Tai Chi in Principle


The internal art.

Tai chi, we are told, is an ‘internal’ martial art. Along with Bagua and Hsin-I it forms a triumvirate of ‘secret’ practices that use chi for power rather than muscles.


The problem is that much of the true art is lost because no one teaches students how to develop and use their energy.

OK, that is an opinion, but it is based on observation of teaching practices. It also depends who is training you. The problem for me with the Chinese master/student system is that all of the knowledge is presumed to reside with the master. The student is, in effect, picking up crumbs from the table. Often the master will demonstrate something but equally often he will not tell the student how to make that something effective.


Now, on the surface, we are told how to practise – root, sink, link, relax, be soft, do your chi gung to concentrate chi in your dan-tien, go lower to develop power. All very true but nobody actually explains or shows you how to apply these things.


None of that would matter if it weren’t for the fact that, for most students, that is that. All eyes are on the master, waiting for him to tell you the ‘secret’.


I meet a lot of students who marvel at what the master and his senior instructors can do. Of course they cannot do the same things, nobody has told them how. Equally, nobody has told them to think for themselves – or, more importantly, that they are allowed to think for themselves.


The best advice I have ever been given by tai chi instructor was “I can only teach you about half of this, the rest you have to learn for yourself.”


The statement is rather profound and it gave me permission to think about what I was (and am) doing. It turned my tai chi from passive learning to active study. I think that is what is missing from most students’ practice; they do it by rote. Even if they are sensitised to energy they will have acquired that sensitivity passively. It is something that just happens if you do our kind of practice. What you need to do then is work to refine it, use your mind to actively direct it, to make it work for you.


The elephant in the room is the idea that there are ‘secrets’, that the master is holding something back, that you are not receiving ‘the true transmission’. There may in fact be some truth in that, certainly as far as the master only imparting partial information is concerned. You can usually buy knowledge. Throw enough money at the problem and somebody will show you how things work. But will you then understand what you are being shown and, more importantly, will you practise what you are being shown? Because without practice – lots of it – nobody is going to develop.


And that is the real problem. I have always argued that the only real secret the master has is the level at which he trains. Take what you have been told, think about it and apply it in your training, for two, three, four hours a day. Make sure that your training means something and is not just learning to dance to the choreography of the form.


If you can, find a like-minded tai chi ‘buddy’ to train with. Try things out with him or her. My buddy these days is my senior student. Someone I have been working with since I started teaching. He thinks about what we/he is doing. He asks questions and we work out new things together. Sometimes applications for self-defence, sometimes ways to use energy – chi. We often consider how chi could help out in practice against someone who is not sensitive, a random Neanderthal in the street for instance.


And here is another part of the secret, the old masters, grand masters and great grand masters whom we revere, did nothing but tai chi all day long. They were dedicated to the art and with that kind of dedication you can be good too. Every morning Yang Cheng Fu would send his sons into the garden to train in freezing temperatures, He would only allow them back in to the house for breakfast when the training warmed them up to the point were they were removing their coats.


Although there is a caveat; for the Chinese chi is just part of who they are. I have Chinese students who discuss chi as a matter of fact. One, a 76-year-old lady who has never done tai chi before can project energy when asked to and fully understands that the source of power is her dan-tien. I didn’t tell her, I didn’t have to. Us westerners tend to regard chi as something separate, one of those weird oriental ideas that, while it would be nice if it did exist, is really a load of new-age hokum. (This in spite of the fact that it has been part of Chinese culture for thousands of years and drives not only martial arts but also Chinese medicine.)


The result is that, as a teacher, I have to work really hard to convince students. The western establishment calls it rubbish because you can’t measure it on a meter or track its pathways through the body, as you can with blood and nerves. Demonstrations are ‘anecdotal’ and don’t count because you can’t do a double-blind test to prove them. *


So we are left with chi being something you cannot mention in public for fear of being thought a crank. Even for those who are aware of it, can feel it and, to whatever extent, use it, there remains, somewhere inside, a lingering doubt that you can’t quite put your finger on. There are even those in the (non-Chinese) tai chi establishment who will tell you that there is no such thing and reduce this amazing internal art to external callisthenics.


*That may not be entirely correct. See The Harvard Medical School Guide to Tai Chi by Peter M Wayne and Mark L Fuerst. Published by Shambala.