China 2019 – Day 26, Monday, 12th August

Thoughts on Learning Forms, Principles, Eastern/Western Instructors, and Health and Martial Tai Chi

So the Chen 74 form and the broadsword form moves have all been shown to me now – notice that I am hesitant to say that I have learnt them, as yet!

That’s a process I can go through over the next few months, years, decades…

I’ve mentioned before about the tai chi form itself not being the most important thing, the principles behind the form are where the true representation of a style lay, hidden in plain sight.

Positioning, how you move the body, distribution of weight…the foundations upon which a sequence of movements can be placed – the movements are often inconsequential in comparison.

It’s akin to building a house, the material with which it is built is less important than the principles of how to actually build – the foundations and the structure are crucial.

With this in mind, completing the form was actually met with a slight shrug of the shoulders, knowing that regardless of how many moves I have been shown, to get to the core and the essence of a martial arts style takes a lot longer than a month of training.

It’s the beginning of a journey once you have learnt a form, not the end. Well, it is if you want to get very good at the style you are learning – which if you’re bothering to learn, I’m assuming most people would!

Forms, in my experience, are learnt quite differently in China than in the UK. When I was learning with my UK based / English instructor, you learnt a little bit at a time. I do it the same way – bite sized chunks are easier to digest in my experience.

Over here in China, you take a huge mouthful and do your best to get it down! There’s more of a culture of following the leader, or learning quite a lot in one go.

Both methods have their merits and faults – and by no means would I say the Chinese don’t teach in a way that I appreciate, it clearly works!

Possibly it’s cultural, or it could be that Westerners generally are here for just a short time and need to learn a lot in one go.

It’s also interesting how relaxed instructors that I have had over here in China have been. Everyone I have learnt under – especially this trip – has been friendly, funny, kind, very generous with their time, not overly or unnecessarily strict. It’s very refreshing. There’s no walking behind them if you are out on the street, or waiting for them to take their first mouthful of food before you are permitted to eat.

What often amuses me is that a number of Western instructors I have known have tried to show how authentic they are – mostly by being excessively strict, shouting unnecessarily, and letting their ego run wild. Yet coming to China I have only ever trained with the nicest, most humble instructors. (I’ve also known some great instructors in the UK, I’m not being critical of Western martial arts instructors in general).

Martial arts has to keep its traditions as well as move with the times. We are living in an age where you cannot treat people the way they would have been treated 50 years ago in a martial arts class. You can keep discipline and control (which are both necessary!) in a way that also shows respect and a positive approach to someone’s development. That’s the challenge!

I’ve been slated by some instructors for teaching online. I’ve always clearly said that learning with an actual instructor is better if you can – but many can’t – for financial reasons, busy lifestyles, maybe they have mobility issues, don’t feel comfortable in groups, or – as is often the case – online sessions are taken alongside class based lessons.

Again, it’s a case of finding that balance between keeping the art and traditions alive and moving with the times.

I feel that tai chi often flies under the radar somewhat in the West. It’s getting a lot better now but it’s often playing catch up with yoga or Pilates groups. Or it is dissed as too esoteric and impractical by many who do harder style martial arts.

I’d say that tai chi (especially when combined with qigong) should be proudly front and centre alongside yoga and Pilates as a health and wellness routine. It’s accessible, can be performed almost anywhere, and has so many health benefits.

What it has in addition is the martial art behind the gentle and flowing movements.

Ok, I admit that if I was attacked and needed to protect myself that I probably wouldn’t use a perfectly performed tai chi move to defend myself. I don’t really know many who would.

What a skilled tai chi practitioner would use, however, if they had practised enough, are the PRINCIPLES learnt in their tai chi forms. Back to the concept of principles again.

Weight distribution, relaxation, posture, power generation…none of these are techniques, they are deeper structural elements of a martial art. These are how you would use tai chi to defend yourself effectively.

You’d elbow, punch, kick, grapple, gouge, bite, etc. – whatever was the appropriate thing to do at that time and in that range – all with principles that you had learnt from tai chi! (Remember, this is self defence in order to survive, not a sport!)

It shows a lack of knowledge of martial arts to merely say, you can’t use tai chi effectively in a fight. You just aren’t looking deeply enough. The same applies to those who say that forms are ineffective or irrelevant. They are the library, the text book, the database of a style. It’s up to you as the practitioner to breathe life into it!

I say it again and again and again…those who do kung ku, kickboxing, and grappling in my classes are MUCH better and more skilled at those arts if they also do tai chi. They have a better understanding of how to relax, control their bodies, control the breathing, root their stance, move in response to their opponents more fluidly, remain calm under pressure – to name but a few benefits!

Of course, many people who take up Tai Chi and practice for years have no interest in even remotely touching upon the martial elements – and that is absolutely fine.

Many instructors don’t know the martial side of it anyway. It’s a health based art that is second to none, steeped in hundreds if not thousands of years of Chinese medicine and philosophy.

However, if trained in the correct way, it is a martial art, as effective as any other out there. It just takes a long time to get to a high standard – it relies on perfection of technique, which most people do not have the patience to train for.

Whatever your reasons for learning tai chi it is a never ending pursuit where you can always reach a higher level, improve and learn.

So the long and the short of it is, there are a myriad of reasons to do tai chi, and I can’t think of many reasons not to 🙂

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