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Is tai chi an arcane discipline, with inscrutable mystical roots - accessible only to the initiated? No, not really. Taijiquan hides its secrets in the open.
Anyone can access the art, but you need to go somewhat deeper than just words.
You cannot reasonably expect to immediately understand the inner workings of tai chi. It takes time, a thorough program of study, and lots of practice over many years.
Taijiquan is filled will odd little phrases or instructions that have little significance to a beginner.
Were you to read The Tai Chi Classics or Zen and the Tao books, the cryptic statements and stories might not seem to have any obvious bearing on the martial art itself.
These apparently vague references and riddles are signs and pointers to the Way.
Approaching the mystery
There are two ways to approach the riddle of tai chi: study and practice. Ideally, become an 'indoor student' if you can.
Study must primarily take the form of lessons with an instructor, rather than rely upon books and DVDs. But it should also involve a lot of reading.
When you immerse your mind in the Taoist literature associated with tai chi, you begin to see the world in quite a different fashion. This will prove invaluable in your application of tai chi.
Practice is a kind of study in its own right. Weekly classes may assure some degree of progress, but only represent the foundation of your training. An earnest student should also practice at home.
Do what feels right
Whilst daily training is best, you should try to practice when you want to; when it feels right. Nothing can replace practice.
One hour of physical training is worth weeks of internet surfing or video clip watching.
The esoteric principles of tai chi only really make sense when they have context.
If you are not actively training a variety of skills designed to put the abstract principles into practice, the system will never make any sense to you.
A tai chi class needs to be a place where yielding, softness and gravity are explored, and your understanding deepens with each successive lesson.
For example: "swimming in air"... It can be considered in a number of ways:
This phrase is not an invitation to mimic a swimming action with your arms, but refers to connection within the body.
Imagine that the air is a dense medium (like water) and you must slowly move through it, conscious of the air pressure against your skin.
By using your mind to unify the body, you can move in a whole-body manner.
Were somebody to push against your limbs, they would feel substantial yet springy.
The body is heavy, as if the air was supporting the limbs, like water.
'Reeling silk' creates a wave-like undulation that is said to evoke the image of a swimming dragon.
are other meanings but this at least provides a beginning.
Taijiquan form is a great instructor - it helps you to unravel the mysteries of the system.
You find ideas occurring as you move and applications spontaneously manifesting when you are faced with applying a movement.
The way in which you move, the pattern of the movements, changes in tempo and direction - these things can teach you.
Every movement is a mechanism for releasing energy. Consider which jing is being released, in which direction, against what target?
When the form is understood in terms of jing, you begin to really let-go.
That which is without substance can enter even when there is no space.
An instructor can help you to explore tai chi but you must do most of the work.
It is necessary to dismantle every aspect of the system and understand for yourself how it works, and what purpose it serves. Nothing should be random or arbitrary.
Refer to The Tai Chi Classics regularly, and read a lot about the Tao.
As time passes you will find the esoteric statements made manifest in your own expression of tai chi, the abstract made substantial and the mysterious rendered commonplace.
But, tai chi is a spiral... Your increased knowledge brings with it an amplified awareness, and you become acutely conscious of your own deficiencies.
You see more and more within your own practice and the mystery only deepens.
The dark arts?
In the distant past little was known about Taoism. Many of its adherents belonged to sects and esoteric schools. Others were hermits who lived in remote places.
Teachings from books with curious names such as The Way and Its Power, Book of Changes, The Art of War and The Book of Five Rings were treated with suspicion.
Secrecy, rumours of great power and deliberate obfuscation led to tai chi being regarded with considerable fear and superstition.
A few so-called Taoist groups erroneously interpreting the teachings as being 'religious' rather than science e.g. in Borneo, Taoism has inexplicably been mixed with Indian 'fakir' practices.
In China, Taoism was blended with Confucianism, Buddhism and Ancestor Worship to form a ritualistic hybrid featuring strange costumes and deities.
These misconceptions and ignorance arose from a complete lack of understanding.
Taoism must be thoroughly examined, explored and understood. An extensive and prolonged period of study, research, contemplation, meditation and application is necessary.
Taoism informed tai chi and Zen. Omitting this study from your training is a major error. The principles and practices of Taoism represent the foundation of your art.
Taoism has a long history of mystics, alchemists and magicians. There are many colourful accounts of oddball recluses who studied arcane practices in order to gain great skill and wisdom.
At the heart of the teachings is the desire to attain an altered state of consciousness. To see the world through different eyes.
Taoists aim to become a "real human being"; in touch with reality is a tangible, earthy way. They avoid fame, worldliness and repute; remaining in the shadows, in secret and aloof.
A sense of perspective
An inexperienced student thinks of the martial art first, and Taoism as an afterthought. An expert is the other way around. Taijiquan is an expression of Taoist principles and insights.
Taoist principles must be utilised in all aspects of your life, not just in the training hall.
Page created 2 March 1995
Last updated 09 June 2019