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April 2008
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Learning Too Much Too Soon -- and Learning Very Little

I'm reading a great book -- American Shaolin by Matthew Polly. He went to China to study kung-fu at the Shaolin Temple. The book is a very interesting account of his adventure.

The Shaolin monk who "drew the short straw" and had to teach Matthew his first form didn't act as if teaching the American was a chore. It's funny to read about the monk going through ten moves of the form then stopping, trying to remember the next move. He sheepishly told Matthew that he hadn't taught the form in a while.

The monks at the Shaolin Temple don't think a lot of Americans. The monks spend 6 months to a year practicing basic moves over and over before they learn their first form. Americans, they believe, don't have the patience to become really good at a technique or a form before moving on.

Raise your hand if this sounds familiar. Anyone? Bueller?

Americans want to learn the next form before they become good at the form they just studied, according to the monks. And we know it's true, don't we? The monks also believe Americans are no good at kung-fu. Perhaps this is why.

We all need to slow it down, don't we? What good is knowing 5 tai chi forms, or 5 hsing-i forms, or 5 bagua forms if you can't do any of them properly?

This would take a radical shift in perspective and attitude for most Americans to adopt it. But it's a good idea, and it has given me a lot to think about.

Quality, not quantity is the key, Grasshopper.

Extending Chi through Weapons in Tai Chi, Hsing-I, Bagua

Hsingisword_thrust My favorite martial arts weapons are swords--broadswords or straight swords. I also love the elk horn knives because of their versatility in blocking, catching, and cutting.

One of the concepts that many beginning students misinterpret (and they carry this misinterpretation on their backs for decades) is something I was told a couple of decades ago, too -- that you should "extend your chi" through the blade of a sword. The impression that all of us beginning students were given was that this mystical, invisible energy actually goes out of our hands and through the sword. If we can't achieve that, we just aren't using our chi properly.

Let me put this concept into a more realistic frame of reference. When you perform techniques with a sword, you're not extending some mystical energy through the sword--you're using it as an extention of your body, with the same body mechanics applied as in the empty-hand forms that you do. In other words, the ground path, peng jin, whole-body movement, even silk-reeling energy. The same mechanics that give your body its power will give your weapon its power, whether it's a sword or a staff, spear, or elk horn knives.

When I thrust with a sword, the "energy" starts with the ground, moves up my legs into the lower back, and stores as it goes before it releases out the arms and through the sword. It's the same type of internal movement that I use to generate power in a punch or elbow strike. If you do the same movement and describe it as extending your chi through the sword, that's fine. But what you're really doing is storing and releasing energy from the ground, through the body, guided by the dan t'ien, and expressed in the weapon. As in an empty-hand form, internal strength and the release of power with a weapon is the result of physical skill and the correct way of moving with the right body mechanics and structure.

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At the bottom of the posts on this blog is a new little feature called "Share This." If you like a particular post and have martial arts friends who might like to see it, just click on the "Share This" button. You can send it to one of the social networking sites like Facebook or MySpace, you can post it to your own blog, or you can email it to a friend.

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Newest Video Projects - Chen 19 and Hsing-I Sword

Chen_19web Last night, my ace videographer (Nancy) and I went to a park near our home that's a beautiful backdrop for video. A small alligator was watching--sticking the top of its head above the water, as we videotaped the Chen 19 form for the new website I'm creating (and for a possible DVD). The hot and humid season has arrived in Florida -- it was very humid and about 89 degrees. I was sweatin' to the oldies by the time we finished.

Today I practiced particularly hard on a Hsing-I straight sword form. We'll shoot this on video tomorrow for the website and for a DVD. It's a form that my students have used to win trophies in tournaments.

I'm hoping the new site will be up sometime in June. My old students will be able to get onto it quietly in a week, but I'm holding it back from the world while I add more content. Trying to videotape all of our curriculum in Tai Chi, Hsing-I, and Bagua is a tremendous undertaking. The written material that goes with it is another matter. Everything will be accessible on the site. It's a pretty exciting project.

We'll go back to the park this weekend to shoot more stuff. I hope the alligator is there to watch. Someday I may need him when I do the Water Lizard on video for the Hsing-I 12 animals.

Best Tai Chi Performance I've Ever Seen!

When I first started studying Chen tai chi, I kept hearing the name of Chen Xiaowang and how good he was. One night, I was having a holiday party with my students, and we put a video on TV showing several different martial artists performing. I looked over at one point and saw the most beautiful tai chi form I'd ever seen.

Who is that guy, I wondered. I later found out it was Chen Xiaowang. It's still the best example of tai chi I've ever seen. It's from 1988 when he was in his early to mid-40's. There is so much information in this form that you could study it for a lifetime and learn new things.

Which is Better - Hsing-I or Chen Tai Chi?

Gary Liu asked this question:

I have been learning Chen Taiji for just over 2 years. One of the things that frustrates me is the seemingly unrealistic techniques and chin-na that would be unrealistic for self-defence. Felt like a waste of time covering and learning them. I have always looked for simple techniques and doing them well for self-defence purposes.

After reading your post here about practicing the concepts behind them, things fall into perspective a lot more. Instead of a chore, chin-na becomes an opportunity to learn to send force into the opponent to control his body (as opposed to control of a local joint).

The Cannon Fist routine was a lot more direct and aligns more with what I am looking for (I have learned short yilu and erlu forms - now learning a long yilu form). Though looking at your Hsing-I instructions, I wonder if I should be giving Hsing-I a go due to more direct and simple movements.

If you have time, I would be very interested in hearing your view on Hsing-I and Chen Taiji and whether it makes any difference learning which in the longer term.

That's an interesting question, Gary. I think the realistic nature of fighting applications may depend upon the quality and knowledge of your teacher. I've been lucky to have had some good teachers (Jim and Angela Criscimagna of San Diego, as the best examples) who really turned me on to tai chi as a fighting art.

Chen tai chi is tremendously difficult to do well. Two years isn't much time. I wouldn't get too impatient. Hsing-I is difficult to do well, too. Two years isn't even enough time to get the body mechanics down. You can fake it more with Hsing-I, however.

In the longer term, the true answer to this question is: whatever makes you happy is the art you should choose. But why choose just one? It's more difficult to be really good at more than one art, but it all depends upon your goals.

You might also look to see if there's another Chen teacher around. If there's a Hsing-I teacher, go take a class or watch one.

Within a month, I'll be launching a new website to teach these arts online. Something like that could supplement what you're learning from your own teacher, and you might be able to fill in the gaps in Hsing-I, Tai Chi or Bagua through the videos and techniques taught in the online school.

I would end my initial response to your question by saying that I absolutely love Chen tai chi. It's the greatest of all martial arts in my opinion (because it appeals most to me for some reason). Other people will feel the same about jiu jitsu or karate. I also deeply enjoy Hsing-i and Bagua. All three arts are closely related in the body mechanics and many techniques. But if someone put a gun to my head and told me to pick one art, I'd chose Chen tai chi. I'd choose Hsing-I or Bagua over Yang tai chi any day, but Chen is the King of internal arts. It's the foundation of everything I do, and it's a complete fighting art. The skills are so difficult to master, that you can forget about becoming a master, but if you even become "good," you will have achieved something to be proud of.

Shout Out to Students over Tournament Wins

Got to give a shout out to some of my students who did well at an Illinois tournament sponsored by John Morrow this past weekend.

Chris Miller won 1st in sparring and empty-hand forms and 3rd in weapons. His lovely wife Kim won 1st in weapons and empty-hand forms.

Colin Frye won 2nd in weapons and 3rd in empty-hand forms.  His sparring showed great improvement.

Steve Rogers won 4th in weapons.

Congratulations, guys!

Nearly 250 Fighting Applications in 22 Tai Chi Movements

I just completed Volume 2 in the DVD series "Tai Chi Fighting Applications." It picks up where Vol. 1 left off. I'm exploring all 75 movements of the Chen form "Laojia Yilu." So far, the first two DVDs cover the first 31 movements of the form (no movements are duplicated on the DVDs so we go through 22 actual movements) and approximately 242 fighting applications are demonstrated from those movements.

This series is a tremendous amount of fun and a LOT of work. It will give you plenty of material to work on. Naturally, you can buy both DVDs on the website.

Here's a short clip with a couple of applications from two movements. On the first two movements of volume two we uncover 33 fighting applications. Chen tai chi is an amazing martial art.

NBC News Looks at Tai Chi -- Sort of

The Nightly News with Brian Williams featured Tai Chi in their "Mind Body Connection" series this past week. The story featured a professor who also happens to practice Chen tai chi. Watch the story here. The reporter wanted very badly to attribute healing powers to Tai Chi, but fortunately stopped short of making any ridiculous claims. It turned out to be a good story although it didn't prove a lot. If it makes people think positively about tai chi, that's good. But I wish more of these stories would focus on the martial aspects of the art. :)