“To be honest Sifu I’m not really interested in teaching ‘Health Tai Chi’! I’d really like to have an authentic Kwoon for Tai Chi ‘fighters’.” I commented over a cup of tea with Sifu before my lesson discussing a new class that I was planning to open and how best to promote it.
“There really isn’t any difference if Tai Chi is practiced properly. In fact, if you are studying ‘real’ Tai Chi you can’t possibly begin to use it as a martial art until you understand the importance of its ‘health’ aspects. Without your ‘health’ you’ll never stand a chance of being able to apply Tai Chi as a martial art, so I guess which ever way you look at it, everyone has to do ‘health Tai Chi’ whether they want to or not!” He responded gesturing every inverted comma with his fingers.
“So what you are saying is that whether they are studying Tai chi for ‘health’ or ‘fighting’ they’re still learning….”
“…’Tai Chi’!” Sifu interrupted with more inverted commas and sly grin.
Tai Chi has a tendency to attract people of a more bohemian nature for whom its elegant, peaceful movements have instant appeal. Its apparent gentleness also lends itself to the more mature student as well. In fact it seems to appeal to virtually everyone except those who are looking for a practical martial art. It is this almost global misrepresentation that I am passionately trying to change and desperately want to promote Tai Chi as the ferocious fighting system I narrow-mindedly thought it was originally designed to be.
As we finished our tea, Sifu took a moment to explain the concept of geng jin or ‘warrior energy’. He said that the true warrior carries the same mental intention in everything they do whether it be fighting on the battlefield or pruning roses in a garden. The ability to maintain a sense of mindfulness and clarity in every action exemplifies the quality of geng jin. It is this elegance and dignity that draws many, including myself, to Tai Chi, but being a natural oaf obsessed with ‘fighting’ it is the part of Tai Chi that flirts with and taunts me from a distance most of the time.
Beginning the lesson Sifu asked that I practise the form in ‘warrior’ style, which is a method of practise where we concentrate on martial applications contained within the form and how the movements are applied in combat. There are many different styles in which a form can be practised that draw the practitioner to specific elements of the form. For example the form is initially practised in ‘monk’ style where our awareness is placed on the so-called ‘health’ aspects of Tai Chi, which in truth are the foundations of its entire study.
In ‘monk’ style we begin to learn the importance of correct posture, alignment, smooth continuous motion and how to develop a disciplined unfettered mind. It forms the first essential step on the path to studying Tai Chi and can be an extremely frustrating stage. For me it was particularly infuriating as I very quickly discovered that I was actually pretty inept at even the most basic skills needed for fighting, let alone good health – my stepping was clumsy, my mind fluttered constantly and my body creaked and shook when trying to hold off even the lightest touch applied by a skilled hand. Beginning Tai Chi I moved very quickly from the phase of ‘unconscious incompetence’ into the realms of ‘conscious incompetence’ where I discovered, as a Marital Artist, just how easily a person of skill could destroy me.
So initially I had to become a ‘monk’ and begin to learn the austere process of getting in my feet, connecting my body and starting to remove the excess tension that imprisoned both my body and mind. The reason for focussing purely on ‘health’ during ‘monk’ style is because generally we move so poorly and mindlessly that focussing on anything else would be a waste of time. It is in ‘monk’ style that we lay the foundations upon which all Tai Chi is built, including its martial aspects. By learning how to ‘frame’ and align the body so that it is structurally strong we can then move into ‘warrior’ style and learn how to apply our strength and structure within a combative setting.
Gathering myself I drew my thoughts to the fighting applications of the form and pictured my opponent in my minds eye. Using the first movement of the form ‘raise hands’ I pictured my opponent entering in for a grab only to have their arms checked by my own and me taking their balance. Exploiting their weakness I seized them and threw them off to my right following the initial sequence of the form. Then I visualised an incoming punch being dealt with powerfully by striking into my attackers arm whilst palming their arm into their face…
“Whoa whoa whoa! Hold it right there…” Sifu said whilst gently poking me lightly with his finger causing me to stumble backwards, “…you’re not even in your feet and I have no idea why you’re flapping your arms round like that. How could you possibly deal with a committed attack when I can knock you over so easily with just a finger?”
My silence echoed in the blank expression on my face.
“You see all this talk of just wanting to fight and only teach fighting is fine, but it is from our health that we gain our strength, and only through being in a position of strength that we have the ability to be ‘marital’. So we’ll start over again with ‘monk’ style and see if we can improve your ‘health’ so you can actually ‘fight’ if you still feel inclined to do so!” He smiled softly amusing himself with even more inverted comma gestures.
Going through the form this time Sifu stopped me after each movement and ‘tested’ my alignment using a teaching method called chap sau. He corrected my posture and then gradually applied pressure at various points on my body.
Chap sau works by stimulating the receiver’s body with mindfully applied force and allowing it to shift itself into alignment. Once a ‘line’ to the floor has been found the intensity is increased up to the point where you are resisting full power pushes using every part of your body using every posture in the form. It is a very taxing process physically but even heavier mentally. In Chap Sau we learn to allow the body to soften down so the structure can drop into place without being blocked by excessive muscular tension.
By the time we’d finished the first section of the form I was exhausted, covered in sweat and feeling every single aching muscle in my body. Sifu walked over to the CD player and played his favourite Tibetan chant,
“Ok, now the second section. Still using ‘monk’ style I want you pace yourself to the chanting and concentration moving smoothly and continuously. I don’t want to see any ‘gaps’…” Sifu instructed motioning me to start the form.
I sighed as I tiredly hauled myself into position for the second section,
“Give yourself a second to feel the rhythm of the music and let then let it set the pace for you.”
As I stood there I started to become aware of the rhythm of the chanting and the deep vibration of the Lama’s voice. My body was tired and my mind was struggling to focus itself, however the gentle humming undertone hidden in the chant became quite infectious. Without concentrating on anything else barring moving smoothly and not stopping I found myself at the end of the section with hardly any recollection of how I got there. I shook my head clear and slowly reoriented myself with the room….
“Wow, that’s trippy!” I tried to articulate the floaty feeling I was experiencing.
“Indeed. And when you can experience that during ‘warrior’ style, you’ll begin to understand and experience geng jin!” Sifu bowed ending the lesson.
Often when people learn to fight they develop a short-lived and erratic strength that is punctuated with long periods of weakness. In Tai Chi we call this lik Jin, which is an energy that only has brief strength that fades almost instantly. In the book “Steal My Art” the late Tai Chi Master T.T. Liang is quoted as saying that he doesn’t describe Tai Chi as ‘boxing’ (the Chinese martial arts are often referred to as ‘boxing’) instead referring to it as ‘dancing’. ‘Boxing’, he argues, can encourage students (particularly male ones) to become overtly aggressive and obsessed with fighting which can make them uncontrolled and rigid whereas the idea ‘dancing’ musters images of grace and control.
When we ‘fight’ there is an overwhelming tendency for us to attempt to muscle through our opponents instead of using strategy to attack vulnerable targets from a position of strength. Attacking from a position of weakness causes us to frantically snatch attacks and desperately throw out power in the vague hope that it lands. Depending which energy we use in combat, lik or geng, drastically changes our role within a conflict.
In the Martial Arts we often look to nature for our analogies and metaphors, and in nature we find many examples of both geng and lik jins. Observing any of the big cats hunting we can clearly see the quality of geng. A lioness bringing down a wildebeest for me is the perfect illustration of a pure ‘martial’ mindset. She will patiently and skilfully stalk her prey, prepare the ambush and then gracefully move in for the kill. Afterwards you’ll see her panting for breath, but not gasping, you’ll see her focussed but not shaking from an uncontrolled fear induced adrenaline dump. In contrast a wildebeest that survives the chase will be seen shaking from fear and anxious of another attack, where as the lioness will be peacefully enjoying lunch. That’s geng jin!
It is the lioness’s ‘health’ that enables her hunt in the manner she does. In Tai Chi we regard our health as something far more than just being able to shake off a cold easily, for us it encompasses every aspect of our ability to function as a human being and interact with the world around us. Through Tai Chi we learn how to maintain our health and this knowledge is carried over from ‘monk’ to ‘warrior’ style and eventually alchemises positively into every thing we do, whether on the battlefield or the in garden. Geng jin represents the warrior who acts purposefully, mindfully and enjoys life, in control of their existence. It is only through true strength that we can ever achieve peace. Our Tai Chi teaches us how to stop someone pushing us over physically, emotionally and spiritually, and if we’re never stumbling our lives will always have balance.
As for how to promote my new class, I think I may just stick with “Learn Tai Chi” for the poster!