THE ANCIENT ART OF TAI-CHI CHUAN
Written by Rich Marantz
Tai-chi chuan, commonly known as Tai-chi, is a Chinese martial and healing art that is practiced in a continuous series of slow moving, relaxed postures. Based upon Taoist philosophy, Tai-chi is much more than an art for health and self-defense. Through the practice of Tai-chi the philosophies come alive, allowing us to better understand ourselves, our relationship to others, as well as our connection to and our place in the universe.
Specific principles and concepts have been passed down through many generations to guide us through our practice of Tai-chi. Some of the principles are: to be centered, relaxed, loose, open; to maintain connected, circular, rooted, slow, even movement; to seek whole body unity; to raise the spirit; to sink the qi (vital energy); to use the mind not strength; and to seek stillness within movement. Some of the concepts we follow are: the concept of change, of "doing non-doing" (or going with the flow), and of harmony and balance.
In the practice of Tai-chi we seek to use what the Chinese call the heart/mind, a combination of intention and intellect. This requires awareness more than thinking and is part of the reason Tai-chi is considered moving meditation. As we move through the form we bring our intention and awareness to our whole being. This is why we practice slowly. As an example, think about a route you often take in your car. One day instead of driving you walk along that route. By slowing down you are able to notice many things that you have not seen before; some very big, like a house, down to the smallest details, such as a beautiful flower. This is the external landscape. In the practice of Tai-chi we look at the internal landscape. We move slowly in order to observe and be aware of both the big and little things that we may have been rushing by on our daily journeys.
Let's now look at how we apply some of the other principles in Tai-chi. Consider, for example, the very important guiding principle of Yin/Yang. As we move through the form we feel as if a string is pulling the crown of the head upward, raising the spirit. Simultaneously we are sinking the qi into our center and sending our intention through our feet to establish a feeling of being rooted to the earth. This helps make the top part of our body light and the bottom part heavy. The top part of our body represents yang and the bottom part yin. Becoming bottom- heavy helps to create stability and a feeling of calmness.
If we look at our lives, we see that in times of instability, we become tense, worried and often find ourselves pulled from our centers. However, as soon as things become stable we breathe more easily and relax. The same is true on the physical level. By learning to stabilize ourselves physically we can be more centered and relaxed in our lives generally. Energetically speaking, when we raise the spirit, sink the qi and root ourselves we are connecting with heaven, human (sinking the qi to our centers) and earth, the three treasures in Taoism. On a physical level, when we pull both upward and downward we are opening up the whole body. This can have numerous health benefits, especially for the spine and abdomen. For instance, by opening up my spine in this way I was able to heal from a serious and disabling back injury. And when the abdominal cavity is open the internal organs have space to be massaged as we move through the form.
The idea of Tai-chi as a martial art is unfamiliar to many people. When attacked, we should stay relaxed, open and centered so we can "listen" to the incoming force. In this way we can neutralize any force and easily redirect it either away from ourselves, or, if need be, back to the attacker. Essentially we use the attacker's own force against him. Thus in Tai-chi there is no aggression. This concept can be applied not only to physical attacks but to verbal ones as well. In fact, all situations with another person can be seen as relationship, which involves a giving and receiving of energy. As we come to know ourselves better through the practice of Tai-chi we can more clearly discern these energies in our relationships and work more effectively with them. These examples show just some of the ways we can apply and benefit from the principles and concepts of Tai-chi. The longer that we practice the deeper we see how amazing this art form can be.
How can Tai-chi benefit you? I believe the best answer is that you get out of Tai-chi what you need. I have seen in others and experienced myself healing in the physical, emotional, mental and spiritual realms. However, we only get out of Tai-chi what we put into it. Although we may benefit immediately from the practice, Tai-chi is no quick fix. It is simple but not easy. It requires discipline and, most of all, patience with yourself and the process.
How do you go about learning Tai-chi? Tai-chi cannot be learned only from books or just by watching others practice. It must be experienced. To experience Tai-chi properly, a qualified guide is necessary to help us avoid and correct the inevitable pitfalls along the way.
To find a good Tai-chi teacher who is willing to help others, you can begin asking friends who might be learning already or who may know of a teacher in your area. Acupuncturists can often make referrals. Attend a few classes before deciding if a Tai-chi teacher is right for you. If you don't feel comfortable with a certain style of teaching then continue to look for another teacher who might better fit your way of learning. One thing to keep in mind is that in Tai-chi we are concerned with how it feels, not with how it looks. You can put this principle into practice as you search for someone who can guide you. Although there are as many reasons to practice Tai-chi as there are practitioners, those of us who practice Tai-chi do so not separately from other parts of our lives. We practice to find our true selves, to create wholeness and connection, to enhance and support every aspect of our lives.