Tai Chi and the Chinese Mindset of Simplification

I like the header I created for this Tai Chi blog very much. I use the same picture for my personal Facebook page as well. There’s not only a feeling of daoism and Tai Chi over it. But I didn’t use only one painting for the header. Actually I use two different paintings from the same artist and put them together. The painter is one of the most famous of them all, Qi Baishi (January 1, 1864 – September 16, 1957). There’s a reason why I chose paintings from this artist. He was a Tai Chi practitioner of the old school. I’ve heard that he was very, very good in Tai Chi. He would practice “lü” movement while making circles with a giant brush. He painted very big flowers with one single stroke using the technique from his tai chi. The price on these paintings has 6 figures.

Chinese painting and Tai Chi has a long history together. Tai Chi resembles the mindset of a painter. But there’s also something very “Chinese” in all Chinese culture. This is simplification. If you look at traditional Chinese painting, as in shanshui, landscape painting, bamboo, floors and painting animals, the development of this art always move towards simplification, to paint as simple as possible yet creating as great expression as possible. If you look at the header with the paintings of Qi Baishi, I think you will understand better what I mean.

Practicing calligraphy of characters starts with eight strokes. When you have practiced each stroke individually thousands of times, you start to put them together into characters. But this is only a learning step. As the real artistic expression is developed, the characters are being simplified until it will result in an expression that many times only the the artist himself can interpret.

And of course there is Chinese poetry. In the Tang Dynasty, one of the official exams included writing poems. This is also the reason why Tang poetry is som famous and why there are so many poems preserved from this time. But language itself, today in modern China, is also subject of simplification. Good understanding of Chinese everyday language is very much about simplifying, getting rid of every word that is unnecessary. Too complicated sentences means bad Chinese. Yes, sometimes it’s just as simple as that.

Tai Chi as a Chinese Cultural expression of Art strives toward simplification as well. If you don’t understand this mindset, your Tai Chi will suffer. Tai Chi as a martial art is not about making fancy jumps, spinning kicks or about timing complicated techniques. Tai Chi is all about simplification. We rather chose to trip than to throw, we rather use simple qinna than complicated. We don’t jump at him with a knee, but we can pull him down on a knee. Also, there’s nothing wrong with a straight lead to the face. But it’s even better if you just hold up your fist when he runs towards you. This is the mentality of Tai Chi as a martial art. Some people says that Tai Chi is just plain lazy. This might also be true to some extent.

The precision of movement: Another note on Tai Chi form practice and relaxation

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I’ve written a lot on softness, on why I believe in relaxation and how strength comes  from softness and not by using hardness. Mostly, I don’t write separate posts on this subject, though there are one or two separate posts, as this one: Strength from Softness – Softness from Strength.

One important point I would like to add to all of this about relaxation is why it’s important to practice with complete relaxation, being as soft as possible without compromising the structure and angles of the “shapes” or the individual movements.

Shouldn’t you try to hold your muscles at least a little “al dente”? You know, having a rubber kind of feeling or something similar? No.

No? Why no? Well, imagine that you are playing pool games, billiards or bowling or painting with Chinese ink technique, or doing any other kind of movements in sports, handicrafts or anything that demands a kind of very, very precise movement. Just like you aim for that ball with the cue, you need to cut off any other muscle, and muscular movement, that disturb or prevent the precision of your aim and movement.  This kind of precision of movement is exactly what you practice every time and all of the time in Tai Chi Chuan. You always practice to do only exactly what a certain movement demands from your body.

So, if you lift up your hands, you should relax everything to the extreme so that the body support only the movement and the structure behind the shape of the movement. The more you relax, the more you will let go of unnecessary effort and only use the muscles that do the movement. Moving is enough, don’t to anything else that is necessary. Even if you move with your whole body, using whole body movement  and whole body coordination, only move exactly what is necessary of that movement.

This is the same for push hands and applications. Don’t use effort, don’t use strength, don’t add anything else for structure, have a feeling of “al dente” or anything else. Just move and relax. Why? Because when you throw, punch or do anything, you want to use your body as efficient as possible. You don’t want to fragment your energy, using muscles for anything else than for exactly what you want to do. If you can find the same precision as some movements in different sports and handicraft demands in whatever you do, your punches will be stronger regardless what punch or punching technique you use. Your throws will be stronger and you will preserve your energy to continue on fighting. Practicing this skill of precision of movement and preserving energy begins in your form practice. No even before, even as you just stand, relax and breath. If you can completely relax your body while moving, without interfering posture or movement, you have already come a long way.

Of course, you need to remember this when you practice against resistant partners and opponents as well. When it come to this, especially challenges and competitive events, people tend to lack in faith in their relaxation and this means that they will abandon their best skills. So always when you practice against someone else, pay special attention on always relaxing as much as possible and only use exactly what in your body that is necessary for any kind of application or technique you perform. Don’t add structure, strength, “peng” or anything else. The refined movement and your body’s ability to change will give you any structure or “peng” you need. Your body knows what to do, if you only listen to it and keep relaxed.

Following, adapting, mirroring – Do you really know how to practice this?

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When you have read this post about mirroring and adapting in Tai Chi, I can recommend to also read the posts: how to practice Tai Chi applications and Five important points of Push Hands practice.

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.’

Recommended posts: how to practice Tai Chi applications and Five important points of Push Hands practice.

A suitable amount of dedication and practice in daily life

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Obviously different people have different kind of relationships to their Tai Chi practice. Some people are very dedicated and others practice just as little as possible or if they do, they do it in a mechanical sort of way. Some people just go to a class once or twice a weak, practice whatever is on the schedule and when they go home, they hardly even think about their practice until the next class. Others practice Tai Chi daily, but even if they do the movements of their form, they spend very little thinking about their art or do anything to practice or develop their art outside of those 15, 20 or 40 minutes they spend everyday. Yet others live with and inside their art 24/7. They often try to find ways to practice their art, regardless what they do and spend a lot of time thinking about it.

Whenever you want, wherever you are, there are a lot of opportunities to practice Tai Chi without practice a certain form, drill or posture. You can relax, check tension in your body. You can stand upright and feel your balance. When you open a locker, how do you use your body? Are you balanced? Do you feel tensions in your body when you make a certain movement? When you lift or push something, you can practice whole body movement and how to coordinate hand with feet or with the Dantian. When you walk fast is a terrific opportunity to check your breath. You can always take a breath deep and relax the chest and release tensions in the jaws.

When I was a kid, just after I had started practicing Tai Chi, when I was about eleven or twelve years old, I often stood close to my mother for a reason. I would put my foot so I could just shift my weight, leaning slightly against her and see how she reacted. I would try to do minimal movement to affect her balance. She was very, very irritated that I would sneak up to her or do this while she was cooking or cleaning. I was fascinated by how easy it was to manipulate someone’s balance. So I learned how to find opportunities to practice in daily life from a very young age. (Watching Kung Fu movies as Drunken Master and Dreadnaught certainly helped as well.)

Dedication is one thing, but obsession can also become a not so fruitful kind of dedication. If it goes far, you can suffer a kind of burnout or fatigue. Your practice might become an obstacle in your daily life and I know a person who completely stopped all of his practice after more than 40 years of dedication.

You don’t need to practice all of the time, anywhere, everywhere. Development in Tai Chi needs to grow, take it’s own time. There are no shortcuts in this art and too much practice might become a negative issue that affects your daily life. If you are dedicated, let it take time. There’s no need to pressure yourself or rush it. And you also need to grow as well and your Tai Chi needs the chance to grow together with you.

On Integrity

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I was told that before everything you do or while anything you do, you must always consider  your integrity first and always. Actually, the teacher I studied briefly for about twenty years ago didn’t phrase it exactly like this. I can’t remember his exact words. I think it was just more or less: “You must always keep your integrity”. Does it make sense? Or maybe not?

This teacher who I am not going to mention by name often summed up things in short, brief sentences that I have a feeling of that very few of his students took notice of. However he really phrased it, I liked the sentence very much, especially considering that it was a comment to push hands and applications practice.  And it made sense for what I was dealing with right then. You can not compromise your integrity, not even the slightest.

So what does it mean? Keeping integrity, keeping it intact. In general, the word “integrity”  is mostly associated with a moral standard, keeping a high moral standard and being consistent in accordance with this standard. There are also other disciplines that use the term in their own way, like in action philosophy and technical engineering. So how can we use this term in Tai Chi to benefit our understanding of our own place in this art?

Integrity in Tai Chi can mean:

  • Structural integrity,
  • Integrity of balance,
  • Integrity of mind,
  • and Moral integrity

 

But Tai Chi is a practical art. We learn by doing. Our knowledge is not greater than how we understand to take something and use it in action. Thus, Integrity, to sum up these points means to always keep the standard of integrity, in a most practical sense, regardless what happens.

In a practical sense, this means that you can not compromise your balance or structure even less than by an inch. And you can not compromise your calmness or focus, even less than a tenth of a second. You can not entertain thoughts that makes you worry and you can not get angry. You can not tense up, become stiff or become affected in any way that disturbs your integrity.

You can practice your sense of integrity whenever you practice your Tai Chi, when you practice form or when you play Push Hands or practice applications with a friend. What it means is that you must always stand firm in your “shenfa” (body method) – You should develop your shenfa, i.e. your “Tai Chi body” to such an extent that you always know when you are “inside” of it or not. Slightly being off balance, physically or mentally, might compromise the integrity of your shenfa.

If someone pushes you or lunge a fist at you, your timing must be great, so you can keep your balance and structure intact. If someone does a movement very fast, you must be so focused, calm and relaxed that no sudden movement can take you out of your focus, calmness and mental balance.

There are many more examples one could address. But the essence is the same, the point is to try to always keep your integrity intact. Then how do you know for sure if you keep your integrity intact? You’ll know it by any slight little thing that brings you out of balance one way or the other. You will easily learn to feel when you are inside the right “zone” or not if you practice with awareness. “Integrity” can be like a feeling that everything is on the right place where it should be. The more you practice to become aware of this feeling, the more you will learn to not compromise anything that can affect your integrity.