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.
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.
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
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.
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.