Tai Chi has been accused of mysticism and exclusivity in the 21st century. In any other discipline, technical jargon is frowned upon, even banished where important ideas have to be explained. Not so in tai chi and the martial arts where people revel in vague notions and where language has barely moved on since the age of Confucius. How far are we all responsible for maintaining an exclusivity and mysticism in tai chi?
CONFUSION IN THE CLASSICS
As some of you know, I'm preparing an online course on tai chi, in which I'm trying my best to go back over all the old texts and make some sense of them for the 21st century. This week I was reading some of the Tai Chi classics, a series of collected writings by different tai chi masters, sages and gurus over the course of the arts history.
I was reading one in which, It advised, Sink your chi to your tan tien. At that point I asked myself, how many times had I been told this, or read it, or had it spoken to me
I was reminded of Sifu Simons last beginners class: “Sink your chi to your tan tien” said situ Simon to everyone before starting the form. Eyebrows were raised, frowns appeared, eyes flickered nervously from student to student. “Come on”, said sifu Simon, “on the count of three, all together now....sink that chi…”
Chi, sinking, tan tien. 3 concepts so profound that I thought - how on earth would anyone new to this art ever stay beyond the first class?
So, I asked Sifu, and this is what he said:
WHAT IS CHI? PART 1
Sifu: Chi, he replied, is an energy that circulates through...
mOnk: Yes, but other than what it does and where it likes to go, what is it?
Sifu: It is the life force behind our movements and…
mOnk: But what is "it"
Sifu: ”It"? Said Simon, Well, it's chi, that's what it is...
And herein lies the problem: anyone trying to define it, always starts by presupposing its existence.
As when Descartes famously uttered his phrase that was intended to prove our existence, "I think therefore, I am". He forgot that when using the pronoun I, he had already presupposed our existence.
So when Sifu Simon commands his class to direct their chi to the tan tien, he’s asking quite a lot: That his students understand what chi is, what and where the tan tien is and finally how to command chi to move to a specific point in the body, at will.
Seems to me, quite a lot to ask of someone new to the art. Was this the reason students leave classes in such high numbers? Are we mystifying them to death?
In other disciplines, such vague and obscure language Has been banished for reasons of exclusivity, mysticism, elitism - yet in the field of internal arts these terms are celebrated, embraced, protected jealously, defended in inter-school rivalry and ultimately, kept at a safe distance from the harsh investigative light of the 21st century.
As a teacher, I've found that choice of language in the classroom has one of two effects: it either engages, includes, and empowers people or it excludes them, and ultimately sends them to sleep.
Unfortunately, (and, apologies if this may sound sacrilegious to some) the tai chi classics, falls more into the latter than the former category.
Is there a way to define these terms, making them relevant to people who want to learn and are not content by being told that such terms have no equivalent in our language. Really? Our language is that impoverished?
Teaching in Spain, teaching in Spanish has taught me one thing: keep explanations simple, direct and real to the lives of those around you. Don't use words from another language or time. Don't waffle. Don't wear silly clothes. Don't use vague terms that merely complete a sentence and sound like you know something when, all you've done is cover up your limited understanding.
Be honest. We don't know everything. We can't possibly know everything. I don't know a lot about this tai ch business, but I do know when someone is willing to learn, and doesn't want to be spoon-fed nonsense . So explain just what you do know. Encourage people to explore what you don't. That way, we all benefit.
WHAT IS CHI? PART 2
The mOnks guru-free Guide to Starting the Form
THE MOST IMPORTANT LESSON IN TAI CHI
If tai chi teaches us one thing, it is the inter-connectivity of our lives - to connect what's inside with what's outside. There is nothing more important that we can teach, nothing more important that we can learn.
And - it doesn't require any jargon, any words in mandarin, any guru-speak. Just a freshly brewed 21st century practice.
Start your Tai Chi training today with this free-starters Pack
This post is also available in audio form from here.
Contrary to popular belief, the teapotmOnk (paul read) is neither a mOnk nor a teapOt. He is, however, a writer on Tai Chi, course-creator & teacher with more than 25 years of experience. He can be found wandering between Andalucia (Spain) & Devon (Uk). More here.
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