I had some sad news yesterday when a former taiji colleague phoned to let me know that she had recently learned that our first taiji teacher, Shirley Choi, died in April of this year. While I had lost touch with the deceased since the late 1980s, I owe her and her late husband, Steven, a great debt as my first serious instructors in the Yang style. I had first learned rudimentary taiji at a three-month course in 1975; however the instructor didn't offer another session after the first one finished. I learned about Shirley's classes from a couple who had been in that course with me and who were more in tune with the local taiji world, and went to watch one of Shirley’s classes. I was hooked even though Shirley focused on Yang style for health and I was looking for a more martial approach.
The Baduajin ("Eight Precious Brocades") is a traditional set of eight qigong exercises which are usually performed while standing though I have seen traditional seated versions as well. The exercises in this set strengthen and stretch the muscles and ligaments while, according to Chinese Traditional Medical Theory, stimulating the distribution of internal energy throughout the body. Manuscripts excavated in Chinese tombs in the last few decades have proved beyond doubt that the tradition for therapeutic movement/exercise goes back well into antiquity.
Even today, there are hard style versions from the Shaolin tradition that are quite demanding as well as relatively easy sets from the Taoist perspective and also those developed in more recent decades, that are suitable for the old, the infirm or those looking for meditation rather than physical activity. The Eight Brocades usually taught by taiji instructors these days can be viewed as relatively easy warm-up or cool-down exercises for more demanding practise. However, the better versions are hardly as simple as they may first seem to beginners and can help serious students identify the principles common to both qigong for health as well as the internal martial arts practices.
The quantity of martial solo form demonstrations and instruction available online in recent years has been a boon for those who want to see how whatever style they may be interested in is interpreted by other teachers. Sadly, it is hard for those who are beginners to tell the difference between mediocre and good examples of solo form work. However, learning to know the difference between, for example, "Wow, that sure looks good" and "Hmm, that kind of movement is really efficient compared to what I do" is part of the process of becoming educated to what is really important in learning and practising a solo form, especially in the Chinese internal martial arts.
Whether you learn from a person in a group class or on your own from a video on the internet or a dvd; part of becoming skilful is being able to see and copy what is being shown on first a gross and then an increasingly subtle level. This is far from easy and is made even harder for those going the self-instruction route as they won't get much or any feedback on their efforts to copy what they see. [Should I really say "What they think they see!"].
In taiji two-person training, we are told to “find” or “stick-to” or “search for” the other person’s Center and how important it is to be relaxed/sensitive to do learn to do this. I have tried to keep this little article rather general in the sense that I refered to the person you are doing [or trying to do this] with as your “partner”. I suppose I could have made it sound a bit more martial by writing “opponent” but many who study taijiquan are interested in formal push-hands training as a sensitivity exercise more than as one of the many tools needed for self-defense — much less fighting for fun or as a competitive sport where youth and fitness are essential — so I will keep my comments to the civil side of taiji two-person training.
By the way, in talking about a partner’s Center in taiji, we are discussing, at a basic level, the practicaliities of training your own physical touch to establish how well connected to the ground the other person is in structural terms [for example, do they feel stiff in some parts of their body or overall? do they feel segmented in terms of their upper and lower body or uncoordinated in general? do they feel solid but relaxed? etc.,]. All this has to be done while moving your body in the manner prescribed by the style/teacher that is supervising your efforts. With time and effort, you can learn to do this “your own way” but that is sometimes difficult to reconcile with stylistic needs.
A traditionalist would argue that one should always practise outside, preferably in a garden or park and whenever possible in the early morning. I have known practitioners over the years who would refuse to practise indoors and instead risk frost-bite or getting wet in the rain. Good for them; but that's not for me. Where I live it seems to rain or snow a depressing amount of time, year-round, and the ground outside is often too slippery to risk doing solo forms. At my age, a broken hip or wrist is no laughing matter -- no matter how good your sense of humour.
So, as my stealing a phrase from Star Trek would suggest, the answer for those of us who are geographically-challenged by the weather is to look for enough space [indoors] to practise safely and in some comfort. However, you may already know that isn't easy if you live in a small apartment or the wife objects to you swinging a sword in the living room while she is trying to watch tv. Of course, some apartment buildings have recreational rooms or gymnasiums that can be of some use for regular practise but your fellow tenants may object, overtly or otherwise, to your taking up space with your slow-motion/strange movements, especially if you are using a staff, broadsword or sword.
As this old ad for Listerine™ from a 1939 magazine illustrates, real fisticuffs tends to have little in the way of style. Despite that, traditional martial arts have long assumed that a practitioner will shape their techniques by the tenets of whatever teacher or style they follow. It is usually implied or stated flatly that this is the best way to learn how to fight or defend one’s self.
This was perhaps true in the old days when different styles cherished their secret or trademark moves. It is true that even strange tactics can be used to good effect assuming that the opponent is less experienced and adaptable than the person using it. But, guess what, experienced fighters can adapt so quickly that your secret “Flying Fish Fingers of Death” technique won’t work again if it doesn’t work the first time. I’ve seen this time and time again in sparring with practise swords with a good partner. If your new technique works the first time you use it on an experienced partner; the second time, it won’t work as well and the third time, he will have figured out a counter.
43+ Years of Experience Training in the Chinese martial arts; 33+ years experience teaching taijiquan and 24+ years experience teaching baguazhang