Building Tai Chi combat skills from pressure and testing

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Some teachers don’t like their students to compete. But others, like Li Yaxuan, Yang Chengfu’s most famous and competent student, said that you must practice your Tai Chi in free push hands and free sparring. Li also encouraged Tai Chi people to compete in Push Hands and Sanda/San shou tournaments. But if you do, he meant that this is to test your Tai Chi skills. You must really use your Tai Chi. You must be confident in your art, know how to always breath, stay relaxed and not use excessive or unnecessary strength.

But I can never see real Tai Chi skills when I look at Tai Chi Push Hands competitions. They all use brute force, tricks and speed. How come? Why is that so? I read about a quite famous teacher who commented Push Hands tournaments and why you hardly see anyone who use Tai Chi skills in competitions. That teacher said that even if students do everything right in class and use their Tai Chi when they practice free push hands in class, they tend to not trust their skills and practice when they meet the pressure in a competition. So they use brute force and speed instead.

This is somewhat a strange phenomena. One of the reasons of course could be that many of these competitors practice to compete in competitions and not too build genuine Tai Chi skills. Another reason could be that many of them are young and have not enough practice to keep their skill when they are pressured. I couldn’t not always do so for the first five or seven first years. Even when I met Tai Chi people for free push hands practice, I sometimes tensed up, and especially so if the other person was tense or used strength.

But the question is, if you want to develop genuine Tai Chi skills, what way, how and how often should you meet pressure and have your skills tested? Maybe competitions is not the best way. If you lose too much confidence in yourself and in your skill, will you have enough courage later to really use your Tai Chi? Will you ever be able to use it?

In my own humble opinion, the best way to test your Tai Chi skills is to test them against a Tai Chi practitioner who is much better than you. If you meet someone who really know how to relax, can keep relaxed all of the time, and can still play around with you just like you were merely a leaf caught in the wind, you will learn far more than if you put yourself into pressure when you yourself yet don’t know how to keep relaxed all of the time. If you meet up with skilled teachers and practitioners, you will feel how they feel, you will experience their timing and eventually come to understand their Tai Chi spirit.

This is the right way to approach Tai Chi and build genuine skills that can be used for real. First, learn to relax properly in a Tai Chi environment. When you can keep yourself relaxed and not tense up, then test yourself against non-Tai Chi practitioners. When you can demonstrate and keep your Tai Chi body all of the time, without interruption, you might want to expose yourself to people from various styles who are skilled in wrestling, competition push hands and free fighting. If you want to make your Tai Chi work for real, my advice is that you make your progress to develop in clear levels, taking one step at a time and learn how to keep your Tai Chi skills when dealing with different levels of pressure. Make one achievement at a time and let your progress in Tai Chi develop over the time it takes to jump up one level at a time. By doing so, you will always progress further without compromising your Tai Chi or your confidence in your art.

WHAT TAI CHI are you looking after? – It’s NOT a question of STYLE

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This post is written for the Tai Chi beginner or someone who still looks for high quality Teaching. The questions are about what you are looking for, Tai Chi as health, martial art, for spiritual development or for show and competition. Maybe you are already studying but still look for something more or want to check something else? Here I will try clear up some mistakes about styles and what Tai Chi can appear to be, but maybe is not. 

Common questions for beginners or people who are looking for Tai Chi are: What style suits me best? What style is the best? Any of these or similar questions have a big problem. Style does not proof anything of the quality of a teacher’s Tai Chi or what kind of methods are prevalent in what he or she teach.

Amongst more advanced practitioners from various styles, there is often a common notion that in Tai Chi, at it’s essence, there are no styles and what forms you practice doesn’t matter, and that there are only Tai Chi principles and non-Tai Chi principles. But this kind of statements does not help you either. Style still matter for a beginner or someone who is still looking for high quality teaching or really authentic Tai Chi. What style you practice matter, in what lineage you practice matter, in what organisation matter. But what does not matter is what any person tell you about a style. And still, the style itself does not matter. Yes, I understand that this can seem cryptic and hard to understand.

There is no common or widely accepted standard in Tai Chi

It said that Chen style is the original style, so if you want to get close to the origins, you should study Chen Style. It is said that Yang Style is the most “daoistic” and utilise soft principle more than Chen style. It is said that Sun style is especially fit for older people and that the Sun form has less impact on the knees. But in many sense none of these things are true. Tai Chi has changed, developed and most of the variants are very modern. Chen Style in China is used to lure in tourists and the versions that are studied briefly by students is what comes over here. Yang style is used for modern variations that are often taught as short courses in China. Chen style is said to be harder than Yang. But Chen teachers can be extremely soft and focus mostly on soft methods. Yang Style can be very hard and some schools teach “iron body” methods to teach the body to withstand hard blows. There is often a tremendous difference between teachers that claim to teach the same style. Sometimes even between teachers from the same style or between teachers who claim to have the same “Master” or “Chief Instructor”. You need to realise that in Tai Chi there is no standard of how Tai Chi should be taught, no standard curriculum and no standard of teaching methods.

Health T’ai Chi variants

The question is WHAT Tai Chi you are looking for regardless style or outer appearance. Forget this things and ask yourself if you want practice only for health or if you want the martial art. If you want health Tai Chi, do you want a traditional or a modern version? Every style has both. If you ask a teacher, try to ask about meditation aspects, standing meditation or stance practice. Ask about “jibengong”, basic practice for building “shenfa” or body methods. Is it a traditional or short modern form they teach? Or both? How fast does the progress go? You must also ask yourself if you just want a course of a semester or a year or dedicate yourself to the art for a much longer period.

Martial T’ai Chi Ch’uan

If you want the martial arts aspects. Do you look for an older method relying on principles or a more modern one relying on technique? Do they teach traditional ways for power development? Do they only rely on Push Hands? Is the aim a personal art only or does the teacher want you to compete? It might be hard to ask the right questions. Tai Chi can be perceived as a strange puzzle with pieces that does not really fit. Everyone express themselves differently and have different opinions on how Tai Chi should be taught. Personally, I would not recommend a teacher that mix traditional with modern methods or with hard methods from other styles. In my own opinion, there should be a very strong focus on principle. But it should not be too narrow and focus on Push hands only.

And a final advice – don’t look for any kind of short cut

Tai Chi as a traditional art is very broad. There are methods for health practice, stance practice, solo drills. Some teachers add qigong or use Tai Chi movements as Qigong. Some teachers practice together with music, others add sitting meditation. All of this is fine. As a martial art, there are many aspects of martial arts, drills, basic exercises. Tai Chi also has it’s own specific tactics and strategies. There are methods to generate striking power that is quite different from the “hard styles”.

Searching for genuine Tai Chi, if that is what you are looking for, can take a lot of time and effort. Use your own judgement and don’t confuse visual expression and shallow things with principle. Don’t listen to anyone who says that Tai Chi is easy. Understanding Tai Chi takes time and effort. There are no short cuts. If you want the “real thing” you need to be prepared to put in the time and effort necessary.

Towards a definition of SONG, or how to really Relax in Tai Chi Chuan

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“Relax more”, “Relax better” – or relax “harder”? what does Song, or “relax”, really mean in Tai Chi? In almost any interview with the old masters or in their books when they define the key to Tai Chi skill, they almost always refer to “song”. They don’t mention “Qi”. They don’t say “Yi”. They use a very simple word: “relax”. But the importance of this word, why the real skilled masters always refer to song or relaxation should give you a hunch that relaxation in Tai Chi is maybe something more than “not to tense up”, or more than just keeping the normal state of the body everybody does when they say that they relax.

Song – something more than just being relaxed

It’s a bit peculiar to hear people compare Tai Chi with other martial arts. And yes, Tai Chi Chuan is a martial art. When they talk about boxing, wrestling, MMA, everybody says things like that “boxers relax too”. Apparently everyone relax, everyone use whole body power. Everyone, at least better practitioners from various arts, use the same stuff as IMA, the internal arts. Of course, most people saying stuff like this never studied an art like Tai Chi for twenty plus years. Song in Tai Chi really is something more than being relaxed in the common sense of the word. It’s being more relaxed than being relaxed. It’s a trained skill of relaxation.

No, just “not tensing up” is not enough. Being very relaxed is not a sufficient definition either. The thing is that the body and body tensions is a very complex subject. There are things happening inside the body all of the time. Thinking and breath regulates and changes the tension in different parts of the body all of the time, at every second. If you forget to relax actively, consciously, then your body tension, with or without your permission, will keep on changing. But to reach a deeper, even more relaxed body state, you need a certain amount of awareness, body awareness. So the key on how to learn how to relax better is not to relax more or try to not tensing up, it’s to practice relaxation in conjunction with practicing body awareness. You need to be able to naturally breath deep and know how to regulate your thoughts. Worrying and too much thinking affects the breath. Much thought and breath together will continue to activate parts of the nervous system throughout the body in such way that it will be hard to reach the first level of relaxation where you can even start practicing a deeper relaxation.

Developing a better relaxation

So how do you start to really practice “song”? Fortunately, Tai Chi form practice with slow, even movements has a kind of hypnotic effect. Focusing on movements alone will calm down your mind. Relaxation in it’s turn will cause breath to move slower and deeper. Another key of practice, for both standing meditation (Zhan Zhuang or Ding Shi) and form practice, is to continuously examining your body tension, trying to feel the body from inside, from the sole of the foot and every inch up to the crown of the head. Take time and slowly try to feel where you are tense, a little or more. Consciously try to relax more and even more. Relax until you don’t do any effort with any part of the body and the body naturally keep up by itself. It will if you let it. Trust your nervous system and your musculoskeletal system. It will take care of it by itself. If you can reach the point where your mind is blank, your breath goes deep and low by itself and you you have relaxed away any unnecessary tension so that your posture holds up itself, well, then you in the zone wher you have “song”, a very relaxed body with a feeling that it, at least partly, almost moves by itself.

So what’s the benefit of being Song?

So what’s the benefit of learning the deep relaxation of Tai Chi song? Why? Maybe the old masters would say that this is the key to keep the body healthy, not letting the natural aging control the body’s process of inflicting you pain through stiffness and tension, keeping it strong by being soft. From a martial point of view, you really need to learn to control your tensions in the body, being aware of them, being able to at every time keep relaxed and not tense up. Practicing body awareness is really the key to martial ability. Without control of mind and breath and body tension in stressful situations you will never be a good fighter, not in competitions, not on the streets. You practice all of this by practicing song. Most of all, this kind of practice will really make you feel better and function better in daily life. This is my personal experience. I don’t know how this consciousness training to develop better Song would affect you, but if every Tai Chi master agree that Song is the very key to success in Tai Chi Chuan, there must be something behind it. Don’t you think so?

 

 

 

Do you feel the Qi? Or are you just intellectualizing?

What is Qi and what does it mean for Tai Chi?

If you don’t practice, how would you know? If you practice, why ask about it?

What bothers me is teachers who speak a lot about qi and intellectualize it. I’ve had a few such teachers. They are many. There’s a whole bunch of them on internet communities and in Facebook groups. They write about it and some of them speak about it in demonstrations on the YouTube.  But as a teacher if you want your student to internalize the art, why continue to intellectualize these things and why not instead teach and speak from a practical, hands on manner? Theory won’t help anyone feel what only hours and hours of practice can achieve. They lead their students the wrong way, into making them believe that Tai Chi is about thinking and understanding theory.

As a student on the other hand, you really need to take your own responsibility for your own learning and stop listening to all of the fancy speak you hear from your teacher or read in books. Instead, approach the art from a practical standpoint. Sure, you can read a lot of theory on Qi in this blog. Just make a search. But to feel Qi or to understand what it is to feel Qi, you really don’t need to understand anything intellectually. You don’t need to understand any theory. If you think too much just tell your own thoughts to stop speaking, tell your brain to have a  nice cup of STFU and keep on practicing.

Jian, 剑 – The Chinese straight, narrow blade sword (Documentary)

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Jian, 剑, is an elegant Chinese sword and one of the few original weapons found in the art of Tai Chi Chuan. Small, precise circling motions are used. It’s also a weapon that is very hard to defend from. It’s use is very misunderstood and few people today practice it with the kind of movements that is needed to make it perfectly efficient in real, practical use.

Here’s a fascinating documentary about the Jian, it’s history and it’s place in modern China: