Monday, January 31, 2011

The enigma of tiger mouth in cat stance

In my article "Xingyi stepping vs. karate stepping" I noted that "after 3 years of blogging I still keep coming across martial principles/methods that I take as self-evident, but of which others might not even be aware". While I'm on this topic, and while I'm on the topic of lessons learned from studying the internal arts (see "You know too many forms"), I thought I'd deal with another topic that I have, for many years, taken as a given - namely the answer to the "engima of tiger mouth in cat stance".

You might well ask: "What is this enigma?" I'll start by explaining that the tiger mouth (tora guchi) is a commonly used technique in Okinawan kata, particularly in the Naha te systems. It usually comes at the end of a mawashi uke (roundhouse block). Sometimes the technique is executed in a sanchin dachi ("sanzhan" in Chinese systems). But more often than not, it occurs in a neko ashi dachi (cat stance).

Karate's mawashi uke, which finishes with a tora guchi - tiger mouth push

It should be obvious that the tiger mouth technique is either a push or thrust. In that case, the enigma is this:

What possible reason could there be for executing a push or thrust in a back-weighted stance like cat stance?

Convential logic would suggest that this technique should be done in a forward stance, such as zenkutsu dachi ("gong bu" in Chinese). Yet time and time again it occurs in cat stance.

And this isn't something unique to karate either. It occurs in this form in the Chinese systems of ngochokun/wuzuquan (see above right) and the various white crane schools (see the image below left of Martin Watts of Yong Chun baihe). In the case of the latter, the cat stance is not performed with pronounced back-weighting. However the stance is still not a "forward stance" by any stretch.

True, some northern shaolin schools (and even some southern - eg. hung ga) teach the tiger mouth technique in forward stance. But the Hakka schools (eg. white crane) and their Okinawan cousins (eg. Naha te) overwhelmingly perform the tiger mouth technique in cat stance.

Surely this can't be correct? After all, when you want to push you should step or lunge forward as you do so. If that is the case, why is the tiger mouth push so often executed with the weight held firmly on the back leg?

I give my answer at around 4:00 in the video below. In essence the answer lies in the fact that the tiger mouth in cat stance is how the technique finishes - not how the technique begins.

You will note from the video that it is possible to apply the tiger mouth push while you are lunging forward. In other words, the push is executed when you are at the full lunge position (in forward stance - as per some shaolin schools). However the technique doesn't end there.

A video I made about moving forward into cat stance. Note my analysis at 4:00 onwards.

What happens after the lunge is most interesting. Instead of remaining in the fully extended forward stance, you slide your back leg up so that you end the movement in a cat stance.

Why would you ever do this? For the simple reason that you never want to pause in such a fully extended position as in a lunging push; you need the ability to recover in case your technique misses or is otherwise thwarted. Pulling your back leg up into cat stance means that you can the retreat at short notice; you are no longer fully committed to a forward attack.

But why not simply retreat after the initial push? Why is it necessary to slide up into cat stance? The answer is really quite simple: your momentum is already moving forwards. Accordingly the "slide up" occurs as part of the initial push. Any "retreat" would involve reversing momentum, which takes time. Accordingly, you have no real choice but to slide up into cat stance if you want to recover your posture and balance. This then gives you the option of moving forward or moving backward, as the case requires.

Which brings me to the last part of the enigma: why isn't this enacted in karate kata (and its counterpart forms in China)? Why instead is the move typically finished in a standing position - without any movement at all?

I suppose there are 2 possible answers. One is that the tiger mouth in cat stance is a kind of "code"; ie. when you see this technique the lunge is implied rather than seen. Put another way, the technique is "hidden". This might not be as far-fetched as some people think. After all, cat stance is synonymous with potential energy; your whole body is coiled up like a spring, waiting to be uncoiled. This explanation might also account for why the tiger mouth is often executed as a slow push, with dynamic tension; the practitioner imagines lunging forward with his or her whole body, uncoiling all that potential energy.

Given that karateka so often speak of "hidden techniques", why would this not be a prime example of such a thing?

The other explanation is that it is a dilution: the movement started out as a lunge, but was progressively shortened until the real meaning was lost. All that remained was the finishing position, deprived of any context.

I don't really favour the second explanation, but it is possible.

Perhaps the answer lies in a fusion of the 2: it started out as the finishing position after a lunging push, but was shortened by someone in an attempt to "hide" the real application. This hidden knowledge was not passed on, and so the "hidden knowledge" was lost.

But all this makes me wonder: does anyone still execute a tiger mouth in the manner I have suggested - ie. with a full lunge, finishing in a cat stance? Yes, this is precisely how the technique is performed in the internal arts, specifically in xingyi. Note the following video of my first instructor's teacher, Hong Yi Xiang and his students, peforming tiger mouth. You will see that the technique is peformed identically to how I suggest it should be.

Hong Yi Xiang and his students demonstrating the tiger mouth push. Note how they move forward into cat stance after the push.

I think this is a rather graphic illustration of the importance of "looking beyond one's garden walls" in order to truly understand one's base art!

Copyright © 2011 Dejan Djurdjevic


A colleague on the Traditional Fighting Arts Forums has also alerted me to the use of tiger mouth with an advancing cat stance in the Matsubayashi version of the kata chatan yara no kusanku. A few other styles (eg. some schools of isshin ryu) also perform the technique in a forward stance (zenkutsu dachi). However it seems to me that these are exceptions, rather than the rule. It also fails to explain just why so many karate and Hakka systems feature (usually at the end) a tiger mouth in cat stance. Understanding why this is and what this means has been the purpose of this article.

Matsubayashi ryu kusanku kata - note around 1:02

Friday, January 28, 2011

"You know too many forms"

My recent trip to Taiwan and my preceding discussion about some of the differences between karate and xingyi stepping/punching raise the following question: Why do I study "so many" martial arts? How much is "too much"? Isn't one art enough? Alternatively, if I want to cross-train, why not go the "obvious" route and take up BJJ to complement by "stand-up fighting"?

In my case, I'm not interested in just learning a new skill. I train in multiple arts precisely because I want to improve my existing skills - not because I'm desperate to learn new ones.

I'll try to explain what I mean:

To me, the kinds of differences I highlighted in my previous article are precisely the reason I choose to study the various arts that I do. It is only the differences between the arts that gives me a reason to study them.

I've often been told "you know too many forms". I understand this criticism, but I reject the notion that it applies to me.

For example, I don't see the need to learn more karate kata; such additional kata would add little to my skill-set because the principles are still more or less the same. There might be added techniques, but I would not be learning a completely different method of movement. The 14 or so karate kata I know are adequate and provide enough material to study karate for a lifetime.

But every so often I find a methodology (be it training or fighting) that is completely alien to me - a new way of moving that just stumps me, and not just because it requires extreme athleticism, but rather because it approaches things from a totally fresh perspective. When I find such a methodology, I know I have already improved (even before I've started studying it). Why do I say this? Because I know of the existence of yet another "gap" in my knowledge, which gap I intend to explore and eliminate or at least minimise.

Of the 3 internal arts, xingyiquan is the the simplest, yet the hardest - precisely because of this "strangeness element". It is like karate, and yet it is not. Clearly it is just like karate in its outcomes at an advanced level. However its form is subtly, but significantly different (as I discuss in my previous article).

So I agree that there is no point in "collecting forms" for the sake of it. The forms must add value. Practically any of the established karate forms would add some value, but its a question of how much they would add; there is a diminishing return in adding more and more forms that are built on more or less the same principles.

And just as there is a diminishing return in adding more and more forms built on the same principles, one needs to be aware that there is a similar diminishing return in restricting one's practice to the same small group of forms without ever looking elsewhere.

Then there is the time-honoured comment that "you can't possibly focus adequately on more than one martial art".

This is true - for those who are beginners or even intermediate students. But after 10 or 20 years of karate, I found I had ample "spare time" to start learning the internal arts. It did not detract one iota from my karate. I had space and time aplenty to study them side-by-side.

Had I attempted the internal arts earlier, I would probably have diluted my available time and possibly confused myself. But as it was, I started internal arts training when I already had a strong foundation in the art of karate. I knew enough to keep them separate, enough not to question the principles of either and appreciate them for what they are.

I am quite surprised by the multitude of advanced students (30 years plus) who haven't looked beyond their "garden walls". I wonder why they don't - there really is no imperative to stay within those walls. Nothing stops such a student from learning a new "alien" method of movement. It doesn't necessitate giving up your core art.

I sometimes get asked by Chinese martial arts practitioners whether I am now going to "abandon karate" since I have "seen the light". Yes, my focus nowadays is on the internal arts (specifically xingyi, but increasingly bagua and taiji). But I see no reason to abandon karate. Why should I?

And learning a different, complementary art needn't take up an inordinate amount of your practice time. However it could just give your base art a whole new lease of life as you see things from a different perspective. Courtesy of the internal arts, every day I see karate from fresh perspective, finding it richer and deeper in its lessons. This is particularly the case after a trip like my latest visit to Taiwan. Knowledge is power. I firmly believe this.

And looking at your base art from a fresh perspective might just end up saving you a whole lot of time. I can confidently say that in studying the internal arts, I have come to understand certain principles of advanced karate in a matter of months - principles that I suspect I would not have discovered for another 10 years had I not looked further afield. Studying a new art should be like having a new person, brimming with fresh ideas, join your creative team.

I have specifically chosen the internal arts to complement my karate because they assist me in seeing karate from a softer perspective. This is because the internal arts are "soft". It's not so much that they can be practised in a "soft" way - rather, the movements require this softness from day one.

What do I mean by softness? I mean the sort of movement discussed in my previous article: a kind of "pliability" that allows your whole body momentum to be used; a kind of flow or connectivity that is only possible when you really understand what it means to relax in movement.

This is the kind of relaxation we don't often allow ourselves in karate or other "hard" arts, where we want "power" (force) and don't really credit softer, slower movement and flow as having much benefit. Or if we do credit softness, we lack the appropriate paradigms to learn the right kind of softness.

As I've said elsewhere, internal arts like xingyi start with softness and add hardness. Arts like karate start with hardness and add softness. The eventual goal of both, as Chen Pan Ling famously said, was the same: the optimum mix of soft and hard techniques.

In a sense, the internal arts "institutionalize" what I see as karate's advanced practice, ie. to be softer and more pliable. In fact, they assume that softness in order to work since they start with the idea of building flow and connectivity and worry about "force" later. This might not seem very practical, and it probably isn't for combat purposes. But it certainly is a very different approach - the opposite of karate, which starts with "hardness" and becomes progressively "softer" - and as a result it can be very beneficial in providing fresh insights in relation to an art like karate at its advanced stages. [As an example of such an insight, note my article: "The enigma of tiger mouth in cat stance".]

You might well get the same insights without ever setting eyes on xingyi or any other internal art. But I've found that it's made my progress into "soft karate" a whole lot easier - if for no other reason than it provides that fresh perspective, one that puts "soft" practice methods and techniques to the fore (often at the risk of ridicule from martial artists engaged in more immediately practical systems).

So I choose to learn and practice karate, xingyi, bagua, taiji and all the other arts that I do, not because I'm "collecting forms", but because I want to "build" on what I've already learned. I want to practice arts that dovetail neatly into what I've previously studied so that they form a kind of progression.

It might not be essential to do this, but I find it helpful and, ultimately, time-saving. I'm not going to be around forever. I don't have forever to learn what I wish to learn. And I very much want to learn as much as I can about my existing skill-set in whatever time I have left. That is my purpose in training the martial arts - to keep learning. Personally I can't see how I can achieve this without looking beyond my garden wall. But it goes without saying that I'm going to be very selective about where I look. I have to be!

My friend Bob Tallent (who I met in Taiwan) just reminded me of another good reason to learn new arts - you get to have a whole lot of new experiences and meet new people. That alone made my latest trip to Taiwan more than worth the effort, time and money!

Copyright © 2011 Dejan Djurdjevic

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Xingyi stepping vs. karate stepping

When I first started this blog my main objective was to put down on "cyber paper" some of the martial principles and methods that I've taken for granted for many years but which I hadn't seen discussed elsewhere, at least to my satisfaction.

It surprises me that after 3 years of blogging I still keep coming across martial principles/methods that I take as self-evident, but of which others might not even be aware. One of these is the difference between karate and xingyiquan as regards the methods of stepping and punching/striking employed in those arts. Given my recent experience in Taiwan (which involved many, many hours of xingyi practice), I thought I'd start the year with a discussion of just this issue.

My friend and colleague at the Traditional Fighting Arts Forums, Victor Smith recently posted this video of the xingyi lian huan quan form and suggested that it bore a certain similarity to karate. I think he was right:

An example of xingyi's lian huan quan (linking form)

The Chen Pan Ling version of this form is reasonably similar: I intend to film it sometime soon. However as regards Victor's comment about its similarity to karate, my response was as follows:
    "Yes, karate is quite similar, but the differences (subtle as they are) are quite significant. The problem is the same as one finds in linguistics - ie. the unwary will encounter "false friends". Just as one might think that the French word "opportunité" means "opportunity" in English (it doesn't - the former means "timeliness") one might assume that the stances, punching etc. in xingyi are the same as in karate, when in fact they are not.

    In my experience, karateka find the transition to xingyi difficult because the differences are so subtle and they default to their usual habits. I have been there personally.

    The biggest difference in xingyi punching is that the punch lands with the leading foot - not the back. While this seems like a small matter, the context in which xingyi places the punch is almost always opposite in karate. This means it takes the karateka quite some "unlearning" to understand how to effect the xingyi beng quan (the punch that is one of the 5 elements of xingyi)."
However, as my friend Jonathan asked, what do I mean by the punch lands with the leading foot and not the back?

To answer this question, I'll reference beng quan (crushing fist) - one of the 5 elements of xingyi. It provides a useful example because (a) it is a punch and (b) it is typical of xingyi's stepping method. What is this method?

Xingyi features a type of footwork where you lunge forwards with your front foot and your back foot slides up to shorten the stance. In Japanese arts this is known as "suri ashi". So far you might well ask how xingyi is different: karate has heaps of suri ashi, so there would appear to be nothing new here.

The difference however lies in the timing of the strike during suri ashi.

Karateka will overwhelmingly time their punch so that it coincides with the back foot slide-up, where xingyi requires you to land your technique with the lunge of the front foot and no later.

Karateka are specifically taught to practise their basic stepping and punching in a way that is opposite to xingyi. In karate basics you step first, then punch. Consider the adjacent images of Tsuguo Sakumoto performing the kata Anan and note how the strike coincides not with the front foot landing, but with the back foot slide-up. The idea is that you don't want to charge in using your arm as a battering ram, but rather you want to use staged activation to impart as much force as possible. So you get into position, then fire.

I have previously discussed the concept of staged activation, but in a nutshell it involves moving progressively from your larger joints/body parts to your smaller ones, so as to use your body as a synergistic whole.

Added to this is the fact that in karate basics, punches are often performed in forward-biased stances like zenkutsu. This has important ramifications.

In xingyi there is a backward-weighted stance, usually called the san ti posture or zhan bu (battle stance). This is similar to the Japanese kokutsu dachi, but with the hips turned forward (yet another thing to which karateka find difficulty adjusting).

Note the movement from 0:20 to 0:22 - a lunge/step that has its counterpart in xingyiquan, but with very different timing of the strike

As I've noted, you have to step and punch at precisely the same time. This type of stepping is used in xingyi partly because you have a backward-weighted stance, which requires you to harness as much of the forward momentum as possible in delivering your punch (you can't rely on your weight shifting to your front leg).

In xingyi stepping you still use staged activation, but the emphasis is much more on harnessing the forward momentum of your body than on sequentially activating the hip, then the shoulder then the arm etc. In other words, staged activation is assumed, with the emphasis shifting to flow (as I discuss in my article "The importance of flow").

The assumption of staged activation is just one reason why I regard the internal arts as more "advanced"; they take as a given body mechanics that take years to develop, focusing instead on other, subtler and more sophisticated mechanics built on the foundation of what has been assumed. The xingyi concept of flow would be a prime example of this: I personally don't think it is applicable in combat unless you understand the principles of staged activation used in the basic karate-type step/punch (at least, I don't think it is readily applicable). However it is true to say that the xingyi approach goes beyond the karate technique in harnessing the whole of your forward momentum. Ideally one should learn both, progressing from the step, then punch, and adding the internal arts "flow" when the time is right (see my discussion on "sequential relativism" in my article "The importance of flow").

The above animation provides an example of how karate techniques look when they are used with xingyi stepping. It is substantially the same move as performed by Sakumoto in the earlier series of pictures. You'll note that I'm using sanchin stance, but it could just as easily be zenkutsu dachi, etc. The important thing is that the strike lands with the front foot - not with the back leg slide-up. Take careful note of how the back leg is still in motion after my strike has landed. As I say, this is what most karateka find different/unusual and often struggle with. As a karateka I've often likened learning xingyi to having to "rewire your brain".

The back leg slide-up can accommodate a second punch, but this is ancillary to the first one: see below at 0:16, for example where I do 2 punches. Note that the first punch lands with the front foot step, the second with the back leg slide-up:

A video in which I demonstrate a double beng quan at 0:16

In closing I'd like to refer you to a sifu of one of my colleagues at the Traditional Fighting Arts Forums. He has very exact xingyi form - possibly the most exact I've seen on the web. Even though his style is significantly different from that which I have studied, I can see that it obeys the fundamental "rules" of xingyi.

In this case you will see that with every one of the 5 elements, the sifu pays careful attention to his timing to ensure that his strike lands precisely at the same moment as his front foot.

While I have had some karate colleagues insist that this type of stepping and striking is part and parcel of their karate practice, I have yet to see anything like this in any karate performance. It might not be unique to xingyi (it is found in some other far eastern martial arts, I'm sure) but it is still significantly different from karate.

While certain moves in kata might resemble this simultaneous step/punch, they invariably involve a (deliberate) delay - particularly when there is a slide-up of the back foot.

One such move that has been suggested to me is the last uraken in the goju kata seiunchin. However in that case, the technique that is being applied when the front foot moves/lands is the seiyruto uke (ox jaw deflection) - or, if you prefer, shotei/teisho (palm heel/palm) uke. The uraken conincides with the back leg slide-up. That's how I learned the movement and I can't really see how it could be done otherwise if you have both techniques occuring in that period of time.

In the middle and last frames above you can see there has been a slide-up preceding the uraken. The front foot has well and truly landed. Again, this is how I was taught, so perhaps others do it differently, however you'd have to dispense with the seiyruto/shotei movement or at least make it precede the forward movement (which robs the seiryuto/shotei uke of its efficacy by removing the forward tenshin/taisabaki).

An excellent example of xingyi stepping/striking

I make these observations about stepping because I'm fairly sure that many martial arts practitioners - karate, xingyi or otherwise - have given very little thought to how they time their steps and strikes. Consider the following example of beng quan and you'll see what I mean:

An example of how not to do xingyi stepping

Copyright © 2011 Dejan Djurdjevic

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Another award for The Way of Least Resistance!

I came back from training in Taiwan yesterday to an unexpected surprise: this blog has received yet another award. The Guide to Online Schools has placed The Way of Least Resistance 3rd in the "Favorite Five" of the "The Best 50 Martial Arts Blogs".

They write:
    "Here you'll find essays examining martial arts techniques from a mathematical/physical perspective.
    Why We Love It: Blogger Dan Djurdevic applies an objective, scientific view to his understanding of martial arts, which makes for a very interesting read.
    Favorite Post: Really Using Your Kata."
Now I just have to get off my rear end and write some more blog entries so as to be deserving of this honour (but please give me a couple of days to recover from Taiwan)!

Copyright © 2011 Dejan Djurdjevic

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Email subscriptions now enabled!

Thanks to suggestions from my friends Mohammad and Omar, I have enabled the subscriptions widget which is at the top of the left pane.

Happy new year to all my readers - I wish you all joy and fulfillment in 2011 and beyond.

I hope to make this year a bumper one for blog entries, so keep your eyes peeled! In the next week however I'll be off to Taiwan for training with Master Chen, so please forgive me if things are a bit quiet here.

All the best