Essentials in Practice.

This is the transcript of a talk I gave at Dr Paul Lamís
January workshop in Sydney.

I want to talk to you this morning about some of the basic principles of tai chi, about what they mean and why we're supposed to follow these principles. Quite a few of you here this week are just beginning tai chi and while you certainly have an interesting path ahead of you, it can sometimes be a complicated and confusing one. There is so much diversity, and so many different answers to the questions. Personally I think thatís all part of the attraction, but to understand it all properly I think we need to look back at the origins of tai chi.

When I first started learning, I thought tai chi was this mysterious moving meditation that somehow, in a way I never really understood, just evolved from old martial art movements. It took a while, and it was quite a revelation for me, to realise there are people out there learning tai chi as a martial art. It was an early morning trip to a park where I watched 2 guys pushing hands that made me see there was a lot more to all this than I'd realised. Just in case you don't know what I mean when I talk about pushing hands, it's an exercise 2 people do together, moving in a circle and taking turns to gently push each other, well, sometimes not so gently. The idea is to develop softness and sensitivity to your opponent's movements so you can learn to yield and deflect, then hopefully unbalance him. It's really just one of the steps along the way of learning self-defence. I think thereís a tendency sometimes to think of push hands as separate from the forms, but really they work together and complement each other. Yet when I went to the park that morning, I'd never seen anything like push hands before. Watching and talking to those 2 helped me see all the so far unexplained things I'd read, about defeating an opponent, in a completely new light.

Sometimes when we read about tai chi, especially some of the classics, it's not easy to understand why we have to do things the way they say. I think that's because we've lost to some degree the real understanding of what tai chi is all about and where it came from. Once you realise they really are talking about a martial art it helps us to better appreciate what itís all about. You don't have to be doing a self defense class, but I found I had a much better understanding of tai chi when it finally sank in that they're talking about a real opponent, it's not just a vague metaphor.

Let's have a quick look at one of those tai chi classics - the ten essential points of Yang Cheng Fu, but before we do that, I think you first have to understand a little about how tai chi works as a martial art. It is in a way the opposite of most martial arts. In tai chi we seek relaxation instead of hardness, we want correct alignment of the body, and balance, so that when your opponent pushes, or punches, or kicks towards us, we can be soft and deflect him. Thereís a saying in tai chi that four ounces can deflect a thousand pounds, and thatís really the basic idea of the art. A gentle shift of the weight, a turn of waist, is all it takes to push aside an incoming force. The idea is to get your opponent to overextend, and then to lose his balance. When he tries to regain his balance, you use his own backward movement by gently pushing him in that direction. Once heís unstable, or "in the emptiness" as they say, itís a relatively simple matter to uproot him. Think about a chair. When the chair is sitting on the ground firmly on all four legs, itís almost impossible to tip it over. But if you take that chair and balance it on one leg, or in other words put it into the emptiness, it takes only a touch to make it fall in any direction! Does that make sense to you? If my opponent is firmly balanced, itís hard for me to do anything with him, but as soon as he loses his stability, I can push him wherever I want without much effort at all. It know that makes it sound easy, but you need to be relaxed, you need to have correct alignment or posture, and you need to have perfect balance and control. That takes a lot of slow practice to achieve, and by the way thatís exactly why we do forms so slowly.

Now, let's take a look at the first of Yangís 10 essential points -

Keep the head upright as if suspended from above

This is usually one of the first things weíre taught but we don't always understand why it's so important. When everything in your posture falls together properly your weight is transmitted down through the feet into the ground, you almost become rooted to the spot and you have excellent control of your balance. But if you're out of alignment, then that introduces stresses, and things don't work together properly. More importantly you lose your balance much more easily. If our heads are not in alignment then the whole body can be thrown out, trying to counter balance. Now to keep your head upright you also need to keep your body upright. Thatís important in itself because as soon as you lean in any direction you can't easily turn and yield. Itís having the upright posture and being relaxed that gives us the freedom to move properly.

Depress the chest and raise the upper back

Depressing the chest means keeping the chest slightly concave. We do this because it makes breathing down to dantien easier, and it's all part of trying to stay as relaxed as possible. Donít stick your chest out, otherwise your breathing is harder and you actually become top heavy. Relaxing the chest helps in turn to relax the rest of the body. Want to try something for me? Throw your shoulders backward and stick your chest out, then take a few deep breaths down to the dan tien. When youíve taken a couple of breaths, relax the shoulders and round them a little. You should notice immediately how much easier it is to breathe all the way down. Doesnít that feel better? If the shoulders are tense your whole body reacts, but once you depress the chest and allow your breath to come easier, the rest of your body relaxes too.

Loosen (relax) the waist

I think this is fairly easy to understand, just not so easy to do. A tense waist makes the movements stiff, you start to become awkward and your stability suffers. If your waist is loose and relaxed, itís easier for you to move into the stances and to maintain your control and your balance.

Distinguish between substantial and insubstantial.

I remember this one was always a bit vague to me, yet the books keep telling us itís extremely important and if you donít do it properly "your steps will be sluggish, and you can easily be thrown off balance". Remember they're talking about a real opponent and this idea of being thrown off balance is meant to be taken literally. It's mainly all about how you control your weight shifts. When youíre moving forward for instance, itís important to place the front foot first, and only then move the weight. You move all weight to the front foot before you pick up the back one. The leg holding your weight is substantial, the other insubstantial. But just saying that doesn't explain why it's so important. If you don't shift your weight properly, then you start to "float" between moves. Every time you take a step youíre actually losing control and balance. Instead of being firmly planted on the leg holding your weight, the substantial leg, youíre in the emptiness just like the chair on one foot. That opponent we're talking about could easily push you off your centre every time you take a step.

Sink the shoulders and elbows

This is about relaxing the shoulders, and allowing the elbows to point downwards. If you lift the shoulders then everything, including your chi, seems to come up with them, but if you relax the shoulders and point the elbows down that actually lowers your centre of gravity, and makes your stance stronger.

Use your will (mind) and not force

I touched on this one earlier when we looked at the idea of using 4 ounces to move a thousand pounds. It means body should be relaxed and thereís no real force in your movements. Itís a difficult concept to understand for a martial art, but remember effectiveness of tai chi comes from being able to unbalance your opponent by being soft. You use gentle deflections instead of direct blocks, and then you use his own energy or momentum to uproot him with a gentle push.

There are some other points, about co-ordination, about not having breaks or stops in the forms, and about seeking stillness within the movements. Co-ordination is easy to understand. If youíre more coordinated then you're not only more balanced but you can obviously be more effective. The idea of not having breaks, or "rolling on like a great river" as they say, is simply that a pause in the movement gives your opponent a solid opening to use against you. Instead of being fluid and soft, a pause suddenly introduces a point of hardness and a support for your opponent to take advantage of. Stillness in movement is the ability to be mentally calm and quiet, trying to sense your opponentís move almost before he actually does it.

What we've just done is take a very quick, and almost simplistic look at some of the basic principles in one of the great classics of tai chi. When I tried to describe how tai chi works, I said we seek softness, correct alignment or posture, and balance. These 10 essential points are about how to achieve these things but hopefully youíre beginning to see we can understand it all a little better when we appreciate that itís about martial applications. I know itís really much more complicated, not least because of the very diversity of tai chi. Sometimes different styles seem to do things differently and after watching Kamís demonstration yesterday of Chen style tai chi, youíd be forgiven for wondering about all this talk of softness! But the classics of tai chi, are the real foundation of the art. They embody all the essential principles we keep referring to, and they're common to all styles of tai chi even though not all styles interpret them same way. Whether youíre learning self defense, or you're only interested in the exercise and the relaxation, the same ideas should still direct the way we move. We need to spend time thinking about these principles during our training. Youíll find you get more out of your practice and actually improve your tai chi, if you stop sometimes to think about how you move. Take a break from just doing the forms, and deliberately concentrate on things like relaxing the waist, sinking shoulders and elbows, how to shift your weight. You should take some random movements out of the form and think about how you do them, or even practice the principles by doing the tai chi walk. Mind you, just practicing the walk can be a trap, because you may not be actually translating the ideas into your form. We need to practice these things in short sections, and not always in the same part of the form. If you keep using for example the beginning of the form, you'll find after a while your first few moves will be great but then you'll quickly drop into all your old bad habits and probably not even know you're doing it. So vary your practice. Mix it up. Play with different moves.

More than anything else, itís important that you just do some tai chi. Enjoy it. My trips to the park at Cabramatta also taught me the pleasure of getting up early in the morning, and even though I now understand tai chi a lot better, (at least I think I do), I still enjoy every day a simple, uncomplicated moving meditation. Iím sure weíve all heard about the benefits, hopefully youíll taste the simple pleasure to be had from doing tai chi, whether itís an exercise or a martial art or whatever else you want to make it. But you have to remember none of that will come to you if you donít actually get out there and do it!

So - practice, practice, practice!


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