What is it like to fight with Tai Chi Ch’uan(Taijiquan)? I don’t mean in a technical sense, or ask about what techniques or methods you could use in this art. You can find plenty of material about ideas on fighting methods and techniques everywhere. That is in my own opinion of less interest. What I mean is: How do you feel when you fight with Tai Chi? Is your combative mind different when you practice Tai Chi as your first and foremost art of combat? I think so. And I will try to verbalize my own personal experience on this matter and try to share some light over how this art can affect a person’s ability to deal with violence.
But first of all, I am not a typical fighter and I don’t look at myself as anything even close to a fighter. And already for a long time ago, all urge to prove myself has been gone. I don’t like violence and as I have a family to look for now, I would never accept any kind of challenge. (And I don’t even know if I could fight as well today when too much is in stake.) But when I was younger, sometimes I looked for trouble just to test myself, to see if I had anything like fighting skill. There were a few events. I can not boast about many fights, but there has been a few. Except for Tai Chi, I have practiced other styles as well, but I can honestly say that no other style taught me fighting better than T’ai Chi Ch’uan. And no other teacher was better to teach fighting skills than my Tai Chi teachers. Does this kind of statement seem odd for a person who studied shaolin, free fighting and briefly even a style like Muay Thai/Thai Boxing? When you think about Tai Chi, is it slow movements practice, usually performed by elderly people, or cooperative push hands practice you think about? Or do you associate the art with real combat skills? I sincerely doubt that it is the latter. Will you be even more surprised if I say that I really started to understand how to deal with fights when I gave up anything else that I had practiced?
So why then can someone say that he had learned more about fighting from Tai Chi than from any other art? Instead of speaking about things like mind and Yi, I could at one level use two words to answer this question: Timing and distance. Sounds like nothing special? I might would like to add a few other words as well just into the soup, as angle and leverage. And of course, relaxation, stability and how to not forget how to breath. But timing and distance might be the most crucial abilities for general fighting skills, for whatever form of martial art you speak about. In Tai Chi anything you can come to think about in terms of two man practice comes down to timing and distance Regardless if you speak about application, push hands or free practice as sparring or anything else you do, and it’s right there. But this leads to other things, like relaxation and footwork. Or maybe it’s the opposite around. What is unique in Tai Chi, is that softness and relaxation always comes first, everything else second. But still, if you don’t have the correct timing, you won’t be able to relax into applying a technique or a method. And if you don’t have a good footwork, you can not control the distance, something that is crucial for timing of application. So, if you don’t have the correct timing and distance whatever you do, you won’t be able to relax properly. In other words, due to the fundamentally extreme focus on softness and relaxation, you can not cheat with other basic things that is necessary for you to make your art work, as timing and distance. So there is a certain way of combining skills in Tai Chi, skills that affect each other in a special manner, due to the main focus of the art.
The thing is, when it comes to Tai Chi as a combat art, is that these basic concepts of timing and distance is not only something that is always joined together with relaxation and balance. The key is that this unification of qualities will be drilled right into your bones. Things like acting proactive and keeping agile will become second nature, just like being relaxed and keeping balanced are. And the only thing you need to achieve this to become second nature, is Diligent partner work as applications practice, free push hands and sparring. With Tai Chi basics continuously in mind when practicing, you will teach your own body that it functions better under pressure when it can be relaxed and rooted. Eventually you will naturally breath deep, drop your strength down to the feet, and calm your mind even when you compete in fighting or fight for real. You will keep on teaching yourself this, drilling it into your own body and mind, to a point when instantaneous relaxation and balance will become your natural reaction to a threat as encountering violence.
What I am speaking about is nothing intellectual or something that someone told me or taught me. This natural reaction to become relaxed and rooted is exactly what I have experienced myself. When I have met a threat like a violent person, instead of tensing up, I have become relaxed. Instead of breathing faster and shallow, I breathed deeper. Instead of being worried or afraid, I calmed down and felt secure. This is not something I have consciously practiced to achieve. Somewhere in time, it was just there, as a natural response to the threat and violence at hand. And I can assure you that I myself was very surprised when my body and mind instinctively reacted this way. I had good control over each situation. Sometimes, I even saw that my calmness could affect the other person and made him insecure. Upon touch, I never thought to do this or that or planned to do anything. One thing of my concern before “touching hands” has been about distance and angle, to always gain a superior positioning. But yet, when I touched hands, I didn’t think, but merely acted accordingly to my opponent’s movement or to what I felt.
So if you asked me about how it is to fight with Tai Chi, I would say that it has very little to do with applying different techniques from a wide range of things you have learned. It’s not about consciously choosing or planning this or that. It’s more like letting go and let your Tai Chi do the fighting for you. If you practice well and diligent, your learned skill sets will be there, just as much as you let them be there and as you don’t interfere them with things like trying to show off or becoming aggressive.
Maybe all of this above might have things in common with many experienced fighters of different fields (though I am not particularly experienced in other forms of fighting, so I won’t say that anything is for sure.). But if you would ask me about how it feels to fight with Tai Chi, I would say that for me, personally at least, it has been quite an odd feeling of security, a feeling of being in control and in charge. Although interesting enough, nothing of this is something that I plan to experience again.