Classic Training

I’ve told this story before but I like to repeat it: For years, I have handed my students copies of The Tai Chi Classics and told them to “memorize it”. So there was a moment of turnabout when my own teacher, Adam Hsu, visiting from Taiwan brought me a nice old-style hand-sewn copy of the same book. As I took it, he suggested that I “memorize it”.

I continue to tell my students to try and memorize the Classics, and not just my Tai Chi students, but ALL of my Kung Fu students as well. There really aren’t many maps into the region we call Kung Fu, but how great to find that one of the oldest might still be one of the most useful: this handful of pages we call the Tai Chi Classics. Not much more than the rules you might find on the inside lid of a game box on how to play Scrabble but, like those rules, absolutely crucial to your success with the game.

QingWu girl practicing double hook swords

Some of the Classics read like poetry, some like email. People who like Tai Chi often read the Classics though—almost as often— they don’t have the martial background to understand them. People who study other martial arts such as Shaolin, Choy Lai Fut or Wing Chun rarely read the classics which is too bad because behind the poetry lies a good deal of 
excellent thinking.

To rephrase the old religious point, if the Tai Chi Classics did not exist it would be necessary to invent them. They tell the story not of techniques or history, but of the thought that goes into teaching and learning Kung Fu. They give structure to practice, defining the space within which you will play.

The story pesented in the Classics is really not about Tai Chi as some “Grand Ultimate” syle. It is about the correct and natural method of Kung Fu training shared contemporarily with most styles while Tai Chi was evolving. That is to say, much of the training we now identify with Tai Chi was shared by many other branches of the art.

Spear-in-the-throat human pyramid training, obviously.

The emphasis on soft and slow, for instance, would be a fine piece of advice for anyone practicing any number of the Chinese Martial Arts. And yet while “soft” is repeatedly mentioned in the Classics, “slow” is rarely used. How do we know that soft means slow? Because this, like much of the Classics, is understood as the norm of training. It is not an empty cliché; take it for what it really means: when they talk about SOFT, the authors of the Classics are referring to ‘soft to the point of sensual’. One of the best ways to train that softly is to move so slowly that you squeeze all the juice out of the move;  slowing it down  so you have no choice but to be conscious of every aspect of the movement.

For example, cock your hands and throw a punch. What’s the purpose of throwing a punch? That big explosion at the end, of course. But as you slow things down, I mean REALLY slow them down, we see a concentration of the changes in the muscles as the punch is thrown, the transformation of the punch in terms of angle, attitude, leverage.

Every single movement in a Kung Fu form is there for a reason and the last ten per cent of the action, the big explosion, is rarely the reason. As our Kung Fu elders did, consider the panther: total consciousness envelops the panther’s body. Its haunches tremble as it hunkers down to take a long leap but, if you take the initiative, and move forward, the panther is just as ready to reach out with a short slashing swipe. Its presence is as strong at three inches as at ten feet.

Be like the panther. Slow your form down, not like you are taking a nap, but dynamically. Most of all don’t assume that the punch has only two important positions, cocked and thrown. Every inch of the punching action, done at slow speed, should be a cocked position of its own,with the energy trembling and instantly available to you. This is first of all a practice about consciousness. Again, you might even call it presence.

As you move through your Baji, Pigua, Hua style, White Eyebrow, Tai Chi, or whatever style you practice, see the form postures as one continuous ready-to-fire exercise. This is tremendously difficult but, if you attempt it, you will move into the area where every inch, every inflection, every moment becomes a potential and a realization.


Leave a Reply

What do you have to say?

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.