5 missing pieces

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Legendary skill

The the old/classical Yang style of tai chi was developed by the martial arts legend Yang Lu-chan. Yang Lu-chan's nickname was 'Yang-the-Invincible'.
He is famous for teaching his tai chi to the Manchu Emperor's elite palace guards.

Centuries later...

Modern tai chi is hardly considered to be the pinnacle of Chinese martial arts. So what happened? Very few classes are offering the principles of tai chi these days.
It is in danger of becoming a lost art. Given the untold thousands of practitioners worldwide, this may sound absurd.
But tai chi can only be considered 'tai chi' if it conforms to the parameters that constitute the art.

A lost art?

Many people think that tai chi is just qigong, a demonstration form and pushing hands. Maybe a sword form and a smattering of self defence moves/theories...
Tai chi is more than this. Training the superficialities of tai chi will never give you any real grasp of the art.
If you want to find out what tai chi is really about, you will need to commit yourself to a journey of discovery. Why not start by considering what is missing from many classes? 

What is commonly being taught in a tai chi class

According to The Journal of Asian Martial Arts, most tai chi classes in the world offer solo form (a sequence of moves), and a bit of qigong. Not many classes actually do pushing hands.
Some do sword form. Occasionally, teachers speak of self defence applications. Things like 'san sau' are very, very rare, and rarer still are classes that teach anything approaching an actual martial art.

5 missing pieces

Many tai chi classes lack 5 important elements necessary in order for tai chi to function as a martial art:

  1. Neigong (whole-body strength)

  2. Martial concepts (what combat constitutes and how to do it effectively)

  3. Chin na (the art of seizing)

  4. Shuai jiao (take downs)

  5. Jing (whole-body power)

Without these 5 components, tai chi is lacking something and may not work in combat.

What does qi have to do with fighting? Absolutely nothing. If you want to talk about qi in the martial arts, I'd say that it doesn't have anything to do with the martial arts. They're talking about intention mostly, and they're calling it qi because it sounds more mysterious.

(Tim Cartmell)

1. Neigong

(i) Qigong

Every student in out school starts by learning qigong. The qigong exercises are quite straightforward. Some are moving exercises whilst others are standing postures.
The moving exercises are taught in sets. The standing postures can be held for anything between 5-20 minutes.

(ii) Infused with neigong

All of the basic qigong exercises are infused with neigong. This affects the way in which they are performed. Whole-body movement is not the same as disconnected arm movement.
Unity is required and this takes practice and corrections.
Once the student can perform the qigong exercises adequately, they will able to take those same body skills into form and other areas of their training.

(iii) We're not interested in qi

Some people think that neigong is about qi. That's okay. We're not interested in that approach. For our students, neigong is about biomechanics.

(iv) Unbroken strength

With practice, an internal martial arts person can use less and less effort for each task. This means that the muscles are less tired and do not hold residual tension.
Over time, the tendons, ligaments, fascia and muscles become united. There is no longer a need to exert for a given task. Whole-body strength is now present continuously.  

(v) Inherent peng

Pressure can be applied to any part of your body and you should feel substantial. This substance is tangible but not rigid in any way. You must always yield when pushed and never resist the incoming force.
The connection must exist without conscious effort. If you need to employ effort, then the peng is not inherent and will not be there in every movement.

(vi) Other approaches

We once read an account of neigong that spoke of self hypnosis, "being lost in the light", "sharing the light" and "inner spiritual work". Whilst the teacher may be a really nice person and well intentioned, the narrative had no bearing whatsoever on whole-body strength or biomechanics.
Other accounts of neigong suggest excruciating exercises that really strain the body. This again seems unnecessary and misguided.

Martial concepts

(i) Seeing

A martial artist perceives situations in a certain way. They aim to avoid conflict, to refrain from backing themselves into a corner. They explore possibilities and embrace ambiguity.

(ii) Cultivation

Martial perception is no different to driving a car. It must be actively cultivated, trained and put into practice. Musashi said that martial arts is 'The Science of the Advantage'.

(iii) Physicality

Once martial perception begins to develop, the student takes a keen interest in human biomechanics, positioning, alignment, structure, timing and momentum. They begin to see other people differently.
Physical imbalances seem glaringly obvious, prevailing emotional habits are easy to observe. The entire realm of physical usage becomes fascinating.

(iv) Not theory

A concept is an idea, an insight, a framework for understanding. Tai chi is not like judo or karate - you cannot simply transfer an external martial arts attitude and expect tai chi to work.
The student needs to learn a fundamentally different way of viewing combat, and the use of the human body.
Concepts provide focus; a direction, a purpose. Without a deeper grasp of what is taking place, the student will flounder indefinitely. This is a why a highly detailed syllabus is essential.

(v) Technical knowledge

The tai chi martial skills must be refined many, many times before they are truly 'combat' ready.
The nuance of each movement, the possible ramifications, applications, variations, off-shoots and follow-ups must be examined thoroughly. How the body moves. How the power is being generated.
As your overall skill in tai chi grows, your body and mind change considerably, and these training methods will change with you. Layers of meaning, purpose and application will unfold.

(vi) Proof

You may not be able to persuade the general public to believe that tai chi is a credible martial art. But you can show them. To do this you must train the art properly yourself.

(vii) Guiding principles

The main thing is to adhere absolutely to the guiding principles of the art. These were outlined in The Tai Chi Classics. If your art deviates from these, then you have gone astray.
Seek tuition from a teacher who is committed to training an art that applies martial skills in a thorough and convincing manner.

(viii) What is martial?

Spend some time researching the nature of combat. See what other martial arts classes and styles are doing. Gain an understanding of what combat entails.
Is your class exploring a realistic range of martial scenarios? How do you address fear?

3. Chin na

(i) Freeform triangle

The 3 tai chi skills of shuai jiao, chin na and form application enable the student to deal with different stages of an attack:

  1. Striking is defeated by grappling (shuai jiao or pushing hands/monkey paws)

  2. Grappling is defeated by chin na

  3. Chin na is defeated by striking

Students learn how to develop their own response to attack, utilising this simple triangular premise.

(ii) Skills

Your basic chin na skills are: breaking, sealing, seizing, splitting and tearing. It is important that you can differentiate clearly between them and apply each skill as the situation demands.
Each ability requires you to be fully connected, rooted and be using the 'baby grip' rather than tension.

(iii) Techniques?

The danger with learning specific chin na applications is that you may come to see them as techniques. This is not the approach advocated by Sifu Waller.
Techniques have their place as a learning tool but are not a good approach to use in actual self defence. A technique involves a series of steps employed against a particular attack.
Should your opponent deviate from the anticipated course of action, a technique could easily fail.

(iv) Adaptation

For chin na to work, you must concern yourself with the underlying principles rather than technique.
Once you understand how the principles work, you can use them spontaneously in accord with the requirement of a given situation. This is more realistic.
Adaptation is essential; you change what you are doing relative to what is happening.
If your chin na is countered by your opponent, you move into a different one or adopt a different strategy entirely - such as stepping or striking.

(v) Grappling

As a boy and a young man, Sifu Waller trained a lot of wing chun, judo and ju jitsu. He became very fond of the grappling arts.
If you punch somebody it may hurt them or it may not. Grappling is different; the applications and techniques can be trained rigorously in class and then applied in real life, with simply an increase in power.
Our students are taught how to strike, but skill with grappling must come first. Simply because it is more reliable.


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Page created 18 April 2005
Last updated 16 June 2023