Here at the frontier, the leaves fall like rain. Although my neighbors are all barbarians, and you, you are a thousand miles away, there are still two cups at my table.

Ten thousand flowers in spring, the moon in autumn, a cool breeze in summer, snow in winter. If your mind isn't clouded by unnecessary things, this is the best season of your life.

~ Wu-men ~

Sunday, October 22, 2023

Rhythm and Flow in Taijiquan Practice

Thoughts on Tai Chi had an interested article on developing rhythm and flow in taijiquan practice, which I think applies to all martial arts. The full post may be read here.

My late Tai Chi teacher used to say that it’s the internal movements that are important, not external movement. How true, isn’t it? 

But it can be hard to understand what is actually meant by internal movements. On one level we do have more tangible things such as the breath work, movements of the spine, opening and closing of the ribs, the internal movement of the dantian and more. Those are things you can feel and coordinate, but they are hidden, how you work with those aspects don’t show on the outside. On another level we have the “mind”, “yi” and “qi”, that can be abstract concepts, prone to individual interpretation, or be used to express how to integrate body, breath and mind together. 

The key to really integrate these internal aspects and to work with them as a whole, is really what I myself call internal rhythm and flow. Honestly speaking, I have no idea if there’s a better or more exact word. Many speak about the importance of rhythm and keeping a flow, but they seem to mean different things or they don’t explain it what they mean.

Between westerners and Chinese, sometimes there might be a kind of language barrier. Sometimes things can be very hard to explain in another language. Not surprisingly, I have also found that it is those Chinese “masters” who have achieved the best level in English, that make the most effort trying to explain “rhythm” and “flow”. Those I have in mind also make less use of “qi”, “yi” and similar. They try to find their own ways to explain things with western language instead of Chinese words.

Of course, it is said that movement should be continuous and that Tai Chi “moves unceasingly like a great river.” Sometimes it’s slow, sometimes faster. But water also moves with a certain pulse and rhythm. Especially if you think about the waves moving up and down a shore. The waves are set in motion by the winds. When we move, we must consider gravity just as much as the limitations of our own body and balance.

Yes, I know that all of this can be hard to understand, especially for beginners. There are many steps in learning Tai Chi, it takes a long time to even start to internalize the art so you can begin practicing it on a deeper, more internal level. And most people do not. They practice Tai Chi on an external, superficial level. There’s nothing wrong with that. They might still get a whole lot of positive physical and psychological effects of Tai Chi practice. But still, the real internal practice doesn’t start until you have internalized the art. 

Obviously, you need to first go through the external steps. The first step is to learn the form so well you don’t need to think about what movement comes after another. Then there are a few basic rules you need to understand and do well, rules about how to balance and align your body, and how to move your body together as a one single whole. After getting good at following those rules, you need to internalize the outer form. On a basic level, this means that your movements need to be initiated and controlled from the feet and the center of your body, and from inside of your body, rather than start moving by using the hands and limbs.

Working on becoming better at relaxing the mind, body and breath and learning how to sink your strength, and building some basic rooting skills are also aspects of internalizing the art. First, when you have practiced maybe one, two or three years, depending on your own personality and dedication to the art, I suspect you could really begin to understand what is meant by rhythm and flow. If you are a beginner, maybe you understand it on an intellectual level, but as always, there’s a difference between understanding logically and understanding by doing.

Music according to Master T.T. Liang

If we speak about rhythm and flow, obviously music should be something of the first that comes to mind. Tai Chi Master T.T. Liang, a student of Cheng Man-Ching, differ slightly in philosophy compared to his teacher. While Cheng Man-Ching promoted his short form, Liang thought that practicing the long form was important, and meant that only by taking time so the body can build up an internal heat, you would understand the real benefits of Tai Chi as a health practice.

The teaching style differs even more in the fact that Liang actually created his own music that would help practitioners finding the rhythm in the Tai Chi form. So his own Tai Chi should be practiced together with music, and he himself used to play it in his classes. 

For some people, practicing the form together with music might seem odd and maybe even as taking away some of the internal focus. However, it will help the student to find a good overall speed, pace and to find a natural rhythm. Regardless if you prefer to study Tai Chi with or without music, this kind of practice could still help you to better understand how to practice form together with both an external and internal rhythm.

No comments: