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