Definitely Not Simple

simple1In China, the length of their history makes the cyclical an unarguable fact. Entire dynasties take their very essence from previous eras. A renaissance movement may start with an unexpected return to the values and skills of those who came before. The trick is to still have those values, at least lying around somewhere.

In the case of ancient arts like Kung Fu, this re-examination of basic values can be good. Teachers are opening up, allowing more depth of training and more levels of meaning. But there is also a rush to try everything and discard anything that requires a little extra concentration. At this time, everyone seems to be squeezing the juice out of classical martial training, extracting and co-opting anything they can find for their own workouts. The problem is that the process has become indiscriminate. The task, it now seems, is to get something onto the Gaiam channel as soon as possible.

Partly due to the accessibility allowed by DVDs, VCDs and books, everyone is trying to make things simple and straightforward; you get “Two Steps to Tai Chi,” and “Three Best Kettle Bell Exercises.” But real quality has a relatively long arc and many of these well-meant attempts are miserable failures. So how does this happen?

Let me give a comparison. When Tai Chi Chuan was starting to make an appearance on the scene a fellow named Justin Stone, wearing western pants and a kimono top, began teaching a series of movements he renamed Tai Chi Chih or, what you might call, Tai Chi Moves. Basically there were twelve or so sequences practiced independent of each other. There was no stance work to speak of. The torso movement was small enough to only be a rumor. The arm motions were strained and inelegant. Going from this to Tai Chi Chuan would be a task so difficult, that it might have been better not to have started with Tai Chi Chih at all.

But the real problem is that even though some of the moves resembled authentic Tai Chi Chuan, they were not truly basic, or even grounded in basics. Simple they might have been; basic, no. I first learned the difference between the two from my original, traditional Tai Chi teacher, who would inform me that, “This set is basic, not simple.”

He was right. But it took me a long time to understand. That’s not unusual. For anyone, it is easy to perform an arm circle and think you have captured the circular essence of Kung Fu; yet you have done nothing new. If you really want to appreciate what a basic is, try the layered difference of duplicating a perfectly circular motion where there is constant axial rotation, where the outer edge of the shape remains full, where everything presented is supported back stage by the waist and legs crew, where imagination and breathing meld to perfectly invigorate the action and keep a close monitor on the movement throughout. And at the same time, you know that this is only Tai Chi 101.

This subtlety, the product of community, history, art and ingenuity ends up just as tasteless as packaged Ramen at a Chinese banquet. All this shows how difficult it is to balance perfectly two things people think of as the same, but which are oppositional: simple and basic.

simple2Basic does NOT mean simple. A closer definition might suggest fundamental or distilled. A simple exercise is perfectible. A basic is not. It is the kind of movement you might be doing even if you are the Head Instructor and the Grand Yahoo to boot. Basics are movements you not only do (perform), but listen to (scrutinize.)

True basic patterns like Cloud Hands easily evolve into variations such as Windmills, Wing Spreads and more. They blossom into angle changes, complex circles, crossing and rotating moves which engage arms, waist, legs and all of you.

True basics eventually take the place of teachers, because teachers will eventually send you away to deal with yourself and your own developed skills. But basics are always there, whether you like them or not; they always have information because they are you and there is no limit to this undiscovered country.

Right now, top instructors everywhere are trying to fit even more meaning into their concentrated basics. Like a handful of irreplaceable seeds stowed away in a time capsule, movements and skills will be preserved for those who will inherit future martial training.

When the First Emperor of China declared the banning of the books (“History begins with me”) individuals memorized certain classic texts which, after the emperor’s death, resurrected their oral and written history. Basics are hearty and enduring; consider the Plum Blossom, which flowers even in the dead of winter.

4 Responses to “Definitely Not Simple”

  1. WOW, Sifu Ted. Much Needed Essay. THANK YOU.

  2. Patrick says:

    Well stated for sure.

  3. James Huston Johnson says:

    Basics also travel well.

  4. Jeff says:

    So true. I find I enjoy basics more than ever.

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