The ever increasing numbers of people practising tai chi has created the need for a clear view of what tai chi is. Many misconceptions have grown up since its introduction to the West. It has been portrayed as 'dancing', or 'mysticism', or an art only for elderly people. All are incorrect. Tai chi has a depth and breadth which can appeal to all age groups and both sexes.

Due to the fact that, on occasion, tai chi has been taught piecemeal to certain interest groups, the public perception has been distorted. To many people a superficial knowledge of the solo exercise is all that is necessary before you can teach others the art. As such it has relegated tai chi to a mere 'exercise' and robbed it of the status of a truly great art.

Tai chi's impact on an individual can be immense, changing your view of yourself and everything around you. Tai chi solo exercise or 'form' has many levels of expertise. For those simply wishing to improve their health, correct practice of the basic level form will yield pleasing benefits. Increased vitality, improved general weil-being and a sense of calmness are common reports from students. Greater benefits accrue as you progress to the higher levels of expertise. Increased spiritual awareness, flexibility and robust good health are the rewards.

A change in the way you react to situations will take place also. A calm enters your life and tense situations become less so. Such immense changes, however, do not come without some effort, and consistent practice is essential. Eventually, the ability to circulate chi (vital energy) freely around your body can be achieved, with accompanying improvements in health, both physical and mental. Abilities way beyond this are obtainable, but are outside the scope of this book and can be obtained only with personal guidance from a good teacher.

As great as the benefits are from practising the tai chi empty hand form, training with a partner has added advantages. Pushing hands - or tui shou - increases your ability to maintain calm while trying to cope with your partner's continuously changing actions. At a basic level there are set routines of pushing hands exercises. Partners push, parry and control one another's movements in a relaxed fashion, and attempt to put the lessons learned in the solo form into practice. Winning is not part of these 'fixed step' pushing hands exercises. Learning from doing is the aim. Once the rules for practice are explained, the students will run through the routine slowly, trying to sense what is happening. Touch is the dominant sense used for this purpose; with practice, deep, rapt concentration will follow. The intense but relaxed state is akin to meditation in movement, with a stillness of mind and a clarity of vision.

For those wishing to become expert in the martial arts applications of tai chi, pushing hands is the first essential step. Being able to control an assailant is a first prerequisite for self-defence. At the basic stage of pushing hands practice, many valuable lessons are learned. once a student's skill is great enough, those with a competitive bent can take part in free-style pushing hands training. In a prescribed area (sizes vary) in which nothing other than the soles of the feet can touch the ground, each competitor attempts to push the other out of the area using their tai chi skill, not brute strength. Alternatively, each will attempt to throw the other to the ground. Hands or knees touching the ground will score a point for the training partner. It must be stressed that a good level of skill should have been attained before free-style pushing hands is attempted. To do otherwise leads to the use of brute strength and completely goes against the spirit of tai chi.

The United Kingdom Tai Chi Chuan Association strongly endorses the use of a matted area on which to practise free-style tui shou to protect the students when they are thrown to the ground. Safety is the obvious priority. Consistent training in pushing hands will sharpen the reflexes and develop the skills necessary for effective self-defence. Again, it must be stressed that it is not compulsory to take part in competitive pushing hands training, but a knowledge of its practice will give you a clearer overall view on the subjcct.

Stilling the mind and attuning yourself to a higher awareness are the aims not only of meditation but also tai chi. Together they form a common alliance against the modern ills of stress, frustration and feelings of alienation. The meditation technique taught in this book could easily have been included in the chapter on chi kung, since it has energising properties as well. it is a well known and widely practised meditation for those seeking good health as well as a calm mind.

Chi kung or 'vital energy accumulation exercise' is used by both martial artists and health promoters. Literally hundreds of chi kung routines are practised in the Far East. Many are specific to either the martial arts or to health; some, however, are common to both. The routine detailed within this book is used by both martial artists and health-minded individuals alike. As such it will appeal to the widest possible audience.

Often when students begin to learn the tal chi solo form, they will express no interest in the self-defence applications. However, once they have progressed through the form their curiosity has been aroused as to what it all means. Tai chi's philosophy on self-defence is to use the other's strength and control their actions. Tui shou (pushing hands) teaches the ability to sense and control through touch. The solo form supplies the self-defence techniques, and the self-defence applications training teaches the footwork and overall use for practical applica- tion. Each attack is dealt with by either evading with the help of tai chi footwork, or lightly parrying the assault. At no time are forceful blocks applied. The obvious beneficiaries are the majority of the population, who are neither natural athletes nor physically able to be strong and athletic.

One of the abilitics acquired with continued practice of pushing hands is that of 'sticking energy'. Constantly trying to sense your partner's movements during pushing practice leads to an intuitive feel for their actions. Whenever they move forwards you will mirror the action and retreat before them at exactly the same speed. When your partner is retreating you will still stick to him or her, following each action precisely. With a skilled and experienced individual, they appear to stick to you like glue and prove very difficilt to evade. This may seem to be no more than an interesting phenomenon in a class setting. But, in an actual self-defence situation, once the tai chi exponent has stuck to you, he will quickly tie up your hands and strike, pressing home the attack with hands, feet and grappling manoeuvres. Consequently, the time spent practising pushing hands can be applied usefully beyond the benefits of a psycho-physical exercise.

To extend the skills and abilities gathered from the tai chi solo form requires the use of the tai chi weapons. It may seem odd to equate weapons training with an advance in your tai chi skills, but on closer examination it will become clear. The double-edged straight sword, for instance, creates a relatively awkward weight on the end of your arm. Trying to move with skill and grace at first is impossible, with what appears to be the bane of you life in your hand. Perseverance comes to the rescue; with consistent practice the dead implement comes to life in your hand. Movements flow and the sword becomes part of you; an alien implement turns into a servant of your will. The rationale is - you can extend your chi or vital energy to the tips of your fingers and toes. To make it flow stronger you must extend its effects beyond your body. To achieve this the tai chi swordsman directs the energy and the point of focus to the tip of the sword. Thus when you make the sword do what you will, and can focus your energy to the sword tip, you will have forced the chi to flow beyond its normal boundaries.

Following this logic, the longer the implement used, the greater the increase in internal strength used to apply. This explains the order in which the tai chi weapons are taught, with the double-edged straight sword (or broadsword) at the beginning, through to the lance. The broadsword, which is heavier than the double-edged sword, can be taught first or second in the tai chi syllabus, depending on the teacher. Each of the broadsword movements tends to be longer, with wide sweeping motions emphasised. Greater effort and concentra- tion is required to perform the exercise with elegance and control.

The staff can be from six to in some cases 13ft (1.8-4m) long. At its shortest length it will be twice as long as either of the swords learned previously. But by the time you have progressed to this point, you will be used to extending your skills beyond your present capability.

The last weapon to learn is the lance, and although it is generally shorter than some of the staffs, it requires great skill to use well. The added requirement of skill is due to the nature of the wood used in its manufacture. There are two types - yellow rattan and white waxy wood. The chief characteristic of these two is that of flexibility, necessary when performing with the lance.

The body of the lance should bend and whip at the student's will, responding to the mental direction of the wielder. This gives the appearance akin to the actions of a snake, with the lance tip moving like the head of the reptile. The lance not only extends your vital energy, but also inproves your physical condition, with the vigorous movements of the lance exercises.


Source: Yang Tai Chi Chuan, by John Hine.