Monday, March 25, 2013

Classical Tai Chi is not dance

A student once wrote the following: "I just completed my first lesson -- the walk. Very tricky but also very fun. This is going to be exactly what I have looked for so long. I have always loved to dance but never enjoyed performing for people. This dance of Taiji will be that dance I have been needing for so many years!" 

Master Stephen Hwa wrote in response: "I am glad you have made a good start. It is important that you feel fun and challenged while you doing it. Your comments about Tai Chi as a kind of dancing is what prompted me to write about the topic "Yi" – the martial art intent. I remember my teacher became unhappy when someone referred to Tai Chi as an exercise. Again, the “intent” is lost when it was called as an exercise."

I can't remember a time when I ever thought of calling Tai Chi "exercise" and/or "dance"...although I hear of or read of people referring to it as such.  This puts Tai Chi as no better than pedalling away on an exercise bicycle while watching television. Since dance also qualifies as exercise, then Tai Chi in many minds also falls into the same "exercise/dance" genre as "Sweatin to the Oldies". 

I will always correct my students as well when I hear them refer to it as "dance" or "exercise".  Although it is not surprising that people do this for I once had a student argue with me that Tai Chi originated in San Francisco and not in China.  Given that it did originate in China and given that Grandmaster Wu Chien Chuan, as an "originator" of the Wu Style of Tai Chi was an officer in the Imperial Palace Guard...can we come to the understanding that it is not "dance" nor "exercise"?

"Again, the “intent” is lost when it was called as an exercise."  (One must find out what "intent" means in Tai Chi)

In fact, in his "Six Essential Elements of Practicing Tai Chi", Grandmaster Wu stated that the "first thing to be avoided as taboo in Tai Chi is to apply "Li" (muscle and awkward power).   All the movements should be poured forth with the "Yi".  He continues by saying: "In moving the hands up, they are not automatically moved up without consciousness.  It is the Yi which moves them up.  While the Yi is not stopping, the movement will not stop.  At the moment the Yi stops, the movement instantly stops."  "...beginners...should avoid the vain attempt of applying li, then they can gradually get away from prosaic and mechanical practice..."

So far "exercise" without intent is mechanical, prosaic (it is indeed commonplace), it uses "Li" , which is no more than muscles/muscular force and for the most part is certainly awkward, lacking in skill and most definitely clumsy. To show how widespread the misconceptions about Tai Chi are, I recall students saying "I bet doing more situps will help", "I have some belly dancing videos that I am going to look at now", "I can bench press 250 pounds, now how can that not help", "The Tai Chi looks like Ballet", "I do Karate, so all I have to do is my Karate in slow motion and I will be doing Tai Chi".

Addressing just Karate  and leaving belly dancing and ballet for now I know from extended personal experience that "Karate" does solo forms that are called Kata...I did some Shorin Ryu Karate.  In Tae Kwon Do, we called it "poomsae".  I did these forms with lots of power, "snappiness", lots of "kiai" (sounds like yelling) and as much speed/acceleration as possible...moving like there was an opponent  Someone watching could say, "yep, he is fighting an imaginary opponent, that is obvious".  It was challenging doing the Tae Kwon Do because I was also doing Wu Style Tai Chi at the same time in Toronto.  Poomsae had very tense arms/forearms/fists with stacatto movements but my Tai Chi had/has relaxed arms with continuous movement.  Yes, I felt the movements in Tae Kwon Do were done from muscles in shoulders, upper chest, arms, etc. In the case of Classical Tai Chi as Master Hwa says:  "The Yi in Tai Chi is therefore purely mental".

"Again, the “intent” is lost when it was called as an exercise."  (One must find out what "intent" means in Tai Chi)

I certainly have taught weightlifters, ballet dancers, karate practitioners, etc., and for some they seemed to grasp what "Yi" is.  For most I saw that it was not easy to get and "intentions" to do something else with the movement usually began to show...early on.  The dancers would not keep their heel down on the back foot and would rise up on the toe, with "fluorish" type movements in their hands.  The weight lifters were incredibly stiff and inflexible around the upper chest and shoulders, the internal discipline of the core would elude them.  Karate people seemed to be stuck on a permanent type of stacatto movement, making movements continuously seemed to elude them.  I recall conversations with one long time Karate practitioner who said in so many words that he could not understand why anyone called Tai Chi a martial art.  The implication being that only Karate (or at least "his" Karate) could be a martial art?

For the most part, I think that all of those folks engage in superfluous/extraneous movement of the extremeties. If there is superfluous/extraneous movement, there can be little if any "Yi" or intent in movement.  At this point I must defer to what Master Hwa has written so well about:  "Extraneous motions, or nerve signals, along the path of Qi, such as shoulder, elbow, and arms, have the same effect of disrupting the flow of Qi between the body and the fingers. People who use their hands intensively, such as dancers, typists, and piano players could have such problems. It is important for them to keep localized nerve activity dormant and let the Qi from the body take over. This is a good reason to learn the square form from which the practitioner will get used to movements with steady arms and hands without localized impulses."

"Again, the “intent” is lost when it was called as an exercise."  (One must find out what "intent" means in Tai Chi)
This brings us the most obvious question which is "what does Yi look like?" if it can't be found in these examples. Again, I defer to Master Hwa's statement: 

Tai Chi Form should be practiced with “Yi” (martial art intention). “Yi” is not something complex and elaborate. It is single minded and somewhat intuitive with the desire to deliver the internal power externally through hands, arm and foot, what ever the movement is. If the hand is moving forward, then the Yi goes to the palm and fingers; if the hand is moving laterally in a blocking movement, then the Yi goes to the leading edge on the side of the hand; etc. Once the practitioner masters the “Yi”, it is no long a conscious effort any more. It becomes subconscious and comes naturally whenever the practitioner makes a move. At this stage, when you play the Form, you have both the internal energy and Qi (nerve signal - a simple-minded definition) circulating in the torso of your body. With the “Yi” as a catalyst, the Qi is able to flow to your hands and fingers while the internal energy continue to circulate in your torso until you need it for an application. Then the internal energy will follow the Qi to the arms, hands, and fingers for delivery.

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