Monthly Archives: February 2014

Experiencing Real Kung Fu: Chen Village

Before I started working at Taiji Zen, I was at my office in Beijing and received a phone call from my Sifu: “Eric, are you free tomorrow?”

“Well, I guess,” I answered.  Being an actor in China, I’ve found that my schedule is only knowable in hindsight.  “What’s up?”

“We’re going to Chen Village to film a documentary about Taijiquan; I need you to be one of the hosts.”  And just like that, with no experience whatsoever, my career in Chinese journalism began.  I was going to be the co-host of the CCTV 4 serial documentary Experiencing Real Kung Fu.

Chen Village is one of the Meccas of Taijiquan, and many people claim it’s where the style originated.  We arrived there the next morning, and the crew dropped me off at the hotel, instructing me to rest.  As I’m quite competent at resting, I promptly shifted into nap mode.  Not long after, I got a call from the director.

“Eric.  There’s a car outside to pick you up.  We need you here immediately.”

Having no idea what they needed me for, I headed downstairs and got driven to the Taijiquan school of Grandmaster Wang Xi’an (who is the father of Wang Zhanhai, one of Taiji Zen’s master instructors).  When I arrived, everyone was standing in a circle around one of Grandmaster Wang’s top students, Zhang Baozhong.

“Eric,” said my Sifu*, “Fight Mr. Zhang.”

Facing off against Zhang Baozhong.  I'm about to enter a world of pain.

Facing off against Zhang Baozhong. I’m about to enter a world of pain.

Up until this point, I had never seen fighting applications of Taijiquan.  I’d practiced in the parks in Beijing with some grammas and grampas, but that was the extent of my experience.  My world was about to get flipped upside down.

More specifically, I was about to get flipped upside down.  Repeatedly.  Although I’ve got some martial arts experience, I was no match for Zhang Baozhong.  The only difficulty Mr. Zhang faced was not injuring me.

While we were trying to figure out what would look best on screen, Grandmaster Wang would occasionally offer some guidance.  “Try to punch me like you just tried to punch Baozhong,” he said.

With a great deal of reluctance, I threw a right cross at the Grandmaster.  The technique he used was simple, but the way he executed was like nothing I’d ever experienced.  It felt like punching a cloud.  Except somehow, that cloud body slammed me.  There was also an elbow stopped about two millimeters in front of my nose.

We spent the next few days exploring Chen Village and learning about Taijiquan.  As a prerequisite, they bought me an all-white Taiji suit, which was a big hit in the gramma and grampa crowd.

While there was no shortage of elderly practitioners in the Chen Village, I was surprised to witness a side of Taiji I’d never seen before.  A side that could really be used for fighting.  At Wang Xi’an’s school, some of the training looked more like Cross Fit than the slow graceful combinations I was used to.

Kids of all ages were circuit training, alternating between sprints, weight lifting, and many strange exercises I’d never seen.  “Are they practicing Taiji Quan?” I asked Grandmaster Wang.  “Of course,” he said, “These are all my students.”

Over the next couple days, I got slapped around by a few more of Grandmaster Wang’s students, and came to understand that Taijiquan might seem very relaxing and gentle, but hidden within those graceful moves are some lethal techniques.

Have any of our readers heard any stories about Chen village?  Or gotten beat up by 70 year olds?  Share your experience in the comments section below!

Editor’s note: “Sifu” is Cantonese for master.  Due to the popularity of Kung Fu movies in the West (which originated mostly in the Cantonese speaking Hong Kong), the Cantonese version is more commonly known than the Mandarin (Shīfu 师傅)

Effective Tai Chi Partner Practice

I recently wrote about the importance of visualization in solo Tai Chi practice.  Visualization is a powerful tool, but I believe it’s even more important to practice with a partner.

But how can we find partners?  And how should we practice with them?  I’m writing this post to share some of my insights on training with other people; I hope you find it helpful!

partner

The ideal situation is to find someone who shares the same love of the art and determination to constantly improve his or her understanding.  Having a partner will not only help you understand movements more deeply by applying them on a real person, but it will also help build up your accountability and help you persevere when you’re feeling too lazy to practice (accountability is a huge factor in building sustainable rituals!).

Having another person to practice with can also help foster a competitive spirit, which makes practice feel more like a game rather than mindless repetition.  Competition can be a great motivator; however, it can also become a hindrance if we forget why we’re competing.  The purpose of competition is not to win; the purpose of competition is to make development more enjoyable.  If all you want is to win, then whenever you lose you’ll wound up feeling upset or discouraged.  If all you want is to get better, whether you win or lose makes no difference.  In fact, you’ll probably learn more from losing, so maybe you’ll learn to enjoy it more than winning!

However, we can’t always find a consistent Tai Chi training partner.  Don’t let this discourage you!  I remember in elementary school there was a banner on the wall that said “you retain 10% of what you hear, 20% of what you read, 50% of what you do, and 90% of what you teach.” So if you can’t find a partner, just teach any friend or family member enough to practice a specific concept you’re working on; not only does this solve the problem of having a partner, but the act of teaching itself is likely to help you remember a movement much more succinctly.

I remember when I first had the feeling of not being the biggest newbie at my kung fu school.  At first it was great, but when I had to practice with people who weren’t as familiar with the art as myself, I would get frustrated.  It felt like a waste of my time to go over moves I thought I’d mastered, let alone with people who didn’t know what they were doing.  Eventually I realized the inherent negativity in this way of thinking and started thinking about how I could make practicing with beginners more useful.

I realized that every movement has an infinite amount of depth.  Bruce Lee famously said, ”I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times.”  You can practice the basics ad infinitum and still learn new things; the only limitation to learning new things from old moves is a failure to look more closely.

Also, when my practice partners would do an exercise ‘wrong,’ that used to always annoy me.  Until I realized that nobody will ever do a technique the ‘right’ way in a real fight.  Now, if my partner does an exercise improperly, this is an opportunity to practice my ability to react on the spot.  If I get hit because my partner did something they weren’t ‘supposed’ to do, it’s my fault; I should have reacted quicker.  Even if you’ve completely mastered a technique’s application, it won’t be very useful if you can’t react quick enough.

For those readers who have found a partner already, how did you find him or her?  And how do you make sure you’re practicing effectively?  Share your answers in the comments section and lend a helping hand to those still in need of a partner!

Visualization

I used to think visualization was a bunch of mumbo jumbo.  It seemed too weird and ‘out there’ for me to really pay much attention to, so initially I ignored the concept in my martial arts practice.

Later, when I came across the imagery and visualization so prevalent in Taijiquan, I felt torn.  Was I going to have to abandon logic in order to embrace Taiji’s study methodology?  After all, how could a formless mental construct affect me physically?

TJFit - peace

But then I read the book The Art of Learning (written by Chess Master / Tai Chi push-hands world champion Josh Waitzkin).  In it, Waitzkin talks about how he handled having his right hand in a cast for seven weeks leading up to the US National Push-Hands competition:

“I had an idea that I might be able to keep my right side strong by intense visualization practice. My method was as follows: I did a daily resistance workout routine on my left side, and after every set I visualized the workout passing to the muscles on the right. My arm was in a cast, so there was no actual motion possible— but I could feel the energy flowing into the unused muscles. I admit it was a shot in the dark, but it worked.” (Josh Waitzkin, Art of Learning*)

Although his language still seemed a little iffy (eg ‘feel the energy flowing into the unused muscles,’) there was nothing iffy about the results – he won the tournament.

Anecdotal evidence is nice, but I also wanted to see what the scientists had to say.  I found several different meta-analyses that all agreed that mental practice such as visualization has a positive effect on performance (Source 1, 2, 3).

So now I’m a proselyte to the power of visualization and try to leverage it in my training.  Whether it’s practicing moves in my head or imagining invisible enemies when applying my moves, it’s proven pretty effective for me.  What are your thoughts and experience with using visualization and imagery in training?  Tell us about it below!

*Waitzkin, Josh (2007-05-08). The Art of Learning: A Journey in the Pursuit of Excellence (p. 131). Free Press. Kindle Edition.