Saturday, 23 August 2014

3 little words

If there is an enduring motto to Tai Chi (and any other martial art), it can be summed up in 3 little words....

"Just keep practising."

Whatever happens in your life, just keep practising. Even if it's just for 5 or 10 minutes, find something that you can do. When I first started, I didn't always have the time to dedicate to a whole session, so I used to do silk reeling in the photocopying room where I worked. I used to stand in Standing Pole or any of the Tai Chi postures while I was waiting for food to cook, or the kettle to boil.

When I'm not well, I usually concentrate on technique. I will stay seated and practise hand movements and shoulder alignment. From a seated position, I can also practise spinal alignment. I can also meditate, which is excellent for all martial arts. Mental practise is as important as physical. As long as I just keep practising, I know I'm going to be okay.

In an account about Lou Reed's last days before his death, he practised his form with just the hand movements, lying down in bed.

Practise is my default setting. If I'm upset, I practise. If I'm feeling good, I practise. When I'm bored, I practise. This compelling juxtaposition of posture and movement that we call Tai Chi keeps me endlessly fascinated and occupied.

I know that everything will be okay, as long as I just keep practising.

Sunday, 13 July 2014

Lessons we can learn from Greece

In these times of cynicism about the state of worldwide democracy, one thing we can look to is the country who invented it - Greece. Many of the concepts that were introduced by the Greeks are still highly relevant today.

One such concept is Plato's allegory of the cave. Plato describes a cave where there are prisoners sitting in the dark, facing the flat wall of the cave. Puppet masters with a fire stand behind them, casting a great shadow show against the wall. 

At first they may have been chained there, but after a while, they gladly accept the shadows as reality. Even the person who is casting the shadows may believe what they are doing is right, and that the shadows they create are real - hence, they are all in this delusional cave.

One or two prisoners may question the show, and discover diffused sunlight at the back of the cave, and begin their ascent to true reality until they see the sun, feel it's warmth upon their bodies and all the wonders that reality truly holds. Those who learn the truth may then return to tell the prisoners about what lies outside the cave. But the prisoners and the puppet masters will most likely call them crazy.

This allegory works on many levels. For many, the journey of the escapees describes a philosophical or a scientific search for truth. But for me, it is the cave that is fascinating, for it could also describe our modern consumer society; the aggressive manipulation of language and concepts to manufacture consent; our culture of high entropy fear motivation; our amplified and distorted survival instincts; the media, it's propaganda machine and even the corporations, governments and religions that are the highest stakeholders in keeping their prisoners (us) in this state of altered reality.

The allegory of the cave is a call for everyone to examine their conscious world and reject the artifice that is everywhere.

Saturday, 7 June 2014

Martial Arts and entertainment

Since the Beijing Opera first became popular in the late 18th century, martial arts have been depicted as an integral part of Chinese entertainment.

Modern movies are very much in the same fashion. With the advent of wire work, Computer Generated Images and sound effects, the results are becoming increasingly intense and spectacular.

When martial arts are not in films, they are often on television in the form of contrived conflict, like UFC, wrestling and mixed martial arts bouts:

With all of this high entropy behaviour being encouraged and portrayed in the media, people can be forgiven for thinking that martial arts are too violent and extreme. I often wonder how many people are put off by the reputation that is generated by our mainstream media.

With the extreme cutting and special effects, movie stars appear to defy gravity and perform superhuman feats. This can give new students high expectations that reality just can't live up to. How many people have left their class, disappointed that they cannot knock down doors within a month of training?

Martial arts are primarily about a person becoming self aware and able to take care of themselves on every level - physically, and mentally. For the real conflict is not with each other, but against our own fearful nature.

Saturday, 10 May 2014

Students and teachers

There is a very popular quote in eastern philosophy:

"When the student is ready the teacher appears"

You can tell how powerful a quote is by how many people on the internet try to claim it for their own. A quick internet search will reveal that this particular saying has been attributed to both Taoism and Buddhism. There are variations, some people use sage or master in place of teacher. but the context is always the same.

When I first heard this quote, I thought that it alluded to some kind of strange cosmic ordering. Like Aladdin rubbing a lamp, your teacher would magically appear.... genie-like.

The truth is far more subtle and compelling.

The teacher is not a person, but a metaphor for the nature of reality. This simple saying is a call for everyone to learn from life itself. For there are lessons to be had everywhere - not just from everyone, but everything, and also your reaction to everyone and everything. It is a call for true mindfulness, to awaken from your torpor. For when you are ready to learn from life, it is life itself that becomes your teacher on a profound basis.

Sunday, 4 May 2014

Developing internal power

Conditioning is often a dirty word amongst western Tai Chi practitioners.

Many teachers will tell you that form work and pushing hands is all you need. But if you truly want to be proficient, skill is not enough. You need to be able to generate power.

The Chen syllabus starts with empty handed silk reeling movements. These movements are designed to get the body aligned and moving in the correct manner to receive, transform and express power. Silk reeling (chan ssu gong) is given this name because your movements should be smooth and continuous.

The curriculum goes on to pole shaking exercises, which build foundation and strength. The core exercises  were developed into a form, demonstrated here by Grandmaster Chen Zhenglei.

The large pole gives you enough resistance to build up your strength without risk of heavy weights. Because of the inertia developed by moving the long lever, the harder you move it, the greater the resistance is. There are also other methods, which include the bang stick, weapon forms and medicine ball.

All of these training methods build up the body as a co-ordinated unit. This is is stark contrast to many western exercises, which tend to work each part of the body in isolation. When evaluating your exercises, how many of them work your muscle groups in isolation?

They may suit the aesthetics of your chosen martial art, but are they allowing you to generate power through all of your body? The benefits of internal training are that you are able to create a lot of power from very small external movements.

Tuesday, 25 March 2014


Tai chi is the use of relaxed leverage and a detailed understanding of anatomy and physics to defend yourself from attack. The reason why proficiency takes so long, is entirely due to the incredibly detailed instruction required to make you stand and move in the right manner.

So, like a tree is strong due to it's deep roots, a Tai Chi practitioner 'borrows' the firmness of the ground, and uses it as a basis for self defence and expressing power. This connection with the ground is an attribute called, "Rooting".

To get your rooting correct, you need to have a good understanding of the interplay between yin and yang in the body. At an elementary level, this is simply the distribution of weight between the feet. Yang being substantial and yin being insubstantial. Rooting develops when you can always keep one leg more substantial than the other. Also having the body relaxed and alert in the right places.

Another attribute of good rooting, is an upright posture of the spine, and to have all components of the body in alignment - The knee, hip, shoulder and big toe should all be in alignment. The body should be supported on all sides, with no overbalancing.

Training your rooting involves 3 different techniques:

1.  Postures
Standing in single positions for long periods of time, gives you awareness of unnecessary tension. A good teacher will adjust your alignment so there is minimum stress, and maximum rooting and power available.

2.  Solo form and movement
The Tai Chi forms are excellent for ensuring you are rooted. Chen Tai Chi also has the silk reeling exercise sets, which are excellent for making the practitioner aware of the path that force takes through the body.

3.  Pairs work - pushing hands
Pushing hands is the bridge between the form work, and being able to defend yourself in a real situation. There are exercises particularly suited to testing each other's rooting. While these exercises have become competition events, they are fundamentally about people working together to discover each other's weaknesses and how to mitigate them.

Finally, one must always guard against being too rooted. If you are rooted to excess, you will not be mobile enough to evade attack..... But that's a subject for another day :)

Saturday, 15 February 2014

6 short-cuts in consciousness that are ruining your life

Your consciousness is your operating system. It is the information that you use to interpret the data that you receive from your senses. It is the hologram of the world that you create in your head. It is you in essence....

.... and it's wrong.

But knowing the common reasons how and why we are wrong is a good step towards improving our lives generally. Here - in no particular order - are my top 6 reasons why many of us are architects of our own misery.

1.  Emotional conclusions
When someone gets hurt, it is easy to feel guilty if we were not around to help them. This feeling of guilt is perfectly natural, but the short cut is to believe that because we feel guilty, then we must BE guilty. This trait can cause us to hang on to all kinds of regret for decades.

2.  Memory filtering or bias
There are people who are very good at remembering all of the time that they failed, but ignore all of the times that they were successful. These people find it hard to do anything ambitious or positive, choosing to avoid risk instead. 

3.  Jumping to conclusions
Making huge leaps of logic are a classic mental short-cut. For instance someone who feels ill may think that if they call in sick, the boss will fire them and they won't get another job and they will end up on the street. 

4.  Thinking in extremes
You don't just want a drink. No, it has to be triple sweet, skinny, mocha, choco, caramel bucket of latte with nutmeg on the top. There is nothing wrong with wanting the best every now and then. But if you simply must be the first, or have the very best or the biggest of everything, you are going to live a miserable and unfulfilled life.

5.  Generalising
"All women are...", "All men are...", "I'm always......", "Life is always...." It's wrong. Need I say any more?

6.  Labelling
Giving people labels is a sure sign that you also label yourself. The media is very good at using labels to imply opinion. The Taliban were known as 'freedom fighters' when Russia occupied Afghanistan. Now, the west are occupying, they are called "Insurgents" or simply "Terrorists". Are you giving yourself or others labels? Are you talking to yourself in a positive manner? The labels you use will give you a clue.

Pay attention to your thoughts. Think about the generalisations you make, the conclusions you jump to, the labels you use, your inflated needs and the bias your memory holds. Because without you paying your consciousness any attention, IT may be running away with YOU. And, the outcomes from such a mind are rarely good for you.

Sunday, 9 February 2014

Have we got it wrong about water?

There is a very famous health tip to drink at least 8 glasses of water (or two litres) a day. But is it right? Do we really need that kind of volume of water?

Last year, a group of Australian scientists managed to prove that hydration was less important for performance than people previously believed. During exercise some athletes were given high fluid replenishment. Others were given none or very little. But they did this by rehydrating athletes intravenously, so they could not possibly know how much they were getting. The results were staggering. Hydration had no affect on performance at all.

This experiment was on the back of some marathon runners and members of the military over hydrating and getting hyponatremia - a condition where too much water reduces the amount of sodium in the body to dangerous levels. 

So is the 2 litres a day rule correct?


There are too many variables to tie your consumption down to an arbitrary amount. Your body will use more water when you exercise. You will need water if you are under stress or having to think hard. If you have a nice, easy day, you are likely to use far less water. Your food has variable amounts of water in it, depending on diet. 

Fruit and vegetables all have good amounts of water. Tea and coffee also have water in them, and also count towards rehydration. The climate also has significant affect on your need for water for temperature regulation. So making people stick to an arbitrary amount of water is not only impractical, but also possibly dangerous.

Funnily enough, your body has a brilliant system for measuring the levels of hydration - it's called your thirst. If you drink when thirsty, you will keep yourself in tip top health. This manic glugging of water was brought out by scientists who had proved that the body had started to dehydrate before people felt thirsty. Now recent discoveries are showing that the body can tolerate levels of dehydration without any dip in performance, and that it is very good at regulating itself through the sense of thirst.

The latest advice is to drink when you are thirsty - not out of habit or vanity.

So who really benefits from 2 litres of water consumption a day? 

The bottled water companies, that's who.

Sunday, 19 January 2014

Why is posture important?

One of the mainstays in Tai Chi practice is the correction of posture. When I first started studying Tai Chi, I was frustrated by the fact that my Teacher spent so much time stopping the class and going around each student, correcting their posture. I wanted to learn about the self defence. I wanted to get to the secrets and inner workings of the art - not playing around like that.

Over the years, I have come to understand that correct posture and alignment is not only a core requirement of Tai Chi, but also a medical necessity.

Correct posture enables you to use your body swiftly and efficiently, without excess strain. It allows you to transmit power to every part of the body without injury:

Correct posture also prevents chronic conditions like Hyperkyphosis. When you are correctly aligned, you are much less likely to get whole host of complaints like back/neck pain, muscle fatigue, headaches, carpal tunnel syndrome, ankle, knee and hip problems. Poor posture also results in compression of the internal organs and wasting away of important muscle groups.

People with Hyperkyphosis (a hunched posture), are 2 times more likely to die from lung problems and 2.4 times more likely to die from Atherosclerosis than those with normal posture. Hyperkyphosis sufferers are 1.44 times more likely to die of any cause than those with healthy posture.

So the answer is clear. Posture is vital for every aspect of Tai Chi, and also for extending and enhancing quality of life to it's optimum.

See you at the class,


Saturday, 11 January 2014

Why is Tai Chi done slowly?

It is one of the fundamental dichotomies of martial arts - why do we have to practice Tai Chi slowly? When I first started training, a number of my friends were curious. Some were downright derogatory. 

They could not rationalise the slow, contradictory elements of Tai Chi with the realities of fighting and self defence. To the layman, it must seem unusual to move so slowly. So why are the movements slow?

The answers are more complex than those implied from first impressions. Slow practice from a beginner's perspective allows them to feel their balance, posture and the transfer of weight between the feet. As you get further on, the slow movements allow you to condition the strength of the legs and to relax the muscles that you are tensing unnecessarily, lowering your centre of gravity and creating a stable frame.

Further on, the slow movements allow you to feel the force as it is transferred into, through and outward in a spiralling manner through the body. Slow movements with partners also reinforce this spiralling, and teach you to become sensitive to your opponent's strength, balance and intention.

Contrarily, you can also perform Tai Chi quickly. There are special sets in Chen style Tai Chi that are intended to be done quickly, known as Cannon Fist. They are for advanced students who have learned the correct movement and know how to relax properly. The required quality of strength, posture, movement and relaxation for Cannon Fist can take much time to perfect. But once acquired, it's never forgotten, and can be done well into old age.

Thursday, 2 January 2014

The simplest exercise is the best

Often I am asked, "What is the best exercise I can do when I only have a little time to spare?"

There are a number of options - 8 Pieces Brocade, 5 Animal Frolics, Wild Goose Qigong, perhaps some of the shorter Tai Chi forms. But by far the highest benefits to effort ratio, are the Silk Reeling Exercises (or Chan Ssu Gong) of Chen style Tai Chi .

Silk reeling involves the shifting of weight between the legs, in combination with spiralling movements of the arms and legs. It improves the posture, loosen the 18 joints and increase the body's natural range of movement. 

The name - silk reeling - is used to describe the quality of movement - like a weaver unravelling a cocoon of silk. If the movements are too quick or jerky, the silk snaps. Once this unending flow is fully understood, the movements become beautiful, powerful and deeply beneficial.

These movements increase the secretion of synovial fluid which lubricates the joints, keeping them supple. People who have been practising silk reeling have reported better coordination and an opening up of shoulders, back and waist. Silk reeling is also a Tai Chi fundamental requirement for self-defence. The Chan Ssu principles should be inherent in every aspect of the movement from posture to posture, circling, spiralling, opening and closing, advancing and retreating, powerful like a rolling ocean. 

Wednesday, 1 January 2014

Happy New Year

With the commencement of a new class in Macclesfield, moving out of adult education, 2014 holds much promise. I am genuinely excited by what the future holds for us all. Recently, I have had the feeling that all of the last 16 years of work is starting to come to fruition. 

I hope you all have the same feeling of optimism that I do. With this in mind, I would like to take this opportunity to wish everyone a happy, peaceful and prosperous New Year.

All the best,