Monday, July 9, 2012

Tai Chi is for Fighting, Not Just Stretching

You’ve probably heard about the health benefits of tai chi, yoga and other Eastern forms of meditation. No doubt somebody you know has a special mat in their living room or takes a class every week. But what is it about these exercises that make them good for us? Were they all meant to make us healthy, or do some have other origins? This week I will be exploring several popular “New Age” forms of alternative medicine from the East.

When I say the words “tai chi,” what do you think of? You likely imagine people in loose clothes waving their arms slowly through the air like an interpretive dance. What if I told you that some of the best (and most lethal) martial artists on the planet practice tai chi?

Does this guy look like he's into tai chi "because it's relaxing?"
Balance, Philosophy, and Self-Defense

The coolest part of martial arts is the stories. The history of tai chi is unknown, but each of the oldest schools (there are four) have their own version. One involves a Shaolin monk named Chang San Feng in 1200 AD watching a snake fight a Magpie. Although the Magpie was faster and had the advantage of flight, the snake won. Chang observed how the snake made up for its lack of speed by being able to twist faster that the Magpie could fly. He later adapted this into a system of martial arts, now known as the revered Chang family tai chi – the oldest of the four schools.

The philosophy of T’ai Chi Chiuan (“Grand Ultimate Fist”) requires a balance of two forces: receptive and active. Think of “active” force as a push and “receptive” force as a pull. The philosophy explains how these complementary forces guide all of nature. The tides roll in and out, daylight extinguishes moonlight, hot and cold fronts create life-giving rain, and so on.

This symbolizes the balance of the two universal forces, NOT good and evil
In the same way, if someone is exhibiting “active” force upon you, (trying to push or strike you,) meeting that threat with more force would be destructive. Imagine punching someone’s fist as they try to punch you. You both walk away feeling stupid with broken fingers.

Instead, tai chi teaches us to meet hard with soft, to re-direct force instead of meeting it head on. A quick sweep of the arm can push a punch off-course, a side-step could make the attack miss entirely, or a step backwards can cut the power in half. In all cases, non-violent action either reduces or nullifies the force of the assault – receptive force counteracts active force.

Breathing Deeply and Other Cool Things

Tai chi is often confused with another Chinese practice called qigong. Qigong (Qi = Life Energy, Gong = Mastery) focuses on meditation, breathing and slow movements to strengthen and stretch the muscles, promoting whole-body health.

But it’s not just for health – mastering one’s qi is critical for becoming a powerful master of the martial arts. For instance, one of the deadlier types of qi strikes involves pushing one’s life force into an opponent and then making it explode. Obviously this is a little dramatic and serves mostly as metaphor. A punch from a martial artist differs from the average person because the former has specialized training. The force of the punch, instead of spreading over a wide area, is focused through just one or two knuckles, causing far more damage. Instead of an explosion from within, the forceful punch can push deeper into the body, causing skeletal or organ damage.

I told you this stuff was cool!

Qigong, in and of itself, does not teach fighting at all. But practitioners of tai chi still use qigong as a way to hone their own life force. As a result, qigong has distinct health benefits. Research studies suggest that qigong can reduce chronic pain from fibromyalgia, lower blood pressure and promote longer/deeper sleep. Although it is not a cure-all, (if you have an infection, antibiotics work a lot better than stretching,) the health benefits are being recognized by the medical community.

Where the YMCA Got It Wrong

Tai chi includes all of the elements of qigong, but the movements of tai chi are symbolic of self-defense. The Yin form of tai chi practices these movements slowly as exercise. But when put into danger, practitioners of tai chi are meant to use what they have learned to defend themselves at full speed. This active defense, the Yang form, often goes un-taught in America, so most of us think of tai chi as a slow dance instead of a martial art.

Probably not a martial artist. Notice the difference in dress.

Think of Daniel-san from The Karate Kid, or Xiao Dre from the 2010 re-make of The Karate Kid. Doing an action over and over again (waxing a deck or hanging up a jacket, respectively) trains the body to move instinctively. So instead of a slow, flowery motion, in an actual fight, the symbolic stance is replaced with actual fighting.

Yeah, yeah, I get it – technically these movies demonstrate kung fu, not tai chi. But there aren’t many mainstream tai chi movies to choose from, okay?

(Copyright: Sony Pictures. Come on guys, I'm a poor college student - no need for a lawsuit.)

Practicing tai chi without knowing what the stances represent only gives half the lesson. The Yin form without the Yang form is meaningless and goes against the central tenant of balance. So the next time you see a group of loose-dressed people waving their arms around in a park, don’t think of them as dancing – think of them as training to be warriors…

Warriors in yoga pants.

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