is Tabby’s problem is that even though it is on his list of 5 training principles above, he doesn’t have a clear upright posture.  An upright posture comes from another related force called Central Equilibrium power (Zhongdingjin).

To practice Central Equilibrium power by oneself simply requires that one's liquid mass adjusts in relationship to the the center of liquid mass as any force goes out in any direction.  It’s not very complex, but the outer body has to be dead-weight relaxed (xu) in order to do it.  If the outer body is not dead-weight-relaxed, posture correcting muscles will be activated to bring the mass back on center, thus pitting the external body against the internal body in a battle.  If central equilibrium is maintained exclusively by changes in the spacial mind, in Daoist terms, jing and qi remain distilled.

To apply Central Equilibrium power while fighting, the opponent’s mass must instantaneously be included in one’s liquid mass adjustment.  When done correctly, the opponent’s incoming force is dispersed automatically and instantaneously by a continuously adjusting spacial mind.  Thus, there is no advantage in evading by yielding the chest and neglecting uprightness.

In other words, yielding the chest is fundamentally an aggressive act because it is a set up for an outward attack (Lu into Ji in classic push hands terms). When we hit someone using Central Equilibrium power we never shoot out to a single point; as our mass spirals and expands to hit, it is moving equally in other directions.  To use Wang Xiangzai’s language, “Power never comes out to a point, the body never breaks the qi egg.”  Although the opponent gets clobbered, the body doesn't take on the experience of aggression.   That's not much consolation for the injured party, but it's an interesting idea.  No?

Tabby Cat has been doing a bit of writing lately and I recommend reading it.

I learned a lot from the exchange, and I have more to write about still.  I'm still open to the idea of a single attribute drill that would eliminate a lot of wasted time.  But in this case I would have to say it failed.   There is so much detail to the internal martial arts that putting off learning it in hopes of some holy grail of power ultimately means never learning that detail at all.  And Tabby is the case that proves the point, he studied Systema in hopes that it would fill in the gaps, and in the end he has retreated to Western Boxing and Yoga to supplement his Tai Chi.  In this case, I think, even Modernity has failed.

Aunkai Martial Arts in Japan

If you are a martial artist visiting Tokyo you will want to pay a visit to Akuzawa Minoru, he teaches an art he calls Aunkai which is a hybrid of Chinese and Japanese arts.
When I first found the studio, I looked in to see a bunch of guys in boxing gloves hitting boxing mitts.   My first thought was, oops wrong class.  But it was in fact the right class.  They use Sanda as a base for skills development and as a warm-up.

Akuzawa Sensei's website is worth reading, especially the Bujutsu section.  Towards the end of class he was kind enough to show his skills to me directly and let me test him in various ways.  He also partnered me with his senior student Miyakwa Kazuhisa for a significant portion of the three hour long class which gave me a good sense of what he has been able to transmit.

Although, I believe it is quite difficult for most students to grasp, Akuzawa Sensei is using an apophatic method,  "...[W]e aim to give our students the physical tools to forge a Bujutsu body able to bring its own imperfections to light, address them, and come to its own answers--all of this eventually leads the practitioner down their own path in the Martial Way."  While most people would read that statement in context as iconoclastic or individualist, to me it is simply explaining that the methods themselves primarily point to what you are NOT supposed to do.

Take for instance these two exercises:  sessyoku1_01sessyoku1_02Both have fixed foot positions.  The one top goes up and down.  The one on the bottom goes forward and backward.  They are both designed to take all arm and leg power out of the system as well as any size advantages or gravity/momentum/positioning advantages--  Thus leaving only "internal"  mind-energy changes of the torso for generating force.  What the practice reveals is all the possible things you could do that are wrong.  This is really important because all those "wrong things," like tension in the shoulders, might seem like they are giving an advantage in a more dynamic or volatile exercise.
No matter how much you simply copy the external shape, it is impossible to simply copy movement that happens internally. To add to this, the concept of bujutsu, unlike martial sports, does not adhere to rules, so you must be able to flip your perception and look at things in a completely different light.

Here I think he is suggesting that the mind limitations normally associated with social dominance also limit power and options.  To practice 'internal' arts is to fundamentally play a different game.
You must not get bogged down on the "shape" of things in practice. I also strongly believe that you should not create a method that is set in stone. Bujutsu itself is the ability to use the body in any situation, any environment, and as such is the embodiment of change. This means that training must be tailored to yourself by endless trial, error, experimentation, and adjustment if you want to understand the true essence behind movement.

Again he emphasizes the apophatic; make mistakes and learn from them.  Sure, there is a method here, but  the method is pointing to something.  When you figure out what it is pointing to, the method can be burned away.

Akuzawa Sensei is a warm, generous and open guy and his students were all welcoming.  The best test of his power I got was when he asked me to hold his arms down at his sides.  I was instructed to use any kind of force adjustments I wished to try and stopping him from lifting his arms up for the opening movement of Tai Chi.  I was ready, in position, holding his arms with all my creative effort, but he unconsciously decided to scratch his head!  His "head scratching" power was totally unstoppable, he took me with him.

He is clearly offering a method, it uses boxing gloves and some Shaolin and Xingyi type repeating lines, and a bunch of two person resistance/cooperation exercises that teach various things, and he advises students to do standing meditation practice on their own.  But he is also clearly saying, don't get stuck on the method, the method is all about limitations, the fruition is about freedom.

Mothering and Othering: Making an Immortal Baby

pregnant-happy-womenThe most basic, primal, reduction of the notion of self-defense is the protection of a baby in the womb.  It totally trumps castle law and threats to life and limb.  If a pregnant woman rips out a man’s throat, or shoots or stabs him, all she has to claim is she was protecting her baby.  As long as she can plausibly make that claim, no jury in any civilized country would convict her.  Even a child would at least have to make the case that running away was a bad option, or that lethal force was justified, but a pregnant woman unaided and under attack can get away with almost anything.

Obviously pregnant women do everything possible to avoid having to fight, above and beyond the rest of us, which is probably why their case for justified self-defense seems so strong, so pure.

But that’s an aside, here is the main question.  What is the psyco-physical state a female uses to protect her fetus and, by extension, small children close at hand?  Pregnant women, in my limited experience are often happy and relaxed.  Compared to the average person they have virtually zero abdominal tension.  We understand this viscerally.  If we were carrying a baby inside our body we would be careful in all our movements to not transmit tension to the baby.  The way we walked, moved our arms and turned our head would all keep in mind treating the baby with loving care.  We would avoid shaking or bouncing unless the baby seemed to like that.  And when the baby was sleeping we’d probably be careful to move in a way that wouldn’t wake the baby.

e1alch-sA woman who is pregnant is doing this all the time.  So in the event that she needed to fight, it seems possible that she would maintain this attitude or at least be physically informed by it.  Think for a moment though, how such a fighting style would look.

First of all, it could not rely on structure or rooting because pregnant women tend to have poor structure and balance.  They have a lot of mass to wield, but the movements of the  arms would likely be used clear a large area around the belly while attacking in circles.  The mind, rather than focusing on death points to attack, would be using massive force to throw an attack back.  In other words, a pregnant woman might fight using the tai chi and bagua notion of a giant rolling ball.

The mind of the pregnant women, if she made the actual jump to fighting, would be fierce beyond reckoning.  A parallel with the concept of “xu” we have written about before is pertinent here.  “Xu” literally means fake, but in martial arts it refers to a body which is not giving off self-identity signals, a body which does not respond to pain, a body which has let go of all tension.  The pregnant woman who has made the jump to fighting is fighting for the baby, not herself.  The experience might be de-personalized, the baby has needs, the baby is the future, what happens to the outer body is secondary, the outer body can risk being destroyed as long as the baby is fully and totally protected.

This seems to invoke the image of two bodies, an inner one and and outer one completely differentiated-- a qi (potent energy) body, surrounded by a jing (relaxed mass) body.  To make this match up with the standard internal martial arts lingo is a small leap.  The inner body (the baby) is qi, it is potential energy, pure animation which is round in shape and when awake, can extend several feet beyond the outer flesh body of the ‘mother.’  The qi body (the baby’s needs and perhaps its will) seems to take over the mother;  however, the qi body is blind to what is happening outside, so it must be led by the mind.  The mind of the mother controls the space and defines the environment around herself.  The mind goes first, the dynamic energy of the baby (qi) follows the mind.  The mass of the mother’s body (jing) always puts the baby energy ahead of its own needs.  The shen (spacial mind) leads the qi (energy body) and the qi leads the jing (body mass).

04dThis appears to be a very obvious, though over looked, explanation of why  Daoists have so often used the metaphor of making an immortal baby to describe the internal elixir practices of neidan, and jindan.

Try this practice: Imagine you have a baby in your lower dantian. Try to move without waking up the baby.  Do this over a period of months and gradually increase the range on motion in which you can move without waking up the baby.  Eventually your body mass will become very quiet.  This is called purifying jing.  This is, of course, also a description of doing a tai chi form, or so called ‘pre-heaven’ Baguazhang.

Once the jing is purified and the body is quiet in motion, then you can experiment with waking up the baby.   While the baby is sleeping there will be no power.  After the baby is awake, power will seem to come from emptiness.

All this suggests a composite mind and a composite body.  At the moment we are dealing with massive generalizations and oversimplifications but let me sketch it out quickly.  The composite mind has several models.  One model is the lizard, mammal, frontal cortex (human)--a three part mind where the lizard is powerfully focussed on survival and aliviating pain, the mammal is obsessed with status, pleasure seeking, emotions and group bonding, and the frontal cortex is all about planning, imagining and rational thought.  There are other models too.
Models for the composite body come from evolutionary theory.  Our bones were once an exoskelatin, a shell which got covered in a wormy substance we call muscle.  Each part of our brain comes from a different type of body substance which at some point in our evolution was an independent animal.  We are composite forms which tend to organize all these ‘minds’ and ‘bodies’ in standard ways, however, extreme circumstances or carefully designed practices can alter the organizational order of this conscious/unconscious mass of kinetic life energy.  Just a thought.


It seems to me that in utero, before we get the gender defining hormones, males and females both have a proto-womb.  Perhaps this is even true to some extent for pre-pubescent children.  I would like to propose what must seem obvious to many people, that this proto-womb is what martial arts, theater, meditation and ritual all refer to as the lower dantain.

The womb seems to have some independent connection to mind, as if it was an earlier life form in our evolution, which can re-assert itself when other aspects of our composite body-mind are quiet.


When a mother fights, the ground belongs to her baby.  Dantian, literally means cinnabar field, red ground.  Everything which enters that field belongs to the baby.  Even the mother’s own body belongs to the baby.  The fighting mind of a pregnant woman has a very unique way of owning space, a unique way of possessing.

Contrast this with the social form of fighting that men do.  One man pees on a tree to mark his territory with his testicular scent.  Another man then does the same thing and they fight over ownership.  The peeing doesn’t actually have to take place, it can just be assumed.  This testicular marking style of fighting involves a sense of ownership too, but it is less absolute.  Subordinate yourself to the dominant male and the fight is off.  Fights for status are rarely lethal and are usually resolved with simple posturing.

The testicular scent fight is a battle of and for identity, “My body owns this! and belongs here! doing this!”  The womb fight is asocial, “Don’t even think about hurting this baby or you will die (after you’re dead I’ll make a decision about whether or not you are good food for my baby).”
When two men fight over testicular scent, they each extend their minds right up to, but not through, their social challenger.  Two testicular scenters engaged in hand to hand combat are usually very close together, but their minds do not extend much beyond their own bodies and thus the jing (body mass) and the (potential energy) remain mostly mixed up within the body.   Because the qijing and qi do not differentiate the power is very limited.

goddess-kali-idolWhich brings us to othering.  Othering is the psyco-physical process of dehumanizing an individual or a group of people so that you can kill them without feeling social restraint or remorse.  Othering is shorthand for:  “Seeing someone as belonging to another species.”  Butchering animals may be totally natural on a farm, or while hunting, or it may need some training.  Certainly us urban people need to get past our squeamishness in order to butcher an animal.  After I caught, gilled, cleaned and iced 128 King Salmon in one day in Alaska I was haunted by fish eyes whenever I looked closely at anything shiny.  But other than that, I had successfully othered them.

If a person is raised to believe that another ethnic group or tribe is inferior, the process of othering is probably already complete.  When a criminal plans an assault, most likely he or she has already gone through a process of othering.  It is important to think about because in some cases you may be able to avert an assault by somehow getting the assailant to see you as a member of his tribe.  Othering is a justification process.

What does the psyco-physical experience of othering do to the mind and body?  To successfully other, is to shut off, like flipping a switch, all immediate social impulses.  So while it may be possible for a human predator to get close to someone by imitating social behavior, the behavior is not tied to a script, so when the range is right the knife simply goes in.  It is nearly always a surprise to the person being othered.  It’s also very quick and uses overwhelmingly superior force.  Although if simply threatening force is likely to allow the predator to achieve his or her goals then there may not be an actual assault.  It seems like the mind in these cases sees a victim as kinetic energy to be controlled or extinguished.  It’s not a contest for ownership, total ownership of the space is established before the assault.

Othering doesn’t require much physical training or energy work or relaxation techniques.   It only requires that the mind sees the immediate environment as inside its control.  In George Xu’s words, “The wolf thinks: ‘This territory is my refrigerator.’”  So in this case, the mind definitely leads the body mass (jing) but it doesn’t matter whether the jing and qi are mixed as long as the predator has enough skill to sneak up on the prey.  (In other words, predators in nature often need extraordinary skill to hunt, and thus they have perfect differentiation of jing and qi, but human predators can use weapons, so they don’t.)


Mothering is the source of all compassion. Mothering is the psyco-physical process of extending ones mind to include someone or something within ones field of protection.  To mother is to project the sense of “my baby” out into space.  It is a very potent place to fight from.
Othering is nearly the direct opposite of mothering.  It is a process of extending ones mind to surround but totally exclude someone or something from the protection one affords himself.
And Testicular Scenting is just a cute term for "the monkey dance."

Tunnel Vision and the Perception of Density

pole-dancing-empowerment-embodiment-samantha-holland-hardcover-cover-artUnderstanding the nature of perception is profoundly important for the study of any movement art.  The martial arts have been particularly vulnerable to the modern dictum that, "what you see is what you get."  But perception just ain't that simple.

Kinesiologists and their fellow travelers have uncovered a plethora of experimental evidence that motor development, perception, and imagination, are all intertwined and interdependent.  For instance check out this upcoming workshop blurb from Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen:
The senses are our organs of receiving information from ourselves and from the outer world.
Perception is the psycho-physical process of interpreting sensory information. This process begins as potential and develops in response to experience. The dynamics of perception explores how we filter, modify, distort, accept, reject, and use sensory information to bond, defend and learn.

In order to perceive clearly, our attention, concentration, motivation or desire must actively focus us on what it is we are to perceive. This aspect of perceiving, pre-sensory motor focusing, patterns our interpretation of sensory information.  Without this active focusing our perception remains poorly organized.

Sensory information comes to us through multiple channels.  Touch and movement are the first of the senses to develop. They are registered throughout the whole body and establish the baseline for future perception through the sensory structures of the head: mouth, nose, ears and eyes.  Sensory information from these structures is transmitted via the nervous system through cranial and spinal nerves...

[This workshop will explore:]

  • The perceptual-response cycle.

  • The developmental sequence of the senses and perception.

  • The mouth as the first extremity to grasp, release, measure, reach, and withdraw.  It sets the foundation for the movement of the extremities (head, tail, hands and feet).
    The mouth and nose as the first initiators of movement of the head and spine.
    The inner ear as it registers vibration, movement, auditory tone and body postural tone.

  • The eyes as they are dependent upon all the previous senses and, the role of the eyes in helping to integrate the other senses into more complex patterns.
    Cranial and spinal nerves from a cellular and nervous system perspective.

The perception of space outside our bodies is thus built on a foundation of both movement and feeling.  So for instance if I look at a tree, or just for fun, a guy named Hulk, I'm going to be using my eyes to determine his size, shape, motion, and density.  90% of that is not what I actually see, it is happening in my imagination.  My imagination happens to be very accurate for this task.  Even though Hulk's back is not visible to me, I've incorporated it into my visual comprehension.  If one of Hulk's legs was obscured by a trash can my mind would still imagine the leg and would be quite surprised if suddenly the trash can was gone and there was no leg there.  A very large part of this imaginative process develops through touch.  Hulk's density is frankly not visible at all, our perception of density is built on our experience of touching, squeezing, biting, lifting, pushing, bouncing and poking similar objects.

Embodiment is the new catch word being used to sell everything.  The packaging on my toothpaste tells me that it will leave me feeling more embodied, so does the flier for 25 Hour Fitness, and the meditation class down the street.  All of this embodiment hoopla is just the perception of density from the surface of the skin inward. The opposite of "Embodiment" then is disassociation.  I don't really know what disassociation is, but I'm guessing it is a failure of imagination.  Many drugs, especially the illegal ones, cause some kind of dissociation which probably temporarily damages the basic functioning of the imagination.

In Chinese internal martial arts, Tai Chi, Xinyi, Bagua, we take a different route.  I suppose we could say, "We do Embodiment inside out!"  The higher levels of practice are all about the cultivation of emptiness which is the feeling of zero density from the skin inwards.

As we discussed above, density is perceived through various forms of touch.  Every inch of the body is capable of perceiving density.  The feeling of cultivating Qi is hard to pin down but at least part of what we call "feeling qi" is the perception of density from the surface of our bodies outward.

If you just do a quick glace around the room, you probably aren't thinking much about density.  But now find an object like a vase or a can of deodorant, ask yourself, "Can I feel the density of that object by just looking at it?  Can I feel its density from a distance with my belly?  How about with my elbows?"  Most peoples imagination can do this quite easily.  When a cat is stalking its prey in a forest, it keeps its eyes on the prey but it is testing the ground for density with each step.  If you walk into a darkened room your perception of density suddenly goes on high alert so that you won't ding your shin or otherwise smack into something solid and unexpected.  That perception seems to reach out into space.  This is what we are doing when we practice internal martial arts.

If you hit someone, basically you are trying to make them feel more embodied.  The more they feel the pain inside their body, the more effective your strike was.  The more their perceptive faculties are focused inwards, the less they have available to find a way to hit you back.  So the opposite is also true, the more my faculties are focused outwards, the better my opportunity to fight.  This is true for the entire surface of my body and also for my ability to imagine out into space.

Along the same line of thinking, stare into the center of this image.  After a while the lines on the edges will start to straighten out.grid-optical-illusion

This happens because we basically have tunnel vision all the time, it just seems like the whole world is in focus because our imagination makes it so.  But if you are in a fight for your life with an adrenaline surge, part of your imagination shuts down and you get tunnel vision.  This Wikipedia article suggests that there are pharmacological reasons for this, in other words they don't call it a loss of imagination.  But in fact it is both.

cb2e25378ca3545bc8ca7ef82365f1fcTheater ritual and martial arts are closely intertwined.  Masks have been used since ancient times to create altered states of consciousness.  If you want to know what it is like to experience the tunnel vision associated with being attacked, just put on a mask with narrow eye slits.  Mask work done with tradition and sensitivity has the ability to profoundly change the way we move and see.  It can change the way we feel and perceive both space and time.  Most traditional Chinese martial theater and ritual was done with elaborate spacial perception altering costumes and either heavy mask like make-up or actual masks.

The Social Muscles

I've been workshopping the idea of Social Muscles for a few months.  Even after years of blogging I still meet people who are baffled by the idea of cultivating weakness, so I'm trying to find vocabulary that makes this traditional group of ideas more "accessible."

251px-Elwood-just-got-a-bathEveryone is familiar with the idea of social stress.  Social stress happens whenever there is any challenge to a person's preferred status.  There have been a lot of rat studies about social stress (their hair tends to fall out).  There have also been a few studies of British civil servants (their hair falls out too).  Generally the lower you are in the social hierarchy the more stress.  That's probably because the lower you go in a hierarchy, the more people their are competing.  Positions at the top of social hierarchies are generally less stressful, but that depends on how real the challenges are and how often they are coming--the opposite could be true.

I used the word real in the last sentence, but social status is actually mostly about illusory things like who has the most friends or the biggest house, or even more illusory things like, 'do you believe in _____' (insert any group defining marker like: god, unions, aliens, PCB's, barefoot running...)  It's nearly impossible to have a conversation without experiencing some social stress.

chillinOur experience of social dynamics is largely unconscious.  Experiences with improvisational theater, intense conflict, or other dramatic breaks from normal behavior can lift the veil off of social dynamics.  Suddenly you just 'wake up' and notice that every word, glance, sound, or movement is changing peoples status before your eyes.  Most people are status specialists, one person fights to be dominant, another looks around for a strong person to be number two to, others show their top row of teeth and nod "yes" a lot-- they are happy subordinates.  There are infinite degrees of social status and it can change in the blink of an eye, or rather, it always changes in the blink of an eye.  Most people have a preferred status but status is constantly in flux, changes happen in quantum leaps.  Good teachers are masters of changing from low to high status in a flash, one moment the students find themselves cheerfully interacting with each other, helpful, and cooperative, the next moment they are frozen listening to the teacher's instructions with bated breath.

All of these status expressions are physical.  They come from deep inside the body and they are effected by our perception of personal and architectural space and ownership.  (See my blog post on Body Mapping.)    These largely unconscious movements and expressions arise from torso movement in and around the organs.  You can consciously activate them, but once they are active they are hard to control.  You can decide to get angry, but then deciding to calm yourself back down ain't that easy.  It's a lot of work to fake being happy--try doing it for an extended period of time and the stress will become debilitating.

Social Muscles are all the muscles of the torso that create, control, assert, and manage social status.  When we practice internal martial arts we want to let-go (tou kai = dissolve outward) all our social muscles.  We want to discard the impulse to control our status with physical expressions of dominance and submission.  If this sounds easy, perhaps I'm not being clear.  If you are home by yourself reading a book, or watching Chopped on the Food Network, you are reacting to stress cues of dominance and submission.  Any time you think, "I liiiiiike," or "Sexy-time," or "Really?" you are activating your Social Muscles.  Some experiences are obviously more stressful than others (I find watching Chopped really stressful).

Readers may be thinking, "But dude, it's relaxing talking with friends or curling up on the couch with the latest Bed Bath & Beyond catalog!"  It doesn't matter.  One part of your experience is relaxing, and probably being stimulated by happy chemicals too, another part is actively, unconsciously, reacting to social stress.  Facing my own demons, my happy chemicals are clearly triggered when I get in an argument, I love it, and perhaps it is less stressful for me than for other people, but it's still stressful, my Social Muscles are still working overtime!

What often passes for "relaxing" is actually just people hanging out in their preferred status.  I love soaking in hot water and breathing fresh air.  Visiting a spa can certainly be a real break from social stress, but sometimes the people at spas are down right freaky.  When hanging out at a spa becomes your preferred status, you have entered a weird zone.

My guess is that beginning as infants we spontaneously make faces and change body shapes.  Our internal organs just move around and do random stuff in response to stimulation.  But our parents give us consistent feedback for specific expressions, gestures, sounds, and whole body movements.  Through this consistent feedback we learn to interact socially.  In the beginning I doubt it is stressful, a baby can cry loudly for 4 hours straight.  What makes it stressful is the attempt to constrain impulses.  If you just get angry, it's not stressful.  But hardly anyone does that.  We start to get angry and then we check ourselves, or wonder why, or attempt to assert dominance and fail, or restrain ourselves, distract ourselves, simmer, or just "walk away."  That stuff is all really stressful.  Social Muscles work to contain spontaneous reactions. ¹

It seems to me that most "displays" of emotion are attempts to change our social status.  I remember being in India in a post office.  After the 4th hour of waiting in lines to mail some books back home, and getting turned away from a counter for about the sixth time, because I hadn't wrapped the books properly, I just started crying.  I willed it.  In America I would have done something differently, something more on "script," but in India my dominance/submission messages weren't working anyway so I chose to throw all caution to the wind.  The tears were a satisfying release for me, but the people around me started looking enormously upset.  Suddenly everyone was helping me.  There were a lot of young people sending letters to Harvard and MIT, and they all stopped to help me.  About 20 of them pulled me outside and listened to my problem and then they started helping me solve it, they found me a guy who sews up books (really, in plastic and canvas) and another person who writes out addresses and sews on labels and one who affixes wax seals.  It was weird.  Anyway my point is that because I was in another culture and had been pushed to the brink, I was able to discarded who I am.  I could have a pure, baby like, expression of emotion, a non-stressful expression of emotion, and just watch the reactions. That never happens at home, I know my place, we all know our place and we work hard to keep it.

The practice of internal martial arts is about completely letting go of the social USE of the muscles. This is especially true of the abdominal muscles and the ways these muscles connect to the face, hands and feet.  The Social Muscles are extraordinarily powerful, when we drop all social constraints we can become angelic, monstrous, predator-like, or to use traditional Daoist terminology-- immortal.²


¹I use the word spontaneous here with some trepidation because, I think, the impulse to contain or control social situations seems spontaneous to the extent that it is unconscious.   Perhaps primal urge would be a better choice of words, or maybe something Chinese like yuande, original nature.

²The Chinese character for immortal, xian, is made up of a mountain and a person.  So as a literal image it means: mountain man.  AKA, big foot, sasquatch, & yeti.

Xian = Immortal = mountain+person Xian = Immortal = mountain+person

Defeat All Dirty Power!

IMG_1497Below is the text of the flyer for George Xu's latest public offerings in San Francisco.  It's poetry, of a sort.  The first time I met George was around 1990.  My first teacher, Bing Gong was making a formal introduction on my behalf.  George was briefly delighted and then went into a wild rant about how everyone was doing Tofu Tai Chi.  He proceeded to define and contrast Tofu Tai Chi with the other cosmological possibilities and then began demonstrating maximum spring shaking power as the antidote to all this squishy food practice.  I was hooked.

In case you are wondering, "dirty power" is anything generated from a body which does not conform to the principle of "Dead physical body"  --Also known as XU, which was the topic of my last post.


2011 Seminar with Master George Xu

Seminar 1: Master George Xu will teach Chen Style Tai Ji , secret of max gravity, 3rd level of internal power, pure and large internal power, form and Tai Ji push hand principles, and Wu Tang Qi Kung. Unit empty pure force will defeat all dirty power force and weak force.

Seminar 2: Master George Xu will teach Xing-Yi Six Harmony - Ten Animals, Xing-Yi 10 principles, 10 different circles, Seventh Harmony to the enemy and Eighth Harmony to the universe, 3 level of 10 Dan Tian training (small internal, large internal, space spiritual Dan Tian), and Qi Kung training.

Seminar 3: Master George Xu will teach Ba Gua basics and dragon eagle form, Ba Gua snake, dragon, tornado, three different power, Ba Gua principles and usage. Dead physical body follow intelligence internal power and pure internal power follow space spiritual power.

Seminar 4: Master George Xu will teach new secret from Europe, Tai Chi form and principles, two men training, test your internal power perfection, intelligence and purity. Tai Ho of Tai Chi, Natural style secrets. Teach you to be as powerful and wild as tiger, fast as lighting, large like ocean, spiral as tornado, heavy as mountain, light as feather at the same time.

Fee:  $120 one day, $180 both days

Please register in advance.


1. Feb. 12-13 Sat & Sun 9-5pm

2. March 5-6 Sat & Sun 9-5pm

3. March 26-27 Sat & Sun 9-5pm

4. April 30 - May 1 Sat & Sun 9-5pm



Also: Rory Miller will be in the San Francisco Bay Area again Feb. 18th-20th.  Check it out!

Me & friends at Rory's workshop in last September Me & friends at Rory's workshop in last September

New Classes

I'm in the thick of it again.

Tai Chi and Qigong starts up again this Wednesday Jan 5th, 2011, at 5841 Geary Street, 6 to 8 PM.

Bagua Zhang and Qigong start up Thursday morning Jan 6th, 2011, Douglass Playground 6 to 8:30 AM.

All in San Francisco of course.  But I'm available for private lessons in Marin too since I live near the bridge.  I take phone calls if you have questions...415-752-1984.

This week I'm beginning 10 new children's classes in Northern Shaolin as a Performing Art in schools, that's in addition to the 2 I'm already teaching.


I had a great vaccation, did a ton of reading and practice, I didn't check my email or phone for 14 days.  Yeah me.


I have a new theory I'm excited about. I'll just share it with y'all briefly because I'm headed to bed early these days.

Here are some interconnected notions.

1.)  The frontal cortex of the brain is the part we usually associate with "thinking."  The frontal cortex counter-intuitively has a largely inhibitory function.  We don't usually think of  "thought" as a form of inhibition but it turns out that if I think about jumping out the window my brain does most of the things it would do if I actually did get up and jump out the window.  But in addition to all those things my frontal cortex inhibits my movement. That's why you can improve a skill just by thinking about doing it.

2.)  The various nerves which send messages from the body to the brain operate at different speeds.  Some of them are lighting fast, like the nerves sending information from the eyes, the ears, and those involved with spacial awareness.  But the nerves which send messages from inside the body to the brain are much slower.  Naturally, as martial artists we should instantly recognize that any information received from the slow nerves inside the body would be useless in a self-defense situation.  As Rory Miller puts it, "Time is damage."

Thus; the reason we practice internal martial arts slowly is to first make sure that we are not inhibiting any movement on the inside.  Inhibitory movement includes many things like stabilizing or rotating individual joints or holding strength in the abdomen.  Once all that inhibitory tension is gone then we can move (spread?) our mind to the outside of the body, to the fast nerves, to the instantaneous awareness of plastic and dynamic space.

As I have been saying now for about a year now-- body inside the mind, not mind inside the body.


Also check out Rory Millers new workshop in SoCal, he is hinting at another one in San Francisco soon too.


Happy New Year!3221829804_94d1960374

The Primeval Tongue

feng-mei-qi-orbitIt is a staple of Chinese movement and religious studies that the tongue should be on the roof of the mouth.  In Daoist ritual and ritual meditation the tip of the tongue is sometimes used to draw talisman on the roof of the mouth.  But in Zouwang (sitting and forgetting) the basic emptiness meditation practice, which is very much like Zen, part of the posture instructions for stillness include putting the tip of the tongue on the roof of the mouth behind the teeth.  I’ve also heard people say to put the tongue on the soft pallet.  The identical instruction is standard in Tai Chi and other internal martial arts and qigong classes.

There are two explanation commonly given.
The first is that keeping the tongue in that position allows the throat to open so that saliva can travel downward without stimulating the gag reflex or the need to swallow.
The second explanation is that it somehow connects the meridians which travel in a circle up the back, over the head, and down the front-- popularly called the “micro-cosmic orbit” of the du and ren acupuncture channels.

A while back I wrote about Michael Jordan’s amazing tongue.  In an interview he said he learned to do tongue lap-rolls from his father who always rolled his tongue when he was chopping wood.  I’ve been experimenting with this for a long time.  How does movement of the tongue help the movement of wood chopping?  I think I have the answer.

The sucking reflex babies are born with is a whole body movement which comes up from the belly and presses the tongue to the roof of the mouth.  Not the tip of the tongue!  A spot about a centimeter back from the tip of the tongue presses upward into the roof of the mouth. This creates a rolling effect pushing the tip of the tongue downward and out (to surround the nipple).

If you don’t have a baby handy to play with, find a cat and interrupt her while she is licking herself.  She’ll probably stop with her tongue just slightly out of her mouth on a downward arc and give you this Jewish grandmother look like, “What? You want something? No, what makes you think I’m busy?”

If you put your own tongue in this position and try to talk it will sound like, “blublah.”  I find that practicing with my tongue in this position is very similar to having “baby feet” (see previous post).  It is an even better position for getting saliva to flow down the throat without stimulating the gag reflex.  It also seems to interrupt my tendency to think in words.  Why did it take me 20 years to figure this out?

This is a very relaxed position of the tongue, it is not held with pressure.  Any movement of the dantian (the abdominal region of the mind) will be felt as a subtle change in the shape or fullness of the tongue if it is relaxed.  If the tip of the tongue is curved upwards this feedback loop will be broken.

Perhaps this experience is what was originally meant by “connecting the du and ren meridians” but if that is the case, the method and purpose really got mangled in the translation, or the transition to modernity.

(please, no “baby talk” in the comments)

Here is a video of an infant sucking:

The Cat Walk

Tanka Tanka

It was raining hard the other morning so I did my practice inside and I really got into working on the cat walk.  I've got these walks down: the dog, the bunny, the monkey, the phoenix, the crab, the dragon and probably a bunch of others I'm not thinking of right now.  But the cat has been tough.  This is the Paulie Zink Daoyin I'm talking about here, and he showed me the scared cat, the cat licking, and the stretching cat but not the walking cat.  It's hard to walk like a cat!  But it's only a matter of time and deduction before I get it.  After all I have Xinyi cat-washes-his-face practice to help me.  So I was doing some experimenting and I realized that the cat prowling is different than the cat walking, and the prowl started happen for me.  Cats have a narrow ribcage and they walk with a really narrow base.

After practice I went on-line looking for videos of cats walking and I found this amazing study, "Whole Body Mechanics of Stealthy Walking in Cats," comparing the way cats and dogs walk!  Here is a summary, but check out the study link it's got so much juicy content and equations too.  Make sure you watch the videos.  (I couldn't figure out how to embed them, but I used a program I have called VLC to watch them with out any trouble.)

Here is what I got from the article.  Dogs (and by inference, humans) walk in an very efficient way. (Wolves must be even more efficient, George Xu told me to practice like a wolf running in the sky!  --One movement, three hours, not get tired!)  Prowling cats on the other hand are 100% inefficient!  They use absolutely no forward momentum.  Well, that's what happens when you practice xinyi, taijiquan or baguazhang walking with whole-body shrinking-expanding emptiness too.  The momentum happens when you pounce or strike, not in the walk.

The article poses "a tradeoff between stealthy walking and economy of locomotion."  My opinion, as far as humans go, is that we can master both if we return to the source of walking.  Walking is a trance, an extremely complex trance.  When we walk we are doing something on the order of the mental complexity required for visualizing a Tibetain Tanka in perfect detail and animating ourselves in it! This is what Daoyin, real Daoyin, is supposed to do.  It takes you all the way back to the origins of movement, where all movement inspirations come from.

Wednesday Night Tai Chi

Just letting folks know that the Wednesday night Tai Chi class I started recently in San Francisco is lots of fun and going strong.
Tai Chi & Qi Gong, a ritual of relaxed action:

Wednesday 6PM to 8PM

5841 Geary Street, @ 23rd Avenue (above Thom's Health food store)

The next group of five classes is Nov. 17, 24, Dec. 1, 8, 15   (5 classes for $125).

The last week of the 8 week session is next week and new students are welcome to drop in on that to get a senses of what we are up to before signing up for a whole session.

(There will be no classes Dec. 22 & 29)  The next 8 week session will begin Jan 5th.


In this class I have broken amazing new ground, mostly thanks to my amazing students.

I have been using the Daoyin  Cat and the Daoyin Dog movements as a way to introduce people to Taijiquan.  Since Daoyin starts from an animal-mind on all fours in a very theatrical way, it is an easy way to make an experiencial bridge between the yogic hermit practices of Taijiquan and its theatrical ritual practices.

The studio has a beautiful foor for rolling around on.  The cat and dog movements are also much easier to relate to as types of aggression than the classic yet abstract peng, ji, lu, & an.  I have discovered the obvious; some people are more dog-like, and some people are more cat-like, and some people are more cat in their legs and more dog in their torso...Cool right?  My theory is that each Taijiquan movement needs a balance of cat and dog, so if it's too dog we add a little cat, and if it's too cat we add a little dog.


This is more Monkey than Dog, and what we are doing in class is only on all fours, but still a fun video.