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Big Circles, Small Circles


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"Expanding; my circles fill the Universe.
Contracting; I can hide them in my sleeve."

Why is Tai Chi Chuan practised slowly? Well, the short answer is that it isn't. Even the Tai Chi Chuan forms aren't always practised slowly and it's necessary to practice the movement at speed to become truly proficient. But I'm being disingenuous. Tai Chi Chuan is, predominantly, practised slowly. What has all this got to do with the size of circles?

Tai Chi Chuan (TCC) is practised slowly, largely, because the art is about 'internalising' the movement. This is a very difficult thing for most people to understand and because it's difficult to understand this internalisation of movement, or the misunderstanding of it, has given rise to much of the fog which surrounds TCC.

When we move; the body articulates around its structure. Therefore the first thing a practitioner of TCC needs to do is build a good structure, in TCC terms. Practising the Form slowly helps with this development but good structure could be developed while practising the Form quickly too. Good structure is important in all martial arts and doubly so in all Internal martial arts. In TCC the Posture Considerations outline what is required regarding structure.

Once structure begins to develop; fluidity, in the form of continuity of movement, can be added. To aid this process we have the Essential Co-ordinations which help to align the body's movement to the body's structure.

To assist with learning all of the above it helps to make the movements of the TCC Form as big and rounded as possible because it's not enough to know what's required, we need to get a feel for what's required. Making the movements big and rounded helps us to feel what's happening as we move, particularly in relation to how the body's centre moves in relation to the postures. To get this 'feel' we need to practice the movements slowly.

Practising the Form slowly also helps to develop Sung (sometimes Romanised as Song) which is a Chinese word that is often translated as softness but that's misleading as the actual meaning also denotes a state of relaxation and it's the relaxed state that's the important bit.

Sung Jin is the first level of Internal power in TCC and it is literally relaxed force. Sung Jin is, in some ways, the most important step on the road to acquiring Internal power, as without it no further development can be made. Not only that; the level of Sung Jin needs to be continually deepened as the practitioner develops more 'advanced' Internal power.

Sung Jin is not like Fa Jin (attacking force - the explosive power sometimes seen in demonstrations of TCC) Sung Jin can be applied to incoming power (Na Jin or controlling force) as well as to the expenditure of energy.

The reason Sung Jin is so important is summed up in the TCC maxim "You can't use Li, you can't not use Li." damned inscrutable Chinese!

Li is a Chinese word for external or muscular force. You can't use Li because Li blocks Internal force, as you can't use Li without tensing muscles, but you can't not use Li because if you don't use any muscular force at all you'll end up in a heap on the floor.

Clearly what's required is a delicate balancing act. The less Li in your movement the more you'll be able to apply Jin. The key to applying Jin is to develop Sung and through Sung... Chen (Sinking). When the body's weight and energy is sunk low the movement can become light and energetic. So if we need to move fast it's not a problem.

The key to all the above is to practice the movements slowly and really get a 'feel' for what's going on because the next step is to take those big movements and make them small. Not all at once, that would be impossible, as this is about feel too.

Once a feel for the movement is acquired it's possible to refine the movement and make it smaller and smaller because the important bit is the way the body's centre is moving in relation to the rest of you. Once the real movement is 'internalised' it's possible to perform the external postures either as big movements or small movements. The internal movement can be large while the external movement is small. The internal movement can be large while the external movement is large too of course.

It's developing this internal movement that is key to effective power and movement in TCC. Internalising the movement in TCC allows the practitioner to utilise the energy inherent in this internal movement which is derived from the Jin developed in our bodies, or accessed through our bodies (perhaps a better way to put it).

As the Hsing-I classics say: "All that exists is structure and energy." but while it's, relatively, straight-forward for most people to get to grips with good structure; using energy (Jin), rather than, strength (Li) can prove much more difficult. Inernalising the movement by gradually reducing the size of our circles is the key to the deployment of Jin, once a level of Sung has been achieved.

To be an effective fighter we also need strategy, of course, and TCC strategy is based on the Five Word Secret, which isn't really secret at all (except that, even when they hear it, many people don't really get it) it's Ting, Lu, Nien, Jong, Na/Fa or, in English, to listen, to yield, to stick, to neutralise and finally to control or attack. The final two words Na and Fa count as one word in the Five Word Secret because they're interchangeable.

In TCC terms; to listen is to use sensitivity, to yield (literally to lead into emptiness) is to turn aside the opponent's power and to stick is to follow the opponent's movement. When Yielding and Sticking are applied simultaneously Neutralising occurs and, once the opponent is neutralised, controlling or attacking may be done at our convenience.

This piece isn't about strategy though, the last two paragraphs were included to give a clearer picture of TCC as a martial art.

To summarise: In order to develop Internal power we must internalise our movement. In order to do that we must first make the movement big and round and co-ordinated combined with excellent structure. Once this is achieved we can get a feel for the movement, externally and internally, and then it's possible to gradually make the external movement smaller and smaller till, from the perspective of an external observer, nothing much seems to be happening at all - though the results on an opponent can be quite dramatic. At this point the internalised movement is much larger than the external movement and manifests as energy.

All the foregoing is a massive oversimplification. Of course it is. Like most things put in-a-nutshell it deals only with the kernel of the process. As long as the practitioner takes the time to develop, and doesn't try to run before s/he can walk, progress is natural. It just takes time. Slowness is our ally.

Sifu R Rand

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