I mentioned in my OCD post that I have been in the martial arts community my whole life. Due to my mother’s practice of Tai Chi I have spent many hours moving S L O W L Y or watching others move at a snails pace. My own training as an adult has been in Aikido, both are considered to be ‘soft style’ arts.
Before any Tai Chi class even starts to think about movement, you stand. Just stand, for about five to ten minutes. Sounds easy right?
Now make sure you back is straight, body relaxed and there is no tension in your ankles. They should feel like “freshly risen bread dough” This simple mandate is frustratingly difficult to achieve never mind maintain in movement, even for my mom almost 35 years into practicing.
When my sister and I were young my mom practiced the whole ‘short form’ (a misleading name) EVERY. MORNING.
She did this in the living room and so we had to be still and quite for the duration. She has been practicing Qigong daily since she was 19 or so, she has been teaching for 20 years and still has weekly lessons with her teacher, Sid.
Growing up I had the privilege to be surround by amazingly talented martial artists. This included Sid and his wife Wendy of The Tai Chi Natural Health Club in Santa Cruz. As well as their teacher a man named Chang I-Chung.
He is a Tai Chi master and a teacher of teachers in this country for 30 years. I knew him as Mr. Chang. In my memories he is a tinny spritely person with a HUGE grin- who could knock any man on his butt with a smile and twitch of his wrist. His demonstrations were truly amazing.
After his demonstrations we would have pot lucks and he would talk at length about food, diet, digestion and gas. He LOVED to talk about gas, all the different types. He was the kind of man who claimed his farts with a smile.
As a child he was my idol!
Soft style or internal martial arts are often the target of doubt and accusations ineffectiveness among the other harder style martial arts and the public at large. People who define their judgments of validity by how many boards you can break/bad guys you can beat up at once. People who believe it is better to learn how to punch and kick in ways that inflict the most pain and damage to your opponent.
Soft style arts are often looked at like a kid brother practicing with a paper sword. I will tell you a little secret, in all my years of seeing people train both sides of the coin. I have never seen a soft style master decide he/she should take up hard style out of a lack in their own training. I HAVE witnessed time and time again, black belts showing up at beginning soft style classes and my teachers being sought out by hard style masters in order to improve in their training.
The hard styles can be ridged and mathematical:
I hold here + punch there = they fall+ I finish the submission.
Soft styles are not ridged and calculated, they are creative. Reactive to what is, without anticipation of what you are going to do. Since each attack is individual.
“This is art, not arithmetic! A classroom of people doing a math problem should all come up with the same answer. A classroom of painters should all come up with different paintings. A skillful cook doesn’t prepare the same dish the same, two days in a row. Adhere to the principles and realize the variations on the movements are “conditions dependent” in differing situations. Realize the range in which you can play with the form; health, martial, art, practicality.”-WB
It is often reduced to “Oh yah, that’s where you use your opponent’s energy against them.” While I have never heard a master object to this assertion. I have seen many a quite knowing smile and a dismissive nod. The sentiment implies waiting to receive the attack before doing anything about it and this is fundamentally wrong.
Soft and internal styles rely on balancing the self and harmonizing with the attack. It is NOT fighting the ‘fight.’ It is internal self-action not inaction.
There is an old demonstration that I love. The teacher will grab a student by the hand and say “what do you do now?” (You can do this at home with pretty much anyone since the reaction is almost always the same.)
Inevitably the student will pull, twist, prey with the other hand but the grip will remain and the student will say ” I don’t know. You have me”
At this the teacher will release and ask the student to grab their wrist. Softening the teacher will relax and step into the student, giving them the hand, wrist, arm-all of it. “Here you go.” This almost always puts the student off balance and the stumble back creating the space for either an attack or a hand pick. Sid has a slightly different method where he just kicks you hard in the shin and you let go. He’s a funny one, that guy.
In either demonstration the point remains the same. Do not focus all your attention on the one point where are being held. You have an entire body at your disposal, not being held buy anything other than YOUR mind’s focus on your wrist. Don’t pull away in the one direction they are expecting, step into them and give them what they want. It is more fun to see the shock in their eye as they stumble back anyway.
The best way I can sum it up is that soft styles are implicit not explicit. They exist within a form but derive their power from the individual practitioner not some secret combinations of movements like the “five finger death punch. ” Such things Mr. Chang would say are overly complicated:
“The Dao adheres to simplicity, that which is complex does not follow the Dao”
Nature’s slow and quite way is the only true master and its entire existence is encompassed within each person:
“Paradise is within us.” He explained, “Thinking belongs to the earth element. The “Yi”‘ of Xing Yi Quan relates to the earth, the stomach, and the spleen. If my thinking is correct and I accept natural things, then my stomach is clean, my thinking Is clean. If I eat correctly, my visceral earth is also clean. A place of earth which is clean and pleasant to live is paradise. The good earth (paradise) is in oneself: in one’s thinking, in one’s stomach. You do not have to go to China or India, eat cleanly and think cleanly and paradise will be inside of you. A pleasant place to live is in me. I don’t have to go anywhere.”
I have seen and heard many things that sound fantastic like the demonstration of energy in this clip below. It looks fake but after you have trained with enough people the difference in energy when you touch a master is intangible but I assure you very real.
This is not Mr. Chang but I have seen this demonstration done by him, it defies belief but then again what is life without a little magic? There are worse things to believe in then your own personal energy- like for example, believing that you have none.