What is a Punch in Tai Chi Chuan? – Tai Chi Punching Part I

Many martial arts, or maybe the very most of them, tend to organise punches into different types. There are many ways to arrange and define methods. This is common by using names as “lead”, “jab”, “cross”, “uppercut”, “hook”, “haymaker”, “standing fist”, “lying fist”, etc. Different styles have their own ways to organise what they do and they tend to use different names.

The problem with all of these names and definitions, is that it’s all too easy to associate any of these labels with punches from other specific styles and martial arts systems, as from Karate or from Western boxing, and with their ways to generate power. However, to understand what punching means is in Tai Chi Chuan, you really need to get rid of all of the different kinds of associations and knowledge about “how other styles do it”. So in order to understand what a punch is in Tai Chi, it is better to first ask: what is punching in Tai Chi?“.

Yes I know, I should probably demonstrate what I speak about – show and tell – instead of just writing about it. Hopefully I can accomplish this in the near future. But for now on, let me try to explain some important points using words.

This is the first part of a 3 part series about Punching in Tai Chi Chuan, so let’s go on and get serious.

There’s no standard of defining or organising punches in Tai Chi

The interesting thing with Tai Chi is that there is no real standard of organising, or naming, punches in Tai Chi, as what you can find in most other martial arts. Most Chinese styles have names for different punches. But in some Chinese styles, especially in the Northern styles, the fist, or the method of punching, is incorporated in a movement or a stance, which means that the name is for not only the punch, but for the whole body’s movement and structure as well. Thus, the name and posture, or movement, becomes a symbol or general idea that expresses more than only the fist strike. (If you understand how Chinese characters work in the Chinese language, you can compare with how postures can express many different things at the same time.)

In Tai Chi forms, we only see a few movements or postures using a closed fist. Does that mean that the fist is one of the least popular weapons in Tai Chi? And are the punches really that limited? Some Yang Style teachers speak about the Five Fists of Yang Style Tai Chi. This has become a concept in certain schools. Many of those teachers might assume that those 5 explicit fists that are shown in their Tai Chi form are the only fist methods in Tai Chi Chuan. And most people don’t go outside their form to look for punches, as they believe that the form should contain everything necessary in their art.

But however you name or count the different fists, it’s still a simplification and generalisation that is mostly useful only to briefly satisfy asking students. The truth is a bit different. In no classical Chinese text, there is a concept of “five fists”. And in no classical Tai Chi manual you can see a specification of a limited set of fists or anything that comes close to trying to set a standard. All of the other styles have the same problem. They might name a few punches by the names of the movements in their forms, but still, this doesn’t really represent the nature of a “punch” in Tai Chi Chuan.

So what is punching in Tai Chi and how many ways of punching can you actually find in the art? If we start naming different punches with common names people would start to associate “punching” with other arts. And it doesn’t help that some people try to explain the punches in a Tai Chi manner, because most people believe that all punching need to have the same kind of prerequisites. But this is really not the truth about Tai Chi and punching in most other styles does not really reflect what punching mean in Tai Chi.

The Hundred Fists of Tai Chi Chuan

In my own Tai Chi practice, which is mainly Yang based, in the exercises and the methods I myself practice, I have counted and arranged the methods I have learned into ten basic fists. I can also take out one of them, and create many different variations on the same fist according to the use of different body mechanics behind the strike. But still, this is is my own way to organise different striking methods. However you would label different punches and variations, this kind of system would still not reflect the essence of what a Tai Chi punch really is.

Therefore, I would rather use the Chinese term “hundred” and speak about “The Hundred Fists of Tai Chi Chuan”. Wow, that seems a lot, doesn’t it? Can you really punch and strike in so many ways? Well, maybe not if you translate it literary. In Chinese tradition, “hundred” can surely mean literary “one hundred”, but it is also used to express the word “many”. Compare with “the hundred schools of thought” which was a common phrase in a period of China a long time ago. Here it doesn’t mean literary as many as one hundred schools, it just means “many schools of thought”.

There’s no need trying to be specific. “Many” is enough. You need to realise, that in Tai Chi Chuan, as I have already mentioned before, there is no standard across different schools or lineages. All of them have their own ideas. So why is it hard do exactly define a strike or organising methods? Well, let’s head back to the question: what is a strike or a punch in Tai Chi?

Getting closer to the nature of “Chuan”

The Chuan in Tai Chi Chuan means “fist” and suggests that Tai Chi is a school of boxing, a martial art. Or “Quan” if you prefer writing “Taijiquan” as it is spelled using Pinyin. Just by the name, anyone should understand that punching is a natural part of the art. But how?

In Tai Chi there’s the saying: “the whole body is a fist.” Now, this is obviously a more a philosophical way of saying, that you can strike with any part of your body, and in any way you want. But even if we only speak about actually using the clenched fist to punch with, it is still hard to name and count the different methods, because Tai Chi is such a flexible styles with countless of possibilities.

So the real answer is that: you can use a punch in any way you want. There is not one or ten or one hundred different punches. There are as many as you yourself find useful. If you don’t like closed fist punches, throw them all away if you like. And your own Tai Chi has none. Tai Chi is all about you and how you can personalise and internalise the Tai Chi principles in whatever you do.

Nei Jin – the most natural expression of your body

So, in Tai Chi, you can strike from any position, from any angle, from any kind of distance, and use a fist in any way you want. Also, anywhere you want in your form, you can add or turn a movement into a strike. There are no rules about how you should strike in Tai Chi or how you are allowed to use punches in Tai Chi. This is because there is no standard way or any “the best way” to generate power.

There is only one real rule and that is that you must use basic Tai Chi principles when you strike, so that you strike with “Tai Chi Jin”. By Tai Chi Jin, we mean “Tai Chi developed strength” or “Tai Chi Neijin”, which is usually translated into “Tai Chi internal power”.

Tai Chi Neijin is actually not as mystical or magic that people want to make it sound. Jin means a developed skill, a trained and consciously delivered type of strength. Tai Chi Jin is actually more or less just the natural expression of correct use of Tai Chi principles. So if you do things right, your punch will express Tai Chi Jin.

It’s just as simple as that. If your body has internalised Tai Chi principles so that your movements express them, then you don’t need to think about jin, and instead your body will naturally express Jin. But still, when it boils down to more specific ways to use your body, as in punching, the question is still about “how” to do things in a most practical sense.

Punching without the mind-set of actually punching

So how do you technically use, or express, jin, or internal power? Well, here comes the tricky part: Yes, we do use punching in Tai Chi. And as I said, there are not only many punches, but countless of variations and possibilities. But when you strike or punch, however you punch, you should not actually punch. Or rather, you cannot “try to punch.”

Now you are probably asking yourself: But must you not be hard, tense up and be aggressive to punch with power? The answer is: No. Actually no. But from this perspective, for most people Tai Chi must seem completely counter-intuitive to the very most of martial arts systems and styles. So how do you understand this contradiction in a practical way and how do you actually handle this problem?

The problem is that when people think about punching, most of them will automatically think about exerting hard, external strength. They associate punching with a way to tensing the arm and hand, as well as tensing body, breath and mind. So when they try to punch, they will always tense their mind, breath and body. Everyone will do this. Tensing up when we try to exert force is the way we are taught from childhood. And we are also taught that we cannot achieve any strength if we don’t try to exert force.

Merely thinking about exerting hard power, or “trying to punch hard ” is wrong in Tai Chi. Why? Because merely the thought of “putting power” behind your punch and “strike hard” will make you tense, it will trigger a reaction and response in your own body that is wrong in Tai Chi. A natural reaction and respons of tensing up your body, which is detrimental to using or emitting “jin”.

But in Tai Chi this is all wrong. Everything you have ever learned about strength and emitting power growing up is wrong in Tai Chi. Every way you have taught and train your own body in this respect, all the way from early childhood is wrong.

So the first thing you need to realise is that there is another way to use your mind and body that you haven’t been taught before. And it’s really hard for everyone to get understand this, because if you are not already used to the Tai Chi way of thinking, this kind of using your mind and body will be something completely new.

Most people who don’t do Tai Chi would think we do some things a bit extreme, or too extreme. Especially when it comes to relaxation. In Tai Chi, we relax and don’t tense the muscles at all as we punch. So how do you move the arm without using deliberate tension of the muscles? The best answer is that we just relax. Yes, we relax a lot when we strike, in fact the whole body. But still, relaxation is not enough. In fact, there should be just as much structural integrity and physical balance involved as relaxation. But in Tai Chi it’s wrong to use “Li”, or clumsy force, or tensing up, to control your structure. This is wrong when you punch, when someone tries to grab you or throw you. In Tai Chi, using Jin is the good and smart thing to do.

So how do you practically start to learn how to maintain relaxation and still not collapse? – Again, this starts in your mind. If you “try to punch”, you will automatically use Li. This can be hard to undertand if you haven’t tried what I speak about. But it is what your body is programmed to do. Not tensing up when you try to punch hard is, for your natural reaction, something very counter-intuitive.

Maintaining relaxed and calm, while trying to punch hard, is like the “exercise” for actors that Lee Strasberg, the famous director of the Actors Studio, proposed. If I remember correctly, he told his students something like this : “Stand in a corner and don’t think about a polar-bear for 15 seconds.”

I guess you might be able to achieve this by completely emptying your mind and forgetting everything about why you stand there. But it would need some amount of meditation type of practice of emptying the mind. Because it’s something counter-intuitive it would require practice. Punching the way we do it would also require practice. Not only technical practice, but it requires “mind-practice” in order to control the body in such a way so it can relax properly.

When you start studying punching, the main focus of “punch training” in Tai Chi should have the goal of getting rid of this tendency to tense up mind, breath and body, and learn how to relax, control your degree of relaxation and keep relaxing. You need to learn this in order to really be able to control your body. It all starts in the mind, understanding how to “think” and about how to empty your mind.

It’s about learning to do something while not stressing up, by not worrying about doing something wrong. You really need to learn how to punch without the common mind-set of punching. In Tai Chi, this is in fact the first thing you need to learn in order to really understand how to “use jin instead of li”.

Tip: Also see my post about “xin”, the heart-mind, or the emotional mind in Chinese thought.

How to really understand to use Jin instead of Li

Let’s take a closer look at how the Chinese martial arts define Li and Jin. In the Chinese Martial arts in general, it is said that Li (dumb/common strength or “stupid force”) comes from the muscles, but Jin (developed/intrinsic strength) comes from the tendons. So what does this mean in a practical sense?

Well, it means that if you tense your muscles, trying to use them deliberately, then you are using Li. That should be obvious. But to use Jin, of course you still need to use the muscles to move the limb, but you cannot tense it. In the traditional Chinese way of thinking, when you strike while relaxing and stretching the limb, the sinews plays a large role as stabilisators while the movement of the strike transmits the movement in to the opponent while the shape of limb keeps its structural integrity.

For a westerner, it might be better to think about the movement of an arm while punching in terms of kinetic energy. If you tense up the arm while striking, you will stop or slow down the the kinetic energy. Actually, the body will fight itself if you tense up. The tension will mean a counter-force and act counter-productive to the outward, stretching movement of the limb. Or simply said: You can not stretch the arm forward and outwards and at the same time tense the biceps.

In a straight punch, using Jin instead of Li, is like using the pure forward movement, moving without tensing up. It is about helping the body to work in the direction of the kinetic energy, but without disrupting it, or without fighting yourself, without fighting against your own movement. So in this sense, using Jin, is the opposite of using strength in a clumsy way. Instead of isolated movement and tensing up different body parts, we use the whole body in a way to help your body to stay relaxed thought the whole movement.

So “using jin”, in a Tai Chi punch, means that you not only help your body to continue the initiated punch until it meets the target, but instead, you will use your body in such a way so that it can continue to relax even when it meets resistance. Penetrating a target while still maintain a relaxed body and using the arm in a relaxed way, while continue to moving through resistance is not possibly without the use of jin.

I will go into detail later, exactly how to align your body and how to train this whole body support, so that you don’t work against your body in a counter-productive way. For now, we can summarise the vital points as that in Tai Chi, Jin works as the bridge between maintaining Tai Chi principles, and the pure functionality and efficiency of body movement. But first we must learn to punch and to meet the target will still remaining calm in mind, body and breath. Otherwise, we have not even a chance to start to understand what is meant by “using jin instead of li”. (Don’t confuse this with “Use Yi instead of Li” which is different.)

What’s next?

Does it all sound abstract and confusing so far? Don’t worry, the next post in this series will be more specific and deal with practical aspects of training punches, as if it’s advisable to punch bags and similar in Tai Chi Chuan, and more about what to think about. The third part will deal with specific body methods of different types of punches. Those three posts together will not only give you a good idea what punching really means in Tai Chi, but also actual methods to practice and study different types of punches.

I will probably publish the next part within one or two weeks from the publishing date of this post. This is at least what I plan to do for the moment. Originally, I only wanted to write one post and briefly share my thoughts. But now when I am writing three different posts, two more posts parallel top this one, you can see how well that idea about just sharing some thoughts turned out…

And by the way, you can always subscribe by E-mail or by RSS (the link in the side-bar) if you want to get notified when the next part is published or keep track on what is happening here.

Understanding Your Enemy

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In Tai Chi, our way to approach an opponent is to always look for weaknesses, gaps, and holes. We don’t attack our enemy’s or opponent’s strengths directly. Instead – we attack his weaknesses. Also, if our opponent is strong, we try to weaken him. We can do this by unbalancing, trying to direct him in a position to compromise his structure etc.

The methods are many. But first, to understand the weaknesses and how to find weaknesses, and how to compromise an opponent’s structure, we must first understand his strengths.

Let me repeat this to let it properly sink: First, in order to find an opponent’s weaknesses, we need to understand his strengths.

If we don’t understand the strengths of the opponent, we won’t find his weaknesses. We won’t find the gaps, the holes, and we will find no way to discover ways to turn the enemy weak. First, to understand an enemy – understand his strength.

Many times, the weaknesses are all too obvious. If, and now let me emphasise “if”, we understand the difference between an unskilled fighter from a skilled fighter, we will certainly have an advantage. But then again, to really understand what unskilled means, we need to understand skill.

The problem with Tai Chi people is that most people have no idea what fighting skill is. They have no idea about the strength of skilled people. Then why would they even think about fighting or believe that they could use their Tai Chi in a real fight?

I am not going to say that no Tai Chi practitioner can fight. Some, even if they are very unexperienced, could do it in a more common situation. Some Tai Chi practitioners are actually very good at spotting an unbalanced body and uncontrolled movements. But being an unskilled fighter meeting another unskilled fighter is still different from meeting someone who is skilled. In reality, it’s a very big difference.

Remember that Tai Chi in earlier days was something that bodyguards and security personnel studied. They knew very well what fighting was, and they often had a lot of experience, as they lived in a society where you always need to be prepared to defend yourself with any mean possible.

Today the situation is very different. Most people studying martial arts are unexperienced and live in safe environments. And that is why the Dunning-Kruger Effect is the worst disease in the whole Martial Arts community. If you want to be sure to really be able to use your Tai Chi, and to understand who you should not try to fight with, you really need to understand what real fighting skill is and about how good fighters act and how they think.

There are many ways to explore and discover what this means. You could try learning some things in different schools, or from good practitioners of typical fighting styles as boxing, Thai Boxing, Muay Thai, MMA and similar. And by all means, do some sparring, regular sparring. This doesn’t mean that you need to replace your Tai Chi with methods from any other style. But again, and to return to where I begun: you really need to understand the skills and strengths of different kinds of opponents. You really need to do this if you want even to have a chance to apply your pure Tai Chi methods against any practitioner of those fighting styles.

I would even go to the extent to say that if you are not willing to spar against, and to learn about, and to understand, good fighters and their methods, you should give up hope to use your Tai Chi against any trained fighter. Well, you could still try if you want. That’s another way to learn I guess. But at least, try to not live with the fantasy idea that just because you study Tai Chi you will eventually be able to magically defeat any kind of opponent you meet.

The same truth is valid in Life, in politics, and in war

Understanding the strengths to be able to find the weaknesses, the gaps and holes: this is not only something that Tai Chi people should consider. This is a truth in many areas, but also something disregarded by most. We are taught to head out with all our strengths against another person’s strengths. We are taught to empower, not to understand.

In personal life, I can understand that this is the mind-set of many. But I don’t understand why people tend to do this in more serious situations. It is often said that you need to keep your friends close, but your enemies closer. This is true. This is the way to understand an enemy. Keep him close. But few people seem to put this in practice.

“Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer” is true when you make business with people. You need to understand who you are dealing with. Sometimes it’s better to do a little bit of business with scoundrels than pushing them away. Then you will understand better how they work and how you can prepare yourself from not getting cheated in the future. Some of the best business lessons can be learned from the real scoundrels.

What baffles me the most is about the politics in this World. The countries of the West always rely on their imperial strength and don’t make any efforts to really understand other countries in other parts of the World. For instance, the media of the West is directly responsible for the negative view of Muslim countries and the Muslim World, something that creates deep conflicts between people and the population even in the West.

Anti-propaganda is something very dangerous for the own country that prepares to engage in conflict. Let’s turn to China, the birthplace of Tai Chi Chuan. The USA has no interest in learning about or to teach anyone about the real China. Instead, they spend billions of dollars just to spread disinformation and anti-China propaganda. The China that many people believe in is a highly negative caricature, a monstrous thing that has very little to do with reality and purposely shaped in the minds of the people by Western media.

If the USA really thought about China as their enemy, why not try to understand China for what it really is? Why spread so many disingenuous lies? Why not let the World know about all of the good things China does in its own country and the World? If you want to understand the real weaknesses of a country, the things that are bad, and the things that still have a long way before it can be improved, you must first understand and acknowledge the strengths.

Again: if you don’t see and acknowledge the strengths of an enemy, you have no chance to understand its weaknesses.

Soon all of the politicians and the leaders of the World will believe in a China that doesn’t exist. How they would even think about engaging in a real conflict with an enemy that is something completely different from what they believe? But they won’t even know that all of their knowledge is based on a caricature they created themselves.

Sorry for the political rambling. If you click “Continue reading” below, I have posted a few videos about how the Western Media portrays China. If you have any interest about how media works, or what they try to make you believe in, I suggest that you have a watch. And I would like to hear about your thoughts about all of this in the comments below.

I have tons of more things to say, but I will try to keep this blog away from politics. Anyone who is interested can find the real truth of different narratives. The problem right now is that the accepted and politically correct way to approach China is with prejudice and racism. Many people want to hate, few wants to understand.

Don’t worry, I will stay away from politics from now on. And very soon I will return with something much more practical about The Art of Tai Chi Chuan.

And if you don’t already read this is a single post page, don’t forget to click: “Continue readingto watch the videos.

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Tai Chi Chuan – The Snake and Crane Art of Kung Fu

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Even if you have only studied Tai Chi Chuan for less than a month, I still don’t think that it’s possible for you to have escaped hearing about the legendary creation myth where the filthy, mystical, Daoist priest Zhang Sanfeng invents the art of Tai Chi Chuan after witnessing a bird protecting its nest form a snake.

In the legend, “Dirty Zhang” watched the bird and the snake attacking and evading each other, so none hurt the other. And this was from where he got the “idea” to create Tai Chi Chuan. This is obviously just a story and a fairytale. In that myth, the bird was originally a small bird, but somehow, in Tai Chi Chuan, the picture of a crane has taken over its place. Together with the snake, they now both represent the Art of Tai Chi Chuan.

But still, even if it’s just a myth, the symbols of the snake and the crane have more meaning than just being sort of totems for the art. They represent the spirit iof the art, the vigour, the grace and the liveliness of the martial art, as well as the focus on evading and counter-attacking. But how to fully use the Crane and Snake practically in Tai Chi and adapt the essence of the animals in combat is something almost lost, or at least very seldom taught.

I have been lucky to have a couple of teachers speaking about these things and teaching it. I have also heard about others who teach things quite similar to what I myself have been taught. But I have never seen this written down in any book or on any Tai Chi webpage. So I have not looked at any other source before writing this post. Instead I have tried to verbalise myself what I was taught and tried to sum down the important points to be able to share them with you.

I believe that the very most of you will feel that these things represent something that is a bit different from what you have been taught, and some of it might seem strange. But I still hope that you will find these theories and my way of explaining the art of Tai Chi in this way, both useful and helpful. What is described here is foremost from a Yang Style Tai Chi perspective, but I believe that the methods could be adapted to most of the traditional tai chi styles and schools.

What is the Snake and the Crane in Tai Chi Chuan?

In Tai Chi, a few form movements are named after the Snake and Crane as “Crane shows its wing” and “snake creeps down.” Both the Crane’s Beak hand formation and Snake style palms can be seen in Tai Chi forms. This is the simplest version story, but it does not convey any of the real depth that is found in the snake-crane theory.

However, some teachers say that every movement in Tai Chi Chuan is represented by either the Snake or the Crane. In fighting, the Snake represents small, coiling movements – or small frame movements. And the Crane represents large, generous, sweeping, round movements – or Large frame movements.

The Snake and Crane together represent a Yin-Yang pair with two opposites that balance and complement each other. The snake is the Yin animal in Tai Chi. It is so fast that you cannot even see the start of its attack. And when you react, it’s already too late. The Tai Chi snake uses coiling movements to wrap its body around the opponent’s arms, and it attacks from every possible angle and from close range. The power is short, crisp and very hard to counter.

The Crane, on the other hand, is a proud, elegant bird and is the Yang animal in Tai Chi. It stands tall and it has a great power in its large wide wings. It is said that if cranes when they fly comes too close to houses, they can even strike through tiles on roofs and break apart bricks from chimneys. In Tai Chi, such methods as powerful striking and throws using large, bold movements, can resemble the use of the crane’s wings. However, the Crane has a second weapon as it can also use its beak to strike with.

Balancing snake and crane – By using them together

Two of my teachers taught that both small and large movements should be used together when you fight. Or in other words, you should use the Snake and Crane together when you fight, which is explicitly what one of them taught. In practical combat methods, this means that you can either defend with a snake or crane type of movement and then counter-attack with the other.

The snake and crane should work together seamless in action. When the movement from the snake and crane blend together, the opponent cannot tell where one stops and the other starts. Together, they form a whole. One starts and transforms into the other.

But there is also another aspect of the use: It is never you who decide what animal that should be used. You cannot compare the use of these animals in Tai Chi with a Hong Kong movie where a fighter test first one animal against his opponent and than another one if the first doesn’t work. And you can not approach any real Tai Chi fighting method with figuring out intellectually what technique or attack that should be used or what could work.

Instead, you need to respond spontaneously to the opponent. The snake or the crane, what will come out to respond will do so by itself not depending of what you “think”, but depending on what your opponent does. This also means that you will have to learn your snake and crane well before really knowing how they want to respond. But more about this later.

Snake and Crane in Tai Chi solo practice

For very good reasons, it is said that you should learn Large Frame first and Small frame later and I have explained my own view here. However, you don’t really have to learn both large and small movements methods very well before you approach the movements from a snake and crane perspective. In fact, playing with the animals can be a good way to attain a certain distance from the common style orthodoxy, and achieve more freedom to your own body method or Tai Chi shenfa.

My own Yang Tai Chi forms, how I perform them, are neither Large Frame nor Small frame. Instead, they are both at the same time. They have both large frame movements and small frame movements. And also, the repetitions of movements and sequences in the form, are performed in different ways when the same movements show up again later. Some of them are at first done in a large manner, in the spirit of the crane. But when they show up again as repetitions, they are done small and coiling with the essence of the snake.

In this way, when the long forms combine both large and small movements, they become a better representation of how to use and flow between tai chi movements in a real fight. The different Large and Small frame formats can and should be taught separately at first. But in my own humble opinion, and in my own experience, Large and Small frame movements should eventually be combined together in the same form. But again, this is only my own humble view, and your miles might vary.

Personalisation and creating attributes

One aspect that can make your own practice more fun and less abstract, is to personalise your animals. What type of snake is your favourite? What personality should your Crane have?

There are many types of snakes, smaller and larger. They also have different types of distinct “fighting strategies”. Some snakes bite their victims, some will hug their pray to death and yet others will swallow them alive. And there is the spitting cobra which spits its venom from distance. So the snake gives you the opportunity to try out larger and smaller coiling movements together with straight and angular attacks that penetrates the opponent’s guard. And then you use these different ways to use your snake to test out different fighting strategies that suites both your own and your snakes different personalities.

If you google up different types of cranes, you will find that there are several species of different sizes and appearances. You might also sense that there are some different kinds of personalities as well amongst different groups and species. If the snake is aggressive and direct, the crane might be arrogant and nonchalant. It could have a mental distance to the opponent or not really acknowledge that the opponent is there. But when it attacks, it attacks with very heavy, relaxed natural power that is very hard for the opponent to block.

So what kind of snake and crane do you favour? Think about it and try to find out. You are free to experiment how much you want with your animals while practicing and explore the possibilities. Go ahead and have fun.

You should try to invent two distinct characters and personalities. Give them as much traits and be as specific as you can. Hopefully, even their personalities can compliment each other and overall have clear, distinct yin-yang characteristics. And then, when you are clear about your animals and who they are, you can bring them to life into your form and drills practice. And try to bring it all into your free push hands play as well to see how it feels.

The real value of Snake and Crane practice

You might think that this is just a game, maybe a play that has no real value. For more traditional or standard type of long-time practitioners and teachers, this type of mind-set and practice might seem too far away from their common daily practice. But if it feels too far off, then you should understand that you are not forced to embrace the crane and snake in any way. Or if you experiment with these ideas, you might practice this way with your animals in mind for a while, for a shorter or longer period, and leave them later.

The real benefit or value with this type of loose ideas, and creative personalised practice, is that it will help you to approach the art from another angle than you are used to. Tai Chi Chuan is very much about experimenting and personalisation. Many teachers and writers of Tai Chi literature say that you need to make your art your own. But still, most students don’t know how to do this. They keep on repeating and doing the same movements as their teachers, often with little idea about that they could do things different and they don’t understand how.

But here, this type of Snake and Crane ideas will offer you a way to explore Tai Chi by your own, in your own way, and in a way that you teacher can not control or interfere with. How you do it, or how much you play with it is all up to you yourself. And what you do with this and how you develop it further, comes from your own personality.

Creating characters is fine, but develop your own integrity first

My teacher, who took the Snake and Crane play far and to a whole different level, said that when you have created your own Snake and Crane, you need to understand the integrity of these personalities and keep their integrities intact. When you experiment with them in your practice, you need to bring the integrity of each animal into the play.

After my teacher had spoken about these things in a lecture, I asked him: “Must you not have your own integrity first, or build your own integrity, before you create the integrity of your own animals?”

And he replied: “Of course. Otherwise you’ll end up with nothing. Your own integrity is the most important thing of all.”

The consequence of all of this, is that you need to not only understand yourself well, but it would also be wise to develop a “Tai Chi integrity” before experimenting with the Snake and Crane, or at least have your own identity and integrity in mind when you develop your animals and their personalities. It is better to have practiced for some time so that you at least understand some basic Tai Chi body methods, or shenfa, before you start personalising your animals. I don’t want you to risk ending up with confusion or with a split personality (well, I am joking now, but as I know people with mental health issues who has tried Tai Chi practice, I still think it, in a few occasions, could be a fair warning).

What this means is, that even if you play around with this creative method I have proposed here, then in the beginning of your Tai Chi journey, you would probably not understand very well what you are doing. The simple reason is that because you haven’t built up your foundation yet. It will take a while, probably many years of practice, until you could get the benefit from the snake and crane in your own practice.

Of course, you can start experimenting whenever you wish, but again, if you don’t have built a good foundation in your art, the snake and crane method would probably make little sense. But it could still be a fun type of practice to switch to when you feel too bored just repeating your form all of the time.

Maybe this is why this snake and crane method is so seldom taught. Most practitioners will stop developing their Tai Chi at a rudimentary level, maybe mostly just because their teachers themselves haven’t learned any more advanced method. But when you think about it, how many have heard about such a thing as “small frame”, regardless if it’s about Yang, Wu or Chen style? Most people believe that Tai Chi is just a form, together with maybe a couple of Weapons forms, and some basic push hands drills. A good teacher who are willing to teach a more complete, larger Tai Chi system, is always hard to find.

But when you understand Tai Chi well, both in its large and small frame methods, this method of dividing and organising movements into snake and crane movements will become much more logical, and also make more sense from a practical point if view. It will become a way for you to attach different movements together, and from the Snake and Crane practice, it will be easier for you to learn how to flow seamless between movements when you apply your Tai Chi to free push hands, applications practice, or to more combat oriented methods.

So we could say that the Snake and Crane, regardless if you want to use this method in combat or in practical fighting practice, the study as proposed here will offer you a way to connect the dots between theory and fixed patterns of practice, to a more creative, personal way of dealing with the Art of Tai Chi Chuan. Also, if you have a lot of experience from free push hands and fighting in different ranges, you should be able to understand this type of practice faster and the benefits thereof better.


Summary of Snake and Crane qualities

So let us break down the snake and crane into qualities, methods and techniques, and compare them. This is not an exact science and what will fit in where also depends on your own personal interpretation of the Snake and Crane. And this is a fascinating and fun part with this game. You need to make up the rules by yourself and see how different methods fit your own personalised animals.

Snake aspects

  • Closing in
  • Attacking from close distance
  • Duanjin (Short jin)
  • Cold jin
  • Small coiling
  • Small qinna
  • Close-range takedowns
  • Straight attacks
  • Attacking the nearest door
  • Attacking the front door
  • Straight footwork
  • Ji
  • Cai
  • Zhou

Crane aspects

  • Assuming distance
  • Attacking from medium/long distance
  • Changjin (Long jin)
  • Shocking jin
  • Large circles
  • Joint breaking
  • Throws
  • Circular attacks
  • Attacking a distant door
  • Attacking the side door
  • Side stepping
  • Peng
  • An
  • Lie
  • Kou

Bonus video: Snake vs Hen – A hen defends herself and her chickens from a snake’s attacks:

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When Cooperation Is Necessary

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Sometimes I just want to tell people: I am disturbed by your lack of cooperation! So, let’s speak a bit about why cooperative Tai Chi techniques and applications are important – and how to practice in a good cooperative manner.

Tai Chi Chuan as a martial art is not based on individual techniques and specific applications. Instead, it is based on principles that could be expressed in many different ways. The principles could be described by words like adapting, following, blending and mirroring. “Energies” or refined skills as Peng and Lu are not techniques. So how do you practice them? Is it reasonable to practice them as “techniques”?

This is one of the reasons why many Tai Chi people completely reject the kind of practice that incorporates one person launching a punch while the other person do an exact respons. There are many reasons to agree with people who believe that this type of practice is artificial and can lead to bad habits, as well as as a wrong perception of fighting in general.

However there are also specific methods of using things as angles and leverage to break or control the opponent’s balance and structure, that need a very high degree of precision to work. If you want to develop the ability to understand and handle a more subtle use of angles and leverage, it is absolutely necessary to practice in a very precise and exact manner with a partner. This kind of practice demands a high degree of cooperation.

Many types of practice demands a high degree of cooperation. For instance, if you want to understand how to make a throw or a joint lock, you need the opportunity to practice the exact angles which will give the beast leverage and the best effect. For a throw or for a take down, you need to know how to step in and how close, and in what angle to apply pressure or pull. In a real fight, how will you ever be able to apply any technique if you don’t understand them in a precise manner? For sure, in a real situation, you might apply something in a different manner, in another way. But to be able to do anything more specific, you need to the angles and positioning where to apply force.

But here’s the problem: Many people just don’t want to cooperative. They don’t want to help others to succeed. I believe that there are many people who will never reach any respectable level in Tai Chi Chuan merely by their lack of ability to cooperate. Over the years, I have practiced with so many people, or rather tried to practice with many different people, who just don’t know how to – or even more common – don’t want to cooperate.

I remember countless of times in different martial arts classes when the partner didn’t understand what to do, or how to do something, or just didn’t want to follow a teacher’s instruction. I remember many different times like once in a Bagua class when we practiced a technique about how to handle an incoming kick. The so called “partner” would pull back the leg before I had any chance to step in. I guess that practicing how to grab, hold on to, or how to pull back a leg while kicking, could be good things to practice. But here, the task was to get a sense of how to hold a kicking leg, and step in to apply pressure in a certain manner on the opponent’s body and guide him to the floor.

Oh, I really hate this type of person who just don’t want to cooperate. And frankly, Tai Chi people are the worst of all martial arts practitioners I have met and studied with. They can handle cooperative push hands drills to a certain extent, but many people have a problem with anything beyond that. One problem is that they mostly don’t have any other kind of martial arts background, so they don’t even know how to throw a general punch.

And a part of the other problem is that many just don’t want to play a neutral “dumb” attacker. Instead they will try to use Tai chi methods to counter-counter the application and technique. This is the most obstructive a practictioner can do, both against others and against themselves, because they will never step outside of what they want to do for the moment and in that moment also close themselves to learn more.

Yes, you can see overly cooperative videos everywhere. When a teacher wants to give the impression that something overly compliant is “real”, then we might have a problem with it. It’s something disingenuous and deceptive about much what you see out there. But still, your own mind-set when you practice with others must be a cooperative mind-set.

But here is the thing: In my own experience, it’s always the people who know how to cooperative and help each other who will learn fastest, and have the best development in their overall Tai Chi journey. And they are in fact often the people who a teacher will be willing to teach more advanced things to. If you don’t want to cooperate and learn things in the specific way your teacher wants to teach, how can you ever expect your teacher to open up and be generous about what he teaches?

I would like you to know that, in fact, it is very often the students themselves who are the cause of different teacher’s reluctant attitudes and unwillingness to teach any more advanced stuff. You really need a humble approach and show that you are wiling to listen and to do what your teacher says.

I remember interacting with one of my own teachers who I have no contact with these days, and sadly in opposite roles. He would ask me things when I had been to seminars and summer camps, about what we did and asked me to show him. But soon I stopped trying to show him anything, just because of his own attitude. He always had a very dismissal attitude. More than to understand, he wanted to show how something didn’t work. He often complained that people could never show things they practiced in seminars. People were indeed reluctant to show him things. But I soon learned that it had to do with his own attitude and not with theirs.

And there are other reasons. Some people keep on to small things they have learned very hard, and treat what they know as treasures. They don’t like to show or tell others about what they have. They are afraid to test what they have learned on others, because the other person might learn something.

Their own selfish, greedy attitude is what makes them stop developing. I can see the same tendency in every aspect of interaction in the human society. Greediness, stinginess, pettiness, not being able to generous and not being able to give will always halt your progress regardless what you want to achieve in life. Regardless it’s about business, building relationships or Tai Chi, this kind of attitude will never lead to anything good.

So in Tai Chi, as well as in life in general, it is extremely important to attain a generous attitude, share and give what you have. A good way to show a good attitude and that you are willing to share is by cooperating, by cooperating with your classmates and with your teachers. And as a teacher, you need to have the same attitude to your students. Cooperate by giving good replies to their questions, showing them what they ask about and make sure that they, by your own actions, feel just as much respect from you as you want them to show you.

Throw Away the Qi

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What happens to your Tai Chi Chuan if your main interest has to do with exploring Qi and learn how to make use of it? Will it enhance your Tai Chi? Maybe your whole study of this art just an excuse to learn about this mystical intrinsic energy?

First, before dwelling into the realm of “qi”, I can tell you that I got the idea for this post as I was pondering about what kind of Martial Art Tai Chi actually is, and how I disagree with most, or rather all, definitions. Some people used it mostly as a striking art while others claim that Tai Chi is basically standing grappling, or that Tai Chi is 80% grappling.

People who practice Tai Chi use and focus very different things, so all of those statements might have their own validity. And yet I believe that they all miss the mark. Tai Chi is not about techniques or about any type of fixed ideas of how you should approach fighting in terms of punches, kicks, throws etc.

Those methods are all important, but still, Tai Chi in its core is about something else. As a fighting art, Tai Chi is about sensitivity, angles, distance, leverage, and about how to use your own body as efficiently as possible. It’s about how you relate your own body to the opponent’s body and how you use your own balance and structure to dominate your opponent’s balance and structure.

To sum it up, the art of Tai Chi Chuan is about relationships. Tai Chi is about how you relate to yourself and how you relate to and reflect yourself in others. And all of the methods in tai chi have to do with specific, detailed principles of relating and adapting.

In a practical sense, the basic ideas in Tai Chi Chuan as a Martial art are rather simple. Regardless of what you call them, they are all about basic mechanics and science. But they are also about developing self-knowledge, body awareness and sensitivity. When you base your “external knowledge”, as simple mechanics and basic science, on “internal knowledge”, as understanding yourself better, and how your own body and balance works in motion, you will be able to work with principles as timing, leverage and angles, in a more exact, precise and subtle manner.

It is said that the key to develop skill in any kind of art, or in Arts in general, lies in how well you understand and handle details. To develop skills in Tai Chi Chuan as well, you need to practice in a very detailed manner. When you practice Tai Chi, you need to work with balance, alignment, angles, distances, in an exact and precise manner. Understanding “detail”, and work with details, is what separate the amateur from the master in any kind of art.

Just look at painters and musicians who play or paint spontaneously and effortlessly. How much skill have they developed by training slowly, step by step and by always caring for every little detail? It is the same in Tai Chi and in all martial arts. If you want to reach a point where you can use your Tai Chi Chuan unrehearsed, with spontaneity and liveliness, you need to have a meticulously detailed approach in your practice.

So let’s head back to the issue about the Holy Qi: There’s nothing wrong with terms as “Qi”, “yi”, “jin” in general, and I use them sporadically when questions about them arise, and I try to explain what they mean in a most practical sense. But the problem when you focus on, or think too much about them, is that you will focus your whole practice on the wrong things.

Standing comfortable and “feel harmony” will not lead you one little step further towards developing skill or towards mastery. “Trying to feel qi” doesn’t help you to feel and understand your physical balance or how to balance your centreline.

You need to understand that all those terms, as “qi”, “jin” and “yi”, represent an old, culture specific way of describing the world, a way that is very different from how modern Western languages are used. They also belong to different old philosophical systems that you would need to dig really deep into, and study in detail, in order to understand them, how they are used and what they really mean.

You can trust me on this. I myself started to read Chinese philosophy and about Chinese history and culture in an early age. I have read more original texts about Daoist practice, Neidan and Chinese medicine than most people who speak about these terms. I speak Chinese and I have also went through academical studies in old, classical Chinese, which is in some respects very different from modern Chinese.

I understand the historical contexts of the terms mentioned, and I understand how they are used today in the modern Chinese language. But I can honestly say that intellectual understanding of these terms on a deeper level has not helped me in any way to improve or change my practical practice. However, it has helped me to have distance to them, and this has kept me from getting confused. No, I don’t like to make use of these and similar terms and find them unnecessary in our modern, Western world. We need to use our own language to analyse and understand what we do.

However, even if I say that I don’t particularly like to use these terms, or other similar terms, in my own study and teaching, this still doesn’t mean that I would want to, in any way diminish, minimise, or trivialise, any type of personal experience you might have had in your own practice. When we practice relaxed and calm while breathing deeply, and go deep into ourselves, we will certainly experience things that we usually don’t experience on an everyday basis.

We can become very warm, and in a longer term build up a skill, to easily and rapidly heat up our palms. And in our practice, we can feel things inside of our body that are new to us and can be hard to explain. But all those things don’t necessarily need an explanation that incorporate “qi” or any special kind of developed energy.

You can use “qi circulation” to describe a certain sensation you have had, and that is all fine if you use it for this sensation only, and don’t make up fantasies that it would be more special than it is. It is a sensation, and it’s your own sensation only. Let it stay that way, as a personal experience. You can call it whatever you want and you don’t need to speak to anyone else about it.

Regardless what you feel and experience, it’s still your own body. It’s still the same body as it was before. We might experience things because we are more aware about what is happening inside of ourselves. And when we practice Tai Chi Chuan, we obviously use it in a different way than we usually do in our everyday life. This is enough as an explanation. In an old Chinese way, if something work as good as possible, one could say that it has “Qi”. But that doesn’t mean that something new has been added into the equation. And it doesn’t mean that we need to address it using a terminology that was used centuries ago.

There might also be results when we practice and interact with other people, that doesn’t really look like things usually look like in most, or at least many, other martial arts. But these things mostly have to do with a subtle use of those things I mentioned earlier, as an exact, precise use of balance and alignment, or to do with how to unbalance and set a physical body in motion. We really don’t need to think about “Qi” when we study how to unbalance and make use of a body’s balance. And we don’t need to use “Qi” to interpret things we see others do just because we don’t understand the mechanics behind them.

You really need to free yourself from all those things that you feel are “blurry”, words that you don’t understand, or even make you worry. If you focus on the wrong things, you will only halt and prolong your own progress. It’s better to use common, everyday words and terms, to describe and explain the things you experience in both solo- and partner practice. Instead of trying to “sense Qi”, focus on what you physically do, things as how you balance yourself while you physically interact with your training partner and the physical things that makes different methods work.

Do it in a detailed manner. Mind your posture, your balance, how you place your feet, how you open the kua, how you balance your head, and how you initiate your movements from the center of your body. When you stand or move, always stay centered, balanced and don’t forget to breath. And when you practice with others, mind all of the same things, but also, always mind the angle and distance to your partner, and control the amount of pressure you let your partner put on you.

All those, as well as many others things, that you can focus on in your practice, are all precise and exact, physical and hands-on. And also – it’s all about basics. Your progress in more advanced methods you could learn, they also rest on how well you have understood and can keep to the basics. And this also belongs to the same physical world everything else belong to.

Every good Tai Chi practitioner have gone through the same progress of learning the basics, understanding the basics, and integrating the basics, to the way they always move and apply their movements and methods. Regardless of how they verbalise their own art, we could still analyse everything they do to things that are basic and hands-on.

We don’t need to understand “Qi” or “think” about Qi to reach the same level as any of them. We don’t need to ever have heard about “Qi” to practice Tai Chi Chuan correctly and progress within this art. I would even suggest that if you can really throw away all of those words, you could become even better and progress more rapidly than anyone you ever see demonstrate Tai Chi in real life or on YouTube, who also uses the word “Qi”. Why? Because, unlike them, you would be able to stay completely “real” and would not be confused about what is important to progress in Tai Chi.