Monday, February 27, 2012

Slapping myself in the face

Don’t you hate it when something you say comes back and slaps you in the face. This happened to me this morning. Last Friday afternoon, I was talking with a friend about some marketing ideas, both for her, and for my classes, as well as for a fundraising event that I am a participant in. Well, I connected that she journaled with a marketing idea of sharing her journey with the world. She wasn’t comfortable with the idea.

Fast foward to this morning. One of the first things that I did was read Wim Demeere’s blog here -

The first thing I thought of after reading this blog was a series of statements made famous by the late Jou Tsung Hwa a Taiji master. He called them Essential Principles for the Practice of Internal Martial Arts. I call them the best way to learn anything.

Essential Principles for the Practice of Internal Martial Art

1. Yào yŏu zì zhī. 要有自知 Know yourself.
2. Jìn lì ér wéi. 盡力而為 Do your best.
3. Guò yóu bù jí. 過猶不及 Don't overdo it.
4. Rì jìn cùn gōng 日進寸功 Make a little progress every day.

While thinking about this, I thought what a great framework this would make for a journaling project the idea is that each day I should write an appropriate observation for each of these principles. Then it hit me. Why shouldn’t I share this journey with others? (Oooohhhhh, that is a bit personal was my first thought). Then my friends face flashed through my mind, I know what she felt when I suggested that idea.

I have further refined my idea. I am going to challenge a couple of my friends to come on the journey with me. We will form an informal accountability group. I will further share my journey with the readers of this blog.

What do you think? I would love to hear ideas and suggestions.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011


A fellow teacher that I follow on Twitter recently tweeted a link to his newest blog post.

Now, when I read this, I just had to respond, because I don’t think the question is a dumb one. Though, most of you that know me understand that I truly believe that education is the key to just about everything. So, I have decided to answer the original question, and address what I see as a major problem within the Traditional Martial Arts(TMA).

How would that technique work against a MMA fighter?

Well, let’s see, if an MMA fighter attacked me with the attack that the technique is used against, it would work the same way that it is shown here to work. If it would not work that way, then your technique is flawed. (the one caveat that I will make here, is that there are certain techniques that work better if you are shorter than the attacker, and tall guys are at a disadvantage - that said, us tall guys have the advantage or reach, so in the long run, it should equal out.)

Now, on to the original problem that lead to a tremendous gulf between MMA and TMA. There were too many teachers that had never tested what they teach. The original reasons for this were, “this is a deadly technique”, “I really don’t want to hurt someone”, etc, etc. Granted, there are some of these techniques, unfortunately most of the teachers that gave those excuses could not have effectively used these techniques if the had to. The fact is TMA had become complacent.

Now, has this changed?

I think it has, for one reason, MMA has come on the scene, and most of use have had to defend our arts in one way or another. The problem is, too many of the TMA teachers are still parroting non-answers when approached by MMA enthusiasts. I really feel this needs to change. So here are some suggestions.

Learn about MMA, and why it is different from TMA and self defense.

MMA is a sport that grades competitors on techniques, control of the fight, control of the ring and aggressiveness. Why you might ask, if someone has good technique, controls the fight and the ring can they lose? Yes, that very thing has happened. The reason, the crowd wants to see the aggressiveness.

TMA, no matter what system is a fighting system that has been passed down through the years. Most of our arts come from the orient, but there are others out there. Most TMA includes historical weapons.

Both TMA and MMA can be adapted to self-defense, they have to be adapted because certain techniques require a level of training, and or fitness that does not exist in the average person.

MMA fighters are in incredible physical shape.

Too many TMA “masters”are in horrible shape. (I question if they are then truly masters.)

There are differences, there are similarities. The fact is, no matter what you teach, in my humble opinion, you should make sure it works, and that you can in fact teach someone to use it against a non-compliant training partner.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Do you know the Yi Jing(易經)?

This past weekend, I attended a workshop for the Yang style two person set. This is a fundamental set that teaches and includes applications for the postures found in the solo form. This form has contributed greatly to my development as a martial artist in general and specifically as a player of Taijiquan. This isn’t a blog about that form though, instead it is a blog about change.

Every time I go back to a review or workshop of this form, there are subtle(sometimes more than subtle) changes. In the specific case of this form, the changes are refinements made for a variety of reasons, but each has either represented a different way of teaching the application, a refinement of a neutralization or application, or of footwork/direction.

Fundamentally, I am all on board for change, but truth be told, I am not very comfortable with change, once I have something working, and/or I am in charge of the change. Leaving the workshop my Kung Fu brother and I were discussing the refinements that we had gotten, most were minor, but there was one that seemed very major to me, it was a complete redo of the footwork through a neutralization into the follow-on application. Please remember, this was a move that I had learned around 16 years ago, and had been practicing regularly. It was a move that worked for me, even when playing with a level of intention, and non-compliance.

Why would I want to change this move?

I am not 100% sure about why this move changed, I have my ideas. Boiled down to a nutshell, it was probably changed because people were having difficulty executing the other move, the other move to be executed with stability required practice, and knowledge of a non-basic stance. Does that make it better or worse. Does it really matter.

All systems experience this!

At various times I hear practitioners of all systems lamenting the changing of forms. I have even heard many say that the current Yang Style of Taijiquan is no longer martial and that the “Lao Jia”or Old Frame is better. I think my teacher “Lao Ma” summed it up best by telling us a story about T.T. Liang. He said that often students at Liang Shifu’s seminars would lament that he had done something different the last time that they had been with him. Purportedly, Liang Shifu would get real close to them, and ask if they knew the Yi Jing. Everything changes.

If our intent is simply to learn the forms, exactly as they are taught, and preserve them that way, then we have missed one of the real lessons of Taiji.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Skipping to a PhD

Yesterday I was having a conversation with a close friend about her career aspirations and possible educational paths to proceed. The conversation turned to teaching, and then the difference between a Masters Degree and a Doctorate of Philosophy (PhD). Of course, I started relating this thought process to the martial arts.
A long time ago a friend told me that a Masters Degree was just that, to denote that the recipient had a Mastery of the subject. He went on to discuss that the PhD was expected to grasp a subject on the theoretical level. Mastering a subject does not always mean graping and fully understanding the theory behind it.
As I began relating this to the martial arts, it was easy to see the correlation to most traditional martial arts, but when I examine the primary art that I know and love, this model really did not work. If we use an art like Karate, Tang Soo Do, or Aikido, there is a pretty clear correlation to our academic system. With these arts, the achievement of a Black Belt is like getting into College. The first couple of Black Belt ranks get you through college. Somewhere around the 4th Degree mark, you are recognized as a master just like the graduate from the Masters Program.
It seems that in most martial arts you can be considered a master of the art being a technician.
Now, this also relates directly to another conversation that I was having recently around the concept of menkyo kaiden, a concept found in the older Japanese martial arts. Menkyo kaiden is translated as license of full transmission. Essentially this gives the bearer official permission to teach outside of his school, or to by extension to start his own school. This terminology technically refers to a ranking system that was used prior to the current Japanese model of kyu(levels/grades) and dan(degrees). It seems that one could be considered a master, but not have reached menkyo kaidan(seems to be the PhD). The interesting thing of note is that one could receive this status without being a 10th degree, or even receiving the honorific title of Grandmaster (but this is another topic altogether).
As I thought about this, I really began to wonder about Taijiquan. Chinese martial systems for the most part did not have the structure and ranking systems. In modern times, most have opted for a ranking system, even if it is simply an internal system of curriculum organization and not represented by a colored sash or belt system. It seems that most students crave at least a minimum of structure to enhance their learning experience. I spent much time thinking about this prior to establishing the sash system that we have implemented.
Can Taijiquan be distilled down into the physical only?
The real crux of my thoughts here are about Mastery of Taijiquan. It really seems to me (and by definition) that Taijiquan is inextricably tied to Daoist philosophy. It is named Taiji Fist because it is a martial art designed entirely around the Taijitu (most of the time known as the Yin and Yang symbol). In other martial arts, it seems that you can reach mastery level without delving deeply into theory. It seems to me that theory plays a larger role in Taijiquan. It is almost like Taijiquan is doctoral level studies from day one. Master Jou Tsung Hwa theorized that the practice of any martial art that followed the underlying principles of taiji, was taiji. This is typically seen at the higher levels of mastery
Is it possible to learn Taijiquan without previous martial arts experience, and if you are doing that, won’t you have to learn some base martial art during the process?

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Striving for "Real" Taiji

He who stretches
beyond his natural reach,
does not stand firmly
upon the ground;
just as he
who travels at a speed
beyond his means,
cannot maintain his pace.
He who boasts
is not enlightened,
and he who is self-righteous
does not gain respect
from those who are meritous;
thus, he gains nothing,
and will fall into disrepute.
Since striving,
boasting and self-righteousness,
are all unnecessary traits,
the sage considers them excesses,
and has no need of them.

I read this as I was ruminating two recent occurrences. The first was a blog that I read by another Taiji teacher. His blog was specifically talking about the origins of Taijiquan, he was presenting arguments about which family can claim the “real” Taijiquan.

To me, the whole tone of the blog seemed a bit the antithesis of taiji and taiji principles. Does it really matter the origin; history in China is so shrouded and intertwined with legend. If it was in fact Zhang SanFeng, or Chen Wang Ting, does it really matter? Isn’t it more important to focus on the development of Taijiquan?

Personally, this leads me into the second area on which I was ruminating. I have striven, for years, contrary to this passage from the Dao De Jing . One of the main things that I have striven for is to prove that Taiji is still a martial art, and that it has relevance. Like the author of the other blog, I have had frustration about so many “instructors” teaching “Tai Chi” as a form of exercise, as a sort of dance. There are also those that teach it as some sort of mystical study, enhancing a magical “life force” that they call Qi.

There is much benefit that comes along with the study of Taijiquan, be it Yang, Chen, Wu or of another name. We cannot however dispute the fact that to write the name of our art, we use the Chinese characters . The first character means “great, supreme, ultimate” the second character means “ridge-pole, extreme” when combined, these two characters refer to the Taiji Tu or the symbol that most of us in the west know as the Yin/Yang. In truth this symbol is the graphical representation of the Daoist philosophy. The final character is Pinyin quán which means fist and is used to denote a style of martial art.

With that said, it should be obvious that you cannot remove the martial art from Taiji or Tai Chi which is just the Wade Giles Romanization of the word. As some of my friends would say, “And there you have it.” Our challenge, as proponents of Taijiquan, is to maintain the integrity of this great art (and that means keeping the martial) while following its philosophies. It might seem easier to prove the legitimacy of Taiji by being a bellicose fighter. Is that truly Taiji?

Saturday, March 12, 2011

10 Essentials of Yang Taiji

These can be found numerous places, but I feel they are worth mentioning here. They are on the Yellow/Earth Sash written test, so for my students, you need to memorize the essentials. It also does not hurt to incorporate them into your training.

Following are the Ten Essentials of Tai Chi Chuan Orally transmitted by Yang Chengfu Recorded by Chen Weiming Translated by Jerry Karin

1. Empty, lively, pushing up and energetic1

'Pushing up and energetic' means the posture of the head is upright and straight and the spirit is infused into its apex. You may not use strength. To do so makes the back of the neck stiff, whereupon the chi and blood cannot circulate freely. You must have an intention which is empty, lively (or free) and natural. Without an intention which is empty, lively, pushing up and energetic, you won't be able to raise your spirit.

2. Hold in the chest and pull up the back

The phrase 'hold in the chest' means the chest is slightly reserved inward, which causes the chi to sink to the cinnabar field (dan1 tian2). The chest must not be puffed out. If you do so then the chi is blocked in the chest region, the upper body becomes heavy and lower body light, and it will become easy for the heels to float upward. 'Pulling up the back' makes the chi stick to the back. If you are able to hold in the chest then you will naturally be able to pull up the back. If you can pull up the back, then you will be able to emit a strength from the spine which others cannot oppose.

3. Relax the waist

The waist is the commander of the whole body. Only after you are able to relax the waist2 will the two legs have strength and the lower body be stable. The alternation of empty and full all derive from the turning of the waist. Hence the saying: 'The wellspring of destiny lies in the tiny interstice of the waist. Whenever there is a lack of strength in your form, you must look for it in the waist and legs.

4. Separate empty and full

In the art of Tai Chi Chuan, separating full and empty is the number one rule. If the whole body sits on the right leg, then the right leg is deemed 'full' and the left leg 'empty'. If the whole body sits on the left leg, then the left leg is deemed 'full' and the right leg 'empty'. Only after you are able to distinguish full and empty will turning movements be light, nimble and almost without effort; if you can't distinguish them then your steps will be heavy and sluggish, you won't be able to stand stably, and it will be easy for an opponent to control you.

5. Sink the shoulders and droop the elbows

Sinking the shoulders means the shoulders relax open and hang downward. If you can't relax them downward, the shoulders pop up and then the chi follows and goes upward, causing the whole body to lack strength. Drooping the elbows means the elbows are relaxed downward. If the elbows are elevated then the shoulders are unable to sink. When you use this to push someone they won't go far. It's like the 'cut off' energy of external martial arts3.

6. Use Intent Rather than Force

The taiji classics say, "this is completely a matter of using intent rather than force'. When you practice taijiquan, let the entire body relax and extend. Don't employ even the tiniest amount of coarse strength which would cause musculo-skeletal or circulatory blockage with the result that you restrain or inhibit yourself. Only then will you be able to lightly and nimbly change and transform, circling naturally. Some wonder: if I don't use force, how can I generate force? The net of acupuncture meridians and channels throughout the body are like the waterways on top of the earth. If the waterways are not blocked, the water circulates; if the meridians are not impeded the chi circulates. If you move the body about with stiff force, you swamp the meridians, chi and blood are impeded, movements are not nimble; all someone has to do is begin to guide you and your whole body is moved. If you use intent rather than force, wherever the intent goes, so goes the chi. In this way - because the chi and blood are flowing, circulating every day throughout the entire body, never stagnating - after a lot of practice, you will get true internal strength. That's what the taiji classics mean by "Only by being extremely soft are you able to achieve extreme hardness." Somebody who is really adept at taiji has arms which seem like silk wrapped around iron, immensely heavy. Someone who practices external martial arts, when he is using his force, seems very strong. But when not using force, he is very light and floating. By this we can see that his force is actually external, or superficial strength. The force used by external martial artists is especially easy to lead or deflect, hence it is not of much value.

7. Synchronize Upper and Lower Body

In the taiji classics 'Synchronize Upper and Lower Body is expressed as: "With its root in the foot, emitting from the leg, governed by the waist, manifesting in the hands and fingers - from feet to legs to waist - complete everything in one impulse." * When hands move, the waist moves and legs move, and the gaze moves along with them. Only then can we say the upper and lower body are synchronized. If one part doesn't move then it is not coordinated with the rest.

8. Match Up Inner and Outer

What we are practicing in taiji depends on the spirit, hence the saying: "The spirit is the general, the body his troops". If you can raise your spirit, your movements will naturally be light and nimble, the form nothing more than empty and full, open and closed. When we say 'open', we don't just mean open the arms or legs; the mental intent must open along with the limbs. When we say 'close', we don't just mean close the arms or legs; the mental intent must close along with the limbs. If you can combine inner and outer into a single impulse*, then they become a seamless whole.

9. (Practice) Continuously and Without Interruption

Strength in external martial arts is a kind of acquired, brute force, so it has a beginning and an end, times when it continues and times when it is cut off, such that when the old force is used up and new force hasn't yet arisen, there is a moment when it is extremely easy for the person to be constrained by an opponent. In taiji, we use intent rather than force, and from beginning to end, smoothly and ceaselessly, complete a cycle and return to the beginning, circulating endlessly. That is what the taiji classics mean by "Like the Yangtze or Yellow River, endlessly flowing." And again: "Moving strength is like unreeling silk threads". These both refer to unifying into a single impulse*.

10. Seek Quiescence within Movement

External martial artists prize leaping and stopping as skill, and they do this till breath (chi) and strength are exhausted, so that after practicing they are all out of breath. In taiji we use quiescence to overcome movement, and even in movement, still have quiescence. So when you practice the form, the slower the better! When you do it slowly your breath becomes deep and long, the chi sinks to the cinnabar field (dan1 tian2) and naturally there is no deleterious constriction or enlargement of the blood vessels. If the student tries carefully he may be able to comprehend the meaning behind these words.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Bad Customer Service - Best Buy

I will never make a purchase from Best Buy again, either in the store or on the website.

I made this purchase with the expectation that I could walk in a pick it up, that it would be quicker than going to the store, getting the item off of the shelf and going through the checkout.

Boy was I wrong.

1. When I arrived at the store after 5 pm on the date of the order, over 30 minutes after getting the email that the item was ready to be picked up, and after waiting in line, the customer service associate was unable to locate the item. She looked on the computer and saw where “John” had picked the item, but she could not locate it. She made numerous phone calls and furtively looked around the area for the item.

2. 2. I could have gotten the item off of the shelf and went through the check out in the time I spent on Friday night trying to get the item. As I had to be somewhere, I opted to come back at a later time to get the item.

3. I returned to the store at 1:30 pm today. There was a huge line at the customer service counter. I waited for 30 minutes just to be helped. (This is ridiculous in and of itself, it sure did not feel like customer service.) Again, when I got to the counter, the poor representative was not able to find my item. She looked, she made phone calls, she finally just went back to the shelf and got one. You can imagine my feelings of frustration. I bought and paid for the item online to streamline my in store experience only to have a worse in store experience.

4. I then asked to speak to a manager, for two reasons. I wanted to let her know about my frustration, point out that the customer experience in the store was horrible, not just for myself, but for all of the other folks that were waiting in line, and to applaud the representative that had finally taken the initiative to get my product from the shelf. Jennifer was introduced as a CMO? and I began talking to her letting her know about how abysmal the service was. She simply looked at my very disinterested, and did not even take any notes, nor refer to any system. It was pretty clear that my concern was going to stop with her. When I mentioned this, her answer was that there was a place on my receipt to do something. I was flabbergasted, definitely NO customer service there.

As a business owner myself, and one that focuses on helping business grow, I realize how important the customer experience is. I can surely tell you that my customer experience at the store in Fayetteville has led me to the decision that I stated at the beginning of this email. I will not shop at Best Buy again. The purpose of this not is to let you know what is happening.