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. Continue reading “Tai Chi Jian (Sword)”

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 Continue reading “The True Purpose Of Makawara Training & A Review”

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. Continue reading “Keeping a Beginner’s Mind”

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: Continue reading “Tai Chi: For Advanced Martial Artists”

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)