Monday, January 29, 2007

day 16: 8th palm change continued


  • combat applications
  • line drill


  • drills (1-hand and 2-hand, line)
  • 8th palm change
  • combat applications

today was a relatively straightforward day. things began simply enough with people slowly sauntering into class. i noticed the number of baji students was quite larger than usual (normally, i can count less than 4, but today there were 7), and we also had a new bagua student (he didn't give anybody his name, but he may have just been trying the class for a day).

Sifu arrived with the jian shu students, and ordered Phunsak and Lee to lead everyone through hand drills, with Phunsak leading 1-hand drills and Lee leading the 2-hand drills.

8th palm change

following the drills, Sifu had everybody line up to go over the 8th palm change, taking time to first observe everyone and then guiding us through the entire sequence of techniques. there were a number of nuances that had not been apparent from last week, and which became clear only after a description of the combat application for each technique. this resulted in some un-learning of parts of last class, since we had presumably spent the week practicing the form on our own. but the changes were good, in the sense that it made the palm change much easier to perform.

combat applications

Sifu made the following comments about the combat applications of the 8th palm change:

  • initial swing--in the initial "paddle-wheel" swinging of the arms conducted as the lower body steps into the bow-and-arrow stance, the initial swing out by the lead arm is supposed to be a motion moving an opponent's arm out of the way, opening up the opponent for the subsequent step forward (again into bow-and-arrow) by the legs and swing forward of the rear arm, which can serve to be a strike or a grab (e.g., if you are starting in the initial big bird stance facing left, the initial lead arm will be your left hand, which moves the opponent's arm as you step forward into bow-and-arrow with your left foot, and the rear arm bringing the subsequent strike will be your right hand, which comes down as you step forward into bow-and-arrow with your right foot).
  • initial push-and-pull--this is actually a pull of the opponent's limbs. the practitioner transitions out of the bow-and-arrow "paddle-wheel" stance to what appears to be 60-40 (but i am unsure of this) and brings the two hands together towards the side of the body away from the opponent at about (or slightly below) chest level, then brings more weight onto the forward leg and brings both hands forward and up towards the side facing the opponent before shifting weight to the back foot and bringing the hands back to the side away from the opponent (e.g., continuing the example from above, the forward leg is still the right leg, making the side facing the opponent the right side of the body). the point where the weight goes to the forward leg and then goes back again is the point the practitioner is supposed to be pulling an opponent's arm (or leg) back, setting up the next step.
  • arc--this arc over the head, according to Sifu, is supposed to generate momentum as the practitioner's arms and torso follows a broad circle starting from the rear point above and finishing with the practitioner taking both hands and either pushing or striking forward into the opponent.
  • step-out, backwards arch--this is supposed to be a combination block and strike forward into the opponent, with both arms acting in a way which interrupts the opponent's arms while simultaneously pushing forward into the torso.
  • transition to finishing stance--the final part of the 8th palm change has the practitioner transition from "leaf covers flower" to the "big bird" stance. but the transition is actually a combat application, wherein the practitioner is supposed to be blocking an incoming strike with both arms together, stepping around into the opponent so that the practitioner's shoulder makes contact with the opponent's shoulder, and then spreading the arms out so that one arm follows the opponent's outstretched strike to the opponent's face. at this point, the practitioner is supposed to turn, using the hips, which is supposed to then result in the opponent falling towards their backside.

Sifu noted--and also demonstrate--that all these steps are somewhat exaggerated in the 8th palm change, since in actual combat the motions would be much more guarded so as to 1) reduce the extent to which the practitioner exposes the torso to the opponent, and 2) increase the speed of the movements (e.g., in the "arc" above, the practitioner wouldn't actually follow such a wide and open trajectory in the arc, but come out of the pull of the opponent's arm and go directly into the opponent's body). he commented that the exaggeration was common to all the palm changes, but that this was intentional since they were meant to help students become familiar with the movements and thereby learn better technique.

following this, he left us to repeat the 8th palm change on our own. we worked on this for a bit, but i also took some time with Phunsak and Kie-yon to ask them about combat applications for the 2nd and 3rd palm changes, since i was still somewhat unclear about them, particularly the 2nd palm change's connection of the wrists out of the initial turn (which is actually a block), and the 3rd palm change's use of "hawk chasing sparrow" and follow-up spin (which is actually a way of blocking an opponent's strike and then spinning towards the opponent and reaching into their torso).

line drill

after awhile, Sifu returned and had us all go through the line drill for the combat application of the final part of the 8th palm change. as in prior weeks, one person at the end of the line is the "defender" using the technique and the others in line are the "assailants." the "defender" is supposed to use the technique in successive sequential order against each "assailant" until the line is completed, whereupon the "defender" takes a place in line to become an "assailant" and the next person in line takes their turn as "defender."

apparently, this is a deceptively difficult step. i suspect this is why we took extra time to devote a drill to it. the final step of the 8th palm change involves the practitioner transitioning out of "leaf covers summer flower" into the "big bird" stance. but this proved maddeningly difficult to do. Sifu made it look very straightforward, but i found it very inconsistent and sometimes it didn't work at all. when it did work, it wasn't throwing them on their backside, but rather pushing them away (something not as desireable, since an opponent can recover more quickly from a push backwards than they can from having been thrown onto their back). too often i found myself having to exercise muscular effort to turn and throw people--something which is contrary to the general concepts of bagua.

Kie-yon made the comment to me that the spreading of the arms is supposed to force the opponent's head back, which induces them to go off balance backwards, making it much easier to throw them with a turn of the shoulders. this was consistent with something Sifu had said--the block shouldn't be a strong block, but just a slight one that is just enough to open space to reach towards the opponent's face with the practitioner's hand, which suggests the idea is to have the opponent be as upright as possible. this incidentally, was also consistent with what i saw happening to people who successfully resisted my throw--all they had to do was tighten their abdominals or slouch forward, and the throw became dramatically more difficult to conduct.

in addition, the turn isn't just with the shoulders, but originates from the hips. Sifu had said this, but it turned out to be an unnatural movement for me to do. for me, i still have to consciously think about moving my hips, and i am relatively not used to having them acting in coordination with other movements of the body.

towards the end, i think i realized what i was doing wrong--i was 1) slouching forward into the block, allowing the opponent to lean forward to resist the throw, and 2) attempting to turn with the hips about an axis that was in line with the slouch, rather than vertical, causing the turn to be a push into the opponent that was more easily resisted than a throw forcing them backwards. but the drill ended before i could confirm this. i'll have to test it next week to see.

following the drill, Sifu called class to an end, and we wrapped up and went for lunch.

Monday, January 22, 2007

day 15: 8th palm change

  • fire and water
  • piqua
  • drills (1-hand and 2-hand, and walking the square)
  • palm changes 1-7
  • 8th palm change
  • mother palm

today began a little late. i was left to warm up alone, and people gradually started to arrive, with Richard showing up first and then Mike, Laura (a new student who began last December), and Siwan-da (sp?--he evidently was a student back in 1995, then left and just returned last week). we had just finished stances when Phunsak arrived and told us that Sifu was going to miss today and that he was going to lead the instruction for the day.

i get the feeling Phunsak, apart from Art or Mike, is the most senior student in terms of time with Sifu and also skill level. while some of the other students have had a roughly equivalent amount of time with Sifu (according to Phunsak--and in correction of a previous post to this blog--it's been close to 12 years), Phunsak appears to be the one recognized as closest to becoming a sifu himself. he likely just needs more time leading classes and building up teaching experience (which, if it's anything like academics, is actually a very fine art and one not always mastered by the many claiming to be "teachers").

i should qualify my comments by pointing out that i know Art is himself an instructor in tai chi, and has been with Jason since the 1970s (long enough to have apparently gone through all of Sifu's curricula several times). but he continues to show up as a student in our classes anyway, and seems content to have other students lead before him. at this stage for him, i suppose he's attending more for cameraderie and culture now more than anything else.


by this point, most everyone had arrived, and we formally started the day with 1-hand and 2-hand drills. from this we went directly into walking the square. i noticed that this time Phunsak emphasized both inside and outside turns (for some reason, my previous exposure has mostly been inside turns), and also monitored everyone performing fire-and-water during their turns.

recall that in bagua, "fire" is supposed to mean rising and "water" is supposed to mean falling. in the turns, the torso is supposed to fall (water) at the same time as the hands rise (fire). technically, according to Phunsak, the torso and guarding hand is supposed to do much of the movement and the leading hand (the one closest to the opponent at the center of the square or circle) is supposed to remain relatively level. proper performance of the inside and outside turns requires expression of fire and water.

palm changes 1-7

after some time with walking the square, Phunsak ordered everyone into lines to review the first 7 palm changes. this is a good thing, because there continue to be nuances that i keep forgetting or finding confusing, and i suspect the same goes for everyone else in class. the reviews provide opportunity to pose questions, resolve problems, and refresh our memories. in particular, the more recent palm changes (5-7) are still somewhat fuzzy or feel awkward.

a lot of this has to with muscle memory. in sports the theory goes that certain physical motions have to be repeated for extensive periods of time to 1) allow muscle adaptation to the motions and 2) ingrain the motions into the nervous system and mind. this allows the body to acclimatize to the pattern of nerve end firings connecting muscle tissue to the brain, synchronize the brain's signals with the mind's intent, and harmonize the new neuromuscular activity with the pre-existing base of built-in muscular memories. essentially, repetition is necessary to develop coordination and fluidity in movement, and the more complex the new pattern of motion being learned the more repetition is necessary. medical science asserts that for most people the brain seems to acquire and store new information (including information on new physical motions) into long-term memory after about 7 repetitions.

this theory is exercised throughout all the sports i've been exposed to--although they argue for far more than 7 repetitions, and call for as many as necessary until physical movement is fluid, second-nature, and part of the subconscious. team sports like basketball emphasize repetition of shooting, layups, pivots, passes, and dribbling drills so that they become second nature, allowing the player to focus on the game rather than their own motions. individual sports like running and swimming emphasize continuous repetition of total body movements (even so far as fingers and toes), timing, rhythm, and breathing, to the extent that the competitor maximizes power output and efficiency without excessive mental energy, which can then be devoted to responding to race conditions. and it doesn't matter how advanced a person is--beginners and professional athletes always end up doing the same drills; the only difference is how well the drills are executed and how diligently they are done.

with the palm changes we've done to date, i've noticed the principle is the same. we're repeating the palm changes to an extent that people are gradually becoming more accustomed to the movements. even now, i can see that the first few palm changes (to which we were introduced first and hence have had more time to practice) are becoming much more natural to perform. the awkwardness of the first few repetitions are starting to go away.

of course, this just means that the prescription for the future is more repetition.

which Phunsak supplied in ample supply. compared to when other students lead the review, i notice that he performs more repetitions of each palm change. he seems enamored of the number 8, since that is the number of times we did each palm change (although in the past he's gone as high as 16). i doubt this has anything to do with cultural preference for lucky numbers--while the lucky number in Chinese society is 8, Phunsak is Thai, and the lucky number in Thai society is 9. i don't know if this is an extension of the bagua fascination with the 8-sided trigram diagram. whatever the reason, at least it's more than the magic minimum of 7 set out by medical science.

8th palm change

following the review of palm changes 1-7, the class took a break. Phunsak took the time to help the newer students through the palm changes. some of the other students, including Art, Mike, and Kie-yon (sp?) broke off to resolve a point of debate about Chen taichi. as a result, it took a little difficulty for Phunsak to call everyone together for the 8th palm change.

the 8th palm change is dramatically different from the other palm changes. while the other palm changes involve a lot of movements coming in close to the body, the 8th palm change seems to call for a much more wide-open, almost expressive series of physical motion.

it begins with a "big bird" stance (every time i hear those terms, i keep thinking of Sesame Street, which is ironic, because Big Bird actually has very small wings, which is why he's flightless). the practitioner is supposed to begin with the arms spread out like wings, rotate them like a paddle-wheel, and then step forward into the bow-and-arrow stance so that the rear arm swings overhead to fall forward of the practitioner's shoulders and the front arm swings under to rise behind the shoulders. from there, the student is supposed to step bringing the feet together while simultaneously bringing the hands together towards the front to push an imaginary opponent. at this point, the student turns to the rear in what appears to be the 60-40 stance, subsequently rotates both hands in a broad arc over the head, and brings the hands facing forward in the same 60-40 stance. following this, another broad arc is made over the head, with the back arched, and the student simultaneously stepping back and around, so that the student ends up turning 360 degrees into a forward lung with both arms arching forward at head level. the palm change finishes by the practitioner continuing the turn out of the lunge into the "leaf covers summer flower" stance and then turning back into the "big bird" stance in a direction opposite of the original starting position.

just like the other palm changes, this was pretty awkward to pick up, and took a few attempts before i was actually able to go all the way through it. Phunsak said that we should just focus on learning it, so that we could practice it more during the week, and Sifu Jason could guide us further into it next week. we didn't do any combat applications, and i figure this is just as well--it was hard enough just figuring it out.

Kie-yon commented that the 8th palm change is very "piqua-esque." Piqua is a kung fu style known for long-range combat, with very wide movements with hands and arms swinging in broad arcs--like the 8th palm change. Piqua is sometimes seen as a complementary style to baji, which is a very linear kung fu style geared towards close-range combat. from what other students have told me, Sifu teaches both, although i've only seen students learning baji and bagua.

mother palm

we finished for the day with mother palm. since i haven't had this in class, i was pretty eager to do this. it's actually a more basic lesson in bagua, and is supposed to be learned before a student progresses to the more advanced levels of xiao kai men and 64 palms. i've felt that i've been missing out by not having gone through this, and so was pretty happy when Phunsak offered to take the class through it.

i've learned the fundamental parts of mother palm with John--at least, enough to know the 8 stances, and how to walk in a circle with them and perform inside turns with teach. what i didn't know, however, was how they are performed walking in a circle with others.

Phunsak showed us how to perform mother palm in pairs. we then began walking in circle with our partners, forearms touching. Phunsak called out commands to change stances or perform turns, and then periodically called out a command to change partners. the result was a free-flowing dance of constantly changing direction, stances, and partners in a continuous pattern.

i can see how mother palm is a pre-cursor to 64 palms, since it introduces the student to the 8 basic stances of bagua, and familiarizes the student with holding them while walking in a circle. in addition, it acclimates the student with the close-range nature of bagua, so that the student gets a better feel of staying within physical contact with an opponent and thereby also gets a better sensitivity to responding to an opponent's movements.

i'm curious if there's more to mother palm. and i'm also curious if outside turns are part of it, since i noticed everything Phunsak had us do involved inside turns. but these are questions i'll hold for next week.

upon completion of mother palm, Phunsak dismissed class for the day.

Monday, January 15, 2007

poetry: the buddha's last instruction

i'm not a buddhist.

but i am a spiritual person. and stuff like that is important to me. if you want to get an idea why, check out:

and if you want more, check out:

this was written by a pulitzer-prize winning poet named Mary Oliver. yeah, so she's just another Western barbarian doing the artsy froo-froo thing.

but sometimes, people just get it...

The Buddha's Last Instruction
"Make of yourself a light "
said the Buddha,
before he died.
I think of this every morning
as the east begins
to tear off its many clouds
of darkness, to send up the first
signal - a white fan
streaked with pink and violet,
even green.
An old man, he lay down
between two sala trees,
and he might have said anything,
knowing it was his final hour.
The light burns upward,
it thickens and settles over the fields.
Around him, the villagers gathered
and stretched forward to listen.
Even before the sun itself
hangs, disattached, in the blue air,
I am touched everywhere
by its ocean of yellow waves.
No doubt he thought of everything
that had happened in his difficult life.
And then I feel the sun itself
as it blazes over the hills,
like a million flowers on fire-
clearly I'm not needed
yet I feel myself turning
into something of inexplicable value.
Slowly, beneath the branches,
he raised his head.
He looked into the faces of that frightened crowd.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

day 14: 7th palm change (shock the monkey!)

  • variations in palm changes
  • combat applications (7th palm change, end of 6th palm change)
  • circle walking (monkey)
  • mix-and-match
  • review (palm changes 1-6)
  • 7th palm change
  • mother palm
it appears we had some guests this morning. not prospective students (although it appears one of Sifu's former students from 1995 has returned to study baji), but rather visitors--a rather elderly couple stopped to watch us as we went through stances, and soon gathered a crowd of onlookers around them. they appeared to be aficionados of kung fu, although i wasn't close enough to hear them talk. i am curious, though. for all i know, they could be long lost grandmasters of some secret style seeking refuge from the godless Communists of the PRC.

they spoke to Ching-Tzsieh and Sifu for awhile, presumably to ask questions about the class and what we were studying (and i suspect, as is likely common for practitioners greeting one another, to ask about lineage). we may be gathering a saturday morning congregation at the rate things are going.

review (palm changes 1-6)

following stances and conversations with the visitors, Sifu instructed everyone to review palm changes 1-6. we went through the palm changes in straightforward progression.

the review was somewhat fortuitous, as a practice session mid-week with John and Ronald had generated some debate over several of the techniques. the debates revolved around nuances in technique (particularly in hand movements during the turn out of the initial stances in the 5th and 6th palm changes) as well as fundamentals (such as the starting position for the 3rd and 4th palm changes). going through the palm changes in class (and taking a few moments to observe during the points that had produced debate) managed to resolve the questions i believe we had.

in the course of the review, Sifu noted that there was an alternate way of doing the 4th palm change. rather than going from the starting position into a "sinking" twisting motion into a dragon stance, he pointed out (and then had us practice) stepping out and back into the dragon stance. the difference is that with the first, the practitioner ends up in the dragon stance with the feet in the same locations (albeit different orientation) they were when the leading arm was extended, whereas with the second, the practitioner steps with the leading foot back (away from the opponent) to go into dragon stance with the feet in different locations.

Sifu commented that this was just an alternate way of doing the 4th palm change, and that some people prefer this more than the other. he also added that one wasn't necessarily better or worse than the other, but just something to note and a variation we can use--a theme that would be echoed later in class.

we continued reviewing the palm changes (including the variation of the 4th palm change) while Sifu went to work with the baji students.

7th palm change

after some time, Jason returned and ordered us into line to learn the 7th palm change.

the 7th palm change is tied to the monkey, which apparently has an "open" position and a "closed" position. the open position involves the practitioner raising the hands vertically in the air above the head, with hands and arms parallel and facing each other (just like a NFL referee indicating a successful field goal). the closed position involves the practitioner bringing the arms into the chest, with hands together forming a cup just under the chin and elbows together at the navel. both the open and closed positions are involved in the palm change.

the 7th palm change begins with the practitioner in the "open" monkey position, hands in the air and legs in the usual starting position. from there, the leading leg goes into bai (out) position. the practitioner is then supposed to turn, with the leading leg serving as a pivot and the rear leg coming forward into ko (in) position. concomitant to this, the practitioner lowers the hands and has one hand chase the other across the chest (similar to the motion during the 2-hand drill going to the rear), where the leading arm is the same side as the pivot leg and goes in the same direction as the turn (e.g., if the left leg is the pivot and the right leg is coming forward, this means you are turning counter-clockwise, making the leading arm the left arm and the chasing arm the right arm).

from there, the practitioner continues the turn, lifting the ko (in) foot to make a step in the direction of the turn (and so become the new "leading" foot), and simultaneously bringing the hands together so that they cross at the wrists with the leading hand crossing on top (e.g., continuing from the parentheses above, the right foot goes from "ko" to follow the leading arm so that the student steps with the right foot and the left wrist crosses over the top of the right wrist). at this point, the student is to lean over slightly in the direction of the new leading foot (e.g., continuing the parentheses, leaning to the right) and then perform a very complicated turn in the same direction as the previous (e.g., here, this means going counter-clockwise) wherein the hands are brought over the head and then back into the chest in the "closed" monkey position, while at the same time the "trailing" foot (the foot that was the original "leading" foot at the start of the palm change) is raised to kick the opponent (e.g., holding to the example, here this would the left leg, with the right leg being the axis of the counter-clockwise turn).

the palm change ends with the practitioner bringing the kicking foot down, leaning forward, and then stepping forward with the non-kicking foot while raising the arms into the "open" monkey position to return to the starting stance (albeit in the opposite direction from the starting position before).

Sifu made some notes about the 7th palm change:
  • the turn can be any range--180 degrees, 270 degrees, 360 degrees, 540 degrees, etc. he said the most common is 270 degrees, but that we should practice a range to get comfortable with the technique.
  • the turn has to be initiated with the lean of the torso, as this helps to maintain balance and orient the target of the rotation.
  • as we go through the turn, we have to bring the palms and arms into the "closed" monkey position as the kicking leg is rising, and it helps to imagine it as a "contraction" into the chest.
combat applications

after going through the 7th palm change, Sifu guided us in the combat applications. he made the following points:
  • the cupping of the palms and contraction of the arms into "closed" monkey position is supposed to be an action of catching an opponent's reach or strike. as a result, bring the wrists together and over the head at the start of the turn is supposed to be a lifting of the opponent's arm over our head.
  • the kick during the turn can go to the opponent's torso, groin, knee, or leg. you can do this in a combination.
  • as we come out of the turn, the cupped palms are supposed to come out at the same time the kicking foot is coming down, so that the result is a short lunging motion of the palms that is supposed to be hitting an opponent's chin.
Sifu had us practice in pairs for a short while, taking turns as assailant and defender to get a feel for the mechanics of the turn.

following this, we went immediately into combat applications of the final move from the 6th palm change--the one that closes what i term the "trailing-edge vortices" hand movement (refer to day 13: 6th palm change). the final move involves one hand coming up to the shoulder and the other hand going down to point towards the ground.

Sifu showed us that this is actually a push using the forearm and elbow of the downward arm to drive into and through the shoulder joint of the opponent. basically the arm that comes up (starting as the lead arm) would actually have started by pushing an assailant's arm aside (remember: vortex motion of the hand and arm), then come forward under the assailant's arm and shoulder to reach the shoulder blade. the practitioner is supposed to then pull so that the opponent's chest opens up. at this point, the downward-driving arm (starting as the back arm) comes down as the practitioner turns and steps into the opponent. the force of the arm going down and the rotational force of the turn and step combine to be transmitted through the practitioner's forearm and elbow to push or throw the assailant back.

Sifu made additional points about this move:
  • the action to open the opponent's chest is important, as it prepares a surface against which the practitioner will be able to drive their arm down and across.
  • the driving action down and across must be in conjunction with the step, otherwise it requires significantly more upper body strength to be successful.
  • the practitioner doesn't have to engage the opponent with the entire sequence of movements, but can abort the technique at the start, so that instead of beginning by pushing the assailant's arm aside the practitioner can seize the assailant's hand to force a joint lock on the opponent's wrist. in this event, the downward arm motion becomes "miniaturized" into a downward motion of the palm edge to strengthen the joint lock. this is an available variation we can choose to do.
  • in the event the opponent uses their non-reaching arm in an attempt to counter-strike or grab your downward drive (this was my concern), it is important to remember that the downward drive is supposed to be going down and across the opponent's shoulder joint at the point the pectoral muscle joins the joint. this either intercepts the opponent's off-arm or closes the approach so that the opponent's off-arm goes outside the practitioner's thrust.
we broke off into pairs again to practice this move. i was paired with Phunsak, which was good, since he seemed willing to work through the various permutations of this technique, and also to think about my concerns and possible counter-moves that we could use.


after observing us for a while, Sifu appeared to pause for discussion. he gathered all the bagua students together, and told us that it was important to understand that the palm changes were just forms, and that we shouldn't get too enamored with doing them as the sole form of training. he said that they were useful as training tools, in terms of building coordination, flexibility, strength, proper technique, and memorizing movements. but beyond this, there were a poor substitute for combat application, and should never be seen as the only components (or "essence") of bagua.

to truly learn a martial art, Sifu said it was important to learn and practice both forms and sparring. he said that spending time exclusively performing only forms (such as 64 palms, "push hands," etc.) would mean that a student is only learning part of the style, and wasn't really mastering it. this is why sparring is important.

as part of this, Sifu said that we needed to understand how forms such as 64 palms are meant to be used as training tools. he said we needed to be careful in viewing them as "formulas" to be applied in combat. instead, we need to just see them as devices to learn techniques, and that the techniques themselves are things which we should feel comfortable applying freely in different combinations and in response to specific combat conditions. he stressed this, emphasizing that mastery of a martial art involves:
  1. developing an intuitive and creative feel to deploy techniques to match a given situation or any changes in such a situation. conditions will always be different, they will always change. sometimes in ways you don't expect. you have to be able to read and react using any number or combination of techniques that are appropriate.
  2. understanding that while it is important to learn all techniques so that you can use them, that you will invariably find some techniques that match your body. this is fine. this is the act of "adapting" a martial arts style to match you as a person, which is something all martial masters have done. Sifu described Gong Bao Tien, who was very small and quick, and gravitated towards use of the monkey technique (i.e., the turn we're studying in the th palm change) because it matched his stature and explosive speed.
  3. recognizing that there is no one single "right" technique or combination of techniques for a given situation or a given body type. there are different solutions for every situation and body. the issue is knowing which solutions are effective.
  4. making sure that we learn all techniques, so that we fully learn a martial arts style, and also that we have the full array of techniques that we can turn to in the event we need them.
Sifu and John both made the point that we need to view techniques like we view words in sentences. we construct different sentences to communicate different things in different situations, and we construct them in ways that are distinctively our own. but we use the same words, and we all know the same words.

this is something i've been thinking about for awhile, and it's analogous in a way to music or sports. i believe it fundamentally revolves around intent and communication. we all internally have intentions to achieve certain results, and we then communicate those intentions by performing actions to express them. the issue is just what is the form of expression--for language, it's words; for music, it's notes; for sports, it's plays; for martial arts, the expression is physical movement in the form of techniques.

mother palms

Sifu left us to work with his baji students, with the expectation that we would continue practicing the palm changes and combat applications.

i took the time to ask Phunsak to help me with Mother Palms. John showed me the basics of these in our practice sessions, but i wanted Phunsak to help me get the proper technique down.

Mother Palms is actually a precursor to 64 Palms, and students of bagua are supposed to learn Mother Palms first. this is because it focuses on the more fundamental elements of the 8 basic bagua stances, and allows students to work in simplified form circle walking, turns (inside and outside), and transitions (from one palm to another). it is, in essence, a transitory step from the very basic drills and stances to the more complex movements of later bagua forms.

i started the course after Sifu had taught Mother Palms, and went direct from the really basic stuff (walking the square, fire and water, etc.) directly into 64 palms (hey, don't look at me, Sifu said i could do it). as a result, i am essentially learning bagua backwards. i wouldn't recommend it to everybody. it's a bit of a challenge.

there are 8 stances involved in Mother Palms, which are supposed to performed in progression as the practitioner walks the circle:
  1. lion
  2. snake
  3. bear
  4. hawk
  5. unicorn
  6. dragon
  7. big bird
  8. monkey
from what i can tell, the practitioner walks the circle holding each stance facing inwards, then alternates walking either clockwise or counter-clockwise by performing inward or outward turns. the transitions from one stance to another are apparently also done using the turns.

it's kind of weird learning Mother Palms after having gone through so much of 64 palms. i can see how 64 palms incorporates the stances in Mother Palms. but Mother Palms is so much more basic compared to 64 palms. it's like learning how to play Beethoven and then going back and learning scales. it's useful, but it's not the same, and nowhere near as meaningful. still, i figure it's part of the curricula, and i really should learn it to catch up with the schedule.

finishing up

Sifu returned and had us continue with circle walking in pairs performing the "closed" and "open" monkey positions. essentially, 2 partners are supposed to walk in circle, with the forearms of their inner-facing arm in contact with their partner's. i continued working with Phunsak, and Sifu had us switch back and forth between the "closed" and "open" monkey positions, as well as switch directions, according to his commands. this was relatively straightforward, and we went through this pretty expeditiously.

after walking the circle, Sifu finished class by telling us that next week we would go through the 8th palm change, after which he would then show us the "B" side of the palm changes. apparently, what we've been learning is the "A" side, and to get to the "64" in "64 palms" (just how there's 64, i still have not been able to figure out) we need to know both the "A" and "B" sides.

with that, we all wrapped up class and went to lunch.

Monday, January 08, 2007

day 13: 6th palm change

  • sinking
  • hooking
  • signals
  • 6th palm change
  • combat applications (kick-toe, arm-twist, bear stance, dragon gate, tiger gate)

today was somewhat uneventful. the class began with stances, and Ching-Tzsieh introduced some new friends (James-sp? and Olivia). after Sifu showed up, we proceeded to warm-ups with the hand drills (single and double-hand). following this, we took a few minutes following the hand drills to rest and catch up on events over the break, as well as make some introductions to the new members.

6th palm change

Sifu Jason gave everyone a pause, and then had everyone line up to learn the 6th palm change. he demonstrated it slowly, and then counted out the steps as he had the class follow along with him.

the 6th palm change begins in a position called dragon (which strangely enough is different from the dragon stance, which raises a question to be posed to Sifu later). from there, it involves a turn initiated by a bai (out) step with one arm simultaneously circling over the head, after which the practitioner proceeds into the bear stance and then to a what appears to be the same 1-legged hand strike in the 5th palm change. this 1-legged position turns into a kick, then becomes an extension of the leg and pointing of the toe accompanied by a backwards torso lean to maintain balance.

from there, the palm change continues into the bear stance, a 1-legged turn matching the one from the 3rd palm change, another entry into the bear stance, and then transitioning into circular movements of the arms and hands before finally finishing with a change back into the starting position.

the 6th palm change is shorter than the 5th palm change--or at least it seems that way. however, there's a lot of nuances in terms of changes in weight between feet, as well as in terms of rising and falling of the torso, arms, and legs. as a result, it proved almost as complex as the 5th palm change in terms of things to track, even if it did involve fewer components.

i did okay learning it from a right-handed perspective, but became lost when i tried to do it from a left-handed perspective. i ended up having to think each movement through, comparing the left-handed side to the right-handed one. thankfully, everybody was having as much difficulty as i was and i was able to follow the others. the prescription, of course, for this situation is the usual: practice.

combat applications

Sifu took extensive time going through combat applications of the 6th palm change:

  1. kick-to-pointed toe (i didn't get the name of this technique)
  2. arm twist (i didn't get the name of this either)
  3. bear stance
  4. circular hands (yet again, i didn't get the name of this)
i'll summarize what we covered as follows:

kick-to-pointed toe

beginning with the kick-to-pointed toe, he said that it was meant to be a way of countering an opponent who has grabbed your foot to stop your kick. in such an event, it's possible to throw the opponent off-balance by extending the leg and pointing the toe. in the 6th palm change, this is also combined with a lean of the torso backward which is meant to help the practitioner maintain balance. it is also accompanied by a forward hand that is supposed to distract the opponent and cause them to lean backwards, enhancing the likelihood of them losing balance and falling over.

Jason made a note that this is something that is not used very often, but is still useful to know.

arm twist

next came an exercise involving an arm twist. i wasn't clear as to the connection with the 6th palm change, and it appeared to be more of a separate technique. it wasn't really an arm twist either--it basically utilizes a blocking arm that redirects an attacker's arm strike upwards, then stepping underneath the upraised attacker's arm while simultaneously using the non-blocking arm to lock the attacker's elbow to prevent them from escaping the move. from here, the defender has their back to the attacker's view, and has the option of lowering the hold and using the shoulder as a leverage point to place pressure on the attacker's elbow, or continuing the turn to twist the attacker's arm and shifting pressure to the shoulder joint.

Sifu made some points on this:
  • you should not bend or duck your body underneath the opponent's upraised arm. it is not a dance move. the goal is to raise the opponent's arm so that they have less control.
  • the practitioner blocks with a twisting motion upwards (remember: this is bagua) to redirect the opponent's arm.
  • when stepping underneath the opponent's upraised arm, the practitioner places the non-blocking hand against the opponent's elbow to lock it, preventing the opponent from bending the arm and applying their biceps strength to break the joint lock.
  • when the practitioner does the complete turn, they should bring their hands down and step forward, since this will bend the opponent's arm backwards and multiply the pressure on the opponent's shoulder joint and also throw the opponent off-balance backwards.
  • if the opponent rotates or steps through the arm twist, the practitioner has the option to just keep going in the same motion to repeat the joint lock attempt.

bear stance

he then took time to have us practice the bear stance, which is also meant to cause an opponent to lose balance. he had us form a line, with a person at the end serving as an "assailant." the next person in line was supposed to act as the "defender" to apply the bear stance against the assailant and cause them to fall backwards. the "assailant" would then go to the back of the line, and the "defender" would then become the "assailant" with the next person in line taking their turn as "defender."

in demonstrating the combat application of the bear stance, Sifu said that a practitioner should line up with an opponent, with a knee roughly behind the opponent's knee and the back of the upper arm in contact with the opponent's torso. from this position, the practitioner is supposed to sink, forcing the opponent to lean back and throw their weight off their center.

Sifu gave some comments regarding the bear stance:

  • the bear stance should be effective without having to use the arms. Jason commented that sinking into the stance alone should be enough to cause the opponent to lose balance and fall backwards. essentially, the application of the stance should be effortless.
  • it is critical to "sink" into the bear stance. Sifu noted that the goal isn't to turn the arms into the assailant, or to push with the arms, but rather to remain loose and sink down.
  • it is equally critical to keep the knees in. Sifu emphasized, and then demonstrated, how much more effective and how much easier the bear stance is if the practitioner keeps their knees in--he was right, as it was rendered almost entirely ineffectual with the knees pointing out.
  • both the upper body and lower body should be loose, but the practitioner should feel energy being contained within the cavities created by the positioning of the arms and the positioning of the legs. according to Jason, this is the energy that should be felt sinking in the stance, and is the energy that pushes the opponent off-balance.

circular hands

after a number of minutes, Sifu then had us break off into pairs to practice the combat actions of the circular arm and hand movements.

the most illustrative description i can give to these movements is that they are reminiscent of eddies created in the wake of objects moving in viscous fluids. watching the arm and hand motions, i keep seeing a person standing in water moving their arms and hands to create trailing vortices in the liquid.

these movements, while looking like ethereal motions stirring imaginary liquid, are actually hooking motions meant to alternatively grab an opponent's arm or head/neck region in such a way as to cause them to fall forwards or backwards. essentially, if one hand hooks the opponent's arm, the other will hook their head or neck. regardless of which hands contact which body part, the end result is that the opponent's center of balance is thrown off, causing them to fall.

we performed this technique from 2 different positions: the first with each partner facing with their respective right legs leading or left legs leading, and the second with one partner facing with a right leg leading while the other partner has their left leg leading or vice versa. the difference is that with the first position the "hooking" motions involve catching the attacker's arm strike from the inside of their wrist then out, catching the side of the attacker's head/neck facing away from you, and then forcing the attacker to fall to their outside backwards. in contrast, with the second position, the "hooking" motions involve catching the attacker's arm strike from the outside of their wrist then in, catching the side of the attacker's head/neck, and then forcing the attacker to fall to their inside forwards.

Jason said the first position was called "dragon gate" and the second was called "tiger gate." the "dragon gate" refers to the idea that the motions are conducted facing the outside of the attacker's stance, and so can be remembered in terms of an attack on a dragon's scaly back. the "tiger gate" refers to the idea that the motions are conducted facing the inside of the attacker's stance, and so can be remembered in terms of an attack on a tiger's soft underbelly. in addition, since people tend be more tanned on their back than on their front, their backs resemble the darker color of the dragon's back and their fronts resemble the lighter color of the tiger's belly.

on this technique, Sifu provided the following comments:

  • it is important to have each hand follow a path that reaches out and then comes in close to the practitioner's body. this makes it easier to "hook" the assailant without using too much strength.
  • it is important to shift weight from one leg to another as the practitioner alternates the circular motions of their hands, since this induces the practitioner to use their entire body to throw the opponent rather than just their arms, making it significantly easier to perform the movements.
  • if the attacker manages to avoid the "hooking" motions, the practitioner can simply just keep moving their arms and hands in the same circular patterns to trap and throw the attacker in a different direction.
final comments

near the end of class, Sifu made some general comments about the combat applications we had practiced. he noted that it was important to remember that the techniques, if properly performed, did not involve exertion or conscious force. if they did, or if we felt that we were having to apply effort in the movements, then we were likely doing them wrong.

Sifu reminded everyone that the use of force is a signal to the opponent as to your intention, and enables them to respond and counter your actions. Mike had said this to me earlier in the class, and i recall that Sifu had mentioned this in prior sessions. but Sifu made it a point of emphasis this time.

this was all consistent with a comment Art had made to me earlier in class on the fact that bagua was about things being easy and effortless. he noted that this was why it was an "internal" art and viewed as something that could be practiced by the elderly while still providing effective self-defense--because it didn't require raw strength or require the direct confrontation of force with force, but rather the skillful application of technique.

with that Sifu stated that we'd try to hold extended classes over the next few weeks to make up for the vacation days, and then dismissed us all for the day.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

commentary: (cosi fan) tantui

so one of the things that is taught in the Jason Tsou Kung Fu Academy (i've found out that was the name of the school, although Sifu closed the actual building some time ago) is something called tantui.

tantui is evidently a series of forms involving a progression of total body movements, incorporating stances, transitions, and use of upper and lower body. the progression is done along an imaginary line on the ground, with the practitioner proceeding from one end to another doing sets of repetitive movements that alternate from the left to right sides of the body and that begin at one end of the line and finishes at the other end of the line where they transition into another set. the sets of movements are often referred to as "lines" or "roads."

tantui is characterized by wide stances and wide, expressive movements that cover a large swath of ground. in performing tantui, the practitioner will end up facing in many different directions and go from low to high positions following paths both circular and linear in patterns which are by varying degrees simple and complex.

from what i've been able to gather from others in the class and from some surfing on the internet, tantui originated with the Muslims of ancient China. it's alternatively translated into English as "springing legs" (as in imagine a frog) or "pond legs" (i'm envisioning a connotation of frogs on lily pads again). tantui is considered a defining element of Muslim Long Fist, which is considered one of the oldest forms of Chinese martial arts and--because of the closeted nature of the Muslim community in ancient (and modern) China--one of the purest in terms of being preserved in its original form without corruption from external influences over time.

tantui apparently exerted some influence in traditional Chinese martial arts, particularly those of Northern China. in particular, there's forms of tantui in Northern Long Fist styles such as taizu chuan, mizhong chuan, praying mantis, etc. however, i've also learned that there are forms of tantui used in the styles of Southern China. as a result, kung fu has evolved different styles of tantui. despite this, tantui can largely be classified into 2 groups: tantui involving 10 lines (or roads) or 12 lines. Northern Chinese tantui apparently uses 10-road, and Southern Chinese styles use 12-road.

for definitions and more extensive description, please reference:
you can see what some differing styles of tantui look like:
from what i can tell, the tantui i've been trying to learn is the first one. i say "trying" because the class hasn't done it in a while--some students did it as a part of warm-up for the first few classes i attended, but since then it hasn't been done. i managed to get an introduction to the first 4 lines (enough to get a feel for how they are supposed to be done), but that's about it. i've been practicing them on my own, but haven't had anybody review my technique or teach me any more than what i picked up.

Sifu uses tantui as a training tool, since its use of total body movement is viewed as a good device for improving a student's overall physical coordination, balance, flexibility, and mind-body awareness. it also serves to strengthen joints, ligaments, tendons, and open up a student's posture by acclimating them to stretched positions and transitions. it's also a good introduction into many of the basic elements of Northern Chinese kung fu styles, particularly in terms of stances, foot and legwork, and arm and hand movements. in addition, i've been told that when performed slowly it is a good way of developing leg strength. basically, tantui is meant to give students the solid foundation necessary for subsequent progression in kung fu. this is all apparently consistent with Northern kung fu fighting styles, which use a phrase that "if your tantui is good, your kung fu will be good."

tantui, however, apparently has combat applications, and actually forms the basis of a lot of Muslim long fist kung fu. from what i've found on the internet, tantui is actually viewed as being enough to form an effective fighting style, with each line offering multiple permutations for blocks, evasions, and strikes. with proper training, a practitioner is supposed to be able to use tantui in actual combat situations.

personally, i found tantui to be pretty awkward when i first started. but since i've been practicing it's been getting easier. i have to admit, my balance has improved, and some of the movements have gotten easier to do. for example, i couldn't hold a leg straight horizontally while standing at first, but i've found that i now can with some relative ease. i still find some of it a little confusing, and i am still at a point where i have to consciously think about the movements in each line as i do them, but it's beginning to feel much more natural and i'm starting to feel myself able to do the lines much more smoothly.

of course, i should note that tantui has little or no connection with the bagua zhang that i've been learning. apart from training purposes of improving coordination and strengthening connective tissue, tantui doesn't really tie into bagua's circular movements--at least, from what i can tell. just to confirm my suspicions, i asked John if there was any relationship between tantui and bagua, and he shook his head and said: "no. none."

still, i figure it's useful for training, and i figure that if i really am going to continue on and eventually learn other Northern Chinese fighting styles that it's going to be a necessary element, and so i'll continue to practice it. but i expect that i'm going to have to check with Sifu at some point to see what i should be doing with it, as well as review my technique and the proper steps to learn the remaining lines.