Written by Morgan Buchanan.
I had already studied judo and karate when I first started Tai Chi. I was eighteen, had been in some fights and decided that aggressive attitude I was learning in karate class was getting me into trouble that I just didnít want.
I saw a Tai Chi demonstration at university and decided on the spot that it was the thing for me. I didnít know it was a martial art at the time. In fact that was one of the reasons I decided to take it up. It looked relaxing, graceful and was completely missing the machine gun, rapid fire quality of the karate moves I had been practicing.
Happy as a pig in mud, I started learning how to wave my arms and legs about in time to new age music. A few months later I was quite surprised to discover that Tai Chi was considered to be one of the premier Chinese martial arts.
At a guess I would imagine (thanks to mainland China) that Tai Chi must be the most widely practiced martial art in the world. Strangely, the majority of the people involved have little, if any, understanding of how to use it in a martial context.
Over the last eleven years my interest in Tai Chiís martial side began to emerge. Through form practice and talking with my teachers, I came to realise that Tai Chiís martial art was something very different from the hard forms I had been practicing in the karate dojo. Over the last 5 years Iíve divided my time between learning the cultural/health aspects of the art and trying to find teachers who have some of the martial skills and qualities described in the Tai Chi classics. Iíll tell you now, theyíre few and far between and my own journey in applying those skills is a slow and ongoing one.
For most people Tai Chi offers relaxation, light exercise, and a unique kind of moving meditation that helps to create inner balance. These are some of the premier treasures of the art and should be upheld for the value they offer the practitioner. However, because of the general interest in its healthy applications, Tai Chiís martial art is dying out. You might even say itís become an endangered species.
"So what?" you might ask, "I donít want to learnt to fight anyway. Push hands, sword, cutlass, pole, applications and free sparring, whatís the point when I just want to be happy and healthy?" My answer is that Tai Chiís martial training can help make you happier and healthier. There is a treasure trove of worth to be had in Tai Chiís martial training and the least valuable aspect of it is ability to defend yourself.
Thatís not to say that self-defence isnít a valuable skill, if it saves your life then you wonít be sorry you put in the time and effort, but along the way you pick up so many other benefits that you just wonít get if you only practice forms, chi kung or meditation. The Tai Chi curriculum is structured in such a way that by undertaking the martial training your form and meditation skills will automatically improve. Health and happiness follow suit.
Iíll endeavour to explain further but as this is only an introductory article, Iíll have to be brief on each point.
Tai Chi is a soft, internal martial art; more than that it is a Taoist martial art.
These definitions embody martial Tai Chi with some unique and amazing qualities.
These include :
Relaxation in the face of adversity - This is one of Yang style teacher Eric Fitzgeraldís favourite sayings. Itís easy to be relaxed when doing the form and listening to music. The environment is specifically shaped to allow you to relax and let go. But what about when the car breaks down on the highway in peak hour, or you have a $2000 tax bill because your accountant made a mistake, or theyíre thinking of making your position redundant at work? What happened to that nice, easy feeling? Well, if youíre like me then itís gone, quickly replaced by tension, stress and perhaps a headache.
Well at least it used to be like that, I still get stressed, just not as much and when I do suffer tension or a headache I have the tools to get rid of it much more quickly. One of the best things about martial Tai Chi is that you have the opportunity to test your Tai Chi skills with your fellow students under safe and relaxed conditions. best push hands exponents are the most relaxed. You can be as aggressive as you like and they just bounce you out.
Push hands, touching and testing lightly with a partner, adds just a little bit of stress to your load. Some people find it very challenging to make physical contact with another person on any level, others find it quite natural. However you react as an individual and on whatever level you approach push hands, it will highlight your fears and desires. What should you be relaxing when lifeís pressures hit you? The answer is fear and desire. In the body these manifest as tension, hardness, blockages, etcÖ.
If your Tai Chi can give you just a little bit of
pressure and teach you how to relax in the face of it, then you are
gradually teaching your body and mind to do the same when other kinds of
pressures are applied to you outside of class. Pressures take different
forms but the underlying quality is the same. By the time the pressure is
on you, whether youíve placed it on yourself or someoneís done it for
you, all you can do is decide how to react. The Tai Chi way is to relax.
Listening Skill- This is a skill that you pick up when learning push hands and applications. It is ability to listen with the whole body and mind to the other person. You learn to listen to their body, even detect their intention before they do something. Listening skill is one of the most important Tai Chi martial skills because so many of the other skills are built upon it. Without listening you canít stick, you canít neutralise, without listening you donít know when to attack. Once youíve got it in the body though, at whatever level, you can then start to apply it to your everyday life.
Since I started Tai Chi eleven years ago I havenít been in a fight, but my listening has saved me from quite a few. Listening is a kind of sensitivity, it allows you to read tensions, aggression and intent in another personís body before they manifest it on the outside. It lets you know when to get up and leave and when to stay and have another drink, itís the energy and alertness you need to apply the principle of common sense.
More importantly, listening helps you relate to others and find fault in yourself. Listening to oneís self is the hardest application of the listening skill in my experience, itís somehow always easier to see another personís faults but not your own.
The best place to begin listening is with the body and push hands is the best method. Somehow the difficulty of learning to listen to yourself becomes easier if the body can learn the skill first. body and its senses are the most obvious and basic way in which humans perceive the world around them. If you can teach the skill to the body first, it becomes easier to apply the same skill on an emotional and spiritual level. The body doesnít always want to learn new lessons though. Thatís when we need to exercise eating bitter.
Eating Bitter-To eat bitter is a Chinese expression that relates to suffering, wanting to quit and enduring anyway. If you undertake traditional martial training you will no doubt come to experience a little of eating bitter. Master Cheng Man Ching in his New Method of Tai Chi Chuan Self Cultivation says that most people donít like to suffer but sometimes in order to progress you have to endure things which you donít like. Breaking old habits and patterns takes eating bitter. The body is essentially entropic in nature, once it falls into a pattern and finds that it can survive from day to day it doesnít want to change. Eating bitter is the work you have to do to get it to move towards being a clear body filled with energy. Itís often a slow and painful process, and most of the real pain is in the mind. Like an iceberg, the body is the portion above water. It might feel uncomfortable but most of the resistance is locked up under the surface in old patterns of fear and desire.
Most modern classes, geared around relaxation and health, stay clear of the process of eating bitter. It scares students away and its not good for the bank balance. Most people like their result to be instant and easy. The Chinese concept of gung fu, a skill gained through effort, is seldom mentioned.
Youíll know youíre eating bitter when you are doing standing practice and your legs start to burn and your mind tells you to stop. Thereís no injurous pain, just discomfort and a lack of ease thatís getting louder and louder. You persist, eat bitter and discover that at other end of the monkey mind and the shaking legs is one of Tai Chiís best treasures Ė empty mind.
Empty Mind- Back to fear and desire. Fear has to do with the past, bad things have happened before and you are afraid that they might happen again. Desire has to do with the future Ė things that you hope to possess that will ease the fears of the past. Most people exist in the past or the future. The natural human state is to exist in the present.
The Taoist idea is to require only that which you need Ė food, water, shelter, community and some spiritual idea of something greater than yourself.
I have sparrows outside my study window. They jump about contentedly, feeding and playing. They live in the moment. If they are afraid it is in response to a threat, a moment later the threat has passed and they return to their proper nature. If they desire something it is essential for existence, a mate in breeding season, food, water, safe shelter, etcÖ.
This is the Tai Chi mind and the best application of the art.
No fear, no desire, just stillness in the midst of division. If you look at the Tai Chi symbol youíll realise that thatís what this art is all about and if you are willing to consider undertaking some of the artís martial training then you should know that, if taught well, it will only enhance your best qualities and give you an environment in which to practice your Tao.
In a self defence situation it is the empty mind that allows you to stay calm and react to the opponent without getting flustered Ė the tai chi martial ideal.
These are just some of the benefits that come from practicing the martial aspects of the art. You may have encountered some of them in your form training (empty mind for instance can be cultivated through repetitious form practice), but the martial way, should you choose to take up its challenge, will allow you to improve and extend these skills beyond the training hall and into your everyday life.
Morgan Buchanan has trained in Yang Style Tai Chi for eleven years.
His teacher is Cheng Man Ching lineage holder Sifu Law Lun Yeung (Bill Law). He has also had the privilege to study with Sifu Eric Fitzgerald of the Australian Thai Kiek Association, Sifu Earthstone Chu of the Zi Zai Kung Fu School and Yang Style teacher Sifu Yau Yee Kay. He trains in Zhi Neng Medical Qigong under Sifu Zhong Sheng.