Lessons from the Masters (IV): Pushhands

Torben Bremann:

A competitive mindset arises for many people as soon as they start to do pushhands. They want to avoid being pushed by their partner at all costs, and will do everything they can in order to get to push themselves. It is the exact opposite of what you should do. Remember, in Taiji you never meet hard with hard. In your form, you train using minimal muscle power to the greatest effect. You should continue doing this in pushhands.

Taiji master Zheng Manqing often said: “You must invest in loss.” This means that you must accept the push without offering resistance. You must follow your partner’s push and thus develop the ability to yield.

To yield is to follow, to give in. When you yield, you accept your partner’s push and follow the direction of the force. At no point do you resist the push, but stay connected to and follow it. You must “Invest in loss” I.e. allow yourself to “lose”, to move backward and accept your partner’s push. If you don’t and instead try to resist your partner’s attempt to push forward, it isn’t Taiji anymore. Remember, your base – hips and legs – move you backward, with the rest of your body balanced on top. You do not just bend your upper body backwards while the legs stay still. If you do, then you are already violating one of the basic principles of using your whole body as an integrated unit.

When Taiji is used for self defence, we never meet hard with hard. For most people this is one of the hardest things to get used to. If someone grabs us, it is natural to tense up and resist. In Taiji, we do the opposite: Relax and follow the direction of the movement. It is said that “softness overcomes hardness”. You will not do that by resisting, but by accepting, connecting and relaxing. By yielding you follow the direction of the force – extending it – and thereby lessening its power. When you can’t yield any further, it is time to neutralize.

Neutralization is best described as changing direction and dissolving. When you yield, you can extend the force and decrease it somewhat. However, it is still targeted on to you. When you neutralize, you change the direction of the force and dissolve its effect. From here, the force goes through your body into your feet and into the ground (in the beginning, later you only take it to dantian). If this is done correctly, you now have complete control over the situation. You can send the force back towards your partner. You can issue.

To issue means to release or return. Once you have extended (yielded) your partner’s force and neutralized (changed direction and dissolved) it, send your partner’s own force back towards him. You do not do this by tensing your muscles and pushing back hard. On the contrary, you allow the force that you have yielded and neutralized to return to your partner. You do this by being relaxed in your body and sending melting sensations in a continuous flow down toward your feet (later dantian, and instead of melting, you expand like a balloon). Issuing – returning – your partner’s force can be difficult to understand. When a skilled Taiji practitioner does it correctly, it looks like magic or a rehearsed play. Neither is of course the case. It is the natural result of a well-trained, integrated and well-coordinated body, a relaxed mind and coordination between mind and body.

There are no shortcuts in learning how to issue. Your form is your alphabet, your scales. There are many who would like to learn this “supernatural force” when they start to learn Taiji. Rarely do they continue for long. Taiji requires patience and an understanding and acceptance of the process involved.

“It is three times harder to learn to yield than it is to learn how to neutralize and issue”.

Yielding is the main process of the above three. If you are not able to yield, you will not be able to neutralize and there will be no force to return. According to my teacher, Master Sam Tam, it is three times harder to learn yielding than it is to learn how to neutralize and issue.

In the beginning, there will be a clear distinction between when you are yielding, neutralizing and issuing. Later this gap will become smaller, and in its most sublime expression completely disappear. It will all take place simultaneously. This is where it looks magically: Sending an opponent away without any obvious movement. The processes, previously described, have all taken place. They have merely been refined.

Not everyone who trains Taiji wants to work with pushhands. As justification, it is often said that the self-defence aspects are not interesting, and therefore pushhands is not something they wish to spend time working on. It is clearly a mistake and usually based on a lack of understanding. Pushhands is not just for people interested in self-defence. Pushhands can and should be seen as a tool for understanding your form better. Your partner helps you feel and sense your movement and your body on a deeper level. You learn to decode your body and mind, keeping both from tensing up in stressful conditions. This means that you, even more so than through the form training, will be able to relate your Taiji practice to your daily life, where you must constantly relate to outside forces, both at work and in private life.

Yielding – in Taiji and in life
Yielding is one of the key elements of Taiji. In relation to the self-defence aspects, but also – and in particular – in relation to daily life.

On a physical level, you move in the direction that the force comes in while you stay connected and centered. One of the biggest challenges in this regard is to sense exactly which direction a given force has. Be off-line by just a little bit, and you will end up resisting and thereby doing the exact opposite of yielding. Yielding requires sensitivity to learn. In the system of master Sam Tam, we have some partner exercises, which according to me, are the best ones to develop that skill.

Relaxation is the foundation of yielding and allows you to receive and follow the direction of the force, and thus avoiding a conflict. Both in regards to self-defence and everyday life interactions with other people.

Some people equate yielding to being weak, and they do not think that the real world leaves time and space enough to yield. Nothing could be further from the truth.

First, that assumption most likely occurs as a product of internal tensions and uncertainty, as well as an inability to yield at the right time, which requires timing. Secondly, once you have developed your ability to yield, you will find that you neither need space and time – you can yield anywhere and at anytime.

At the internal level, remove all intention and tension from the part of your body that is exposed to a resistance or force. You “empty” your body at the contact point, removing the power, so that it disappears from your center and your body into the ground. In the same way as water is drained out of a bath with increasing speed.

Both physical and mental yielding is needed. As a beginner, you will first learn the physical part. Later, internal yielding and gradually emptying will take over.

External and internal martial arts
External martial arts are, roughly put, based on the energy produced by movement, where the internal arts are based on the movement of energy. The external martial arts are based on strength and movement, the internal on awareness and immobility. The external martial arts are based on the idea of the best defence being an attack – the internal on the best attack being a defence. In the external martial arts, a blow is designed to penetrate the opposing defence, no matter what the opponent does to block it, and is therefore independent of the opponent. In the internal martial arts, the practitioner uses having control over the opponent’s strength, responds to an action made by his opponent, and is therefore dependent on the opponent.

Push Hand and competitions
If you use force – you lose (the) force.
– Sam Tam

The growing number of push hands competitions seen around the world is a misguided development. It is a very common misconception that pushhands is the self-defence aspect of Taiji. Nothing could be more wrong. Pushhands – or the more correct translation – sensitive hands – has in fact very little to do with pushing. It is about practicing your sensitivity to another human being and external forces. There is obviously an aspect useful for self-defence in becoming more sensitive – and there is especially a philosophical aspect that affects and changes the way you interact with other people.

Push Hands is not the strong overcoming the weak; the fast beating the slow. It is at odds with the underlying principles of Taiji: “The weak can overcome the strong, the old can overcome the young, and the woman can overcome the man.” Now that is a self-defence art – the opposite part is simply a fact of life and not worth spending 30 years training on!

Furthermore, a mediocre wrestler or sumo wrestler would win the majority of so-called pushhands contests, where technique, body weight and muscle strength are at the forefront.

Taiji is – if learned properly through a competent teacher and a good system – one of the very best self-defence systems. If it is learned from an incompetent teacher and a poor system based on brute force, it is one of the worst.

Taiji develops over time through continuous, diligent and proper training of the basic principles. It is not so much about acquiring many techniques; it is more about letting go of tension and reconstructing the body and the mind. And that takes time.

Pushhands exercises
There are hundreds of different pushhands exercises. From stationary to mobile, from pushing directly on the body to exercises where it is either one hand or both hands that are pushed on.

The whole idea of having predetermined patterns in pushhands is that it provides a method through which you can practice fundamental principles. Initially, single-handed pushhands exercises are used to understand and train the different circles, and achieve some basic ability in not providing any resistance yet being connected to the opponent (sticking). Next comes double-handed pushhands, where the same things are developed and further refined. And for both single- and double-handed pushhands learning to feel the direction of the force ( 8 out of 10 even experienced practitioners don’t do that!).

In the beginning, work slowly and with big circles, and in order for development to take place it is important that you cooperate with each other. Later, the circles get smaller and the pace can be either fast or slow. From there you move into more freestyle pushhands, i.e. there is no predetermined patterns, you only need to be sensitive to one another and work on moving away from action/reaction towards responding.

Pushhands exercises are, as mentioned before, a way to develop sensitivity. Often when I introduce push hands exercises to new students, I start with exercises where there is no focus at all on pushing the other person or trying to find the other’s center. Instead, they focus on being sensitive and aware. If I say to you: “Relax your shoulders”, it may be difficult for you to feel your shoulder, and therefore close to impossible to relax it. But if I put my hand on your shoulder, then you have something useful to guide your intent. A partner exercise where you carry your partner’s arm with both hands and move it around in different positions is a good place to start.

First, you ask your partner to let you carry the whole weight of his arm while he lets go. Then move your partner’s arm around in different positions and at different speeds. If you sense that your partner would like to control or move the arm himself, you can change the tempo. If you find that he tenses or holds the arm up, you let go of it so it falls down. At first, move your partner’s arm around in positions lower than shoulder height, where it is easier to let go and feel gravity, then you move up to higher positions, which are more challenging for the shoulders, and where most people find it difficult to let go. Your partner is forced to direct all his attention towards his arm, bringing it into his consciousness via the sensory nerves and via the motor nerves telling himself to let go of all action and movement. The contact and the movements are made conscious.

Later – with more practice – it will all take place as an automatic, natural response. It is a bit like learning to ride a bike: First, it requires deep and focused concentration and lots of energy, but once learned, it is done automatically and does not require much energy.

Intention versus attention
Once you have an intent to do something, then your attention (awareness) is busy and you will not able to “listen” to your partner. For many, what happens when they train push hands is that they mistakenly become so focused on pushing and winning that they completely forget what pushhands is all about: learning to listen to your partner, sensitivity, noting the direction of the force, relaxing the body, etc. If you are focused on doing something specific (like pushing), you cannot simultaneously be fully attentive and responsive.

To train your intention and to have a strong intention is fine when you want to develop certain things – for example certain mental imagery or release internal force – Fajin – in a certain direction. However, when you are training pushhands exercises with a partner, it is far better to dial down your intention and increase attention.

Tension, yielding and neutralization
External or superficial tension in the muscles often has its origins in external conflicts, where inner tension comes about from inner conflicts. Internal tension prevents deep relaxation, making it difficult to learn yielding. Profound relaxation is the foundation that creates the opportunity to learn yielding and later neutralization. Small babies obviously do not have much inner conflict and therefore no inner tension. There is a saying in Taiji: “Become like a child again.”

Yielding – true or false?
One of the major obstacles in the development of genuine yielding is – yourself.

At a conscious level, there can be a great desire to learn yielding, but on a subconscious level, the reverse may be the case. For example, after having felt Master Sam Tam many people express, that they really want to learn to yield as he does, but they are unaware that the real motive behind their desire to learn yielding is that they just want to win. This inner – perhaps unconscious – conflict means that it will never be possible for them to master it.

Elastic strength
In most external self-defence systems and most sports, the primary focus is on developing muscle strength. In the internal martial arts, we aim to build elastic strength through our connective tissue, tendons and fascia. We develop this elastic quality throughout our body and frame, so that we are able to absorb a push or blow and subsequently return it to our opponent without any physical action from our side. When our connective tissues, tendons, and fascia stretches, they subsequently return to their starting point, and thereby send our opponent back in the direction from which he delivered his push. Just like a trampoline.

Learning to stick is an essential part of your pushhands-development. Without the ability to stick you will never be able to develop yielding, neutralizing or issuing beyond a very limited level. The moment you make contact with your partner, stick to him like glue or like two magnets where the poles fits.

Your partner can feel you, but not push you. Just follow your partner’s push in whatever direction it might come. You provide no resistance at any time. You maintain contact right up until the point where you have issued or returned your partner’s force. Only then do you lose contact. It is impossible to learn to stick if you have not first developed your sensitivity up to a certain level and are able to yield without either offering resistance or collapsing your structure.

Remember, yielding is neither to resist, nor escape. Yielding is to follow the direction of an external force, extend it and gradually dissolving it until neutralizing it. You can only do that effectively by sticking to your partner.

In pushhands, you will always uproot your partner before issuing. You can compare it to removing weeds. To succeed, you must catch the roots. You uproot by first yielding and neutralizing your partner’s power and connecting to his center. Then you issue. Both your partner’s feet lose contact with the ground when they are uprooted, and he is sent back through the air in the direction that his push or force came from.

I remember many training moments with Master Sam Tam, where he, while sitting at his computer with his back turned, suddenly says to me: “You’re doing it wrong. You don’t uproot.” If you practice in front of a mattress hanging on a wall, you can hear from the sound your partner makes when he hits the mattress, whether he has been properly uprooted or not. Properly done, the partner will fly through the air. If not, he will just stumble lightly or take a step backward, one foot constantly in contact with the ground.

“Fill up the gap” 
If your partner in pushhands suddenly collapses his structure when you try to issue, and quickly pulls his arms towards himself close to his body, follow immediately and “fill up the gap”. When you start training free pushhands, where there is no fixed pattern, you will from time to time meet people who collapse and think that it is yielding. It is not, and in a real confrontation with another person, it would be a disaster!

I remember one of my former teachers, Master Yek Sing Ong, telling me one of the first times I got the opportunity to train free push hands with him, that I should always imagine that my partner’s hands were knives. You do not want two knives to get close to your body!

On another occasion, several years later, during one of my first visits to Master Sam Tam, I tried, in frustration over not being able to yield properly, to collapse. Immediately – which he later explained – he chose to fill up the gap and placed his hand around my throat as were he a pittbull. He stressed that I should never use a substitute method in a vain attempt at “winning” and that it would have disastrous consequences during a real confrontation with another person. I should always do the right things – yielding, sticking, neutralizing – even if it did not work right here and now against him. Like a bow is stretched and unstretched but does not collapse, we too do not collapse when yielding.

“Substitute method”
“I’m not a meat rack, why do you hang your meet on me?”
– Yang Chengfu

In addition to collapsing, there are many who use other unintended solutions in free push hands, violating all the fundamental principles of Taiji. They focus on not losing, rather than on learning. It is possible that they manage to train the principles, as long as it is in predetermined movement patterns, but as soon the switch to free push hands occur, they forget all about it. They lean their entire body towards the partner and use their bodyweight, or they use segmented force where they push with their hands, use arm muscles or they choose to “noodle”.

“Noodle” is a term that is often used for people who violate more or less all Taiji principles when they train pushhands: Everything from the straight back to being connected in the body and everything in between. Just so that they can remain standing on the square their feet are planted on, as were they defending a piece of land. They can be difficult to push if you use brute force. However, if you do not succumb to the temptation of using strength and power – and of course you don’t, why else learn Taiji? – but instead use sensitivity, sticking, awareness and sink the qi to dantian, you can walk right through them.

If they start to “noodle”, then immediately stop having any power whatsoever in your hands. Just maintain a connection through touch. When they subsequently move and try to escape, they end up tensing their muscles, and then you can move them completely effortlessly. Or as Master Sam Tam puts it: “The noodle becomes spaghetti before cooking.”

Various training partners
It is important to have good training partners, if you want to grow and develop your skill. And it is important to train with different people. By training with partners who are more experienced than you, you get the opportunity to follow their movements and experience their quality. Allow them to move in any direction they want, but try to follow their movements without resisting while remaining centered. Do not “noodle”. Be sensitive.

Training with someone who is less skilled than you are, on the other hand allows you the opportunity to experience what it feels like when you perform the movements correctly and with relative ease can control your partner. It allows you to experiment, making small improvements and refinements. You have to trust the process and the relaxed state – otherwise you risk being tempted to use brute strength and lean your bodyweight toward your partner, should he tighten up or block, while you lack the inner strength needed to move him. It will come in time – if you trust it!

Training partners you should kindly reject are those that continually correct you. One moment, they do everything to ruin the drill, using physical strength and resistance. The next moment they jump backward just by a small touch of your body or arm – of course after having corrected you based on how they think the exercise should be performed. They rarely have time to listen to the teacher’s instructions and directions, and are more concerned with their own ideas and showing everyone how talented and clever they are. There is often no hope of any real learning or development taking place, and you are wasting your time practicing with such a person.

Stretching muscles
When a muscle contracts, it gives power in the same direction as the movement is performed. Stretching of the muscles on the other hand produces force in the opposite direction of the movement. In relation to Taiji and push hands, it means that when one partner pushes in on you and you simultaneously stretch and expands, you will yield and return at the same time. The prerequisite is a relaxed structure, where there is both something stretching, and at the same time something giving a frame. As the classics say, “like bending the bow and shooting the arrow.”

If, however, you tense up your muscles, you will “lock” the power inside your own body, stiffen, and will only be able to move your partner by making a weight shift or by pushing hard in front of you with the use of chest, shoulder and arm muscles.

“To draw the bow and shoot the arrow.”

There are several ways to issue. The two most useful ways are from the feet and from the center. As described in a previous newsletter, issuing from the feet is slower than doing it from the center. On the other hand, there is great risk that you are going to tense up and use physical force when issuing from the center and expand simultaneously. I would suggest that you learn to relax, sink and empty, have a fully integrated body with a relaxed structure and is able to take all the power from your partner’s pressure on your arm or body into the ground before you train issuing from the center. Without structure, no elasticity!

Your center – in regards to pushhands

At the beginning of your Taiji training, you have no idea of where your center is – at best only an intellectual understanding. Therefore, great time is spent on various exercises and standings to find and feel your own center. If you train push hands with an experienced partner, he or she, in turn, easily finds your center and thus the opportunity to uproot you. Gradually you develop a sense of and contact to your center. It feels large and you begin to sense that all movements originate from here. Later on, you experience moments of being connected to your center, and later yet you will always be centered. Your body will feel like a big ball or balloon, with your center as the center of all movements in any direction.

Your training partner will have a more difficult time finding your center, where you in turn find it easy to find his, connect it to your own and thereby be in complete control of him in any situation. For your training partner, your center has changed from being huge and easy to find to being small and, at best, impossible to find. For you, your center has gone from being something you could not even find to something feeling big and covering your entire body. As a babushka-doll in a ball edition: Beneath the big ball is a smaller ball, and beneath this an even smaller ball and so on. And at the center of all these is your center.

Timing – with respect to a partner
There are several aspects to training timing. At the physical level, there is our own sense of timing regarding our own body during movement – as an unbroken line from feet to fingertips. The different body parts should be balanced and integrated. Next, the body must be as relaxed as possible so that energy can flow freely and unhindered – guided by our Yi. The same adjustments should be made when engaging a partner, and we have to blend and interact with him. Are we too fast relative to our partner, we lose the connection. Too slow and we resist.

Through our partner exercises we are able to develop our sensitivity and experiment with timing in different ways. In this regard, the partner is of great importance. The partner should be interested in cooperating and developing the material – otherwise it will be very difficult. Master Sam Tam once said to me when I told him that I felt privileged to have good partners to work with:“Up through history, they all come in pairs.”

The importance of having good training partners and to create an environment without competition, but with a focus instead on learning and developing, cannot be overemphasized.

Once you have developed some understanding of the basics and have begun to experience the positive aspects of improved timing and sensitivity, it is time to practice with as many different people as possible. Different people react differently, and once you feel that you have a foundation to work from, you should develop yourself further by crossing hands with as many people as possible.

Your training partner may choose to slow down a bit when he issues, so you have an opportunity to feel what is happening in your partner’s body and in your own – before you react. Gradually you can increase the tempo, so that the duration between your training partner yielding, neutralizing and issuing becomes smaller.

As you develop over time – provided the correct training methods have been followed – yielding, neutralizing and issuing will begin to take place in close to one movement. For great masters it is one movement.

It is necessary to know the theory and to practice the exercises, that are required for your development – and then to give it time. The surest way NOT to develop these skills, is to try to force it. It is not possible.

Push Hands – attention, point of contact and intention
“Give the point of contact but not the point of issue.” 
– Sam Tam

When you are pushed, give your partner a point of contact – but not a point of application. Be like a flag blowing in the wind. Your partner can touch you, but not find your center and push you. You disappear, yielding and sticking wherever you are pushed. In pushhands, you yield in a circle and subsequently return the power to the sender – if you wish to. Alternatively, just wait for his next push and yield there too. It is entirely up to you.

In a real fight, you basically do the same thing: Here you are only yielding where you are pushed, punched or kicked though. The second part of the circle returns instantly and punch, push, or whatever else you may find necessary and appropriate in the given situation. You can either choose to use force in your return circle and thereby probably escalate the conflict, or you can choose not to use force at all and just control your opponent and ensure that he cannot hurt you.

The last option will probably be the best. It enables any conflict to be resolved peacefully. And in a training situation, both parties will find it an amusing experience – as opposed to you returning with great force.

Once you have yielded and uprooted your partner, it is important that you do not fall for the temptation to use (brute) force. Instead, use your Yi, i.e. project your intention through their back to somewhere far behind them. A bit like choosing a target to shoot for.

In fact, the comparison to ball sports is not so crazy. If you need to kick the foul in soccer, you do not focus on the point of contact with the ball, but on where the ball should go. Your Yi has shown the direction, and in a well-trained mind and a ditto body, it is simply a matter of the body following the direction of your mind.

Regarding pushhands, it is a very common mistake to focus on the point of contact of our partner and stop there rather than continue through him. Many, many times when I have been with Master Sam Tam and have practiced issuing relaxed strength or internal force, he corrected me and said that I should think through my partner instead of stopping at the point of contact: “Think all the way to Granville Street.” (Granville Street is a few blocks from his house).

In the relationship between body and mind, you are obviously aware that thinking about something is one thing; actually doing it is different. When it comes to pushhands, imagining the direction is more important than the physical movement. As the classics put it: “Yi leads Qi and the body follows.” This assumes of course that the body is well-trained and well-coordinated and able to deliver what is intended from your mind. The body is not the decision maker – the mind is. That is one of the reasons we practice standing meditation: to strengthen and prepare the mind to guide and the body to follow.

Dantian and Fajin
As far back in history as we can go, the Holy Grail of internal martial arts has been developing Fajin – this “mysterious” and explosive force, which has been sought by many, achieved by few. This “secret” power generated and developed in the dantian, your center. One of the great masters of internal martial arts described the importance of the area as follows: “When you stand still in the standing, everything must be concentrated around your center. When you move, everything must originate from here.”

As you become more experienced over the years, you will most likely experience a connection to the area, and when you are relaxed, in your standing for example, the area feels like an elastic ball by touch. When issuing or releasing Fajin, the area will become round as a dome and hard as a rock. Anyone who has been in contact with Master Sam Tam and been able to feel his stomach can attest to that. Your abdominal muscles, your sixpack for example (rectus abdominis), do not contract when this dome occurs; on the contrary, they are stretched. So today’s ideal of a tense six-pack does not leave much space for developing and releasing Fajin. And just like a dome is equal in all directions, or a ball pumped up is expanding from its center and out in all directions, so does your center.

Push Hands – sinking the energy
“I touch, you fly.” 
– Torben Bremann

If I place my hand on a student’s chest and tell him that I can feel where his center is, I have contact to his center of balance. When sinking the energy to either my feet, or later just my center, I uproot him. (I have yielded and neutralized at the same time by connecting to my partner and emptying). At the same time the muscles in my arm are relaxed, my elbow slightly bent and my shoulder soft. I do not push with my arm; it is just my point of contact. I push from either my feet or, at a higher level, from my center. How do I do it? I sink the energy (qi) to the center.

The connection to the ground produces the power that is released from my hands, having first yielded and neutralized my partner’s force and sunk the energy. Initially this process is trained slowly and analysed so that it can be understood and developed; later it happens all at once.

It is a bit like when a car during a crash test runs right into a wall: in the collision with the wall the car is thrown backwards again. It “bounces”. We can also compare it with compressing one of those big exercise balls that are so popular in many training centers. When you compress the ball, you can feel – if you are slightly sensitive – that it becomes firmer, and that force is returned to your hand. Or like jumping on a trampoline. The more force you send out, the more it will return to you.

Connected to the center
When you are able to yield, neutralize and have practiced issuing and releasing relaxed strength (Fajin), you can work on the following in free pushhands:

As soon as you make contact to your partner, attempt to connect to his center, then catch and conquer it to release the relaxed strength against him at the right moment. It requires much training and a high level of sensitivity to reach that level.

When your partner touches you, you give him access only to the point of contact, not to your center. Thus, he has nothing to issue on. Even some skillful Taiji practitioners never reach beyond the level of push hands, where the focus is on one/two: first yielding, then issuing. At an even higher level, such as Master Sam Tam’s, it is all done in one motion; half-yielding, half-Issuing. Or, as he himself describes it in his own humorous phrase: “Giving them the moment of joy, followed by the taste of dead.”

Timing, reaction and response 
“Timing is everything.”
– Sam Tam

Everything in life is about timing. From an athlete’s peak performance to a stockbroker’s purchase or sale of shares. In both work and private life. In your Taiji, it is the level of integration between the sensory and motor nervous system, controlled by Yi, which is the crucial factor for mastery of timing. The response time varies, depending on the stimuli we are exposed to. Whether they are visual, auditory or tactile. In the external martial arts, which are mainly being fought with a certain distance between the combatants, and where punches and kicks are what you have to relate to, it is primarily the visual part that is being challenged and influenced.

In the internal systems, which are usually trained with a very short distance between the combatants, it is primarily the tactile sense from pressure that is dominant. You can distinguish between reacting and responding. A reaction always occurs after an action – i.e. you wait and react to what comes. A response on the other hand takes place simultaneously with the action. A reaction takes place mostly as a trained reflex – well or poorly trained – and there is a delay from the action taking place and your reaction. A response on the other hand takes place simultaneously due to your trained awareness and sensitivity.

Stability – to be like a sack of rice 
“Be still as a mountain, move like a great river.” 
– Wu Yu-hsiang

Occasionally one sees Taiji practitioners who have too great a focus on learning to take power into the ground and being stable and motionless. They become like a big sack of rice – heavy and solid. They confuse this state with the much higher level, called intercepting force, where yielding, neutralizing and issuing takes place at the same time.

Doing intercepting force, it looks as if the practitioner is motionless. He is not. The movements are simply so small that it requires a very trained eye to see that they are taking place.

On a trip to different Taiji schools in Malaysia, I witnessed one of my former teachers getting a healthy lesson in why you should not just stand still in the same position and try to take all the power into the ground when an unknown pushhands opponent comes with great force.

My teacher, who was far better than the person who pushed him, had become too accustomed to only his own students pushing him. And in the pushhands confrontations with them it worked. It did not work here though, and he was pushed by his opponent.

Afterwards I did pushhands with the same person, and by learning from the experience of what I had just seen happen to my teacher, I just yielded my opponent’s push, got him off balance and threw him backwards. Not because I was better than my teacher was, but because I had just witnessed what happened to my teacher – and learned from it.

Standing still and motionless to receive a push can be an excellent exercise to train the feeling of your whole body functioning as an integrated whole. However, it is an exercise specifically aimed at developing that kind of sensitivity. It is not an end in itself. Imagine that it were blows or kicks instead of pushes, and you simply stood motionless and received – then you would be like sandbag in a boxing club.

Staged performances
“A legend in one’s own mind”

Quite a few teachers succumb to the temptation of staging performances, when they are conducting workshops or upload video clips to YouTube. Meaning that they do pushhands demonstrations exclusivelywith their own students, and they jump and dance around like hell in all possible and impossible directions as if being hit by a magical force. It is a scandal to witness, and deeply discrediting Taiji.

Many times have I been alone with one of these “masters” or teachers, and it does not work on me! Not because I am a special or unique person whom very few can handle, but simply because these masters or teachers cannot perform these miraculous things in reality. Staging is used as cover for an insecure person who knows that he is living a lie, and is afraid of being exposed. And what does that result in? Tension!

It’s ok to use one’s own students to demonstrate some specific things that you are working on and developing and can only momentarily perform, as long as you also recognize that you have not quite reached the level yet of being able to do it to everybody at all times. However, it is not ok to create an illusion and a myth about yourself, just waiting to be found out. Be honest, and let go. Otherwise, you just give Taiji a bad reputation.

It may be possible to develop these skills so they work on everybody. Master Sam Tam and a few others I have met, are examples thereof. But accept if you are not quite at that level yet. Only that way will the possibility of development in that direction be possible.


At the physical level: Follow the direction, and adjust your body so that it is vertically balanced while you get your partner out of his balance. Issue when your partner is trying to regain his balance.

At the mental level: Empty your mind and follow your partner’s direction without any intention, thereby getting your partner’s intention out of his own center. Project your intention, and connect it to your partner’s attempt at restoring balance.

Rules of thumb
Yield the body part that is closest to the body first.
Yield the body party where your opponents force seems greater.
Yield with big movements in the beginning, later with small movements.
When you yield with a focus on self-defence, you only yield to get into a better position to issue.
When you yield, the elbow can be high or low in any position.
When issuing, the elbow should be dropped and facing downward.
When you yield and neutralize, you do it in a circular motion. First large, then small. First physically, then mentally.
When issuing, you do it in a straight line through your partner’s center.

(Originally posted at: https://exploringtaiji.com/pushhands/)


Blast from the Past (VII): Overall Goals and Approach

Diary Entry nr. 5 (2012): Overall Goals and Approach

Billedresultat for the long view
The overall goal of my training is simply well-being – both mentally and physically .
To have this I need to:

1. Be bodily unburdened enough to do whatever I want (or need) whenever I want (or need) to. Now and when I’m old.
– Being able to do any activities of daily living (ADL’s), job demands (JD’s) or sports and recreational activities (SRA’s) i might choose to do try.
– Retaining an ability to participate in a wide variety of sports is a part of this.
2. Promote superior resistance to wear and tear and common injuries. 
– Prevent common musculo-skeletal dysfunctions.
– Janda’s upper crossed/lower crossed/layer syndrome (adressed in a later post)
3. Reach these goals in the simplest way possible, investing the least amount of time even if it means the training program isn’t “optimal” in all ways. To train in a manner which enhances my life and doesn’t impact it negatively.
– Maximum efficiency with minmum effort. 80% benefits from 20% effort rule.
– Don’t do as much as possible; do what I need/can’t do without.
– More is not better. Do the smallest dose that will produce a desired outcome. Anything beyond that is wasteful.
– Choose only exercises with several benefits (most bang for the buck exercise) I.e. whole-body exercises using full ROM that stretch and strengthen at the same time.
– Rely on exercises that can be done anywhere, anytime and don’t rely on access to equipment of any kind.

Program Guidelines:
– The program should be very general in its focus to promote a high level of potential ability in as broad a spectrum as possible, and not single out any single physical fitness attribute (strength, cardiovascular, flexibility etc), but develop proficiency in each one so far as it still makes sense with regards to my goals and doesn’t negatively affect the development of other attributes.
– Training should be simple, enjoyable and fun.
– The body is an organism, not a machine. Treat it like a machine forcing rigid schedules on it is going to grind it down into injury, exhaustion and eventually breakdown. Listen to your body and let the workout be a recharge, not a drain. Maintain the idea of practice versus working out. Sweat, exhaustion and fatigue are for the most part just a byproducts, not the point.
– Look at the long term picture. Prioritize long-term health over short-term ‘peaks’: peaking is only for competition. Make time your ally. Rely on compound interest on basic movements over the course of years, even decades, to get where you want to be.

The Routine:
A daily combination of tonic calisthenics, running and seated meditation.

The Distillery: Meeting Liang De Hua (2018)

(The Distillery are original posts written by me on any number of topics)


From 12-14th of May, Liang De Hua gave a workshop here in Denmark, invited by my teacher Torben Bremann. This is a small review of my experience attending.

Liang is just beginning to give workshops outside Asia, and is probably best known from his own  youtube videos, his apperance on ” “The Martial Man” show or through word of mouth. Particularly Adam Mizner, one of Liang’s training partners, who he has also taught some of his Yang Shao Hou material.

“In lue of substance you frequently find formality” – Dan Harden

One of the first things to notice about Liang is his humble and down to earth manner of being (litterally! He trained in bare feet the entire first day) and plain old decency. While many, especially on the internal martial art scene, try to appear better than they are, Liang is opposite. No grandeur of being a master of anything, no “sir (or Mr.) this” or “sifu that”, no hiding of the art or himself in mystique and pretence. He spend some time of his youth picking locks he weren’t supposed to, loves to play video games and has a life outside the art, and has no problem admitting and showing that a given internal skill doesn’t apply in any situation, but depends on what the partner does. Most important of all though: he has sincerity and honesty in showing and passing on his skills.

You are freely allowed to be on the receiving end of any skill you want to see  or having your hands all over him while he demonstrates on another while telling you what you should try to notice under your hands. Despite basic and self-taught english he was able to get his points across, and a big grin spreads on his face when you (finally) get an exercise. No stern faces and frowns here.

“When I teach is when I am at my most vulnerable” – Sam Tam

A good teacher should be able to humble himself before a student. Otherwise the student can’t feel and can’t be shown what you are supposed to notice, embody and learn. If the teacher is afraid to lose face in front of a student

Liang and Peter during partnerwork

(especially in front of others), afraid to let a student touch them repeatedly and getting the point – then the student will not develop optimally (if any). And the teacher unable to give up his power, afraid to seem vulnerable, probably won’t develop very much either. While several famous teachers never allow themselves to appear weak in front of students, Liang happily lets go of his status and lets you have success with the exercise while he feels what you are doing. Or laughs wholeheardetly and points out what happened if you genuinly catch him off guard in some manner.

The workshop covered classic aspects of most internal training, and they were presented in a very systematic manner:

1) Standing meditation (zhan zhuang):
In Liang’s Yang Shao Hou lineage they have 10+ different standing positions. We covered a couple of them including the seemingly universal “hold the balloon” position. It was refreshing to hear from Liang, not stories of wonderful bliss and energy experiences when standing, but of how Liang even now hates long standings and finds it difficult to dicipline himself. No pretence indeed.

Liang made some good and essential points about fundamental internal work. If we want to have a feeling of sinking internally, then we have to to sink relative to something else. A water balloon lying on the floor is not sinking – it has just dropped and is spreading out everywhere. But if you suspend it from your hands in the air, it sinks. To have sinking, you must therefore pull something up. To have yin you must have yang. Intent and body tissues pulling in opposite directions are the fundamental principle behind many teachings and a vehicle for many internal attributes – sinking, stretching the tissues, connecting the body, etc. and this is explored and developed through standing first.

2) Solo exercises (neigong):
Liang covered 6 of his primary solo drills (he has many more) for training song, sinking the qi and making the body’s tissues connected and elastic. Many were familiar to us who trains under Torben, but Liang had some interesting details and cues guiding us through the exercises. One of the drills, from the outside, appears identical to one of master Huang’s basic exercises, but the yi and internal focus Liang had made it a very different experience than how many people practice it. Intent is everything in these exercises.liang

Liang gave a small lecture on “yao leading qua” explaining what it is and why it makes sense to him to move in this manner (including dantian rotations and movement beneath the skin) that I found both interesting and foreign to how I have been practicing up until now. His stories about why “the hand leads the root” and not the other way around was also especially interesting to me personally, the understanding of which (or lack thereof more likely) is something I will go over with Torben in our next lessons together.

3) Partnerwork:
We spend a long time on a couple of basic exercises used to practice sinking the qi and finding the partner’s root, capturering their frame and forcing them to reveal it or just a part of it (finding/capturing their shoulder). Most seemed familiar in principle to us already practicing under Torben, but it was interesting and useful to feel Liang’s approach and take on them as well as his corrections.

4) Taiji form
To put the pieces together, we sampled the first part of Liang’s form up until Single Whip. Key things stressed by Liang were using yi, partly through the use of the eyes, guiding the qi and peng in the body, which finally again made the body to move (hand, yao, kua and finally legs and root).
It seemedfocused on getting away from the tendency of being very ground focused when moving. While it may work, and entire styles are based upon it, it doesn’t seem like an advanced internal path to take in the long run. Good boxers and karatekas all learn to source power from the ground and their root. And while you can refine a groundpath to a very high level – ultimately, where is the internal in that when it is still basically what good external arts do as well? Liang, like Sam Tam, emphazised that the legs and ground take care of themselves when moving and the legs are just along for the ride.

All in all it was a very informative couple of days with many interesting experiences that I will need some time to fully digest and work through with the help of Torben. Apart from the above, I was on the receiving end of a no windup kick penetrating deeply into my thigh (a shocking experience, litterally) by Liang, heard him talk a bit about the “iron body” like qualities that develop from proper internal practice as well as walnut breaking fingerstrength…
He has obvious internal skills and is willing and able to demonstrate, explain and pass on what he knows – and doesn’t withold information when asked for it. He is also one of the few taiji people who practice how to fight with his internal skills. So if internals applied to fighting is your interest, then Liang is well worth the visit.

Liang og Torben
Torben Bremann & Liang De Hua. Good skills, good teachers and good persons, too!








Lessons from the Masters (III): Taiji with master Sam Tam (2017)

Peter Munthe-Kaas:
Taiji with Master Sam Tam – January 2017


The first days of my stay were not all that easy. Sams comments on my practice were quite clear although not exactly what I wanted to hear:
– “You are leaning”
– “You are holding your breath”
– “You are using force”

In addition I again experienced how skilled Sam really is and again I found myself completely helpless in his hands, unable to move him at all, while he could throw me completely effortlessly from every position. However, after the initial humbling experience I found myself opening for learning.

“You would not come here to learn if you were better than me, so why do you experience it as a problem that you can do nothing against me?”

During my days with Sam I started noticing how I hold my frame with relatively stiff arms, holding myself up to be balanced. At the same time I hold my breath (just a little bit) to keep the position. I do this to stabilize myself, but I also lift myself in the process, ruining my grounding. I also found myself in many (many!) situations where I was leaning forward to brace myself from being pushed, which of course does absolutely no difference when you are in the hands of Sam. After some time I also started noticing how I have a tendency to use hand force to (try to) push my opponent when doing pushhands, something I now realize will be a constant struggle to let go in the coming times.


Before I arrived Sam had asked what i wanted to focus on during my stay, and I asked for “the basics”. In practice this translated into learning how to yield.

Yielding is the foundation of everything in taiji and implies moving with and neutralizing the force that is moving towards you. Yielding is not “giving space” for the will of the other but rather recognizing that we are 2 in the space no matter what and putting yourself in the beneficial position of the relationship. Paradoxically you don’t do that by trying to move the other into a position which is beneficial to you, but rather wait for them to move and then yield until they have to adjust – and then you are in the beneficial situation without much effort. You don’t try to decide what the other person does, but allow them to do whatever they want without allowing them to “lean on you” or connect with your center.

As Sam says “If you have 1000 techniques, you will need to practice them all to be good. I only have one trick. Don’t let them lean on you.” If you are able to yield, you can move with whatever comes at you and you don’t have to think about what to do, you just allow your opponent to do whatever they want and then yield to their force.

Yielding implies that the body moves as a whole unit and that you do not make any unnecessary movement. To do that I need to let go of my premeditations of what is going to happen (how I am going to be pushed) in the attempt to react properly and instead relax and respond to whatever is actually there – in other words stop trying to control the situation, relax, and trust that I can yield to what is coming, or allow myself to be pushed.

When yielding you stick to your opponent from the moment he touches you and do not let go again. You keep the point of contact (what Sam calls “bone contact”). When they move, you move and fill out the gaps in the space between you.

Yielding is also the requirement of issuing (or “pushing” without using force). Without yielding you will meet force with force and the strongest (or fastest) will win. When doing pushhands I found myself struggling with not “coming out” or using force and thus revealing my intention and planned direction. Gradually i got a better hold on how to shift, sink and expand instead. Shifting implies moving the whole body as one unit. Sinking the chi implies expanding from the center which is not easy at all.

Thoughts and reflections

I have realized (again maybe?) that the biggest potential to develop my taiji practice is to stop cheating myself by not recognizing the mistakes I make, because it seems too much work to deal with them (a realization which connects to many other aspects of life than taiji I guess). The notion of “good enough” is holding me back from learning something new and improving. The taiji shortform in Sam Tams system felt quite short before I arrived. Now it feels very long. I think that is a good measure for how much I am learning while doing it.

“Practice means weeding out mistakes, not just repeating the same movements over and over again.”

If I knew what I should learn I wouldn’t need a teacher, but just practice. After visiting Sam I feel like I can improve my private practice, but I will also focus more on receiving guidance from my Danish teacher Torben Bremann.

My focus for the coming time will be to let go of my desire to use force (and to win). When doing the form some central elements (apart from the many many small and large corrections I have received) will be to work with “sinking the chi”, shifting and investigating how I can use less force to hold up my arms and hands and “use the chi instead” as Sam has adviced.

“Don’t let taiji run your life.”

Taiji is a philosophy meant to contribute to life, not dominate it and I was very pleased to hear master Sam talk about taiji as a practice meant to teach practitioners about life. When talking about how to practice at home Sam emphasizes that you should see taiji as an art and treat it that way – keeping it precious. For me the challenge will be to remember what I have learned during my stay in Vancouver and allow that to remind me on how to develop my practice.

(originally posted at: http://munthe-kaas.dk/taiji-with-master-sam-tam-january-2017/)

Blast from the Past (VI): Makko-ho

Diary Entry nr. 6 (2012): Makko-Ho
Billedresultat for makko-ho five

 Makko-Ho Background
Makko Ho literally means “the way of facing (things/life/oneself) directly”.
in Japan during the mid 1900’s , at the age of 42, Wataru Nagai suffered a stroke that paralyzed the entire left side of his body. Told by doctors that he would probably never work again and would need constant care for the rest of his life, Nagai almost inadvertently discovered Makko Ho while seeking salvation in the teachings of Buddhism.
The bowing movements of seated and standing Buddhist prayer postures became the basis of the Makko Ho system of rejuvenation. Over time these prayer poses developed into four main exercises which are the core of Makkō-Hō . Within three years, Nagai had regained the entire use of his body.
The exercises themselves are probably familiar to students of Yoga or Japanese martial arts:
Mr. Nagai points out that if you can’t demonstrate full hip flexibility then you are, in a sense, out of shape.
The main benefits of this system are: increased flexibility, symmetrical skeletal alignment, nerve stimulation, improved circulation, overall good health, and even increased libido.
The basic rule is “Keep doing it right, and keep doing it daily”.

Makko-Ho exercises:
Perform makko-ho daily and hold each pose for about one minute.

  • Exercise one. Sit erect, heels together and aligned with knees, soles turned upward. In the ideal pose, knees should rest on the floor. Keeping spine straight, lean forward to the floor. Beginners may grab feet and pull upper body down while keeping the spine straight.
    Billedresultat for makko-ho
  • Exercise two. Sit erect, legs extended in front, feet together and angled backward 60 degrees. Keeping spine straight, lean forward and rest chest on legs. Beginners may grab shins, ankles, or feet and pull upper body down while keeping the spine straight.
  • Exercise three. Sit erect, legs extended toward sides, feet angled backward 60 degrees. The optimum spread between the legs is 160 degrees. Keeping spine straight, lean forward and rest chest on the floor. Beginners may grab shins, ankles, or feet and pull upper body down while keeping the spine straight.
  • Exercise four. Kneel on the floor, toes pointed straight backward, and sit on the floor between feet. Keeping spine straight, lean backward until back is flat on the floor. Beginners may place hands behind on floor for support or sit on a cushion.
    Billedresultat for supta vajrasana


Lessons from the Masters (II): Taiji with master Sam Tam (2015)

Peter is a fellow taiji student, my senior, and has written some interesting blog posts about his experiences staying and studying with Sam Tam – touching upon some of the core aspects of Sam Tam’s system.
He has some wonderfull observations about the challenges, obstacles and insights he encounters in the process of learning taiji, and describes some of the lessons learned in the process. Many of them applicable to learning and life in general.



For the last week I have stayed and practiced taiji with Master Sam Tam in Vancouver, Canada. Sam has been the “Sifu” of my Danish teacher Torben Bremann for about 10 years and before this trip I had only met him at a few workshops in Copenhagen. I have practiced taiji in the system of Master Sam Tam for around 6 years myself guided by Torben.

It has been quite a privilege to get more “hands on” experience with Master Tam. He has the ability to clearly and effortlessly to demonstrate what yielding, neutralizing and issuing is all about and embody the taiji principles like no one else I have met.

Sam is good. Very good. When pushing hands with him you never feel him using force of any kind – there is no resistance from his side when you push him, he just moves with whatever comes at him, but without collapsing, using whatever movement you make to get you out of balance. He has an amazing sensitivity and can explain in great detail (greater detail than what I am usually aware of myself) what your body is doing and he is happy to let you feel both his yielding and issuing ability.

The practice takes place in the basement of Sams home in Vancouver, which is simply furnished with what you need for taiji practice – basically empty floor space and a mattress on the wall for bouncing practice. Taiji sticks, swords, fans and other practice weapons lie strewn around the space that has a tea kitchen in one end and a couple of computers in the other. Sams house seems to be a bustling hub for taiji practitioners from all over the world. Several people came by the house during my stay and there was always someone new to practice with.

My experience

When I arrived Sam asked me what I wanted to practice while I was staying with him. After answering something rather incoherent I said something about improving my yielding and that is what we have mostly been working on. I have practiced the taiji form, done a bit of standing meditation, some mokabu and a lot of bouncing exercises and pushing hands.

Practicing form with Sam is a very giving experience. Apart from the fact that he himself can show how everything should look, he is very attentive and can demonstrate why it is supposed to look as it does. When teaching Sam will repeatedly demonstrate the practice by letting you touch him, which often results in you lying on the floor or thrown against the wall after a few seconds. But he also has the extraordinary ability to slow down to a pace where you can actually follow what is going on and notice every slight movement made, allowing you to become aware of still more imbalances and tensions.

After instructing us to practice on our own, Sam would do chores around the house, fiddle with his computers or just sit and watch in silence. Several times during my stay I was surprised by how aware he was of what was going on, even though he was doing something else.
– While I am practicing the form walking past me with the laundry basket he points out that the angle on my front hand in the single whip should be more than 90 degrees and quickly demonstrates how easy it is to push me if the angle is wrong.
– Or when he steps into the middle of me doing the form to very powerfully demonstrate why the back hand in single whip should be around a fist above shoulder height (so that you can hit the throat of the opponent, and then grab the collarbone).

I mentioned earlier on that Sam is good. Well he is. But to be honest his level exceeds my understanding as I feel completely defenseless when I am in his hands – and he only rarely opens up the bag to show his fighting skills. Most of the time we practice his taiji form, bouncing or pushing hands exercises, but once in a while he will demonstrate applications or just reveal a little bit of his fighting skill – and when he does, the experiences is that he could kill you in seconds if he wanted to.

“You are the mouse and I am the cat. How can you win? You need to transform yourself into a cat as I am telling you and maybe you can do something. You can gather 100 mice and throw a conference, and still you couldn’t do anything.” (Sam Tam)

Sam’t taiji philosophy is undogmatic. People have different bodies and different strengths and weaknesses and thus cannot perform taiji in the same way. Rather he refers to “the happy medium”, the personal place of comfort you can find while following the taiji principles.

Very patiently he repeats again and again that you should not react (reaction is something you do after the fact), but rather respond to whatever is coming at you and that the only way you can do this is to have no intention or idea of what you are going to do, but rather follow and yield. If you try to use technique or have a premeditated idea of what you are going to do, you will not be able to cope with change in the situation. My conceptualization is that Sam responds to what is actually there (in reality), rather than assuming that something is going on.

More than just a martial art

I was positively surprised about how much Sam focuses on the connection between your general being and behavior and the taiji practice. I had a lovely time chatting with Sam about politics, philosophy and life in general and really enjoyed his honest and firm approach to everything around him.

Taiji is about confronting the problem without confrontation. Many people tend to go for confrontation without confronting the problem. (Sam Tam)

Sam is also very focused on communicating the inner aspects of taiji (or “inner martial art” in general). Control in taiji is not about controlling the enemy, but about controlling yourself. You don’t want to do anything towards the other. You just follow and fill out the space that he is leaving, so that he has no exits.

Ironing out my bad habits

Sams teaching entails a lot of time spent “ironing out” the mistakes and bad habits of his students. His attempt is to not just deliver information to his students, but to actually allow them to learn and gain embodied knowledge.

We generally have a tendency of seeing other people’s mistakes while being blind to their own. If you can start to see your own mistakes more clearly you will learn more, so below are some of my notes on what to work with and improve in my own practice.

When pushing hands and bouncing
Sam defines yielding as “not allowing the opponent to lean on you”. To achieve this you cannot use force as that will give your opponent a “handle”, but neither “run away from the force” of the opponent and allow him to find your center of gravity. This balancing act is excruciatingly hard to perform in practice. I have a tendency of yielding “halfway” (to the place where I feel safe) instead of going until the end of the push. This habit is part of the reason that I often find myself in situations where the second attack is impossible to respond to.

Don’t do anything against the opponents will when you start to yield. Give him what he wants without giving him your center to push on. Don’t think or try to get your opponent and yield without the intent of getting his center – that will happen by itself. If you commit by having intention in your movement, it means that you have already lost. Intentional movement = force.

Let the whole body move when you yield – don’t isolate the arms. Always yield where there is more force. If the force is equal between the hands, yield the place closest to the body.

Another central point is that you don’t move by your own accord when yielding – only if your opponent moves. Personally I have a horrible tendency to start guessing what my practice partner will be doing next and move accordingly. This works in many cases, but while touching Sam and some of his other students I quickly realized that it was a dead end street, however hard it will be to let go of the habit.

Other points
– I should remember to keep my chin down when pushed backward, otherwise I have no chance to stay balanced.
– I have had a tendency to use my thumbs to push towards the ribcage of my practice partner. Sam thoroughly demonstrated why this was a bad idea.
– I have a tendency to collapse and thus allowing my practice partner to get me. Collapsing implies allowing the opponent to enter your circle, so a project for me is to keep my frame when pushing hands.
– I have a tendency of pushing down, where it would make sense to go more upward.
– I have a tendency of leaning forward with my upper body, both when I am receiving a push and when I am delivering it. If I keep straight my sensibility will improve.
– When pushing use the whole body and aim for a feeling of fullness. Keep the sensation of wholeness while practicing the form.
– Don’t retreat.

When doing the form
Sam keeps emphasizing that the form is about learning how to “sink the chi and shift the weight”, but for me there are other central points that should be remembered. A central sensation that I am taking with me is the idea that I should have fighting power in (and between) every position in the form. Otherwise I am not doing it right. This one is going to take a while to work through.

There is a subtle difference between focusing on the movements of the form and keeping awareness on the form practice. The first will lead to divided attention, while the second is a catalyst for flow. Sam would also express it as letting the chi move you rather than thinking about the movements.

Other points
– I have a tendency of looking down while I do the form which makes it harder for me to balance and according to Sam also generally weakens my movement.
– Remember to have a lot of airtime in the form to practice sinking, but also to give power to the legs and feet in the form.
– Lots and lots of corrections to specific movements that I won’t try to reference here.

Until next time

It has been truly great to experience a taiji master in action in this way and I feel that I have learned a lot. I hope that I will have the opportunity to study more under the guidance of Master Tam in the future, but for now I am looking forward to come back to Copenhagen and practice with Torben to see if I have actually improved.

(originally posted at: http://munthe-kaas.dk/taiji-with-master-sam-tam-august-2015/)

Blast from the Past (V): Nikolai Amosov

Diary Entry nr. 5 (2012): Nikolai Amosov and his Rejuvenation Routine
[photograph of Nikolai Amosov]


Some of you have probably heard of Nikolai Amosov (1913-2002), a Soviet and Ukranian doctor and health icon, and his rejuvenation routine through Pavel Tsatsouline’s book Super Joints. I found his overall philosophy and approach to health maintenance very interesting, so here is a little post on what I have been able to gather on him.

Amosov – theory behind his recommendations (From Pavel Tsatsouline)

According to Prof. Bayevsky, at any given moment, between 50 to 80% of all people are in the so-called donozoological state, or between health and illness.  According to Academician Nikolay Amosov, these people are only “statically healthy”—until the environment disrupts their fragile status quo.

Academician Amosov coined the term “the quantity of health”, or the sum of the reserve powers of the main functional systems.  These reserve powers are measured with the health reserve coefficient: the ratio of the system’s maximal ability to the everyday demands on it.

To improve your quantity of health, you need to increase the reserves of your functional systems, cardiovascular, pulmonary, muscular, etc.  There are over a hundred measurable health parameters.

A number of Soviet and Russian textbooks, from the 1970s until today, cite a study of young rodents undergoing an intense swimming regimen—one hour a day for ten weeks.  Their heart mass increased—while the mass of their kidneys and adrenal glands went noticeably down, and so did the number of the liver cells.  In other words, while the training increased the functional capacity of the heart, it simultaneously reduced the capacity of several inner organs!

If later the rodents from the study encountered significant physical loads, they would be better prepared to handle them and survive compared to their untrained peers.  If, on the other hand, the challenge were directed at the liver or kidneys (through a change of food, an increase of sodium intake, etc.), the hard training rats would be at a disadvantage compared to their lazy brothers and sisters. Another example is female machinery malfunctions typical in young girls who are high-level athletes in bodyweight sensitive sports like gymnastics.  Even worse, the muscles of a hard training and dieting young gymnast cannibalize some of the heart muscle to find some precious protein!

This phenomenon is called “the cost of adaptation”.  The cost can be exacted from the systems of the body directly loaded by the stressor—or from other system(s) not directly involved in dealing with the stressor

To mitigate the downsides or costs of specialisation:

  1. Start with a great foundation of GPP.
  2. Avoid early specialization. (Negative adaptation in organs and systems not directly challenged by specific training is especially pronounced in immature organisms)
  3. Do not force the rate of your progress.

If you choose health, do not reach for Olympic medals, avoid narrow specialization, and train in moderation.  Because high adaptation cost is experienced especially by specialist athletes and people who perform hard physical labor.

Soviet research teaches us that sport training and physical culture lead to a significant decrease in diseases overall and injuries.  Renown Soviet scientist Prof. Zimkin concluded, “It has been determined from animal experiments and observation of human subjects that muscular activity increases the organism’s non-specific resistance to many unfavorable stressors people are subjected to in modern conditions, e.g. hypoxia, some poisons, radioactive materials, infections, overheating, overcooling, etc.  A significant decrease in illnesses has been observed in people training for sport or practicing physical culture.”  He went on to add that “rational” training is what is needed to deliver such resilience.  Moderate physical loads stimulate the immune system.

Amosov’s Story:

In my early childhood I grew up alone and had no “program” of physical training. The manual labour made me stronger, but not adroit: I was not taught to swim, dance or ride bicycle. I used to run away from physical training classes both in my school and in my college.
In the war, I first went through radiculitis seizure, which was recurred again and again, evidently, due to long operation procedures.

In 1954 I was tortured by spinal pains and even some dorsal alterations were discovered.
Then I invented my system of physical exercises comprising of 10 exercises, 100 movements each. I started jogging in 1971, when a dog was purchased. In 1985 I had a heart blockage with a pulse rate of 40 beats per min. I stopped jogging and restricted myself to physical exercises. In 1986 after the implantation of a pacemaker I began to feel myself better and resumed jogging. In autumn 1993, my pacemaker failed to operate and it was replaced for a new one. In December, my eighty years anniversary was celebrated. I was awarded again with an order.
Soon after my jubilee, I realized, that it became harder for me to walk, though I continued my usual physical exercises: 1000 movements and 2 km jogging

I started feeling like I was aging in 1992 when I stopped practical surgery. I thought over the aging mechanism and made up my mind then to resist aging thought intensive physical exercises. I decided to make an experiment: I three times increased my physical exercises.

I started with 2500 physical exercises and later increased to 3000 movements, half of which were made with the dumb-bells up to 5 kg. I used to jog up to 5 km. And the aging receded. After half a year of such regimen, I looked ten years younger.

For two and a half year I felt very well. At that very time I wrote the book “Overcoming Aging “, as well as some brochures. I was fully aware of my decreased aorta activity, but hoped it would improve, but it never did. I developed stenocardia but I went on carefully with my experiment this time giving up the jogging. I had regular check-ups: my heart was getting enlarged. It was clear to me, that I had failed to deceive nature and that it was time to get ready to die. I accepted it in cold blood. I felt like having fulfilled all my life tasks. I even wrote my memoirs “Voices of Times”.

In Mai 1998, my daughter, a professor of cardiology and my pupils offered me to undergo surgery in Germany – such old men as me are not used to be operated in my own clinic.
Professor Korfer implanted an artificial mitral valve and put two shunts in the coronary arteries. The operation was a success, though it was followed by long but not very hard complications.

I resumed my physical exercises immediately after the operation: first, I increased the number of exercises up to 1000, then I resumed my one hour indoor and outdoor walking. But I gave up jogging and dumb-bells.
Rehabilitation went on slowly. There were a lot of minor complications: headaches and instability of movements but I was patient.
I made up my mind to resume experiment. To my usual physical exercises I added dumb-bells-exercises and increased the walking time.

Only in summer 1999 it turned loose: the aging seemed to step back. I felt at once ease by walking. In the course of winter 1999-2000 I increased the number of exercises [repititions] up to 3000 (1200 of them were dumb-bell-exercises)and walked for 1 hour daily. As for jogging, I did it carefully and no more than 1-2 km per day, mostly downhill. Soon I doubled jogging time andrate. My physical exercises, jogging and walking take 3 hours.

Amosov’s recommendations:

My recommendations for everybody is the same:

– 30-45 minutes of physical exercises/1000-1500 movements [repititions]. 500 of those exercises [repititions] with 5 kg- dumb-bells
– one hour of intensive walking, but 2-3 km. jogging is still better.
– Very important to have command of one’s mind: the number of illnesses provoked by stress is far larger than those provoked by other factors. (This piece of good advice is as much important as it is useless-it is being hardly followed ). In this respect, it is very good to learn auto-training or meditation.

I am sure, that if a heart is strong, intensive regimen would provide an active life up to 90 years.

Amosov’s program (according to Pavel Tsatsouline in Super Joints):

His original 1,000 Movements were 100 repetitions each of these ten exercises:
– Squats
– Trunk Twists
– Side Bends
– Roman Chair Sit-ups
– Pushups
– Leg Raises bringing knees to head
– Forward Bends
– Shoulder Reaches (raise arms to shoulder height and throw them behind your back to touch each palm to the opposite shoulder blade)
– Arm Circles
– Knee Lifts to chest

Amosov later replaced the shoulder reaches and knee lifts in his original complex with four activities—One-Legged Jumps; Bringing the Elbows Back (pretend you are doing a dumbell BP negative); the “Birch Tree” (Shoulderstand from yoga)” and Sucking in the Stomach (what it sounds like; another variation is exhaling all the air and expanding the rib cage [vacuum])—and he altered the number of repetitions slightly to keep the total at 1,000.

Academician Amosov emphasizes a maximal range of motion in his exercises. This is the simple the key to the effectiveness of his youth-restoring calisthenics. Other, even more complicated routines generally do not pay attention to this vital advice. Rotating a joint through its anatomically complete range of motion —or trying to approach that ROM if the joint is damaged—smoothes out the joint surfaces and lubricates them. This contributes greatly to the joint’s health. A full range of motion is gained or maintained.

Amosov’s Program (according to Tom Kurz)

In the beginning professor Amosov performed 10 repetitions of each exercise, but his back pain persisted.
So he kept increasing gradually the number of repetitions of each exercise, and when each was done for 100 reps, the back pain was gone. Professor Amosov stated that for young people, up to the age of 30, whose joints function well, it should be enough do only 20 repetitions of each exercise. When joint aches appear around age 40, the number of repetitions should be increased to 50 or even 100. When a joint hurts, it should be exercised more: 200 to 300 repetitions. To physicians’ objections that this is too much, the professor responds that these high repetitions are needed to compensate for the unnaturally immobile lifestyle of most workers.

Since 1954 the complex changed very little–some exercises were replaced by more effective ones, but the total number of exercises, the recommended number of repetitions, and the time to perform the complex stayed the same. Professor Amosov warns that for joints health, the added resistance cannot make up for the lower number of repetitions. So repetitions with weights have to be done in addition to the 1,000 repetitions without, not instead of them.
Similar-to-Amosov-program (From Tom Kurz)

Russian geophysicist V. M. Khudyakov, has a herniated disc in his lumbar spine. He describes his experience in a letter to Fizkultura i Sport (number 10, 2002), a popular health and fitness magazine in Russia.

In 1994, Khudyakov spent a whole month in hospital because of the herniated lumbar disc. His pain subsided somewhat after the hospital stay. Self-administration of electroacupuncture also helped him, but he was still far from good health. (I do not go into details of this electroacupuncture treatment as such description would take me off the subject of this article, and besides, I do not give medical advice.) To fully recover, Khudyakov needed to strengthen the muscles supporting his spine. Eventually, he started to exercise when he was able. After a while his daily program looked like this:

5:00 a.m. sauna and bath in ice water followed by 40 to 45 minutes of exercise.

100 back extensions on the floor
100 forward bends, knees straight, putting hands on the floor
100 hip twists to the left and 100 to the right while sitting on a rotating wheel and keeping trunk immobile
100 trunk twists to the left and 100 to the right while keeping hips immobile
100 clockwise circles with the head and 100 counterclockwise circles
20 push-ups after each exercise

This program very quickly made him feel good, practically healthy, but his pain would return occasionally after prolonged work in bent posture while gold digging. (He had to go deep into the taiga to dig gold because he could not find a job in his town, his wife was laid off, and they had two little children.) Final recovery came later, he thinks because of increasing the number of repetitions in each exercise from 100 to 200 and the total number of push-ups on fingers to 180–200. Now he feels better than before his spine was injured.

Khudyakov does all these exercises in the morning, and in the evening he does 500 to 600 squats or alternates back extensions on the floor with leg lifts 300 times.