Sunday, February 27, 2011

February - once again Snow

Looking out my window and seeing new snow on the branches I note how they diverge from their roots. Just like our lives branch out from our past.

The snow, why that's but my hair these later days.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

A conversation with Yang Chengfu

I practice the Yang Long Fist Tai Chi Chaun 108. I began my study and continued it these past 30 years just for myself. Not to be the best in the world. Not to search out the oldest version. Just for myself.

It has been an incredible journey. I discovered the Yang system is more than a lifetime of study, with infinite layers especially when you factor aging into the equation. But from the initial study and continual practice and self learning I also became aware of the English translations of many Chinese Tai Chi texts.

I’ve found martial books an interesting part of my studies. Normally I buy a book and it takes me 5 or more years before I make sense of where it fits in my studies, assuming it has value. Books and/or movies are time binding tools. They take the accumulated knowledge of an instructor and try to move it along in time.

In 2005 I bought a copy of “Yang Chengfu - The Essence and Applications of Taijiquan”. Then I let time pass, and following my rules at least 5 years, so it was time.

Louis Swaim, the translator, has a very interesting introduction about the history surrounding this book.
But of course it is Yang Chengfu’s description of the application potential for his tai chi technique that is the star.

This book can’t be read, it must be experienced.

My study of Yang is one of the probably million of variations from the original. A large percentage of my practice is as Yang Chengfu describes, but there are enough differences that I required additional assistance. Lucky for me Louis Swaim had previously translated “Fu Zhongwen Mastering Yang Style Taijiquan” and FuZhongwen was a student of Yang Chengfu.

So on one hand I’m reading Yang, on the other hand I’m referencing Fu and then getting up and practicing the movement and application described.

Correct practice, of course, involves using the entire body, the methodology of movement and body alignment, the method of breathing and how you focus yourself throughout the technique. Both of these works help bridge the gap between understanding and realization.

Describing what I’m seeing would be useless without a common frame of reference. Just enough to suggest what was written, when experienced is a true conversation with the past.

On the other hand I’m frequently asked on the internet to explain how tai chi and karate study tie together. Tuesday evening I went to class and we were working on our version of the Goju Saifa Kata.

Suddenly I saw Yang Chengfu’s description on the application of Yang Tai Chi Ward Off Left (Peng) as the perfect explanation of one section of Saifa.

When you take Tai Chi movement and apply it, the underlying principles apply to all movement.

So much to learn, but now I have a new friend. Yang Chengfu.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Isshinryu standards

Start with Okinawa, if it’s about karate we must start there.

After the War interest in karate renewed itself. Shimabuku Sensei with about 30 years of training drew students to him, likely though his association with Kyan. After all he did give his group a name Chan-migwha-te which obviously signified the lineage he was teaching. There is even a sai kata apparently named for reference to his main instructor.

The students on Okinawa likely lived in walking distance from your home/dojo. Being a student of a senior gave credentials, and your students likely wanted that association to Kyan. That material of Miyagi and Motobu was included was probably seen as a plus.

Then having students satisfied to study Kyan’s art Shimabuku really reworked thanged his classes to include the USMC students. I’ve read he lost Okinawan students who didn’t want to change their earlier studies, until he had to permit two layers of training, Kyan style technique among Okinawan students and Isshinryu technique for the Americans who had to link to earlier traditions.

Okinawan tradition was based on change occurring, but not to such a great extent. I suspect the changes of Isshinryu with the inclusion of the Americans combined as a source of their discomfort. No matter his abilities he did not overcome many of his former students desires, and even in the 1960 meeting with them they still wanted the older Kyan style karate. Of course other issues, rank , succession of the leader, etc. also muddy the picture.

Yet you can’t ignore what Shimabuku Tatuso did accomplish. He proved a style could exist beyond the leader. Styles in Okinawan karate was a new idea. His temporary students left after very intense short term training and have perpetuated the idea of an Isshinryu system far beyond Okinawa, making Isshinryu one of the largest Okinawan derivative systems.

Now how does Isshinryu stack up against the rest of the Okinawan systems of study?

Did others on Okinawa have an way to value Isshinryu’s potential? They must have observed his students leaving his training? That’s a hard way to present your systematic method of training. Did they understand or ever know the import of the changes he had made? If one is an instructor there is a simple way to evaluate their ability, what is the quality of the students they produce? Think of what Okinawan Isshinryu would represent with that standard?

That the short term students would transplant their studies around the world is not something Okinawa would treasure! The because of the short nature of their training, because of the approach behind their training with a system of study in flux, and the lack of long range participation of those students to the remaining Isshinryu on Okinawa would not be ignored. When the Rengokai held their World Championships in Atlanta the large American Isshinryu community did not participate except marginally.

They could only evaluate by Okinawan standards, not the reality of the world spread of arts derived from Okinawan study.

When you compare Isshinryu to the other ‘systems’ on Okinawa it’s not the ‘system’ but the instructors that matter. How does Isshinryu stack up in how it developed instructors? Being an instructor is much more complicated than standing in front of a class. How has the instructor’s ability, technique and knowledge evolved? What is the quality of the students they are training?

IMO the only standard for Isshinryu on Okinawa is those actually doing Isshinryu.

The Rengokai included Uechi Sensei to have Isshinryu represented in their community, but their stated purpose is preserving karate pre-1950 and Isshinryu is truly a post development. The Rengokai recognizes they’re not the standard for the world, but only are focusing on what Karate is defined as for Okinawa, and what is appropriate for their events.

In any case it’s Okinawa’s responsibility as to what Isshinryu means to themselves, not ours.

Beyond Okinawa

On Okinawa karate kept marching on, flowing from instructor to instructor and change was the true constant of the past experience, and this is on an Island only 45 miles long.

The returning Marines had to establish a beachhead for karate in a country 3,000 miles wide, with no populace understanding karate’s existence and literally no constraints or controlling mechanism on the art. Of course change always occurred on Okinawa, but abroad it was a certainty. Of course no one on Okinawa could have understood what the reality of a world developing interest in their art would mean.

The strongest control for developing instructors is simply spending several decades under continual instruction of a senior, ensuring much continuality in the art. Perhaps that even explains the variance in the development of Isshinryu.

Then the American seniors when they did meet discovered variances between them for a wide variety of reasons, many starting on the inconsistent instruction from Shimabuku Sensei, from the fact that they were trained to practice Isshinryu but were not seasoned on how to teach it, and there was no appreciation of what their art should become over the years. That Isshinryu was still a baby didn’t help provide guidance on that either.

Groups formed, broke, reformed. Some remained apart, some didn’t worry about the differences. The loyalty test to prove or demand the ‘right Isshinryu’ became felt.

More importantly every individual who became an instructor ended up doing things nobody on Okinawa ever did. The system of training flowed into many different nitches, Private Groups, Commercial programs, Full time students, part time students, Tournaments of all dimensions.

It’s hard to imagine standards that fit an island where people had to walk to train at their instructors fit the evolving Isshinryu world wide.

The existence of Isshinryu is a non-Okinawan proof that Systems of study can pass beyond the originator. There is a basic Isshinryu-ness that pervades all performing Isshinryu. But how that fits the individual will vary. Some can hit a high standard and then spend the rest of their life in full time training. Others will hit a high standard and then set deep practice aside for part time because living life is more important than just Isshinryu. Comparing such differences is futile they’re very different Isshinryu experiences.

One size just doesn’t fit all, any more than one system does. The ongoing continuity of Isshinryu is the acquisition of new students.

Students do not appear because of the existence of Shimabuku Tatsuo. For the most part they appear because of the local efforts of the local instructor. The why students appear is also in change. Today’s reasons are not those of 20 years ago. There are so many competing martial arts out there all proclaiming they’re the best. You can hardly show them video tape of our founder to convince students Isshinryu is for them.

As Isshinryu has moved to fill each local need where Isshinryu is and will go modifies at the same time.

It is irrelevant what one can do unless you train with them full time to borrow from their efforts. Great effort can be inspiration but as each reason does change with the student, there is not a constant answer.

Shimabuku did not teach referring to Kyan, Miyagi or Motobu as examples for the student, as far as I’ve read, and in the case of the American’s he wouldn’t have been able to express that anyways.

When you plainly look at what is available from our founder I think we’d be better off if it was totally Okinawan totally undocumented. With experience we can view the available record but you have to give a student years of training to understand what is there. Again it’s a very different world.

Of course all of the Shimabuku material is readily available on the web. I never forbid students anything, but if asked plainly explain what they can see has nothing to do with our dojo floor practice. Then if pressed I’ll give them a 5 or 10 hour lecture about what I mean.

Isshinryu is ours, it is up to use to use it wisely.


For thoughtful research

Note is possible that the art of Shimabuku Tatsuo’s younger brother shows us what much of his earlier art technique consisted of. Certainly not a definitive answer but worth consideration to understand the pre-Isshinryu Shimabuku Tatsuo art.

Shimabuku Eizo Shobayashi Shorin-ryu and sometimes Sukunaihayashi Shorin-ryu

Note how close this version is to Isshinryu’s (later changed in other Shobayshi Seiunchin)

Note this is the Hiagonna K Sanchin and not the Miyagi C Sanchin

Kata performed by other students of Shobayshi Shorin-ryu
Part of Wanshu

Kobudo practiced by Shobayashi Shorin-ryu
Bill Hayes student of Eizo Shimabuku – Sai kata
Toyei No Sai
Tokumini No Kun

** other styles from Kyan Chotoku’s students

Kyan Karate - Master Nakama (preserved by Patrick McCarthy)
Tomari Chintou
Tokumine no Kun

Nakazato Joen Shorinjiryu
Tokumine no Kun

We remain grateful for all who have shared this material!

Sunday, February 20, 2011


My friends go to Okinawa for instruction and inspiration. I just pay attention to what’s happening around me.

This Friday we had a large wind storm and the power was knocked out at home for 11 hours. Then Saturday afternoon was sunny but windy and cold. I was outside on my driveway running my Yang sword form when performing a transitional move with a high stepping circular strike on one leg a sudden violent gust of wind caused me to loose my balance and begin to fall.

Then looking up at a line of tall pine trees at the back of my property I saw how much the tops were moving in much more moving wind at their height. A clear example of what you can’t see can affect you.

Funny thing is, that made me remember earlier in the morning stopping to pick up some strawberries at the store a strong wind crossed the parking area and met a void in the air. I could watch the air circle on itself and form a small whirlwind on the spot.

Which brings me to this post.

A while ago I did some personal study on the Tai Chi Chaun 88 two person San Shou form described by Dr. Yang Jwing-Ming. Near the beginning there is an interesting section where the defender simply fades away from an attack drawing their attacker further forward. Such movement fit the ghost techniques I’ve described earlier. In this case simply moving away from the attack.

Frankly if I was in that situation I think I would respond as the wind, hitting a hole in the air circled around and fed on itself to create the whirlwind.

So if their foot steps into the space I’ve vacated, I’d rotate on the foot that stepped back and use the other foot to spin behind their foot and scoop kick in the direction they’re moving, the instep of my sweeping foot hooking behind their ankle and them sweeping it forward. That spinning movement sending them into a split or worse as their front leg is propelled dynamically into the air, removing their base until gravity takes over.

I do much study into how turning movements in kata are weapons themselves, where your body is inserted into an attacking body with a turning movement. I’ve not restricted myself to just kata turns either.

Create a void and use the whirling wind that follows.

Still cold and waiting more snow tomorrow in New Hampsire.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Tai Chi Journey Section 6

New Hampshire Four

It seems today that almost immediately after John’s death a group of my older students each left training. They all had been with me 12 to 20 years, but had reached life events that made karate less of a priority in their lives. This was also the time one of the seniors in Isshinryu I had trained with as much as possible, Sherman Harrill, also passed on. It makes all of these events more poignant.

The part time nature of the other students meant for a year my senior student, Mike Cassidy and I were training in karate almost alone. It was a very good year for we could focus on the most advanced level or training we never had enough time to practice with the other students.

In Tai Chi I was now alone. Except for my students nobody anywhere knew the program existed. For over a year I continued my Sunday practice of Yang, Wu and Sword alone.

I also was able to work on my Yang form at full speed, which Laoshi had been suggesting I do for years. When done at full speed it is recognizible as a system of 'kung fu' which it really is. I tried to introduce that to my students but they were too accustomed to the slower pace to change. In the end I would work it both ways performing much of the form at slower speed and then several sections faster.

The passage of the years and reoccurring arthritis bouts as winter began finally ended regular outside practice. I was no longer able to drop down in the deep stances and had to modify my form. My ability to perform the slow motion kicks without pain ended so I modified them to become stepping to crane stances. I couldn’t do tai chi as I had but I couldn’t set tai chi aside.

There finally was a year I had reoccurring leg muscle pulls and finally made a decision to set my Wu practice aside. I realized I could accomplish more by keeping to my Yang form, but had gotten a lot of value with my time in the Wu practice. Foe one thing I came to understand how the slow Wu teaching form was a foundation basis for the Wu fast form Laoshi performs.

A very different experience came from finding “Mastering Yang Style Taijiquan” by Fu Zhongwen. The book contained a small section of detail about where to focus the energy in a bit of the technique, it somewhat ties to Laoshi’s alignment principles but in incredible detail. IMO the most advanced book I’ve found on Tai Chi. Not that I understand it. I’ve read the best books on tai chi compress 50 years of experience into one book, BUT it takes 50 years of work to understand what is written. This was written in China during a time martial uses for tai chi were strongly discouraged. He left an extremely interesting pointing finger, perhaps because the other Chinese might not know what he was showing. Perhaps in 35 more years I’ll figure it out too.

Two years ago I came to another step in my road. The Yang Sword from, a true nemesis to me, finally found it’s place. I came to realize how the form should work within my alignment study of Yang. Suddenly it made sense to make my moving center focus on the sword hand. Another way to state it was that the sword work was a stronger tool in centering and alignment of all my practice. I now was finding a semblance of balance with the sword.

No doubt continuing training under Laoshi may have taken me to the same understanding earlier, but we do the best we can.

Last year I had to make a major change in my karate practice. I chose to begin using tjimande drills for warm up, those and Yang Chi. I found I needed a softer, more gradual way to warm up my body for karate. Of course doing so I’m finding stronger correlation from those arts to karate too, though with my students they only experience the tjimande drills.

So the journey continues.

After all these years I can’t describe chi but believe I understand when I experience it in part.

I have a greater understanding of how my body must work together, the parts in harmony delivering greater power than the parts alone.

I’ve seen friends come and go and pass beyond.

I age and try to learn to go where my age takes me.

Throughout it all I do my best to enter the flow and then leave it.

It’s not about being the best, or about sharing it with others or gaining recognition.

It’s being able to wake Laoshi up at 3am and exclaim “Eureka, I have found it!” more than a few times.

It is not a step apart from my other arts, it is a step within the all.

It’s my tai chi, the grand ultimate

And of course it’s the chaun

Tai Chi Journey Section 5

New Hampshire Three

That August at the 10th Bushi No Te Summer Camp after Saturday activities were over and talking with Laoshi till 3am, at that time he pulled me away and we went up to a large field in the dark and he asked me to perform the first row of my Yang form. This was after 15 years of work and I felt I had at least made some progress. Then the hammer dropped and he began his critique. Probably over a hundred corrections in ultra-detail. Sure it made me feel unworthy, but that was not his purpose.

Instead he had be begin again and continually lightly touched different points on my body and I immediately began falling each time. Then I started over again and at a different point he’d touch and the same result I was falling. I had no idea I was that bad. Then he gave me the ANSWER to Everything as well as the Ultimate Question. Exactly like the ’Hitchikers Guide to the Universe’.

He wasn’t touching pressure points, he was touching what he called energy points that because of my mistakes in correct body alignment were vulnerable to disrupt my balance. They weakened my technique, they left me open to disruption, open in a way I created myself. Relate this back to pushing hands, you don’t defeat your opponent but they defeat themselves because of their mistake, another expression of the same principle.

What he shared was a methodology to use to make sure the correct alignment was being used. It works to correct myself, it works to develop the student. Those corrections now made more sense, not mistakes but an opportunity to go beyond what I was doing.

Separate note: I immediately saw the implications to karate and the same principle works. I now could explain mistakes by showing a student how they were losing power, a way to confirm when they were doing something right, a way to evaluate and judge movement from any system. Interestingly I could review a video of a tournament form, and then compare the judges decisions compared against the alignment of the competitor. Most interestingly, now having a concrete method of analysis. Furthermore it provided a way to learn to immediately evaluate where to strike, to most effectively counter-attack exploiting an opponents’ weakness.

Laoshi explained he was now explaining this to me because he was training 15 years, himself, before it was explained to him.

That year was a focus point for many changes. This new understanding about my tai chi would work it’s way through my own studies, forever.

A new students, an Isshinryu sho-dan from NY, John Dinger, joined my program and almost immediately decided to study tai chi too. He took right to the program and while one of our younger students moved on in life the size of the tai chi group remained constant. Very shortly after he began he married in Derry and I attended his wedding. John became a cornerstone of all my programs.

As the years passed, it was fun to watch them become something in addition to their Isshinryu. They made real progress in tai chi. Hot or Cold we continued to share. My longest student was only home 3 months at a time. He was a Chief Engineer on an Oil Supertanker and worked 3 continuous months and was off 3 continuous months at a time.

During the end of the 90’s Laoshi and I would exchange visits.

When I’d travel to Pittsburgh I was asked to run a clinic for his students. In turn I started studying the Wu Tai Chi Chaun teaching form, the predecessor to the Wu Fast Form. I had his instructor’s book and video tape and learned the form in 5 lessons. It helped that the Wu from was a descendent of the Yang form I had a lot of fun, but each time he’d give me hundreds of corrections on what I already had. Very difficult to experience but his point was I’d remember enough to give me lots to work on, which was true.

I would note that I was not a Wu expert but found great value in that training. Because of the difference in palm formation and use I made a great impact on my Yang training. Not sure if anyone will understand but I found my palm as a resut of the Wu study.

When Laoshi visited Derry, he would do the clinics, covering kung fu forms and applications. Then in 80 he taught the Yang 24 form, which he was using for new Tai Chi students from his training with Shum Leung. Ifound the 24 interesting, but never took to it, feeling too much like tai chi light as I then had 20 years with the Yang long form. After some practice we set it aside. (note the Karate focused students didn’t have the inclination for tai chi, and the krate/tai chi students felt the same as I focusing on the long form.

One day John Dinger had a friend who taught Tai Chi in Maine visit and work out with us. Except for my wife’s time with Dr. Yang Jwing-Ming I really hadn’t spent time with others in tai chi. I had seen some video but that was about it. Outside of our tai chi being different he demonstrated his Yang Sword Form and then I demonstrated mine. My form was about 3 times as long as his and he was very impressed to see it.

The intersection between tai chi technique and karate technique became plain to me. It was not finding a tai chi move in kata. Where we’d work a tai chi application and focus on using exactly the same energy and shape of the movement from the form (much harder to do than to say), we would reach a point where we could feel the flow of the move made the application effortless. The next week we were working an application in karate class, a very different move, but there was a point where in that movement the hand moved at that point identical to the tai chi movement from the earlier weekend. I looked up and saw all of my tai chi students finding the same thing and they were just looking at me. It was a non-verbal sharing because those practicing karate didn’t have the same frame of reference. It became clear the link between the arts was at that instantaneous movement where the same forces could be tapped and applied. Very slight, Very Subtle and Incredibly powerful.


In 2001 John Dinger stopped training in our programs. Eventually we would learn he had an extremely rare genetic illness and was losing control of his normal body functions. Standing he might just collapse.

I began to visit John and we would study tai chi seated in a chair. Eventually he had to enter a nursing home during a year where he was continually tested for every possible test in existence as the Doctor’s were trying to find out what was the source of his illness. My visits continued and so did our smaller tai chi practice till we focused on just some basic warm up drills.

John’s condition was such he couldn’t pick up a glass, but we discovered while he lost much control of his body, he could control his tai chi techniques with greater ability. He and I worked on how he could use a tai chi technique to more complete pick up a glass. An extremely large group of Doctor’s were following his case in Boston and at the Mayo clinic with weekly meetings. They were amazed at his ability to perform tai chi technique (limited of course). When John could do no more, we focused on tai chi breathing.

Then John left the nursing home and eventually left us for the time being. I attended his wake and funeral and was surprised how his wife talked about his dedication to tai chi and continual practice through his life.

I still miss John but I am glad I was able to share tai chi with him as he began the next journey.

We’re here today and then one day we’re on the next journey.

Tai Chi Journey Section 4

New Hampshire One

I was in Derry 3 days and approaching the local Boys and Girls Club got immediate approval to begin an Isshinryu program. They had always turned down all offers but 5 years experience in Scranton and a solid letter of introduction certainly helped. I was able to use my experience to make some modifications to my program that I had been working towards and over the next few years proved successful. I was even able to begin an adult program, small and very personal as I always wanted.

My Yang practice remained solitary.

I had a bad onset of arthritis and for several years of pain and joint damage, except for instruction, all of my own practice became very light. Then in time the damage reversed itself a bit and I began to do more. Much of my Chinese forms were set aside, as much as lack of friends to train with, as my karate keep more of my time. My studies with Tristan Sutrisno also continued in greater depth in his systems of Shotokan, Aikido and Tjimande. I still saw Laoshi at summer camps and occasional visits both ways, me to him and he to me. When in Pittsburgh I’d practice my tai chi with his students too.

I met Dr. Yang Jwing-Ming at a demonstration in the fall of 87, and a friend was going to host a 9 month double class of Yang Tai Chi and Chin Na nearby in New Hampshire. My wife took those classes and studied Dr. Yang’s version of the Yang form. Close to the version I practiced, but more clearly striking points in the technique were my form was more smooth. Later I came to realize each version was focusing on part of other Yang variations using both style of movement. My wife and I never practiced together, but I was interesting to see a different version.

One Saturday practicing my tai chi before the group came to train beginning the 4th row I felt something different. This time my body center began to shift and move with the moving point I was looking at. (In Japanese it would be kyoshi, much more involved than just the hips often used for descriptions). It made my technique feel more alive. I was concerned and called Laoshi where he confirmed this was correct for me to begin feeling this. Note: training on my own I’m sure many such discoveries took much longer than if I was able to continue direct training with my instructor.

My adults saw my tai chi practice before class on Saturdays and finally a Dennis and Andy approached me about a separate study. I was commuting 150 miles a day round trip to work, thinking about it finally said, ‘Sure, but it will have to be Sunday Mornings, I don’t want karate and tai chi on the same day, and for my convenience let’s do it outside on my driveway.” It was the fall and that began Sunday morning tai chi hour from 8 to 9 except for rain. Snow, no big deal just shovel a place for practice.” I reasoned, “Tthey do it outside all year in Bejing and they have hotter summers and colder winters. Were we to take 2nd place to Bejing?”

So I became a Tai Chi Instructor. In January a friend with a Goju background joined the program. He was a surgeon and showed up for the first class worried that we would do tai chi outside in our karate dogi. He told me “I’m a surgeon and have to protect my hands.” I looked at Doc and told him, “That’s ok we have a way to deal with that in tai chi, they’re called Gloves!”. And now I had 3 students. Within a year there were 4.

Hot into the high 90’s, cold into -20f, snowing, blizzards nothing ever stopped tai chi except for rain. The years went by and this group of adults that showed up to train started to move beyond karate into the flow of the Yang.

New Hampshire Two

I believe it was about 88 at a Bushi No Te summer camp Laoshi had one of his students demonstrate the Yang sword form for me and I saw it was much longer than I had learned. There was a 2nd half yet to go. Later that fall I visited Pittsburgh, did a clinic for his students and he saw I was taught the remaining section of the form. More work for a lifetime.

It might be useful to describe where I was in my training at this time. I was teaching my Isshinryu program 3 days a week. I was 6 or so years into my studies with Tristan Sutrisno, focusing on technique studies applying his Shotokan applications, his aikido training and his Indonesian Tjimande. A very heavy counter-point to no application studies in my early training. In the early 80’s Dr. Yang Jwing-Ming published two books on advanced tai chi chaun, the 2nd book focusing on applications especially defining each technique has having 3 underlying application principles. I had showed the book to Tristan and he found it very much paralleling his studies.

One day I brought that book to my karate class, opened a page, selected an application and asked one of the group to attack me. Following the way my tjimande studies worked I made the technique work. Then selecting another page at random I did the same with a new technique. What I learned was the method of application I studied from Tristan unlocked those applications from the pages for me.

I wasn’t teaching tai chi to my adult karate program, but it was a very useful bit of knowledge to unlock. The inter-relation of many systems underlying principles of application. It wasn’t part of my tai chi students studies either as they were learning the form and developing some skill. Their instruction was paralleling the way I was trained.

It was 1989 when I started pulling from my studies to work up my own analysis of how techniques can be applied. I began very simply I took the most ‘useless’ techniques from my forms including tai chi. Useless in the sense I had studied no applications and they appeared the least useful. My studies simply found when applied they worked very well. Appearances are deceiving.

When I studied tai chi I wasn’t interested in using it for defense, just wanted to practice tai chi. Laoshi as I later learned was skilled in it’s application potential. It’s just we didn’t work on applications at all. Of course I was a beginner and too soon after my form study completed he moved away.

In fact when he taught me Yang, his Eagle Claw instructor was encouraging him to begin the study of Wu tai chi chaun which he eventually did study and in my opinion master.

So I decided to take one of my tai chi techniques I didn’t have a ready use for (and I wasn’t taking the time to cross reference Dr. Yang’s so I selected Lu or the pullback. It was interesting to experience it’s power. A student would attack and I’d insert myself into that attack to use the pullback and with very little power project them all over the place. It worked with another underlying principle I had worked out for technique applications: with exterior line of defense, with interior line of defense, using the arm using the leg, using the neck all with the same effect. And most interestingly if the attacker was coming in faster than expected it became a fingertip strike into the throat which really inhibited their attack too. Subsidiary it also was the way to open up follow up techniques common to Eagle Claw, Aikido and Tjimande.

A few years later after a spring tai chi class it hit on me to try and application using the tai chi pull back and then press. I had my student attack and softly performed the pullback to deflect the attack and then shifted into the press, a very small movement. I almost caved in my students’ chest and was as astonished as he was hurt. Not realizing what I was dealing with I asked another student to attack explaining I was going slower and softer and got the same results, almost caving in my students’ chest. I only takes two strikes to my head before I realize something important was happening.

So I call Laoshi and explained what happened. He responded: “Didn’t I explain to you not to use that technique or your students?” “No, we really never talked about applying any of the techniques” I replied. His reply was of course ‘tongue in cheek’ but I found this a repeatable demonstration when I met karate-ka that questioned the value of tai chi practice >

In fact at that time my tai chi students eventually banned me trying to work karate applications after tai chi class, and my karate students banned me from working tai chi techniques after karate class. It was several year before I became sensitized to the power I was using in those cases. Continuing to press forward.

So entering the 90’s I’m training and teaching yang tai chi chaun. I decided to come out of competition retirement in 92 and decided to compete in a local tournament master’s division and wanted to do so with tai chi. As it turned out Laoshi was coming to Massachusetts for a weekend seminar on martial arts school business practices. I drove to meet him after the one class, took him out to dinner (Chinese of course) and then back at his motel room he and I built a short tai chi competition form to fit the 3 minute time frame.

On the day of the tournament a friend Jesse Knowles decided to compete against me for fun. As it turned out that day the form finished exactly 3 minutes. Somehow I ended in a tie for 3rd place with my friend (personally my senior in training and a much stronger karate-ka than I) and we had to perform another form. I chose Seisan and somehow I ended up with third place. The fun wasn’t winning but observing the faces of judges who had no idea what I was doing and making them watch me for 3 minutes. (In fact later one of them told me that he checked the time because he wanted to zap my score for making him wait so long but as it was 3 minutes he couldn’t do that (Big Grin) That and the fact I was able to go head to head with a friend in kata competition.

Minor note I did the same the following two years, the last feeling young again I competed in every form and weapons division available except the Seniors division (which the tournament wanted me to compete in but I refused because I’m not an old guy – yeah sure). That day I did tai chi, mantis form and bando staff. God it was fun!

Tai Chi Journey Section 3

Year 3, 4 and 5

I studied about a dozen or so forms from him. We became friends and used to travel to Baltimore to compete me in karate and he in kung fu divisions. I introduced him to my passion with the Destroyer series of men’s books.

Eventually he was required to move to Pittsburgh to run a program out there he had started. For the next several years I’d see him when he retuned to the area or when I traveled out to Pittsburgh to train. Occasionally we’d do the Yang form together. I vividly remember hoping he’d not call me do perform the sword, and as fate had it I didn’t have too.

One year in the spring I was attending a George Dillman tournament to compete. I decided to practice the Yang form to warm up after the drive there. Doing so alone in my section of the fieldhouse floor a senior Isshinryu instructor, Karl Hovey, came up to me. “Hey you’re Isshinryu, how can you be doing Tai Chi?”
I had met Karl as a beginner at Mr. Lewis’ dojo in Salisbury in 76 but he didn’t know me. I replied “Why not?” and then explained who I was and how I came to study tai chi.

With Laoshi no longer in the area, I still continued to visit the Scranton School during the week to practice and traveled to the Wilkes-Barre school each Saturday to work out too. I’m not sure how it came about but eventually I had a group of students I stated training in Tai Chi in Scranton each Tuesday evening.

I never taught tai chi to my karate students in Scranton. It, and the Chinese forms, remained a personal study for me.

Another friend Sutrisno Tristan Sensei started a Bushi No Te summer camp in the Poconos each August in 1983. Laoshi and I attended, participated and brought some of our students to the event too. I got into the habit of teaching a wide awake 6am tai chi class each Saturday and Sunday morning for the next 10 years. Just a small piece of the form too allow everyone to learn a little of the basis of the study. I was especially good at bellowing everyone awake from their tents in the morning with a call for Tai Chi.

Tai Chi became a very personal practice. I’d do it in the morning on the sidewalk. I’d do it in various schools to warm up. I’d do it on vacation in campgrounds, at summer camp and anywhere I could find the space. If I was away at a conference at 5am I’d go out on the parking lot to practice.

When I studied with Laoshi I didn’t study names for the techniques, I just studied the techniques which occasionally he’d name but that was it. I came to see our version of the Yang system not as movements strung together but as a flow you enter and a flow you leave, but in the act you were just part of the flow of tai chi.

Except for the push hands drills I didn’t study tai chi applications (nor did I do so in my kung fu forms study) Laoshi was asking me many probing questions making me think about how karate could be used, but always to lead my mind. He could have shown me thousands of answer at any time but didn’t.

I doubt I was ever close to being skilled in tai chi, but it has been an incredible asset to my own studies. I worked to become good enough for me, as I understood it.

Then it was time to move on. I moved to New Hampshire for work and left my friends to train with in the Chinese Arts behind.

Tai Chi Journey Section 2

Year Two

New Years day came and Laoshi was having a private tai ch workout at his Wilkes-Barre Pa. school. We were working on performing each row of the form in a 5 minute time period. That meant for the entire form trying to complete it at 30 minutes. He explained how a really good performance would be 45 minutes. It’s not easy doing the form as slowly as possible. What I remember most of that day was performing with him in that empty quiet room It felt as if his energy was bouncing off the walls with no outside distractions.

Finishing the third row and now having ½ of the Yang form I didn’t begin the 4th row. Instead I was being taught a Yang Straight Sword form. The first section roughly paralleled the first row. The Straight sword is not a hacking weapon and in the Chinese arts I was told it is the most complicated to use correctly. It slices by drawing in instead of pushing out and it is the hand and wrist work that control the weapon. Additionally there is a long stringed tassel hanging down from the end of the handle. Skill in small part was performing the form movements and not allowing the tassel to wrap itself around your arm.

So move by move I studied the sword form. To do so with control was I believe the hardest thing I’ve ever studied, I know I felt as if I was doing everything wrong. It certainly played with your balance. In the Yang form I was learning to find my balance through my center and now I was having to do the form with the weight of the weapon centered on one hand. No doubt that was a major factor in my having difficulty to do so correctly.

Personally I found my instructor had great technique. I would watch him in private practice take a straight sword and run forms for a hour and it seemed each of them was different. After his many straight sword forms the Yang sword form for him was a very minor practice. Of course for me it was something else entirely.

The sword form was two rows of technique and eventually that study finished.

Now time for rows 4, 5 and 6.

Actually they went much faster for many of their technique sections were repetitions from the other rows.

I had started traveling down to Wilkes-Barre to train on Saturdays too. In the morning we’d meet at Denny’s for breakfast, then I’d go visit one or two karate schools to work out and in the afternoon attend the Shaolin School. Classes were over and one after another advanced student would take the floor to run a form, and then wait till their next turn, Laoshi too. I’d work on Tai Chi, and then what I knew of Duen Da Chun. [This practice would continue from 1980 through 1984 when I moved to New Hampsire.]

I was no longer just on the single push hands exercise. I had begun studying the double push hands partner drill, much more complex. That would then become the moving double push hands partner drill and finally the moving and turning double push hands partner drill. I can recall Dave Belsky (now the instructor of the Wikles-Barre school) dancing across the floor in that practice.

Push hands was very interesting. If done correctly both parties would neutralize each others attack and in turn counter attack to also be neutralized and in turn it became an energy pump to increase the practice. Yet if someone made a mistake each movement offensive of defensive contained a counter to draw the one making a mistake into unbalance. They weren’t being defeated by their partner, they were defeating themselves.

A lift could become a projection.
An unbalance could become a forearm strike.
A push could become a locking pull

Then one day I had everything.

Laoshi congratulated me explaining that I was his 2nd student to learn the complete Yang form. It only took me 2 years and of course that means I was not a new comer but a beginner.

That also ended my study with him on Tai Chi. I continued my kung fu forms study and continued my tai chi practice, but mostly I was on my own from that time onward.

Tai Chi Journey Section 1

I first learned about tai chi chaun when I was reading about Chinese religions in College. Years later found a book on it too and it became an interest but I had no idea if I would find an instructor.

Then I began my study of Isshinryu, till within 4 years I was a new sho-dan, my instructor was returning to the USAF for his career, and except for competing in tournaments I was on my own for my training. I started my program at the Scranton Boys Club and then one day in 1979 I saw an article in the Scranton newspaper about a demonstration for a new kung fu school in town and a demonstration of tai chi chaun was part of their program.

Rothrock Ernest Laoshi was the school instructor and performed the demonstration. Seeing it I realized I wanted to study it and after the demonstration was over approached him. Hearing my background he told me he would accept me as a student and that there would be 1 ½ hour class a week of personal instruction and it would cost $7.50 a class.

I began the next week.

Year One

He first taught me several warm up drills, standing still in play guitar as a drill, tai chi stepping practice and finally the opening of the Yang Long Fist Tai Chi Chaun form.

The Yang form as he taught it was roughly broken into 6 rows of techniques, but if you use the closing movement section as a determinant there would be 3 sections. IMO making such distinctions has nothing to do with tai ch, but is a useful tool to train beginners.

The normal class structure was I would go and perform the warmup exercises, stepping and standing still. Then I’d perform the form I knew, with Laoshi making corrections as needed. Then he’d show me the next section of the form and I would then continue the practice of the form with the new section.

I quickly discovered being a sho-dan in Isshinryu didn’t prepare me for tai chi. There were stances I had to learn to hold that caused a pull to a single muscle fiber in the middle of my quads. So even tai chi required conditioning in it’s own way.

He also began to teach me the single push hands partner drill. Having taught myself, I know I was way to stiff and probably as much fun as doing push hands with a sack of potatoes.

My routine at that time was teaching two classes at the Boys Club a week, training with Laoshi on Tuesday evenings and as my wife was the Swimming Coach at the YMCA, the other evenings I would go their to practice both Isshinryu and Tai Chi. I quickly discovered that they didn’t mix very well so one night I’d work Tai Chi and the next night I’d work Isshinryu. Later I began to feel a conflict between my tai chi practice and my sanchin practice. I found my resolution to that issue and my tai chi continued.

I think that first row took about 12 weeks to learn. Then Laoshi explained I had to re-learn the first row, but this time my head and eyes had to follow a specific point that moved as the form was performed. So once again I went through the first row move by move. I immediately discovered whatever balance I had begun go acquire during my training was lost. The role of the head with the eye focus moving during practice made maintaining balance very difficult. The use of the head maintaining balance in normal movement became obvious. I had to learn how to draw my balance into my center. In the long run, working to develop a stronger center within myself..

I also began to experience what I describe as ‘chi’, it came from me experiencing the energy wave feeling of my instructor. You know in all our years we’ve never set down and talked chi, discussed it or explained it. We’ve just discussed correct practice of the form. I then would say what I experienced is a personal issue, but real to me. When Laoshi would move with me I could feel his movement.

Then one night I returned from class, entered our home and discovered my karate instructor, Charles Murray, sitting there waiting for me. He come back on vacation to visit his wife’s family. I began describing what I was doing in karate and that I had also started to study tai chi and stood up to show him what I had done earlier in the evening.

I started performing the Yang form with him seated before me when suddenly he asked me to stop. “Vic, that was curious when you did that movement I felt a wave of energy wash over me, could you do it again?”. So I restarted the form and when I reached the same point he stopped me again. “Wow, each time you did that I felt that energy wave…” We then discussed this and he explained that he had been working on the Chinkuchi drills he had studied on Okinawa with Shimabuku Shinso and felt that they had sensitized him to ‘feel’ my tai chi practice.

In time I completed learning the first row the 2nd time and had begun to develop some rough balance in my practice. I had progressed from partner single push hands to partner stepping push hands too. Then I was told I would now relearn the first row a 3rd time. Who said the study of tai chi chaun is simple?

So I’ve somewhat learned the first sections movements and have learned where to shift my head an eyes as I do the form, it can’t get worse than that right? Wrong, for now I had to learn the first section with the correct breathing pattern.

Again movement by movement relearning the form when to inhale and when to exhale. The first result was my balance was again lost. By focusing on the breathing, with the head – eye movements, you were less using your hearing and discovered it must have been a component of your balance too. In turn further forcing you to find your balance from your center and not your head.

Then the day came I was ready to begin studying the 2nd row of techniques. At this time I was expected to use the experience on the moving head/eyes and breathing to each new movement of the form. From this point on each row would be studied one time.

In time the 2nd row became the 3rd row.

I was practicing my tai chi 3 days a week and one day decided I should try and do something else. In addition to my karate instruction and practice and my tai chi study and practice I was competing at maybe 20 karate tournaments a year and judging as well. Many times when judging competitors using Chinese forms I wasn’t sure I had enough knowledge to do so accurately. I decided to ask Laoshi if I could study some Chinese forms to become a more knowledge able judge.

He agreed to train me further and asked what I wanted to study. While his schools were teaching Pai Lum, he had an extensive background in other systems (Sil Lum, Tai Tong Long and was actively studying Faan Tzi Ying Jow Pai at that time too). Having no idea what I should study I asked him to pick so he chose a Northern Shaolin form as my starting point. Again ½ hour a week and of course for additional fee. (eventually I studied a bit in a number of Northern based systems N. Shoalin, N. Mantis, N. Eagle Claw and Pai Lum). I never became a kung fu expert but did reach my goal becoming more knowledgable even to the point of competing with those forms several times).

Yang Long Fist Tai Chi Chaun was difficult for me with much deeper stances than the more upright Isshinryu. Those studies in other Chinese forms were all Nothern systems and they used some of the same deep stances. In time they helped my tai chi stances and further down the road made my legs much stronger form my Isshinryu too.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Let the student figure it out themselves! - Lessons from Harry Potter

It’s always interesting to find parallels in fiction that match classical karate.

In “Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince” Harry has to study Potions again (Magical Chemistry Class). He never got along with the former teacher and always used to mess up, but in this installment he had a new, kinder instructor and especially got to use a very old edition of the Potions text, one heavily annotated with notes. The extra notes immediately made him the best student in the class, for following the extra steps and/or changes made the process work correctly.

So you have a school training students in making potions and trained to exactly follow the text, which is hard to do in any case. But following the text doesn’t bring the best results. Yet if you have the extra notes you’re outstanding in potions. Interesting contradiction isn’t it.

The school wants the students trained to a point, but not trained to exactitude, and unless they go through hundreds of test trials to find the best formula, they’re just going through motions. Especially as no one is explaining to them they could find their own passion and do it themselves.

Now let’s step away from fiction, can we find anything like that in the real world?

How about Karate and the principle, it’s up to the students to work out how to learn how an application works.

Exactly the same concept in action.

Not that working something out is a bad idea to really learn a lesson. But it’s just inefficient and may leave most of the students with much more shallow knowledge, when they could be shown strong answers and focus on an entirely different level of training.

In Karate there isn’t one answer. There are instructors that share in depth how things work. On the other hand there are instructors that let the student figure it out themselves.

Which is the better answer?