This is the third of a three-part series on the gentle art of well-being, Tai-ji Quan*: the slow motion martial art originating in China. In the course of these articles, teacher and Practice Works community member Stephen Guesman conveys the profound physical, mental and even spiritual benefits that result from regular practice of disciplines such as taijiquan.
Looking like a slow-motion martial art, Taijiquan is ‘played’ in parks and halls around the world every day. With its emphasis on deep breathing, mental imagery and slow graceful movements to promote flexibility, taijiquan is aptly described as moving meditation. But Taijiquan is a martial art – a martial art that is all about yielding.
As a martial art, taijiquan is in the internal or soft tradition, as opposed to the more prevalent external or hard traditions of kung-fu and karate. As an ‘internal martial art’, taijiquan relies more on relaxation, co-ordination and balance than on external strength and exertion. Internal martial arts, including taijiquan, judo and i kido, are primarily self-defensive arts that learn to neutralize an opponents attack and redirect it if desired. In taijiquan, one neutralizes force by yielding to it, yielding as water flowing around an obstacle. The water is not defeated. The water is not stayed from its ultimate course. The water merely yields for a moment as it proceeds on its way. This sense of yielding in service to a larger goal, or ‘investing in loss’, is a major tenet of the Chinese philosophical tradition of Taoism (dao-ism). **
The most practical definition of Tao is ‘the way’. Taoism’s best known exponent is Lao Tzu, who may have lived about the time of the Buddha (~600 b.c.e.). Lao Tzu is the alleged author of the seminal work of Taoism, the Tao Teh Ching (dao de ching). As the Emperor’s librarian and keeper of the royal archives, Lao Tzu came into contact with the wisdom and knowledge of China’s greatest sages. As time passed, he became aware that a time of great confusion and spiritual disintegration was to befall the empire. He decided to leave the empire to lead a life of seclusion in harmony with nature. As he rode westward to the border of China, he was requested by the border official to write down the essence of his wisdom. This slim little text was titled the Tao Teh Ching,(the way of change) and is considered Lao Tzu’s only written legacy.
*Tai-ji Quan or taijiquan is the modern translation for what was once Tai Chi, or more properly Tai Chi Chuan. The symbol usually called “the Yin-Yang” is properly called the Tai-ji. The intrinsic energy “qi”, that taijiquan and Chinese medicine seek to manage, was previously called chi. See “It’s Not T’ai Chi Anymore”, Natural Awakenings, August 2013; or contact the author for a re-print.
The Tao Teh Ching is loaded with apparent paradoxes – the key word here being ‘apparent’. The first two lines set the standard:
The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao.
The name that can be named is not the eternal name.
That is, what we’re talking about here, words cannot describe. And then it proceeds on with 81 verses of terse wisdom that has been translated and reprinted second only to the bible. The use of paradox and contrasts to speak of the unspeakable is a hallmark of Taoism, and symbolized by the inter-playing yin & yang in the symbol Tai-ji.* (As Buddhism migrated across China, this paradoxical nature of Taoism etched an indelible trace on the teachings that we now know as Zen Buddhism. )
As a martial and well-being art, Taijiquan works with the interplay of hard and soft, receiving and returning, substantial and insubstantial.
Returning is the motion of the Tao. #40
Yielding is the way of the Tao. Tao The Ching
The softest thing in the universe #42
Overcomes the hardest thing.
Seeing the small is insight. #52
Yielding to force is strength.
Initially, Taijiquan is about slow graceful movements, deep breathing and balance – a ‘moving meditation’ where players can reap physical, mental and even spiritual benefits.
And then if one chooses, Taijiquan can be played as an interactive model of the Taoist universe – perhaps spilling over into one’s personal and business life. A model of calm amidst chaos, of focus amidst confusion. A universe in which soft overcomes hard and one prevails by investing in loss.
(An excellent introduction to Taoism is TAO: The Watercourse Way by Alan Watts.
Stephen Guesman plays and teaches Taijiquan at Practice Works in Birmingham Alabama. He welcomes comments or corrections to this article. You can reach Stephen at [email protected]; be sure to say “taiji” in the subject line.
Image by Yoann Boyer.