Striving For Perfection: Combat Effectiveness And Spiritual Development

How often have you heard the phrase “before you can overcome others, you must first overcome yourself”, or “your main opponent is yourself”.  If you’ve never heard these phrases, then take a long look at who’s teaching you!  You should have heard these phrases before as this really is one of the most central core philosophies of doing any traditional martial art.

Whether you are looking for effective self defence, sport or simply aesthetic mastery of the art you practice you must first develop co-ordination, agility, speed, power, poise, balance and grace.  From a combative point of view, the need for speed, power, co-ordination and balance are obvious; but grace?  Do we need to be graceful in a fight?  Many consider the very act of fighting to be very disgraceful. Continue reading “Striving For Perfection: Combat Effectiveness And Spiritual Development”

Tai Chi Jian (Sword)

The Tai Chi sword, known as the Jian is more complex than most forms of swordsmanship.  For the Tai Chi practitioner it is about projecting your energy down the sword itself.

I’m sure that some will argue about it’s practicality.  I don’t know enough about it to really comment on that aspect, though I do believe it would be lethal in the hands of a real expert.  Here it is demonstrated by Damo Mitchell, author and founder of the Lotus Nei Gong Association.

Despite the huge popularity of martial arts today, it is still quite rare to find somebody who can handle the Jian with expertise.

The True Purpose Of Makawara Training & A Review

Karate Depot have asked me to review a makiwara (striking board) for them.  But first, I would like to talk about what makawara training is actually trying to achieve as it not quite what most people imagine.

Personally, I like makawara’s.  Some people argue that as they have so little give in them, your punch/strike has to stop after impact, rather than going all the way through the target – as you might do in a real combat situation.  Therefore (it is argued) you are training yourself to “stop short”.

I personally believe that if you can slam your fist very hard into a target that barely gives and not damage or hurt yourself, then you have no fear of whatever you hit at all.  You also develop so much impact that you don’t have to punch too deep to do damage.  Besides you can practice punching/stiking deep on other pieces of equipment, that is not what the makawara is all about.

Some also argue that it is a stationary target and therefore less functional than focus mitts which obviously can move about.  I’ll come back to this point shortly.

Although many see the makawawa as a method to harden hands, especially knuckles, Gichin Funakoshi says that the main point of using a makawawa is to learn correct alignment of the body when striking.  Harding knuckles etc is secondary.  Delivery of a good technique (be-it Karate or any other style) depends heavily on correct alignment of the body’s skeletal system.  This in turn should allows you to become more and more relaxed in your technique as you advance through the grades.

How does correct skeletal alignment enable you to become more relaxed and why is this useful?

Firstly, correct bone/joint alignment absorbs the reaction created by the impact of your strike, transfers it to the ground, and then effectively bounces it back into the target again.  With incorrect alignment, that part of the body will collapse and absorb much of this “impact reaction”.

This is the single most important function of the makawara, to weed out the bodies incorrect alignments and correct them.

This is best done with a training device that has little give in it (like a makawara).  Focus mitts are better for accuracy training and for training reactions to a moving target, but they do not offer enough resistance to allow you to weed your incorrect alignments within your body.  Neither training device (makawara or focus mitts) are superior to the other, they simply serve different functions.

As low grades, we can use a lot muscular strength to support our skeletal structure and stop it collapsing if there is any weakness (in the form of miss-alignments).  However, as we progress, the alignment of the skeletal structure improves and can absorb the “impact reaction” with less support from the muscles.  As we need less & less muscular support we can become much more relaxed.  This in turn enables us to move faster, conserve energy and actually do more damage with less effort!

This really is one of the biggest keys to combat side of martial arts.

This is why Tai Chi is considered an advanced martial art.  It is something that martial artists progress to, after a “harder” style has already taught them good skeletal structure.  It is not a martial art to start with (unless you are only interested in health and well being, which is of course perfectly acceptable).

The slow relaxed movements of Tai Chi are partly to teach you to use your ki/chi (internal energy) which is of course a controversial subject that not everybody will agree on.  However, on a more scientific level, the slow deliberate moves of Tai Chi do teach good skeletal alignment and good posture.  Doing movements slowly without correct alignment and posture, you will be more likely to loose your balance than if you do it fast.

Tai Chi is therefore (on some levels at least), a continuation of the learning alignment and posture that starts with the makawara, but taken to a much higher level.  I personally think that Tai Chi is much more than this, but this one aspect of it.

Gichin Funakoshi demonstrating on a makawara

Anyway, this brings us back to the makawara and hopefully you’ll have a better idea of its deeper purpose and benefits now.  The makawawa was traditionally a bail of straw, tied to a post set solidly into the ground.  This is not aways practical today.  However, you can get wall mounted versions like the Deluxe Makawara Board which I’ve been asked to review.

I found it very good.  It can take a lot of punishment and is hard wearing.  It’s also quite convenient as you put it up almost anywhere that you have a solid wall.  As it can’t flex (like the traditional wooden post), it has a little bit of give in from the hard foam under the canvas cover.  This foam does eventually get a little bit compressed from continuous blows, so I would suggest trying to strike different parts rather than just hitting the centre each time.  This particular makawara is a bit larger than most others, so it does allow you to move your point of impact around about a bit.  A good addition to any traditional martial artists training regime.

Keeping a Beginner’s Mind

The article below was written by Paul Mitchell, my Karate Sensei and Tai Chi teacher.  It’s a brilliant insight into the mental approach to your training whatever your style.  Paul has always had a very practical approach to martial arts and teaches for real self defence, not just scoring points.  Having said that, he is also a great believer that martial arts are a great form of self development.  Practical streetwise martial arts (“Jutsu”) and self development (“Do”) do not need to be separated.  In fact they each works best with elements of the other blended together.

The article below was written for the Lotus Nei Gong (Tai Chi association) newsletter, so it is primarily from the Tai Chi perspective.  That said, it can just as well apply to any martial art.


Really, this article is just a few rambling thoughts of a martial artist that has trained daily for 30 years and yet still calls himself a beginner.

In Japanese martial arts there is a saying that came from someone who truly understood the martial way: Keep a beginners mind. Sounds easy enough but remember a beginner is always ready to take advice and is always enthusiastic. Day in day out, week in week out, year in year out and decade after decade to jeep training with this concept in mind may not always be so easy.

Then of course we have to look at that concept of ‘following the martial way’. To a non-follower of the way it would seem quite likely that to train daily in a martial art, studying the philosophy and practice of combat would cause a person to become aggressive and confrontational. The truth is that (if studied correctly) martial arts make a person peaceful and well-rounded. The only true fight is internal, the war is against your ‘inner demons’ and lets be honest with ourselves, we all have some of those.

My favourite martial saying is: The fist and Zen are one. Still makes me smile, still just a beginner.

I sometimes say to my students that the only reason we have wars is because the world is run by ‘white belts’. If one truly understands conflict then one avoids it at all costs.

Up until this point I have not distinguished between external and internal martial arts. To me they completely compliment each other, they are indeed two sides of the same coin. Many people studying the martial arts refer to themselves in terms of one art: I am a karate practitioner, I am a Taijiquan practitioner etc. To me there are only martial arts, not styles. Although I have my core systems of Yang Taijiquan and Shotokan Karate I simply think of myself as a martial artist. To limit oneself in any other way seems to contradict the term ‘art’. An artist by my way of thinking should be a free thinking, free flowing, freedom loving individual. To limit the art is to stunt our personal growth in free flow.

I loved the article written by my dear friend Neil Lodge (editors note, see September 2010 newsletter) where he stated that he found Taijiquan so uplifting because it emphasised principles other styles simply touched upon. Principles such as meditation, breath control and Dan Tien rotation. I agree wholeheartedly and reading it made me once again…feel like a beginner.

I have currently studied Karate for 30 years and Taijiquan for half of this time. Although I love both arts I recognise that for me, Taijiquan starts where Karate left off…From the beginning in ‘external styles’ we are taught to be substantial. This means that you study to be strong and forceful. You train to become fast and strong, both physically and mentally. This can be painful, has its moments, but if done slowly, gradually and correctly this process is surprisingly enjoyable! As one progresses through the grades to brown and eventually black belt/sash the martial artist (as this is what the student is training to become) practices more technical, more subtle techniques which aim to make him more ‘insubstantial’. Instead of meeting force with force an advanced practitioner aims to deflect and neutralise incoming force. Eventually it becomes very difficult for anybody but other experienced martial artists to lay a hand upon you. Some good advice is to always assume your opponent has a knife. Good advice I feel as it helps to reinforce the idea of being insubstantial and avoiding an incoming force. This is the point in a persons training where Taijiquan needs to enter their martial path.

Every practice in Taijiquan and its related exercises in Qi Gong and Nei Gong, pushing hands and other two man drills is designed to help the martial artist become more insubstantial. Over time one learns how to lessen the use of their external force (generated by muscular power) and begin to use their internal power which, I feel, is such a complex subject that it warrants several more articles on this subject alone!

Obviously, as practitioners of Taijiquan our study is not just related to martial arts in their narrow sense but the study of conflict on every level. Realisation of this makes approaching resolution of fighting (literal, internal and cosmic) anything but narrow.

Final words of advice from this rambling beginner…Keep practicing…

Tai Chi: For Advanced Martial Artists

Many martial arts are misunderstood.  I have written a number of times about how Karate and other arts have become dumbed down and stylised to a point where a lot of what is practiced would not work under pressure.

However, I don’t think any martial art is more misunderstood than Tai Chi.  I think this is for a number of reasons, but mostly:

  • Many people practice it purely as a for health and well-being, with no martial applications at all.
  • Many people do not believe in the concept of “Chi” energy on which Tai Chi is largely based.
  • With more and more people getting into “reality based” training, “hard” styles being seen by many as stylised and ritualistic; the slow practice of Tai Chi seems even further from being a real form of combat.

So lets have a closer look at Tai Chi.  Firstly we should look at the modern emphasis on health and well-being.  I am told that the Chinese communist government wanted to exploit the the health properties of Tai Chi as a simple way to keep people healthy and keep down expenditure on their health service.  They therefore called together a number of top Tai Chi masters and told them to create a simplified version of Tai Chi for introduction to the masses.  When the masters initially refused, they were told that they and their families would be sent to labour camps.  So they agreed.  The simplified Tai Chi that they created was nicknamed “Beijing Tai Chi” and this is the version that spread most rapidly around the world.

As for the concept of chi, some people will never believe in it which is fair enough, we are all entitled to our own views.  I just ask that if you are somebody that does not believe, then please just respect the views of those that do.

As for a combat system that is performed slowly, that one takes a bit more to get your head around.  The part which is often missed is that Tai Chi as a combat art was never designed to be, or expected to be the starting point.  In China, in the Shaolin monasteries and elsewhere, they would alway start with a “hard” style first and only after they mastered that would they move on to Tai Chi and other internal styles.  It is not simply that they start young and young people relate better to harder styles (which is true in itself), but learning Tai Chi is actually easier if you have experience in a harder art.

By learning the hard art first (such as Kung Fu, Karate or similar), the practitioner learns about speed, raw power, distancing, dealing with somebody steaming in full power, aggression, adrenalin and all the primary aspects of combat.  Many people will be quick to point out that Tai Chi does not teach these things.  In the main they are right; because Tai Chi is designed for people who already know them.  Tai Chi is not a stand alone fighting art, it is the polish and finish on other fighting arts, which takes them to higher levels.

As my instructor Paul Mitchell says, most martial arts teach you to be substantial, whereas Tai Chi teaches you to be insubstantial.  What does this mean?

Well in most martial arts, we learn the things mentioned above (speed, power, aggression, etc); how to meet somebody head on, or even when evading how to hit them like a hammer when you do strike.  These make you act and feel to the opponent very substantial indeed.  But with Tai Chi, somebody attacks and you learn to almost “melt” out of their way letting them finish an attack after you are no longer there.  To be able to move like this requires a high degree of relaxation.  This is being “insubstantial” so that you can just not be their when the attack is completed.

So why is everything practiced so slowly?

Firstly, it is learn the relaxation to be able move in an “insubstantial” way.  This primarily uses the internal muscles of the body rather than the major muscle groups (as most other martial arts do).  Learning to use the internal muscles can not be done by practicing fast.

Secondly it is learn to use and move your internal energy.  As mentioned above, I know that a lot of people reading this probably won’t believe in Chi, but again, please just respect that this is the belief of most people that do practice Tai Chi.  The idea is to learn to co-ordinate your internal energy with your physical movement and this can only be done slowly.

Thirdly (and this is where some people will probably think I’ve gone mad) it is to learn to deal with the effects of adrenalin and to stay calm when confronted by a hostile person.  Now people who do the reality based scenario training that I’ve discussed in earlier postings will probably have trouble seeing how moving slowly through a form can possibly prepare you for the effects of adrenalin.  Well the short answer is it doesn’t, that should have already been accomplished by the previous martial arts training (Kung Fu/Karate etc).  By the time you take up Tai Chi you should already be familiar with the effects of adrenalin and confrontation.  What Tai Chi aims to do is to keep you calm in the face of confrontation and to actually negate the effects of adrenalin.

Scenario based training as discussed in other postings is geared to giving you an adrenalin rush (so that you get used to operating in that state), which is fantastic when you start your martial arts career.  However, Tai Chi being geared to advanced martial artists is geared to stop you having an adrenalin rush.  This will not happen overnight and will take years to achieve, but it is a long term training program and that is what is works towards.  That is why as a martial art, it is only really for already accomplished martial artists.  As a form of health and well-being, you can start it anytime without any experience in other martial arts.

The slow movements are designed to give the feeling that you “have all day” when somebody attacks you.  Of course you don’t.  Of course you have to move very fast.  But that’s why you should have done another martial art first.  You are also training to achieve a deep state of relaxation which permeates into every facet of your life.  This includes staying relaxed when in a violent confrontation and we all know that you move faster when you are relaxed.

Some people may be concerned by the idea of negating the effects of adrenalin as it boosts strength and speed (which are obviously useful) so why loose these positive effects?  Well again, we go back to already being an accomplished martial artist.  You should be strong and fast already.

But what about the negative effects of adrenalin (which will vary from person to person and situation to situation)?

  • Blood goes away from your brain and into the major muscle groups so you loose some of your fine motor skills.
  • You tend to get tunnel vision (which is not good for multiple opponents).
  • You can’t think so well and you may blank out verbal advice from friends/allies trying to help.

So if you could function with speed and power (from previous training) without losing fine motor skills, without losing mental faculties, being aware of multiple assailants and being aware of helpful/warning shouts around you, then you can take your fighting ability to a whole new level.

7 Questions to Enhance Your Bunkai

This is an intersting article from www.ikigaiway.com which is very relevant to the aims of this blog as well.  I hope you enjoy it:-

“Without bunkai (applications), kata is little more than pre-arranged dancing. The hands can be flowing in exciting and vibrant ways but if we never discover the meaning of the motion then our time would be much better spent hitting a heavy bag or sparring.

Bunkai is the key to developing useful and effective techniques preserved for us by those individuals who developed and tested them in fierce, life protection situations. Over the course of time much of the true meaning of these movements has either been lost or purposefully disguised. If your desire is to unlock some of the skills of our predecessors, you’ll need to know the right questions in order to find the best answers.

The following are seven things to ask yourself that might illuminate your kata in a different (and hopefully productive) way. These are in no particular order and are not prescriptive. Use some when you can and invent others.

eizo shimabukuro bunkai

1. Can I change the angle in which I address my opponent?

Many times during bunkai we assume that an opponent is coming straight from the front or from the sides, and that we must stay directly in front of them and try to defend. What happens if you cut a 45 degree angle during your technique? What if turning from left to right allowed you to arc around the same opponent instead of addressing a new one?

2. What came just before and what is coming right after?

When we learn kata, it generally occurs in a set cadence. Step1 – block up. Step2 – block down. Step3 – punch kiai! That being the case, our mind generally sections itself off in those little boxes. It is our job to look at what is occurring right before our current technique and right after and how the body moves from one to the next. Stringing techniques together makes for a more devastating outcome to your opponent.

3. Am I utilizing all of the technique or just the end piece?

Techniques are often more dynamic than we give them credit for. Take for example the knife hand block. When we perform a knife hand block we generally step somewhere, prep the block, and then shoot the block out. The block itself is what we use to defend against an attack, but what about all the stuff that came before it? Can’t we use that too? Can’t the body shift be used to off-balance or attack our opponent, and can’t the prep be used to either defend or attack?

4. Can I condense the number of opponents I have to face to get through my applications?

If you find yourself going through a dozen bad guys for your bunkai you may be too segmented. In order to mentally escape from a tricky technique we often dismiss the current bad guy and invite a new one in from a different direction. Worse yet, if we are using two hands at once and don’t really know what’s going on we might invite two bad guys to attack us at once from different directions. Multiple opponent training is valuable, but kata is not suggesting that GuyA is likely to kick low while GuyB punches from behind. Those scenarios are too unlikely and miss the real intent of what’s happening. Condense the number of opponents as much as possible.

5. Are my opponents behaving naturally and with likely techniques, or am I forcing them into increasingly unlikely scenarios?

Patrick McCarthy Sensei developed the acronym HAPV, or habitual acts of physical violence. The point of HAPV is to keep focused on the techniques you are most likely to encounter. Furthermore, the longer you make the string of actions done by your uke the more unlikely an actual attacker will follow that pattern. Therefore, when performing bunkai, we want our opponents acting as naturally as possible. If the opponent has to punch, step back punch, step back punch, step back block up and receive your strike, you’ve asked your uke to behave in a way they never would in real life.

6. Have I affected my opponent in a way that makes more technique work?

Let’s say you manage to block your opponent (so far so good). You then put them in a wrist lock or arm bar in order to control them. That progression seems very effective, especially after years of training, and generally works in the dojo. However, if you’ve ever come across a live opponent who is experiencing adrenaline dump you’ll know that manipulating that arm is extremely difficult. Your attempts to bar or lock it will be met with iron resistance and counter punches to your face. Always be sure to negatively affect your opponent as soon as possible, then go into more technique.

7. What is the emotional content of my encounter?

What kind of scenario is your kata taking place in? Is it a school yard pushing match? Is it a life or death home invasion? The emotional environment you place yourself in is going to alter your bunkai dramatically. Your technique may need to restrain or it may need to kill.

Mental Gymnastics

With all of these questions/problems/complications we have to address the concept of simplicity. In a real life altercation, your simplest and most effective techniques will be the ones that help you. Thinking about responses in the heat of the moment will keep you one step behind your opponent.

Why then bother with all of this business about bunkai? Shouldn’t we simply practice a series of basic, effective techniques and avoid the mental gymnastics?

The short term answer is yes. For the first 5-6 years of your training you need to become “brilliant at the basics”, as Bill Hayes Sensei would say. Without a rock solid foundation and instinctual integration of your style’s stances, punches, and basic techniques nothing else can be built firmly. However, once you do achieve that level of proficiency, you acquire the privilege of exploring your art even deeper and improving the way you go about your business.

Simple techniques practiced a certain way seem like the best option until you learn how to improve them. That doesn’t necessarily mean complicate them. Instead the goal is to find ways to improve your angle, distance, timing, striking locations, and technique progression in order to enhance what’s already been built. This style of study leads to an understanding of tichiki, or “what the hand is doing”, which can be used extemporaneously with great percentage of success”.

By Matthew Apsokardu

Step Up, Deflect, Parry And Punch Application

Here’s a video response to Charlie and Keith’s last video showing a Karate and similar Kung Fu techniques.  Their video reminded me a lot of a very well known move from Yang style Tai Chi, so here’s a video showing how we use it.

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

Learning How To Yield To Force

It says in the Tai Chi classics:

“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)

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)

Martial Applications Of Tai Chi Chuan’s Ward-Off Posture

The Ward-off posture is one of the most universally recognised postures in the Yang style of Tai Chi Chuan. Since it’s not an obvious kick or a punch, and doesn’t look overtly like a martial technique, it can be hard to figure out how to use it against an attacker.

Here I run through a few possible applications of the ward-off posture, showing how it can be used as a strike, a lock and a throw.

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