10 Questions with David Gaffney
When did you start Taijiquan and what brought you to the art?
I was introduced to Taijiquan in the mid-nineties. At the time I was heavily involved in practising and competing in external martial arts and, in those early days, I saw Taijiquan as no more than an interesting supplementary activity. Some months afterwards the teacher I was training with organised a seminar in Manchester’s Chinatown with Chen Xiaowang. It was a very different scenario than the large scale seminars you see today. The group of fourteen or fifteen people were, for the most part, quite new to Taijiquan, but were serious martial artists from different disciplines including Hung Gar, Wing Chun and Karate etc.
At the time Chen Xiaowang was about fifty years old and it was obvious looking at him that he was a powerful and confident individual. After giving a short talk, with minimal fuss, he stood up, took off his jacket and tie, rolled up his shirt sleeves for an impromptu demonstration of Chen Taijiquan fajin. The following series of punches, kicks, elbow and shoulder strikes literally changed the course of my life. Up until that moment I’d been doing martial arts for about fifteen years, starting with Wado-Ryu Karate and later training Shaolin gongfu and kickboxing. I had trained with some very proficient teachers, both eastern and western, but this was just on a different level. From that moment I have trained only Chen Taijiquan. Within a few months I was in China for the first time training with Chen Zhenglei.
What is your favorite form to practice and why?
Overall I prefer to think in terms of training an integrated system rather than picking out one particular favourite aspect. Each part of the Taijiquan curriculum is inter-related and there for a reason. Basic exercises like standing pole and reeling silk exercises, hand and weapon forms, push hands, pole-shaking etc complement and support each other. All Chinese martial arts work towards developing a number of key areas such as: physical strength which is self explanatory; fitness and general constitution – that is, not just good aerobic capacity but also the need to develop physical resilience and robustness; as well as effective techniques – all supported by the Taijiquan requirements that have been passed down, eg. head suspended, shoulders relaxed, elbows lowered, chest relaxed etc.
That said, in Chenjiagou Taijiquan the Yilu (First Form) is generally accepted as the most essential core element of practice. The skills developed by training this form provide the fundamental basis for all the skills of Taijiquan and, for this reason, it is often referred to as the “gongfu form”. Rigorously training this form helps to develop correct body structure and movement patterns. By structure I mean both the correct positioning of all the body’s joints relative to each other and from this the emergence of awareness of the body’s core/centre. Modern sports training understands that the foundation of peak performance is the ability to move well, without limitations and with good balance. Correctly approached the Yilu routine refines habitual movement patterns so that they are co-ordinated, stable, allowing a full range of motion, good movement control and body awareness, and good posture.
What do you find most “lacking” in taijiquan training today?
One of the first things that came to mind is the general lack of confidence and clarity many people have in what it is that they are doing when they train Taijiquan. And why they are doing it. There seems to be a general erosion of the complexities of Taijiquan – with the recent trend towards simpler shortened forms, fast-track instructor’s courses and an expectation of mastery in a relatively short time. Perhaps it’s just a sign of the times. I recently read the biography of Sir Alex Ferguson, one of the most successful British football (soccer for US readers) managers. He spoke of the changes he’d seen over his forty odd year coaching career. An interesting phenomenon he observed was the inflation of the language used to describe players. Today, it seems, every half decent footballer is referred to as “world class”. In Taijiquan also. It seems that anyone who’s done some training is a master or sifu. The same is seen in China, where young practitioners in their thirties are often referred to as “dashi” or grandmaster.
If that’s what people want that’s what they want, but don’t anyone kid themselves that they will get the real skill of Taijiquan. The traditional art is a lifetime process of constant introspective refinement. An individual is said to have “good gongfu”, whether it be in Taijiquan or any other pursuit, when it is clear to a knowledgeable observer that they have put three elements into their discipline: The first is that they have studied for an extended period of time; the second is that they have worked very hard or “eaten bitter”; and the third is that they have yongxin – literally “use their heart” – more than just working hard, they have given it their full, deep and unwavering commitment. Traditional skills are hard earned. Taijiquan trained in the traditional way is an all-encompassing development of an individual’s body, character and spirit. It’s easy to recite the list of requirements but what is required is training these requirements until they become internalised and instinctive. This requires a high degree of mindfulness and awareness and focused training.
An outspoken Chinese friend of mine reacting to the never-ending keyboard battles on Wechat, China’s equivalent of Facebook, posted the comment: “If you say that you practice Taijiquan as a martial art, who can you fight? If you say you practice Taijiquan as a health system, how healthy are you?”
What does your personal training regimen look like?
To keep training relevant it’s important to be clear what you are training for and to be flexible and revise your regimen over time. The younger practitioners may be motivated by the most dynamic aspects and the combat side of Taijiquan; older practitioners are likely to be drawn to its health benefits. Chen Taijiquan has an unbroken transmission of close to 400 years with a deep repository of training knowledge to draw from.
In terms of my own training regimen, I believe that the best results are from consistency and a commitment to long-term daily practice. Anyone who’s been teaching martial arts for any length of time will be familiar with the students who appear, train with enthusiasm for a while and then leave to do something else. For the most part my training follows the methods taught to me over the years. I try to get in a few hours personal training each day on top of whatever classes I’m teaching. I like to train outdoors if the unpredictable British weather permits, where I train the traditional hand forms and weapons (with an emphasis upon Laojia Yilu). If I’m training indoors I tend to do more standing pole, reeling silk exercises or single-movement drills. I do other aspects such as push hands, when I have a training partner and equipment training like the long pole or Taiji bang when I feel like it.
When you’re in your twenties or thirties you can blast through training everyday and any injury seems to heal quickly. I’m in my fifties now and feel that it is important to train intelligently. Now I pay more attention to prehab or injury prevention work. Before breakfast most days I go through a routine of exercises and stretches I’ve picked up from several sports physiotherapists over the years. A couple of times a week I go to the gym and do some cardio on the cross trainer to prepare me for a more demanding stretching routine.
What advise do you give anyone starting taijiquan for the first time?
Today there seems to be a “Tai Chi” class on every corner and it is not easy for a newcomer to know if what they are signing up for is in any way authentic. It is difficult for beginners to assess the quality of a prospective teacher. Some slick marketing, a nice studio with incense burning in the corner and a room full of students is enough to convince many people. If the motivation for a new student is to get out and meet some people and play at Taijiquan this might be enough for them. With more and more fast-track instructors’ courses, simplified and shortened forms and people claiming lineage to Chinese masters (often after meeting them once or twice and taking a photo!). The first piece of advice I would give would be to hang on to your common sense.
If a new learner is serious about doing Taijiquan they should take care to research who they are going to learn from. Everyone has preferences, but It doesn’t really matter which style of Taijiquan they choose (Chen, Yang, Wu, Sun etc). What does matter is that they should be confident that the teacher knows the theory of Taijiquan and its progressive training method; that they have an understanding of the whole system and how it fits together and that they are able to teach this. This is really not an easy thing for a novice to assess! In reality, many “teachers” don’t really know very much beyond superficially copying a set of movements. Taijiquan is much more than just learning a few sets of movements or a few push hands tricks.
Some basic understanding of Chinese philosophy and Taijiquan theory would enable newcomers to Taijiquan to ask appropriate questions and get a sense if the class they are looking at is suitable. Having chosen a class, it is especially important for Western students to continue to read and research around the subject. Certain concepts may be instantly clear to a Chinese student who has the advantage of having clear cultural references. For example, the concept of qi may seem mysterious to Western learners, whereas it’s commonplace to a Chinese person. Misunderstanding these ideas is forgivable for newcomers, but lazy in experienced practitioners. I can give one example, recently I was asked by a publisher to write some supportive blurb for the cover of a new Taijiquan book. After a quick read through I came across a statement by the author, a thirty year plus ‘veteran’ of Taijiquan that reads: ‘of course ‘Chi’ was important in ‘Tai Chi’ otherwise it wouldn’t have been included in the name of the art’. A basic knowledge should tell even a newbie how ridiulous this statement is! I couldn’t endorse the book.
What concept, principle or exercise do you wish you had learned sooner and why?
All the lessons I learned and experience I gained from the fifteen or so years doing external martial arts were valuable. However, incorporating Taijiquan’s core training method added a deeper dimension to my practice. This methodology revolves around the three characters, song (loose), rou (pliant) and man (slow). That is training the body to be loose and pliant through the method of slowness. Slowness is required to pay attention to all aspects both physical and mental. Adding this method into my training greatly enhanced both my mental quietness and the ability to focus on the many small details that ultimately must come together. Taijiquan training is no different than any other martial art in that ultimately it is concerned with improving qualities such as strength, speed and coordination. But, it asks us to achieve them this unique way by focusing upon looseness, calmness and balance as the basis from which these more dynamic aspects can be brought out.
Building from this, Chen Taijiquan’s emphasis on the development of circularity and rootedness as the foundation of martial effectiveness and the importance of considering the body as a system rather than learning lots of pre-set attack and defence drills adds a level of reality. Pivotal to Chen Taijiquan’s attitude towards combat is the need to accept the idea of spontaneity and to train yourself to react in accordance to a situation.
What are your thoughts on teaching “explosive power” in taijiquan?
The development of explosive power, alongside other aspects like strength and conditioning, body structure, footwork and whole body coordination is essential to all martial arts. People who don’t have a clear understanding of Taijiquan’s step-by-step training method often try to make sense of its martial aspect by comparing it to other seemingly more obvious martial arts. Taijiquan has its own way of training martial skill. For example, an important concept lying at the heart of Chen Taijiquan’s effectiveness as a combat system is the use of softness to change and neutralise an attack, followed by hardness to emit power at the moment when an opponent’s position has been compromised. This requires training the whole body as a system.
Instead of trying to understand the underlying method, many practitioners become fixated on training set applications, or particular aspects that they are drawn to such as explosive power, low postures etc,. It is not enough to train hard but train in accordance with Taijiquan’s principles and philosophy.
To come back to the question of developing explosive power in Taijiquan – a number of different things need to be put in place first before even thinking about releasing power. First, learn to ”fang song” – loosen their body. Taijiquan’s unique brand of looseness allows us to use strength effectively. This is not a small undertaking!
As I mentioned earlier, the thing that sold me on Chen Taijiquan in the first place was its explosive power. During my first few years training the system I constantly asked about this aspect – how can I develop my fajin? The answer was always the same – “fang song”. Eventually an instructor in Chen Zhenglei’s school in China asked me if I really wanted to know how to improve my fajin? Finally, I thought, the secret! His advice was, “for the next year, train everyday and don’t do any fajin – just concentrate on being loose”.
And then there’s the spiral force, the requirements for each part of the body, how to coordinate the crotch and waist, how to use the floor to employ ”rebounding force”. Approached in this systematic way, in time Taijiquan’s method of using explosive force is realised.
Of all the people you’ve met, who first comes to mind when you think of “the successful martial artist”? And why?
For me, a successful martial artist needs to tick a few boxes. Obviously they must have a high level skill and practical ability in their chosen art. More than this, I would say that a successful martial artist is not just someone who can do it, but can develop and inspire others to reach their potential. A few years ago I was in Chenjiagou for the 60th birthday celebrations of Chen Xiaoxing. He has lived in the village his whole life. He knows everyone, and everyone knows him. Unlike the lavish, large-scale and well publicised events marking the birthdays of many other famous teachers, Chen Xiaoxing’s birthday dinner was held in the main training hall of his school. At the party there were no officials, no casual Taiji tourists, just a hall full of long time students. At the end of the evening Chen Xiaoxing took the microphone and gave the following simple words of advice to the students present: “Don’t criticise other people. Don’t boast about yourself. Just put your head down and train”. This sentence In a nutshell captures his simple approach to Taijiquan.
I first met Chen Xiaoxing in 1997 and have trained with him in his school in Chenjiagou almost every year since 2003. Over the years my partner and I organised his seminars in the UK and travelled with him on all of his European seminars. In that time I’ve got to know his character well. According to Chen Xiaoxing “words are cheap”. Anyone who has trained with him will be aware of his penchant for simple, repetitive and excruciating emphasis upon basic training, with no truck paid to entertaining students. He offers what works and then it is up to the individual to put in the effort. Don’t think about success. Just follow the rules and grind out the skill. I’ve seen students come to his seminars and struggle to cope with his approach. Chen Xiaoxing’s method is designed to produce disciplined practitioners capable of thinking and training without needing someone else to hold their hands. He often says, “It’s no use watching me! The only way to get it is to practice it yourself”. Then, in the old fashioned way he will sit and watch his students trying to replicate what he has shown. Students who like to be spoon-fed and entertained don’t last long, but his many successful students are his legacy.
Some of his favourite sayings: “Don’t be in a hurry”; “Commit yourself”; “Don’t talk about other people”; “Put your head down and train”; “Don’t think that you know more than you do”; “Have confidence in what you are doing”.
Of all the people you’ve met, who first comes to mind of a teacher or practitioner that amazes you? And why?
I’ve been inspired by many practitioners over the years and really couldn’t single out one individual, so I’d rather speak about a few people that have touched my own martial arts journey. First I’d like to mention John Bowen the teacher who first set me on the martial arts path back in 1980. His passion for the Oriental fighting arts saw him build his own dojo, the Red Dragon Karate Centre where he ignited an interest that has taken me to China and the Far East many times. I think sometimes of the atmosphere in those early classes when he would drive us to always be faster than the person next to you in the line. I still remember as a raw teenager sitting in the back of the school minibus on the way to my first open tournament as Sensei Bowen gave us his unique brand of pep talk: “My green belts beat other people’s brown belts. My brown belts beat other people’s black belts!” In those days anyone could be there, kung fu, karate, thai boxers, taekwondo –He sadly died at an early age, but I do wonder sometimes what he would make of my martial arts journey.
I’d also like to mention Wado Ryu Karate Sensei’s Kuniake Sakagami and Peter May. Training with them introduced me to a different kind of discipline. Sakagami would drive us really hard, and when he eventually shouted “stop”, expected us to maintain composure no matter how exhausted we felt. In later years I’ve come to appreciate this training more and more. The ability to remain calm and composed on the surface, when inside you feel like you’ve gone way past your limit is real martial arts training. Taijiquan training offers endless opportunities to temper oneself this way. The requirement to remain calm, centred and loose within the “bitterness” of holding postures or maintaining correct structure during movement slowly transforms a practitioner’s character to be more patient and enduring. Too often people want to show everyone how hard they are training, or want a pat on the back each time their legs tremble a little bit. Peter May was a great example of personal discipline and dedication. Up until today he has followed one method and one teacher for over forty years. In a world where people flit from one thing to another, this kind of focused polishing of an art is a rare thing. I’d also like to give a shout out to my Shaolin Gongfu teacher Shahrokh Nael with whom I began the transition from Japanese to Chinese martial arts.
Over the last two decades I have trained with some great Chen Taijiquan teachers – some many times, some just a few times – each have inspired me in different ways: The aforementioned Chen Xiaowang, Chen Xiaoxing, Chen Zhenglei, Zhu Tiancai, Wang Xian, Chen Yu, Feng Zhiqiang, Chen Ziqiang and Wang Haijun …
Outside the field of Asian martial arts, I love the attitude, confidence and exploits of US boxer Bernard Hopkins. His longevity, drive and fearlessness driven by an outlook that allows no BS, no smoke and mirrors, no short cuts or excuses. A lifetime of excellence built upon the simple mantra – “If you want to be great, do great things!”
What book (besides your own) have you most gifted or recommended to others and why?
I love the book Winning by former England rugby union coach Clive Woodward. In autobiographical style he explains how an ageing team of athletes most people assumed had seen their best days were transformed into the premier rugby team on the planet, culminating in their victory at the 2003 World Cup. Central to Woodward’s philosophy was the idea that by improving one hundred aspects of sporting performance by one percent, the overall ability of an individual would be unrecognisable. For a serious and experienced performer in any discipline it can seem impossible to make significant improvements in any single area be it strength, speed, nutrition, discipline, recovery, or any other measure. Woodward, however, believed that the accumulation of tiny positive improvements would ultimately lead to a radically improved performer. He was proven right. Anyone, whether they are an athlete, martial artist or regular person balancing work and family can believe that they can improve by one percent. Generations of Taijiquan practitioners have known this truth and have left a blueprint for developing every aspect of a person. The prerequisite for bringing this blueprint to life is accepting that the deepening of one’s knowledge and skill must occur naturally and gradually.
[to the left, The Essence of Taijiquan – a wonderfully book on the martial art]
If you were to die and come back as any martial artist, which one would you be and why?
This was actually a hard question to answer. Usually I’m quite happy just being myself. But if I had to pick I wouldn’t mind coming back as Li Mu Bai, the character Chow Yun Fat played brilliantly in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. I’m not much into martial arts movies, but I love the scene when he trains alone in a moonlit courtyard with his “Green Destiny” sword!