Some years ago, not long after I started learning tai chi, I spent a number of early mornings in the park at Cabramatta in Sydney, just watching, and amazed at the great variety of exercises and tai chi forms that were performed there. I very quickly learnt that not all tai chi was the same, (until then I used to think that everyone that learnt tai chi was learning the same thing!)
One morning, I watched two people practising what was obviously tai chi, but they were working together in a way than I hadn’t seen before. They were practising "hands on" in a way that looked more like a martial art. I was intrigued and I couldn’t wait to talk to the instructor to find out what they were doing. When I got the chance I said something to him like: "I understand Tai Chi is based on a martial art…but". I think he was a little taken aback by my lack of understanding, and looking back on it now I suspect he was also a little annoyed that here was yet another person that didn’t really understand tai chi….he said to me, briefly, (and to the point), "tai chi IS a martial art!"
At the time I did not really appreciate what I was hearing. I have since realised that I owed a debt of gratitude to that teacher, because in that simple statement he gave me the explanation for so many of the modern riddles to tai chi, the questions about why do we do things the way we do. In fact I did get the chance to tell him this story, his name is Roman Czerniawsky, and his school is the Australian Thai Keik School of Tai Chi Chuan. Roman’s group, and Better Health Tai Chi Chuan, got together last year to celebrate World Tai Chi Day, and I met Roman again then.
These days I have an excellent book in my collection called "Tai Chi - the Supreme Ultimate", by Lawrence Galante. In this book Galante describes the process of learning tai chi for fighting. It’s important to understand that in the beginning Tai Chi was taught by a few masters to a very select few as a sophisticated and extremely effective fighting art. It has, at its core, the ability to be relaxed yet solid, to yield against an opponents attack and turn his energy against him, "to deflect a thousand pounds with four ounces".
"The classical sequence of study for the serious student", says Galante, is:
1. The solo form
2. Learning the application of the postures
3. Push hands (stationery)
4. Walking push hands
5. Ta Lu (2 person single movements)
6. Weapons forms
7. The Two Person Forms
8. Free Hands (free-style sparring).
A student who is beginning to learn this martial art concentrates at first on learning the solo form. He practises it slowly at first, so that he can perfect technique, coordination, balance and centering. He learns to relax and move with an attacking force. As the student progresses through the stages of learning he eventually comes to the last step - Free Hands - which is the ultimate stage of free sparring against an opponent. By this time of course his speed and reactions are lightning fast, but always applying the principles which have been so painstakingly learnt by doing the form slowly in the beginning.
Here’s part of an article I found on the internet about tai chi:
Tai Chi as a Martial Art
Very refined and sophisticated. People are "fooled" by the slow movements - that brings perfect body control, and when need for speed arises, it is there!
If one needs to learn to defend the self quickly, Tai Chi IS NOT FOR THEM. It takes a long time to learn Tai Chi fighting/self-defense; but, once learned, one can be a significant martial artist into very old age. First we must learn to relax mind and body - make them one ... body, without mind, is useless. Even if a person has black belts in other arts, they still must start from the beginning with Tai Chi. If someone tells you they will teach you Tai Chi self-defense "right away" ... run from that person - it simply isn't true ... they are fooling you and taking your money.
Tai Chi as self-defense can be quite deadly; little effort can cause much damage, so one must be quite careful when using it in practice/play. It is good for street-fighting as it is appropriate to the moment - "anything goes"; in other words, you can answer the attack of anyone when you know how. The Tai Chi player is like cotton surrounding steel.
No "colored belts" are awarded, as the competition is with one's self - to know another is wisdom, to know one's self is enlightenment. One who combats the self will be happier than one who contends with others.
Great strength is concealed within the flowing motion of the body, and cannot be detected. Not "show-off", but gain strength by remaining hidden (action hidden in stillness). Tai Chi is a self-defense, yielding, evasive art that seeks to neutralise aggression.
One does not surrender - but merely moves to a superior position.
Gain ability to defect, turn, avoid, ward-off and you'll be able to neutralize confrontation (physical and otherwise). Aggression will fall on nothing, as the Tai Chi player avoids and evades - the effect of the attack is lost; the Tai Chi player retains the "upper hand".
"Can you hit the wind, or grab a handful of water"? That is what it's like to deal with a Tai Chi player.
It is not difficult to understand why the slow meditative movements of the Tai Chi solo form, designed to teach the martial artist the foundations of his art, have such a wide appeal in themselves. It is beautiful to watch when it’s done by an expert, and the physical benefits that come from its practice are well documented. So, what was originally the first step in the journey of a thousand miles has become an end in itself. The solo form of T’ai Chi Ch’uan has digressed so far from its original path that today by far the majority of the art’s practitioners are only dimly aware that they are learning a martial art.
I’m not saying that this diversion of paths and the popularisation of the solo forms should be criticised. The popularity of Tai Chi and the improvement in health of millions of practitioners is justification in itself. But we often fall into the trap of mystifying it, and wondering why we do things in certain ways - why do we do Tai Chi so slowly, or why do we step in the peculiar way of Tai Chi. In forgetting the origin of the art we no longer have the same basis for understanding it. We have lost sight of the real purpose and the origins of Tai Chi, and we often confuse ourselves looking for deep and hidden meanings – when in reality the simple explanation always lies in the martial origins and applications of the art.