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The 'internal arts' are so-called because the focus is within. You are required to feel rather than do. Outward movement must reflect the inner condition and should stem from what is happening internally.
This sounds difficult until you consider it further.
Every movement made by the human body begins under the skin; nerves activate muscles and muscles move the bones. There is nothing special about this; it is the normal process.
Tai chi simply reconsiders the way in which the movement is generated; it explores the how, the process, the means.
A student aims to move without becoming tired. This is quite different to exploring the physical extremes of possible movement, as with yoga or Pilates. Subtle action is necessary.
Many tai chi beginners confuse connection with peng. 'Connection' is the process of joining separate parts of the body together through mild or serious stretching.
For example: yoga uses strong stretching to achieve connection. Most martial arts could offer their students the benefits of connection through the use of strong stretching, but this not peng.
How is connection different to peng?
Peng has give. The student must fold. The stretching is only to 70% and the muscles may not be tensed in any way.
with the Tao is important; understanding the Tao is impossible.
The purpose of moving with the Tao is to harmonize in dynamic balance
everything that is inside and outside oneself,
and to become a process that facilitates a larger balance of harmony.
There is a broad balance inherent in the nature of things.
The body uses gravity and connection to channel kinetic energy throughout the body. Energy passes through the structure towards the extremities.
Centrifugal and centripetal force accomplishes this on the horizontal, and the rippling of the joints and vertebra on the vertical. This is the heart of 'reeling silk'.
Physical tension and holding will impede this flow.
People who attend tai chi classes irregularly or train in other martial arts are often very stiff. They have difficulty letting-go of tension.
The habitual practice of muscular contraction conditions the body to exert. Such exercise blocks energy and reduces physical sensitivity.
There is also a danger from within the class.
In order to see how tai chi generates movement, the pattern of movement must be demonstrated and then practiced in a manner befitting the student's own ability level. This will be crude at first.
If the exercise was shown correctly, a beginner could not see the detail or understand what they are looking at. This is why the form slowly internalises every movement.
Is tai chi moving yoga? No. Not really. Yoga postures typically stretch the limbs strongly out from the centre. The purpose of the exercise is to stretch. 'Hatha' means willpower; to force.
Tai chi is not like this. Stretching is not extreme. It is aided by the relaxation of the muscles and the weight of the joints.
The skeleton is encouraged to align naturally and freely; and to move comfortably and easily. Wu wei involves not forcing; allowing.
Patterns of movement
Tai chi is ultimately a martial art. The movements were designed to deliver power. Adopting a static, yoga-like exaggerated pattern of movement is unnecessary and counter-productive.
Instead of increasing strength and amplifying power, it actually limits your capacity to move freely and spiral effectively.
The 70% rule
If you remain well within your limits at all times there is less risk of injury. Most people exceed their natural range of safe movement frequently throughout the day without realising it.
The 70% rule encourages them to be aware of their natural range. In combat, over-commitment is a serious flaw because you have little room for failure.
Holding 30% in reserve is a useful safety precaution.
Our approach to tai chi works safely within your natural range. If you move a limb away from your centre, the support decreases the further away it goes.
Experiment with your arms and legs - stretch them away in various directions...
In each instance there should be distinct boundary points where a subtle but tangible strain occurs and increases with the degree of movement.
You may not notice this initially; finding your natural range takes patience and sensitivity.
Mind, body, spirit
Once the essence of a movement is understood, you must explore the spirals, circles and curves that generate the action. You must also consider the potential application.
Finally, the awareness must go deeper. Awareness and neigong will unlock the subtle inner rhythm of each motion.
Breath, energy and gravity will become more significant than outward show; and your training will fold the tai chi inward.
18 April 1995
Last updated 16 June 2023