The Power of Pictures

We use a lot of pictures and metaphors when we describe movements or principles in Tai Chi: stroking the mane of the horse, grasping the bird’s tail, the white crane spreads its wings, open and close like a flower, grow roots into the ground,… and I could go on forever.

Why do we do this?

Pictures help us to simplify complex combinations of movements, engaging numerous separate muscle groups and our breathing. If we wanted to keep tabs on each of those and every detail to coordinate the muscles properly, we would quickly overload our brain.

That’s why learning to drive is so hard in the beginning: we dont’ have the picture yet as to what it means to start driving again after you stopped on a steep hill in a stick-shift car. That’s why the first weeks are so hard for a new Tai Chi student, as they still try to make sense and coordinate arms and legs.

If we think about metaphors and pictures rather than describing the physics and physiology of a given movement, we take away the task from our conscious brain and give it to our subconscious brain. Our conscious brain is a great single-tasker. It’s overloaded quickly with complex problems. Our subconscious brain marvels at complex interwoven systems and tasks. It does that all the time. That’s how our organs, breathing and everything vital are kept going. That’s what keeps us alive.

If we were to talk to our conscious mind, we would have to say something like this: “Please extend your forearm while also extending you upper arm, twist you elbow and wrist and open the fingers a little bit. Not too much though. Do it all at the same time. Don’t forget to breathe! Have we talked about your ankle, knee and hip yet? Please extend them also at the same time. Don’t lift your toes though. By the way, are you all relaxed, joints and all?” (And this is a drastically simplified version.)

That’s what beginners in Tai Chi struggle with. As we get more familiar with the basic movements, we don’t give our conscious mind these instructions anymore. Rather we tell the conscious mind to imagine ‘stroking the mane of a horse’ or to ‘spread the wings like a crane’ and the conscious brain takes that at face value and delegates the complex execution of the details to the subconscious brain, moving on to just enjoy the ride.

Simplify the complex movements for your brain. Keep your conscious mind focused on the big picture and let your subconscious brain deal with the details.

The Chinese are great system thinkers and observers, looking at the big picture and how complex systems work together overall. That’s the core of Chinese medicine and that’s also how they approached martial arts. In the West, we got a little distracted by Democritus and Descartes who focused us on atomism and reductionism. That has its own benefits and led to huge advancements in science and medicine. It’s not the right answer to everything though and for sure it’s not the only answer out there (which is how we often treat it these days). Let’s learn a little from the Chinese and look at the big picture.

Spiral Energy

In Tai Chi, as well as in martial arts generally, we use spiral movements and energies. Rather than bluntly trying to push through linearly, we use advanced mechanics and drill in like a corkscrew.

We all start with linear energy

The most common energy (and thinking) is simple and linear. To get from A to B, we draw a mental line and go straight. To punch, we make a fist and then extend our arm in a straight line. That creates linear kinetic energy that is very much defined and constrained by the strengths in our arms and the velocity in which we can engage our muscles.

Layer another type of energy on top

In Tai Chi we don’t stop with the simple linear energy. Rather than being constrained by the ability to add more velocity and strength to our arms, we layer a whole different type of energy on top of the movement: spin energy.

As we push out our arm, we also turn it. We add spin to our shoulder, elbow and wrist joints. That does not take away from the linear energy, nor does it extend the length of the movement and thus make it less efficient. It simply layers another type of energy on top of the movement we are already executing. We create a spiral.

Spirals intertwined with spirals

We don’t stop there though. As we execute the movement, we also turn our hip, adding another spin to the movement. We extend our back leg and push our hip forward, creating a linear movement. So there is a second spiral on top (or rather below) the one we discussed before. They are also orthogonal, if we want to get into the details of physics, adding further structure and energy dimensions to our movement.

We are creating a system of intertwined and connected layered spirals. We are layering different types of energy on top of each other, thus going way beyond what our arms could ever achieve in isolation.

If you go deeper and look at more details you will discover more spirals throughout. You will discover them in what we are doing with our hands, fingers, core, breathing, feet (as we drill into the earth) and many more.

Tai Chi and martial arts leverages a complex set of efficient spirals in its movements.

Spirals are everywhere

Spirals are efficient, which is why we can find them everywhere in mechanics and nature.

If we want to free our hand from a grip we don’t just pull, we turn, twist and wiggle. Even little kids learn that pretty quickly.

In a rifle we have the spiral rifling which adds spin to a bullet to stabilize it and keep it on track (and help it penetrate deeper). likewise in many sports, we add spin to balls to stabilize them on their trajectory (or make a curve ball if we try to be mean).

In mechanics a screw creates unbelievable linear energy and pull by leveraging spin to create lateral movement.

And lastly nature gives us endless examples where spirals are used to increase stability and strength of structures and movements. The closest to our heart is probably the very essence of our physical being: the double helix of our DNA.

No Ranks, No Titles

I love the Gore company tagline “No ranks, no titles”!

In the Tai Chi we practice and teach, we don’t care about ranks and titles. We do care about knowledge and respect for each other a lot, but not about artificial ways to express those. If you need a rank to get respect and authority, you have other more pressing issues to address.

So why do many systems have ranks? There’s a simple answer: to make money. You pay fees for examinations, for memberships, for special trainings. You pay your way into the hierarchy. In the old days, even in systems that had ranking, your teacher would some day just come to you and say: “congratulations, you reached the next level of understanding”.

If you are looking for certificates and ways to slowly level yourself about others, you won’t be happy in our classes. If you seek understanding and encouragement, you might have found your place.

Don’t get me wrong. I’ve been there. I went through 9 student ranks in Karate (Kyu 級 grades) and 3 black belt ranks (Senpai 先輩 grades) through the formal system before I understood that it doesn’t matter. I stopped chasing ranks after that. My 4th black belt was given to me from my teacher after a normal training session, to my big surprise (I’m still surprised to be honest).

I never called my teacher “sensei” (先生) and he never wanted that, but it was always clear to me that he is my teacher and role model. He is an 8th degree black belt, so he would have all reason to be called “sensei”. It just doesn’t make any difference, other than creating an unnatural gap between the two of you.

Why would you need a ranking system? Either you know what you’re doing or you don’t. Either you have something to teach or you don’t.

Ranks are a way for organizations, not great teachers, to make money and make students stick around because it takes time to pass the mandatory wait times as you buy your way through the ranks.

Rather than chasing a rank, spend time with your teacher, listen to what he says and learn. That’s all that is needed. Focus on the art, not on the distractions.

If your teacher insists that you call him “Master”, “Sensei” or “Sifu” (師傅) and wants to push you through the grades, then very politely thank him. Then go and find a real teacher.

Like Climbing a Mountain

What is the difference between styles?

We often get asked about the differences between different arts like Qi Gong and Tai Chi, different styles like Yang and Chen or even between internal (e.g. Tai Chi) and external (e.g. Karate) martial arts.

There is a lot of commonality between all of them. They all agree on similar fundamental principles since they all aim to do the same thing: maximize the effectiveness with which we use our body. Since we all fundamentally have the same physiology and live within the same laws of physics, the principles must have a lot of overlap.

There are also some obvious differences in terms of the focus areas and priorities we set in the different arts. Some arts put a lot of emphasis on speed and force, like Karate, Kung Fu or Boxing. Others try to use an opponent’s energy and turn it against him, like Aikido or Tai Chi. Some focus completely on the inner awareness and energy flows like Qi Gong, Yoga or meditation.

None of them is better than the other and all of them complement each other. We try to increase and improve energy and its flow in our classes, so we add energy-focused Qi Gong exercises in the beginning, before we focus more on the flow and movement of the Tai Chi forms.

Like climbing a mountain

My favorite way of thinking about this is to compare it with climbing a steep mountain. You can think of each different martial art as a different path to the summit.

There are many different trails to the top. Some are steeper and more direct, while others are gentler as they meander a little more. Some lead over rocky terrain while others cross the meadows. There is a right path for everyone.

The more different paths you take, the more different sides of the mountain you will experience. However, if you try out too many paths on the foothills and always flip between them, you will never reach any significant heights or get close to the summit.

Once you reach the summit, the view is the same. Everyone has the same experience, no matter the path they took.

That’s why it’s nonsense to talk about ‘the best martial art’. There is no such thing. There are only different heights a specific practitioner has reached. It’s all about the practitioner, not about the style.

Everyone who sticks to it until the top, enjoys the same breathtaking views. However you cannot describe the views in a meaningful way to others who haven’t taken the climb, since the work to get there is part of the reward and experience. A glass of water is better when you’re thirsty, a slice of bread tastes better when you’re hungry. Without the work for it, you miss the flavor.

Find your own path

You cannot do that early on or you will get lost, but eventually you need to find your own path. We all have the same physiology but we don’t have exactly the same body. We also don’t have the same way of thinking or experiencing the world. That’s how different styles emerge. That’s why practitioners will place different focus areas after a while and do things slightly different (if they don’t, then they just copy someone else’s approach without reflection).

Even for Uli and I, while we do the same Tai Chi, we learned the same arts on the way from the same teachers, we practice, explain and teach things slightly different. Uli is more focused on energy and imagination, while I often look closer to the martial arts roots and the body mechanics.

Like a beautiful vase, you can explain the colors and shapes or marvel at the static and balances. Or you can just focus on the smells of the flowers in the vase. The teacher shows one way of thinking about it, the student finds her own way through careful study over the years.

“If someone points to the moon – don’t just look at the finger.”