One of the reasons Tai Chi is difficult to learn is because of the intent factor. Why?
Its because the more you move externally, the less you move internally. So in order to use your intent clearly you must minimize excess and unnecessary movements. This is why my Tai Chi teacher liked to caution against moving without rhyme or reason.
This of course gives rise to a problem – what does he mean exactly? If you have ever tried learning to cook in a Chinese kitchen or from old ladies you should get this point for its not uncommon to be told to use some salt, like a pinch, but what does a pinch means in terms of a more exact measurement. For you see, a pinch to you may be more than a pinch in my hands.
So when my Tai Chi teacher said I am having unnecessary movements it is not easy to understand what he is trying to say because from my point of seeing things I am not moving unnecessarily. But that’s my “uneducated” view.
Years later when I got it I understood what he meant then. Now when I see students move I want to pull my hair out when I see them moving excessively. The point here is that you don’t want to move less or more but to move such that you can be quick, powerful and able to use your techniques.
To borrow a concept from game theory, MinMax, we want to minimize what does not contribute to our gain and maximize what adds to our skills. To me this is easy to understand but try explaining it to others and I see this glazed look come over their eyes.
The traditional way of learning is to practice. Don’t worry about the rank or how fast you want to make progress; just practice and little by little clarity will come. Certain things you can rush, certain things just take time.
For example, this morning I was watching the Kali class video for last week and I saw something that I did not notice before. Mind you, I have looked at this same movement done countless times for months. Since this is a key basic I keep practicing and relearning it many times.
In our practice we have a target time to do one whole sequence of movements under 60 seconds. Now when you want to complete a sequence within a certain time the logical thing to do is to go faster.
The problem is what if you can’t go any faster and you have hit a wall in terms of speed. What else can you do?
The logically approach is then to take out unnecessary movements or to minimize excessively big movements. There is a catch though, you can minimize a movement but you have to be aware of not altering its DNA too much when you start cutting out or shortening movements.
There is always a trade-off. For example, you can do a big movement which is good for power. The trade-off is that a bigger movement is slower than a small movement. The idea of MinMax is how do I minimize the movement without losing too much power.
Similarly, if you use big movements to apply your Tai Chi techniques you will find that you are always a step slower than someone who does Wing Chun which uses much smaller movements. However, if you are following the older Tai Chi way of using Small Frame then speed-wise you are not slower than a Wing Chun guy.
This gives rise to a misconception that practicing Tai Chi is about doing it slowly. In the beginning going slow is necessary due to the complexity involved. But at the advanced level a student shouldn’t have to go slow for the sake of doing so. If anything, the student must be able to move through the techniques very quickly because in combat no one is going to go slow and if you can’t catch up or respond super fast when you need to then you are waiting to be beaten.
COVID-19 is a bad time. So many things have to be put on hold or cannot do. But hitting the pause button also gives me more time to practice, think and review what I know (I hope my Tai Chi students are taking this opportunity to revise everything they have learned before). I took this opportunity to consolidate, reorganize and revamp my approach to learning and the first area I applied it to is in SKD.