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How can you recognise written English?
How can you recognise Tai Chi Chuan?


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How do you know that what you’re reading here is English? What has this got to do with Tai Chi Chuan?

The characters I’m using come from a standardised and recognisable 26 character 'Roman’ alphabet. Whether presented in their upper or lower case forms you can recognise them. ¿ßæø?

They are grouped together in blocks that we recognise as words. These words are recognised from a standardised "English" rather than, for example, French. Vous comprendez?

The words are then grouped together into sentences. This grouping is done in accordance with standardised and recognisable rules. Native English speakers may not know the rules but – broken when they are we know.

Only once all this is in place can we then observe different written styles, techniques, purposes and skills. As writers in English the same applies; before we can start to write we need the basics to be in place.

Like English there are basic requirements that need to be in place in order for something to be recognisable as Tai Chi Chuan. What distinguishes the practitioner of Tai Chi Chuan from someone imitating them is the adherence to recognisable principals within the Tai Chi Chuan form. In fact, only once a Tai Chi Chuan practitioner has gathered all these principals into their practice do they begin to start to practise the principal that is Tai Chi. Through the practice of that central principal all the other principals will manifest.

However, to get to this stage takes the combination of a good teacher, a good student and a lot of time. Frequently one, two or all three of these factors are omitted and it is often questionable whether many people have learnt to get beyond the alphabet stage. Imitating the pattern of the written form they effectively draw squiggly lines across a page and in their illiterate eyes claim it to be a well written piece of English, and they are so sure of this because they "enjoyed doing it", therefore it must be true.

It is arguable that creative people can break the standardised and recognisable forms of English and thereby create great works of art. But, without exception, all those people have an excellent and profound understanding of the language before they break the rules. The same is true of Tai Chi Chuan or any other martial art.

To take the understanding of the recognisable principals in Tai Chi Chuan further look at this different analogy.

Imagine a wheel. The movement in Tai Chi Chuan is the outside of that wheel, the principal that is Tai Chi is at the centre of the wheel (the axle). To connect the outside (the movement) to the inside (the principal that is Tai Chi) you need spokes. Without spokes the rim of the wheel can never meet with the axle. In reality the wheel couldn’t actually exist.

So in learning Tai Chi Chuan it is essential, from the beginning, to put spokes into that wheel. Spokes that go from the very centre all the way out to the rim. Now the emphasis in training has to shift from looking at the movements in the form from a superficial repetitive perspective, to one where the underlying principals that govern the movements are concentrated on.

For example, I have heard people say so many times that in Tai Chi Chuan the back is straight and then those same people go on to demonstrate movements where it’s clearly, and correctly, bent. Therefore a straight back is not a principal in Tai Chi Chuan but a consequence of something else. People often correct someone’s Form informing them that, for instance, their hand should be a couple of inches lower, but the reason for this different hand position is a consequence of something else, far better to teach the something else.

Too many times I have heard people say, "relax". But what does it mean? It is a very abstract phrase. Most people have taken up Tai Chi Chuan to relax, now someone saying the word to them really isn’t going to be of too much help. They knew the word before and it didn’t help much then, why should it make any difference who is saying it? Relaxation in Tai Chi Chuan is a consequence of following other principals. The greater the practical understanding of those principals the greater the relaxation. The physical posture throughout Tai Chi Chuan is definable. It is the increasing adoption of the correct physical posture that allows the body to relax; other principals take the relaxation further.

Now some of you may be asking yourselves " What are these principals?" The more you advance at Tai Chi Chuan the more other principals can be added. I guess in a wheel it doesn’t matter what order you put the spokes in but in Tai Chi Chuan it’s impossible to learn these things in a random order, one principal builds upon the other. If you cannot think what some of these principals might be then I suggest you listen more closely to your teacher, if you still can’t think what they are then I suggest you find another teacher.

Once all the spokes are in place then what is happening at the rim of the wheel becomes a reflection of what is happening at the centre, and visa versa. At this point it becomes apparent that the wheel in its entirety is Tai Chi and that the closer to the centre you get the simpler it is and the more effortless the movement becomes.

In push hands and similar training the focus on Tai Chi rather than other principals, methods and strategies becomes an obvious necessity and through this focus the most appropriate movement for the practitioner becomes instinctive. The more they can understand and be consumed by Tai Chi, the greater their skill. Ironically, because practising this way becomes increasingly effortless, the use of previously learned methods becomes surprisingly difficult.

A point comes when it is possible to increasingly understand at a very practical, rather than intellectual, level that it is not the spokes or the principals that are holding the thing together. It is the emptiness, the stillness at the very centre of the wheel and between the spokes that is truly giving it shape.

If you want that then try to find a good teacher, try to be a good student and be prepared to be very patient.

I know that the last description of Tai Chi Chuan does make it sound like some sort of enlightenment, but for me, it’s not that way at all it’s just a description of a very profound physical feeling. Tai Chi Chuan, in my experience, is just that.

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