Monday, November 17, 2008

Training Speed In Tai Chi Chuan

Everybody has probably heard this joke:
"A guy goes into a bar-
-outside the bar, a Tai Chi master is defending himself from a drunk-
-the first guy has three drinks, then leaves the bar-
-outside the bar, the Tai Chi master is still s-s-slowly defending himself-
-(que snarky laughter)...
When people think of Tai Chi, they usually picture old people moving slowly and methodicly in a park. So what is it about this art that manifests it's nature in slow movement? How can something so slow be used to defend oneself if attacked?
For the purpose of this article, I will generally refer to the Yang style, which I practice, and is the most common style practiced world-wide. It is true that the Chen style (and perhaps others) have some explosive movements in their forms, and Chen appears to be the root of other styles. But let's look at the Yang form.
It is generally believed that moving slowly and carefully allows the practitioner to measure each movement precisely. This makes for smooth efficiant movement.
At a seminar several years ago, Stick-fighting expert Bruce Chu told us about an expert marksman he knew in the military. When asked about his shooting success, the marksman said: "Smooth is fast; slow is smooth; so slow is fast". In other words, his success was from slow methodical method, even in "rapid fire".
In Bruce Frantzis' book on "The Power of Internal Martial Arts", he describes a paradox in how slow movement manifests itself into incredibly fast and efficiant actions. He suggested there is almost a time-lapse phenomenon where an old master is not necessarily faster than a young attacker, but finds the gaps in the attacker's techniques and exploits them in a seemingly magical way.
Part of the illusion of Tai Chi as strictly a slow moving form is that most people never learn the CHUAN (fist) aspect of Tai Chi Chuan. While it used to be called "The Supreme Ultimate" of Chinese boxing, it is precieved in the west today as new-age hippie-dippie yoga. To a certain extent, that is true. Many Taiji students never play with push-hands or partner forms. Most can't figure out applications of the form because they have never tried, and are happy to just be doing some gentle movement that makes them feel good. Well, that's fine, but they are missing so much that they could explore to make every aspect of their skill better.
In an excellent article by Peter Lim Tian Tek titled "Taijiquan Training Speed", he reviews historical record of fast, compact and explosive fighting techniques in the Yang family forms. For instance, here is a quote refering to the form of Yang Chen-Fu's older brother Yang Shao-Hou:
"His taijiquan 'frame' style was originally similar to his brother's, but later it gradually changed to the style of high 'frame' with lively footwork and well-knit small movements, alternating quick with slow actions. He was swift and powerful in delivering his blows and, with eyes blazing like torches, a grim smile on his face and roaring and howling as he darted back and forth, he was held in awe by others" (Gu Liu Xin, his introduction to 'Yang Style Taijiquan' by Yang Zhen Duo, 1988, page 7)
-- So while learning the form, it is necessary to be slow and precise. But once the form is committed to memory and you have complete freedom of movement, we should have elements of fast, explosive action spontaneously come out in the form. Not a whole series of movements, but a piece here and a piece there. Moving Yin (slow) into Yang (fast), is perfectly in keeping with the philosophy of Tai Chi Chuan. Please check out the article linked above for further historical context.
And remember; "Smooth is fast; slow is smooth; slow is fast".


Michele said...

Informative post...thanks. I just started taking Tai Chi classes two months ago. The movement is difficult for me especially at the hips and the knees.

Dojo Rat said...

Hi Michele;
When done correctly, there should be no undue strain on your knees and hips, as might occur in Karate.
You may not be aligning your knees and toes in the same direction, that may be one problem. They should always point the same way.
The movement is so careful and slow, there should be plenty of comfort room for you to adjust. Remember, Old people in parks do this with no strain.
The other thing is, you may simply be used to using balistic movement in Karate, Dropping heavily into each stance or technique. Tai Chi requires more precision stepping and low slow movement in some cases, it might be a muscle group you are not used to moving. Your knees should never hurt in tai chi, if they do, check your knee-to-toe alingment, and consult your instructor (or another instructor).
I'm glad you're trying it, it serves us well as we age. Check that alignment!

Michele said...

Dojo Rat: Thanks...I will have to check my alignment. I am hoping my knee will not ache once I free my movement. My left knee is fine. The knee with the reconstructed ACL is another story. Michele

Littlefair said...

Great post with plenty to think about, thanks!

I'm intrigued by the mechanics and speed performance of Tai Chi Chuan- I studied it for two years and only ever trained real slow so I'm interested to see this article about speed. I knew a Tai Chi Chuan Master who was young and fit and whom I knew sparred vigorously with other styles such as jiu jitsu and karate and he always said that he held his own but his body didn't have the wear and tear of his 'hard' style contemporaries (I presume because his training was slow and precise).

Do you train at speed when you attain a certain level or is this a separate aspect of your training?

Like the blog.

Dojo Rat said...

Hi Littlefair:
I really, really think that programming your mind to slow, precise movement allows for fast spontaenous movement.
I think Tai Chi Chuan has made my Karate better, and I have a better inside "pre-clinch" game. Now I was a high school wrestler and did some judo and aikido, but the Chinese internal arts have a different lure and diversity that I am making a part of my life.
Thanks for checking in, tell us about your experiance...

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