Talk About Chi….. Not

If you have nothing better to do on a slow day you may be interested to take a look at this video that a student asked me to see.

I found it an interesting talk but it does nothing for me as far as mastering Tai Chi is concerned. The reason – it fails to address the most important part of the process for mastering Tai Chi which is how to use the intention.

Granted the topic is on Chi and not mastering Tai Chi but the speaker talked about flow from the research of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi which I guess is why my student thought is related to what I wrote about in this blog post on Movement. I have read about Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s work. However, what we do in our Tai Chi is more than just flow. To us flow occurs when the variables are finetuned to work optimally with each other.

Perhaps Flow is a good explanation for non-Tai Chi experiences. But does it really apply to Tai Chi? Perhaps. Somewhat. Totally? No.

If you don’t know your Tai Chi well enough you would think that Flow is a good explanation. Here’s a poser – if you think you understand what Tai Chi is about try explaining what the Tai Chi Classics are about and better still demonstrate their meaning in practice. If you can’t give a consistent and rationale explanation then you know where your level of mastery really is.

So that’s as far I would go where flow in movement is concerned. If we are talking about flow in the face of resistance and pressure from an opponent that’s a different matter. In this case Chi is not as important. Instead, the intention and what our mind is doing is more important. As the ancestors in our Tai Chi lineage says “No Yi, No Chi”.

“No Yi, No Chi” should be self-explanatory and most readers would think they understand what this means……….except they don’t really understand it until they can actually do it by proving that they can clearly differentiate the use of Yi versus what I would term murky movement i.e. movement in which the intention is not clearly distinguished.

Another problem I have with this talk is ……….. too much talk. Anyone can talk, going round and round the bush, throwing in lots of buzz words that ultimately doesn’t leave you any clearer to begin with before and after listening to it.

It would have been easier to do a demo, perhaps get the participants to try out and go around to show them what they think and what really is Chi. This talk kinda reminds me of those authors who write Tai Chi books who write tons of words and its fine………… as long as they don’t actually try to show you a demo at which point you can see who really knows their stuff and who is really talking about something they think they understand but not really.

Listen to the part beginning at 45:29 where the speaker mentioned about circle and square with the circle being soft and square being hard. Then the speaker went on about word pairings in this vein instead of explaining further on how the use of Yi can actually render a square soft and a circle hard. This is what my students would consider the non-intuitive aspects of Tai Chi. However, as much as I would like to claim credit for it I am not the first person to write about this paradox of principles.

If I want to put it mystically I would say that the Yi renders the square soft by infusing and surrounding it with Chi. If I want to draw the religious crowd I would maybe draw a parallel with some ancient goddess coming to earth, bestowing magical powers on Tai Chi practitioners who worship her by dancing the form under the rays of the full moon (clothes optional for the nudist New Agey crowd), transforming their Chi as it flows and courses through the major pathways and acupoints to breakthrough the chakras (yeah, while we are at it attract the Yoga feel good crowd too), moving the power through the serpentine spine to exit the crown of the head, soaring through to the heavens and unifying us to the mother earth <pant, pant, I am breathless from merely reading this>.

In discussing a difficult topic like Tai Chi it is a common practice to conceal one’s lack of understanding by talking about the topic sideways, preferably pull in a lot of different threads to distract us from the fact that the main topic was not really addressed. Classic self perception disorder as to one’s actual level of understanding is rife even amongst so-called masters. Fortunately, for them most people don’t know enough about the subject to catch them out. Thus, it is true that in the kingdom of the blind the one-eyed man is king.

After 30 minutes of listening to the talk the speaker has still not clearly defined what Chi is, how to know that Chi is real, what it feels like, how one can cultivate it, how long does one need to train to get it, and so on. As it is the talk is like taking a cruise to nowhere, just sail out to the high seas somewhere and come back. Yet, the best explanations I have heard will hit the bull’s eye within minutes, not meander round and round after 78 minutes. Towards the latter part of the video the speaker even touched on neural networks to which I would still want to know how is this related to Chi?

I know some people would like this talk but it does nothing for me. I actually learned more reading Walter Isaacson’s biography of Albert Einstein, not so much about Chi or Flow but about academic life, thinking, physics, stuff that can help move you along in understanding Tai Chi.

Consider the following examples :-

Example A from the chapter The Light-Beam Rider (page 3 – 4 in my copy) :-

Gravity, he figured, was a warping of space and time, and he came up with the equations that describe how the dynamics of this curvature result from the interplay between matter, motion, and energy. It can be described by using another thought experiment. Picture what it would be like to roll a bowling ball onto the two-dimensional surface of a trampoline. Then roll some billiard balls. They move toward the bolwing ball not because it exerts some mysterious attraction but because of the way it curves the trampoline fabric. Now imagine this happening in the four-dimensional fabric of space and time.

Example B from the chapter The Lovers (page 83 in my copy) :-

The essence of Mach’s philosophy was this, in Einstein’s words: “Concepts have meaning only if we can point to objects to which they refer and to the rules by which they are assigned to these objects.” In other words, for a concept to make sense you need an operational definition of it, one that describes how you would observe the concept in operation.


Can you see the parallels between what Einstein talked about and Tai Chi. I have used Example A to explain Tai Chi to one of my students.

Conclusion and recommendation – if you have but 1 hour and 18 minutes to spare (that’s the length of the video) you are better off reading about Einstein than listening to this babble about Chi that was not really. As Donald Trump would say – Sad.


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