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There are many different opinions about hitting objects in Tai Chi Chuan, and especially about punching heavy bags. Some people absolutely do not believe in them and say that punching a bag goes against Tai Chi principles. Others say that if you are not allowed to punch a bag, how would you be able to punch an opponent? So what should we think about all of the contradicting views?

Why would punching a bag be wrong?

The most common objection is probably that you should not use external strength when you punch, and this is perfectly true, in the sense of that you should not use the type of power, that is common in most so called “external styles”, a type of strength that relies on tensing up the limbs and the body. People who have this kind of objection have never been introduced to the type of strikes we actually use in Tai Chi. And some people don’t even believe that strikes and punching exist in Tai Chi.

Another thing that I have heard Tai Chi stylists speak about, is the common idea that you never attack in Tai Chi. Many believe that you should never initiate an attack and only respond to what the opponent does. Some of those people don’t believe in punching at all as a separate practice, and believe that the mind-set of punching itself is a contradiction to tai chi principles.

Even if they recognise punching as a part of Tai Chi, they mean that a response as a palm strike or punch should happen naturally, and use borrowing energy from the opponent. As an example, imagine if someone punches or pushes at your shoulder. Then the movement of evading or following the opponent’s attack on one side of the body should be enough to power up a punch using the other side of the body. This would work as wind and rewind, or storing energy and releasing it. But you use the opponent’s attack to store and release your own movement – or specifically in this case – a punch.

I can easily dismiss some part of this problem of mind-set by reminding you of what I said in the earlier post about punching without the mind-set of punching. But even if we leave this aside, we still have a problem. That is: you won’t understand how your body reacts when it meets another body until you meet a real punch. Will you be able to respond in such a way, that you can keep your body aligned, and support a fist upon contact? First, in order to gain confidence of your evasion skills, you would need to practice some sparring against people who actually know how to punch, right?

But to return to the original question about punching “dead stuff”, as hitting a punching bag, there’s a whole other issue: If you haven’t practiced punching at some kind of surface, how will you know what it means to meet a target with your fist? Will you understand how to use it to penetrate the target and do enough damage? Or will your fist just bounce off? You always need to do something to know it. To learn something, you need to gain practical experience. “Thinking” that you can punch something is not enough, you need to experience it with your own body in order to know. This is the plain truth.

A realistic and scientific approach

So, regardless type of punch you want to use, or if using any kind of offensive technique, you really need methods to first measure and evaluate what you do, to really know that you can actually do something. When you practice other types of techniques as pushing, throws, takedowns, qinna etc, those techniques and methods are all very easy to practice against a partner. You can throw each other around, and practicing joint-locks without hurting each other.

But this kind of realistic training is much harder with striking as you can’t really do a realistic punch against an unprotected partner. Strikes and punches are meant to break and damage things, right? So if you don’t have any way to measure what happens when your palm or fist meets a target, then how do you know that you could hurt a real opponent? How do you know if you have a method to actually finish someone off?

Yes, on the other hand, I get what some people are saying; that in Tai Chi, you should achieve so much control that you would never need to really hurt someone. Generally, I would agree with this assessment. This is very much the real strength of Tai Chi as a combat method. The control you gain with Tai Chi practice means that you can often find ways to use your methods in fighting so that you don’t really need to hurt someone very much at all. (In fact, I truly believe that the focus on a high level of control in Tai Chi Chuan might be a heritage from the Buddhism idea to never hurt and never kill.) And of course, if you can avoid lawsuits, going to jail or pay fines, by not hurting your opponent, this is obviously the wisest thing to strive for.

But, FFS, this is still a martial art we are practicing! The point of training “how to fight” is not about being able to count how many arms or noses we have broken, but about knowing that we have what we need in every kind of situation. Our practice should lead us to build confidence in what we do. And if we want to have real confidence, we need to know that we have things in our toolbox that actually work. And if we want to know that they work, well, then we really need methods to measure and evaluate what we do.

This is exactly the advantage with practice on heavy bags and similar. We can use them in our training to measure and evaluate what we do. If we know that we can use a strong punch, when it is needed, we can gain confidence by this knowledge, by knowing that we have a finishing strategy that works when it counts. Hopefully we will never need to use this capability against a person, but we can face someone with much greater confidence if we know that our tools really work.

The double-trouble of actually hitting something

In Tai Chi Chuan, though, we actually have a double-problem compared to styles who rely on tensing up the body upon impact. Yeah, that’s right: We don’t. We need to learn to align our fist, writs, arm to the rest of the body so we can relax when we strike – the whole way into the bag. In the next post, I will speak more about proper relaxation and how to achieve something that must sound confusing and contradicting to people who don’t have the experience of learning and practicing real, genuine Tai Chi methods of punching.

But to sum it up: In fact, in Tai Chi Chuan, instead of tensing, you need to relax even more as you meet the target with your hand. Yeah, it sounds hard enough without breaking your wrist, doesn’t it? (again, don’t worry if you don’t understand this for the moment, I will explain further later on) But here you see, is a real double-trouble of trying to keep relaxed: Hitting something hard or solid will inevitably make you tense up. This is the normal, common way for your body to react. Why? Simply put: This is about how your body reacts on the rebound force. If you hit a wall with your fist, the wall hits back on your fist at the same time, wit the same force.

Or as Newton’s third law says: “For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.” Or:

A exerts a force FA on a second object B, then B simultaneously exerts a force FB on A, and the two forces are equal in magnitude and opposite in direction: FA = −FB.

So how do you deal with this? Well, in practical practice of Tai Chi Chuan punching, to deal with this rebound force, you want to connect and align your fist through the center of the body, and connect the fist to the foot when you strike. Not only do you want to use the center of your body and ground to gain strength for your punch, but the idea is just as much to transfer the rebound force down the same path you align your strike with, right down to the foot and into the ground. When the whole body is aligned with best possibly way for structural support, the fist can go deep into target, without the rebound force having any effect directly on the fist. If the body is aligned this way, as well as relaxed and while the joints open up, the rebound force will go down into the foot while the fist continues further into the target. Well, this is the idea anyway. You need to actually practice this method on something to understand the difference between the practical implications of “bad” alignment and Tai Chi type of alignment.

So in Tai Chi Chuan, you really want to keep your whole body as relaxed as possible while meeting the target with the fist, because whatever part of your body you tense up, the rebound force will hit that part. But if the whole body can be neutral and have the same level of relaxation throughout the whole body, you will be able to direct the rebound force down to the supporting foot and into the ground. (And this, the “Tai Chi way”, will be a much more healthy way of practicing punching against dead objects as well. Punching hard things with a straight fist isolated from the rest of the body will often have the effect of the rebound force striking straight into your body through the stretched fist, “hitting the heart and lungs.” )

Therefore, using this method, relaxed Tai Chi striking is not something magical that needs “Qi” or anything similar to achieve real punching power, but instead it’s a very practical and effective method to develop strong whole body power. The hard part in my own experience is to learn how to trust in relaxation, and to get rid of the reflex of trying to add extra power by isolated arm movement.

And this is the reason to why I believe it is a good idea to regularly practice punching on bags and similar, and preferably against a partner holding a sturdy kicking protection. You need to get used to the rebound force and learn how to keep relaxed while meeting a target with your fist. This takes a whole deal of methodological practice. If your don’t practice how to get rid of your common ways to react by tensing up and if you don’t learn how to maintain structure while relaxing, you just won’t have what it takes to really punch someone “The Tai Chi way” when it really counts, when you are actually up against someone.

But still, and again, to practice Tai Chi punching, you need to not “just punch a bag” in any kind of manner. You need to actually practice relaxed, aligned Tai Chi punching methods, and never use hard, external “dumb force”, i.e tensing the muscles. That would contradict and act detrimental to everything you want achieve n your Tai Chi practice.

Well, this might sound extremely contradicting for some people – punch hard, but don’t tense your muscles. Don’t worry, I will get deeper into this about how to practice these things in the next post.

So to conclude this post, I should mention that I thought that I would make this a 3 part series. But I have broken it up further to not keep you waiting for too long between the posts. So maybe you should look forward to something like a 5-part series or something. Maybe longer. I don’t really know. Maybe I might be able to find a way to say more things with less words. This is also a possibility.

Anyway, how you should “think” when you practice on a bag “the Tai Chi way” and how you can use a bag and similar to learn to control your movement better is something I will discuss in the next post in this series. However, I might throw in a post or two about other things, in between the posts of this series. It takes a long time to verbalise this stuff as I myself have never encountered it in writing. So if you have ideas, questions or things you want to know more about, please feel free to share your own “Tai Chi thoughts” in the comments below.