So what makes taiji taiji? I mean, what is unique to taijiquan, what makes it different from anything else?

My 30+ year journey through taiji has paralleled my spiritual journey (and certainly not coincidentally so, as daily meditation is a central practice for both). When I was in college I studied comparative religions—which by definition meant the differences between traditions. For a time after college I had a voracious appetite for books related to any manner of spirituality, but at some point I stopped seeing any significant difference between the great spiritual and philosophical teachers, and the library I accumulated has been collecting dust for quite a while. Before Laoze in the East, for example, the fundamental reality of duality and its characteristics of relativity, reversal, and non-absoluteness were proclaimed by the Greek philosopher Heraclitus.

My understanding has become so succinct that I would even offer to summarize the path espoused by all in one short sentence: the kingdom of heaven is within you; know thyself. (Feel free to replace “kingdom of heaven” with your preferred language or finite concept of the infinite.) Academics, or devotees of any person or dogma or organization, must however emphasize differences between paths; the former because that is what they are trained to do and are judged by, the latter because their belief structure depends on the ability to claim uniqueness or truth. Those that seek wisdom though, I believe, eventually come to understand the commonalities, indeed the universality, of spiritual teachings.

And so it is with martial arts. On a macroscale I have come to see little difference between taiji styles, between the internal martial arts, or even between internal and external martial arts. Or I should qualify—in the application of those arts. Of course it’s easy to espouse differences in methods of training; the martial arts are as varied as the intentions and understandings of the people practicing them. But, differences of training aside, I have come to understand that applications are largely the same.

Understanding martial arts as a path to wellness and spiritual growth is of course common across the martial art spectrum. In terms of self-defense application, as I have addressed in a previous post, taiji was initially created as a combined grappling and striking art, and there is no strike or takedown in any martial art that is not contained within the Chen forms and silk-reeling exercises. (A couple qualifiers are appropriate here. This statement excludes strikes or takedowns that sacrifice balance, which is precisely what one is defending in the first place and in taiji is generally not intentionally compromised for the sake of attacking. I also had to include Grandmaster Feng Zhiqiang’s silk-reeling exercises, as I have observed a circular overhand elbow strike that has become popular in MMA that is not in the forms but is in the silk-reeling exercises).

I have been watching MMA for some time, and am especially interested in its evolution—how it has quickly changed over time. Parallels of the trends of current MMA strategy with the martial theories of taiji are fairly obvious and, if you’ll pardon the pun, quite striking.

Below I offer commonalities between taiji styles and the internal arts. In Part II we’ll compare and contrast taiji and the external arts. For the latter I will largely use contemporary MMA as a point of comparison and, assuming that comparisons between the internal arts are a bit more obvious, spend more time there.

Taiji vs. taiji

Many years ago the difference between taiji styles melted away completely to me. Yes, I understand the forms look different, but taiji movement is taiji movement, period. Any movement can be taiji movement. I could mow the yard, or shovel snow, with taiji movement. Come to my house in late spring or after a big snow and I’ll show you how. 🙂

The criteria are simple, really—but certainly not easy:

1) upright and balanced posture (zhong ding/zhong zheng)
2) relaxed body/tranquil mind
3) all movement originated from the core (dan tian)
4) coordinated movement in terms of weight shifting, waist turning, and chest/abdomen opening/closing
5) focused intention on the purpose (i.e. length and direction) of the movement
6) clear expression of yin/yang energy at every moment, and smooth flow of yin/yang rhythm; and
7) emphasis on nurturing.

In combination the product will eventually be development/understanding of internal power and the kinetic chain referred to as silk-reeling in traditional language. The principles are most efficiently united in slow movement practice, but the ultimate purpose is to be able to execute any movement very quickly with balance and power.

I assisted Dr. Yang at his classes and workshops for over 20 years, and have been teaching locally for many years now. Over that time there have been many students with prior experience in other styles of taiji—including teachers of other styles. Without exception, every one of those students (that stayed long enough to learn anything) said that what they learned deepened their understanding and practice of their original style. I have other arguments for why I believe that exposure to a little of the original Chen style can be enlightening for any practitioner, but for now my point is simply that taiji movement is taiji movement, period. If that is not true—if different styles of taiji are actually different things—then by definition there is no singular thing to be called “taijiquan.”

Taiji vs. other internal arts

Just as taiji movement is taiji movement, internal power is internal power, period. It is one thing, it is not a different thing between arts. (Physical mechanisms of internal power have been explained in detail in three previous articles on this blog.) Again, if internal power was actually a different thing in different internal arts, then the concept of internal power has no real meaning and there is no singular thing that can be referred to as the “internal arts.” (I am purposely ignoring tribal tendencies or marketing/branding as motivators for claims of differences.)

If you have internal power, you can understand xinyi or taiji or bagua or yiquan. If you do not have internal power, you cannot. Once internal power is realized, “this” and “that” start to become distinctions with no real difference. This, that, and the other thing are just expressed potentialities of internal power.

That bears repeating:

If you have internal power, you can understand xinyi or taiji or bagua or yiquan. If you do not have internal power, you cannot. Once internal power is realized, “this” and “that” start to become distinctions with no real difference. This, that, and the other thing are just expressed potentialities of internal power.

The silk-reeling of taiji is also emphasized in bagua; the inside/outside turning of baqua is present in the taiji forms. The footwork is not emphasized through repetitive circle walking as in bagua, but the same rotational pivoting movement is there. And of course the primary martial purpose of rotational direction change is the same in taiji, bagua, and the external arts—to neutralize or avoid an attack and/or obtain an advantageous angle for counterattack. Both simultaneously if you are really good.

Stance in the taiji forms can at any time be categorized as variations of either wuji (even stance) or santi (staggered stance) positions. Moving santi in powerful linear (forward or backward) motion is a foundation of xinyi quan. In a homemade DVD I have, Grandmaster Feng Zhiqiang simply adopted a meditative santi stance in response to a request to demonstrate xinyi (an art he studied with his teacher Grandmaster Hu Yaozhen). Once santi stance and internal power are understood, one can easily execute linear (forward/backward) motion with balance and power. When explaining the mechanics and application of many taiji forms, I often show how the form is simply a variation of basic linear santi movement—with the power generated from the core, and the variation of movement a result of silk reeling executed by waist turning and chest/abdomen opening/closing. As the classics say, power is generated from the spine (core), and controlled (directed) by the waist. Same principle, same foundation, many possible variations/applications.

And it goes without saying that the standing meditation that is a large part of yiquan is also a significant and fundamental component of efficient training in any internal art.

Thus I would contend that there is no real difference in application between taiji styles or between taiji and other internal arts. Many people, however, would still emphasize the differences between taiji and external arts. But I have come to understand that that too, turns out to be unreal, as the next installment will argue.

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Standing meditation



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What’s the difference? Part I: comparing internal arts

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