Taijiquan – Intelligence in Motion
by Arno Matthias
Students of Wu Taijiquan begin by learning the ‘Slow Form’. Although made up of a sequence of martial arts movements, Sifu Ma Jiangbao insists that one should not think about the applications while running the Form (we do pushhands to learn applications). On the other hand, since all the movements have been tried and tested in combat over hundreds of years, they have been shaped by the laws of physics and physiology.
During training one can experience some of these universal laws and become conscious of them and carry these insights over into everyday life. A few examples are discussed in this article.
You decide how hard things will be for you
In Xu Bu, as long as the knees stay parallel to the hips, my stance is correct – how low I stand (how much I bend my back knee), in other words: how arduous the exercise is, is entirely up to me. The same holds for the speed of my progress: how much time do I allow myself to learn a certain movement/sequence/form and how good do I want to be? Do I also want to learn the names of the movements, in English and/or Chinese? Do I want to study the history and/or cultural and philosophical foundations of Taijiquan? How does it make me feel when the teacher corrects me? And so on. The decision, how much you take in of the stress that is “offered” you each and every day, is yours. It is advantageous for your health to accept this fact; deny it at your own peril.
Doing more than is necessary is the most common mistake when running the Form. For example, after completion of Yu Bei Shi (‚Preparation‘, the first movement of the Form) students often not only hold their hands horizontally, but raise their shoulders or pull their elbows back or to the side. When only a turn of the waist is called for, students also move their arms (e.g. Lan Que Wei = ‘outline the sparrow’s tail‘, etc.). At home and at work (e.g. when driving a car, using a computer) we frown, raise our shoulders, grit our teeth and so forth. All of this is extra work that is not only unnecessary but can even be harmful.
Too much of a good thing
Standing really low, in Xu Bu (‚Empty step‘) for example, is good, but not so low that the knees are no longer above the foot. In some positions we have to make a fist – but not clench it. In some movements (e.g. Bai He Liang Chi = ‚The white crane spreads its wings‘ ) we have to turn the waist – but not to the point of twisting the knees. While driving a car we will sometimes catch ourselves pushing the brakes really hard – although the car is no longer moving, or clenching the steering wheel far more than necessary. More abstract examples of the same idea are over-protective parents, or the extra lump of sugar that spoils the tea (and the waistline). During sparring (push hands) the partner will immediately take advantage of this mistake, for „vis consili expers mole ruit sua“ (Horace: usually translated as „Force without wisdom falls of its own weight.“)
Showing respect for gravity
How easily do we forget that gravity is pulling at us every second of our lives, and always in the same direction (i.e. down). To avoid damage to bones, muscles and nerves we should at all times keep our centre of gravity within our „bearing area“ (if one is standing, this is the area between the feet). Every single movement or position of the Form could serve as an example, but it is especially important to hold the head right. The head is supported at a point behind its own centre of gravity, which is bad enough as it is, and it is therefore essential never to stick out the chin or tilt the head back even slightly!
Respect for gravity can and should of course be extended to all the immutable laws that govern us. A lot of grief is generated by fighting the unwinnable fight, by hoping, wishing, condemning, regretting. William Faulkner defined intelligence as „the ability to accept the environment“. The same idea was expressed by Cicero: „Legum servi sumus, ut liberi esse possimus“ („We have to be slaves of the laws so that we can be free“) and also by Mr. Scott from Star Trek: „You cannae change the laws of physics.“
Optimal alignment of the bone structure
Quite often not falling over (i.e. balancing your own weight) is not your only task. When gardening, trying to open a heavy door, or lifting heavy things or doing other work we should always make use of the hardness of our bones. When you do Lou Xi Ao Bu (‚Brush knee‘), Dao Nian Hou (‚Step back and repulse monkey‘) and other movements correctly, you extend your body between the floor (back foot) and the imaginary opponent (front hand) so that all the involved joints are perfectly aligned. This enables you to make use of all the muscles along the way (especially the knee extensors: the powerful muscles that stretch the leg) and to channel their power towards the point of impact. Carry loads as close as possible to your body. If you bend down to pick up something small, bend one knee and rest your weight on it. A good model for this principle is a folding rule: if you wanted to poke someone with it, all its joints had to be in line. Dan Bian (‚Single whip‘) is only one example that, in the Form, hands and feet are connected at all times. In the position at the end of Ti Shou Shang Shi (‚Raise the hand and step up‘, just before Bai He Liang Chi) there is only one correct position for the upper hand. You can find the right place by having a partner push heavily down on your hand: the smallest deviation up or down, left or right, back or forth will result in a collapse of the posture’s structure. If you feel that you are standing under the pressure with your whole body (and not just your feeble arm or torso muscles) you have found it.
Only those forces that are active at the same time, add up. If you want to push someone but do it by first stretching the back leg, then turning the body, then stretching the arm, only this last force (of the weak triceps) will reach the opponent and have an effect. A collaboration and hence addition of forces can only be obtained with the correct timing: hands start, the torso joins in, the legs join in and, most important, they all finish together. In the Form no part of the body moves in isolation, there are only whole-body movements, or, since the movements are planned and supervised by the mind, whole-person movements.
In realistic self-defence, where the attacker has chosen me as a victim because he is stronger, all my single forces may be too weak: my muscles alone, my voice alone, my stamina, courage, technique, wit, knowledge, willpower alone will not save me; only if I can ‚ignite‘ them all at the same time can I scare him away.
Do the right thing
In Japan the term ma-ai, meaning harmonious or „right“ distance, is very important in all social affairs. In Karate it denotes the distance between the two sparring partners/opponents. In the Form, the first turn to the right (between Tai Ji Qi Shi = ‘begin form‘ and Lan Que Wei) as well as the first 90º turn to the left (Lou Xi Ao Bu) teaches us to extend the front arm not by moving the hand away from the shoulder but vice versa. No matter how strong or unbudging my counterpart is, I can always adjust ma-ai by moving myself.
An example from self-defence: The attacker grabs my wrists from behind. I take a step back until my arms are at my sides. My opponent, even if he is much stronger than me, cannot prevent this, whereas I wouldn’t be able to pull him nearer to me. Now I can lean my body-weight on his hands (not only respecting gravity, but using it) by going down on my knees (keeping the arms straight!) and he has to let go. Another example from Ju Jutsu self-defence: The attacker, standing in front of me, grabs my arm with both hands. I leave the grip as it is, walk around it and apply an elbow or head lock or any other counterattack.
More generally, one could say that you should not limit yourself to reacting to the actions of others but that you can and should do the right thing. This idea was made famous by Gandhi, who fought *for* the freedom of India, never *against* the British occupation (he called it „satyagraha“ – the power of truth). It is very important to understand this distinction.
Keep on keeping on
Tai Chi is beneficial only when you do it, not when you know how to do it. Many students, being typical Europeans, come to class wishing „to learn Taijiquan“. Fortunately, the slow form has the wisdom to be so complicated and full of detail that one lifetime is not enough to „learn it“. If there was a wonder pill that could make you know every movement of every form of every style, you would gain nothing – you would still have to get up and do it. The term Gong Fu (formerly known as Kung Fu), which translates as „work over time“, is often used to express the same idea Virgil wrote down more than 2000 years ago: „labor vincit omnia improbus“ – effort overcomes every difficulty.