Why Martial Arts Won’t Make You More Aggressive

Welcome to Fighting Words; thoughts and theories on martial arts in the modern world. In today’s post I’ll be writing about the often commonly held assumption that martial arts makes people more aggressive. Why do people feel this way and what can we do to help resolve this issue?

This may be anecdotal, but I’m sure many of you will have come across this if you’ve ever told someone that you do martial arts. You will proudly say what style you do and they – without any experience of the subject – may ask you something along the lines of “but doesn’t that make you violent?” Now, in the past I’ve been quick to point out that being aggressive in your workouts doesn’t help you and can often lead to you losing focus and possibly even injuring yourself from unnecessary tension; after all, these points are true and quite obvious when you think about it. The problem I’ve had though is that sometimes I’m perhaps a bit too quick off the mark to say these things and being as I’ve rolled out this answer so many times I may even come across as a bit angry about it. Smart thinking!

But let’s take a moment to think about why this question pops up every now and then, and what the best way is to confront it while not coming across as either too aggressive, or too smug and condescending. After all, if someone is prepared to talk to you about martial arts, maybe they’re interested in joining your class – this could be the conversation that starts their lifetime interest in the fighting arts and you don’t want to put them off by confirming their fears that we’re all a bunch of nutters spending our free time punching each other in the face.

So let’s start from the beginning and break down why this attitude is prevalent in the first place, before thinking about how best to overcome this mentality in the best way possible. To start with, people associate martial arts with violence, which is a given and understandably so. We can’t deny that there are a lot of physical and mental challenges ahead for any practitioner and some of those challenges do involve hitting – or getting hit by – other people, and we shouldn’t try to deny it. Part of the appeal of Muay Thai, Krav Maga and other styles is that these skills can be transferred into self defence situations, so there is an obvious link to aggression and violence, but often from the side of the attacker and not the one who is only using their training for defence.

Let’s break this down further; we’re often told to remain calm under pressure or to not lose our heads. In stressful scenarios, a cool and logical approach is favored over an instant emotionally charged reaction so when we’re faced with another individual’s anger, the best response is to not rush in and meet their energy with the same. This works in the office, at home and yes, both in the training hall and on the street which shows that these skills are useful in our day to day lives as well. If the person that you’ve talking to isn’t planning on having a violent night out on the town any time soon then they’ll still find that they’re learning something that can be suitable to their own experiences. So we’ve got the link to anger covered and we can say that others might be in a rage but not us.

Next up is the idea that continual repetition of punches, kicks and holds will make us somehow want to keep doing those same punches, kicks and holds whether we’re in a safe, controlled environment or not. This is the bit that is the most flawed in its reasoning; if you’ve just done a grueling two hour workout and potentially took some knocks during that time, I’m sure that the last thing that you want to do is go out and find someone else, anyone else, to continue that workout. In a time where professional athletes are very open about their strict dietary requirements and daily routines, even the average person with no interest in martial arts should be able to figure out that we all need to rest and recover after a session and that most of us are simply too tired to think about doing much else afterwards. Anyone familiar with the endorphin rush from running or other such sports will recognise that you would often be leaving the training hall feeling knackered but great and will typically be in a positive, upbeat mood that encourages friendly, open behaviour over anything else.

This boils down to a mindset that we need to adjust, and there’s potentially an easy way to do this. Whenever we refer to practitioners of martial arts, we use the term “fighter” as a default descriptor. This in itself brings in questions of authenticity and gatekeeping; there’s countless forum threads across the internet debating what level of skill and involvement is required for someone to move from a beginner to a fighter – one prime example is on Ellie Goulding’s Ask Me Anything Reddit page. The singer-songwriter included the term “kickboxer” in her opening statement, which led to all kinds of comments about whether or not she is a kickboxer, or merely someone who just does kickboxing. And if you’re slightly confused about what the difference is, then so were many other people (I believe the arbitrary rule on it was that you could only refer to yourself as a kickboxer if you fought professionally, anyone else merely does kickboxing).

So let’s instead use the term “athlete”, or something that emphasises the fact what we’re doing is first and foremost a sport or hobby with potential competitive elements. It plays down the machismo end of things and helps project an inviting, open attitude; after all, there’s plenty of people interested in sports in general, far more than there are martial arts fans. And the more people there are practicing what we love, the more we can spread the word about what training is really like, and why it’s not just fighting but something so much more.

That brings us to the end of the post; I hope you’ve enjoyed this edition of Fighting Words and will join me for another discussion about the martial arts in the modern world again. So until then, be like water, and stay safe.

Why Sparring Is Essential To Your Workout

Welcome to Fighting Words; thoughts and theories on martial arts in the modern world. In today’s post I’ll be considering why sparring is such a divisive subject in classes. Is it a replication of a real life self defence event, a training tool, or something else?

Ask any ten people what their impression is of a martial arts class and they’ll probably mention a few of the same things. Bowing (lots of bowing), a certain kind of uniform, walking up and down a hall shouting and striking, and practicing the techniques on each other in some way. This last point though, is a controversial one and can elicit all kinds of different responses depending on which class you go to, which instructor you speak with, or which student you train with. In general, I’ve come across three different points of view on whether or not sparring should be done in a class.

The first is the most contentious one, and that the moves being taught are too dangerous to use on fellow students, even in safe, controlled circumstances. In one Karate session I went to, I was told that we couldn’t risk hurting each other as “what we do is far too dangerous to practice”. This even applied to locks and holds that led to takedowns, even though these are often the simplest and safest ways of getting comfortable with moving in close to another person and manoeuvring them into a position that gives you the advantage. If you’re stepping in to deliver a round kick to someone’s stomach, you’re either going in heavy which is going to seriously hurt them, or you’re holding back in some way. Holding back the full force of your strike can then slow you down, so the end result is more like a demonstration as opposed to an attack. However, working through each step of a grab, lock and takedown can be done slowly and precisely, with the speed and ferocity stepped up over time once the student gains confidence; it’s the perfect way of getting them familiar with actions that are completely alien to many people.

So here’s the problem with this approach: we’ve got a room full of people being told that they are learning deadly fighting arts, ones that are so deadly that should they ever have to use them they will undoubtedly be lethal. There’s a lot of positive reinforcement at play here, since the students will be working with co-operative partners and have their instructors showing them the theory of the moves. But what happens if they ever have to actually use these moves in a self defence situation? As anyone who’s trained with a non-compliant partner will attest, things start to get messy pretty quick – that perfect parry and armbar that you’ve been working on will instead become a fumbled block and wrestle for their arm, an arm which most likely won’t be wearing a heavy cotton Gi that’s easy to hold. Is it worth going full pelt and launching your colleagues across the room every time you’re practicing a throw? Probably not to be honest, but it’s definitely worth making your training partner work for it instead of complying with them and giving them a false sense of confidence.

The other unintentional side effect of this mindset is that practitioners will start to believe that what they do is so overwhelmingly violent, that maybe its best not to use these moves at all. If someone is pushing you in public and threatening to hit you, do you risk unleashing what could possibly be a killing blow? This is very different from having the attitude of using whatever training you have to defend yourself or those around you.

The second point of view on sparring is that it’s an essential part of training, to the point where it’s the closest most of us will get to real confrontation and trading blows with another body. Now, this attitude is often more common in students as opposed to instructors, as this is starting to equate simulated fighting with actual fighting which can lead to the same sort of problems that I’ve just mentioned above. Strangely enough, those who view sparring as the be all and end all come to a similar conclusion as those who don’t practice it at all; that they are able to take what they’ve learned in class and apply it to an external situation with no issues whatsoever. Only this time, there’s the assumption that the extra rough and tumble of sparring, with it’s mistimed hits and occasional losses of balance, is sufficient to imitate a street fight. Also, let’s not forget that the use of boxing gloves, shin pads and gum shields among other things helps to soften the impact on those who are throwing the kicks and punches – if you’ve ever sprained your wrist from a badly executed hook or uppercut, you’ll know what that feels like but there’s still a lot of protection from wrist wraps and heavy gloves.

Which brings us on to the last point of view which is my personal favourite. This is the belief that sparring, and all other forms of training that work with a non-co-operative partner, are essential to our development in any martial art, but with the proviso that they are not an imitation of real self defence scenarios, which will always be much more difficult and potentially far more dangerous. Most beginners joining a lesson will probably be familiar with the idea of sparring so will not be scared away by it, and why discard a valuable training tool that helps develop timing, spatial awareness and improvisation in a way that not much else can? Instructors ultimately need to have the courage to risk their students getting hurt, intimidated or disheartened from a bad sparring match, but that is part of the challenge that we face as martial artists – we may fall down a lot, but we pick ourselves up more.

While many of us have access to so many different training resources now thanks for the internet, we’re ultimately at our best when face to face with someone who can help us perfect our techniques. Sparring isn’t something to ignore, but it’s not something to raise to an unrealistic ideal either. The answer lies, as so often, somewhere in the middle.

That brings us to the end of the post; I hope you’ve enjoyed this edition of Fighting Words and will join me for another discussion about the martial arts in the modern world again. So until then, be like water, and stay safe.

Covid Kung Fu And Pandemic Practices

How does a physical practice involving people interacting survive a world on lockdown?

Welcome to The Water Method; thoughts and theories on Tai Chi in the modern world. In today’s post, I’ll be musing about the current Covid 19 lockdown and some of it’s knock on effects in the world of martial arts. How do we keep up the training when we can’t interact, and can solo forms save the day?

It’s a crazy world out there right now, as I’m sure you’re aware of and agree. Six out of the seven continents on the face of the planet are reacting to the sudden wave of Coronavirus that has led to countless people facing a life or death struggle, and despite initial comments, not all of them had pre-existing medical conditions before contracting the virus. As martial artists, we are lucky in that our training should hold us in good stead for any ailments that come our way. Hopefully, our dedication, discipline and hard work will pay off and help us protect ourselves like it should whether it’s a mugger on the street or a disease in the air.

Learning ancient Silk Reeling techniques might not seem that important when family and friends are in danger from something that we can’t strike.

So the main thing – that we as people come through this – is something that we can plan for, and react accordingly to, but what about the martial arts themselves? Can Tai Chi survive when it’s instructors and masters are separated from their students? What happens when information cannot be passed on from one person to another, and time is lost while waiting for this pandemic to be beaten? On top of these problems, another one is the fact that some people may not focus on their training, and turn away from the art. To some of us that may seem shocking; a devotion to the martial way can give you a strong definition of your own character, but to others, learning ancient Silk Reeling techniques might not seem that important when family and friends are in danger from something that we can’t strike.

What this means is that Tai Chi needs to be communicated and transmitted in a different way, embracing modern practices and techniques that some practitioners may find antithetical to the ancient art itself. On the other hand, others may find that this new way of thinking actually embodies the ever changing, ever adapting way of Tao. What would those masters in China all those years ago think to online Zoom classes and Face Time Q&A sessions? I’d like to think that most of them would think this is a brilliant way of keeping the flame alight. In their time, after all, Tai Chi would be the most advanced and up to date fighting system that they were using, much in the same way that MMA fighters view their own styles today – everything was new at some point or another!

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And the underlying principles of Tai Chi, coming from it’s Taoist roots, should encourage the ever-changing and adapting; this is survival of the fittest in a strange way. Having taken part in pre-recorded classes for Tai Chi and online Zoom lessons for Kickboxing, I can say that the Tai Chi classes offered a more consistent, recognisable version of a normal lesson. This shouldn’t have been as surprising to me as it was; after all, there was no way that I was going to be able to do any sparring in the Kickboxing class, but rehearsing and improving on a solo Chen form was a typical part of class before the Covid 19 lockdown.

To keep ourselves focused and pushing forward with our training, there are still resources available to those of us with an internet connection and some room to practice. We keep on working on the exercises and forms that we were studying in class, even the ones that we don’t want to – in fact, especially those ones that we don’t want to! It is not uncommon to realise that we shy away from certain aspects of training because they are harder for us to perfect than other routines, which is actually highlighting a potential weakness that we have. So, while it’s certainly fun to just drop into a few relaxing forms every day, running through a 88 move set, or a particularly strenuous Qigong exercise may not be appealing but is in truth what we should be doing.

We’re doing our bit for the local community, for ourselves, and for the art itself.

And in a way, this is what is going to help keep Tai Chi alive during these very troubled times. Helping ourselves by staying in shape, and continuing to train, will leave us in a better position to help others when the time comes. That can mean volunteering to help such as the NHS Responders program here in the UK, or taking part in regular classes online to help support your Tai Chi club, or simply demonstrating some basic moves to friends via social media if they need some kind of regular exercise or way of relieving stress. In that sense, we’re doing our bit for the local community, for ourselves, and for the art itself. Who knows what the world is going to be like in just one year’s time, but we do know ways of staying calm and collected during trying times; we just need to keep practising.

That brings us to the end of the post; I hope you’ve enjoyed The Water Method and will join me next time for another discussion about the martial arts in the modern world. So until then, be like water, and stay safe.

Tai Chi Across The Web

Gong Shou Dao, or, how to rebrand Tai Chi.

Welcome to The Water Method; thoughts and theories on Tai Chi in the modern world. In today’s post, I’ll be focusing on the Jack Ma and Jet Li short film, Gong Shou Dao. With the rise of modern technology such as the internet, motion capture recordings and online forums, the future is ripe for Tai Chi to survive – and thrive. But what will get lost in translation?

Where else are you going to get ropey CGI basketballs, sumo barbershops and an Ip Man fish foot spa?

A few years ago, Alibaba founder Jack Ma released a short, twenty minute film titled Gong Shou Dao. In it, he takes on a series of martial masters played by the likes of Tony Jaa, Donnie Yen and (Ma’s Tai Chi instructor) Jet Li against a series of increasingly surreal backdrops. The fight choreography is done by Sammo Hung and Yuen Woo-Ping so we’re treated to some great scrapping, which makes Ma look like he can competently hold his own with some of Kung Fu cinema’s finest. If you haven’t already seen it, the video’s linked at the top of this post so I’d recommend watching it and then dropping back here when you’re done. Seriously – where else are you going to get ropey CGI basketballs, sumo barbershops and an Ip Man fish foot spa?

You’re back? Good, hope you enjoyed the show. The whole thing plays out like a rich man’s power fantasy, which is pretty much what it is. After all, if you had the money and influence, and loved jumping around in Kung Fu attire, isn’t this what you would want to do? I know I would. But the “official” reason for this film being made is only briefly touched on at the end, when Ma is rolling through some classic Tai Chi stances with a cosmic screensaver playing behind him. Gong Shou Dao is essentially a hip, rebranded version of Tai Chi’s push hands practice that is being pushed as a possible Olympic sport. The Chinese government have long been using Kung Fu’s rich heritage to help increase it’s “soft” power, which is a term used to describe a country’s cultural influence as opposed to economic or military “hard” power. Anyone looking to do a deep dive into this side of things is well advised to check out Ben Judkin’s excellent Kung Fu Tea at https://chinesemartialstudies.com/ – full disclosure time: I have contributed articles myself.

So are the Chinese authorities and associated parties looking to keep the classical martial arts alive by emphasising the health benefits of internal arts while also playing up the martial elements in competitive events? That way, the sports side of things which would revolve around Gong Shou Dao would supposedly make sure that the martial parts of Tai Chi are kept alive and in the public consciousness. It certainly looks like that is the plan, although this has been going on for some time now, and not always with much success. Anyone who watches mixed martial arts programs will notice how few Kung Fu practitioners are involved, and the most famous one is quite possibly Xu Xiaodong; a man who spends his time fighting proponents of classical styles, often with messy – always one sided – results.

There is definitely a Taoist slant to things taking place here. It seems that the softer part of Tai Chi, with it’s focus on balance, breathing and yielding, has long held sway over the more forceful, combative side and now there appears to be an attempt to balance the two out. I would drop an image of the yin yang symbol in here, but I’m sure you’ve already got the point. The danger is that the two become separate and go their different ways, with students having to pick either classes focused on form practice, Qigong exercises and learning the background of the art, or fight training classes dedicated to rigorous push hands training. The latter of these sounds much like a Wushu class, and many martial arts instructors and masters have spoken out how this ends up with lots of students performing amazing acrobatic moves but with little practical experience or ability. Ironically enough, Jet Li has been one of these outspoken masters, so it will be interesting to see how he views the direction of Gong Shou Dao in years to come.

One person cannot force a tradition onto others with just a fancy movie and some big stars.

Whether or not Gong Shou Dao actually takes off or merely becomes an odd (yet entertaining) footnote in the history of Tai Chi is a question that has yet to be answered. As wealthy and important as Jack Ma is, one person cannot force a tradition onto others with just a fancy movie and some big stars name checking him, but this could be a viable way of reinvigorating the “Tai Chi brand” to use modern terms. And while this means that there is the danger of certain parts of it being abandoned or forgotten because they’re not trendy enough, hopefully laypeople will become as familiar with Tai Chi as a martial art as much as a holistic health practice. Any news is good news, as they say!

That brings us to the end of the post; I hope you’ve enjoyed The Water Method and will join me next time for another discussion about the martial arts in the modern world. So until then, be like water.

Taking The First Step

How to overcome that first objection: I don’t think I’d be very good at Tai Chi.

Welcome to The Water Method; thoughts and theories on Tai Chi in the modern world. In today’s post, I’ll be discussing ways and means to tackle that age old excuse from many new beginners – “I just don’t think I would be very good at Tai Chi.”

With every passing day, Tai Chi becomes more popular and more well know across the world. People are attracted to it for all sorts of reasons, ranging from it’s martial application, via it’s rich cultural legacy and through to the myriad health benefits that it offers. Many of us who begin learning the art often go through that evangelical phase when we first start to experience the benefits of practice; that subtle centring inside us, staying calmer and more focused at the same time, feeling that we are in better control of both our bodies and our minds. For some of us, there’s the added feeling of confidence, or security, when we run through some applications and learn how to defend ourselves, while others notice a small but substantial improvement to their wellbeing. It’s a great thing to go through, and one that most of us want to share with our families and friends, leading to us preaching to anyone who will listen to us!

But on an anecdotal level, albeit one that I’ve heard repeated by numerous teachers, students and people who would perhaps like to be students, there’s a common excuse – one that must be heard in training halls all over the planet, in many different languages. And that is the classic “I don’t think I’m cut out for it”. This excuse takes many forms. Firstly, there’s the fear of trying something new and the potential for embarrassment. Secondly, the innate feeling that we don’t have the ability to physically do the movements that are required to become good at Tai Chi. Finally, there’s the danger of a person’s preconception of Tai Chi (and all that it entails) getting in the way of their training.

Who would have thought that Karate wasn’t appropriate for a Tai Chi class?

So, I’m going to go through each of the three above points and attempt to overcome them. Whenever you hear the excuse, and the inevitable reason coming afterwards, hopefully your guard will be up ready to take it on and deflect it. If the student offers up one of those reasons, then here’s the next move to follow up with; consider it a practical application of the Tai Chi principles, only with words and thought processes instead of strikes or blocks.

Let’s start with that initial wariness of attempting a new hobby, and all of the social anxieties that come with it. Anytime someone enters a training hall for the first time, they can feel like they’re being judged; they don’t want to disrupt the class by asking questions all of the time, or stumbling into others, but they’re entirely new to this thing – it’s a closed circle of awkwardness. It’s in this situation that most of us forget that actually, all of those instructors and higher level students went through the exact same thing before them, so they know and can relate to this predicament. Even those of us with a prior background in the martial arts – I first started Tai Chi classes thinking that my strong Karate stances and willingness to stand in uncomfortable positions for long periods of time would almost certainly fast track me through then grades. Turns out I was completely wrong, and instead had to unlearn what I had learned, much to the amusement of my first instructor. Who would have thought that Karate wasn’t appropriate for a Tai Chi class?

Moving on the next point, I’ve seen some entertaining memes and comments across the internet gently mocking the idea that people can’t learn Tai Chi because they don’t have the co-ordination, or the balance, or the knowledge to do so. But if someone says to me “I wouldn’t be very good at Tai Chi – I don’t have the co-ordination!” I would calmly reply “No, you practice Tai Chi to learn co-ordination!” I’ve actually done this a few times and while people don’t often like being told that they’re wrong, they seem to realise that this makes sense. None of us started off with perfect poise and an innate sensitivity to everything around them, so we begin with the vey basics and slowly (sometimes, painfully so) improve our understanding. It’s not a quick and easy answer, but then neither is the training, so if they’re not ok with the answer then will they be ok with the training?

Finally, let’s have a little fun with that last point, about people’s preconceptions of the martial art. Just let me crack my knuckles and limber up first though, because this is one that I’ve encountered a lot and have been looking forward to writing about for a little while now.

When we speak to laypersons, just mentioning Tai Chi instantly throws up images and ideas in their heads without us having to do anything else – the yin and yang symbol, a sort of slow motion Kung Fu, old people sneaking up on trees(?). And that’s great, because it means that in a few words we’ve already got across a rough idea of what we’re really talking about. The only trouble is that after decades of fictional representation of the style, and a general lack of concrete knowledge of it, people are in the right ball park but are actually looking outside the ball park and at something else completely different. So it’s a double edged sword; we have a short hand for the art thanks to years of public awareness, but that awareness isn’t as accurate as we would like it.

I don’t think anyone expects us to shout “no pain, no gain” at them in the class.

I’ve seen many a promising, potential student attempt their first class and come away looking a bit bemused and slightly out of breath. It turns out that the copious amounts of Qigong and drilling of stance work actually required a bit of a physical (and mental) effort on their part, almost like some kind of martial arts class no less. Who would have thunk it?! Unfortunately, they were looking to slowly wave their arms around and breathe deeply for an hour or so, and come away feeling relaxed and “very Zen”. Instead, that pesky instructor of theirs expected some kind of exertion to get a reward; I don’t think anyone expects us to shout “no pain, no gain” at them in the class, but the point would be valid.

All of which means that we have new people walk through the front door, eager to learn, with their cups already full. Full of worry that they’ll be rubbish on their very first attempt – weren’t we all? – and scared of being judged – even though we’ve all been there – and expecting something that might not be true – which it probably isn’t. But if they make it to the front door, at the time that the class starts, that’s the hard part done, they’re willing to at least try. And now, if I hear someone winding up their excuse, I know exactly what I’m going to say to make them stay.

That brings us to the end of the post; I hope you’ve enjoyed The Water Method and will join me next time for another discussion about the martial arts in the modern world. So until then, be like water.

How Many Forms Are Too Many?

Is the learning of endless forms necessary for improvement as a martial artist?

Welcome to The Water Method; thoughts and theories on Tai Chi in the modern world. In today’s post, I’ll be discussing whether or not the repetitive learning of countless forms is a help or a hindrance to our practice.

Just how many forms do we have to learn to attain mastery of an art, and at what point are we learning forms for the sake of it? Is there a limit to how much we can learn and retain, and if so is there even a way of figuring out what this number is? No matter what style you practice, whether it’s an external art or an internal one, whether it’s Yang Tai Chi, Sun Tai Chi, Lee Tai Chi, or anything else, you will no doubt have had to rehearse forms (or katas for the Karate students among you) over and over again to pass your grading and advance through the ranks. Which in turn means that we all have something in common: we’ve all been there, trying to force another routine into our heads so that it flows effortlessly, looking strong yet supple, and easy yet powerful. We’ve all studied the applications of each move to understand why they’re done the way they’re done, and kicked ourselves for not getting that last move just right on an otherwise perfect run through.

Why did our masters decide to teach us things so similar, so close to each other that they knew we would confuse things and mix them up?

Take Yang style for example, which I’m going to do as it’s what I’m currently studying. There’s the 108 step Yang form, or the 108 form for short; some lineages add or subtract a few moves here and there so that you may have come across the 103 or the 110 as well, although they may be essentially the same in practice. But then there’s the 42 form, which is a vastly condensed version of this as well, and an even more concise iteration which is the 24 form. In the past few decades we’ve seen the rise of the 16 and 8 step forms too, which are designed to convey some of the basic principles in just a handful of movements, making it easy for beginners to build up their confidence by successfully completing a form while also starting to understand what this Tai Chi business is all about.

The moves look similar – in fact, to a layperson they may look like the same moves but repeated ad infinitum in the higher numbered forms. And yes, learning the same, or extremely similar, sequences every lesson can trip us up; raise your hand if you’ve ever found yourself looping from one set of moves back into the same starting position, or even veering off into a completely different form – yep, there’s quite a few raised hands at the back I see. Why did our masters decide to teach us things so similar, so close to each other that they knew we would confuse things and mix them up? It can’t be just for giggles can it?

Ideally, I’d like to think that our instructors aren’t just setting us up for a fall and recording the footage to send to TV programs, so I’m going to choose to believe that there’s a higher purpose in all of this. Yes, the routines are using the same techniques and yes, they are also conveying the same principles again and again, but that is because the forms are merely tools being used to put these points across to us. If you’re focused on memorising the shape and the outline of any of these forms for the sake of learning the shape and the outline of them, then I need to remind you of the following great piece of dialogue from the Bruce Lee film Enter the Dragon, “It’s like a finger pointing to the moon – don’t concentrate on the finger or you will miss all that heavenly glory!” And yes, he does say it with an exclamation mark at the end.

In Taoism, the way that we’re looking for is always shifting and changing… much like water (which sounds familiar but I just can’t place where I’ve heard that before). Once something is crystallised and fixed, it is in danger of becoming stagnant and inflexible, and prone to breaking. If you’re utterly determined to choreograph the perfect representation of the 24 step form, for example, yes it will look fantastic, but by being so concerned – so worried – about the look of it, your body isn’t going to be flowing like the way it should.

There’s an inherent danger with being rewarded with a physical, tangible prize.

A particularly common example of this is seen throughout the martial arts world when we see beginners get their first coloured belt. It’s a great feeling, and one that anyone should be proud of, but there’s an inherent danger with being rewarded with a physical, tangible prize. Once you’ve got one, you’re tempted to become fixated on obtaining the next one, so you train with the sole purpose of getting that next belt instead of improving and growing as a fighter in all directions. Which means that I’m going to hit you with a flurry of questions now: If you’re next grading doesn’t ask for you to learn weapons, why bother learning weapons? If you don’t have to spar for more than five minutes, why push yourself to go beyond that? And what happens once you’ve got your black belt, and there are no more belts to collect? Where does your motivation come from then? That’s the path to stagnation. I’ll leave it to the Buddhists to make their point about the pursuit of material possessions, but I’m sure you’ve all heard it before. So keep learning those forms, and as many as you can, as they will hep you develop in the right way. But always remember that they are the journey, and not the destination.

That brings us to the end of the post; I hope you’ve enjoyed The Water Method and will join me next time for another discussion about the martial arts in the modern world. So until then, be like water.

A Soft Touch?

Can students of external martial arts truly master the internal styles?

Welcome to The Water Method; thoughts and theories on Tai Chi in the modern world. In today’s post, I’ll be discussing the often heard idea that those with a background in hard styles such as Karate, cannot truly understand and benefit from the internal arts like Tai Chi.

A few months ago, I was in a day long class practising a Yang style fan form with some friends and people I had trained with for a few years. The majority of them had come to Tai Chi with little or no martial arts background, and took to it like most of us would do – with an open mind and willing to take things at face value. The fan forms are a fairly demanding set in the Yang syllabus, being as they require the practitioner to frequently drop into and out of low stances throughout, and often at a fast pace with big, strong movements that give the impression of a Kung Fu form as opposed to a Tai Chi one.

There comes a point where it’s nice to not get battered and bruised after every training session.

During a break, when some people were recovering from these stances and movements, I was talking to a friend about how different these forms were from the sword sets; while also weapons based sequences, these had a graceful, calm feeling running through them. When you’re practising your sword form, you’re more likely to experience a feeling of tranquility than one of focused strength or controlled aggression. It was at this point that he told me about a former master of his, who was of the opinion that anyone from a martial background would inherently struggle to really get to the depths of Tai Chi training, and wouldn’t be able to fully appreciate how to soft and yielding without losing their centre. Which got me thinking.

From my own personal experience, a lot of us come to Tai Chi following years of training in a different martial art, and normally one of the external styles. We’ve had years of punching and kicking, or grappling and throwing, and also years of being punched and kicked, or being grappled and threw; there comes a point where it’s nice to not get battered and bruised after every training session. Which is why we look to the internal arts, where there’s the belief that there’s something more to the obvious strikes and holds that we’ve been doing for so long. To take your time and break down every part of a move, that’s what leads to some real insight if we put in the time and effort, and that’s why so many of us love Tai Chi.

And it’s because of this large contingent of us ex-Karate, ex-Judo, ex-whatever it may be, that confuses me when I still hear that those of us with this background can’t unlock the full power of Tai Chi. I’ve often heard this opinion put forward by those without knowledge of other styles, although the master in question (who shall remain anonymous, since I don’t want to start a Tai Chi scrap) studied Kung Fu before switching to the internal arts. But I want to look at it from the perspective of the martial artists who then came to find Tai Chi, which is funny because coincidentally that’s my background.

In some of the Okinawan Karate styles, the grandmasters used to advise their students to take up Tai Chi as they got older to help preserve their joints and suppleness as they advanced in both skill and years. That way, they could learn to relax their muscles and minds when not drilling their katas, which in turn meant that they were in better shape for when it was kata drilling time. On a similar note, Connor McGregor in the UFC was been quite vocal (which is unlike him) when he started adding Yoga to his regular training routine; since then, many other mixed martial arts fighters have taken to incorporating Yoga or Tai Chi into their setup, for the same reasons as those Japanese masters of old. Also, due to the similarities in stances and movement, being aware of how to throw a solid round kick teaches us a lot about our balance, which saves our Tai Chi instructor from having to go through the very basics with us over and over.

Maybe it’s too late for you to completely empty your cup and start all over from scratch?

So there is the idea that if you’ve already previously done a martial art, you may be cutting yourself off from the inner most secrets of Tai Chi – maybe it’s too late for you to completely empty your cup and start all over from scratch? I know people on both sides of the argument and I without some sort of thoroughly researched experiment to prove or disprove it, I can’t see a hard answer that settles the argument once and for all. But then again, maybe there doesn’t have to be. A lot of us come from martial backgrounds, and many of the Tai Chi masters started with Kung Fu in their early years to get them hooked on the fighting arts in the first place before slowing down and progressing on to the internal styles. Either way, there’s a lot of us with prior knowledge, and even if we can’t reach the highs that others can, that knowledge that we already have can help us grow and develop in ways that they might not.

That brings us to the end of the post; I hope you’ve enjoyed The Water Method and will join me next time for another discussion about the martial arts in the modern world. So until then, be like water.

Who Carries A Sword Anyway?

The benefits of learning outdated weapons in the modern world.

Welcome to The Water Method; thoughts and theories on Tai Chi in the modern world. In today’s post, I’ll be talking about why the fan, the sword and the staff are always good to know, even today.

Do you remember that time that you were nearly mugged, when those three blokes in ninja suits jumped down from a nearby pagoda and threatened to kill you for dishonouring the local Shogun? And the only way to save yourself was to draw your sword and battle them to the death? No, of course you don’t, because it didn’t happen. And barring a sudden and inexplicable change in the way we all live our lives, none of us will be in that situation either.

But even so, there’s still a lot of us across the world practising the sword forms, the fan forms, the staff forms in our Tai Chi. Of course, there’s a few other weapons as well, and when you look into other arts there are a whole lot more, some more esoteric and frightening than others. Other martial arts are predominantly defined by their use of certain weapons, and the styles are required to retain them to maintain the structure and very identity of who they are. Others still use them as the logical progression from unarmed combat, giving the practitioners a wider arsenal of moves and at the same time providing experience of dealing with the modern day equivalents. After all, a staff can be a baseball bat, a sai can be a flick knife, and a machete bears more than a passing resemblance to a sword.

You could run through a sword form and still discover the same principles if you were wielding a broom.

Due to all of the above, there are very real, very practical reasons for learning how to use weapons. So what about Tai Chi? We do self defence drills, and we have real world applications for the moves practiced in our forms, but don’t we also peel away the layers of what we do, and look for a deeper meaning in the fighting? The Yang straight sword forms, for example, feature slow and considered movements that stress the importance of good stances and correct weight distribution, rather than working on the fastest, swiftest strikes possible. Likewise, there are Qigong exercises that have the student use the staff as a tool to focus their attention on, and to keep the body’s alignment, as opposed to learning any attacks.

We use the various weapons as training tools, each one providing a different challenge to us – the sword as a test of the practitioner’s balance with a weighted weapon in the one hand; the fan to hone our dexterity and rhythm in movement, and the staff for sensitivity training, pushing us to learn to read another’s intentions through their contact with your weapon. And if we didn’t use weapons, and instead used other inanimate objects without a dangerous element, then we would still be using those objects for the same purposes. In a way, you could run through a sword form and still discover the same principles if you were wielding a broom, a ruler, or a toy lightsaber (although the lightsaber has it’s own forms if you ask Star Wars fans, but that’s another thing entirely).

In fact, this is what it truly boils down to: through the ages, people have always been looking for other ways to improve their training, in any way, shape or form. The old Kung Fu legends claim that many of the animal styles were based on mimicking the motions of the crane, the snake, the tiger, etc. Although if we do believe these stories, then one does have to wonder how the dragon style was created. It takes all sorts to come up with new, often weird and wonderful training practices – professional fighters nowadays can be seen cross training in a gym with advanced breathing apparatus before running through Yoga forms to relax their muscles, mixing the best of the old and the new. And remember, no one will laugh if you’re doing it right.

Which means that while it might not seem to be the case in the first place, the use of weapons is actually a logical extension of our regular practices, being as they are the next step in learning the combat and self defence sides of Tai Chi. Obviously, these forms (and the choice of said weapons) were created back in the day when violence was much more likely in the day to day lives of folk, when bandits and thieves were an ever-present threat. If you’re interested in the stories of these times in ancient China then I can heartily recommend looking into the “world of rivers and lakes” as they’re called, which is the Chinese equivalent of the Western knights and chivalry.

This is in fact a note from history, letting you know that you’re on the right path.

As such, we’re deriving useful information about the body through timeless practices, which certainly speaks to us down the years. These moves and forms must have proved successful back then to manage to survive to the present day, and their effectiveness has kept them in teachers’ consciousness for the rest of us to benefit from in the modern world. So the next time you’re just about to run through a form, fending off imaginary enemies from all corners with a weapon that you only typically see in historical movies, just remember that this is in fact a note from history, letting you know that you’re on the right path.

That brings us to the end of the post; I hope you’ve enjoyed The Water Method and will join me next time for another discussion about the martial arts in the modern world. So until then, be like water.

Questions Of Identity

How do we define ourselves as Tai Chi students?

Welcome to The Water Method; thoughts and theories on Tai Chi in the modern world. In today’s post, I’ll be talking about the way we signify ourselves as martial arts, both inside and outside of the training hall.

In the last episode I briefly mentioned some of the ways in which we, as students, choose to show how we are avid Tai Chi practitioners outside of our time practicing. But what is the typical look of a martial arts student when we’re “off duty”? Is it a uniform, emblazoned with club badges and embroidered belts? Is it the hoodie name checking your club that you wear outside of class, to show passersby where you train? Is it the club’s Facebook page that you subscribe to, or its’ Instagram page with you included in the posted photos?

Of course, it doesn’t have to be any of these things, but you can see why people choose the fancy uniform, or the clothing that advertises the club, or taking part in related social media. After all, being able to instantly convey to people your approach to life is something of a challenge; especially when we’re talking about an art that tells us to slowly but surely strip away the inefficient and useless parts of our being. How can you even show something if you’re spending all of your time breaking it down?

Just maybe, we can put the emphasis on something other than the Tai Chi.

There is a theory that I’ve heard whispered in various corners of training rooms, and lurking at the bottom of internet forum conversations, that just maybe those of us in the West look to imitate both the martial art that we’re studying, and the cultural attitudes and preferences that were present in that art’s original home country. And, just maybe, we can put the emphasis on something other than the Tai Chi. In terms of Tai Chi and actually, any form of Kung Fu, there are countless examples of teachers in mainland China who have demonstrated a move or form a couple of times for their students before letting them figure it out themselves, repeating the moves over and over parrot fashion. The student is expected to mimic the move ad infinitum and slowly glean the internal workings over time, without any other assistance.

Often times, the reason for this type of teaching comes down to either a “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” mentality or, much more worse, the age old adage that “it’s always been done this way”. And while that’s what worked in ancient China all of those years ago, if you were to use exercise routines and dietary practices from those days, you would be ignoring years of scientific breakthroughs and continual development – just imagine if we decided to return to the hygiene practices of previous centuries, and I think you’ll see my point.

A strong sense of identity is important to everyone, and the martial arts are big proponents of this, more so than other pursuits. Having a quick hand definition of what a Tai Chi student is does help us, whether we’re explaining to someone what we do, or if we’re looking to shore up our own confidence by leaning on the character traits that we’re supposed to have: dedication, being honourable and focused on something outside of our daily lives. Powerful iconography helps us as well, and the commonly used Yin Yang logo is a great example of how we should be keeping our Taoist beliefs front and centre at all times.

But do we define ourselves too much by our uniforms and our purchases? Is it too easy to put all of our energy into the things that aren’t utterly necessary? I once heard a fellow student talking during a break in a lesson, and she mentioned how she was so busy over the past week that she hadn’t had time to practice her forms, but she did manage to watch a fantastic half hour long documentary about Tai Chi one night. Fortunately, all of this Tai Chi training meant that I didn’t shout at her in a frustrated tone, explaining that she clearly had thirty minutes spare to have worked on her own training. However, I can see her point – to improve, we need to be continually putting in the practice, day in day out, repeating the same movements and patterns over and over until we slowly, incrementally, start to uncover more about the way we move. It’s not always fun, and it’s never quick and easy, so sometimes it feels ok to do something to the side – to still be immersed in Tai Chi even if we’re not actually doing Tai Chi.

There isn’t anything inherently wrong with expressing our support for something that we love.

So, do we define ourselves too much by our outward appearance, and our financial purchases? I could be asking that question about martial arts, or any part of our society really; there isn’t anything inherently wrong with expressing our support for something that we love, and by putting money into whatever industry you respect you are in turn contributing to it in a different way. On the other hand, I’m sure we all know well-meaning people who invest heavily in the training gear, uniforms and books or DVDs before they’re truly committed to the art, and in time those items end up gathering dust somewhere when that person has moved on to another activity.

Well what is the alternative then? It’s not flashy, and it’s not cool. It’s be dedicated, truly focused on one thing at a time. Learn the outline of a form, understand the application of each move, slowly unravel what you’re doing, break everything down. Can you stay interested with just the basics, whether they be basic clothes, a class that runs through the same practices each and every week, or a style that only rewards patience and hard work? If so, then you’ve just described the perfect Tai Chi student.

That brings us to the end of the post; I hope you’ve enjoyed The Water Method and will join me next time for another discussion about the martial arts in the modern world. So until then, be like water.

Beyond The Dojo

Should martial artists be doing more in the community?

Welcome to The Water Method; thoughts and theories on Tai Chi in the modern world. In today’s post, I’ll be talking about what it means to be a martial artist outside of the training hall, and whether or not we should be doing more for our local communities.

We all define ourselves as martial artists, in part at least, because we train. It may be a weekly class that we attend, or a daily routine at home working on the basics, or a one off training course that digs deep into the finer principles, but we all consider ourselves as Tai Chi students because we regularly practice Tai Chi. Which makes sense, because if we’re not regularly practising our art, there’s always the thought, or the fear, that we’re not on top of our game; that we’re not the best version of ourselves, and that we could try harder, or train more.

Now in the case of external arts, I agree with this belief as I had experienced it myself numerous times, and in lots of different ways. Whether its because your suffering with an injury, and physically cannot train, or due to relocating away from your club and not being able to attend, or due to a mental barrier, such as an overbearing work load that leaves you too tired to commit to a gruelling workout. There are always time when you can’t make class, and while it’s easy to know this and justify it, it’s not always as easy to truly understand and accept it. Which is why you’ll see injured students dragging themselves onto sparring matts despite clearly not being able to perform, or others so tired that they forget the next moves of a form that they’ve practised every day for years. It happens to us all.

There really isn’t an excuse to stop practising Tai Chi.

But I’m talking about Tai Chi, and some of the reasons that I’ve just mentioned don’t necessarily stack up when we’re referring to internal arts, where we cultivate chi and steel ourselves to face any challenges. If we’re tired, either physically or mentally, a series of Qigong exercises to gently stretch and invigorate you is exactly what you need; if you can’t get to class then don’t worry, you can run through the forms solo if you’ve got a little bit of space in a quiet area somewhere. And if you’re paying attention to your movements while you work, gently refining your forms and correcting your posture as you go, then the chances of an injury drop further and further away.

So what I’m saying is, there really isn’t an excuse to stop practising Tai Chi, great news right? But we do draw a line between when we work on our art and when we don’t; every class starts with a warm up, to delineate between our everyday lives and the time that we put aside to train. Likewise, when we end a class session we don’t stay in the training hall for the rest of the week, we head home or go to work, for example. And that’s not mentioning the changing of everyday wear to our uniforms, which is a separate discussion for another episode. Physically it’s plain as day to see when we are training or not.

The real thing I want to focus on is the mental side of it – in the moments before you start training, are you still thinking the same kind of thoughts that you do everyday? When you finish training, do you suddenly switch back to those thought processes? Do you go from “what am I having for dinner?” To “I really need to work on my White Crane Spreads It’s Wings” back to “still haven’t decided on dinner tonight”? If so, then I think we need to start to blur the line between our non-Tai Chi lives and our Tai Chi lives.

All martial arts and their instructors pride themselves on helping their students; it’s what draws us in in the first place. You can improve your health, your confidence and your self defence abilities; you can compete in tournaments or travel the world meeting and working with others with a similar interest. We develop as people in all sorts of different ways, and it’s a fantastic thing – I’m sure you’ve seen fellow practitioners with that slightly evangelical buzz about them when they’re describing their style to others. And for many of us, we go on to teach and pass our knowledge on to more people, helping to keep the spirit alive for generations to come.

Now, whether you’re intending to teach or not, there’s a part of our training that I think we’re overlooking. With all martial arts comes the implicit understanding that we’re potentially able to help others. When I said that, I’m expecting people to immediately assume that I mean leaping to their defence when they’re being mugged for example, much in the way that we see in the movies. And that is a thing, I’m not arguing that this aspect of the arts isn’t valid; but if we’re training and improving ourselves, why wait until someone else is in physical peril to help them?

In ancient China, Kung Fu – and by definition, Tai Chi – schools promoted a strong sense of camaraderie and kinship, with members being expected to assist the others in all ways. What helped tie them closer together was the fact that there would often by other rival schools in the surrounding area, so they would often face the threat of running across these other fighters while on their daily business. And to win over more students and acclaim, their teachers would want two things. The first would be recognition for their martial prowess, often won by fights with those other schools, and the second would be respect from the local people. In this case, it would be helping the community out in all manner of ways; often doing general handyman work and supporting other businesses. This also had the added benefit of showing that true martial arts were not mindless thugs.

Maybe it’s time to start branching out and bringing those Tai Chi skills out.

Here in the modern world it can be volunteering at a community centre, working at a soup kitchen, or working with local councillors to improve the area. Or better yet, teaching the basics to other people who haven’t experienced Tai Chi before; I’ve heard stories of Qigong forms really benefitting those who are recovering from addictions and who need some gentle exercise to help strengthen their body and focus their mind.

So, if you’re tired of those pesky other schools stealing all of your would-be students, or not getting your dues for your amazing fighting abilities, maybe it’s time to start branching out and bringing those Tai Chi skills out into the wider community. After all, there’s a big world out there outside of your training hall.

That brings us to the end of the post; I hope you’ve enjoyed The Water Method and will join me next time for another discussion about the martial arts in the modern world. So until then, be like water.

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