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As the years and the decades roll by, your priorities and interests will change. What was important at the age 25 in terms of your internal arts (e.g., developing physical skill, learning self-defence skills, or becoming a better fighter) will be less important at the age 40 or 50. Assuming that you have shown some aptitude and have practised regularly, this is partly a reflection of the fact that you will have improved your health and also achieved real self-defence skills.

I think it is also fair to say that studying any competent internal art with diligence can increase the pace at which one grows up. However, time and experience also play an essential part in whether or not you are still reacting like a child to all of life's tribulations by the time you are middle-aged. There is real magic in competent instruction and diligent practice over the long term, but it is hardly a miracle cure for all of our physical and emotional problems. Coming to terms with this is also part and parcel of the maturing process as a practitioner. We all want miracles—even those who seem the most cynical want to feel as if they are tapping into something special. It is very hard to come to terms with the issue of skill and wisdom coming only through long-term effort. In particular, the martial skills can only be purchased through a credit card issued by the Bank of Blood, Sweat, and Tears.

By middle age, your skills should have reached the point that the arts are no longer a major focus, an obsession, but simply an important aspect of your daily life. You have come to terms with both your skills and limitations as a practitioner, and learned to value your daily training for its own sake, and not just as a vehicle for self-improvement or good health. One of the best pieces of advice I have ever had from Erle is "Do your internal art to live well; don't live to do your internal art!"

In the good old days, a martial arts professional in China would train regularly with a competent teacher, as well as practising on his or her own for many years, and rarely, if ever, get the opportunity to study anything other than his system. Of course, those who earned a living as body or convoy guards might garner the hard way considerable experience with other fighting styles and incorporate aspects of what they survived into their own prac tice. However, it was not acceptable, except under rare circumstances, to train with several teachers.

In modern times, some martial artists have spent much time and effort studying a variety of systems, either in-depth or superficially, for many purposes. Unfortunately, the latter category of teacher or practitioner usually doesn't spend enough time at any of the secondary arts to really understand how they are different from what has already been learned.

Particularly, for starting to develop skills that would be useful against a real attack by someone who has some experience and skill at real fighting, it is essential to study arts that have some form of body contact, albeit in controlled manner. For example, it has been my experience that those modern internal arts teachers who actually have some real combat skills have either done judo or Western wrestling, shuai-jiao or Chinese wrestling, or learned Western boxing skills.

It is not that these arts are superior to the traditional arts, it is just that the serious student will learn how to take body contact and physical abuse (falling, being hit with some power, being thrown, the feel of being grappled at close quarters) with the minimum of tension. You have to learn to relax as much as necessary to avoid injury. The same is also true of those taiji schools where the students have learned to absorb impact by allowing themselves to be hurled into walls, sometimes padded with old mattresses, sometimes not.

Perhaps, part of the problem with the reputation of cross-training lies in the very glut of "young masters" who study one or two years each of a variety of hard styles and then, as they move into middle age, add a slow taiji form, or wu-shu style bagua form, or qigong to their bloated curriculums! It is quite depressing to surf the net and see website after website promoting these new styles to the general martial public. While I am sure that some of these innovators are doing their best and may even have something to offer to beginners, I am equally sure that even more are only fooling themselves and their own students with their abilities, or are creating a new style to make money or boost their egos.

There are not too many modern Sun Lu Tangs or Chen Pan Lings, but we should not assume that people with martial genius don't exist anymore. Cross-training when you have a solid foundation in one art can really help the learning process in the other Chinese internal and external arts. Sadly, most modern practitioners don't have a solid foundation before they go off studying other approaches, and lack the aptitude to absorb not only the similarities, but the differences between the arts they are learning.

From my limited experience, usually the students who are most keen to cross-train prematurely tend to focus on how the new art(s) are similar to what they already know, as opposed to trying to analyse how the new system or teacher does things differently. And, as sometimes the differences are subtle, it can be problematic to sort the wheat from the chaff.

In any case, I think it is important for the serious martial student to learn the basics of both stand-up fighting and ground fighting in the early stages of training, covering the foundations of both. With a coherent system, there is no reason to completely focus on any one range of fighting to the exclusion of the others. After students are proficient with basic stand up and ground fighting techniques, I recommend spending proportionately more time on stand-up fighting skills if your concern is more self-defence rather than sport. In particular, this means having learned how to do break falls and rolls that might actually work on surfaces other than mats or tatami.

If you look carefully at any combat art or sport (the ones which actually involve some form of non-cooperative contact fighting), you will find that most of the participants are young. How long can one realistically hope to apply ground fighting techniques? It will depend on the person. If you go to judo tournaments, you will see older competitors—although they usually don't compete with younger fighters, but in the seniors categories. On the other hand, how many competitive boxers do you see past age 30? Not many!

Understanding a principle and knowing how to fight are not the same.The greatest bagua, hsing-i, or taiji master alive will fare no better on the ground than a complete beginner if they haven't actually practised ground fighting. If understanding a principle translated into actual ability, why practise at all?

In the last fifteen years, I have learned and/or discarded many forms and methods from taiji, bagua, hsing-i, and liu he ba fa. It has been an oftentimes lonely and frustrating journey for various reasons. The late Jou Tsung Hwa said that you have to be your own teacher, and he was very right in some ways, but very wrong in that the average beginner has no hope of developing real skill of any kind unless he or she has competent instruction from role models who are good at both teaching and doing whatever is being taught. Erle has also said more than once, "If I have reached any heights in my skill, it is only from standing on the shoulders of giants!" This is a sentiment that I now understand.

The longer I teach and train, the truer it seems that real understanding can only come from having as wide as possible an experience of competent forms of martial art and then practising more and more of less and less. This, of course, seems like a paradox, and it is—the internal arts are full of them.

True experiential learning of any mind/body discipline is first a process of accumulation, and then a process of de-cluttering and simplification. I suppose, a few geniuses can skip stage one and arrive at the final stage, but I have met very few in almost 30 years of doing martial arts. It seems to me that it eventually becomes essential for a serious student of any good approach to the internal arts to find a "retirement package"—as the desire to experience and do everything is as counterproductive in the long run as being too narrow in your focus and only following one approach to being internal.

One aspect of the Chinese martial arts that has always made me a little grumpy is the tendency for instructors to imply, or come out and say that they are masters of many styles. It is not uncommon to meet a teacher, Chinese or otherwise, whose business card or flyers list him or her as a master of wing-chun, shaolin, both Chen and Yang taiji, hsing-i and bagua, as well as qigong of different types. I have met a few over the years who actually are good at a variety of arts—but these are few and far between. The average "generalist" of this kind is only fooling himself and his students by teaching one or two main styles and a smattering of forms or methods from the other arts.

It bears emphasising that you cannot understand a style by learning one or two of its forms.

I was discussing this issue with a colleague the other day, and we agreed that only the best and the worst students attended a lot of workshops and did serious cross-training. Hopefully, he and I both fall in the first category! Here is the problem in a nutshell—if you study one art deeply, you will learn a great deal, but you also limit your potential for growth by not studying how other systems do the same thing slightly (or greatly) differently. Conversely, if you dabble in workshops and instructors, spending a year in one system and six months in another, you can gain a superficial veneer or knowledge but will never actually learn anything in depth.

If you are young and fit, I would recommend boxing as a great martial sport to explore. As self-defence skills go, I would put my money on an experienced Western boxer (even an older, out-of-shape exponent) who has to fight any type of modern martial artist, black belt or not. Boxing has had its ups and downs over the decades, but the sweet science is just as profound in its principles and techniques as any of the other martial arts when it is well-taught and well-practised. It has the advantage of simplicity, and its only disadvantages are the stamina and conditioning required, making it a young man's art.

Years ago I was friends with a 50 year-old man who was learning taijiquan "for fun." He had been an amateur and professional boxer and still trained and coached young boxers. It was both sadly funny and instructional to see him flatten the younger and fitter taiji instructors who sparred with him at the school where we trained. Anyone who says an experienced boxer is automatically inferior to a traditional martial artist has never had the experience of being hit by one.

Finally, here is another internal arts conundrum about the difference in the three main internal arts. I is phrased in the context of my university degree in ancient and mediaeval history:"Hsing-i is the impenetrable stability and shock of a square of heavy infantry with spears; Bagua is the swift fury and unpredictable tactics of light cavalry; and Taiji is a walled fortress from which the defenders make sudden sallies. Martial geniuses can mobilise and use effectively all of these, while the average expert understands one strategy to a greater or lesser degree."

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