Trying not to be lazy

Sometimes it’s all too easy to get bogged down in the mundanity of life. It’s far too easy to get carried away in a routine or have things get in the way of practice. I should know. My two little timestealers conspire against me every minute of the day to stop me doing anything useful. That’s one of the reasons I’ve completely failed to post anything recently. The youngest has only just started sleeping through the night. Between being two little timestealers and the amount of time it takes to get to and from work I have precious few minutes in a day where I can actually do something. I actually envy people that get a decent nights sleep and have time to practice too. I can choose one or the other but not both. For the past week or so I’ve been starting to get back into the nei gung and that means a 5am start. 5am is not a good time for anybody to be awake…

Despite being half-awake most of the time one thing I have managed to find the time for is fitbit. Fitbit is quite interesting really. It’s aimed primarily at gym bunnies and health people and if you’re not doing a “standard” exercise ( running for instance ) then the results might be questionable. I’m actually quite fascinated by the data it shows though. Gung is really interesting:

fitbit - gung

I’ve hacked the fitbit graphs together to create an overlay but here the spiky red line is showing my heart rate, the smooth orange line is showing the calorie burn and the stepping yellow line shows the different heart rate zones. I love the fact that there is a correlation between heart rate and calorie burn ( of course there is ) and that certain exercises drive up the heart rate. Not all exercises that increase heart rate increase the calorie burn rather either.

It’s the fact that there’s an initial heart rate spike for unity / holding the golden plate then another spike around flick the whip but a major spike around swallow entering the nest and leading the goat smoothly and a final spike around elephant shakes it’s head and it’s the last two that increase the calorie burn rate. I’ve never really noticed my heart rate increase with these particular exercises ( probably because I’m doing stuff ) but the times I thought I was exerting myself I wasn’t doing anything above or beyond normal gung work. I’m curious to know whether these graphs will level out over time as I get back into the routine but I’ll have to wait and see to find out for sure.

On the weekend I managed to get down to Horsham and have a play with long form while wearing the fitbit. This time the graph looked like this:

fitbit - long form

Now, the interesting thing here is that there is an entirely different work profile. The heart rate and calorie burn rate increased slowly throughout the duration of the form. I’m wondering how much of this is down to a lack of practice ( the little one actively screams at me if I try to practice in the garden at the moment and she runs in front of me and tries to push me over ) or whether this is what form does. Again, a lot more investigation is needed here but I’m finding these initial results fascinating.

I had a go at sword while wearing the fitbit too but that didn’t record for some reason which means I need to find a good space and have another and so we’re back to the timestealers getting in the way again. This might be a long-term project, not unlike tai chi itself.




Ageing Like a Good Whiskey?

Think and enquire where does the final purpose lie? It lies in seeking longevity and keeping a youthful appearance.

                                                                                                                                                Song of the Thirteen Tactics


Up to 30% of our muscle fibres may disappear between the ages of 30 and 80. Once lost, these cells cannot be replaced. With the loss of muscle fibres comes a diminution of strength… these changes are not inevitable or irreversible; muscle performance can be improved through exercise at any age and this can compensate for loss of muscle fibres that has already been sustained.

                                                                                                Open University SK277 Human Biology Book 2


The second quote caught my attention while I was studying recently and reminded me of the statement from the Song of the Thirteen Tactics. The emphasis on the need for regular (ideally daily) exercise shocked me a little. I guess we’re all familiar with the effects of aging, but the statement that muscle fibres, once lost, can never be replaced was new knowledge to me. Never? What? Never-ever?

It may be because I’m turning forty soon, but I don’t like that fact. We should age like whiskey or wine, gaining depth, complexity and flavours. Not like eggs. That annoys me (probably because I’m getting grumpier as I get older) but things aren’t completely bleak. There is some comfort in the fact that we can increase the strength of remaining muscle fibres and that exercise, any kind of regular exercise, helps. As the classic claims, longevity is the final purpose of Tai Chi* and with regular exercise, we won’t even lose these muscle fibres! Good.

Talking to friends who have practiced Tai Chi for a number of years and are more – how to say this? – well, ahem, experienced, they feel stronger, fitter and healthier than their non-Tai Chi practicing friends. They are also able to continue training the softer aspects of the art and enjoying the benefits of exercise when the knees, joints and bodies of their otherwise engaged peers are, to be blunt, worn out. Tennis elbow or joggers knee are relatively common expressions suggesting how common these ailments are for those who practice these sports, but while I’ve heard of Tai Chi balls, they’re nothing to do with a health complaint.

So while I may be busier than the proverbial bee, I have new impetus to find time for practice. It is very encouraging to think that we can retain health through appropriate exercise.


* To be honest, I take the quote with a pinch of salt. This is the classic I am least comfortable with. My teacher, Dan, describes it as the ‘least substantial’ of the classics and I tend to agree. However, while I might find greater elucidation of concepts in other classics, longevity is certainly one of the central aims of Tai Chi and fits into a whole tradition of Taoist exercises and practices. I think that the ‘final purpose’ is open to interpretation by individuals (and personally I like that about Tai Chi). Taoism may be the study of the ‘way’, but whoever said there is only one way?

Making Friends

I recently had the pleasure of visiting Neil Bradley of The Tai Chi Club up in Ripley and he’s a really great guy. I met Neil through one of the many discussion groups available on the interweb and he has a good sense of humour about him and a great way of looking at things. Neil is the sort of chap you’d be perfectly happy going down the pub with for a few hours just to chew the fat. He has a very nice school and I can honestly say that anybody in the Ripley area who’s interested in Tai Chi really should pay a visit to Neil.

The class is a really lovely class and Neil’s teaching is top notch. Neil teaches the Yang long form and he does so with nice and clear instructions. The moves are explained in detail and demonstrated with aplomb. I think that his style of teaching is one of the reasons he has such a good class. It really did remind me of my first class in the Yang style.

Back when I started I was learning the British 24 step form because, for some reason, the Chinese governing body thought the regular Beijing 24 step form was a bit too complicated for us Westerners. No matter, it was a nice little form that I can still hack my way through today. From the British 24 step form I moved onto the Beijing 24 step form and the 42 step competition form before finally moving away from the area. I really liked the 42 step competition form but there was something about the British 24 step form that just stuck with me. I just loved the form and I loved the learning process. In the evenings I’d practise with the light from the street lights providing my lighting and I would listen to Jackie Brambles presenting the BBC R1 Drive Time programme. Magical.

Neil’s class evoked a similar sense of wonder for me. Maybe it was the style, maybe it was the simplicity ( and by that I mean clean and uncluttered rather than lacking content ), maybe it was the fact it was back up North and I miss proper Northern accents or maybe it was simply the fact that, for a couple of hours, I was a complete and utter beginner again. I’m not entirely sure but for a few hours I was completely lost in an unfamiliar style and utterly in love with Tai Chi.

The people in Neil’s class are genuinely nice people and they’re all dedicated to learning the art to the best of their ability. It certainly helps that they have a fantastic teacher but you really couldn’t ask for a nicer bunch of people to be practising alongside.

The interweb is an amazing thing. It has the power to bring people together from all over the world in a common bond. Like minded individuals can congregate and discuss things that matter to them. Within a Tai Chi community debate could be had over meaning and nuance. It should be possible to talk about theory and practical application in a sensible manner. It should be possible to talk about the finer points of form. Whether form leads application or application leads form and under what conditions we should look at the differences. It should be possible to have discourse with people in a wholesome way that enhances and enriches the group.

That ideal never happens though. Discussions usually descend into a version of “I’m right and you’re wrong”. People mistake concepts as gospel and argue and bicker endlessly about why their way is the right way. Pack mentality leads and it often becomes a case of simply fitting in rather than raising issues or standing firm. Sometimes keyboard warriors start fights and it can be difficult to stand up against a tirade of abuse. Sometimes you can be the lone voice of reason in the wilderness. Sometimes groups simply aren’t worth the effort and it’s better to disappear back into the void. It’s a bit of a shame really because there are some genuinely nice people out there.

It is possible to meet some really nice people through the interweb and I really did enjoy meeting up with Neil. Good teacher, great class, good skills and a really top man to boot. I would definitely spend more time with him if I had it to spare and I would love to go back and visit him again. Neil is surprisingly tall too.

Giving Up

I’ve been learning to walk and it’s hard. Really hard. In fact it’s probably one of the hardest things I’ve done in an awfully long time. The reason I’ve been relearning to walk is that I changed my shoes. Instead of having the usual grown-up shoes or trainers the same as everybody else I’ve moved into barefoot shoes and it’s been a real learning experience.

I’ve had foot pain for rather too long now and the doctor suggested I was suffering from plantar fasciitis to which the solution was a series of foot-stretching exercises and supports in my shoes. The stretching didn’t really make sense to me and the idea of living with supports just didn’t sit right either. Supports shouldn’t be a permanent solution but there wasn’t any prospect of them ever going away. Stretches and supports weren’t going to be a long term solution, not for me.

My feet always felt fine when I was doing form but for general walking I was a bit of a mess. It was really strange and made no sense. I didn’t understand why my feet were fine with form but not with anything else. I just couldn’t figure it out.

Poking around on the internet I stumbled across an excellent site called Why Things Hurt ( ), specifically this page: Looking through the site it appeared that when I was doing form I was being very careful and gentle with my foot placement whereas when I was generally walking I was banging down with my heel rather more than I should be, at least that was my interpretation of what was going on. In my defence it’s not entirely my fault it’s a product of walking with shoes that have heels on and taking longer strides than I really should. The more I read the more sense the site made and it appeared that everything I thought I knew about walking was wrong.

Investigating my little foot problem sent me down the barefoot shoe route and it’s been an experience. It took about two months to get close to something approaching normal walking. During this period each step felt like my whole skeleton was readjusting itself and I was constantly hurting my feet ( due to my stride length being too long ) and I still haven’t figured out running yet. I think I need to get a proper handle on walking first. Never has the phrase “walk before you run” been truer.

I could have given up and reverted back up my “sensible” shoes and insteps. I didn’t. In fact I’ve only worn my sensible shoes once during the whole transition period and it was a truly horrible experience. Having committed to the barefoot lifestyle there’s no going back now. It’s a bit like Tai Chi. Tai Chi isn’t exactly easy and far too many people come along without appreciating the commitment involved in learning a new skill.

Back when I began the whole Tai Chi thing I couldn’t wait to get started, I just woke up one morning and knew it was something I wanted to do. I have no idea how I had come to that conclusion but I had and despite some difficulty finding my initial class I never looked back. I think I’d caught a segment on Pebble Mill at One or something and the idea must have germinated for a few months before budding into life in a moment of awakening but I’m really not sure.

I took to the class enthusiastically and thoroughly enjoyed the learning process. At home I used to practice in the lounge with the light off, the blinds open and the streetlights providing the illumination. I loved it. I would have done this every day if I could. I only started to get frustrated because I saw other members of the club doing beautiful sword forms while our group was being constantly corrected for weeks on end on the minutia of hand placement. We’d be corrected one way one week and back again the following, it all seemed a bit pointless – three millimetres does not a difference make.

When I transitioned to the Wudang style my head exploded. There was so much more to the form than I had ever known, it was so much more complicated than the Yang forms I had learnt and there was pushing hands too. The pushing hands drills confused me no-end and I distinctly remembering at the time just how difficult everything was and I was never going to forget how hard it all was. I still loved Tai Chi and that passion to learn kept me going. Thing is, over time I did forget how hard the learning process was. I really can’t remember how hard it was to learn the form or the pushing hands drills because they’re pretty much second nature to me now. I remember that I wasn’t going to forget how hard things were but I have forgotten how hard things were, I just remember knowing I wasn’t going to forget, so something stuck.

There’s a definite learning curve to Tai Chi. It never stops. Ever. Whatever level you’re at there’s always something else to learn. Depths to moves that you hadn’t previously recognised. Stepping that might be wrong, balance changes, locks, breaks, whatever you think of, it can probably be changed and improved or questioned. Tai Chi is very different from anything else you’re ever likely to do. It’s slow pace is unlike anything else out there but it’s also bright and active with the pushing hands routines and the applications bringing the form to life. There’s an awful lot to the art and it’s an ongoing learning experience.

Now, the reason I mention this learning curve is that I really don’t know what people expect when they come to a class but they don’t seem to expect things to be difficult. For some reason they think that because little old ladies do Tai Chi in the park it must be easy. As soon as they realise how much their legs hurt from simply standing for a while, or how confusing it is trying to move an arm and a leg at the same time, or they start to realise the depth of commitment this Tai Chi stuff takes, they pretty much make their excuses and leave. Tai Chi isn’t just something that needs to be done for an hour a week in class, it needs to be taken home and practiced. Re-learning to walk was incredibly hard and I was doing that constantly for months and Tai Chi is the same, like any life skill it takes commitment and dedication to get anything out of it.


I think it was Iain Dowie who first used the word: bouncebackability. And a new word was created – what is referred to as a neologism. With the support of ‘Soccer AM’, it even entered the dictionary I believe. Bouncebackability: (especially in sport) the ability to recover from a setback.

So how is this relevant to Tai Chi? Well, I could quote the classics – The jin is broken, but the yi is unbroken – from ‘The Fighter’s Song’. Therefore we could consider this from the perspective of ‘intent’, but I’m going to leave that till another time. For now, I’ll make it more personal.

A few weeks or so ago I was on a trampoline. Silly perhaps and, don’t get me wrong, I’m not good at it – yet. I’m not a veteran or anything; in fact, I’ve not been learning that long – it’s a bit of fun, possibly part of a mid-life crisis, but good fun nevertheless. Except a couple of weeks ago it wasn’t much fun. I was on the trampoline with another person. In case you don’t know, it’s never wise to have two people on a trampoline, and so it turned out. Without going into details, I ended up bouncing on my head. My weight came down – the other person’s weight came up with the bounce of the trampoline bed and… Crack! Bent my neck right over. Ouch!

For the briefest fraction of a second, I wondered if I’d still be able to move my legs – I could, but something was definitely not right. Immediately my neck was stiffening; muscles tensing all across the shoulders and spasming down the back.

I moved very carefully the rest of that week, like someone doing a bad robot impression and any kind of neck movement hurt. It’s the closest I’ve come to whiplash – I’m sure many personal injury lawyers encourage people with far less damage from car accidents to apply for whiplash compensation. I decided the best way to deal with this was exercise (Tai Chi exercises to be specific), maintaining movement, relaxing muscles and correcting posture. So this is what I did: exercise. After one week, I still had restricted movement; after two, I was almost back to normal; and after three, there was only the occasional twinge.

I believe this injury might have dragged on and on, and I apportion my swift recovery to Tai Chi. Now, if you look, there are many claims, by many schools of Tai Chi about physical, mental and spiritual benefits, many justified, some a little far-fetched and some absolute… er… balderdash – but until you experience these benefits for yourself, they are difficult to appreciate. Medical studies prove the benefits of Tai Chi through numbers and statistics, but personal experiences are less quantifiable. I noticed my brother’s experience following a car crash in an earlier blog and, similarly, my recovery was relatively swift and now seems complete. Is that bouncebackability? I think so.

Completely Mental?

There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so. One of my favourite quotes from the bard (from Hamlet) and there has never been a truer word spoken. If you think something it is good, then to you it is. Likewise, if you think something is bad then so it is. It’s all in the mind, as the idiom goes and the mind is a powerful thing, holding sway over our bodies, our perceptions of reality, our emotions, our desires, our successes and failures.

I’m reading a book, ‘Living Dangerously,’ at the moment, in which the author relates meeting six N.C.O.s in the Malayan jungle during World War 2 who had been cut off. To quote, “A month later they were all dead. Yet there was nothing wrong with them. They were just not able to believe that they could live in the jungle, on rice and tapioca like the Chinese, among a thousand known and imagined horrors. And so they died.”

The right mental approach will bring success; the wrong – failure, on possibly a massive scale. So how does this relate to Tai Chi Chuan? What is the correct mental approach for students of the art? I have been referring to the classics for elucidation and was rather taken with a section from the ‘Interpretation of the Practice of the Thirteen Tactics.’

The body and the Yi (intent) are entirely

concentrated of the Jingshen (vigour),

Not on the Qi,

If on the Qi,

Then there is stagnation.

Now, this stumped me for a while and left me metaphorically scratching my head. There’s the issue of translation – Dan’s book* (from which the translation is taken) is excellent in giving non-Chinese speakers an insight into the characters, but the translation of meaning and the cultural context is still alien to me and, therefore, I have limited confidence in proposing an interpretation. (But then again, aren’t all texts open to interpretation? Consider the number of supposedly learned, religious men who espouse completely alternative readings of the same holy book.)

So, what I took from these lines was that a certain mental attitude or focus was being suggested; it seemed to be saying that the body and intent must concentrate on the vigour – I considered the translation of ‘vigour’ to be something like ‘aggression’ but not going so far – rather than the Qi.

Ok, that’s all very well, we should concentrate on ‘vigour’ not ‘qi’ but what does Qi mean here? I don’t much like the term Qi. It’s a damned vague term in martial arts that seems to mean almost anything. In this instance, I consider that Qi is referring to ‘energy’ being transferred between the self and opponent (whether in pushing hands or applications) and is part of what is ‘listened’ for (in Tai Chi terms) by making and maintaining contact with the opponent.

If that is right, (if!) then we should not focus upon the Qi; our minds, our intent should be on ‘vigour.’ Later lines, the final lines of this classic, explain:

The Qi is like the wheel of a chariot;

The waist is the axle.

My explanation of the explanation: If we focus on the wheel, we’re a bit like a cat watching a washing machine on spin cycle – no intent, going nowhere and getting dizzy doing it. Instead, we should be driving the chariot where we want to go –over our opponent, to victory.


*Tai Chi Chuan: Decoding the Classics for the Modern Martial Artist by Dan Docherty (available at


Apparently, when Alex Ferguson managed Manchester United the word he used most often during half time talks was focus – so I was once told anyway. I don’t know if it’s entirely true, but it sounds likely. For any competitor, whether in football, weight lifting, athletics, chess or martial arts that mental strength, that ability to focus is vital.
As is a strong body. And how do we achieve a strong mind and strong body? Training. Hard hours of training. Or minutes, depending on your lifestyle and level.
Now, my own lifestyle is not always conducive to training as hard as I would like. Having three children and various duties that I have to complete means that I’m constantly short of time so I have to pick and choose the training methods that I think will yield the best results. This is what led me one afternoon to consider how long it had been since conditioning my fists. I remembered that I used to do handstands on my knuckles as a way of strengthening the bones and wondered if I still could. Not wanting to put too much pressure on my delicate digits, I dropped the timer right down to one minute and took my shoes off to do a handstand in the hall.
To give some context, my youngest child was in the house and entertaining himself playing in the dining room – next to where I was doing my handstand. Let’s call him Tertius as he’s my third and to give more context context he’s just turned three.
So I was holding the handstand, feeling the pressure on my knuckles, but fairly comfortable when Tertius notices me upside down. “What are you doing?” he asks.
“A handstand on my knuckles,” I answered tersely, maintaining my focus. He wandered over. My t-shirt had fallen down to show my tummy and he stood quite close and pulled the t-shirt down to reveal more of me. Then the little blighter started tweaking my nipples, laughing and crying out, “Knuckles!”
I learnt two things that day. One: my son does not know the difference between knuckles and nipples. Two: even a one minute handstand requires mental focus.

Parting The Wild Horses Mane – Part Two

So after catching up with everybody at Horsham, things weren’t much clearer. The consensus was that we should be looking at the leading upper hand ( palm up ) but this only works if the form is small and round, big expansive motions don’t seem to work, not to me anyway. We do it in, what seems to me anyway, a very Yang style way with the body fairly square to the front and the hands approximately 45˚ to either side with the palm up hand slightly higher than the palm down hand. To me it always seemed like it should be a big move.

The authoritative white book ( Complete Tai Chi Chuan ) says look left ( towards the hand facing down ) but the picture shows the raised hand ( palm up ) as the focus. A misprint maybe… The blue book ( Wutan Tai Chi Chuan ) has both the text and images focusing on the lower ( palm down ) hand. As I’ve said before – things change. It’s the reason for the change that matters. Looking at the application in class the technique is a throat strike but it just seems a bit pointless, well, that or I just wasn’t doing it right, which is most probably the case. It seems pointless because there doesn’t seem to be much opportunity to follow through or do anything useful after the initial strike. Maybe it doesn’t matter if it’s done right, I mean smashing somebody’s windpipe would probably stop a fight rather quickly but it just doesn’t seem right…

Changing the technique to more of a “normal” Wu style posture ( where the body is angled more towards the palm down hand and the palm up arm is less outstretched and more bent ) there seems a stronger opportunity to strike to the neck. Maybe it’s not as “immediate” as smashing a trachea but it seems a lot more solid as a technique. There seems to be more to work with but my problem there is that the focus seems wrong. I’m not terribly keen on facing one way and applying a technique in another, but again, it’s just not quite right.

Changing things yet again to the “old” Wu way of doing things ( ) works for me really well. I like the idea of getting in close and controlling the opponent. It works for me. So technique-wise I’m really happy with it. Problem there is that for me to be happy with the technique in the way I’m happy to use it I kind of need to have the form reflect the technique, after all, isn’t that what the form does? Form follows application so if I’m doing the application one way but the form in a completely different way then there’s a mismatch. I suppose having the choice is a good thing but knowing that one technique works and one doesn’t it make sense to build the working technique into the form. So that’s kind of what’s happening. I think over time I’m moving to a form that actually looks more like the Wu JianQuan form above for certain postures which I’m finding rather interesting.

It’s not kosher but it’s working for me at the moment.