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 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."
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.
In 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
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.
My 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.
If 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
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.
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:
-- by Ken Gullette
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
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
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.
I 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)
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.
Chen Huixian Workshop Nov. 1-3 in Madison Wisconsin Will Teach Chen Taiji Straight Sword, Silk-Reeling and More
Chen Huixian will teach the Chen Taiji Straight Sword form at a workshop in Madison, Wisconsin on November 1-3, 2019. She will also review and give corrections on Zhan Zhuang, Silk-Reeling, and Laojia Erlu (Cannon Fist).
I will be there and I hope you'll join me to learn from a highly-skilled member of the Chen family.
Chen Huixian is a great teacher, an "in chamber" disciple of her uncle, Chen Zhenglei. Her other uncles include Chen Xiaowang and Chen Xiaoxing.
Her workshops are an outstanding experience. She gives a lot of personal attention to students, is actually interested in the people who attend, she answers questions, and she offers corrections and coaching that will move your skills forward. She speaks English, which means there is no need for an interpreter between what she says and what you hear.
Her workshops are traditional and serious. You will eat bitter. But she has a sense of humor that adds an element of fun that is lacking in some workshops. Laughter is not uncommon when Chen Huixian is in the room. It's a refreshing experience.
I am not bashful about my enthusiasm for Chen Huixian's teaching. Each time I have trained with her, I believe I have gotten better.
The workshop is sponsored by Patrick Rogne, owner/instructor at Ancient Root Taiji in Madison.
You can sign up for part of the weekend or, like me, sign up for all of it. Here is how the training will break down over three days:
Friday, Nov. 1 from 6:00-9:00
-- Zhan Zhuang and Silk-Reeling practice and corrections.
Saturday, Nov. 2 from 9:00 a.m. to Noon and from 2:00 p.m. to 5:00
-- Chen Straight Sword form
Sunday, Nov. 3 from 9:00 a.m. to Noon
-- Chen Straight Sword form
Sunday, Nov. 3 from 2:00 p.m. to 5:00
-- Laojia Erlu (Cannon Fist) review and corrections
Interested in joining me in Madison? Go to this link for video and for more information on the workshop, the location, and a place to reserve your spot:
The top image shows a mistake that I see a lot. In fact, there is a good chance you are making this mistake in your forms, especially Bagua and Taiji.
I spent several years making this mistake and I was never called on it.
Then, I was training with Chen Huixian and her husband, Michael, and they pointed it out. I was doing "Buddha's Warrior Attendant Pounds Mortar" and it was pointed out that my rear leg was collapsed.
In the top photo, my right leg is collapsing. I have lost my peng.
As you can see in the upper image, my stability and strength is far less with a collapsed leg. I cannot "defend from all directions."
It is a lot more difficult to maintain peng in the legs. It helps to relax and sit deeper into the kua, and it requires a lot of mental focus until you break the habit of collapsing.
That one bit of advice changed a lot of my stances. And now, I see people collapsing their legs a lot; even some people who are called masters.
Sometimes, there is no one to tell a master that he has gotten lazy, or perhaps his teacher did not teach him this particular thing.
Don't have "noodle legs."
Try to find a mirror so you can watch to see if your legs are collapsing. Watch for it in all movements. In Bagua, I see it a lot in movements such as "Sweep the Rider from the Horse" and similar movements.
It happens often when you are shifting weight -- the knee on the non-weight-bearing leg will collapse.
Remember to maintain peng throughout the entire body at all times.
The photos are taken from my book, "Internal Body Mechanics for Tai Chi, Bagua and Xingyi." If you don't have it, you can click the link and buy it through my website or through Amazon.
--by Ken Gullette