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Bob Boyd - Bao Tak Fai Tai

As the Disciple of Grandmaster Ip Tai Tak and founder of the International Snake Style Association (ISSA), Bob Boyd ( Bao Tak Fai Tai) is teaching the Snake Style tai chi system world wide. If you would like to know more about organizing a snake style tai chi workshop in your area, please contact him here.


Torso Stretching

In my early years as a karate teacher and student, stretching was always an important part of my practice. However, when I began tai chi chuan training, there was little or no emphasis on flexibility. Practicing the tai chi form was supposed to be enough stretching to keep my body supple. This proved not to be true. By the time I began snake style training, my body was stiff from too much emphasis on low stances, and there had been no flexibility training to counter the low stance work.

When I first met Grandmaster Ip, his body seemed to be thick and strong and I thought he was built a lot like me. How wrong I was! Slowly, as I tried to follow his teaching, I realized that his body, especially his back, was extremely flexible compared to mine. He could do things that I could not do because I was too stiff. He gave me exercises to make my spine more flexible. Spine flexibility, he told me, would be necessary for snake style movement and, in particular, for “hollowing the chest and raising the back.”

Making the spine flexible involves making the entire core body flexible. In English, we call this part of the body the torso, or by definition – the central part of the body including the thorax and abdomen. The internal torso muscles, including the illio-psoas and the para-spinal muscles, must also be stretched so that they become as flexible as a bowstring.

The benefits of torso stretching are two-fold.  Increased flexibility of the torso brings health, vitality and strength to the practitioner, and allows the chi to move more freely from the roots of the feet through the Dan Tien to the back. The power of a flexible torso is necessary for the “hollowing of the chest and raising of the back,” the key to Yang family martial skill and power. As in all great martial arts, health and martial skill are two sides of the same coin.

It has been fifteen years since I began my Discipleship training with Grandmaster Ip. I have recovered from my stiffness, and my body is now strong and flexible thanks to snake style training. Longevity should not be measured in years lived, but in the youthfulness one feels in old age. As I enter my late sixties, I am forever thankful for the great gift of snake style tai chi chuan.


Yang Tai Chi: Correcting Snake Style Form


When I taught tiger style tai chi from 1985 – 2001, the teaching method was very simple. New students were taught the form, usually one move at a time. This was a long journey of many months, and it was always time for a handshake and congratulations when the student finally finished.

A second journey would then begin, as the student was corrected move-by-move through the form again, adding detail to the hand and foot positions as well as adjustments to the posture and stances. A student who wanted more training after this was introduced to the weapons and push hands practice. These form were also taught one move at a time and then corrected in the same manner as the tai chi form.

Corrections, corrections, and more corrections. Grandmaster Ip called this the “Teaching Style.” Students came to depend on, and look forward to, more and more corrections. Corrections kept them happy. This teaching method worked for years and years, but it came to an end when I became Grandmaster Ip's Disciple and I was taught the snake style.

Although the snake style form is also taught move-by-move to the beginner, it cannot be corrected in the same manner as the tiger style. The snake style is based on the Yang Family's thirteen principles. Principles cannot be corrected. They can only be improved by giving a student a better understanding of them. Much of this “better understanding” comes from oral teaching. I cannot correct “raising the back,” I can only help the student understand it better. I cannot correct “loosen the waist,” I can only make the student try to feel it better. Of course, I can demonstrate the movements myself, but the internal work is hard to see from the outside. This is how the Yang family kept the snake style hidden. Only the sharpest of students can see the difference between the snake style and the tiger style. Therefore, the Yang masters would often refuse to demonstrate their form in front of their students.

Oral teaching is a tradition that is as old as our civilization. It is the most effective way to present concepts and ideas. The use of parables, anecdotes, metaphors and comparisons are part of this tradition. The snake style is truly an “internal” system. It needs to be felt inside the student's body. My role as teacher is to help a student “feel” the internal dynamics of snake style. The external postures of tai chi chuan will continually become more exact and precise as the internal principles are understood and felt more deeply. This is how form is corrected in the snake style.



Yang Tai Chi: “Loosen the Waist” – a poor translation of a very important Yang Family Principle


The Chinese language, as most readers know, does not translate word-for-word into English or other romance languages. Chinese characters have multiple meanings, and the choice of meaning is based on the reader's understanding of the subject matter.

“Loosen the waist” is an example of a translation done by someone who did not understanding the practical application of the principle. Unfortunately, this translation has been accepted and repeated over and over again in publications about Yang style tai chi. The true meaning of this great principle has nearly been lost over time.

First of all, the term “waist” in English, is generally considered to be the belly area of the body. A large or small waist usually refers to the size of an individual's abdomen or “waist line.” Loosening the abdominal muscles would weaken the body's core strength and prevent the development of internal power. A trained tai chi martial artist needs a “waist” that can withstand blows, so a strong mid-section is a must.

The principle “loosen the waist,” refers to the lower back, which consists of the lumbar vertebrae, the sacrum and the coccyx and the surrounding mucles and connective tissue. The lower back often serves as the support system for body weight, and can become stiff over time causing back pain and injury. Weak abdominal muscles only add to the burden on the lower back. Internal core muscles should support the body weight and allow the lower back muscles to release and become supple. Then the spine can move freely without impingement.

There is an old saying in tai chi that “loosening the waist give power to the feet.” This is quite true. When the lumbar vertebrae, sacrum and coccyx are released in tai chi or chi kung, the feet can “root” to the ground when the kua is raised (or more importantly when the back is raised).

Loosening the lower back is difficult and requires deep concentration on the part of the tai chi practitioner. Breaking the habit of using the low back and buttocks for tai chi movement can only be achieved when the student can comfortably use “raising the back” to initiate tai chi movement.




Yang Style: The Truth About the Snake Style


 Since I introduced the Snake Style to the general public over ten years ago, and since the publication of my book: “Snake Style Tai Chi Chuan, The Hidden System of the Yang Family,” there have been many false rumors on the internet about the Snake Style.

Here are the facts:

  1. When I formally became Grandmaster Ip's Disciple in 2001, he told me that I could now learn the Snake Style. He said that the Snake Style was taught to Grandmaster Yang Sau Chung by his father, Great Grandmaster Yang Chen Fu, and that Yang Sau Chung taught it only to him. Now, as Master Ip's adopted son, I would have the opportunity to learn it.

  2. I have a copy of Grandmaster Ip's notes on tai chi. They are written in Chinese and were taken over the 28 years that Master Ip worked directly under Grandmaster Yang Sau Chung. When my Chinese student translated the chapter on the Snake Style, I found this quote in the introduction, and used it for the beginning of my book:

      Master Ip: “When I became Master Yang's Disciple in 1958, he privately taught me the secret Snake Style of tai chi. The Snake Style represents the hidden principles of Yang Tai Chi that strengthen one's kungfu and body. One snake form is equivalent to three ordinary forms.”

The Snake Style is a method of movement, not a singular form

There is also a rumor on the internet that Master Ip created the Snake Style and that it is done very low with angular body movement. This is not the Snake Style, it is Long Boxing. Long Boxing is part of the curriculum of the Yang family tai chi system. In 1985, I learned it from my first teacher who is a Disciple of Grandmaster Gin Soon Chu of Boston. It was then called “The Fast Form (or Fast Set).”

As Master Yang's adopted son (First Disciple), and a devoted martial artist, Master Ip was in a position to question certain moves of the Yang system that he did not feel were as effective as they could be. Master Ip told me that, although Yang Sau Chung agreed with him on many of these points, he could not make changes to his family's tai chi form. On the other hand, Master Yang gave Master Ip permission to modify the Long Boxing to suit his martial interests. From that point of view, the Long Boxing that I practice today is Master Ip's modification of the Yang family form, but it follows the same sequence of the Yang family “Fast Form” that I learned from my first teacher.

Long Boxing is a form, whereas the Snake Style is a method based on the principles of Yang family tai chi as written by Yang Chen Fu. These principles unite all of the forms that make up the curriculum of Yang family tai chi – including Long Boxing.

Myth – Snake Style is practiced low to the ground

Another misconception about the Snake Style is that it is practiced very low to the ground, therefore the name “snake style.” If this were so, I would think that a reptile like an alligator or a crocodile would be more representative of this kind of tai chi, as these animals are low to the ground and move in a straight line.

When the snake moves forward, it does so using a powerful coiling action of the spine from side to side. This same method of movement is used in snake style tai chi. Each movement crosses the center line (either right or left) when moving forward, backward or from side to side. This serpentine movement creates a strong root at the foot and a powerful disruptive force for unbalancing the opponent.

Answering the critics

Veteran martial artists, including tai chi practitioners, have long been aware of the secrecy common to Chinese martial arts clans. It is not unusual to keep the family “secrets” exactly that – secret. This is still true today, even in business in America. Does Apple freely exchange information with Microsoft regarding their respective technological innovations? I think not. Snake Style was a secret system of the Yang family.

When I began teaching the snake style, I was compelled to inform the tai chi world that this was the original Yang family system. I knew this information would not be received well by the established Yang style tai chi community, and in many cases it wasn't. But put yourself in my place – what would you have done? Once Grandmaster Ip gave me permission to teach the snake style openly, it was my obligation to teach it. It was an obligation not only to honor my immediate master, but to honor the Yang family as well, and it was an obligation to preserve the Snake Style for future generations.


Raising the Head (as if suspended from above?)


One of my German teachers recently asked me about the Yang Family principle of “raising the head as if suspended from above.” He was trying to understand this principle by working from above his head. This, I told him, was the wrong idea.

I have often criticized the common transliteration of the Chinese characters that represent the Yang Family ten (or thirteen) rules for practicing tai chi. Raising the head as if suspended from above is misleading. Every tai chi posture is built from the roots of the feet up to the top of the head. Only when the lumbar vertebrae are loosened, and the thoracic vertebrae are raised, can the cervical vertebrae straighten, completing the internal muscular connection from the feet through the spine to the occipital point of the head. Furthermore, proper raising of the head cannot be accomplished without the correct setting of the shoulders. 

Many tiger style Yang practitioners slump their shoulders forward and spread apart their scapulae in an attempt to “set the shoulders and hollow the chest to raise the back.” This is a very bad idea that will ultimately lead to problems with the shoulder joints and the cervical vertebrae. The shoulders must be set straight back atop the thoracic cavity. When this is done properly, the neck and head raise up naturally and correctly, the clavicle bones will be horizontal, the sternum will be positioned correctly in the chest and the scapulae will sit naturally flat against the back ribs.

Many of my senior tai chi teachers have complained that this shoulder position is very restrictive and tense. I tell them that the reason for this is that their upper back muscles, including the erector spinae, the latissimus dorsi, the trapezius, and the deltoid muscles, are too stiff. They must stretch these muscles and make them supple. This can be done through moving chi kung exercises. Master Ip developed many such exercises, undoubtedly realizing that many tai chi practitioners have tight backs that trap the free flow of the spine. When the back muscles become supple, the thoracic vertebrae can flex convexly, thus raising the back and naturally drawing in the chest. This will elevate the cervical vertebrae and lift up the head from below, not from above.