Initial General Thoughts of PM

by Huynh.h on 2019/09/08

I was asked to write a post about my overall experience with Practical Method up to this point, so I’ll try my best to put those experiences into words. My first live experience with Practical Method was during the Toronto seminar with Master Chen Zhonghua in March of 2019. Since then I’ve had the opportunity to train on and off with both Kelvin Ho and Hugo Cascoduro (depending on my work schedule), with most of this post addressing the live push hands and applications portion of the training.

I’ll be committing a bit of a taboo throughout this post, in that I’ll occasionally be referring to my experiences from other martial arts as a point of reference/comparison. I’ll also be making a number of speculations, but will try to keep those to a minimum and will amend any errors or misunderstandings in the future. This is solely for the purpose of expressing my thoughts into words, as a lot of what I experienced in the seminar and classes were incredibly difficult to describe, but the subtle differences in mechanics and perceived “strength” could definitely be felt. This mentality is not carried over during training and I try to isolate Practical Method to it’s own concepts and methods during classes.

 

I’ll be addressing the next few points in the order that I’ve experienced/recalled them, and not necessarily in order of importance. The first PM resource that truly piqued my interest was a Push Hands compilation video on youtube and my initial impressions were “at it’s core, this looks extremely similar to judo & wrestling” and “this is exactly how I imagined push hands should be.” The “live sparring” element is something I’m not used to seeing in “traditional” martial arts anymore and the emphasis on staying on your feet while taking down your opponent is a principle that makes so much sense in any sort of applicable scenario. This was my first steps towards attending my first PM class, which happened to be a Master Chen seminar.

 

My primary experience in martial arts is roughly 3 years BJJ, 6 months Judo, and supplemental wrestling takedowns and defence. I’ve also done a number of years in other “traditional” based striking arts as well and have a foundational level of kickboxing, but I haven’t personally found a lot of crossover yet between them and PM (currently <20 classes). While I’ve mostly only trained recreationally, I feel mentioning the live grappling experience is important for theoretical comparisons later on. Again, this is only done for the sake of giving my experience a reference point to relate to, and is not something considered when I’m training the fundamentals of PM.

 

That being said, one unique aspect from PM that I’ve never seen emphasized in other grappling arts was the application of their “don’t move” principle. On the surface, it’s the ability to move a joint/body part in isolation from the rest of the body, while still maintaining strength and alignment. While sounding extremely basic, this foundational concept is extremely counter-intuitive and very difficult to achieve in regular training, as we’re so used to using our bodies as a whole or adding tiny supplemental movements to compensate for a break in structure. This principle can manifest itself in many ways during live training, but the first example I experienced was it’s ability to mask the user’s movement and eliminate my ability to react based on a lack of tactile feedback.

 

During a clinch, the grip allows you to not only control your opponent, but also reveals their intentions based on their counter pressure and how they react. I’m fairly comfortable framing with my hands and forearms as a line of defence, and when these fail it’s usually because I was slow to react or got out-pummelled. There’s typically a grip/hand-fighting situation going on and if at any point they’re able to bypass my elbow, I feel like I’m in trouble and will immediately switch tactics, either prepping for a sprawl or trying to reframe with the far arm and preventing them from reaching my hips. That being said, I’ll usually feel pretty safe anytime one of my hands is stiff-arming (hand over bicep) as it prevents them from reaching my hips, and if they pull away we can just re-engage. Through the demo and during live training, this was the first time I’ve noticed my ability to “feel” my opponent, fail.

 

Contrary to the typical back and forth during the hand-fighting phase where you can predict your opponents’ next move based on tactile responses, this was the first time that I wasn’t able to “feel” any sort of change from the opponent, but they were still able to close in and find a direct connection to my core. I was only able to realize I was in danger based on visually seeing they had closed in on me, but the perception from my grips kept telling me I should have still been in a safe position. I’ll address the takedown in of itself later on, but what I’ve come to learn later was that this was an example of how the “don’t move” principle was applied: a matching counter-force was applied against my stiff-arm, the consistent unchanging pressure and lack of perceived movement made me think the rest of the body was also unmoving, while in fact they were able to isolate the nonmoving point of contact, allowing them to advance to a stronger position undetected. In contrast to before where I immediately knew I’d lost the hand-fight and had the opportunity to try and recover or mitigate the damage from the impending takedown, when “don’t move” was implemented properly, I wasn’t at all able to sense any danger until the takedown itself was actually taking place. While this effect certainly isn’t specifically unique to PM, the training method and ability to achieve it with a relatively higher rate of consistency is what I found super intriguing and is definitely valuable both on it’s own, or as a transferable skill.

 

Another aspect I found interesting about PM was that their takedowns focus primarily on finding and disrupting their opponents “centre”. While their approach and execution is different, my initial thoughts are that the principle is relatively similar to that of kuzushi. Their goal upon contact is to find your opponents “nonmoving dot” (point of strength? Centre of gravity?). Once achieved and an equal amount of counter pressure is applied to momentarily “lock” the opponent (eg. Forcing a stiff-arm), additional pressure is added in a different direction “around” the dot, thus disrupting the opponent’s balance. While not sounding particularly impressive, it can result in a completely different type of fall from what I’ve experienced before. Because the angle of attack is so close to the actual centre of gravity(?), it barely takes any pressure or movement to cause an imbalance. Furthermore, because the applied pressure (“stretch”) can be directed over the “dot” and downwards and not just simply around, there are a number of times where the fall feels as though I’m simply just collapsing downwards under myself without the ability to land a standard breakfall. Due to the abrupt change in balance, I noticed some of my falls felt drasticly more forceful than they actually were, and can see how in some circumstances it visually appears as though my opponents hadn’t applied any pressure at all.

 

The actual method of which power is drawn and applied was the most unique and counter-intuitive of all. This was the first time I’ve come across the mechanic of “opening the kua” (opening the hip?). The ability to do this properly (concurrently with “don’t move”) is extremely difficult, but seems to be one of the underlying reasons why some of their techniques can be perceived as extremely strong or forceful. The emphasis of the art is demonstrated here, and what they aim to achieve is “joint power” and mobility to generate force, rather than use muscle power. I’m actually still having a hard time understanding the mechanics of it, much less have the ability to verbally describe it, but you’ll see in a lot of demonstrations or videos of PM where people are invited up to touch certain parts of the body, an immediate difference can be felt between actions/movements with and without “kua” opening. This was interesting to me because from only a visual perspective, both movements looked exactly the same and in some cases, no movement was seen at all. This could be an example of their classification as an “internal” martial art, as the core movements are done on the “inside”, and any “external” effects can be felt but not necessarily visually perceived (speculation only). One resource that I found extremely useful in explaining the mechanic more clearly was the “Kua Opening Mechanics” video trailer on their website and is a great resource to get a basic understanding of the concept.

 

 

As amazing and fantastical as some of the examples listed above sound, they do acknowledge that there’s an incredibly steep learning curve involved. Being able to find, connect with, and disrupt your opponents centre without using muscle or losing your own balance is a process that’s very difficult to achieve, but at it’s peak is a seemingly instantaneous and practically effortless action (fine tuned accuracy vs power). The training for me can be divided into 2 main categories: Forms/fundamental drills (eg. Yilu & fetch water), and live push hands. Having experience in hundreds of reps of forms/patterns before with the focus being more on flow and general aesthetic than actual effectiveness, the PM version was something completely new to me. The general form itself might look simple, but each and every visible move has a number of “invisible” principles applied in the background (“don’t move”). This can manifest in the form looking extremely choppy or segmented, but each move is done with intent, “power”, and control. While being the core training method of PM, the learning curve definitely starts to show. The natural instinct to move the body as a whole will be a difficult initial hurdle, and the inability or unwillingness to adopt the concepts in favour of immediate results are another. This isn’t necessarily wrong depending on the purpose of training, but while difficult to see in the beginning, the skills developed during repetitions directly transfer into push hand applications.

 

Live push hands training is a style I’m more familiar with, and is something I do appreciate seeing in more “traditional” martial arts. It’s their version of training against resisting opponents and while it does have it’s own rulesets to further develop skills from the earlier drills, they’ve been open to training with more universal rulesets as well. Some examples of their training include limited time holding a grip (which seems to promote finding and disrupting the core on contact), not being allowed to fall with your opponent (must stay standing, only feet allowed to touch ground), and no grabbing below the waist. This was another interesting point I’ve found while training with them and is a habit I still have trouble overcoming: their spine and posture is predominantly upright. This ties in with their alignment principle and I do notice a sort of disconnect(?) when I habitually tuck my chin and round my shoulders. Again, not necessarily a bad thing depending on circumstance but for training purposes, them grabbing below the waist does break their angle of alignment. Surprisingly, when we incorporated leg takedowns and no limits on holds, they were able to fend fairly well while still strictly adhering to PM principles. Even with double underhooks it was extremely difficult to connect with their core, and the amount of dexterity and control they had in their hips allowed them to recover when they were seemingly out of position. There were still occasionally issues with familiarity (eg. rapid changes in speed or elevation, dealing with situations where we’d readily follow them to the ground) but that was an expected learning curve and they were able to find solutions that didn’t stray away from their original core concepts. All this being said, push hands training only has value in pressure testing yilu techniques and fundamental skills (similar to learning/drilling techniques before rolling/randori). They can be trained in conjunction with each other but absolute emphasis is placed on skill development. The goal isn’t just the takedown, the goal is the takedown by using the practiced principles of the art.

 

On a final note, I’ll try to finish up with some general thoughts on PM. While still a branch of tai chi, “strength” is still emphasized and is required to at the very least, match your opponent’s pressure. Deflecting your opponent’s energy and going with the flow simply to preserve your centre is not the goal, and losing ground while getting pushed back definitely becomes a problem. This was an initial misconception of mine about tai chi being “soft” and relatively passive, but the applications of forward pressure bring the focus back towards the intent of connecting with and controlling your opponent’s core (possible example of “peng”?). Another aspect that I highly appreciated when approaching PM was their complete lack of anything to do with “chi”. There’s no hidden secrets in the training, and everything they teach can be traced back to physical components (eg. Kua Opening Mechanics). I still believe in healthy scepticism, and this group really stays away from any sort of mysticism or intangible concepts when it comes to their training. Overall, I feel PM definitely has skills and applications worth exploring if you’re looking to understand martial arts as a whole, and is both valuable on it’s own or supplementary to other arts.

 

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