Dan Harden

“It’s already over. It’s done.”

Very very sweet. I’ve done two seminars with him. He’s the real deal.

And yeah, he catches flak like nobody else.


I’ve started the video just before Dan starts demonstrating. If you can’t see or don’t get what he is doing when he is “filling the hand”, everything that comes after will probably look fake. It’s not.

Everybody wants a teacher that has gone beyond technique; fewer that can recognise one.

From Rum Soaked Fist:

But seriously – can somebody please show Dan how to do an armbar (he calls it an ‘elbow lock’)? Excuse me for being trapped at the level of technique, but that is simply terrible technique being demonstrated.

Whatever Dan has, I want it.

Many talk of Chi,  few know what they are talking about. Fewer still actually use it.

Dan Harden

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ndydx1Fzajs]
I spent this past weekend at a Dan Harden seminar. It may be the only video on the web with him in it. And it was enough to get me to attend, because it was enough to get my teacher to attend.

Compare it to this fight scene with Donnie Yen using the spear, who I hear has some real, not wushu, skill.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AeeoEpmyb2Y]
The difference is, Donny Yen is using a wax wood staff spear, the staff Dan shakes is red oak.

This is the second time I’ve been to one of his seminars. The first time it was like trying to drink out of fire hose. If you can do it fast enough you won’t drown. This time it didn’t make my head hurt, just my thighs.

If the two seminars I’ve attended are typical, then he pulls a nice but diverse crowd. There were lots of Aikido people, it being an Aikido dojo, some Systema people, some Chinese internal martial artists, a few with arts I’ve never heard of, and lastly some karate people arriving late on the last day. I thought Dan was going to kick them out, but he’s friends with the head of their art, so it was all good.

The best I can compare it to is the “Principles Course” I took at Cheng Hsing in the 1980’s, except the advanced version, amped up, on steroids. One of the things I like about it is that he isn’t teaching technique, he’s teaching body mechanics that can be applied to any art. Plus he sings.

Highly recommended.

Side Note: the second dojo in the video is Aikido of Diablo Valley, which is closing. You can get a better look at the inside here. Rick Rowell, who is 86 and getting married next week, started it in 1981. The wall in both the video and the picture is interesting because it is shrine to an idea, if not a man. It clearly had a presence in the room.

At one time I wanted to do Aikido, and thought about going there, but decided it was too far away. Instead I did Kajukenbo with my oldest son, which is about as different from Aikido as it is possible to get. But have  attended various seminars there over the years. I am surprised to find out how much I love that place, having never been a formal student, only in retrospect.

One of the things I lover about Rick* is that he is wiling to learn from whoever is out there and good. May I be both as gentle and as bad ass, and concerned about marriage, when I get to 86 as he is.

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Push Hands in the Park

After being away for almost exactly a year, yesterday I want to Berkeley to do push hands in Ohlone Park. After playing with one Chinese gentleman, I approached this man.1

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vKylqLfd66o]
We talked some while playing. He was saying that it’s important to remain relaxed in Taiji (too many in the park aren’t). About 40 seconds in I ask him if he has met the first gentleman I played with. He hadn’t, and sounded unsure about him since the other gentleman didn’t really do Taiji. He does Bagua and Baji, a Bagua lineage holder, if I got that right, and his Baji may be better from what little I felt (he fajined on me a couple of times, one a very sweet shoulder stroke). I assured him that the other gentleman was very nice, though new to push hands, worked to not hurt his partners.

Shortly afterwards we stopped and they got together.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AaNllCrJhhc]
It wasn’t very long before there was a group of four or five senior (senior mostly in skill, but they weren’t young either) in a group talking and showing stuff to each other. There was a moment when the competition took it a little closer to a fight, but it quickly settled down.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zIJqTk9722k]
It kind felt like a group of Italian gentlemen playing bocce, only they can fight2.

It was a good day. Without it being obvious I believe my skill level has increased since a year ago. But mostly it felt good to meet new acquaintances, and connect with more familiar faces.

These videos were all made by John Wei, who was in the push hands seminar with me last month. He is not as loose or relaxed as the gentleman in the first video, but in the seminar we did an exercise where we tried to do simultaneous opposing uproots (uproot wars?). He was like a rock. I quickly gave up the idea of ever going head to head with him.

Here he is with Coach Zeng. Coach Zeng is on the left, and John on the right.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ch-XIMcUm6k]


1. If I’m bad with English names, I’m awful with Chinese names. I’m sorry to say that I’m not sure I could reliably pronounce his name, forget about spelling it.

2. Some of those Italian guys can fight too. My guess is you might be surprised at the amount weapons that come out if you tried to disrupt some bocce ball. Kind of like picking on elderly Filipino gentlemen.

Coach Zeng Xiangbo 曾祥柏

This is what Americans think Taiji looks like. Or maybe I should say Tai Chi.1

Patrick Swayze Tai Chi

Patrick Swayze doing Tai Chi in Road House.

Patrick Swayze is a wonderful dancer, and his Tai Chi (I refuse to use the term Taiji) looks like it. His energy is up high in his chest, his muscles are all taut and well defined, and his arms are moving completely separate from anything below his shoulders (and questionable about the shoulders). But I’d do him, if I swung that way.

Which is pretty much the point.

Coach Zeng Xiangbo2

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NUtGXqtdvLg]

I love this video. They start off with his basic movements. He is reasonably gentle with his partner. You see him repeatedly get the beginnings of an arm lock (or what could turn into an elbow break), but gives it up. He does a few uproots, but always holds onto his partner so he doesn’t hurt him.3 And every so often he will turn and look at the camera to see if everybody’s getting it (e.g. 1:28 into the video).

The seminar I attended with Coach Zeng was put together fairly quickly. He, unlike many teachers, uses push hands to teach Taiji to beginners. Some of the participants looked like they were beginners to the form, and probably had never done push hands before. Others, I can attest, had been doing it for years, and still needed help on the exercises.

The best part of his teaching, was his patience feedback on how I was doing. He took an exercise (constant bear?) that I had known about for decades, upgraded the skill level desired, and then gave moment feedback on what I was doing wrong, and stayed with it until I did it right.4 And he did this with everyone in the seminar on most of the exercises. He is much more into training than most teachers I have met.

Push hands is not fighting, but it is the iconic Taiji partner/relationship practice to develop fighting skills. And it was obvious that Coach Zeng had fighting skills if he needed them. One of his stories was that when he was teaching in Slovakia, he was working with “karate” (perhaps Systema) guys. Every time he would start to get in close they would have a fear reaction and jump away.

Coach Zeng isn’t the best at doing push hands that I’ve seen, but that still makes him a hell of a lot better than almost everybody I know. And he is the best that I know that is willing to work with beginners (well intermediate dilettantes) like me. And he has in spades what is lacking in American Taiji.

P.S. As far as I could tell he doesn’t speak a word of English, but his lovely assistant Gace did. Here he and Grace are doing a demo at Ohlone Park in Berkeley.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JmmdqI1EMTc]


1. Somewhere between the time I first got interested in internal Chinese Martial Arts (CMA) and now, the world changed on how it romanized the Chinese language. It went from Wade-Giles, to Pinyin. This is how all my reference books referred to Peking, but I kept reading about this city Beijing in the news. So the martial arts I knew as Tai Chi became Taiji, Pa Kua became Bagua, and Hsing I became Xingyi. The advantage of Pinyin is that an untutored westerner will read it closer to how it’s actually pronounced. And in my case, closer is probably not all that close.

Coach Zeng Xiangbo

Coach Zeng Xiangbo

2. When I mentioned that the only videos of him that I could find on the web were from Slovakia, the organizer of the seminar said that Youtube had more if you put in his Chinese name. Since I’m illiterate in Chinese, that didn’t help me much. I did get his assistant to write it down for me.

And I found his facebook page (silly me, everyone has a facebook page now days). This is what I got: 曾祥柏.

3. In the seminar I asked him if he would do a large uproot and not hold onto me. He agreed, then grabbed me anyway because I was going to hit the video camera and person behind it.

4. If I read the itinerary right for the seminar we were going to that exercise, which is a thigh killer, at the beginning ot the two days. I think he looked at our group and decided to put it the end, rather than burn everyone out at the beginning.

What is Religion, Part 1

I did Taiji in my mid-twenties, and then took up internal Chinese martial arts again about ten years ago. One of the guys who show up occasionally to do Xing Yi, Bruce, is primarily focused on teaching Aikido. One day we got into a discussion about how Ueshiba’s “crazy” religious beliefs, that came from an offshoot of Shinto, Oomoto-kyo, might actually have had something to do with his skill. And whatever you may think, or not think, about his skill, it was enough to impress a country that had more than a few skill full martial artists.

At this point I would like to introduce the idea of “closed door student”. I do Chinese martial arts, which comes from a mostly peasant background, versus Japanese martial arts, which mostly come from a noble and warrior class background. But I’m pretty confident that both have a history of reserving the “good stuff” for a few close students, and perhaps only family. Some of this was crass, you didn’t want to give the valuables away to strangers; and some of it wasn’t, it would just confuse everybody if you tried to teach the more advanced stuff to dilettantes.

So I have a problem with the idea that we know what Ueshiba believed, unless one has a direct oral transmission originating from one or more of his closed door students, or other intimates. But I also think it is indisputable that he had such beliefs, and that he thought they had an actual effect on his art.

I practice in the morning. I never forget to pray to the eastern sky and to all four directions in order to merge with the Universe. I have been told there is only one Creator in this world. I assimilate myself with this creator. Always. Then I perform ascetic practices every morning and evening. I don’t mean pouring water over my head. I pray to the eastern sky and, for the sake of harmony, salute all of creation and the divine spirits. I would like to live a good life as a man and a Japanese. Then when I look back, I would like to send a message to everyone, although I don’t know if it is possible, and pray for the peace of [the] world.

I could go on about how the Oomoto-kyo beliefs might have affected his martial arts, but I don’t know, and would be purely speculating. But he obviously thought it did, and he is the one that would know.

My contention is that if you are espousing a religion in order to make the next life better, you are probably fooling yourself. If your religion can’t help you in a fight, get out of a fight, or end a fight*, in the ring, on the street, at a dojo, your work, or home (not all fights are physical), then you probably have a belief system or guru, not a religion. If it is not helping you now, how can it help you later?

What is Religion, Part 2
What is Religion, Part 3

*Obviously we don’t adopt religions to end fights. It’s just a really good example of when things get real, metaphysically speaking.