Why I Practice T’ai Chi Ch’uan

Wu Wei is a famous Chinese expression meaning “No Effort.” Wu Wei does not mean that one takes no action, but rather that one’s actions have no trace of straining, pushing, forcing, or imposing. It refers to the ability to adapt to conditions and change according to circumstances without forceful insistence or striving. From the outset, it is important to understand that, in Tai Chi practice, very little progress will be made through pushing and straining. Everything should be done in the most relaxed manner possible. Striving and struggling will not yield results in Tai Chi. This is one of the most difficult concepts for Americans to grasp. We are a nation of active doers who have an unconscious belief in “No pain, no gain.” Such an attitude is one of several negative habits that will have to be gradually shed during the process of mastering Tai Chi.

There is a great deal of information available about t’ai chi ch’uan: how-to videos, photos, diagrams, the various schools, styles, and lineages, history, health benefit claims, and numerous books, blogs, and website courses. True of most information these days, there is an overload. Despite this, the central question of the inquisitive person often remains: Why should I do t’ai chi ch’uan (TCC)? That is a fair question. The benefits are not obvious to the casual observer nor is the rationale for continued practice. Yoga, in the most obvious, simplistic view, is a systematized type of stretching and we all have been told or know from experience that stretching and flexibility are positive things. Those who regularly practice yoga for any length of time know that the practice is much more than that, yet it can be seen and appreciated in that simple context. TCC practitioners, on the other hand, don’t seem to really be doing anything other than waving their hands in the air, performing what looks like a pretty but unchallenging, boring, repetitive, slow dance. Videos and claims of great power, of throwing others across a room with a flick of the wrist are legion, however, and the allure of that possibility intrigues those attracted to this more power-oriented aspect of the martial arts. Generally, older individuals are attracted to the claims of improved balance, stamina, longevity, mental health, and stress reduction. Many resonate with the spiritual, meditative, or philosophical depth of TCC. Regardless of what initially draws a person to TCC, with a focussed, attentive practice, all will find what they seek. And more.

Since individual desires and expectations are many, as are the experiences of those who take up the practice, I can only describe my own experience in learning, practicing, and teaching this incredible art and science. As a chiropractor for 30 years, I have reviewed, recommended, and experimented with many different “health regimes” with both myself and patients. In my opinion, there is no more effective, straightforward, elegant, complete, and unified approach to the recovery and maintenance of optimal health and sense of well being than a TCC practice coupled with good nutrition. This is based on observing changes in myself, students, and patients, and my knowledge of anatomy, exercise physiology, and endocrinology, especially stress and its effect on the autonomic nervous system.

Humans swim in two seas: the sea of gravity and the sea of consciousness. TCC is unsurpassed, the perfect dorsal fin, if you will, for enhanced equilibrium and less effortful navigation of both the limitless expanse and confining demands of these two invisible, inescapable realms. TCC views the human body as an energetic phenomenon, not simply or primarily a physical, mechanical one. This alone sets it apart from most forms of western exercise and conventional thinking about muscle development, training, and physical effort. Traditional Daoist thought, and current modern physics, views all matter as condensed energy that is in constant flux despite its static or solid appearance. Thus the essential nature of all manifest “forms” of matter is formlessness and constant change. TCC is considered the highest manifestation of Daoism in human activity and this primacy of change is central to Daoism, witnessed by the title of its classic text, The I Ching, or Book of Changes. While eastern art and culture idealize certain conceptual forms, in eastern philosophy the ultimate is that which has no form. What has no form is a shape in constant motion and flux, and what constantly changes contains the potential to manifest as all possible forms.

One translation of “t’ai chi ch’uan” is “action in the realm where yin and yang play.” The concept of yin/yang is central to this idea of change and the limitless possibilities of manifestation. Opposites, whether dry/wet, hard/soft, dark/light, etc. all express their qualities in relation to their opposite: you can’t have one without the other and the gradation of qualities or ultimate transformation of one to the other is the natural order. In Daoist thought, all creation fluctuates within this duality constantly and eternally. This is represented by the familiar intertwining, black-and-white yin/yang symbol. TCC shares with some other martial arts the idea of receiving and returning or redirecting force rather than using effort in opposition or to generate force unilaterally. In TCC we play and use yin/yang to explore the ability to engender power and force through yielding and softness and to position and inhabit our body in a manner that allows forces to pass through us rather than from us. Daoism is called the “Watercourse Way” because water is the ultimate example of power through yielding–there is nothing in nature more malleable yet potentially powerful as water, and our body is about 70% water.

In the Chinese martial arts, the energetic nature of our physical body is “qi” or “chi.” It is not separate from but inherent to our nature and all the natural world. Personal qi is known as Yuan-Qi. It exists in and simultaneously with the condensed form of energy that IS our physical body, all its tissues, organs, etc. The practice of TCC develops the ability to sense and use qi, in ourselves and in others. We speak of developing or cultivating qi, as though it is a “thing” different or separate from “us” that we must gather and hold onto, but I feel it is more accurate and useful to think of it as a flow or movement, and getting out of the way of this expression of our true energetic nature, and removing blocks to the flow, allows us to utilize the ubiquitous availability of limitless qi for health and effortless being and action. So, what stands in the way? Ourselves and our habit of self-identification with the physical body. I believe it’s really as simple as that. How do you stop doing that? That is not so simple. This is where the practice of TCC is so valuable and unique.

Space and a feeling of expansion is central to the practice of TCC. Muscles contract and qi expands. Where there is effort, where there is muscular contraction, there is reduced qi flow. The goal of acupuncture and all Chinese medicine is the normalization of qi by removing blockages to flow. To that end, the TCC practitioner is constantly investigating “Can I empty more? Can I align myself with gravity better to remain upright and move, yet use minimal effort to do so?” TCC practice is not one of addition, but subtraction; not the acquiring of new skills to add to what one is already doing, but “What am I doing in this and every moment that results in unnecessary effort and/or discomfort (mental or physical)?” The result of this attention is to replace dense matter with less dense energy; to suffuse the body, every cell, with this potentiating qi. This not only creates a pleasant sensation of expansion and lightness, like a lessening of gravity even as we simultaneously surrender to it, but also positive changes in stress levels and overall health. TCC refers to the joints as “gates” to energy flow and we always keep the joints open and uncompressed, thereby creating “space” in the joint. In TCC we try to hold our joints in a neutral position at all times and never take them to end range, an obvious difference from yoga. Yoga takes joints to extreme end-range stretch, often for long periods. While advanced yoga practitioners can ideally do this without compressing the joints, it is still true that end range positions are emphasized. Another difference arises from the philosophy of Hinduism versus Daoism. Hinduism views the body as an impediment to spiritual awakening; something to be disciplined, even mortified, as a means of transcendence. Daoism and TCC emphasize deepening the awareness of the physical body, exploring and developing its physical and energetic nature as the gateway to experiencing one’s transcendental Self.

This Self-Realization through occupying and manifesting the transcendental Self simultaneously with the physical body is the cohesion of mind, body, and spirit associated with TCC. We are not doing something in order to unite them. That relationship already exists. TCC simply helps us embody and consciously manifest that unity and cohesion. This is not experienced as an abstract philosophy or mental “idea,” an internal dialogue or thought process, but as a bodily feeling, as “being there.” Being bodily present in the moment, the Now, is a release from the constraints of time, and the anxiety that arises from dwelling in the regrets or memories of the past and the anticipation or fears of the future. Liberation from the constraints of the past and future, through increasing identification with our energetic form, results in a sense of floating or existing beyond Space and Time. I realize this is quite a grandiose claim for any practice. Nonetheless, it has been my experience and is the natural consequence of a regular TCC practice. It does not happen every time I practice. It is totally dependent on the practitioner’s level of attention and focus and the longevity of their practice. Ten years is not an unreasonable amount of time to spend in order to begin to experience this, but regular practice usually begins to provide inklings of it after one. Nonetheless, it is available to those who practice; it is there for the asking. And the more often I can approach that experience, the more it overflows and permeates the rest of my life. Slowing down, being in the present moment, for its own sake rather than any result, is an important part of TCC. The development of a daily “practice” is essential to the unfolding of this potential. I view my practice as Daoist prayer. I surrender to it without anticipation or attachment to outcome, without judgement, without expectation, only attention. In that state, wonderful, pleasurable, and joyful things happen that transform the physical body, the mind, and the spirit that have positive effects on how I inhabit my own body and interact with those around me that, in turn, effects their behavior and life experience and, as a result, the world as a whole.

This is why I practice.

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