Over the last 15 years there have been many things I have heard about Taiji Quan. They always remind me of the first information I had – it was that Taiji Quan was a kind of meditation in motion and a series of skills to improve internal/external co-ordination for any other Wugong (Wushu/Kung-fu) system.
Broad experience in this area has given me an understanding of concepts about contemporary and traditional Taiji Quan. I still feel like a beginner but with this article I would like to share my views and experience of Taiji Quan as the most incredible base and complement for any other style of martial art, and beyond that, as a way of life.
After learning the 24 movement Beijing form, I found myself impressed enough by this “meditation in motion” to begin ongoing research and practise of different schools of Taiji Quan. From the 24 movement, I went into Chen style which became and remains my specialty, then Yang style, Sun style, Wu style, Woo style and in the past few years I have also collected information on Zhaobao Taiji Quan. I have been fortunate to be part of lectures, workshops and personal visits with some of the greatest masters in all of these systems, some of whom have now passed away. Professor Meng Huifeng and Professor Kan Guixiang, well-known as two of the team which set up the 42 movement competition routine as well as the competition routines for the five main styles of Taiji Quan; Huang Kanghui (my teacher and student of Master Hong Junsheng) and Feng Zhiqiang (Chen style); Yang Zhenduo and Fu Zhongwen (Yang Style); Wu Yinhua and Ma Yueliang (Wu style); Sun Jianyun (Sun style); Xue Naiyin (Woo style); and Wang Haichuan (Zhaobao style).
Through the practise of these different styles, I have experienced different feelings, a great variety of applications, specific and particular health benefits and most importantly for me, an improvement in my understanding of Chen style. Regardless of style, they all share the same basic principles.
- Concepts of stability, balance, roundness, continuity, calmness, awareness, inner peace, focus, intention, concentration – the internal and external aspects;
- The 13 Postures;
- 5 directions – jin (advance) , tui (retreat), gu (left), pan (right) and ding (central equilibrium);
- 8 methods – peng (ward off), lu (roll back), ji (press), an (push), cai (pull down), lie (split), kao (leaning), zhou (elbow).
The result of my exploration and practise of the different interpretations of these principles is a great respect and admiration for all the styles of Taiji Quan.
Teaching Taiji Quan
There have been many reasons why people have wanted to join my Taiji Quan classes:
- To improve health and relaxation;
- To interpret the theoretical concepts of Taiji as a philosophy of life;
- To help their concept of performing arts;
- For competition;
- To do a martial arts system.
All this goes to show that the scope for Taiji Quan is immense. Anyone can receive benefits from it, but more benefits can be received if the student learns about all aspects of it.
Taiji Quan to improve health and for relaxation
Some teachers fulfil student expectations of Taiji Quan solely as a health exercise by only teaching movements and avoiding discussion of the martial aspect.
Other teachers may modify routines or dispense with movements to make it more accessible to the elderly or less mobile people. Also, Taiji Quan teachers do not require their students to practise a certain movement 100 times each class, an activity few people would find relaxing.
Although these actions are controversial, it must be said that as people begin to get more into their Taiji Quan, they often start to ask about some of the other aspects of the system. Equally, changing movements to suit people’s skills and limitations has been going on since martial arts began. This is fine as long as the principles are adhered to. The system of learning, be it repetition of movements 100 times, or not, has always depended on who’s learning and why they are doing it. You can be sure that Taiji Quan masters did not make their students of the Imperial Court train in the same way as their disciples in the village.
Taiji Quan as a philosophy of life
Many people are attracted to the idea of the taiji as a way of life – where everything is made up of two opposites that are mutually complementary. For this reason they seek Taiji Quan as a physical activity which embodies this ideal of elements existing together in harmony. Many teachers will explain how the theory of taiji is manifested in the Taiji Quan forms without the students even understanding that they are having the theory of taiji explained to them. In Taiji Quan a forward movement is complemented by a backward movement, where one leg is described as full, the other is empty, an opening movement is followed by a closing movement and so on. Understand the idea of opposites flowing from one to the other in constant shift and harmony and you understand the basic idea of the taiji. Through the practise of Taiji Quan, the application of the concepts into daily life becomes more obvious.
Whether the teacher explains the philosophy overtly or just teaches the forms, explaining the movements without explaining the ideas behind them, sooner or later a persistent and attentive student will begin to absorb the idea of the taiji into areas outside their training.
Taiji Quan to help performance
The concepts of movement and balance of the body in Taiji Quan have been ideas that always attract dancers (“dance” as an original expression of spirit, mind and body in harmony) and performers who are looking to improve their skills. These students will fit into most “health” Taiji Quan classes and understand the movements primarily by the external expression.
In my experience, these same students will begin to understand the internal aspect of Taiji Quan as they spend longer learning.
Taiji Quan for competition
Taiji Quan is definitely not a discipline that could be judged completely on external actions as it is something that you do by yourself and in which you have your own feeling. Teaching of Taiji Quan for competition will demand you kick higher, creep down lower and show more low level control than you ever will in a “health” class. Also, like competition in any sport, training is intense. This is because Taiji Quan is judged on aspects that an experienced eye can see:
- Quality of movement (the external technical requirements);
- Power and Harmony (including breathing and pace);
- Taiji Quan style content (individual style of expressing Taiji Quan);
- Spirit (including deduction for nervousness and lack of concentration).
Although the focus is mainly external, the internal qualities of concentration, focus on accurate movement and minute detail are all aspects of a successful Taiji Quan exponent, be they competing, practising for health or learning the full martial system. Finally, in Taiji Quan competition, one of the greatest ironies is that you learn to compete against yourself and not to worry about the judging result. These demands of competition take you back to the original requisites of good Taiji Quan practise and complement rather than deviate from these principles. Competition has the added benefit of providing a forum in which a variety of people can come together in a friendly environment to share experiences of their common activity.
Taiji Quan as a martial art
This includes the qigong (breathing exercises), routines, push hands (set-sparring and free-sparring), applications and Taiji Quan Sanshou (Taiji Quan combat).
There are so many aspects to Taiji Quan and different teachers teach in different orders or at different stages. Some ask students to wait years to learn a given aspect, others introduce the basics of different elements from early on. It is important that the teacher can explain any one of these elements and share them with the student. Although different teachers teach at different rates, it would be unwise for a teacher to teach Taiji Quan Sanshou early on, before the student has come to grips with even the basic principles of Taiji Quan. Apart from that, the traditional system, is usually taught in the order listed so as to allow students to grasp and practise the principles and give the student a higher chance of enjoyment, understanding and success in Taiji Quan.
So is any one better than the other?
We agree that there are many motivations for learning Taiji Quan. After years of experience, I do not believe it matters for which of these reasons people begin or continue. If a person is taught according to the principles of Taiji Quan, they gain from the practise. With all that Taiji Quan is – a lifetime of learning, teaching according to the principles of Taiji Quan and fulfilling the needs of the students should be the goal. After all, ultimately what we are looking for is individual cultivation and Taiji Quan is a path, not a destination.