Sinclair Martial Arts

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


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.

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.

Cannot meditate?

Student: "I can't meditate." 
Me: "Why not."
Student: "When I try to meditate, there are too many thoughts in my head."
Me: "Where did you expect your thoughts to be?"

The act of meditation does not require the perfection of a still mind. Meditation is the process of becoming aware...aware of the mind...aware of thoughts...aware of awareness itself. The process has so many benefits that listing them would be a distraction.


Are you aware that you are being distracted by your thoughts? Congratulations! You are meditating.

Believing that you can't meditate because of your thoughts is like believing that you can't listen to music because of all the notes.

Do you find that focusing is more difficult if you don't get enough sleep and exercise? Congratulations! You've discovered one reason why martial arts became so popular with monks. Another reason is that the right kind of martial art practice can provide an effective kind of biofeedback for meditators. "Is my mind clear?" *whack* "Apparently not."

Of course, martial art practice doesn't need to be painful, and neither does meditation. There are many types of training that are suitable for different personality types, and for people with different mental and physical characteristics.

- Ian Sinclair

P.S.

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