Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Classical Tai Chi THE Martial Art

I find it fascinating that Classical Tai Chi (Taijiquan)was once so highly regarded as not only the  most capable but also the most polished martial art of its time.  The royal families of China were undoubtedly protected by individuals who were extremely proficient in the art. When the sun set on the need for personal martial skills the door opened so that the general populace could be taught.

One does not hear the use of the word "chuan" along with Tai Chi in most classes today, however I always heard it used in my study of the Wu's Style.  A statement might be: "It is time to do our chuan" which would precede the group playing the form as a whole. I wonder if the term is still used because I see a store full of so called "competitive" and "shortened" versions being touted.

However, with the teaching of the world as it were, the degradation and demise of the art thus began. What we have nowdays as a supposed "legacy" is in the majority of cases merely a shallow and insipid caricature.  I am not impressed whatsoever by even the most "athletic" performances as competition routines, to say nothing of so called "new age" Tai Chi.

Having studied the art on both sides of the fence as it were, I do not subscribe to the general tendency to augment my practice with additional "Chi Kung" or "Qigong" practices to develop internal energy.  Or for that matter do I subscribe  to the supposed need for the various "standing post" practices.  Quite frankly, Classical Tai Chi does not need them and it is sufficient unto itself.  I'm often inclined to think that an overall deficiency in the understanding of Tai Chi principles is the precursor to thinking that one needs these additional practices.  I also think that one's own recognition of a supposed "lack of progress" or a "better way" makes one feel the need for what appears to be an easier way to do things.  Therein, I feel lies much of why the art has begun to suffer...everyone is looking for an imaginary shortcut to learning.

I also defer to my teacher Stephen Hwa (Hwa Laoshi) and his teacher Grandmaster Young Wabu.  I'm sure if they wanted disciples to do these practices they would have told us to and laid out a path for us to follow.  I think, that adding these additional practices on one's own and still calling it Classical Tai Chi,  is a disrespect of the art and shows disrespect to teachers.  It cries out that the student knows better than the teacher...how can that be?

If you want "internal energy" it will come with extended practice of the Classical Tai Chi form. Not the "short", or coupled with "breathing/qigong/standing/etc" practices but the 108 movement "long form".  How on earth does anyone purport to know better than the grandmasters of the art who were the geniuses that gave it to us in the first place?  Think of what existed in the Qing dynasty and shortly thereafter before the floodgates were opened to the public.  No one would have dared to suggest augmenting or shortening it to those individuals.  

In addition,the fact that large numbers of technocrats have set arbitrary standards and shortened what really looks like "dancing" competitive routines certainly does not impress me. Albeit "athletic", still  very pretty, very dance like, very choreographed (much like a Broadway show).  THE martial art is absent and one sees no martial intent in these carictatures.

Monday, November 29, 2010

The love of paradox in Taoist thought and Tai Chi

Taoist thought  loves paradox but seems to eschew logical explanations for things. Yet, the use of logic in the explanation of Tai Chi principles is unquestionable, it is absolutely essential.  Compare the use of logic to explain something vs. Taoist thought. From a famous story of  Chuang Tzu: 

Long ago, Chuang Chou dreamed that he was a butterfly. He was elated as a butterfly--well pleased with himself, his aims satisfied, he knew nothing of Chou. But shortly he awoke and found himself to be Chou. He did not know whether as Chou he dreamed he was a butterfly, or whether he actually was a butterfly who now dreamed he was Chou.If a sleeper can dream so vividly that he is unable to ascertain that his experiences are actually unreal, how can he ever be certain that anything he experiences is real? 

So...Sifu Jim Roach is dreaming that he is teaching a class. In the dream he sees a former Tai Chi student teaching in the same building.  Jim is holding forth to his class how absurd the student's ideas are.  However, while still in the dream he believes the student to be teaching in Studio A.  To emphasize his point, he writes on a giant piece of paper the single sentence:  Everything written on the paper in Studio A  is false. But Jim  has made a mistake. He, himself  is in Studio A. So is what he has written on the paper true or false? If it’s true, then since it itself is written on the paper, it’s false. If it’s false, then since it is the only thing written on the paper, it’s true. Either way, it’s both true and false, is it not?  

However, when Jim wakes up he thinks  that although he was asleep he can still dream so vividly that he is unable to ascertain that his experiences are actually unreal, how can he ever be certain that anything he experiences is real? How can he be certain in light of that if anything is either true for false...or both true and false?

Descartes stated "i think, therefore I am".  He attempts to use logic to verify what he perceives he is sensing. Chuang-Tzu responds with a Taoist acceptance of the conundrum, and prefers not to value the dream as any less "real" than the waking state, and vice-versa. It suggests that all natural life and all experiences are in essence interchangeable. A butterfly's existence is just as valuable and meaningful as a human one, and a dream is just as valuable and meaningful as an experience one has while awake.

It is hard not to think that  we now see a little more into why a glass can never be empty nor can it be full, since we know (even though we cannot see the air)  that the existence of the air on top of what we perceive as a "half full or empty glass of water" is still as  valuable and meaningful as the experience of seeing the glass as either half full or empty.  

This is an intuitive and instinctual understanding of reality, it is not dependent on logic.  In one sense however, we have used logic to state our case and then we have no more use for the words...they are just words.

From page 201 of Uncovering the Treasure by Stephen Hwa: We see how to play the Tai Chi and that is to do it subconsciously and conduct martial applications instinctively.  For that activity, we essentially discard our intelligence.  As Chuang Tzu relates: Yen Hui told Confucius "I cast aside my limbs, discard my intelligence, detach from both body and mind and become one with Tao.  This is called sitting down and forgetting everything".

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

What's good for you in Classical Tai Chi?

It occurred to me just recently that there is no one getting large stacks of money for research into Classical Tai Chi.  Of course, I have already stated in previous blogs that I am skeptical of the so called research in which claims are made about Tai Chi’s benefits.  Nevertheless, I still think some things can be said about the efficacy of Classical Tai Chi as compared and contrasted with exercise that does not use internal discipline.

For example, I really like what a new student said about internal discipline vs. external movement in his Amazon.com review of Stephen Hwa’s book Uncovering the Treasure:

This form uses "small circle" or "small frame" movements which rely on more use of "internal discipline" versus most other forms. Internal discipline in my humble understanding is the use of "core" muscles in the abdomen and back to add remarkable power to the already maximally optimized mechanics of Tai Chi moves. The small movements actually allow the core muscles to kick in and increase the power of the moves. Conversely large frame movements are great for strengthening the limb muscles but may dissociate their movements from the core. The core movements elicit an unusual sensation of flow through the torso and in the body which feels like stretching and tingling like an energy flow. The true health benefits and the foundation for martial arts application of Tai Chi can only be achieved when the practitioner incorporates "Internal Discipline". That is, using internal movements and internal power to direct and empower external movements into Tai Chi practice.

If there was anyone who had to rely on “strength of the limbs” it was Sophia Delza who taught both Wu’s style Tai Chi and an incredible dance curriculum in New York city for decades.  Delza wrote the book,Tai Chi ch’uan (Wu Style) and on page 15 she says: In his book “The Body” Anthony smith writes that in strenuous exercise the muscles need more and in fact get more of the body’s blood distribution but at the expense of the other organs: kidneys, skin, digestive system and stomach.  As one example, the abdomen which ordinarily receives 24% gets only 1% during supreme exertion. Classical Tai chi as an internal art increases the blood circulation and activity of the glands, nourishes muscles, facilitates joint action and stimulates the nervous system, all without increasing the activity of the heart or breathing rhythm.

Finally, we defer to a statement by Stephen Hwa in the book Uncovering the Treasure, page 17:

“modern exercise, including martial arts, is long on external movements and short on internal movements.  In other words , exercise the parts of the body which are already overused for an active person while neglecting the portion of the body which needs exercise. Worse yet, these routines often subject the shouldr, knee, back and other joints with ill conceived, repetitive, unnatural movements.  No wonder so many active people develop joint problems”

As a former long time practitioner of large frame Wu’s Style Tai Chi, I contend that it also is “long on external movements and short on internal movements”. What is said about the benefits of such “external” Tai Chi can without equivocation be attributed to Classical Tai Chi. My teacher, Hwa Laoshi has told me that a healthy nervous system is very prized in China.  In Classical Tai Chi the nervous system is tuned to a great degree, but not as a result of overall strength of the limbs.  For martial purposes the power comes from the moving part of the torso, while the remainder of the body is still and thus relaxed.  Relaxed, because its role is to remain still and provide the stability of the external limbs, not the use of their brute strength. So this is really quite a step up in the source and use of power and energy as opposed to the tension of isolated movements of the limbs and extremeties.

 As external styles and even such external Tai Chi (which looks like a “bad” Karate) uses back and forth straight line attacking, it results in blasts of power.  Such power has to be re-chambered by once again tensing the muscles before attacking.  As my teacher states, this results in “seams” or gaps in the attack and the power use is drained off in any attack.  We often see the practitioner being out of breath and panting, hence it is easy to see that the majority of blood distribution is headed to the limbs and not the internal organs.  How can this be good for you?

Monday, November 22, 2010

Classical Tai Chi is systematic and conceptual

From time to time I recruit students who tell me they can attest to Tai Chi as a kind of spiritual practice which is loosely based on the New Age Movement and I quote here from Wikipedia and a definition of "New Age Movement":

"New Age movement is a spiritual and quasi-religious Western movement that developed in the latter half of the 20th century. Its central precepts revolve around "drawing on both Eastern and Western spiritual and metaphysical traditions and then infusing them with influences from self-helpand motivational psychologyholistic healthparapsychology, consciousness research andquantum physics"[2] 

They will undoubtedly be saddened by what I write here which will  lead to the failure of their expectations:

First of all and I quote from the Classical Tai Chi Forum by Stephen Hwa:

Volume 7, December 2003

"... writings about the current practice of Tai Chi only date back about three hundred
years, with a majority of Tai Chi books published in the last seventy years in China. From
the writings I read, I have not seen any tie in between Tai Chi and Taoism aside from
those mentioned above. None of the writings cross over the boundary into metaphysical
or spiritual writing. It seems that only very recently, especially in the west, that
association between Tai Chi and Taoism and spiritualism becomes more common.
Several times when I gave a talk about Tai Chi in public, I was asked about the spiritual
side of Tai Chi. I know that my answer disappointed the questioners..."

Second, and I quote from "Uncovering the Treasure" by Stephen Hwa

Page 137

"Chinese philosophies are well known for their profound visions and eloquent ideas.  They often appear to be abstract and distant from personal practical application.  Yet in Classical Tai Chi, these philosophies are applied systematically not just conceptually, but in actual physical applications where the practitioner can personally sense and appreciate the implications of these philosophical ideas".

To sum up this systematic aspect of the philosophies of Lao Tzu, Chuang Tzu, Sun Tzu, I Ching, Kongfuzi (Confucius).  I offer the following poem from Young Wabu (Young Laoshi) who was Stephen Hwa's (Hwa Laoshi) teacher. I quote from Classical Tai Chi Forum 13, August 2005 and in Memoriam to Grandmaster Young:

"In Memory of my beloved teacher, Grandmaster Young Wabu
My teacher, Grandmaster Young Wabu passed away on April 18, 2005 at age of 101.
With his passing, we have lost a precious link to the golden age of tai chi, the period from
Yang Lu-Chan to Wu Chian-Chuan...


Lao Tse, I Ching, Confucius, Shuan Tse
Studying Tai Chi you follow all these.
Within the rules any movement is tranquility,
Outside the rules any quietude is turmoil.

Solid but not dull.
Familiar yet retaining details.
Hands never above head,
Elbows never behind waist,
Knees never beyond toes.

Square and Round, Right and Left
Large, Medium, Small and Compact
All forms follow the rules.
The Square exactly
The Round more freely, yet precise.

Hands and feet have Yin and Yang,
And segments of the 4 limbs match the 8 trigrams
In harmony with the Universe.

Mind and body return to Nature
Mind leading, movements following,
Fitness, defense and healing result.

Neither detaching from nor blocking an opponent,
Leam to yield while retaining control.
Increase in sensitivity allows use of strategy
And virtue grows along with technique.

Each moment treasure and perfect the art.
Difficult diseases will be cured,
The Tai Chi Way will be perpetuated
And all will benefit.

Recorded by Leung Chan Ying and translated by Linyi Yeung & Paul Maslin