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.

The Way Of The Intercepting Style

Jeet Kune Do and putting the Chu’an back into Tai Chi Chu’an.

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 philosophy of Tai Chi and it’s similarities to Bruce Lee’s martial art, Jeet Kune Do.

As most people know, Bruce Lee shot to fame in the sixties and seventies by way of starring in big budget Kung Fu films and a short lived American TV series called The Green Hornet. Since then, his work off screen has arguably become more successful and respected than his work on it. Many martial artists have become actors, but none have managed to secure a lasting legacy like his, and this is in part due to the fact that he wasn’t simply a leading man who could perform his own stunts. His own personal philosophy was applied to the way he fought, which led to the creation of Jeet Kune Do.

Essentially a precursor to the mixed martial arts training that is prevalent nowadays, JKD saw all martial styles as valid and used whatever worked best in any given situation. Lee was a Taoist, and this shows in how he looked to strip away anything that was unnecessary or not as efficient as possible; this resulted in him using a variety of techniques, striking from long range with kicks or moving in close to use grapples, throws or punches. All of this means that JKD doesn’t really have a specific “look” to it – laypersons can often recognise the slow, graceful flow of Tai Chi, or the hard, swift strikes of Karate for example. But with JKD, if anything is up for grabs, then you’re never sure what you’re going to see.

Tai Chi evolved over the years from a purely martial style to one that broke down the mechanics of the body.

All of this means that from student to student, we see differences as much as we see similarities. Due to differing body sizes, body shapes and possible physical impairments, each person who learns JKD is essentially learning their own unique style. Which is what Bruce Lee probably would have wanted.

Which raises an interesting point about Tai Chi. Both arts essentially came from the same source, which is Taoism, which placed great emphasis on refining what you do and not leaving anything superfluous in your routine. Tai Chi evolved over the years from a purely martial style to one that broke down the mechanics of the body, and helped the practitioner to truly understand how they moved, which should in turn help them become better at movement and, therefore, better at fighting. And yet, like I just mentioned, there is always a very definitive look to Tai Chi when it is performed. You can’t miss the expansive movement of the arms and legs when the student is moving forward – a good example would be the single whip move.

There are countless Tai Chi students across the earth, and yet its like being able to speak the same language even if you’ve trained on the other side of the world. I was recently on holiday in Vietnam, and was offered a Tai Chi lesson one day by a tour guide – he didn’t know that back in England I also studied the art, so I took him up on the offer to see how he was taught and what it was like in comparison to what I know. The next day, we begin and he goes straight into showing us the Yang 24 step form; one of, if not the, most recognised Tai Chi form on the face of the planet. And there I am, having travelled countless miles to be doing what I practice every day back at home.

Now, I’m sure Bruce Lee might well have an explanation for this, but there seems to be a paradox here. Tai Chi as a style is Taoist, which in turn says to refine things, to reduce everything until there is only the essential left. JKD says to embrace everything at first before whittling away until you’re left with what works for you. So how do we have two completely separate styles arising from the same core philosophy? Shouldn’t there be more of a cross over, even if it is unintentional?

Obviously, most of us think of Lee performing long, driving kicks and rapid fire punches when someone mentions JKD, so it’s a natural assumption to just think that this is what the style does. But Bruce Lee had years of Wing Chun training before he began creating his own approach to fighting. Years of learning to counter instead of blocking, years of practising low kicks to destabilise an opponent and years of being told to dominate the centre line between you and an adversary. As such, what we’re seeing is a very strong Wing Chun grounding, on top of which additional ideas and concepts are allowed to be introduced to.

It’s not uncommon for martial artists to begin their training at a young age, and if so then we all have a style that we studied before being truly aware of how others fight. Kids being taken to Karate or Tae Kwan Do classes before discovering other, more esoteric and harder to find arts, or students learning wrestling or boxing while at school, who in turn want to improve their stand up game and try their hand at Muay Thai. Before anything else, we learn the basics of one art, and that – for better or worse – becomes the bedrock by which we judge all others. You can’t run before you can walk.

It’s sometimes easy to take for granted that we’re practising a refinement of years’ worth of study and dedication,.

So is Jeet Kune Do truly a revolutionary art that makes Tai Chi look stilted and outdated? It could be easy to think so, but if you were to take away the Wing Chun elements that Bruce Lee couldn’t look past, then you’ve got a disparate collection of moves without anything to hold them together. Imagine performing a Tai Chi form without any real control of your centre: the limbs would be disconnected and out of sync, and any real energy or strength that you had would quickly dissipate.

Tai Chi has had so long to establish it’s philosophy and it’s myriad forms that it’s sometimes easy to take for granted that we’re practising a refinement of years’ worth of study and dedication, from countless students across the world. And now, with the internet at almost everyone’s fingertips, we can share our findings with anyone with an interest in the subject. We might be stripping away the extraneous, we might all be different people with different needs and approaches, but as we continue to whittle away those unnecessary elements, we’re slowly coming to a perfect distillation of how to move, and how to fight. It doesn’t matter where you join the river, just as long as you go with the flow.

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.

Practical Arts

Why Tai Chi is perhaps more useful as a martial art than you may think.

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 Tai Chi is perhaps more useful as a martial art than you may initially think.

When we ask the question which martial art is the best, as we often hear in mixed martial arts matches, or read in online forums, or even in the training hall, we often assume that best means the toughest. The one that’s the most efficient at tackling unexpected attacks from a potentially unknown number of assailants, possibly with weapons. After all, martial arts are about fighting, so it should stand to reason that these arts should enable the student to fight their way out of any sticky situations that they come across, shouldn’t they?

But hold on a minute – what if that’s not the purpose of all of these different fighting styles? Are you always carrying your sword, your six foot staff, or your limited edition Game Of Death replica nunchucks around with you? If, like most people on the planet, you don’t, then maybe we need to go back a step and re-evaluate what we mean by “the best”.

There is always a constant jockeying for being known as the most practical, efficient style in these competitions.

If you’re an avid viewer of the UFC, Bellator or any other mixed martial arts program, you’ll know that there is always a constant jockeying for being known as the most practical, efficient style in these competitions. Through the past twenty years or so, we’ve seen wrestling, Judo, Muay Thai and Brazilian Jujitsu be praised for their approaches to winning one on one matches in a relatively safe, controlled environment. All grappling formats like wrestling and Jujitsu focus on getting in close to an opponent and locking them up with grips, holds and chokes, completely restraining the other person. However, this is all under the assumption that the practitioner has their undivided attention on one individual; a typical self defence course instructor would never advise getting tied up with someone, or going to ground to apply a lock, when there’s the chance that you could be attacked by a second party.

Likewise, stand up shoot fighters – whether they be Karate, Muay Thai, kickboxing students, or anyone else – will train with the express purpose of striking the body and head, with a lesser focus of working the opponent’s legs to slow them down. But the chest and head are supported by some of the strongest bones in our bodies, and are inherently designed to withstand blunt force trauma, like an incoming fist. Due to the obvious danger in going for the eyes, the throat or (heaven forbid) the groin, these areas are understandably designated as off limits during sparring practice and in technique drills.

So, we can’t risk going to ground for a choke hold or getting wrapped up around our attacker, and we might find ourselves conditioned to not striking in the most dangerous areas. But before you bin your heavy cotton Gi and sell your sparring gloves, maybe we’re looking at this all wrong; instead, let’s ask ourselves another question to help us get to the bottom of what we mean by “the best”.

What percentage of your life do you spend fighting? And I don’t mean sparring, or arguing with work colleagues in the office. I mean fighting – fending off would be muggers, or defending someone from an assault. The chances are, most of us would say less than one percent. Not even half a percent, I’m confident to say. Now, that won’t be true for everybody, but for the general population I would say that learning vicious street fighting techniques are probably not at the top of their to do list.

So, if you go to a martial arts class with the express intention of improving your day to day life, then it stands to reason that studying deadly techniques is most likely not your main priority. We’ve all seen adverts for classes, and they never sell themselves as being the most violent, the most intimidating or the most deadly. They’re often stating that students will become healthier and more confident. People improve their balance, their co-ordination and reduce stress, along with other benefits such as becoming part of a community and broadening their horizons. In fact, most of the things that students want are tangible improvements in their own lives, so the actual punching and kicking can be more of an aside than a requirement.

And if we’re looking for an exercise class with a strong sense of community, that also offers a workout with self defence elements and a martial mindset, where do we turn to? Where are we going to be able to improve our posture, our balance and our mental clarity, which we will appreciate on a daily basis? There’s an argument to be made that this is where Tai Chi steps in.

The best martial art could be the one that helps you through the working day.

If you want “the best” martial art, then are you a professional fighter? If so, I can completely understand that Muay Thai, Brazilian Jujitsu or a mix of different styles would be your first thought. If you’re genuinely concerned about being attacked on the street or in the pub, then I agree that something like the Keysi Fighting Method or the Russian Systema approach makes sense. But if you’re like the rest of us, just living day to day in a relatively aggression free place, then the best martial art could be the one that helps you through the working day. Remove the stress, improve your body, clear your mind – all of these can be done without throwing jumping spinning head kicks or by endlessly striking wooden practice dummies until your fists bleed.

Tai Chi might not be the loudest, it might not claim to be the most vicious, and it certainly isn’t the fastest art out there, but think about what you want from a style. Maybe, it just might be the best.

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.

An Introduction

Be like water my friend.

Welcome to The Water Method; thoughts and theories on Tai Chi in the modern world. I’m Rob Argent, and in this blog, I’ll be talking about the way that Tai Chi has adapted through the years, from a fighting style in ancient times, to a state approved health practice in the Chinese Communist era, to it’s modern incarnation, incorporating both of these things, and much more.

How do we define ourselves as martial artists?

Each month I will be uploading a new post about the martial arts and how they fit in with our day to day lives, in a time when the majority of us don’t require hand to hand fighting skills or knowledge of obscure combat practices. It has been almost thirty years since I first stepped foot in a Karate dojo for the very first time, and since then I’ve trained in May Thai in Thailand, Kung Fu in America and Tai Chi in China. Over the years and miles, I’ve seen a wide assortment of different practices and styles, and each one has something that we can learn from.

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In the first few months of this blog, I will be looking at the practicality of martial arts and what we can learn from them aside from the obvious striking and grappling. After that, I will be moving on to how we define ourselves as martial artists and what we can do to help build our own identities through our training, and what we can do to help others. And after that, who knows? If there are any burning questions that people have, or any topics that they would like to see raised, then please leave a comment at the bottom of the posts and I’ll be sure to look into them.

Be like water.

That brings us to the end of this introduction; I hope you’ll enjoy 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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