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Tai Chi
Two Faces of Tai Chi

20 May 2013
Tai Chi Chuan evolved as a vigorous martial art between two hundred and three hundred years ago - but now, throughout the world, it is primarily known as a gentle exercise practiced by people with physical shortcomings due to age, infirmity, or nature. Thus we have the yang and the yin of Tai Chi, which embodies the Theory of Opposites.

Although I have trained extensively in external martial arts - judo, karate-do, budo, kung fu, and tae kwon do - after a long personal struggle I yielded to my true nature, which lies with Tai Chi. What has caused me even greater difficulty is accepting the true nature of Tai Chi.
HarvardMedicalSchoolGuidetoTaiChi Peter Wayne manages in his new book, The Harvard Medical School Guide to Tai Chi, to strike a path that helps point the way. Let me explain.

A hallmark of martial arts is that if you want respect, you must be willing to fight. Some people put a lot of stock in how many stripes they have on their black belt, but in the end it is about the fighting. So to have the heart of a martial artist and practice Tai Chi, one wishes to demonstrate that Tai Chi is a true fighting art. The result can be an extreme ego attachment to this particular idea of Tai Chi, which threatens to distort our practice and our teaching. I have witnessed extremely proficient teachers who were unable to keep students because, in their hearts unconvinced of their own art, they try too hard to prove something that may be unprovable.
My teacher, who I love and respect dearly, took me a long ways down the martial path. I observe this not as a complaint or a criticism, but as a realization that any hope I have of mastery cannot occur without resolving conflicting philosophies: resolving them by accepting both rather than rejecting either. Master Hu, even in his seventies, thinks of himself as a fighter. To him and his best students, my kung fu brothers, the art is validated purely by our ability to use it to fight. You wish to practice Tai Chi for health? Then practice it as martial art, and you will be healthy.

That point of view is true as far as it goes, but for my teaching it does not go far enough. Every time I hold a class I see in my students the need for comprehensive exercise that does not demand deep athleticism. Some feel challenged just standing up for an hour; others are challenged by balanced movement. Almost all are challenged by slowing their respiration to four deep breaths a minute. Martial veracity is the farthest thing from their minds.

An important role of Tai Chi's martiality is validation. How can a person differentiate true Tai Chi from feel-good spaghetti Tai Chi, except through martial validation? The answer, until now, has always been that you cannot validate it any other way. You can do whatever you want, and if it makes you feel good you may choose to call it Tai Chi, but does it observe recognized principles?

The beauty of Wayne's book is that he has begun the process of establishing a new standard of validating Tai Chi, with science as the basis of sorting through the wheat and the chaff. Using standardized experimental techniques, the work of identifying the efficacy of individual Tai Chi movements has begun.

The next generation of Tai Chi will evolve away from the long, complex forms based on Chinese cultural teaching from a century or more ago. In their place will be smaller sets of individual movements created and practiced for specific benefits - more like meditative physical therapy. They will be easier and faster to learn; as a result more people will stick with the program. Wayne outlines a twelve-week starter program in his book. It is not the specific program itself that excites me, but the realization that through research we will see the creation of many such programs. Some will be refined for specific physical therapies, while others will pursue a more spiritual approach.

Meanwhile, we martial artists will keep fighting for the fun of it. We are not talking about the end of Tai Chi as a martial art, but let me offer an observation on this subject that I have never before heard discussed: I have never met a person serious about Tai Chi as a martial art, who does not have extensive background in external fighting arts as well. Some will openly admit this, but others are quite cagy in discussing the subject. I have yet to meet a purely internal stylist who looks at Tai Chi as a martial art. If you are such a teacher and reading this, please contact me. In my experience only the external fighters accept, or expect, the validity of purely internal fighting. As a result our efforts to martially validate Tai Chi are differentiated from external combat arts only with great difficulty.

Now, with all this talk, how will Wayne's work influence my teaching? I am comparing his twelve-week program closely to my pre-existing style and mode of teaching. I see a lot of overlap, but I am looking for differences that will enhance my work. Wayne identifies eight core principles of Tai Chi success, several of which match principles I chose for my book, Tai Chi In Your Life . In a few months I will begin a new class, in a new venue. Using ideas from Wayne's book, I will simplify the curriculum while retaining the quality and core principles. It will remain faithful to the medium frame principles of Yangjia Michuan Taijiquan, the style I transmit, but forms practice will change. My hope is to improve our retention rate for students and as a result, help a lot more people.

Postscript: I started out thinking I would review the book. Instead I ended up talking about how the book is affecting my personal journey, and as a result the journey of any who follow me. The best, highest use of Harvard Medical School Guide to Tai Chi is probably for medical practitioners seeking a solid foundation for evaluating the health/wellness efficacy of Tai Chi for specific patients. More than half the book is devoted to a discussion of the literature on specific benefits of Tai Chi. You will not learn Tai Chi from this book, just as you will not learn Tai Chi from any other book. Add it to your Tai Chi library as a cornerstone work that turns Tai Chi away from the dark, obscure corners of ancient Chinese mysticism, and toward the learning light of modern Western scientific thought. Treat it, if you dare, as a new beginning.

You may also like this related article: Why Do We Train? (147)
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