Friday, August 19, 2016

Tai Chi Tip: Tai Chi Chuan or Taijiquan?

When I was first introduced to the Chinese martial arts I was constantly confused by the various spellings that were used to describe each art.  I would wonder if a difference in spelling indicated a difference in style, teaching methods, or practice.  Or were they the same thing spelled differently?  To a young American boy who had no real exposure to Asian languages and no understanding of the major styles of Traditional Chinese Martial Arts (TCMA), I was often left thinking that things like Pa-Kua Chang and Baguazhang were two different styles, or Wing Chun Chuan and Yongchunquan were different arts all together, when in reality they are not.  And yes, this confusion even extended into Tai Chi Chuan and Taijiquan.  In my mind I somehow came to the conclusion that if it was spelled Tai Chi Chuan (Often written T'ai Chi Ch'uan) it was more authentic Tai Chi and could be used for fighting, but if it was spelled Taijiquan, then it was for performance only.  Needless to say, that conclusion was absolutely incorrect.  I'm sure this confusion was not limited to my own experience and I would like to take a moment to help clarify this topic for others, at least as far as Tai Chi is concerned.

First of all, when referring to the martial art, the terms T'ai Chi, Tai Chi, Taiji, Tàijí, T'ai Chi Ch'uan, Tai Chi Chuan, Tàijíquán, and Taijiquan are synonymous.  They are all referring to the martial art of Tai Chi regardless of style, or even whether one is practicing it for health, fighting, or competition performance.  So why all the different spellings?  Well, one of the first systems for the romanization of Mandarin Chinese written characters, for English speakers, was the Wade-Giles system, from which we get the spelling T'ai Chi Ch'uan.  This system used apostrophes to indicate specific pronunciations of words and, while some people find it to be a more troublesome system, it appears to have worked well for those who understood it.  Sometimes, for simplicity, those apostrophes would be dropped by those who did not know that the apostrophes were necessary for specific pronunciations and this practice led to spellings like Tai Chi Chuan.  However, there is a standard romanization of Chinese characters used in mainland China which is far easier to use for correct pronunciation of Mandarin Chinese words known as Pinyin.  In the Pinyin system the correct way to write Tai Chi Chuan is Tài jí quán (or Tàijíquán).  Accent marks are used to indicate the correct tone that should be applied to each word.  However, once again, English speakers who are not familiar with the tones in Mandarin Chinese often remove the accents for simplicity leading to the spelling Taijiquan.

In other words, it's pretty confusing and messy and the only real way to know for sure that two words written in Pinyin or Wade-Giles are the same, is to compare their original Chinese characters.  The good news is, in most western writings about Chinese martial arts, with a little familiarization of the various spellings of various arts, it can become fairly easy to know what art is being discussed.

The point of this post, however, was to emphasize the fact that all of the above listed spellings for Taiji, are referring to the martial art of Taiji and the spelling does not indicate anything about the style, practices, legitimacy, or principles of the art nor of the practitioner writing about the art.  For example, I know that the "official" way to spell Tai Chi Chuan is Tàijíquán, but that is a very unfamiliar spelling to most westerners.  So, I elect to use the spelling Tai Chi Chuan or even Tai Chi frequently because it is more easily recognized by people who are not familiar with Pinyin or Mandarin Chinese, and by using a term that is more easily recognized, it is easier for curious individuals to find information like this that will introduce them to Taiji and things like Pinyin.

I hope you all found this information useful and I hope it helped you understand why there are so many ways to spell Tai Chi.  Thank you for reading!

To Your Health,
Shifu Andrew Plitt

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Friday, August 12, 2016

Tai Chi TIp: Why So Slow? ~ Part 3

This article is a continuation of the previous post, "Tai Chi Tip: Why So Slow ~ Part 2"

...A great example of this is found in Chen Style Tai Chi.  The first form (called Lao Jia Yi Lu which means Old Frame First Routine) has a few fast powerful movements in it, but is predominately slow fluid moves that look like the type of Tai Chi moves that anyone would recognize as Tai Chi.  That form would be taught first to instruct students in proper movement through slow deliberate motions and after the student had mastered those principles (often with several years spent working on only that form) they would be taught the second form (called Lao Jia Er Lu which means Old Frame Second Routine) which is dominated by fast powerful movements, that most people would probably not guess to be Tai Chi, with some slower segments mixed in.  On top of the existence of a second form that is focused on powerful movements that express the explosive power known as fajin in internal martial arts, once a student understands the principles of Tai Chi movement, they can add fajin expression to any movement of the first routine, making it a faster more powerful form that would be less easy to recognize as Tai Chi by people unfamiliar with Tai Chi.  

All of that to say, the reason Tai Chi is practiced slow is to learn proper movement, alignment, and flow and it is important for Tai Chi practitioners to return to slow practice frequently, regardless of their skill level, to continually train the basics of Tai Chi movement.  However, slow Tai Chi is not where practice is meant to stay.  For it to be effective as a martial art, techniques must be executed at full speed while maintaining Tai Chi principles.  

That also answers the second question as to whether or not Tai Chi is always practiced slowly.  The answer is most certainly, no.  Tai Chi can be practiced as fast as any other martial art and such training is necessary if you are interested in using it for self defense or fighting.  But the best way to increase the speed of your training is not just to try to jump from slow training to full speed right away.  First try going a little faster and discover how the movements feel while maintaining alignment and full body movement, then try it a little faster and so forth until you can go full speed.  This however should not be attempted until you can go through your routine slowly from beginning to end without breaking your alignment or moving principles. If you are still working on fine tuning the form at a slow speed, work on slowing your pace down, and only after you can do it ridiculously slow with ease should you start speeding things up.  

Everything covered so far also answers the third question.  How can Tai Chi be used as a martial art if it is so slow?  The answer is that, in application, Tai Chi is applied at whatever speed is required to be effective.  The purpose of slow training has nothing to do with applying the techniques at a slow pace and everything to do with perfecting those techniques so they can be applied effectively at a quicker pace.

As always, I hope this article was useful for you and I wish you all the best in your training!  Thank you for reading!

To Your Health,

Shifu Andrew Plitt

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Friday, August 5, 2016

Tai Chi Tip: Why So Slow? ~ Part 2

This post is a continuation of the previous part of this article, "Tai Chi Tip Why So Slow? ~ Part 1."

...I found my first real response to this question when I wasn't even looking for it. I was practicing side kicks on the hanging bag at the dojo where I was training at the time. One of the senior students was warming up and occasionally watching me kick the bag. At one point he came over to me as said, "Why don't you try doing that kick as slow as you possibly can?" I smiled, thinking it couldn't possibly be too much more difficult, other than just requiring a little more strength to keep my leg in the air longer. To my surprise I found that I was wobbly and unbalanced and when my foot connected with the bag, instead of just pushing the bag easily, the resistance of the bag was enough for me to nearly push myself over while trying to push the bag away. After my awkward, unstable attempt was finished I chatted with the senior student about it for a bit and the one phrase he said that I will always remember is, "Anything you can do fast, you should be able to do slow."

When he said it, it struck me as odd. Why would I want to kick slow....ever? In my mind the faster I could throw a kick, the better off I would be in a fight. A slow kick would only give my opponent more time to do whatever he wanted. Fortunately for me the senior student explained that the purpose of moving slow in martial arts training is to perfect technique at a speed where errors are obvious and easy to see. Those errors can be easily hidden with speed and it's not until we slow down that those errors become so obvious that we can easily identify and correct them. Unless we fix those errors we will have poor balance and stability, leave openings in our defense, and move inefficiently which will restrict our ability to generate power. At the time I was curious about Tai Chi, but had not studied it and did not fully recognize the usefulness of this senior student's lesson to me.

Later when I began to study Tai Chi, it dawned on me just how useful slow training can be. In Tai Chi the movements are very precise because when a practitioner is generating power for a strike, leverage for a throw, or movement to redirect an attack they want to use maximum technique and minimum brute strength. The ability to do that depends very heavily on body alignment, structure, and moving the body in a coordinated and connected manner. If your alignment, movement, and structure are good you will be able to generate power and redirect power efficiently with minimal strength required. One of the best ways to train for this alignment is to practice your movements at a very slow pace. So slow that you will be able to easily detect misalignment and disconnected body movement.

The slow movement of Tai Chi forms is really a teaching tool and self-diagnostic tool to help students learn to move correctly while practicing. Sometimes, this type of training requires slowing your movements to excruciatingly slow speeds where there is no way you can do the movement incorrectly without noticing when a part of your body is not involved in a movement, losing your balance, or, at the very least, feeling very unstable and awkward. Because proper body alignment and movement are so important in Tai Chi techniques, beginning movements and forms are taught at a very slow pace. After the movement is well understood the techniques can be practiced at higher speeds until they can be done at full speed without losing the principles of Tai Chi movement....(To be continued).

Stay tuned for the third part of this article. :)

To Your Health, 
Shifu Andrew Plitt

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Friday, July 29, 2016

Tai Chi Tip: Why So Slow? ~ Part 1

Why is Tai Chi practiced so slowly? Is it always practiced slowly? How can it be used for fighting if it is so slow? The preceding questions are asked often by new students or people who are just beginning to learn about Tai Chi. To be honest, I asked these very same questions when I first learned of Tai Chi and they are very good questions considering the popular image and common knowledge about Tai Chi. For example, when people learn that I practice Tai Chi their response is usually, "Oh cool! That's the slow moving one, right?" That response always makes me cringe a little on the inside because I know there is so much more to Tai Chi than slow movements, but at the same time, I am always happy they at least recognize it and are asking questions about it. :)

In this Tai Chi Tip I'm going to address these questions to help illuminate some of the lesser known Tai Chi practices and offer answers for those who are curious about this slow moving art.

The first question to address is the purpose of practicing slow in the first place. Many teachers (myself included while I was teaching) will tell their students to slow the pace of their form more and more and more. How could that possibly be good advice? Almost anyone knows that if someone throws their fastest punch and the person at which they are striking tries to deflect the punch as slowly as they can, the punch will reach its target and be home having dinner before the deflection even has time to get out of bed and put its slippers on. So why would any sensible person practice a fighting art at such ridiculously slow and impractical speeds? When I was first beginning in the martial arts I asked this very same question of various people and a common response I heard was that masters understand martial movements so well that they are able to tell what an attacker will do before they do it, so it is not necessary for them to move quickly to be effective with their techniques.

I have witnessed masters who could read their opponents very well and could maneuver easily into optimum positions for effective dismantling of their opponent. However, I would describe their movements as agile and while they were certainly not rushed, they were by no means as slow as the movements of, say, the Yang Style 24 Form. So, I don't really accept that as an answer to the question because the type of slow movement witnessed in the form and the confident/knowing, agile movements of a master, while based on the same principles are not performed at the same speed. Also, while that is great for the masters, it doesn't offer much of an explanation as to why beginners would be taught to move at such a slow speed when they are completely unfamiliar with martial movements....(To be continued).

Stay tuned for the second part of this post. :)

To Your Health,
Shifu Andrew Plitt

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