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 


Top Ten Movements for Christian Tai Chi Form

Years ago, I saw a DVD on Christian Tai Chi and I thought it was interesting because some people have asked me in the past if they can study Tai Chi if they are Christians. I assured them there is nothing inherently religious about Tai Chi.

But it made me wonder, what if I made up a Tai Chi form for Christians? After all, I grew up in a Christian church and I am intimate with the Bible. I think I could convert some movements from a Tai Chi form into something that would satisfy the faithful. 

Instead of trying to become One with the Universe, students could become One with God's Word.

Here are some of the top movements in my Christian Tai Chi form:

One -- Grasp the Dove's Tail

Two -- Part the Red Sea

Three -- Strum the Harp

Four -- Step Back and Repulse Satan

Five -- White Minister Spreads His Word

Six -- Snake Creeps Down the Apple Tree

Seven -- Ascend Hands Into Clouds

Eight -- Single Roman Whip

Nine -- Golden Idol on One Leg

Ten -- Turn, Deflect, Parry and Pray

I think we have a new Tai Chi style here, although we should stop calling them styles. Students and teachers would be part of the Yang denomination, the Chen denomination, etc. I also think it would be easy to find some unscrupulous Tai Chi "masters" who would pretend to walk on water. Adam, I have an idea for a new YouTube video for you. :)

--by Ken Gullette


A Different Look at the Chen Tai Chi Straight Sword Form - Through Fighting Applications

I had an idea. Instead of demonstrating a form just showing the movements, how about doing the form from start to finish using fighting applications?

I have never seen this done, and since I love exploring the self-defense meaning and mechanics behind each movement I do, I figured I'm just the man for the job. The sword has been part of my practice since 1987, and I feel strongly that if you are going to learn a weapons form, your art is empty if you don't know how to use it.

So here is the Chen Tai Chi Straight Sword (Jian) form, shown through applications. If you know the form, you'll recognize the moves. If you don't know the form, you can learn it through my DVDs on the Chen Straight Sword Form, or you can become a member of my website and study it with me. In the meantime, I hope this video helps you understand the form better. My student Colin Frye is helping me, and since we are using metal swords, we are being careful. This is not a "cutting" video, but it should give you plenty of ideas to work with -- deflections, angles, and cuts, including a variety of targets, both thrusting and cutting.

--by Ken Gullette

 


Top 10 Tai Chi Movements to Practice During the Holiday Season

Kung-Fu SantaThe holiday season can be a stressful time. Beween buying gifts, going to work parties, and reuniting with family, it can knock you out of harmony with the universe.

In fact, compared with the summer months, statistics show that Tai Chi practitioners at this time of year are 37% more likely to rip out an irritating family member's heart and show it to them before they die.

That's why I recommend stopping for a few moments to breathe, calm your mind and center yourself by doing a short Tai Chi form designed to relieve your holiday stress and prevent your hand from striking out with five fingers of death.

Whether you're dealing with Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa or Festivus, this form will help you remain One with the Universe during the hectic days between now and the first of the new year.

Here are the Top 10 Tai Chi Movements for the Holidays:

  1. Buddha's Warrior Attendant Pounds Egg Nog
  2. Grasp the Elf’s Tail
  3. Part the Wild Reindeer’s Mane
  4. Hidden Spiked Punch
  5. Fair Maiden Works in the Kitchen
  6. White Ape Offers Cranberry Sauce
  7. Lazy About Wrapping the Gift
  8. Wave Gift Receipt Like Clouds
  9. Golden Turkey Loses Two Legs
  10. Step Back and Repulse the Fruitcake

Happy Holidays!

--by Ken (and Nancy, who came up with #7) Gullette


A Beginner's Lesson in Tai Chi Silk-Reeling - Video

If you have a half-hour to invest, try to work through this video -- it's a live class I did last weekend on Zoom teaching the first of Chen Taiji's Silk-Reeling exercises -- "Single-Hand Reeling."

This is helpful to all internal martial artists, but particularly if you practice Taijiquan and Baguazhang.

I have to say that most of the videos I've seen on silk-reeling don't teach it at all. But that should be no surprise. The first teacher who taught me silk-reeling had no clue what silk-reeling is, so I was sent down a blind alley thinking that to achieve silk-reeling, we "imagine" our Qi spiraling through our body. It's part of "Qi cultivation," he said.

Nope.

Silk-Reeling "energy" -- the Chinese term is chan ssu jin -- is a physical skill requiring a spiraling through the body in a connected way.

Some say the spiraling movements add power to your Taiji. I believe the most practical purpose of silk-reeling is the neutralizing and redirecting of your opponent's force. You know the Dawn dish detergent slogan: "Dawn takes grease out of my way!" Silk-reeling helps do that to your opponent's force.

If you are ready to spend 30 minutes studying this video, schedule a time to do it. I set my camcorder up to record me as I taught a Zoom class on Silk-Reeling exercise #1 -- "Single Hand Reeling." There is gold here that can help you develop your internal movement, especially in Taiji and Bagua.

 

There is a lot more instruction on spiraling and silk-reeling on my website. Try two weeks and have immediate access to every video I have ever made at www.internalfightingarts.com


Seek Out a "Wow" and Insights from Other Teachers to Make Your Martial Arts Better

Ken and Nelson Reyes
Comparing notes with Nelson Reyes, a student of Monk Yun Rou, when Nelson passed through town a couple of months ago.

I met a very nice, earnest young man recently who is studying with me in-person after studying Yang style for a couple of years. I asked him to do the first part of his form -- the Yang 24 -- so I could see how he moved. After a few movements I had one reaction.

"Fire your teacher," I told him. "But before you fire him, give him a roundhouse kick to the head."

I had him begin his form again, and during parts of movements I stopped him and pressed lightly on his arms or body. He caved in instantly. There was no peng, no ground path, and when he moved, he twisted and turned from the hips to the shoulders in one unit, which would allow anyone to control his center and take him off-balance.

So we started over. We practiced some principles that give you the internal structure -- internal strength -- and the connected movement through the body that helps you deliver relaxed power. We worked on moving the Dan T'ien, not twisting the hips. We worked on using "intent" throughout the body. We worked on the first silk-reeling exercise, which puts some key body mechanics together.

It's fun when you get someone to think differently, see the substance below the movement and hear them say, "Wow!" over and over.

It made me remember my first experience in Chen style Taiji after studying Yang style for more than a decade. I had won a gold medal with my Yang 24. I thought I really knew Taiji. Then I met my first Chen instructor, Jim Criscimagna, and within one hour, I knew I had to start completely over in Taiji. I drove two hours home from our meeting saying, "Wow!" In fact, I kept saying this each time I studied with him and his wife, Angie.

The first couple of times I met with this new student recently, I had to center myself because it was clear that a lot of people think they are studying Taiji when, in fact, they are learning an art for people who want to vacate their minds and meditate. The weakness and emptiness of what he thought was Taiji frustrated me, but it is a common thing. 

At the same time, it's a great feeling when someone feels the difference between the weaker art and one with internal structure and intent and they have the realization that makes them say, "Wow!"

I try to keep my mouth shut when I see someone doing a weak art. They move their hips in space and turn their hips instead of using the kua and Dan T'ien. They appear often to have no intent in their arms and hands, and no connected movement. I look for a "ribbon of internal strength" moving like a wave through the body, but the ribbon is usually broken, if there is a ribbon at all. If I consider the person a friend, I'll ask a question which might lead to a discussion on that particular movement or principle.

If I ask a question or point something out as politely as I can, I am sometimes told, "Oh, that's YOUR style. That's not our style."

And then I am sometimes told that Chen style is not really Taiji.

Well,okay. Go for it. Do yo thang, baby.

My first Chen teachers, Jim and Angie, taught me some important lessons. For one thing, they encouraged me to study with different masters. If other Chen teachers were nearby, especially when different Chen family members came around, study with them even if it is outside your "lineage." There are masters under a famous Yang-style instructor who live in my area. I have tried to meet up with them to compare notes but they haven't expressed an interest in doing that.

When I met Chen Huixian in 2013, I gained some insights and got corrections that made me say, "Wow!" And that also happened when I began studying with Nabil Ranne in 2020. I didn't think, "He does something different. He's from a different Chen style lineage. That's not MY style."

Several years ago, I met with some of my karate friends for a workout. They showed some of their forms and I showed a Chen-style form. I asked about fighting applications of their movements and they had surprisingly good answers that helped shed light on the applications for some Taiji movements. It was a great exchange and a lot of fun.

A few years ago, I met with a friend who studies Guided Chaos -- a completely different type of martial art -- and I gained insights that made my push hands better. In fact, it changed the way I look at and teach push hands, too.

If you open your mind to insights from other teachers, even other styles, you can come up with information that will improve your skill. I try to get together with people from other Chen and Yang-style lineages whenever I have the chance, to compare notes and to "feel" what they have. I am often pleasantly surprised and I learn something. Sometimes, I even say "Wow!"

-- by Ken Gullette

You'll Say WOW when you try two weeks free on my website and see nearly 1,000 streaming video lessons in Taiji, Xingyi, Bagua and Qigong, PLUS live classes and personal feedback on Zoom. All for only $19.99 per month! Click this link and check it out! 


The Best Part of Teaching Online is the Relationships You Build

Michael Rosch 2022
With Michael Rosch (center) and Nancy at a restaurant during his visit.

I began doing live online classes for members of my website when Covid hit in 2020. Finally, an app like Zoom made it very easy to do.

One of my favorite aspects of doing live classes is the relationships and friendships that I build with the people who attend. I am blown away by the fact that I can be in Ilinois and do a class with people who are in Germany or Sweden or anywhere, with the advantage of being able to see each other move and provide instruction and feedback.

One of the friends I have made through these classes is Michael Rosch. He lives in the German city of Essen and began attending my live classes in 2020. He has a great sense of humor, and I tend to enjoy laughter in my classes and tend to crack silly jokes, so we hit it off pretty quickly.

Michael works for Bayer, and last week he came to the U.S. for a conference in St. Louis, about a five-hour drive from my house. This past weekend, he drove up to meet me, hang out and practice.

It was a great weekend. We had meals together, practiced Chen style Taiji, and met my friend John Morrow, who lets me use his school to shoot videos for my website.On Sunday, he practiced with me and Colin Frye, who Michael had seen in many of my instructional videos.

Michael Rosch and Colin 2022-2
Michael Rosch shows Colin Frye some of the Taiji method he is studying with Falk Heinisch in Germany

A couple of years ago, after he had begun learning from me, Michael wanted to begin studying Taiji in a school in Essen, but he was unsure where to go. He said there was one school doing Chen style in the lineage of Chen Yu. I urged him to check it out. He enrolled and began studying with Falk Heinisch, whose teacher is Nabil Ranne of Berlin.

After a few weeks, Michael suggested that Nabil would be a good guest for my podcast. I contacted Nabil, we did the podcast (listen to it via this link) and I was so impressed with his humble personality that I did two private online lessons with him. I had been very curious about Chen Yu. It's clear by watching him that he is doing something different than what I have been taught, but I couldn't identify what it was. As a disciple of Chen Yu, Nabil taught the method. After the two private lessons, I enrolled in his online live Yilu class. Since that time, I have studied Yilu and Erlu with Nabil, and I am trying to improve in his method. It is giving my Taiji a new dimension.

It's amazing how things happen. Covid forced a lot of martial arts teachers online. Because of that, I met Michael Rosch and he helped me discover Nabil Ranne and begin learning the Chen Zhaokui/Chen Yu method. 

It was wonderful meeting Michael last weekend and showing him around part of the Quad Cities. Nancy enjoyed meeting him, too, even though our home is still a mess as we have our collapsed ceilings repaired.

It was a lot of fun and very informative to practice with someone who had been able to receive so much hands-on training in this Taiji method. I was honored that he would want to visit me, but in the end, I think I learned more from him during his visit than he learned from me. Keep that just between us, okay?

I started my online school because I received messages for years from people around the world asking how they could study when their were no teachers of Chen Taiji, Xingyi or Bagua in their area. I started my website many years before Zoom, and the live online capability has made the website even stronger. I love seeing people improve, often during a live online class. But in the end, it is the deep, positive friendships I have made that gives me the most satisfaction. What a great guy Michael Rosch is, and what a fun weekend! All I can say is "danke schoen," and I'm sorry we couldn't order any Schwarzwälder Kirschtorte in the restaurants we visited.

-- by Ken Gullette

Try TWO WEEKS FREE on my website and receive live personal instruction through videos, pdf documents, live group classes and live one-on-one sessions for only $19.99 per month. Check out the website and sign up for your trial period today. Cancel anytime.


25 Self-Defense Applications for One Tai Chi Movement - Buddha's Warrior Attendant Pounds Mortar

I study Taijiquan for several reasons, but my favorite part of this art is the way all these gentle movements can be used for self-defense.

Yesterday we explored some applications for the second movement in most Chen style Taiji forms -- "Buddha's Warrior Attendant Pounds Mortar."

This is a quick look at 25 fighting applications within this movement. For more detailed instruction, including the body mechanics behind the techniques, visit my website and try two free weeks at 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.