Tai Chi Chuan Magazine
Issue No 7
Mike SigmanInterviewed by Ian Young
Mike Sigman has 34 years of experience in the martial arts. After initially studying Judo, Okinawan Karate (Uechi Ryu), and Aikido, he has devoted the last 15 years to the Chinese martial arts of Taiji (Yang and Chen), Xingyi, and Bagua. His Chinese teachers have been Dr. Her Yue Wong, Mr. Chi Ben Denh, Liang Shou Yu, and Liang Bai Ping
Mike has written numerous magazine articles and officiated at many tournaments; he also participates in the Neijia mailing list on the Internet. He lives near Denver, Colorado: he is six feet tall and weighs 225 pounds. In Europe, Mike is probably best known for his Internal Strength workshops: I attended one of these in London in May 1996 and took the opportunity to ask Mike some questions about what he does.
Your primary focus in the martial arts is "Internal Strength", but that phrase might mean almost anything: can you give me a few words explaining what "Internal Strength" means to you?
No, not really: it has to be shown. Originally, I did Judo and Karate extensively and met all kinds of people; then I ran into a Japanese guy who did Aikido. While he was showing me some things I realised he was using a very unusual form of strength: my definition always hinges on people who can manifest that kind of strength. And that's sort of validated by the fact that other people - not everyone - but somebody who is reasonably intelligent and has some physical skills will say "Wow: that feels odd": so they know it too. When you meet somebody who doesn't have a vestige of that, I don't care how many forms he knows, techniques and applications that he does, if he's not able to manifest that, he doesn't use Internal Strength.
In my getting support for that over the years, there have been a number of Chinese who are recognised as being really good who have recognised it the same way as I do. They sit there and just like me they watch somebody - at a certain level, you don't need to really touch somebody, just watch them move - and the question is always in their mind: "does he have this form of strength or not."
How about "Internal Martial Art"; what's your definition there?
Well, what it boils down to is the unusual form of strength
that's used. The conventional way of saying this was that the internal martial arts all
use "Qi" or "Jing" instead of "Li" (muscular
strength). It was a big breakthrough for me to realise that this didn't refer to the etheric Qi. I remember reading a book about Qi when I was about 18-20 and taking Okinawan Karate: the book had several sections about this kind of Qi and that kind of Qi: under the heading of "Martial Arts and Qi" Iremember it started off saying that "In the Martial Arts, Qi is best translated as ground strength".
There are peripheral strengths, but that's the core strength, always. And it's used in every movement, not just in an impulse hit: a lot of the external styles can do an impulse hit pretty much in the same way. The difference would be that someone who uses a pure internal art will use that in all of their movements.
This meaning of Qi isn't the one that most people would accept as traditional, is it?
It's now pretty widely accepted that unless you have a martial background in your Chinese, you really can't translate written stuff about the martial arts. At the time that a lot of the translations that we currently have to depend upon became available, nobody knew or understood that, so when "Qi" appeared, the assumption was made that the reference was to the etheric Qi. Since then, a lot of people have rested their weight heavily on that and believe firmly in it: yet, the two teachers who I've spent the most time with speak pretty functionally and mechanistically to me, and they're obviously carrying on a tradition within the training that they've had. One of them is a member of the Beijing Chen style society and one of them is a widely recognised martial arts master in China, so I think what you're calling "traditional" would fall more under the term "Western perspective": a lot of things have been glorified and mystified which are considered more straight-forward by the Northern Chinese in particular. Actually, one of my teachers uses terms that I don't like because they're too reductionist: where I will refer to Peng strength, a lot of times when he and I are doing things, he will say "Oh, yes, bring the leg strength here," and I balk at just "leg strength": he's more simplistic than I am!
Wang Xiang Zhai, the founder of I-Chuan, was also well known for talking in terms of force vectors and so forth in exactly the same way, saying that most people are distracted by all the talk about Qi and nine thises and five thats and he went right to it. So I'm not setting a precedent, I'm following a precedent: it's an unusual one but the results that are gained from it are fairly obvious to anybody who has taken a look at it like that. It's not that I'm a good talker, most of the people who have been to workshops maintain their own style of practice: they take this information because it's functional; they'll use it the way they want to, and the logic of it is fairly inescapable.
A lot of respected Taiji practitioners, including yourself, have extensive prior knowledge of the harder, more obviously martial styles. Is that a good route to Internal Strength in your view?
Well, in a sense that somebody coming into the martial arts has a lot of questions and a lot of grey areas that they don't know about, so they spend a lot of time nosing into those or not being sure and following false trails. Somebody who has previous experience can set aside a great portion of the things which would distract him and go right to what he needs to, and I think that's the key. Somebody who's already fought doesn't have the worries and the doubts about themselves, they've already done all that, so they are not distracted, they go right after what they want.
You know, Taiji has often been presented as sort of a soft, slow-moving choreographed thing and mainly for that reason it hasn't attracted many martial artists to it: it's attracted people who are looking for the 98 pound weakling beats the 200 pound bully situation. Because those people all lack exactly the experience you're talking about, they waste inordinate amounts of time chasing peripheral issues that aren't germane, and the generally low level of Taiji reflects that.
You've said many times that what you do in the workshops is not high-level material, but more at the level of fundamentals. If that's true, why can't everybody do it already?
It is fundamental material, but it involves changing the way the body moves. The Taiji form is done slowly to retrain the way the body moves. At the workshops you see people realise, on a functional level, how to do that - and then they go home and they realise that this means they've got to change everything they were doing: and they can't do that, or they can only do it at best partially. It's very difficult to make a radical change like that: and yet, there are always the small few who catch it, take the time, devote themselves and work it out, and they become our next generation of good people.
What do you expect somebody to learn from a workshop?
How to move in fairly rudimentary ways using Jing, or ground strength, to move things outward and pull things inward, lift things up, or to use closing force slightly downward, and that all movements are some aspect of those four directions. With that, they've got their foot in the door.
Why in general don't you run workshops concerned with higher level material?
The first level is to learn how this movement works. Then, when your movement is correct, you should start worrying about techniques, applications and adding peripheral strengths or overlaying strengths to it. To do it before that is a waste of time.
Isn't this just Chen style evangelism under another name? How style-specific is the stuff that you're doing here?
Not a bit. I've had Cheng Man-Ch'ing style, Yang style, Wu styles, Karate, Arnis, Aikido people, Wing Chung people, and in no sense have I proselytised. They all go back and continue practising what they're doing: there's no evangelism at all. I would say that people that come to the workshops - and there have been a large number of them - aren't swayed by my glib tongue: they get results, and they're unavoidably the kind of results that have been talked about and written about for a long period of time. I think that a lot of people leave a workshop and then go home and furiously work on these things and never even think again about me: so it's not evangelical in that sense, there's no messiah involved, it's like shop talk: this is how it works, they look at it and see that yes, it does work: then they go and do it.
Does everybody take the material on board to the same extent?
In my experience, the people who do best have actually been Chinese, and/or Chinese-Americans, who have enough of a background in the vernacular of the martial arts and the histories of the stories that they are not confused and lost with the peripheral issues. They see what's going on and they approach it quite logically, so they tend to be the best. After them tend to be people who are athletically well co-ordinated and yet have had no martial training. Everyone else to some degree has great difficulty in overcoming the habits that they've trained over a period of time: that's part of the rationale behind the saying that "Taiji is easy to learn, but difficult to correct".
Basically, at a workshop, I lay out how to do things. People can do them: there's no escaping that they work. The logic is that either this is how it really works or I have stumbled on, by myself, a third system of movement that is just as effective: I'm not that much of a genius. So, I lay it out but I don't say much to anybody personally. Some of them know it: they suddenly know that they've wasted time. I did: at a certain point I realised that as beautiful a form as I did, and as much as I was learning at push hands and so on, I wasn't doing Taiji. I had to stop and go back to absolute scratch. Actually, that's one of the reasons why I don't teach a local class right now: it was horribly brought home to me that I really didn't know enough to be teaching Taiji and I thought, well, I'll spend the time learning. But generally speaking if people have done Taiji for a long period of time, the statistical majority won't change: it's just against human nature.
Too much invested in what they already have?
Yes, exactly. In some cases, there are a lot of things that are dependent upon what they're doing: status, pride, but in some cases it goes up into economics too; this may be one-half of their livelihood or something. So I don't say much: I show them, they can take it and do what they will with it.
Why isn't this material more widely known in the West?
The real problem is that the amount of knowledge available in the West is quite small, and many of the people who have come to the West weren't necessarily that well schooled themselves. In many cases Chinese teachers were assumed, because of their ethnicity, that they should know but in many cases they didn't: that's done much to obscure what really goes on and keep Taiji and the other internal arts at a much younger stage than most people realise. You hear often: "I've taught for twenty years"; but it doesn't matter, if they didn't really know what they were teaching for twenty years, the twenty years doesn't validate teaching stuff they don't really know. That's true of Chinese as well as Westerners: just because someone's Chinese, it doesn't mean that they know; or because they studied with a certain teacher, doesn't mean they know. That sort of knowledge is kept within reasonably closed circles.
You emphasise results, but presumably not results at any cost: how does somebody distinguish between the right kind of results and the wrong kind of results?
It's just like any other thing, you need to have a qualified teacher: and that's not necessarily the one you're studying from right now. If it was me, and I wanted to validate what I thought were goals and results, I would go - and I have done this - to Chinese who are recognised in mainland China as masters.
How do you think someone should go about assessing a teacher?
One method you can use to tell whether someone is really trained to do an internal martial art or not is pretty straightforward: they place their fist or palm on your chest, and then hit using their waist without their shoulder or hand moving back. It's not a 100% guarantee, but it's a pretty good indicator: if they're good, they should be able to do it no problem. If they can't do it, they shouldn't be teaching: it's a simple "teacher test".
Also, people shouldn't be too influenced by what big people can do: like some other teachers, I'm a fairly big guy, but so what? You should always judge a teacher by their smallest student. I've trained a 135 pound guy who could hit me hard enough in the "teacher test" that I didn't want to get hit again because I didn't need any damage. And with a 135 pound guy, that's mostly the training.
Some people would say "it's not Taiji unless it's martially applicable". Others look at discussions about ground paths and Jing and say "that's really martial stuff we're talking about here, and that's not really required if what you're interested in is health".
It's easy to come up with quotations from people like Ma Yueh Liang, Feng ZhiQiang, Chen Fa Ke, Yang Zhen Duo and so on, all saying in essence that Taiji is 99% Peng Jing. If you don't understand that, and you don't know how to really do that through all of your movements, then you're not doing an internal art: it's not Taiji whether it's martial or not. So, until you learn how to manipulate and use basic Jing, whether you do Taiji for health - which is mainly what I do, I don't worry that much about fighting - or whether you do it for martial arts, you don't have Taiji. So, it's not a criterion for doing martial arts to use the Jing aspects, it's the basic criterion for doing any internal martial art. If you don't know how to do that, or you don't do it full time, but you have a pretty form, you're not doing an internal martial art.
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