Posted by: Mike Ferruggia | January 17, 2012

Combat Tai Chi

So first let me say that while I sincerely believe that to practice tai chi in all its depth, we must learn the martial aspects of it (this not only contributes to our ability to fight and defend ourselves, but is necessary to perform the movements correctly and with the proper intent in order to get the health and wellness benefits), I have never fought using tai chi. I have practiced push hands and done some minor sparring, but have not had to use it in a fight. I would think most practitioners of tai chi, no matter how martially they present themselves, in this day and age, have not had to fight. So, really, the practice, from a martial context, is for sport. Even the toughest MMa guys might have to admit that what they do is sport. And this is not to put down MMa or sport, it’s just a reality.

Having said that, I would like to comment on the concept od combat tai chi, and what, from a theoretical viewpoint, it should look like. So my second admission is that I practice wu and yang style tai chi, and have encorporated chan su chin silk reeling exercises from the chen style into my prqactice, but I have never learned chen style, so my comment on chen style is from an outside view. It seems to me that the focus of “fa JIn” in chen style, issuing power, is too much. There is a whole lot of shaking and expulsion and whipping of power, like a dog shaking water off its fur(again not a negative comment), almost to the point that it seems to me that it can be exhausting and even close to causing whiplash. So, a chen stylist would say that it adheres to tai chi principles and is necessary to be effective in the end. I don’t know. It is not the way I practice tai chi and it would not be the way I would try to finish a fight or get out of a hold or parry a blow etc.

My second comment goes to other practitioners who demonstrate combat tai chi in videos. While it is impressive and well trained and looks really cool, it appears explosive and very external, very chop chop rhythmically, and ends with a flourishing tai chi posture after the fact.

Perhaps becaus I have a deep love(again I have not practiced aikido) for aikido, I like to embue my tai chi with an aikido quality–smooth, circular, flowing, effortless. Again, theoretically, the tai chi techniques and movements lend themselves to an aikido-esque practice.

In the end, I would say, combat tai chi should follow the thirteen principles–peng lu ji an, ward off, rollback, press push, then grab pull down, split rend, elbow, bump. Those are eight, the remaining five being, step forward, step back, left, right, standing still.

Trying to make a technique work through muscle and power is not tai chi. Understanding the interraction of yin and yang and encorporating the 13 principles is tai chi. And it is what I believe would make tai chi highly effective in combat. Yes, to win a fight, you will have to make an opponent topple to the floor or go crashing through a plate glass window, or throw an effective punch or open palm strike, or kick someone. I’ve worked to encorporate some western boxing techniques in my overall arsenal of practice–the jab, the left hook, the right cross, the uppercut. Tai chi and taoism are open to all techniques, they all can become tai chi.

The chen whip is really cool. external kung fu is really cool. western boxing and MMA brazilian jujitsu is really cool. But tai chi and aikido are also really cool. So focus and reflect on whether what you are doing is truly tai chi.



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  2. strong lecture I have a question is it necessary to make your muscles stiff in tai chi

    • Hey,
      The basic answer is no. You want to be soft and relaxed. Teachers emphasis the chinese word, be “song,” or relaxed, but getting this right takes practice because you don’t want to be limp like a rag doll either. The first “energy” of tai chi is peng or ward off, which, when rounding the body we feel like we are being inflated like a tire, so there is a resistance, but it is body structure and posture that is creating the strength, not stiffening the muscles.

      I love isometric exercises, but not while doing tai chi. The muscles need to be soft and relaxed so as to allow free chi flow. The stomach should be relaxed, not held in.

      This answer can have nuances depending on what you are executing. Since tai chi follows the principles of yin yang, there should be times when we are soft and hard. One example is if one is issuing a short energy strike, the arm and hand would come up like a whip, so muscles are relaxed but at the moment of impact, that quick hard snap that transmits all the energy into the opponent, everything stiffens for that moment. But this is one out of many techniques. The majority of tai chi is flowing and soft and relies on allowing the enemy to defeat himself and leading him to a fall. It should appear effortless.

      In push hands training, it often devolves into a wrestling match and muscle strength. Even great “masters” when demonstrating will make their students be softer softer softer and then at the right moment use a lot of muscle force to pull the student down or push them real hard. This is kind of disengenuous. If my student is only pushing, say 2 oz. of pressure, I will only be able to give back 2 0z. It is when the opponent comes at you the hardest that the techniques really work and all of a sudden you’ve launched someone off their feet and against a wall.

      But, anyway, when practicing the solo form, no tensing. Just a live energy, like you’ve been plugged into a wall socket.

  3. This was a nice read. At the outset it seemed you had quite a rigid, purist approach to tai chi, that every technique must be rounded and smooth without using muscle, but then you started saying you see the value in using other techniques. Personally I believe tai chi has a range of techniques, and principles, but that some of those techniques are particularly unique to tai chi and other similar arts. I find that the Yang form embodies that range, as one of its staple techniques is a straight punch – a linear technique, along with Snake puts out Tongue. The back fist, although circular is maybe not initially thought of as a ‘tai chi’ idea but it is there.

    • Thanks for the comments Andrew. One of the nice things about tai chi is the exploration process and looking for all the nuamnces. The last two times I’ve practiced the form I’ve focused on different things. One being discerning where the expansion and contractions were, the other looking at the “bow and arrow–where in the form are we storing up energy in the bow, and where are we releasing the arrow…

      • Searching for nuances is a very intriguing part of the form, and it’s not really something which can be taught aside from simply mentioning the point. Not many people talk about the expansions and contractions, I find many practitioners hold a neutral amount of expansion and contraction throughout each movement; it’s nice to hear you talking about it.

        I also think the Tai Chi and Aikido comparison is quite good. We can probably all learn quite a bit from that.

      • My first teacher, Susan Rabinowitz of the Taoist Center in New york, focused on tai chi concepts such as folding and unfolding, expansion and contraction, whole body movement, all the fundamentals. She would repeat herself all the time, knowing we didn’t get it until we got it. I remember watching her do the form in the beginning and doing this thing with her neck and head at the end of brush knee and I couldn’t tell if it was an idiosyncracy of hers or something that should be done. So I asked her straight out, and she showed me how she contracted the ligaments, tendons and muscles and then expanded at all the same points or joints, including her neck. In the book “The Tai Chi Chronicles” by Kuo, he speaks of having an inner elongation at all times. It’s the foundation of peng or wardoff energy, and I am still to this day exploring it. I find it when I am low in my stances and well rounded…

  4. Honestly, it it wasn’t for my luck in finding a school that teaches martial Tai Chi, I would have not stuck with it very long out of dare I say it, boredom. I really wanted something for stress relief, and got that in a month or two. But, to my suprise, the martial side of things has kept me fascinated and motivated to keep learning. That aspect gives such an amazing depth, purpose, and texture to the movements, I couldn’t imagine slogging through hourse of practice without it!
    I have been fortunate enough to work with a gentleman who is a western style boxer and who also studies Tai Chi and other eastern styles quite extensively. He has such grace and control over his movements – even during sparring. I want that someday, even if I’ll never step into a ring. Being able to deliver an effective jab-cross combination with incorporated Tai Chi principles is still fun.
    And it is somewhat of a comfort that, worst case scenario, I’d be able to use Tai Chi as a martial art to protect myself.

    • I was watching some boxing last night and it’s amazing how effective a good left hook can be. I don’t know the boxers, but one punished the other and put him down very quickly with a left hook and right round house hook that shook his opponent’s head and sent him down. Even if we never get into a real fight, knowing we have a fair amount of skill does lead to self confidence, and in a lot of situations, that’s enough to end a confrontation.

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