- Tai Chi as a Martial Art
Tai Chi as a Martial Art
Tai chi is one of the most popular and most famous martial arts in the world. But it is also one of the least understood. There are innumerable stories about tai chi masters who, in spite of their size, age, or gender, have defeated opponents who were seemingly more formidable than they. But many people today, having only a passing understanding of the slow graceful movements of the tai chi form, see tai chi as “old people sneaking up on trees” and cannot conceive of it being effective for self defence.
Tai Chi Chuan belongs to a category of Chinese martial arts called “internal martial arts”. The primary focus is on the harmonious cultivation of mind, body, and spirit through the refinement of subtle internal alignment, the co-ordination of deep tissue, and the cultivation of qi (internal energy). Martial arts in the “External” category train these aspects also. But the order in which “internal” and “external” aspects are taught is different.
To practice any traditional martial art is to constantly seek balance and harmony within an inherently violent world. To create peace in our daily lives requires constant effort, and great skill. As long as we think, feel and breathe, then balance and peace will be elusive. We must seek them constantly or lose ourselves to war and death. When we wait for times of war to struggle for peace, it is like starting to dig a well when we are already thirsty. Likewise, if we wait until someone attacks us before we seek balance, we have already lost.
A physical attack is someone trying to upset our balance, by striking us, throwing us, or killing us. Balance cannot be maintained if it doesn’t exist in the first place. So, the martial artist cultivates physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual balance; and learns that these are all one and the same. When balance is strong, defending it is easy.
The masters who developed tai chi over several generations discovered that technique requires a method of application, and that method requires superior structure, agility, balance, and awareness. That is why tai chi training emphasizes slow movement and stillness over speed and force.
The student learns to stand, breath and move in a way that eliminates internal physical, mental, and emotional conflict. Only when one learns to stop fighting oneself can the opponent be effectively neutralized.
However, once the internal balance is achieved and the method of application is mastered, the plethora of martial techniques contained within the tai chi curriculum are sophisticated, efficient, and potentially devastating.
Is tai chi really effective as a martial art?
There is a very good reason for the commonly held belief that tai chi players can’t fight their way out of a wet paper bag. It is because it is true! The majority of tai chi students care little about the art’s famous martial history. Most are in it for the well documented health benefits. Even so, while the martial aspect is hard to find, it is worth the search.
Is tai chi effective as a martial art?
Well, what it a martial art? Is it simply a way of defending oneself. In that case, the answer to the above question is a resounding qualified yes.
But there are a great many benefits to learning a martial art that go far beyond mere self defence or combat skill. Tai chi fits the bill here, also.
The effectiveness of any discipline or art form in achieving a particular goal is dependent on the student, the teacher, the relationship between the two, luck, timing, and more.
Every style of martial art from the ancient traditions of the Samurai to the modern so-called MMA styles of the UFC have two things in common. Both produce students who can defend themselves, and both produce students who couldn’t fight their way out of a wet paper bag even if they started on the outside.
Tai chi is a proven, profound, and effective martial art. But each student is different.
Tai chi chuan (Tai chi) is practised by millions around the world as a means to better health, fitness, and long life. What many do not know is that this relaxing and invigorating exercise is also practised by many as a martial art. Students who are seeking the physical, mental, and spiritual benefits of tai chi often do not want to learn the martial aspects of the art. So, most teachers do not teach the martial aspects. However, since the health benefits are a direct result of the art’s martial history, the best health benefits are achieved by learning from a teacher who at least understands the martial elements. The teacher doesn’t need to teach the student combat skills. But the teacher should understand them.
The masters who created tai chi chuan recognized how important it was for a martial artist to strengthen mind, body, and spirit. They also considered it self-evident that a martial artist should have a profound awareness of mind and body, and be skilled at constantly seeking peace and harmony in an inherently violent world.
These are essential qualities of high level martial artists. But they are also valuable for everyone else. That is why tai chi chuan exercises are part of China’s national fitness program, and have become immensely popular throughout the world.
Tai chi chuan has become so popular, in fact, that it has often been watered down and simplified to make it easier to teach to large masses of people. Today there are even many teachers don’t fully understand the true nature of the art. It is common for people today to see tai chi as nothing but a gentle exercise for old people. However, since the initial wave of popularity, the standards for teaching are increasing, and there are a growing number of schools endeavouring to teach the complete traditional art.
The complete tai chi system includes qigong, basic exercises, solo forms, two-person routines, tuishou, weapon training, martial applications, sanshou, and esoteric training methods.
Why do so few tai chi players develop the art’s legendary skills?
In the late Qing Dynasty, tai chi was taught to people who had already been doing martial arts for much of their lives. Most were already masters of other styles. They were not so much students as they were fellow teachers. Together they developed what was referred to as “Internal Arts.” This was not so much a martial style as it was a way of thinking. They refined the subtle principles of alignment, sensitivity, power, and strategy. While “internal” referred to the resulting power and awareness they achieved, it also referred to the fact that only advanced students were able to grasp the true meaning of the lessons. What this meant was that future generations of students, who learned these advanced principles for the sake of their health, might develop advanced martial skills, but they could never use these skills in a real fight because they lacked any previous martial arts foundation.
It’s like having a Ferrari but not knowing how to drive.
Why so slow?
If you can’t maintain ideal alignment and connection while you are moving slowly, you won’t be able to do it quickly. However, once you can do it slowly, speed is the easy part.
When do you speed it up?
Hardly ever. Even at the most advanced levels, the greatest improvement is achieved by moving even more slowly, or not at all.
How does that help in a fight?
A fight is all about balance and the integration of mind and body. If you don’t have balance, you have nothing to defend. If you have true balance, the fight is already won. The fastest way to reach a destination is to already be there.
Technique, Method, Sticking and Following
Each movement or part of a movement has three types of application:
Strike, Throw, and Lock
Each position contains potential for 8 energetic qualities: “expansion,” “rolling,” “cramming,” “pressing,” “plucking,” “rending,” “folding” (elbow or knee), and “against” (shoulder or hip)
Each of these 8 qualities can be expressed in five ways:
“advance,” “retreat,” “focus,” “gaze,” and “root.”
The missing Element!
The ability to “stick & follow in a circle” is practised with an exercise called “tuishou” (pushing hands). This skill has uses in all ranges, but is most effective in the midrange.
With extraordinary mid-range skill, an athlete can find a noticeable advantage over those who lack it.
In the Middle of it All.
Mid-range skills are difficult to master and often frightening to practice. It is a range where everything is possible. That is why so few can use mid-range skills and why those who can are proven to have such a great advantage.
“I was just looking for the part of your mind that wanted to get knocked over.”
– Vicky Hall
Core Principles of Tai Chi
We recognize that techniques don’t work if the method of application is incorrect. The method of application will not be effective if the structure and alignment of the body is not balanced and fluid. The structure will not be balanced and fluid if it is not relaxed. The structure cannot relax if the legs are not cooking. If, however, you can fry eggs on your thighs and relax the rest of the structure, we call it “having a solid root.” If you have a root, then technique is incidental.
Then you will be able to “stick and follow in a circle” (stay on target without letting the opponent find us). Next, we harmonize attack and defence and achieve a state called “no enemy.’
Tai chi is much like other martial arts in that it includes striking, kicking, joint control, pressure point manipulation, throws, take-downs, and grappling.
Standing meditation and basic conditioning exercises prepare the body and mind to deal with attacks and to issue power.
Solo routines teach awareness and coordination as well as efficient biomechanics for the efficient application of Newtonian mechanics.
Tuishou and other two-person exercises develop skills that enable the week to overcome the strong, and train the student to use soft and subtle methods to overcome brute force.
Weapon training enables the student to extend principles into an apparatus and to deal with complex vectors, targets and threats.
How is tai chi different from other martial arts?
What is unique about internal arts like tai chi is the order in which elements are taught.
In schools that teach the martial component of tai chi, there is a greater emphasis on the internal development than on the external technique.
Many martial arts, in addition to basic callisthenics, will practice hundreds or thousands of repetitions of a martial techniques in order to refine the method of application, and to understand possible counter measures and adaptive techniques. Over time, the external training may result in a refined internal power and spontaneously adaptive defensive techniques, tactics and strategies.
Tai chi starts by training the internal. The priority is the awareness, cultivation and refinement of the relationship between mind and body. Every thought is reflected in an emotion, and vice-versa. Every emotion is reflected in posture, and vice-versa. So, it is the slow or stationary meditative exercises that teach the student to eliminate the internal stresses and to find perfect balance and harmony.
This harmony is expressed in solo movements, and eventually in two-person exercises and self defence situations. The challenge is to continue training without losing the stillness and balance achieved in the solo practice. If there is tension, the drill should stop until both parties can resume without tension.
This makes sense from two perspectives.
- Self defence is defence of the self. That means the self should be protected in a strong, powerful, healthy, balanced and harmonious state. If the self is not cultivated, then self defence is pointless. As soon as a person loses self control to attack another, the fight is lost.
- Tension is a conflict of forces. In combat, resistance against an opponents’ force can only work if the opponent it weaker. Tension also tends to compromise one’s internal structure, making one vulnerable to any number of clever adjustments by the opponent. If the student gets in the habit of confronting the opponent’s strength, they will always find the opponent’s strength instead of exploiting the opponent’s weakness. The student will always find himself or herself in a position of disadvantage.
So, first we learn to stop fighting ourselves. Next, we learn to stop fighting the opponent.
Practical training methods
If one cultivates structure, emptiness and method, then the actual martial applications should be incidental. However, most tai chi players never take their training to that conclusion. They may have cultivated superior quality and method. But if they have not tested it in realistic situations, they cannot be certain that it will work.
The great practical martial artist, Adam Chan, once said, “It’s like building a Lamborghini in your garage and never learning to drive…or never figuring out how to open the garage door.”
How one tests such skill is a matter of debate. Some schools will add one or more types of free-sparring to the curriculum. Others use limited one-step, two-step, or three-step sparring drills.
The effectiveness of sparring is debatable, however. Few violent attacks begin as a sparring match. Therefore, some schools will use methods of constructing sophisticated scenarios to challenge the students on a physical, mental, emotional, and psychic level.
Martial Art vs Martial Sport
Some inexperienced martial artists point to martial sports such as “Mixed Martial Arts” (MMA), boxing, wrestling, or judo, as examples of practical self defence training. But these are sports, and should be seen as such. MMA is also not a martial style. It is, rather, a sporting format that facilitates participation by practitioners of many divergent styles.
Ask a veteran MMA fighter if they would rather fight a 300 pound opponent in the octagon or a 125 pound opponent on the street. The answer will likely be the same for all.
This is not to say that martial artists who compete in MMA are less capable than others of defending themselves in a real fight. On the contrary. But any martial sport, such as judo, wrestling, boxing, kendo, and even fencing, will train very differently for competition than they will for practical self defence.
They have very different goals.
- The goal of a martial sport is to win an event.
- The goal of a martial art is to avoid losing a life.
The difference between these two goals is huge. The psychology is different. The strategy and tactics are different. The techniques are different. The context is different.
Martial sport is like the relationship between two bucks during the rutting period. They both consent to the fight and agree on the rules. Adrenalin, testosterone and risk-taking behaviour are advantages, and increase with each victory. The contestants have similar weapons, similar motivations, and similar definitions of victory. Each event is single combat, one-on-one. A competition can last from 10 seconds to 3 days, depending on the type of event.
Martial art is like the relationship between a buck and a hunter. The hunted does not plan to be in a hunt, and often doesn’t know about it until it is over. There are no rules. The hunter tries to keep the fight a secret from its prey until victory is assured. One contestant may be literally armed to the teeth or have the advantage of guns and bladed weapons, while the other may have only manueverability and fingernails. The two “contestants” in this case have very different definitions of victory. The entire fight usually lasts between 0.5 seconds and 6 seconds.
Martial sport can be an important part of martial art training. MMA itself has certainly opened the eyes of many so-called traditionalists who had not previously tested their own assumptions. But the limits and pitfalls of martial sport should also not be ignored. Young MMA competitors should not delude themselves about the combat effectiveness of sport grappling any more than tai chi students should not assume that the ability to stand still for an hour will make them an unstoppable fighter.
“Tai Chi Fighting Strategy”
If the tai chi school your are learning from teaches the art for self defence, the approach should be very comprehensive. The qigong and solo forms will contribute the cultivation of body and mind as superior vehicles or tools for self defence. Tuishou (pushing hands) and other two-person exercises will develop sensitivity, awareness and understanding of the opponent, their intent, their power, and their motivation. Duanshou teaches the martial applications and techniques hidden in the solo forms. Sanshou will allow the free exploration of the way that all these things can come together. Esoteric mental and physical exercises can further prepare you for the realities of actual combat.