Karate and Tai Chi

by George Mattson


Some Possible Cross training benefits for Uechi-Rya Karate from Chinese Martial Arts.
I have studied Uechi Karate with moderate success since 1977. It has been said many times that its strength is in it’s simplicity, which seems correct.
Yet hidden in the stances and positions is a depth of strength that only the most natural athlete student or the most diligent and dedicated can discern.
I have also studied certain “Chinese” arts or internal arts which have similar but differently expressed principles to the kata we study every week.
These are:
The Iron Shirt Chi Kung (chi work) of Mantak Chia, The Tai Chi Kung I by Mantak Chia and the Yang Long Form Tai Chi, traditional Yang Family system.
One is generally not allowed to study the Tai Chi Chi Kung without having first been introduced to the Iron Shirt Chi Kung.
What is the basic focus of the Iron Shirt Chi Kung and how does it relate to Uechi Karate or, indeed, any martial art?
This can be summed up in one word: “rooting”. Establishing and perfecting the connection to the earth effectively increases the ability of the student to transfer power to an opponent.
The Iron Shirt Philosophy does not, at first glance, appear different from that of Sanchin.
The goals, in part, of Sanchin are : 1. to create, through position, a protective shell for the internal organs of the body from external attack.; 2. to establish a connection to the earth, from which power can be transferred to the point of the body which are blocking or attacking; 3. to cultivate the proper posture for both health and self defense; 4. to train the student to control his body and breathing in order to promote the attainment of the other goals.
The goals mentioned “overlap” each other. It is not really possible to explain where one begins and the next ends in a definitive way.
Like Sanchin, the Iron Shirt is simple in appearance, it is: “assume the position” and establish in so doing correct posture, which will also serve to protect. Like Yoga it has several positions, each of which, should one desire, can be used to enhance a meditative state of mind.
The starting stance for the “Iron Shirt Chi Kung” is called “Embracing the Tree”.
This “Chi Kung” or “power/spirit work” is not one that is studied while moving anything beyond the “Chi” within oneself and, of course, breathing. It is much like working on kata without actually changing stance or position. In this sense, it is analogous to Uechi Karate’s study of breathing, posture and focus in the various positions of “Kamae” (ready/paused) positions.
The breathing is dissimilar to that which we are familiar in Uechi Karate, in that the student/practitioner mentally breaths “TO” the part of the body one wishes. Several points of focus in the body are taught as particularly important. I won’t attempt to list them at this time.
For an instructive lesson, start in a “horse stance” only slightly wider than the parallel stance we utilize in “closed gate position”.
In the Tai Chi Kung I, identical technologies of Posture are utilized. In the Iron Shirt, breathing skills can be utilized to direct the bodies “attention” itself in a circular flow.
The basis of the initial elements of both arts is so simple as to give rise to considerable skepticism.
“Stand Up Straight”. It follows, then that your Uechi Stance strength will be enhanced examining how this is explained in these arts, however briefly.
To practice embracing the tree, one:
Places one’s feet slightly farther apart than in the “Closed Gate” stance, Straightens up the body by keeping the body in a line with the top of the head, Presses/expresses back the C-7 vertebrae and brings the chin slightly down, Distributes weight over the entire foot.
Opens the groin area slightly by gently spiraling the legs outwards to create a tension (gently) without actually allowing the feet to move, or the knees to point outwards.
Sinks the center of the chest slightly, thus crating a “roundness” to the back when viewed from above. This connects the scapula to the lattisimus muscles of the back. If the chest is “flat” or pressed forward, the connection is not made. This is similar to same way that the “round arm” in a Wa Uke block will collapse if bent to far at the elbow, simply because is no longer rounded. .
This is not to say a bent arm elbow block cannot be used in very close quarters, but it is not so used in the blocking system in which we have trained.
To open continue opening the stance:
Raise the hands and arms to form a circle which should be at about Sanchin height. The arms should be relaxed, with tension only caused by the gentle rolling of the muscles and tendons of the legs to create the connection to the ground. Even if you think your legs are tight and strong, you are not “connected” to the ground maximally without this gentle rotating effect.
Do not “close off the armpits” as this destroys the circular structure you have been striving for.
Lift the “sacrum” (the triangular piece of bone at the base of the spine) by rolling or drawing towards your center as thought you had a “tail, but do not let this “throw” your upper body rearwards, as this also destroys your connection to the ground.
Once the stance is open, without creating the incorrect type of “tension”, and can be tested as in Kamae.
Have somebody “press” gently (straight back and not downwards). As he presses do not “tighten up”.
If you feel you are too easily uprooted, don’t bend your knees too much, but feel yourself and let yourself sink and straighten by focusing on the points we have discussed.
The purpose of the exercise, or any variant which you may choose, is to enhance your own awareness of your body and it’s ability to “root” itself (“tap the chi?) to the earth.
BE WARNED, this does not immediately translate into stronger Sanchins, but the practice will do so over time, or so I believe.
An immediate structural hint makes itself apparent in the Iron Shirt “Embracing the Tree” form. Students will recall the many different ways that we were taught to perform the “Seichin” movement, taken from the Kata Sanseirui. At the end of the movement the rear side hand is engaged in what is surmised to be a “catch”. This hand position also should be virtually identical to the position from which, as beginners, was taught to us as the starting position for a “Wa-Uke” block and strike sequence. In the Embracing the Tree” Posture the arms are kept rounded, the shoulders do not rise up, and the hands gently rotate outwards until a connection can be felt in the tendon structure running to the shoulders.
If this structural point is not cross trained into your Karate (Seichin circling block and the “beginners” start for the Wa-Uke) the innermost hand cannot catch anything, not does it provide any protection to the practitioner. It (and I have seen this literally hundreds of times) either flops limply on top of the blocking forward hand, or gets “squared off” at the shoulder and elbow, and is weak for another reason; not being “round”.
Hopefully this will prove helpful to you.

Respectfully submitted:

Reading: The Inner Structure of Tai Chi Iron Shirt Chi Kung I

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