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)

Chin Na in Tai Chi Chuan

I’m pleased to be asked to contribute to this excellent blog created by Karateka and Tai Chi Chuan practitioner Charlie Wildish, aimed at bringing different styles of martial arts, and martial artists, together under the banner of “bunkai”, the Japanese term meaning “applications”. So much in the oriental martial arts seems vague, hidden or obscured (quite often at the behest of cultural or political reasons inappropriately transplanted from another time and place), so it’s particularly refreshing to discover a group of traditional martial artists dedicated to unearthing the treasures hidden in the arts they practice, rather than simply going through the moves by rote, in blind obedience to tradition. I think this progressive attitude is something positive that Western culture can bring to these ancient arts from the East.

While forms, salutes, uniforms, attitude, places of practice and class structures may vary wildly between “traditional” martial styles, it’s in the applications that the arts are at their closest. While the stylistic manner of execution, “body mechanics” or the strategy may differ greatly between arts, a wrist lock performed by twisting the radius and ulna bones of the forearm until they lock in Tai Chi Chuan is the same wrist lock performed by twisting the radius and ulna bones of the forearm until they lock in Karate or Wing Chun or Ju Jitsu. By looking at the applications we can start to see the similarities between styles and gain new insights into the arts we practice.

In the following clip I am performing an exercise known in Tai Chi Chuan as Tui Shou or “Pushing hands”. Practitioners of other martial styles will no doubt recognise many of the locking and takedown techniques from their own styles. Observers of Push Hands competitions would be forgiven for coming to the conclusion that Push Hands is about pushing the opponent away, hopefully in a convincing enough manner to score a point. As such it becomes a wrestling match where you’re not allowed to grab with the hands, and while not without merit, such competitions seem (to me) to have strayed from the original martial intent of the art. To gain the most benefit from Push Hands I believe the Tai Chi Chuan community needs to reclaim a lot of the elements that have been taken out under competition rules. One such element is the traditional art of Chin Na (translations vary: “Catching and locking”, “Catch-Arrest”, “Seize and Immobilise”, etc…). To perform Chin Na following the principles of Tai Chi Chuan it is important that you don’t force the situation. Instead, you adapt as it changes, without opposing it. Done correctly the technique happens of itself. The constant flowing pattern of push hands encourages this spontaneity of technique.

As it says in verse 2 of Lao Tzu’s classic of Taoism.

“Therefore the sage goes about doing nothing, teaching no-talking.The ten thousand things rise and fall without cease,Creating, yet not.Working, yet not taking credit.Work is done, then forgotten.Therefore it lasts forever.”

In future posts I hope to offer more technique-specific insights into both Tai Chi Chuan and Choy Lee Fut.

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