Tai ChiThe power of connection, with Henry Akins

The power of connection, with Henry Akins

I like it when you can find those rare moments where martial arts seem to cross boundaries and blend into each other. I came across this video recently of Henry Akins explaining the concept of connection in BJJ, as taught to him by Rickson Gracie, and it doesn’t half remind me of Tai Chi…

There’s a lot of talking at the start, but he gets down to action at around the 4 minute mark and starts demonstrating rooting – something that you’ll find being practiced in most Tai Chi classes. These are what you’d see described as ‘simple jin skills’ or ‘jin tricks’ by a lot of Tai Chi experts. And they are what you are supposed to be doing in Tai Chi all the time, when you practice the form and when you do push hands. They’re the root (ha!) of classic phrases from the Tai Chi classics like, “4oz defeats a thousand pounds”.

In fact, a lot of people seem to think that these jin skills alone qualify something as being internal, which is why you see the descriptor, “internal”, being added to the name of a lot of martial arts, like ‘internal Wing Chun’ or ‘internal Karate’.

My take would be that, sure, these are an essential part of the internal package, but they’re not the whole enchilada. For instance, Henry is not doing anything particular with his dantien, and indeed, you don’t need to do anything in particular with your dantien to do these things. But these are still the first few steps to being an internal art.

As you know if you’ve read my blog for a while, I’m a BJJ practitioner myself, so it’s great to see somebody like Henry applying these principles to BJJ. I see it as a path to a version of the art that you can still do as you get older. I don’t think you’re going to be winning any competitions if you dedicate yourself to practicing these jin skills (the power and aggression of youth is pretty darn overwhelming to fight against in competition, particularly if it’s being done by dedicated athletes who train to a level the average guy with a job and two kids can only dream of). All I’m after is something that gives me the edge in friendly, hobbyist rolling and enables me to stay in the game and on the mat for as long as possible. “Do not go gentle into that good night”, as Dylan Thomas put it.

Push it, push it real good

In particular, Henry deals with one of the favourite subjects of Tai Chi – pushing. Henry pushes Bernardo, using power from his legs, not his arms – this is Tai Chi 101 – and then shows how to receive a push by aligning his body so that the push goes into the ground. He, (dare I say it?) tucks his butt, so that the force goes down his legs to the ground, rather than knocking him backwards. This is what you need to be working on in push hands when people push you. N.B. Tucking your butt does not mean adopting a forced and unnatural posture, it just means flattening the lower back and aligning the lower part of your spine with the upper, so that your bum doesn’t stick out.

What I like about this clip is that Henry, coming from a non-Chinese marital art, doesn’t use words like Jin and Qi – he just talks about alignment, relaxing and using the legs and ‘using the ground for support’. It seems much less mystical than the way it is typically presented in Tai Chi, and it goes to show that you can explain a lot of Tai Chi things without having to use words that are nebulous or hard to grasp for the Western mind.

But it’s really the concept of connection that Henry is teaching. As he says, a lot of the time in grappling what you want to do is connect to your opponent to use your techniques, and then learn how to disconnect from them when they try their techniques on you. He sees connection working in three main ways – and this is where I think Tai Chi teachers can benefit from his teaching –

  • Connecting within yourself,
  • Connecting to the opponent
  • Connecting to the ground.

That’s not a bad way to look at grappling at all, and I think it is a good way to help people understand that, when doing push hands, you can’t apply no force at all to the other person in a sort of noodle arms-display of rooting into the ground, because then you have no connection to them. If you move, they don’t move. Instead, you need to apply enough force at all times so that you are connected to their body and through listening (ting) you can feel when it’s time to break this connection too. Think of it a bit like an insect using the surface tension of the water to stay afloat.

Great work Henry, I would buy your instructional on Connection, if only it wasn’t almost $300. 🙂 But thanks for sharing that video above for free. I’ll have to wait for it to come into the ‘daily deal’ section of Fanatics, where they reduce the price. Osss!

If you haven’t already, check out my post on Jin Tricks and Mike Sigman explaining Jin. Both worth a watch.

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