Posts Tagged ‘martial arts’

Animal Push Hands

The Tayra - a powerful and playful animal.

The Tayra – a powerful and playful animal.

When I studied Tai-chi-Chuan with Grandmaster William Chen I was a zoologist. One of my jobs was to import animals from around the world for captive breeding programs. Most of my time was spent working with hundreds of species of animals.

They were often much stronger and quicker than I and were sometimes in a bad mood. I had to learn the dynamics of their movements, attention and their body energy to survive day to day. There was something they all did that took me a while to understand. That dynamic is the basis of what I teach in the Tai-chi exercise of “push hands”. This makes my push hands different from that of other teachers.

We talk about “energy” in Tai-chi. The animals were doing something with that energy. In most push hands interactions you will see each partner trying to keep the other partner away from them. Hands are flying and each tries to impose their force on the other. In some cases a partner may be mechanically well grounded and very fast and so it goes well for him. Their attention is always on counteracting the partner and imposing their will.

The animals were doing something very different. They were extending their energy into me, and allowing my energy to enter them. They were certainly not trying to “keep me away” in the normal push hands sense. Yet they were very powerful and I could do nothing with them – until I learned their method.

When I watch push hands competitions, my main interest is in the “orientation” of the joints of the body. If each joint was an arrow, pointing in the direction of its energy, to which direction would the arrow be pointing? What I see in most push hands is that the orientation is downward into the partner. It is as if each partner is falling onto the other.

When I worked with the animals, the orientation of each of their joints was upwards, in an approximately 45 degree angle. In addition, they seemed to absorb my force, which in turn, was fed back to me. With further study, I found that they were absorbing my force into their ligaments and tendons, which they used like a bowstring. My own force, stored in their bodies, was then released back into me.

My degree in “ethology” (the evolution of animal behavior) came in handy, as I had learned how to study animal behavior in a systematic way. My training in Tai-chi-Chuan, including push hands, gave me another approach to understanding this behavior, that of thinking in terms of energy flow.

I realized that they were manipulating my energy within their bodies, and their energy within my body to control me. We became in essence, a single energetic system and their attention was at the center of that system. Mine was not. It was only on my side. Furthermore, they could place the fulcrum of interaction at any point that was must beneficial for them. The fulcrum in this case, refers to the reference point their joints use to pivot around. For example, I can move my body pivoting around my tai-tien (about an inch and a half below the navel at the center of the body) or around my sternum. Just by placing my concentration at such a point, the joints function with that point as their reference.

As I fought or played with the animal (depending on its disposition), it could constantly change that fulcrum point which confused the heck out of me. Tayras and grisons were my favorite. These Central and South American weasel-like mammals are about eight to fifteen pounds. They are like little wolverines. There were many species of cats, monkeys, honey bears, coati mundis, anteaters, as well as pythons up to thirteen feet, monitor (dragon) lizards up to eight feet long, many birds and others. Each had its own way of using energy and I had to learn them all.

When I practiced push hands with the other students, I would use these methods of using energy, and push hands became more fun than competition. Many of the animals could throw me off just by using their breath and I brought this into class. When I learned something in class, I brought it back to the animals. Eventually, the animals all learned to do push hands with me and their moods were always good.

So now when I teach push hands to my students, I substitute for the animals, using one dynamic in one class and another dynamic another day. When I still had the animal importing set-up, I used to bring the animals themselves into class. Now I just bring in the energy so my students can get a similar experience.

I found dozens of energy dynamics in the many species and integrated them into what Grandmaster Chen taught me. Today my push hands is not so much about how many times a student can push over another student to get points. It is about learning these energy dynamics, which can then be used in everyday life. These dynamics don’t necessarily require physical contact. They can be done even in a verbal interaction, because there are always energy dynamics going on underneath.

My students regularly tell me how they used a particular dynamic in an interaction, often at work. Translating push hands dynamics into everyday life is the greatest benefit of this exercise. It is also humbling to realize that animals are so much smarter in certain ways, than people.


"Snake Creeps Down" from Yang style Tai chi.

“Snake Creeps Down” from Yang style Tai chi.

Body alignment and posture have a profound effect on your state of health and emotions. We maintain “attitudes” within our bodies, which then affect the posture. The slumped shoulders express the attitude that we are so troubled that we are “carrying the world on our shoulders”. The prideful, arrogant attitude has the chest puffed out.

To many people, these attitudes are their identity. They are how we feel who we are. But they lock us into a set of behaviors that limit our ability to grow and be creative. Tai chi frees us from being locked into attitudes. It allows the creative person, who you truly are, to become the core of your life.

When you are locked into a posture, energy cannot flow through the body. Blood cannot flow freely. The inter-cellular fluid, which brings nutrients and oxygen from the capillaries to the cells, cannot move. The lymph, which takes waste from the cells to the bladder and lungs for removal, does not move. The body then deteriorates.

A body locked in attitude is a fearful body. It is afraid to let go of that attitude because that attitude is the only place it feels safe. Relaxing feels like jumping off a cliff. Yet if you take the chance and relax, you find that the cliff is only a few inches high.

I believe that most people are locked into these attitudes and that is destroying our health and our ability to enjoy our lives. Tai chi can be a lifesaver if you are willing to go beyond merely memorizing the movements of a form. Tai chi has been described as “investing in loss”. This means that you put time and effort into letting go of your locked attitudes. You stop investing in tightening up your muscles to express fear or “strength”.

Invest in health and relaxation. Invest in making the rest of your life the most enjoyable life you can imagine. Learn Tai chi.


Bob Klein

Tai-chi teachers who actually expect their students to learn Tai-chi fear that they will lose students. Tai-chi is a very exacting practice and requires awareness of each muscle and joint of the body, restoring full function. While many people would love to learn Tai-chi, few are ready to do the work.

So the teacher must decide how much he or she asks of the students. The less he asks, the more students he has. The more he asks, the higher quality of students he has. Sometimes the decision rests on how many bills he has to pay each month, unless he has a “real job”.

To the degree that the decision is based just on paying the bills, the students get a “make-believe” version of Tai-chi and that version is passed down, as that teacher’s students themselves become teachers, believing that they are really practicing Tai-chi. That teacher may defend himself by saying, “If I didn’t dilute Tai-chi, these students wouldn’t come to class. At least they are moving. That has to help them a little”.

These are the issues in the back of each teacher’s mind. I bring this issue up now because I have been hearing the same issue raised in the field of Pilates exercise. Some Pilates teachers say that they don’t mind if a teacher changes the training as long as they don’t call it Pilates.

My choice is to require that my students learn Tai-chi. They sometimes complain that I keep teaching new principles and they can’t keep up with the pace of learning. Yet I am teaching the same thing all the time even though I may explain it differently. They may ask, “Why didn’t you ever say that before” even though I say it all the time. When you are presenting the deeper aspects of Tai-chi training, the body of the student has to learn. The brain may feel that it is not “getting it”, but the brain doesn’t have to get it. The body learns and the student has to become comfortable with and learn to perceive that level of learning. Yet the brain always feels that if it hasn’t learned something then it hasn’t been learned.

When you really teach Tai-chi you bring the student through a transformation in the learning process. The student learns about his body and attention (how they work), then learns from the body and attention and then body, attention and the world around him all become connected.

Make-believe Tai-chi, of course, is just memorizing as many forms as you can and learning to say spiritual clichés. This may seem like a cynical attitude but the schools that emphasize this approach really irk sincere teachers. While the students of these schools certainly enjoy their classes, the downside is that the reputation of Tai-chi as transforming peoples’ lives just comes down to parroting phrases and movements.

Is there a danger that Tai-chi will become a cartoon of itself? If this is happening to other disciplines as well, are we all simply slipping into cartoon lives?

I have heard the argument that during most times in history, a few people really practiced each art and the rest practiced a shallower version and yet these arts survive. These times are no different from any other. I hope that is true. What do you think?


How to Learn and Teach Tai-chi DVD

1. “The feet are the gateway to consciousness”. When you walk in a natural area, the feet conform to the shape of the ground, which is formed by the geology, botany and weather of the area. As your feet conform to the ground, each joint of the body adjusts to keep you aligned and in motion, thereby also participating in the natural history of that area. Our flat floors deaden the feet and also the whole body and cut us off from participating in nature. So when you step, allow each joint and muscle of the foot to individually settle onto the floor, to help enliven the foot.

2. When you breathe out and the upper body settles downward, its weight sinks through the hip area and into the feet and “root”. When you breathe in and expand upward, that expansion has to pass through the hip area. If the hips are rigid, these transfers of energy cannot take place. Keep the hip level open, like an open pipe, so that momentum can flow through it.

3. The head is part of the body. We do not consider it to be the “seat of consciousness”. The whole body is the seat of consciousness. There is a tendency to keep the head and neck rigid, as if it were a stone throne that the king sits in, ordering the body around and judging the results. “Think” with the feelings of the whole body and allow the momentum, created by your form or chi-gung, to flow through the neck and head. While the head does not flop around, it moves in circles about an inch in diameter. If the head is rigid, the body will be rigid.

4. Release energy at the beginning and end of each breath. If you are not yet familiar with the experience of “chi”, think of energy as momentum. At the end of the in-breath, when the momentum flows up and out, let that momentum go, never to return. Then allow the body to begin sinking back down, drawing into it “new” energy until the end of the out-breath as you sink into your root. At that point, allow the chi (or momentum) to be released into the ground, never to return. When you begin to breathe in again, expanding upward, allow new energy to fill the body from the bottom. If you hold energy within the body, you will not get the health benefits of Tai-chi.

5. At the end of each in-breath, expand the palms and feet. Allow them to relax as soon as you begin to breathe out.

6. Once you are comfortable with the sequence of movements, don’t think of the movement before or the next movement. Allow the form to unfold, as the mainspring of old watches, unwind during the day to move all the little gears of the watch, allowing “time” to unfold. If you have been trained how each part of the body participates in each part of the form, your form will have been imbedded into each part of the body, like a mainspring ready to unfold.

7. Practice one thing at a time. Your teacher may have presented you with a hundred principles and you can’t keep them all in your mind at the same time. Practice just one or two for a while and then switch to another one or two principles. Trust that such practice will add up; that the body will store skill you have gained in each practice session.

8. Don’t “hold yourself together”. Most of us start all bound up, tied up in knots, as if we would fall apart if we relaxed. For each posture, notice which muscles are “holding” more than they have to. Can you allow that muscle to use less tension? Even less? Use the minimum tension possible just before the arm or the whole body starts falling down.

9. There is an intelligence within your body that is greater than your thinking mind. Yield to it. It may be hard to notice at first. The forceful, thinking mind is like the sun, overpowering all the stars in the sky. Yet those stars are still there, even during the day. The “Body-mind” is always there but requires inner quiet to be noticed.

10. Don’t forcefully try to quiet the thinking mind. That is only the thinking mind trying to quiet itself. It is just a trick. Rather, pay attention to the flow of momentum and allow your attention to ride the flow of momentum like a surfer rides a wave. Yield to the momentum. Yield to the breath that helps to create the momentum. Yield to the relaxation that helps to create the momentum. Yielding to life quiets the thinking mind and strengthens the Body-mind.

These principles are described more fully in the dvd series “How to Learn and Teach Tai-chi” by Bob Klein available at:


Bob Klein

These training tips for Tai-chi practice are the result of over 45 years of training and teaching. My students at the Long Island School of Tai-chi-Chuan in Sound Beach, N. Y. have told me these are the tips that are the most useful.

1. The first thing you are taught is to relax. Relaxation though, is not as easy as it sounds. After many years of being tense most people have not only forgotten how to relax, they have forgotten that they are tense. The key is to understand that to relax any part of the body, there needs to be “space” under that part of the body to sink into. If your chest and ribs are tense and you try to relax your shoulders, the shoulders have no place to sink into. First relax the muscles of the feet so they sink into the earth like wet clay. Then relax the knees, hips, ribs, etc. Allow each part of the body to sink like sand sinks into a hole you dig in the beach. The sand sinks into the hole from the bottom up.

2. When you shift weight from one foot into another, don’t push yourself into the front with your back foot. Allow the weight to sink into the front foot as though sand was sinking into the front foot from the back foot. This releases the back leg, making it “empty”.

3. When you step, don’t use the muscles of the stepping leg. Use your sinking and turning to move out the stepping leg. You can slightly straighten out the stepping foot to make the heel land first. Keeping the stepping leg off the ground is done by relaxing the rear of the pelvis so that it tilts slightly forward, slightly raising the stepping leg.

4. Keep the eyes gazing forward or at a slightly raised angle. Never look down. Imagine you are a waterfall and the water comes towards you, flowing down your eyes into your belly and then your root. You are receiving energy and NOT grabbing with the eyes.

5. Each movement starts from your center and NOT from the top of the body, head, arms or legs. Make sure that at the beginning of each movement, the middle moves first as if someone were pulling your belt. Then each joint of the body follows in sequence.

6. “Whole body movement” does not mean you keep all your joints locked. Even if you move your whole, stiff body smoothly, this is still not Tai-chi. Each joint should move, in sequence, from the bottom up and each should relax in sequence from the bottom up. Watch the way animals move. We have joints for a reason.

7. When you breathe in, your diaphragm pulls downward. So the initiation of an in-breath feels like breathing down into the ground. The bottom of the belly (below the navel) expands downwards. When the maximum downward breathing pressure is reached, then the breath expands forward and the upper belly expands (above the navel). Finally the breath then fills the upper lungs. So breathing in also begins at the bottom (at the root). When you breathe out, you relax the bottom of the lungs first, then middle and upper lungs.

8. The arms, legs and head move as a result of the breathing and the sequential expansion and relaxation of the joints. They don’t move by their own muscular power. But of course, you have to hold the arms and legs in particular positions according to your postures. You use the minimum energy possible to hold the arms in their positions, just enough so that if you used just a little less, the arms would fall down.

9. If your front expands, the back relaxes. If the right expands, the left relaxes. If the bottom energizes downwards, the top floats upwards. Each part of the body counter-balances its other side. This gives rise to the expression “power is a directed relaxation”. This means that relaxing releases power, but that power does not just dissipate. The breath directs the power. If you breathe downward and forward, for example, the power roots and from that root, moves forward. If you breathe into the right side of your lungs, the energy moves right. But if you first breath into the upper part of the lungs, the energy pulls you up out of your root.

10. Imagine you are sitting on a diner stool with wheels. You can move forward and back, left and right, but you are still sitting on the stool. To stand up you press your foot down, energizing your Achilles tendon and quadriceps, relax your back and breathe in. Try sitting down and standing up in a chair and keep your chest and back straight. Don’t bend forward. This requires that you stand up from the bottom up and you don’t pull yourself up from the top.

I will provide more if these tips in the future if you are interested. Hundreds of such ideas are in the dvd series “How to Learn and Teach Tai-chi” available at:


We invite everyone interested in healing, exercise and the martial arts to our annual summer party taking place at the Long Island School of Tai-chi-Chuan – 87 Tyler Avenue, Sound Beach N. Y. 11789 (corner of 8th Street). Saturday, August 22nd 12pm to 6pm. You will see demonstrations of Tai-chi forms, chi-gung and push hands, and meet others with similar interests in relaxing, natural surroundings. Refreshments will be provided. For more information call 631 744-5999 or send an email to

The Long Island School of Tai-chi-Chuan


Is Tai-chi dying? Are there still teachers teaching the intricate mechanics, the physics, the dynamics of mind and energy that underlies the beautiful movements? Or are we playing “Simple Simon”? Simple Simon says, “do this”; simple Simon says “do that”.

Are we, as teachers, worried that if we actually ask students to learn the principles that they will leave our classes and switch to a simpler form of exercise? Has Tai-chi become a collection of “techniques” or is it still a transformative experience?

These are the questions I ask as I look around at the practice of Tai-chi as it is today. I see push hands players standing in tense, misaligned positions and knocking their arms around. I see people doing forms with all their energy bound up in their heads and upper backs, with locked hips.

I hesitate to bring this up because each Tai-chi teacher feels he or she is doing Tai-chi the “right way”. It is just those other people over there who are doing it wrong. We should be open minded and allow for variations of practice, I am told.

In this post, I am asking other Tai-chi teachers this question, to answer just within yourself. Do you feel that you are aware of, feel and practice the internal practice? Is your mind connected to each muscle and joint? Is your mind evenly distributed throughout your body or can you pay attention to the body only from the head? Is each part of the body independently conscious and is it in a creative relationship with each other part of the body or is this question meaningless to you?

Tai-chi is a practice designed to lead you to an experience of, and healing of your internal state which then affects your relationship to the rest of the world. Has it been that for you and have you found ways of transmitting that experience to your students so they actually feel it?

What do you feel is the state of Tai-chi practice today?


Snake Creeps Down Movement of Yang Form

In our last teacher-training course, I discussed issues a new teacher will have to become comfortable with teaching. The first issue is to know which principles you want to teach with each movement of your form. Each should explain how to move properly but also how the principle applies to everyday life.

The second issue is to be comfortable in your class. There is a tendency to feel it is you against the audience. You have to realize that the audience (class) is on your side. They want you to teach them well. Also realize that you know your subject (or should know) and they don’t. You are leading them into a new world of self-awareness and health (and maybe later on, self defense). You live that world and, like a tour guide, are showing them the “sights”.

You don’t need to “prove” how good you are. Certainly you should demonstrate movements to them but not to show off. What will most impress the student is your own enthusiasm and love for Tai-chi. If you can help them make the slightest improvement (stepping smoothly, relaxing their shoulders, etc.), they will remember that and want more. The Tai-chi class is not about you, the teacher. It is about them, the students. It is about making their lives better. If you have fun teaching, they will have fun learning.

It is important to align the students’ bodies. They can only know the difference of poor posture and good posture if you put them into a good posture. But they may feel awkward in that good posture, because they are not used to it. Explain that people get used to poor postures or to tensions and feel strange when they relax or align properly.

As you teach someone you may notice many corrections that need to be made. But focus in on only one or two. If you give too many corrections, the student may become frustrated. It is hard to hold yourself back from correcting but the student can only remember a little at a time.

These are some of the issues we discuss in our teacher training workshops. To assist the aspiring teachers, we have produced a “How to Learn and Teach Tai-chi” dvd series. Here is the link:
(Insert the above link in your heading to enter the dvd website and then go to the bottom of that page.)


The smallest changes in how we use our bodies can lead to much greater health, physical skill and longevity. In our last monthly Tai-chi workshop we learned important lessons that will help in our Tai-chi practice and any other sport.

Rotation of the joints: We often mistake moving a joint around in space for moving the joint itself. For example if we wanted to push we might thrust our hip forward rather than rotating it in place. The sequential movement of the joints within the body, along with the even expansion of the breath, leads to greater force than just throwing your joint at the object you want to push.

But it is hard to feel the difference between these two actions, let alone to sequentially move the joints in the proper order to perform the task. This issue is at the heart of learning any sport or activity. The human body is designed to be very powerful in the intricacy of its movement. We tend to substitute brute physical force for the lack of fine motor coordination.

Your attention needs to be within the joint itself to move it properly. To often we think of a joint as “over there” because our attention is in our head. Human beings are capable of moving the center of our attention within a part of the body to make it function properly. This is an essential part of Tai-chi training.

Movement of the low back: I call the low back the “control panel” because its flexibility is essential in initiating any movement. Even the sacrum, whose bones are fused, should be flexible and the coccyx bone (last bone of the spine) should be very active in your movements. But most people have frozen hips and low backs. All their attention to movement is in the upper body.

In Tai-chi movement begins at the center of the body and then emanates out into the rest of the torso, legs, arms and head. It is like dropping a pebble into a calm lake. Waves then ripple out in all directions. This keeps the movements centered and the body stable. We pay attention to the central area of the body first, especially the low back and create the movement there so that this part of the body moves first.

Our chi-gung system, “zookinesis”, is very effective for developing awareness of and flexibility of the center of the body. There are many exercises that create specific patterns of movement or vibration at the center, which you then allow to flow out through the rest of the body.

Relax the abdomens: The degree of relaxation and tension of the abdomens is vital for proper movement. As an example, when you begin to step, the abdomens (on the side of the stepping leg) relax at an even pace. This relaxation helps to extend the leg. You do not extend the leg by using the muscles of that leg. Stepping is a result of the rotation and relaxation of the opposite hip and the relaxation of the abdomens on the same side as the leg.

Pelvis as shovel: When you shift from back to front the pelvis acts as a shovel. It first circles back as you shift back, then digs in towards the ground as you begin to shift forward (breathing out). Then it lifts as you finish the shift (breathing in) as if you were throwing the dirt from the shovel on a pile in front of you. This rotation of the pelvis during shifting energizes the center of the body and provides grounding in push hands.
It also allows the energy from the torso and legs to interact so your efforts are more efficient. Even walking becomes easier.

We learned much more but you will need to come to the workshops to get the full depth of training.


Tai-chi-Chuan Sparring #3

Tai-chi-Chuan Sparring #1

Tai-chi-Chuan Sparring #2

Tai-chi-Chuan is a strange mix of health exercises, meditation and fighting. While most people practice Tai-chi strictly for health and exercise, the “Chuan” in the name reminds you that it is a martial art. Yet there is no blocking and the movements are relaxed and fluid.

The basic principle of Tai-chi-Chuan is to shadow your opponent. Where he strikes, you move away from his strike but into an unprotected area of his body. Where he moves away, you follow him so that you are like wet clothes he is trying to get off. You exhaust him and undermine his power.

You don’t allow him one second to recover from his series of strikes. We train to sustain our attention so that we don’t need that second to evaluate the effect of our actions. We act and perceive at the same time so that at every moment we can change and adapt. If our strike is blocked, the arm just circles around and still comes in. Since the power doesn’t come from the arm, but from the whole body, the strike still has power. We remain calm and centered throughout the sparring due to our training in forms, chi-gung and push hands.

This training of sustaining the attention, adapting at every moment, being aware of the effects of our actions as they happen and the ability to remain calm and centered in the midst of being attacked, helps us in our everyday lives. It teaches us that we can’t control the actions of others or the circumstances of the world we live in, but we can control how we react to all that.

The principle is that we let the attacker move as he wants to. We don’t interfere with his actions. But we control the relationship between us. If he wants to strike our head, we move our head and go to a spot he is not protecting with our own strike. He does what he wants; we do what we want and we are both happy (except that he gets hit).

We become his shadow and our strikes come out from his actions. Which gets me to another subject – Monsanto. This company is copyrighting patents on genetically engineered food and getting the large “factory farms” to use their seeds. Since they own the seeds the farmers are not allowed to keep seeds to replant. They have to buy their seeds from Monsanto every year. The attempt is to copyright organisms and own them.

Many people think this is outrageous. If a farmer is using natural seeds and Monsanto pollen enters his fields through the wind, then Monsanto automatically owns the rights to his crops and he can no longer save his seeds to plant.

This is why I think that we all need to become farmers. Even if we just plant a few tomatoes or peas in a plant pot we are helping prevent a company from owning life itself. We also are assured of healthy, tasty tomatoes and peas.

I see Monsanto’s “ownership” of life as a sort of strike against humanity. They are trying to become God. While we certainly need to fight against that through legislation, simply planting food plants is a way of undermining Monsanto. It is a shadow form of farming that makes them less powerful. Let they try to investigate everyone who has peas growing in a pot in their window to see if it is one of their copyrighted peas. Let them exhaust themselves. Let them fight the shadow farming.

Remember to save some peas or tomato seeds for next year. Keep them dry and in a dark place. Use paper envelopes – not plastic bags – to store them.

My garden is so prolific that I weed hundreds of tomato plants each year. The tomatoes fall on the ground and the next year they grow like grass. I compost with kitchen waste, grass clippings, dead leaves (not oak!) and ashes from my wood stove. If you have a rabbit or hamsters (or a horse or cow of course), you can use their waste in the compost as well.

Let’s all be shadow fighters in the fight for the right to grow our food. It is one of the most fundamental rights of humanity.