The Art of the Tai Chi Fist

illustration of tai chi practitioner

It’s similar to seeing a great dancer or gymnast. The skill required to move in such a way deserves acknowledgment from any mindful viewer. 

Tai Chi Chuan elevates the natural circular way of movement. They are a part of the body’s design, at its highest level. Senior practitioners of Tai Chi Chuan seem to move as if in a dream, like their limbs are seagrass floating in a soft tide.  

Illustration of tai chi push hands

But there is an old saying in traditional Tai Chi Chuan, that one should be as soft as cotton on the outside but hard as iron on the inside. 

This may seem contradictory, even impossible, but like many of the great bits of deep wisdom produced by the Daoist philosophy, it all comes down to balancing opposites. Cotton and iron are like yin and yang. One of the aims of traditional Tai Chi Chuan is to maximize the changing from yin to yang and back again.  

Unfortunately this key focus of the practice has been misunderstood and under utilized for several reasons. 

Martial Arts & Its Fight for Survival

Various cultural and circumstantial forces have transformed the practice of Tai Chi Chuan from a secret tradition of the Chen family to a worldwide practice embraced by millions of people at some point in their lives.

It has been the art taught to the royal guards of the Qing Dynasty and something now offered to seniors to help with balance and breathing. 

First there were the intense and dramatic changes that occurred throughout the world during the late 18th century up until today. In China, the last Dynasty fell in 1911 and thus ended thousands of years of cultural practices.

By the 1960s, people knew that during the cultural revolution, they needed to discard the “4 olds”: old ideas, old culture, old customs, old habits. They believed that they should shun and even kill anyone embracing these ways. 

This included Tai Chi Chuan and martial art teachers, some of whom were treated very badly. After all, totalitarian regimes cannot tolerate strong individuals who refuse to be intimidated into blind obedience.

The “Repackaging” of Tai Chi Chuan

This pressure from the changes happening in China led to the practice of Tai Chi Chuan being repackaged by some teachers as a simple health and fitness exercise that would help foster nationalist pride. And by doing so, not upset the communist party. 

It is here that I believe the biggest split in the practice occurred. Without the martial focus of the techniques, that side of the art was lost, ie: the iron on the inside was no longer required. Tai Chi could simply be practiced for health and aesthetic purposes. 

This way of practicing Tai Chi Chuan was also much easier to export. The strenuous aspects of training being no longer required meant people without a deep sense of commitment could take up the practice. This particularly appealed to the upper classes in both China and the west. 

The Dance of Yin & Yang

Tai Chi Chuan’s exterior fluidity appealed to the minds of many people as it seemed to resonate with the desire many people have for the transcendent. This is especially true in New Age circles. But without the hard work traditionally required the results can only ever be marginal. 

Learning tai chi at the Vancouver Dojo

I contend that the loss of the hard on the inside, internal iron, undermines the otherwise truly profound value Tai Chi Chuan can have. If Tai Chi Chuan is to be a living embodiment of the ways of life, then it will always remain unbalanced if only one aspect of the art is developed. 

The Yin can only be in balance when the Yang is also kept in balance. It’s not a competition. It’s a dance, like the sun and moon. Both absolutely need  each other to exist.

This is also how the theories of traditional Chinese medicine interpret human health. Homeostasis is built upon the correct oxygen levels, the correct internal pH levels, and many other biochemical balances. Too much is excess and too little is deficient. Neither is healthy and both can ultimately lead to poor health and even death, if untreated.  

Tai Chi Chuan at the Vancouver Dojo

This idea is fully explored in the Tai Chi Chuan training at the Vancouver Dojo. From day one, students are shown how to cultivate both their calm and fluid sense of grace in movement (yin) but also how to express certainty and clarity without hesitation (yang).

Both are equally important skills in life and Tai Chi Chuan practice. 

Traditional Weapons and QiGong

This includes the use of traditional weapons and QiGong for health/healing exercises. These two things may seem antithetical to each other but they are not.

Weapon training sharpens the mind and strengthens the muscles, QiGong practice relaxes the mind and unburdens the muscles from unnecessary tension. Weapon training helps make the body stronger so it can more deeply practice QiGong and QiGong opens one’s range of movement so they can do more dynamic martial techniques (weapon based or open-hand). 

Summary

It is always yin and yang hardness (like iron) and softness (like cotton) developed in balance that makes Tai Chi Chuan the art it was always meant to be. One that can improve the quality of life for anyone willing to take the balanced path. 

There are other, more subtle and esoteric, meanings to how the hard and soft are developed in Tai Chi Chuan. Especially with the Yang Style which is considered to be 100% soft or internal.

Stay tuned for more on this in a future post.