Saturday, April 13, 2013

Some New (Old) Videos and Thoughts on Style

Here is a link to what is reportedly a rare video of Master Cheng Man-Ch'ing performing Yang style Tai Chi Chuan. The "Professor" is older than in other videos available of him, but his form is still impeccable and exquisite.

Chen Man-Ch'ing Short Tai Chi Form

I also "discovered" this posting on Youtube of equally rare footage of Master Xiong Yang He.

熊公養和太極拳架教學_Master Xiong Yang He's Taiji_Part 1.mp4

熊公養和太極拳架教學_Master Xiong Yang He's Taiji_Part 2.mp4

This marvelous man was my first teacher's teacher and it is his style that I try to adhere to in my own pursuit of Tai Chi. In these clips, he is older and obviously cannot kick very high. Yet if you watch him carefully, you will see everything that the Form entails.

I have recently started teaching. It took many long walks in the woods, as they say, before I agreed with myself to do this. I have studied with several teachers and attempted several different forms, but when I am on my own, I work in the tradition of the Xiong Yang He lineage that was my first experience in learning Tai Chi. I have read, watched and participated in classes and workshops (and continue to do so) and I like to think I am building upon the foundation you may see in these clips, if you watch carefully. I've also been greatly influenced by the tradition of the Cheng Man-Ch'ing lineage.

For my own teaching I have chosen to offer instruction in the Yang Simplified 24 Posture Form, which was developed in the mid 1950's and is sometimes called "The Beijing Style." I've modified it slightly with regard to "style" and hopefully have not only kept, but enhanced the "form" along the lines of Xiong Yang He.  There are some obvious differences that are not important, and some subtle ones that are.

A word or two about the difference between "style" and "form." Think about a suit of clothes. It may have wide lapels or narrow ones, cuffs or no cuffs, buttons or zippers, be tight fitting or loose: these are matters of style. It will be functional in terms of form, as it is shaped to the body: arms, legs and torso give its form. Certainly the elements of style are important and should be followed in their particulars as we seek to achieve "proper" form. They are the essence of discipline and help to define our actions. But they are metaphors for the underlying Form and should not be confused for it.

I see the Beijing Style as it is practiced today as an exhibition form, with nuances that can be elaborated in athletic, even gymnastic manners. But sometimes, as I watch videos, I am apprehensive that the meaning of the movement has been muddled as the emphasis is shifted toward acrobatics. How high can you kick? How low can you bend? How far can you extend your stance? It all looks very impressive, but is it Tai Chi?

Now I'm not saying that I wouldn't kick higher if my tendons would allow me to, or that I don't appreciate the dexterity and pageantry of the modern performers. Nor am I saying that it's OK to make up your own version of the Form. There are those who argue that the old masters would be kicking up over their heads if they could (and may have when they were younger and hadn't been filmed yet.) But style must not be confused with form.

I've written elsewhere about the drawbacks to learning from watching videos. I think it is good to watch them and compare them. Yet the issue can be confusing, especially to a beginner who might be prompted then to say, "So-and-so doesn't do it that way in his video," or "I took a class where whatamacallit did it differently." Then where do we go to look for evidence of the One True Form?

Shall I repeat it? The energy (Qi) is rooted in the feet, develops in the legs, is governed by the waist and expressed in the fingers.

One turns to the Tai Chi Classics for knowledge, to the writings of the Masters, Yang Chenfu, Cheng Man-Ch'ing, Fu Zhongwen, T. T. Liang, W. C. C. Chen, etc., for inspiration, to one's teachers for example and to one's own experience through diligence and practice for understanding.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Tai Chi Warm-up Exercises

It may seem silly, even spurious, to perform a series of exercises in preparation for…exercise, but most Tai Chi classes begin with a series of “warm-ups” such as those which I describe below. There are many such warm-ups, and you need not do them all nor do them in any particular order, but here are some of my favorites (the Salute not being an exercise but a sort of formal, and respectful, punctuation mark to any class).

1. Fist Salute
Standing with feet together, present the right arm in front of the chest, making a fist. Cover the fist with the palm of the left hand, fingers together. Bend the thumb down.
The fist is for strength; the hand with fingers covering the fist is for friendship (we come together to help each other); the thumb is bent over symbolizing humility

2. Cleansing Breath
Move feet a comfortable distance apart (usually shoulder width) and bend at knees very slightly. The arms begin from a relax position along the sides to rise up in an arc like a bird opening its wings, tracing a circular path until the hands nearly touch above the head. Breath in deeply as the arms go up. From their position above the head, the hands, with palms facing down, travel downward in a linear path past the face and chest and stop just below the navel. Bend at the knees slightly as the hands come down. Breath out as the hands travel downward. Repeat this movement three times, breathing in and unbending the legs as the arms go up, breathing out and bending the legs as the hands move down. Visualize pushing bad energy out of your body.

3. Shake Hands
Hands are held at chest level with palms inward, then the arms are quickly thrust forward and the hands uncoil so that finger tips point forward. Repeat rapidly many times.

4. Wave Arms
Standing with feet spread approximately the distance of the shoulders and legs slightly bent, the arms are dropped along the sides, then the torso turns left and right as the arms swing, following the motion of the waist. The arms do not move of their own accord, they are like willow branches in the wind. Repeat many times.

5. Flex Ankles
Standing relaxed, shift weight to left leg and move right foot forward in a half step so that the ball of the foot barely touches the floor. Rotate the foot around the ball of the foot as an axis, flexing the ankle. Repeat many times. Return foot to standing position, shift weight to right foot and flex left ankle in the same way.

6. Heel, Toe, Inside, Outside
As in Flex Ankles, shift weight to left leg and move right foot forward, touch down on heel. Raise right foot slightly and touch down with toe, Repeat three times. Return to standing position, shift weight to right foot and do the same Heel/Toe routine with the left foot (three times).
Return to standing position, shift weight to left leg and move right foot forward, this time touch down (gently) on the outside edge of the foot, lift and touch down on the inside edge. Repeat three times. Return to standing position, shift weight to the right leg and do the same Inside/Outside with the left foot (three times).

7. Punch With Step
From standing position, rest both hands (made into fists) at the hips. Shift weight to right leg. Raise left foot so that it is weightless and step forward with the left leg, touching down heel first, then lowering the toe as the weight slowly shifts to this forward leg. The knee should not extend beyond the toe and the body’s weight is distributed approximately 70/30 percent between forward and backward legs. As the left foot steps out, the right arm makes a forward punch nearly, but not completely, straightening the right arm. Breath out during the punch. Return to standing position and do the same stepping routine with the right leg and left fist. Repeat three times.

8. Punch With Kick
From standing position, rest both hands (made into fist) at the hips. Shift weight to right leg. Raise left foot so that it is weightless and continue, bringing knee upward to a comfortable level. (The height you will be kicking should be determined by your own ability to balance and flex and should not be forced. A very shallow kick is adequate.) The kick is performed very slowly by unbending at the knee after the foot is raised off the ground, rather than swinging the whole leg outward. It is helpful to sink slightly on the opposite leg (bend at the knee) to stabilize the body. As the left leg kicks, punch outward the right fist. Return to standing position, repeat routine kicking with the right leg and punching with the left fist. Repeat three times.

9. Make Ball, Turn at Waist
Standing double weighted on both feet, hold the hands in front of the body, arms only slightly bent at the elbows such that they form a gentle curve. Bring the right hand up and the left hand down, palms facing each other so that it appears they are holding an invisible ball of a size bigger than a soccer ball but smaller than a basket ball. Turn to the right from the waist, not moving the hips, until the ball is positioned about 45 degrees over the right hip. Turn back to the left, reversing the position of the hands until they reach about 45 degrees over the left hip, left hand now on top and right on the bottom. Repeat several times doing the movement slowly and turning only from the waist. Do not move the arms, let them follow the turning of the upper torso.

10. Parting the Horse’s Mane Variation
This movement is similar to the Tai Chi movement called “Parting the Horse’s Mane” except that there is no movement of the torso or legs, only an expansion of the arms. Start, as in the precious exercise, by making the Tai Chi Ball with the right hand on top. The right hand moves down and slightly over to end just along side the front of the right hip as the left arm arcs up and to the left, keeping the elbow slightly bent and the palm rotating counter-clockwise about 70 degrees so that it faces the position of the right hand. The left hand will end at a position only slightly higher than the left shoulder and in front of it. This movement is done slowly while breathing out. The hands then move back to the ball-holding position but with the left hand on top and the right below. Breath in while returning the hands.
The movement is now done in the opposite direction, moving the left hand down and to the left hip while the right arm arcs up and to right in a mirrored position of the first movement. Again, this movement is done slowly. Hands then move back to the ball-holding position in front of the body. The hands always rotate during the movement of the arms, not before or after, so that they arrive in the correct orientation at the end of the movement.
This routine is repeated three times, each time extending the hands a little further than the previous time. By the second Parting the Horse’s Mane the upper hand will stop more or less even with the shoulder and the lower hand even with the hip. By the last time the both hands will stop behind the body but not so far as to strain the joints. The purpose is to exercise the range of motion and stretch the limbs. During the movements extending the arms, the head turns at the neck to follow the movement of the upper hand. The torso does not turn.

11. Shoulder Rolls
Hands at sides, roll back shoulders three times. Roll forward shoulders three times.

12. Neck Roll
Standing position, very relaxed, slight bend to all limbs, hands at sides. Rotate head on neck counter-clockwise many times, then revise and rotate clockwise many times. You should be totally relaxed by the end of this exercise.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

An Introduction to 24 Posture Yang Tai Chi

What we practice today, called Tai Chi, or Taijiquan (Supreme Ultimate Fist) is often thought of as merely an exercise routine imported from China one of the few imports not resulting in the loss of jobs. In fact, Tai Chi began as a method of martial arts combining ancient movement and breathing routines and spiritual meditation. It is concerned with, among other things, the movement through the body of Qi (Chi), which can be translated as "life force" or "energy."  It is said : "The internal energy, c’hi, roots at the feet, then transfers through the legs and is controlled from the waist, moving eventually through the back to the arms and fingertips." (Waysun Liao translation)

Historians of the Taijiquan (Tai Chi) forms credit Chen Chang Xing (1771-1853)  with developing the first  of the publicly taught Tai Chi styles called Old Frame, or Chen style. He taught this Chen Style  to Yang Lu Chan (1799-1872), who then developed what we know as the Yang Style of Taijiquan.  Yang Cheng Fu (1883-1936), the grandson of Yang Lu Chan, popularized a somewhat modified version of the  Yang Style, and this is the form we practice today as the Yang Long Form. Traditionally, it has 108 postures, although there are many variations.

I have read that the Cultural Revolution in China came close to ending the tradition of Tai Chi practice. It would be interesting to research the political upheavals concerned, but that is for another time, another discussion. By 1956, however, the National Physical Culture and Sports Commission of the People's Republic of China undertook to standardize and simplify many versions of Tai Chi, perhaps recognizing the value of exporting Tai Chi as a health and exercise activity. Taijiquan Committee Chairperson, Professor Li Tian Ji  (1914-1996,) led the development of the 24 Taijiquan Form and many other standardized Taijiquan forms such as the 32 Sword Form.  He has been called the father of modern Tai Chi.

The Standard Simplified Beijing 24 Taijiquan Form eliminated some of the movements found in the Yang 108 Long Form, keeping the most essential ones, reducing the number of repetitions of some and "mirroring" others (performing, for example, Grasp the Sparrow's Tail symmetrically to both the right and to the left). Basic principles of Tai Chi are followed, with slow, flowing movements. The form lasts only about 8 minutes, compared to 15 to 20 minutes for the Long Form, is easier to learn and less difficult to perform. The travel is only about 10 feet in a linear direction, making it perfect for large groups in limited spaces. Thus, it has become the most popular and widely practiced form worldwide.

Names of the Beijing 24 postures:
1. Beginning (Standing & Raising Arms)
2. Parting the Wild Horse's Mane (3 times) (Ward-off Left, Right, then Left)
3. White Crane Spreads its Wings
4. Brush Knee and Twist Step (3 times) (Left, Right, Left)
5. Play the Lute
6. Step Back and Repulse Monkey (4 times)
7. Grasp the Sparrow's Tail - left (Ward-off, Roll-back, Press & Push)
8. Grasp the Sparrow's Tail - right (Ward-off, Roll-back, Press & Push)
9. Single Whip
10. Wave Hands Like Clouds (3 times)
11. Single Whip
12. High Pat on Horse
13. Kick With Right Heel
14. Strike Ears With Fists
15. Kick With Left Heel (Turn 180 degrees and Kick)
16. Snake Creeps Down (left) and Golden Cockerel Stands on left leg
17. Snake Creeps Down (right) and Golden Cockerel on right leg
18. Fair Lady Weaves the Shuttle (right and left)
19. Needle at the Bottom of the Sea
20. Fan through Back
21. Deflect Downwards, Parry and Punch
22. Apparent Close Up
23. Cross Hands
24. Closing Form

A good companion book for learning the 24 Form while taking a class is "Tai Chi Chuan: 24 & 48 Postures with Martial Applications" by Liang Shou-Yu. Find it at

For an internet reference I recommend Mike Garofalo's web site, "Cloud Hands." .  It is an incredible collection of research into Tai Chi, Qigong, Martial Arts and related themes. His description of the 24 Yang Form is at

My first investigation into Tai Chi (well, that looks easy...I can do that) resulted in my purchase of a DVD with which I intended to teach myself Tai Chi. That didn't exactly work and I realized early on that taking a class was the proper approach. But the DVD just happened to be Dr. Paul Lam's Tai Chi The 24 Forms, which  I now find is an excellent reference for learning the 24 Form. It is still available on his web site,

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Standing Still: The First Posture

There is a story about Sun Lutang, the developer of Sun Style Tajiquan. Sun had gone to learn Xing Yi Quan from a famous martial artist, Li Kui Yuan. For the first year, Sun was only allowed to practice the standing posture. After about six months, Sun Lutang began to feel “as though his chest and stomach were full and his feet had roots.” At the end of a year his teacher, wishing to test Sun Lutang, came up behind him and struck him with a palm strike. His posture was unaffected, as if he had not received a powerful blow at all. Seeing this, the teacher agreed to teach Sun Lutang the fighting form of Xing Yi Quan.

How do we begin? With a single step, the old adage would have us believe. But that notion is indicative of Western culture: always in a hurry to get somewhere. No, the longest journey begins, not with a single step, but with standing still. In some instruction books, those written by the great masters such as Fu Zhongwen, the first posture is called “Preparatory.”

Fu describes this posture as standing, legs comfortably apart with the feet  spaced approximately at the width of the shoulders and with the toes pointing forward. The arms hang loosely at the sides, the shoulders themselves are relaxed and drooping, the wrist loose. The spine is straight but not rigid, the head is held high as if suspended by a thread, and the eyes gaze forward. He references the treatise by Yang Chengfu on “The Ten Essentials of Taijiquan Theory.”

1. An intangible and lively energy lifts the crown of the head.
2. Contain the chest and raise the back.
3. Relax the waist.
4. Distinguish insubstantial and substantial. (be aware of where the weight of the body is placed.)
5. Sink the shoulders and drop the elbows.
6. Use consciousness, not strength.
7.Upper and lower follow one another. (ie., “it is rooted in the feet, issued by the legs, governed by the waist, and expressed in the fingers.”)
8. Internal and external are united.
9. Linked without breaks. (“move the energy as though drawing silk from a cocoon.”)
10. Seek stillness in motion.

For the beginning student of any of the Tai Chi forms, this first posture, standing still, may be overlooked as an essential and important part of the form. It is not just standing around waiting to start¾it is the beginning, and, since the form is a continuous circular flow of energy, it is also the ending.

From The Tai Chi Classics we learn:

The abdomen is completely relaxed, enabling the ch’I to penetrate the bones; the spirit of vitality is at rest and the body is tranquil, permitting you to heed the intent of your mind.   ¾The Mental Elucidation of the Thirteen Postures, Wang Chung Yueh, Ming Dynasty, trans: T. T. Liang

From The Song of the Substance and Function of the Thirteen Postures (trans: T. T. Liang):

Pay special attention to your waist at all times. When the abdomen is completely relaxed, the ch’I will soar up (and circulate through the entire body).

When the lowest vertebrae are plumb erect, the spirit of vitality reaches to the top of the head. When the top of the head is held as if suspended from above, the whole body feels light and agile.

How do you start to start? Many versions of the Form begin by standing with the feet together. There is a slight turn towards the right and the body’s weight is put unto the right foot. The left foot is now at an “empty stance,” and is lifted slightly and moved out to the left, the toe touching down first. Then, he heel goes down and with a slight turn back toward a centered position, the body’s weight is again equally distributed between both feet. This allows you the find the proper spacing of the feet and to “distinguish the insubstantial from the substantial.”

A good technique when standing still is to breath slowly, deeply and fully, to start with the top of head, relaxing the neck and shoulders, then mentally work down the body, relaxing it until you reach the feet. Try to imagine that your feet are “rooted” in the ground and that your head is suspended from above and virtually weightless. The weight of your body is evenly distributed between your two legs (double weighted). This is one of the very few times during the form that this will be true.

More advanced students may wish to investigate W. C. C. Chen’s writings on what he calls “the three nails.” This refers to, on each foot, the big toe, the big toe “knuckle,” and the heel. These three “nails” are the means by which you root yourself to the ground. You can become aware of the function of the three nails as you move throughout the form, shifting your weight back and forth and taking the Form’s characteristic stances.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

The Journal of Asian Martial Arts: a Golden Resource

I haven’t written for this blog for a while. I have an excuse: I took some time off to finish my first novel (!) All The Way By Water is now available at as a paperback and on Kindle, so please check it out!

My mentor, Michael DeMarco, who introduced me to the Yang Long Form 11 years ago (has it been that long?) is the publisher and inspiration behind the Journal Of Asian Martial Arts. He conceived this as a scholarly journal to attract expert and informative writing on the subject of the martial arts. Recently, and sadly, the Journal has ceased publication, but, like the phoenix, it has been reborn.

The first event was a new book entitled Asian Martial Arts, for which 36 authors contributed original articles reflecting the depth and diversity of the subject and mirroring the tradition of scholarship of the Journal.. The scope of the book is enormous, covering history, techniques, philosophy, anecdotes, specific demonstrations by masters in each discipline. Tai Chi is well represented, as well as Judo, Wei Kuen Do, Bajiquan, Wing Chun, Baguazhang, Sambo, Goju-rye Karate, Mantis Boxing, and on and on. Sorry, the pre-publication discount has expired, but the book sells for $24.95 and is well worth it.

The second event was the redesign and repurposing of the Journal’s web site: . The web site is now an archive for over two decades of in-depth discussions of Asian Martial Arts traditions. The various articles are organized under major subjects such as Asia, China, Japan,  Korea and South East Asia and Other Styles, and each of these areas are subdivided into special interests such as Taijiquan Chen Style or Weaponry, Sword Arts, etc. Articles can be printed for your own use for 15 cents per page. I call that a bargain.

In this day and age when the internet has become the major source of research for everyone from grade school children writing their first term paper to semi-retired adults testing the waters of a new hobby by watching youtube, it must be noted that we live in what will someday come to be called “the MISinformation age.”  I’ve probably contributed to that phenomenon myself with opinionated spiels on subjects I haven’t researched properly, or by quoting some authority whose half-knowledge is based on supposition or modern myth. So it is important to support and utilize projects of genuine thinking and experience that are, essentially, juried with an attitude toward excellence in scholarship.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Book published!

I am proud to announce that my first novel, All The Way By Water, has just been published. It is available on as a paperback (and soon on Kindle). Here's the link:

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Open The Door and Step Through

There are pitfalls we all experience when learning. These are the little errors and mistakes we adopt for one reason or another, that stay with us and become increasingly more difficult to “unlearn” as time goes by. Even in a class the need for the correction may not be noticed and the error may become engrained through habit. Those of us who have left the structure of a class and study on our own are even more at risk to perpetuate “incorrectness.”  Where does it come from? How do we get rid of it?

One day I convinced my new Tai Chi instructor, who taught Sun Style, to let me show him my Yang Long Form. After I finished he asked, “Why are you pointing down with your index finger in that one move? Don’t you know you are providing a ‘handle’ for an opponent to grab?” I hadn’t realized I was making the hook for Single Whip wrong, extending my finger instead or curving it inward to touch my thumb. Since I hadn’t practiced the Long Form in the context of a class for a year or two, no one was available to offer a correction until now.

Even within the context of a class you can adopt an bad habit. Early in my studies I was practicing the movement called Brush Knee. Another student came up to me and told me I was doing it wrong. “Think of it this way,” they said. “You open the door, then you step through it.” By this catchy phrase I was to remember to sweep my hand down and across my thigh and then take a step forward, pushing out with my other hand. I began doing Brush Knee this way and the catch phrase worked well ---to reinforce the incorrect sequence of the move. It wasn’t until years later in another class that my instructor stated a simple principle: “Always set your feet in position first so that you can use the muscles of your waist and upper thighs to direct the motion of the rest of your body,” or something to that effect. It made me think about the Brush Knee movement and I suddenly saw, then in practice felt, the correct sequence: step, set your stance, then sweep your hand across (brushing aside a kick or a low punch), twisting and pushing out with your other hand (energized from the hips).

The person who had given me the bad advice had most likely learned it that way in an earlier class taught by a different instructor. So bad habits can be infectious. It is also the kind of mistake you can only correct by feeling the corrected way of doing it. Kind of a vicious circle. I have to come up with a better catch phrase. Maybe something like, “Step on their toe and then hit ‘em in the groin.” Of course, the movement (or posture, as some people call it) is more or less one continuous action but it is often taught by breaking it down into components, thus, the linear, 1-2-3-ness of it to our inquiring minds. Here is a video that illustrates Brush Knee:

Not bad, huh? I have to say, though, that I don’t exactly step heel first, leg straight and use the heel as a hinge for shifting my weight. I’ve seen that in a lot of videos, so I have to think about it, but it seems like it emphasizes the heel as a fulcrum a little too much. No matter. Notice the way he turns at the waist. This is more than a simple turn: it is a transfer of Chi from the Dantien. The Kua (inner thigh and hips) are the “movers and shakers” here. In fact, the movement is sometimes called Brush Knee Twist Step. I think of this whenever I watch professional baseball: the pitcher does not throw with his arm; he throws with his Kua! At any rate, remember to step through, and then open the door