Article from ‘That Friday Feeling’ River Dee Radio Interview with Jan and Andy.
When asked recently on a radio interview, ‘What is Taiji (Tai Chi) and how long have you been doing it?’, I realised that I have been practicing for 20 years. When I started, the teachers were all older than me and now many are younger. So what is the universal appeal of Taiji Quan (Tai Chi)? How has this mystical ancient Chinese martial art become so widely embraced globally and across generations?
Listen to the interview
What is Taijiquan?
I believe Taiji is so much more than a fighting system. My first teacher and mentor, Gerda Geddes, really led me towards a more open minded approach to the art. She pioneered Taiji in the UK and encouraged her students to see it as a form of self development. She understood the mind-body-spirit connection. In her book, ‘The Golden Needle:an allegorical journey’, she envisioned Taiji as a spiritual journey, but she was always very clear that Taiji Quan was first and foremost a martial art. Today, Taiji has grown exponentially worldwide and the health benefits are increasingly backed up by research. (1)
How does it work?
Taiji works on many levels. For example, most people relate to their bodies in a purely mechanical manner, using muscles and bones linearly when stretching and exercising. With Taiji, you learn to ‘let go’ – to relax the body, allow the bones to ‘float’, open the joints, release muscles and work through the fascia. In effect, this wrings out the soft tissues in the body and acts on the nervous system to form a much deeper mind/body connection. Taiji is more than physical exercise; the mindful, meditative qualities create mental clarity and focus. It is hard not to be present and in the moment when practising Taiji. These qualities alone are worth developing for greater self awareness and better health.
Can anyone practice Taiji?
At first you start with basic movements: working on the structural arrangement and correcting alignment; breathing peacefully, quietly and deeply; moving slowly; developing strength and becoming relaxed and centred. Later, the emphasis is on developing internal principles to power external movement, on the martial applications and on mindfulness.
There is a common misconception that Taiji is a gentle form of exercise for old people and without value as a martial art. It all depends on the intention, focus and skill of the practitioner. It can be either a dynamic martial art or a relaxed health practice. In truth there is no single definition of Taijiquan. It is multi-faceted and having a ‘beginner’s mind’ (in other words remaining open, curious and enthusiastic at all levels of study) is key to developing skill in this art. Taiji can be for all ages and abilities. Whether you want to find inner strength, peace and harmony, maintain health and well-being or embrace the combative techniques, Taijiquan has it all. Look around find a class that is right for you and suits your individual needs. (2)
What makes it unique?
The process of correct movement and breathing combined with mental focus – all engaged together – to create a continuous flow of ‘Qi’ or energy through the body makes Taiji different from other exercise regimes. This is why it is sometimes referred to as ‘moving meditation’. There are not many exercises that fully engage the mind with the body. Usually there is a ‘disconnect’, with mind going off in one direction while body travels in another direction. In Taiji, focus and clarity are intrinsic to practice routines. Learning Taiji and studying the techniques reduces stress, helps create deeper self understanding and inner peace, as well as supporting a healthier lifestyle.
Is Taiji a spiritual practice?
That is personal choice. As I’ve got older the meditative side of Taiji has become more important to me. It is my own self development process. But I still teach practical Taijiquan. Come with an open mind and take from it what you need. I see Taiji as a tool – for some it is about the fight (a method of self-defence), for others it’s about the relationship between yin and yang (the concept of equal and opposite universal force and how we balance this within ourselves and our environment).
I am not interested in teaching any sort of religion. I believe spiritual practice is an individual choice, it is part of Taiji philosophy; but then again, Taiji is a versatile method for physical, mental and emotional self improvement. As Gerda Geddes would have said, ‘I can show you how to push open the door: but it is up to you to go through’. In her quiet way she introduced many to the potential to change their lives through a more holistic practice of Taijiquan.