Article – San Shou and your autonomus nervous system – Yin & Yang in practice part 1

All Forms in Tai Chi Chuan are founded on a number of orthodox applications, such as “Grasping the Birds Tail” , “Single Whip” or “Stroking the Lute”.
When performed in a orthodox way the application might not be realistic self defence as such, but it does contain a lot of valuable  information which is up to the practitioner to refine. These techniques are the building blocks to “to get it right”. Depending on the practitioners level, age, attitude, constitution and individual experience, the manifestation – the actual self defence – will naturally differ from other practitioners. Although there are some ”blue prints” here, there is also individual freedom. In this way Tai Chi Chuan can truly be considered a living form of art.

San Shou

San Shou – ”Scattering Hands”
The core of every martial art must of course be the practical use of the various techniques and principles in the tradition. San Shou translates to “Scattering Hands”. In other words, this type of practice involves the idea of ​​something chaotic, spontaneous and unpredictable. As sparring or fighting. To be able to handle situations like this in an optimum way we have the building blocks of our orthodox applications and in different types of exercises such as Tui Shou. The knowledge contained here gives us a basic map so that we can find our way in unfamiliar terrain. However, problems arise when training only contains these orthodox elements. To develop things further we HAVE TO get out of our comfort zone. Pushing the limits. This can be achieved through certain kinds of  situations, training or competition.
Defend your limitations, and you will keep them.


Tangible form – Clear definition – Formless practice

Basics & Yi
To be able to perform any kind of self defence at all there are some fundamental areas that we have to understand and train, beyond the actual technique itself.
One of the basics is to have fundamental conditioning in order to be able to deliver techniques and to be familiar with what happens and how it feels to actually be on the receiving end of a technique. This should be considered as basic level practice. To be able to continue beyond Form and Pushing Hands you have to add an adversary or training partner who is able to give you resistance and is training with the ”right” mind-set. An unwilling opponent is something else than your casual everyday training buddy. It is too easy to get more and more comfortable and blind to flaws after some time training together. Note that this kind of training not necessarily have to be extreme forceful or hard in a physical sense. One of the most important aspects is that of the ”right” intent/mind-set – Yi in chinese.

My own teacher has always pointed out three critical factors in martial arts training. The longer i practice, the more i realise the importance of them. Here they are:

To understand distance you need knowledge and have a feeling of were you should be positioned for a specific technique. If there is lack of knowledge in this area, the technique will be unsuccessful or will lack power. Thus it will be very easy to counter you or take control of you. There are obviously different tactical distances when using Tai Chi practically. In our tradition we divide them like this:

  • Die/Pu – to make your opponent fall down and follow up either by strikes, punches, sweeps, trips or kicks.
  • QinNa – to “seize” and to “hold”. This distance is usually suitable when taking control over your opponent by using joint-locks and breaks. Grappling is an active component here.
  • Shuai Jiao – close quarter distance for throws, tackles, take-downs etc.
  • Dian Shu – the use of vital areas and distrupting the nervous system.
Embrace Tiger Return to Mountain...

Embrace Tiger Return to Mountain…

This is crucial. There are generally three different kinds of timing:

After – If you act/react too late (after the attack), your opponent will get you. If not fatal, you will spend your time only defending yourself letting the opponent control you.
During – Better then, is to detect the opponents attack, defend and then counter. This can be considered as acting during the attack. Depending on the circumstances the result can be successful or not.
Before – Finally there are action before the attack. This means you are able to detect the opponent´s action before, or very early in the process of him launching his technique. It can mean ”to beat the opponent to the punch”, or to lure the opponent into a situation where you actually want him to be.

Position is power.
This means to position yourself in favourable angle for the specific technique. The idea is that you want to be in a position where you can launch your technique before your opponent can respond forcefully. Often it means you will have your centreline towards the opponent at the same time as his centreline is directed away from you.

The first time I heard this term was many years ago through my Tai Chi brother Wim Demeere from Belgium. He has been a proffesional personal trainer and martial arts teacher for a long time. He also is a no-nonsense guy with loads of experience. So i listened.
The OODA-loop is basically a model of how our autonomous nervous system works and can be used therapeutically but is just as useful when it comes down to training and the understanding of self-defence. The capitals stands for Observation, Orientation, Decision and finally Action. This is a process we go through totally automatic  every single moment we are awake. It is required for functioning and dealing with everyday life situations. If we look closer we clearly can see that one part of our nervous system was made to deal with practical danger and risk.
The reason we need to train applications and drills in a repetitious manner is exactly this –  we want to get a certain behaviour ”into our system” – that being the nervous system. To make something really fast and effortless it needs to be spontaneous and autonomous. In a risky situation there will be no time to think. You will act on habitual basis. This means that – what you practice is what you will to be good at. If the only things you practice are forms and pushing hands – posture, “rooting”, “yielding”, “listening” and maintaining a solid stance, that will be your reaction pattern in a critical situation. These are all good qualities that should be trained, but when it comes down to practical martial use there are other aspects that have higher prioroty. The first one beeing movement. A stationary target is easier to hit than a moving one. If we take into account the information contained in the following discussion, we see that (correct) movement can change the whole game plan. In our tradition we start from day one with footwork and movement patterns as Seven Star Step, Nine Palace and Da Lu. In my opinion this is one of the most important aspects that students need in their behaviour pattern since most people tend to freeze-up or stand still when something unpredictable happens to them.
This process is the same whether it is a one to one situation, or in big battle scale using modern technology. It can be applied in any kind of sport like ice-hockey, football or tennis. This autonomous process has always been and will always be there, and it corresponds very well with the idea of Dong Jin – Understanding Force; Ting (listen), Hua (transform) and Fa (discharge).

1. Observation –  this is of utmost importance, to be able to find the threat before it finds you. This requires practice and experience in scenario training, such as sparring or more realistic self defence practice. Being able to understand different kinds of weapons and bio-mechanical possibilities – unarmed (hands, feet, elbows etc.) or armed (sword, knives, guns etc.) and how these are used and at what distance.
With more experience you also will know what to look for. There are usually signs that can expose your opponent, providing you know what they are. If you detect something early on, your chances to be successful is far greater than if you detect it late, or already are struck by it (the opponents attack). Usually it is a good idea to try to practice your peripheral vision in different ways, since this is something your nervous system will try to shut down in favour of tunnel vision when you are stressed or feel fear. Tai Chi Chuan provides great tools to practice this feature. Observation does not necessarily mean using only vision. We have many senses and the better you train them the more you will discover. Staying sharp is a matter of being totally present, which is actually what we are (should be) when practising the correct way, no matter if it is Forms, Pushing Hands,  Applications or Nei Kung.

2. Orientation – this means to establish reality. Getting the perspective, based on your sensory input, real time input, prior experience and your assumptions. Your brain and your nervous system is not a linear processor, it is parallel since the subconscious probes with the conscious mind. Your conscious mind will choose what to pay attention to. If you have ever been in a extremely stressful situation and after some time try to recall that same situation, you always get fragments of memories, not a flow of them. With more experience these “freeze frame memories” tend to change into a more flowing, streaming movie. It has then become familiar territory. This is of course because you get more accustomed to the situation and your system can by experience evaluate more factors that you initially didn’t even pay conscious attention to. For example – most people who get hit to the ground does not get knocked out. They become shocked. Their systems are not used to and cannot understand and evaluate the signals coming in. This is why conditioning is crucial. If you cannot receive anything, you are going to have a real hard time delivering anything at all.
When we find ourselves in a new situation with a brand new set of circumstances with no prior reference points we will get disoriented. This is why we need at least a bit of realistic training and pressure. For example it is interesting to see how most martial artists react to a knife. Although it might be a blunt training blade, even the most experienced martial artists – if unused to knife training – will tense up, forget all principles from their practice, freeze, using erratic movements and much more energy than actually needed. People experienced in knife training react very differently. It is all about experience.

If I go through the OODA-loop, then naturally my opponent will be in the same situation. Talking about tactics you should of course aim to distract your opponent. This will buy you valuable time. This can be done with a movement, a sound, a jab, set-up technique, throwing your bag in the face of the opponent blocking his vision, or something else depending on the situation. Once you have distracted your opponent you want to move on to the next stage in this process as fast as possible. When becoming distracted, your opponent will have to move back in the OODA-cycle to stage one – the observation phase – and since you have moved on to the next stage – the decision phase – you will then have an advantage in time. Your opponents perception of time will become distorted, his incoming data will be dismissed, his decisions will become irrational, and his actions will become erratic and ineffective.
This is of course exactly where you want him to be.

3. Decision – getting there. We make decisions in two ways. All of the time. The first one is where we work out thousands of variables simultaneously in parallel via our subconscious mind. The second way is where the conscious mind is able to process a couple of variables at the same time before it is misinterpreting incoming data. This means that if you want to react fast, you want to react via your subconscious mind. This is achieved by repetition and experience in accumulating data and getting updated on a regular basis. Every time the subconscious has new experiences it creates an improved matrix of actions increasing probability of success in the future.

4. Action – This is where most people spend their time practising, although it might not always be the most beneficial phase to train. This is where the action is goin on. Where you hit, get hit, run, call for help or perform any other action. Naturally you have to be able to act forcefully, but it is everything that leads you to this point – where you launch your technique – that matters most. Your observation, orientation and decisions is what makes it possible for you to use relative minor actions or energy and will define success or failure. In training most people look for the manifestation, the obvious. Submission is usually what people are going for. But before you can get in control or in submission you have to learn how to position. You have to learn how to maintain proper distance, how to close the distance to your opponent at the proper time, to apply the proper technique successfully taking control over your opponent. If you master this sequence it means that you can employ the same technique over and over again even if your opponent understands what you are doing. If you can read him and catch him in the Observation – Decision phase you will control him. This is true mastery of space and time – before the actual technique is employed.

HH-50Relaxation, breathing and postural habits.
Regular practice in Tai Chi Chuan can improve your health, over-all performance and well being. This has long been known, and most recently emphasized by studies at Harvard University in the U.S.
But if Tai Chi Chuan really is a martial art, there are some basic elements in training that must not be neglected. In my opinion one of the most stress-regulating activities there is are martial arts training. The softer (better known to the public) areas of Tai Chi exercise TOGETHER with the martial and fighting elements form a unique tradition that can be essential to the modern man in today’s society. This is Yin & Yang in practice.

In the second part of this article we will look at Tai Chi and the autonomic nervous system from a therapeutic/health point of view.

Copyright © 2013 Paul Silfverstråle, All rights reserved.

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