Forms or Fighting? Part 2: problems and opportunities!

This is a continuation of an article published Feb. 19, 2019:

In the 1990's I visited Warwick New York in the summertime to work on Cannon Fist / Pao Chui with Master Jou Tsung-Hua. The training, which lasted a week on each visit, could be quite grueling. The drop-out rate by mid-week was usually 50% due to his emphasis on maintaining stances.

On one occasion we were engaged in a particularly tough session of stance and fa-jin work in which we spent well more than an hour getting through the form.

At the end of the day, a bit bewildered by the intensity of what we'd gone through, I asked him, "Master Jou - Should we teach beginners like that?" With a grave face he replied, "Yes! You should teach all beginners just like that!" and then, continued with a twinkle, "But you not have many beginners!"

And this is really a very serious point to consider in figuring how to present defensive material - What will the students find acceptable? In this article I shall discuss some of the methods I've tried at Cold Mountain Internal Arts and some of the challenges we confront.


CMIA is not a big club. Our membership hovers somewhere between fifty and sixty with a core group of about a dozen to eighteen. The curriculum is based on four different styles of Tai Chi - Chen, traditional Yang, Old Yang (middle frame) and modern - with a large amount of supporting qigong material from traditional (and occasionally "in-door") sources. Since we do not offer dedicated beginners' classes and do not advertise, I consider the stable numbers quite acceptable. But the richness and intensity of the curriculum can be off-putting to a beginner who is anticipating graceful, mindless arm-waving of the sort he or she has seen offered in sessions at the local rec. centre. The average beginner expects stress-relieving movement. They want forms! What they do not expect up-front is an emphasis on foundation work and two-person exercises.

Foundations first!

Foundation is introduced in the first class. This is comprised of wujibu / preparatory stance and joint opening. These exercises introduce the elements of personal-contact postural adjustment and two-person work. Wujibu training includes pressure testing (below) and consideration of stance as a physical manifestation of Tai Chi theory: Yang as the ability to rest into structure and Yin as the ability to withstand pressure.

The next step in this initial introduction to the traditional Yang style is to teach Commencement and then to apply it as a defence against a two-hand grab from the front. This involves propelling the seizing partner off their position (and sometimes off their feet) while grounding and remaining unmoved by the opposing force of recoil. The exercise is not violent but choreographed and leisurely. The issue is to explore a principle, not to introduce sparring! This also introduces the idea of Tai Chi constituting a self-defence method, which comes as a shock to some. Another essential point being made is that right from the very first lesson a beginner student can experience and apply internal power. This will include a supporting qigong form, usually the Yang family First Brocade from the Chen Yan-lin transmission. My approach is relentlessly physical but I strongly believe in the relevance of qigong to the process. Usually the first lesson introduces one other movement and possibly the step out into Left Peng / Ward / Bump / (what-have-you). This introduces gongbu / the forward stance. Each movement is presented with a self-defence application so as to provide a physical logic for the movement and posture.

This is done while reassuring the beginner that the primary focus of the activity they are being introduced to is not fighting, but self-development. Because this is what the average student is after! Their interest usually centres on specific health issues, not self-defence. This said, the membership also includes some people who have extensive martial arts backgrounds and are after power and fine-tuning. They learn along with everyone else. Prior martial arts experience provides some foundation, but also potential problems since some of the basic Tai Chi methods are so counterintuitive.

This is really the whole package! The essence of Tai Chi as a philosophy, meditation, exercise and combative method is the content of this first lesson. The student's next decades will consist of assimilation, expansion and application...if they stick around! The fact that our club's membership is what it is indicates that most don't. So this is not necessarily how to build a big Tai Chi club.

Forms from the beginning!

I think it is important to provide forms from the beginning, while introducing applications to provide the logic. Students expect forms but what they are really after, because that's what they see in veteran practitioners, is an experience of...grace. Grace is both a physical and a psychic quality. It is a yogic aspect of the art. They must be taught from the beginning that grace is the product of being grounded, coordinated and relaxed. Of course, these are also essential fighting skills. The introductory form at CMIA is the traditional Yang 108 performed in a middle-frame cursive style. At an early stage the student is also introduced to the very formal sixteen movement form developed in the early 2,000's by Grandmaster Yang Zhenduo. We use this as a developmental form to teach openness and solidity of stance. These two forms are studied concurrently. However, beginners are not limited to starting with these! Depending upon their interest they may be attracted to the Chen or Old Yang styles. This is particularly true of those who have martial depth already and are looking for something that provides more conditioning. The Old Yang form, for example, includes over fifty low stances done slowly! The Chen looks a bit more like "Kung Fu" - although all Tai Chi is really Kung Fu. Once again, what does the student expect? What are they after? So in our club, while the traditional Yang style is the door into Tai Chi, there are also a number of open windows.

Step: Basic Combat Skills

This is where I move out of my comfort zone in terms of how I teach what I teach. And in saying that, I also allude to how Tai Chi is taught traditionally.

The fact is that Tai Chiists spend almost no time hitting things, and that is a pity. Only in Chen style is much attention given to the subject of how to throw an elbow, and then it is usually only done in air - not on a bag or striking pad. Most practitioners are able to see the punches and kicks in the form, but have little awareness of the locking, grappling and throwing moves. Few Yang stylists even know where the elbows in the Yang form are!

For me, coming from a family background of Irish Boxing, Tongbei (a bit) and Jujitsu, a defining moment was when I learned the trick of the soft fist from Master Jou. This was something Dr. Shen Zaiwen, my Old Yang teacher, himself had but didn't teach. It is a subject of some elation to me that one of my more peaceable students, a man of some twelve years experience, has acquired a heavy bag and is practicing soft punches on it; he is surprised by the amount of power he is able to lay on the bag!

The average student in the present day and age has, due to the "Zero Tolerance" policies promoted by our school system, been deprived of the minimal amount of violence that is necessary for correct character formation. ;-) They typically do not even know how to form a fist, how to rest-in and stabilize the wrist, and how to deliver power in a smooth, aligned and integrated way onto the target. They also do not understand the mental aspect required by the exercise, the focus and willingness to court the forces of impact. This is a serious issue because these components of punching, at a micro level, encapsulate the requirements and nature of the Tai Chi form.

The classical hierarchy of applications is: neutralize, seize, strike, and express (fa-jin). What we have been discussing is the da / striking element. I've addressed it first because it is the most obvious of the four, the one that attracts attention from the very beginning. But neutralization / hua comes first.

Hua practice with sifu Jill Heath, a fellow student of Sam Masich.

What may not be appreciated is that the flowing movement in this video is unrehearsed. This is not choreographed, but for real. It is how an attack can be accepted, neutralized and controlled so as to render the attacker vulnerable to countermeasures. What is being done slow here can, when the principles are assimilated, be done at very high speed. A good punch cannot be seen; this is also true of a good parry.

This skill is called zhan-nian jin / stick, adhere, connect and follow energies. It is the essential foundation for Tai Chi martial skill and is trained through a hierarchy of set-piece drills which eventually lead to tui-shou / pushing hands. At CMIA we have a dedicated session on this material once a month as well as shorter weekly sessions based upon the classical fixed-step drills.

I've written about pushing hands in an earlier article at:

As I've made clear in that article, I do not consider tournament-style pushing as a completely productive means of skills acquisition. The urge to contend and win has a corrupting effect.

As I hope I made clear in the first part of this article at:

...I have similar feelings about free-sparring and tournament competition. Both activities give scope for manifesting resolution, quick-thinking and courage. But both can give a misleading impression of what real fighting involves.

So is there an alternative?

The ability to neutralize gives rise to the ability to lock and throw. At CMIA we are just beginning to integrate these skills into our weekly schedule. They are approached in a strictly controlled and low-impact rehearsed fashion. That is because these skills are not why most people are at class. So the approach used is to use them as part of the exploration of posture and movement. While avoiding the rigours of something more intense, this serves to reinforce the awareness that Tai Chi, in addition to its meditative and health aspects, is also a varied and effective defensive art!

Lock and set-up for throw with

Tanya Korovkin: 'Stork Cools Wings'.

The path forward that I see at this point, for those who are interested in treading it, will involve two aspects of training. The first will be rehearsing specific set piece drills drawn from the various forms. They will be repeated over and over so that they become reflexive and instinctive. This will involve working with the striking pad as well as rehearsed work with a partner. (There is also an independent group exploring the world of Irish Defensives with me who use this approach.) The work will include a focus on fa-jin / expression. At a higher level of skill we shall spend time on improvised response. This means not knowing in advance what the partner is about to do, and reacting appropriately. This is much more dangerous territory which can only be entered with great care. It should involve only those students who have a good assimilation of the material covered in these articles. The defensive aspect of Tai Chi training presently seems to be driven by an urge to compete. I hope that these articles have convincingly presented an effective alternative.

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