Did you know thatT’ai-Chi Ch’uan translates as The Ultimate and Supreme Form of Boxing? A bit of a surprise to some – and this makes it clear that T’ai-Chi is a martial art. Most might think it is solely a meditation technique and a healing system, which it is, as is Qigong. Pronounced ‘Chi Kung’ and meaning ‘energy work’ Qigong is prescribed in hospitals in China for many different conditions. Both T’ai-Chi and Qigong are gentle yet powerful forms of exercise encompassing martial art, healing and meditation with a long history of practice in China.
In both forms the movements are slow and soft. This makes them appear very easy to learn. Moving slowly does not necessarily mean ‘easy’. In fact T’ai-Chi is known to be difficult to grasp and requires commitment and perseverance to master. Qigong is much more accessible and I advise people new to these forms to taste Qigong first.
The ease and softness that is apparent when watching either discipline arises from a focused attention to the posture, breath and relaxation. Relaxation is crucial to understanding these forms. As most of us spend years learning (often unconsciously) to be tense, allowing ourselves to relax and slow down can take time to feel and understand.
The relaxation inherent in these movement philosophies restores our natural self-healing systems that can be suppressed through years of a common tendency to worry and fret. These habits can manifest in conditions that threaten our well-being: high blood pressure, insomnia, digestive problems and even more serious conditions to name few. The practice of Qigong and T’ai-Chi helps to boost the immune system and weaken the habits that cause harmful conditions. The standing posture of both gradually strengthens the legs and back, reduces blood pressure, helps with digestive conditions and generally improves physical and mental health.
The T’ai-Chi Ch’uan form I study and teach is The Yang Style Short Form and its lineage is from the Chinese T’ai-Chi master, Cheng Man Ching. Its flowing soft moves appear easy to learn, but beware! It challenges new students through its detailed scrutiny of how we move, the use of space and our posture. Many start, few continue, yet it is incredibly rewarding to those who do persevere.
As for being a martial art this can conjure images of Kung Fu kicks, punches and pushes to the mind. The soft flowing qualities of T’ai-Chi bear no resemblance to this type of fighting. It is a much subtler process. Part of understanding this is the acknowledgement that we are each our own worst enemy. The unfolding self-awareness that arises through practice allows us to develop confidence and stability as well as benefiting our health and spirits. All T’ai-Chi postures have practical applications in face-to-face attack situations, but happily most people do not meet this type of difficulty in their lives. It is the more cunning attacks (the look, the words used, the tone of voice or action, how we hear or perceive situations etc) that can wear us down. The ability to remain soft, rooted and open-hearted whilst being challenged by our own negative thinking as well as other’s behaviour or opinions is part of the self-defence gift of T’ai-Chi. Gradually through practice our innate compassion and wisdom unfold, for ourselves and also for others, and we are able to meet tricky situations with equanimity. We are able to remain mindful and to stay soft and relaxed with never having to resort to physical or vocal wrestling.
Qigong is a more accessible movement philosophy, its postures range from simply standing still to complicated sequences that bear a similarity to T’ai-Chi forms. One big difference between these two practices is that T’ai-Chi is practised upright whereas Qigong, as it is a specific healing system, uses the spine more in bends, stretches and spirals. The quality of the movements are very varied too. In T’ai-Chi there is a continuous flow whereas Qigong has a whole range of different rhythms and energies including rapid Qi-scattering movements, jumps, shakes, stretches, swings and massages. It can be practiced seated as well as standing – so wheelchair users can participate, and though sometimes referred to as Chinese Yoga, there is generally no floor work. Even a few minutes of practise each day can have an invigorating and rejuvenating effect strengthening the whole body and its internal systems (nervous, digestive, respiratory, skeleto-muscular, hormonal, gynaecological, etc). Its ability to help in healing a large variety of chronic and acute conditions is part of continuing research programmes in Chinese medical institutions.
A key point in both practices is relaxation and returning to the natural abdominal breath, both of which allow Qi to flow. This is the movement of Yin and Yang.When we are tense we block this flow and become overly Yang (hard or tense), when we are uncertain and unfocused or exhausted, we can become too Yin (soft or collapsed).
Yinis the soft and weak and refers to our qualities of flexibility, adaptability and heart-connected kindness. Yangis the hard and strong and refers to all that is strong and solid in our bodies and nature: our bones for example, and our innate confidence and power. This familiar Yin/Yang symbol illustrates perfectly a continuous fish-like swimming from one to the other with a seed of one existing in the other.
Our tendency is to be in a Yang, tense, state most of the time. And Yin will assert itself when we collapse exhausted or become ill and have to lie down. Raising our awareness of Yin, soft and at ease, through the practice of T’ai-Chi and Qigong has many benefits not least inrtial art or self defence aspect of the practice. This allows us to protect ourselves as the practitioner deepens their understanding of how we relate to one another on a daily basis. Part of understanding self defence is the acknowledgement that we are each our own worst enemy. The unfolding self-awareness that arises through practice allows us to develop confidence and stability as well as benefiting our health and spirits. All T’ai-Chi postures have practical applications in face-to-face attack situations, but happily most people do not meet this type of difficulty in their lives. It is the more subtle attacks (the look, the words used, the tone of voice or action, how we hear or perceive situations etc) that can wear us down. The ability to remain soft, rooted and open-hearted whilst being challenged by our own negative thinking as well as other’s behaviour or opinions is part of the self-defence gift of T’ai-Chi. Ultimately through the practice our compassion and wisdom unfold, for ourselves and also for others.
And have you ever wondered how it is that T’ai-Chi classes take place in church halls and health centres across the country? Its wide accessibility is due to a remarkable woman called Gerda Geddes who in 1964,was the first to teach it in the UK. If a man had brought T’ai-Chi to Europe then it would most probably now be a minor martial art practised by very few.
T’ai-Chi had traditionally been practised by men and was handed down from generation to generation in closed family systems. It was most definitely not accessible to a European woman living in China. But Geddes managed to do the unimaginable, she persuaded a T’ai-Chi master to take her on as his private student when living in Hong Kong in the 1950s. As a woman being taught by a man physical contact was taboo, it was not appropriate to wrestle with her male teacher to learn the martial applications of the form. What she brought to us was the gentle flowing form and its inner meanings. Geddes opened the door to the understanding of the depths of the psychology of the form embracing physical and mental health, self-defence and as a spiritual path. Geddes’ training as a contemporary dancer and a psychotherapist had already opened her mind to how the body and mind work as one and are not separate entities living in the same skin.
In her book, Looking For The Golden Needle, An Allegorical JourneyGerda Geddes talks about ‘playing the T’ai-chi’. My T’ai-Chi teacher said that the most important aspect of T’ai-Chi is the twinkle in the eye. ‘Twinkle’ and ‘play’ embody the essence of T’ai-Chi and Qigong: physical practices that are soft, gentle and flowing yet offering strength and power in deep ways that are never immediately obvious.
They are both called ‘long-life’ exercises. Dr Hu, my Wild Goose Chinese Medical Qigong teacher , was taught by who died in 2002 aged 106. She was still teaching at 102.
When are you going to start practising? As a means of support T’ai-Chi & Qigong beat any pension fund!
In T’ai-Chi the philosophy of the soft and weak overcoming the strong and hard is the martial art. For people who have spent a life time attempting to be hard and strong this can be shocking. But consider an old tree being uprooted in a storm whilst a sapling bends and stays alive with its roots intact. Or which lasts longer, your tongue or your teeth? Becoming soft and yin win when our habit might lead us to be yang and hard takes courage and practice.
Some Qigong movements are very gentle, others more vigorous. Some are very large and expansive, others are more subtle, almost imperceptible. All are different and have a very specific effect on the body and mind. The deeper the practise, the more Qigong the practitioner understands the purpose and depth of each movement, making its repetition ever more enjoyable.
The regular practise of Qigong and T’ai-Chi have a powerful effect on mind, body and spirit. Benefits include increased general health and well being, reduced levels of stress and a brighter and more balanced outlook on the possibilities in our life.
The deeper more natural way of breathing in Qigong and T’ai-Chi allows the mind to steady, a very simple meditation technique. It is this meditation that cultivates a calm mind and a relaxed everyday awareness. This enables the practitioner to be awake and attentive to living life in the present whilst releasing the mind of constant worry, planning and gnawing fears. Gradually the mind will become calmer and a self-confidence to grow.