AN INTRODUCTION TO TAI CHI

(This is the transcript of a talk I recently gave at the workshop conducted in Sydney by Dr Paul Lam. Some people asked me for copies, but Iíve put it on this site instead).

I want to talk mainly to the beginners here this morning. I know we have quite a few people that are fairly new to tai chi, and we even have some that are getting their first tantalising taste. Iím going to give you a little bit of history, and weíre going to have a look at some of the ideas behind tai chi. I still remember when I first started I thought everyone doing tai chi was learning the same thing, so itís really great that youíre able to come to a place like this and see so many different things happening. To me it was quite a revelation and actually quite confusing when I began to realise just how complex it all is.

If you ask a group of people what tai chi is to them, youíll often find thereís a remarkable diversity of opinion. Some people will tell us itís an almost mystical experience steeped in eastern concepts and Taoist philosophy. Some would call it a moving meditation. Others insist itís a very effective martial art, and yet thereís also people who would tell us that tai chi is just a fun way to get some gentle exercise!

When I first started I thought tai chi was purely for exercise and health and nothing else. But after a while I started having trouble understanding a lot of the things I read. I think what intrigued me the most was if tai chi is a moving meditation and a philosophical thing, why did everything I read talk about defeating an opponent? I remember I got up early one morning and went to a park in Cabramatta, here in Sydney, and I watched all these people practising. The first thing I noticed was that all these different groups of people were doing different things, and the second thing I noticed was, that I didnít recognise any of it! I remember that well because it was the first time I understood not everyone learning tai chi was doing the same thing. I was particularly struck by 2 people who I realised were actually practising ON each other, and not just WITH each other. When they were finished, I went up to them, and I remember I said something like "I know tai chi is based on a martial art"Ö..well, the teacher just looked at me and said simply - "tai chi IS a martial art". Up to then Iíd thought of the movements as being simply relaxing and meditative, yet this guy was telling me, even showing me in his practise, it was a martial art.

I think the first step to understanding it all is to have a bit of a look at history. Unfortunately itís not easy to get to truth about the real beginnings of tai chi. Chinese history is shrouded in myths, and it can be really hard sometimes to tell the fables from the facts. There is for example a wonderful story about a Taoist priest, who also happened to be a martial artist (with all the obligatory superhuman powers), called Chang San Feng. Heís placed anywhere between 8th and the 15th centuries, depending on what version of history you read. But no matter what century, the storytellers all agree on the tale itself, that one day, Chang watched a fight between a snake and a crane. He saw the snake recoil to avoid the craneís attack, then use that same recoil to launch itís own attack, and he watched how the crane would use itís wings to softly cover the snake. Chang was supposedly inspired by his insight into the possibilities of yielding, pliability and softness and a new martial art was born called Tai Chi Chuan, which means when itís translated the Supreme Ultimate Boxing System.

Most serious historians nowadays tend to discount that story and attribute the beginnings of tai chi to a man called Chen Wangting. During the 1670ís Chen developed several martial art routines in what was to become known of course as the Chen style of tai chi. Chen is therefore the original style, and when you watch it you can get a better appreciation for some of the martial art techniques involved. Youíll see more of an emphasis on spiral force, a mingling of slow movements with fast, and hardness mixed with softness. It also has explosive power and low stances.

Tai chi is actually classified as one of the soft internal schools of martial art. That means it uses relaxation, and those ideas of yielding, of spiral force, and softness, (like the snake and the crane), in contrast to the hard external styles like kung fu and karate that rely on brief moments of brute force. There is a passage in the Tao Te Ching, a classic book of Taoist philosophy, that says Ė "nothing in the world can be compared to water for its weak and yielding nature; yet in attacking the hard and strong nothing proves better than it. The weak can overcome the strong and the yielding can overcome the hard".

I know itís hard to understand how movements done so slowly can be effective for self-defence. The slow movements we know as tai chi are called the solo form, but theyíre just the first of many steps you have to go through to learn the martial art. By the time youíre able to use the moves in a fighting situation, youíre not moving slowly at all, but what you are doing is applying the principles you learnt by practising the solo form slowly in the beginning. So, the man in the park in Cabramatta was right - tai chi was, and still is to a lot of people, a martial art. But, itís also true that people have recognised the health benefits of doing the movements, and these days most people only learn this side of tai chi Ė the solo forms. In fact I think itís fair to say that many students these days, like me in the beginning, donít even realise that what theyíre learning is also a martial art.

After Chen Wang Ting it was really quite a long time before there were other developments in the story of tai chi. It wasnít until the early 19th century that a man called Yang Lu Chan developed his Yang style of tai chi. Yang originally learnt the Chen style, firstly by spying on the Chen family while they were training, and then convincing the family to let him learn the rest of the movements. Yang Lu Chan later modified the Chen movements and created his own style - Yang style - which has more gentle and graceful movements and is done in a slow continuous rhythm. Itís probably the most popular style of tai chi in the world today.

There are 3 other major styles of tai chi, the 2 Wu styles that share the same name but are totally different in the movements.

(In fact one of the Wu styles is also known as Hao style and is being taught here at the workshop by Peter Wu). The youngest of the major styles is called Sun style and it was developed in the early 1900ís. Each of these styles is different in the way they move, and of course within each style there are a lot of different forms and variations on the theme.

Ever since Cheng Wang Ting started all this, thereíve been countless articles and books written expounding the theory of tai chi. Some of these were written by the early masters and have come to be regarded as the "tai chi classics" containing all the basic principles of tai chi. The one thing that all these different styles share, is that they all adhere to these same basic principles.

The cardinal rule and principle in Tai Chi is relaxation. You canít be totally relaxed of course or youíd be lying on the floor instead of standing up doing tai chi. But being able to relax in a controlled way, especially at the shoulders, elbows and chest is the cornerstone of Tai Chi's approach to the avoidance of an attack Ė the martial art side of it again. To be relaxed enough to be able to yield and deflect someone elseís force, then come back and use that force against them. Thereís a saying in tai chi, about a force of a mere four ounces being able to deflect a thousand pounds. You know, if you do a stress reduction course one of the first things you do is practice relaxing the muscles. So, itís partly the learning to relax and reduce the muscle tension that lets tai chi act as a stress reducer, which is one of the main reasons many of us do it these days.

The second principle is the idea of being able to show whatís called emptiness and fullness, or yin and yang. This is a really intriguing and very fundamental idea of eastern philosophy. Yin and yang, the interplay of opposites. In tai chi when we talk about the ability to distinguish between yin and yang in the body we mean the idea that yang is hard, or full, and yin is soft, or empty. A leg is yang when the weight is concentrated there, and the other leg is yin. When youíre yielding you must be yin but when you turn to attack, you change to yang. The upper part of the body above the waist should be empty and yin, while the lower part is solid and yang. There is another saying, when the upper part of the body is relaxed you canít be pushed or hit because you become like a blade of grass in the wind. When the wind blows grass yields.

The form should be done evenly and slowly, it must flow continuously without pause or interruption and there should be no stopping. It is often likened to pulling silk from a cocoon, if the flow is interrupted the thread will break. This evenness develops continuous force rather than a sudden and dramatic outpouring of energy, and it develops exactness, better balance and patience. Itís also harder to do the movements slowly because it requires more muscle control, so the slower we can learn to do it, the better it is for us.

We have to maintain proper posture to keep as balanced as possible. Your back and your head should be held up straight. Our heads actually weigh quite a lot and if you tilt your head off centre it can help to throw your body out of balance. So, again from a martial art point of view, if your balance is not right you can be easily uprooted by your opponent. The way to achieve proper balance is mainly through posture and footwork. It is really important that you pay a lot of attention to what your feet are doing, how you step and how you shift your weight. The main reason for this attention to detail is really because of the martial applications again. But itís also true that the way we move in tai chi, and having to keep the weight on one leg or the other for so long, helps to make it so good as an exercise.

The next concept is that of sinking and being rooted to the ground. Itís similar to being balanced, but really means that by being able to learn to relax and sink (and thereby lowering your centre of gravity to its lowest possible point) itís as if you become rooted to the ground, and thus extremely difficult for an opponent to unbalance. Sometimes youíll even hear a suggested visualisation that the feet are sending out roots like a tree. But, as it happens, the lower you sink, the harder your legs have to work, and the harder your heart has to work to get the oxygen to the leg muscles, so the better it is for you!

The body must move in a coordinated and centred way, as one complete unit. Just beneath the navel is a spot called the Dan Tien, and itís the main centre of the bodyís chi (or life energy). The movements should all come from that spot, and the arms, the legs and the head move in a coordinated way with the rest of the body. There are no isolated sections moving independently. The mind must also be coordinated with the body. If you are coordinated and centred, and the mind is totally focused, itís easier to maintain control of your movements and reactions.

So, the form should be done with total concentration, and you should be focused during your practise on learning to apply all these principles at the same time. But, itís this very concentration that makes tai chi so attractive to the modern player. Now we can see where the idea of a moving meditation comes from, not from just mindlessly doing the movements, itís from concentrating intently and solely on what weíre doing at the time, a total mind and body coordination. Anyone whoís tried to meditate will tell you itís not about sitting there and blanking out the world. Very few people have the ability to just sit and think about nothing. The rest of us mere mortals need to use something to focus on. Tai chi gives us that, and thatís what makes it a moving meditation.

Tai chi students are usually taught to breathe naturally and deeply, using all the lungs for a change, not just the top third or so like we normally do, and actually moving the diaphragm by pretending to breathe all the way down to the abdomen. Sometimes weíre taught that we should be breathing in and out at particular points in the movements. If thatís the case then generally the recommendation will be that you breathe in when you pull back or contract, and breathe out when you expand or strike. Iíve even heard it said that unless youíre breathing in the correct sequence youíre not doing tai chi. But I have to tell you Iíve also read that if you try to coordinate the breath to slow movements of tai chi you can do yourself physical harm! Now thatís about as yin and yang as you can get. Two completely opposite points of view, so, I tend to tell people that they should aim at deep slow breathing, but not to worry too much about it. Youíll find after a while your breath will coordinate itself to the movements all on itís own, so all you have to do is let yourself breath naturally, and donít stop!

So, thereís really no need for disagreement or confusion about what tai chi is at all, we just need to understand that itís a matter of a little bit of history, your own particular perspective, and what you choose to learn it for. Weíve seen that tai chi can be all things, it can be a martial art, it can be a moving meditation, it can even be symbolic and full of Taoist philosophy and sayings. Iíd like to think that sometimes itís ok for it to be just a fun way to get some exercise as well. It is important after all that we enjoy what weíre doing. Sometimes youíll hear people talk about "playing" tai chi. I really like the literal inference of that word that it is ok to actually play with the movements and not take ourselves quite so seriously sometimes.

Remember yesterday Paul spoke about seeing the magic in movements? Iím becoming more convinced that if we could just learn to let ourselves relax a little, and remember how it was to just play with movement again, weíd all be much closer to capturing a little magic of our own!

John Mills

 

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