It was after three or four years hard graft learning Kick-boxing as a teenager that I began to question standard concepts of health and fitness. When I was 16 I decided I wanted to ‘get fit’ and be able to ‘look after myself’ (growing up in the Essex ghetto was fraught with danger!) and outside of learning various techniques and how to apply them while sparring a large part of our martial training was oriented around developing fitness and strength. The rigorous running, weight-training and stretching that began like pure torture gradually became easier over the years as my body toughened up. While I developed what would be considered a good level of fitness it always seemed like a real uphill struggle to maintain let alone improve upon this. Another thing that bugged me was that along my journey to ‘fitness’ I had somehow accrued a number of nagging injuries even though I always warmed up, cooled down and stretched sensibly before and after exercise. It also seemed that most, if not all, of my peers had similar injuries of some kind or another and upon consultation the consensus was to just accept it and push on regardless. This bothered me and I began to find this traditional exercise somewhat unsatisfying. It seemed to me that the ability to simply put one foot in front of the other during roadwork, lift a weight or repeat the same swimming stroke again and again lacked something important. To push on and not give up was the only mental content required and just like swimming upstream seemed to be terribly uneconomical and tiring. While I did enjoy some benefits from all this training and my sparring ability improved a little I didn’t particularly feel any better in my day to day life. In a bid to find out more I sampled various Pilates and Yoga classes only to find similar problems. Similarly, I attended some meditation classes which while I found them to be excellent for my mind didn’t address the issue of how I might use my body well which is so necessary for our physical existence. So it was around this point that I decided to give Tai Chi a go.
From the very first moment I started Tai Chi it made perfect sense to me. Even though the most basic principles seemed very difficult to do I could see that these ‘Tai Chi principles’ more than anything else formed a kind of unifying ‘science of movement’. During the past fourteen years of learning, practise and teaching my initial feelings have only been confirmed. If we strip away the mysterious dogma and politics attached to Tai Chi what we are left with is a profoundly integrative, natural and intelligent science of movement.
Daily Tai Chi practise has improved every single aspect of my life. Compared to when I was younger and ‘fitter’ I now feel much stronger, more agile, coordinated, connected and relaxed. I have seen the same results in countless others who have put regular effort into their practise. When I first went to train in China it was amazing to see many thousands of Tai Chi players in the parks every morning. From getting to know the locals I discovered that for them it was just normal part of everyday life but essential in order to stay healthy. Yet in the west Tai Chi is still seen by many as a kind of joke or pseudo-spiritual exercise only suitable for the elderly. I started to write about Tai Chi in a bid to lift its reputation and now I want to help people understand something which from the outside can look quite strange but is in fact extremely sensible with arguably many more benefits than ‘normal’ exercise. The reality is that Tai Chi could offer so many more people an excellent way of really improving their health and fitness; I bet even our budding Olympians could improve their game by incorporating some serious Tai Chi training into their regime, at the very least they might suffer less injuries.
I feel that there are two main issues necessary to be dealt with in order to improve this situation. The first is that all instructors should all endeavour to teach Tai Chi as well as possible. I suppose this is obvious though in order to be able to do this we must actually practise diligently and daily ourselves in order to accurately represent and viscerally know what we teach. I’ve met many instructors over the years whose only regular practise is the weekly one hour class that they run. This just wouldn’t cut the mustard in any other profession. Even the head of our school, Grand Master Chen Xiao Wang, after 60 years of training expounds that his regular and rigorous personal practise is essential to his progress and teaching. This doesn’t mean that one needs to be a master; learning Tai Chi is a lifelong journey and improvement can go on ad infinitum, instead I’m suggesting that as a teacher one should be directly involved in this learning process on a personal level. For it is through our own regular practise that we uncover the principles of Tai Chi and come to know them experientially and not just intellectually. For our students to get the most out of Tai Chi we must teach them how to practise and encourage them to do so but if we do not practise ourselves then how can we do that?
The second issue is that we can help people understand Tai Chi objectively is by using science as a basis for our explanations. Approaching Tai Chi from a more modern perspective can help clear up the many misunderstandings traditionally associated with the art that arise through differences in culture and language. Science and knowledge can help us transcend cultural boundaries and belief systems. Funnily enough I never really had much interest in science at school but since I started Tai Chi my research has led me in that direction with much fascination. I have however always had great interest in nature and wildlife in particular; there is much Tai Chi to be learned by observing the natural body-mechanics of our animal friends where there is much effortless movement indeed!
So now you know where I am coming from. In this series of articles then I will be looking at some basic Tai Chi principles through a modern lens in a bid that it will intrigue and fascinate students and teachers alike. Hopefully it will inspire people to enjoy and practise their Tai Chi even more and maybe even provide some support for a more integrative approach to and teaching of this fascinating and highly effective art.
The Internal Athlete Part 2: The power of perception.
This article was first published in the winter 2012/13 edition of ‘Tai Chi Chuan and Oriental Arts Magazine’.
Sam Moor teaches Chen Tai Chi and Yiquan full-time across Sussex.
You can check out his website at www.sussextaichi.co.uk