Learning How To Yield To Force

It says in the Tai Chi classics www.scheele.org/lee/classics.html:

“Anyone who has spent years of practice and still cannot neutralize,
and is always controlled by his opponent,
has not apprehended the fault of double-weightedness.”

But what does this mean?  What is this peculiar fault of ‘double-weightedness’ that it refers to?

Of course, the classics are written in Chinese, and then translated into English, so there’s room for more than one interpretation, and they also often use obscure characters that are no longer in general use. However, from the actual practice of the art you can look at the classics and understand what they’re referring too. Like most classic writings, they only make sense once you understand (through physical practice) what they are talking about.

In more down to earth language it is saying that you need to understand how to yield to force if you’re ever going to ‘get’ Tai Chi Chuan as a martial art. And if you don’t understand that simple idea then you’re never going to be able to apply it no matter how many years you practice. The idea of yielding to force is a hard concept to understand in martial arts, because it not only sounds counter intuitive, but it is counter intuitive! When somebody pushes you, your natural reaction is to push back. Over time this initial impulse to resist force can be trained out of the body through exercises like push hands until it no longer becomes your unconscious reaction.

In terms of yin and yang, if somebody applies force to you, it is yang, and if you respond in kind you are fighting fire with fire.  This is the double-weighting talked about in the classics.  Tai Chi seeks to balance the yang with some yin – fighting fire with water instead.

I was attempting to explain this concept of yielding to force last night in class, using a kick as an example.  Rather than being technique-based, we’re talking about a principle here, so it can apply to numerous techniques, it just so happened that we were working on a kick when we filmed it. I hope you enjoy the clip.

By Graham Barlow of Bath-Tai Chi and Choy Lee Fut (www.bath-taichi.co.uk)

Bassai Dai (Passai): Grappling Kata?

As discussed in an earlier posting, the Okinawan master, Sokon “Bushi” Matsumura was a central figure in developing the now familiar linear technique, at a time when most martial artists on Okinawa were still using the circular techniques of Chinese origin.  As discussed in that posting, Matsumura was also the head bodyguard to the King of Okinawa and the bodyguards (like all Okinawans) were not allowed to carry weapons by Japanese decree.

This left a situation where the bodyguards could end up fighting a superior number of assailants, who might also be armed.  That previous posting discussed how the linear technique would have helped take the fight to the opponents and dispatch them as quickly as possible (necessary when facing larger numbers).

Taking a step further back in history, the earlier Okinawan masters had developed a system that included all modes of combat.  This would include striking, grappling and weapons.  Although Matsumura developed the linear technique and clearly emphasised the “one hit, one kill” philosophy which we are very familiar with today; Matsumura and his men would clearly have needed some grappling skills.  They would not be interested in taking a fight to the ground where others could kick them on the floor and they would not be interested in the time taken to gain a submission when others would be attacking them.  However, they would be particularly interested in knowing how to release any kind of grabs or holds and release them very fast before others came up to hit them.

Matsumura is believed to the be the author of Bassai Dai (also known as Passai or Patsai), which is still practiced in may styles of Karate and Tang Soo Do.  When you look at the opening sequence of Bassai Dai just after the forward thrusting back fist strike/block, you turn 180 degrees and perform 2 chest level blocks, turn 180 degrees again and perform 2 more chest level blocks, then turn 90 degrees to the right, scoop low and perform 2 more chest level blocks.  When you stop to think about it, this is a bazaar sequence.  Firstly, Matsumura was known to be a man who studied his enemies, and in this case his enemies would be angry Westerns wanting to trade (and being rejected by Japanese order).  Matsumura would know that these “barbarians” would not practice straight lunge punches, but would more likely swing at the head.  Secondly, why do so much blocking and not hit back?  You’ve just blocked 3 people and they are still standing, still wanting to hit you!  The defence is not geared to the likely attacks and still leaves you vulnerable at the end.

Was it that Bassai Dai was more for character development than for actual fighting.  Matsumura was practical, clever, ruthless and fanatical about martial arts.  It is very unlikely that he would author a kata that did not have very practical, effective and ruthless fighting movements from start to finish.

So what conclusion can we draw?  The obvious one is that this sequence of 6 chest level blocks are in fact, nothing to do with chest level blocks.  Bearing in mind that Matsumura’s men would expect to be outnumbered, should a fight break out they would expect to be grabbed from all directions.  So try practicing this sequence with a partner.  Have them grab you in various ways from behind, then turn and perform the double blocks.  You will find that most grabs will be knocked off and as you are moving into your opponent/partner, you will find that the second “block” can often be used as a close quarters strike.

My Sensei, Paul Mitchell always says that Bassai Dai is a grappling kata.  Not grappling as in the sporting sense, but to release attackers grabs and line them up for a finishing blow.  He also says that Karate is “a kind art” as it teaches you to strike first (which is the easiest way to dispatch somebody) and grapple later.  However, when learning to strike we place a great deal of emphasis on stance and posture which some people decry as unrealistic and static.  But that stance and posture gives you the balance and stability that you need when somebody has grabbed you and is trying to shake you about as you try to release them.  Furthermore, the mobility that we are supposed to lose by using these stances are more valuable for sporting contest than the reality of the street.

This may seem strange to some people if they are reading these type of ideas for the first time, but the more you analise it, the more you realise that it is the only logical conclusion.

Our own DVD on Bassai Dai and its bunkai is now available at our store.

Tai Chi Brush Knee Twist Step Applications

There’s a big debate in Tai Chi circles about whether you should lean or not in your Tai Chi form. This debate usually goes on between practitioners that are more interested in the martial aspects – probably because it makes very little difference if you lean or not if you’re just doing Tai Chi for health. The debate is fuelled by the fact that some styles of Tai Chi (like the Wu style that comes from Wu Chien Chuan) have a very pronounced forward lean in some postures, while some Yang styles, most notably the Cheng sub-style of Yang that comes from Cheng Man Ching, are notably bolt upright in their postures.

What most people seem to be agreed upon is that you should never lean backwards (but then again, there are probably some styles that have exceptions to this rule – it’s very hard to generalise about anything when it comes to martial arts).

In one of Tai Chi’s classic writing (The Treatise on Tai Chi Chuan – www.scheele.org/lee/classics.html) it says

“Don’t lean in any direction; suddenly appear, suddenly disappear.”

It also says:

“Stand like a perfectly balanced scale and move like a turning wheel.”

That actually seems pretty clear, but then we’re into the world of interpretation, and also bear in mind that this is a translation from the Chinese, so there’s even more scope for interpretation than usual.

While some people take it literally – i.e. you must never lean – most people interpret that line as meaning that you should keep your spine straight (there will always be a slight curve in a human spine, here ‘straight’ means your crown point and coccyx are on a straight line). This is the sort of posture you find in things like sitting meditation and involves gently relaxing, extending and lengthening the neck and lower back.

When it comes to martial application of Tai Chi the two different interpretations tend to favour different applications. A forward lean favours throwing and a vertical spine favours striking.

In this clip I look at the Brush Knee Twist Step posture from Tai Chi and show some possible martial applications. In my form we do most postures in an upright manner, but I also throw in a possible application for leaning using Brush Knee. Notice that when I do I keep the coccyx and crown point in alignment (i.e. don’t hunch, slouch or bend the spine forward – any bending is done from the hips with the spine extended) and I straighten the back leg. When I do applications with an upright posture, the two points are in alignment, but this requires the back leg to bend and soften. I believe that both approaches are valid in a Tai Chi sense – it just depends how you want to apply your applications.

My own personal feeling is that being upright feels better when you do your form – you get a more open, relaxed and spacious feeling, akin to meditation. It’s also more useful for close range work (at push hands distance). However, if you want to throw somebody downwards towards the floor, or upwards over your back, then you’re going to need to lean, so it’s good to be familiar with both methods.

Anyway, here’s the video.

By Graham Barlow of Bath-Tai Chi and Choy Lee Fut (www.bath-taichi.co.uk)