On London Workshops
I've been training with Sifu Gim for around 6 months now, but I have a varied martial arts background. I started training in Tai Chi, Hsing I and Ba Gua under a student of Chu King Hung aged 16. At 18 I went off to Uni and trained in kung fu (mainly tiger claw, shaolin, praying mantis, black leopard, plus the obligatory Yang 24 and 81 forms) for 4 years. Then back to London, training both together for another 3 years. My kung fu Sifu was also very fond of cross-
training, so plenty of JKD, escrima, Ju-Jitsu, aikido, Muay Thai etc during this time. I taught my own classes for a year or so, and more latterly did some Erle Montaigue stuff and Krav Maga for a few years. But the death of my Tai Chi teacher 18 years after my first lesson triggered the desire in me to continue with the Tai Chi at the highest level. In thinking about what it was I was missing, the conclusion was simple: my MMA training has given me alot of exposure to fighting, kung fu taught me to meld the classical and modern/street aspects. I was becoming adept at applying all of this into push hands/ free sparring with Tai Chi. But what I lacked was the main thing that drew me towards my original Tai Chi teacher: the explosive power that seems to come from nowhere with no effort. And there was only one other person I had ever seen who could use Tai Chi to usefully and practically generate that sort of power.....
I first met Sifu Gim around 12 years ago in NYC. I walked into his studio a complete stranger, told him my lineage and instructor, and he was very warm and friendly to me. He sat and talked with me for a while then he invited me to push hands with him, which I did. He demonstrated some power by asking me to push his arm while he was holding p'eng posture. I vividly remember feeling like I was pushing a statue. There was absolutely no give from him, and no doubt in my mind that I was dealing with the real thing ....
....Half a life later, London.....
The first time Sifu Gim came over, he stayed at my place. I took him and a couple of his students (from Zurich) out to sample fish & chips. We ate it sat on a curb, then went to a pub and had a pint. We got back to my place around 11pm and he immediately decided to start in on the training: he made us do an hour of dynamic push hands in my lounge. Among other things, this was my first intro to this particular training method. I was once again shocked by my complete inability to move his arm even by a millimetre, let alone his body. I pushed with all my strength (I'm 6ft2, 15 stone, so pretty strong!) until my entire body shook, sweat was running off of me and my arms eventually went dead. Sifu just stood calmly, speaking evenly under no strain at all, imploring me not to tense, to focus through the pain, maintain my posture etc. Then, when I was done, he repeated the exercise with the 2 other guys, then all of us over again with seemingly no effort on his part. I slept well......
Next day I met him after work at about 17:00 for a 7pm social gathering in Tavistock Sq. I had to call in on an ironmongers on my way there to pick up 'BIG BERTHA', a 6 ft. Long stainless steel staff, weighing ca. 15 kg. I will never forget the look of childish glee on his face when he saw it.
Even though we were not starting for 2 hours, he again had us training from the moment we got there. Forms, stepping and dynamic push hand. As people started to turn up, he asked them to try thrusting with Big Bertha and nobody could even do one thrust with it (One well-
known, senior martial arts instructor came close - he managed to thrust the staff out, but not bring it back in). Then he pulled off 15, just to show us how it is done. Later on, we were told that the steel staff was not a training tool. By this time we had a group of 9 or 10 people and Sifu again allowed everyone to experience his power first-hand. He did several rounds of dynamic push hands with each of us (again, without breaking sweat) before re-convening in a local bar for a couple of hours of chat. After more training (in Russell Square until the warden kicked us out), we went into Chinatown for dinner.
Next day we were up by 8 and he had us all in Gordon Square doing form training for 2 hours before breakfast, which was dim sum in Chinatown. Then we headed on to the venue for a 1pm start where we met up with 2 of the guys who visited us the day before for the start of formal weekend training. We trained for 2 5-hour slots with a meal break in the middle, basically consisting of dynamic push hands 'till you drop, followed by forms work to recover. It was in the first session in the morning where the strange reactions people comment upon started to manifest in us noobs while being pushed. We had people staggering around like they were drunk, whooping, screaming, falling over... A bit like an audition for Monty Python Institute for Silly Walks. Sifu explained he didn't really know why people responded in this way, but that their response was consistent every time they did dynamic push hands with him. Certainly the noobs were very surprised by their own reactions, but couldn't really explain why they were doing it. Now it has to be said, my own response to being pushed is rather mundane: I fly back. End of story. I sometimes catch my breath, like you do when you jump into a pool that is colder than you expect, but that is it. I am shamed by my normality.... The reason behind this teaching? To beat you into shape of course! Every time you are being 'pushed', you are not merely being moved back, but your centre is being struck. The response that occurs in you is your reaction to this event. As you progress, your sensitivity to the pushing increases and you become more adept at directing the push down into your feet. The aim is to be sensitive enough to convey any pressure into the soles of your feet... 'not a feather can land, not a fly can alight' ... Making dynamic push hand a sensitivity exercise, as well as a power training one. At this point, if your posture is solid, an opponent pushing will be confronted by their own push being referred back to them from the ground: borrowing energy. And so the more senior guys can refer the power down into their feet, and when it overwhelms them, (ie when they are pushed by someone with more power) it dissipates there, causing the foot-thumping phenomenon.
Back to planet Me, and I experience pain in certain parts of my body during pushing: elbows, shoulders and back mainly. It is at these points, through the faults in my posture, where the push is dissipating and causing extra strain on those areas. Of course, this knowledge can then fed into the form to improve postures and help to develop the power.
Another thing that surprised me was the sheer volume of food I was packing away: I had two 3-course meals each day and I was still hungry when I got home. Sifu told us that the pushing really builds up an appetite, and so it seemed! But mainly, it was the standard and intensity of the training that got me most. We were being given direct instruction by certainly the most powerful guy I have ever trained with. It was great to hear/see him in full flow, but above all, it was his attention to detail, coupled with his no-
nonsense teaching style that was most impressive. He was more than happy to demonstrate exactly how and why each posture should be performed the way he said it should. He could demonstrate power through any part of his body, and referred all of our questions back to the most effective way to do so. The other aspect of it was the work-rate he demanded. There were several points where I attempted to ask about the chi, or the peng jing etc. While I was pushing with him. Each time he hushed me to silence and urged me to concentrate on the training. The weekend flew by, and when I saw him off on Monday morning, I could barely walk!
Then the real work started: how do you maintain that level of training? Is it possible to keep the momentum going with Sifu's instruction (and pushing!) the other side of the Atlantic? Only one way to find out.....myself and one of Sifu Gim's 5th year private student meet up regularly each week to train together. Six months later and we have progressed alot. 2 more workshops have come and gone, and we have added staff training, chi kung, push hands and what is quite possibly the most painful zhang zhuang training exercise I have ever experienced. Sifu Gim is happy with the progress we are making. Happy enough to return and continue to teach us, at any rate! I feel I should add another comment at this point concerning the use of 'empty force'. I am invariably asked about this by anyone who is acquainted with the school we train in. On the second workshop, someone asked Sifu Gim about this, and his explanation came thus: It is not something that works on everyone, and is not used as a training tool. The only way you know if it works on somebody is to try it. And the only reason to do so is curiosity. At this point, he lined us up and tried to use empty force on each of us. It worked on one person (a Tai Chi and Hsing I instructor with 20+ years' experience.) and his obvious shock was apparent as he appeared to ballet dance around the room! Sifu Gim chuckled, and set us all back to work. And that was it: An interesting footnote. The session attracted the following posts on Sifu Gim’s ‘Thoughts’ section:
"Fa kieng...body is kept still, but peng kieng explodes forward...striking the back foot...two things happen...either it bounces off to the rear or comes back forward...this happens when the body and the energy is well connected...so fast that one cannot notice...the mind cannot fathom what just went on...
You would have never believed me if I told you a couple of weeks ago that your reactions from 'dynamic' push hand will be like the ones from the videos...perhaps, even more unbelievable...now, what do you think? If I have you on the video and post it on Internet, people would never believe it...that you are shamelessly faking it. By aligning your energy and correctly executing the push, you have now actually experienced what 'dynamic' push hand is all about. It wasn't very hard for me to tweak you because you already have some degree of internal energy, except you didn't know what to do with it because no one has shown you the proper principles. It still has a long ways to go, but now, you are at least on the right track.
How do you like them pain?...slowest one minute ever...two minutes of eternity...did someone say, the gentle art of tai chi chuan...you got to be kidding!
How do you explain your reactions while you are being 'dynamic' power pushed? You tell me...you are the one who just got pushed...you should have seen the look in your eyes when I just pushed you...absolutely bewildered...what can I say, you bring me a smile to my face as I witness your scepticism quickly disappearing, only to be replaced by absolute bewilderment...and I've never met you until this occasion..."
A quick summary: A sifu who is tremendously skillful, knowledgable and extremely powerful. A complete syllabus taught with a no-nonsense approach and total commitment. A truly unique experience. But oh, the pain......
But then again, as Sifu Gim would say, 'If you are not in pain, you are not working hard enough' :)