Having been on my Kenpo Journey for over 44 years and my Tai Chi journey for 19 years at the time of writing, I thought it might be interesting to make some comparisons between these very different and yet similar systems of Martial Arts.
Many years ago on starting out on my Tai Chi Journey with my Teacher and Kenpo Elder Brother Lee Wedlake, he told me that in learning, studying and practicing Tai Chi, over time, the process would enhance my understanding and application of my Kenpo. As my knowledge and ability have grown over the years I have found this to be so true and of course my Tai Chi in this process of internal alchemy has been enriched by my Kenpo. This duality that exists in me is like Yin and Yang one can no longer exist without the other. The reason of course is that there is a lot of crossover and connectivity between the two distinctly different arts.
Although the engineering, energy discharge, and application are different there are certain principles which thread through both systems and it is this commonality which is the subject of this short article. Indeed many different martial arts share these universal principles of mechanics and motion and present and utilise them in many different ways.
Lee Wedlake talked about his old Aikido Instructor who called these universal principles the Golden Thread. I see this Golden Thread stretching back through many generations of the Arts.
So we begin this short journey with relaxation as this opens so many physical, mental and spiritual doors.
Both systems have as a key principle the idea of relaxed movement until the point of impact.
Senior Grand Master Ed Parker the Founder of American Kenpo said:
“Strikes are just intermissions of relaxation” and “Mental relaxation is just as important as physical relaxation”.
Professor Cheng Man Ching Founder of the Yang Family Style 37 Posture Short Form said:
"Stay sung (relax). When practicing the form you must keep relaxed. In time you will find that it will become part of your physical and mental state."
The Tai Chi Classics say that relaxation should start in the mind and then permeate throughout the body. If our brain is in a peaceful and relaxed state, our mind/intent should be able to relax, loosen and extend our internal organs, muscles, tendons, and the joints. "Our skin has to be sensitive; and all our joints have to be loosened."The health benefits of mental and physical relaxation are of course many and will be covered in future articles.
Tom Baeli says of relaxation:
“ I differentiate relaxed vs. Soft. Few I’ve known are soft. There is a difference, one can be flexible, relaxed, limber yogic, etc. Yet not necessarily equate to softness. SUNG – poorly translated is beyond relaxation. With the ability to be light while sung or heavy while sung.”
The main benefits of Relaxation for self defence of course areRooting, speed, sensitivity and connectivity. Without relaxation you cannot connect with and use the three Kenpo Power Principles of Gravitational Marriage, Horizontal Back Up Mass and Torque to true effect, essential principles of movement which when utilised maximise our power delivery when striking, kicking, throwing etc.
This of course is the principle to hit, kick, throw, takedown and move with your whole body weight.
In Kenpo to achieve this we use our engineering and the correct mechanics while employing the three POWER PRINCIPLES of Gravitational Marriage through the dimension of Height, Horizontal Back Up Mass through the dimension of Depth and Torque through the dimension of Width. In Tai Chi we are taught that the mind should reside in the lower Tan Tien and that everything should move and be connected like a string of pearls. We must swim like a fish, which uses its whole body and not like a turtle which just uses its flippers, and be able to move from substantial to insubstantial and back again effortlessly, passing through but never pausing in a double weighted posture. In Kenpo we call it engineering and in Tai Chi Professor Cheng Man Ching called it Kung Chia.
Tom Baeli says that “Kung Chia is the structure for the work needed to build our Tai Chi edifice.”
Stances within both systems differ in detail, however, a forward bow takes the weight forward, produces torque and enhances the range of the rear hand whether the front foot faces forward or faces in on a 45 degree angle. A cat stance takes the weight off the front foot no matter if the ball or heel of the front foot are in contact with the floor or whether the depth of the stance is long or short the principle remains the same.
Both systems call for the spine to be upright and the for the tail bone to be tucked in thus aligning the hips and spine with gravity. In Kenpo we talk about Erect Posture and Anchored Buttocks to achieve our vertical axis. In Tai Chi we talk about head top suspended from above with the mind residing in the Tan Tien and the Kwa in correct alignment to achieve our vertical axis.
Professor Cheng Man Ching referred to the “Three Treasures” as being:
1/. Head top suspended from above - Erect Posture.
2/. The mind should reside in the Lower tan Tien – Anchored Buttocks.
3/. Root – Stabilisation of your base.
The correct application of all three “Treasures” or erect posture, anchored buttocks and stabilised base coupled with relaxed movement and “Directional Harmony” enables us to employ the 3 “Power Principles” mentioned above. The Power Principles areessential principles of motion which we must connect with and use if we wish to maximise the results of our action.
The vertical axis in Tai Chi circles is known as the “Tai Chi Pole” or the “Emperor” and is essential to applying correct mechanics to your engineering whether that is Kenpo engineering or Tai Chi engineering, which on the surface look very different but when one looks deeper one finds a strong connection between the two systems.
Kenpo’s engineering is based on the Universal Pattern, and the math and geometry contained within. Each stance tailored and engineered around each individual’s physical size with prescribed methods for achieving the correct Height, Width and Depth for each stance. Kenpo’s engineering is designed to be structurally strong, powerful and as it is an Art of War, deadly. Kenpo however is not the only Art that employs tailoring as each posture in Tai Chi is also tailored to the practitioner’s frame. This is referred to in Tai Chi circles as the Body Ruler.
Cheng Man Ching’s Tai Chi has a more rounded natural, soft approach to its structure relying much more on natural body positioning a lot of which is very subtle in appearance and nature.
When examined in detail, Tai Chi reveals an unexpected hardness contained within the soft appearance of each posture. Cheng Man Ching’s Tai Chi is well known for its soft round natural postures and movement and is probably one of the least martial looking of the Tai Chi Family styles unlike say Chen style, the original tai Chi Style which looks very martial in comparison. The goal of course is relaxed mind and body to facilitate the cultivation of Chi (life Force) and maintenance of good health.
Often referred to as Iron wrapped in Cotton this is one of the key principles in Tai Chi:
“When Taiji martial arts are in action, the external movements are extremely soft. However the internal mind and spirit, which are used to lead the Qi must be strong. When the mind is strong, the Qi led will be abundant and the power manifested will naturally be powerful. Even though it is powerful it is still soft. When you are soft, then you are able to apply the techniques of attaching, sticking, connecting and following skill fully to neutralize the coming force. Naturally, executing these techniques effectively depends on the sensitivity of Listening Jin with the assistance of the eyes’ viewing and the ears listening. Any Taijiquan beginner should aim for these criteria. Once you have achieved this goal, then you have completed the lower level of Taijiquan practice.”
Dr. Yang, Jwing-Ming
In both systems the skeletal structure has to be correctly aligned. Punching with a bent wrist in any system of fighting will only lead to self inflicted injury. The alignment of the wrist is crucial when punching so that the joint and skeletal structure is correctly aligned to absorb the force. The same can be said for the elbows and shoulders. These joints have to all be in alignment for the skeleton to be able to act as a brace. Similarly when kicking the ankle, knee and the hip all have to be in alignment. Sometimes done wrong to make a point correct alignment is essential for true power application. Putting it simply the skeleton must be correctly aligned so that it can brace against the force of impact. Correct alignment of the skeletal structure allows the practitioner to relax their muscles therefore the movement appears soft. In Tai Chi they say we should use the sinews and tendons rather than the muscles.
These 6 major joints in Tai Chi are sometimes referred to as the 6 Knuckle Changes. These joints are the shoulders, elbows and wrists and the hips, knees and ankles.
Both systems call for the elbows to be correctly aligned. In Kenpo we “Anchor our Elbows” while in Tai Chi we “Drop our Elbows”, hugely important for controlling the centreline, maximising your leverage, margin for error, path of action and for acting as a brace or fulcrum. The same applies to the shoulders which should be correctly aligned for maximum structural strength.
Learning how to “root” in Tai Chi is essential its from the root that power issues forth through the legs, waist, spine, arms and hands. Professor Cheng Man Ching used to say his root extended 250 feet into the ground. I have no idea how he would have measured that but I can only guess that that is what he felt or visualised.
Traditional Kung Fu and Tai Chi practitioners spend a lot of time cultivating their “root” and stance work. Indeed one of the great benefits to my Kenpo has been to re-examine my stance and footwork as I realised that my root could be greatly improved. Too many “high” horses for my liking!
(In my opinion this can be a neglected area in Kenpo resulting in a weak base often disguised or hidden by very fast hand work which has no substance or depth with the hands working independently of the body with no chance of employing any power principles, the practitioner relying solely on the impetus of the arms for power generation with no body weight behind the strikes. Impressive to the un-educated eye but in the truth of combat this weakness will quickly become very apparent.)
A strong root (Stabilise your base) in Kenpo is essential, as demonstrated by Senior Grand Master Ed Parker in the many videos of him executing his Art. Those of us who had the honour and experience of being demonstrated on by Mr. Parker will happily tell you that it was like being hit by a steam train!
To stabilise your base you need to not only bend your knees but relax your legs and flex your ankles. In my opinion this is another area in Kenpo which is quite often neglected. This combined with high speed strikes with no power principle employment results in weak Kenpo hidden behind the veneer of fast surface slapping with little depth of penetration, impressive to the uneducated eye but lacking in depth and body. Kenpo in my opinion should be “Earthy” in its application brutally beautiful!
Educated Martial Artists know that Rooting is everything. It is both base and foundation and can be applied to much more than just your stance. It is one of the most important things in life. A good building must have a strong and firm base. A successful company needs a superior foundation. A healthy plant requires a healthy root and so on.
I believe that rooting or stabilization of base is not emphasised enough in Kenpo. If there are any secrets in Kenpo and Tai Chi then it is this, FUNDAMENTAL BASICS ARE ALL.
In both systems correct breathing is essential for proper execution of technique. Correct natural soft breathing is an essential element of relaxation which is the gateway to connecting with and using the principles of motion taught in both Arts as well as sensitivity and many other benefits. Your breathing should be appropriate for the work being done. If you are working on meditation and visualisation techniques for developing chi and moving it around the body then the breathing will be very soft and natural. If however you are executing say a Kenpo self defence technique like Back Breaker then the breathing should be appropriate for that purpose.
Both systems use a reservoir of air to use throughout the movements being executed. The “tea kettle” principle created by Ed Parker works on condensed breathing, like steam under pressure, proportionately increases the force rendered.The sounds Mr. Parker used to make when executing Kenpo are legendary.
But more on breathing techniques, the 6 healing sounds, Kiai etc in detail in future articles.
Circularity, linear and natural movement are common to both systems, which of course when coupled with relaxation allow an almost seamless blending of motion from both systems by the practitioner if required.
Ed Parker stated:
“The ultimate aim of the Kenpoist is to elongate circles and round off corners”
This of course in Kenpo is shown at its highest level in Form 6 where once the form begins there is continuous motion until the completion of the form. The hands do not stop,or rather appear to not stop just like in the Tai Chi Short Form.
This of course leads on to advanced concepts of “Stillness in Motion”, “Point of Origin” and “Economy of Motion”, Kenpo terms for these principles which are employed in both systems and are essential elements for achieving connectivity and direct action.
Action is faster than reaction and Ed Parker used to encourage us to:
“To beat an action you meet that action or you will eat that action”
Tai Chi’s postures of “Ward off” and “Press” are utilised to “Meet action” with “Peng” energy and although much of Tai Chi’s action is to go with the flow and to invest in loss, on occasion it is necessary to go in to the eye of the storm.
Indeed the Tai Chi Classics say “Four ounces to deflect a thousand pounds”.
Kenpo is not the only system that uses checks. There are built in checks in the Tai Chi system as well as built in “what if’s” depending on range and position as well as leg buckles, sweeps and takedowns.
In Kenpo we pride ourselves on category completion within our forms and techniques. In Tai Chi Category Completion also exists as do opposites and reversals etc. Yin Yang and the 5 elements as taught in Tai Chi do not exist in Kenpo by name but can of course be applied to Kenpo thus enhancing our level of understanding of Ed Parker’s Art.
Clearly there is a lot of common ground between these wonderful Arts and the more I explore this commonalty the more I understand about the fundamental principles of motion.
For me these treasures are priceless and I would not have access to them if it were not for my
Teacher and Kenpo Brother Lee Wedlake and his Tai Chi Teacher Tom Baeli, two martial artists who
are true Masters in their Arts.
Thank you Gentlemen!