We were perhaps sold a shoddy product in the 1970s when I started training and that phase lasted into the early 1990s in the sense of being told that taijiquan was all about learning how to relax and give up the use of force. Was this a translation issue in North America as Chinese immigrants struggled to get their internal arts concepts into understandable English for the middle-class students and hippies that flocked to their classes and wanted to believe that “the soft could overcome the hard”? Hard to say, these many years later and perhaps some of those teachers really believed in the concept of “effortless effort” for its own sake. Certainly if no one is really trying to strike you in a class than its relatively easy to use any kind of force to seem effective.
I am going to suggest, after many years of teaching that taiji is as easy, as effortless (he wrote tongue jammed firmly in his cheek) when you do the following:
- find good instruction from someone who is an experienced instructor and equally skilled practitioner and is also willing to teach you;
- practise the solo training regularly on your own as well as regularly with other people of similar or better skills to hope to understand, much less master, any martial aspects of taijiquan;
- learn to appreciate stillness as well as motion and how one can move either quickly and smoothly or subtly while superficially appearing to be still and vice-versa;
- grit your teeth and put up with corrections and learn to "invest in loss" and not to be afraid of "losing face" (to quote a still-popular Chinese martial aphorism). I'll never forget the lady who left a free introductory slow form class with the words "I can see where this might do me some good but I get all the corrections I can live with from my boss at work and my husband at work";
- you have to learn to coordinate the three internal co-ordinations — Spirit/Shen, Energy/Qi and Body/Li — with the three external coordinations — hip with shoulder; elbow with knee; hand with foot — while co-ordinating moving forward and back; from side-to-side as well as up-and-down. The last of those is the most subtle manipulation as one also has to avoid bouncing up-and-down by just bending or straightening the knees rather than engaging the core muscles and hips (energy is rooted in the feet, transmitted by the legs, directed by the waist and manifested in the hands).
This isn’t the place to go into detail but I’ll use a few examples of how “easy” even the easiest style of taijiquan in physical terms (Yang-style) can be:
- you have to learn how to shift your weight subtely and within three dimensions without having to move your feet much or at all even though it is essential to learn how to move your feet smoothly while covering some distance;
- you have to learn how to have one side of your body more relatively still [Yin] than the other more active [Yang] side and that the relationship between the two is always changing while you move;
- you have to learn to twist the forearms in time with the movement while using the elbows as a major link between the movement of the shoulder and the hand:
- and, all of the above demands that you have to learn to relax (without being too-loose), first the body, then the breathing and finally the mind. "Yes", doing the last is crucial as well and relates to the last couple of paragraphs in this little article.
The difficulty lies as much in learning new ways to co-ordinate the body and in cultivating a physical strength that is real but not stiff as well as practising for many, many hours until you can do the forms and training methods forwards, backwards and in little bits without having to think about what you are doing. For example, as an instructor, I have often found that students are only beginning to understand any posture when they can do it or simple applications of it consistently time-after-time. This relative uniformity in repetition isn't necessarily a long-term goal but it does seem to accompany a certain stage of understanding.
However, here's another imponderable to consider in that if you obsess about technical details you will likely only generate an immense confusion or, even worse, to my mind become one of those legions of armchair practitioners who believe that understanding and arguing about theory and history somehow makes them real experts. Learn to put theory in its place and focus on the physical side of what you can do, at least until you have real skill. Conversely, in the end, a lack of principles or knowledge of the history of your system is just as bad, just as limiting, in taiji as it is in many aspects of daily life.
Perhaps in the long-run this long process will seem easier if we remember the advice of the Stoic philosopher, Epictetus, who wrote many centuries ago: “The greater the difficulty the more glory in surmounting it. Skillful pilots gain their reputation from storms and tempests.”
Copright Michael A. Babin ©2019