Form is Emptiness: The Depth of Tai Chi is Easy to Ridicule for Those Who Do Not Understand

Form is EmptinessMy daughter, Harmony had a yin/yang sticker on her notebook in 7th grade. She loved it. From the day she was brought home from the hospital and put into a crib in August, 1977, Bruce Lee posters had been on her bedroom wall and she was very familiar with martial arts.

But some of the girls in her 7th grade class accused her of worshipping Satan because of the yin/yang sticker.

They didn't understand and had been influenced by their parents, most of whom were Christians living in the Midwest.

Yesterday, I came across the "Heart Sutra," an important "rule" or aphorism in Mahāyāna Buddhism. 

One of the key phrases that immediately made me think of Taoism, Zen Buddhism and Bruce Lee was this:

Form is nothing more than emptiness,

emptiness is nothing more than form.

You can say it a bit more directly: "Form is emptiness; emptiness is form."

It is a widely quoted concept that is visualized in different ways. 

Bruce Lee liked to say that we should "be water." He said, "If you put water into a cup it becomes the cup."

Others, and I believe Bruce also talked about how a cup is only a cup because of the emptiness inside the form.

It is the emptiness that makes the cup useful. Without the emptiness, a cup would merely be a block of ceramic.

The same is true of a glass, a bowl, and you can take this concept on and on.

But to me, it symbolized the practice of Tai Chi (Taiji), and even though that type of quote can be ridiculed by other martial artists who don't understand Taiji, it is actually a good description of the martial side of the art.

When I step out onto a training floor, or out in the yard or in a park, and I begin practicing a form, it is an interpretation of the concepts that provides the frame of the movements, the structure of the body, the spiraling of the limbs and the relaxed internal strength flowing like a wave.

It is all intentional, it has form. But what I am doing as I work to achieve the body mechanics that I am after is not so easy to understand.

I am practicing form to achieve emptiness.

I can hear the MMA guys laughing, but just like the 7th grade girls hurling Satanic accusations at my daughter, they don't understand.

The practice of Taiji involves mastering a structure that allows you to lead an opponent into emptiness.

Using the ground path, developing the buoyancy of peng jin, making micro-adjustments with the kua like a buoy in the ocean, using whole-body movement and Dantien rotation and spiraling to add power to the movement -- these are some of the skills that the form develops (if you have an instructor who will teach you these things). 

Any martial artist can punch and kick. Taiji includes punches and kicks, too, although the real skill in Taiji happens when someone touches you to apply force.

At that moment, all the form practice and the push hands practice and the freestyle work and takedowns with partners -- the practical application of ward-off, rollback, press, push, pluck, shoulder, elbow and other energies and methods -- should pay off in one specific way.

When an opponent puts his hands on you to use force or to put you down, he finds emptiness. You disappear beneath his force and, because the target is no longer there, he goes off-balance and your "form" (structure) and body mechanics take it from there to put him down instead.

I practice and teach Chen style Taiji, Xingyiquan and Bagua Zhang. I don't look at Taiji as a self-defense system that I would use if someone were standing three feet away and preparing to punch me. Taiji would not come into the question at this point. Xingyi would.

Once the punch is on its way toward my face and enters my power zone, Bagua would be a logical choice.

When they grab me, that's when Taiji shines, in my opinion, leading an opponent into emptiness and then lowering the boom. I maintain my mental and physical balance while my attacker loses his. I maintain my structural integrity even as I cause him, with his help, to lose his structure.

Form is emptiness; emptiness is form.

It's a shame so few Taiji students don't stay with it long enough, or have the right instruction, to realize this important concept. It has nothing to do with "cultivating chi." These are mental and physical skills that require as much practice as any fighting art requires for excellence. It's what I try to focus on in my study and my teaching. It doesn't come easily, but it does come when you eventually realize that the goal of all this form work is actually emptiness.

--by Ken Gullette

Try two weeks free in Ken's online internal arts school - live online classes, live personal coaching, and 1,000 video lessons in Taiji, Xingyi, Bagua and more. Go to www.internalfightingarts.com 


Get Out of the Bubble and Pressure-Test Your Tai Chi, Xingyi and Bagua

Byron Jacobs, an outstanding martial artist and teacher of Xingyiquan and Baguazhang, does the Drunken Boxing Podcast. He recently interviewed Mario Napoli, another great martial artist who went to the Chen Village and won a push hands tournament there. Here is the link to the YouTube version of Byron's interview with Mario. The Drunken Boxer Podcast is also available through Spotify and other podcast distributors.

One of the interesting topics they discussed was the problem of Taiji people not wanting to test their push hands against other martial artists.

Chris Lorenzen and Ken Gullette
Ken Gullette (left) and Chris Lorenzen

One of my former students, Chris Lorenzen, has gotten into Brazilian Jiu Jitsu during the past year or two. So I invited him to stop by one of our practices a couple of weeks ago to pressure-test our arts and to exchange information. I have a lot of respect for other martial arts and I like to see them up close.

It was a lot of fun. Besides banging around a little, we asked about BJJ and he gave us a few demonstrations of techniques on the floor. 

I believe that if your arts are not effective, you are living in a bubble of fantasy. So I like for other martial artists to stop by our practices. 

Most of us are instinctively too tense when another person comes in to take us down. We expect to use muscular tension to defend and counter. But often, that tension is what your opponent uses to control you because they can connect more easily to your center.

We practice relaxing when an opponent uses force, and combining that relaxation with other body mechanics including the ground path, peng jin, using the kua and more to "empty" and then redirect the force our opponent is using.

A couple of months ago, I spent five days in the hospital with blood clots in my left lung, and I'm on blood thinners right now. It's frustrating to be more fragile than I used to be and not able to go as hard as I used to, so I think Chris took it a little easy on me. It was still a valuable experience to feel his technique and learn what I could. Justin and Colin were able to go a little harder with him.

My favorite thing is to square off with other martial artists and ask them to take me down. It isn't about punching and kicking for me anymore. My goal is to get close to them and maintain my center while I take control of theirs. Anyone can punch and kick, but can you make him go off-balance and take advantage of him at the right moment? If someone grabs you to take you down, and uses force on you, can you handle it with relaxed internal strength?

Chris Lorenzen and Justin Snow
Chris Lorenzen and Justin Snow on the ground.

I love to work on it. If they try to take me down and have a hard time because I can keep them from finding my center, that's a good thing. And if I can take them down instead, that's even better. I try to be strict with myself, avoiding the use of localized muscular tension and trying instead to use good Taijiquan principals and methods. I did a DVD on some of these methods of close-up self-defense and you can find the DVD through this link. 

One of the interesting things Mario and Byron talk about in the podcast is how some Taijiquan teachers are calling themselves "master" and yet they have never pressure-tested their skills in competition. If you don't pressure-test your martial ability, Mario Napoli says you are just "moving air" when you do a form. 

"Forms lie to you," he says, and he is right. You can do movements all day and think you can apply it in self-defense, but it's a completely different ballgame when someone is putting the pressure on you.

So get out of your bubble. Invite different people to your workouts. It should be friendly, of course. You don't have to go full-contact because getting hurt is not a good option for adults who have other responsibilities and careers, but there should be a risk of being "shown up" and taken down. Your ego might be deflated a bit, but it's a small price to pay for the truth. We can always get better, but not if we become legends in our own minds.

Let's face it, if you aren't pressure-testing your arts, you are probably not as good as you think you are.

 


A Trap Door That Collapses Beneath You: An Effective Self-Defense Principle

Fifty years ago this summer, in 1971, I was working for my dad as a laborer in his ornamental iron business. I was 18 years old, had just graduated from high school and was soon to start college. My dad was very mechanical and was an artist with ornamental iron, doing everything from columns and railings to stairways in apartment complexes. I did not inherit his mechanical gene, so I was relegated to painting and helping carry materials.
 
One day, we were working on the third story of a new apartment building in Elizabethtown, Kentucky. The third floor balcony had some kind of temporary sheet metal flooring, but on this day, I didn't realize the flooring did not have support under it.
 
I was daydreaming and not being mindful about what I was doing when I went up to the third floor and stepped out on the balcony.
 
As soon as I stepped on it, the flooring gave way beneath my feet -- three stories up. It was as if I had stepped onto a trap door that suddenly, without warning, opened up.
 
To this day, I'm not sure how I did it. With no warning, as I was not paying attention, there was no floor under me and I was falling. In the fraction of a second that I felt myself falling, I reacted. Somehow, I jumped to the beam on the outer edge of the balcony and grabbed hold of some iron work we had installed the week before.
 
The flooring crashed to the ground. I looked down and began shaking inside. I could have been seriously injured or killed if I hadn't reacted without thinking, as soon as the flooring collapsed. But how did I jump when the floor was giving way beneath me? There was nothing to jump from, just sheet metal falling under my feet.
 
It's still a mystery, but maybe it explains why the concept of "empty" is one of my favorite "energies" in Taiji, but this concept is not limited to just Taiji.
 
"Empty force" is called "Kong Jin" in Taiji. It does not mean knocking someone down without touching them, as some less-than-honest people will tell you.
 
Empty 1Empty force means that when an opponent tries to push you or seize you and apply force to you, whatever he is pushing on gives way like the flooring I stepped on, leaving him off-balance and vulnerable to a counter.
 
Sometimes, you can offer your opponent stiffness when they grab you. When you resist, he thinks you are going to continue using muscle-on-muscle, so he continues to use muscular force. Suddenly, you "empty," and he goes off-balance.
 
In the old "Kung-Fu" TV show, they said, "A Shaolin monk, when reached for, cannot be felt." 
 
When an opponent reaches for you, when he exerts force, the target dissolves.
 
There is a popular saying in Taiji; "Leading Into Emptiness."
 
Empty 2What does it mean? It can be self-defense for a physical, verbal or emotional attack.
 
For example, someone hurls an insult at you, wanting to "push your buttons" and make you react. You don't react negatively. You lead their verbal attack into emptiness. It is very good verbal self-defense. It is also a very good social media technique when you encounter someone spewing negativity on Facebook or Twitter to trigger reactions. Don't react with negativity. Lead them into emptiness.
 
Here is a physical example. A boxer like Muhammad Ali would lead his opponents into emptiness by sticking his face out toward the opponent, anticipate the opponent's punch, and when the glove came toward his face, Ali would lean back or slip to the side or go under, leading the punch into emptiness. Ali would use that split-second when the opponent was slightly off-balance to counter-punch.
 
But a third way to lead someone into emptiness is when they grab you to take you down. They always use muscular force, and very often, just emptying and not using force against force will put them off-balance just long enough to take advantage and put them down instead.
 
Empty 3In Photo 1, I'm demonstrating this concept on a larger partner. He is pressing in on me, giving me force.
 
In Photo 2, I take all the tension out of my arm muscles and I step back, causing the support he had in my arms to collapse like the flooring I stepped on 50 years ago.
 
In Photo 3, he has fallen into the emptiness, losing his balance, and I am in position to come down on his neck or head with an elbow.
 
There is more about this on my website for members to watch in the Close-Up Self-Defense video (in the Push Hands section). It is also on the "Close-Up Self-Defense" DVD. 
 
It takes practice to "empty" completely and suddenly so your partner falls into the emptiness. Even though I am "emptying" in the photos here, you can see that I am maintaining my structure and balance. The key is to let the "floor" (the part of the body he is pushing on) collapse under him, putting him off-balance just long enough for you to counter.
 
Practice by having a partner grab you and apply force, as if they want to take you down. Give them resistance for a moment and then completely relax and see what happens. When you collapse that part of your body, maintain your ground, peng, and structure. You can even do it with just one side of your body. Someone pushes on one side, you give that side to them. Empty it and let it go. It often sets them up for a good counter.
 
I still think of that day in 1971 when I do push hands. My goal is to have -- at all times -- the sensitivity that I showed on that morning, when I reacted without thinking, in the blink of an eye, as I took a step and suddenly there was nothing beneath my feet. If I had taken even enough time to think, "Oh crap!" it would have been too late to react.
 
In the meantime, I'm also working to provide my push hands partners with that "Oh, crap!" experience. They usually don't react as quickly as I did, but that's the idea, isn't it?
--by Ken Gullette

A System of Teaching Tai Chi, Xingyi and Bagua with a Focus on Internal Body Mechanics

Internal StrengthEverything about martial arts changed for me the day I met my first Chen Taiji instructors, Jim and Angela Criscimagna.

On a Saturday morning in early 1998 I drove to their home in Rockford, Illinois, about two hours from my home, to find out what some of these "body mechanics" were that I had recently read about in an internet chat room -- terms like "ground path" and "peng jin."

Jim worked with me for an hour, explaining the difference between the Yang style Taiji I had studied up to that point and the Chen style that he was studying and teaching.

In one hour, I knew I had to start over. What I had been studying was empty. It was based on "chi cultivation" and not on body mechanics.

After 25 years in martial arts and more than a decade in the internal arts, I couldn't find my kua with both hands. This was a problem, considering I had a "black sash" and was already teaching. My students and I were already making a splash at area martial arts tournaments. Now, my style of Taiji had to change.

For the next few years, I drove regularly to Rockford to study with Jim and Angela. They introduced me to Ren Guangyi and Grandmaster Chen Xiaowang, who they hosted for workshops.

Kua PosterMy career up to that point had been in the news industry as a reporter, news director, anchor and producer. Every day, I tried to explain news stories and events in an understandable way. A complex story had to be broken down so the general public could make sense of it. As the reporter or story writer, I had to understand it, too.

That is how I approached my teaching of the internal arts. As I began learning the internal concepts, often in a roundabout way, I asked myself how I could explain it to my students and to myself in a way that made sense.

Over time, I broke the body mechanics down into six main concepts that beginning students needed to at least know about:

One -- The Ground Path -- If someone pushes against any part of your body, they must feel as if they are pushing into a steel rod that is connected to the ground. That needed to be maintained through all movements.

Two -- Peng Jin -- An expansive quality in your body and limbs that works with the Ground Path to give your relaxed movements an internal strength that is not evident on the outside.

Three -- Whole-Body Movement -- When one part moves, all parts move, and your internal strength unfolds like a ribbon from the ground through the body. All styles talk about this, but it is clear when watching even Taiji people that many do not achieve it.

Four -- Opening and Closing the Kua -- The crease at the top of the legs, along the inguinal ligament, acts as a buoy in the ocean. Used properly, it helps you adjust to incoming force and rebalance yourself.

Five -- Dantien rotation -- They say the "Dantien (sometimes spelled Dan T'ien) leads all movements," but I believe all movements start with the ground and the Dantien is part of what leads the internal strength along the ground path.

Six -- Silk-Reeling Energy -- The word "energy" can be misleading. It means "method" in this context. Silk-Reeling energy is a method of spiraling the body, from the ground through the limbs, that helps provide additional power to your movements. I teach the Silk-Reeling exercises to guide my students on the proper way to combine all six of these concepts into their movements.

When students begin learning from me, the first thing they learn are these six body mechanics, and from there, they study the art they want -- Chen style Taiji, Xingyiquan or Ba Gua Zhang. On my website, there is a section devoted to many videos breaking down these skills, and I also teach them in my Internal Strength DVD and Silk-Reeling Energy DVD.

As you continue learning, there are many other concepts and skills to be learned, but in my experience, a lot of students are just kind of thrown into classes and simply follow the teacher for a long time, as they slowly develop a sense of what they are trying to achieve.

I believe it is much more difficult to reach your destination without a road map. Understanding these six principles and how they factor into your movement and self-defense applications will be a revelation, like firing up a brand new updated GPS device.

Punch Ground 2If you read this list and do not understand how to translate these into your internal movement, save some time and check out either the DVDs above or my membership website at www.InternalFightingArts.com

Here is a true fact about many internal arts teachers: It is a lot easier to pretend to be teaching something mystical than it is to put in the hard work required by the internal body mechanics that produce real quality.

My goal in teaching is to cut years off the time it takes someone to go from novice to skilled by providing information that I did not have for decades as I tried to feel my way through the thick jungle of misinformation, hacking through the tall weeds of mysticism and magical chi powers in search of something true. I am still learning.

Internal energy, and the relaxed power of Taiji, Xingyi and Bagua comes from good body mechanics, not mysticism. If you don't fully understand the principles you should be working on, the road ahead is much longer and much more expensive.

-- by Ken Gullette

 


Nabil Ranne and the Art of Chen Style Taijiquan - The Internal Fighting Arts Podcast Interview

Nabil Ranne 1
Nabil Ranne, instructor of Chen Style Taiji in Berlin and a disciple of Chen Yu.

The latest guest on my Internal Fighting Arts podcast is Nabil Ranne, a Chen Taijiquan instructor based in Berlin. He is a disciple of Chen Yu, the son of Chen Zhaokui who lives in Beijing.

Nabil is a co-founder of the Chen Style Taijiquan Network Germany. His website is www.ctnd.de.

We talk about the differences between Chen Yu's taiji and the taiji taught in the Chen Village, among other topics. 

You can listen online below or download the audio to play later. You can also subscribe and share this podcast (and I hope you will). Total running time is one hour 22 minutes.

 

 

 


Born a Chen -- the Internal Fighting Arts Podcast Interview with Chen Huixian

CHX_CWTIf you were able to have a conversation with a member of the Chen family, what would you ask?

On the 50th edition of my Internal Fighting Arts podcast, I have a nearly two-hour conversation with Chen Huixian.

Among the topics we discuss:

What was it like growing up in the Chen Village?

What is it like being a woman teaching in a martial art long dominated by men?

Does the Chen family hold back information from outsiders?

What was it like moving to the United States when you had never been here before?

As the milestone approached for the 50th edition, I have hoped for months that she would do an interview. I'm very happy that she did.

Chen Huixian is the only Chen family member living and teaching Taijiquan in the United States.

She lives with her husband, Michael Chritton, in Overland Park, Kansas, part of the Kansas City area. Michael was the guest on my very first podcast. It is really cool, in my humble opinion, that Huixian would be the guest on the 50th. These are good people, as you can hear if you go back and listen to the first podcast and also this one.

Chen Huixian was born in 1981 in the Chen Village and her uncles include Grandmasters Chen Xiaowang, Chen Xiaoxing, and Chen Zhenglei. Her father was Grandmaster Chen Chunlei. Her grandfather was Chen Zhaopi.

You can listen to the podcast or download it on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Podbean and other distributors. Here is a link to the Stitcher page:

https://www.stitcher.com/podcast/internal-fighting-arts/e/73897646?autoplay=true

-- by Ken Gullette


Tai Chi Instructors Should Not Throw Their Pants in the Fire

 

James-Davenport
James Davenport, 1716-1757

Nancy and I watch the TV series "Billions," and last night one of the characters told the story of James Davenport, an evangelist preacher back in the 1700s in the American colonies. He traveled and held revivals and preached fire and brimstone, hell and damnation.

He said he could tell if someone was "saved" or not just by looking at them.

James Davenport became known for his "Bonfire of the Vanities." He would urge his followers to throw books and other material goods into the fire. He was once charged with disorderly conduct because of his behavior and was convicted in a Hartford, Connecticut court. His punishment was simply to be sent back to his hometown.

Davenport kept preaching and holding his bonfires, and he began encouraging his followers to also throw their fancy clothes into the fire. Fancy clothes, he said, was a false god, it symbolized their vanity and kept them away from God.

One night, in front of a group of followers, he took his own pants off and threw them into the fire.

A woman in the congregation grabbed the pants, pulled them from the fire, gave them back to Davenport and told him to get hold of himself.

This act by the woman broke the spell Davenport had over his followers, and they walked away. His behavior was simply too bizarre. He died in 1757 at the age of 41.

What does this have to do with Tai Chi and internal arts instructors?

I studied with an instructor that I really liked. and I tried to ignore some of the things he said about chi. He said we could read a person's aura and we could direct an opponent's chi over us so they could not attack us.

Okay, maybe you can and maybe you can't, I remember thinking. I'll just go with it and keep an open mind.

Then one night in class, he told us how he created his style. A disembodied Voice spoke to him in his room. He spoke with the Voice for three days and the Voice outlined his entire system of internal kung-fu.

I stood there, around 35 years old, and his words had the same impact as if he had thrown his pants into the fire.

Suddenly, I looked at him in an entirely new way. Why would someone insult the intelligence of these students, and me, a 35-year old professional journalist, by making this type of claim?

A few years ago, I was talking with another Tai Chi instructor who told me that all of the senior citizens in his class had their hair color change from grey to black by doing Tai Chi. 

He actually said this. And he was serious.

He might as well have thrown his pants in the fire.

You have to keep it real. There are people who are motivated to believe and to say very unusual things. Who knows what the motive is? It could be to build a reputation, or they honestly believe their stories, or they have an issue that you can't explain.

Keep a clear head and do not check your brains at the door of any martial arts school. Keep your wits about you when you read martial arts books, or watch videos. 

Question authority. And that includes martial arts instructors. That especially includes people who claim to have been "healed" by the internal arts, or claim to be able to heal others, or claim to have witnessed and felt supernatural things.

You don't have to be rude. Just ask a follow-up question or two. Make sure you understood them correctly, and then make a decision on just how fast you need to depart.

And if you are teaching, understand that there is a line you cross when you begin spewing fantasy. Some people will fall for it. Some people will give you a little slack for a while, but for a lot of us, your delusion lights a raging bonfire.

Keep your pants on.

--- by Ken Gullette

 

 


What Does Being "Double-Weighted" Mean in Tai Chi?

Has a Taiji teacher ever explained to you what "double-weighted" means? It's bad to be double-weighted, but if you are looking for a definition of the term, you will find a lot of them out there. Most of them are wrong.

Some will tell you that you are double-weighted when your weight is distributed 50-50 between the legs.

Others will say something else.

The video below demonstrates what I learned about being double-weighted from Chen Xiaowang, Chen Xiaoxing and their students (my teachers).

 


Chen Style Taijiquan Collected Masterworks - The Internal Fighting Arts Podcast Interview with Mark Chen

Chen Style TaijiquanThe newest edition of the Internal Fighting Arts podcast features an interview with Mark Chen about his new book, "Chen Style Taijiquan Collected Masterworks: The History of a Martial Art."

In this valuable book, Mark, who was a formal rumen disciple of the late Grandmaster Chen Qingzhou, translates key sections of Chen Zhaopi's book, published in 1935.

We talk about many issues during an hour and 37 minutes, including the challenges of translating Chinese to English, the origin of Taijiquan, the life of Chen Zhaopi, and how he helped boost the reputation of Chen Taiji during 17 days in Beijing, when he stood on a platform and took on all challengers.

That would be a great kung-fu film -- "17 Days in Beijing" -- the story of the rise of Chen Taijiquan, based on Chen Zhaopi on the platform.

Zhaopi was born three years before my own grandfather, and in China, Taiji fighters like Zhaopi were still battling revolutionaries with swords. That is part of my interview with Mark.

We also explore the idea that in an age when we no longer fight revolutionaries with swords, martial arts take on a more academic, theoretical nature.

This is the 45th edition of my podcast. You can listen online or download the file through this link. It will also be available on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Podbean and anywhere you find podcasts.

The book is available on Amazon. Here is a link to the U.S. page for the book.

 


Join Me in Madison This Weekend for Chen Huixian Workshop Nov. 1-3

Huixian Form 7I will be in Madison, Wisconsin starting this Friday, Nov. 1 through Sunday, Nov. 3 to study with Chen Huixian. If you live within driving distance, I hope you'll join me and train with one of the best.

Chen Huixian is an in-door disciple of her uncle, Grandmaster Chen Zhenglei. Other uncles include Chen Xiaowang and Chen Xiaoxing.

She grew up in the Chen Village and is highly skilled. Each time I train with her, I come away with deeper insights because of the personal corrections and coaching that she gives me.

She is teaching a workshop that will include the following:

Friday Night 6:00 to 9:00 p.m.

** Zhan Zhuang (Standing Stake)

** Silk-Reeling

Saturday 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. (with a 2-hour lunch break)

** Chen Straight Sword Form (1st half)

Sunday 9:00 a.m. to Noon

** Chen Straight Sword Form (1st half)

Sunday 2:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m.

Laojia Erlu ("Cannon Fist") Review and Corrections

Chen Huixian's workshops are punctuated with laughter. It is very refreshing to have an instructor of her caliber -- a Chen family member -- who brings a healthy sense of humor to classes, and an interest in the people who attend. She gives a lot of personal feedback to each person. She speaks English, so you get the information directly from her, not through an interpreter.

If you live within driving distance of Madison, I hope you'll join me this next weekend. Here is a link for more information and to sign up. Click the "SAVE ME A SPACE" button on the page to get the fees, etc.

And check out this video to see Chen Huixian in action.