Tai Chi: 5 Things You May Not Know About This Gentle Yet Powerful Discipline
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Tai Chi is seeing increasing amounts of media attention. Not only for the all-round health benefits it can provide but more specifically for the art’s ability to improve balance and facilitate good cognitive functioning well into old age. As a result, many gyms and health clubs across the globe are now offering Tai Chi classes.
Whilst this increasing recognition and appreciation is well deserved, it is my concern that this martial arts discipline and its practice doesn’t become a watered down, simplified and commercialized version of itself in a bid to make it mainstream, provide instant gratification and cash in financially.
Since the 1960s, when a simplified version of Tai Chi was propagated by the Chinese Government, regular practice in the local park has been a matter of course for millions of people in China and many other Asian countries.
Prior to this time, Tai Chi was practiced as a martial arts by relatively few people and the myriad of mind/body health benefits seen as a natural consequence of learning to capitalize on and harmonize the natural attributes of the body/mind.
Master Chen Bing offers Sam some corrections
In essence, Tai Chi is a fascinating martial arts discipline that approaches training from a sustainable and intelligent angle. Instead of learning fighting techniques, the first port of call is to simply learn how to develop body cohesion.
Moving well, being at ease with one’s physical existence, being immersed in down to earth sensory experience and possessing freedom of mind and movement are vital attributes for life are the basic skills we seek to develop in Tai Chi and form an excellent base for growth.
Ultimately, this means that training is much more physically and mentally rigorous than most people might expect. Creating a relaxed, stable, balanced and connected body requires a lot of physical work; and you have to learn to calm and focus your mind, to pay attention completely, in order to succeed.
After 20 years of dedicated training and 10 years of full-time teaching, I would like to offer an alternative slant to the usual portrayal of Tai Chi, pointing out some things you may not have realized about this amazing martial arts discipline:
1. It teaches you how to use your body & mind as an integrated whole
Image credit: Taichichuan-wahnam.ch
The primary goal of Tai Chi training is to facilitate the unification of the body and mind as a balanced, connected and coherent unit. Functional coordinated movement training simultaneously allows the practitioner to discover how to move with maximum efficiency whilst building a body that is incredibly stable, resilient and yet as pliable as silk. Tai Chi appears ‘soft’ on the outside but over time builds a formidable hydraulic power so that the body becomes like iron wrapped in cotton.
2. It’s an old discipline, but not as old as you think
Often when people talk about the origins of Tai Chi it is in hushed voices and shrouded in mystery. The first reliable records of Tai Chi proper, however, take us back to Chen Village (Chenjiagou) deep in the heart of China, circa the early 1600s and cite Chen Wangting, the Ming Dynasty General, as the founder.
When the Ming dynasty came to an end Chen Wangting didn’t want to serve in the army anymore and decided to retire. Back in the village, he lived a simple life dividing his time between farming and developing what was to become Tai Chi. A highly accomplished martial artist with visceral unarmed and armed combat experience; he was also a scholar, widely traveled and well versed in Taoist theory.
Master Chen Bing demonstrates Single Whip
He cleverly combined all of his knowledge and experience of fighting, Taoist principles, and Chinese medical theory to create a new kind of movement system that was good for the body, the mind and effective for fighting/self-defense. Thus Chen Family Tai Chi comprises the mother source of all modern Tai Chi styles. My teacher, Chen Bing, is an outstanding Tai Chi athlete and martial artist, and a direct descendant of Chen Wanting.
3. What’s in a name - Taijiquan or Tai Chi Chuan?
Tai Chi or Tai Chi Chuan? Actually, both are quite an outdated translation and it is more accurate to refer to Tai Chi as Taijiquan although it might take a while for this to catch on in the west.
The word Taiji seeks to represent the never-ending relationship between Yin and Yang that is present in all things and particularly evident in the natural world. Quan means boxing or martial art and so Taijiquan can be thought of as the martial art with the theory of Yin and Yang as its basis.
4. It looks gentle & elegant but it’s not easy
Image credit: Atlantabg.org
There’s a saying that it takes ten years of proper training to grasp what Tai Chi is all about. While it’s true that anyone can learn Tai Chi, in my opinion, it is a difficult entry point movement discipline for people who haven’t exercised for a long time or who have physical limitations. A better alternative would be to find a good Pilates class in order to rebuild the body, improve proprioception and postural awareness.
5. From slowness & softness come speed & power
Image credit: Tambulimedia.com
Moving slowly is a training tool that allows us to make friends with gravity and develop connected strength, body coherence, and efficient body mechanics. Similarly, learning how to move softly, with minimal tension, gradually irons out the restrictions in the soft tissues of the body that impede the flow of movement, speed, and power output. As well as moving at a snail’s pace a Tai Chi adept should be able to exhibit lightning fast strikes that hit like a sledgehammer!
Liao Ji Yi Lu sample by Chen Bing.Video credit: Szczeciński Klub Taijiquan YouTube account
In Chen Tai Chi or Chen Taijiquan, which Master Chen Bing teaches, we have two forms Yi Lu (first road) and Er Lu (second road). Students learn Yi Lu first and here the majority of movement is slow and steady, like a long winding river, but with just an occasional fast movement to mix things up. Traditionally once proficiency in Yi Lu is achieved a student goes on to learn Er Lu (also known as Canon Fist) where the majority of movement is fast and explosive. However, we always refer back to the slower first form as a method to resolve any problems that manifest in our training. Ultimately, we want integrity, coherence, and composure whatever the speed.
Interested in taking up this soft yet powerful martial arts discipline? There’s no better way to do so than to sign yourself up for a Tai Chi training camp in China, the majestic nation where the practice of Tai Chi began!