There have been a number of times in human history when a newly created technology would forever change life thereafter. The knowledge and ability to utilize fire is one such development, the development of agriculture another, and the use of electricity can be seen as a more modern example of this kind of revolutionary leap. It's through these leaps forward in technological prowess that civilization is made possible. I tend to think it's important to also note how technology moves forward due to an ever increasing body of knowledge. For example it's not reasonable to think that the jet plane could have existed before the motor car, or the internet could have existed before the light bulb. So if modern life is the result of thousands of years of human progress then one tool stands out as a truly fundamental pillar of civilization and that is cutting blade. Archaeology claims that as early as 50,000 years ago our ancestors were using flint and obsidian blades. The incredible range of uses a sharp blade provides should be obvious and so it's no mystery why early humans would seek to develop better and better blades. Slowly over many thousands of years flint and obsidian would give way to copper, then to bronze, then to iron, and finally steel and modern alloys were developed. These developments were fundamental to our progress as a species. So much so that we name the some of the epoch's of human history after the technological level of the metallurgy being done at that time such as the Bronze Age, Iron Age etc. The advantage of a cutting blade would have been wholly revolutionary to an early humans and two main types of weapons would be created with these blades that would remain vital to humanity right up until modern times. They are the sword and the spear. Both weapons have been made in numerous styles and sizes throughout history and exist in virtually every society and civilization that has ever existed. Between the two weapons the thing makes the sword unique is that it is better suited to be an individual fighters weapon, whereas the spear is best utilized by groups of solders in rank and file. This has lead the sword to become synonymous with personal power and in the end it became an anchor in our collective unconscious as a symbol of both strength and justice. Truly no other weapon commands such an important place in both history and myth as the sword. From the legends of King Arthur's sword Excalibur to the incomparable Japanese Katana, from the Roman soldier's Gladius to the great sword Andúril in the Lord Of The Rings Trilogy. Swords are everywhere and play a fundamentally important role in both fiction and real life. This is an interesting phenomenon in that despite the glowing high place swords keep in life and ritual/symbolism the job they do is really quite gruesome. It begs the question of how a tool designed to hack people apart came to be a symbol of Justice. Originally I think it was spears that really changed our ancestors lives the most directly. A spear could allow a person to fend off an attacking wild animal and generally gave early humans a huge boost in establishing humanity at the top of the food chain. Swords really are built much more towards human on human violence. They are largely the ultimate individual weapon and as civilization grew so did the concepts of empire and conquest. This meant the idea of self defense took on a newly important role in the life of the average person. Its here that the doubled edged nature of technology presents itself. If someone was viciously attacking me with a bladed weapon then I would definitely prefer to have a similar weapon to use in my defense. If not then I would prioritize taking the attackers weapon away and using it against them if necessary to bring the attack to an end. So the sword can do great harm or it can prevent great harm from being done. But a world without the cutting blade is one where we could not have developed society very far. So this issue cannot be resolved by getting rid of blades. It's for this reason that a good martial arts school will devote some amount of time to training with blades both in the sense of how the blade is used and also how to disarm a bladed attacker. Of all the kinds of weapons that get used in assaults a bladed weapon is the most common. At this time in history such attacks are almost always one kind of knife or another. Anything from a pocket sized switch blade, to a hunting knife, or even a common kitchen knife can be a deadly weapon. However regardless of which one is being used they all must be wielded within limitations of what a human being with two arms and two legs can do with a cutting object. This means if you learn to deal with any kind of knife you will have developed a fighting chance to deal with any other bladed weapon as well. To be sure though any fight with a cutting blade is absolutely deadly serious and should be treated as such. There is an old saying in Japanese Kenjutsu/sword fighting schools that a person going into a sword fight only has a 33.3% chance of surviving. Not good odds and not something to be taken lightly. Much of martial art training is purposefully directed towards absolute worst case scenarios and this is a prime example of that. This means that standing and fighting someone with a blade is the last possible thing one should do. Get away, give them your wallet or whatever else, anything else than can be done to avoid a blade being swung towards you is priority. However that being said if there truly is no other option then one must fight such an assailant in a severe and deadly serious way in their defense. So by now we can see that cutting blades are an intrinsic part of the human world. And since people do not seem likely to stop attacking each other any time soon then it is distinctly advantageous to know how blades are used as weapons and how to defend against such attacks. This truth is exactly the kind of truth that martial arts are built upon. Seeing things as they are and working tirelessly towards the best possible result within the constraints reality presents. It's like the old head on the sand analogy, if your heads in the sand then you have no real chance of surviving a hurricane. However if you face the storm and do what you can to avoid getting killed then you at least have a chance. This is the truth of the blade. Things are as they are, so how are you going to respond, that is what matters. It is a very delicate truth. In the Aizu Clan of Japan from which the Takeda Family and the Daito Ryu comes from there is a old saying that the truth lies on the cutting edge of a blade. This makes the truth a precarious thing that must be treated with delicacy and great care just a real live blade is. If this can be understood then it can finally be understood how the blade can be seen as the perfect embodiment of the truth. Like the truth it cuts deeply and when used carelessly can do great harm but without it the world could not exist as it does. It is for this reason that the way of using a blade has been of enormous value to me. It has given me what I feel is a deep insight into life and so I am honestly grateful to have come to know the cutting blade and because of that to have gotten a glimpse of the truth it reveals. I hope you find the same for yourself someday.
Think of your opponents hands and feet as swords.
Whenever someone new comes in the Dojo it is usual to have the first part of the class focus on learning about their center. Without knowing your center it can be very difficult to know where to begin with any of the movements or breathing concepts in traditional martial arts. This center point is just a couple inches below the navel or belly button. Called the Dantien in Chinese, Hara in Japanese, and in Yogic Traditions it is known as the sacral chakra. This specific spot on the body is of supreme importance to Karate, Tai Chi Chuan, Jujutsu, Aikido, and every other traditional martial art. So why is this spot of such importance, well first it's best to establish just what all these arts and exercises are designed to achieve.
The basic premise from a purely physical standpoint is to focus on the idea of achieving the maximum potential the human body is capable of. This can be in terms of balance, overall strength and endurance, as well as feats of awareness. The pursuit of achieving the perfection of the possibilities of the body is where Yoga, Tai Chi Chuan, and Karate all begin from. It is also why the Hara/Dantien/sacral chakra is of such importance.
It sounds logical then to say that in order to achieve the highest potentials of the human body a person must develop all the movements and expressions of their body to it's maximum levels. To do that all the movements must be coordinated to work together as one powerful and fluid whole. This is why the martial artist is constantly striving to connect the turning of their ankles with the twisting of their torso and to carry the movement through into the rotation of their forearm, and finally ending with the clenching/snapping/twisting/pushing/punching of their hand. It is an old saying that to have a strong punch you need a strong leg. What connects the legs to the arms is the torso and the Hara is the center of exchange point between the two.
Throughout history there has been numerous warrior castes. The Sparta, Maori, Inca, and Norse peoples all had powerful warriors in a variety of expressions and fighting skills. Yet they all had the same basic body movements to work with. They all had to obey the limitations and dynamics of having two arms and two legs connected by a torso with a head on top. No other way is possible. This knowledge of how to properly transfer kinetic energy through the entire body via the Hara must have been known by all highly trained warriors throughout time to varying degrees. It is simply the product of seeing things as they are. You can see this when a baseball pitcher throws their pitch, or a hockey player shoots a slapshot. They have to use the torquing of their hips in perfect coordination with their arms and legs. And whether they are aware of it or not they also have to coordinate those motions through their hara.
In Karate and other traditional martial arts this observation of the Hara being the center of all powerful physical movements is only one facet of the importance of that spot. The Hara is also considered to be the center of ones qi flow and therefore the center of ones entire being.
In all traditional martial arts the idea of qi, or chi or in Sanskrit prana all refer to a kind of energy that has numerous characteristics and descriptions. The most common theme however is to call it "life force energy" as it tries to identify the very energy of life itself. A person with great qi is healthy and full of vitality while a person who's ki is low is likely ill or at risk of disease. The masters of old recognized the relationship between physical health and ki and so designed their arts to also increase a persons level of ki as it flows throughout the body. This increase of ki flow was found to also dramatically increased the power and abilities of the the person's self defense. Something anyone can come to know personally but only as a result of ones own training and effort.
The increasing of ki as it flows through the body is done by a specific kind of breathing technique. In the total scope of what's available there are dozens of various breathing techniques that all claim to increase vital energy but they all start with, and are based on, deep diaphragm breathing.
If you take your hands and connect the thumbs then align the fingers to cross over each other sort of triangle, then place yours thumbs in your belly button the spot where the fingers cross (it should be a couple inches below the navel) is your Hara. Sit or stand in a comfortable position then breathe into this spot. Focus on keeping a straight spine in whatever position your in and breathe deeply into your belly or Hara. Feel the incoming air expanding that area like a balloon while your exhalation contracts the stomach inwards with mindful and subtle flexing of the abdominal muscles. Breath in through your nose and out through the mouth allowing the tongue to rise to the roof of your mouth on the inhalation and then lower to the floor of your mouth on the exhalation. Do this while releasing all tension in the body and you will begin to cultivate ki. This kind breathing is the starting point for all physical body-mind meditations like Karate or Yoga but also the beginning point for the sitting meditations of Zen and Taoism. All the masters of these arts say to aim at breathing like this all the time.
By breathing like this a person can develop the ability to alter their state of consciousness. Past studies have shown practitioners of Zen and Yoga display an alpha wave activity during periods of meditation. A martial artist develops the alpha wave state in the practice of Kata but all are linked to breathing with the Hara. So we come full circle and see that this center point has many layers of purpose and meaning. It really is a critical concept for anyone seeking to develop themselves physically or spiritually.
By simply being aware of your center you gain a position to grasp the power of your total being and you then will have seen the goal of the martial arts practitioner. To seek for total perfection of their entire being is is an infinite path to follow as perfection cannot be achieved but only sought after. So Like the beautiful mandala art of Buddhism it all begins with the center point and spirals out to infinity suggesting that to develop a relationship with your center allows the universe to follow.
“It is a self defense exercise that can make your body strong. In the use of this exercise, there are a hundred benefits without one harm.
It is common these days to see pictures of people doing Tai Chi or Tai Chi inspired postures alongside advertisements and newsletters in various health publications. Tai Chi has been slowly entrenching itself into the alternative medicine world as a profound practice with many similarities to Yoga. It has also been receiving some attention by mainstream medicine as many of it's physical health benefits are easily documented within the requirements of scientific study. These things are great for both the world and the art itself and I hope the awareness of Tai Chi's many benefits become even more understood and accepted by society in general. However as a traditional practitioner I am also concerned that the art does not become watered down as an excuse to make it more palatable for the general public.
Tai Chi is a term that stems form China's very old and very profound system of knowledge known as Taoism. One of the basic premises of the Taoist world view is an understanding of how all phenomenon that exist, exist within a balance of polarities. There is light so there must be dark, up-down, left-right, masculine-feminine, and so on. It is understood that when you have one you by necessity must have the other.
In the case of Doaist philosophy the two core polarities are called Yin and Yang. All things are considered to be a balance between these two fundamental energies and the goal of human life is to attain a perfect balance of Yin and Yang within yourself. This idea of perfected inner balance is similar to what many people think of as enlightenment. It is in this sense that any gifted artist can attain a kind of tai chi level of skill in the context of their art. It can also mean in a more general sense that one can achieve tai chi in their own life. .
It is here that the misunderstandings often stem from. The graceful and meditative movement art practiced as Tai Chi requires the term Chuan added on to make it an accurate description of what the practice was originally developed to be.
Chuan simply means fist. Anyone familiar with martial art history or even it's movie history will be familiar with hearing about the fist, way of the fist, fists of fury, seven star fist etc. This is an obvious acknowledged of the critical importance of the clenched fist in any Martial Art.
The fist not only allows the strongest martial way of holding the hand but it also can be seen as the aligning of the elemental energies of fire and metal in the body. More than that the fist is completely unique human ability. Our great ape relatives cannot make fists. The fist truly does hold a unique and special place in our evolution. Without it we could never had made tools, tamed fire, or created anything really.
Now it was during the time of Yang Lu Ch'an (1799
I have read a number of accounts that it was after a demonstration by Yang Lu Ch'an that a well known Chinese poet first used the term Tai Chi to describe master Yang's art. Master Yang was proving that his "soft' art was a viable and effective martial art by a willingness to face any and all fighters in hand to hand combat, something he spend around ten years doing. He was never beaten, nor as accounts go even reasonably well challenged.
This is why the word Chuan is used in the title. Tai Chi can be many things but Tai Chi Chuan is specifically a martial art study. This also reflects why the deepest and most profound benefits of the art are embedded in the learning of it's martial applications. I often use the analogy that Tai Chi is like a great mansion with endless rooms and passageways. When you begin training its like being offered keys to the front door but if you don't learn the martial applications it is like living in a tent in the yard.
This idea may seem hard to understand initially but if one spends some time reflecting on what the knowledge of self defense offers it will begin to make sense. Compassion, humility, and honor are the fruits of spiritual labor and to develop them one must have confidence. A lack of self valuation is like poison to any personal progress and must be addressed if one is to gain inner clarity and know peace. In learning an effective self defense a person can literally embody the principles that will allow them to take care of themselves regardless of what may come their way. This is crucial to health both physically and mentally.The grace of the movements and the strength of the fist are simply aspects of the yin and yang. They nourish and strengthen each other. There are countless examples. Stability and core strength improve memory and mental clarity, fluid movement improves oxygenation of the blood, visualization and intention harmonizes hormonal balances, and self defense abilities calm social anxieties.