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Substantial and insubstantial

Oh the yin and yang of it all!

The concepts of yin and yang are not mystical, but instead are very straightforward and refer to two things which are opposite but also have a relationship to one another.  That's it; no purple smoke and sparkles!  For example, the two sides of a coin are different, but the common relationship is the coin.  If we can see one side of the coin, it is logical to recognise there must be another side, and neither side can exist on its own.  When one side faces up, the other side faces down; and both exist simultaneously.


When looking to differentiate substantial from insubstantial in the form, or in partner training, then the same concept applies.  A simplistic example could be:  If I place my palm on the top of my partner's wrist, and they then lift their arm, the uppermost part of their arm could be called 'substantial' (from my perspective) as it is moving towards my contact on their arm.  Similarly, if I were to place my palm on the underside of my partner's wrist and they then lift their arm, the underside of their arm is moving away from my contact and therefore would be referred to as 'insubstantial' (from my perspective).  So perspective is also important here, because in the first example a sensible (Taiji) response is for my hand to become insubstantial and yield to their upward movement without letting it build up force.  Consequently, in the second example,  a possible Taiji response would be for me to stick and follow their upward movement; i.e. my part would be substantial.


There are other ways in which substantial and insubstantial can manifest, but the fundamental relationship is the same.


The opposite of the 'heads' side of a coin is not nothing and so it is also important to recognise that the opposite of substantial (i.e. insubstantial) is not nothing.  They are like two ends of a see-saw; when one changes, the other has a complementary change.


Paul Fretter, December 2021

A tongue-in-cheek guide to how NOT to teach

  • If you crave adoration, reverence and respect from others then you are not yet ready to teach. The class should not be relied upon as a crutch for a fragile ego.
  • If your students fly across the room, or fall to the floor at your feet without any apparent contact, then you are working with pre-programmed reactions to illusion, and not genuine function. There is no special invisible ‘energy’ to span the air that science has yet to discover. Examine the process carefully and honestly; educate yourself and your students.
  • If you want people to think you are clever, then talk cleverly but you will not be understood. If you want to be understood, talk simply, use everyday language and refer to everyday things in simile and metaphor.
  • I am just a person and I am also a teacher, but I am also human - a beginner in many ways - and still striving hard to better understand myself and martial arts. Maybe you will learn from me, but please do not put me on a pedestal. If you do, I will step down from it and kick it across the floor. I am just a person, like you.
  • Do you copy the mannerisms and imitate the demonstrations of a famous teacher? Do you dress the same? Do you secretly want to be like them? Sometimes it’s OK to mimic those whom we respect, so that we can learn from them and how it is to be “in their shoes”. But, at a certain point, you must become your own person with your own morals, ethics, principles and methods according to your character.
  • Oscar Wilde said “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery that mediocrity can pay to greatness”. Pay respect to those whom you respect, by standing on their shoulders and reaching higher, wider or deeper than mere mimicry.
  • Do you teach or do you preach?
  • Taiji and religion are different and entirely separate. Keep it that way.
  • When only one, or even none of your students turns up for a class, are you still motivated to train?
  • Do you demonstrate to show off your prowess, or do you show, explain and help students develop their own skill?
  • As your students improve, their questions will change and they will push your own level higher. If you teach honestly then one day they will probably surpass you. Good.
  • Putting others down does not raise your skill or reputation any higher. Aim to better yourself instead.
  • Don't take yourself too seriously!

Paul Fretter, Norwich UK. April 2021

On Collecting Lineages

Some people cite the names of teachers they have studied with, either in depth or only in passing, with the aim of promoting their own reputation, school or system. While it is polite to acknowledge the names of teachers whom you have studied with, it can be another thing entirely to claim a ‘lineage' for the purposes of promoting yourself or your own system.

Firstly, just because you have learned from a good teacher it does not mean that you yourself will be good, because skill and understanding is not inherited from your teacher and can only come from your own practice. You should not borrow the names of others merely to give your own system the appearance of credibility, and instead you should let your own skill do the talking.

Secondly, until you yourself have developed some of the skill and understanding of your teacher your relationship with them is in name only, and not in the art. This may take many years for the right communication and trust to develop, and cannot be achieved by learning from the teacher for a few days or weeks, even if sprinkled over a number of years.

Third, by citing many teachers, how can one person possibly have learned so much about each of their systems which themselves require a lifetime of study, and to then claim they understand enough to pass on their collective knowledge and cite them as pillars of their own system. This is self-delusional and also gives a dishonest impression to the public.

Fourth, if you have not learned sufficient of a teacher’s system to legitimately say your knowledge is representative, then it is not appropriate. This is equivalent to claiming a degree from a University, when you only attended a few of the early lectures and then left the course early.


Paul Fretter and Wee Kee Jin

Mind your own business

There are three basic components in partner training: My awareness of my structure and movement, your awareness of your structure and movement, and then the connection between us, manifested in how each of us perceives and responds to our relative changes in direction, position, balance, movement and contact.  It is important to draw a clear distinction between your awareness of your own structure and movement, and what you can really only infer[1] is happening to the other person, or of what they are doing, or are about to do.


In this article I attempt to explain why, even in partner training, our focus should be on our own structure and movement, and not on those of our partner.  This is mainly, although not exclusively, written for those who already have some experience of Taiji practice, and speaks from only a basic understanding of our own sensory and nervous systems.  It is my hope this will assist those who have an interest in the physiological aspects to appreciate the importance of the advice expressed in classes and the Taiji classics.


Download the full article as PDF from here: Download  or visit the Publications page 

[1] From to infer is “to form an opinion or guess that something is true because of the information that you have

A change is as good as a rest

Do you find that the more you try to relax and 'let go', the stiffer your muscles feel? Or perhaps when you try to make small adjustments, the rest of your structure is pulled out of alignment?

A change is as good as a rest.

You might be trying too hard! If you are working at the edge of your current ability, it can be difficult to know whether you are trying too hard, or not trying hard enough. Also, if we are impatient to feel a change or a 'result', it can be tempting to try and 'force' things to happen, even 'just' a little bit. Of course we have to try, and in our search for the optimal approach we sometimes do too little, and sometimes also too much.

The solution to this sort of problem sometimes lies within a deficiency in other aspects of your practice, which may be blocking your progress and will need addressing before you can move forward.

So, perhaps instead of struggling on blindly, or giving up in frustration, you could try a change in approach by working on other aspects for a while. For example, refining your balance and the maintenance of your alignment (centre of equilibrium) will make it easier for you to relax and, in due course improve your ability to feel your internal connections, leading to greater precision and effortless adjustment. Now you can return to your previous work, and move forward.

If we don't try hard enough, nothing is achieved.

If we try too hard, or are too insistent, then it leads back to stiffness.

Wee Kee Jin speaks about this, and so did his teacher (M. Huang Sheng Shyan). Wise words, I think.

Leon C. Megginson paraphrased Charles Darwin thus: According to Darwin’s Origin of Species, it is not the most intellectual of the species that survives; it is not the strongest that survives; but the species that survives is the one that is able best to adapt and adjust to the changing environment in which it finds itself.

Paul Fretter, Norwich, UK