Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Internal arts and pushing

I have previously highlighted my disdain for "mystical" interpretations of the internal martial arts. In my view all martial arts function within the bounds of known physics; there is simply nothing metaphysical - nothing that is left wanting for a "paranormal" explanation.

However there are still many people out there who adhere to the opposite view. To quote a correspondent on an internet forum:
    "My view of internal martial arts is when the strike's power is so refined and seemingly defies physical laws. Where there is a transfer of energy enough to lift someone off their feet yet have very little to no body momentum to justify the result of the strike."
And there's the rub: "lifting someone off their feet"...

What I want to know is, why do so many people who see themselves as "internal artists" think that pushing is a good measure of martial skill - or applied force, for that matter?

Typically, these internal artists will point to videos which show someone being pushed a considerable distance, but with seemingly little effort. Here is just one example:

A fairly typical "pushing" demonstration intended to evidence the "power" of the internal arts - but do you really want to push anyone?

My experience with the internal arts is that pushing does not really feature in the "xing" (forms). It is used in taiji push hands contests, but it really about as indicative of true taiji skill as board/brick breaking in karate; once you know a few basic things about balance and grounding, you can do pushing without any other knowledge. And being good at taiji push hands doesn't necessarily equate to a good performance of the taiji forms.

I am reasonably good at pushing (if I could be bothered doing it) - but I have yet to meet someone who can push me like in the above video if I actively resist. The best they manage is to upset my balance in the context of push hands - and the latter is about timing, not "qi". If I have ever been sent sprawling, it was because my partner used my own push against me, catching me at just the right moment. Again, this is timing. Timing is not an issue in the above video.

Videos such as the one above are evidence only of very agreeable, non-resistant students.

And most of the time pushing is really the opposite of what you want to do to your opponent anyway. As I discuss in my article "Hitting harder: physics made easy", when you hit someone you want to apply as much force to him or her as you can. To do this you need to transfer the momentum behind your blow as quickly as possible. This is because of the formula:
    force = impulse / time
Impulse is, as I explain, the momentum you transfer. When you push (rather than hit), you might transfer the same momentum as you would if you had hit, but you do so by applying a smaller force over a longer time. In my article "Visible force vs. applied force" I discuss how a pushing blow might look more spectacular than a "shocking" (ie. forceful) blow simply because you see a bigger "result" in terms of the displacement of your target - but the former is necessarily less effective in terms of destructive force applied. Quite simply you have applied less force. Less force = not hitting as hard.

It follows that when you hit, you want to apply a force that drops your opponent on the spot. You don't want to push him or her across the room. This is true in every discipline - including boxing (where there is greater emphasis on "push" than in ungloved fighting systems - see my article "Karate punches vs boxing punches"). Consider for a moment the following knockout of Glen Kelly by boxing champion Roy Jones Jnr:

Boxing champion Roy Jones Jnr in action against Glen Kelly. Note how Kelly drops on the spot - he doesn't get "pushed" by the knockout blow.

It was the (colourful and controversial) taijiquan teacher Earl Montaigue who told me at a seminar back in 1989 words to the following effect:
    "I once saw a taiji practitioner who was very good at push hands beaten up. He managed to push this guy quite far, but the guy just came back and hit him."
You will note from my article "Understanding the internal arts" that I believe the internal arts specialise not in pushing, but in hydrostatic blows that cause minimal displacement. In other words, pushing is the exact opposite of what the internal arts are mostly about.

Indeed, "pushing" demonstrations bear little resemblance to the rich tapestry of applications in the internal arts forms. Such applications include deflections and counters, locking, throwing... but they very rarely involve pushing your opponent.

So why are there so many Youtube videos of "taiji pushing"?

It has been argued to me that they are an "example" or "test" of internal arts skill. As I've foreshadowed, I can't see how this could be the case.

Rather, I believe that such pushing demonstrations appeal to the Western "mystical" concept of what the internal arts are/should be. In my experience this doesn't match the Chinese day to day practice of the internal arts - at least in places like Taiwan (where pragmatic schools like Hong Yi Xiang's Tang Shao Dao put their arts to the test in full contact tournaments). Instead, push hands demonstrations are typically dragged out only occasionally as crowd-pleasers: like spears in the throat and standing on eggs and breaking things, they are used to entertain, not train. The real fighting methods of the internal arts (and their related skills such as "silk-reeling" in bagua or the relaxed, almost resistance-free, movement in taiji) don't have any connection to these "crowd-pleasers".

So if these "pushing tests" don't evidence or exemplify "internal" skill, what does? What differentiates an internal Chinese martial art from an external one?

I touch on this in my article "Understanding the internal arts", however to recap:

The internal arts are a label properly applied to a particular school of Chinese martial arts that share a similar pedagogic and technical base. These arts (neijiaquan or the Wudang school) include taijiquan, baguazhang, xingyiquan and related arts such as liu he ba fa and yi quan. The other Chinese arts are confusingly lumped under the umbrella "external" (waijiaquan). Arguably the label "external" can also be applied to arts like karate and taekwondo since they are either directly descended from, or have been greatly influenced by, the Chinese external arts.

Features that distinguish the internal arts school from the external include optimal use of weight transfer to ensure efficient transfer of momentum - something which is not emphasised to the same extent in the external arts - except perhaps in long fist (taizu) which is said by some (I think quite persuasively) to be the progenitor of taiji.

Other features include an emphasis on moving with as little muscular resistance as possible and, of course, an emphasis on generating hydrostatic shock via efficient application of force (a quick transfer of momentum) rather than through the simple measure of increasing power...

There are many more distinguishing features, but I'm afraid none of what I say is likely to accord with the "mystical" viewpoint. The traditional theories/paradigms/jargon commonly referred to by the "mystical" internal artists ("qi", "jin", "6 harmonies" etc.) are, to my mind, a mere obfuscation: They obscure a more profound and intricate insight into how internal martial arts techniques can be applied against resistant partners (not willing students, eager to please their teacher), replacing real insight with amorphous, esoteric labels that promise "deeper knowledge" through seemingly profound, paradoxical statements, but which ultimately disappear in vague fog of unscientific dogma.

Just ask prominent internal artists (who also happen to be full contact champions) like Tim Cartmell, Luo De Xiu or Su Dong Chen (all of whom were champions in 'no rules' contests in Taiwan - Tim is also a BJJ champion in his class).

Tim spent more than a decade in Taiwan training with some of the most notable masters. He still credits his internal arts as his major source of skill. But, as he will tell you, you can practice internal arts without once mentioning "qi". Indeed, in all my long hours with Chen Shifu, he has never mentioned "qi" once.

I think that the best way to distinguish external arts from internal is to compare the "floorplan" of how an external art (I'll use karate, which was influenced if not descended from southern Chinese external arts like ngo cho ku / wu zu quan and yong chun white crane) would have to be modified to be "internal". Here are 2 examples:

Karate using xingyiquan momentum transfer principles - note the momentum behind every technique.

Karate using taijiquan momentum transfer principles.

[For more on the subject of the differences between karate and taiji, see my article "Can karate become taiji".]

Neither of the above videos highlights "pushing". Indeed, neither is especially "impressive". That's because the demonstrations aren't meant to be "crowd pleasers" - they are demonstrations of pedagogic and technical difference.

And just because you take the internal arts out of the realm of mysticism, doesn't mean that they can't fill you with wonder. To my mind, the subtle use of efficient body mechanics can be just as wonderful as any purported magic. Maybe even more so.

The shifts in timing and the use of the "dragon body" (the ability to move the body in a weaving, pliable, ribbon-like way) in some internal arts practitioners I've met have filled me with great awe and respect. I saw such a demonstration from a Chen taiji master when I was in Taiwan earlier this year. My own teacher Chen Yun Ching Shifu, while understated and modest, never ceases to fill me with admiration. But the "magic" is in the detailed knowledge and the complete awareness of the body and the environment. It has nothing to do with the paranormal (which is a very unsatisfactory label that just proclaims something to be unanswerable rather than give you greater understanding).


Recent feedback (see the comments) have made me aware that I've been too harsh in relation to pushing. As Angelo and Ignatius point out, the ability to tranfer momentum efficiently in a push is an important part of taiji or any art. It's just that I feel it is a small part (which contrasts with the fact that it is often touted as a true "test" of taiji skill).

Yes, the ability to "push" is important; you have to know how to transfer momentum from your body into your opponent efficiently. However a pushing exercise is just the start of the process of learning efficient momentum transfer. The better you are at "pushing" (ie. the less brute force you have to use) the more you will be able to apply this principle in sparring.

Accordingly I see taiji pushing as essentially an exercise in isolation; learning basic principles of efficient momentum transfer. In this regard it is like the exercise "kokyu ho" in aikido. While aikidoka will practice such exercises, it is important to note that they are only the beginning of learning to throw/project/unbalance; in aikido the principles inherent in kokyu ho are applied in throws like irimi nage. It is the technique (eg. irimi nage) - not the isolation exercise (kokyu ho) - that is normally used as a measure of aikido skill.

Similarly, taiji pushing is not a good test of taiji skill. It is an basic, isolation exercise that pertains to throws/projections. And in any event, it is my view that throws/projections are not the primary focus of the internal arts. They contain grappling moves, but they are, like karate, counter-striking arts in the main (see my article "Is karate a striking art?").

Accordingly I do not resile from the view that the importance of "pushing" is overstated in videos such as the one at start of this article. Moreover, the "receivers" in such videos are being overly compliant. I say this based on my own experience in the internal arts and in having resistant training partners. I think it is dangerous to imply that taiji can give you (what appear to be) skills inexplicable by science. Against a resistant partner these "abilities" quickly evaporate and practitioners in schools where this kind of thing is practised need to be aware that what works in the guan/kwoon/dojo doesn't work the same in the real world...

Copyright © 2009 Dejan Djurdjevic

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

"Dropped diaphragms" and "internal power"

There is a persistent myth that I've heard over the years that somehow training in the internal martial arts gives you a big belly.

I've never regarded this myth as anything other than an obvious, self-referential joke: ie. "I don't have a beer gut - it's just that my belly is full of qi/ki."

Recently however I have become aware that some people actually think there is such a syndrome. Just yesterday a correspondent on an internet forum said that practising internal arts had given him a "dropped diaphragm" that "stretched the fascia" giving him a "thick inflated core [which] is great for MA but definitely not a hit with the ladies".1

Indeed, many famous internal martial arts masters were, shall we say, well endowed in the mid-section. Consider the picture at the top right of this article of Wang Shujin, a formidable street fighter and student of the famous internal arts teacher Chen Pan Ling (my teacher's father).

The forum correspondent also gave the example of Yang Chen Fu (on the left) - another famous taijiquan teacher.

Indeed there are so many taiji practitioners past and present who had a big stomach that one is spoiled for choice. Did/do these practitioners have a "dropped diaphragm" or are/were they just carrying fat?

I'll say at the outset that it is possible to have a very strong physique - with apparently little or no skin to pinch - and yet still have a big stomach. In fact the forum correspondent on the forum cited such an example: consider the picture on the right of UFC fighter Chuck Liddel (of whom the forum correspondent said there was a "bit of a Taiji belly going on there").

Even in my gym there is a rugby player (who is very likely one of the strongest people I've ever met) who has broad shoulders, muscled arms and legs - and a thickened torso to match. I doubt you could pinch any of skin on his stomach in a skinfold test. He doesn't look "fat" - he's just... "big".

Is this evidence of the "dropped diaphragm" syndrome? The answer is, quite simply, no.

To quote my brother (who has a degree is sports science):2
    "Now, I might be wrong, but as far as I recall from my university training in anatomy, physiology and sports science - there is no such thing as a dropped diaphragm. It is true that hypertrophied abdominal muscles (eg as bodybuilders have) will produce a rounded belly when the muscles are relaxed - but few internal martial artists have this problem!

    Many men can appear fairly lean and store little sub-cutaneous fat but still have enough intra-abdominal fat to have a gut."
In other words, just because you can't pinch the skin doesn't mean there isn't fat there. It's just that the fat might be (somewhat dangerously) deposited around the internal organs rather than subcutaneously.

In the case of my rugby player friend, he has very strong, large stomach muscles from years of intensive, weight-bearing exercise. He probably has a bit of fat too (both subcutaneous and intra-abdominal), but such as it is , it doesn't concern him. From the perspective of a rugby full-forward, it is no surprise that he recently said to me: "Any weight is good weight".

The mere inability to pinch skin around the stomach is not a reliable indicator of your fat levels. Again, quoting my brother:2
    "Different skin fold test protocols can give different results. I use a protocol that assumes and makes allowance for intra abdominal fat in the calculation."
So what's the story with Wang Shujin and Yang Chen Fu etc.? Were they fat? Definitely. I know people who trained directly with Wang - and they all say he was very fond of his food.

I could also say that I have a "dropped diaphragm" - my belly is somewhat rounded. Yet, at the same time, I am not fat. I'm not lean, but I'm not fat either. When I tense my stomach muscles you can clearly see 3 levels. My upper stomach is, in particular, quite hard and even my lowest abs haven't really got much to pinch. But my stomach protrudes nonetheless.

Evidence of internal training? Sadly, no. In my case it is a combination of:

(a) (happily) strong stomach muscles from weight training in the gym; and
(b) (unhappily) fat deposited both subcutaneously and intra-abdominally.

In respect of the latter I take after my late father: he stored his fat principally around the midsection - and not necessarily on the periphery. His stomach was big, but rock-hard. In this regard he exhibited a fat-depositing trait quite common to men. How many men do you know who are in their mid-twenties onwards and who have skinny arms and legs and chest but have a protruding, rounded (hard) belly? Heaps.

Women however tend to deposit fat around their hips and thighs (the common and much lamented "pear shape"). The latter is, in fact, a lot safer in terms of health; intra-abdominal fat is known to be quite dangerous.3 My late father died at age 48 from coronary artery disease. The extra fat he was storing (particularly intra-abdominally) was clearly a contributing factor.

The forum correspondent I referred to earlier noted that many students at his internal arts school seemed to be developing "dropped diaphragms". However if you ask me, it is more likely that he and his fellow students are simply aging - and developing typical male-pattern fat deposits...

On a final note, I will observe that both Chen Pan Ling and his son (my teacher) Chen Yun Ching are slim (see the picture above on the left) - despite a lifetime of internal martial arts training.


1. See this thread on the Perth Street Bikes forum.

2. See my brother's post here.

3. See this newspaper article for example.

Copyright © 2009 Dejan Djurdjevic

Monday, November 16, 2009

Jo: an introduction to the 4ft staff

I will admit to having a love affair that started after I met my wife and that endures to the present day. No, the object of this affection is not another woman/man (although I suspect that my wife, like many women, probably envies its figure!).

The object is none other than a 4 foot stick, made of Japanese oak.

It feels surprisingly light in the hands, is textured with the bumps and bruises of contact over 20-something years, is well-worn at the edges and smells faintly of my sweat, absorbed over countless training sessions.

Like any relationship, my affair with the jo has followed a kind of cycle: a mad infatuation with something brand new, sleek and good looking; periods of frustration and hard work; and more recently a period of renewed appreciation - of loyalty, fidelity, deeper understanding and a kind of reverence.

A video where I discuss the basic grips and stance relating to the jo.

In short, my old jo occupies a sacred place in my heart. Nowadays I reserve it for solo practice and occasional work. I avoid banging it too much; I want it to last the distance.

And so, like some Utah polygamist, I recently got myself a "new model" - a jo made of rattan (a kind of bamboo). Slightly thicker, but slightly lighter, it is something I feel I can wield freely in training. It is young and pliable enough to take as many knocks as my training partners can dish out. In my mid-life crisis the "new jo" and I "party hard" - but we don't (as yet) have any real history. Perhaps we never will. It hardly matters. My true mistress waits patiently for my return.

So why the sudden interest in a "new model"? The answer is simple. I'm writing a book on the jo, and I'm worried that the preparatory early morning training sessions with my senior student Jeff will be too hard on "the old girl".

What is this book about? It is a comprehensive and detailed description of essential jo techniques; techniques that are not only effective and pragmatic (though not easily mastered) but also sublimely elegant.

As my teacher Bob Davies put it: "jo is the essence of flow".

Through years and years of training I am finally understanding the truism that a weapon is merely the extension of one's hand. I can not only grasp this simple statement on a cognitive (and literal) level; I can understand it intuitively and (I hope) apply its principle.

What is so special about the jo is that it combines the best of all worlds in terms of sticks: It is light enough to be wielded with one hand (although this is not where its primary "magic" lies). It can be used like a katana (samurai sword) - yet it can also be flipped and used "end to end". Unlike the bo/kon (longer staff), you can use a grip that is biased to one side. But like the bo/kon, you can also grip it in the middle (if circumstances require it). In short, it is a weapon for all occasions.

And like any stick, it amplifies your movements.

A sample of the 9 kumijo that will be presented in detail in my upcoming book

This is both a blessing and a curse. When you stuff up, it is apparent for all to see. In sparring you know when you've miscalculated. You just know you're going to cop it and there is no escape. On the other hand when you get things right, you look bloody marvelous. Such is the nature of the jo. There are no "in betweens". It is a hard mistress, but a generous one as well.

So in the coming posts, I'd like to start introducing you to some of the basic principles of this magnificent weapon - and show you why it is so special to me.

Copyright © 2009 Dejan Djurdjevic

Monday, November 9, 2009

Going solo?

A common criticism of traditional eastern fighting arts is the emphasis those arts place on solo practice - often at the expense of 2 person practise.

Indeed, many traditional fighting arts are so steeped in solo forms that they have barely no partner application at all. When they do, it is often stilted, stylised and unrealistic.

This criticism has led many martial artists who are interested in pragmatism to abandon solo forms - be they full kata/xing/patterns or shorter drills such as "deflect/strike" combinations - in favour of going straight into 2 person application.

I can see the issues - however I still think that, depending on the technique being taught, some level of "solo" training is essential if you want to hone correct, efficient form.

In my experience, the need for any "delay" in moving to 2 person drills is a function of just how sophisticated (ie. complex, but for the purposes of gaining greater efficiency) the movement is that you want to teach.

I have often remarked how combat sports practitioners don't have good front kicks. This is demonstrated quite starkly in the following fights of Shotokan karateka turned K1 fighter Leaon Walters.

Shotokan karateka Leon Walters in K1 action against Kevin Hunt. Note the Hunt's "teep" at 1:25.

In the above fight at about 1:25 you'll see a stark difference between Kevin Hunt's opening "teep" - the dreadful "raking" or "pushing" excuse for a front kick - and Walter's effective mae geri at 1:07 in his fight below against Guy Golden.

Leon Walters against Guy Golden. Note his mae geri at 1:07.

The difference? Quite stark. Why? In my opinion you just can't develop a good front kick unless you do hours upon hours of "air kicking" as Walters would most certainly have done. Yes, you do need to start working on kicking something - but even then, you don't want to be kicking the heavy bag; it is simply nothing like a human body and encourages the wrong emphasis for the front kick. Too much resistance (in the form of a heavy bag which is nothing like a human body) produces "push" (as I describe in my article "Visible force vs. applied force").

The difference between visible force typically applied by those who have insufficient "solo" training to develop good form on the front kick, and the "shock" kick which results from such solo training

In my experience, even moving to a kickshield too soon can lead to bad form. If you want to develop a good front kick, there simply is no substitute for thousands upon thousands of air kicks. Odd? Tell that to a Japanese sword master who can cut through thick bamboo without bending his blade. Ask him/her whether he or she developed this skill without one thousand or so "air cuts" every morning.

A related weapon provides an even better example of the need for solo work:

In my jo (4 foot staff) techniques, a lot of stock is placed on learning to "slip" attacks while using minimal force. In order to make this work you need to have a good grasp of the basic form of the movements. When real pressure is applied to rank beginners either (a) they get clobbered or (b) they default to a simpler movement which, while effective in stopping the attack, does not use the attacker's force against the attacker as the technique is supposed to (or set them up for the counter in the way the technique is supposed to). In short, there is a system which they are not following.

Having said all that, I have students practise a 2 person application very soon - in the same lesson. I don't expect the form to be correct however (and it never is in the first few months). The solo form teaches the subtle aspects to the technique and allows these to be grooved without slipping into a simpler technique - ie. what the students will do "instinctively".

A jo drill done solo and with 2 people. Note the flow in the solo version; practised students apply the same speed and efficiency in 2 person practice.

I often have debates with people who say one should do "what comes instinctively". For reasons I won't go into great detail here, this is not a theory to which I adhere. It is sufficient to say that true, one can rely use instinctive responses to one's benefit. Arts like arnis (Filipino stick and knife arts) do so to some extent (but only to some extent: try telling a beginner that "sinawali" - a weaving motion using 2 sticks in attack - is "instinctive"!).

In the broader scheme of things, if "instinct" (eg. our instinct to flinch or cower) were effective in itself, we'd all be masters of the martial arts without any training. There is always a point at which we have to learn things that modify or even replace our "instinctive" reactions. Just how much that instinct is displaced is a function of the sophistication (ie. complexity, but not pointless complexity) of the movement being taught.

In terms of what I teach (and apply in a dynamic setting), a lot depends on teaching students a whole set of new skills - skills that are not "instinctive". This is much the same as a sport like tennis: when you get coaching and they tell you to hold the racket a particular way, step with a particular foot, stand at a particular place in the court , etc. they are teaching things that don't come "naturally" in the sense that you don't do it automatically after coming out of the womb. Everyone wants to just "go out and play" - but my tennis coach had me working on drills for a full month before he said I could go to my local club and play games. I'd still be hopeless, but they would at least let me join and play (I wouldn't make a total idiot of myself). I finally knew enough not to embarrass myself with proper players. [I'd played for years with mates and made a hash of it, stabbing at balls, using the wrong grip, approach, stance, court placement etc. I'd had countless matches. However to my coach my previous "experience" was useless because I had no technique at all. All I'd gained from it were a bunch of bad habits - which were all the more difficult to remove given my previous "practice".]

Combat is sometimes seen as less "sophisticated" than something like tennis. This is because strength and simple force can triumph over technical skill in combat - indeed they most often do. Combat has a very simple goal but far more variables than a game like tennis. It takes a lot of skill to overcome greater force with technique in combat, because the goal is not scoring a technical point with a ball, but clobbering someone. And unlike tennis and other sports, fear, adrenaline, aggression etc. are all far more potent factors. Nonetheless, subtle technical refinement in combat is useful and important - particularly for continuing advancement/improvement. It just isn't as easy to discern this importance in the shorter term.

In the arts I teach, technique is something that ultimately reduces your need for strength by making your application of force more efficient. In the shorter term it isn't going to achieve as much as just "going out there and hitting". But I believe the longer term gives scope for greater overall skill.

Even more subtle arts can be found in, say, Okinawa ti or the internal arts of China. There is a point at which technical emphasis can over-ride pragmatism. However I think there is room for emphasis on technical refinement in any system. All that differs is how much technical refinement we are interested in pursuing. Too much emphasis on refining precise angles etc. can lead to mastery of an "art" but not any practical skill in the short to intermediate term. On the other hand, emphasis on practicality can lead to development up to a point, then stagnation.

We are all, I suppose, seeking that "holy grail" of the best mix. We might all differ on where that holy grail is to be found and I think that is always going to be the case. It makes discussions interesting. I'm fairly sure that none of us holds the answer. But is fun to have a look at differences in approach. We all learn something.

Copyright © 2009 Dejan Djurdjevic