Friday, December 18, 2015

Tai Chi Tip: The Right Way and the Wrong Way - Part 2

....(continued from last post)....Most people that practice Tai Chi Chuan (hereafter simply referred to as Tai Chi, which is the commonly used nickname.) are doing so for the health benefits associated with Tai Chi training.  So we will address Tai Chi practice for health, first.  When a person is learning Tai Chi movements for health it is true that many of the fine details that are important for the fighting applications of Tai Chi are not a major point of focus in their training, but rather the focus is placed on large scale movements that are going to promote movement of the body in ways that will promote increased balance, coordination, etc.  So it is not necessary to follow a specific partner of movements with a high degree of precision to receive many of the health benefits of Tai Chi.  However, even when practiced for health, the basic Tai Chi principles should be adhered to for better results.  For example, proper alignment should be emphasized to avoid injury and to aid balance.  When a new student practices the movements of a Tai Chi form, it is not uncommon for knee injuries to occur due to poor knee alignment.  If it were true that one cannot practice Tai Chi incorrectly, this could not happen.  However, as with any other physical activity, there is a "right" (safer) and "wrong" (more dangerous) way of performing the movements.  So, the statement in question, does not hold true for Tai Chi when it is practiced for health.

How about for the fighting applications of Tai Chi?  Is it possible to do them wrong?  Oh yes, it is possible, and you will know immediately when it happens.  However, there is a high degree of variability in how each techniques is applied because every person with which you practice will be different and the technique must be adapted to fit each situation.  However, the fundamental principles of the technique do not change, only the way in which the principles are applied.  Even in Tai Chi form practice for martial arts there are a number of variations in how each move is practiced, and these variations are simply ways in which to emphasize a particular aspect of the fighting technique.  So long as the basic principles are correct, and we are only considering variations of correct techniques, then I believe it is safe to say that there is no right or wrong way to practice, because each variation serves its purpose.  However, without those restrictions, it is very possible to practice wrong in the case of Tai Chi training for martial purposes.

So, from where would such a statement come?  Why would it be passed around so often and repeated so frequently by Tai Chi players?  There are a few of different applications for this statement in the world of Tai Chi, but they are not without specified boundaries.

One such application is, as I mentioned before, when referring to different technique variations, or even different styles of Tai Chi.  Saying that there is no right or wrong way serves as a reminder that while there may be some methods that are preferred by some styles over others, as long as they are useful, and adhere to the principles of Tai Chi, they are valid.  It can be used to unite Tai Chi practitioners of different teachers and different styles, because we are all practicing Tai Chi here.

Another application of this statement is in reference to mastery.  When one has sufficiently internalized the principles of Tai Chi, to a point at which they no longer have to concentrate on maintaining those principles, because they have become second nature, then they are no longer confined to specific "right" techniques.  They are free to be creative and adapt to any new situation, by inventing their own techniques if necessary.  For them, there is no right or wrong way of doing...... it is just a matter of doing, because their mastery of the basic principles opens up a whole new world of possibilities to them.  However, few people truly reach a place in their understanding of Tai Chi where they can actually improve on the generations of training and experience that have gone into the creation of the various styles of Tai Chi that we know today.

Saying that there is no right way or wrong way to practice Tai Chi has its applications, beyond what we have even discussed here.  However, as with any skill, there is a great amount of time and training that must go into developing a deep understanding of the basics before the practitioner has a firm enough grasp on the skill to begin to truly express herself/himself in an new ways.  And in Tai Chi, as with any skill, there are correct ways to practice and incorrect ways.  So, appreciate the uses for such a statement, in appropriate settings, but do not let it become an excuse to ignore foundational principles that are necessary for good Tai Chi training.

To Your Health,
Shifu Andrew Plitt

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Friday, December 11, 2015

Tai Chi Tip: The Right Way and the Wrong Way - Part 1

One of my most memorable experiences from teaching Tai Chi classes was when a student brand new to my class simply refused to practice the basic movements I had shown her.  She insisted on following along with the students who were practicing a form.  I tried to explain that the reason I was showing her basic movements was to help her avoid building bad habits and possible practicing incorrectly.  After I finished my explanation, she shook her head, looked at me and said, "No, there is no right way or wrong way to do Tai Chi."  At first I thought she was joking, but when I realized she was serious, I simply nodded, said, "okay" and let her do whatever she wanted to for the rest of the class.  Looking back, I wish I had asked her a few more questions and engaged her in a conversation to find out what that statement meant to her, but at the time my only thought was that, with her mindset, there simply was not room for an instructor in her training.

However, I would like to address her comment here, as it is one I have heard repeated by various people on the subject of Tai Chi practice.  Let us start by establishing a distinction between Tai Chi (Taiji 太极) and Tai Chi Chuan (Taijiquan 太极拳).

Tai Chi is a concept that refers to the interactions and relationships between Yin energy and Yang energy.  It is a concept of balance between these energies as well as an understanding of how one neutralizes the other and also turns into the other.  It can be applied to pretty much every aspect of life.  For an oversimplified example, think of an extremely active person as being Yang and a sleeping person as being Yin.  If a person is always on-the-go and never stops to rest, he/she is out of balance and the results will be less than favorable.  Therefore, and active (Yang) lifestyle can be balanced by adequate rest (Yin).  To live a long healthy life, balance is necessary and, in a similar manner, the concept of Tai Chi can be used in nearly every aspect of a person's life.  In this regard, I would almost agree that there is no right way or wrong way to do Tai Chi, so long as one is seeking balance.....although, to be fair, it would not be a very strenuous mental exercise to think of ways in which even the concept of balance could be used incorrectly in daily life.

Since Tai Chi is a concept, why do we say that people are practicing Tai Chi when they are doing a set of slow movements or practicing push hands?  The answer is quite simple.  What those people are actually practicing is Tai Chi Chuan.  The term "Chuan" in Tai Chi Chuan means "fist" or "fighting style."  It is a term that is added to the names of many Chinese martial arts to identify them as fighting styles.  Shaolin Chuan would mean the Shaolin (A Buddhist monastery) fist, or the fighting style of the Shaolin Temple.  Wing Chun Chuan means, the fighting style of a woman named Yim Wing Chun.  So when we say Tai Chi Chuan, what we are saying is, "The fighting style based on the concept of Tai Chi."  One of the most popular concepts of Tai Chi Chuan is to yield and redirect (Yin) an opponent's attack (Yang), thus demonstrating the interplay between Yin and Yang in the concept of the maritial art.  When we say that people that are practicing slow movements are practicing Tai Chi, we are really saying that they are practicing movements based on the martial art Tai Chi Chuan, whether they are practicing for martial training purposes or simply for health.  Now, the actual physical practice of Tai Chi (Chuan) is where "correct" practice is very important.

To be continued...

To Your Health,
Shifu Andrew Plitt

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