Tai Chi Focus
The art of T’ai Chi is rooted in the philosophy of the Tao. Tao means the Way and refers to the immanent principle that lies behind all phenomena and affects all levels of existence, from the seasonal changes to the shifting state of human affairs; in other words, a form of natural, universal order.
The term T’ai Chi is closely related to Wu Chi, which refers to the Tao in its state of primal emptiness. This was depicted by Taoists, and much later in Zen calligraphy, as a simple circle.
Continuing from this original state is the T’ai Chi, which is the Tao as manifest in nature and man. The Tao Te Ching states:
“The Tao gives birth to one; one to two; two to three; and three gives birth to all things.
All things have shade (Yin) and light (Yang) and are harmonized by energy (Ch’i)…”
In this diagram, the T’ai Chi Tu, the circle represents the concept of one. Within it are contained the two qualities of light and shade. The curved line describes the changing nature of their relationship, the third element. The Energy that binds the two together and is also generated from their interplay is Ch’i.
The symbol therefore expresses the fundamental insight on which the Tao and all the arts connected to it are based. It is both a point of departure and a place of return. Within it lies the basic dynamic view of universal phenomena that has influenced and shaped Chinese thinking for at least 2,500 years. Central to this view is the notion of Yin and Yang and the relationship between them.
The original meaning of the character for Yin was the shaded side of the hill, and for Yang the side that was lit by sunlight. Then they took on the meaning of “female” and “male.” Gradually they became general terms for the fundamental complementary forces that are discernible in the natural world.
When the flow of Ch’i is balanced within us, we are said to be in good health. This means that the Ch’i is performing its natural functions of protecting and keeping the body warm, regulating the circulation of the blood and the work of the organs, ensuring the transformation of substances such as ingested food and the air we breathe, and controlling bodily fluids. When the Ch’i fulfills these tasks we have both mental and physical vitality.
The T’ai Chi form derives from the earliest forms of exercise. The first historical mention of such movements occurred in the 3rd century B.C. in a manuscript and paintings of a series of movements called the Tao Yun, or movements of the Tao. Linking Taoist principles and early acupuncture, these exercises aimed to promote a basic harmony of health.
There are many, many martial arts, and unfortunately most of them are associated with violence nowadays. But T’ai Chi belongs to what is called “internal school.” That means that the emphasis is not on developing strength and techniques, but qualities like centeredness, balance, rhythm, and most importantly, how to listen to another person.
In this sense, for bodyworkers, Tai Chi is the perfect complement to doing bodywork.
Learning the T’ai Chi form at first entails copying someone else. This implies a relationship that cannot be objective or impersonal like following pictures in a book. It has to be a teacher there in front of you breathing and moving in the flesh. Only then will you be able to sense the energetic quality of each movement. The teacher’s style may vary, but whatever the teacher does, there is only one way that the student will learn at the beginning, and that is by following and reenacting as closely as possible the teacher’s every movement during the practice of the form; in other words, copying in its most basic sense. Those who have to work hard at copying stand to benefit greatly in the end because they will have had to look and listen that much more closely to their own bodies and that of the teacher. Imitation involves not simply the mindless repetition of another person’s actions, but the sensitivity and attention that is developed during the process. This provides the foundation of awareness not only of ourselves but of others. By learning to “hear” another’s movements we can begin to understand the language of the body.
An old Zen teaching has it that we study ourselves so that we can forget ourselves. With respect to practicing T’ai Chi as a complement to doing bodywork, this means that we train ourselves through the form, cultivating and absorbing the five principles of movement so that we may come to the point where we can “forget” it all. The discipline of our practice is still present, but at the moment of touching another body there is a complete letting go of conscious effort, aims and goals. Within this absence of effort and striving we are free to receive and to respond, to be touched as well as to touch. This means that when there is harmony between the inner and the outer, between relaxation and movement, between perception and technique, the sense of “self and other” fades away, leaving space for movement, change and transformation to flow between patient and practitioner.
Tai Chi is the Yin path and bodywork is the Yang path, each containing the seeds of the other. Through their dynamic relationship, the insights and perceptions of the early Taoists on the one hand, and the discoveries of contemporary bodymind explorers on the other, can become living experience and the means whereby we heal ourselves and offer healing to others and the world.
I would like to thank my teacher, Tew Bunnag, for permission to quote extensively from his book The Art of T’ai Chi Ch’uan: Meditation in Movement. – J.B.