Saturday, November 7, 2015

Why Is Tai-chi Chuan Practiced So Slow?

You know the story. A seeker shows up at the master's doorstep only to be sent away with the instruction, "Stand zhan zhuang for three years." I'd long thought that the reason for this was a test of determination. Are you really serious about learning? Are you worth training? Prove it! Now I understand this scenario differently.

When my Wujifa instructor adjusts the stiff and rigid bodies of the new guys, he is able to get them to the point where they can feel their weight drop into their legs. However, the problem is that they can't hold this posture for more than a few seconds! How is he to teach high-level skills to people who can't even stand properly for a few seconds?

Unlike the storied masters of old, he does not tell people to go away and come back when their bodies are ready. Rather, he compassionately meets people where they are and skillfully guides them along the path to whole-body connected movement.

The way I've experienced the Wujifa process leads me to think in terms of four elementary phases of progress:
  1. Progressively relax the torso to allow the legs to carry the weight, then...
  2. Notice connection manifesting itself through the torso, then...
  3. Begin to develop intentional kua / dan-tian movement, then...
  4. Develop whole-body connected movement.
It is my belief now that each phase is a prerequisite for the next. For me, #2 started showing up only after I had been practicing #1 for a while. From observing school brothers who practice much more than I do, I see how I have to get a good feel for #2 (through practicing #1 more) before my body is appropriately conditioned to begin practicing #3. Similarly, through practicing #3 (which includes more practice of #1 and #2), then #4 begins to manifest itself.

Even though these four phases represent a very beginning level practice, if you can't demonstrate the requisite level of relaxation in the torso and the requisite level of strength in your legs, then you cannot experience the feeling of whole-body connection. Until you can demonstrate this basic skill of whole-body connection, then the expertise of the instructor to help you refine, polish and develop the martial intent of this entry-level skill, is going largely untapped.

So what does this have to do with the reason why Tai-chi Chuan is practiced so slowly?

In past posts I have said that the feeling of whole-body connection cannot be developed by moving slowly in the Tai-Chi Chuan form. My understanding has since deepened. Now I have come to see that the genesis of the feeling of whole-body connection cannot be found in moving slow, as in any of the popular Tai-Chi Chuan forms, however, it may later be developed therein.

Let's begin by agreeing on the distinction between genesis and develop. Referencing as our authority for definitions:

Genesis: the origin or coming into being of something
: to grow or become bigger or more advanced

Whole-body connected movement takes a while first to be born. Using the analogy of creating a human life, in the nine months between conception and birth, all the parts are developing, piece by piece until a whole, connected person is born. After the birth of this new person, then s/he is taught and learns how to use all these connected parts; slowly at first... baby steps. 

And so my understanding now is that only after the genesis of the feeling of whole-body connection in a stationary practice, then the practitioner can transition to slow, gentle, repetitive movements to develop the feeling of whole-body connection while moving.

Using the Tai-chi Chuan model of the thirteen postures, it is said that the most important is central equilibrium which to me means standing zhan zhuang. Why is this the most important? It is within this practice that the body is "moving" slow enough for the neuro-muscular system to calm down and for the awareness to notice where changes are needed. Once the genesis of whole-body connection is experienced, only then can it begin to be developed in the martial expressions of the thirteen postures.

However, the tricky part in transitioning to a martial intent is to maintain focus on the nascent feeling of whole-body connection and not become overly enthusiastic and lapse into native muscle movement. (I've succumbed to this temptation quite often. It only wastes time.)

And so I now believe that moving slowly may have originated as a transition from a stationary practice. After one is able to maintain the feeling of whole-body connection in a stationary practice, then the next step is to maintain that feeling while moving slowly. In Wujifa, rudimentary moving exercises include: mini-breathing squats, side-to-side, and point-off-point. In Tai-chi Chuan, rudimentary moving exercises include: tai-chi qigong, silk reeling, and learning one movement of the form at a time. Ultimately, the practitioner gradually learns how to move quickly with connection.

Unfortunately, many Tai-chi Chuan teachers ignore the genesis and development of whole-body connected movement. Instead, they teach students to refine their native muscle movement in the learning of slow motion choreographed routines. And as well all know, this approach does not lead practitioners to "whole-body connected movement" which is the hallmark of real Taijiquan.

So, in summary, the question, "Why is Tai-chi Chuan practiced so slowly?" can be answered by saying that moving slowly is a method and a phase of developing whole-body connected movement the genesis of which was originally discovered in a preceding, stationary practice.

No comments:

Post a Comment