Form, Push Hands or Sparring? – On developing Fighting Skills in Tai Chi Chuan

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I know a Tai Chi teacher who… Oh, sorry. I don’t know him. I know about him and I have met him briefly. I won’t mention any name, but he teaches the short 25 movements form. Only this form and one or two basic push hands drills. When someone asks him how you learn to fight in Tai Chi, he just says that fighting skills comes with time through form practice. Many teachers says “fighting comes from the form.” So most people just practice forms, drills, jibengong standing meditation and other solo exercises.

I’ve heard so many people who practice form, form and form. They practice one or two or three or even more hours of Tai Chi solo practice exercises everyday. Some people I meet says that their goal is to spend so and so many hours of Tai chi practice everyday. Spending a lot of time practicing and developing your Tai Chi as well as yourself is obviously a good thing. But you should not confuse this practice with fighting skills. Even if those people who says that fighting comes from the form have practiced for thirty plus years, most of them still get stiff and and use strength when I meet them in free push hands practice. They show absolutely no Tai Chi skills.

Li Yaxuan (Yang Chengfu’s most acclaimed student) wrote:
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(Scott Meredith translation)

Li Yaxuan believed that it’s essential to practice against others, testing and developing your skill against others. You can’t develop fighting skills in your own room by yourself. You can’t learn following skills, like adapting to the opponent’s structure or learn to listen to his energy from solo practice.

Tai Chi is meant to use against someone else. It’s meant to be used as self-defence and fighting. Think of Tai Chi Chuan the same way as you learn to use a tool or an instrument. You can’t learn to be good at bowling without practicing with the bowling ball. All movements you perform in the thin air means nothing compared to holding that ball and use it. The same thing goes for learning to play the violin or the piano. You must really practice with the instrument to become good.

You learn the correct balance and alignment not when you practice form without any martial practice. You learn these qualities when you meet the opponent’s pressure, when you evade from a punch or try a takedown against him. It’s when you practice push hands and sparring you should practice your Tai Chi skills. Practice following and leading against your partner. Learn to handle a push or leading away pressure from your practicing partner. The knowledge you attain from push hands and applications practice is what you should take into your forms, drills and other solo practice. My teacher said that most people practice form as they were statues. But Tai Chi should be a functional form. Practicing a Tai Chi form is not like practicing like you are a statue. It’s like practicing as you were a filled tea pot. A statue just have a stationary weight. But a Tai Chi form should have a functional weight, form and balance. The correct function and balance is what you learn from push hands and applications practice. Then you take that knowledge and fill the form with it. If you don’t have this knowledge to put in the form, practicing your form and your drills will be like carrying around an empty bag. Then you don’t use it for the purpose it was created for.

Practice your forms, drills, meditation, jibengong and solo practice. But don’t believe that this will help you even slightly to apply your movements correctly in push hands or fighting. You need practice push hands again and again, both drills and free push hands against many different people. You need to test applications and combat methods against resisting partners. Only when you can understand how to be insubstantial and formless in different formats of practice and in different competition formats, and have succeeded to keep your Tai Chi body and your Tai Chi mind dealing with many different people in different situations, you can claim to have reached a point where you can truly say that you know how use your Tai Chi Chuan for real.

Also read about how to gradually build Tai Chi combat skills from pressure and testing and what it is like fighting with Tai Chi for real.

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On Tai Chi and Longevity

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The legendary Tai Chi Master Sun Lutang expressed the meaning of Tai Chi as a way to stay healthy long and die fast. He got ill when he was 73 years old. From what I have read, he didn’t want to stay ill or become a burden to his family. So he gathered his students together and willed himself to death.

But there are a lot of other stories and there are Tai Chi teachers who became very old and stayed strong and healthy the whole of their life. I recently watched a video with a Tai Chi teacher I had for twenty years ago. Here he was 85 years old. He had a little bit of stiffness in his back, but otherwise, he looked very strong and moved very well for a man of his age. Tai Chi seems to preserve the strength of the body and slow down aging.

I met another teacher, a Chinese man, for more than 20 years ago. I am not sure how old he was. There were stories about his age, that he was very old and much older than he looked. He didn’t want to speak about his age. I looked up some information about him and through what I found and also from his own stories, I made the conclusion that he must have been at least 70 years old. This was his minimum age. I talked with another person who was a teacher in gymnastics and had studied physiology. He was convinced that this Chinese teacher can not be older than 50. Why? Because you can see it in  the bone structure. He explained that you can preserve the skin very well, but the bones will keep changing and that you can make a good appreciation of someone’s age through looking at his bones. But I remember this teacher’s stories, about his childhood and details from the early 1930’s. Even if he had very early memories, he must have been at least 70 years old. This man was quite short, but had a tremendous energy. When he walked, everyone had a hard time to keep up with his speed. No one of these two teachers practiced anything else than Tai Chi Chuan.

Some of what you see from old Tai Chi teachers might of course be a combination of living style, foods, genes and the practice.  Speaking of myself, I started studying Tai Chi at quite a young age, only 11 years old. All of my friends that started practicing when they were about my age all look very young and healthy. We are all in our forties now. Our bodies are still strong and we don’t get ill easily. Our skin is smooth, the women have little wrinkles and the men have suffered no or almost no hair loss. Tai Chi practice seems to have an effect of conservation of the body. It keeps the strength of the body and seems to slow down aging.

One aspect of longevity might be about keeping the body in movement and keeping the mobility of all of the body. The aspect of preserving the body might have to do with the internal practice of using the nervous system, some of it from the meditative aspect to keep the mind calm and focused. Or it might have to do with that you heat up the body from inside with Tai Chi practice. Some people would just say that it has to do with developing the body’s “Qi” and circulating it by using the movements.

Anyway, Tai Chi Chuan seems to be a powerful tool for health and keeping the body  in shape. As I am in my early forties as I write this, I have lost some muscle strength. But my stamina is excellent and I feel in great shape, at least not in less shape than in my 20s or 30s. In fact I can now run a longer distance without getting exhausted than I could in my 20s. Why? Because my legs are stronger and I have learned to use my body better now.

One aspect might be about having a naturally deep breath. As people get older, they tend to breath more shallow. I always breath deep from my belly. Maybe keeping the leg strength through daily low form practice is another aspect. There’s a Chinese saying that age starts in the legs. There might be some truth to this.

But above all, living a healthy long life or not, I do believe that it’s important to really enjoy the Tai Chi practice and have a genuine interest to continually develop it and explore all of it’s aspects. And also to use it as at least one tool to continue to grow as a human being.

Be a friend with your own house.

There are many reasons why people don’t make it very far in their Tai Chi. Some people seem to never really develop or stay as a perpetual beginner for always. Some people don’t have a very deep interest and consider it mostly a physical exercise and practice it just like any other exercise. Others might listen too much their teacher and thereby do all too little thinking by themselves. And some others might just lack the interest to take their art further to higher levels.

Whatever their reasons, I don’t believe that you can truly understand Tai Chi if you are not a good friend to your own body. You really need to learn how to live in your own House. Your body is the place where you grow and develop as a person, and your personal growth is, by my own and others experience, the very key to development and understanding of the Art of T’ai Chi Ch’uan.

T’ai Chi is all about self-knowledge. I remember that when I was much younger, about 17 to 20 years old, I sometimes played with a senior and top student of our teacher. When we played push hands and my hand was on top of his, he said: “Now look, when you touch my hand I don’t feel your hand. I feel my own hand. Tai Chi is about self-knowledge. The better I know myself, the more I have that I can translate into knowledge about my opponent.”

I immediately understood what he meant and his words responded deep inside of me. It was more than twenty years ago, but I remember exactly what he said and how. Back then, I had had some visits to a physical therapist for some trouble with my own body. There was no big trouble, but I have always had a quite high degree of muscular tone, so my reasons to visit her was mostly about stiffness resulting in problems with knees and neck. I lived for a couple of years in a quite small town where I got into touch with this therapist. The interesting thing about this physical therapist was that she had studied for Jacques Dropsy, someone who taught Tai Chi amongst other things and had developed a system for teaching body awareness. He believed that most of the problems we have with our physical body are on at least some level about self-knowledge and lack of body awareness. We don’t know how to live in our own house.

I remember the rather odd exercises this physical therapist had for me. She did exercises with a big medical ball that I would sit on as she pressed me down on it using my shoulders. She also had a smaller ball that she would press against the sides of my body as I lied down on a mattress facing down. This and other things she offered was about learning how to feel my own body better. All of this therapy resulted in a more relaxed body and that all of the problems I’ve had eventually were gone. I had already studied Tai Chi for about six or seven years, but it was not enough for me to deal with the problems I had.

There are not many, but still quite a few books, about body knowledge and how to develop it through similar exercises that I went through. Jacques Dropsy have published a couple of books, but they seem to be not available in English, though his method, B-BAT is practiced and well known in many places. The Feldenkrais Method might be the most well known for English speaking countries, though I haven’t read much of this work or practiced it. Another fascinating book that I have read is a classic from 1977, The body Has It’s Reasons. (If you have other suggestions on literature, please write them in the comments).

I won’t preach much about the benefits about exercises and training concerning body awareness. You will better understand the needs of your own body which can mean a better health. But there are general benefits to it, like being a happier person that have more control over one’s own life. The point of developing a better self-knowledge is always about how to become a better friend with yourself and to your own body.

The theory that is shared by many practitioners and teachers of similar schools is that things like bad memories and pain is stored inside of the body, maybe as a part of the muscle memory, and can cause different problems for the individual. Therefore, for some people a deeper therapy is necessary, especially for learning how to forgive yourself and those responsible for shaping who you are. And ultimately, after dealing with the issues that is stuck inside of your body, you can learn how to better live together with yourself inside your own house, i.e. become a better friend to your own body. You really need this kind of friendship in order to progress far in any bodily, physical art. Otherwise, your body won’t learn what you want or need to learn. And then you can not use your own body efficiently to reflect your own knowledge about your Art. Because it all, whatever you learn and is taught, starts and end as a knowledge within your own body.

For this cause, T’ai Chi Ch’uan is obviously one important tool of many available, and for myself Tai Chi is the very best and most important tool you can have, one that you can use to learn how to understand yourself better, to develop self-knowledge and body awareness. But sometimes it’s also good to learn other methods that can reflect what the nature of Tai Chi really is, but from other perspectives. Even if you don’t stick with any other of the alternative methods, anything you can learn as Yoga or dance, will deepen your own understanding of your own house and thus deepen your own understanding of everything about yourself, and in the end, also about your T’ai Chi Ch’uan.

Keeping The Center – Zhongding

There’s a concept in T’ai Chi that is most often translated into “Central Equilibrium”. The name of the principle is Zhongding and in T’ai Chi this is also one of the five directions, or the center from where all of the other directions derive. If you turn on the spot to face the left, you have established four new directions. So you don’t only move from this place, but it’s the place from where you organize the space, directions and distance around you.

But why this name and these characters? Isn’t “zhong” enough? To have this called Central Equilibrium you must keep the center intact. The absolute center is your own centerline, the vertical middle of your body, from the top of your head down to the bottom of your base. You must always consider this centerline.

In the beginning when you start to practice, you need to learn how to move and walk straight, to feel your own center and how to keep it always. Later when you understand the very basic of keeping the centerline intact, you can start with a more free shape. You will understand that if your body is balanced, you can keep the centerline even when leaning or using spine movement.

Practically, from a martial perspective, you must always know how to keep the integrity of the center and know how to immediately return to this center if you lose it. Think about Badminton or Tennis court. For every ball you return, you must consider the center of the court and return to it. Just as fast as the racket meets the ball, you must consider going back to the center. If you get too far out to the corners, it will take a longer time and it will be harder to position you again. Something similar goes for T’ai Chi as well. If you play pushing hands or fight, it’s the same. I.e. you must always consider your own center, but your own internal center and how the movements derives from there. However, in T’ai Chi, you should never leave your own center. You must learn to always keep it so you can be free and move in any direction at any point and whenever you wish.  But if you are forced to compromise the integrity of your balance or of your center, you must consider taking it back as soon as possible. If you reach too far out with your limbs, or lean too much so you lose the control of the centerline, you must still be aware of it and take charge of your own middle as soon as possible. Then again, you can have mobility in all the five directions. Preserving control of the balance and of the centerline no matter what, you can always have mobility whenever you need in what direction you need.

Also please read: On Integrity

And Now: To Something Completely Different… (Some personal reflections on the future)

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Nowadays I don’t write very often on this blog. And I write very seldom on it with just a few days in between. From working with other blogs and different homepages, I have learned that if you want to develop a blog consistency is the key. You should write on a regular basis and keep the same quality on everything you put in. People need to know what to expect if they are going to return frequently.

But developing a well visited blog with tons of frequent visitors has never been my goal with this blog.  I just use it like a diary or a note-book. I put down my thoughts here to collect them. Sometimes when I start writing a blog post, it turns into something completely different. Just like this post. I planned to write about Daoism in daily life. I’ll return to it later, don’t worry.

Besides sporadically keep up writing down more random thoughts on this blog, I also plan one or a few books about Tai Chi. So I use this blog to sum up my ideas and test them to myself and expose them for readers. It’s interesting to see what has interested the readers these few years, how they have searched for the information and found this blog and what they like. This blog is very personal. It’s all about my own view and my personal thoughts. And if I really write a book or two about Tai Chi, they will also not become commercial mainstream books. But they, or at least the first book I plan, will be very, very personal and be about Tai Chi solely from my own personal perspective and experience.

The best teacher I’ve had said to me that I shouldn’t take Tai Chi too seriously, that I was young and had a lot of time to explore and develop the art. Very wise words to someone who live with this art 24/7 and thinks about it every day and how to develop it further… Still, at least for some periods, I have been struggling to keep practicing. Today, I know that I will carry with me this art as long as I live and I will continue practicing. Yet, I feel stronger than ever before that there is indeed a fight, but that it’s a fight that goes deeper. How can I preserve and develop my knowledge into tools that I can give to others? I don’t know. I’ve learned a lot that I can’t fully handle yet. I have started to practice more active, found some old friends that I can practice with. If I am ever going to start a new group again I don’t know. First, I want to explore further how to better share some certain parts of my knowledge, how to develop those tools for what I want to do. Maybe writing that book I plan will be a good start. I don’t know. The future is constantly changing. So we’ll see what the future have to offer…

…I will expect nothing else except for the best…