Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Is Your Taiji An Effective Martial Art

Is Your Taijiquan An Effective Martial Art?

                                           By Steve Contes


Taiji is a most generous art in which it is willing to share all of its wealth with any willing practitioner.  The more diligent the practice the greater value of the gifts presented. Wealth and gifts in this case implying overall health, physical and spiritual strength and sometimes, but not often martial skills. I place no emphasis on which of the many offerings are most important. That is personal and related to each individual and their priorities at any given stages of their life.  I do acknowledge that there are distinctions between Taiji and Taijiquan. There is a line drawn separating Taiji players from the Taijiquan martial artists. Maybe even a better explanation would be to state that Taijiquan martial artists or a subset in the category of Taiji Players.


How can the player become the martial artist is the question I will explore.


The issue of what it takes to obtain or perfect any of a variety of skills or crafts will be the first task to address.

When one undertakes any form of comprehensive study there are usually two sides to the training. We have both the theoretical and the practical side. Doctors will undergo years of intensive training in Med school.  But no matter how intelligent they are or diligent they were as med-students, without the practical side of their internship in their chosen field he or she would be incapable of utilizing their newly found knowledge. Even at the early stages of a medical career, doctors are far from being masters of their craft. It takes years of arduous practice to slowly transcend them into (hopefully) competent practitioners of medicine.

Whether you are fresh out of law school or trade school, you are still unseasoned in your field. I would not want to fly with a pilot on his or her maiden voyage, be represented by an attorney without trial experience,  go under the knife of a surgeon the day after graduation nor what I have a novice carpenter build me a home.   


Why would one think martial arts could be any different?  Successful Martial Artists from an array of disciplines hone their skills by combining theory, technique, conditioning, drills and finally practical applications of the above with both willing and unwilling partners.  Boxers spend countless hours sparring, wrestlers pay their dues facing off on the mat, judokas playing randori etc…  In the past Taijiquan Masters engaged in rigorous training not often seen here in today’s Taiji world. They had to be confident in their skills, because they were used to protect both the lives of others and themselves.


The Chen Family is commonly recognized for being the originators of the martial art, Taijiquan which acted as the parent style for its many offshoots.

It is also clearly documented by many sources that numerous Chen Taiji Family members throughout their family history served as body guards, escorts (not that kind), soldiers and protectors of their villages during the violent and fierce times of China’s turbulent history.  

These early accounts go back as far as the1300s  with stories of Chen Bu (skilled martial artist of the Chen Family Clan)  It was Chen Bu after settling in a village then known as Chang Yang Village (modern name, Chen Jiagou) lead a successful attack on bandits that had been terrorizing the area prior to his arrival.


 Above Pictured: 9th Generation Chen Wanting (1600-1680)


Chen Wanting served as a military officer and Commander of the Garrison Force of Wenxian, Henan China prior to the fall of the Ming Dynasty (1644). As the leader of many successful battles he too earned legendary status related to his martial arts prowess. 


  It was after this period during the early Qing Dynasty era (which lasted from 1644-1911) where Chen Wanting developed a unique martial art drawing on the principles of  Yin and Yang theory, Daoyin (leading energy) , and Tu-Na (expelling and drawing energy), and Jingluo Theory ( based on the bodies meridians and energy flow). 


It is his art that has evolved into to what we now know as Chen Style Taijiquan. It is considered by most historians to have originated with the emphasis on Martial Art skills.   


When it became necessary for the Chen family members to employ their martial abilities, there were no judges, mats or rules, just the pure instinct to survive.


Fortunately today for most of us, we live in a much different world, but that does not mean that such skills are no longer of value. Obtaining those skills certainly require additional effort beyond the scope of what most Taiji practitioners usually study.


Today’s Taiji Players engage in their art for many purposes from general heath to self defense or anything in between. Training methods include, but are not limited to the following: standing pole, meditation, moving exercises such as different methods of qigong and forms, two man drills, the use of weapons and training tools along with push-hands. These are considered by many as the core aspects of the practice. If self defense is a concern for you this curriculum may need to be adjusted. In this article we will not take time to define the benefits of these so called Taiji fundamentals.   I understand that most of the readers of this publication are likely to be well versed on the subject of these rudimentary exercises. I also agree that they are some of the integral key ingredients for the practitioner to cultivate his or her skills. However those skills must be tested and refined in a practical and realistic environment before they can become reliable for defense.  There appears to be a systematic form of denial among some Taiji Players and teachers, novice to experienced (along with other fellow martial artists) that the latter refinement process is not critical. That could not be further from the truth. For Taijiquan martial artists there is a definitive need to perfect their skills beyond the extremely valuable forms and push hands that they practice. Based on my subjective opinion drawn from my over forty years plus experience in a variety of martial arts, sixteen years as a relatively small NY bouncer  (about 160 lbs at the time) and seventeen years as a private investigator/process server, reality based training for the martial artist is nothing short of a necessity.


I would confidently state those who believe push-hands (as seen here in American competitions) can be used in place of free sparring practice would become well educated in three or four minutes on the Sanda Leitai, boxing ring, grappling mat or informally sparring with any competent reality based martial artist. I will also confidentially state that any Taiji player who has developed the skills that precede free sparring practice should be able to smoothly transition to the next phase of reality training and become a complete and effective martial artist.


Hypothetically speaking if there are nine levels of training leading an individual to becoming a Taijiquan Martial Artist, achieving seven or eight just does not suffice, just as a staircase missing the top two or three steps would make it difficult for an individual to reach the next floor. 


As for me, I personally have succeeded in pushing partners that could easily dominate me in the ring or street and I have also been pushed by some that may not be as successful or effective in the ring or the street.  (I am also very aware of the differences between those two environments, but they also share many commonalities)  To be a truly brilliant Taijiquan  player, one ought to be effective in any environment at any given time.  I’ve had the privilege of having high level Taiji Masters personally illustrate their mastery on me. Although some of the lessons I received may have been brief in duration, they were none the less crucial in leading me to a greater understanding of Taiji principles (and how far I am from utilizing them to their true potential). The experiences were both physically painful, (a small price to pay for the lessons learned) as well as totally fulfilling and enlightening.


The example that epitomizes one particular experience took place early one summer morning in Di Tan Park, Beijing 2004.  I was fortunately provided with the unique opportunity to meet and be evaluated by Grand Master 18th Generation Feng Zhiqiang.  (Thanks to a close friend of mine Coco Zhang)  The results of this encounter led to an invitation to push with this Taiji legend. From the moment the hair on my arm barely made contact with his very being, Master Feng was controlling every aspect of my even slightest intention as well as my breath. To this day I cannot find the words to describe the experience and the level of his skills. The only parallel that I can draw to anyone not present was the outcome would have been identical had I just handed him my empty shirt. This experience was perhaps my most profound relating to the past forty-two years in the Martial arts. The memory is consistently reincarnated every time I push hands, grapple or spar. My sincerest thanks to him, a most generous, humble and extraordinarily skilled master for taking the time to give me an unknown and novice student a valuable lesson.        



Back to my main, but simple point,: Due to the lack of participation and study in a free style atmosphere  I contend that the majority of the Taiji players have fallen off the wagon regarding successfully becoming martial artist. (There are also many extremely skilled Taijiquan practitioners that have crossed over to the other side.) That is where training with a variety of partners including those from different disciplines is as necessary as the continuation of the aforementioned methods of training. Nothing can replace the valuable lessons earned with free sparring or free style push hands. Once the Taiji player enters into this type of reality practice they may also discover that their level of fitness regarding strength and stamina may have a few flaws.  If this last step of the training is approached with the same diligence as the previous more commonly practiced skills, (deemed essential by most) Taijiquan as a defensive art can truly be realized.



I advocate that the Taji player seek out places and martial artists to train with from both in and out of the Taiji community.

Whether informal or formal this type of training should be explored.  Where you gain this experience can be anywhere from a backyards to organized competitions.


I have spoken to many push hand competitors here in the states. There appears to be a common consensus that a more pragmatic setting to test their skills beyond what is ordinarily offered by the American Push Hands standard is needed. Most players will honestly admit even after successfully outscoring their opponents they too were often violating basic Taiji principles in the process. Had the rules of the competition been less restrictive they would have been vulnerable regarding defending themselves. “Should we be saved by rules or Taiji principles when practicing our art”?




Example Above : Common push hands mistake shown above. The black shirt overextending himself to push an opponent.

Even if the black shirt were to be awarded a point, he is  over extended and has gone beyond his center of balance. (He would be quite vulnerable to defend from that position)

How do I know? The black shirt is me. In Open Style Push Hands no point would be awarded.  


Open Style Push-hands and free sparring are a natural progression beyond normal push hands as seen here in the states.

Spending extensive time traveling and living in China I had the opportunity to observe a variety of push hand competitions and training sessions (both formal and informal) and trained with many Taiji players. For those interested I am hoping to bring open style push hands void of the many restrictions being observed here at our domestic tournaments.


I am personally developing a new venue with a set of rules and conditions where any martial artist can examine and compare their skills in a fair and friendly atmosphere.


 I am by no way trying to admonish the validity of American style push hands however I am trying to offer what I consider to be the next natural step in training for Taijiquan Martial Artist. This is certainly is not for everyone. Those who do choose to engage will develop a deeper understanding of the martial side of Taiji (known  as Taijiquan).



It is a personal choice for every practitioner to decide what they want from this most generous art. Although I have personally benefited from the health and spiritual components of this art, I am intrigued by its martial qualities and will continue to study them in great depth. In the end for Taiji Players, it’s all good.

Whether you are a Taiji player focusing primarily on the many health benefits or a member of the subset crossing over that line towards martial arts, you have invested your time and efforts wisely.  


If this type of study is appealing to you or you would like to share your opinions, contact me at


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


Friday, February 17, 2012

Research: Tai Chi Classes for Seniors

New Research Regarding
Tai Chi / Taiji Classes for Seniors 
Steve Contes
New Port Richey FL.
Once again I refer to some additional research conducted by Fuzhong Li, Ph.D. of the Oregon Research Institute, and colleagues. The research piece can be found below my brief introduction. 

I have personally seen my Senior Students greatly improve their strength, balance, energy levels, flexibility, coordination, and overall health (physical and mental) with a steady diet of Tai Chi in their weekly schedules. It also provides a social atmosphere where students can make new friends, share common interests and often develop new ones.  I sincerely hope that the type of research presently available encourages the Senior population to get out there and see for themselves how Taiji can enrich their lives. No matter what you perceive your present physical condition or state of health, you can engage in the practice of Taiji. I also caution potential students to train only with a qualified Taiji Instructor. If you have any questions on how to go about the task of locating one, contact me directly and I will try my best to assist you in your search (where ever you are residing).

 As I said in the last blog (Tai Chi as  Treatment for Parkinson’s) I am extremely appreciative of Fuzhong Li Ph.D.and his colleagues for all their efforts and also willingness to share their findings regarding how Taiji (Tai Chi)   can benefit those addressing issues associated with aging or any other health complications.

Physical Training Jan 2002
Tai Chi Good Way
For Elderly People To Return To Exercise
The low-impact Chinese exercise, Tai Chi, can help older people regain some of the physical functioning that they may have lost to inactivity, according to a new study.
Seniors taking Tai Chi classes reported better physical functioning both at the three-month midpoint and the six-month end of the pilot study, says Fuzhong Li, Ph.D., of the Oregon Research Institute, and colleagues.
The study included 72 people between the ages of 65 and 96 who were split into a group that went to an hour-long class twice a week for six months and a control group that was promised a four-week class at the end of the study.
"We found significant improvements within three months on a low-intensity program conducted twice a week. Our results also showed improved benefits from six months of participation, suggesting that additional health gains can be derived from a longer period of participation," the researchers say.
The study is published in the May issue of the Annals of Behavioral Medicine.
They contrast this with previous research on exercise programs that suggests much longer periods are needed to show significant improvements in functioning.
On completion of the study, the Tai Chi students were also twice as likely as the control group to report not being limited in their ability to perform moderate-to-vigorous activities.
In comparison to previous research, which shows that half of sedentary people are unable to maintain a newly adopted exercise program, these findings were also unique in that only 18 percent of participants dropped out of the Tai Chi class. The researchers suggest Tai Chi may offer a particularly attractive form of fitness activity for this population. Members of the classes described the lessons as a positive experience with wide ranging benefits that both energized and relaxed them. They felt it had helped them build better flexibility, balance and strength.
The researchers did note that since the study recruited volunteers for the study, the participants may have been more motivated than other sedentary elderly people to exercise.
The study cost approximately $9,000.
Through grants from the National Institute on Aging, the researchers are continuing their    examination of the effects of Tai Chi on seniors' health outcomes, such as falls, physical ability and long-term health behaviors.

Annals of Behavioral Medicine is the official peer-reviewed publication of The Society of Behavioral Medicine. For information about the journal, contact Robert Kaplan, PhD, (858) 534-6058. For copies of the article, contact the Center for the Advancement of Health at 202.387.2829 or e-mail
Center for the Advancement of Health Contact: Ira R. Allen Director of Public Affairs  202.387.2829
Contact: Fuzhong Li, Ph.D. (541) 484-2123 (ext. 2137)     or John Fisher (541) 484-2123 (ext. 2228)

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Tai Chi (Taiji) as a Treatment for Parkinson’s

Tai Chi (Taiji) as a Treatment for Parkinson’s
Written by Steve Contes / FL based Tai Chi instructor(I am not a doctor nor am I a professional in any medical field)
The New England Journal of Medicine recently posted some interesting research which prompted me to write this article and share their findings.
 (My personal beliefs are that not only does Taiji aid in the physical aspects of this disease, but it is also a potent tool to ease the mental and emotional states often associated with Parkinson’s and many other diseases. This article and related research focuses on the physical challenges as related to Parkinson’s)
Taiji is no longer shrouded in mystery for those seeking to understand this eastern-based art.
That also includes the western Medical World. Thanks to the efforts of Doctors such as Fuzhong Li, Ph.D, Dr Yang Yang and many others we are now seeing the long awaited marriage of Eastern and Western philosophies regarding health.  Maybe in my optimistic state of mind I’m jumping the gun, so let me rephrase the above statement. “The engagement announcement of Eastern and Western philosophies regarding health”. It seems that we still have a ways to go. You might say that the parents of this couple have more than a few hurtles in front of them and they are not exactly holding their glasses high and toasting one and other (yet).  However, they are beginning to understand each other better and actually agreeing on certain concepts (or sitting in the same room so to speak). One of those being Taiji as a viable tool for treating some of the diseases that continue to challenge western medicine.  The New England Journal of Medicine is no stranger to controversy related to what they will publish. It is certainly not always in accordance with typical western medicine’s way of thinking.  Last week an article was published based on the works of   Fuzhong Li, Ph.D., Peter Harmer, Ph.D., M.P.H., Kathleen Fitzgerald, M.D., Elizabeth Eckstrom, M.D., M.P.H., Ronald Stock, M.D., Johnny Galver, P.T., Gianni Maddalozzo, Ph.D., and Sara S. Batya, M.D.
N England  Journal  Medicine  2012; 366:511-519     February 9, 2012
I commend them and greatly appreciate the efforts of  Fuzhong Li, Ph.D and his colleagues.  Also with his permission I present to you a condensed version of their report including their conclusion as posted on the site of The New England Journal of Medicine. 

Tai Chi and Postural Stability in Patients with Parkinson's Disease


Patients with Parkinson's disease have substantially impaired balance, leading to diminished functional ability and an increased risk of falling. Although exercise is routinely encouraged by health care providers, few programs have been proven effective.


We conducted a randomized, controlled trial to determine whether a tailored tai chi program could improve postural control in patients with idiopathic Parkinson's disease. We randomly assigned 195 patients with stage 1 to 4 disease on the Hoehn and Yahr staging scale (which ranges from 1 to 5, with higher stages indicating more severe disease) to one of three groups: tai chi, resistance training, or stretching. The patients participated in 60-minute exercise sessions twice weekly for 24 weeks. The primary outcomes were changes from baseline in the limits-of-stability test (maximum excursion and directional control; range, 0 to 100%). Secondary outcomes included measures of gait and strength, scores on functional-reach and timed up-and-go tests, motor scores on the Unified Parkinson's Disease Rating Scale, and number of falls.


The tai chi group performed consistently better than the resistance-training and stretching groups in maximum excursion (between-group difference in the change from baseline, 5.55 percentage points; 95% confidence interval [CI], 1.12 to 9.97; and 11.98 percentage points; 95% CI, 7.21 to 16.74, respectively) and in directional control (10.45 percentage points; 95% CI, 3.89 to 17.00; and 11.38 percentage points; 95% CI, 5.50 to 17.27, respectively). The tai chi group also performed better than the stretching group in all secondary outcomes and outperformed the resistance-training group in stride length and functional reach. Tai chi lowered the incidence of falls as compared with stretching but not as compared with resistance training. The effects of tai chi training were maintained at 3 months after the intervention. No serious adverse events were observed.


Tai chi training appears to reduce balance impairments in patients with mild-to-moderate Parkinson's disease, with additional benefits of improved functional capacity and reduced falls. (Funded by the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke; number, NCT00611481.)
Supported by a grant (NS047130) from the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.
Disclosure forms provided by the authors are available with the full text of this article at
No potential conflict of interest relevant to this article was reported.
We thank all the study participants (in Eugene, Corvallis, Salem, and Portland) for their support and dedication to this research project; the neurologists for providing medical clearance and Parkinson's disease stage diagnoses for their participating patients; the project instructors (Vicki Anderson, Denise Thomas-Morrow, Don Hildenbrand, Brian McCall, James Lusk, Nancy Nelson, Teena Hall, Machiko Shirai, and Julie Tye); the research assistants (Debbie Blanchard, Kristen Briggs, Ruben Guzman, Daehan Kim, Lisa Marion, Arissa Fitch-Martin, Kimber Mattox, Julia Mazur, Donna McElroy, Jordyn Smith, and Rachel Tsolinas); the physical therapists (Andrea Serdar, Jeff Schlimgen, Jennifer Wilhelm, Ryan Rockwood, and Connie Amos at Oregon Health and Science University); the study data analyst, Shanshan Wang; Kathryn Madden and the members of the institutional review board at the Oregon Research Institute for their careful scrutiny of the study protocol; and Ron Renchler for proofreading earlier drafts of the manuscript.

Source Information

From the Oregon Research Institute (F.L.), the Oregon Medical Group (K.F.), and the PeaceHealth Medical Group–Oregon (R.S.) — all in Eugene; Willamette University (P.H.) and BPM Physical Therapy Center (J.G.) — both in Salem, OR; Oregon Health and Science University, Portland (E.E.); Oregon State University, Corvallis (G.M.); and Oregon Neurology Associates, Springfield (S.S.B.).
Address reprint requests to Dr. Li at the Oregon Research Institute,
1715 Franklin Blvd., Eugene, OR 97403
, or at

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Guest Author: UK Based Martial Artist Ben Lee - contact him at

What is the meaning of kumite?

Guest Author:  UK Based Martial Artist Ben Lee

What is kumite/sparring in karate ?, A competition between two students,A brawl or an ego booster?
If you think about it for a second you will find the answer is not as clear as it would seem to be.
When in a class practicing martial arts the person with the biggest ego is usually the one that is least liked by the rest of the group, A person who tries to win in sparring at any cost and make you look silly.In a real confrontation winning at any cost may be a good idea but when you are sparring this is not the case.
A brawl is not the answer, as sparring/kumite is a chance to hone our skills, perfect techniques using the best form possible.If we are brawling our technique will go out of the window and the techniques that we work so hard to perfect become worthless, Nothing more than a whirlwind of strikes.
When in a Dojo/training hall, we are all trying to learn.Speeding up the techniques in sparring and 'going at it' is great now and again. We should aim to help each other,get the techniques right and keep a feeling of courtesy towards each other.
Alot can be learned from practicing kumite, outside of pain.Rhythm,distance and timing to mention a few. Another is learning to harmonize with your opponent, to be as one. When he moves, you move simultaneously, flowing with him.
Picking up on an opponents intent to strike is a big step towards harmonizing with your opponent.
This is not a supernatural skill and is fully achievable.Just think of animals,for example;  If you try to sneak up on a bird, even if it is looking the opposite way, the bird will still fly away before you catch it.
Shigeru Egami ( a direct student of master Funakoshi) gave three different methods for developing the skill of picking up on an opponents intent in his book 'the way of karate, beyond technique', well worth a read if you have not already.
These Methods were as follows;
In Kihon or during kata practice and performing each movement to a command, begin to try and pick up on the intention of your instructor to shout the command.So if you do this correctly you should already be in motion, when the command is given and finish your technique when the command ends.To do this you should try to clear your mind, keeping it empty, relax as the more you tense and wait for the 'feeling' the slower you will be.When you get the feeling that a command will be given go with it.Work at this and you will get better and better.

The next method will require you to work with a partner.You and your partner face each other with enough distance between you, so that when a stepping punch is performed you are not close enough to hit each other. Take it in turns, One performing a stepping punch,one stepping back and blocking. The person punching, will change the timing between each punch,as well as changing the speed of the punch.Who ever is striking must concentrate there intent on hitting there partner,so as to give him something to pick up on. If you can turn intent on,you can also turn it off which is always helpful.The blocker should move in harmony with the person performing the strike.Moving simultaneously. When both of you start the feel comfortable with this, move closer, so that if a strike were thrown and no block was performed, it would impact.Repeat the same exercise again at this distance.Remember this is not a contest,you will not make much progress if you are concerned with winning.As master Egami say's 'overconfidence will come from winning,shame and the urge to act recklessly from losing.

The final method In master Egami's book was to learn to pick up an opponents intent, with your back to him. Again you will need a partner.One punching, the other moving out of the way. If your partner is punching you will have your back to him.When you feel him punching step forward out of his reach. So the person striking will vary the speed of his punch and the timing between each strike.This exercise will also contribute to concentration. Remember when performing these methods stay relax, keep your mind clear and go with your instincts.
There are other methods for developing the ability to pick up on an opponents intent but I will save these for another time.My instructor Sensei John Lovatt can pick up on an opponents intention through a brick wall.When an opponent throws a punch from the opposite side of a wall, my sensei moves simultaneously and blocks.
To me mastery of kumite in any martial art is learning to harmonize and be as one with your opponent.Picking up on intention will take you a step closer to this.Please feel free to email regarding any opinions,queries or thoughts on this subject and I will be happy to help.You can email me on

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Taiji The Art of Living Life at its Full Potential

Taiji not just for Martial Artists.  Not just for the elderly.  






Taiji, The Art of

Living Life at its full Potential.

Dedicated to the study of Health (in every aspect) and the quality of life regardless of age or perceived condition. I believe that anyone can be Healthier tomorrow (compared to their level of health today). Even if you are dealing with health (physical or mental, which are often itertwined ) issues, some aspects of your life can be improved. Health is not solely based on your present physical condition.  It is a combination of the mental and physical states working in harmony as efficient as possible. Any flaws in either will affect your success. Physical flaws are not just ailments or conditions, they are a result of not being able to deal with adversity (physical or mental) properly.  These two aspects of health must cooperate with one and other and not oppose each other. If Optimum Health meant perfection on both levels separately, it could never be achieved. What Optimum Health represents is the perfect unison of the two.  Perhaps that is the greatest gift Taiji has to offer.
These two aspects combined with your own spirituality will make you whole and allow you to live your life to its full potential.

The end result is one who possesses the discipline and strength to change what he/she can and endure what they cannot while still appreciating the beauty of life itself.