Many martial arts are misunderstood. I have written a number of times about how Karate and other arts have become dumbed down and stylised to a point where a lot of what is practiced would not work under pressure.
However, I don’t think any martial art is more misunderstood than Tai Chi. I think this is for a number of reasons, but mostly:
- Many people practice it purely as a for health and well-being, with no martial applications at all.
- Many people do not believe in the concept of “Chi” energy on which Tai Chi is largely based.
- With more and more people getting into “reality based” training, “hard” styles being seen by many as stylised and ritualistic; the slow practice of Tai Chi seems even further from being a real form of combat.
So lets have a closer look at Tai Chi. Firstly we should look at the modern emphasis on health and well-being. I am told that the Chinese communist government wanted to exploit the the health properties of Tai Chi as a simple way to keep people healthy and keep down expenditure on their health service. They therefore called together a number of top Tai Chi masters and told them to create a simplified version of Tai Chi for introduction to the masses. When the masters initially refused, they were told that they and their families would be sent to labour camps. So they agreed. The simplified Tai Chi that they created was nicknamed “Beijing Tai Chi” and this is the version that spread most rapidly around the world.
As for the concept of chi, some people will never believe in it which is fair enough, we are all entitled to our own views. I just ask that if you are somebody that does not believe, then please just respect the views of those that do.
As for a combat system that is performed slowly, that one takes a bit more to get your head around. The part which is often missed is that Tai Chi as a combat art was never designed to be, or expected to be the starting point. In China, in the Shaolin monasteries and elsewhere, they would alway start with a “hard” style first and only after they mastered that would they move on to Tai Chi and other internal styles. It is not simply that they start young and young people relate better to harder styles (which is true in itself), but learning Tai Chi is actually easier if you have experience in a harder art.
By learning the hard art first (such as Kung Fu, Karate or similar), the practitioner learns about speed, raw power, distancing, dealing with somebody steaming in full power, aggression, adrenalin and all the primary aspects of combat. Many people will be quick to point out that Tai Chi does not teach these things. In the main they are right; because Tai Chi is designed for people who already know them. Tai Chi is not a stand alone fighting art, it is the polish and finish on other fighting arts, which takes them to higher levels.
As my instructor Paul Mitchell says, most martial arts teach you to be substantial, whereas Tai Chi teaches you to be insubstantial. What does this mean?
Well in most martial arts, we learn the things mentioned above (speed, power, aggression, etc); how to meet somebody head on, or even when evading how to hit them like a hammer when you do strike. These make you act and feel to the opponent very substantial indeed. But with Tai Chi, somebody attacks and you learn to almost “melt” out of their way letting them finish an attack after you are no longer there. To be able to move like this requires a high degree of relaxation. This is being “insubstantial” so that you can just not be their when the attack is completed.
So why is everything practiced so slowly?
Firstly, it is learn the relaxation to be able move in an “insubstantial” way. This primarily uses the internal muscles of the body rather than the major muscle groups (as most other martial arts do). Learning to use the internal muscles can not be done by practicing fast.
Secondly it is learn to use and move your internal energy. As mentioned above, I know that a lot of people reading this probably won’t believe in Chi, but again, please just respect that this is the belief of most people that do practice Tai Chi. The idea is to learn to co-ordinate your internal energy with your physical movement and this can only be done slowly.
Thirdly (and this is where some people will probably think I’ve gone mad) it is to learn to deal with the effects of adrenalin and to stay calm when confronted by a hostile person. Now people who do the reality based scenario training that I’ve discussed in earlier postings will probably have trouble seeing how moving slowly through a form can possibly prepare you for the effects of adrenalin. Well the short answer is it doesn’t, that should have already been accomplished by the previous martial arts training (Kung Fu/Karate etc). By the time you take up Tai Chi you should already be familiar with the effects of adrenalin and confrontation. What Tai Chi aims to do is to keep you calm in the face of confrontation and to actually negate the effects of adrenalin.
Scenario based training as discussed in other postings is geared to giving you an adrenalin rush (so that you get used to operating in that state), which is fantastic when you start your martial arts career. However, Tai Chi being geared to advanced martial artists is geared to stop you having an adrenalin rush. This will not happen overnight and will take years to achieve, but it is a long term training program and that is what is works towards. That is why as a martial art, it is only really for already accomplished martial artists. As a form of health and well-being, you can start it anytime without any experience in other martial arts.
The slow movements are designed to give the feeling that you “have all day” when somebody attacks you. Of course you don’t. Of course you have to move very fast. But that’s why you should have done another martial art first. You are also training to achieve a deep state of relaxation which permeates into every facet of your life. This includes staying relaxed when in a violent confrontation and we all know that you move faster when you are relaxed.
Some people may be concerned by the idea of negating the effects of adrenalin as it boosts strength and speed (which are obviously useful) so why loose these positive effects? Well again, we go back to already being an accomplished martial artist. You should be strong and fast already.
But what about the negative effects of adrenalin (which will vary from person to person and situation to situation)?
- Blood goes away from your brain and into the major muscle groups so you loose some of your fine motor skills.
- You tend to get tunnel vision (which is not good for multiple opponents).
- You can’t think so well and you may blank out verbal advice from friends/allies trying to help.
So if you could function with speed and power (from previous training) without losing fine motor skills, without losing mental faculties, being aware of multiple assailants and being aware of helpful/warning shouts around you, then you can take your fighting ability to a whole new level.