I had an experience some years back with a student who enrolled in my class after having taken some seminars with Al Chung-liang Huang at the Esalon Institute in Big Sur. Al Huang, who eschews the title of Master, wrote a delightful book on Tai Chi back in 1973 entitled Embrace Tiger Return to Mountain, in which he refreshingly espoused the benefits of Tai Chi as a model for living without stricture. No reflection, I am sure, on Al Huang, but this woman seemed to have (mis)interpreted his teachings to mean that there was never any need for structure. She made the mistake of doing what followers often do, which is to hear one thing and somehow manage to translate it as something else in reflection of her own agenda.

Structure or Stricture in Tai Chi

Once enrolled in my class, she was all over the place swinging her arms as if dancing to imaginary music (fine at home, perhaps, but not in Tai Chi class). This woman completely lacked structure, but more significantly, she lacked any desire for structure or willingness to consider its merits. She wanted to be like an abstract artist but she did not want to be bothered with learning how to mix paint before getting to her canvas. Unwilling to be bound in any way by Tai Chi convention, she made a poor student. She must have thought me a poor teacher as well, because she quickly lost interest in my teaching method which emphasized the importance of structured basics as a foundation for future learning.

One other sad mistake this woman made was to confuse the feeling of being truly free and in the moment with the tendency to indulge her need for immediate gratification. She had an open (though undisciplined) body, but a closed mind.

Get Your Body in the Moment of Martial Arts

A recurring theme is being in the moment and it is one the important benefits that Tai Chi has to offer.  Usually, this quality or state is thought of in the context of one’s mind and of one’s awareness being in the moment. However Tai Chi, via its emphasis on structure, teaches us the importance of keeping our bodies in the moment as well. As challenging as it can be for many people to be mentally in the moment, it is probably easier to be so with our minds than it is with our bodies. When you are paying attention to just your mind, though there may be myriad distractions, there is only one single consciousness of which to keep track. When attending to the body there are dozens of disparate parts, each seemingly having a separate “mind” of its own.

Improper practice habits can preclude one from staying in the moment. Habits such as allowing the body to bounce up at the expense of the root, failing to maintain a continuous flow of force to and from the ground (known as unfolding), or limiting oneself by holding stress or tension anywhere in the body, are just a few examples of ways that the body, in being out of the moment, can interfere with the mind’s ability to be truly in the moment. Conversely, when your root remains solid while flowing through all of your moves, and when all of the body parts are connected so as to facilitate an optimally efficient release (or receipt) of power, and when stress and tension have been relinquished freeing the body of its limitations, the mind quite naturally follows suit. One’s experience of being in the moment transcends either body or mind to become more fully an experience of the body/mind as an integrative process.

Visiting that place of body/mind integration can be challenging enough, but residing there permanently can be more than challenging, even under the best of circumstances. I recall being on holiday at the beach, completely free of the usual obligations of business and teaching, and thus able to indulge myself more fully in the spontaneity of the moment. One sunny morning I arose to start the day with a round of Chi Kung stretching and meditation prior to my morning swim. As I concluded my practice, reflecting back on how wonderful and truly connected it had made me feel, I promptly tripped while pulling on my swimming trunks and fell clumsily to the floor. I felt like a klutz and I remember laughing out loud at myself as I sheepishly realized how my mind, so indulged in the delightful moments of an experience just past, prevented my body from being fully present to the moment at hand.

Tai Chi Structure Begets Resilience

Indeed, Tai Chi would be of little value if it were to become just one more rigid pattern in your life. Though rigidity and resilience are relative and non-exclusive terms, most of us have in our minds the idea that rigidity infers an unyielding quality, while resilience suggests strength in flexibility. Notwithstanding that, one must experience structure in order to understand structure and thus exploit its benefits without becoming confined within its bounds.

Structure within form is what allows for a consistent experience of Tai Chi principles by insuring that disparate parts of the body remain reliably and manageably connected. This allows for a consistent application of principles, regardless of scale, so that we can readily observe even the biggest principles manifesting in the smallest move, never losing the trees for the forest. Structure is not synonymous with rigidity. For the purposes of Tai Chi, inherent in its structure is the concept of resilience. It is the resilience, not the rigidity, of the tall oak that allows it to withstand a great wind.

“Living” Tai Chi

It may be very easy to form the impression that Tai Chi masters engaged in their practice represent some distant and unattainable goal which we can only seek but never achieve. In truth, this is not the case.

We can expand beyond the normal constraints of physical structure by gaining mastery of our physical structure. This is why we should not limit ourselves by thinking of Tai Chi as a mere movement or exercise pattern. Tai Chi, as a vessel for its principles, can be a metaphor for how each of us can come to live our lives in the best way possible.

Things to Remember:

  • It is the expression of Tai Chi’s principles that render the form useful.
  • Tai Chi mastery entails an integrative process which transcends the form.
  • The form is the best way to learn the principles, and remains the best way to express those principles.
  • The Tai Chi learning process is a goal unto itself.

    • Freedom comes from structure rather than from abandon.

    • Structure can free us from stricture.

    • Structure keeps disparate body parts reliably connected.

  • Tai Chi is as much about the act of living as it is the practice of form.