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Health First, Self-Defense Second!
by Robert W. Young
In these days of escalating violence, it seems that many tai chi churn proponents never stop arguing how effective the internal style can be for street defense. Meanwhile, devotees of other styles often ask if tai chi chuan is really the best choice for learning how to knock out muggers and repel rapists.
Despite the dissension, millions of people around the world staunchly believe in tai chi chuan, perhaps more for the art's intangible benefits than for its knockout power. They claim the way of the "grand ultimate fist" offers untold benefits for a practitioner's health, internal energy flow and general well-being. At advanced level, many claim tai chi chuan does bestow excellent self-defense abilities, but for the average practitioner, it would seem that the constructive side, not the destructive, promises the most.
Before we examine these somewhat lesser-known benefits of tai chi chuan practice, we should discuss the background of our source, Daniel Lee. Born in Shanghai, China, Lee learned Shaolin kung fu and chi hung from his father. He later studied Western boxing and won the welterweight division of a national boxing championship in 1948. Lee was exposed to tai chi chuan after he moved to Taiwan, but upon relocation to the United States was unable to find a teacher. Instead, he practiced judo until he broke his shoulder, then switched to kenpo karate and eventually received a black belt under Ed Parker.
In 1966 Lee met a tai chi chuan master who had just arrived from China; he immediately quit kenpo and took up the art. In 1967 he heard that Bruce Lee had opened a school in Chinatown, and the two Lees met and trained together until Bruce went to Hong Kong to make films. In 1988 Daniel Lee was named Black Belt magazine's Man of the Year. Lee, who recently retired after 38 years as an aerospace engineer for the California Institute of Technology Jet Propulsion Laboratory, still teaches tai chi chuan in Pasadena, California-as he has for the past 25 years.
Tai Chi chuan students learn how to breathe deeply from the abdomen. "During the forms, the even movement and rhythm are predominant," Lee says. "You learn to match your breathing with the movement. [There's no need to] consciously breathe in and out; there's only a general guideline. If you want to do a lower stance or do a movement more slowly, your breathing pattern changes. But you intuitively know how to breathe."
Since tai chi chuan is a martial art, when you move forward and exert energy, you generally breathe out, Lee says, and when you move backward, you breathe in. "Your arm comes up, you breathe in, and your chest expands; your arm goes down, and you breathe out," he says. Lee does not advise students to immediately match their breathing with movement, because the movements themselves are already challenging enough to learn. Beginners often complain that when they move one arm, they forget the other arm, and when they master the arms, they forget the legs or their balance, he says. "There's really a lot of training. Do it slowly so you can maintain that total control and awareness."
Once a tai chi chuan student masters the movement, he can think about matching the breathing more closely. But in the beginning, Lee advises: "Just breathe; let the wisdom of your body tell you when to breathe. When you run, you don't tell yourself, "Now I'm running, so I must breathe faster". The body picks it up anyway. When the body needs to breathe in, just inhale. When it needs to breathe out, just exhale."
Later in a student's training, usually during the second year, breathing and movement start to work with chi (internal energy) and the mind, Lee says. "It all focuses together like a magnifying glass concentrating nice, warm sunlight into enough heat to burn paper. You can generate tremendous power."
Does tai chi chuan breathing practice have any direct application to other parts of life? "Abdominal breathing is basically a relaxed breathing," Lee says. "The basic movement of tai chi is raising and lowering the arm; it's called breathing in and breathing out. When [students] get stressed during the day, they should do some deep breathing to settle down. Immediately they can regain their calmness. Even three minutes of breathing can renew the strength. Tai chi, even without the movements, can immediately be applied to daily life.
Although the "chi" in tai chi chuan does not have the same meaning or Chinese character as the "chi" that means internal energy, many practitioners claim training in the art does enhance the flow of the vital stuff in a student's body.
"From a Chinese medical standpoint, you have two types of chi in the body," Lee says. "One comes from your parents, and the other comes from your daily nutrition." The chi from your parents provides your body with its basic constitution; thus, some babies are born weak because their parents are weak, he says. "If you inherit good chi from your parents, you are lucky. From then on, it's your daily nutrition, the air and the water you drink that provide [post-birth] chi".
Lee claims Chinese medical theory is based on the fact that chi always courses through the body's channels-even though you are totally unaware of it. To enhance the flow, tai chi chuan students should ensure their body is relaxed and their mind is quiet, and remain aware of the heaviness of the abdomen, Lee says. "The Chinese have a saying: Let the chi sink to the tan tien [area below the navel]. That does not mean breathing from the tan tien, but using diaphragmatic breathing, which changes your abdominal pressure. So if you breathe abdominally, you will sense heaviness and firmness in your body."
Lee says tai chi chuan emphasizes just that-keeping the body straight and letting the chi settle to the tan tien. "If you relax it, you'll feel the firmness near the tan tien. The Chinese say the chi sinks to the tan tien, but don't use a lot of mental force to force it down. True tai chi emphasizes letting it settle down."
Tai chi chuan practitioners have a maxim: Let the mind lead the chi and the chi mobilize the body. "So before you move the arm, there are three processes," Lee says. "First, you have to think about it. Tai chi involves body-mind training. If you want to raise the arm, you mentally visualize the arm rising, and with that visualization, your body begins to move. Under the direction of your mind, your body starts moving upward.
"Just mobilize the i [mind or intent]. A tai chi maxim says, 'If the i is there, the chi is there. If the chi is there, the jing [force] is there.' Jing is different from li, the raw force which is unfocused. [With] physical force plus mental direction, that focused raw force becomes jing. But behind that is the chi You don't want to move the chi; you move the i," Lee explains.
When muscles tense, they block the flow of chi "That's why tai chi emphasizes relaxation of mind and body-so chi can flow freely," Lee says. "In that condition, the energy starts coming through. When the chi is coursing through the body, it provides equilibrium of the yin and yang energy, and health improves." When chi stops flowing or becomes unbalanced, disease results, and when chi stagnates in a certain area, you feel pain, he claims.
Tai chi chuan forms practice should calm the mind, but it should not empty it. "The mind is always involved," Lee says. "The mind moves the chi, and the chi leads the movement. At the first stages, you have to learn to move your left foot, right foot, arms, etc., but eventually you become very fluid. You begin to express the movement. But you don't do it totally in a state of 'no mind.'"
Lee claims the "no mind" state applies only to fighting-when you should avoid focusing your mind on a certain technique. "You come in with total openness and you respond spontaneously," he says. "That's what Bruce Lee used to talk about-using no way as way."
But students should not practice tai chi chuan automatically, Lee cautions. They must be totally aware of everything. "You are aware of the situation around you, but it does not disturb you," he says. "For example, if you are doing a tai chi form and a car backfires, people around you jump, but you have an invisible shield. You hear the sound, but it does not penetrate to your consciousness."
Tai chi chuan also helps develop an awareness of the "here-now" experience. During training, students must dwell upon the precise moment-which changes all the time. "You cannot plan ahead or worry about the movement that is coming, or about a mistake you just made," Lee says. "You deal with things right-now; you focus all your concentration on that point, and that point constantly changes. That teaches a lot for life experience-we plan the future, but we don't live in the future. We can't live in the past or cry over past mistakes. The secret is in the here and now."
Lee says the health benefits of tai chi chuan stem from correctly flowing chi and balanced posture. "Tai chi creates a demand in terms of balance," he says. "It's not just balancing in one posture and the next; it's balancing throughout a whole series of postures. That's why it demands so much more in terms of placing the body in the right way and being able to move very smoothly. That smoothness provides calmness. That makes tai chi multifaceted-you learn to relax, to coordinate your body so it is balanced at any point."
In addition to physical balance, tai chi chuan practice cultivates what might be termed "mental balance," both in martial arts and in life. The tai chi chuan symbol consists of a circle with a wavy line; the two resulting shapes represent yin and yang. "The original tai chi symbol used a straight line," Lee says. "But the curved line indicates dynamic interaction. Yang is not more than yin, or vice versa. You have to have both." Together, they represent being assertive and attacking, as well as being yielding and defending.
"Through tai chi training, I have begun to realize [the importance of] additional training in the yin aspect, which is yielding or using pliable energy to avoid being hit directly," he continues. "But in reality, yielding can provide more torque. Rather than always attack, I put a little more emphasis on the yin aspect. I also began to realize how to relax and generate power from the hip and legs. The Chinese say, 'When a person who studies a hard system gets old, he worries about getting slower and weaker; when you see a tai chi master in his advanced years, watch out. He's just as powerful; he may even invoke some magic power.' There is no magic power; he's using yielding and attacking simultaneously."
Relaxing is essential in tai chi chuan practice, Lee claims. "The Chinese call it sung. It is the most important word in tai chi because of its three aspects: The body and joints have to relax, the muscles have to relax, and the mind has to relax." The tension in the forehead disappears, and the student starts breathing calmly. His internal organs are relaxed, and the relaxation penetrates more and more deeply into the whole body, he says.
But relaxation does not mean a tai chi chuan stylist is not ready to fight. "From relaxation to total tension takes only a fraction of a second," Lee says. "If you tense [your muscles], then relax and go tense again, it's so slow. It's almost like mathematics-first we learn about zero and always use the positive numbers. Relaxation which is yielding, [is like the] negative numbers. The more you relax, the more you approach the negative numbers. You now have a dynamic range from minus infinity to plus infinity. If you go from negative to positive, the explosion is unbelievable."
Best of Both Worlds
Lee says the masters of old created tai chi chuan to benefit their health and develop their combat skill. "Taoist master Chang San Feng actually had a lot of Shaolin [kung fu] training, but later converted to Taoism, which is more toward nature. So he was a fighter to begin with, but he realized that, aside from martial arts, internal development was more important. So he would journey deep into tai chi movement, which was more circular, less hostile, less blocking-but rather flow with the force." Because it is based on Taoist natural development, tai chi chuan emphasizes becoming one with nature, harmonizing oneself with the universe.
Lee acknowledges that most students choose tai chi chuan for its combination of self-defense and health benefits. "I think the majority of people have heard of tai chi's ability to help them relax, and they come for that," he says. "Middle-aged and older people come for health reasons and to develop coordination. But younger people who have had martial arts training realize the internal training of tai chi gives the ability to relax under pressure, and that is very appealing." This relaxation stills the mind and body, especially in a high pressure situation, and allows them to face the problem later with renewed strength.
"Learning the smooth body movements of tai chi can also help people in other areas-tennis, basketball, jogging or karate-anything that involves balance and not using unneeded muscles," Lee argues. He says tai chi chuan develops a skill for using only the muscles that are necessary and leaving the others relaxed; in this way, it helps conserve energy. "I have a maxim in my classes: In tai chi practice, efficiency is intelligent laziness. Don't use any muscle that is not needed; only use the muscles that are needed and only the right amount of force-no more and no less," he says.
During the first three months, Lee says his students usually begin to sense an awareness of balance and notice their legs getting stronger. They find that their aches subside and lower back pain disappears because they develop perfect body alignment and a straight, centered body. "Learning a whole form over a year provides continuous learning, and eventually the body assimilates the movements and begins to overcome the old habits and the instinct to tense up whenever something happens," Lee says. "It takes about a year to develop the idea of relaxing, centering, calming yourself, and from then on students can continue studying for the martial arts aspect." Interestingly enough, Lee says many new students are initially hostile and impatient, but a year later they are ready for tai chi chuan martial arts training because they have developed calmness and can do the movements without involvement of their ego.
So is tai chi chuan primarily a martial art or exercise? "Everybody has different goals," Lee replies. "For people who are sick or weak, tai chi is great exercise. In China, people do it every day; it's part of the lifestyle. They may not care about martial arts; they just want exercise. The whole thing is, life is based on movement. Whether you think of [tai chi] as a martial art or exercise, if you do it consistently, it will be beneficial.
"What makes tai chi unique is that beyond the exercise there is the element of self-defense," he continues. "If you don't study that aspect of tai chi, it becomes just exercise. But if you look at how tai chi movements originated-the rationale behind them-and you practice with the proper sequence and posture and with the martial art in mind, then at a later stage, when the body is ready for it, it's right there ready to be used."
Lee recites a final tai chi chuan maxim: "'What is the ultimate purpose of tai chi? To enjoy perpetual spring-a fountain of youth.' Even though you learn a martial art, later on you walk a peaceful path. You don't want to fight. You have the ability to fight, to protect yourself, but you don't go out and seek fights."
Two Techniques of Pushing Hands.
by Mark Wasson
For those who wish to master the Chinese art tai chi chuan, it is essential that they first become proficient at "pushing hands." The pushing-hands exercise, known as tui sao in Chinese, makes one's tai chi literally come alive. Pushing hands gives the student the ability to fully comprehend the power behind tai chi techniques. It teaches the practitioner how to move with and redirect an opponent's force, especially a larger adversary's energy. It also demonstrates to the tai chi stylist how the techniques in the form work, prompting him to use greater mental focus when practicing.
In North America, tai chi chuan is practiced primarily as a health exercise and not a martial art. For this reason, many students never become aware of the importance of the pushing-hands exercise and its many contributions to tai chi.
Perhaps the easiest way to explain tui sao is to say that it is an exercise performed by two people, that develops sensitivity to an opponent's intent. In some regards, it is similar to wing chun kung fu's chi sao, which is also known as "sticking hands." Both exercises teach sensitivity to, and the redirection of, an opponent's force. This, however, is all the two exercises have in common. The combat philosophy and mechanics of wing chun and tai chi are dramatically different. Wing chun emphasizes a straight-line theory of attack, while tai chi movements are circular. Wing chun is also an aggressive style, while tai chi is passive or reactive in nature. Hence, the way the two sensitivity exercises are performed is quite different.
There are three steps to learning pushing hands. The first step is referred to as the "single hand while stationary exercise." To advance to the second step, you simply add a second hand to the drill, making it a "double hands while stationary exercise." The third step, which involves stepping in specific patterns, is the "double hands while moving exercise." Some tai chi instructors add their own variations to these exercises, but these three drills are the foundation of pushing hands.
The first two exercises teach the tai chi student about physical rather than mental sensitivity. From birth, your eyes are the primary sense you rely on. You depend on your eyes almost exclusively for all your sensory input. Because of this dependence, your other senses become secondary and lose the ability to properly correlate sensory data. In essence, your other senses become rusty. For most people, this sensory limitation is quite normal and does not present problems in their day-to-day living. For tai chi practitioners, however, this sensory deprivation can mean the difference between fully understanding or never understanding their art. This is why the pushing hands exercise is so important. By practicing pushing hands, the entire body is trained to be ultra-sensitive and can instantly respond as a single, cohesive unit. When this level of sensitivity is achieved, it is a simple matter for the tai chi stylist to feel an opponent's intent and redirect it accordingly.
While the first two pushing-hands exercises teach physical sensitivity, the third drill, double hands while moving, enables the student to sense what the opponent will do next. This ability to predict correctly what one's opponent's next move will be is a tremendous advantage, speeding up the defender's reaction time to an attack. This is the basis for the famous tai chi adage "When my opponent moves fast, I will move faster; when my opponent moves slow, I match him." Understanding this concept is therefore an important part of tai chi.
There are two other important benefits of pushing hands that should be stressed. First, practicing pushing hands teaches the tai chi student how to move with his chi (internal energy). The tai chi form also does this, but pushing-hands practice takes it to a much more advanced level.
The second important benefit of push-hands training is that it gives the student a better understanding, in a hands-on manner, of why and how the style's fighting techniques work. By knowing the how and why of the techniques, you can better channel your chi at the appropriate moment in both the form and in selfdefense, making your techniques more explosive and powerful.
It should be noted that while performing any pushing-hands exercise, the force used in the pushes should be light, and the redirecting of energy should be smooth and continuous. When a practitioner becomes relatively accomplished at the pushing-hands exercises, he can begin to blend two of the drills during training. At this point, the exercise truly becomes free-flowing, allowing the students to relate the drill to the tai chi form and thus gain a deeper understanding of the application of the many movem ents.
Because pushing hands is so integral to mastering tai chi chaun, all tai chi systems include some form of it. Of course, there are slight differences in the way it is practiced from style to system, and even teacher to teacher. But, in general, it is the same exercise in each tai chi system. Such is the complementary nature of tai chi chuan systems.
The most important thing, however, is finding an experienced teacher. It takes time to develop pushing-hands skill, but a quality instructor can hasten the process and make it an enjoyable learning experience. With time and practice, you will reach a new and heightened level of sensitivity in your tai chi chuan training.
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