I have already written down my thoughts about cross-training and combining different styles in Tai Chi Chuan. One of my conclusions was that you need to be a bit careful and make sure that that the different things you practice compliment each other instead of obstructing each other.
But there are also other reasons to practice different styles and for cross-training that I didn’t address there. And this isn’t really limited to other martial arts styles, but to different kinds of practice and body movement in general. You see, exploring different ways of using your body is mostly good and there are very few exceptions when it’s not.
There are so many ways you can explore your own body movement. You really don’t need to practice different martial arts styles to do this. Many Tai Chi Chuan practitioners try Yoga, meditation, and of course different types of Qigong comes close to what we do in Tai Chi. Different forms of dance and other types of body movement arts are good in order to reach a better understanding of your own body. A better understand of your body always means better body awareness which is something that can greatly enhance and deepen your tai chi practice.
You will find similar principles used in Tai Chi body movement also in fine arts, as in Chinese calligraphy and painting, ceramics and in different types of music and handicraft. Many Tai Chi practitioners practice things as juggling, learning balance tricks and magic with cards and coins. Many sports where you coordinate different tools and objects are great to learn from. The first sports I myself come to think about are Bowling and Pool games, sports where you coordinate an object in very specific ways.
From all of these things you can better understand different ways of coordinating your own body, different ways of using hand movement, using leverage handling tools etc. etc. Some things that you can practice and combine with your tai chi with, will deepen your understanding of your own body, so it will enhance your solo practice. Other forms of training that teaches you how to use tools in different ways, can help you to better understand things as angles and leverage for push hands and applications training.
You might not believe that you need something “extra” or that your own body movement is limited in different ways. But the truth is that we are all limited in different ways, and that it is very hard to look at ourselves from the outside. Sometimes, teachers try to tell us things and correct what we do. But still many people have a hard time to listen and accept what a teacher or others tell them. We do have a hard time to understand where we lack or need improvement. Often, we just don’t want to accept them.
Teachers are good, preferably teachers who are very tough and not afraid to tell you right in your face that you suck, and in details explain why. But still better is often to understand by trial and error. Here we can learn from ourselves without having the ego standing between us and a teacher. This is why trying different body methods and developing different body skills is good. Your own body will not lie or try to be kind to you.
I remember when I was about 19 years old. It was in the last year in high school and I participated in a theatre class. We had a weekend course, I don’t know the english name, but it was an old physical theatre and comedy tradition with an origin from medieval times. We did things as acrobatics and juggling.
I really thought that I would be the best to learn juggling fastest in the group. After all, I had already studied Tai Chi for a long time, many years. And Tai Chi body movement is based on coordination skills. Oh, so wrong I was. In fact, I was the worst and had most trouble in the whole group learning it. Why? How was this possible? I just couldn’t separate my arm movements from my feet, hip and waist. When I throw up the balls, I would use whole body movement. My waist and hip turned, so that the juggling balls would go too far to the left and to the right, making it very hard to catch them.
I tried many times, I sucked. And it took a long time for me to understand what I did wrong. Moving with my whole body together was the most natural way to move. But now I found that I had even lost the ability to separate my arm movements from the rest of the body!
There are many ways to understand your own limitations and to learn better what you need to improve. One of the best ways is to find types of body movement which are completely opposite to how you are used to move your body. You can practice things you know that you are bad at. But still, where you don’t know you lack, it might be very hard to realise the limitation. If you have never seen the color red, you would not know that it exists.
If you don’t know about a limitation, you don’t know that it exists. So to test different types of exercises, and ways to use your body to come to a better understanding of your own limitations, often needs an approach with a certain kind of randomness. So learning and testing different things with an open mind randomly, just because “you can”, is a very good approach.
The things you explore can either be larger sets of exercises, or isolated skill sets for specific body parts. It doesn’t matter much what you practice as long as you learn and study your body in a way you feel rewarding. And here comes the part of cross-training, or practicing different martial arts styles.
You don’t need to become good in different styles, or learn much from them at all. But you can take out different things from different arts, exercises, sets, methods, and treat those things just the way you would treat an isolated skill set as juggling, or any other isolated skill sets for a specific type of body movement.
When I was about 20 – 22 years old, I had the opportunity to try another Chinese Internal Martial Art – Baguazhang. This was a Cheng style variation and I liked this art very much. I had already practiced Tai Chi for more than ten years, mostly Yang style, and Baguazhang taught me another type of body movement. A smoother, more lively type of moving.
The body coordination was different, and the overall body posture as well. My Tai Chi training had taught me a type of balanced straight body posture with a straight spine. But the Bagua emphasised the body’s natural curvature. it represented a more lively and in some respects more natural and unrestricted way to move. The whole practice was beneficial to may Tai Chi and I progressed further in my Tai Chi after studying Bagua.
I tried and studied a few more different Bagua Styles after Cheng style and later also Xingyi. I don’t do these styles any longer for different reasons. I might write more about these experiences later. Tai Chi has always been my main focus and I believe it’s better to focus on one art if you want to become really good in something.
You can think about different martial arts as different ways of using the body, in a way similar to playing different instruments. I’ve heard about master musicians in either piano, violin and other instruments. But I have never heard about one of those top musicians being able to handle two or three different instruments the same way and become just as good in all of them.
There’s something similar in the Martial Arts. Don’t believe that you can become equally good and reach a high level in two or three different martial arts styles. Many people combine Tai Chi with Bagua, Xingyi (excuse me for mixing different methods of romanisation) or even Wing Chun. Some people believe that it’s good to practice all of the three internal “sister arts”, or Tai Chi, Bagua and Xingyi all together.
But there is always one style that will take over and color the others. Some do their bagua and xingyi as they were tai chi. Some people do tai chi as it was bagua or wing chun. Or even as Karate. They will never tap into the real essence of more than one style. And sometimes, they will never understand the real flavour of any of the arts they practice. Each and everyone of their styles will, in the best cases, be something “in between” all of the styles they practice.
Again, there is nothing wrong in practicing different arts or cross-train in some periods of your life. But you still need a certain focus and know what types of skill sets you want to develop and what types of body movement that you want to develop. So, in my own humble opinion, it’s better to treat other styles as different isolated ways to test your own body knowledge. Maybe you can find some things, exercises or methods, that you can use to train your own body, so it will enhance your body movement. Those things can teach you to use your body better in many different ways regardless what your goal is.
So: Find every way to explore your own weaknesses, but don’t lose your focus.