In Tai Chi, we try to learn how to adapt to the opponents movements, following him like the reflection in a mirror. But there are two things I see in how people commonly practice Tai Chi that I don’t agree with. Both of them have to do with focusing on techniques before principle. Both may lead to bad habits and a false sense of timing.
First, people practice from stationary postures. Your opponent need to move. You can’t start from your opponent standing with a stretched arm. There must be a movement to follow. Almost all applications you see in vids on the tubes start from either a push hands setting or stationary postures. How can you learn how to mirroring your opponent if you don’t have anything to follow? In this sense, much push hands practice serve better to build tai chi skills than most applications practice you can see that people show up on the youtube etc.
Second, people are too concerned with the limbs. They practice how to defend themselves from hands, arms, legs and feet. But what you should learn to follow and adapt to is the opponent’s center, his balance and to his “yi”, or intent. The traditional Chinese philosophy is to get rid of problems while they are small. If you know that you don’t want a tree to grow, get rid of it as soon you see it comes out from the earth. Don’t wait until it has grown strong. The same can be said for Tai Chi philosophy of self defence. Don’t wait for a punch or any attack to become strong and connected. Then it’s too late. So if you can, get rid of it by it’s root, before there is any power in the attack. To do this you must follow and adapt to the movements of the center. Use timing, get in as soon as you can get in to the right distance and get rid of the problem.
But you need to practice on this. You won’t get any practice you can use in real life self defence or combat if you start practicing techniques with your opponent holding out a stretched arm and fist. This will only build bad habits and won’t help you to develop your timing.
Li Yaxuan (Disciple of Yang Chengfu) on this issue of timing and adapting to the opponent’s movements:
Even before physical contact, with a single glance you join contact with the opponent or partner, establishing a firm connection with him. Adherence can begin even at this stage, prior to physical contact. This is important because when you are working in a more intensive competitive or combative mode, if you depend on physical contact to start your adherence, that’s too late and you’re going to be too slow to exploit any advantage of timing or positioning.
(Translated by Scott Meredith: Link to the complete text, PDF)
- Practice to watch your oppponent, to feel what’s the appropriate distance to enter or attack.
- Practice to follow his every slight movement done by his centre, feet, hips or shoulder tips.
- Try to lock the distance from your center to his center.
- Watch his eyes: When does he look and can you see his gaze changing just before he goes to an attack?
Follow, follow and follow. Try to act as his mirror, adjusting to every slight movement, even if he moves some part of his body even one tenth of an inch. And then when you have contact with your opponent, let your tingjin (sensitivity skill) decide when, where and how to respond and attack.’