Greetings. What a week up here. Very cold, too cold to go to the Saturday practice in the Park. Even snow, the most we have had in quite a while. This week looks much milder, so it is back to the wharf and park. Hope you enjoy a couple of ideas related to Tai Chi mastery.
Hard Wiring The Body
Certainly one of the benefits of Tai Chi practice is being able to move naturally, in tune with the intention of the mind. When I think push, for instance, I want the body to do what is required to push the object I want to push, using the least amount of energy needed. I learn this through experience. I push enough things to understand how much effort it takes to push various amounts of weight. At some point, I no longer have to think. I have learned.
When playing the Tai Chi form, I have to go through this same process. Do enough repetitions until the movement gets hard wired into the system, so thought is no longer necessary. I don’t have to think about how the shape should be, only the intention of the move. In the beginning, the student is taught how the feet are placed, how the structure is arranged, for each move. If he or she is being taught well, the student will learn not only the what of the move, but the why. Why do I hold my right hand in a hook shape to the right side of my body, with the left hand held facing outward at chest level? We might call this Single Whip, but that doesn’t tell much.
But if I think, and practice, that the partner, who is standing in front of me, pushes toward my center with his left hand, I then join with and lead this to my left with my left hand/wrist, and at the same time, return the energy to his upper body with my hook hand, I will be hard wiring this sequence into my brain, so when I encounter this move in the form, it will be automatic.
If I drill the move enough with a partner, my body/mind will will martial the correct amount of energy needed to make the Tai Chi form movement just right. So don’t be afraid of working with partners. Many less physically experienced students will shy away from partner drills, not wanting to appear uncoordinated or slow. We all need to realize that there are always people who are more skilled than we are, and to play with a more skilled person will yield many valuable lessons. As one of our Tai Chi masters of old said – Invest in Loss. Every drill is an opportunity for learning. Smile, and have fun. Make your times of practice the best times of your life.
Tai Chi and UFC
I, like a majority of you, didn’t start their Tai Chi studies in order to learn a martial art for use in fighting. I was a peace loving hippie and attracted to Tai Chi for its beautiful, simple, flowing, meditative movements. Master Choy, my first instructor, advertised his classes as Meditation in Motion. In my years of study with him, we had little in the way of application training, few push hands classes, and not much talk of martial arts.
When I started teaching my own classes in 1973, I realized very quickly how shallow my knowledge and training in the martial aspects really was. Students would ask what that movement was, in an application sense, and I would have to make up something on the spot. I got pretty good, fairly quickly in doing this.
In 1993, the first UFC (Ultimate Fighting Contest) tournament was held. I knew nothing about it, and had little interest in fighting contests. One of my students at the time brought me a copy of a video he had made of this event. I was blown away. Can you imagine a tournament where anybody, of any art like boxing, wrestling, kick boxing, jujitsu, judo, Kung Fu, street fighting, etc., would be matched against someone of another art. I, like most people, thought the bigger, stronger punchers would easily win. Most of my experience in martial arts was watching boxing on TV, and I couldn’t imagine how someone could overcome a person well over 200 pounds, with the strength and speed, like the kick of a horse. Well, I was soon to learn a good lesson about Tai Chi and other soft martial arts.
The tournament went on for several rounds, which meant that if you won a round, you would then go on to fight another bout, and if you won that, you would go on for another, all in one night. There were no rules. Punching below the belt was legal, as was everything except eye gouging and biting. The bottom line was that the winner was a slender fellow, Royce Gracie, from Brazil whose art was Jujitsu. He didn’t punch very much. He waited for his opponent to come to him, and then quickly took him to the ground, and applied some joint locking technique that caused the opponent to give up. He didn’t have to knock the other person out, or even harm him. It was only the threat of what would happen if there was a further struggle. Gracie earned the respect of his opponents. In this tournament, and most all of the subsequent tournaments, the winners were usually the soft style contestants who would make the opponent submit, not from force, but from excellent technique.
This student made videos for me for the first several years of tournaments. It really helped me to become real about what, and how, Tai Chi techniques should, and could, work. Simple, straight forward, soft, and pliable, seemed to be the answer. I have spent the last couple of decades working to make my form fit that criteria. In The Gilman Studio, we don’t spar, but we do use partners to understand the reality of how the center controls all movement from foot to hand. How to go with the flow and not resist. How to use the opponent’s tension against him. How to remain calm and balanced when forces are working against you.
As difficult as it might seem to a peace loving person, I do recommend watching the early UFC matches to understand the evolution of Tai Chi Chuan and how it can be made useful, if needed. William C.C. Chen, one of our great Tai Chi instructors, told me a story of how he was near the corner of a street in New York, just stepping into the street, when a car came speeding around the corner and, realizing he was going to be hit, instead of tightening up to resit the smash, waited until he was going to be hit, jumped in the same direction as the car was moving. He went flying, but wasn’t hurt. The lesson, don’t resist. Go with it. Stay calm.