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You've Got to Take Responsibility for Your Own Martial Arts Training

Two years ago, I felt palpitations in my chest. For a few months, I attributed it to stress (I was in a very stressful job). Then I visited a doctor, who became alarmed and told me I had atrial fibrillation -- my heart had developed extra electrical pathways and the heartbeat was all screwed up.

I had two choices -- take blood thinners the rest of my life to avoid a stroke or clot, or undergo "laser ablation," where they go into veins in your groin, send lasers and a camera up into your heart, and burn spots to stop the extra electrical activity.

I wanted to be back to normal, so I opted for the laser ablation.

It was a surreal experience after being healthy and fit my entire life. After the procedure, it was clear within a day or two that it hadn't worked. My heart was still beating strangely -- part of it was fluttering instead of beating normally.

I returned to see the cardiologist, Dr. Bengt Herweg, a week later. He came into the room and looked at my charts.

"What dose of coumadin (blood thinner) are you on?" he asked.

Hmmm. I just got the prescription a week ago and hadn't paid attention. I just took it and didn't ask questions.

"I don't know," I replied.

Dr. Herweg looked at me sternly. "Why don't you know?" he barked. "You have GOT to take responsibility for your own treatment."

I was surprised, and for a few seconds I was a little steamed.

And then I realized he was right. From that moment forward, I can tell you how much I'm taking of each medication. And often, I called the doctors to tell them what needed to be done, what medicine I needed, and why. They almost always agreed.

In fact, I know what's happening with my body and my medicine so well, I have caught nurses when they made mistakes, and I've had them re-check to find their mistakes. Unfortunately, I ended up having three laser ablations and that set off a year of near-death experiences that I'm just now recovering from (losing the function of my left lung in the process from side-effects of the procedures -- but that's a story for a different time, boys and girls).

So what does this have to do with martial arts?

A kung-fu student once complained to me that I hadn't given him written material to answer some basic questions about Chen tai chi, and I hadn't written out some techniques for him. We had just gone over these techniques two days earlier. One of the questions he wanted me to write out for him was "What are the eight main energies of Tai Chi?"

As a teacher, this presented me with an opportunity to drive home the same lesson that Dr. Herweg drove home to me in that hospital room in Tampa. So I pointed out a couple of things to the student:

1. You've got to do outside research and reading, and stop using me as the sole source of your information. A quick Google search can turn up a lot of information about the eight main energies and just about any other question you have. You don't need me to hand it to you in writing. There are also some excellent books on Chen tai chi that everyone should read, including the books by David Gaffney and Jan Silberstorff.

2. When I have attended classes with my teachers, and when I've been able to spend time with people like Chen Xiaoxing, or attend workshops with folks like Mike Sigman, Chen Xiaowang, Ren Guangyi and others, I have written pages and pages of notes. I spent a thousand dollars one weekend travelling to San Francisco for a private day of training with Chen Xiaoxing and my teacher at the time, Mark Wasson. I was given personal feedback and coaching from each. On the plane ride home, I wrote pages of notes, going back over each movement in Laojia Yilu and recalling the corrections that were made and the advice given.

3. At workshops by the masters, you'll see some people run to their notebooks during breaks and write down notes to remind them of what they've learned so they retain it after the workshop.

4. You have GOT to take charge of your own training. Write down notes after each class. Write down the feedback you have received and the corrections made. Write down techniques and body mechanics. Practice from your notes. And don't depend on anyone to spoon-feed you everything.

5. If there is ANYTHING in the curriculum you're fuzzy on or haven't practiced enough to be able to recall it instantly in physical expression, bring it up and ask if the instructor will go over it again with you. There's really no excuse at all for a brown sash not to be able to recall everything in earlier levels right now if asked to perform it.

6. Break up all the curriculum you know into lists that you can get through each day. This includes forms, applications, self-defense, push hands, silk-reeling exercises, chin-na -- and try to get through all the curriculum at least once a week. For students of mine, this represents a lot of material by the time they earn a black sash. Perhaps you can't get through it all in a week. Perhaps it's every eight days. The point is -- you should practice everything often enough to be able to recall it instantly.

You won't become the martial artist you want to be until you take control -- and take responsibility -- for your knowledge.

An Excellent Use of Kao Energy (Shoulder) in Tai Chi

ChenZiqiang Chen Ziqiang - the son of Grandmaster Chen Xiaoxing -- was in a tai chi fight recently that was televised. Photo at left -- courtesy CCTV -- shows Chen Ziqiang (right) working with his father (left) with Chen Bing looking on in the middle.

Chen Ziqiang is one tough sonofagun. I've heard that some people even around Chen Village are afraid of him because he's so good and he can hurt someone quickly with his skill. I even heard that he had been told to go easier on Westerners because they aren't accustomed to tai chi being so rough. Too many Westerners are into tai chi for health and exercise, not as a martial art, the main reason it was created. Even Chen Bing has acknowledged that they have to train Westerners differently because they aren't able or willing to work as hard on the martial aspects as the Chinese.

So check out this video of Chen Ziqiang in this match. It's the first match on the video. He's dressed in black and white. His opponent doesn't score a point. It's an amazing use of "shoulder" energy -- Kao -- also known as "bump."

As you watch, notice how Chen Ziqiang shocks his opponent by using Kao -- just enough to set him up to be thrown to the ground. Sometimes the shock of the Kao is enough to make the opponent fall. Usually, however, it's a setup.

The way he uses it in a couple of instances is a clear example of "borrowing" energy. The opponent is coming in and Chen Ziqiang slams into him, using the opponent's energy and bouncing it back at him, putting him off-balance, or setting him up for the next unbalancing technique.

This is a thing of beauty. The match begins about 2 minutes into the video. It's real tai chi fighting. I would love to see Chen Ziqiang in an MMA match.

The Core of Tai Chi - Body Mechanics and "Energies"

GroundPath250 I spent the morning yesterday studying the energies and directions of Tai Chi. I have had some good teachers who have touched on these topics in class, but they've never really been organized in a way that brings it all together in a systematic approach to learning.

After a few hours of study and reflection, and getting up to practice some movements for even more insight into the physical mechanics, I had crystallized my thoughts -- and some outstanding information -- into five pages of a document that I'll put on the online school tomorrow, along with a video that I plan to shoot this evening with my students, demonstrating each of the 13 energies and the five moving directions of Tai Chi.

There are six main physical skills you need for good Tai Chi (and Hsing-I and Bagua). Along with the 13 energies and five moving directions, this makes up the core of an amazing martial art.

The Six Main Physical Skills:

1. Establish and maintain the ground path

2. Maintain peng jin at all times through all movements

3. Use whole-body movement - when one part moves all parts move

4. Silk-reeling energy -- spiraling must be infused through all movement

5. Open and close the kua

6. Rotate the Dan T'ien

The Thirteen Main Energies of Tai Chi:

1. Peng (ward off)

2. Lu (roll back)

3. Ji (press)

4. An (push)

5. Cai (pluck - pull down)

6. Lie (split)

7. Zhou (elbow)

8. Kao (shoulder)

9. Teng (striking at an upward angle - from the bottom to the top)

10. Zhe (winding, spinning to the ground)

11. Kong (empty)

12. Huo (lively and active while maintaining internal principles)

Five moving directions of Tai Chi:

1. Front (forward)

2. Back (backward)

3. Left (sometimes described as "gazing left")

4. Right (sometimes described as "gazing right")

5. Middle (maintaining your balance -- your center)

The "energies" are not scientifically verifiable -- they are not "real" energies coursing through your body. The term "energy" is a way of describing skills and tactics you need when an attack comes your way.

The mother of all energies is peng. It is a key element of all movement in Tai Chi. Without it, your Tai Chi is empty.

The purpose of all this -- to maintain your center -- your balance -- while unbalancing your opponent. To master all of these principles is to really know Tai Chi.

I'm looking forward to tonight's practice because there are many subtleties to these principles. The descriptions don't really capture what they mean in practice. We'll videotape demonstrations of all these concepts and the video will start appearing on the online school tomorrow.

New E-Book Free with Silk-Reeling DVD Set and for the Online School Members

Silk-Reeling1-250 It took about 3 days but I finished an e-book today that will be given free to members of the online schooland to anyone who buys a Silk-Reeling DVD set.

The e-book is in pdf format. It's 34 pages long and contains 85 photos and detailed descriptions of 18 silk-reeling exercises.

These exercises are key in the development of internal strength and proper body mechanics for Tai Chi, Bagua, and Hsing-I.

E-books are great companions for DVDs because you can print them out and then use them as a reference when you don't have access to video.

Tai Chi and Bagua forms are made up of silk-reeling exercises in a way. Each movement is infused with the coiling and spiraling movements of silk-reeling. Chen Wangting developed this concept about 350 years ago when he created Tai Chi in the Chen Village.

I find the exercises to be an outstanding way for beginners to learn the key physical skills for internal body mechanics. Those skills are:

1. Establishing and maintaining the ground path

2. Maintaining peng jin through each movement

3. Whole-body movement

4. Silk-reeling energy

5. Dan T'ien rotation

6. Opening and closing the kua

The silk-reeling exercises help you develop all these skills.

Wuji - An Important Principle of Balance and Harmony in Tai Chi

In TaoisKenSoloWebm and Chinese culture, the term wuji (pronounced "woo-zhee") means a state of harmony and balance -- emptiness, stillness and peace. It is limitless, infinite.

It is when everything begins moving and you lose balance that you also lose wuji.

In the Taoist view of the universe, if we were to look at it from a modern scientific view, the universe was in a state of wuji just before the Big Bang. There was a state of perfect peace and then all hell broke loose. Things separated into yin and yang. Dogs and cats living together -- MASS HYSTERIA! (Sorry, I watched Ghostbusters a lot when my daughters were little)

In Tai Chi, the goal is to maintain a sort of wuji -- balance and harmony; to remain centered. When someone attacks, and you must adapt and change to accept this person's force, your goal is to return to wuji -- the state of balance you were in before the attack. 

I enjoy working with people who have never studied the internal arts. Almost every time when a newbie is working on a self-defense technique, their bodies contort and twist and bend and go so off-balance that there's no way they could defend themselves in a real-life violent encounter.

One of the reasons Chen Tai Chi is so strict about body mechanics and structure is this quest for wuji. If you train yourself to recognize when you're in a state of balance, then practice the combat techniques that allow you to maintain balance while throwing your opponent off-balance, you will eventually achieve skill. In a state of balance, you can defend from all directions.

One of the things I've been working on with my students lately is the ability to relax when attacked. Our first reaction when force comes toward us is to tense up. We become stiff and unyielding (too "yang"), when the best course of action is almost always to relax, yield, and then overcome -- a combination of yin and yang.

This also applies to verbal and emotional attacks. At work, at home, even on the street or in traffic, some people will attempt to attack you with words or actions. Often, they are intentionally trying to push your buttons, or throw you off-balance either because of their own imbalance or for their own benefit. Your goal, then, is to regain wuji as quickly as possible and be at peace.

As you practice your Tai Chi (or Hsing-I or Bagua) or if you practice push hands, pay attention to the state of balance you start in, and when you are moving, attempt to remain in that state of balance -- or return to it as efficiently as possible.

I will be videotaping some lessons on this concept for the online school.