T’ai-Chi Ch’uan, which can be translated as ‘The Ultimate, Supreme form of Boxing’, is a physical philosophy encompassing healing, meditation and self-defence.
The movements of T’ai-Chi are practised slowly with attention to the posture, breath, balance and ease. The body softens by releasing tension in the muscles and joints. This helps restore the natural self-healing systems that are often suppressed by stiffness and tightness that can build up through long-term mental and physical habits. Regular practice boosts the immune system, improves physical strength especially in the legs and back, and can help to reduce blood pressure.
T’ai-Chi is one of the more subtle of the martial arts. The fighting form is based on the soft and weak overcoming the strong and hard. T’ai-Chi masters refer to the teeth that may battle with the tongue but over years they crumble and yet the tongue remains flexible and whole. Or – which lasts longer, the tongue or the teeth? Using fluid and circular movements a direct attack is absorbed and deflected. Movement is met with stillness, hardness with softness and strength with weakness. Ultimately, T’ai-Chi is an investment in loss. And the more that is invested in loss the more the opposite arises.
How does this investment in loss work in practice? Often our lives have led us to become hard in the battle that is daily survival. T’ai-Chi teaches us to do the opposite and become soft and weak and through this reconnect with our inherent power and inner strength. The posture is that of a child, flexible and yielding. The mind is that of the mature adult, wise and patient. For beginners the initial experience of T’ai-Chi can be like shedding a suit of armour. It may feel protective, but it is also hard and restricting. Its practice gradually dissolves long-term habits of the mental and physical barriers that prevent living with ease and happiness. T’ai-Chi teaches a profound and simple way of being that is open and generous yet is also grounded and powerful. T’ai-Chi gives the practitioner a way to be warm and open and at the same time be confident in situations which previously would have been challenging or disempowering.
Investing in loss is based on releasing tension in the body, to keeping the breath moving all the time (are you holding your breath as you read this?), to yielding mentally to situations and to others around us. This opens us to listening to the inner voice and to trust the wisdom of the body.
T’ai-Chi is a moving meditation. Its practice cultivates a calm and clear mind that helps the practitioner to live life in the present and let go of worry and fears. Over time with regular practice the mind becomes more stable and peaceful.
T’ai-Chi is a generic name for many different streams of work. Its study has many types of practices, the most well known being ‘The Form’. The beginner usually learns a short form that can take from thirty weeks to two years to learn. The form I mainly study and teach is The Yang Style Short Form and this has descended through the lineage headed originally by the Chinese T’ai-Chi master, Cheng Man-Ch’ing.
The form is made up of different postures, each one having a martial art application. Together they become a slow and beautiful dance, a moving meditation. When I practice each morning, in my garden if the weather is clement, I am aware of having a treasure trove of knowledge available to me. Each day the form enables me to balance and focus afresh. As well as the traditional short form I teach a short, short form that can be learnt during the one-week retreats I facilitate on Holy Island. For more experienced practitioners there are longer forms which deepen the practice further.
The first three postures of the short form contain the heart of the philosophy of T’ai-Chi. The form does not start at the obvious place – the beginning. It starts before the beginning, in a posture called ‘Attention’. This is a place where the practitioner brings the mind to internal and external awareness. Attention is given to the breath, balance and relaxation. Attention calms the mind and balances the body. In this posture we become poised and mindful.
The second posture before the beginning is called ‘Preparation’ – or: “being mindful of what is needed in order to tackle the task before me”, a view that can be applied to all daily activities. This posture has the first step of the form, but this is not a forward or backwards step. It is to the side. This lateral move is a yield to an attack or simply getting out of the way.
The third posture finally brings us to ‘The Beginning’. When we meet an obstacle, experience pain or anything that causes discomfort our tendency is to push against it or run away. The Beginning posture offers a sublime alternative, a backward circle. The arms in this posture make a circle backwards towards the body while the mind visualises bringing the attack closer. Thus we get to know the attack that can then be deflected or dissolved. The backward circle contains the essence of the martial art aspect of T’ai-Chi.
Ultimately T’ai-Chi works with the mind. The ultimate practice of T’ai-Chi states that first blow never arises as the experienced practitioner anticipates and deflects it before the opponent has time to even begin the attack. The mind catches the opponent’s intention before the attack starts.
The practitioner can use T’ai-Chi purely for physical health and relaxation. T’ai-Chi is like ‘waterless swimming’ as the practitioner appears to be flowing weightlessly through the air. This manner of movement requires a lot of strength and control in the lower legs and abdomen, a strength that gradually builds with regular practice. The movements of the arms help to improve breathing. A deeper slower breath aids good health as well as instantly calming the mind. T’ai Chi is excellent for strengthening the back. The spine is very important in its practice and is referred to as ‘string of pearls’. The string of pearls is imagined as starting slightly above the top of the head and hanging freely down to the base of the spine. This helps to loosen and strengthen the back. The upper chest is softened and hollows into the body and the stomach relaxes and moves with the breath thus massaging the internal organs helping to resolve any digestive conditions. T’ai-Chi is very helpful in improving balance. This is particularly useful for the older student who might have lost confidence in their bodies over the years. The softening of the belly, shoulders and jaw gradually lower the centre of gravity and over weeks the student will gradually regain stability and balance. Several NHS hospitals now use T’ai-Chi to help patients recover from heart attacks when their balance and co-ordination have been impaired. Overall stamina grows as general health improves and students have often reported that they breathe and sleep far better than before T’ai-Chi became a part of daily life.
The philosophy, study and regular practice of T’ai-Chi can help a student to live happily and healthily. T’ai-Chi has been one of the most wonderful gifts I have had in my life over the past years. My journey to T’ai-Chi came through an injury sustained during my professional dancing career. I knew absolutely nothing about it except that it was slow and that this was what I needed in order to heal and maintain movement. The first few classes were shocking and enlightening. My interest was caught. Since that time in 1986 I have continued study and practice building on those first few enlightening weeks. The benefits of T’ai-Chi affect every aspect of my life on a daily basis.