Building a martial arts method III

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Building a martial arts method III


Tai chi strength

People think that tai chi chuan is performed slowly and with all muscles relaxed. Doctors say that it is an exercise that can be beneficial for people who want to improve their health or condition. People wishing to find a sense of well-being and pleasure through relaxing exercises can also find it helpful. This is one of the merits of tai chi chuan.

But that is not all that tai chi chuan can do. In addition to these advantages, it can also help us to acquire effectiveness in martial art, because it enables us to form and develop the specific strength of tai chi.

However, if we look back at the origins of this discipline, we see that the situation is now just the opposite of what it was. Originally tai chi chuan was an effective art of combat, and only later was it discovered to be a good exercise for restoring health and well-being.
This second advantage gained steadily in importance and ended up being the dominant aspect of tai chi chuan – so much so, in fact, that it now overshadows the discipline’s martial origins. Indeed, in most contemporary schools of tai chi chuan, the original martial aspect has faded and has almost disappeared.

I realize that these statements might clash with the idea that people usually have of tai chi chuan.


Tui shou in tai chi chuan

Some people say that they do tai chi chuan marcial, because they practice tui shou (pushing hands) – an interesting and effective exercise for developing certain aspects of combat. But what exactly is the usefulness of tui shou? What aim is sought in this training?

In contact combat, there inevitably comes a moment when the two adversaries’ arms cross. Even if you prefer to attack your opponent from a distance, your arm will cross his the instant that you hit him.Whatever your size and reach, you cannot touch your opponent without passing through the zone where he can cross his arm with yours. This is a crucial moment in combat.

When I think about those first generations of tai chi Yang practitioners, I wonder how they practiced tui shou?
If Yang Luchan and his descendents gained a reputation during a period of great social unrest in China, it has to be because they exhibited outstanding capacities in combat. During the Opium War (1839-42), China embarked on a long period of serious social upheaval. As we know from the Boxer rebellions, a large number of martial artists participated in these historical uprisings. So it could not have been as a practice for health and well-being that tai chi chuan gained its fame. It stood out because of its effectiveness in combat. If people practiced tui shou during that period, it must have been directly related to the practice of combat. I imagine that for the practitioners of that time, there was no sense in excelling in tui shou unless doing so enabled them to develop fighting skills.

The situation is different today.

There are experts in tai chi chuan who excel in tui shou and give spectacular demonstrations. Tui shou exercises are very productive and we can benefit from them immensely. But I have never met a tui shou expert in tai chi chuan capable of demonstrating the same qualities in actual contact combat. If any of them were good at sparring, it was almost always because they had practiced other forms of combat and had integrated them into their tai chi chuan. I’m not saying that they don’t exist, but simply that I have never found an expert formed solely in tai chi chuan who was capable of fighting against a boxer.

To be effective in contact combat, you have to develop and perfect subtleties and a particular strength to respond properly at that decisive moment when your arms cross those of your opponent. This is what was originally sought through the practice odf tui shou. If we train with slowness and suppleness, it is in order to acquire the ability to respond to the attacks of a fast, strong opponent. Therefore, in tui shou, just as in practicing the form of tai chi chuan, you are working on acquiring the capacity to deploy strength and speed by performing slow, supple exercises. This practice made it possible to cultivate cutaneous awareness, or the ability to «listen to strength», and later gave rise to a culture of awareness of the opponent’s ki.

Our initial question remains unanswered for the moment: «How can we develop speed through slowness or strength through suppleness?»

But let us continue.


A question of strength

In martial art as in war, combat requires the use of strength. There is no combat without it, and it must be used with speed. This seems to me as self-evident as saying that fire is hot.
Some might say, "Yes, but in aikido, you don’t use strength to physically dominate your opponent, and the same is true of tai chi chuan, because in the noble martial arts you don’t use strength...".
To which I would reply, "In aikido, you have to learn to master a particular strength in order to annul the effect of your opponent’s power. Since most aikidoka are not capable of doing this, aikido combat often becomes a demonstration between two accomplices. Aiki technique is executed thanks to what is known as transparent power, with which it’s possible to annul your opponent’s strength." It is only with this particular strength that aikido becomes a magnificent martial art.

Yi chuan master Han Xingqiao (1909-2004) says in his book Yi-Chuan xué (The Study of Form-Mind Boxing): "You must transform troubled strength into the total strength generated by integrating the combined power of the entire body". Here, what he calls "troubled" strength is the ordinary power generated by the partial activation of muscles. According to Han Xingqiao, yi chuan teaches you to “mobilize all the muscles, as though the body were wrapped in a single one”.
Whatever the period and culture, and no matter how particular, subtle, brutal, ordinary, transparent or total… combat may be, it is always a question of strength. The only things that vary are the quality, mode of training and the technical concept of strength.

A master once said: “Once it is considered an art, combat cannot be treated like something for idiots. It is subtle and requires a lot of thought together with hard, constant practice. It’s not enough to train any old way. You need intelligence, physical qualities and courage to be able to advance along this solitary path. Even when these conditions are met, it is still not certain that you’ll achieve your aims...”


Relaxation and strength

The basis for acquiring tai chi chuan strength is learning how to relax the muscles of the whole-body. Relaxation is then the starting point for learning how to marshal the strength of all your muscles – i.e. whole-body strength. Whether working on muscle relaxation or mobilization, the idea is always to do it to a degree beyond the ordinary level. Our capacity for relaxing the muscles mirrors our capacity for marshalling strength.

However, when executing techniques, the muscles are relaxed longer than they are tensed, giving the impression that no muscle strength is being used. You sometimes hear it said that instead of using muscle strength, we use the power of qi (ki). On this point, I prefer the theory of the correlation between qi and muscle strength, which says that with each increase in qi, there is an increase in degree of muscular strength. Whenever we express strength through bodily techniques, no matter how short they are, they are clearly produced by activating the muscles, regardless of our sensations and the subtlety of our movements. What activates the muscles are orders from the brain, and thus the importance of yi (intention).

If we practice tai chi chuan with relaxed muscles, later on we will have to learn how to form and utilise the specific strength of tai chi. I consider that practicing tai chi chuan with relaxation is appropriate at the beginning of one’s training.
In a way, this type of training corresponds to what we do in kindergarten – in a good kindergarten, that is. But later on, school children grow and can go on to university, where they must continue to progress and learn how to use their abilities at a higher level. That is, they must become able to generate great strength, the specific strength of tai chi.  So there is consistency in this progress from the beginning to the most advanced level – with all my respect for those who are in the earliest phases of their training.

However, as we saw earlier, even if one stays at the elementary level, it is possible to improve one’s condition and profit a great deal from this discipline. Everyone is free to stay at this level of practice if they feel it is good for them.
No-one is obliged to move on to building strength. It is simply a matter of choice. But for those who do choose to move forward in this direction, the method to be applied is difficult. This is where the problem lies.
So we come back to our initial question: how can we build up our speed and strength through slow, relaxed training?

To be continued...