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To the outsider, tai chi must seem to be inordinately concerned with structure.
A considerable amount of time and attention is placed upon alignment, body usage and awareness.
Other martial arts spend significantly less time on these matters.
Yet, without optimal use of the body at all times, we cannot maximise our strength and reduce our weaknesses.

Learning structure

Yang Cheng Fu's 10 essentials and other guidelines teach us how to use our body.
What they seldom teach is why.
A student needs to attend a class which explores the Way in which the body works in combat and everyday life.
It is necessary to be scientific.
To find out for yourself what works and what does not.


Our aim is to cultivate a loose, flexible network of body parts.
Integrated, flowing, smooth and responsive.
New starters cannot just drop a lifetime of bad habits.
They need to be gently steered towards understanding and change.
By recognising the validity of an integrated, relaxed framework, it is easier for a person to let-go of the past.

Master self before attempting to master others

If you cannot use your own body in a balanced, natural, cohesive manner, how do you expect to defeat an opponent?
Most people rely upon local muscle strength.
They tense-up in combat.
They struggle.


Tai chi is not about fighting.
You must remain calm, composed, relaxed.
Not caught-up in the excitement and fear of combat.
By paying serious attention to your body, mind and emotions you can address your own concerns.
Once you are integrated, balanced and aware, you can consider manipulating an opponent.

The softest will then become the strongest

Having gained a measure of structure in solo practice, the real test is partner work and combat training.
You may believe yourself to be relaxed and responsive.
Working with somebody else may prove otherwise.
Sensitivity is a difficult skill to grasp.
In truth, it can never be mastered because you can always improve it.
Unless your body can be used in the appropriate way relative to an opponent, all of your training is for nothing.
The real challenge is to be soft.
To employ peng, jing, stickiness and grace.


Many students possess a small smattering of abilities, but typically lack the capacity to consistently apply these skills.
The fault lies with structure.
Without a working, comfortable, familiar framework, your abilities will not work when you most need them.


The main means of training framework is 'form', and for most students form is a significant area of weakness.
Partnered drills and qigong exercises supplement form and give you the opportunity to practice and test the validity of the tai chi body mechanics.
Without structure, you are vague, and incapable of having your abilities at your fingertips whenever you need them.
It is necessary to contain, to shape, to focus.
Structure provides this.


The body mechanics cultivated in qigong exercises are used throughout the form.
Aspects of the form are utilised in partnered drills designed to increase your capacity to apply the tai chi principles.


Every student needs to recognise the purpose of each drill and see how the skills extend into actual combat.
Theory is not enough.
Drills are essentially abstract.
They teach habit patterns in the body: reflexes.
You must take the insights, tactics and body skills into a combat situation.
Only by doing this can you complete the circle and give meaning to the drill, and in turn the tai chi.

The form is like that of a falcon about to seize a rabbit

If your form adheres too rigidly to a primitive introductory shape, then you cannot reasonably use it in combat.
The 'square version' that beginners learn was designed to teach the outline, the pattern. It does not teach any neigong. There is no internal body work taking place at all.


It is necessary to learn how the body is working and how the power is being generated.
Every movement must be dismantled, understood, enhanced and applied.
Unless you take the form much further, it cannot be used in combat. The structure must be dynamic, fluid, protean.
Every movement feels natural, comfortable and powerful.

The shen is like that of a cat about to catch a rat

Wishy-washy tai chi lacks the primal. It looks and feels insubstantial and weak.
Such practice cannot be used in actual combat.
Even if the student is perfectly aligned, it is not enough.


There must be spirit.
Without feeling, without immersion in the event itself, the form remains poor.
You can see when a student imbue their form with shen. It looks quite different. Alive. Predatory. Applicable.

In motion the whole body should be light and agile

The danger facing many students is that their structure is incorrect.
There is a rigidity to it that essentially prevents freedom of movement.
This is not tai chi.
A student must be nimble and responsive, sensitive and alert.
Clumsiness is simply not acceptable.
You must learn to feel.
To move freely and easily. To act. To project energy.


The key ingredient in structure is not the body.
Aligning the body is necessary, and helpful, but underlying the physical concerns is the mind.
Unless you have clarity and focus, you cannot unite the body and use it.
Train your mind.
Sharpen it. Hone it.
To quote Yang Cheng Fu: "Use mind, not force".

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Page created 17 January 1999
Last updated 16 June 2023