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Chinese martial arts often include a wide range of partnered 'games' designed to encourage good natured practice between students.
Rather than battle one another, students work together to better their skills. These games can be simple or complex.
The tai chi games were designed to address the acquisition of technical skills. They also serve as a medium for the exploration of emotion, mindfulness and awareness.
Usually a game teaches many different things at the same time and requires the student to immerse themselves fully.
Both people learn
The partnered games were designed to ensure that both students learn important lessons relevant to their practice. Both people have a role to play and things to work on.
Each role must be performed carefully, thoroughly and consistently.
New students often bring emotional, psychological and physical baggage with them to class. Partnered games usually expose these problems.
If a fun game is warped into some sort of 'contest' it is pretty clear that one student (or both) must have 'issues'.
It is not enough to have solo coordination (qigong and form). What is your coordination like in relationship with somebody else? This is a much tougher question.
Tai chi games prompt a whole series of important questions: Are you balanced? Relaxed? Composed? Is there central equilibrium? Sticky? Sensitive? Using 4 ounces of pressure? Present or spaced out?
Are you tensing up or going with the flow?
Success or failure?
By practicing with others we can find out what works and what does not. Other students can offer assistance and obstruction - both of which require you to adapt, change and progress.
Success/failure is not the same as winning/losing.
If a student adopts a competitive attitude, this runs contrary to the spirit of the tai chi partnered games. There is nothing to win. Nobody to beat.
e.g. when a student succeeds in taking their partner's balance, this is only possible because their partner lacked stability, presence and awareness. The fault needs to be corrected and the tai chi improved.
No one has been 'beaten'.
Games are not combat. Their purpose is to teach fundamental skills that are necessary for everything else in the syllabus to work.
When a child discovers their universe, they do so through play. A playful mind is not tense or uptight. In tai chi we learn in the same way.
Students are encouraged to explore the art in partnership with other people. This approach is cooperative and experiential.
The notion of 'play' must be considered carefully. Most adults perceive play as tooling around - insincere, light-hearted and carefree. But is this play at all?
Children at play
When a child plays, they are usually engrossed in whatever they are doing; their minds are in the here and now. It can be quite difficult to distract a child who is playing.
What play means to you
Can you see the danger here? If you think that play refers to an opportunity to behave an irresponsible, carefree, childish manner... then you have got the wrong idea about tai chi.
Play is about immersion in the event itself.
Students who want to talk (or dance around, show off or act foolishly) rather than train are not in earnest. They are not focused at all.
An inexperienced student cannot talk and train competently at the same time. If they are talking, then they are talking. They are not training tai chi.
Now and again a student decides to be a total tool during a playful partnered game. This is the equivalent of agreeing to play cricket and pitching like it's baseball.
Or using rugby rules during a football match. Would anyone be impressed?
The necessary balance
A student needs to concentrate in some respects, and be unselfconscious in other regards. Both facets of this requirement are addressed through the act of playfulness.
Find out for yourself
The beauty of play is that you do not have to believe anything. You can find out for yourself. If something works, examine the physics behind the success. Why did it work? Can it be improved upon?
If something fails, figure out why it failed...
Adults forget the advantage of play. Once you remove the barriers of right and wrong, approval and disapproval - you can totally relax. If you make a mistake, so what? It is only play.
When you can relax and just be yourself, your mind will open to new possibilities. You can see the wonder of things and laugh. You may start to play in other areas of your life...
Taijiquan cannot be learned by copying somebody else. You need a concrete, tangible understanding of what you are doing and how it works. The imagination must be engaged.
Without play and exploration, you will have tai chi classes filled with students who possess absolutely no grasp of what they are practicing.
Their aim was to discover the essential
nature or real constitution of things,
which they called 'physis'.
The term 'physics' is derived from this Greek word and meant therefore,
originally the endeavour of seeing the essential nature of things.
25 January 2006
Last updated 25 April 2021