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Forrest Fires
Posted by ForrestGump in The DU Lounge
Mon May 25th 2009, 06:36 PM

I've studied a lot of 'external' martial arts (basically those in the Shaolin tradition, or related: Buddhist and Muslim 'kung fu') and, even now that I'm twice the age I was when I started, it's still all that sweaty jumping around that captures my imagination most. I've done a little bit of tai chi (Yang and Chen -- Chen is far more obviously 'external' in some of its moves, and you can feel the room shake when a good practitioner stomps or whatever...pictures fall off the wall) and even less of a few other 'internal' styles but my experience of how it feels comes more from the side of being thrown around by tai chi types.

My first direct encounter with tai chi was when, after a decade of being out of the country, I returned to my natal land and met my old kung fu teacher, who in the interim had delved deeply into tai chi. I was 34 at the time, much bigger and younger than him (he was of Chinese ethnicity, about 6' tall and very lean) and I'd been a serious student of martial arts for well over a decade and had not so long before spent a few years in Los Angeles training very hard in traditional arts and more eclectic fighting training. It was no contest. He wiped the floor with me and didn't even break a sweat, all the time with that supremely placid look on his face. He was an accomplished martial artist already, but (apart from some early exposure when he was young, after which he went with the flashier kung fu that better suited his temperament then) he hadn't really been training long enough in tai chi to be a real 'expert' (he DID have a great teacher, who took him in as a 'closed door' disciple and trained him intensively in tai chi as a martial art), but he utterly trashed me. And I was trying, too; I wasn't just letting myself get thrown about or ceding to my sifu out of some misplaced sense of loyalty or deference.

It freaked me out. I mean, some of what I'd learned in the interim involved more 'internal' approaches to martial arts, and I'd already done a fair bit of sensitivity training and the like so I wasn't just some hard-kicking meataxe, the proverbial unstoppable brute force, but this was the first time I'd crossed hands with a dedicated tai chi practitioner and -- just as when, years earlier, I had my nose bloodied by a black belt who for years had been a competitive boxer -- it forced a bit of a paradigm shift. Like I said, I was way larger than my erstwhile teacher -- larger than most people, really -- and I was undeniably at least somewhat skilled in martial arts and sparring, but I just couldn't touch him. Whenever I went for him, he wasn't there...except, suddenly, there he was, propelling me across the room with the most subtle of techniques and with little to no overt input of his own energy. His training hall is a very large place and - I am absolutely telling the literal truth here, with zero hyperbole -- from the center of the room he repeatedly had me actually flying across most of the room until gravity finally kicked in and I touched down just in time to stumble and trip my way into the wall at rather alarming velocity. Over and over. I just couldn't touch him, and in years before I was one of his students who, when he and I sparred, managed to sometimes come out on top or, at least, manage a few instances of trapping or land a few blows. This tai chi stuff, though, was akin to me encountering an alien life form; what's most unusual about that is that I'd for many years read a fair bit about tai chi and understood many of its concepts very well, again proving that reading about something and actually feeling it can be two rather different things. I was, to say the least, impressed.

Like I said, I later did train a little in tai chi (and two related Taoist 'internal' arts, hsing-i and the impenetrable pakua) but only as an adjunct to my more 'external' Shaolin training -- it's pretty common for kung fu instructors of legitimate lineage to have been taught some form of tai chi (perhaps even more than one) alongside the other stuff or, at least, at higher levels of their training. Learning the steps involved in tai chi forms is pretty simple if you're already an experienced martial artist who has the advantage of having established efficient relevant neural pathways, muscle memory, and (very importantly) learning how to learn. Becoming proficient at tai chi, or even mastering it, is a whole other story. As I mentioned, I still am not quite ready to go all out on tai chi -- still have this inexplicable need to force my chronologically older body to try to exceed what I suspect might be design limitations -- but I respect the hell out of it and the little bit I've done has augmented my Shaolin training in various styles. And, yes, if I take any of the styles I've trained in to a high enough level (most easily seen with Fukien white crane, but true of most other Chinese-based systems, including Okinawan karate) it'll basically converge on tai chi.

In other words, tai chi as a martial art is something that takes a long, LONG time to make useful as a fighting skillset, but when you get to that point you're all but untouchable (hand to hand, anyway, and probably with certain weapons involved). Needless to say, even many of those with the patience to try for such a level of expertise often don't have the available time to dedicate. With what people more often think of as 'kung fu' (in case you haven't already heard, the term 'kung fu' does not actually refer solely to martial arts but means 'time and effort') or karate you're likely to be able to start being proficient at defending yourself after a shorter time of dedicated training, maybe two or three years, so the immediate martial results are quicker but generally of lower level than the long and slow approach of tai chi: tortoise and hare kind of thing, really. Do both and you're set up quite nicely, if you can focus properly on each.

I started by saying that tai chi is remarkable. Although it IS remarkable as a martial system, that's not really what I was going to set out saying. What's most remarkable to me, I think, is that tai chi works on just about any level, with any degree of participation. The fact is that only a relatively few teachers are qualified to teach tai chi as a martial art, complete with weapons forms, and many parts of the US (for example) are devoid of such teachers. I think I've established that tai chi, from my own experience, is some freakily handy stuff to have in your self-defense arsenal (and, even if you're like me and only dabble in it, it adds greatly to more 'external' pursuits and generally to physical grace and wellbeing). But when tai chi is taught solely as an exercise, as it is to many millions of people, it also works phenomenally well, very much akin to yoga in the low-impact benefit as well as in maintaining and enhancing suppleness, blood flow, etc, etc, not to mention the whole 'chi' issue. It also works as a form of moving meditation. It works in many different ways, and works well, even when not taught as a martial art. It's an ideal exercise, I think, for pretty much anyone. If you want to read some really interesting information on how tai chi can help protect seniors, most notably from the slip-and-fall scenario that kills so many via hip breakage, punch Dr Tingsen Xu into Google -- I first saw him give a talk and demo at a Whole Life Expo in Atlanta back in the '90s and his message really made an impression on me.

Tai chi is still not something I'm ready to take on full-speed-ahead, for whatever reasons, but I have no hesitation in agreeing that it may well be the 'grand ultimate' martial art (an idea counterintuitive to many, especially in the West, who see tai chi only as some weird slo-mo posing) and that it is a cure-all for a plethora of ills as well as generally enhancing its practitioners' lives. One good thing about it is that, when I'm a much older Forrest, tai chi will still be something I could get into without too many aches and pains. If any of you reading this thread are thinking of giving tai chi a try, I heartily recommend you do so...you might just feel that indescribable feeling it brings on your first few times out, if you're lucky.
Discuss (2 comments)
Putting the 'mod' in 'module'
This is what a custom module looks like.

Fascinating.
Oh, look....it shows pictures, too:
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