Learning and using taught body mechanics, is similar to using and expressing yourself verbally in another language. Yes, I mean that a specific type of body mechanics is a body language, a language as in speaking another language. And I don’t mean this as an analogy or in any symbolistic kind of manner. I won’t even address how you can use your body to express meaning or art.
No, I am not talking about body language as an artistic expression. Not at all. Here, at least, I will only talk about a similarity of learning and becoming comfortable with a new kind of way of using your body to express yourself, something meant in a most practical manner. Yes, it’s something highly practical you must do and something which demands you to do a physical change compared with what you are used to do.
It doesn’t really matter if you perform a dance, if you act on stage, if you do some kind of physical theatre as mime, or if you do your Tai Chi. They are all different “taught” expressions of body language and mechanics. There is a great similarity with using a new, taught, body language and using a foreign spoken language. Why? Okay, let me explain further what I mean.
Starting to speak a new language feels unnatural
Your common way of speaking and expressing yourself in your own language is the most natural thing you can do. You don’t need to “think” about how to pronounce the different sounds in your own language. They are just there, naturally. However this is not the case if you want to learn to speak in another language. To learn how to use a good pronunciation, something sounding authentic to that other language, takes a lot of practice.
However, some languages might be simple to learn, other harder. Yes, this is also true. So let’s say that we want to learn a much different and very difficult language. Now, to understand pronunciation and to be able to pronounce words and your sounds differently, or to even learn new sounds, you need to actually learn how to use your the muscles in your mouth differently compared to how you are used to speak.
You need to learn how to use the tongue, throat, lips, differently, in order to shape the sounds correctly. Vowels and consonants, they might all be shaped differently even if they sound similar. For some languages, you need to shift your “whole language” to another place in your mouth, deeper towards the throat or moving it forward to the front of your mouth. Some other languages use the whole mouth more “full”, or you might need to explicitly shift individual sounds to different places.
This is of course a very general description, but it might give you an idea of the way I am thinking about spoken languages and pronunciation. The trouble though, regardless of what language you are dealing with, is that when you actually speak, you really need to be very conscious about how you use everything in your mouth and how you use your throat when you speak. You need to be aware about how you speak. Why? First – most people are not at all conscious about how they physically shape different sounds. And that is, in my own opinion, the biggest reason to why they (bryter starkt) in their own language, and why they cannot learn a good pronunciation in another language.
The consequence of this level of awareness is that you really need to learn how to use your nervous system differently and train in order remember the new way to use certain muscles. You see, if you are not both conscious and aware about how you shape your mouth and tongue, and “where” in your mouth you put the different sounds, you will slip back into to your own natural habits of using your mouth and throat in your own language.
Just let me give you a quick example: In my native language, or “J” sound is neutral without the English “D” starting of the sound. Instead of “Djuice”, we say “Juice”, without the “d” as in “You”. The tongue lies pretty much flat and only touches the upper palate gently.
The English “J” is not problematic for us, however, the Chinese “J” can be. Here you need to put the tip on the tongue directly behind the upper front teeth and try to squeeze the air out through the sides. I also need to push out my whole chin, which I don’t need when I do my common “J”. It’s a bit difficult to explain. But even if those different “J:s” sound similar, they actually engage different muscles and parts of you mouth and head quite differently.
(Yes, English is not my mother tongue. I primarily chose to start this blog in English to practice my English language skills. Hopefully you will not spot as many grammar mistakes lately as in earlier posts. )
So what all of this means, is that you can’t be lazy while practicing the sounds of another language, if you want to learn how to speak it well. You must really make an effort to do everything right until the new way to pronounce the different sounds will become a new natural habit.
This is actually not a simple task, as it takes a lot of physical and mental effort. It’s not easy to use different muscles in a way they are not used to. While speaking, you need to be mentally aware about how you use them.
Your own mother tongue, however, is your lazy way of dealing with language, how you speak normally. So if you are lazy when you try to learn how to speak in another language, you will slip back into your lazy, common habits.
This is just how your own brain, body and nervous system, work. It takes awareness, effort and a conscious effort for a long time, before you can become confident in a new way to use your body, even if you just work with your mouth. And the same goes for learning how to play an instrument as the piano or the violin as well. Your hands and fingers will be tired a long time practicing a new instrument before you learn how to relax into what you do. But if you get lazy and don’t pay attention to the fine details, you will break the sound you try to learn how to make, and make noise instead of music.
Studying body movement as a new body language
That’s the way you learn to use your body differently. And it’s the same with Tai Chi. However, learning a new “Body Art”, or an Art of Body movement, as Tai Chi Chuan, and also other body movement arts as dances and some types of physical theatre, is a bit different than learning how to speak another language or playing the violin. The simple reason is that your whole body, and not just an individual part of it, is integrated with the expression of the art.
To learn and to express Tai Chi, your whole body, all the way down from the toes, and up to the fingertips, all of your body parts need to be consciously moved, and integrated together as a whole, with awareness – both while standing and while in movement. But this is not all there is to it. There’s something else that complicates Tai Chi further.
In action, Tai Chi really acts as a language. When you use your Tai Chi while interacting with another person, as in working with partner exercises, applications, push hands and even real fighting, your “language skills” need to be brought one step further. Just like you need to speak and pronounce words with awareness and consciously learning how to speak another language, the Tai Chi practitioner need to consciously keep focus and awareness of the whole body while practicing. Yes, the whole body, from down to up, and from inside and out.
This is the only way how to learn the body language of Tai Chi. You need to not only learn how to move your whole body will doing a form. You need to learn how to express the “shenfa” or the whole body mechanics while “communicating” or interacting with another person. Just as you need to keep the awareness of your pronunciation when you speak, while at the same time trying to understand what the other person say, you as a Tai Chi practitioner need to keep your whole body awareness and consciousness, and learn how to move the different body parts correctly, integrated as a whole, while someone else at the same time, tries to push you, pull you, take you down or launch a punch at you.
This is the only way to learn how to really use Tai Chi. You must make this work. And while trying to make this work, if you are lazy or tired, you will slip away from your Tai Chi. You might find yourself using your hands individually, not connected with the rest of the body, and you might use external “dumb” force. You will forget all about “jin” and slip into your old, comfortable way of using “li”.
Using Li, or clumsy force, and to use your body parts individually, this is your body’s “mother tongue”, the way a common person uses his or her body on an everyday basis. This is what you will slip back into if you don’t make a real effort to consciously use your Tai Chi while being pressured. After all, using “li” is the most natural thing for your body to do. Not Jin.
This means that your body mechanics, you whole body movement and to engage the whole body in the correct way should be of utmost importance in all of your tai chi practice. Not only for your solo practice as stances, forms and drills, but also every time when you practice an application, different techniques and every type of push hands, simple drills or free push hands.
And you must always, always pay attention to the fine details and always coordinate the whole body in the correct way. You need to practice and continue to practice with awareness and focus, minding the fine details, until your new way to move your whole body become natural and feels effortless.
Tai Chi is not “Natural” for your body when you start practicing it. As a beginner, you will become tired, have a hard time to coordinate the body parts the correct way. You will feel clumsy, unbalanced and sometimes uncomfortable. And later, maybe after years of practice, you will still slip into old habits if you don’t focus properly and mind the subtle details.
Why we need to accept that we are all different
But also, compare my thoughts with people having secondary languages, regardless from where they come or what language they have learned. The very most of people speaking in a foreign language do it with an accent. You can hear if someone comes from India, Spain, France, England, by the way they pronounce another language. They might have less or more accent. Now, compare this with a body language. We humans have more or less the same body language, and we use our bodies more or less in the same way, regardless country or from where on Earth we were born.
But if we assume that learning a new expression of our bodies by using it differently and in another way that we were used to, is similar to learning another language, well, then we could also assume that different people will be better to speak this new body language more or less “clearly.” And also, they will “speak” the new body language with a stronger or lesser accent. By this I mean that some people will understand the details of their new body language better than others, and some people will have it harder or more easy to “speak fluently”.
So we might presume that when we speak about body method, or “shenfa“, in Tai Chi, we mean an ideal. Most people assume that the body method is some type of level that is achievable by everyone in the same degree. And that is just a matter of time and practice in order to achieve this ideal
I am not so sure that a Tai Chi “body method” is as something easy and uncomplicated as that it is something that fits all. Or that everyone has the same possibilities to learn a Tai Chi body method and come as close as possible to a certain ideal.
Also remember that your own teacher is probably not “perfect” in this sense, even if many people consider him or her a “master”. We all have our own shortcomings. None of us is perfect. Personally, I don’t believe that there is anyone we could point out having a “perfect Tai Chi Shenfa”. And I am not sure that “perfection” is something to strive. We can only gradually become better and learn how to speak our new language more fluently. Here, the beginner and the advanced, long time practitioner, have that same task in their practices. They must always strive to “speak” their learned body language more fluently. And today, we can all only strive to become better than we were Yesterday.
Repetition only is not enough
When you study Tai Chi, just practicing to remember movements is not enough. Repetition of movement is not enough. Mindlessly going through exercises as a form just because you’ve heard that you should practice daily is not enough. If you want to progress, you always need to “use xin“, you need to work consciously with every principle, method and detail in your art. You really need to feel your whole body through your awareness when you practice, and feel everything you do with your body, through every slight change that occurs when you move.
Practicing to make Tai Chi natural for your body takes a lot of effort, conscious effort. In the beginning, it’s something new and hard to learn, just like it’s hard for anyone to learn how to pronounce another spoken language or to play the violin. But again, Tai Chi is different. To learn Tai Chi won’t be hard only for your mouth or fingers, but for your whole body. This is something you “speak” using your whole body. After all, Tai Chi Chuan is a “whole body” language.