July 18

Book Review: Simplified Tai Chi Chuan

Overall, I enjoyed Simplified Tai Chi Chuan: 24 Postures with Applications & Standard 48 Postures (Revised).

After many years of reading books on Okinawan martial arts, it’s refreshing to learn new information from the Chinese martial arts, and it’s enlightening to corroborate information between the two styles.

To me, the first three chapters were the most beneficial of this book. That almost seems contradictory, since the final two chapters are dedicated two the 24 postures with applications and the 48 postures.

I’ll explain why.

First of all, the history and philosophy of martial arts are always interesting to me. Dr. Liang and Mr. Wu do it in a way that’s different from another prolific YMAA writer, Dr. Yang, but effective, nonetheless.

I found their explanation of yin and yang very beneficial, explained to me in a way that resonated with me that hadn’t before. Additionally, they goes into detail about the five element theory, which I also benefitted from.

Dr. Liang and Mr. Wu go to great length to suggest the proper body movements and breathing for tai chi chuan practice.

Finally, they provides a number of stretches and qigong exercises, adding to my growing library of them.

As the authors say, “it is never an easy task to learn from a book.”

I would agree. They provide great information for body awareness and positioning as you’re in the postures, but I take issue with some of the applications here. I would prefer to see principles of movement taught by tai chi chuan as opposed to the selected applications that are in this book.

There are two people in this book: White and Gray. White is always attacking Gray, and Gray is always showing you the applications of the moves.

Except White’s punches often look very much like a traditional karate-ka’s, a position that is often criticized. It’s something I’m to move myself and my students away from in karate for the purposes pointed out in that link.

Two, some of Gray’s defenses seem awfully contrived.

For example, in the second application of Wave Hands Like Clouds, White attacks with a simultaneous punch and a kick. I don’t watch a lot of UFC, but it’s the closest thing to actual street fighting I see. And I don’t see a lot of simultaneous punches and kicks.

Further, White often appears to have the ability to throw a second punch when Gray completes his initial defense. Some moves, in particular, suggest Gray moving directly into the line of White’s attack.

This means one of a couple of things.

One, the pictures were taken for one of the earlier editions of the book.

Two, the authors are showing very basic interpretations.

Three, a combination of both.

Whatever the case, there is a DVD available to accompany the book (as is with most YMAA publications).

To give you a preview of what the moves look like, YMAA has selected a few videos to watch on their site.

What’s more, they’re great at giving you a PDF excerpt.

Pick up this book if you’re serious about tai chi, but work the applications with an instructor you trust to help you decide whether you think these will work for you.

Full disclosure: I received a free copy of this book in exchange for a review.

March 10

Book Review: How to Win a Fight

 

As provocative as the title of this book is - How to Win a Fight: A Guide to Avoiding and Surviving Violence - there’s so much more to this book than just that.

A key point for me, and what I hope to get across to our students, is in the subtitle – “A Guide to Avoiding and Surviving Violence.”

Kane and Wilder, two of my favorite martial arts authors today, spend the entire first third of the book discussing what happens before violence even occurs. They talk about the importance of awareness, a key word throughout in probably every single chapter. Be aware of what’s happening around you, and what you could be doing to add gas or water to the fire.

From the authors:

Self-defense really isn’t about fighting like most people think. Self-defense is about not being there when the other guy wants to fight. Fighting is a participatory event, which means you were part of the problem. Even if you think you were only “defending” yourself, if your actions contributed to the creation, escalation, and execution of violence, then you were fighting. And fighting is illegal and a really bad idea.

This collection of chapters is excellently assembled, almost as if the authors had kept a blog and edited that content for this book. The chapters are pretty short and have catchy, “listicle”-style headlines, such as “Know How to Perform First Aid” and “Seven Mistakes to Avoid in a Fight.”

Broken into three sections – before the fight, during it, and afterward – How To Win a Fight brings up legal questions constantly, a poignant reminder that, first, we live in a litigious country, and second, the martial arts moves we practice and teach to a fault (meaning we don’t fully execute the technique unless we’re hitting a pad or performing in the air) actually do have consequences when applied to people. Don’t overestimate that.

If the book boiled down to one simple takeaway, though, it would probably be this:

Even though the books were published under different companies, I view this book as a precursor to Scaling Force. That is a much more detailed book discussing each of the levels of force – presence, voice, empty-hand restraint, non-lethal force and lethal force – that are only briefly outlined in How to Win a Fight. (Kane and Miller also add a sixth level in Scaling Force).

I’m happy to add this book to my “Recommended Reading” for my lower ranks.

March 3

Book Review: Oldman’s Bubishi by Mark Cook

I’ve just finished one of the most interesting martial arts books that occupies a place on my bookstand – Mark Cook’s Oldman’s Bubishi: An Introduction to Bunkai From Karate’s Kata.

Oldman’s Bubishi is an illustrated look at the Pinan / Heian katas, starring Oldman as the protagonist – a caricature, almost, of the author/illustrator himself – and his unnamed opponent.

While Shuri-ryu, our style of karate, does not formally teach the Pinan katas, many of the movements are similar to the Tai Kyoku exercises standardized by Gichin Funakoshi. The pattern for each is mostly the same, resembling an I or an H drawn out on the floor.

There are a few reasons why I like this book so much.

1. Hilarious Illustrations

It seems almost every other martial arts book out there has pictures showing what a would-be attacker and a would-be defender could be doing in any given scenario. As it well should. It’s much more effective – for me, at least – to see how a self-defense maneuver goes from step A to step B to step C, rather than read descriptive text.

Mr. Cook offers pictures, but they’re his own unique illustrations. First he demonstrates the individual movements of the kata, and then he shows what total to be dozens of applications from the moves in each of the five katas.

I like that Oldman often has sly grin on his face while his opponent lies in agony at his feet.

Oldman's Bubishi sample page2. Oldman Wants to Avoid Confrontation

Though it’s not called out anywhere, Oldman is seen a number of times in each illustration with his hands up, as if he’s saying he doesn’t want to fight.

He’s smart for several reasons. First, Oldman realizes the importance of nonverbal communication. We don’t need a bubble quote to see that Oldman wants to avoid the confrontation. Second, I suspect Oldman knows witnesses are present, even though we only see Oldman and the bully. By putting his hands up, witnesses can see that Oldman was not initiating the fight.

Most martial arts books only focus on the technique itself, and not what led up to the technique. This book is a bit different, as it shows that Oldman is trying to get out before things get bad. (Spoiler alert: things always get bad in this book, and Oldman always wins.) Even if it’s not explicitly mentioned, I love that this aspect of the dilemma is included.

3. Mark Cook is a Nice Guy

Unlike the majority of authors in my library, I met Mark for the first time in September at an Iain Abernethy seminar in Kansas City earlier this year. I remember getting something out of my bag the first night of the weekend when he introduced himself to me. While we didn’t get to work together that weekend, he was very friendly and I hope we get to practice with each other at a future seminar.

Oldman’s Bubishi is available for $24.50 if you live in the U.S., or $36.41 for anyone outside the States.

December 27

Book Review: Tai Chi Qigong by Dr. Yang, Jwing-Ming

If you’ve ready any of my reviews here or here, you know that while I consider karate my primary art, I’m a sponge when it comes to gathering information about other styles of karate or martial arts in general.

In my last review, I explored qigong for the first time. I’ve practiced tai chi chuan for more than three years now, but qigong – or chi kung – is an element that is rarely covered in our class.

Tai Chi Qigong: The Internal Foundation of Tai Chi Chuan begins by covering the basics of qi, or chi – I’ll use qi because it’s the convention in the book. I would hazard a guess that most of the first chapter is the same as Dr. Yang’s Simple Qigong book. Either one will give you a decent primer on qigong. The only new stuff – for me, at least – in this book’s first chapter was covering a brief history of tai chi chuan, or taijiquan.

The key part of this book for me was the second chapter, which talks about yin and yang – the root of tai chi chuan.

Dr. Yang writes that the qigong series in this book are based on the theory of yin and yang: two opposing forces that must balance each other. “If the balance is insignificant, disaster will occur,” he says. “However, when these two forces combine and interact with each other smoothly and harmoniously, they manifest power an generate the millions of living things.”

By understanding this, he says, you’ll have a better idea of what you’ll accomplish in your practice.

He discusses still and moving meditation, breathing, mind and movement, and ways to classify tai chi chuan.

The third chapter brings together a number of pictures displaying how to perform the series he mentions. I personally find these chapters less useful than the theory sections since I would much rather learn movements from a live interaction or, at a distant second place, via video. I think there are many intricate movements we miss out on my trying to practice techniques from a book.

Luckily, there is a companion DVD.

If you’re interested in learning more about this book or about martial arts in general, leave a comment here or shoot me an email.

Resources:

(Full disclosure: I received a free copy of this book in order to review it.)

December 3

Book Review: Simple Qigong Exercises for Health

Several weeks ago, a student raised his hand in class to ask me what I knew about energy and chi. I warned the class, saying that I had no formal background in chi cultivation, but explained I had been reading a book in which the author discussed chi throughout his 300+ pages in The Power of Internal Martial Arts and Chi: Combat and Energy Secrets of Ba Gua, Tai Chi and Hsing-I by Bruce K. Frantzis.

In it, Mr. Frantzis tells a story at one point about feeling confident in his sparring ability against one of his teachers, only for that teacher to lodge energy in between his shoulder blades. He says the chi required several months of extensive massaging to relieve.

Needless to say, after reading that, to concept of using chi has seemed almost mystical to me. Since it was hard for me to wrap my mind around that idea, I sought out other ways to learn about it, and happened to come across a copy of Simple Qigong Exercises for Health: Improve Your Health in 10 to 20 Minutes a Day. I’d hoped this would help explain chi to me a little better. (Note here: Chi, qi, and ki are all the same thing. Chi kung is also the same as qigong. For the purposes of this review, I will refer to it as qi since that is how it appears in the book.)

For somebody who’s entirely new to qi, I would recommend this book.

“Qi is the energy or natural force that fills the universe,” Dr. Yang writes.

Three types of qi exists: heaven qi, earth qi and human qi. All of these energies must balance, according to the Chinese. Otherwise, we experience natural disasters – earthquakes, tornadoes, hurricanes – and disease, among other things.

The bulk of this book focuses on the Eight Pieces of Brocade – both sitting and standing versions – exercises developed in China nearly 1,000 years ago by Marshal Yue, Fei in order to improve his soldiers’ health. Yue, Fei is described by Dr. Yang as “a great scholar of the Chinese classics… a brave and shrewd general who skillfully defeated the enemies of his country.”

By using the pieces, Dr. Yang says you’ll activate “the qi and blood circulation in your body, helping to stimulate your immune system, strengthen your internal organs, and give you abundant energy.”

Not only does he explain the theories involved in qigong practice, but he even has pictures to illustrate how to do the actual sets of exercises, plus an extensive glossary and index to help you find what you need.

If you’re like me, though, you’ll probably want the DVD. I’ve found books to be great for learning philosophy and history, but not so great for actual technique.

Resources:

(Full disclosure: I received a free copy of this book in order to review it.)