martial arts

Tai Chi by Jorge Bañales

This summer I interviewed my dad about his Tai Chi practice.

When did you start doing Tai Chi?

I was doing Tai Chi long before I knew about Tai Chi.

Since I was a teenager, I was interested in what we may call “martial arts,” and over the years I dabbled, without much consistency, in karate, judo and aikido. I never stayed in one city or with one style long enough to presume that I reached any level of proficiency. There were family obligations, work, and repeated migrations that prevented me to stick regularly with an instructor or practice.

But there was something that did stick with me: an appreciation for the basic training, the kata, movements that are repeated again and again and again.

No martial practice is “better” than any other and, across all styles and traditions, one thing is common to all of them: self-discipline and practice.

The repetition of movements has a purpose: to find the most efficient use of our own body, the resources of our muscles, bones, joints, weight, breathing and energy. And, although in the context of fight –be it for competition or the rare occasions when it is necessary to fight for real- the expected result is speed. The body learns and muscles build movement memory by slow, deliberate, watchful repetition, and the body will react without thinking if the situation demands it.

In proper kata the mind is focused and alert, the movements teach us how our body is constructed and the mechanism is best employed, the breathing is paced in a cycle of gathering energy and applying it.

The “when” of your question can be answered in different ways. A specific date, or how many years ago, or how old was I when I took on Tai Chi first.

I remember attending my first Tai Chi practices in 1991, which is almost a quarter of a century ago. Classes were led by a Vietnamese woman at a Fairfax Country (Virginia) recreation park.

At the time I had been practicing aikido, and although I truly enjoyed and liked it, it was a bit taxing on my knees. I was 41 years old, and the inevitable injuries that come with any martial practice, were taking more time to heal. The falling and rolling, which are so crucial in aikido, were a bit too much for my knees.

Tai Chi was the place where I had been walking to for so long.

I continued taking classes here and there until 1995, when I met Binh Dang, a Vietnamese-born Chinese instructor who, at the time, had his school in Fairfax Country.

Traditionally, Chinese martial arts instructors are called Sifu, and sifu Binh taught in a traditional way: little talk, sparse explanation and the student must observe and repeat. Observe the movement the instructor does, and repeat, and repeat.

Why did you start doing it?

Why is one of the two bottomless questions that have kept philosophers in business for a long time.

As I mentioned before, I found in Tai Chi a way to explore my interest in movement, the efficient use of our body’s structure and function, the appropriate application of force and the balance of relaxation.

But every “why” leads to another why. Why is this appealing to me? Why do I keep doing Tai Chi?

Little children become fascinated when they start asking why. Because any answer that you give to a child will give her the chance to ask another why, to be followed by another why. I don’t think children do this to annoy adults. I think they are realizing the mystery of it all.

Why a boy starts doing music? And why a grown up and ageing musician keeps doing music? Other than saying: because he likes music, he is music, there is no more response that you can provide.

When did you decide or first thought about becoming a master or instructor?

It was sifu Binh who first mentioned to me the possibility to become an instructor.

In 1998 I found another school, the Eastern Internal Arts Institute, in Fairfax City, led by sifu Jenny Lamb, a graduate of the Beijing Sports University. EIAI provided instruction in different areas: kung fu, Tai Chi, meditation, Chinese medicine, philosophy, Qi Gong.

Some students asked sifu Lamb to organize an instruction training program, which she developed and for the next two years we had an average 13 hours of class per week. The curriculum was impressive: martial practices, different ways of meditation, Qi Gong, herbal medicine, massage, various styles and weapons and most important of all, not just learning Tai Chi, but learning to teach Tai Chi, which is a different approach.

Five of Lamb’s students graduated in 2000, and by then I was already leading classes in her school. Since then I’ve led classes in Northern Virginia, in hospitals, recreation parks, studios, and for a while I volunteered to work at a veteran’s hospital in the District of Columbia with wounded soldiers returning from war. I’ve been leading classes in DelRay, Alexandria, since 2007, and recently I started another group class in Occoquan.

How long did it take for you to achieve instructor level?

The EIAI instructor training program lasted two years. In the last six months, I started as an assistant instructor teaching new students that later moved on to advanced classes with sifu Lamb.

In Tai Chi there is no competition, or I should rather say that competition is a controversial issue. There are local, national and even international competitions.

But in essential Tai Chi you are not intent to be better than anyone else. You work to be the better yourself. You are working with the only natural resource that is solely yours: your body, your mind, your energy.

There are no belt colors to be earned, although schools who focus on competition will give colored belts to mark “levels.”

And Tai Chi is not dogmatic. There is nothing wrong with competition, but it is not the Tai Chi that I practice or that I try to teach.

All this to say that you never “achieve a level.” You keep practicing and learning all your life. As an instructor all I can do is to show others the path that I walked before them as we all walk together knowing there is so much more to learn.

What is the growth process in Tai Chi? From beginner, to mid-level, to expert. Once one knows all the movements, how does one keep improving?

Titles are also a matter of debate in Tai Chi. I rather don’t use terms as “master,” or “teacher,” or “expert.” How can I, or anyone else, be a “master” when there is much more to master?

There are some basic stands and movements, common to the many styles of Tai Chi, a practice that has been developing in China for centuries.

These are learned by repetition –yes, I know I have repeated repetitions many times, but then there is this Chinese saying that “you do something one thousand times and then you are ready to learn it.”

Once a few movements are learned they are practiced in a pre-ordained sequence called “form.” And there are at least five major styles of Tai Chi, each one of them with tens of sequences. The style I practice is called Yang.

Of all those styles and sequences there is one that has become standard all around the world. It was designed by the Chinese government in the mid-1950s in order to train millions of people in exercises with health purposes. It is know now as the Yang Style “Short Form,” the “24 Movement Form,” or the “Beijing Form.”

I like to tell my students that a benefit from learning this form is that, anywhere they go in the world, even if they do not know the language of the place where they are, if they see a group of people doing Tai Chi, they can be sure they can join: everyone has learned the Short Form.

A beginner is someone who has never done any Tai Chi. In my practice I consider a beginner a person who practices until is able to do on his own the Short Form. Then comes the time for options: they may choose to start the Short Form all over again this time paying attention to details, focusing more in meditation, breathing, flowing movements. Or they can choose to learn a different form, with longer sequences or using some of the weapons in the Tai Chi practice.

From them on, I call them “advanced” students just in order to organize my classes. One hour for beginners, one hour for advanced. But it is not a rigid segregation, and nobody is better than anybody else.

Many times, I have “beginners” and “advanced” practicing together. Newbies learn by watching others doing the movements, and advanced learn even more by observing how the newcomers find their way through the basic movements.

Growth in Tai Chi never ends. When a person first start doing Tai Chi, she may be very focused on the movements, trying to figure out where this hand goes, how that feet is placed, and oh remember breathing, and damn the movements are jerky. Gradually, motions become fluid and integrate with each other, pretty much the way when we are learning to drive every detail is stressful but soon we are multitasking.

The Chinese term for it is Wu Wei, and the meaning can be translated as doing without doing, or actionless action. What you do effortless and without thinking every part, like walking.

Growth is when this doing without doing begins to seep in every aspect of your daily life: your mind is attentive and you own self. Stressful situations are dealt with a clear, calm mind, and you do what is appropriate to the situation.

What is the goal of Tai Chi philosophy?

That’s the second bottomless question: what for? What is the goal?

And it doesn’t have a definitive answer.

What is the goal of a musician or a painter? Do you ever achieve a goal and stop advancing?

The underlying philosophy in Tai Chi is Taoism and it doesn’t have a goal. It is rather a way of understanding reality.

One might say that the goal of Taoism is a life in harmony with nature, but you are left exposed to yet another “what for”?

What is the purpose of living in harmony with nature when, anyway, we’ll die no matter what we do or don’t do? What is the purpose of harmony with reality if acquiring material things, acquiring power, abusing others –humans, animals, environment- may provide more tangible and pleasurable results right now?

Many people in different traditions believe in an afterlife where good is rewarded and evil is punished. Taoism has nothing to say about it, since reality is that we do not have any evidence of such station.

Taoism is concerned with here and now. And in Tai Chi practice requires a total attention to what is happening at the moment –your hands, arms, feet, legs, weight, breathing, balance, direction and what surrounds you and happens around you – it becomes a moving meditation in the sense of calm awareness.

Setting yourself goals may be a distraction. Yes, Tai Chi has many health benefits, and there is an abundance of studies in the manner of Western science that have measured, weighted and recorded specific benefits for joints, strengthening of muscles, flexibility, and even in conditions such as Parkinson’s disease or physical disabilities. But that’s not the goal in Tai Chi.

Think of it as any art. The artist does what he does as it blooms inside him. No goal, unless he starts worrying about doing a work that brings fame, recognition, money, acceptance, prestige. Then he will be paying attention to what others like and appreciate. He will be using his abilities and talents to cater to other people’s admiration. In a sense, the artist becomes trapped by other people’s opinions.

What are the different types of Tai Chi?

Another Chinese-like joke: How many instructors do you need to learn Tai Chi? Then. One to show you a movement, and the other nine to tell you “In my school, we do it differently.”

There is only one Tai Chi and many interpretations. I keep coming back to the comparison with music because it makes clear what seems to be a paradox.

There is Music, yes, as in upper case Music. Then you have traditions, instruments, styles, genres, a myriad musicians’ interpretations. You can have, even, a definitive score handwritten by a composer, and you will have decades, centuries of musicians performing the same score with different interpretations. All of them are doing music. Some of them may become adamant in claiming to own the true interpretation; some of them may choose epoch instruments to be more faithful to the composer’s intent, others will mix in new instruments and regional rhythms or voices. And all of them are doing Music.

So, perhaps, we could start with the elements that are basic, central to Tai Chi, before we focus on the differences.

In all Tai Chi practices you will find these central ingredients: constant and fluid movement paced by abdominal breathing, balancing the weight alternative on one leg or the other, and intention.

This latter may require some explanation: Tai Chi comes from martial practices, there’s an intention in each movement, and as an instructor I must be aware of the main reason why a man or a woman approaches Tai Chi. Since many people see Tai Chi as an exercise for health, or a form of meditation in movement, they may feel uneasy when they hear the instructor talking about “applications,” which is a description of the original intent of each movement in fighting.

I do not instruct my students in fighting, there’s no parrying or pushing or kicking in my classes. But I do tell students that Tai Chi movements are not ballet-like displays for choreography. The movements have evolved from observing our anatomy, learning about the body, and making the body able to respond swiftly focusing the energy in one direction or another.

Now we come to the Qi. A difficult thing to define. But probably the best translation into a Western concept is that of energy, life energy, what we perceive in living things that is lacking in a dead animal or plant.

In Tai Chi practice, when you inhale you concentrate Qi in the center of your body, or Dan Tien, a place three fingers below your navel. And when you exhale you uncoil that energy guiding it, with your mind, to the hand or foot that, if you were fighting, would be delivering a blow or pushing. Then you inhale, concentrate Qi in Dan Tien, change direction, and extend the energy somewhere else.

This is what makes Tai Chi distinctive. And these elements are present in all forms of Tai Chi. Some people will feel more interested in the actual martial practice and follow their path toward Push Hands –which is an interplay with another practitioner- or they may keep their practice more focused in health benefits, or as it happens with most Tai Chi people, they will learn longer forms, or some of the weapons in a balance between the health benefits, the calmness of mind and relaxation of body, and the knowledge of directing their energy with intention.

In a sense, the “types” of Tai Chi are left to each individual practicing Tai Chi. The instructor is there only to show the basic elements and offer the students options.

What are the different weapons used in Tai Chi and why?

The main weapon in Tai Chi is the body itself.

Once a student has learned the basic elements mentioned above, she can choose to practice with traditional Chinese weapons.

The most common and well known is Ji, a double-edged straight sword that has been used in China for over 2,500 years. Different from the Medieval European straight sword that is used mostly by holding with two hands and hacking, Ji is a more delicate weapon: the blade is lighter and slightly flexible and the weapon is used with one hand. It was a weapon intended to use in very close combat slicing or by penetrating armor between plates. The movements in Tai Chi practice are precise, circular when slicing, aiming to specific points in the imaginary adversary when thrusting.

A second weapon is the fan. Fans as weapon were built with metal ribs that had sharpened tips. When folded, the fan is heavy and can be used to hit as a blackjack. When unfolded, the ribs can be used as a shield to stop an attack, or in circular movements to cut the opponent. In Tai Chi practice the Fan forms are a bit more dynamic and fast than the Yang style of the Beijing Form.

Other weapons include the Long Staff –which is measured by being two fists above the user’s head-, the Short Staff, reaching about the user’s collar bone. While the Ji was a “gentleman’s weapon,” the staff was the common man’s weapon: anyone can get a pole and learn how to defend himself with a walking stick.

The reasons to add weapons to the Tai Chi practice are related, again, to each student’s preferences.

Using a weapon adds an element to the work on balance. Now you have in your hand a sword, or a fan, or a staff, a weight that you will integrate in the constant shift of your body’s weight. A weapon is an extension of your arm and hand, and now when you visualize your energy going from Dan Tien to the target, there’s this addition of distance.

Obviously, in the urban context of the early 21st century, no Tai Chi instructor or student would go around carrying a real sword –I forgot to mention that, for class, we do not use real, sharp-edged swords but special, blunt-edged swords. Practice with fan is done with bamboo- or plastic-ribbed fans. The only Tai Chi practice weapon that can be seen as a real one is the staff.

How does is it the same or differ from other martial arts?

Not much, and a lot.

As a purely fighting technique Tai Chi assumes that you are, always, smaller and weaker than the other person. And it assumes that you do not seek to prevail but to defuse a conflict as soon as possible with the best chances to overcome the causes of conflict.

Tai Chi, as any other martial practice, is an attitude and a method to deal with conflict. There is no way to avoid conflict, we will face conflicts all along our lives. Not all conflicts reach the point of physical confrontation: we may have a discussion with our partner, a dispute with an employer, a hot exchange with the other team’s fan at the stadium.

In a situation like these, and more so if there physical confrontation, we all have the typical dilemma: fight or flight. Either we become angry, hard and we go for the clash, or we realize the other guy is too big and strong and we run away.

Tai Chi has a third option: by turning the body and moving in circles its first movement is defensive and creates a void, an empty space where the attackers direct his energy. This is where the ability of keeping your mind calm and clear comes handy. And where your measured yielding unbalances the opponent making him vulnerable to a precise, short and well-rooted push.

A more noticeable difference between Tai Chi and some other martial practices is that Tai Chi is not dogmatic but eclectic and rather anarchic. Whereas other martial traditions are very observant of schools, and lineage, and defining and protecting the “true” style, I encourage students to go out, watch other groups, join, watch Youtube videos, read books. You will find variations, and hopefully other instructors will explain their rationale for doing things this or that way, just as I always explain why I choose to do it the way I do it.

I am not worried or upset if a student attends classes somewhere else. And I am glad when I get students who have practiced with other instructors and bring in different ideas and explanations.

Rather than resorting to length-of-arm, the hardness of your fist, or how high you can jump and kick, the Tai Chi person uses flexibility, centeredness, and a studied attention to when is the time to yield, and when it is the right time to push.

For a Tai Chi person a conflict that keeps escalating and becomes a shouting match turning into shoving and hitting is already a failure of both parties. Nobody will come out of such a battle as a winner. Whenever a person, a political party, a nation, wins in battle, there will be someone who is defeated, a source of anger, resentment, oppression, and future battles.

The parties have been unable to handle the dispute in a way that harmonizes the differences. Therefore, all that can be attempted is to create a pause that gives both parties time to calm down and reconsider. You do not run away scared and leaving the field to the stronger, and you do not harden your response to the point that someone will get injured.

Yield, create an empty space to unbalance the attacker, push at the right moment in the right measure.

Most of us go on life seldom having a physical fight. But all of us will have confrontations. Tai Chi seeps beyond the actual practice of movements and forms to become a way to deal with all kinds of conflicts.

Ultimately, Tai Chi is a way to deal with the most difficult person we will find in our lives: ourselves. In the carousel of emotions, memories, fears, illusions, desires and social expectations that we live in, Tai Chi is a discipline, a way of understanding, rooting oneself, and acting effortless in the appropriate way.

How long does it take to do a Tai Chi session, either with an instructor or by oneself?

A formal Tai Chi session in class may last roughly one to two hours.

It should start with meditation, a series of slow stretching exercises, and the form. Practiced at a slow pace, the 24 Movement Form or Beijing Form, may take 6 to 7 minutes.

In a class with beginner students, next comes a revision of movements already learning, the instruction on new movements to be added to the form. In the case of advanced students, they may go on to practice other forms, maybe with more movements (there is a 48-movement and a Long-Form with almost 100 movements), or they may practice with the weapon of their choice.

At the end of the class, in my instruction, everyone gets together and we practice the Short Form with music. The intention of mixing beginners and advanced students is to take their minds away from a stressful attention to each movement, and have them instead just enjoying the constant, flowing movements.

The class is closed with some breathing exercises and a short meditation.

Now, each person may structure their daily practice at home differently. In the rush of modern life some people may have only time for stretching somehow, do the Beijing Form, and relax a bit. All of which can be done in 20 minutes, not a time-stealing practice and one that should be easy to accommodate in our daily routines.

Tai Chi is intended to be practiced slow, with the pace according to breathing. This means that when you see someone doing Tai Chi her breathing is deep, calm.

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