Like many other things in the modern world, we are overwhelmed with too many choices. When you go to the grocery store, you see twenty perhaps a hundred different types of cereals you can have for breakfast alone and everyone is saying very loudly through advertisement and marketing techniques that theirs is the best. So exposed to diversity in Tai Chi can be like having too many choices, it can be confusing, it can be so overwhelming it may put you off learning Tai Chi. Let us look at it positively, take it as a challenge and benefited from the choices available to us.
The Guiding Principles
It is helpful to have some guiding principles to steer us from the overwhelming choices, to find the right things for our own needs. A principle is something that is always true despite change of time and circumstances. For example love is a better bonding for relationship than hate is a principle, which holds true always. A set of guiding principles will help us to work through the diversity to find out what is beneficial to us.
Another way to look at diversity is that in one way these differences are telling us that perhaps they are not so important; therefore they are not the principles that stay true no matter what. For example different styles have different ways to shape our hands, Yang style has open hands, while Chen Style has closing hands (the fingers closer with the little finger pressing toward the thumb with a inward wrapping force). The difference with stepping is, Yang Style not touching the ground in between each step and in Chen Style we drag our foot on the ground.
It doesn't mean that the minor details are not important, once we understand the big picture. Once we see the elephant as a gigantic animal instead of a wall or a tubing (see the previous article Diversity – good or bad?), then the minor differences will make sense. For example, once we understand Tai Chi was originally a martial art with emphasis in internal development of qi. Then we can look at each movement and each step to see whether it is effective as a martial art and for qi enhancement. We can then see all different ways of shaping hands and stepping have their own and unique advantages at these aspects. Then because we understand this big picture, different ways to do things become different and useful techniques that can be quite useful, depending on which style we are more suited to, or have more talent for, or more liking to.
I would like to outline a few guiding principles.
Past the Superficial
The very thing that sets Tai Chi apart from other martial arts or other exercises, like running or walking, is that Tai Chi is an internal art. It involves the mind, the inside body and the inner power – the qi. Being internal means we have to constantly use our minds to focus on what we are doing. To focus on our movements helps us to integrate our mind and body. We have to constantly use our minds to analyse the movement that helps us to practice intelligently, find out what matters and effective. We constantly use our minds to check if the movements fulfilling martial art principles, the mind over body principle and that the mind power is more important not just harsh force. We use our thinking ability to see if these particular steps and movements have helped us to improve our qi – our inner power. For example the Yang's open hand shape are more effective for qi to flow through, while Chen's close hands are effective for combat. Both ways are important and useful, in the long run stronger qi will give you strong inner power and more effective martial art ability. With the stepping of Yang style it train better balance control and subtlety while the dragging foot in Chen style is useful to place foot in strategically position in combat, and also train stronger lower limb muscles.
Another example is when you deliver a Chen style punch; there is a clear difference between it and a Karate style punch. The Chen style punch is powered by an inner force and is elastic with the force travelling in spiral. It has to be soft outside and strong inside (cotton exterior and steel inside). Whereas I imagine a Karate punch would emphasise on a straightforward force and speed. Whatever a punch is executed properly it generates more qi and more body awareness for you.
Integration means whenever you move, is your mind and body are integrated. The hand, trunk, foot all fully coordinated, at a given point of time, are part of the body should be at one position and then move in coordination with each other. One part of the body moves the rest follow. Internally qi flows smoothly integrating with the movements and their martial art intention. Any single movement without integration throughout the body and with the internal body is not Tai Chi.
The very core of Tai Chi is balance, balance of movements, of yin and yang and of internal and external. Too soft or too harsh are both not well balanced; a movement that stretches so far that you nearly fall is not good Tai Chi.
For example, last article in diversity, I mentioned that with Wu style the body tends to lean slightly forward, does it still give you good balance? Are you maintaining better balance with your body vertical to the ground? I believe learning 5 to 10 degrees forward helps to issue power. If you are totally upright it can be harder to push forward with power. On the other hand even though you lean slightly forward you're still capable of maintaining balance. I do not want to imply which is right, in fact I practise several styles of Tai Chi except Wu style. I believe that different people have different structures of bodies and for many people to slightly lean forward may a good thing for them so long as the principle of being in balance is achieved.
Another example is too much emphasis on relaxation. This is very important but if you are so soft and so relaxed like a jelly, then there is no strength. That to me is imbalance with only too much yin and not enough yang.
Dantian is three fingerbreadths below the belly button and slightly inwards. It is the centre of the body and is the centre of qi. No matter what style you practice the awarness of Dantian and the training of sinking qi to the Dantian is an essential part of Tai Chi. If a particular technique does not help you to be more aware of the Dantian, nor to help you sinking qi to the Dantian then you will need to think very carefully about that technique.
One of the absolute 'always stay true' principles, is practice. No matter how bright you are or how good your method of Tai Chi is and how much you understand the theories, if you do not practice, if you do not sweat enough, you will not truly understand the inner meaning of Tai Chi and you will not benefit much from it.
Don't let diversity overwhelm you. I believe the best things in life are simple. Understand simple truth. Venture out, try it out, test it out, use your mind to figure it out. You will be fascinated by different styles, forms and interpretations and discover what suits you best.
It is important to be aware of your need in learning Tai Chi. Most people are learning Tai Chi for better health. I believe the criteria for better health is no different from better martial art. Being healthy means you need to be stronger inside and out and have more clarity in your mind. Together with stronger qi, better balance of body and mind, works well both for health and martial arts. Once you know your needs you can gravitate your learning towards what is more effective for your goal.