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Tai Chi
Why Do We Train?

11 Nov 2013
What is the purpose of martial arts: Fighting, preservation of a historical culture, or character refinement? All are viable reasons, depending on the practitioner's goals, but a small moment of training recently illuminated a wide array of controversies and concerns in the practice of modern martial arts today, including Tai Chi Chuan.

I was invited to participate in a black belt workshop in historical Japanese jujitsu. Of the fifteen participants, five were judans (10th degree black belts), so the rest of us got high-quality attention. At one point the most senior of these red belts was demonstrating the finishing moves of a complex technique that, if executed effectively, will likely destroy the neck, shoulders, knees, and hips of the opponent.

As techniques go, it is complex. The chances of completing such a move on the street in a self-defense situation are remote; and if you did, chances are the opponent would be killed or crippled before the final finishing moves.

At the point of the body drop that destroys the knees, which was clearly difficult even for the most advanced guys there, I noticed that the flats of the opponent's feet were pointed upward, completely exposed.

"Why not just punch his kidney-1 point and be done with him?" I asked the sensei. My understanding has long been that punching kidney-1, the point in the middle of the foot that the Chinese call yang chuan, can be a killing blow if struck just right, but how often do we get a chance to punch the bottom of a foot? Not often. We also know that in a fight situation, our ability to control our finer muscles is almost non-existent. For this reason only the simplest and most direct techniques, such as the close punch I suggested, are likely to work. I was just curious about the reason for the complexity when a simple and direct punch to a vital point should suffice.

"I don't know, I've just been doing this for 60 years," he said sarcastically. "I haven't had time to learn that pressure point stuff."

Had I been less experienced I might have been shaken up by that rebuff, but the truth is that my question, and his response, perfectly illuminate two different points of view about why train the way we do. Neither is wrong; neither is right. It comes down to personal goals.

In other words, asking that question gave me more insight into intentions than into the technique itself.

The red belts in attendance, like most teachers top-ranked in their systems, are dedicated to the exact preservation of their historical art-their art as it was practiced in the days of medieval Japanese battlefield warfare, before firearms. Many techniques are based on the assumptions of battlefield realities of the day, where everyone wore suits of armor. Against armor, jujitsu and similar arts can be effective by attacking the joints, which are vulnerable. Against such armor, striking arts such as karate are ineffectual.

The response I got was made in that vein. Had I thought about it a little more before asking the question, I might have predicted it. Instead I opened my mouth and asked. Opening my mouth has been known to get me into trouble, but it has also opened the door for knowledge not otherwise obtainable. Like all power, advanced martial arts insights are not given, they are seized.

I asked the question because my goal, my own reason for participating, was to get more practice doing things that are street-effective. In my practice of martial arts, if it doesn't work for the original martial purpose, it's a waste of time. The difference in my point of view, and that of many of my previous senior training buddies, is we recognize that over the centuries, circumstances have changed what it means to fight and be fought.

Such a realization leads some to abandon certain old techniques, while sprucing up others as the environment requires. The "environment" includes our own body types. Each of us has a different body and body type. Any techniques learned must be adopted with an understanding of these differences. Short, heavy guys, for instance, are tough to throw; taller guys are easier to throw and find it harder to get low enough to throw their opponents. Taller guys are more likely to do well with higher kicking attacks, unless their shorter opponents can get beneath them.

Had he chosen, the sensei might have pointed out that in a battlefield situation, the opponent would be wearing boots, not going barefooted as we practice in the training hall. A punch to the bottom of a booted foot would be pointless, as I mentioned earlier. To make that point, though, he would have had to concede the futility of training barefoot, when the only time we are likely to fight barefoot is in the bedroom or on the beach (and I don't mean Normandy or Inchon). Barefoot training is part of the cultural preservation that some give preference to, rather than fighting effectiveness.

Keep in mind that I am making observations, not criticisms. Our reasons for training vary, but are always personal. Even over the course of our martial arts careers, our own reasons and goals evolve as our bodies age and our minds mature. Every day in training, at least at advanced levels, we hold our partners' lives in our hands with every technique practiced. Successfully maneuvering through such a training landscape, over years and decades, inevitably adds to our appreciation of the fragility of life, and the need to protect it.

In my primary art of taijiquan, changes are threatening to take place fast. Tai Chi marketers are exerting pressure to abandon the martial roots and techniques, and turn it into either a New Age or medical health practice. Most of these practices are more accurately termed "exercise mildly influenced by a tiny fraction of Tai Chi principles". They have a place, but they bear the same relationship to historical Tai Chi that Velveeta bears to real cheese. Does that mean they are bad? Does that mean they have no value? Not at all, but neither are they Tai Chi. When it comes to Tai Chi, I am one of those red belts who want to preserve the historical authenticity of the art, which includes its fighting effectiveness.

The technique I suggested, that the red belt scorned, was not jujitsu. In essence, that was what was wrong with my idea. Like many advanced martial artists, I cross-train in other disciplines in order to gain insights into and refine my primary art. I do not train to earn an advanced rank in everything I do. I am not trying to help preserve every system that I taste or absorb. My question was made by someone looking to incorporate a technique into his already-existing bag of tricks, not preserve jujitsu. That's not wrong, but without guys like the judans, these arts would not last another generation - and then we would all lose the benefits of the art. I appreciate their role, and look forward to future training with them.

This discussion still leaves a lot of uncovered territory, such as questions of character refinement versus martial effectiveness. In my experience, the best fighters are often the most uncouth; conversely, some of the most couth are among those least interested in martiality. The individual who hones both sides to a razor point, that is a true master. Few can claim such an accomplishment.

I ran across another problem in the practice of modern martial arts, common in every school in which I have trained, whether Japanese, Chinese or Korean-the problem I have heard called dojo syndrome. Let's save that for next time.

You may also like this related article: Tai Chi Roots (148)
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