Tai Chi in Principle

Testing postures

When we train we spend a lot of time testing the tai chi postures: ward-off, stroke the bird’s tail, hold the ball. We also occasionally test the transitional moves: moving to single whip, to diagonal flying, from ward off to crane spreads her wings and so on.


The question arises – who is testing whom?

The assumption is that your instructor or your tai chi buddy is testing you. After all they are the one doing the pushing, you are the one trying to hold the posture or make the move.


With inexperienced students, (and even a few instructors) this leads to the ‘tester’ throwing all of their weight, all of their muscles, into the job. Trying to prove that tai chi ‘works’ or that you can – or most likely in the situation can’t – ‘do’ it. The person performing the move will tend to react to the pressure and it ends up with a physical strugle just deciding who is stronger?

So let us reconsider. Who is actually doing the testing and, more importantly, what can we learn from posture testing.

It seems to me, first of all, that the one actually doing the testing is, or should be, the student we might previously have assumed was being tested. Let us say You. You are the one who wants to see if you have adopted the correct posture, got your weighting right, are soft enough, are using enough yi. In other words, the one with something to prove. Your tai chi partner is just helping you; he or she has or should have, nothing to prove. He or she is there to help you and to be sensitive enough to feel what you are doing and to correct anything you are doing wrong.

Testing is a two way street. It is not about pushing your partner over – that’s easy. The hard thing for the helper is to ‘feel’ what is going on. But if they do it right it is great for developing their own sensitivity; by ‘listening’ to what your partner is doing, by feeling, you gradually become more sensitive to the subtleties of the art.

If someone thinks that by giving their partner a load of wellie to work against they are contributing to the martial side of tai chi (“Well, it is what you are likely to find if you come up against someone in the street”) entirely misses the point. As a martial artist, a tai chi practitioner has to be responsive to what is happening. If you had got into that kind of situation you would not just stand there and take it square on, you would already be moving by the time your opponent made contact. We do not meet force head on. We have to be sensitive to what our opponent is doing – or proposing to do. One way of developing this sensitivity is by making sure the testing we do in class is done correctly, not by using brute force but by learning to sense what is going on until we can doit without actually coming into contact with an opponent.

After a while – well a few years really – it is possible to tell whether a person that you are working with will get it right or not before they even do anything. As soon as I touch my partner I know whether they have got it right or not. I can actually feel whether they are mentally engaged. Tai chi is always going forward and that must include your mind. People are transmitting information all of the time. We just don’t realise that we are doing it. Externally we talk about body language but it is possible to feel what is going on inside as well.

It is not exactly telepathy but if you listen, feel and understand you will be amazed at what you can discover from a touch.