I came to T’ai Chi not as a movement person, and probably because I wasn’t. I was looking for a movement, or form, that would enliven rather than exhaust, something that would increase strength from the inside rather than drain energy. I looked to an Eastern form, since there I could find a traditional mindset that accepts the presence of the inner body as contrasted to the outer body.
T’ai Chi involves much more than the exercise form, and I am only beginning to be aware of what rat Chi is about. This that Is written down can only partially tell what rat Chi Is, after all, rat Chi Is a movement.
The legend of T’ai Chi in 12th-century China describes a sage and a Taoist monk, Chang Sen feng, called the Immortal, who watched a crane and a snake in combat and was struck by the beauty of the movement he saw. He watched a long time, and beneath the outward beauty which had entranced him, he began to see the nature of the movement as it happened. He observed, simply, that when the snake’s head moved, its tail moved: that the many separate segments of its body seemed linked when in movement. The monk, interested in the wholeness that a human may achieve, marveled at the Integration so natural to the lower animal. He felt that the human creature had developed away from this natural wholeness of movement, but that, as a creature of nature, the potential was still a part of him. He made the animals his teacher, and adapted the natural flow of their movements to the human form, and this we call T’ai Chi Ch’uan.
T’ai Chi is about aliveness; that is, movement. A dead leaf is rigid and crumbles at a touch because it is lacking movement, the fluid movement that runs through the green leaf and makes it resilient and “soft.” 2 What Chang saw in the snake and the crane was a level of aliveness – a kind of movement that had no dead parts to it, no rigid places that interrupted the movement flow.
The T’ai Chi symbol Is an image of movement, the light side moving around into the dark side, and the dark into the light. It represents a balance between two separate poles, and the moving balance that occurs as each pole changes Into its opposite. It pictures a living system. That which is alive is constantly in the process of circulation, of an exchange. The balance in the process is found in T’ai Chi as a moving center, as when the snake and crane joined as one in combat, and moved in and out of each other. To find that center acknowledges the division as well as the balance between my right side and my left side, my front and back, my up and down.
The masters of T’ai Chi define the center of movement as being in the “tan tien,” which in body geography is located approximately three inches below the navel and deep within the pelvis at that point. From here the “chi,” or life energy, begins to circulate, as if the “tan tien” were a boiling caldron from which steam rises and then falls again as it condenses. This rising and falling movement defines the circulation of the breath as well as the circulation of the “chi” through all the important centers of the psychic body, described often as an alchemical process in which a transformation, or purification, occurs. The “tan tien” is not only the seat of stimulation for the rising and falling circulations within one’s system; it is the link between those rising and falling directions that extend from inside the physical boundaries of the body into the outer environment. From this center in the pelvis, movement is directed downward into the ground through the feet, while movement is directed upward from the “tan tier.” through the crown of the head: it is the link wherein the balance between the upward and downward directions is held.
The experience of moving with the T’ai Chi Ch’uan forms is a matter of allowing movement to happen rather than creating movement through effort. (Although I feel as I teach that in the beginning as one learns the movement, effort is a valuable tool in finding effortless movement.) From the martial standpoint, T’ai Chi acknowledges a kind of strength that assumes that the more Inner movement is allowed to flow, the stronger the outer action. So that the constrictions that go with the tightened fist ready to smash an opponent’s jaw have not the force of penetration of the fingertips of an open hand. Part of this is the emphasis on external force in the use of “brute” strength, in contrast to the reliance on “inner” strength (inner movement) in T’ai Chi.
To the person who moves with Tai Chi, the “hardness” of the brute strength acts as a block that stops the flow of movement that he wishes to experience. His intent is to open up the surfaces of his body to allow the power of his inner movement to come through the surface Into the outside. Accordingly, he conceives of himself as able to extend beyond those definable outside boundaries of his flesh, or how could his inner movement travel out of him? This is an Important contrast to the man with the tightened fist who believes it can only be, and so must be, the actual surface of his flesh that crashes into the recipient of his actions. In Tai Chi one assumes that there is more depth inside and more breadth outside than the external flesh defines.
Allowing natural movement to flow from inside to outside means opening the gates that block the connecting pathways. But there is more involved in attempting to let go of “hard” (closed) strength to use more “soft” (open) strength than just letting go. There must be a strong balance of direction that must accompany the increased flow of movement. If a dam opens and there is no river bed to guide the flow of water, the water spills everywhere and the flood of movement dwindles to nothing. Movement cannot sustain itself without guidance, without being directed. If openness of space is to be a continuing experience, the direction of movement down into the ground must be strong enough to feel as though roots are growing into the earth with every step of the heel, balanced with movement directed upward that lends the feeling of supreme lightness and ease above the “tan tien.” As this is a balance, these two movement directions are interdependent. The strength of one enhances the other, the weakness of one depletes the other.
There is no waste of energy if the direction of movement is rhythmically balanced. This is even more apparent in the balance of movement directed outward and movement that is directed inward (aggressive, outward expression balanced with yielding, incoming movement). Like the circular T’ai Chi symbol, outward movement curves and returns to become inward movement. One feeds the other, and this balance maintains the strength of the system without losing energy. The loss’ of movement, or of the strength of movement, appears to come when the organism is not sensitive to the time for change, the time of return of movement to its opposite. If one constantly directs his movement outward, the energy will soon be depleted, unless the balance of bringing energy into the system is made. Likewise, movement becomes stagnant if it only is incoming and not recycled in outward expression.
When you watch T’ai Chi you see a flowing movement that doesn’t really stop, one “form” becomes the next, an aggressive form becoming a yielding one, and everything moving in circles and curves. It is vital to be aware that though natural movement that moves on a plane with this round earth – is going to be round, direction is not round. In channeling the flood of movement available, you “seek the straight line from the curve”.3 You give direction to natural movement.
When direction (the singleness of the straight line) Is weak, the movement, like water, spills in other places and dissipates. The more fragmented our attention, the more places the movement wanders to. To do T’ai Chi is to draw on all our faculties, to allow every part of our system to be focused as one whole to the direction of our action. Then we act with completeness, we are ‘all there’. Essentially, T’ai Chi is the uniting of the duality of mind and body; direction is letting the intent of the mind be in the body.
The search for ‘wholeness of self’ is a popular priority now. People come to T’ai Chi, and other disciplines, looking for internal unity, and find what Chang in the twelfth century said was so, that you can’t be whole unless you are divided. That snake he watched didn’t move with wholeness because there was one whole length of bone inside him but because there were many segments in that long body, and those separate pieces were connected. They were connected with movement. “The superior man must be able to both separate and unite.”4 It does little good for the wholeness of my movement if my foot and lower leg are fused together; it is with their separation that the movement joins their functioning as one. Discrimination of movement is a part of the awareness of the body-man as a whole. Like untangling knotted silk, the threads must be sorted apart before they can be wound together in the same direction into the skeins.5
T’ai Chi is called a form of meditation, and as such is a way of being that can be expressed in a way of behaving. T’ai Chi sees the more natural direction of the human as being open, able to feel acutely, pliable, and what we may tend to call vulnerable. This vulnerable human is the one whose force is most penetrating. His protection is his resilience. That person directs himself to find the rhythm of what is inside and what is outside, of breathing, the interplay of emptiness and fullness, of giving and receiving; to see the essence of movement within the self as part of a larger movement outside that self.
1. Ch’uan translated means “fist”, or physical manifestation of the Great Primal movement, T’ai Chi.
2. The Chinese expression “yau” is translated into English as “soft”, which is a little misleading. “yau” has two meanings. One is represented by the softness of cotton wool. The other means the suppleness of a coiled spring, which yields to pressure only to recoil again.
3. Wu Yu- Seong Manuals, Elucidation of the Thirteen Kinetic Movements. Wu Yu Seong was a master around 1800 who noted, “Circularity must embody squareness before an issuing force can be produced.”
4. Notes by Richard Wilhelm, Hexagram 3. Difficulty at the Beginning, I Chlng, or Book of Changes. Princeton Universtiy Press. 1967.
5. Ibid.T’ai Chi