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Tai Chi Essential #9: Continuity

13 Apr 2015
What is it about Tai Chi practice that draws us in - that makes us feel so good that many proponents adopt the language of joy in describing their practice of this, the ultimate martial art? The keys are relaxation, balance, slow speed - and smooth, continuous movement. These components allow our chi to move freely in the "internal massage" that so many of us are hooked on. Continuity is, at long last, one of those tai chi essentials that we all grasp without struggle; it is one of those commented upon the most. Indeed, I made it Principle 4 in my 2010 book, Tai Chi In Your Life. Yang Cheng-fu put it like this:

Continuity Without Interruption

Although this principle seems straightforward, you must consider the nuances in order to get full benefit. In the process you should discover that the continuity principles of some styles do not apply in other styles. So while I deem continuity an "essential", some teachers practice continuity in a way that is neither essential nor universal. Keep in mind, this observation not a criticism of any of those styles, it is simply a point to be recognized.

The biggest mistake, however, is to believe that continuity is an end in and of itself: continuity is the result of correct movement, it is not the correct movement itself. This is why it is a mistake to practice your tai chi with the goal of "looking pretty", a kind of internal selfie.

Instead realize that if you practice correctly your tai chi will be smooth, continuous, and yes, pretty. The key comes from essential #3, moving from the waist, and essential #6, moving with the mind. When your body moves in unity from the waist, your hand and feet will move in a smooth, continuous fashion; when you move from your hand or foot, it will remain jerky. If you practice with tai chi sword, the jian, such problems are amplified. For this reason many tai chi teachers will introduce sword early in the lessons, which is the opposite approach in Japanese martial arts. The sword amplifies seemingly subtle mistakes so that even a beginner has a chance to comprehend them. The Japanese approach is different because Japanese sword is purely utilitarian: for killing.

In 2009 when I interviewed six tai chi grandmasters at the Tai Chi Symposium at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, all agreed upon the value of continuity as a key virtue. To this Yang Jun, the young successor of the Yang Family, added the point that a great deal of tai chi movement goes into striking, often with the hand but sometimes with the foot. In order to train for this striking, he emphasized, our practice of form must reflect real strikes. For this reason form movement is not purely continuous. When it is purely continuous, all martial intent is lost. This means the practice of continuity is a high-level practice, not merely for beginners.

Although Chen stylists agree with this philosophy, many other stylists do not. Disciples of Cheng Man-ching and T.T. Liang were taught that form must be practiced a single speed, without change. Those who practice only for health are more inclined to think that an even speed is preferable, while those who practice for martial arts have a different view. There are numerous good reasons for each approach. Keep in mind that the Classics refer to good tai chi as "flowing like a great river without end", but a river does not run continuously at a single speed. Its flow speeds and slows according to the requirements of the natural contours of the ground as well as the vigor of the rains. In like manner your speed may change according to the requirements of natural movement.

My personal starting point for this subject involves a lesson learned in tui shou practice, called "pushing hands" by most but "sensing hands" by others, such as Stuart Alve Olson. In pushing hands the goal is to connect with your opponent so that you can sense his/her intention and hence anticipate an attack: You connect as much as you need to to sense your opponent, but as little as possible. The primary goal of practice is to perfect that yin/yang balance, and to take advantage when you can do so without giving away your own intention.

In pushing hands practice the less skilled partner is more likely to launch an attack, while a skilled partner will listen for an opening. What does the skilled one "listen" for? The feel of tension, an attack. Since all tension connotes imbalance, when you find that tension you have a source of imbalance. That is your opening, not to attack, but to use it to "go with the flow" and let the imbalance increase until the opponent is defeated largely of his own accord. If it were a fight and not a pushing hands match, at that moment you would strike with a devastating blow that breaks as well as uproots.

As a result one of the early goals of a less skilled practitioner is to learn to feel his/her own tension and relax it without cues from others. Every time you notice tension building, you stop the action causing the tension. With practice the parallel to your everyday life should become obvious: whenever you are taking actions that cause a building of tension in your life, or at least in your internal feelings, you need to back off those actions and reduce the tension. Often we feel that tension, ignore it, proceed, and then regret the result, especially when we realize it could be been prevented by heeding your feelings. This tension is a discontinuity in your life. If you can develop the internal awareness that allows you to recognize these matters before they come to a head, you can eliminate the biggest problems in your life.

There are many more aspects to his lesson. In the Continuity chapter of Tai Chi In Your Life I discuss these aspects, and include some training exercises to help cultivate continuity. For a free download of this chapter, click here.

You may also like this related article: Tai Chi Essential #8: Unify Inner and Outer (210)
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