The title is a bit provocative, and carries with it a double meaning.
One being the softness that is implied when someone normally speaks about Tai Chi (i.e. yin). The other viewpoint being softness as it is implied by many non-Tai Chi-ers—especially those practitioners that put emphasis on physical strength.
What may infuriate many Tai Chi players is that, in my opinion, both are true.
What many teachers will have you believe is that internal energy will improve internal health and thus, foster physical (external) strength.
Speaking from personal experience, I’ve noticed tremendous gains over the past year in fluidity, balance, coordination and power when supplementing my Tai Chi Chuan training with jiu-jitsu, yoga, inversion training and various body-weight exercise (movnat).
These supplemental methods of exercise provided me with a mirror that showed several imperfections, the two most notable being strength and control. With these reflections, it allowed me to see that my so-called “perfect practice” was quite “less-than perfect.”
The late Grandmaster Feng Zhiqiang said:
“If you are physically strong but can also work on internal strength, then that is the real strength.”
(Tai Chi Magazine, vol. 25, no.5)
If we exercise using the tai chi forms, a strong standing practice and occasionally engage in pushing hands—how can we develop sufficient strength? Why wouldn’t tai chi practitioners supplement their training with other methods? By doing so it: enhances our feeling of progress, improves confidence and body image, keeps the mind engaged and growing with new skills and movement patterns, aids in the management of pain and in the reduction of common injuries?
Many practitioners refuse to change focus, adhering to the classic myth of “A Jack of all trades, a master of none.” Many studies have shown this to not be true. On the contrary, those that dabble in different activities show more creativity, broaden their field of understanding and are generally less likely to become bored and/or unhappy with their life/practice. Doesn’t this play into what Grand Master Feng meant by “striving to reach the Big Tao?”
Many choose not to supplement their art because they fear it will ruin the ‘purity’ of their practice. If the masters of the past reached their level of skill because they did the form x-number of times, then surely I too will excel—right? Well, we know this is not true either! Tai Chi Chuan masters like Feng Zhiqiang and Hong Junsheng (teachers of Chen Zhonghua) are just a couple who have gained this ‘high skill.’ They had the genetics, strength and psychology to excel.
If we are missing just one thing, we are a thousand miles off course. Could we practice and reach a master’s level? Would that be a futile chase? Remember though, it is choice that pulls us through. If we convince ourselves that ‘mastery’ is bleak, it’s easily done. But if we take it as a challenge and proceed to take the strides with the pitfalls and continue to progress towards our personal goals, we are 100% assured of success. Agreed?
Another teacher of mine, Master Yang Yang said this at our Blowing Rock, North Carolina workshop (2004):
“(Ultimately,) find what works for you and change… adapt. Only stay true to the principles (of Tai Chi Chuan) while doing so.”
The New Year.
To start off the New Year, I would like to urge everyone, especially those people who diligently plug away at one style—internal or external—to add to your practice. I know it’s cliché, but Life is about balance. If you consistently practice tai chi form without any supplemental strength training, I can guarantee that your overall fitness will diminish. If you train in gymnastics, weight-lifting, wresting, parkour/freerunning, etc, you will likely wear your body down and thus, be more prone to illness and/or injury. My advice is to adopt a supplemental program that deals with internal development: yoga, qigong, transcendental meditation…maybe even some tai chi chuan.
I end with Chen Xin’s Song of Meaning:
“With your entire being, develop your Life.”
Health & Happiness Everyone!
Love elephant and want to go steady?
Assistant Editor: Tifany Lee/Editor: Rachel Nussbaum
Photo: Michael Joyce