Sunday, August 14, 2011

Martial Arts and Philosophy Writers Wanted

This is an invitation for any writer of Martial Arts or Philosophical material to submit articles for this blog and an upcoming book to be published soon. This is a chance to share your views on a variety of subjects related to the above request. (Writers will not receive any compensation for their articles.) I am an avid researcher of both the Martial Arts and  Philosopy. In the event that any profit is gained from this book all proceeds will go to St. Jude Children's Research Hospital. You needn't be a professional writer, (I certainly am not) you just need to have a passion for the subjects aforementioned. I will try to include as many articles as possible.
If you have any questions, feel free to contact me through this blog.
I look forward to your input.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Demystifying and Revealing the Truth on how Taijiquan Works - Part 2

(Please read part 1 first - from April 2011)

 Part 2

 How does the Taijiquan Artist develop the necessary skills?                     

 First through standing (meditation) exercises to teach stability and balance in a fixed position. Both a relaxed mind and a relaxed but properly structured body, while maintaining the body’s center of balance (equilibrium) are necessary. Focusing on proper breathing comes once the body is trained to stand in an naturally aligned position with the back straight, tailbone pointing down and the head feeling like it is suspended by a string pulling up from the crown carrying its weight and all the while maintaining the maximum amount of relaxation.  Total awareness and control of the entire body, its root into the ground and its center need to be accomplished before moving on. One of the natural methods of abdominal breathing used in Taiji  is referred to as reverse breathing. This become an essential part of the  standing exercise which leads to a calm and clear mind as well as a higher level of a relaxed, but neither limp nor lethargic stance. It is also a very natural and efficient way to breathe, better oxygenating the blood and massaging the internal organs in the abdominal region, along with the ability to produce more force as you exhale when needed for the martial artist.

Picture-(Reverse breathing involves the expelling of air while expanding the lower abdominal region downward and out.

 If this seems unnatural to you, try exhaling rapidly and saying the word ha,  (exhaling through your mouth) with your hand on your lower abdominal region. Follow by inhaling in which the lower abdominal region pulls back in using more diaphragm.
(note when done slowly, breathe in and out through the nose-when done quickly to emit force breathe out through the mouth.
 It is important to avoid shallow breathing which uses more intercostals muscles to expand the chest which causes improper ventilation of the lower lobes in the lungs.)

Master/Dr Kam Lee’s detailed explanation:

General breathing can be categorized into 2 kinds:
1. Shallow breathing - Not preferable
2. Deep or Abdominal Breathing - Preferable (Bringing in more oxygen, etc)
Abdominal Breathing when used to nourish our qi (ex: meditation, sleeping, daily movements) can be called, "Natural Breathing" as we don't have to think too much about it. It can happen naturally after you are trained to do it. Doesn't take long.
3. Abdominal breathing when used to express our qi or jin or when power is used, can be called Reversed Breath, which the abdominal muscle groups work the opposite way to Natural Breathing. It stresses the muscle and uses more qi. However when expressed softly or slowly it is a very good method to enhance our qi without expending it so much as in Fajin. If you fajin a lot you can get tired easily if your qi is insufficient.

   Yin Natural Breathing Stillness Relax state of qi Nourishing Jin Uses abdominal (Dantian)
Yang Reverse Breathing Movement Higher state of qi Uses Jin (Fajin) Uses abdominal (Dantian)

Both breathing methods are neither limp nor lethargic. Both can attain a calm and clear state of mind. When done slow (beginner's meditation) natural breathing is preferable. When fajin or expressing jin in martial applications, reversed breath is preferable.

Both are natural and efficient depending on use. Reverse breathing is a plus for martial artist.

Deep abdominal breathing involves breathing in the air by contracting the diaphragm and expanding the lungs to its full capacity, starting from the lower lobes. The contraction of the diaphragm compresses the organs especially the intestines downwards and at the same time expanding the lungs to its full capacity. This can be done only when the body muscles especially the abdominals are in a relax state. Not knowing how to breathe properly builds tension in the abdominal and mid body thus inhibiting good circulation and proper function of qi. Abdominal breathing encourages all movements internally and promotes good health.

Harmony is  now present between the body and mind and true balance is   achieved. The mind’s ability to see, sense, feel and respond reaches an elevated level. (I personally recommend sitting Wuji meditation in conjunction with standing meditation. Although the have many common benefits they are also unique in their own ways. For more information on this please see Dr Yang Yang’s book, Taijiquan - That Art of Nurturing, The Science of Power)

Forms and movement
 Stage two of training is maintaining your center and applying the same principles as in the standing exercise, but with movement. Spiraling movement exercises and forms practice accomplish this task. Total awareness of every point of the body must be realized and all movements must be connected. No individual body part should act independently. (Movement resembles a system of smooth moving cogs as seen in a Swiss watch; each cog has its own important job and cannot be done without.)

At the advanced level of this stage the practitioner will incorporate some fast movements and the releasing of power in a variety of positions.  Weapons’ training in this phase is also important for the basic development of strength and control even if the thought of practicality is not a consideration. To study the variety of weapons offered from short to long and light to heavy while keeping in line with all of the other principles completes this stage and also helps to improve empty hand forms.

Push Hands
The third stage is still maintaining your body’s center and all of the above mentioned requirements while an outside source (partner) tries to disturb your high level of control and balance. Here is where the following of your opponent’s movements, redirecting of his force and controlling his center of balance is studied. We call this phase push-hands because of the continued contact you have with your training partner. But that term does not paint the true picture of this training method. Here in the later stages of Push-hands a higher level of sensitivity and understanding on how the movements apply to self-defense become visible. Joint manipulation is also studied at this stage. Reactions become both spontaneous and natural. At this point along with the health benefits manifested from proper practice the Martial aspects are beginning to materialize. Through proper training of all three phases your body will develop the needed attributes both internally and externally. However by no means does the training stop. This is the true beginning in the process of mastering Taijiquan.  Perhaps the most important aspect of this phase is that it is a platform where one can experiment and discover his/ her flaws regarding all the governing Taijiquan principles. All three phases must constantly be practiced to keep the body and mind tuned like a fine machine.  Neglecting any one of the training methods would be like removing one leg from a tripod. You would be left with a tool that could never function properly. From the first to the third stage is like building a house from the ground up. If proper attention is not paid to the foundation, the house will never be of a sound structure
You can now begin to understand teaching the body to move and react in this natural way is not nearly as difficult as unlearning all of  the counter-productive ways of moving incorrectly that we have accumulated over the years. (Especially the over tightening of unneeded muscles and joints.)

 If your goal is strictly health, continue working on the above and you will find success. But there is much more that Taijiquan can offer to the Martial Artist to enhance their skills.

 People often ask, “If Taijiquan is so effective why don’t we see more practical examples in the Martial Art world?” This requires a brief look at Chinese history. The answers lie in the not so distant past (100 years or so) when it was still being used as a combat art. Like all things it has evolved and changed over the years. That’s why no art is truly 100% traditional. Every martial art must change over time to accommodate the changing environment in which it exists. During China’s Cultural Revolution the practice of this and many other martial arts were prohibited by the government.  Devoted Taijiquan practitioners had to train in secrecy. Many were caught and punished, but they still persevered through this most difficult time and both preserved and passed down their family art. Taijiquan is certainly not the only martial art to suffer this hardship.

 It was only when the art resurfaced publicly following a 1978 endorsement from Deng Xiaoping (China’s leader at that time) stating “Taijiquan is good”.  After that period Taiji was often taught as an art focusing more for its health benefits. The martial art aspect was watered down and furthermore  was also not even understood by many teachers. Hence the term Taiji with out the quan(fist). Taijiquan loosely translates to Grand Ultimate Fist. Also like many Chinese Gungfu styles, Masters were leery of passing on all of their knowledge publicly and carefully chose only the worthiest of students to have access to the complete art.
 Chen Village still remained quite isolated and with a somewhat closed door attitude regarding sharing their family art. Other more popular forms of Taiji (such as Yang Style) were practiced by many, but few trained the martial aspects. Taiji developed a reputation as a slow moving exercise for the elderly. Most players at that time were never exposed to the martial art side of Taiji. That method of Taiji practice became and still is quite popular today.

Presently Chen Taijiquan is being taught openly throughout the world.
The martial art aspects are once again becoming an important part of the training for those who desire.
Another factor is more universal and can apply to all Martial Arts. Equally important to studying a practical and suitable art is the student’s personal attitude.
Three classes a week at your local Martial Arts school does not make a master. Any art being practiced by a student without diligence, dedication and perseverance will never truly manifest itself in that student.  If any viable art fails to produce the desired results, first look at the student and his or her teacher. You will find the root of its inadequacies. Taijiquan is no exception.
For those students electing to focus only on the health aspects, you have still been exposed to some martial benefits. While you should now experience a higher level of health you still shouldn’t consider yourself a martial artist and that is also acceptable for a practitioner.

 For those pursuing Taijiquan in its most complete form including the Martial Art aspects (read on).

The last crucial steps which are often overlooked, involve putting it all together in the proper environment.  

The knowledge gained from the above three stages does not a Martial Artist make. How you gain the practical experience to use these tools requires sparring and training with partners of all sizes and from many other disciplines including other grappling arts. (Taijiquan does deal with all ranges of combat.) Without this reality training you will not be a complete martial artist and won’t develop the real skills needed for survival in self-defense or combat.
A common misconception of Taijiquan among many of its own followers is that they do not need the sparring stage for the development of fighting skills.
In my opinion, this could not be further from the truth. Let us not kid ourselves; this is why many practitioners can’t use Taijiquan as a reality based self-defense art. Even those that attain an advanced skill level in push-hands must move on to sparring under a variety of conditions. Also at this time if the practitioner has not incorporated bag training and striking pads into the mix he should.

The last factor we will discuss depends on the individual. If all of the three stages mentioned above are practiced with great effort and determination
the Taiji player should enjoy a great deal of endurance and strength.  If he is lacking in these areas he must address this problem with additional cardio and strength training exercises. For endurance, more forms, running, sprinting, jumping rope etc…
By strength training I don’t mean typical weight lifting or body building routines which often tightens not only muscles, but ligaments and tendons. (The results of these types of training will become counter-productive. I learned this the hard way.)  Muscles ligaments and tendons that are too tight prohibit the fluidity needed to transfer force through the body when striking They also inhibit the higher level of sensitivity required for blending and redirecting incoming force. Lastly they allow your joints ligaments, tendons and muscles to be manipulated and controlled more easily by your opponent (due to their limited range of motion and  flexibility).

However additional use of the weapons and basic bodyweight exercises such as pull-ups, chin-ups, dips, push-ups etc… using  your own body weight along with some resistance exercises  can complete the strength training aspect of the overall program.

I am not expecting to see Taiji in the MMA world in the very near future, but I will say it could be effective even under those conditions. Even though Taijiquan’s martial skills are usually thought to require years of practice to become effective, this is certainly not accurate. It depends on the student and the teacher he studies with. As far as the art itself goes, many people have not witnessed Taijiquan at its higher levels so they condemn the validity of its martial efficiency.  If you put me on the track in Daytona with the best race car available, I will still lose the race. You can’t blame the car. You can blame me the driver for not showing the true capabilities of a superbly designed piece of engineering. Taijiquan is that superbly designed piece of engineering. The same goes for a master craftsman’s tools. In the wrong hands the tools are useless.  In the body of a well trained technician Taijiquan’s full potential become evident.
What I do recommend for my fellow Martial Artists, keep an open mind and explore the possibilities that Taijiquan has to offer and the option to at least cross-train into this misunderstood art. It may help you further develop your existing skills.  (Visit my Youtube Channel at Taijistevie to see some strength/endurance training ideas)

In conclusion, I would say, unlike other effective martial arts which try to mold the body into a moving in a new manner and then training the muscle memory to follow, Taijiquan calls for the purging and un-learning of the body’s bad habits, those habits that it has conformed to over the years. It returns the individual to a more natural and harmonious way where mind and body form the perfect partnership.
Being that Taijiquan does not require the novice student to possess any great athletic attributes such as strength and speed, anyone can become proficient.

Taijiquan certainly does not hold exclusive rights to the principles discussed in this article, it just emphasizes them.
 We don’t concentrate on learning hundreds of techniques. We just learn to react naturally. Sorry to disappoint those looking for something more mystical or magical. There is nothing here other than the natural laws of physics and using them efficiently in a way that is natural for each individual, but not exactly the same way for every individual. This includes applying them to different degrees depending on such factors as the individual’s abilities, body type, and his or her (physical and mental) strengths and weaknesses.

The results of proper Taijiquan practice could certainly compliment any style you train with.
I don’t claim any expertise in Taiji, but it has given me plenty as a martial artist and even more as a human being. I apply the Taiji Philosophy to every aspect of my life.

Taijiquan has stood the test of time because many things change, but the laws of nature which it rests on remain constant. That being said we must understand that what seemed natural for me yesterday may not seem natural for me tomorrow and that is due to the laws of nature. So within Taiji we appear to have contradictions and that to is only natural, however Taiji has also taught me how to deal with that.

(I haven’t even needed to use the word qi (ki-in Japanese) once to describe Taijiquan.)

Contact me if you have any questions or comments.   

Thursday, April 28, 2011

My Bio

Steve Contes, instructor and founder of the Taiji Center began his martial arts training in 1970. For the first 20 years he studied a variety of martial arts, qi-gong, health, nutrition, fitness, philosophy and meditation. He then decided to focus on a practical form of self-defense combining principles from all the above mentioned. He had also come to realize that in order to train in a complete system, all enemies must be understood. The most often overlooked and greatest enemy we must face is found within. If we are to learn how to protect ourselves, then this must be the starting point. Martial art technique makes us strong on the outside, meditation protects us on the inside.

The latter proved to be a more important aspect of self defense. It includes but is not limited to relieving stress, teaching us how to overcome obstacles in life and even strengthening our mind and our immune system; all of which promotes overall health. The end results are a better quality of life and a more harmonious way of living.

The above ideas were organized in to a system of teaching now known as JO-JONG-PAI. As the system evolved the key ingredients began to rely on proper Taiji training. Taiji already addressed the proper balance between both inner and outer strengths.
The true Taiji philosophy exemplifies all of the above ideas. For the dedicated student it can be one of the most direct methods to achieving your true potential as a complete martial artist.
This is not to say that this is the only path to take, but it is a path that should be explored. Taiji training is offered to all that wish.
Your present level of health whatever that may be can be improved with proper training. No matter what you perceive your personal limitations Taiji offers something for all. Taiji is often misrepresented around the world to be just a slow moving exercise for the elderly. This could not be further from the truth. Our mission is to provide accurate instruction, information and also the true history of this art and it's evolution into the modern world. For the past 20 years Steve's focus has become a concentrated effort to understand Taiji as the complete art it really is. This includes regular trips to Chen Village, China and training with Master Zhu Tiancai (19th generation) of Chen Village and Master Kam Lee (20th generation) of Florida. Steve follows the Chenjiagou (Chen) Style Taiji curriculum established by Master Zhu Tiancai and Master Kam Lee.  He has also attended workshops with many Masters, such as Zhu Xiang Hua, Chen Zheng Lei, Chen Xiao Wang, Chen Bing, William CC Chen, Dr.Yang Yang,  Yang Zhenduo, Yang Zhun and Master Liu of Shandong.
His training has also involved various styles of Jiu-Jitsu, Judo,  Karate, Kick-boxing and a variety of other disciplines. "I still believe an open mind is required to fully understand the full spectrum of Martial Arts and all Arts have their strengths" He has also had the opportunity to visit, interview or be critiqued by some of China's most renowned Taiji Masters such as the late 18th Generation Master Feng Zhi Qiang,  Master Chen Yu (Chen Zhaokui's son), Chen Qingzhou, and some other equally skilled , but less known Masters. This has helped him gain a more well rounded understanding of Taiji, its principles, philosophy and true history. 
  Steve has spent the last three years living, training and working in China.  He will be moving back to the states this year. In his absence all classes are taught by his trained staff.
Steve also produces Martial Art Training DVDs including instruction in Chen Taiji with both Master Zhu Tiancai and Master Kam Lee.

Steve had previously been involved in helping to translate much needed Chinese Kungfu and philosophical material to the English speaking world.

As an author of many Taiji articles, he continues to write pieces geared for westerners to better understand this eastern-based philosophical art.
He is in the process of organizing all the efforts of his research into a book covering all aspects of Taijiquan.

He serves as a judge at International Tournaments for both MMA and Traditional Martial Arts. His school has produced many Gold, Silver and Bronze medalists. He has competed in Tournaments in both China and the USA. Steve sponsors workshops in both the USA and China. He promotes trips to China for training with the worlds most accomplished Masters for individuals or groups.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Demystifying and Revealing the Truth on how Taijiquan Works

Demystifying and Revealing the Truth on how
 Taijiquan Works

Part 1
A basic explanation of Taijiquan to my fellow Martial Artists

This article is my interpretation of Taijiquan (focusing on the Chen Style) as seen through my eyes. I have not emphasized the health and philosophical aspects in this article, because I believe most people are already aware of the legitimate association they have with Taijiquan. I have reflected some of the thoughts of the Taiji Masters with whom I have trained with and also have included many of my own. I certainly do not claim to represent the Taiji world in any way nor will this put to rest all of the debate and mysticism surrounding Taijiquan. Keep in mind, there are many ways to look at Taijiquan, however this should at least introduce the Martial Arts World to some basic Taijiquan concepts (many of which they also may be familiar with). My Martial Art training began forty years ago with the last twenty focusing on Taiji and the past twelve dedicated almost exclusively to the Chen Style. I have come to strongly believe that balance and harmony (as illustrated by the philosophy of Yin and Yang) are the key ingredients to understanding not only Taijiquan philosophy, but life itself.

 (I will purposely avoid using Taijiquan Terminology and in its place use some basic language and analogies recognizable outside of the Taiji world.)

I have found that even here in China, many people are unaware of the combat roots in which Chen Taijiquan was spawned. Even some practitioners focusing on the tremendous health aspect of this otherwise misunderstood art and its spin-offs (Yang, Wu, Wu, and Sun to name a few) are unaware of the true origin of Chen Taijiquan. Its development was predicated on defense in life and death situations in a brutally violent environment. 
Most modern martial art historians now credit the Chen family for creating Taijiquan as we know it today. The Chen Clan has been known for their martial arts for the past 20 generations, but it was a 9th generation family member Chen Wanting (1600-1680) who is considered to be Chen Taijiquan’s founding father. He was a famous bodyguard and also a well known military commander. He used his expertise to combine a variety of martial art principles with the theories of Yin and Yang, using breathing in conjunction with body movements to guide and focus energy, along with the principles of Traditional Chinese Medicine.  It is this eclectic blend that makes Taijiquan a most all encompassing and unique Martial Art.

 Now for some details: bear in mind that all Martial Arts have some common factors. Taijiquan is a complicated system utilizing and resting upon many important principles. Among the most fundamental of these principles are balance, stability, leverage, redirecting and the neutralization of force and of course generating force (including how to place force on a particular point of the lever - wherever that point may be in a given situation). Careful consideration to body alignment and proper structure is a must. This must also be achieved without over-tightening muscles and joints that would otherwise be counter productive to natural movement. Why is relaxation of the body necessary? A key reason is that all joints require muscle groups for movement. Muscles responsible for movements are paired off with opposing muscles such as biceps and triceps (arm movements as in bending/pulling and straightening/pushing) and chest and back (as in pushing and pulling). If the opposing muscle such as the biceps tighten up while the triceps are engaged in a pushing or punching motion, the bicep diminishes both the power and speed of the movement. The same problem applies to any of the muscles trying to move any joint in any direction. This would compare to trying to push a disabled vehicle off the road with four individuals, two in front wanting to push backwards and two in the rear trying to push forwards. There is a conflict between the four men which hinders the task. Even if the two front men over power the two men in the back, this is not an efficient way to operate.  However a totally relaxed body without any structure is equally useless. (Anyone who says Taijiquan does not use any muscular force is misunderstanding this art. The difference is how it is used.)
Another basic principle is that movement must possess a spiraling transfer of force from a push of the foot off the ground to the dantian (body’s center located in the lower abdominal region) and only then can it be delivered throughout the body as needed. ( Also consider on a more technical level that even the initial push of the ground is preceded by dantian movement. Force can be also initiated from internal torque within the body when a solid root is not available, but an even higher level of Taiji skill is needed.) Unlike some martial arts Taijiquan utilizes every part of the body and all parts must be capable of delivering power in order to protect oneself. Whether done fast or slow it must not lose its fluidity. All of this, while maintaining a straight upper torso with movements usually traveling in an arc like path (though they sometimes appear straight due to the shortness of the distance traveled – it is said that there are no straight lines in nature).  Picture 1A CAPTION  Anyone who has trained on some of the older Universal type weight equipment or even the modern Smith Machine should be able to recall the discomfort of trying to apply force on a machine that only travels in a straight line (such as a military-press, bench-press or squat). It can be done, but it misaligns and stresses the joints and muscles of the body in an anatomically incorrect fashion. The practitioner must be able to deliver force at any point in the circular path. He must also be able to accept incoming force by the use of redirecting and neutralizing (without the use of impact).
First let us look at issuing power.
The offensive release of force is likened to letting go of an arrow (just slightly opening two fingers) when placed in a drawn bow. Other ways to look at it would be squeezing the trigger on a garden-hose nozzle where the water has been turned on and pressure is present in the hose or a dog shaking the mud and rain off of its body. The mud and rain go flying off effortlessly.

With these analogies in mind you must also add this important thought. That in whatever direction you must emit power or accept incoming force; the tool for the job revolves as if it is part of a sphere and can be pointed in any direction. This allows the Taijiquan practitioner to be able to defend himself from all directions and from any position. (This sphere is located at the body’s center / lower abdominal region area aka dantian.)

Another method of initiating power is the folding and unfolding of the torso (in the chest, shoulder an upper back area). Utilizing a center vertical line running through the torso from the crown of the head to a low point of the torso found between the genitalia and the anus. This centerline acts as a hinge allowing the shoulders to swing forward or backward (never exceeding they natural range of motion) both individually and or simultaneously.  This can be compared to getting hit by a slamming door set to spring open or closed. In close quarters, clinching or grappling the shoulder (in all directions) becomes a powerful striking tool that requires limited movement, but explosive power and virtually no telegraphic warnings before the strike lands.

In general when releasing power in any direction, the body cyclically passes through three different stages, similar to that of a spring including coiling or compressing, releasing or expanding and then returning to a neutral state neither compressed nor expanded. Early practice of the form teaches this in a very slow methodical way. From a neutral position (relaxed while maintaining proper structure)  the body coils in the opposite direction from which it wants to move and then a releasing motion of the body sends it in its intended direction which is the uncoiling and expanding likened to that of the spring, which could also be used to release power. From that point of expansion (never extending one’s body or limbs beyond its limits of balance) it naturally returns to the neutral position and this process is repeated throughout the form. These movements are not always all that visible to the naked eye. Keep in mind  (as mentioned above) another dimension to this spring-like movement that separates Chen Taijiquan  from other styles is the revolving of the body’s center (dantian) in any direction needed to drive the created force spiraling out. Thus the rotation of the body’s center is the true driving force of all power. These movements like all Taijiquan movements should be executed while maintaining a solid, but flexible root and stable connection to the ground with the exception of the higher level of internal torque available to the more advanced level practitioner. This also does not mean that one’s foot can never leave the ground, but you must push off of your root to have maximum force. This can also be compared to a ball or a wheel rolling on the ground with total freedom, but still needing to maintain contact with the ground for continuous controlled movement. When contact is lost for an extended time it would resemble a car hydroplaning out of control. Although it is still a dangerous moving mass, it can’t be guided or controlled properly until it reconnects to the road. With Taijiquan, we strive to utilize all the laws of nature while maintaining total control of our moving and rolling mass and its power while having the highest level of awareness, sensitivity and efficiency (all with a relaxed mind and body).
One of the defensive structural properties of Taijiquan mimics a balloon being punched while suspended in air. It barely moves and does not pop, because it is soft and offers no resistance that would create any impact. It just floats enough to be out of the initial reach of what ever is striking it.
Even holding it in a fixed position and pressing in with a finger does not damage its inflated structure, as the finger is being withdrawn the surface is returning to its original shape. Consider what happens when you take a sledge-hammer to a hard concrete block. How about taking that same sledge-hammer to a properly inflated rubber tire. The hammer bounces off the tire with the same force it hits it with and no damage to the tire. Which would you rather be the concrete block or the rubber tire?  (My teacher demonstrated this principal by letting me punch him in the stomach and my fist bounced right off.)

 I recall an experience in my younger construction days while swinging a sledge hammer to break up a concrete patio. There was a clothes line above and I caught it with a high overhead swing. The clothes line (made of a rope stretched across the yard from one tree to another) caught the head of the hammer, accepted the force and then released it back in the direction it came from with such speed that it hit me in the back. That thin rope defended itself better from my hammer than the hard concrete did. It even counter-struck me in the back with enough force that I instantly was knocked off my feet. That is just another example of softness overcoming hardness.

Defending against blows or accepting incoming force in from your opponent also compares to the tire and clothes line theory. An example of another Taiji principal would be like throwing an object in to a tornado where it becomes redirected. (No impact needed.)
These are just some of the Taijiquan methods of dealing with incoming force that lends to Philosophy of Yin and Yang. Combining soft and hard as needed to produce the desired results.
As we develop the basic skills we also must constantly increase our level of awareness, sensitivity, clarity in thinking seeing and feeling and all while not upsetting the harmony of natural movement.  Carrying over to the Martial side and combat related scenarios we must also understand following and entering into an opponents territory (range) with the path of no resistance.  The mind must possess the perfect blend of alertness while in a relaxed state so as not to be hindered by anxiety, fear, premeditated movements or anticipation from the actions of your opponent. Your reactions are to be spontaneous with out thought, more like other functions of the body when performing involuntary actions.
The aforementioned is certainly not a comprehensive list of the myriad of skills needed to master this art, but are basic skills that should be understood by an intermediate player to say the least.  In part 2 we will discuss how one can attain these needed skills.

 Please look for Part 2 on this blog-site

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Sunday, March 27, 2011

This Year'sTraining with Masters Zhu Tiancai and Chen Bing

This Year's Training with Masters Zhu Tiancai and Chen Bing

Although their approaches to training differ, they both have the ability to identify my many Taiji flaws and try to correct me in a way that I can understand. I would recommend that anyone who has the chance to train with them in Chen Village should do so. They both have large training facilities and can accommodate any individual or group that would like to train there. The advantage of training there is not only the great instruction, but the environment and feel of being in the birthplace of Taiji. Second to training there would be to catch up to them at workshops in the US.  If you are interested in training in China including Chen Village, Shaolin Temple or any other place, I can help you make the needed arrangements. The last point I will make in this entry is for Taiji Historians. Chen Village is starting to change a lot. If you want to catch a glimpse of the past before it disappears and catches up to the rest of the world, don't delay your visit. Time is running out.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Welcome to the Taiji Center Forum

Visit my full web-site

Dear Readers and Friends,
I will try to share some of my training and living experiences with you. I hope that all of the readers of this blog can share there knowledge with me regarding the arts and their philosophies.
I have been very fortunate to have visited China more than 10 times since 2002 and have been living there for the past two and a half years.  I have trained for the past 40 years in a variety of martial arts. The past 20 have been with Taiji and the past 11 years have been dedicated to the Chen Style. (Under the tutelage of Master Kam Lee and Grand Master Zhu Tiancai along with some other representatives from Chen Village.) I consider myself an open minded martial artist and see strengths in all the arts that I have had a chance to experience. Taiji is certainly one of the most misunderstood arts worldwide (including here in  China) It was developed as a self-defense in a violent era of China. The Chen family used their skills under life and death situations as bodyguards and escorts. We will explore some of their original training methods still being used today by some practitioners.

At this time in my life I find Chen Taiji the most suitable. It is not because of my age (53).
It is because of its practicality, versatility and philosophy.
 I will be adding to this blog regularly. I hope you will contribute with both questions and by sharing your experiences with any martial arts.  I hope to improve our understanding of the arts through this blog and its companion website -

Thanks for reading,
Steve Contes

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Observations From Living in China

Observations From China

Written by Steve Contes

I had the opportunity to live in China for the past three years and had been making regular trips to China since 2002. My original intention regarding my long stay was for Taiji Study. The experience and education I gained went far beyond martial arts, but did exemplify Taiji principles on a most practical level (every day living and survival). I will share with you some interesting observations regarding people living and working old school style. Many of our modern conveniences are absent yet they seem happier.  I also understand that this type of life-style is not exclusive only to those in China. It just happens to be the environment where I was exposed to it along with both a blend of Chinese philosophy and tradition and how it is ultimately adaptable to any type of surroundings or way of life.  Same as Taiji (born of Chinese philosophy and tradition) which also proves to be adaptable when and wherever needed.


Chinese philosopher, Meng Zi (372-289 BC):


“When Heaven is about to place a great burden on a manit always tests his resolution firstexhausts his body, makes him suffer great hardships and frustrates his efforts to recover from mental lassitudeThen Heaven toughens his nature and makes good his deficiencies.”  Greatness is born

I believe life’s lessons present themselves (in the forms of challenges and difficulties) as needed and it is up to the individual whether he accepts what is being offered or chooses to ignore it. The more important the lesson is the greater the challenge will be. This theory explains why so many seemingly ordinary people do extraordinary things.  We are all constantly facing challenges on different levels. When it comes to every day living, most of us here in America have been exposed to a fairly modern life-style where many things are often taken for granted. China is also enjoying rapid progress in becoming a modern country. It still has a large curve to turn before the majority of its people catch up to what most of us here consider a basic standard of living. Unfortunately often when something is gained another is lost. I have already personally observed this phenomenon here in China over the past ten years. From my perspective some of the trade offs possess more of a negative than positive effect on China’s future.   


Bedtime on a cold winter’s night 

Hot water, heat, warm beds to sleep in, mattresses to sleep on, air-conditioning, bathrooms, bathtubs, showers, toilets and well equipped kitchens, washing machines, dryers etc… are not the norm in many areas. I lived in a six story building for teachers at a public high school. (I was the only foreigner there) Most of the apartments had no bathing facilities nor did they have a kitchen. Heat and AC was also not available on the first five floors.

Most of us here in the states depend on motor vehicles instead of bicycles or walking. Not so in China. Time and time again in the U.S., I have witnessed drivers attempting to park in a busy mall or shopping center, circle the lot  five or six times. All just to get a spot closer in order to avoid the slightest amount of what they believe to be unnecessary walking. That mentality wouldn’t fly in China. For those of you that do not fit in to the above category of typical American living, you can easily relate to the larger number of people in China I am referring to. For the rest of you, try to use your imagination


Hot or cold, rain or snow, the bicycle is an indispensable tool used 365 days a year. From students traveling to school or women in dresses and men in suits on their way to the office, biking is the acceptable method of travel. Construction workers hauling materials or people making deliveries, even small restaurant kitchens that set up on the road-side all working off bikes or trikes.


                                              Food Vendors

 So here are some of my observations.

I have had the opportunity to watch many people in different places performing a large variety of tasks. The group I am speaking of usually range from forty or so on up. (Way on up) From street vendors outside in sub-zero temperatures to men doing the work of machines or climbing mountain paths carrying pails of water to pulling unthinkable loads on bicycles etc...


Bikes doing the work of trucks, people doing the jobs of engines.

Electric Bike

One thing holds true with their methods. What at first glance seems to be a slow and inefficient performance of ones responsibilities, slowly and methodically transforms itself into both a practical and successful way of completing a job more than well done. Nothing deters them from their objective, which does not even appear to be finishing as much as just doing, which somehow naturally manifests the end and needed results.  Speed here is not even a consideration and appears to have no value and perhaps more likely to be considered a disadvantage, because it can’t compete with the slower, fluid and steady process. Their persistence and skill operate like a happy marriage from start to finish no matter what the challenging task may be.

 No movement needs to be done twice. No use of any modern tools or devices. Mostly some home made concoction using a combination of other items that may have outlived their original purpose only to be reincarnated and modified to live another productive life. The other ingredient embedded in each task is the element of enjoyment which is hard to comprehend due to the nature of the job itself and the often harsh environment in which it takes place. (Extreme weather both summer heat and frozen winters)  My 5:00am morning bike ride to the park (for Taiji practice) was always filled with the sounds of early street cleaners and vendors laughing, singing and joking. It became an inspirational part of my day that I grew to look forward to. I guess the magic lies in the simplicity of it all, not the motivation to finish one thing so you can start another and the fundamental principle of appreciating life. There is no feeling sorry for yourself here, no matter what the situation. It is also the same enjoyable discipline possessed by my fellow Taiji practitioners in the park. Come rain or shine (or  blizzard) the many dedicated and most of them elderly rarely miss a morning workout.. But in the end objectives are met and all goes well. This is also how they approach other aspects of their lives as well.


As hard as they work, they balance it out with ample time socializing and enjoying family and friends.

 I was fortunate to make some very good friends there and was invited in to there homes for food, (some of the best I ever ate although sometimes strange at first glance like many new encounters I met up with) drink and the many of the family oriented gatherings they enjoy.

Some local delicacies

 Be it a holiday or just an evening to share with family (usually three or four generations worth) or friends the topics of discussion never addressed complaints about one’s living conditions or daily difficulties.  It is not that they are complacent or lack ambition.  Conversations were often filled with passion, emotion and controversy, but no self-pity.  Even arguing and confrontation here seems to lack stress, anxiety and a prolonged negative effect on one’s attitude. No place is perfect and China is certainly no exception. That’s ok with me because I am not looking for perfection, just peace and contentment. I have learned that with the right perspective I can find exactly what I am looking for anywhere and anytime. (I fully became aware of this principle while living in China.)

 I will try to benefit from this philosophy and apply it to my own life. So in the long run, I have learned an important lesson that I will cherish, hold and continue to expand on.

As for me, I now prefer the simpler life style I came to know and love in China. I began to enjoy such basic responsibilities like riding my three kids to school on my bike. (Two separate trips for three children- two kids and an adult on a bike is a common sight and four or five on an electric bike doesn’t even turn heads. ) Early training (5:30am) in the park even when winter served up some of the coldest days I have ever witnessed, was one of my favorite parts of the day. Stopping at a few street vendor/restaurants on my way back home and picking up hot breakfast for my family of five for about the equivalent of $1.75 which never ceased to amaze me, but always put a smile on my face followed by a sensation of fullness in my stomach.  Hard boiled eggs cooked in a flavorful broth, rice with beans and fruit congee and of course steamed Bao zi (steamed bread stuffed with anything you like) which also served as an efficient hand warmer topped off with traditional fresh bakery items. I would have more than enough for everyone and leftovers for an in between meal time snack. With each task that required an enjoyable effort, I was also rewarded with a greater satisfaction in a way that I had never previously experienced.  With the exception of being absent from my parents, eldest daughter, other family members and friends any originally believed to be concessions of my American life became integral lessons in personal growth. Example: I am an avid driver (cars, motorcycles and trucks) and have driven throughout 46 of the contiguous states and loved every mile of it, but  no longer missed driving my own vehicle.  The bicycle was a sweet replacement that not only transported me from place to place, but provided a closer look at the beautiful scenery on the way (certainly missed by any motorized transportation) and a stronger, healthier body with less of a dirty anthropogenic footprint on our struggling environment. Also the travel itself was always as gratifying as the arrival. That is just a small sample of my personal but beautiful experience living in China. 

Regarding Taiji principles: The life-style and philosophy discussed above lead to a balanced life full of contentment, but not blinded by any harsh realities.

 I personally have begun to take a slower approach to my practice and my life. Less driving and more biking. Still training hard 2-3 hours a day, but without the great demands I previously put on my self. (Also noticeably less injuries leading to more consistency in my training)  It’s another example of the aforementioned. It is no longer important for me to study more and more new forms, but instead to understand fewer more deeply and clearly. I don’t focus on quantity.  I just enjoy the training and that has led me to better see and understand Taij and the rest of my life from a new perspective. Taiji without the pressures and the goals is now giving me even more benefits than before. So without goals, goals are also achieved in a very natural way.

That is my interpretation on some fundamental Taiji principles and how they can impact our lives both short and long term in a most positive way. Please send me your thoughts on this article.



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About the author: A practicing martial artist for over 40 years and researcher of philosophy and health from around the world, old and new.