Notes from the Training Hall- 1
I’m always reminded when teaching Taiji that people often embark on learning Taiji with one of three outcome in mind. I refer to these as achievements. The first is Taiji for its health benefits. This is by far the most popular reason for seeking out a class. The second is Taiji as a traditional martial art which has had a well deserved resurgence in the last decade but still is not an achievement that many people aim towards when they start a Taiji class. Third, and less mainstream than the previous two is Taiji as embodied philosophy and spirituality. That it is possible to achieve all three of these outcomes from one ‘art’ is remarkable. Achieving any one of them however is a long journey and if you take the three achievements in the order I have written them you can say that the first is the quickest, the second is much longer and the third is, well significantly longer. We are talking ‘lifelong’ here.
However and to quote an old maxim, ‘we all start a journey by taking the first step’ so as a responsible teacher I don’t want to put anyone of so I should remind you that although the Taiji journey is long, it is massively rewarding and beneficial at all stages and at all levels.
The first achievement, Taiji for health, requires you to learn a “form” or set of movements derived from a traditional hand form that gives you an opportunity to realise through training the various aspect of the art. By which I mean the body work, structure, alignments, active relaxation, respiratory technique integration of breath and movement and the cultivation of a directing and self referential intelligent and witnessing awareness. As a first level of Taiji achievement this may be enough for most people.
The second level of achievement is to train Taiji Quan as a martial practice. To do this you will need to achieve all the requirements of “Taiji for health” as well as an awful lot more in terms of increasing your skill base. For instance you will need to build into your form practice a martial awareness as well as undertake qi gong practices. Taiji is a boxing art and employs specific strategies and methods to develop ‘fighting’ skills. Time input at this level is crucial since there are many new skills to master as well as considerable practice both solo and partner to achieve the ‘Taiji body, mind and skill”. No body can really say how long this will all take since everybody is different and teaching programs may not include a systematic approach to this end. One thing is for sure though, this is a long term objective and as with all things the more and longer you practice, the better you get.
Finally, and my third broadly categorised reason for studying Taiji Quan is embodied philosophy and spirituality. Well this is a very complex subject and all I want to say about it here is this. To study Taiji as embodied philosophy means you need to understand the ancient Chinese philosophy from which Taiji as an art emerged. To do this you will need to read a lot and have a good teacher who has a good grasp of this as well as have a natural inclination towards it. You will also need to actively apply the essential principles of Yin and Yang and the Dao to your own daily life so they do not just remain the province of books. Neither can you leave these ideas at the door when you leave the training hall. Daoism, like Buddhism was practical and direct as well as obtuse and metaphysical but the emphasis is definitely on ‘how’ to cultivate yourself and conduct your life.
As for embodied spirituality….well….this requires you to achieve the health aspect and possible even the martial aspects (though not crucial for this achievement) as well as the philosophical aspect and then take it all to another level. At this level the method of training is different again since you are rectifying the physical and energetic body and cultivating the “Three Treasures” with the aim of “returning to the void”. At this point the emphasis on the moving body which we associate with the primary manifestation of the Taiji principle goes extremely “internal” (Nei Gong) This means the focus of practice changes to ‘stillness’ and the ‘alchemical’ transformatory process of “Jing to Qi to Shen to Void’. My teacher Master Li Li Qun was clear that to go down this path required that you add ‘meditation’ into your program. Without it, he told me, you can not aspire to high levels of Taiji as a practice or the lofty heights of ‘spiritual’ achievement.
Anyway you can see from all this there are three different main outcomes to the practice of Taiji Quan. Sometimes they seem to conflict but rest assured they are all branches of the same tree. Each one however requires a significantly different strategy for training and practice and each one requires an ever deepening and longer commitment. All of them however require perseverance and sincerity and this is what you should bring with you to the Training Hall. What you will take away depends upon your personal journey and whatever your achievement will inevitably depend upon what you put into it.
All beneficial outcomes in Taiji require commitment, sincerity and most of all perseverance. This manifests in a students personal practice and intelligent time put into to learning and understanding the skills necessary to be doing what we call Taiji Quan. This is what every good teacher wants to see in a student and should be the ‘culture’ of your training hall.
Happy practice to you all.