What is tai chi chuan? We must ask this question with tact because it is a sensitive matter. A lot of exercise passes as tai chi that probably
is not, often taught by people who have no idea what tai chi is. At the same time many advanced practitioners hold opposing views about
what tai chi is or is not, and what it should or should not be. Chen style practitioners famously advocate tai chi's martial methods,
although they are not alone. Others claim exactly the opposite, that tai chi was never, or at least should not be, a martial art.
This is easy to understand among those who have never been taught martial methods, which is increasingly common. Others conduct
classes in sitting tai chi, or wheelchair tai chi. Who is right and who is wrong? More importantly, is there even a right or
wrong? Does anything go?
Anything does not go. Tai chi is not a "to each his own" practice. True, there are many styles and many differences,
but just about all adhere to a common body of principles that make it the art that we, those who study it deeply, recognize. In
the highest sense an ultimate goal is formlessness, but you cannot throw away form until you first acquire it. In this message
and the ten or more that will follow, I will examine the ten essentials of tai chi stated by Yang Cheng-fu, third generation
successor in the Yang family. I will refer to Douglas Wile's translation in his book Tai Chi Touchstones: Yang Family Secret
Transmissions, but the explanations are largely my own, culled from many senior teachers and my own experience as well as
scholars like Wile.
One problem with discussing these essentials is that they only begin to address the problem of what is tai chi. Quickly we bump
up against the question of what is good tai chi? Standards imply the ability to judge quality, and hence the ability to describe
the quality to be judged.
In the classical writings of two of tai chi's modern leaders, Yang Cheng-fu and near-successor Chen Wei-ming, we quickly discern a
pattern: All tests of good tai chi are based in martial principles and applications. Without these tests, established in
the early days of tai chi, there is no tai chi. Without standards, anything goes, and you can make up anything and
call it tai chi. Many do just that. So how can a newbie or would-be student tell the real tai chi from
the feel-good "tai chi" that is made up? We will begin with the ten essentials, and progress to the deeper tests
of more advanced tai chi accomplishment. Use these essentials as a starting point for evaluating your own tai chi
practice. So many students practice with a single teacher and never know anything else. With the upcoming columns a standard will
emerge that may influence your practice to go deeper.
In my next column I will discuss the first essential, which my students will recognize by our most common class reference:
Crown Up, Chin Down, Throat Relaxed. Details to follow.
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