by Sophie Lahayville ©
It is difficult to write about Tai Chi Chuan, because learning Tai Chi Chuan involves transferring knowledge from one person to another and that only. If you were to ask a potter to explain how he makes a vase without you yourself thrusting your hands into a mass of clay as you work by his side, no matter how much information related to the process, and no matter how many genuine details he were to give you, you would still not be able to create the object of your dreams, even in its simplest form. For the most inexpressible and probably the most precious factor of all appears through the living element in the transferring of the art by the teacher, and the learner’s own personal practice.
For all of the arts, the beauty of oral transmission has to do with wisdom and its mystery. Oral transmission addresses the learner’s feelings and a person’s inner understanding, for which the body is the medium via its perceptions. This helps us to understand how precious our body is for our consciousness. It also leads us to consider how important personal practice is. Thanks to personal practice, we are able to assimilate new knowledge and this also helps our understanding to grow.
From the outset, Tai Chi Chuan was considered a so-called “internal energy” martial art that was created in China. It was developed over a number of generations from father-to-son, by means of the oral tradition. Later, in the 1930’s, it became more popular throughout China and eventually in the Western world. Contrary to what is referred to as “external energy”, which is muscular, “internal energy” consists in the human being’s vital energy, called chi.
Practicing Tai Chi Chuan increases the potential of chi and stimulates its flow throughout the body. It enhances calm, balance, firm “rootedness”, mobility, body awareness and a relaxed attitude.
The art of Tai Chi Chuan is based on the taoist principles of full and hollow. The Tao – also pronounced dao – and generally translated as “path” or “way”, is also represented by the yin-yang symbol. According to Chinese philosophy, the yin and the yang are the origin of existence.
The symbol tells us that the yin, or female energy, and the yang, or male energy, are distinct, in opposition and complementary, each containing the seed of the other as well. Their relationship is dynamic. The taoist view does not distinguish human beings from the surrounding universe, both entities being of the same nature.
For Tai Chi, as in the case of the macrocosm, movement arises from the alternating of the yin and the yang. Constantly shifting one’s body weight from one leg to the other, each of the legs is in turn full (when bearing the entire body weight) or hollow (when the weight is carried by the other leg).
In one of his poems, from the collection “Dao De Jing”, Lao Zi refers to the shape of a vase that creates emptiness which can ultimately be filled. We often mention “shifting the weight of the body from one leg to the other”, but we might just as well refer to “decanting”.
What is empty is thus intended to be filled, and what is full to be emptied. Therefore, if the element that is full is not emptied, and that which is hollow is not filled, movement will die away.
Movement consists in change, transformation, continuity.
One of the first sensations one experiences is warmth, which is a sign showing that the blood flow, carrying vital energy, has been stimulated.
Each movement is set off by the rotation of the waist - generating stimulus that is beneficial for the health - before it is propagated to the limbs.
The classic texts tell us that energy is born from the soles of our feet (support). Passing through the body, it then acquires expression through the limbs. The texts also tell us that the waist is the center of a wheel (or the hub of the wheel) and that the limbs are the spokes (of the wheel). Therefore, each posture will be circular.
Tai Chi Chuan is to be practiced silently. It is essentially unifying and addressed to one’s wholeness. Inducing the learner’s presence, it links the body and the spirit through continuous motion and echoes the natural harmony of the human body. Throughout Tai Chi Chuan practice, physical and mental relaxation feed upon each other mutually.
Learners of Tai Chi Chuan start off by simultaneously memorizing the physical movements and the principles of what is called “the slow form”. If some explanations are needed, it is mostly through imitation and repetition that the learner acquires the movements as well as ease and precision. One integrates what one has learned into one’s daily life..
This phase of memorization is progressive, in the same way as it is for language acquisition and the learning of music theory. The learner is also able to practice concentration from the outset and experiences awareness to his / her own presence by relaxing the tensions felt throughout his/her body. It is thus, thanks to each learner’s attention, that conscious movement and relaxation are able to unfold.
Relaxation occurs as one’s tensions are “relieved” thanks to one’s growing awareness and concentration. At this point, one’s chi can flow freely through the invisible channels, which are also called meridians in Chinese medicine. Practice shows us, at an early stage, that when the joints are not blocked, the muscles become relaxed and at this point one can feel energy circulating. This is how one gradually gains fluidity. “When one part of the body moves, all of the other parts move as well.” In other words, the entire body is constantly moving.
And so we move from the outer spheres consistently towards the inner spheres, and more and more in depth. In the same way, profound knowledge of the form leads us to the heart of the form.
“Unwind energy the way you would unwind a silk cocoon.” Have you ever observed the unwinding of the thread of a silk cocoon? It is a delicate procedure requiring subtlety, concentration and a delicate touch, in order to avoid breaking the thread. This is a far cry from actions accomplished with strong will power, or a stiff attitude. In our mind’s eye we are referring to a continuum of movements and cannot distinguish the first or the last, as the end of one movement leads to the beginning of another, thus promoting inner calm.
The features characterizing the right way of practicing TCC are feelings of well-being, self-confidence and joy that practice leads to, whether one is at a beginner’s or at an advanced level. Not only does Tai Chi Chuan teach us patience, but it also brings us open-mindedness.
All of the instructions we are given, help us to synchronize our movements accurately, leading us to sense a deeper and deeper feeling of enlightenment, of simplicity. The body is released, and we experience the pleasure of espousing our body’s own logic and understanding. We feel one.
For this to happen, we assume that the teacher we have chosen to learn with is truly a learned person and that the learner develops his/her own personal form of practice which, as it unfolds, develops its own adapted responses.
How often I have heard Master Tung Kai Ying address us with his distinctive radiant smile and these words at the end of a class: “Practice, practice, practice”. He sometimes also adds: “Don’t think too much, don’t talk too much, just practice.”
A number of exercises, full of subtleties, are characteristic of what is taught at the Yang school of traditional Tai Chi Chuan. After learning the slow form, there are a variety of exercises that are done in pairs (push hands), as well as martial art applications, the rapid form, weapons practice with the knife, the sword, the sticks and the lance. The exercises enable people, as they practice, to resort to different types of energy (slow, brief, fast or explosive energy) All are complementary and the student will learn them as time goes by. They are obviously also based on what the learner feels, the full and the hollow, circular movement, the transformation of movement and thus a need to “listen”. Even if all of these new techniques provide a full gamut of feelings, all are nonetheless based on the principles developed in the slow form, which must never be dropped.
I address these words to my students and to all of those who are interested in Tai Chi Chuan. May they be seen as an expression of my gratitude to Master Tung for his generosity as a teacher.
© Sophie Lahayville
|Download the list of Tai Chi Chuan Slow set movement names. here|
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