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 


Ken Gullette Shows You How to Be a Chi Master and Ignite Paper by Focusing Your Qi Energy

I was listening to a podcast last week when I heard a well-known Tai Chi teacher say there are chi masters in Asia who we have seen ignite paper with their Qi. Some other fantastic claims were made on the interview. 

Here is the truth: noboby can ignite paper with their Qi. 

Some charlatans pretend they can ignite paper with their Qi. But it's a trick.

When an adult goes to a magic show, and a magician saws a women in half, and you see the woman's body being separated, and then in a moment the body is reconnected and the woman is walking off the stage, no rational adult walks away telling everyone, "Did you know you can be sawed in half and then you can be reconnected? I saw it happen!" 

If you tell them, "Hey, man, that's just a trick," the believer will say, "You just don't understand. You have to open your mind!"

Nobody with an ounce of intelligence says that after seeing a magic show. What they actually say is, "I'd like to know that trick."

However, demonstrate a magic trick and call it "Qi powers" (or Chi Powers) and you will have millions of people believing it. 

When I heard this Tai Chi teacher talk about igniting paper with Qi as if it were true, I decided to show you how it is done. Here is my video. Enjoy and please share this with those unfortunate souls who have lost their critical thinking skills. A mind is a terrible thing to waste.

Let me show you how to focus your chi energy, and then I will teach you step-by-step how you, TOO can be a chi master.


Taiji, Wing Chun, Qigong and Yiquan -- the Internal Fighting Arts Podcast Interview with Tony Wong

Tony WongTony Wong is a long-time instructor in San Francisco, but I had never met him until we spoke a week ago for my Internal Fighting Arts podcast.

His birth name is Wong Wai Yi, but he goes by Tony. He grew up in Hong Kong before moving to the United States. Tony has trained with some outstanding teachers. He studied Wing Chun with Kenneth Chung, Wuji Qigong with Cai Song Fang, and he studied Chen Taijiquan with Zhang Xue Xin, Chen Xiaowang, Chen Xiaoxing and Chen Qingzhou. He also studied Yiquan with Chen Zhengzhong.

In this interview, Tony has interesting stories to tell about his teachers and other experiences, including what it was like to train for push hands competition in the Chen Village. 

Listen to the podcast online or download the episode by following this link.

You can also listen or download the podcast here:

 


Taiji Body Method -- the Internal Fighting Arts Podcast with Nabil Ranne

Ken Gullette and Nabil Ranne 2023The 68th edition of the Internal Fighting Arts podcast features an interview with Nabil Ranne, who lives in Berlin and is a disciple of Chen Yu.

Nabil was first on the podcast in 2020. Shortly afterwards, I began studying with him. 

Two weeks ago, I attended my second workshop with Nabil in Philadelphia. He focused on body method, the Yilu form and push hands.

In this interview, I wanted to "go into the weeds" and discuss some concepts that are difficult to talk about in an audio interview because things have to be shown, but I wanted to give it a shot and discuss details on body method that might stimulate the listener's curiosity.

You can listen to the podcast or download it here.


A Chen Style Tai Chi Workshop with Nabil Ranne in Philadelphia

Ken Nabiul 2023 1
Getting some coaching from Nabil Ranne while Ryan Craig looks on.

I spent a few days training with Nabil Ranne in Philadelphia a week ago. I met Nabil through an email exchange in 2020 and interviewed him for my Internal Fighting Arts podcast.

My journey with Chen style Taiji began in 1998 and focused primarily on the Chen Village branch of the art as taught by Chen Xiaowang, Chen Xiaoxing and others. In recent years, I became intrigued by the differences in the Chen Zhaokui/Chen Yu branch in Beijing, so after the interview with Nabil, I did a couple of private lessons with him and then signed up for his online classes. 

What impressed me most about Nabil's teaching was the level of detail. And there were differences -- in the shorter stances where feet are parallel most of the time, in the shifting of weight, in the awareness of different jin in each movement, the fullness of the dan t'ien and the coordination of the mingmen, the opening and closing of the chest and back, the folding of the chest and stomach, the closing power in the legs, the grounding from the heels, the stability of the knees and the spiraling through the feet, and connecting it all in each movement; and peng -- always maintaining peng, which I have worked on for over two decades but still learn new aspects. These are just a few differences, and they are difficult to address in a blog post.

This was my second workshop with Nabil. Like last year's workshop, it was hosted by Ryan Craig, instructor at Philly Chen Taiji. Ryan has game, my friends. He has good people associated with him, too. It was good to see people like Caleb Arnold, Ted Brodkin, Sanja Martik, Joe Zane, Kent Kreiselmaier, Matt Brownlee, Tony Demma and Rufus Grady, among others..

The workshop was held over four days -- Friday through Monday. We started with some body mechanics and how they work in applications and joint locks. We worked on the expression of peng and the connection through the body, utilizing the mingmen and the grounding from the heels. We worked on the Yilu form each day, receiving excellent hands-on corrections. 

Push hands was an important part of the workshop, and I was looking forward to experiencing how Nabil does it. One of the exercises involved the legs. You put your right leg against your partner's right leg and do circling exercises similar to single-hand push hands. After a while, you switch to the other side. There was a leg exercise where you do the same, but this time, you raise your knee so your foot is off the ground. It was a great way to work on your balance and a tough leg workout. Connecting with an opponent's legs is an important part of breaking his structure.

Push hands is done differently than what I am accustomed to -- the peng is heavier and you keep your weight on the front leg instead of moving back and forth between the front and rear legs. It was eye-opening. I always enjoy "emptying my cup" and exploring different ways of doing something. The worst thing you can do to yourself is to be shown something new and react with, "That's not the way I do it." 

Nabil Philly 3After studying with Nabil online, and seeing other students in the online classes, it's one of the year's highlights to see everyone in person. Nabil is a highly skilled, humble man with a great sense of humor, and he draws people to the workshop with friendly, cooperative mindsets. There were no egos on display or cliques being formed.

I have been teaching Chen Taiji for a long time now, but there is a lot to learn, and even teachers need a teacher. Attending workshops helps me take another little baby step forward, and that's one of the goals in these arts -- getting a little better every day.

The deeper you dive into Chen Taijiquan, the deeper it gets. The body mechanics are fascinating, and how those gentle movements enable you to generate relaxed power in a self-defense situation, and the health and fitness benefits that come with the activity -- it's an endlessly rewarding pursuit. That's why I practice, why I teach, and why I study with great teachers like Nabil Ranne.

--by Ken Gullette


Tai Chi Master Zhang Xue Xin Dies at 94 -- An Interview with Zhang Disciple J. Justin Meehan

Ken Gullette with Master Zhang Xue Xin
Ken with Zhang Xue Xin at Golden Gate Park.

Taiji master Zhang Xue Xin passed away in China surrounded by family on February 25, 2023. He was 94 years old.

He began studying Chen style Taiji in 1963. One of his teachers was Chen Zhaokui. Later, he studied with Grandmaster Feng Zhiqiang and became an indoor disciple. 

Master Zhang moved to the United States and began living and teaching in San Francisco. His classes were held at Golden Gate Park. He emphasized silk-reeling spiraling movements and applications, particularly chin-na (joint locks). He retired in 2013.

My first Chen style teachers, Jim and Angela Criscimagna, studied with Master Zhang for around eight years. I never studied with him, but I visited San Francisco on business a couple of times in the early 2000s and stopped by to visit his class.

We have lost a great one with Master Zhang. I heard of his passing from his indoor disciple, J. Justin Meehan, who lives and teaches in the St. Louis area. I asked Justin if he would do a video podcast interview about his teacher. Here is that conversation as Justin remembers Master Zhang Xue Xin.

 

 


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!