Tuesday, October 30, 2007

day 66: palm change 7, pao quan, & tantui

  • power in the feet
  • scapula & back
  • tantui
  • 2-person form, palm change 7 (sides A & B)
  • pao quan
we began the day as a single group, with Sifu calling both baji and bagua students together. he said that today he wanted everyone to review tantui together, so we could cover the finer points. following the Wutan curriculum, he informed us that tantui was a building block for other kung fu styles, since it helped build coordination, balance, flexibility, and strength necessary for so much of kung fu. i think some of the new baji students were shocked.


for today, we did lines 1-5. i've posted on tantui before, including the YouTube video of all 10 lines, but i'll go ahead and embed the video of lines 1-5 here:

if it doesn't work, the link is: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s2usF7iSTNA

Sifu's comments are as follows:
  • deep stances--you have to go low into the stances...really low
  • open movements--the movements are supposed to be open, as in wide and uninhibited
  • channel--although tantui consists of "lines," this doesn't mean that your feet have to both be on the line the entire time. in fact, you're supposed to have a small narrow channel between your feet running along the line
  • grind the rear heel--the lines require a constant grinding of the rear heel to help transmit power up through the rear leg and into the upper body. grinding means turning the rear foot on the ball of the foot so the heel drives into the ground
i've managed to get through all 10 lines, although i knew i needed polishing. today was perfect for this. i felt like i got a lot of attention and detail on lines 1-5 that i hadn't gotten before, and that i really needed.

Phunsak made a comment to me that i needed to start doing tantui with more power. he said--and Sifu later confirmed--that there are different levels of tantui. the first level is done without power, and intended to just help the student develop coordination, balance, and flexibility. the second level is done by adding power to everything done at the first level.

i asked Phunsak and Sifu just how this is done, since i was a bit puzzled as to how power could be generated with the low and extreme contortions involved. Sifu commented (in class and later in the tai chi classes during the week) that power begins from the feet, and that it involves timing the movement of the feet (toes, the ball of the foot, the arch, and the heel) in a way that exploits Newton's 2nd law, with the ground as the reactive force.

Sifu noted that this means more than just grinding the heel, but also means placing pressure at various times and in various ways on the toes, the ball of the foot, and the inner & outer arches. he said this is often difficult to see, since it is very subtle, and covered up by shoes. he advised me that it helps to visualize this going on while i'm doing tantui, since that seems to lead the body to follow the correct timing and movement.

2-person form, palm change 7 (sides A & B)

once done with tantui, we divided into 2 groups again. Sifu told Phunsak to lead us with the 2-person form for palm change 7 while he went to start the baji students on their lesson plan.

with 5 people today, we ended up forming 2 pairs (me, John, Kieun, and Phunsak), with Eric acting as observer. we went through sides A & B separately and then together in the 2-person form.

after awhile, Sifu returned to watch our progress. he reminded us to remember the importance of the scapula & back in helping generate power in the strike. i'm starting to believe that this is acts as an energy transition tool, with the arching of the back serving to store potential energy by creating a coiling tension in the spine and shoulder blades, which is then released as kinetic energy forward as the scapula & back are released.

pao quan

we finished the day with pao quan. Phunsak led us a little further into it. although, i have to say, i struggled with the new additions today, since there were a number of movements that were a bit puzzling to me, particularly since they involved timing and synchronization of independently moving body parts.

Kieun said that we should record Phunsak doing all of pao quan for reference purposes. but seeing that Phunsak seemed to be unresolved about certain elements, i suggested that we hold off for 1 week until he felt more assured as to the correct form. we ended up agreeing on this, and then ended class for the day.

i spoke with everybody later, and we're also starting to become of the opinion that we should record Sifu doing forms as well, since 1) that is probably the best (in terms of being definitive) reference, and 2) it provides something for posterity to compare themselves against. but this is something we'll have to deal with as things continue.

Monday, October 29, 2007


there's an article in the LA Times today about meditation.

the link is:

if that doesn't work, i'm putting the full text of the article below.

so this is not entirely related to everything we've been getting in class...although, in many ways, it really is. most of our Saturday (and even Sunday) classes are focused on self-defense. the weekday Yang tai chi classes at UCLA are still in the early stages, and even then cover a lot of self-defense applications. but we have discussed the mental side of martial arts (particularly tai chi), and how it is used as a moving meditation. and we've also covered Buddhism and Taoism at various points, with more conversation over post-class lunch.

i don't think this article is saying anything new to anyone familiar with Asian culture or even martial arts. and for sure it's nothing new to anyone who's studied Buddhism, Taoism, Shinto, or any other Asian religious practices. nor is it anything revelatory for practitioners of traditional Asian medicine.

i think, however, this article is interesting because it shows how modern, or "Western", medicine is starting to accept the value of meditation, and even incorporate it into medical practice. here, they're saying a few things of particular note:
  • doctors are increasingly cognizant of just how much the mind can affect the body, and just how much meditation can affect the mind (somewhat conflicting with some Western traditions of the "imaginary" having no connection to "reality");
  • doctors are starting to realize the need for "doing nothing", or allowing time each day for a person to reflect and just allow the mind to wander (incidentally, entirely contrary to the Puritan traditions of being "busy");
  • doctors are investigating the ways of dealing with pain, particularly through relaxation and focus that helps a person adjust their mental state--and thereby their physical state;
  • doctors are looking at Buddhism, which seems to have a deep sense of dealing with suffering (although, here, i somewhat disagree...the Christian Messiah was ostracized, tortured, and then crucified to death, which sure seems like suffering to me).
i should note here that a lot of what this article is saying about Western medicine and meditation is something that a lot of sports has been experimenting with in various degrees over the past few decades. sports has long recognized the value of the mental aspect for peak performance--that's why they constantly refer to concepts like attitude, focus, aggression, composure. they've also adopted arcane notions of relaxing (or not tensing up, sometimes referred to as "letting go") to free the body to act naturally. in addition, sports accepts as fundamental truth the existence of the mind-body connection, not as a means of visualization but even physical fact, continually discussing the ideas of neuromuscular development, neural pathway behavior, muscle memory, mental training, and mind-body connections. some areas of sports even turn to Buddhist (Zen, in particular) and Taoist philosophy, as mechanisms to deal with suffering (from injuries or competition at the edge of physical limits) and bypass them to allow greater performance.

so it's nothing really new. but it is interesting to see it come more into the mainstream.

Doctor's orders: Cross your legs and say 'Om'
Meditation may reduce the brain's reaction to pain and increase pain tolerance.
By Andréa R. Vaucher
Special to The Times
October 29, 2007

The 30 or so clinicians and researchers sat cross-legged on cushions or in chairs, their eyes closed, as their teacher led them through a guided meditation.

Telling them to relax their bodies and concentrate on their breathing, author and meditation instructor Sharon Salzberg urged them to overcome distractions such as sounds, thoughts and emotions by coming back to the breath each time they found their minds wandering.

The goal, she said, was to still the mind. For the participants, all from UCLA's Mattel Children's Hospital Pediatric Pain Program and many unfamiliar with meditation, it was also an opportunity to observe, up close and personal, a technique being prescribed at the hospital to ease physical and emotional pain in their pediatric patients.

Salzberg, 55, was teaching the group Vipassana -- or mindfulness -- meditation, a centuries-old Buddhist practice she was instrumental in bringing to the U.S. after a four-year stay in India in the early 1970s. A cofounder of the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Mass., Salzberg extols the benefits of a meditation practice, even if just for minutes a day. "It's a healing process," she said later. "A move toward integration."

It appears to work. In a new study, published in October in the journal Pain, Natalia Morone, an assistant professor of medicine at the University of Pittsburgh, tracked the effect of mindfulness meditation on chronic lower back pain in adults 65 and older. The randomized, controlled clinical trial found that the 37 people who participated in an eight-week mindfulness meditation program had significantly greater pain acceptance and physical function than a similar size control group. Subsequently, the control group took the same eight-week program and had similar results.

"When there is pain, the rest of the body tenses up," Salzberg said. "Then you have tension plus pain. Or there's judgment: 'I shouldn't be feeling this way.' Mindfulness allows us to see what the add-ons are and discover what the actual experience is right now."

Increasingly, doctors across the country are recommending meditation to treat pain, and some of the nation's top hospitals, including Stanford, Duke and NYU Medical Center, now offer meditation programs to pain patients.

Dr. Lonnie Zeltzer, the head of Children's pediatric pain program, didn't need to be convinced of meditation's benefits; she knew from her own experience as a meditator. Zeltzer organized the recent training day with Salzberg and Trudy Goodman, a psychotherapist and founder of the InsightLA meditation community, paying them out of her own pocket and hosting it at her Encino home so her staff would be introduced to a tool she is passionate about.

"As a meditator, I learned the value of being present and how that allows clarity in processing our daily lives," Zeltzer said. "The clinical team sees children with chronic pain who are very difficult to treat and have been to many other specialists and feel discouraged by the time they come to us. I felt that learning to meditate would help the team feel a sense of balance and equanimity in the face of the anxiety and distress brought to them by these patients and their families."

Subject of study

SCIENTISTS have studied the effects of meditation on pain for nearly three decades, ever since 1979, when MIT-trained microbiologist Jon Kabat-Zinn, professor emeritus and founder of the Center for Mindfulness at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center, used mindfulness meditation in a 10-week program to teach chronic pain patients how to cope. Kabat-Zinn's 1990 bestseller, "Full Catastrophe Living," described the technique he used -- mindfulness-based stress reduction, or MBSR.

Since then, research has suggested that meditation reduces the brain's reaction to pain and increases pain tolerance. It has an effect on chronic back pain and can be an effective palliative for pain associated with fibromyalgia and rheumatoid arthritis, studies have shown.

Kabat-Zinn's original study was done at the university's Medical Center's Stress Reduction Clinic, which has since been folded into the Center for Mindfulness. The 51 patients in the study, which was published in General Hospital Psychiatry in 1982, suffered from lower back, neck, shoulder, facial, coronary and GI pain, as well as headaches. At the end of the study, about two-thirds of the patients showed a pain reduction of at least 33% and half showed a reduction of at least 50%. The number of medical symptoms also decreased.

"MBSR's contribution has been to bring the heart of Buddhist meditation without the Buddhism into the mainstream of Western medicine," Kabat-Zinn said. "A referral to the Stress Reduction Clinic would now be part of the natural progression for anyone who sees patients with a long-standing pain condition."

Since 1979, more than 18,000 patients have come through the Stress Reduction Clinic. There are now more than 250 MBSR programs in clinics and hospitals around the world.

In Los Angeles, Zeltzer refers patients to Goodman, who taught MBSR with Kabat-Zinn in the early days of the program, and who continues to teach the technique through InsightLA. But meditation remained esoteric to many on Zeltzer's team until they could learn the basics and ask Salzberg and Goodman questions about the practice.

"Previously, we had talked about meditation in the abstract," Zeltzer said. "And a lot of the team members wondered how it was going to work."

Zeltzer got interested "in the relationship of mind and body and health" during her fellowship in adolescent medicine at Los Angeles Children's Hospital in the 1970s. "What led to the differences in symptoms and suffering in adolescents who had the same disease?" she wondered at the time. "Why were some able to endure medical procedures without too much problem, while others fell apart?"

Realizing that the mind has a powerful effect on the body, Zeltzer used her first NIH grant in the early 1980s to study the benefit of hypnotherapy prior to spinal tap operations. "Spending a period of time each day just sitting and 'doing nothing' was one of the most important lessons that I learned in my hypnotherapy work," Zeltzer said. This journey into silence led to an interest in meditation, which increased exponentially when Zeltzer began studying the practice with Goodman in 2002.

Now Zeltzer wants to scientifically measure the effectiveness of meditation on kids with pain.

Converts meet skepticism

PEOPLE who have been helped by meditation, whether physicians or laypersons, have encouraged the use of meditation in pain management.

"It was life-changing for me," said Phoebe Larmore, an L.A.-based literary agent who represents authors Tom Robbins and Margaret Atwood.

For over two decades, Larmore was plagued with acute back pain and consulted with top specialists at medical centers such as Stanford University's and the Mayo Clinic, to no avail. At her worst, she weighed 80 pounds and was on morphine.

Then a doctor at UCLA gave her a meditation tape.

"I used it over and over and was able to have a few moments in which I was above the pain and could get my breath and hold onto hope," she recalled.

Larmore learned how to pace herself, running her business from her home. But recently, "the sandpaper of living with chronic pain" got to her, and she enrolled in an InsightLA MBSR class taught by Goodman and German physician Chris Wolf.

"The eight-week program was one of the most challenging commitments I have ever made," she said. "But I found a new key that enables me to better accept, embrace and have an instrument with which to mindfully be with my pain and walk with it with more lightness."

Though anecdotal experiences about the benefits of meditation are easy to find, clinical randomized trials on meditation's effects are rare and in the early stages. And skepticism lurks in the wings of every study.

"When I submit articles to be reviewed, it feels like they are picked apart very carefully, and I have to work harder to prove my findings," said Dr. Natalia Morone, an assistant professor of medicine at the University of Pittsburgh who has been studying the effect of mindfulness meditation on pain in adults. "There's more intensity to the review comments than if they were about a conventional subject."

But despite resistance, Kabat-Zinn is betting on meditation playing a larger role in medicine in the future.

"We are headed toward development of a new kind of medicine that honors the profound dilemma of the person who presents to a doctor with suffering," he stated with no uncertainty. "Since Buddhism has a history of understanding suffering, and since nobody goes to a hospital without some kind of suffering, what better place than a hospital to be grounded in meditation?"

Saturday, October 27, 2007

days 64 & 65: all 24 Yang

  • root (strength & balance)
  • balancing in the feet (ball v. heel, big toe v. small toe)
  • kicks in tai chi
  • Yang simplified 24 movement
  • stances
the pace picked up a little this week, as Sifu worked to have us complete the Yang simplified 24 movement form. we had some new students add the class this week, and so Sifu took some extra time to help them catch up.

day 64

this was largely straightforward. we worked our way through to needle at the sea bottom and fan to the back.

Sifu stopped at a number of points to make the following comments:

  • root--i think this may have been discussed during one of the class sessions i missed. but Sifu took a minute to expand on the concept of "root," saying that it referred to lower body strength and balance. the lower body strength is necessary to hold positions and for proper movement, and balance is necessary for stability. together, the serve to help the practitioner remain upright against an opponent seeking to produce a fall. Sifu emphasized that we have to develop both.
  • balancing in the feet--Sifu noted that balancing required adjustment of weight in the feet. for some stances, balance is better if we place our bodyweight on the outside of the foot (Sifu said to imagine it going to our little toe), while in others it is better if we place our bodyweight on the ball of the foot (Sifu said to imagine it going to our big toe). placing our weight on the little toe helps to grind the heel, thereby adding power into a thrust. placing our weight on the big toe helps to fix the heel and even weight distribution throughout the foot, thereby adding balance to a single-leg stance.
  • stances--Sifu said lower body strength began with stance work. holding static stances helps to build lower body strength, and so is considered one of the cornerstones of martial arts. eventually, once a sufficient level of lower body strength is developed, the next step is to practice dynamic stances, which helps increase explosive lower body strength. in sports medicine terms, i see this as static stances developing isometric (static) power, and dynamic stances developing plyometric (explosive) power.
we finished the day by going through all 8 stances in tai chi:
  • horse
  • bow-and-arrow
  • unicorn
  • lion
  • rooster
  • snake
  • cat
  • dragon
day 65

we finished the Yang simplified 24 movement form, going all the way to the conclusion. Sifu spent some extra time, however, backtracking to the heel kicks.

Sifu said that it was incorrect to have the torso lean in any direction in the form's kicks. instead, the torso is supposed to remain upright, with the arms helping to maintain balance as a cantilever against the kicking leg.

Sifu explained that unlike other martial arts, in tai chi kicks are meant to be applied at a shorter range, and so don't involve as great an extension. he compared it tae kwon do, which he said often involves kicks involving the torso leaning in the opposite direction of the kick. he said this is because the kicks are meant to be at a long range--beyond the reach of the arm--and so require the extra extension possible from leaning the torso.

in contrast, tai chi kicks operate at a shorter range, often within arm reach. the philosophy is to have short (or shorter relative to other martial arts styles like tae kwon do) kicks. as a result, they don't require extra extension.

in addition--and more importantly--Sifu said that tai chi holds to the principle of holding a "root." this places primacy on the practitioner remaining upright. long-range kicks involving leaning of the torso make the practitioner very unstable (even if balanced), and hence easily susceptible to being knocked off-balance at the critical moment when the kicking leg is upraised and all the body weight is on the standing leg. shorter kicks, on the other hand, are more stable and more difficult to upset. in essence, they mean a stronger root...which is why tai chi, which holds a "root" as a core principle, espouses shorter kicks.

we finished with that, although Sifu stayed for an extra half hour to work with the new students who had just added the class.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

day 63: sunday - chen tai chi (history!!!)

  • awareness
  • imagination
  • sequences
  • Chen tai chi history
  • Chen long form
we began the day discussing what we would cover on Sunday. Sifu opened things up to ask us what we wanted to do. originally, he'd planned on devoting the extra Sunday sessions to Chen tai chi. but he said he also wanted to send us to participate in 2 kung tournaments next year--Tony Yang's tournament in Las Vegas, and then another tournament for jian shu in Florida, and so thought we could prepare for those.

we talked things over for awhile, and then settled on Chen tai chi for the 1st hour, and jian for the 2nd hour. since a few of us had not brought our jian-league swords today, we put off the jian training until next class and devoted today to Chen tai chi.

Sifu began by giving us a description of the version of Chen tai chi he knows. apparently, there are different versions of Chen tai chi, even within the Wutan network. Sifu said he teaches the version taught by Du Yu Ze, a prominent master of Chen tai chi in Taiwan, who in turn learned from Chen Yen Xi (spelling?). from my understanding, this version is known as lao jia (or "old frame"). this is distinguished from the version taught by Chen Yen Xi's son, Chen Fake, which is known as xin jia (or "new frame").

i won't go into too much detail about tai chi history, but there are good summaries (about tai chi in general, and Chen in particular) at the following:
the last one is probably of most relevance to lao jia. i should note that not all the information about tai chi is definitive, and there continues to be debate as to the origins of the various branches of Chen tai chi. as a result, some of the sources above may contradict each other.

Sifu said he was going to teach us the long form, since some of us already knew the short form. he emphasized that Chen had a different flavor than Yang tai chi, with lower stances and more explosive movements relative to Yang. he noted that Chen was older then Yang, and so had more similarities to long fist, which is even older than Chen.

we went through the initial movements in the long form. we focused on the opening, and then on the legwork in the subsequent movements. i don't have a list of the techniques (yet), but i plan to eventually acquire them for more detailed commentary.

for today, Sifu had us concentrate on the feel of the initial postures. he had us hold each one, and then also had us repeat specific sequences to make sure we smoothed over our movements.

after awhile, we broke for a general question-and-answer discussion. at some point, we entered into a debate about applications, partially in relation to Chen, but more in connection to the Yang tai chi from yesterday.

Sifu took the opportunity to add some additional commentary from yesterday regarding applications, particularly in relation to acquiring a "6th sense":
  • awareness--when we practice, we are developing awareness. awareness of ourselves (our body, our motion, our thoughts), the opponent (their body, their motion, their thoughts), and our surroundings. this is integral to developing a "6th sense" in terms of being able to read and react to our opponent, since it helps us understand the connections between mind and body. if we understand it within ourselves, we can begin to understand it in others.
  • imagination--another aspect of practice is imagination. imagination is important in learning how to apply skills, in that one part of learning how to link techniques together is to apply them against an imaginary opponent. it is also important, in that imagination is an element of creativity, and creativity is paramount in being able to generate a strategy to enter an opponent's outer gate and engage their inner gate...and then make adjustments in response to changing conditions that affect our strategy
Sifu reminded us of the maxim "practice as if some is there, fight as if nobody is there." this means that to help develop skills we have to imagine that we are fighting an imaginary opponent (i.e., shadow boxing), and so having to operate in a smooth, quick, continuous manner constantly reacting to someone we visualize responding to our every technique. in a fight, in order to perform techniques correctly and to avoid distractions of our emotions, our opponent, or our surroundings, we have to imagine that the techniques are being applied flawlessly, even though there is a body resisting us.

from there, the conversation turned as to how creativity manifests itself in a fight. Sifu did a demonstration of several tai chi techniques, showing how they can be adjusted depending on the pracitioner's intent and the opponent's action.

we focused in particular on strumming the lute. Sifu noted that if our intent is a joint lock, the technique should be applied in sequence with one hand grabbing the opponent's elbow first, and the other hand then applying the lever action to stress the elbow. Sifu said this was important, since grabbing the wrist first provides a clearer message to the opponent of a danger situation and attempted counter-attack by you, thereby causing the opponent to react faster and resist. in contrast, seizing the elbow first presents the opponent with a number of possible threats, causing them to take an extra moment to decide a course of action--an extra moment for you to attack.

Sifu noted, however, that if our intent is something other then a joint lock, then a different sequence is warranted. he demonstrated a turn into a pull-down. here, grabbing the elbow first doesn't provide as strong a grip to pull the opponent forward and down. more than this, it doesn't take advantage of the opponent's force vector, which is already going forward. instead, seizing the wrist first provides a stronger grip, and a more immediate exploitation of the opponent's forward force, making it easier to enter into a pull-down.

i have to say i found this taste of Chen fascinating. doing just the few movement we did today, i can see--and also feel--how Chen fits in between older styles like chang quan (long fist) and new styles like bagua. it not only lies between them chronologically, but also in movement. Chen holds traces of chang quan in it, and you can sense the aspects of it that provided grounds to develop bagua.

in addition, it is special in that the version of Chen we are learning is apparently rare in the U.S. most of the Chen tai chi being taught in America (including L.A.) is the xin jia from Chen Fake. from what i've found on the internet, this also appears to be the case in Taiwan and most of the rest of the world itself. there certainly is nobody else teaching it in L.A.--trust me, i've looked.

Sifu had confirmed this in some conversations i've had with him. he knows of only 3 instructors teaching lao jia. 2 are in Taiwan. he's the 3rd.

Sifu had originally not planned on teaching Chen in the coming year--again, trust me, i asked. but during the consultation i had with him, he told me he'd been doing some thinking over the September break, and had come to realize the implications of the above situation, and just what it means to have only 3 qualified instructors remaining to teach the particular version of lao jia he knows. seeing how rare it is becoming, he decided that it would be good to pass on the knowledge while there is still opportunity to do so.

which, of course, means that we're learning a version of Chen that not very many people know.

i'm excited. i feel like a part of history! rock and roll!

day 62: bagua review, tai chi, & long fist (the growing spectrum!)

  • scapula
  • yielding
  • close to the body
  • suai, da, na
  • close gate, far gate
  • bagua review, 64 palms
  • side B, palm 7 and 2-person palm 7
  • pao quan
  • yang tai chi (combat applications)
today began a few minutes late, which turned out fine since we ended up staying late. Phunsak, John, and i showed up first. John and i warmed up with the series of spin exercises Sifu had shown me during the leg conditioning consultation. Phunsak warmed up with various baji and bagua exercises. we ended up being joined by 2 visitors, one (Tim) coming from Maryland and checking out Los Angeles for a few days, and the other (Vivian?) trying the class out.

Sifu arrived with Eric, and then announced that he wanted to spend a few minutes today to make videos of the combat applications for Yang tai chi. Eric was making a DVD, and so had equipment to record. Sifu asked the rest of us to serve as partners (i.e., "victims") for the video. he then asked Art, who had arrived, to work with Tim and Vivian.

bagua review; side B, palm 7; & 2-person palm 7

Sifu instructed Phunsak to lead a review of 64 Palms to date. this went without too much incident, although we had to take a few stops with several of the palm changes for side B to remember things correctly.

Sifu, who had been working with the baji students, came back to observe us, and then stopped us at a few points to make the following comments:
  • spine & scapula--there's a number of palm changes (side B, palms 1 & 2, in particular) featuring forward strikes. it appears i've been missing a slight cocking action of the shoulder and upper back for these. Sifu pointed out that these strikes are supposed to be preceded (or initiated) with a rounding of the scapula and spine. the scapula, he explained, help round the upper part of back, helping store energy which is released as force when the strike goes forward. as a result, it is part of the power generation process. Sifu said this was the same action that's supposed to be applied (and which i had also missed) in black bear probes with its paw from xiao kai men.
  • yielding--in addition to the power generation role, Sifu also noted that the rolling of the scapula serves a function in absorbing an incoming strike. he said that much of bagua involves "sucking in" an opponent's force just as much as it involves redirecting or using that force. the rolling of the scapula serves to absorb the opponent's force, by helping the practitioner to contract the body and spine, which acts to make the torso like a sponge sucking in an incoming strike. it also helps the practitioner to bring the arms and torso together in a way that "sticks" to the opponent's strike, allowing the practitioner to then employ bagua techniques in counter-attack. Sifu said that these are purposes very similar to the "yielding" in tai chi, except that bagua is using slightly different methods by involving the spine and scapula.
  • close to the body--for a number of palm changes (side A, palm 3 and side B, palm 3, in particular), Sifu said my arms were extending too far away from my torso. he reminded me that in bagua, the arms should stay in close proximity to the body, both as a defensive measure to protect the torso and the arms, as well as an offensive measure in disguising intent.
Sifu then took a number of minutes to show us a lesson on gates. he said that we have learned about 2 gates: dragon gate (the back of the opponent), and tiger gate (the front of the opponent). however, he said we also need to learn that there's another layer to this, with a close gate and far gate. he defined and demonstrated them as follows:
  • close gate--this is the region of the opponent outside of their striking range
  • far gate--this is the region of the opponent within their striking range
Sifu said that in a fight, we have to approach the opponent in 2 major steps: 1) have a plan to enter the far gate, and then 2) have a plan to enter and engage the close gate once you have entered the far gate. the 2, he emphasized, are linked together: how you enter the far gate will determine what you can do in the close gate. as a result, the far gate should be seen as the set-up for engaging the opponent.

after this, Phunsak proceeded to show us side B, palm 7. this is a relatively short palm change, and Phunsak had showed it to us briefly before the September break. we ended up having enough time to do the 2-person form for palm 7, and so spent a number of minutes learning that, too.

you can see the video for side B, palm 7:
the link is: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jKfRrTU2SGA

pao quan

at this point we took a break. while we waited, i asked Phunsak to help me review the pao quan we had done to date.

Phunsak took a number of minutes to correct my form, and noted the following:
  • force--i need to apply more force in the movements. unlike tantui, he noted that in pao quan you have to learn how to generate power.
  • movement--he said that unlike tantui, pao quan is about moving across open ground, and so the movements should involve more aggressive consumption of space, with feet shuffling or stepping forward and backwards to accentuate forward and backwards motions
Phunsak also told me that with tantui, there's actually more than 1 level. the 1st level is just meant to open the body in terms of limbs, joints, and connective tissue, as well as improve coordination and balance, and so as a result involves doing the lines without force in very deliberate manner. the 2nd level involves application of more force into the movements. he said that for pao quan, i can use the 2nd level of tantui to figure out how to produce power in the form, although pao quan adds an additional layer of complexity by involving more aggressive footwork.

yang tai chi

we finished the day by recording the combat applications for Yang tai chi. Sifu had compiled a list of the techniques in the simplified 24 movement form, with each technique having marked beside it a series of applications:
  • suai--throws and take-downs
  • da--strikes
  • na--joint locks
Sifu wanted to make videos of each technique. for today, he had marked out half, with the others saved for next week. Eric, who had brought a digital video camera and a stand, was doing the formal recording. Jay and John volunteered to be the partners. i decided to help track what we recorded, and also made videos on my digital camera.

we figured that Eric would be making the official videos for the DVD, since his camera had higher quality and the plan is apparently to dub commentary over the video. my footage would just be stock that i would give to him for auxiliary use.

i put all the video i took on my Youtube channel, and you can see it at:

i should point out that the videos are a lower resolution than what Eric recorded, and i didn't get all the close-ups and extra takes that he got. in addition, the videos i took don't have any of the commentary that will be on the DVD. so take this as a caveat: my videos are NOT meant to be instructional, but simply are tools analogous to mnemonic devices to help remind you of what things look like. for instruction, you need to buy the DVD--or better yet, attend class.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

days 60 & 61: tai chi (like a snake)

  • yin-yang
  • Yang simplified 24 movement
i actually missed the Tuesday class this week. they ran a career seminar on campus all this week with 1 session that conflicted with tai chi, and i felt compelled to go to the seminar. but i didn't miss too much, since i managed to get a heads-up from some other students about what was covered.

day 60

i was out this day, but i was told that this was a review day, with the major thing being an addition of 2 stances (low stance, and 60-40). i took some time to try and extrapolate the next movements in the form by using the list Sifu had given out in comparison to some YouTube videos. i figured this wasn't really the right way to learn it, but at least it gave me a rough idea of what had been covered.

day 61

this was (largely) a straightforward extension from previous class last week. my legs were a little sore from my Wednesday workouts, so i wasn't really 100%. but i felt good enough that i made it through today.

today was (thankfully) review. we went through the simplified 24-movement form up to the point where we did snake creeps down going into left rooster. this comes at the end of sequence starting with striking ears and 2 high kicks (left & right) and 2 iterations (left & right) of snake creeps down. he noted that with respect to coordinating the hand and feet, to remember the yin-yang concepts. this meant a number of things:
  • as one limb goes up, another limb goes down
  • as one limb becomes insubstantial (decreases power), another limb becomes substantial (applies power)
a good portion of time was also spent on tai chi stances. today, we did 6 out of the 8:
  • horse
  • bow-and-arrow
  • 60-40
  • 70-30
  • low
  • rooster
these seem similar to bagua in terms of the lower body positioning, but the hand postures are different. this is a minor adjustment, but it's interesting to me to see the variation. i'm starting to wonder how martial artists are able to remember the differences between different styles.

Sifu finished by telling us that he would show some videos of the different approaches to doing tai chi--traditional versus wu shu. he said it was important to note, since one had combat applications (traditional) and the other was meant more for performance art (wu shu). he told everyone that we are learning the traditional approach, which allows the theater/dance majors in the class to modify it for performance, but still preserves the original intent of tai chi.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

day 59: xiao kai men & chang quan (phooey!)

  • centerline
  • center of gravity
  • extra day
  • leg conditioning
  • spine conditioning
  • xiao kai men
  • pao quan
i had a private lesson with Sifu on Friday preceding this past Saturday's class. for sake of brevity (this post is going to be curt...i've got a whole lot of things pressing right now), i'm going to include both days together as a single post.

leg & spine conditioning

the private lesson was the beginning component of learning the bagua leg form. i say beginning because Sifu wanted me to go through the leg conditioning curriculum that preps students to learn the form. he showed me a number of exercises and drills mean to strengthen the muscles and connective tissue, as well as improve flexibility. some of them were static, others dynamic.

i saw a lot of cross-over with stuff i've done in track & field and also physical therapy--the exercises and drills weren't quite the same, but close enough that i could see their purpose. in particular, i could see that some were building isometric (static) strength and flexibility through concentric and eccentric ranges of motion, and others were building plyometric (explosive, or ballistic) strength and flexibility through the same ranges of motion. some i like more than others, and some are more painful than others, but all in all it's good stuff and (if done properly and within the correct context of conditioning) positive.

incidentally, during the course of the conditioning, Sifu discovered the same issues that my physical therapist had: i have an imbalance between front and rear quadrants of my lower body, with my lower back, buttocks, and hamstrings being underdeveloped relative to my quads and abs; and other imbalances with respect to underdeveloped hip flexors and lower abdominal muscles. the net result is a weakness in the dynamic motion of my hips (again, this is something i already knew from my physical therapist, and it continues to be a work in progress for me).

Sifu also noted that i had tight connective tissue in my knees and hips, which made it difficult for me to extend my kicks and reduced the generation of explosive power (recall: power in a strike is a function of muscle, tendons, ligaments, and bones in concert, never individually).

Sifu took a number of minutes to show me some traditional exercises he knew meant to correct these issues, including muscle-building and tendon and ligament stretching through my spine, hips, and legs. i found these interesting, because it indicated to me that 1) ancient experts had seen the same issues in the same way as modern ones, and 2) reflected the solutions they had implemented to solve these issues, which were comparable but different from modern methods.

xiao kai men

class started loosely. Kieun and Phunsak arrived early, and asked about what had been covered last week, meaning we effectively began without Sifu. we ended up reviewing a good portion of the material from last Saturday's class.

which was just as well, because it appears that everything i thought i had begun to understand i must have completely forgotten. i found i couldn't get any of the techniques to work. all i can say is that this was incredibly frustrating, and if i could only use 1 word to summarize the situation it would be "phooey!"

Sifu ended up having to spend more time with us to point out details we were missing, in particular:
  • look through the center of the opponent, and move through the center, not at it
  • you have to use the spine and scapula in conjunction with the back, arms and shoulders
  • you have to imagine that the spine is like a bow, by turns bending or straightening to store and release energy. this is important for black bear probes with its paw, which requires a slight rolling motion of the upper body in the vertical plane into the opponent, with the spine straightening and then contracting concave. this helps to disrupt the opponent's center and then force them off-balance
  • the scapula and back are important to green dragon wags its tail, which also has motion in the verticle plane, with a slight extension forward of the leading arm to take the opponent off-balance followed by a slight downward follow-through to send the opponent off-balance. here, additional power comes from the squeezing of the scapula as the back arm pushes back and down, as well as also from the back which straightens and then compresses into the follow-through
  • the scapula operate in the reverse for green dragon turns its head, where they pull forward as the back spine goes slightly concave and the legs sink down.
today represented a bit of a setback. i basically ended up having to relearn the xiao kai men lessons again when Sifu arrived. Kieun and Phunsak seemed to try and offer some condolence, saying that they'd struggled to learn the techniques themselves. but that really wasn't much comfort.

the only things that made a difference this time in getting the techniques to work were the following:
  • adding another aspect to application: the opponent's structure. the common refrain i hear is "just do the form." but it became apparent today that is an incomplete perspective. to make the form work, it's necessary to understand how to make it fit the structure of the opponent. this means recognizing their physical dimensions (height, weight, size, reach, etc.), their intent (what they are trying to do), and their posture (level of tension, level of stability, location of their center of gravity, etc.). knowing these factors allow the practitioner to modify the technique's form for maximum effectiveness. a form is not universal in terms of being fixed; just as there are different bodies of differing capabilities, a form has to adjust to match. in mathematical terms, a form is not an algorithm but rather a function; ignoring the context the form operates within throttles the relevance of the form...trust me, after today, i know.
  • revising my conceptualization of the techniques themselves, thinking less on the ideas of "energy" or "sinking" or "focus" and more on the ideas of "centerline" and "center" and "controlling surface." for some reason, visualizing the techniques using all the traditional terminology was really difficult...really...difficult...it seemed to help my application by looking for the centerline, setting up a controlling surface through which effort was to be transmitted into the opponent, and then aiming to disrupt the center of gravity by directing effort through it (not past it, but through it, like an arrow going through an apple). this became clear when i noticed that Phunsak and Kieun were doing the same thing by first setting their contact points (the parts of their bodies in contact with the opponent--hands, forearms, shoulder, etc.) and then initiating the technique. these contact points were controlling surfaces, in that they "controlled" the direction of force into the opponent. mathematically, they set the direction of the force vector for which the body determines the force magnitude (note: a vector has 2 quantities: direction and magnitude). in all techniques, direction improves efficiency (in physics, this means less dissipation or waste of energy) of magnitude transmission.
for all that, i still see it's going to need more practice. and not just practice with a partner, but with many partners. this is to better understand how each form has to be adjusted to fit the opponent in order to make them work, which requires me learning how to identify the required characteristics of the opponent to make this possible.

Sifu kind of alluded to this idea later on, stating that we always need to adjust to make things work against a different opponent, which is why he always stresses changing practice partners to force ourselves to learn how to do so. techniques do not exist in a vacuum, and have to reflect the context within which they are being used. the question is just how they should reflect the context for maximum effect.

yeah, i thought i understood this stuff. but i evidently don't. frustration! phooey!

on a positive note, we did get the the 4th xiao kai men technique: black bear turns its back. Sifu relayed a helpful hint that Liu Yun Chiao had once told him, which was that to you should imagine that you are flicking sticky dough from your fingertips. this seems to help a practitioner apply an explosive follow-through of the upper body, as well as utilize the scapula to help generate force. Sifu showed us how to do this going through the tiger gate and dragon gate. i found this easier than the other previous techniques to do, which was a small measure of comfort on an otherwise discouraging day.

pao quan

we finished with pao quan. John said we should go a little farther with it, and asked that we take a few minutes to review some additional moves. Phunsak led us this time, and took us a few more steps into it. of course, out of the total 80 (or so), i'm guessing we've maybe gotten 10, meaning that there's still quite a way to go.

to end class, Sifu collected everyone together (including the baji students) and announced that he was considering also teaching on Sundays, most likely every other Sunday. we talked about how to schedule it, and eventually agreed on having Sunday class start at 9am, with Sunday classes running every other Sunday beginning this coming October 21.

this should be good, since it means more opportunity to work on the details of the techniques and forms we've been learning. based on my experience today, the details aren't really details--they're everything.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

days 57 & 58: tai chi (cloud hands & single whip)

  • horizontal & vertical
  • dimensions
  • Yang simplified 24 movement (continued)
this week was a continuation of last week, with the class getting farther into the simplified 24 movement form. we received additional detail on moves from last week, and also covered more background information regarding tai chi.

day 57

i was pleasantly surprised to see Art in class today. it's been awhile since i've seen him at the Saturday class, so it was good to see him again. it appears he'll be attending the UCLA classes more regularly.

we took a little time to make sure everyone received the course materials--so far, it's been the syllabus, the list of the techniques in the simplified 24-movement form, and a sheet covering basic tai chi principles. Sifu reminded everyone about the Yin-Yang (insubstantial-substantial) concept, and to apply this in tai chi movements.

we reviewed the form to date, and then spent time covering a sequence called grasping bird's tail, which actually involves 4 sub-techniques:
  • ward off
  • roll back
  • press
  • push
we stopped with single whip. these are fundamental techniques in tai chi, and the simplified 24-movement form applies grasping bird's tail with the practitioner going left and then going right, and also has single whip several times.

Sifu said that there were a lot of misconceptions about these techniques, and wanted to spend time on them to make sure we got them right--and understood why it was right. he noted that the common tendency (and common mistake) is to employ horizontal circular movements, but that this is wrong from a combat application perspective. in order for the techniques to work, there also has to be vertical circular movements, meaning that the hands and legs in effect follow curves along a 3-dimensional plane (i.e., a sphere). the reason is that this is crucial in breaking the opponent's root (i.e., throwing off their centerline and disrupting their center of gravity), which then makes it easier to throw them off-balance.

he demonstrated these concepts using me as a partner, and showed the differences between the techniques being applied in horizontal circles versus along 3-dimensional circles. the difference was substantial, and i could see just how important the vertical motion was in throwing off the centerline.

day 58

this day we continued the form and went from the single whip to cloud hands, then single whip again to right heel kick. i found this somewhat straightforward, since i'd actually seen this on the tai chi video Art had given to me quite some time ago (and yes, i do watch these videos), and i'd actually practiced this specific sequence then.

Sifu today noted that we can visualize tai chi forms as involving 5 dimensions--3 dimensions of space, 1 of time, and 1 of the mind. in order to perform the movements, we have to be conscious not only of physical actions in 3-dimensional space, but of our pace in time, as well as our intent in the movements. this is important to understand the techniques as not just physical expression, but as actual patterns with combat applications.

Sifu also commented that terms of the course plan, he wanted to have the class learn the form as general movements, but that we would then spend the bulk of time this quarter working on details and fine-tuning our form. he said the details were important, but that he didn't want to overwhelm us in the beginning.

we finished the day on this, and i ended up sticking around on campus to eat. i may do this more often, although it's going to have to happen on Thursdays, since my Tuesdays are a frenetic mess.

Friday, October 12, 2007

quarterly summary - Q3, 2007

this is a 2 weeks late. but things are a little busy this semester, and i don't have the same amount of time i did before to post. honestly, i'm finding it a bit of a struggle to find time for anything right now. but consistent with the previous quarterly summaries, this gives a brief (especially this time) overview of what i've been doing for the months of July-September (inclusive), and follows the previous quarter (reference: quarterly summary - Q2, 2007).

original goals

following the "objectives for the future" given in the previous quarterly summary, the objectives for this quarter were:
  • continue attending class
  • continue practicing during the week outside of class
  • continue 2-person and multi-person drills and sparring (to improve combat application of techniques and concepts)
  • learn the more fundamental components of the curriculum
  • improve qi-gong
  • begin learning long fist (beginning by finishing tantui)
  • consider other styles to learn for the future
summary of events

with respect to the curriculum, this is what has been covered (in no particular order):
  • tantui (lines 1-10, opening & closing)
  • pao quan (beginning)
  • two-person drills (stationary & moving)
  • 64 palms: palm changes 1-8 (side A), 1-8 (side B)
  • 64 palms: A v B, palm changes 1-5
  • walking the circle: palm changes 1-8 (side A), 1-8 (side B)
  • bagua zhang qi-gong: level 3, qi projecting
  • Yang tai chi
  • reference materials (Chen Xin's book on Chen tai ji)
other things that have been covered that were not necessarily within the curriculum:
  • taoist and buddhist philosophy--particularly taoist and buddhist thought relating to martial arts practice
  • Chinese martial arts history--ancient, traditional, modern
  • Chinese martial arts styles--i'm learning more about Chinese martial arts styles and their relative distinctions from each other, such as the distinctions between Wudan and Shaolin, Northern versus Southern, external versus internal (although this appears to be under debate), ancient versus modern
  • traditional Asian medicine--i've gotten more about bagua qi-gong, as well as awareness that there are other forms of qi-gong

i think i've managed to reach most of the goals for this quarter:
  1. continue attending class: no problems here
  2. continue practicing during the week outside of class: this was okay during the summer, but the start of the fall semester has made things difficult, since i am now 1) finishing my dissertation and aiming for a defense date at the end of November, 2) searching for postdocs, 3) looking for potential jobs, and 4) training for Ironman New Zealand. it's been difficult. i haven't been able to schedule practices with other people during the week, and have been following a pretty haphazard pattern of solo practice otherwise.
  3. continue 2-person and multi-person drills and sparring: after everyone came back from the tournament, we stopped doing sparring work. we did however, do more 2-person drills. particularly outside of class in practices with Kieun and John, both of whom live near to me.
  4. learn the more fundamental components of the curriculum: i've been making effort to do a lot more of this, particularly in terms of performing basic movements while moving with my feet. in addition, i've been trying to do "shadow boxing," moving and creating combinations against an imaginary opponent, particularly in terms of connecting entry moves (e.g., from mother palm) to follow-up ones (e.g., from xiao kai men and 64 palms). i've found this to be beneficial, since it's helped me integrate my upper and lower body, and to get a feel for applying techniques in a seamless (or more seamless) flow of movement. i've also found it's made me more conscious of the work required in holding proper form.
  5. improve qi-gong: this is...well...mixed...bagua qi-gong continues to be a bit of a perplexing situation. whatever the descriptions given by other people as to how chi feels, i'm not feeling it. i'm having a lot more success with yang tai chi. what this means, i don't know.
  6. begin learning long fist (beginning by finishing tantui): this is a work in progress. i've learned all the lines in tantui, so now it's a matter of tuning everything up and practicing. i also started with pao quan, although from what i hear it's a very long form and so the part that i've learned only represents a fraction of the total. and that doesn't even get to chao quan. so i've got a ways to go.
  7. consider other styles to learn for the future: the future is kind of now. i've started with yang tai chi, and i'm making progress with long fist. i'm definitely interested in chen tai chi as well. as for anything else, i'm going to have to play things by ear, since i have quite a lot on my plate right now in terms of school.

progress has been pretty extensive this quarter. it feels like a torrent of information. i'm kind of hoping i can keep it up.


my comments can probably be summarized as follows:

  • cross-over: it's interesting to see the cross-over between kung fu and sports. i'm starting to both see and (more importantly) feel the cross-over between the 2, and it's pretty positive. i've posted extensively on this, and will continue to do so, so i won't go into detail here.
  • development: i'd been feeling stuck on a certain plateau for a number of months earlier this year, and to be honest i was actually starting to get a little concerned. but i seem to have managed to get past that, and i've been feeling much better about the progress i've been making--right now, i'm starting to get a much more intuitive grasp of perspectives and understanding as to what the various styles hold. whether or not this translates into technique, i don't know, but even there things are feeling a little more comfortable, which makes me more motivated to keep going with things.

objectives for the future

ditto from before:

  • continue attending class
  • continue practicing during the week outside of class
  • continue learning applications
  • continue learning bagua and long fist
  • learn tai chi
that's pretty much it. we'll see how things go.

Monday, October 08, 2007

day 56: legs, xiao kai men, & tai chi

  • many directions
  • coordination
  • hips
  • tai chi
  • leg drills
  • xiao kai men (combat applications)
i arrived a little early today to find a good number of other people already present. Eric was getting a personal lesson with Sifu, and John Eagles, Jonathan Shen, and Siwannda were doing their own practice routines.

tai chi

i took my usual time for warm-up, and then began with a run-through of the Yang tai chi set from the past week's UCLA class. John decided to join me to refresh his memory, and so we started going through it together. unfortunately, we found that our forms began to diverge, and after some discussion figured out that he had learned the 36-movement form, whereas the UCLA class was currently teaching the simplified 24 movement form. we decided to just go through as far as we matched, and did a couple of iterations as a qi-gong exercise.

leg drills

Jay had joined us at this point, and after some talk about what to do next, John proposed we just continue backtracking and repeat the leg drills from last week. i figured this was good, and so we spent the following minutes going through each of the drills.

it was just as well, since it appears i'd forgotten to label a few of the drills: crescent kick long (in & out), as well as crescent kick short (in & out). the short crescent isn't really so much a kick as it is knee strikes. but the arc of the motion is the same, and so i suppose is the reason why it holds the same moniker.

in addition, i also found that there were intervening drills that led to the tornado kick, which apparently considered a more advanced leg drill. the tornado kick involves extended legs, but this is sometimes difficult for people to do.

John and Jay showed me that there is a lead-in in drill using the same movements as the tornado kick, but with the legs only extending to the knee rather than out to the feet. this helps acclimate the practitioner to the footwork and turning motion. in addition, they also showed me another lead-in drill that involves the fully extended tornado kick, but with the hands outreached for the purpose of providing targets for the feet to hit. this helps the practitioner become accustomed to extending the legs.

we tried this for a few sets, but i figure that i'm going to have to work through these drills quite a bit more--particularly the tornado kick, which still requires a bit of a wind-up for me and feels a little awkward.

xiao kia men (combat applications)

we finished just as Sifu came over to begin the class. he motioned us over to the buildings, saying that he wanted to return to the original meeting place since the current location by the playground tended to get heavy traffic from people in the local community.

Sifu asked us if we had ever covered the combat applications for xiao kai men. i was kind of surprised to see that i was not the only one--although, it's entirely possible that John and Eric wanted a review for themselves. seeing our response, Sifu announced that we were going to spend some time going into the combat applications in-depth. with the time we had, we'd go through the 1st 3 techniques: green dragon turns its head, greed dragon wags its tail, and black bear probes with its paw.

green dragon turns its head

we began with green dragon turns its head. what Sifu showed us was more complex than what i'd seen in class. Sifu said that the tendency for many students is to simply treat this as a basic turn of the waist to throw the opponent on their backside. but this is deceptive, because there are actually many different kinds of movements involved:
  • legs: legs sink down
  • hips: this is supposed to serve as a hinge, opening up the buttocks, which acts to align the waist and spine into proper position and combining force in a direction into the opponent's center
  • waist: this turns horizontal
  • spine: alignment must be vertical
  • lead arm: this has 2 movements--a drilling motion with the hand, but then also a turning motion of the arm that traces a slight arc down and then up into the opponent's centerline (for shorter opponents, this will be lower; for taller opponents, this will be higher)
  • lower arm: this can serve as a controlling arm, but it also is engaged in a drilling motion, but one that goes straight into the opponent
  • head: head looks in the direction of the lead arm
Sifu had us practice this, going left and right, and then swapping partners, so that between the 4 of us we each had extensive opportunities to explore the technique. my observations are:
  • these motions are complex, particularly in conjunction, and take some effort to coordinate together
  • it is very easy to simply muscle through the technique, since it can be effective simply by forcing the turn at the waist into a throw, but this is wrong
  • it is more effective to NOT muscle the technique, but to do it right. in fact, we found that less effort actually means more power in the technique--if it is done right...which is difficult to do
  • done right, the technique feels like you're moving air, with the opponent simply crumpling backwards
  • i found that i had more success rotating to my left versus rotating to my right. Eric said this may be because as a right-handed person, my body has developed an ingrained pattern of motion going right, while my body is relatively free of pre-existing habits for anything going left, making it easier to learn new movements going left.
green dragon wags its tail

next, Sifu showed us green dragon wags its tail. this incorporates the unicorn with the hands and arms, but with legs in bow-and-arrow stance. Sifu pointed out the following:
  • legs: legs shift weight forward into bow-and-arrow stance so that the body is situated above the front leg...but not so far that weight goes beyond it
  • hips: hips have to turn in the movement so that they become square at the finish
  • spine: this is supposed to be straight vertical, and extends upward through the technique
  • lead arm: this follows the unicorn motion, but the arm should not extend. in fact, the hand should not extend too far beyond the elbow, and the upper arm should not extend too far from the chest
  • lower arm: this is supposed to go down and back as the lead arm goes into phoenix
we repeated the drill as before, swapping directions left and right, as well as partners between the 4 of us. my observations on this are:
  • like green dragon turns its head, there is a lot more going on here than is readily apparent simply watching it in class
  • unlike green dragon turns its head, you can't muscle this technique through. either you do the technique right and it works, or you do the technique wrong and it doesn't
  • if i thought about the technique, it didn't work. Eric commented that this is one where you just have to "let things go" and commit to the technique. i found this hard, since i'm still unfamiliar with the combination of actions
  • if the technique is done right, it produces a lot of power with very little effort. i managed this a few times, and was actually kind of shocked by the result. unfortunately, this didn't happen enough.
  • done right, the feeling is a whip of power extending from the fingertips of the lower hand and up its arm through the scapula and spine into the leading hand and culminating in a flick of the wrist.
  • you have to commit to the technique, and by this i mean i had to actually exaggerate the motions--i'm guessing that what i thought was right wasn't going far enough, and what i thought was too far was closer to right
black bear probes with its paw

Sifu had us move on to black bear probes with its paw. here, too, he showed that there was a greater level of complexity that what we tended to see others do. he pointed out the following:
  • legs: they sink down, but also turn into 70-30 stance
  • hips: again, they act as a hinge, opening the buttocks to align the waist and spine. in addition, the hips start square to the opponent, and then turning to finish at right angle to the opponent
  • waist: there is a slight turning at the waist, following the hips, but there is supposed to be a slight bending down through the technique
  • spine: the spine is supposed to begin vertical, and only bend enough to follow the bend at the waist
  • lead hand: this is supposed to move down. Sifu said you can visualize that you're moving a brush down
  • rear hand: this is supposed grasp the opponent's arm and move backward
Sifu also pointed out that with this technique, it did not matter how your body was oriented relative to the opponent in terms of foot or body positioning, and showed that it can work either from dragon gate or tiger gate. in addition, he also showed that it works regardless if the lead hand is on the opponent's clavicle, shoulder, upper arm, elbow, or forearm.

my observations are as follows:
  • for some reason, i found this easier than the other techniques.
  • it seems to make a huge difference to imagine the legs squeezing together as you sink down, and to exaggerate the movement of the hips from being square to the opponent to right angles--i suspect that these 2 actions serve to lengthen the distance the opponent is being forced down, increasing the amount their center of gravity is taken forward and down
  • the technique is less effective if you attempt to push with the lead hand, but too little force on the lead hand results in it slipping. the ideal points seems to be just enough force to maintain contact with the opponent, but not so much that it results in pushing--i found pushing does NOT work, but actually makes things worse
  • the technique seems to be more effective to imagine power going through the spine and then going down through the rear hand. that is, if the intent is more pulling down with the rear hand.
  • the physics of this seems to be that the lead hand is forming a fulcrum, while the rear hand is pulling as a counter-balance weight at the end of a lever formed by the body, creating torque that draws the opponent under--when added to the descending of the entire assembly (including the fulcrum), this means that the opponent is forced directly into the ground
  • done right, the feeling is descending straight down, and the opponent's body crumpling beneath you
we finished at this point, partly because it was now 1pm, and partly because we were getting sore throwing each other to the ground. Sifu called the class to an end, and we went to the post-class lunch.

Friday, October 05, 2007

days 54 & 55: beginning tai chi

  • yin/yang
  • wuji/tai chi
  • posture
  • reactive force
  • Yang simplified 24 movement
this week was the 1st 2 classes of Sifu's tai chi class at UCLA. actually, the 1st class was Thursday, September 27, but i had to miss it because of an on-campus career fair.

for purposes of this blog, i'm going to denote the tai chi class by 2 days (i.e., days 54 & 55)--the class runs from 8:30-9:50am every Tuesday and Thursday, and since each session is so much shorter than the Saturday class (80 minutes as opposed to the usual 180 or even 240 minutes), i figure it would save time and make for easier reference to combine each week's Tuesday and Thursday session into a single post. each post will be divided up into Tuesday and Thursday components, so you can see the course distribution.

there are 25 students in the class--the full roster cap set by the university. most of the students have no history in martial arts, pretty much like me. from what i've been able to tell, many of them are in the dance/theater program, and so are taking tai chi to help with dance. but a few are in other departments, with Sifu saying a larger number are from engineering, so i'm guessing they're taking the class out of curiousity.

day 54

day 54 seemed to be the actual full start of class. from Sifu's introduction, it seemed like the previous class had been largely spent on taking attendance, laying out the course syllabus, and introducing tai chi. from what i could gather, he had also described to everyone that the course was going to present the Yang simplified 24-movement form, with the 1st quarter teaching the form, and the 2nd quarter teaching basic combat applications. for the 3rd quarter, the course would teach Chen tai chi.

Sifu began by discussing the notions of yin and yang. yin represents the insubstantial, yang the substantial. in terms of physical movement, this means that yin is associated with movements downward, back, or away from the opponent, while yang is connected with movements up, forward, or towards the opponent. in addition, yin is represented with yielding to force, and yang is tied with application of force.

next, Sifu introduced the concept of wuji and tai chi. he said wuji is the state of nothingness, which in Taoist conceptions is perceived as the beginning and end. tai chi is the division of wuji into differing states of yin and yang (so 0 becomes 1, with 1 composed of yin and yang). for tai chi quan, this means that the opening stance is wuji, and the initial step of unloading weight off the left foot and loading weight onto the right foot is tai chi.

with this, Sifu then led everyone through the first 6 moves of the Yang simplified 24-movement form.

following this, we did a brief discussion about the nature of posture. Sifu said that this was necessary for proper biomechanics (proper in the sense of the techniques being effective in combat).

he also used me to demonstrate the horse stance, and to show what was considered correct posture and what was incorrect posture. he pointed out that the horse stance was supposed to be a "horse-riding" stance, meaning that to be done correctly it requires knees in, tailbone slightly rounded, toes pointed forward, back straight, and chin slightly tucked down.

Sifu finished by telling the history of Yang tai chi. the original style was Chen, and was a tightly held secret within the Chen village where it was founded, but a martial arts fighter named Yang who wanted to learn tai chi disguised himself to become a servant to the Chen family so as to observe them and acquire their knowledge. eventually he was caught, but the head of the family, seeing that Yang truly understood tai chi, decided to teach it to Yang, with the condition that Yang never teach anyone outside his own family. of course, over time, this restriction was forgotten, and Yang tai chi has gone on to become one of the more prevalent styles of tai chi known and taught to the world.

this was bulk of class. the remainder of time was spent answering questions.

day 55

today was a continuation of the previous class, with Sifu leading everyone through to the 12th movement of the simplified 24-movement form.

Sifu took some time to introduce some basic concepts regarding shifting of weight. in particular, he emphasized the motion of the hips and the feet in moving from horse stance to bow-and-arrow stance. he also stressed the importance of imagining holding a ball that expanded and contracted in repulse monkey.

this was something we'd covered in the Saturday class, so it was nothing new to me. however, i could tell it was a major concept for people in the class to understand, and that it was something involving more concentration for some of the students--this, i suspect, is because many of them have no history of physical activity, and are probably at the same stage i was at in terms of kung fu-relevant physical coordination when i started (a little over a year ago!).

Sifu also discussed the mechanics of "rooting." he seemed to follow from the arguments he made last Saturday, and described the process of rooting in relation to the bow-and-arrow stance, first using the Chinese terms of "chi" and "dantian" and then interpreting them as essentially nothing more than manipulation of the body to adjust the center of gravity to utilize Newton's 2nd law (i.e., every force produces an equal and opposite force) so that an opponent's push is directed through the body into the earth, which is then used to send the push back into the opponent.

in response to questions, Sifu also demonstrated some combat applications of the 1st 12 moves. this was a revelation to me. Sifu showed that the opening move in the form (a step to the left) is actually a step to throw an opponent off-balance. similarly, he showed that the technique known as brush the knee is a strike to the opponent's knee, pushing them off-balance to trip over the practitioner's foot.

Sifu informed everyone that we would spend more time on the combat applications as the quarter progressed, and that we would definitely devote class attention to it 2nd quarter. for now, though, he said he wanted to do the demonstrations so that everyone could understand the intent behind the movements, and also understand the necessary mechanics to be correct.

Sifu also mentioned that as class went on he would provide everyone with the names of each technique in the simplified 24-movement form. he also told everyone that even though we would finish the entire 24 movements within the next week, that this was because for now we were just concentrating on learning the larger movements, and that we would start to work on the nuances of the form in subsequent weeks.

an interesting side note today was that Sifu gave the story of how he learned Yang tai chi--this is something he's never told any of his classes, including the Saturday class. apparently, it was not his choice. his father had asked Sifu's instructor for help in improving coordination and fitness, and Sifu's instructor had decided Yang tai chi would be valuable. however, his father felt he needed help in remembering and practicing the form, and so asked the instructor to teach Sifu. over time, however, Sifu said that he came to understand tai chi as a very beneficial thing to know in terms of health...as well as its combat value.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

day 53: sifu's manifesto, legs, & chang quan

  • ancient terms and concepts
  • ancient knowledge versus modern knowledge
  • copycats versus true understanding
  • bridging the old and new
  • revolution
  • bagua kicking drills
  • tantui (lines 1-10)
  • pao quan
today was the first day back from the month break. there was a low turnout today (for bagua, it was me, John, and Eric), largely because everyone was still traveling.

John and i had arrived early, and had taken a number of minutes reviewing bagua qi-gong levels 1 and 2. we also discussed level 3, comparing notes about our understanding of it. i hadn't done this in the past few weeks, so it was good review. i'm still finding bagua qi-gong not that productive (i'm not getting the chi sensations that other people are saying they're getting, and i had much more success with the tai chi qi-gong that Phunsak had showed me back in August). despite this, i'm reluctant to stop practicing it, since i'm finding it's pretty easy to forget things unless you do them on a regular basis.

Sifu's manifesto

Sifu began the day by discussing what seems to be a manifesto. he appears to have been doing quite a bit of thinking about his legacy in terms of kung fu, and he discussed his ideas in broad strokes today. i suspect that this is a work in progress, and likely something that will be filled in with details in the time ahead, but at this time he seems to have settled on the over-arching themes of what he wants.

the lead-in was a question regarding Chen tai chi. originally, he had not planned on teaching it within the year he has left in Los Angeles, and was instead focused on his Yang tai chi class at UCLA. but he said he'd been thinking about this over the past month, and he realized that there are not many instructors teaching the version of Chen he knows (the old frame...as in old, old, pre-Chen Fake)--to his knowledge, there's him in Los Angeles, and then 2 others in Taiwan. because of this, he feels that it would be good to teach his Chen tai chi before he leaves. but he said this is something we would discuss as a class.

from this, Sifu decided it would be a good time to present some thoughts he's been having about his plans for the future. he didn't use the word, but i'm choosing to call it a "manifesto," since it seems to assert the kind of aspirations and guidelines usually given in one.

ancient terms and concepts

to summarize his comments, Sifu started by noting that traditional kung fu instruction utilizes terminology and concepts derived from Asian cultures, which reflect the way in which those societies understood the world and natural phenomenon around them. this understanding was based on years--often centuries--of empirical observations regarding the relationship between disparate factors. with respect to kung fu, this often meant that a person who wanted to master kung fu also had to comprehend the meanings of the terms and concepts from Asian culture in relation to their application in martial arts.

Sifu argued, however, that the persistence of ancient terms and concepts over time has led a tendency towards mysticism in the modern era of kung fu, in which modern practitioners use ancient terms and concepts without actually ever being able to clearly define what they mean. this leads to students of kung fu discussing martial arts in vague generalities without actual understanding of what anybody is talking about. this creates a number of problems:
  • diversion--often, practitioners devote more time to discussing abstract ancient vocabulary than they do to actually improving their skills (something contrary to the entire basis of martial arts)
  • subterfuge and deceit--the level of obscurity in terms and concepts is used as a tool by disreputable instructors, who rely on them to either hide their own lack of understanding (subterfuge) or to lead students into believing that they have not learned anything (deceit).
  • manipulation--mysticism allows instructors to claim "true" understanding and mastery by belittling or patronizing others for not being able to "understand" the language the instructor is using. this then enables the instructor to manipulate the public, often for the purposes of personal gain, whereby the instructor continually asks for more money to teach the "real" meanings and "deeper" understanding of kung fu
  • misunderstanding--the ultimate result of mysticism, of course, is complete misunderstanding of kung fu, both in concepts and practice, with followers frequently being led astray from the original purpose of kung fu: combat.
to illustrate, Sifu demonstrated a basic tai chi pushing concept with Eric. he said that traditional teaching methods would stress the "lowering of chi" and "concentration into the lower dantian." these, unfortunately, are relatively abstract (as in not material), and so tend to be the source of prolonged confusion with modern students. Sifu pointed out that in this case, the dantian is really nothing more than the modern "center of gravity" and the lowering of chi is just calling attention to lowering the center of gravity. he demonstrated the pushing technique, and explained that all it was doing was placing the practitioner's center of gravity beneath the opponent's to create a mechanical advantage.

according to Sifu, this is a very basic technique, and one that should be easily mastered by students. the reason it is not is because they are taught using ancient terms and concepts that are no longer recognized by modern students. Sifu argued that for these kinds of situations, instructors should just make things more clear using relevant (i.e., more modern) explanations of traditional principles.

ancient knowledge versus modern knowledge

apart from mysticism, another problem Sifu sees is the obsession with ancient knowledge in teaching kung fu. he believes that this doesn't really give credit to modern practitioners.

too often, the tendency is to believe that ancient masters held superior understanding of kung fu relative to modern ones. in a way, this is true, in the sense that history is full of eras wherein knowledge (about everything, not just kung fu) was destroyed, leaving successive generations bereft of traditional wisdom. but Sifu says that this ignores the nature of ancient knowledge compared to modern knowledge.

he returned to his point about ancient knowledge being based on empirical observation. he said that this gave societies of that time enough insight to establish how things worked. unfortunately, for the most part, that was all. this means that traditional knowledge--and the terms and concepts tied to them--are actually limited in terms of what they can convey.

in contrast, modern knowledge is based on analysis, with theory being tested through experimentation (in essence, empiricism is matched with theory). this means that modern societies not only see how things work, but also can determine why they work. this means that modern knowledge, from a certain perspective, is actually greater than traditional knowledge.

the contrast is one that i would explain this way: ancient knowledge, using empirical methods, could deduce correlation and causation with respect to phenomenon in the world; modern knowledge, however, uses empiricism with theory to determine correlative and causal relationships, but then takes the additional step of investigating what allows such relationships to exist.

for illustration, Sifu again used the same tai chi pushing technique against Eric. the effectiveness of the technique (i.e., its ability to push the opponent backwards) is typically explained by ancient perspectives as "drawing chi from the earth" and "rooting the chi." Sifu argued that this may have been a useful way for ancient societies to understand how the technique works, but it does little in helping to understand why.

he said that it is easy to see why by utilizing modern science, such as basic Newtonian physics--vectors, force, mass, acceleration, speed. here, the body mechanics of the technique position the body so as to exploit Newton's 2nd law (for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction), meaning that the practitioner utilizes the opponent's assault in combination with their own force down into the earth, creating a combined reactive force that transmits back into the opponent.

Sifu said that modern science has given us a greater level of comprehension than was available to ancient societies, and that as martial artists we should be willing to use this to help us. he referred to Newtonian physics, thermodynamics, mathematics, biology, kinesiology, and medicine. all these things, he believes, are tools that ancient scholars did not have--but which we do, and so should be allowed to enable us to improve ourselves (including our mastery of martial arts).

copycat versus real understanding

Sifu continued, stating that an additional problem he sees in kung fu is the quality of teaching. too much of it, he said, fails to give students a real understanding of kung fu. many times, students will learn techniques and forms and names and principles, but they never learn the reason why all these things work or the reason why these things were created.

according to Sifu, this is dangerous. because it means that generations of practitioners are nothing more than "copycats" who have copied everything they know from their masters. while in some ways laudable (because it may reflect admiration, dutiful study, and attention), it is ultimately damaging to the state of kung fu. this is because "copycat" followers lack the deeper understanding of how and--more importantly--why things work. this prevents them from fully applying kung fu.

Sifu offered some reasons for this. part of it is instructors (e.g., those who insist on "hiding" knowledge or having "secret" teachings, or who are just simply incompetent), part of it is students (e.g, those who are content to be "copycats" and poseurs), part of it is teaching methods (e.g., application of traditional methods when modern ones might be better), part of it is history (e.g., instructors are aging and dying before passing on everything they know, or who are caught in societal upheaval preventing education).

Sifu asserted that real understanding is fundamental to martial arts. true mastery requires a grasp of how and why things work, since this enables the practitioner to then adapt their knowledge to confront and resolve unknown challenges. moreover, what may work for person may not work for another (because of different body types, biomechanics, infirmities, etc.), and so will require modification to be effective. real understanding, according to Sifu, means the ability to manipulate knowledge to given situations while still preserving (or even enhancing) an effective outcome.

for Sifu, poor teaching does nothing more than breed copycat students. for him, quality teaching produces students with real understanding. in his opinion, there is too much of the former and not enough of the latter.

bridging the old and new

next, Sifu said that there has to be an evolution more reflective of modern times of kung fu and kung fu instruction. kung fu was never meant to stagnate, much less become corrupted. nor, for that matter, was kung fu instruction ever expected to be fixed.

referring to history, he pointed out that even within the curriculum of styles he teaches, we can see a progression over time in kung fu, with long fist being the oldest, and bagua being the youngest, but with clear traces of influence stretching from long fist to tai chi to baji and piqua to bagua. this reflects a continuing evolution in martial arts thinking, which means that it is a living art form following human society, and so to continue living it requires the contributions of new practitioners. this led to a point: if kung fu is to live--and live well--it must have good contributions, which calls for good practitioners capable of providing such contributions...in other words, this means practitioners with a real understanding of kung fu.

likewise, he says he believes that kung fu instruction must also evolve. the lifestyles of the past gave instructors the luxury of students who lived with them or who could devote hours every day to learning, allowing for much gratuitous usage of time in teaching method. in contrast, modern lifestyles simply do not allow this, with modern students being burdened by the demands of careers, education, families, bills, etc. modern instructors are not free as their historical predecessors to be as gratuitous in time, and must become more efficient and pragmatic in teaching methods, otherwise they risk never producing the kinds of practitioners needed to sustain kung fu as a living art...and thereby risk having kung fu die with them.

Sifu said he's lived long enough to see both the old and the new, both in kung fu and kung fu instruction. as a result, he sees himself as the bridge between past and modern generations. he feels this even more so because of his own background as well as his engineering education, which allows him to understand the traditional perspectives along with modern scientific ones.

Sifu stated that he sees this as his position: to be the bridge that conveys the knowledge of kung fu held by past masters to a new generation, with the goal of creating modern masters with a real understanding capable of carrying on kung fu into the future. this seems to be his mission.


Sifu finished his thoughts by arguing that he wants to start a kung fu revolution, particularly in terms of teaching. he thinks that it would be good to encourage other instructors to share his mission, and thereby combine their mutual efforts to better sustain kung fu as a living art for successive generations.

but to do this, Sifu sees the revolution being in teaching, with the adoption of more pragmatic, more efficient, as well as more relevant teaching methods. in his words, we need to "cut out the bullshit" and just teach how things work and why they work, with no obscure language, no insistence on ancient terms and concepts, no holding back of knowledge, and no politics. again, to cite his words: "what's wrong with having students actually understand things?" he repeated his prior points, saying "we can't live in the past. modern times aren't like the past. we have to adjust to match the present, otherwise we'll lose everything."

i think there's a way to describe what Sifu is saying: kung fu instruction has to be be like kung fu...in a fight, survival requires that a fighter adapt to the situation facing him (or her); likewise, kung fu as a living art has adapted and changed over time to reflect the situations facing it; so by extension, kung fu instructors need to change to match the situations of modern times.

bagua kicking drills

Sifu left us to free to practice whatever we chose. John, Eric, and i talked about it for a moment. i asked if we could backtrack a bit in the curriculum and cover the kicking material. i'd missed all of this (i'm guessing it had been before everyone learned xiao kai men, and i began just when everyone was finishing xiao kai men). i asked if either John or Eric remembered the leg form for bagua, but neither felt comfortable with their recollection of it.

Eric suggested that we review (for him and John, at least--for me it's new) the kicking drills. this was agreeable for everyone, and we began going through them. there was a good number, with me counting a total of 12 drills:
  • leg swing front & back
  • leg heel snap kick front & back
  • side swing kick
  • bicycle kick front & back
  • knee strike in & out
  • full sweep front & back
  • short sweep front & back
  • foot sweep front & back
  • crescent kick long in & out
  • crescent kick short in & out
  • double front kick
  • moving front double kick
  • tornado kick
this took a little while. i was not familiar with any of them, and i've never seen them in class. i found these quite enjoyable, since they give a pretty good set of exercises to improve range-of-motion, balance, and coordination (which is probably what they were originally meant to do, anyway). some of them are almost identical to track technique drills i've done (especially the front & back leg swing, and side leg swing).

tantui (lines 1-10)

after we finished with the kicking drills, we took a break and spoke again about what to review. Eric suggested it would be good to go through long fist, since it had been a long time since we'd reviewed it.

this was the first time i've gone through the entire set of tantui lines with the opening and closing. i found it pretty valuable, since it effectively served as a session to polish a lot of the rough edges i've been having. Eric and John gave me a lot of pointers that corrected the mistakes i've been making, and this should me practice them (it's one thing to practice, but you want to practice in a way which means you're learning right).

pao quan

we finished the day with pao quan. Eric offered to show me the beginning moves, and so the 3 of us went through the opening leading into the iteration of the 1st line from tantui.

at this point, Sifu returned from working with the baji students and then asked to see what we'd done in pao quan. after watching us go through what Eric had shown, Sifu asked us to repeat it again, but this time joined us.

Sifu made comments as we went through the moves. in particular, he emphasized that in long fist (or, chang quan) the moves are supposed to be exaggerated, and so this means extending to a point that might seem dangerous in a combat situation. he showed us that we needed to really go down low in our stances, and then really reach in our motions, so that our movements were open and fully extended.

he also noted that in long fist, the general rule is that legs lock when standing, but that the arms never do. this is not always true, but tends to be a predominant pattern.

Sifu then challenged us to learn a few more moves of pao quan to really test our memory. this was a bit of a struggle, and we ended up having to repeat things a good number of times to get things down. obviously, since they'd gone through this before, Eric and John had a much easier time, and ended up stopping to watch (and correct) me.

we continued this while Sifu worked with Jonathan Shen, who has been learning chao quan. this is the next long fist set after pao quan, and is the highest-level set for long fist in the Wutan curriculum (as far as i know...although i should note that tantui, pao quan, and chao quan are all part of what is known as jiao men chang quan, or "islamic long fist," and so there are many other forms of long fist, with each presumably having their own arrangements of set forms).

after awhile, we all decided to call it a day. Eric had to be somewhere by 1:30, and it was know 1 pm. in addition, Sifu was giving private instruction at 1pm, and the students had already arrived. without anyone else to go to lunch with, John and i decided to just hold off on the usual post-class meal and wait until next week--which Sifu said would be meeting at 10am over by the original place by the school buildings (apparently, the current location by the playground was only meant to be temporary, but continued on longer than anyone had originally intended).