Drawing on different systems – and meeting Sam Tam
In this blogpost I will answer one of the questions I get from time to time, when people have signed up for the program, and find out that I have integrated elements from different system and variations of systems. For instance I start out with the up and down movement, the 5 relaxing exercises and the 1. section of the form from the system of Master Huang Xiangxian, standing meditation practice in accordance to that and more, before going deep into the system of Master Sam Tam.
I do also include special exercises from the Chenstyle as taught to me in a direct lineage from Master Chen Fake to Master Chen Zhaokui (my teachers teacher), to Master He Gong De and Master Feng Zhigiang – and even elements from Yiquan and Baqua (stepping and diagonal force).
Why you may ask? Am I disrespectful to my teacher(s)? Confused? A system and taijiform shopper?
A lot of questions could come into play but none of the abovementioned is the case! On the contrary, I have systemized and organized the teaching in this program to let you benefit the most and develop at the fastest pace possible in accordance with my understanding by now.
Let me ask you a question: name ONE of the great old master’s who didn’t have more than one teacher? Or “exchanged” ideas with other prominent masters living in the same period?
As for my own teachers, the once who were or are outstanding all had different teachers themselves. And if you look at the system of Master Huang, he himself learned different things and his teaching is based on that. The fact that a lot of his students – especially the ones from his later years – didn’t get the “full packet” including the fighting ability among other things (because he didn’t care to much about the fighting aspect anymore), is another story.
I have spend hundreds and sometimes thousands of hours learning from my teachers, and at the time period being taught and practicing, solely focusing on the system being taught. Then later on when for different reasons I got a new teacher, starting all over again. It is first in my later years that I started the process of synthesizing it, to create a more accessible teaching program which I believe benefit the students the most.
Therefore in this program, I start out with the basics from the system of Master Huang to help you have a clear understanding and feeling of how the force is supposed to travel to and from the ground during your form practice and later on in partner exercises and making sure to learn how to dissolve all obstacles. And once this is understood and integrated, learn how to only bring it down to the center (dantian) and up again. You need to learn to let go first, being upright and in line with gravity to get the sinking to dantian to work for you.
I strongly believe the basics in the system of Master Huang is a good place to start – as taught in accordance to my understanding – and thereby being a “shortcut” into the system of Master Sam Tam.
The following is a small excerpt from my book – Taiji, Qi Gong and Standing meditation – which should be out in English March 1. In the following you can read a little about my experiences and thoughts when I first met Master Sam Tam and how I had to rethink everything once again:
Meeting Master Sam Tam
One of the primary reasons I wanted to learn from Sam Tam was due to his experience with Standing. During most years in my “taiji career”, I have trained standings. Most of my teachers, with a few exceptions (including Patrick Kelly and Peter Ralston), have or had standings as part of their system. In addition, I have always liked standing and been able to stand for a reasonably long time in the different positions and remain relatively relaxed. Still, there was something missing. Through Jan Diepersloot’s books, I became familiar with Sam Tam, and the descriptions I read harmonized well with the direction I wanted to work in.
After a year of correspondence, I succeeded in inviting Sam Tam to Denmark in 2005 for a workshop.
To be honest, I was not very impressed to begin with. He could easily push me around as he saw fit, and he was convincingly able to demonstrate the self-defence aspects of the taiji form – or any movement for that matter.
However, his first workshop was very different from the many, many workshops I had arranged previously with my other teachers.
Normally a workshop consisted of hard and sweaty work, and most who attended would get so much pain in the thigh muscles from the strenuous work, that they could barely walk. And I liked it!
Before I began practising taiji, I had been performing hard physical exercise at a high level. I was used to no pain, no gain or – my own variation – do or die training. Pain and exhaustion was something I could relate to. So meeting Sam Tam, where he was unusually casual (half of the first workshop day he did not even remove his jacket), and the lack of physically demanding training, was a bit disappointing to me. And his taiji form looked like a bunch of unrefined and unfinished movements. The way I thought my first taiji form must have looked like, after I had trained for half a year …
The precision I had practiced and practiced in every single movement and position, and in the transitioning between them, in the master Huang system of taiji, did not seem to be present here. Moreover, every time Sam Tam repeated a form piece, the movements looked different, and I realized with horror, that his feet seemed to skate around. Where was the grounding? Where was the connection from the feet up through a relaxed body? And when we were finally working through a couple of movements, he asked us to take a little break and ask any questions we might have. It almost turned me mad!
At the same time, I felt a big responsibility towards the many people who were attending the workshop from both Denmark and abroad. In Denmark, I have a reputation for great quality in regards to arranging workshops with people from outside the country. I feared that I was throwing it all away. It takes 30 years to build up a good reputation, and 30 seconds to destroy it. The workshop lasted for 2 days, and it was my impression that the attendees were having mixed feelings about it. Especially those who were used to the very strenuous training from the master Huang system seemed displeased.
When I were taking Sam Tam to the airport in the early morning a couple of days later, he suggested we took a walk after checking-in the luggage, to talk a bit. He asked me for feedback on the workshop as a whole and his teaching. And I gave it. Honestly, but respectfully of course. Among other things, I told him that my teacher at that time in the master Huang system was fantastic at letting go and emptying the body, in a way I thought was more refined than what Sam Tam had shown.
Immediately he asked me to feel his body as he did exactly as I had just described, only in a much more refined way, and I lost my balance. He said to me calmly “Come visit me, and we can have a talk and I can teach you”.
To make a long story short, this became the beginning of an ongoing, 12 years at this point, close relationship with my new teacher – Sam Tam.
Shortly after Sam Tam’s workshop in Copenhagen, my teacher at that point came to Copenhagen to conduct a workshop as well. I showed him a short video of Sam Tam, where he demonstrated some of his pushhands abilities, and my teacher asked if I wanted to visit Sam Tam together with him. And so we did. In the beginning, I only intended to learn Standing from Sam Tam and a little pushhands and applications, and then integrate it into what I already trained in and was proficient with. However, I would soon become wiser …
My teacher at that point had arrived at Sam Tam’s place a day before me. I was really exited of course to learn, how their friendly testing of each other’s pushhands skills had turned out. My teacher was very difficult to push and is without a doubt one of the people I have known, with the highest developed grounding.
After my arrival, I was immediately thrown against Sam Tam’s mattress on the wall, as if he were playing squash with me. “To get rid of the jetlag”, as he said to me. Afterwards, my then teacher invited me out for coffee and a talk. I immediately asked him how his pushhands test with Sam Tam had ended. To my great surprise, he said that he never had a chance! He also added that according to him, Sam Tam had at least the same power as master Huang, but that he had developed his yielding to an even greater level! I have never met master Huang, but I have trained under many of his top students. I have of course seen videos with master Huang again and again, but it will never be the same as actually touching him with my own hands.
The following days I received irrefutable proof that Sam Tam absolutely was, and is, in a league of his own. Both my teacher and I were thrown around as had we been light as feathers. If we tried to use physical strength and resistance, it only made matters worse.
At that point, I had no idea of how high a level Sam Tam actually has, and in some ways, I still do not.
The first 4-5 times I visited him, I tried to schedule it so that I could be there at the same time as my previous teacher. A year earlier he had said to me, that there was nothing more he could teach me, and that he considered me his training partner. I saw and still see him as my teacher in the master Huang system.
After a couple of visits with Sam Tam I decided that I wanted to learn his system, and realized how foolish I had been during my first visits, believing that I could just take or discard as I saw fit as had it been a buffet, and integrate it into that which I already knew. From this point, I once again started all over as a beginner.
My – now former – teacher continued visiting and learning from Sam Tam for a couple of years more, after which he decided to stop. A thing I have witnessed several times: Students that have trained for many years, who realize that they can develop further if they learn from a new teacher, but end up deciding against it when they get the option. For as they say “then I have wasted the time I spent with my previous teacher”. Nonsense – you only waste your time if you continue to do what you have always done, while there is a possibility to learn on an even higher level, from an even better teacher. Change is difficult.
“Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”
– Albert Einstein
Footprints and weight
One of the first things Sam Tam did was to check my standing, since that was what I had shown the greatest interest of in the beginning.
Like many Chinese, he has thick carpets on his floors. That gave me a good opportunity – I thought – to show him, how good my grounding was.
I positioned myself in a standing and stood about 15 minutes, where he adjusted my arms a little a couple of times. When I was done, my feet had left deep prints in his carpet, and I was very satisfied and proud of my accomplishment.
He pointed towards my footprints and said, “You have too much weight in your feet”. Afterwards he entered a Standing as well, and when he was done I could barely see his footprints on the rug!
The following day he took me sightseeing around Vancouver. It was a fantastic weather, and at the beach he said “How about we stand for a few minutes?” I stood with my feet solidly planted in the sand, and felt how they sank deeper down and my experience of grounding and connection was incredible. When I was done, I once again marvelled at the deep footprints I had created. I looked towards where Sam Tam had been standing – barely any footprints in the sand! Once again, he told me that I had too much weight in my feet …
Ok, I weighted more than him, so on a physical level, I had to make deeper prints than him. But that is only a part of the explanation.
With my previous teacher and in the master Huang system there had been an enormous focus on “taking force into the ground”. And I was good at it, I thought, and it had been my primary focus for many years. If you are not familiar with what different visualizations can do, it may seem weird that what you imagine and visualize can make that much of a difference, and change how heavy an 80 kg man is perceived to be. However, it makes a huge difference.
Many times, I have let new students “feel” one of my experienced students and childhood friend, Jeppe Türck. He has a slender build, but when people feel him or try to push him, he seems incredibly heavy and big. He did not feel that way years back. Through taiji training, standing and different visualizations, his body has changed – but his physical weight is the same.
Sinking versus dropping the energy
Later the same day with Sam Tam, he followed up on the two episodes. He told me, that in my previous training I had dropped the energy to my feet; in his system, we sink the energy to the centre instead and, when it comes to self-defence, expand in all directions at the same time. I was naturally a bit sceptical in the beginning – I have a background in anatomy, physiology etc. – and I could understand how we could make the body seem heavier through letting more and more go of the musculature, comparable to lifting a chain weighting 30 kg and an iron rod weighting the same thing. The chain feels heavier. But the opposite? Making me ”light” again?
Sam Tam mentioned several reasons for only sinking the energy to the centre. First of all, there was a great risk of destroying ankles and knees by having too much focus on dropping it to the feet (something both I and others who had done the same thing could attest to). Secondly, it is simply to slow in regards to self-defence. By only sinking the energy to the centre and expanding from there in all directions, force is returned to an opponent much faster.
As always with Sam Tam, he gives clear demonstrations, so that it is not just theory. One of his other students came by later that day – a heavy guy weighting around 110 kg. Sam Tam asked me to lie on my stomach on the floor with my arms straight and a little away from my body. He then proceeded to stand on my hands, and began throwing the student against the mattress on the wall. I could hear from the sounds of him hitting the wall that he was thrown with significant force. But I felt no difference in the pressure on my hands!
It felt as if Sam Tam’s feet were barely touching my hands and, most particular, there was no change in the pressure from his feet against my hands, when he issued relaxed force.
I of course got the opportunity to be on the receiving end of the push, as the other student now was the one lying on the floor. Same result: I flew through the air with great force towards the wall, and the student felt no difference in the pressure against his hands. It was an enormous eye opener for me, and it changed my way of training completely.
Sam Tam did another demonstration a couple of days later, where my previous teacher arrived at his home. He sat in a chair with his feet lifted from the ground, and threw my previous teacher around in first one and then another direction, as had he been a tennis ball.
You are of course dependent on being connected to the ground. In the sitting position, this connection goes by way of the buttocks through the seat and legs of the chair and into the ground. In the standing position, the feet gives this connection. However, you must not force and press down towards the ground. Gravity must be allowed to work by itself, and it does this the best when the skeletal structure is balanced appropriately, so that you only use the muscle tension needed to maintain an upright and vertical position – sitting as well as standing. Having too great a focus on sinking down into the feet, risks creating a compressed and collapsed body structure.
Today I view training in taking force into the ground – a training partner’s force in pushhands or your own by letting go of and relaxing the musculature – as part of a process to be trained for a while. To feel and practice exactly how a push from a partner on a shoulder for example, in an appropriately balanced structured body can go to the ground. Becoming better and more sensitive in regards to feeling and developing this structure, and letting go of unneeded muscle tension. As part of a process, not the end result. When this is understood, learned and integrated it can be taken over into the next phase of your training, where there can be focused on a feeling of lightness, among other things.
As an old saying goes:
”When you go out to fish, the bait is important. When you have caught the fish, the bait isn’t important anymore”.