Tai Chi has, for the last forty years of my practice, always seemed to be growing in popularity but somehow never seems to hit mainstream popular acceptance. I have noticed articles, news columns and surveys extolling its virtues and often mentioning the millions of people around the world that practise this great art. Yet Tai Chi still fails to get the recognition I believe it deserves. I have been pondering this for a while now and it seems to me that the problem lies in a few areas.
Firstly, we seem to have confusion over what Tai Chi actually is: an exercise, a martial art, a healing self development method or a simple, moving meditation? I even remember one new intake of students extolling its virtues. The karate guy mentioned how similar it was to his karate, while the yoga practitioner noticed a strong resemblance and the Alexander practitioner repeated the same thoughts. Could they all be right?
Classes range from the great to, in my opinion, the embarrassingly awful (but then that is subjective observation) – from the “touchy feely, group hug” themed approach, lifted straight from the sixties hippy movement, to the “touch me and I will punch your lights out” type of class; from the casual, come as you are social groups to the uniformed “let’s all be clones” method and approach.
So it stands to reason that just turning up at your local class might not be the answer you are personally looking for. That said, here is my view as to how and why every school of Tai Chi seems to teach something different. For with no standard model or approach, it is often confusing as to what is going on when attending a class for the first time. Or, when attending a different class, it is often hard to know which approach is genuine and how the student best gets something out of it.
Tai Chi can be broken down into three distinct areas. Firstly we have exercise, called Chi Kung, or with a generic traditional name like Eight Pieces of Brocade, Dao Yin, etc. Secondly, there is the routine often called Form or Tai Chi Form, of which there are many. So, we have the Form name usually: Long Form, Snake Form, Chi Form, Sword Form – the list goes on. Thirdly, we have the two person interaction, often referred to as Pushing Hands.
Whenever I asked my master how to attain a certain level of skill, I always got the same reply, “Practice.”
“But which practice is most important?”, I asked repeatedly, looking for a short cut.
“Your Chi Kung, your Tai Chi Form, your Push Hands,” he would reply.
Finally, after a lot of frustration, soul searching and doubt, I began to understand that these core disciplines are a triad of skills that support and inform each other. Missing one from your practice weakens the other two. So, all three must be developed equally.
So, if you practice Tai Chi, ask yourself whether all three disciplines are there or available to practise. Often though, we do not always see clearly at first what our practice consists of or even that it can be broken into these three broad categories. Push Hands became impossible during the Covid lockdowns and restrictions, which meant person to person contact was off the books, so to speak.
However, remember these are broad areas of practice and they can be viewed in the widest possible sense, which I will get to later.
If you teach and you start to make sense of your practice, you can tailor it more clearly to individual or group needs. You do need to be a little creative in your approach and not simply fixed in a mindset that says, “This is how I was taught, so this is how I shall teach or practice.” Tai Chi has to move and grow and adapt with the times. It might be an old system rooted firmly in the traditions of the past but it is not fixed there. Tai Chi, as a discipline, needs to grow and breathe. After all, it is an art based on the idea and philosophy of change.
In my next article, I will endeavour to break down and give my thoughts on each of the three disciplines.
© Bryan Nuttall 26.2.23