The Chinese martial art Taijiquan, when properly understood, is a martial art like no other. Its fundamental principle contradicts all our natural intuitions. Our natural intuitions about physical power in fighting have been well stated in the Classic Writings of Taijiquan:
There are many fighting arts. Although they take different forms, they generally don't go beyond the strong dominating the weak, and the slow losing to the swift. But strength and speed are natural physical endowments, not the result of superior understanding. As for strength, it’s been said that "Four ounces can neutralize a thousand pounds" ? so physical force may not be the ultimate trump card. And when we hear of an old man defeating a gang of youngsters, can we honestly conclude that this is due to speedy reflexes?
- Wang Zongyue
My Taijiquan is in the lineage of Professor Zheng Manqing (1902 - 1975), as transmitted by Benjamin Lo of San Francisco. This style is based on the Asian theory that a semi-physical or non-physical power lies dormant in the human body and mind. Through centuries of conflict, this power has been harnessed, refined, amplified, and deployed for self-defense and martial arts. Nowadays, because guns are widespread, the combative focus of classical Taijiquan training is no longer paramount. The emphasis has shifted to the enjoyable and fascinating inner experiences that result from the cultivation and direct perception of this internal force.
The most important requirement for Taijiquan training is relaxation. You must never tense up or attempt to use muscular force, either in solo practice or in handling a training partner or actual adversary. That seems counter-intuitive. How can anything be done without physical force? Taijiquan theory maintains that although a very soft physical ‘nudge’ may be used as a kind of trigger, the startling physical effects that a Taijiquan adept can demonstrate do not result from ordinary physical power.
The power source can be compared to making popcorn. When the heat from the fire reaches a certain level, it triggers an explosive movement and sound from the popcorn kernel. However, the heat is only the triggering agent. The pop is actually powered by the stored chemical energy within the popcorn kernel itself. No matter how much you heat a soybean, you won't get this result. So, your partner’s body is actually being moved by his or her own inner tension, which is merely triggered by your light push. So the first work of Taijiquan is mental ? to shed the lifelong automatic association of power with physical force and muscles.
Taijiquan practice is based on a sequence of slow-motion postures. The sequence is performed solo, like shadow-boxing. The posture work is beyond the scope of this brief introductory article. I’ll discuss instead the other primary training method of Taijiquan - working with a partner in the Push Hands drill.
In the Push Hands drill, two partners face one another and each attempts to unbalance the other with a light push or pull. It is cooperative because we follow rules against striking, sweeping, throwing, and kicking. Yet it is non-compliant because it has ‘aliveness’ ? we don’t play along for the sake of social pleasantry. Only when our partner exploits genuine tension in our bodies must we take a step to regain our balance. This keeps the practice ‘real enough’, so that something of value can be learned. It is akin to a limited version of the traditional Japanese jujutsu practice of kuzushi (崩し : collapsing, unbalancing, or taking down).
It sounds simple on the physical level, but this drill has some interesting elements of the deeper Taijiquan philosophy. Foremost of those is relaxation. Habitual tension carried in your body, and/or any attempt to use crude muscular force can be easily detected and nullified by a skilled partner. So you must avoid those two faults, of inherent tension and use of force, no matter how long it takes to shed them.
Furthermore, many Taijiquan traditions teach techniques for physical manipulation of the partner’s body and joints, organized as a syllabus of ‘attacks’ and ‘defenses’. My tradition, however, does not employ techniques. That’s because there’s too much ground to cover, as the range of possible moves and counter-moves is endless. Instead, we work on the level of higher principle, because if our energy is sensitive enough, it will alert us in time to pre-empt and neutralize any kind of movement from our partner
‘Unbalancing’ the partner means forcing him or her to take one or more steps to regain stability. It generally isn’t necessary to hurl the partner several meters away, or to throw him hard against a wall. It’s sufficient to use a soft touch to shake the partner’s balance just enough to force a step out, or two. This keeps the practice safe and fun, as well as allowing for cultivation of a finely calibrated force that is under very rigorous control.