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.

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)

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)

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)