A Question of Balance

by Karel Koskuba

Most people who practise Taijiquan are aware that their practice should give them radiant health and also make them into invincible warriors. These are the two most quoted reasons for studying Taijiquan. Health is, of course, the more important of the two - unless you are young and have a bone to pick with the world. But even then the health issues will gain in importance with the passing of years.

I discovered the link between the health and martial sides by noticing that my progress seemed to be greatest after I suffered an injury which required me to take extra care not to strain the injured limb. The additional attention paid to the way my body moved greatly benefited my martial aspirations. It took a number of injuries before the lesson eventually sank in. You could say it was a painful lesson, but as they say: no pain, no- gain!

These dual benefits of Taijiquan, health and martial art skill, are like the two sides of the same coin. There is some controversy about the relative importance of these two aspects - and not only among students. Even some teachers are only vaguely aware of how the two are connected. The aim of this article is either to pour oil on troubled waters or, perhaps, to pour oil into the fire - which one it will be depends on the reader's viewpoint. I rather hope it will do both, following the well respected theory of Yin and Yang!

So am I saying that health concerns should be the main focus in Taijiquan training? Not at all. Martial artists should become interested in the health side of the practice and vice versa. If you are one of those that are already interested in both sides, count yourself lucky and read on to see how well you have chosen.

My own reason for taking up Taijiquan was to be one of those 'invincible warriors', not so much for the fighting aspect but more for the great power I had seen long-time practitioners possess. So as soon as I came up with my "other side" theory I started to concentrate on health to the extent that I realised that health should really be my primary concern. Which means, according to my theory, that I have to concentrate mainly on the martial side of Taijiquan. How devious one can get!

Concentrating on the "Other Side"

We all know how one can pick one's own name out from a conversation at a crowded party. This is due to our mind's ability to filter out unimportant (to us) facts and let through to our conscious attention those things we are interested in. So when a teacher describes how proper alignment of joints prevents many health problems, the eyes of the "warrior" types glaze over. If on the other hand, the teacher describes how correct joint alignment is necessary for transmission of power those interested only in health start thinking of which diet is best for them. So what happens is that each of the two groups misses out on a large part of the other half of the art. Does it matter, so long as they are getting what they want from their practice?

I think it does - the two halves complement each other. By concentrating on the other side, one can get much more out of the side one is interested in. Of course if we have some immediate pressing problem - for example a muscle spasm or arthritic pain, we'll be less interested in martial skill and more in the immediate relief of the pain. That is understandable. What I am addressing here is a more general case.

Practising for health

The list of possible conditions that can be helped by the practice of Taijiquan is too long to go into here and most will be covered in this magazine or elsewhere. So, for the purpose of this discussion, I'll pick one - relaxation. Luckily I have picked (completely at random, of course) the one that plays a large role in many other conditions.

Once we have learnt the form, regular practice will make us more relaxed. But there are two problems with just form practice alone. Firstly, it is quite easy to fool ourselves that we are completely relaxed, when we are not. Secondly, being relaxed the form is of little use to us if we can't carry it with us into daily life. What we need is the ability to remain relaxed under stress. What we are lacking is feedback. Luckily, Taijiquan has two excellent methods of providing instant feedback; testing the postures and pushing hands.

Pushing hands is not only a good way to test the level of our relaxation, it is also an excellent way to increase it. If you have ever pushed hands with a Taijiquan expert and marvelled at how soft and relaxed their body is, you can be sure they didn't get it just by practising forms. The depth of relaxation one can reach with proper training is difficult to believe at first. I certainly marvel, every six months or so, at how much more relaxed I am getting - only to realise six moths later how tense I was before! And there doesn't seem to be an end to this process!

Once relaxed we can then learn, through patient practice, how to use our body more effectively and more efficiently - the key word here is use. If we just practise our form, we certainly do obtain some benefit, but why satisfy ourselves with only a fraction of what we can get? And it is by concentrating on the martial side, that we get proper feedback. By martial side I don't necessarily mean fighting applications but rather the training which is involved in developing Internal Power as well as developing the body sensitivity necessary for the ability to neutralise attacks. Much of this involves Testing the Structure and Pushing Hands training. Not only will our body use be correct but we learn now to stay relaxed under stress.

Having great power at one's disposal is useful in everyday life too. I'm sure we all find ourselves in situations where we wish we had greater strength to accomplish some particular task. Knowing how to use one's body effectively and efficiently can not only greatly relieve troublesome tasks but leaves us with a healthy body rather than one crippled through muscle spasm brought on by incorrect use. It's not only a question of having greater power but mainly being able to use it effortlessly - it can be quite embarrassing trying to move a cupboard only to find oneself incapacitated for several days with a backache.

Practising for Martial Arts

As I said before, two main ingredients in Taijiquan fighting skills are Internal Power and neutralising energy. Students who do pushing hands as a way of improving their fighting skills often do not have the patience to develop these ingredients properly. They want to win at all costs thus not only tensing muscles but also their mind in the quest for quick victory. I speak from personal experience here and I think that most people go down this route at some time in their training. It is only when doing pushing hands for health and relaxation one can truly relax - not only the muscles but also the mind, thus developing the natural power one is after.

All this talk of power might create an image of bulging muscles - far from it. Even people of advanced age, or those who suffer from restricted mobility can benefit from 'power' training (they, of course, will require more individual approach and care).

snake creeps down

As an example of crossing to the other side, let's have a look at the posture Snake Creeps Down from Yang style Taijiquan. This is quite a strenuous pose and the 'warriors' among us try to get as low as possible, often sacrificing structural integrity which can lead to possible joint problems later on. So they would be well advised to pay attention to the way their knees are aligned with their feet, how their weight is passing through the hips, knees and ankles and to the way the spine and head are being held. One should aim to become comfortable and free. Only then can the martial aspect come into play.

A Question of Balance

In the West, Tai Chi Chuan's reputation as a therapeutic exercise is much more firmly established than its martial art capability. I am encouraged by the fact that a fuller picture of all its aspects is beginning to emerge and I hope that this process continues. I hope that this article will help in some way to encourage a more balanced approach to the practice of Taijiquan.

This article first appeared in Tai Chi & Alternative Health magazine, Vol I Issue 6.