Sinclair Martial Arts

Healing Exercise and Martial Arts
• Tai chi • Qigong • Kungfu • Practical Self defence

Sinclair Martial Arts: Core concepts

Some of the core concepts taught at Sinclair Martial Arts:

1.  No one ever wins a fight.
A fight is the failure of one or more parties to achieve harmony. In the event of such a failure, the best we can hope for is to survive long enough to win the peace.

2.  Conflict has no beginning.
Peace is the constant balancing of self and selflessness, so that we may be in harmony with the world. When a fight happens, it is an indication that a conflict has been building for a long time.

3.  Conflict has no end. Balance is a verb.
A comprehensive martial art should provide tools necessary to be constantly be resolving conflicts of all kinds. We apply the warrior's intensity to the most subtle of conflicts, even in times of apparent tranquility.

4. Love is a practical weapon.
Consistent victory requires that we know our enemy and know ourselves. But we can never learn anything about anyone by hating them.

5. With real skill, there is no enemy.
True victory is only achieved by treating conflict as an integrative negotiation. Distributive negotiation strategies inevitably lead to worsening conflict. History has consistently disproven the theory that one can achieve lasting victory by simply defeating the enemy in combat.

6. Combat skills are transferable. The mental and physical skills can be applied to all aspects of daily life. Courage, compassion, insight, awareness, focus, coordination, discipline, optimism, prudence, stillness, patience, agility, timing, etc. These are just a few of the martial virtues. A martial artist should look for ways that the lessons of combat can learn from and inform science, diplomacy, relationships, art, athletics, music, politics, philosophy, medicine, sport, etc.

7. A martial art is not a sport. Martial sports can be a useful. But the goal of a martial sport is to win a contest. The goal of a martial art is to avoid losing. These are two very different goals, and use very different tactics and strategies. (See the preceding rules.)

8. Peace is power.

- Ian Sinclair

I have no competition.

I have no competition.

There are other tai chi teachers in my neighbourhood, and there are several other martial art teachers. Some do the same or similar style as I do. But we are not in competition with each other.

I look at it like this:
The more that people teach and promote martial arts, the more people there will be doing martial arts. The benefits of martial arts are so broad and deep that we should be as much in demand as doctors. The more the public is educated about the vast benefits of the various styles, the greater the demand will become.

Not ever teacher is right for every student, and not every student is right for every school. So, many teachers are required to offer the range of choice and opportunity to promote the art. If the only local grocery store only stocks one kind of vegetable, then there will be some people who just won't like vegetables. But if there is a wide variety of vegetables from which to choose, more people will add vegetables to their shopping lists. If there is only one school in town, then whenever a potential student visits that school and doesn't find it to be a good fit for them, that person may be turned off of the art forever. But when there are several teachers, the depth and breadth of the art is more obvious, and students are more likely to find schools that will improve their lives. Even having two teachers offering the same style is not a problem for me, because we don't all attract the same kinds of students. For instance, I seldom teach children. Honestly, they scare me.

"My, uh, studies establish without a shadow of a doubt, that children are, by adult standards, insane. And more than a little immature!" - Dr. Munroe, WKRP in Cincinnati. S1E6

I have successfully taught kids as young as six. But I prefer to send them to schools with organized kids programs. There have been exceptions, when there was a specific skill set that they needed, or the student was a particularly good fit more my teaching style. I have taught boys ad girls to defend themselves, I've helped some to develop self control, to gain self confidence, and to find peace of mind in their tormented lives. I have even taught one 9-year-old to non-violently deal with physical and emotional outbursts from his 6-year-old brother. There are few things more rewarding than the gratitude of parents when they tell me that there is finally peace in their home. But my successes are largely due to my decision to recognize my limits, and my willingness to send students to other teachers. In spite of my successes, I prefer kids to be at least 9, or 12, or 18…or even 30, before they train with me. But some of the exceptions I have made have been glorious successes, while others have been glorious disasters. (No refunds, sorry.)

I send adults to other teachers, too. It is best for all of us if students find the right teacher for each of them.
Martial art teachers are a unique and poorly understood breed. You might be amazed at how well we get along.

I cannot delude myself into believing that that I am any better than any other teachers. There is far too much evidence to the contrary. But I have some unique skills that other teachers appreciate. Many of my students are instructors or black belts from other styles. Some come from around the world to train here, even though I would be a white belt in their schools.

We all have our strengths and weaknesses, and the opportunity to train with other experienced teachers is an opportunity that most of us jump at when we get the chance.

Sure, a part of me feels a little uneasy when I learn about another teacher opening a school in my neighbourhood. 40 years in martial arts does not lessen my insecurities. In fact, the more I improve, the better everyone else seems to get. But mostly, when a new teacher opens up shop nearby I think, "YES! I'm not the only freak who believes he can make a living at this."

Pumpkin Spice Tai chi and Self defence classes.

It is that time of year again!
Private personal training in tai chi, qigong, traditional martial arts, and self defence.

pumpkin-spice tai chi classes

Are there martial applications of tai chi moves? Yes. But also, no.

When learning a tai chi routine, students often ask, "What is the martial application of this movement?" Some teachers avoid the question, if the class is geared mostly towards health, and particularly if the other students are not interested in the martial aspect of the art. [1] On the other hand, some teachers take great delight in demonstrating a throw, strike, joint lock, or combination. But the application will vary from teacher to teacher, and may also depend on which student is assisting with the demonstration.

To say that each movement contains many martial applications is certainly correct, but also incomplete. When I test my intermediate students, I ask them to demonstrate martial applications of each movement, expecting them to be able to demonstrate the different categories of technique. They should show how a movement can be a block or interception, a throw or takedown technique, a joint control or pressure point manipulation, for striking, for kicking, for grappling, for mid-range, for long-range, and against various weapons. There are usually standard techniques associated with each movement. But I don't require the students to use those if they have other valid examples.

While martial routines are often described as encyclopedias of self-defence techniques, that description is incomplete. For one thing, the movements in the solo routine are seldom exactly the same as the movements in a martial technique with a training partner. But neither the solo routine nor the formal technique can replicate every practical self defence situation. Form and technique need to be able to adapt to the myriad variables that can exist in a fight.

Whenever a martial application is demonstrated for a test or a staged performance, it is usually based on some grand scenario including a setup, an approach and a follow-through. It depends on the cooperation of the partner. The relevant technique is really a very small (often imperceptible) movement. So, to ask to see an applications of "single whip," is to ask for any of the tiny uncountable movements, bookended by the rest of the move that we call "single whip." The actual technique is expressed in a single point in space-time. It is not about the scenario that leads to it, or what follows.

Below is an old video in which I explore some "martial applications of the simplified 24-posture tai chi, aka the "24 Form" or the "Beijing short form." The routine itself was create in 1956 as part of the Chinese National Fitness Program. During the past half century it has been simultaneously praised for its accessibility and derided as impractical "hospital tai chi." But is it based on traditional Yang style tai chi, and as such, contains a lot of martial information.

When a student asks for a martial application of a movement, I will sometimes show them a standard technique. But often I just say, "Attack me however you like and I will see what the movement does." The technique that emerges changes every time, and may be something I have never done before. Sometimes I intercept the attacker and shut them down, and sometimes the attacker stops so that we can explain the dynamics, structure and interactions step-by-step. The important thing to remember is that the attacker is cooperating. If this were a real fight, I would not limit myself with form, and no observer would be able to tell what style I practised.

Between two combatants, it is normal for the situation to change several times per second. An actual technique is completed within a tenth of a second. What begins as one technique may change a dozen times before the final technique is realized.

An application of one movement could be the same as an application of other movements. And, since each choreographed movement has innumerable parts, there is no way to count the number of possible applications for each movement.

There is a well-known joint control that some call "Old man carries the fish on his back." This technique can be found in many different forms. It can be applied against many different types of attack, and it can express many different "energetic principle."

To ask "What is the application of this movement" is like asking, "What song can you write with these notes?"
To ask "What movement is this technique from?" is like asking, "What song is this note from?"

When we are learning a martial art routine, it is normal for us to want to see the movements in the context of martial applications. This helps us to learn the form. But this also feeds a misunderstanding of the nature of the choreography. Rather than trying to see the movement in context, the movement should be seen as the context. As my friend Marshall used to say, "The medium is the message." ;)

A tai chi routine is the context within which the student explores the martial art. The student becomes familiar with the way their body and mind interact with gravity. The routine teaches efficiency of movement, leverage, coordination of power, and helps the student understand how thought, emotion and posture are interrelated.

When the student has developed a deep understanding of the self, then the student can apply that understanding in the context of interpersonal relationships, including, but not limited to, combat.

Music students learn to hear and read music, then to play notes, scales, arpeggios, and chords. They learn rhythm, posture, breathing, and body alignment. They learn about key changes, styles, history, theory, philosophy. They may learn a broad repertoire of musical pieces from different genres. They might compose, conduct, and perform all around the world. But can they fight with it? But can they improvise with a jazz ensemble? Jazz improv is perhaps as close to martial art as music gets. The mind and body must respond instantly to changes in the performance and the environment. All of the maths and theories of musical training must be transcended as the artists express spontaneous creativity and inspiration.

A master improvisor can make another player's egregious errors seem like the perfect phrasing, just as a martial art master can make the attacker's defeat seem as if it was what the attacker intended.

Martial art students learn basic stances, movements, footwork, postures and patterns. They learn timing, distancing, breathing, and body alignment. They learn tactics, styles, history, theory, anatomy, medicine, and philosophy. They may learn a broad repertoire of routines and techniques from different arts. They may invent their own style, teach, compete, and perform all around the world. But is it jazz? Can they respond instantly to changes in things like tactics, strategy, terrain, numbers, and morale? Can they create harmony in the face of conflict? Can they take the opponent's attack and make it seem like a harmless gesture?

If the form is practised with the goal of liberating one from the restrictions of form, it can help you to do all of these things. If the form is practised with a limited view of its potential, then it can become a trap that will make the student a slave to form.

One of my teachers, who is expert in hundreds of different martial art routines, was once asked if he knew the martial applications of every movement from those routines. He replied that he even knew the martial applications of routines he didn't know.

Hearing this, some students were more perplexed than others.
He explained, "You show me a movement that I don't know, and I will show you the martial applications."

So, one clever student performed the Viennese Waltz. My teacher laughed and then accepted the challenge. He spent less than a minute "learning" the choreography, and then proceeded to spend the next fifteen minutes knocking students to the ground with technique after technique. There were strikes, low kicks, hip throws, leg sweeps, and joint locks, all conforming reasonably to the choreography of the Viennese Waltz.

Afterwards he confessed, "That wasn't really fair of me. I already knew that dance."

The choreography of the routine can be used as an encyclopedia of technique; and some schools make a point of making the choreography fit the technique. But that is not its ultimate goal. A martial artist learning a routine is like a musician learning to play a complete musical composition. It can be a step on the road to improvisation and self expression. Technical drills and scenario training can be useful. But remember the goal. We learn the form so that we can liberate ourselves from it. The routine is not the art. The routine is the context within which you explore and refine your own relationship with yourself. You learn to integrate the mind and body, to harmonize the afferent and the efferent, to link the core with the extremities, to blend energy and intent, to find stillness in motion, to master forces, to balance emptiness and self-expression.

1) I teach a comprehensive tai chi program that has as a broad range of profound benefits. It is safe to say that most students practise for health and relaxation. But I describe myself as a martial arts teacher. So, I always find myself explaining that all martial arts exist for the cultivation of health and relaxation. But an important part of that art includes the study of what to do when physical violence cannot be prevented. Tai chi routines are a way of harmonizing the goal of health and peace with the power of combat applications. It is like the study of medicine. A good doctor aims to keep you healthy, but also knows what to do when you get sick. A good martial artists seeks to keep the peace, but also knows what to do when it all hits the fan.

The war that never ends

- Ian Sinclair

A recent Newsweek article got me thinking about the future of the world and the state of my own mind. It reminded me of the meaning of martial arts, and highlighted some of my obligations as a teacher.

You may have seen the headline,

"The United States has spent nearly $6 trillion on wars that directly contributed to the deaths of around 500,000 people since the 9/11 attacks of 2001."

I write this article, not as a reaction to any particular political opinion or agenda. Rather, it is a train of thought instigated by considering what sort of tactics and strategy could result in wars being so protracted that they seem to go unnoticed by so many people. It is almost as if the people waging the war itself have become indifferent to the consequences.

I have no way of knowing what factors are at play within the various countries factions involved. I suspect there has always been and ebb and flow in the quality of tactics and strategy by the various players. But when a conflict goes on for a long time, perhaps there is a need to look at the conflict differently. If we do, then we might see ALL of the combatants in a new light. Perhaps they are victims of as yet undiagnosable function of their own minds, or subject to a greater social pathology.

Science is constantly changing our perception of the physical universe, and no scientist would presume that we have it all figured out. So, it should be reasonable to suspect that we do not have an accurate perception of the nature of conflict. Tactics and strategy can obscure the real nature of the war, even from the leading tacticians and strategists themselves. We can get so caught up in our own deliberations that we fail to see the whole picture, and miss some great opportunities.

Those who have been in my classes may have heard me say that when the INFINITE game is forgotten, then the FINITE game is doomed to repeat ad infinitum.

…we may win all of the battles, but still lose the war.

When we neglect long-term strategy for short-term tactics, then we fail to understand the variability of our situation. But even some of the best strategists can fail to observe the true nature of our place in the world. So, we may win all of the battles, but still lose the war. We become so focused on the conflict that we forget all about the harmony for which we had struggled so long. It is not unheard of for even the wealthiest of nations to spend so much on their military that they can't afford to maintain the very things that military is meant to protect.

Another common mistake in warfare, is that we forget who we are, and ignore that fact that the enemy are people just like us. When this continues for too long, then all sides inevitably find themselves becoming slaves to the same military industrial complex.

The role of leadership is to prevent this from happening, to minimize conflict, and to avoid wasting both lives and resources. But leaders get caught up aspects of their own demagoguery, such as demonizing the titular enemy. They may even vilify their own people, turn against their own advisors, rebel against their own conscience, and feel threatened by reasonable dissent.

As martial artists, we are the generals of our own minds. We must constantly seek to improve our own self awareness so that we can clearly see the effects that our thoughts and actions might have on either mitigating or exacerbating the eternal conflict. This applies within ourselves, within our immediate family, within our community, and in the world as a whole.

students practising two-person drills.

The good news is that even in the case of global conflicts, it often requires only a little wisdom, from a few good people, to save the people from themselves. There have been several times throughout history when imminent disaster has been averted by one or two people of good will. Extraordinary effort by a few good people has saved us from the brink of destruction, or pulled us back from an apocalypse in progress.

For millennia, the great generals have said, "Know your enemy and know yourself." But you cannot know anyone by hating or fearing them, and knowing the parts must be concurrent with knowing the whole.

Open your heart to yourself and to your enemy alike. Then your mind will be better suited to see the best path forward.

We are taught that, so long as there is a single calm mind and a single caring heart, there is hope for the world. You can save the world by finding the peace within yourself.

How to master a martial art:

Some suggestions from the worst student of some of the world's greatest masters.

Statue of Roger Bacon
Image above: the statue of Roger Bacon at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History, Oxford, England.

Studying from a great teacher can help. But, really, that will not even get you halfway there. If your teachers are worth their salt, then they will have continued to learn and evolve throughout their lives. You cannot hope to learn all that they know, or even half of what they know.

The meanings of what you learn will change over time, and you will learn new things that improve or contradict your previous understanding.

What worked for our ancestors may not work for us. The world they built is different from ours. The art that they created is theirs. We need to make our own.

In traditional Asian martial arts, there tends to be a lot of emphasis placed on a Confucian vertical hierarchy. That sort of thinking may serve monarchies and franchises. But it is not conducive to creative or critical thinking.
In addition to the "Classics" promoted during the Ming and Qing dynasties, you should also read Mozi, Laozi, Sunzi, and their various translations. Read all the classic texts about martial arts. But don't only read those from one culture. In order to adapt to multi-cultural reality, study the martial arts of all cultures, as well as their customs, creeds, etiquette, and philosophies. And if you want to expand your ability to understanding and make practical use of those tomes, I suggest also reading the works of Aristotle, Jacques Derrida, and the Bacon brothers (Francis and Roger)

Don't be a slave to a style. The style was intended to serve the students. The students were not created to serve the style. If you find yourself more dedicated to the style than to improving the practical pedagogy, then you are becoming a museum piece, and probably a cheap knockoff at that. The style will not make you a master of a martial art, any more than playing Beatles songs will make you one of The Beatles.

When you learn anything profound, the meaning of the lesson is often lost in translation, obscured through interpretation, and changed by the passage of time. What the lesson means to you now might be very different from what it means to in five or ten years.

When you imitate a teacher, you are not only imitating their positive attributes. You are also imitating their pathology. I remember when, as a student in my 20's, my teacher said to me, "You move like an old master." I was flattered, thinking that a decade of training under great masters was starting to pay off... until he said, "But you are still very young. Why do you move like an old man?" I thought I had been imitating the perfection of my teachers. But I had been really just been mimicking their external shape, and often their weaknesses.

We should learn from as many teachers as we can. But we should never, at any point, presume that we have understood them. And know that there is only so far that a teacher will take you. You must learn how to learn, and how to critique both yourself and the ancestors.

So, here are some basic steps that I recommend to students wishing to becoming a master of martial arts. These are not my ideas. They were passed down to me by my teachers.

Step one: Question
Step two: Hypothesize.
Step three: Predict.
Step four: Test.
Step five: Analyze.
Step six: Repeat

Very good.
More practice.

1 Liu Bei, Guan Yu and Zhang Fei. 2 Jaques Derrida. 3 Francis Bacon. 4 Aristotle. 5 top Yip Man and Bruce Lee. 6 Boxers of ancient Thera.
Above images 1: Liu Bei, Guan Yu and Zhang Fei. 2: Jaques Derrida. 3: Francis Bacon. 4: Aristotle. 5 (top): Yip Man and Bruce Lee. 6 Boxers of ancient Thera.

About the author.
Ian Sinclair is a Canadian martial artist with a studio in Orillia, Ontario, and students around the world. He has 40 years experience in martial arts, healing exercise, and meditation.

Tai chi is a martial art. But most tai chi students don't practise one.

There are so many benefits to practising a martial art that many schools are able to profit without actually providing the "martial" component. This is true regardless of the style or school, and has resulted in a lot of students being deluded into thinking that their path to mastery is inexorable. While a martial art school can set you on the path to mastery, it is you who are the vehicle, the driver, and the navigator. The path can lead you. But it will not take you there if you won't move.

The fact is that most students are not interested in going all the way, and there is no need for me to tell them that they should complete the journey. I am happy to give them whatever benefits they want to take away with them. If they follow this path for a while and then diverge, I am glad to help them on their way. But I want to give them all the tools necessary to take them as far along the road as they want to go, because I believe that the world becomes a better place when true martial artists are allowed to follow their personal journeys toward enlightenment.

While most of my students come to learn tai chi for the physical and mental health benefits, a significant number come to add tai chi skills to their martial art. Some of my students are jiujitsu or mma teachers or competitors, some are with military and law enforcement. But whether they come to improve their health or combat skills, the art is the same.

The most recognized benefit of tai chi is health of mind and body. This is in spite of the art's history as a martial art. Those who do not wish to practise tai chi as a martial art, can continue to progress indefinitely without participating in the more "martial" aspects of the curriculum. There is some overlap, however. Tai chi "for health" students may learn about the martial applications, or combat principles of the art without ever practising them enough to be able to apply them. Sometimes these students think that knowing a little about a martial art means that they are martial artists.

This is the same with many martial arts. The exercises and drills which are taught in most martial arts classes will not, on their own, guarantee progress to martial mastery. There are several important elements that are omitted from regular classes because most students are not actual martial artists, meaning that they are not mentally or physically prepared to do the training that is necessary. You can't efficiently teach advanced skills to those who don't have the proper foundation, just as you can't teach students with whom you don't share a common language.

But tai chi is still practised as a martial art to those who wish to go there. It even has several sport components.

Bridging the gap between "Tai chi for health" and "Tai chi for Martial arts"

One important element of tai chi is refining the ability to maintain mental and physical balance in the face of external conflict. At one stage, this involves an exercise called tuishou (Pushing hands). In practice, tuishou is a cooperative exercise intended to develop skills that can be applied in meditation or in combat. In sport, the goal is to uproot your opponent. Points are given to the competitor who remains balanced while their opponent stumbles or falls.

Tuishou can be a bridge for those who want to develop some advanced tai chi skills without fully embracing the rigours of martial training. It can also give advanced martial artists of other styles a skill set that may be lacking in their normal training.

There are three main types of tuishou matches. Each type has a variety of different rules and formats, depending on who is organizing the event:

  • Fixed step tuishou requires to competitors to keep one or both feet still.
  • Restricted step tuishou allows forward and backward movement of the feet but does not allow sideways stepping, or reversing of a stance. The foot that is in front must remain ahead of the other.
  • Moving step tuishou allows competitors to step anywhere within the arena (often a square or circle similar to a boxing, sumo, or wrestling ring.) Points may be give to the competitor who ejects the opponent from he ring or downs them by push or throw.

Some types of tuishou competitions are very subtle affairs. Others are hard to distinguish from mma, or judo, or wrestling. This video demonstrates a tuishou competition with a rule format that is somewhere in the middle.

Here is a demonstration of basic taichi training methods and applications.

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