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We've all watched experts in Tai Chi Chuan throw people around with very little effort, but how did they get to the level where they could perform these seemingly impossible feats?

I was lucky enough to be coached by three different Tai Chi Chuan Sifu over the course of a weekend recently. In between being thrown to the ground (and ending up in a variety of interesting and painful locks) I had a few insights into how these Sifu had acquired their skills.

What I noticed about them (in between the floor rushing up to meet me) was that each one's explanation of how they could effortlessly send me flying was subtley different. For instance, one emphasised softness as the key to his technique, another emphasised correctness of posture and the third relaxation. What was even more remarkable, to my mind anyway, was that they had all been taught by the same teacher, yet each one emphasised something different. How can it be that there can be so many different ways to think about the same principles I asked myself?

That's when it hit me. There are as many different ways to understand Tai Chi Chuan as their are people in the world. What each Sifu was doing was simply relating to me the way the art worked for them. Let me elaborate. We all learn differently. Some of us need to see a technique to grasp it, some of us need to feel how it works, while others need to intellectually understand it before we can apply it. Or sometimes a combination of all three or some other learning route. There's no "one way" which works best for everybody.

Of course, as any good student of Tai Chi Chuan knows; softness, correct posture and relaxation are all interrelated. In fact you could say that it's impossible to correctly attain one of these attributes (in a meaningful way) without the other two also being present, but that's just another idiosyncrasy that makes the art so intriguing. And don't forget that what one person describes as softness, another could reasonably describe as relaxation or even good posture.

As students of Tai Chi Chuan it is our duty to stick rigidly to the principles handed down by our forefathers (or mothers) in the art, while at the same time finding a way of internalising those principles that works for us right here and now.

How do we do this? Well the answer is in a saying that my Sifu is very fond of. It's a saying he got from his Master, and it goes something like this.

"Everybody likes to shine, but few like to polish!"

No amount of theorising about the concepts of Tai Chi or the techniques of Tai Chi Chuan will help you shine if you aren't prepared to put in the hours of diligent (and hopefully fun) practice. Tai Chi Chuan is an art that takes a long time to acquire, so don't try and rush things and enjoying your polishing along the way.

By Graham Barlow

(c) 2001 YTCCA

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