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 


Hands-On Instruction and a Positive Atmosphere at a Chen Taijiquan Workshop with Nabil Ranne in Philadelphia

Ken-Gullette-Nabil-Ranne-2022
Ken Gullette (left) with Nabil Ranné in Philadelphia, 2022.

I spent four days this past week studying Chen Taiji with Nabil Ranné in Philadelphia. The workshop was hosted by Ryan Craig of Philly Chen Taiji

Nabil came to the U.S. from Berlin for the workshop. I have been studying in his online classes for almost two years, so it was a pleasure to finally meet him in person. He is friendly and humble; one of those people you instantly like.

During the past two years, Covid virtually destroyed the ability to hold workshops. Just getting together with a group of taiji folks was reason enough to celebrate.

I have attended many martial arts workshops during the past 35 years. Depending on who is hosting the event, you can either feel a spirit of camaraderie or it can feel like people gather in cliques.

In Philly, there was a lot of laughter. Nabil brings a sense of humor to his classes and Ryan joined in. That's all I needed -- to be serious about the art but to have fun training. Those are ideal conditions for me.

We trained four hours a day for four days -- Friday through Monday, May 13 through 16, focusing primarily on the first three sections of the "First Road," or "Yilu" form.

Nabil is a disciple of Chen Yu of Beijing, the grandson of Chen Fake and the son of Chen Zhaokui. Chen Fake is also the grandfather of Chen Xiaowang and Chen Xiaoxing (Chen Yu is their cousin), but there are differences in the way Chen Yu moves compared with the Chen Village masters. 

I had Nabil on my Internal Fighting Arts podcast nearly two years ago (listen to the interview here) and I had been curious about Chen Yu's taiji for several years. Most of my training has been with Chen Village masters and their students. I did a couple of private online classes with Nabil and was fascinated by what I learned, especially the details in his instruction. Not long after this, I enrolled in his regular online classes. We have gone through the Yilu and Erlu forms during the past couple of years. The Philly workshop focused on Yilu and the body method of the Chen Zhaokui/Chen Yu version of Chen taiji.

Ken-Gullette-Nabil-Ranne-Hands-On-2022
Ken Gullette in a "hands on" moment with Nabil Ranné to feel the internal movement.

As he led us through the first movements of the form, Nabil focused on proper stances, relaxing the hip joints, and establishing peng jin throughout the body. One of the many helpful tips I received was maintaining a connection with the Baihui point as my body is sinking, as in part of "Buddha's Warrior" when the fist prepares for the raising of the knee before the stomp. I also need to work more on extending peng and maintaining it through the shoulders, too.

During the weekend, I wanted to write about what we practiced, but I had a hard time putting it into words. I was processing the information. Even as I read what I write here about the workshop, I'm not satisfied. It's difficult to describe in words. It has to be shown. 

Online classes are great. You can improve a lot by studying with a teacher online, especially if that teacher gives you personal corrections, as I do with my website members and as Nabil does. But nothing is as good as being in person. Nabil was able to put his hands on me to make corrections, and when I put my hands on him, I felt internal movement in the chest, back, Dantien and Mingmen that was very informative. I will be processing this information and working it into my movement for a while.

We worked on principles of movement, including the shifting of weight, the relaxing in the crease at the hip to maintain mobility, and to keep the knees from swimming -- to "stay in the frame."

We worked on applications, especially some good joint locks. It was interesting to see how "Six Sealings and Four Closings" can be used as wrist locks against an opponent who has grabbed your arms. But almost every application we practiced contained elements that drove home once again how powerful Chen taiji is as a martial art. There are subtleties in the way you can connect to an opponent's wrist, elbow and shoulder during a joint lock, depending on the position of your opponent's arm. Just moving your little finger can help connect a wrist lock to the elbow, making it more effective if your opponent is trying to escape the lock.

Monday, May 16th was the final day of the workshop. As we trained that day, I became very grateful for the opportunity to learn and try to improve in my internal skills. Battling a huge blood clot that has cut off all blood flow to the left lung, it was a gamble making arrangements to fly to Philly for this, but I was in good shape and toughed it out through the four days. The blood clot (or blockage) is still there, but what the hell. I don't think about it much and certainly don't let it slow me down any more than I have to. By the fourth day, however, my quadraceps were painfully locking up at times. If you do a Chen taiji workshop and your legs aren't fried, you haven't worked hard enough.

We didn't spend a lot of time holding stances, but we did hold them at times. During one of those moments on the third day, we were struggling through the pain and fatigue as Nabil went from one student to another making corrections. There were groans and grunts and heavy breathing as the attendees tried to maintain the posture. I'm pretty sure I was the oldest student there, so I cracked, "This was a lot easier back when I was sixty!" I can still hear the laughter, as if a relief valve had been opened. I love laughter in class.

I got a bit emotional as I said goodbye to Nabil on Monday afternoon. I like the man. And I want to see him again in person. My thanks to Ryan for hosting. I think everyone hopes it happens again next year.

As time passes, it is not lost on me that I have a lot less time to enjoy training like this than I used to. Every moment is precious. Now let's go. There's a lot to do. Let's practice.

--by Ken Gullette 


Escaping from Joint Locks Using Tai Chi Energy Concepts

There are valuable concepts in Taijiquan that make it a powerful art for self-defense. One of the interesting ideas is "taking the energy where it wants to go."

Last week, Colin and Justin and I recorded several escapes from Chin-Na joint locks. A longer version with more techniques and explanations is on my website for members, but I put together a shorter version for YouTube.

We are very serious about the internal arts but we have a lot of fun when we practice. I think it shows a bit on the videos we do. Please watch this and you'll learn something about how to escape from a joint lock. Silk-Reeling energy is very helpful against joint locks, and silk-reeling relies on other internal body mechanics, too. This is a narrowly focused video. It doesn't necessarily show how to "soften someone up" before escaping, or what to do as a follow-up, but the information here will be helpful in the real world.


A Tai Chi Mistake to Avoid -- Swimming Knees

Taijiquan (Tai Chi Chuan) is a lifelong journey. It can take years to develop skill. That's why it helps to have a teacher who has skill and will coach you in a constructive way.

One of my goals as a teacher is to save time for my students and help them discover information that took me many years to learn.

Here is a video I made last week about a common mistake we all make until a good teacher tells us to stop doing it. 

It's the problem of swimming knees. I encourage you to watch this video, then watch yourself in a mirror or record your own movement to see if it is something you need to work on.


Four Takedowns from Four Tai Chi Movements

Here is a short video showing and explaining some of the body mechanics to four takedowns in four different movements from Chen style Taijiquan.

I am fascinated at all the self-defense applications in movements that often appear slow and gentle. Taiji (Tai Chi) is practiced slowly to develop proper internal body mechanics. There is a method of developing skill that later involves push hands, then flowing with a partner in unscripted ways, and then incorporating joint locks, sweeps, takedowns, elbow and shoulder strikes and other fighting techniques.

The takedowns come from these four movements:

  1. Lazy About Tying the Coat
  2. Walking Obliquely
  3. Punch the Ground
  4. Single Whip

Enjoy this video. We shot in on Sunday and I edited it today. Let me know if you have questions.


The Differences Between Chen Village Taiji and Chen Yu Taiji

I was the guest on a podcast recently and I was asked a question that was very difficult to answer.

What is the difference between the Taiji that I learned from Chen Village teachers versus the Beijing/Chen Yu Taiji that I have been studying for the past year-and-a-half with Nabil Ranne, a disciple of Chen Yu?

I tried to answer, but I was stumbling and stammering and quite frankly, it's a difficult question, and very often you have to be shown. It isn't easy to describe it in words.

I started studying the Yilu -- "First Road" -- form with Nabil in 2020. The class spent 17 months learning the form. Now, we are working on Erlu -- "Second Road" -- sometimes called "Cannon Fist."

A post like this is bound to be controversial, but it isn't intended to be. There has been a lot of talk in recent years about these two different branches of Chen family Taijiquan. A lot of the talk is negative, especially toward the Chen Village. In fact, someone online last week told me I am part of the "Chen Village cult."

Wait. What? 

Why in the world is anyone so inflamed over this stuff? And he's accusing me of being part of a cult, after I have tried to give all styles of internal arts teachers publicity through my podcast?

Okay, Ken, shake it off. Center yourself. Find your chi.

I will give you my perspective.

I have studied and practiced the Chen Village branch of Chen Taiji since 1998. Before that, I spent more than a decade practicing Yang style. 

My first encounter with Chen style happened when I sought out Jim and Angela Criscimagna, who had good experience learning from some great teachers including George Xu, Zhang Xue Xin (Feng Zhiqiang's disciple), who they were still studying with in 1998, and within a year from the time I started studying with them, they began studying with  Chen Xiaowang. They hosted Chen Xiaowang and Ren Guangyi for workshops after that.

I had no experience with Chen style, and it blew my mind. It was so complex compared with the Yang style I had learned that there was no comparison. I won a gold medal at the 1990 AAU Kung-Fu National Championships doing the Yang 24 form. I thought I knew Taiji, but I was wrong.

In the late 1990s I had been learning about the ground path and peng jin, terms that weren't used in the Yang style I had studied. I heard about them in Mike Sigman's online listserve, the Neijia List. That caused me to look for a Chen Taiji teacher. I started learning from Jim and Angie, and they helped me understand how those terms applied to Taiji movement, but there was much more, including Dan T'ien rotation, opening and closing the kua, silk-reeling, and whole-body movement. 

In Chen style Taiji, the body is alive. It is a martial art and I became fascinated with the body mechanics and how the movements contained so many self-defense applications, and how the body mechanics helped you deliver relaxed power.

I dropped Yang style. Between 1998 and 2020, I studied, practiced and taught Chen Village Taiji. I love it. If it is taught right and if it is practiced right, it is flowing, alive, solid and powerful.

Each time I studied with Jim and Angie, I made the two-hour drive home very excited about the new things I was learning. 

When I met members of the Chen family, including Chen Xiaowang, Chen Xiaoxing, Chen Bing, Chen Ziqiang and Chen Huixian, they seemed like Olympic athletes compared to me and other Westerners.

I still believe the performance Chen Xiaowang did in 1988, when he first visited the U.S. is my favorite Taiji performance of all time. The flowing, the mechanics, the power -- he really had it going on. Here is that performance:

 

In 2020 I did a podcast with Nabil Ranne, who lives in Berlin. He is a disciple of Chen Yu, who is a cousin of Chen Xiaowang and Chen Xiaoxing, and they share a grandfather, the great Taiji master Chen Fake. So Chen Yu practices the family art, but in Beijing, it is practiced and performed a little differently than in the Chen Village.

In the Village, they call their two main forms Laojia Yilu and Laojia Erlu. They refer to the Beijing forms as Xinjia Yilu and Xinjia Erlu. Laojia is "Old Frame," while Xinjia is "New Frame." Xinjia is the art as it evolved through Chen Fake after he moved to Beijing in 1928, but his son, Chen Zhaokui and Zhaokui's son, Chen Yu, don't refer to their form as Xinjia. It isn't "New Frame" to them. It's simply the family Taiji. Yilu is known as the "First Road" form and Erlu is known as the "Second Road."

In 2020 and 2021, I spent 17 months working on the "First Road" form with Nabil in weekly group online classes. In January of this year, 2022, we began Erlu, the "Second Road" form. It was really cool because my first Chen teachers, Jim and Angie, were in the class with me and others from the U.S., UK, Europe and even Nairobi.

Here is Chen Yu performing part of Erlu:

 

So what is the difference between the two branches of Chen Taiji? It can probably be summed up with this phrase: Body Method.

The instruction I have received from Nabil is deeper and more complex than I expected. More is discussed regarding various "connections" through the body, the various "jin" that are happening in each movement, the Dan T'ien rotation, folding, openings and closings, including the kua, the crotch, and the chest and back. It isn't that some of these things were never taught to me before, but not in this depth.

One of the interesting differences is more of an emphasis on various connections, including the "elbow-knee" connection. When I watch my old videos, and videos of some of the Chen Village masters, it is clear that this is not something that was stressed. But taking a movement like "Buddha's Warrior Attendant Pounds Mortar" as an example, I have learned to keep my right elbow connected (aligned) with my right knee and my left elbow aligned with my left knee a little better throughout the movement. Maintaining the elbow-knee connection helps keep you within the power zone.

My stances are not as wide now. As I understand it, a wide stance might be good for training, but it is not what you do in self-defense, and that is correct. Also, it's easier to maintain the elbow-knee connection with a stance that isn't too wide.

For years, I was focusing the ground on the Bubbling Well point in my feet. Now, I focus it on the heel. Many movements are driven by "heel power." The spiraling, however, involves the entire foot. Even the toes.

When I watch many Chen people doing demos, I watch for two or three things. Are their knees "swimming?" Do the knees move sideways as they shift their weight? The knees should not be moving all over the place.

Another thing to watch is hip movement. If I shift my weight from the right leg to the left, are my hips moving in space too much or am I using the kua? I should be using the kua. The hips shouldn't be moving side to side very much, or at least not as much as many demos show.

Are my knees collapsing? I should maintain peng through the legs.

When I shift weight or step, am I loading too much stress into the knee of the supporting leg, or am I using the kua as I should be doing? 

And one more thing I look for when I watch Taiji performances. Is anything going on in the body? If you can't see obvious connections and a "wave" of internal strength going through the body, including the torso, I'm afraid something is missing. If I don't see Dan T'ien rotation, connected to the ground, moving through the body, it just doesn't do it for me. What I saw in the video clip of Chen Xiaowang above is rarely seen these days among Chen Village students. I wonder why not?

What I am pursuing now is the "dragon body," when your body is relaxed and grounded and opens and closes, Dan T'ien rotating and spiraling, moving like a dragon. Relaxed internal strength flowing through like a wave.

At my age, most guys don't have a dragon body, they have a dragging body. Ba da boom CRASH! 

Taiji movement is never easy to write about. It has to be shown. These are just a few thoughts. It is a delicate and political subject. I am not interested in arguing about it because I see value in all Chen Taiji.

I love what I have learned from Chen Village teachers. It is light years above what most people who study Taiji are learning. I have met many people over the years, mostly Yang stylists, who are not learning much at all about body mechanics.

Learning from Nabil is enhancing my Taiji, helping me to approach Laojia Yilu, Laojia Erlu, the Chen 38 and the Chen 19 with new eyes, and maybe a slightly more sophisticated and connected way of moving. 

In 2013, I attended a workshop with Chen Huixian, who is my favorite of all the Chen Village instructors. She corrected me and let me know that I was collapsing my knees. That simple instruction changed my Taiji. The year before Covid hit, she made a comment about the kua that changed the way I "sit in the chair." It changed my Taiji for the better. This is all part of my journey. I love where I have been.

Each teacher you study with should improve and change your Taiji. After 22 years studying the Chen Village version, I wanted to experience the Beijing/Chen Yu version of Chen Taiji to see what all the fuss was about. I believe very strongly in opening yourself to new information. I don't think anyone should narrow their learning to one style or one branch of a style. If it makes my art better, bring it on.

After a while, I adopted Nabil as my teacher. It was a great decision. I am still teaching what I learned before, but I am looking at internal movement in new ways and it is improving my Taiji. And isn't that the point of practicing and learning?

-- by Ken Gullette


Talking about Chen Taijiquan and the Internal Arts on Ryan Patrick St. George's Talking Fists Podcast

Talking FistsRyan Patrick St. George asked me last week to be a guest on his "Talking Fists" podcast, so we did an interview on Chen Taiji and other internal arts topics.

He wanted to know the differences between the Chen Village Taiji and the Chen Taiji I have been studying for the past year-and-a-half with Nabil Ranne, who is a disciple of Chen Yu. He also asks my perspective on Yang style Taiji and other related issues.

Here is a link to the podcast:

https://www.buzzsprout.com/501379/9804832-talking-fists-episode-12-ken-gullette-training-in-both-lines-of-chen-taiji?t=0

It's also available on your favorite podcast distributor.


Top 10 Chen Style Taiji Movements to Practice in the Hospital

Hospital TaijiA few months ago, I developed several blood clots in my left lung. I spent five days in the hospital and was put on blood thinners. 

I used to think that blood thinners dissolve blood clots, but they don't. Instead, they keep the clots from getting larger and then the body breaks down and absorbs the clot over time. 

So I have been on warfarin for the past five months and I went in last Thursday for a follow-up CT scan to see if they had gone away.

Instead, a clot had grown larger and it was threatening the blood flow to the left lung. Because of past bleeding issues, my doctors and I had been too conservative on the level of warfarin in my system, so the warfarin did not stop this clot from growing. It's strange because I have been teaching all along and taught two classes on Wednesday with no unusual problems. But due to the CT scan results, I was told to go to the hospital...again. It's a serious health situation.

In the past few days, I have been stuck with needles every few hours to check my blood thinner levels, and with my right arm hampered because it is tethered with an IV, I have been practicing Chen taiji in my room very carefully, working on weight shifting, spiraling in the legs, using the kua and stepping. Someone on my Facebook page, Michael Sklaroff (responsible for #9 below) inspired me to compile the Top 10 Chen Taiji Movements to Practice in the Hospital. Here is the list:

10. Buddha's Warrior Attendant Draws Blood

9.  IV Creeps Down 

8.  Six Vitals and Four Pokings

7.  White Ape Offers Hospital Food

6.  Single Jab

5.  Wave Specimen Jar Like Clouds

4.  Green Dragon Comes Out of a Coma

3.  Part the Wild Nurse's Mane

2.  Lazy About Tying the Gown

1.  Flash the Butt

 


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