Sunday, 26 February 2017

Last week I promised I would post an article about tai chi chuan, which as you will discover, is one of my passions. The promise was to the daughter of an old friend. She was one of my earliest tai chi students and her daughter remembers as a child trying to copy her mother's  movements when she practised at home. That indicates how long I have been teaching.
     It also shows that the circle keeps turning, that all our actions have consequences, that the yin and yang, the symbol of tai chi, is more than a symbol. It is a part of life. 
     Tai chi is a big part of my life.

Finding Stillness in Movement

A posture from the sabre form.
That's "posture", not "poser".
At a sports hall on the outskirts of Aberdeen           
every Wednesday evening, you will see 
people gathering for what might be an 
exercise class, or possibly an indoor games 
evening. Some carry six-foot poles; some 
have long bags designed for hockey sticks; 
others only a water bottle and soft flat shoes. 
But somehow you know that not one has a 
sweatband or a lycra leotard.
   These people practise the Chinese art of 
tai chi chuan, sometimes rendered in our 
alphabet as taijiquan (but pronounced 
exactly like neither). Its slow, graceful, 
spiralling movements help them to achieve 
flexibility, co-ordination and a composure 
that stills the mind and balances the body.    
It loosens their joints and stretches their 
muscles rather than tightening them; it puts 
health before fitness.
     Tai chi chuan is usually translated as “supreme ultimate fist” and, for all its slowness in practice, is an authentic and effective martial art. You may be relieved, or possibly disappointed to learn that this class we speak of doesn’t include any fighting. Very few do. But the hockey bags open to reveal practice swords and the long poles are swung and aimed in pre-set patterns of spear-thrust and parry.
     Many will have heard of tai chi but few know its depth and potential. The clue is in the name. “Tai chi” is not the whole story. That term describes the Taoist  principle or philosophy on which the art of tai chi chuan is based. Among other things, Taoist thought embraces the concept of “yin and yang” – the opposing yet complementary forces that have shaped and continue to shape the world. These forces are constantly changing, growing and diminishing in turn, since each contains within itself the seed of its opposite – the black dot in the white half of the circle, the white in the black.
     Tai chi chuan expresses that concept in movement. Thus there is constant change from back to forward, left to right, from yielding to countering. The movements have a gentle elastic quality; within every backward movement there is an opportunity to go forward.
     Too many people see only the graceful and apparently effortless movement of this art. So they think it is no more than waving your arms about in some mystical way in order to become “at one with the cosmos”. Unfortunately some teachers pander to this notion and foster an atmosphere of mystery and magic. Self-delusion is a powerful thing.
     True to the Oriental delight in paradox, it is often said that the practice is simple but not easy. Like anything else that’s worthwhile, tai chi chuan demands your full attention and commitment before it will yield up its enormous benefits. It is not a quick fix or a flavour-of-the-month.
     As you practise this art, you experience examples of paradox. Imagine for instance a system of fighting that can be used to heal; visualize slow, relaxed exercises that can develop tremendous whole-body power. You are discovering the stillness in movement.
     Some who practise this art are in denial over its martial lineage; a few teachers have renamed the movements. Kick with the Heel becomes Release; Parry and Punch is rendered as Open and Drive. This may be understandable on the basis that sensible, civilised people do not seek to get involved in physical confrontations. On the other hand it is unforgiveable because they deny their students the chance to appreciate the whole picture. If you aren’t told how the movements originated or how they were designed to be used, even those with such poetic names as Parting the Wild Horse’s Mane or White Crane Spreads its Wings, then the movements lose their focus and intent. This does not mean you have to fight. You don’t need to throw someone to the ground to feel within your body the beauty of a slow, turning, sinking Step Back to Beat the Tiger.
     The proper study of any martial art teaches us to avoid violence. I venture to suggest that any youngsters studying martial arts under responsible teachers are not the among the thugs infesting our streets and invading our lives.
     Movement without purpose, however graceful, is just beautiful empty movement. When movement has focus and purpose, it comes alive. Consider ballet, consider athletics – any sport. Torvill and Dean’s “Bolero” tells a story; Sebastian Coe’s home-straight sprint, a surge of power from such a slight frame, wins the race. Purpose, focus.

     The standard image from TV and magazines of old Chinese folk moving slowly in the morning mist in a Beijing park is only part of the story. In my class there are indeed many pensioners. (I started in 1987 at 53 – work it out.) But there are also a couple of students and two university lecturers, a builder, a young woman expecting her first child, a chimney-sweep and a physiotherapist. What they have in common is the maturity to mix serious study with a light-hearted approach to the life-changing influence of tai chi chuan.