Science in Tai Chi

Ouf of the blue my student asked me about Chi and what not in Tai Chi. I told him that its better to spend time dwelling on the science behind Tai Chi then on matters like Chi.

The reason is simple – Chi is difficult to conceptualize clearly and definitively in practice. You can tell someone to breathe in and out to circulate the Chi and he can then believe that he has Chi in his movements but will it mean he can apply his techniques better? Aye, that is the question.

However, if we examine the practice of Tai Chi from the perspective of science it is clearer as to what is or is not happening. Of course, we can argue about Chi from say the perspective of physiology or TCM but will it lead to a clear cut answer or lead you deeper into the rabbit hole?

Just because you can’t see the science behind Tai Chi does not mean that it does not exist. In order to identify the science behind Tai Chi you should first master the art however you have to do so. Then when you read books on science you have a better idea of what you are looking at.

For example, the Tai Chi Classics exhort us to seek stillness in motion and motion in stillness. What does this mean exactly?

If you read both lines as a whole this would mean stillness must co-exist in motion and vice versa. Meaning that both must exist concurrently in every Tai Chi movement whether you stand still or you move.

However, to move but then have to be still sounds like a contradiction. Admittedly this is so until you know the science behind it. I am not good in science but being exposed to the field of engineering helps because it is in this line of work that I happened to see a real life example of this Tai Chi principle. I actually shot a clip of this but unfortunately it was in the early days of phone cameras and the quality is so bad that I couldn’t see the illustration clearly.

What is in the clip is a shot of a shaft starting to rotate from 0 rpm till past 10,000 rpm. The interesting point is how the eye sees a reflective tape that is pasted onto the rotating shaft as the speed increased. At a lower speed the reflective tape can be seen turning round and round. However, as the speed increased to about 5,000 rpm two reflective tapes can be seen in the same spot on the shaft. Once the shaft spun at 10,000 rpm the reflective tape can be seen in the same spot, as if its not moving.

The paradox here is that at a very fast speed we should expect to see the reflective tape spinning round and round very quickly. Except, this is not how it behaves and if anything, it is as if the reflective tape did not move from the same spot – a good example of stillness within motion. And because the reflective tape is vibrating at a fast pace due to the speed it looked as if there is motion when the tape appeared to stay still – motion within stillness!

The implication here of this observation is that it is not only by moving slowly we should seek to fulfill the principle but also at a faster speed. Indirectly, this is telling us that if we can do something at a slow speed it is only half the mastery. Instead, we have to be able to do it fast because when you apply this principle in the execution of techniques you must be able to carry out the technique as and when required, meaning when you need to be fast, you must be able to do it fast.

This indirectly answers an observation of why many Tai Chi practitioners are good at pushing an opponent as long as the opponent is not able to move out of the way fast enough. However, if the opponent fights back or moves about a lot then one must be able to do the technique in however little time is available or the window of opportunity will be gone in the next instant.

In this sense, being internal is not enough. Instead, one must also master the external factors relating to motion such as timing, range, angle, etc.

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