The Secret of Tai Chi Internal Power.
– by Ian Sinclair
April 18, 2012
To most of the millions of people around the world who practise tai chi, it is as an exercise for relaxation, health, and fitness. Only a small percentage of tai chi players have a real interest in the martial, mental, and spiritual discipline required to achieve the deep and profound skills of the founders of the art. This has led to a general watering down of the art itself, until most teachers have little if any understanding of the art as it was.
Now, watering down is not always a bad thing. After all, water is quite good for us. There are many who benefit from tai chi practice specifically because it has been simplified over the years. Many of those who practise tai chi on a daily basis would not be involved in the art at all if they were required to train like their predecessors.
The benefits of tai chi are so great and broad, that even mediocre teachers can have a lasting positive effect on their students, and even mediocre students can experience life prolonging effects.
Even a mere echo of the original music can be a joy to the ear.
The danger, of course, is that the mysterious and profound skills of the famous masters may be lost. Or worse, the stories of their extraordinary abilities, in the absence of current examples, may be attributed entirely to hyperbole, mythology, or marketing by ambitious teachers.
Hyperbole and mythology are certainly a part of most traditions, and tai chi is no exception. However, to label all of the stories as fiction would be a terrible mistake. There are still masters alive today who can demonstrate much of the seemingly magical skills mentioned in the old stories. I have personally experienced, first hand, the incredible power and subtle methods of some of these masters, both men and women, who have blessed me with demonstrations of what the human body and mind are capable.
I remember reading “Moving Zen” by C.W. Nicol, in which the author describes meeting the master, Wang Shujin. The master was sending high ranking karateka across a room with a simple one-handed push that looked “…as gentle as the waking movements of a child.” I heard many similar stories about tai chi masters, but did not experience such power until after I had been pursuing the art myself for more than ten years.
Incredibly, the first reaction to being propelled across a room by an old woman half my size was disbelief. The impact with the wall was barely enough proof of what had happened. My skepticism was compounded by the fact that I had felt no pressure or force that I thought would have been necessary to transfer such momentum into my body. The push, such as it was, did not knock the wind out of my body, yet I was propelled so quickly that my feet were several inches above the floor when I hit the wall.
Even with this direct experience, and others like it over the years, I could not quite understand how it was done, or how to duplicate it. I could almost forgive myself for suspecting that my teachers were hiding something from me, but this theory was put to rest when I heard my teacher say the words, “I think you can do it however you like.”
I had heard these words before, in response to my technical questions about the correct way to practise. It wasn’t until I heard him say it to another student that I was able to read the subtext in his response. He was saying, “It doesn’t matter how you do it because you don’t practise enough for it to make any difference.”
I was stunned, and humbled. He had said these words to me countless times over the years, but I had not interpreted them correctly. Even when I figured it out, I was unable to devote enough time to the correct practice.
It is not that tai chi requires more devotion than other sports. The fact is that one can achieve high levels of skill quite quickly if one practises correctly. The problem with tai chi is that students seldom believe in the importance of the solo routines. Athletes are accustomed to feeling a sense of accomplishment with the tearing of muscles in a weight room, or from the exhaustion of a 10 km run, or from an hour of grappling with an opponent. Few will be convinced that relaxing the waist, hips, and shoulders for 20 minutes can have as much benefit as lifting free weights for the same length of time.
Achieving the type of internal power that made tai chi famous requires more than building muscle. It requires the gradual and dynamic restructuring of the body. It requires forging a relationship between thought, emotion, posture, movement, and gravity. It requires the cultivation of natural instinct, and the liberation from the typical emotional responses that flesh is heir to.
Tai chi power requires that we teach the body a whole new way of thinking, and that we teach the mind that it cannot achieve ease through brute force.
In the development of my personal understanding of the nature of tai chi power, I have tried to follow the instructions of many of the world’s greatest masters. I have devoted myself to full-time teaching and training. I have attended seminars, conferences and tournaments. I have had my butt kicked by students and masters of all levels as I tried various strategies, techniques and methods. I have made friends with proponents of almost every martial art I have ever heard of, and crossed hands with them as often as possible.
I have also spent a fair amount of time reviewing classical Newtonian physics, and trying to make sense of quantum string theory, working to reconcile them with the mathematical and semantic artistry of Laozi, Zhuangzi, Zeno, and Zarathustra.
Every few months I have another breakthrough in my understanding and in my ability. This is usually followed by a revelatory whuppin’ by one of my own students.
What it comes down to, after more than three decades of research, is that my teacher was correct. I don’t practice enough. However, I now have a new understanding of the mechanics and psychology of tai chi power. I can now describe to myself and others how it works. More importantly, I can also rationalize to my intellect and to my emotional mind that they should let me practise more.
– Ian Sinclair