What I Did Say To The Church Ladies

Author Henry Strunk posted to neijia mailing list 10 Jan 1995 13:32:17 +0100

On the topic of what would you say, I will attempt to apend an essay that I wrote some time ago for two ladies in my church who were insufferably curious concerning the strange pagan practice of tai chi which their brother in Christ was practicing. I wrote this to amuse and entertain as well as inform. I have updated the personal information so that it is current, however I left the text as it was. I would write the essay differently today since I know more but I don't think I could have done a better job.

By the way, the essay answered their questions and put their minds at rest, even interested both of them in taking tai chi although they never followed up on that interest.

Now just let me put on my nomex suit

Specifically I am studying a Chinese martial art called Yang style Tai C'hi(Ji) Chuan (Quan) as taught by Grandmaster Chien-Liang Huang (My teacher's teacher). I have included common variant spellings. If you should see them, it is the same thing. My knowledge of this subject is rather shallow, based on listening to my teachers, reading magazines and a few books and Internet chatter generated by computer nerds and others with an interest in the martial arts.

Tai Chi Chaun literally means Grand Ultimate Fist. Tai Chi is called a soft internal martial art. Soft, meaning yielding. In karate or Western boxing (which are hard martial arts) bone blocks bone and strength fights against strength. In Tai Chi the object is to avoid or redirect your opponents energy not meet it head on, then when your opponent is off balance and over extended you knock the crap out of him. The distinction between internal and external martial arts is a little less clear than hard and soft. As I understand the concept, the external arts build up striking power through conventional exercise, push-ups, weight lifting, that sort of thing. In the external martial arts, power you see delivered is the power that is getting delivered. Internal power is generated by gradually building up all the body's muscles through many repetitions of gentle motions specifically designed to work different muscle groups and internal organs in unusual ways. When internal power is delivered, what you see is not what you get. I once saw my teacher demonstrate relaxed power on a senior student. My teacher's arm muscles were so relaxed that you could move them back and forth. He then moved his palm about three to six inches striking the student in the chest hard enough to knock him backwards several feet. While delivering this blow, my teacher's entire body from his feet to his shoulders was unwinding like a big spring. He says that chi energy (more about this later) was being generated during this strike as well as the energy generated by the subtle movements of his body.

My teacher stated that in old China Tai Chi was typically the second martial art a student would learn. I see at least two reasons for this practice. First, a gunfighter needs a backup pistol in his boot in case something goes wrong. Most martial arts assume you are bigger, faster, stronger or tougher than your opponent. Sooner or later you will meet someone bigger, faster, stronger and tougher than you are. Tai Chi, as a soft martial art, does not require you to be big or strong. Remember, get out of the way of your opponent, wait until he is over extended and off balance then knock the crap out of him. Secondly, Tai Chi is thought to have fantastic healing powers. If a student was injured his teacher would teach him Tai Chi to speed his healing.

There are many versions of Tai Chi, Yang, Chen, Wu and Sun seem to be the most common. They are named for the family's that introduced them. Yang is the most common. Probably because Yang Cheng Fu was the first master to go public. Chen is reputed to be the most physically demanding style. Sun is thought to be the least physically demanding style. Wu style is a variant of Yang style (Captain Wu of the Imperial Guard was taught tai chi by Yang Cheng Fu's uncle).

Tai Chi is taught in the classes I am attending in several distinct sections. First the form. All martial arts have forms. A form is a set pattern of movements which is repeated over and over again by beginner and expert alike. The forms contain all the fighting techniques of the style, however, it appears that it requires years to learn what each movement in the form means and how it could be applied. Grandmaster Chien-Liang Huang taught a 112 movement Yang style form. Yang style forms vary in length from 24 movements to 153 movements but they all contain the same 37-40 distinct movements repeated a different number of times and in different patterns. Each teacher assembled the pieces into a form that accomplished whatever it was that he was trying to accomplish.

Many people practice the form only for health and stress relief without learning Tai Chi as a martial art. Aerobic instructors and new age whackos teach the form, down playing or ignoring the fact that it is a martial art. This is OK. Some of these people practice the form in a elegant and graceful manner and if you can stand the pseudo-spiritual chatter a beginner could benefit from this sort of class.

The second practice introduced in my Tai Chi class is push hands. Push hands is a very limited, controlled form of sparing used as a training practice. It is peculiar to Tai Chi. The purpose is to develop sensitivity to your opponent's intentions. The idea is learning to sense when your opponent is preparing to whack you so that you can get out of the way and learning how to whack your opponent without telegraphing your intention so he can not get out of the way.

The third part of Tai Chi is specific martial arts applications, what you do after getting your opponent off balance. They include the dislocation of joints, the breaking of bones, strikes to nerve centers and attacks directed towards vital organs. In short, Tai Chi contains every sort of mayhem that could be visited upon the human body. Since I am a relatively new student, I have only practiced a handful of these specific applications so far but I watch the senior students and ask questions about why we do things we do in the form. My conclusion is Tai Chi is a brutally effective martial art.

These specific applications and the appropriate counters are also practiced in two man sets. This part of Tai Chi training appears to be introduced at a senior level. Two students move in a set pattern very similar in nature to a form, attacking and countering using many punching, kicking and grappling techniques.

The final component to Tai Chi Chaun is training with various weapons. The most common weapon used in Tai Chi is a double edged straight sabre. This weapon was a gentleman's dueling sword in old China. It is now so associated with Tai Chi that it is referred to as a Tai Chi sword. Also fighting with the single edged Manchu Broadsword is taught. Fighting with various sorts of sticks, quarterstaffs, spears and pole weapons is sometimes associated with Tai Chi but from what I gather from talking to my teacher, these weapons are not traditionally associated with historic Tai Chi.

The Chinese consider Tai Chi to be a Chi Kung (Qigong) practice as well as a martial art. Chi is viewed, in traditional Chinese thought, as a sort of a universal energy. Things that are alive have chi. Things that are dead no longer have chi. The Chinese believe this force moves through your body along meridians and that the body stores chi in specific vessels (neither meridians nor chi vessels correspond to any physical organ). Chi Kung practices increase or manipulate the Chi in the body.

Chi Kung practices are an enormous grab bag encompassing 6,000 years of Chinese history and tradition. Some Chi Kung practices are for physical health and emotional stability, some are medicinal and scientific in nature, some have the goal of achieving enlightenment or immortality, others are for improving martial arts skills, some are nothing more than stage magic and some Chi Kung practitioners are outright frauds.

Being a skeptic by nature and an engineer by training, I find many claims made by Chi Kung literature to be of dubious value. However, clearly something is happening in at least some of the phenomena the Chinese attribute to Chi. Acupuncture claims to heal by removing Chi blockage through the mechanism of inserting needles at specific points in the human body. Acupuncture works on humans and animals. Chi Kung practitioners have demonstrated, under controlled conditions, the ability to regulate breathing, body temperature and blood pressure at will. Some research demonstrates a weak correlation between changes in electric potential at acupuncture points. The claims of Chi Kung practitioners are currently under study at the National Institute for Health in Washington and in Japan.

Tai Chi is considered an excellent Chi Kung practice for improving health, emotional stability, overall physical conditioning and martial arts skill. Traditional Chinese medicine teaches, if the meridians are blocked and Chi can't flow or if overall Chi levels drop below some threshold value the body becomes vulnerable to disease and deterioration. The movements and controlled breathing in Tai Chi are believed to significantly increase overall Chi levels in the body and to move the Chi around the body in beneficial patterns (sort of like blowing out a clogged fuel line with high pressure air).

It is said that practicing Tai Chi will make you as strong as a lumberjack, as flexible as a child and as wise as a sage. It is recommended that for maximum health benefits the form be practiced twice daily (once in the morning and once before dinner). Anyone that could practice the form 14 times in one week would most likely be very healthy, 9 times a week is about my limit. It is further stated, that to become a competent martial artist, one should practice the form 6 times a day. I guarantee that I would not mess with anyone that could perform the Tai Chi form 42 times in one week! A number of Tai Chi masters lived for more than 100 years. In the United States with modern hygiene and medicine this would be quite an accomplishment but in China with no modern medicines this is a remarkable feat.

I have personally found the practice of Tai Chi to be extremely beneficial. While Tai Chi has not revolutionized my life, practicing the form has noticeably dropped the stress levels in my body. In 20 months I have dropped 57 pounds without significantly altering my diet. My wife believes my physical appearance (particularly the firmness of my legs) has improved. My energy levels and overall health seem better and my self image has improved (I view myself as a fat clumsy person---clumsy people can't do 112 step Tai Chi forms, I can). -------


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