The Tao, the ‘Force,’ and Martial Arts

There are ultimately just two styles of martial arts (and perhaps just two approaches to living): those that flow with the force, and those that try to force their will.

Most martial arts methods focus on overpowering or outmaneuvering their opponent. They consider what the opponent may do and what they must do to counter it. They consider what they want to do to their opponent and how to achieve that goal. They unknowingly impose their fears and desires on reality. They seek to control events, and try to devise better strategies to ensure victory. In short, they fall prey to the “Dark Side of the Force.”

While this way is quicker and easier, it is also deceptive. It feeds your ego and encourages your baser emotions such as fear, desire, anger, arrogance, and attachment to results. It leads down a path in which your prize is the ability to hurt others, as punishment for daring to oppose your will. It builds in you a chronic underlying fear that someone out there may be able to threaten your sense of dominance, resulting in a thirst for more power that can never be quenched. Your self-worth becomes tied to your sense of power over others, and so you feed it by bullying others to show your strength. At its extreme, this is the inner state of dictators and warlords, whose only salve for their chronic anxiety is to make others suffer. Imagine Emperor Palpatine and Darth Vader, leading the Empire’s vast destructive power to submit the galaxy, all the while chanting, “If you only knew the power of the Dark side of the Force.” Power is seductive. It seduces us into believing that we can control events and achieve a state in which things always go our way – into believing we can always be up, never down.

The Taoist approach is quite different. Like the Jedi, a Taoist sees all things as part of a greater Force that “penetrates and binds us” and moves us all along in its flow. They call it the Tao. To this way of thinking, attempting to force your will and control events is akin to splashing around in a river; all that effort may make some waves, but it will not change the flow of the river nor the direction of all things moving in it. By accepting that he is in the river and of it, and by being sensitive to its flow and going along with it, the Taoist’s strength – like the Jedi’s – “flows from the Force.” By going with the natural flow of events, the Taoist meets no resistance, and so his actions seem effortless. This way of acting without effort is called wuwei – literally, “without trying.” As Yoda instructs “Do or do not. There is no try.” This is not an admonishment to get it right the first time, it’s a description of the way one acts when in alignment with the Force. One could just as easily say “in alignment with the Tao.”

If you’re trying, you’re trying too hard. “Trust your feelings. Use the Force.” In martial arts and in life, this way of being leads to a very different approach to dealing with challenges. Rather than seeing them as attacks or obstacles to achieving a desired result, a Taoist sees all events as simply what’s happening, without judging them as either threat or benefit. He knows each bend in the river reveals new possibilities and surprising outcomes, and he has faith in the flow of Tao. So he simply flows along with the forces at work around him and focuses on maintaining his own balance, whether that force is the force of a physical attack or a challenging set of circumstances in his life. By letting go of expectations he clears his mind of fears and desires and lives in the present moment. He responds to events with ease and clarity, and exists in a state of simple contentment.

Meditative Awareness in Taoist Martial Arts

The importance of meditative awareness to the Taoist martial artist cannot be overstated. The entire Taoist approach to martial arts rests upon it as its foundation. Most of the time, we operate on a binary mode of perception, fueled by our survival instincts. This leads to a view of reality split into good and bad, past and present, self and other, and so on. This perception leads to hope and fear. We hope to achieve what we perceive as the good. We fear that we will not be able to prevent what we perceive as the bad. It is this binary perception that gives birth to fighting arts – strategies to achieve our hopes and prevent our fears, and to win rather than lose (another product of binary perception).

Meditative awareness removes the filter of our mental contrivance and leads to the direct perception of reality as it is. This direct perception leads to grasping reality not as differentiated entities playing against each other, but as a single indivisible whole in which exists every one of us. Everything is part of it – each a drop of water in a vast ocean.

An understanding like this leads to a different attitude and a different way of receiving and responding to events and relationships. Instead of having a constant sense of fear and a sense of yourself vs the world (the various obstacles and individuals who may try to stop you or take things away from you), you exist with a sense of wholeness, of completeness, a sense that everything is OK. A sense that everything is just as it must be, as it should be – perfect – and that it’s unnecessary to change things or to fight or resist. This sense also comes with sensitivity to the way things are in the moment. In other words, it’s a sensitivity to the processes of change and transformation, of individual things and their relationships to each other. You don’t see things as being separate, but connected, and so you feel the way your actions ripple out into others and your environment, and the way those others and your environment ripple into you. You see things as a matrix of interrelating factors creating change, and you begin to swim in it, feeling it. You can go along with it and act in such a way that you affect changes in events. It’s all simply about maintaining your center – not maintaining it against other things that are trying to take it – but yourself as the center of existence. It’s not egocentricity, but simply put, you are everything and your sense of being everything is centered in the single point that is you.

In martial arts, this creates a very different way of relating with an attacker or opponent, because you don’t fight. You don’t see yourself as something separate from this person. Therefore, their movements are your movements, their intentions are your intentions, so you couldn’t even really say from this point of view that they’re attacking or that you’re trying to defend yourself. There is a relationship, physical contact, and movement, but there is no particular intent or plan. What ends up happening is that you blend with the other person, that the two of you become one for an instant, while you maintain your center, your wholeness. In other words, you remain complete in yourself and unaffected. This is not an attempt at self-defense. This is simply the way in which one is in relation to another when flowing along with what is happening, without any resistance whatsoever.

On the other hand, when you are existing and working in a mode of consciousness based on images created by your binary sense of existence, when you see yourself as a distinct entity as apart from other entities, when you move through the world with concerns about the past and future, with concerns about what is being done and what you have to do and the way in which things can either be obstacles hurting you or blessings helping you, all of this leads to a sense of needing to do something. It leads to a sense of you vs the other, a sense of what the other will try to do and what you must do in order to protect yourself. It leads to a sense of winning or losing. In other words it leads to a sense of dichotomy, differentiation, separation – and when things are separate they can be against each other. This is the birth of all external martial arts, the desire to strike, the desire to block, the desire to move to avoid, to be faster, stronger, and tougher. It all comes from this. That is not our way. What I am endeavoring to illustrate here in words is that the martial arts that I practice and teach is not one of strategies, tactics, and techniques. It has nothing to do with offenses and defenses. It has nothing to do with winning and losing. The martial art that I teach arises naturally from the perception that is gained through meditative awareness, the perception that all is one, and then your way of interacting martially with another person is merely an organic expression of that awareness – your own sense of wholeness, centeredness, completeness. You move in such a way because that is the way that you must move to continue to be you such as you are, and that is all.

Taoist Movement

The way we move shapes the way we interact with and ultimately experience our physical being and environment. For most of us, this process happens under the radar of our consciousness. We generally accept that there are things we can do well, and other things we do poorly, and that’s just the way we are. While it is true that genetics plays a powerful role in what our ultimate potentials may be, we are incredibly adaptable beings, with equally impressive powers for self-transformation.

Transforming the way you move begins with an investment in changing the way you think, feel, and experience movement. Each of us has developed a complex set of neurological codes (called engrams) that define physical action in our nervous system. When we want to sit, our nervous system enacts a code that sets off a chain of muscular contractions that result in a sitting motion. When we want to stand, walk, reach, or manipulate an object, a similar process occurs. These codes are paired with a lifetime of experience: physical feedback telling us what sitting, standing, walking, and all other actions are supposed to feel like. The combination of these codes and experiences form both our way of moving and our ideas about movement – like a program, which is just as much an expression of our personality as it is a factor in its formation. The problem is, many of these codes are formed by default, a mixture of genetic tendencies toward suboptimal movement patterns and environmental influences, such as compensations for major and minor injuries.

Taoist martial arts and mind-body developmental disciplines are processes of redefining your entire system of movement and physical interaction. Ultimately, practicing them will lead to a transformation that will change your experience of physical being into one of effortless action/interaction. A transformation of this kind isn’t easy though. It is somewhat like how you may imagine changing a tire on a moving car (that you were driving) might be like. It’s not impossible – you just have to slow down…a lot.

Moving slowly is important. The faster you go at anything, the harder it is to pay attention to the details and the more likely you are to rely on old habits. Slowing down gives you the chance to actually feel what you’re doing. If you’re trying to change on such a fundamental level as rewriting your way of moving, you must turn your awareness inward and go deep into observation and evaluation of your body/motion. In essence, you’re meditating on your movement. To do that, just begin by standing still for a moment. Concentrate on your breath, and feeling your whole body all at once. Then begin to move. Feel all the parts of your body as they relate to each other in motion. Relax, move slowly, and explore every movement as though it was the first time you’ve ever moved. Beyond this initial step of internal attention, transforming the way you think/feel/do movements requires a set of guiding principles, some standard by which you can evaluate the quality of your movement (in both thought and action).

The overarching principle that guides the Taoist approach to action (physical or otherwise) is harmony. This harmony is achieved by following the natural way of things. That is to say, the way in which things behave and interact without us interfering by imposing our ideas of the way we think things “should” be (or move). To follow the natural way of things you must be in tune with the natural way of things, hence our first step of turning our attention inward. In terms of transforming our way of moving, we must “listen” closely to our bodies, and become acquainted with the way the various parts of ourselves interrelate. Once we have a good sense of the present state of our physicality, we can begin to generate motion through our body-structures that harmonizes with the way our bodies “want” to move and interact with our environment.

Advancing in Taoist movement disciplines builds upon this foundation of heightened inner awareness and a constant quest for harmony in motion. Understanding that you cannot achieve true transformation without first being willing to redefine the way you think about and perceive motion is a huge first step along that road.


The Spectrum of Changeability

The highest level of “blending” is to be internally changeable (small, subtle movements that evade an attacker’s force and extend your own into his emptiness.) When mastered, your actions will be so deft that your results will seem like magic. To the extent which you are limited in your ability to change internally, you will need to move more grossly, making larger, more obvious motions through space. In other words, you will have to change externally. This will cause you to waste energy, take longer to complete actions, and require you to be more dynamic. As your skill increases, your changes will occur more within the space you currently occupy and require less displacement of your posture and position, making you more efficient and effective. I call this the spectrum of changeability.

It’s common when first learning to use a blending strategy, to focus on evading an attacker’s motion and yielding to his force. While this is an essential aspect of blending, it is not enough to execute the strategy effectively. Essentially, you’re just running away. To “blend” properly you must partially displace yourself from the path of your attacker’s motion and force, and partially displace the attack itself (or the attacker.) In other words, you’re not only changing yourself, your changing the whole event of convergence.

This would be like playing a chess game and getting to move your opponent’s pieces so that your own could take position uncontested. This is how your responses will begin to move closer to the internal end of the spectrum of changeability. The more immediate and intense your affect on your attacker, the less motion required to evade and yield to his motion and force, because you will have taken over his movement and robbed him of his power. That’s how those little old Chinese guys toss around younger, stronger men with hardly any movement or effort.

In pursuit of this skill, it’s important to understand that there are no specific techniques involved in a blending approach to combat. The entire concept of changeability is opposed to having a plan. This strategy, and the achievement of its highest level, requires a cultivated sensitivity and attentiveness so that you can become aware of your attacker’s intentions and begin to respond appropriately before his motion has developed into a full-fledged attack. You must also remain mentally flexible so that you can instantaneously respond to changes. If you have a technique, or set of techniques in mind to execute, it’s like trying to find the right hole to fit your round peg into. The problem is that there are nearly an infinite number of holes and many of the shapes look almost round, but aren’t quite. You can either wait for the right hole to come along, or try to force your round peg into a less than round hole (an approach that requires excessive force and energy.) A blending strategy, on the other hand, employs sensitivity and a set of guiding principles to create on-the-spot responses to any attack. It would be like having a peg that assumed whatever shape was necessary.

Perhaps the most important aspect to consider in the spectrum of changeability is the concept of the substantial and the insubstantial. This has to do with what you feel when you are in contact with an attacker or training partner, and what they feel from you. Substantial means that when you press, you feel strength resisting you. This strength may come from the other person using force to push back, or it may come from their structure being in good alignment to transfer your force to the ground. In either case, that is not where you want to concentrate your force. According to yin-yang theory, if your attacker or training partner is substantial in one area of his body, he must be insubstantial in another area, often on the opposite side. Insubstantial means that when you press into your partner, you feel little or no resistance and can move him easily. This weakness, or emptiness, may be due to the fact that he is moving, or concentrating his force in a direction that moves away from the area of his body you’re pressing into. It may also be that his posture is structurally weak in connection to that area. In either case, that is where you want to concentrate your force.

While we look for negative substantiality and insubstantiality in our attacker in the forms of excessive force and structural weakness respectively, we look for positive substantiality and insubstantiality in ourselves. This means that when our attacker or training partner applies force to us we yield to it,creating an insubstantial surface – or emptiness – for his force to fall into. When we apply our own force we seek to connect the entire kinetic chain of our bodies from our contact point with the other person, to our contact point with the ground, without any loss of power due to blockage or leak in our alignment. This makes us as substantial as the solid ground beneath us, and allows us transfer all of our force into the other person’s weakest point.

Our ability to accurately sense the substantial and insubstantial in another person is the deciding factor in our ability to blend with his motion and force. This may be more relevant when in contact with an attacker or training partner, but the same principles are applicable to spacial relationship in the form of positive and negative space. Anyone who’s taken a drawing class will be familiar with this concept. Positive space is the space that your attacker’s body occupies. Negative space is the empty space surrounding his body that defines its shape in your visual field. By moving into an attacker’s negative space, you avoid his attacking motion, and with a little skill, move into an advantageous position. With training, you will be able to read your attacker’s intentions before his attack develops, and begin to move where his negative space will be upon completing his attack. This will allow you to invade his space in a way that does not collide with his force, but adds your force to his and puts you in the driver’s seat. Then you can send him flying, crashing to the ground, or tie him into a pretzel (or whatever seems most appropriate.)

The spectrum of changeability provides a way for you to measure your level of skill at blending. It also provides a goal to your training. Evaluate yourself based upon your internal development (structure, softness, coordination, and mind-intent) and your level of sensitivity and responsiveness. Constantly seek to blend seamlessly with subtler movements and less effort. Keep the spectrum in mind as you train and continue to strive for the highest level. It may seem like a horizon forever beyond your reach, but what else is so worth reaching for?

Finding Harmony in Combative Relationship

For the purposes of this discussion, I’ve described the particular way that I use some key terms. Violence is sudden change. Combat is a violent relationship (an interaction that involves a series of sudden changes). Combative skill is the ability to adapt to a series of sudden changes while maintaining inner harmony (remaining mentally and physically balanced and whole). In short, our aim is to be changeable.

 Although combative relationship is only one aspect of human interaction, it provides a setting for some of the most dynamic changes in relating to others there can be, and therefore, can illuminate many other aspects of human interaction in its lessons. In such a way, the study of this martial art can lead to insights into all of our relationships: those we share with others and our environment, and our internal relationship to ourselves. Also, though our focus is combative, in our case, this does not mean “fighting.” We do not oppose our attacker. Rather, we seek harmony amidst the violent changes of combat. Our attitude and approach therefore, is to blend ourselves with spacial and energetic changes, to cultivate the forces of influence in our relation to others, and effortlessly diffuse aggressive energy into emptiness.

To begin to understand a method to do this, we must examine the two main aspects of combative relationship: spacial relationship and energetic relationship. Our goal is to find harmony within these relationships.

Spacial harmony with an attacker, or multiple attackers, requires an element of evasiveness. An attacker seeks to hit or grab YOU. His aggressive intent is focused on YOU. Therefore, your evasive skill must be good to make him miss. This requires a developed sense of distance, an understanding of lines and angles, mobility, and above all, timing.

While total avoidance of a combat situation is the first and best course to take, the study of martial arts presupposes a failure to avoid such a situation and a subsequent need to deal with one or more attackers. Along the same lines, merely evading attacks is not enough, because your attacker remains unaffected and able to continue his assault. Over a long enough period of time the law of averages says he will eventually succeed. Therefore, while to achieve spacial harmony we must evade, we cannot simply increase the stance. We must get close enough to subdue our attacker and neutralize his capacity to continue attacking us.

I call this the evasive-invasive strategy. We avoid our assailant’s attacking motion and move into his empty space. For example: say an attacker is throwing a strong, straight punch with his rear hand toward your face. You could take a slight step forward and to the outside of his punching arm, while at the same time ducking your head down and to the same side as you stepped. Not only does this avoid the punch, but it also affords you an opportunity to affect him. You’ve evaded his attack, and invaded his space.

Once you’ve moved into an attacker’s space, spacial harmony gives way to energetic harmony.

The essence of energetic harmony is blending your force and motion with your attacker’s force and motion. This means not confronting his force and not contradicting his motion. To do this, you must have a developed sensitivity to the direction and intensity of your attacker’s motion, the level of integrity in his body structure, the state of his balance, and the ability to instantly adjust to changes in those things. In turn, it requires that you yourself have balance, structural integrity, and control over the direction and intensity of your motion. In a word, you must be centered.

When centered, and in spacial harmony with your attacker, upon contact you will begin to move into the emptiness left in the wake of his motion. You add your force to his and steer it all into the structurally weak places in his body. This will crumble his structure, uncenter his balance, and in that moment, put you in control of his motion. Then, depending on the particular nature of his attack and your relative positions upon contact, you will either drive him to the ground, send him flying off, or possibly break his joints.

An important thing to realize here is that none of those effects are planned in their specific details. We do not aim to do any of those things to a person as our goal. They are results of harmonious interaction with an attacker. Interaction with someone of less aggressive intent will not lead to such violent ends. It is their own aggression turned back on them that leads to injury.

Understanding what has been discussed above, you may begin to realize that there is no need for specific techniques. There are no pre-planned responses. There is only a method of interaction based upon your internal harmony and your harmonious relationship with your attacker.

Of course, one must train diligently to accomplish this state of harmonious relationships and the resulting experience of effortless interaction (wu wei). Our training includes two mutually traveled paths that must merge together as the student develops: internal, or personal harmony development, and external, or relational harmony development. Internal harmony is developed and refined through practices including zhan zhuang (standing post), cansigong (silk-reeling work), yoga, and meditation. External harmony is developed and refined through mook jong practice, skill drills, and tui shou (pushing hands).

Zhan Zhuang is a practice that involves holding a neutral standing posture and using breath, relaxation and internally focused attention to seal the structural leaks in your alignment and remove blockages in your energy pathways (fascia-muscular-skeletal). In addition you learn to infuse your body with intent, a mental-physical energy potential for motion in any direction. It is also a form of meditation focused on letting go of mental tension, accepting your present reality, and centering body and mind. This state is often referred to as wuji, meaning “no extremes,” or “non-polar.”

Cansigong (pronounced chan shu gung) means “silk-reeling work,” and it refers to the coordinated motion of the whole body, guided by the mind’s intent. The idea of silk-reeling refers to the perfect balance one must have between strength and gentleness to thread silk without damaging it. This is the quality we want when transferring energy through the body – like threading silk through the bones and joints. The overall feeling in the body should be a sense of evenness in motion and equality of involvement of every single part of the body to generate that motion. Silk-reeling is typified by spiraling motions of the limbs and torso.

Yoga, or yoga-like disciplines, will stretch and strengthen the body to eliminate chronic imbalances and restore balanced function to the muscles and joints. Without such a practice, imbalances in the body may lead to a limited ability to perform skills (such as cansijin – silk-reeling power) and hamper progress toward internal harmony.

Meditation equips one with the state of mind necessary to respond to changes with the instant, spontaneous, correct actions needed for harmonious interaction. Being still, relaxed, and spending time observing oneself think, feel, and be, quiets the mind, clears away mental clutter, and prepares one’s consciousness for direct and total perception of the unfolding present.

Mook jong means “wooden dummy,” but can be an appropriate apparatus of any material. The purpose of a mook jong is to simulate an attack, or attacker, and provide an object to interact with in the absence of a live training partner. Such tools are invaluable for practicing foundational aspects of spacial harmony, body-mechanics, and power generation (fajin).

Skill drills are partner exercises designed to develop the proper mechanics and timing to deal with an attacker. They may range from simple repetitive drills such as slipping a straight punch, to more complex drills involving multiple attackers who attack at random.

Tuishou means “pushing hands.” This is a duel within which two partners attempt to take control of the each other’s motion and balance. This can be played in a light manner in which the first person to take a step loses, or it can be played more openly, in which steps are allowed and one partner must subdue the other. At this level, it is like sparring, only starting from a neutral point of contact (usually crossed wrists). In either case the focus is on developing sensitivity and the skill of blending.

In all of the above training methods, harmonious interaction is the focus.

Meditation and the Image

In Taoist practices, philosophy and physicality are viewed as two sides of the same yin-yang coin. In fact, Tai Chi is often called philosophy in motion, and rightly so. It is through that particular method of movement that we come to a deeper understanding of Taoist philosophy. Likewise, it is from an understanding of Taoist philosophy, that we derive that particular method of movement.

Unlike many other philosophies, Taoism cannot be deeply understood from reading books or listening to lectures (there are good books and lectures on the subject, but they serve more as springboards than tools for greater understanding). Rather, Taoism is grasped through a deepening of one’s perception – a direct interface of one’s awareness with the present happening of reality, and simultaneously, seeing the nature of that happening process. Throughout the centuries, Taoists and other like-minded seekers have done this through the practice of meditation.

Meditation is a widely used and often misunderstood term by prospective seekers. One of the most common misunderstandings is that meditation requires you to empty your mind. This idea has the budding meditator trying very hard to stop his mind from thinking, feeling, and other mental activity – a frustrating process which inevitably leads him to believe that he can’t meditate. For those operating under this idea – relax. Your mind is going to think, feel and continue to operate no matter what. And that’s the point. You don’t need to micro-manage your mind, emptying or otherwise. Another misconception is that meditation is about escaping reality and going to a peaceful place where all the stuff of life can’t get you. Under this premise, a meditator may feel he’s failed if he finds his mind suddenly recalling matters of the ordinary every day. Once again, this is simply not the case. To quote D.T Suzuki, the experience of perception through a mind awakened by meditation “is just like ordinary everyday life, except two inches off the ground.” It’s not an escape from the ordinary; it’s finding the extraordinary within the (supposed) ordinary.

Meditation is the full engagement of your mind in the present. It is the act of mentally stepping back and observing – observing yourself, your thoughts, your feelings, your motions and actions – and letting go of the idea that you need to be in control; otherwise your mental activity can pull you out of the present. This requires a bit of time, patience, and practice. You can’t try to relax; you have to allow yourself to relax. After you do that for a while, you’ll eventually see that there is a natural current to all things and the way they relate to each other, including how you relate yourself to yourself. Not only will you become aware of this current, you’ll feel it, and yourself as a part of it. Then your thoughts, feelings, motions and actions will begin to be in accord with that current, or way of things. That’s what the “Tao” in Taoism means: it means Way. Specifically, the Way reality functions, or happens.

Following this understanding of meditation as direct perceptual engagement with reality – as it’s happening – rather than escaping it, It makes sense that the Taoists often practiced various forms of moving  meditation such as Tai Chi. There is a subtle genius to this, seeing as we experience our reality through our physical being. By focusing our awareness on the act of moving in accordance with the natural design of our bodies and their relationship to our external environment and external forces, we are directly and completely engaging our minds with the universal principle of the Tao. In short, we are mentally and physically having a direct experience of the Way as expressed through our being. In addition to being such a wonderful vehicle for the exploration of universal truth, this concentration on motion makes it almost impossible to get caught up by specific thoughts or feelings that pull you out of the present.

There is a trap in our minds that can block us from a direct perception of the Tao. I call this trap, the Image. Most of us operate on a set of symbols: ideas that represent entities in reality, but are not those entities in actuality. In other words – concepts. Forming concepts is part of the way the human mind works, and an essential part at that. It’s how we think. It is not however, the function of meditation to remove these concepts from our minds (emptying the mind), nor can we escape the formation of concepts as part of our mental processes. They do, however, pose a problem to a seeker of enlightenment.

We too often come to rely upon these concepts to form our understanding of reality. The problem with this is that it freezes our perception and crystallizes our understanding. This is the equivalent of taking a picture of the view outside your window, and forevermore, looking at the picture as opposed to looking out the window. In other words, you’ve formed an Image, and replaced reality with it. A saying goes: “It is like a finger pointing to the moon. Don’t concentrate on the finger or you’ll miss all that heavenly glory.”

Even more dangerous, we can become sort of sentimental about our Images. If someone were to challenge one of them, we may get defensive and angry. We may even become frightened. Somewhere deep within we know we’re relying on Images, but they’ve become the foundation for the belief systems that run our lives. Even though they cause us to live in a state of chronic tension – trying to defend these images from the possibility of being false – the alternative of a total reboot can be overwhelming. When this point is reached we become the jailors of our own spirits. So what to do? How can we prevent Images from blocking us from the liberation of direct perception if we can’t function without them?

The answer is to let go of your images the moment you form them and return to direct perception. This must be a continuing process. Reality is not static, it is a dynamic happening. However, our minds must form concepts of that which we perceive in order to grasp the interrelationship of everything to everything else. In order to keep up with reality, we must constantly be in a process of redefining our concepts – allowing the boundaries of definitions to become flexible, even blurred. Going back to the analogy of your window view, it would be like saying, “since you can’t stop taking pictures, but you can’t rely on those pictures for more than one instant, you’ll have to let one go and take another, and another and another, etc.” In that way, you may be able to keep up with reality as it happens. In other words, meditate.

By engaging in a daily practice of meditation, you are conditioning your mind for direct perception. It’s like a mental workout, making your perceptual muscles stronger and more flexible. The more you do it, the more direct perception will become your natural way of being. Eventually, ordinary everyday life will become a meditative experience – not much different – just about two inches off the ground.


Through most of my journey in the martial arts, I have been trying to embody a quality of action and being, encapsulated in the term changeability.  In essence, changeability is the capacity and tendency to harmonize yourself with external forces.  This is the essence of Taoist martial arts, such as Tai chi and Bagua.  The theory of this approach is that, by harmonizing with external forces, you can redirect them to your benefit, with the primary goal of maintaining your centeredness (a term referring mainly to your mental and physical balance and integration).

For a long time, I believed that embodying the quality of changeability was accomplished by conditioning yourself to yield to force, rather than resist it.  By yielding, you become like a ghost, untouchable to your opponent’s force.  As he attempts to strike, push, pull or grab you, you seem to disappear and cause him to miss, stumble, and lose balance.  This seemed to be in alignment with the principle of wu wei, a Chinese term which approximately translates to mean “without doing” or “without effort.”  It took me years to realize that this idea of yielding was only half the equation – the yin half.

Taoist martial arts is based upon the recognition that the yin principle (softness, receptivity) must exist in harmonious relationship with the yang principle (hardness, expression).  Blending is the approach to energetic and spacial relationship with another person that balances yin (soft) and yang (hard) elements to accomplish totally harmonious interaction, and from that harmony an experience of freedom, of effortless action – wu wei.  It is the total harmonization of your force and motion with your opponent’s force and motion in such a way that you become the center and the guiding will for both of your bodies.  This allows you to so deftly alter the direction of forces at work through your opponent’s body structure, that he never realizes what’s changed until it’s too late and you’ve taken control of his motion and balance.

Blending is more than just a physical approach to dealing with force, however.  It is the expression of a philosophical understanding of relationships and change.  In order to acquire and apply the skill of blending in a combative situation, we must shift our perceptions of personal combat.

The first step is to realize that fighting is just a descriptive term for the state of a relationship between two or more people.  In essence, the word “fight” implies two wills in opposition to each other, trying to force the other to change according to their aims.  However, a combative relationship need not include an element of fighting.

When the approach of blending is used, there is no fight, because you never oppose the will, motion, or force of your attacker.  If there is no opposition, there’s no opponent – no opponent, no fighting.  This must be understood: there is no “me vs. you.”  If you don’t enter into a contest, you can’t lose.  Instead, we approach combative relationship with an attitude of “me and you” – “us.”  So the question isn’t who wins, it’s who gets to be “us.”

This change in perception alters your focus from overcoming your opponent, to maintaining your center as you enter into a relationship with your attacker – more like a dance than a fight.  You move along with him, making your two motions one, adding your force in the wake of his, and subtly altering the direction of forces at work through his body, so that his own action causes his structure to crumble and lose balance.  So blended are your two motions that the attacker never realizes anything has changed until it’s too late.  The instantaneous, effortless effectiveness of this approach is due to the fact that you didn’t oppose him.  His body feels like it’s moving in the direction it intended to.  It meets no resistance and so has no reason to adjust.  By the time he realizes he’s lost control, he will be under yours.  At the highest level, in the moment of “blending” there is no difference between you and your attacker.  Then, in the next instance, you are free of him.

Zhan Zhuang for Developing Internal Power

Zhan Zhuang, or standing post, is an ancient practice that “internal” martial artists use as a means to achieve a wuji state.  In other words, one can achieve a neutral and centered state in which the yin and yang aspects within ones body and mind become balanced in stillness, and from which one is prepared to move and act according to the taiji principle, that is, to move and act in total harmony with both one’s internal workings and the external forces with which one comes into contact.

The essence of the physical aspect of tai chi practice is fluid energy transference, and the primary energy one must transfer is gravity.  The sensation of gravity is that it presses, or pulls, down on our bodies – a constant pressure which can lead to chronic issues in the joints if not handled properly.  So our first step in dealing with gravity is architectural.  In other words, we set our postures in such a way as to offer the most structural support possible by stacking our bones in alignment with gravity’s vertical pull.  Once we’ve positioned ourselves so, we can begin the next step – a process often referred to by practitioners of internal arts, such as tai chi, as “softening,” or fan song.  This process is attempting not only to have a supportive structure, but to make of one’s body a conduit for gravity, allowing it to pass from head to foot without obstruction or leak.  This is done by a constant process of subtle adjustments in which obstructions created by tension are relaxed away, and leaks created by misalignments are lined up with gravity’s downward flow.

The eventual result is a state of body in which we have a completely supportive structure that allows gravity to transfer from head to foot without the slightest sensation of pressure in the body and which then bounces off the ground and right back up through the soles of the feet and out the tips of the fingers.  This is the essence of internal power, or jin.

In taijiquan, one of the three primary internal martial arts of China, there are four main methods of directing internal power, Peng, An, Liu, and Ji.

Peng jin is the energy that results from being a perfect conduit for gravity, allowing it to pass down from head to foot and back up again.  That “back up again” is peng, used to “uproot” one’s opponent.  An jin, can be described as the initial “sinking” from head to foot, simply directed through a contact point with one’s opponent and into a structurally weak place in his body.  Liu jin, a pulling energy, then is also the “sink,” simply directed backward from a contact point with an opponent toward your center and down.  Ji jin, a pushing energy, is the same as peng, just directed outward.  So there are really only two forces, which makes perfect sense, since the entirety of Taoist martial arts is based upon the concept that all things are manifestations of yin and yang.  A better way to put it may be to say that there are two ways of generating internal force/power: the sinking from head to foot, and the springing upward energy that moves from foot to hands.  With the addition of cansujin (silk-reeling power) – the circling and spiraling of those energies through the body – the basic down/in of gravity and up/out of gravity’s rebound can be directed to nearly infinite variations.

A good analogy for the way in which zhan zhuang practice supports the development of internal power would be to compare it to blood vessels.  Blood vessels are more than passive tubes through which blood transfers; they have muscle walls that help guide the blood along.  In much the same way, zhan zhuang practice makes us a conduit through which gravity transfers, up and down via the architecture of our bones and joints, and our muscles – guided by our intent – gently help this force along and redirect it in all manner of directions, just like the muscles in our blood vessels help carry blood throughout the body.

The Significance of Circles

When observing Taoist martial arts, one may notice a single repeated shape: the circle. Contrary to how it may seem, this is not merely to give movements grace or beauty. The shape is employed for utilitarian purposes; the beauty perceived by an observer of the movements arises from the harmony they attain through expressing natural laws.

One aspect of the significance of circles is that circles have no stops and no starts, and are equal on all sides. A circle is constantly, gradually changing direction. This constant change of direction means that the Taoist martial artist never encounters opposing force head-on. It also makes any force he applies to his opponent very difficult to resist because the moment the opponent resists in one direction, his force is moving in another. To accomplish this, the circle must begin in our intention and awareness. No straight lines in our minds or movements, and no corners. Over becomes down – which becomes under – which becomes up – and so on.

If one part of the circle moves, the entire circle is set in motion. There is no segmentation or disconnection in a circle. When one side moves down, the other moves up. When one side moves forward, the other moves back, etc. In this way, circular motion connects and employs our whole body in every movement. When looking at the reciprocal relationship of two sides of a circle, one can clearly see the yin-yang relationship inherent in circular movements. It also makes circles the most energy efficient shape. Energy applied to a circle can be returned without friction, and therefore, without loss. More over, that energy can be increased by accelerating the rotation of the circle.

When practicing your movements, be sensitive. Feel how a circular movement on one side of your body creates the opposite direction in the other side. Follow the circle in your mind, feel it stir the energy in your body, and allow your body to express the circle in your movements.

Yoga for Everyone?

Yoga has become one of the most popular forms of exercise in recent decades.  Despite this popularity, there are still many misconceptions about this excellent method for whole-body fitness.

In the same way that many people still believe that tai chi is “just for old people,” many think yoga is “just for girls.”  This probably comes from the misconception that women are more flexible than men – not true!  This idea has been perpetuated by culture and has nothing to do with physiology.  For that matter, it’s worth dispelling the myth that yoga is about stretching – again, not true!  Yes, there is a component of yoga that stretches your muscles and soft tissues, but that is just one piece of the puzzle.  Practicing yoga will help you improve your flexibility and maintain a high level of mobility, but it’s the misunderstanding that yoga is about flexibility that keeps many prospective enthusiasts away.

The truth is, yoga is as much about strength, endurance, balance, respiration, and body awareness as it is about flexibility.  One of the unique things about yoga is that it merges these components in a very balanced way, restoring your body to its natural ease of mobility. Actually, many people over-emphasize their stretch and hurt themselves or stunt their progress.  It’s not the pose – it’s the action.

This leads me to seeing yoga as a conditioning program.  As far as conditioning goes, yoga is one of the absolute best all-around body workouts.  Its versatility allows you to adjust a session to focus on strength, balance, flexibility, or endurance.  Even if yoga isn’t the cornerstone of your workout program, you should definitely consider it as an invaluable addition.

Another major misconception is thinking that you’re not “in shape” enough to do yoga.  Yoga is adjustable to nearly all walks of life.  Regardless of age, sex, build, weight, or current fitness level, you can do yoga.  Most of the time, this is an issue of embarrassment.  No one wants to be the “worst person” in a class, or look “stupid” trying to do something, falling or “messing up.”  This fear is crippling if you let it be.  Don’t!  Yoga is about you.  It’s not about the ex-gymnast next to you.  There is no level you’re supposed to have already achieved.  There’s just where you are, and where you want to be.  The road to get there is: show up, try hard.  Compare yourself tomorrow to the you of yesterday, and no one else.

There are a lot of different methods and philosophies on yoga out there.  This variety is wonderful, but it can cause some confusion.  While most yoga methods use the same postures (asanas), they can vary widely in approach.  Some yoga methods choose less demanding postures and hold them for extended periods of time (like Yin), while others are dynamic and demanding (like Ashtanga).  Some focus on fluid transitions, others on alignment, and still others focus on the breath work and meditative aspects.  It’s worth it to do a little research and see what method fits your goals and personality.

As a martial artist, I’ve benefited from yoga tremendously.  I was lucky enough to train in a school where yoga was part of our program, and I’ve carried this into my own teaching.  The flexibility, balance, and strength gained in yoga are of obvious benefit to a martial artist, but it’s the body awareness and alignment that has continued to pay dividends in my martial arts.  The internal martial arts that I practice relies heavily on the body’s ability to transfer force from and to the ground.  My yoga practice has given me more aligned and “open” joints, making my body a clear and strong conduit for energy.  The balance of strength and mobility I’ve gained has helped make my movements smooth and powerful.  All in all, I wouldn’t be the martial artist I am without my yoga practice.

The particular style of yoga we teach at Darsana Martial Arts is based upon the Anusara method, which employs five Universal Principles of Alignment (UPAs) to enhance and refine each pose.  I love this system because it applies the same truths of body and mind to each pose, allowing you to “unlock” difficult poses and surpass your limits.  I’ve experienced this transformative power and seen it take people past boundaries they thought impossible to overcome.

If you’ve never tried yoga and you’ve been thinking about it – go for it!  If you’ve done yoga before and have been meaning to return – start now!  If you’re a practitioner of another discipline – yoga can enhance your performance and give you grace and ease in your movements.