As we progress in our taiji from simple movements, short form, long form, applications, to free style, there is still one phase of taiji (tai chi) that is rarely spoken about or taught. The process of learning to take punches, hits, blows, or pushes is very important to help us deepen our practice and ground us in our taiji. Unfortunately, people believe that taiji is this pretty soft style where everyone floats around and is spaced out; where no real contact or rough stuff goes on in class. Well, without contact, our taiji just becomes this floating balloon that is not grounded on the earth plane.
No matter how gentle and soft we want to be in our taiji, we live in a world that is very aggressive and we are constantly being pushed, hit and shoved around. Unless we can learn how to use our taiji in the world it becomes just a meaningless art. Our taiji should reflect our practice in class and in the world. Too many students have a false view of taiji, believing no one gets hit, pushed or knocked down. These ideas come from too many books, movies, magazines and stories of masters of taiji never getting hit; or how they can push people without touching them. All of this is completely false. In fact learning to take blows improves and deepens ones taiji. Learning to yield and accept blows teaches us how to deal with all sorts of problems and situations.
Every human being at times has been pushed, hit, or knocked down. Whether it is the area of sports, school, business, children, relationships, driving, etc. Whether its emotional, mental, physical, or spiritual, we are engaged in this great struggle of pushing and pulling. We just need to look at nature, or better yet, our solar system and the universe, to see that this energy always exists. The questions is how do we deal with all this energy coming towards us? How do we learn from this energy and not keep it in our bodies and souls? And how can we stop fighting this energy and learn use it for our benefit?
Testing Our Taiji
The main principle of taiji is to understand the flow of energy, our energy as well as the energy of others. The question is how to deal with energy coming towards us in any form, whether it is physical, mental, emotional or spiritual. In taiji we hope to learn to distinguish different types of energies and the degree of force that is being directed towards us. If we have no experience or concept of how intense or gentle a force is, how can we possibly know how to deal with it? Many students of taiji are not trained to deal with this situation, either from the lack of an experienced teacher or feeling that it is not necessary. If you have no concept of how intense different degrees of energies can be, how can you know how flexible you are? How will you learn what the correct counter move is to use? One counter move or movement (i.e. double push, step back, or crane) will work on one type of force while another will not. By learning to take hits, blows, pushes and punches you will learn how to handle different energies while testing and adapting your own style.
To begin to test your taiji, stand with you feet shoulder width apart, knees slightly bent, hips and shoulders relaxed and eyes closed. Have someone push or hit you, not so hard at first. See if you can flow with the hit or push, or do you stiffen up? Do you feel like you will loose your balance and fall over? Do you feel stiff and hard and not very flexible? This is a great test and a simple thing to do. You will learn a lot about yourself and how really flexible, gentle, and soft you truly are. Here again we find the need to learn the balance with the experience. The balance of being too soft and falling over and the balance of being too hard and falling over. The idea of this test is to see if you can move with the energy that is coming at you and how well you can disperse that energy.
In taiji we talk about how the form (taiji) can adapt to any situation. How taiji acts like water and flows and moves and adapts to everything. The question as students and teachers is how well do we adapt to situations that are either physical, mental or emotional? This tells us a lot about ourselves, our taiji, and the depth of our practice.
A simple example of learning to adapt and flow is with a balloon. Fill a balloon half with water, notice how it moves and changes shape. Now push, hit or poke the balloon; watch how it moves and distributes the energy that you have applied to it while coming back to its original form. You will notice how difficult it is to hit the balloon hard or find a solid place to hit it with any real force. The balloon has the ability to adapt to any degree of force. The more force you apply to the balloon the more the balloon moves out of the way by distributing the force we apply. Our taiji must be the same. We need to learn how to accept blows, hits and pushes, distribute them and come back to our center. Too often students never experience this phase of taiji or just overlook it. In taiji we must learn how to empty ourselves and the space we occupy at any given moment. Learning this teaches us how not to give our opponent anything to push against, giving us the advantage in every situation.
Finding Our Emotional, Spiritual, Mental Balance
From the moment we are born we are learning to take emotional, spiritual and mental blows. In fact birth starts with our mothers pushing us out of her womb. From that moment on our parents, teachers, brothers, sisters, schools, bosses, friends, husbands, wives, children, and society try pushing us into many different shapes and forms. Our world is full of energy pushing and shoving us in as many directions as possible. We find ourselves feeling like ping pong balls bouncing all over the place, not really knowing how to adapt to all this pushing and shoving. When this happens most people feel lost or their anger boils to the surface, or worst of all they become sick and their mental and or physical bodies become overwhelmed with the stress of not knowing what to do with all this energy coming towards them. We react in a couple of ways to avoid this pushing around. We become involved with drugs, alcohol, sex, partying or anything to dull our senses. We overwork to achieve money and power to become the ones that are now doing the pushing and shoving. Our bodies become sick with high blood pressure, heart disease, cancer, strokes etc...for if we get sick the world will stop pushing on us and we can find some peace. We find ourselves in constant pain and confusion trying to avoid all this pushing. When we learn and study taiji we learn how to adapt and deal with the pushing by letting go.
Unfortunately, we live in a society that thinks letting go is not macho; that fighting back is the manly thing to do. But remember heart attacks are still the number one killer of men and woman in our society. Why? Is it because were not macho enough? Letting go means learning how to flow and let life, (whether problems, situations, people, joys, unhappiness) just move in any direction without trying to control or change it.
It is amazing that as human beings we can look all around and see how this vast universe flows all around us. We can see the sun, moon, stars, planets, solar systems, flow all by themselves.
We can see in nature the flow of energy all around us; from the seasons, to the oceans, plants, animals, etc ... Our own bodies flow without our controlling it; our hearts, lungs, blood, digestion, etc.. all work without us lifting a single finger.
All around us we can see, feel, taste, hear, this great flow of the universe, the Dao. Yet we as human beings are always trying to act as if we are not part of the flow. We think we can in some way change the flow of the universe with our ego and will. How sad and silly it is to think that we spend most of our lives trying so hard to resist this flowing energy of life. We refuse to believe that life has no rhyme or rhythm to it, yet life is all about flow and rhythm. From sunrise to sunset, to waves on a sandy beach, the gentle winds that make trees dance, our hearts beating to a unknown tune, our lungs breathing, all to a rhythmic beat. All of this shows our life is full of seeing this unknown tune. One of the most profound ways to tap into this beat is through taiji. taiji helps us find the flow of life and puts us in the stream of the universe. When we do taiji everyday we find that our lives flow much better; that people and situations just happen without much effort. And through taiji when things dont go according to our plans we are not disturbed. We seem to move in the world with greater ease and a sense of balance. Others even treat us differently because we are not caught up in the madness of life. We exude a air of balance and peace that people around us.
When we study taiji we no longer feel pushed around by life, We are willing participants in the flow. We do not need to force and change every situation, realizing that we are part of the universe and the best thing to do is to not loose our balance. As stated in the Dao De Jing. The sage lets the ten thousands things raise and fall and is not moved by them This is the ideal of taiji. To let things happen without being affected by them, letting things take there natural course of action and only moving when the time is fight. When we keep our balance we can see and feel when it is time to take the right action and move in the right direction. Acting on things is part of flowing with life and the universe. Sensing when to act is as important as when not to act.
Learning To Take Blows
In taiji class we begin teaching students how to take blows by starting with a simple exercise. Standing with feet shoulder width apart, knee slightly bent, shoulders relaxed, head straight, (You should be rooted to the ground so that you can bend but not move.) we at first gently push the arms, hands, and shoulders. The arms should be limp and relaxed without any tension, so that when someone picks up your arm and lets it go it should drop like a ton of bricks. The idea is when the shoulders are being pushed the hips should flow from the pushing almost like a rag doll, letting the energy flow through you. At first it is very difficult to let your arms and shoulders relax to the point of letting them be moved by someone else. Most students either stiffen up or fall over from a simple push. But after a while you will be able to relax so that you are what we call rubber man, moving anywhere you are being pushed. As we advance we push on the legs, hips, head, stomach, neck, and other parts of the body, while we stand with our eyes closed. This is more difficult because you do not know where the strike is coming from. Then we go from slow, one pushing, to fast, many people pushing, to faster, using two hands, feet, and knees. This allows a student to feel a punch, kick, and pushes and see how to distribute the energy coming towards them.
Few students realize that in learning taiji one must learn to empty different parts of ones body; so that if you are being attacked and you get hit in the shoulder, arms etc... you give the other person nothing solid to hit. This concept works for both the physical and mental attacks everyone encounters. These exercises help students get over the fear of getting hit. After sometime practicing this, students find themselves becoming more aware of their bodies and the space around them. Seniors find they regain their balance and do not fall down as much, and those that do fall, remain relaxed and limp and rarely hurt themselves.
Art Of Letting Go
As we practice these exercises and improve our physical bodies, the energy will sink into our mental, emotional and spiritual bodies as well. As our taiji deepens we learn how to deal with the world and people in a new way. Through our taiji we can let anger, fear, doubt, frustration, impatience and other negative emotions not stick to us. We can let those things move by us without letting them become part of us. When we feel anger towards our children, friends, mates, co-workers, pets, the bus drivers, the cashier at the store, car drivers, or the million and one things we direct our anger towards, we can never solves the problem we may have with this anger. In fact the anger really hurts us more than it affects the other person, we seem to hold to our anger for hours, days, months and years. And when we get mad at things like cars, TV sets, computers, etc... we have really lost our center and gone over the edge. Slowly this anger we feel eats at us and we feel it in our body and soul; our stomach hurts, our blood pressure goes up, our whole being is ripped apart by this anger. If we could learn to use our taiji and let the anger go, we could find new ways of solving our problems and be happier people. This is also true when others are angry with us. By not letting the anger stick to you, people have a hard time staying angry at you. Again by using our taiji we can learn to disperse anger coming towards us. A simple test is the next time someone is angry with you and they express their anger just simply agree with them with an open heart. Dont argue with them or try to defend yourself or change their minds about how they feel. You will notice if you agree with them they can not hold on to their anger for very long. In taiji if you dont give someone something to push against they lose their balance on many different levels.
The first real rule in taiji is try not to have any conflict with anyone. To use our taiji to overcome the most difficult opponent, this just doesnt mean in physical way. In our world today our true fight is with ours and others emotions. In taiji we are always learning how to let go of ourselves to connect with the Dao. As our practice deepens we can see that life is a process of learning how to let go of many things and move on. As we all age we can see that everything must be let go of from homes, cars, friends, mates, children, etc... and even our bodies and minds. Taiji helps us understand and embrace this slow and wonderful process. Life will always push, shove, hit and at times knock us on our asses. The question is how will we deal with it? Can we move with grace and style and stay on our feet, or will we fall down on our faces afraid to get up again?
Ralph A. Johnson has been studying and teaching taiji, yoga and meditation for over 20 years.
Reprinted from ©Qi Journal, Summer 2002 issue