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Tai chi differs from almost every other martial art because they place sensitivity first. Without sensitivity, combat is lousy.
External arts use force against force and the strongest, fastest person will often be victorious. Tai chi is not like this.
It regards brute force as being wasteful and clumsy. An internal student cultivates softness and sensitivity. They re-train their nervous system.
Striking without touching?
One common myth is the idea of defeating an opponent without actually touching them. This is nonsense. If we could defeat an opponent without making physical contact, then why train at all?
What is the root of this myth?
An instructor is extremely soft and sensitive, despite being very strong. They can affect the attacker using the slightest of touches.
Usually the attacker is completely unaware of what is happening and may not have felt what the defender did.
The internal person will also look physically casual. There will be no fancy moves. Nothing showy or demonstrative. Nothing to catch the attention.
It is easy to imagine that the attacker may well believe that they were defeated without being touched. But they were touched. They simply did not realise it.
From coarse to refined
Partner work is the main source of sensitivity work in tai chi. There are many partnered drills in our syllabus, peripheral exercises revolving around the central theme of combat.
Students proceed through the curriculum, starting with vulgar, clumsy expressions... slowly refining the material until they eventually reach a condition of inner quietude and skill.
The subtle, innocuous skills of the instructor are the result of a refined sensitivity, a receptivity to the opponent.
Focus your time
If you train lots of tai chi forms from different styles, then your attention is divided and your time is spread thinly. Our students only train one tai chi style.
The mind focuses upon one thing and the understanding deeps considerably. Sun Tzu said: If I concentrate while he divides, then I can use my entire strength to attack a fraction of his.
Instead of squandering their time collecting forms, our students become extremely sensitive to the one approach. They start to really feel the movements.
They see similarities between different movements and positions. Themes and patterns become apparent. Strategies. Students make connections. Associations are made.
Notice the details
Eventually, students become sensitive enough to find moves within moves, subtle nuances imbued with latent possibility.
Transition movements suddenly seem more significant. Even the slightest ambiguity is explored.
No servant can serve two
masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be
devoted to the one and despise the other.
You cannot continue to use contracted muscle tension and hope to access the skills of tai chi. Tai chi does not involve tensing the muscles. Ever. Tensing your muscles is disconnected.
Only by gently lengthening and relaxing your muscles can you connect the body parts together.
Tense a bit, relax a bit...
Many beginners resist yielding. Fear encourages them to persist with tension. As a consequence, their training remains external and is not tai chi.
Internal and external do not blend together to produce tai chi. The two paths are mutually exclusive. Whenever you mix internal and external approaches, the outcome is always essentially external.
Experienced students struggle to establish and maintain peng. Invariably they are tense, and when tested, lose their root. Your mind makes peng. Do not rely too much on structure.
The physical framework makes it easier to channel power. That's all.
Sinking into the legs enables the upper and lower parts of the body to unite. If the sink is too physical, you will become sluggish. Most inexperienced students are top-heavy.
Their hands are not connected to their feet. Balance is easily lost.
Visualise strings attached to your head, wrists, knees and feet. For the moment, be concerned with the head and the wrists... think of being suspended from these points.
Let everything else drape. Relax the sternum. The lower back. The hip kwa. The back of the knees.
When performing your tai chi - solo or partnered - maintain this idea of being suspended by strings. Your arms must feel to float. Buoyant.
Do not confuse this with unfocussed, random movement. Adhere strictly to the framework requirements, but sustain the buoyant, heavy feeling in the elbows, shoulders, chest and legs.
When pushed or punched, students are reluctant to yield to force. 4 ounces must be in your mind at all times.
Pushing a student should be akin to pushing a heavy curtain. The palm is absorbed and the fabric gives as the force moves the curtain. The curtain does not anticipate the push.
It is moved by the push, riding the wave of force: connected, sensitive and sticky. Yielding to a push trains the student not to resist force. This becomes more relevant when somebody punches you.
If your body does not move when struck, the impact will shock your body and the kinetic energy will channel inside you.
Pushing hands and the other sensitivity drills train the student to flow with the incoming force. This is not simply evasion or random movement.
The student must maintain contact and yield with skill and awareness. Your body acts as a feeler; sensing movement, tension... and intention.
Leading into emptiness
Success with yielding will enable you to take the attacker off-balance without endangering yourself. The line of incoming force is neutralised without blocking.
Blocking force will alert your opponent, and they will change tactic. If struck, your body will yield, and draw the punch further away from the attacker. This can be used to your advantage.
Jing is all about sensitivity. In combat, your every action is determined by the opponent. Without an opponent, you would have no reason to even move. The opponent is everything.
Until you reach a level where you become the shadow of the attacker, you will continue to struggle with them. Tai chi cannot be applied correctly until conflict has ended.
The way ahead lies in sensitivity. Do not be caught up in strength exercises, form collection and brutal applications.
Realise that the skill lies in the softness of your touch, your acute awareness of balance, timing and positioning.
Your ability to affect the opponent in a meaningful way necessitates the cultivation of sensitivity. Be careful not to dull this by falling into the folly of ambition, ego or pride
If you develop the sensitivity that
is vital in this arena you will feel his energy and be able to go with it as
opposed to against it, that way his strength and power will add to your
You cannot skilfully employ jing if you use too much pressure. It will only lead to failure and potentially injury.
When resistance is encountered, stop when 4 ounces of pressure is reached. Too light and you are not sticky. Too much and you are pushing an inanimate object. And that is not tai chi.
Understanding 4 ounces will enable you to strike without harming your own body.
created 9 January 1996
Last updated 16 June 2023