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|1) What constitutes a "T'ai-Chi" movement?|
|2) Why are there so many different styles of T'ai-Chi and how are they different?|
|3) What is the "Ripple of Power"?|
|4) What is Chi-Kung and how does it differ from T'ai-Chi?|
|5) How does one measure success in T'ai-Chi?|
|6) Where does Pushing Hands fit into the overall T'ai-Chi training?|
How do the different levels of Bone,
and Spiritual work apply to Pushing Hands?
|8) What is the difference between tradition based T'ai-Chi and principle based T'ai-Chi?|
|9) Why is T'ai-Chi done so slowly? How does this relate to martial arts?|
|10) What is the role of emotions and emotional work in T'ai-Chi training?|
|11) What is the purpose of weapons training in T'ai-Chi?|
|12) What injuries or illnesses can T'ai-Chi practice help?|
There are many different styles of T'ai-Chi and many
different approaches to T'ai-Chi within those styles. This can be
quite confusing. What is considered "correct" in one style
is considered "incorrect" in another. One teacher insists
on a certain way of doing a movement, another teacher insists that
one should never do the movement that way.
Gao Fu, a Chen style master, was asked this question: What makes a T'ai-Chi movement a T'ai-Chi movement? Her reply was that if the intent leads the energy and the energy leads the muscles and bones then it's a T'ai-Chi movement. If the mind goes directly to the muscles and bones, bypassing the energetic level, then it's an ordinary movement. I like this definition because it's principle-based rather than tradition or form based. It also implies that in order to feel into the inherent balance underlying the surface of anything (T'ai-Chi means essentially unforced balance) I have to surrender to that holistic body intelligence that I call "energy". I can't force it or have it on my own terms. I don't make it happen, I allow it to emerge. I don't train to increase this balance since that is impossible. I train to increase my experience of that balance and innate intelligence, to give it more avenues through which to express itself and because it's a pleasure to participate in the movement of the universe.
This is a pretty abstract definition. Practically speaking I would also add that a good T'ai-Chi movement should be rooted in the feet and powered primarily by the legs. The waist should direct that leg generated power with some degree of turning. The power should move up the spine and gather strength between the shoulder blades and finally issue out the arms to the hands. This is easily said, but in practice many T'ai-Chi practitioners end up powering their movements with their waists or arms. If the waist powers the movement, the root usually ends up being in the pelvic floor instead of the feet. This usually results in knee problems as the legs are not grounded and end up twisting. If the movements are powered by the arms one ends up with so-called "local strength". Local strength means the arms move separately from the ripple or wave of power coming up from the feet and legs. Gao-Fu's definition is profound but general. It implies that in order to improve my experience of personal and universal balance, not to mention martial ability, I need to stop forcing the muscles and bones through the use of will power. I need to relax into the "energy" level of awareness and let the muscles and bones follow. The second definition from the "Tai-Chi Classic Writings" is more down to earth. It points to a sequence of attention within the movements, a sequence or wave of energy that will move through the body. This sequencing of the movement is based on the design of the human body which in turn was shaped by Nature to allow balanced movement on this planet. Though T'ai-Chi (the principle of underlying unforced balance ) is universal, it would look totally different on another planet. Even here on Earth the creatures of the Deep Sea move totally differently from the creatures of the Amazon Jungle and yet all express an inner balance.
are there so many different styles of T'ai-Chi and how are they different?
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T'ai-chi itself is a universal
principle of Nature, the law of ultimate balance between the energies
of Yin and Yang. The various styles of T'ai-Chi Ch'uan represent different
training methods designed to increase the student's experience of
this balance as well as to increase the student's ability to use this
law of Nature in self-defense. The training methods comprise solo
exercises (usually called "forms") , partner sensitivity
exercises (usually called "pushing hands") and various martial
sparring exercises. Each style emphasizes different ways of doing
these exercises and different aspects of T'ai-Chi.
The two styles of T'ai-Chi that I am most familiar with are the Yang family style and the Chen family style. In fact the form that I teach could rightly be called a hybrid of the two, or a Chen "flavored" Yang form. The Yang family form tends to emphasize large circular flowing movements as well as "Ward-off" energy. Ward-off energy is circular and self protective. It is what makes it hard to push a beach ball under water at the beach. You try to push the ball under but the center spins and ball always squirts out to one side. In practice Yang style students tend to stay at one height through most of the form. The arms are held more or less constantly in large circular protective circles. The size of the various postures stays fairly constant and there is very subtle if any expansion and contraction within the movements. The Chen style on the other hand emphasizes a kind of "ripple of power" inside the movements. There is twisting, spiraling, opening, closing, rising, falling, expansion and contraction within every movement. Waist turning is also more pronounced in the Chen style. Watching a Chen form to me is like watching a mountain stream:lots of graceful twists and turns, sudden slow spots, sudden rushing fast spots, lots of ups and downs, all smooth and flowing endlessly to the next bigger stream. Watching a Yang form is to me more like watching a big river:slow graceful power, evenly paced, no ups and downs, large swirling pools, endlessly flowing to the sea.
I was originally trained in the "Double Yang" style system of Grand Master Tchoung Ta-Tchen. Master Tchoung's lineage was closer to the original Chen style of T'ai-Chi and as such had more rise and fall, more opening and closing, and more rising and falling than the typical Yang style form. In addition he studied Bagua and Hsing-I, sister arts to T'ai-chi, that both emphasize spiraling as well as rising and falling. He put together a symmetrical Yang style system which included movements from Bagua, Hsing-I as well as from his own experience and research in the internal arts.
When I later studied the Chen style I realized how closely related Master Tchoung's Yang style really was to its pre curser. While I enjoyed the Chen style training I found that I loved the Chen emphasis more than I enjoyed the actual form. What I decided to do was to continue with my Double Yang style practice and research while incorporating as much of the Chen emphasis as I could. Master Tchoung's system was "Chen-ish" to begin with so this felt like a natural development.
is the "Ripple of Power?"
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(also called the "Wave of Power") is an internal sequence
of focus as well as an external visible physical motion. It is rooted
in the feet, powered by the legs, directed by the waist, released
by the spine, and expressed by the arms and hands. In traditional
Yang style students tend to stay on the same level or height throughout
the form. This lack of rise and fall within the movements can hamper
the ripple or wave of power. Another thing that can interfere with
the ripple is the "whole body moving simultaneously" idea.
Maybe at high levels during fa-jin (energy issuing) the whole body
seems to "explode" at once. But in the solo form, where
the real body timing training happens, I think it's much, much better
to focus on the ripple sequence than on the whole body moving together.
In my experience even at my fastest I'm still moving in sequence,
not all at once. Still another problem is powering the movements
from the waist. The waist "helps" power some movements
(parting horse's mane and cloud hands are good examples) . But
the operative word is "helps". The real power starts in
the legs. If that leg power is there, what the waist ends up doing
is adding to it when the ripple reaches the waist. The arms and
hands can help too, adding power when the ripple reaches them. A
common mistake is jumping the gun, that is, adding waist or arm
power before the ripple from the legs gets there. If the ripple
starts in the waist or arms it still has some power but not nearly
as much as when it starts in the legs and is then helped by these
higher up areas.
When we speak of intent or tiny set up movements I do think the movements can start in the waist, but that doesn't mean that power starts in the waist. Even when the intent starts in the tan tien (naval center) it still has to move energy down to the legs to really start the power ripple back up again. Without the ripple (or wave) of power, what one ends up with is an attempt to coordinate the legs, waist and arms simultaneously. This is coordinated local strength and is often visibly stiff or robotic looking. With the wave, T'ai-Chi has a smooth "from the inside out" look that resembles a time-lapse movie of a flower opening.
What is Chi-Kung and how does it differ from T'ai-Chi?
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There are many different styles of Energy Work, or Chi-Kung as it's called in Chinese. Anytime you are accessing, cultivating or circulating energy and using breath, movement and posture to do this, you are doing Chi-Kung. Where there is special emphasis on body structure, body conditioning and/or self-defense, you are said to be doing "martial" Chi-Kung. T'ai-Chi Ch'uan is actually just a martial form of Chi-Kung. There are many different ways to approach Chi-Kung. The way I teach Chi-Kung is to direct an exploration into it's basic principles. I don't focus on memorizing specific movements or meridians or directing energy to specific organs. This, I was taught, is too forceful. Instead, I begin by focusing on good posture and alignment. When the basic posture is correct, I focus on relaxing the muscle layer of the body. When the body is aligned and relaxed then I focus on suspending the joints and feeling into the breath. When the body is aligned and relaxed, the joints open and suspended, the breath full and unimpaired, then the energies of the body can move freely. Rather than focusing on "directing" this energetic traffic with force or will power, I focus on repairing and widening all the "roads" so that the "traffic" can go where it needs to go without using force. If some directing of traffic is needed, for instance in T'ai-Chi Ch'uan's solo forms and martial applications, the directing is done with the minimum amount of force necessary. Whether I'm teaching a standing meditation, a focused "Chi-Kung" exercise, or a complicated T'ai-Chi form this same principle-based approach is applied. First I focus on the basic posture and structure of the exercise, then on relaxing the muscles, then on suspending the joints and opening into the breathing, and finally on feeling into the whole body as a movement of energy.
How does one measure success in T'ai-Chi?
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People do this in different
ways. Within each style success tends to be defined by how well
a person conforms to the dictates of that particular style. I tend
to judge "success" in T'ai-Chi by how well a person embodies
it's principles, either in the art itself or in their lives. There
are also tournaments where forms are rated and Pushing Hands competitions
are held. Personally, I'm not that interested in tournaments. Forms
are just forms. The T'ai-Chi within the form is what's important
to me. Where there is a lot of energy and focus on doing the form
"right", or better than someone else, the T'ai-Chi tends
to suffer. People pay too much attention to the outer surface of
the form and lose touch with the internal principles of the art.
T'ai-Chi was not developed as a performance art. It was developed
as a martial art, a spiritual practice and an energy balancing health
maintenance system. When one is ultra-conscious of being watched
and judged for correctness, tension tends to build up. It can be
valuable to learn how to relax in a "performing" situation
and there are other benefits to form competitions. I'm not against
them, just not that interested in them.
I'm also not that interested in Pushing Hands competitions for similar reasons. People tend to view Pushing Hands as an end in itself rather than as a stepping stone in the overall T'ai-chi training. The basic "rules" of Push Hands are simple. Two people square off facing each other and try to off balance each other. As a training method this game increases sensitivity, awareness, and balance. One learns to neutralize incoming force as well as to issue force of one's own. However, when "winning" this game is all that matters it can quickly degenerate into a shoving match.
For me the game is not just to off balance the other person, but to do it with as little excess force as possible. In other words to do it with T'ai-Chi rather than with brute force. With this emphasis, the game becomes more cooperative and educational. I still play to "win" but with much less ego investment. My main goal is to learn about T'ai-Chi not to beat the other person. When the goal is to win at all costs a person usually takes deep, very grounded but not very mobile stances. This is especially true in tournaments where "off balancing" is defined by whether or not you can make your opponent move their feet. One ends up putting a lot of training into not moving one's feet. For me, martially, this is self defeating. I want to be able to move my feet!
When I practice or teach Pushing Hands I like to take a fairly small stance, maybe shoulder width and length apart. I'm easier to push but much more mobile. To neutralize a good push I have to be a lot more sensitive and grounded than if I was relying on a big deep stance to root me. I get pushed more but I learn more and, if I want to, I can always take a deeper stance and be more "unmovable". Using this method, stepping is not my first response but is permitted in the course of a good balanced push or neutralization. If my partner gives me a push and I have to stumble or step to reclaim my balance then they "got me" and I have something to focus on learning. If they push me and I step because I felt it coming and stepping is how I'm choosing to neutralize it, while keeping my balance the whole time, then it's fine. Another way this approach is more cooperative and educational than others is that if my partner pushes me successfully, I'll ask him to repeat that push over and over until I "solve" it. That is, come up with a successful way to neutralize or counter it. If I push my partner successfully I'll do the same thing. I'll repeat that push until they "solve" it. This way we both get better and have to be better in order to push the other person.
An entirely different way to judge success in T'ai-Chi is not how good a person is at the art itself but how well they learn from the art. Some students will never be great at the forms and exercises but will really learn from and benefit from the training in their lives. Other students will have great forms and self defense skills but not be very adept at integrating the T'ai-Chi principles into their lives.
Still another way to judge success in T'ai-Chi is one that is often neglected in our ambitious goal oriented culture. Many talented T'ai-Chi students loose touch with why they are practicing in the first place. Intent on "getting better" at the forms they have a grim workaholic attitude devoid of pleasure. A simple way to "rate" someone's T'ai-Chi to notice how much they enjoy their practice.
does Pushing Hands fit into the overall T'ai-Chi training?
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The solo form teaches
good posture, muscle relaxation, awareness of energy pathways and
a kind of inner surrender. All of these things are learned in the
context of studying the body in motion and at rest with nothing
more than gravity acting on it. At a certain point in the training
it is difficult if not impossible to deepen one's balance without
some kind of partner work, some kind of relational training involving
not only the body and gravity but also another person. This is where
Pushing Hands comes in. If you are studying T'ai-Chi as a personal
health or development practice, the Push Hands training will deepen
and strengthen that practice. Through the exercises and games of
Push Hands your resistance and off balance areas will be exposed
in new ways that are all but impossible to detect without partner
work. With the added stress of another person pushing on your structure
weaknesses are revealed. This is true of any system when stress
is applied, the weakest areas fail first. As these areas are exposed,
the Push Hands training is a safe place to address them. You will
become more balanced through the process of strengthening under-energized
muscles and relaxing overly tense ones.
If you are studying T'ai-Chi with an eye to developing self defense skills as well as for personal development the Push Hands training has the added benefit of developing martial sensitivity. You will learn to feel another's center and to really sense the potential opponent as a three dimensional being. Such skills as yielding, sticking, pushing, pulling, grounding, tracking, warding off, rolling back and pressing all take on a martial significance. The next step is to move on to more martial partner work (partner forms and free sparring) . At this level the issuing and neutralizing skills are applied to striking and kicking, rather than just pushes. The training then focuses on moving faster with more and more martial intent while staying as aligned and relaxed as possible.
The ultimate goal of T'ai-Chi is to respond to whatever happens in life with a natural unforced ease, to use as little unnecessary force as possible. The Push Hands training is a valuable step in developing this unforced balance.
do the different levels of Bone, Muscle, Energy, and
Spiritual work apply to Pushing Hands?
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The Bone level of work
in Pushing Hands is focused on learning the basic exercises. This
involves foot positions, weight distribution, hand positions and
waist turning. My attention is primarily on where the skeleton is
at each stage of the movement. This involves attention to alignment,
especially in the hips and waist. Misalignment in these two areas
often results in injury and/or inefficient issuing of energy when
pushing. Another aspect to the Bone level as I teach it is that
when pushing I use a healthy amount of strength. Here I learn how
much strength will actually move my partner. This technique is actually
too "Yang", and uses too much force, but it's a great
learning tool. Using good alignment and posture, I use too much
strength intentionally. The goal is to really feel what it takes
to push the other person, as well as where and how to apply that
push. When neutralizing a push, at this level, I take the push into
my skeleton. My alignment is tested and developed as the stress
of the push is absorbed into my body structure. There is some emphasis
on yielding and softness but at the Bone Level I'm focused on feeling
into and developing grounding and taking pushes into my core structure.
The last line of defense around my body's center is the skeleton
and this is what I strengthen during Bone Level work.
When the skeleton is well aligned and strong, and I can both push from and ground into that structure, then I can move to the Muscle Level work. Here I focus on relaxation and softness. I work to do the same exercises with as little unnecessary force as possible. As I push I work to use timing and technique rather than brute strength. As I receive pushes, rather than let the force into my last line of defense (the skeleton) I work to neutralize the push at the level of the muscles. In effect, my bone structure protects my body's center and my muscle layer protects my bones. This way if a push manages to move past the muscle layer it still has to get past the bone structure to off balance my whole body. In order to do this I must begin to develop "listening energy". This is a high level of softness and attentiveness to what the other person is doing in order to respond to it in time. I also have to develop a balance between the motor nerves (Yang energy associated with muscle action) , and the sensory nerves (Yin energy associated with listening and gathering information) . When I am acting it is hard to listen, and when I am listening it is hard to act. Thus, I must develop a kind of intelligence that can sense into the right time for listening and the right time for acting. This is not something that can be "figured out" consciously and getting stuck in trying to do so is a major pitfall in this training. I have to learn to surrender to an innate intelligence that figures out the timing and balance automatically. I end up doing this, of course, by trying to figure it out, trial and error, and finally surrendering to my inner T'ai-Chi "sense". Much of the Muscle Level work in T'ai-Chi is releasing unnecessary tension and force, finding simpler, easier, more relaxed ways of moving, and in general doing less with better timing.
The Energy Level work involves developing even more sensitivity. Here I want to neutralize the push at the level of the skin. At the very beginning of the partner's push, I feel it loading up and apply a push of my own. The skin protects the muscle, the muscle protects the bones and the bones protect the center. In the same way I listen for the best moment to push. The mind merges with the energy level of body awareness to form a field of intelligence with well trained muscles and bones at it's disposal. This level of work is paradoxical because it's not something I can "work" on in the usual sense. My intent guides energy but doesn't absolutely control it. I refer to, but am not attached to, the lessons I have learned. Surrendering to the needs and direction of the moment become more important than training rules. This is the level where I surprise myself by executing techniques that I don't "know" and "How did I do that?" moments abound.
The Spiritual Level of work is even more paradoxical because I am both present and absent in the work at the same time. This level happens when a certain ripeness occurs, rather than when I try to make it happen. Rather than consciously guiding my intent, I surrender it to Life's intent. Something bigger than "me" is directing the movements and yet I am not on autopilot or asleep. "I" am there but in a transparent way. Rather than filtering everything that happens through the collected experiences and memories that I call "myself", I am with what is happening as it's happening. I and my story are not gone, they're just not interfering with what's going on. This level is not taught so much as shown now and then. It is not a personal attainment, it is a gift from Life. It shines through all of us at one time or another. T'ai-Chi is more of a laboratory for seeing how I block this grace than a system to "get there".
is the difference between tradition based T'ai-Chi and principle
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based T'ai-Chi is focused on treating the forms and exercises
of past teachers as a kind of living gospel, written in stone,
not to be changed, that must be forever duplicated exactly as
the teachers did them. The emphasis is on form replication, with
innovation being left to the occasional genius who of course faces
constant opposition from the old guard. In principle based T'ai-Chi
the forms and exercises of the past are treated with respect but
are seen as only the containers of the T'ai-Chi not the T'ai-Chi
itself. What really matters in principle based T'ai-Chi is how
well the principles are embodied not how perfectly the outer forms
My teacher Andy Dale writes that he can feel the spirit and "signature" energies of the people who created and modified the forms he studies. As he practices Master Tchoung's form he claims to able to feel Master Tchoung's energy. Although I studied a bit with Master Tchoung, when I practice his form I feel mainly Andy's energy since I studied mainly under Andy. As I research and teach the art I leave my own mark on the form as I pass it on. In principle based T'ai-Chi I feel my own teacher's spirit the strongest and each ancestor's impact a little less as they go back in time. I think it is inevitable that the living spirit of each teacher's work will disappear as time goes by. It may be strongly felt by students for only a generation or two. This means for the art to survive I must discover it fresh, tasting the spirit of my teachers, but ultimately recreating it wholly in the present living moment-NOW. This is why I think that tradition based arts are doomed to becoming dead museum pieces and principle based arts at least have a chance of staying alive.
In tradition based arts the student is encouraged (or pressured ) to do the impossible:stop the passage of time and preserve forever the work of the "Master". In principle based arts the student is encouraged (hopefully not pressured) to use the work of the "Master" to inspire and breathe life into a fresh discovery of the art. In discovering the art anew I inevitably bring my own discoveries, energies, personality and ego into the mix as well. The art, as a consequence, does not stay the same. The principles seem to be eternal but the art is always evolving and looking different. Since the universe is all about change and we (including our entire planet) all are going to die anyway, why put so much energy into preserving the exact forms developed by people in the past? That path seems futile, doomed to failure. Why not see through the various expressions of the principles to the principles themselves? Then we can do what the "Masters" did in the first place which was to let the principles shape their forms rather than the other way around.
Participating in life, being a living conscious expression of some of it's governing principles, in other words, being here while I'm here, seems much more interesting to me than trying to stop time from passing. I can't say that preserving traditions is wrong only that it doesn't interest me nearly as much as the living truth of the moment. To feel into that living moment the traditions can be helpful. Adhering to solid stances can be helpful to beginners, but sooner or later this must give way to developing a more flexible responsiveness if the student is to improve.
is T'ai-Chi done so slowly? How does this relate to martial arts?
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is done slowly so the student has time to study and refine what
I call the Bone, Muscle, Energy and Spirit levels of body awareness.
Moving fast or quickly while trying to maintain good posture or
a relaxed centeredness can be extremely difficult if not dangerous.
Many martial arts injuries, particularly with beginners, occur
because the student is moving too fast, without attention to good
posture and alignment. I call this skipping the Bone level of
work and rushing into Muscle or Energy level work. The slowness
of good T'ai-Chi training can prevent injuries and even help rehabilitate
old ones. Moving slowly and paying attention to T'ai-Chi principles
(like not using excessive force) can be very healing for the
body and mind.
Another reason for moving slowly while learning T'ai-Chi has to do with learning the proper body timing for each movement or technique. In the style that I teach (Double Yang Style) I focus on developing a sequence or wave of force that is rooted in the feet, powered by the legs, directed by the waist and expressed by the hands. Moving slowly, I can study this ripple of energy passing through the body. I can relax and remove blocks of tension and misalignment so the ripple becomes smoother and more powerful. Rather than being "on" or "off", I can learn to put all of my muscles and joints on "dimmer switches". This way the gradation of tone in the muscles as well as how open or closed the joints are is more "nuanced" and appropriate to the situation I find myself in. This "dimmer switch" principle is nearly impossible to learn while moving quickly. I need time to settle into postures, sinking into the legs as if they were 1000 coiled springs, and releasing that coil into the next issuing movement with just the right amount of force. Eventually, when this pathway is relaxed and natural, I can begin to move faster and faster bringing everything I've learned with me. This is like clearing a mountain path before running full speed on it. Imagine running that path at full speed and trying clear it of stones and branches at the same time! This is what beginners are often asked to do in the martial arts and why injuries are so common.
Still another reason for the slowness of T'ai-Chi training is that moving slowly brings up all of my resistance to being present with what is going on in and around my body. All kinds of tension patterns and suppressed emotions can surface when I just slow down, breathe and relax. By learning to release these contractions slowly, gradually, at a comfortable pace I can become more relaxed and centered. This is as helpful in work and play as it is in martial situations. Instead of turning away from what is happening in life, because it is painful or reminds me of past injuries, I can develop a habit of meeting what is happening face on. This is the beginning of insight, understanding as well as surrender to Life's movement and intelligence.
I should add that all of the above is contingent on establishing good postural habits right from the start. Moving slowly with misaligned or tightly held joints can actually make injury more likely. Moving slowly can help the student to identify and work on posture problems, but the slowness in itself is less important than the opportunity for heightened attention that slowness brings.
sure what if any role emotional work played in traditional T'ai-Chi
training. I've read books that mention "balancing" the
emotions and the calming effects of T'ai-Chi, but I usually detect
an implied bias against the emotions themselves. In some writings
it's as if having feelings is a disease that needs to be treated.
In my opinion emotions are part of life and are nature's way of helping me survive on this Earth. Fear alerts me to danger, sadness helps me deal with loss, anger helps me be aware of injury or difficulty and helps me mobilize energy to meet challenges. The emotional component of life is ignored at my peril. The problem with emotions, as I see it, is in NOT expressing them. Unexpressed emotions build up and end up becoming expressed in violent and confusing ways. They can also become very distracting and blinding as they seek expression. Emotions are quite tenacious. Once they are set in motion, if not allowed an outlet they will just take one. No matter what I do to stop them;anger, fear, sadness, and their variations will find ways to express themselves. Direct outlets are always healthier for the body. Sometimes in order to serve the needs of the "social body", emotional expression has to be delayed. Even if delayed, the expression itself is always healthier if it is direct. Emotions that are denied expression take indirect routes to the surface. Indirect expressions are confusing to ourselves as well as others. I don't feel angry, but people sense and respond to my underlying anger. I try to be nice but that underlying anger undermines my good intentions. If the feelings are expressed as they come up, or if appropriate, at a later time, my body will be healthier and my "signals" to the world will not be mixed and confusing. I'll feel better in the long run even if I'm somewhat uncomfortable now. My ideal is: If I'm angry, be angry. If I'm sad, be sad. If I'm afraid, be afraid. When I'm done, be done. Feelings will pass if allowed to.
T'ai-Chi training can help with the emotional work of becoming aware of, expressing, and letting go of feelings. As I bring my body into the relaxed, balanced, responsive state of T'ai-Chi, I have to become aware of and release chronic muscular tension. Chronic muscular tension almost always involves suppressed emotions to some degree. T'ai-Chi training is a kind of unwinding of the body's past history in order to be more present now. The sensitivity developed in the unwinding can help with identifying how I am feeling. The agility and suppleness that develops with the training can be very helpful in expressing the feelings once they are identified. The relaxation and centering that develop can help give me the breathing space and perspective that prevents impulsive, destructive expressions of emotion. The goal to me is not to do away with feelings but to find a healthy balance, a state where emotional awareness, expression and appropriateness have equal weight.
is the purpose of weapons training in T'ai-Chi?
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the exception of Master Tchoung's walking cane form, T'ai-Chi
weaponry seems archaic or impractical. Who can walk around with
a sword and what good is one facing a gun? To some degree modern
weapons have made all martial arts obsolete. One of my teacher
Andy Dale's Aikido teachers Saotome Sensei, used to say "Remember
you are not studying this or that technique, you are studying
Aikido. " Aikido translates as "the way of harmonizing
energy". T'ai-Chi Ch'uan translates roughly as "boxing
based on the supreme ultimate harmony of yin and yang energies".
The reason I study T'ai-Chi weaponry is to increase my experience
of T'ai-Chi. Making an inanimate object come to life and obey
my intent, demands that my T'ai-Chi "sense" go much
Each weapon brings it's own challenges and rewards. The broadsword trains big circles, sweeping and slashing cuts and feels like I am in the center of a steel gyroscope. The double-edged sword trains extension of energy out to the tip of the sword, it's movements are refined and swift, with more intricate circling focused on the last few inches of steel. The walking cane set was put together by Master Tchoung to be at least semi-practical in daily life. I can walk around with a cane without being arrested! The cane, since it has no blade, focuses on speed and power of impact. There are elements of the broadsword and double-edged sword in the form but it's energy is more primal and direct.
Each weapon is an extension of and challenge to my balance and centeredness. I seek to embody T'ai-Chi principles and express them through each weapon. As such any weapon, even a gun, can become an "instrument of instruction" in T'ai-Chi.
injuries or illnesses can T'ai-Chi practice help?
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to Traditional Chinese Medicine, disease results from blockages
and "knots" in the energy flow within our bodies. By
encouraging a more open flow of energy internally health is naturally
improved. As we increase the balanced flow of energy within the
body we also become more aware of and connected to the larger
energy flow of Nature. Connected to Nature we have access to an
intuitive intelligence which can help guide us to more and more
balanced, harmonious states of mind and body. Based on my own
experience with T'ai-Chi, I agree with this traditional view.
That said, T'ai-Chi is not some magic bullet which will heal everything under the sun with "chi". While better energy circulation in the body will always improve health, without a regular practice, which includes attention to posture, relaxation and muscle strengthening, "energy" based healings will likely not hold. There is no way around this basic fact: T'ai-Chi practice is work.
Here are some specific illnesses that I've seen improved with T'ai-Chi practice:
T'ai-Chi can help lower blood pressure. This may be due to relaxing the muscle tension that fills so many modern bodies, and developing ways to stay centered during stressful times.
T'ai-Chi can also be helpful with arthritis, as long as there is proper attention to good posture, preferably in a private lesson setting. The sooner a person begins practicing T'ai-Chi the better. I've had senior citizen students who started T'ai-Chi just as their arthritis was becoming noticeable. They did much better and reduced their symptoms more effectively than other students who waited until they were pretty bad off before beginning T'ai-Chi. T'ai-Chi helps arthritis by helping lubricate the joints, strengthening muscles that help support the joints, keeping the body in motion and distributing pressure around the body more evenly, and by increasing overall energy and blood circulation. Another benefit involves shifting the students attention away from their pain and on to the pleasure, such as is available, that comes from moving through the form. This can apply to chronic pain sufferers as well. It's not a matter of ignoring the pain, but of freeing one's attention from the pain.
T'ai-Chi could be particularly helpful in conditions where a person is losing control of their voluntary muscles, like MS or Parkinson's Disease. Aside from the usual benefits of improved posture, circulation, relaxation and body awareness the ability to bypass the usual mind to muscle circuit could be an effective way to prolong life and mobility. In T'ai-Chi, at least the style that I teach, we try to eliminate independent arm and hand movements. The whole body moves the arms and hands with the legs providing the power and the waist acting as the director. As more refined muscle control is lost as the disease progresses, the large muscles of the body (legs and waist) could be used to help the smaller muscles (arms or hands) . I've had limited experience with these conditions but what little I've had encourages me to explore this theory further.
Conditions like Depression and Chronic Fatigue can be helped by T'ai- Chi but both the teacher and the student have to be very patient. The student also has to start T'ai-Chi before they are too weak to take up the practice. I would also recommend private lessons because of the difficulties, both physically and emotionally, involved in working with these conditions. Usually the student needs to be rework their entire body starting from the ground up. This is slow but potentially very rewarding work. I would add that teaching people with these conditions can be very draining on many levels. T'ai-Chi practice can be particularly challenging to long held beliefs and relapses are to be expected. The teacher should be prepared for this from the outset and not be too hopeful or excited when the inevitable initial progress occurs. If possible the student too should be advised that this is a long term project and not a quick fix.
T'ai-Chi is great for recovering from injuries, especially in a private lesson setting. As long as the lessons go at a comfortable pace and there is proper attention to good posture, T'ai-Chi supports overall health from the inside out.
While T'ai-chi can help with all kinds of conditions I think it's main health value is in the prevention of disease. It is an excellent way to gently increase fitness and is ideal for the person with little or no background in movement arts. This is because there is no impact on the joints and the movements are taught and performed slowly with plenty of time to study alignment and proper balance. Moving quickly into a martial art or fitness disciple is responsible for many injuries and discouraged students. The training method of correct T'ai-Chi practice leads to improved posture and balance, strong and relaxed muscles, better circulation and digestion, as well as increased flexibility and body awareness. T'ai-Chi is a mild form of aerobic exercise and at the more advanced levels can be a cardiovascular workout as well.
One final health benefit: T'ai-Chi can be a real pleasure to practice. As I work through the different levels of practice (Bone, Muscle, Energy and Spiritual) there is always a new aspect of T'ai-Chi to enjoy, explore and learn from. It's an often overlooked fact that no exercise is beneficial if a person isn't doing it! The mindful practice of moving in harmony with Nature is inherently challenging and pleasurable. That pleasure and challenge keep me coming back to my practice again and again.