T’ai Chi Ch’uan – The Art of Being Lazy?

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How do you describe the Tai Chi Mindset?

Wu Tai Chi master Wang Peisheng said that when you have understood Tai Chi Chuan you become lazy.

How true isn’t this?!

Laziness is very much the attitude and expression of Tai Chi as a martial art. Tai Chi method is based on doing as little as possible to achieve maximum results. We don’t want to do more than necessary which means that we tend to not move more than necessary, not show more than necessary, not make more damage than necessary. We are a lazy bunch of people.

In teaching, I myself have used the word lazy to describe Tai Chi Chuan. If you believe that lazy has bad connotations, you might instead explain Tai Chi as a modest system. Its expression is not fancy, bold or extravagant. True Tai Chi is honest in its appearance and never shows off.

My first teacher used the word “nonchalant” to describe Tai Chi, a word that should not be confused with arrogance. Tai Chi is nonchalant because it doesn’t acknowledge the opponent’s aggression or strength. It doesn’t care how strong the opponent is or how hard he tries to punch. My teacher demonstrated this by letting me attack him however I wanted. He defended with no effort, like he didn’t care what I did and as he hardly looked at my direction. I felt humiliated.

When defending, Tai Chi acts like it handles nothing, one evades punches as it is nothing more than waving away a fly. The opponent though will feel helpless and confused. Though the Tai Chi practitioner seem to not care, not doing much as all, he feels as being a leaf caught in the wind.

Being on distance, the Tai Chi stylist shows nothing on the outside. Li Yaxuan said that if something is spotted, if the opponent suspects anything, then you should hold back and show nothing. And if the opponent believes that there is no threat, then Tai Chi practitioner attacks “from nothing” without anything being telegraphed or suspected. Master Li said this was the meaning of “Suddenly become visible, suddenly become invisible.” William Chen expressed it as “creating something from nothing, bringing something to nothing.” It’s suddenly there, it’s suddenly gone.

But even if nothing is shown on the outside, the Tai Chi practitioner is aware about everything around him, plans ahead and follows and adjusts to his opponent invisibly on distance. Tai Chi practitioners might act as lazy or being nonchalant. But Tai Chi is also fast, active and foremost pro-active. It will teach you timing, not only in self-defense situations, but in life as well. To do things when it’s necessary and to deal with problems when they are small, or to deal with things before issues have become problems. A good Tai Chi player might seem to do little and should be good in hiding his intentions. But in combat he (or she) follows an opponent on distance as “a cat about to catch a mouse” and “an eagle aiming for its prey.”

In life, through Tai Chi practice, I believe the practitioner should become very much aware of what is happening around him or her, and become able to easily adjust to circumstances. Maybe there can sometimes be an appearance of being lazy even in daily life, but this is in fact the expression of being in control of the situation at hand.

There is a story about a circus bear, if I remember correctly told by Jacques Dropsy. The bear was chained, standing on its two legs as a fencer was asked to attack with his sword. The bear stood there stable and parried each attempt using its paws lightly and with precision. What really impressed the fencer was that the bear didn’t even move if the fencer feinted or didn’t attack properly against it. The bear knew exactly what the fencer did, just as he could read the fencer’s intent just as good as looking at an open book. (ok, I know. Bears can’t read.)

I like the story of the circus bear very much. It depicts a great picture of the type of laziness that can be developed through Tai Chi practice. Be that bear.

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Conflicting Building Blocks? What to Learn and When

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Here, in an earlier post, I did a layout of what I consider the ten different steps of developing the Tai Chi body method, which is more or less the same as the stages of the development of Tai Chi in general. But there is a problem learning certain aspects that might seem paradoxical and hard to combine. I myself propose deep relaxation, treating relaxation as a skill that must be developed through correct practice instead of just “not tensing up”. But developing root through stance work and deep form practice is not relaxing. Another aspect that, at least in the beginning, is not relaxed is a quality or body skill as Changjin, or “long jin/energy”. This means that you need to learn how to make big movements. Not in the sense that they should be visually big, but large from the core and out. Some people call this “internal stretching” as you need to stretch out the movements from inside, from the center of the body, and out.

If you only focus on relaxation, changjin won’t be developed. If you focus only on rooting skills and changjin, your relaxation and sensitivity will suffer. If you don’t develop good rooting skills, you won’t be balanced enough to stay relaxed when someone tries to push you around or disrupt your balance. If you don’t develop Changjin, your fajin will lack. You might develop good following skills, but your “push” and ”punching power” won’t have good Tai Chi jin, which means that your weapons will lack in strength and power.

What this means is that developing these skills are quite different building blocks that require their own practice. But how do you put it all together when they might seem contradictory? Learning relaxation first can make it hard to appreciate building Changjin or “long energy” as Changjin movement is not very relaxed. If you build Changjin first, it might be hard to appreciate deep relaxation as practicing relaxation might mean that you might have to compromise structure and make movements smaller and more compact. So where do you start building and how do you make the other building block fit into the bigger picture?

There are various philosophies on methodology. Some people but not many propose a good amount of stance work and foundational practice before doing something else. Today many teachers start by teaching a form and won’t teach anything else before the form is fully learned. In my own view, learning form only is like carrying around an empty bag. There’s no substance in the form and very little of use.

Many people say that you should learn big movements first, than small. But most of the teachers proposing this view also believe in very relaxed postures. So how can you learn real Changjin if you do big movements but also relax as much as possible? There won’t be any internal stretching this way. What is large will stay large on the surface only and not become large on the inside. The transition from large movements to small will be pointless.

On the quest about where to start and what to develop first I don’t have a good answer myself. I have experimented with different teaching methods in general. One time I introduced shorter forms for beginners. What a waste of time, my time and theirs. I am not sure that a long form is the right answer as well. For the last people I introduced Tai Chi, I worked with short movements and drills, as well as simple stance work. This is probably the path I am going to stick with if I am going to continue to teach. But still, this doesn’t answer the question on these different building blocks. In my opinion, the focus of any teacher should be more about what foundational skills should be developed by the student and less about following a certain standard as a specific curriculum. This though is seldom the case.

In one way, I don’t agree with any too narrow view on what basic skill should be taught first. In fact, I do believe that learning rooting, relaxation, structure and also what I would refer to as different qualities of movement, always must overlap. But still, you always need a strong base. Rooting should in my opinion always be considered regardless what you do. Neither good relaxation, good structure or a skill as Changjin will be developed if the base is not strong. But in Tai Chi Chuan, the base and the balance of the whole body have specific functions. It’s not a dead or only a stationary balance we want to develop. After all, we are not learning how to become statues, but instead how to use it through movement and change. This means that you need to develop a functional rooting not only by stance and form practice, but also through different ways of testing the structure and balance of whole body. Where you start to learn might not be the most important part of the issue. But the human body is a complicated system, and whatever you try to develop or put in use, you still have both a lower body and an upper body. So you really need to try to consider several different skills or qualities at the same time. Or at least letting the development of these different building blocks, or basic foundational skills, overlap.

This is my personal view only, others may have different ideas on this issue. You are welcome to express your own personal opinion in the comments.

Why There’s No Continuous Movement Without Engagement From The Core

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Would it seem contradictory if I told you that Chen stylists are often better than Yang stylists on keeping an unbroken continous movement while performing their form? It probably would if you think about the suddenly outbursts of fast movements and stop-and-go actions in Chen forms. Shouldn’t Yang or Wu stylists be better when as many of them claim that the essence of Tai Chi is continuous unbroken movement, just as the classics state? Why then do I see so many practitioners and even long-time teachers stop or sometimes even stop and then speed-up in a transition from one posture to another? In my own view, as long as you don’t deal with dingshi, the form should be seemless, with no end or beginning of a posture shown visibly. Yet, I will stand firm in my statement that Chen stylists are often better on this.

Why? Because Yang stylists are sometimes not very good at initiating movement from the feet and from the core. Where I personally believe that Chen style has an advantage, is about initiating movement from the core, through Dantian practice and silk reeling exercises in the very beginning of their Tai Chi study. Often when you see that Yang and Wu stylists stop and go, this is a clue that tells us that there is no internal movement. The hand stops because the body doesn’t move. While Chen stylists keep their body moving through continuous coiling and rotating core action, many people from other styles move to a posture, stops and move again because they don’t keep the core active the same way. I would suggest that you, regardless style pay more attention on continuous internal movement than just do a transition from here to there. When performing your form, movement should not stop in the feet or legs, and the spine should keep on moving, coiling, rotating through waist and continuous open/close movement, coordinated directly with the feet and hands.

If you do like this, your form will gain spirit and an organic feeling of whole body movement. The whole body needs to come alive. Yet I see people who seem to be trapped in their bodies. Sometimes they move as big solid chunks where movement seems to be stuck, sometimes parts of their bodies never moves. And all of this keep being habits through the years without changing. Tai Chi Chuan should release your body, not trap it. Freedom of movement begins from awareness and movement on the inside.

Suggested related post on internal awareness

Building a Strong Foundation Through Partner Practice

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In Tai Chi Chuan, the foundation built by solo practice (jibengong, form, standing, dingzhi etc.) is evident and most practitioners who have studied the art for some time can easily say what it is. In a simple way, I could say that the foundation in Tai Chi is about whole body integration and coordination, building stability and balance (develop root), learning how to move from the core and centerline, and maybe a few other things worth mentioning.

However, there’s another aspect, foundation of Tai Chi as a martial art. I believe that people in general are not really aware about this or that they don’t really understand that the Martial Art has another side that can only be developed by partner practice. Push hands is fine, this often follow form practice. Most beginners start practicing simple push hands exercises early as it should be. And then we have techniques and methods as defense, parrying, attacking, punching, pushing, qinna, takedowns and throwing. But the practice in itself is not the foundation. You don’t build this foundation just by practicing with a partner if you are not aware of what you should focus on and try to develop.

First, even when practicing push hands or other combat drills and exercises, you should always carry with you and keep the integrity of the foundation you try to build in your solo practice, th whole body integration and coordination, balance (root), how to move from the core and centerline, etc. One aspect of partner practice is to put your “solo foundation” to the test.

The other side is the partner built foundation. Personally, I would sum up the qualities of this foundation as sensitivity, following, mirroring, filling in, as well as getting a sense of angle and distance. From this, there are some skills or jins developed, in Tai Chi Chuan expressed as tingjin, listening skill and dongjin, understanding skill (not to be confused with dong = “moving”). However, you don’t need to understand the names of the jins or care about them. These are qualities developed from the partner foundations practice. When you practice with a partner, always mind the the Tai Chi mechanics of body movement. But also be light, mind your sensitivity, follow with utmost precision, be always aware about the space and distance between you and your partner and experiment with angle.

In Tai Chi Chuan, looking at a “technique” as an absolute method is wrong. A technique or combat drill is there for you to practice and build your foundation. Regardless if you practice to intercept and punch, go in for a takedown or do a subtle joint manipulation, never think about it as a technique. These are all ways for you to see if you can relax, continue to breath deeply, practice on how to move from your center, test your balance and alignment and to teach you from what distance and angle you can utilize your body in the best way and achieve the best leverage.

If you always  mind the details, then eventually acting from the correct body method will become second nature. And then the skills will be developed naturally. Never reach out too far or you’ll forget what is near. In solo practice, approach everything you do in your practice methodically and put meticulous attention to the small details of body movement and mechanics.  In partner practice, keep the same approach and attitude, but also be aware of, and put special attention on, the aspects that you can only develop from partner practice. This is my own humble opinion and my own humble advice. But it is also something of the best advice I could possibly give a beginner or to someone who is somewhat new to the art of Tai Chi Chuan.

On the Problems of Complexity and Diversity of Body Mechanics Within the Same Art

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Tai Chi Chuan is a more complex art than most Tai Chi practitioners realise. Though the complexity makes the art interesting and challenging in a good way, the complexity also has its downside. It creates difficulties for teacher as well as for the student. When I teach, I know from what end I should start teaching Tai Chi. I know what kind of exercises. But on the same time I am frustrated that I can only teach one small fragment at a time. I see so many things that the student have to earn and that I want to teach. Holding back in a good productive manner might be the most difficult job as a Tai Chi teacher.

One of the biggest problems is that there are aspects of body mechanics that are equally important to learn, but they can appear contradicting. Learning one body method, or aspects of body mechanics, can create problems for other equally important body methods or aspects of mechanics.

You want your legs to be rooted, solid. Yet you want to develop a light footwork and change your stance quickly.

You want your top to be empty, light as your following skills and tingjin depends on lightness and non-resisting. But on the same time, you want to understand clear angles of shapes and develop a strong frame.

Your Peng (or Pengjin) should have a strong surface and be an expanding force that connects from the root and from the center. Yet, you can not use your peng against the opponent’s structure with evident pressure. It must be light so you can hardly feel it yourself. But then how do you know that it is strong?

Structure and stability should be put into practice and tested, but still it should be empty and non-apparent in practical use.

How do you achieve a strong frame in your upper body, yet keep a strong root?
How do you achieve a strong frame in your upper body, yet keep a strong root, and at the same time being able to have a light footwork and a sensitive touch?

When people try to develop rooting, they forget about their upper body. When people try to develop their upper body use, they tend to forget the lower body.

When people try to develop their center, their whole body-use tend to become obvious and external. How do you internalise the whole connection from the center and outwards?

Sometimes when students have studied and learned one important aspect and they start to learn a new important aspect, it’s like they have been sent back years in their development. Suddenly they can not use what they have learned before. When you learn something new today, you can forget about what you could do yesterday. Or if you remember it, there can still be difficulties keep doing what you could do yesterday because you must use your body differently today. I remember my teacher constantly nagging about small basic details in my first five or ten years or so. “Sink”, “Take a better stance”, “relax more”, etc. etc. It’s hard to keep everything together. Especially when you learn something new.

Sometimes, Tai Chi practitioners and teachers have studied for a very long time, they can  perform very well inside of the class. But when they try to demonstrate something on a resistant partner, everything seems to fall apart. Why is it so?

There are many questions in the text above and I have no real good answer to any of them. Tai Chi is a complex art. Many aspects concerning different parts of the body are taught. If one part lacks, the whole constructer lacks. The best way, in my own humble opinion, is to start by building a strong foundation. Start with the feet, legs, kua and core. Build a from foundation. Always consider the lower part and the center in everything you do. There’s always an aspect of building “gongfu” if you want everything to fall into place naturally, making it work. You need to build a certain leg and core strength, you need to learn how to breath deep and natural. You need to learn how to keep your mind calm and empty regardless wha is happening outside of you.

Not only do you need to build your skills, layer by layer, making sure that the last layer stays into place when learning something new, but also you need to test your knowledge and skills. You need to do this often and in many ways. Not only inside the school environment, but also outside. There are many ways to do this, like finding friends, martial arts enthusiasts, from other styles.

The problems with complexity In Tai Chi Chuan comes in many shapes and forms. But with diligent practice and building the foundation, carefully, and together with methods for testing and evaluating your skills, you will see your Tai Chi Chuan grow and develop in a measurable way.