How Many Arts Should You Explore

How many different (martial) arts should you explore? Pick one and practice it over your lifetime to become the expert of experts? Switch frequently and try as many as you can to have the broadest possible perspective? I think the answer lies somewhere in the middle.

If you only ever study one art, chances are you will not fully understand it. If you get distracted by trying to do too many, then most likely you will not get anywhere with either one.

Avoid tunnel vision

While I strongly believe that you need to spend a lot of time on one art to really understand it, and maybe eventually even master it to some degree, it also limits your perspective to a problem and its solution to only one single angle.

I often noticed, that I would understand things on a deeper level, when they were presented to me from different angles. Sometimes the Karate explanation made more sense to me, sometimes it was the Tai Chi approach and sometimes I would finally understand a difficult principle while trying to practice an Aikido move or Jodo strike.

Don’t miss the tree for the forest

On the flip side you need deep and enduring exposure to a certain framework of thinking or philosophy, to understand it on a natural level, to feel it. To “make it yours” (Morihei Ueshiba).

So if you try to learn too many different things at the same time, it will distract you more than it will help. It’s hard to combine teachings from external arts like Karate with internal systems like Tai Chi if you didn’t get to the level of seeing the principles yet. It will all just seem like a big mess of disconnected contradictions.

Know your core and expand from there

Start by picking one martial art. Practice it. Practice some more. Keep practicing until you reach a level where the underlying principles start revealing themselves and until you don’t have to ‘think’ about the movements anymore.

Then go and add small doses of other styles and arts to it. Observe what that teaches you. See what new angles and perspectives open up for problems that you already worked on (and maybe struggled with). Be open to understand moves that you have already practiced from a new and different angle. Don’t rip and replace, rather add to your knowledge.

You might shift your primary art over time as your interests change, but always have a primary art that you go deep on and see others as supplements.

If you experiment with other arts, I would recommend to seek significantly different perspectives. If you do Shotokan Karate, don’t do Wado Ryu. It will  teach you a master’s preferences, but only few new insights. Add something different like Aikido or Tai Chi. If your focus is an external martial art (like Karate, Kung fu, Tae Kwon do, etc) then add an internal art (like Aikido, Tai Chi, etc) and vice versa.

Dip your toes into something new. Try it out long enough to get a good sense for the ideas and principles underneath, but know your home base. Know your core and expand from there.

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Yin and Yang – Keep Flowing

Yin and Yang – Keep moving, keep shifting. Never stop, never stagnate. Celebrate the black and white instead of perpetual grey.

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Everyone talks about Yin and Yang. It’s become mainstream folklore to the degree where I was wondering if I should talk about it at all. Then I decided that I needed to because it’s too fundamental and important to not call out a few of its core ideas and implications.

The concept of Yin and Yang could fill a whole book on its own (and has done so for many). However here are the aspects I find most important for our Tai Chi practice.

Celebrate the black and white instead of perpetual grey

On the simplest level Yin and Yang represents the duality of things in life. Light and darkness, hard and soft, asserting and relenting, open and close, male and female – and we could go on forever. Yin (阴) represents the female and passive, Yang (阳) stands for the male and active.

The first important lesson from Yin and Yang is that we need to actively seek and celebrate the black and white instead of coasting along in perpetual grey.

It is easy to let things drift by, to have one day be just like the other and get dulled in our routines. But if we do so, we miss out on life big time. Rather, we should cherish the ups and downs, the cold and the hot days, the sunshine and the pouring rain for what they are. There is no light without darkness.

In Tai Chi we focus on developing and feeling those differences. As we progress, we move from executing movements mechanically with the same energy level throughout, to developing, feeling and expressing the dualities within. We push and pull, we open and close, we inhale and exhale, we are proud and humble, we are strong and flexible.

As we learn to differentiate and shift between those states of black and white, we experience and enjoy our Tai Chi on a much more intense and rewarding level.

There is Yin in every Yang – and vice versa

The second important lesson somewhat contradicts the first one. It reminds us that there is Yin in every Yang and vice versa.

Even if we are strong, we need to be flexible to some degree. A little less but still. If we are only strong at a particular moment, we become stiff and will break like a frozen twig. If we are only flexible at a given moment, we will be floppy and lack impact, like a soaked sheet of paper.

Now be careful, this does not mean to become grey again. It does not mean to be 80% or 90% strong for example. It means to be 100% strong but to discover the smaller parts within that still stay 100% flexible at the same time.

This is a difficult concept to think about initially and a hard one to implement. Think about it. Think some more and then try it in your practice. Meditate on the small black circle within the larger white area and try to discover what it might mean for your training and life.

Like a wave – never stop, never freeze

The last important lesson, and here is where I differ with some Tai Chi schools, most importantly the Yang family style itself, is that we need to keep moving and shifting between both states. We need to learn to fluidly go from one into the other without ever stopping.

 

Tai Chi is not Karate, where we learn to focus all energy in one point and the lock the whole body as we deliver that energy for maximum rigidity and impact. It’s also not about delivering the final theater-worthy blow and then stopping and letting the viewer see the dramatic impact as the bad guy crumbles on the floor (Jean-Claude Van Damme does that famously and uselessly in his movies).

In Tai Chi we want to develop our internal energies and get them flowing first and foremost. We also want to develop a flexible mind, which never gets attached and stuck to a singular thing. In order to do so, we need to train ourselves to keep everything flowing, to remove all the breaks and stops.

Think of your Tai Chi as a wave. It never stops, it never breaks, there is focus, there is climax and anticlimax, but there is not even a single split-second where the moving ever stops. Make your Tai Chi a wave. Go from Yin to Yang and back again. Open and close, inhale and exhale, push and pull – but never stop, never halt. Flow from one into the other fluidly.

Like the water atoms in a wave, everything moves at the same time. Everything reaches the peak at the same time. And in every forward movement, there is a backward movement of some part of your body, like the undercurrent of the wave.

The Answer Lies in the Small Details

We don’t need to learn many forms to understand and master the art we’re practicing. In fact, trying to learn many different forms often distracts us from understanding the true teachings and underlying principles of our art.

I like to tell students, that we could practice ‘stroking the mane of the horse’ for the rest of our life and we would be able to find, practice and perfect all Tai Chi principles within that one movement. In Yang style it is said that ‘grasping the birds tail’ is the fundamental movement that represents the essence of the style. Almost every style has such a movement or essential form, that represents the core of its founders ideas (like Kanku Dai for Shotokan founder Gichin Funakoshi and Sanchin for Goju Ryu founder Chojun Miyagi).

The small component contains the whole

‘Stroking the mane of the horse’ or ‘grasping the bird’s tail’ seem to be very basic movements, but in fact all of Tai Chi (and martial arts) is contained in them. As you practice, pay attention to the details and try to find those principles in the simple form.

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In science we learned just fairly recently that all of nature follows a similar rule. The smallest component represents and holds the structure and the principles of the whole. Nature follows the rules of Chaos theory (or System theory in more scientific terms) and is fundamentally of fractal nature. You might know the beautiful and famous pictures of fractals, popularized by Benoit Mandelbrot, which visualize mathematical formulas that describe how our universe is built. If you zoom in, you see the same patterns and rules that you see when you zoom way out. It’s the same with Tai Chi, if you zoom all the way in (e.g. how you move your fingers), you apply and understand the same principles as if you zoom all the way out (e.g. performing the Form of 108).

Focus on the details

It also means, that you don’t have to hold yourself back from practicing on your own just because you don’t yet remember the form. If you remember ‘stroking the mane of the horse’, you have everything you need to practice and understand the principles and details. In fact you have a higher chance to understand the deeper levels of what you are doing, than when you get stuck on remembering the sequences of the form.

“The master finds the answers in studying the small details.”
Hilmar Fuchs

So why do we learn multiple forms after all? For the same reason why many systems have graduation levels: to keep the student engaged and interested (in the case of graduation systems also to make more money). If we would practice only one technique for years, most students would get bored and run away. So we switch combinations of techniques and forms to keep everyone mentally engaged.

How we teach today

In modern times we are forced to trade avoiding boredom with depth of understanding. In the old days you would actually have worked on a single form for three to five years, before moving on to the next. For instance in Karate you would train a form of similar length as the Form of 24 for at least 3 years before your teacher would let you move on to the next one.

Our modern teaching style allows more students to tag along and get benefits, but it requires those who want to really understand their art to go the extra mile and spend the extra effort to go deeper and explore further in their own time. The upside of this approach is that it creates benefits for more people as the arts become more accessible. The downside is that it puts more ownership on students who want to go deeper and understand their art more completely. But then again, maybe that’s actually good. No pain, no gain.

The good news is that you get all the tools (principles) in class. Your job is to apply them to your practice. Take individual movements and polish them, using the principles you learned. Follow the principles of ‘deliberate practice’ (for further reading check out: ‘Peak: Secrets From the New Science of Expertise’ by Anders Ericsson).

 

Learn and Forget

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Learn and forget. Make the technique a part of your body before you move on.
Morihei Ueshiba

Morihei Ueshiba, the founder of Aikido, once said “Learn and forget. Make the technique a part of your body before you move on.” It’s one of the key principles I followed in my studies and well as in my life. Partly because I have poor memory for details, partly because it makes a lot of sense.

Why we want to forget

Learn and forget. How does that make sense and what do we mean by that?

The idea is not, to not pay attention at all or to be a lazy student. Rather the opposite. The idea is to practice a technique, a movement or a form until you can repeat it correctly. By that time you understand the representation and interpretation that was shown to you by your teacher.

At that point, you are either stuck or you can move on to the next level. In order to move on, you need to free yourself from the representation and interpretation you were shown and you have to recognize and understand the essence of what you’re doing. You then have to rediscover its representation within your own framework of experiences, philosophies and physical abilities.

You ‘forget’ what you were taught and you rediscover the underlying essence within your own framework. You make the technique ‘yours’.

Repeat a hundred times to make it stick

Before we can forget and rediscover in our own framework, we first have to sufficiently understand (and remember) what we’re doing, so that we have a basis to understand the core and evolve our understanding from there.

That is where we have to repeat a hundred times to make it stick. We need to take notes after class, to reflect on principles and new learnings and make the sit. We need to embrace active learning, asking questions and repeating what we learned within 48 hours to commit it to longterm memory. Ideally we teach what we learned to another person to test and solidify our understanding.

Learn and forget – rediscover the teachings for yourself, with your own abilities and constraints.

Be a woodsman in the summer, be a scholar in the winter


I had a long-ish list of things I wanted to prepare for our Tai Chi classes over the summer break. I also wanted to work on the new edition of our book. And while I’m super passionate about Tai Chi and it’s a big driver of purpose in my life, it didn’t happen. I just didn’t feel the drive for it.

For a while I actually felt really bad about that, but then it dawned on me – this is another example, where you need to see the Yin and Yang. Life goes in waves, flows ands circles.

There is a season for everything. Embrace it!

Be out and enjoy the sun in summer. Re-charge with the sunlight. Be outgoing. When the summer fades away and things seem to close back in, energize and vitalize from within.

Be a woodsman in the summer and a scholar in the winter.

The Power of Pictures

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

Why do we do this?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spiral Energy

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

We all start with linear energy

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

Layer another type of energy on top

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

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

Spirals intertwined with spirals

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

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

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

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

Spirals are everywhere

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

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

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

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

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

No Ranks, No Titles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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