What Tai Chi Style Should I Choose? A Short Guide to Tai Chi Styles

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Here is a brief guide to the different styles of Tai Chi Chuan. There are five main styles, five big ones and then there are also a whole bunch of several lesser popular arts. Some of the smaller ones have quite a big amount of followers as well.

(Please, don’t get offended by my intentional ironic and disrespectful tone in this post.)

The five main styles

The five big traditional styles are Chen, Yang, Wu, Wu (Hao) and Sun. They are all recognized, well known and has many practitioners throughout China and the whole World.

Chen Style Taijiquan

Chen style is said by Chen stylists to be the oldest of the modern Tai Chi styles found today or the original art of Tai Chi, something that is usually accepted by Yang stylists as Yang style creator Yang Luchan admitted that he had studied with the Chen family. In the first half of the 20th century it was suddenly decided by the government that Chen Wangting (1580-1660) should be regarded as the inventor of the whole art of Tai Chi Chuan, a person suddenly discovered that no Chen Tai Chi master knew about and no one had mentioned anytime before in any text about Tai Chi Chuan. Chen style was later popularized in the 20th century by Chen Fake (1887-1957) who was very upset and got revengeful when other Tai Chi masters told him that what he was doing was Shaolin and not Tai Chi.

Chen style has both slow and fast movements, often performed with sudden outbursts of “fajin”. It also has Shaolin movements not found in any other of the five main styles so that other stylists often says that Chen Style is just Yang Style with Shaolin stuff infused.

The main idea of body mechanics in Chen style is summarized into “spiraling silk reeling” where spiral movements are initiated from the belly area and connected throughout the whole body.

There are several big popular formal and informal lineages and traditions in Chen, As “the Village style” represented by Chen Xiaowang, “the Beijing style” represented by people as Chen Yu and Chen Practical Method lead by Chen Zhonghua. Chen Small Frame is usually practiced in other lesser well known lineages.

Pros
Maybe the easiest style for development of strength and power.

Cons
Might be harder to and take longer time to develop calmness and deep relaxation compared to the other five big ones.

Chen Style Taijiquan is recommended for:
Anyone who wants to keep fit and healthy and everyone who wants to study a smart and very powerful martial art.

Yang Style Taijiquan

When people think about Yang style Tai Chi, they mostly think about slow, large movements performed in an even pace. large Yang Style was created by “The Invincible” Yang Luchan (1799-1872) who killed a younger female relative with his spear when practicing, and popularized wildly as a health exercise by illiterate grandson Yang Chengfu (1883-1836) who sold his name to a ghost writer and got really obese and died young by eating way too much.

Yang Style is the most popular Tai Chi style, widespread “all over the globe” (citing flateartherners expressing the popularity of their own movement), much due to several lightweight watered down versions with shorter and less demanding forms. Those are taught rather fast with little attention to detail. In the middle of the nineties for instance, going to Beijing to learn the 24 form in a few weeks and teach it in the west was rather popular. But fortunately the traditional Yang long forms are very popular as well.

Don’t be fooled by the calm, harmonious movements. Yang Stylists can be pretty good fighters and like to toss their opponents far away rather than offering a good punch, something that is mostly given to and restricted for the stupid ones who tries to attack them again.

There are also several off springs and sub styles of Yang Style as Cheng Manching’s version and Dong variant, sometimes recognized as an individual Tai Chi styles.

Pros
Quite easy to find somewhat good traditional teachers and very easy to find teachers from various health only variations.

Cons
Hard to find people who teach anything similar to power generation for punches and other finishing methods necessary in any complete martial art.

Yang Style Taijiquan is recommended for:
Anyone and everyone on this planet without exceptions.

Wu Style Taijiquan (Quanyou/Jianquan)

Wu style is characterized by large movements performed with whole body leaning, something many Yang stylists say is wrong and contradicts basic Tai Chi principles. Wu Quanyou (1834-1902) was one of Yang Luchan’s students but became a disciple of Yang Banhou, and Wu Jianquan was his son and taught it publicly. Wu Jianquan was also one of those guys who popularized Tai Chi for the big masses together with Yang Chengfu.

Cons
You’ll been hearing all of the times from people from other styles about how wrong you do things.

Pro
Has everything that Yang Style has, isn’t as watered down and much easier to find good traditional teachers.

Wu Style Taijiquan is recommended for:
Anyone who is interested in traditional Taijiquan

Hao/Wu (Yuxiang)

The creator of this art, Wu Yuxiang (1830-1880), was a scholar and disciple of Yang Luchan who also studied Chen style small frame from Chen Qingping. Wu Yuxiang based his own Tai Chi form on the Chen small frame instead of Yang Luchan’s medium frame. He also collected older texts about Tai Chi and wrote a lot of stuff, and is responsible for the collection of essays nowadays known as The Tai Chi Classics. Wu style is recognized by Its higher stances, following steps and with a very strict frame using precise angles.

Cons
Very hard to find a good authentic teacher.

Pros
You are very lucky if you can.

Wu/Hao Style Taijiquan is recommended for:
People who likes to focus their practice on basics and principles and wish to attain a deeper understanding of general Taijiquan principles.

Sun Style Taijiquan

The youngest of the five main Tai Chi styles is a slightly modified and re-branded version of Hao/Wu (Wu Yuxiang) created by Sun Lutang (1860-1933) who studied Tai Chi a short period from Hao Weichen. Sun’s form is slightly influenced by much longer periods of Xingyi and Bagua study as well as a brief exchange with the Yang family. Sun Lutang is also one of those chaps who together with Yang Chengfu promoted Tai Chi for the masses as a health art. A very peaceful man who’s main occupation in Beijing was to educate bodyguards and security personnel.

Cons
High stances makes it harder to develop good rooting. Complimentary stance work together with form practice might be necessary.

Pros
Less demanding practice for the knees makes Sun style excellent for older people.

Sun Style Taijiquan is recommended for:
People who like more dynamic and faster Taiji practice as well as older people.

Other smaller styles

There are even more than those mentioned here below. But I either know too little about them or they are just too silly to write about. And there are probably versions I don’t know at all. For instance, there are one or two Japanese variations that have reached some popularity in Japan, mostly based on Yang style, so if they should be considered own styles or Yang offsprings I am not Really certain about.

Zhaobao Taijiquan

Apparently based on Chen small frame from Chen Qingping and maybe mixed up with local IMA-similar tradition, Zhaobao practitioners claim that their style is in fact older than Chen style. The history of Tai Chi might be more complicated than either Chen or Yang stylists realize, however, if the truth is exactly as this tradition claims can certainly be discussed.

Chang Style Taijiquan

Chang style or Shuaijiao Taiji is Tai Chi on the surface and Shuaijiao (Chinese Wrestling) in application.

Li Style Taijiquan

There are two different Li styles, one more athletic and mixed with Bagua and Xingyi and somewhat popular in Wushu competitions. Their practitioners say that this is the original Tai Chi style and has an origin from 1000 BC. The other Li resembles more traditional Yang and was created by Li Rui Dong (1851-1917), a student of one of Yang Lu Chan’s disciples.

Fu Style Taijiquan

There are two different “Fu styles”. One created by a student of Sun Lutang. It looks like recent Hao and Sun style, but has a great focus on spine movement and core strength. The other one is a very rare Buddha style with Shaolin influences. Once, maybe twenty years ago, I saw a VCD of this Buddha Taiji in a Chinese department store and today I am annoyed that I didn’t buy it. I haven’t found many traces of the style recently, so maybe it has disappeared?

“Wudang Tai Chi”

There are several variants called Wudang Tai Chi Chuan. As Wudang is a Taoist place, this mountain represents internal tradition in general. Very little under this label is old or genuine.

Wudang Taijiquan is recommended for:
People who likes fake Daoism. And I guess people who like their long robes…?

He Style Taijiquan

A super, super secret family tradition claiming that it has kept things intact that are lost or extinct in other Tai Chi styles. The movements resembles Yang, but the body method resembles Old Wu (/Hao) and Medium frame Yang style.
… In fact, it’s so super secret that I would probably had to kill you if I told you more about it…

Who should practice it?
(This is left unsaid)

Complicating the Simple. Simplifying it Again.

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My own teaching style is to keep everything as simple as possible, trying to simplify and make things that look hard or complicated comprehensible in simple ways. This might sound great and maybe seems to make sense. But still, this is not always the best way to communicate Tai Chi Chuan. Many people are locked in their own complicated thinking, their own way to look at things. As they have their own preconceived ideas they constantly try to reaffirm and verify their own preconceived view on the world. To reach these people, simplifying things is not an option.

This is why Chinese Zen (or more accurate Chan) masters invented the Ko’an (originally Gongan) as one of several methods trying to force students to simplify their thinking. If they couldn’t simplify the answer on a riddle in the simple manner of a child, they wouldn’t be allowed to proceed with any teaching. In some ways, as a Tai chi teacher, I try to do the same way. But it’s not easy. You cannot force a complicated mind to change. People must be willing to change themselves and understand how to change themselves. So the ball, here the willingness to understand what it takes in order to learn, is always in the hand of the student.

We can not transform anyone’s mind if it doesn’t want to transform itself. Thus, simplifying the world does not always work. Often, to have a chance of doing this, we must speak in an intellectual language that the intellectual, complicated mind can understand. We can use math and science, we can use metaphors and images to paint pictures with words. We can use different methods that will satisfy the intellectual or logical mind. We can also engage a person’s fantasy and creativity, to activate him or her to change the way of doing and acting. All of these ways are complicated, detours to help someone to understand things that are in their nature most simple. A student who spend a long time learning, trying to understand an art as Tai Chi, and finally reaches a stage of real understanding, will inevitable be surprised, that everything he or she strived to develop, was in fact something very simple.

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.

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