Questions and Answers

Questions Answers

What is Tai Chi?

T'ai Chi is a method of training that is aimed at nurturing growth in three areas of a person's life. These areas are:

  1. Physical and Biological wellbeing

    I think of physical wellbeing as having to do with the larger physical mechanisms of the body such as the working of joints, the resistance of the blood-vessels to the flow of blood or ones interactions with the physical world such as keeping ones balance and minimizing effort in everyday activities.

    I think of biological wellbeing as having to do with the chemical mechanisms of the body such as minimizing the production of stress related biochemicals.

    In this area, T'ai Chi shares a great deal with practices such as the Alexander Technique or Progressive Muscle Relaxation that have been studied by medical researchers and found to be efficacious.

  2. Interpersonal wellbeing

    T'ai Chi principles and methods can be applied in interpersonal relations in order to avoid conflict escalation, bring about successful negotiation, manage physical conflict or survive the attack of a human predator. In every conflict situation T'ai Chi principles and practices are designed to improve awareness of the beginning of such a situation so that the T'ai Chi practitioner can respond by harmonizing with (rather than opposing) the actions of the opponent so that they can be guided. In physical conflict this similar to the central principle of Jiu Jitsu (if you are pushed, pull, if you are pulled, push). In interpersonal conflict it resembles most modern negotiating methods that require listening to and restating your opposition's position to diffuse conflict and provide a starting point for guiding the discussion.

  3. Psychological wellbeing

    Practicing T'ai Chi exercise requires the form of mental focus and activity that is practiced in classical "Mindfulness Meditation." This method of cultivating self awareness and control by self observation and substituting more effective behaviors for self destructive behaviors is also typical of psychotherapeutic methods such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy.

It is important to understand that in T'ai Chi practice, all of these benefits are the consequence of a single small set of physical practices (the T'ai Chi form and Tui Shou or "Push Hands" practice). To the best of my knowledge T'ai Chi is unique among both traditional and modern exercises or practices in providing such benefits across the scope of a person's life.

What is the T'ai Chi curriculum?

T'ai Chi practices range from elementary to advanced. The most important practice is the T'ai Chi form. This can be practiced many different ways: fast or slow, with or without pauses, alone or in harmony with a group, and so on. The form is the core of T'ai Chi practice (T'ai Chi Chuan or T'ai Chi Fist) and should be practiced once in the morning and once before turning in for the night. Pushing hands is a more advanced practice. You have to know the form in order to learn Push Hands. To practice you need at least one other person to work with. That person should be trustworthy to abide by the interpersonal agreement that Push Hands is a kind of training, not a contest or a fight. The most advanced practices involve cultivating awareness and creative application of the principles in "real time" by study of the Jian sword form (T'ai Chi Jian) and fencing. The chinese lance or spear (T'ai Chi Chiang) can be practiced solo or with a partner for increasing ones core strength as well as applying the principles.

Learning T'ai Chi is like learning a language, or a musical instrument or a game like chess. Using the language metaphor, you can treat postures as a vocabulary and the form as a collection of grammatically correct phrases. Pushing hands is discussion that leads to eloquence and good cadence. Spear and Sword repeat the process and add the value of diverse perspectives to the application of the vocabulary and thus to the overall rhetorical power of the practitioner.

In Professor Cheng's school, at the time I attended, the curriculum was form, push hands, sword form, fencing and spear exercises. Postures were practiced in the context of the form. Moving push hands had been dropped because it tended to distract from the task of learning to neutralize with the waist. The Da Lu ("Big Rollback" or four corners exercise) form of push hands was ignored. The conventional wisdom was that Yang Cheng-fu regarded Da Lu as something to be taught to someone who was unable to learn to use the principles from the Tui Shou ("push hands" or "four sides exercise").

My opinion is that there is a place for Ta Lu in the practice. Professor once wrote an essay about Principles in learning Painting. One important point was that the principles were not something to be held to as if they were Devine Law. They were medicine to treat defects. If one pursued any principle too far, it gave rise to new defects, and required healing by applying other principles. In the case of push hands, I've seen and experienced situations where leaving the feet unmoving and trying to use only the waist can't be effective. Any situation with multiple assailants falls in this category. The resulting loss of footing and posture leads some people to bend out of upright to escape. This makes leading the attacker impossibly difficult. Experience with this habit and rigid mindset leads me to say that it is better to stay upright and step back from a push you can't neutralize than to practice bending to "neutralize." The Da Lu is exactly the principles/medicine for the defect of insisting that your feet stay in one place.

Why is the Form done in slow motion?

Moving slowly gives you the opportunity to study yourself. This is half of Sun Tzu's advice that if you know yourself and know your opponent you will be undefeated in a hundred battles. The Form provides a standard that will illuminate that study. Pushing Hands provides the "knowing others" part of the study.

When you understand the movements of the form you will understand how they make you difficult to hurt. When you practice regularly you will experience an increase sense of vitality and a feeling of wellbeing. These benefits will not be available however if you do not release your body and motivate the movement with (kinesthetic) imagery. They will not come if you don't stay present and avoid a wandering mind.

Changes from T'ai Chi practice often come after long periods of study with little noticeable change, so patience is a necessity for improvement.

How long does it take to learn to use T'ai Chi for self defense?

This requires an answer to the question "what do you want to do in a fight?" or "what is an effective martial art?" The answers to these (not in order) are that you practice an effective martial art if you wake up the next day, in your own bed rather than a cell or a hospital bed, without bandages, braces, bruises, lawsuits or lasting psychological damage. Consequently, the best thing you can do in a fight is leave.

T'ai Chi can have rapid effect on a person's sense of well being if it's practiced correctly: relaxed, flat-square-vertical posture, relaxed, all "parts" moved by the waist, relaxed, mentally present, relaxed, and so on. As a martial art it can increase a person's skill and strength to the point that their concern is not harming the person bent on hurting them, but it is a long process in which a person has to confront their innate responses, especially the will to use force against force. Achieving greater speed and strength than everybody else (clearly impossible for all but one or two people in the world: the fastest person and the strongest person) are not the essential tool of T'ai Chi as a martial art. In this, the art is nearly unique.

It has been observed that people who are victims of criminal acts are chosen based on their apparent vulnerability and the opportunity their inattention creates. Practicing T'ai Chi enables one to move in a way that reflects a greater awareness and preparedness than is convenient for an attacker. The refusal to oppose force with force both protects against injury and from being placed in a more vulnerable position by an attacker. Nothing, however, guarantees success.

How could relaxed slow motion exercise be of any use in a fight?

Moving slowly gives you the opportunity to find where your internal tension limits your movement. You have to relax to move fast or be accurate. The practice of staying relaxed through the form gives you practice at resisting the natural tendency for tension to increase as long as we are in a conflict with another person. In the form moving slowly allows you to try to accomplish every movement by relaxing the parts that hold you away from the next position.

Moving slowly gives you the opportunity to learn how to have and move with an upright structure. Martial arts like Judo and Systema (and others I'm sure) use the idea of first disrupting an opponent's balance or structure and then using the opportunities that creates. T'ai Chi practice allows a person to learn the feeling of upright and balanced and how to move to retain these. Familiarity with the feeling of the upright posture also gives the first clue to how to respond to an attack. The correct response is generally the one that restores the upright position and feeling

Moving slowly allows a person to practice using each of the regions of their body, legs, torso and arms, in the most efficient way in terms of concentric, static and eccentric contraction, maximizing the efficiency with which the body's resources are applied. Last, the T'ai Chi Classics tell us to move at the same speed as our opponent. This is learned in Push Hands, and again is learned as an unconscious response to internal feelings.

How do Yang long form and Professor Cheng's short form differ?

Professor Cheng described his changes as eliminating repetitions and Shaolin techniques while reserving the order of the long form postures. A table of the long form is shown here. With a minor exception the short form postures are in the same order those of the long form. Some of the short form transitions are novel while some of the Long Form transitions are missing. The most significant of these is the Single Whip to Wave Hands Like Clouds transition that happens three times in the Long Form. In addition, two postures are done in both right and left variations in the Long Form (Diagonal Flying or Part the Wild Horses Mane and Kick with Heel) but only on one side in the Short Form. These deficiencies are easily overcome by practicing the movements and postures outside the context of the form. Since Professor counseled against ridged adherence to a fixed form, I am comfortable salting the forms I do privately with additional repetitions and postures. Careful examination of the comparison chart shows that Professor Cheng's Short Form really eliminates very few of Long Form postures.

What are the "Principles?"

Broadly speaking, the Principles are the guidelines that are given in the T'ai Chi Classics (see booklist) and some other Chinese Texts of the same period. In most cases, the root idea is "wu wei." Wu Wei is a shortened form of the phrase "Wu wei er wu bu wei" (literally "without doing but without not doing" or more colloquially "without doing yet without failing to accomplish." This is a subject that can fill books worth of explanation. I should point out that you have probably experienced application of this principle in your life. Noticing and remembering this principle at work is integral to T'ai Chi study.

There are two dominant themes in any effort to explain how the world works. These are explanations using "Agency" and explanations using "Process." An explanation using Agency says that there is an Agent that acted on objects and relationships-of-objects that shaped whatever it is we're talking about (from the outside). The world and it's events, according to this explanation, are, if you will, sculpted or assembled by an Agent. An explanation using Process says that, as with a seed that grows into a tree, things come about by the parts of the world expressing their own (internal) nature. From a logical perspective (OK, from my perspective) it's easier to see Agency as an example of Process than to see Process as an example of Agency.

What does this have to do with T'ai Chi? In T'ai Chi we are told not to hurry. Hurrying is a way to complete the form quickly so you can move on to doing (Doing) the next thing. Doing the form this way is acting as if the things of the world are objects and having completed the form, you are an Agent. Paying attention to the complete act of doing the form, allowing the movements to be an indirect consequence of releasing tensions, of Not Doing, is performing the form by acting as if the things of the world are Process, unfolding as an expression of their own nature.

Participating in the world from the position that all is Process, rather than the position that reaching goals is the point of existence, is simply a less self destructive, more rewarding way to live. When all is said and done, there is only now. Looking back it's easy to see that reaching a goal is less rewarding and engaging than the trip to the goal. In a world where Process is a more beneficial and realistic perspective, it is possible to explain Doing and Not Doing as approaching any task as an Agent verses approaching it as a participant in Process.

In doing the T'ai Chi form, this Doing verses Not-Doing issue appears frequently. T'ai Chi teaches guiding as an alternative to opposing force with force. This shows up in the way people practice the form. If, for example, a person moves from one posture to the next by pushing with the legs to move the torso, they are Doing the form. If they get from posture to posture by relaxing all the tensions that hold them away from the next posture, then they are Not Doing yet not failing to do. If they move their arms to get to the position for the arms in the next posture, they are Doing and they have divided themselves, top from bottom. If they let the arms be carried most or all of the way to the next position they are Not Doing yet not failing to do. Further, they are teaching themselves to act as a unified person. For the neurological basis for this assertion, look into the idea of Hebbian Learning in Neural Networks.

Why is Cheng Man-Ching called "Professor Cheng"?

Cheng Man-Ching was a child prodigy. He began teaching poetry at Yu-wen University in Beijing at age 18. By age 24 he was the director of the department of Chinese painting at the Shanghai School of Fine arts. His title of "Professor" came from his work as a fine arts teacher and was given to him at a very early age.

A more complete biography of Professor Cheng can be found at this website.

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Liam Comerford
September 13, 2011.

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