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T’ai Chi Ch’uan For Combat

Many Westerners interested in T’ai chi ch’uan for its health and meditative benefits are unaware that it is originally a traditional Chinese martial art. This is indicated in the word, “ch’uan” (quan) which means “fist” or “boxing”. T’ai chi is one of the three internal martial arts systems of China. It emphasizes the use of rooted stances and body alignment, correct focusing of breath and energy, as well as some sophisticated principles of reflex sensitivity and body awareness, in order to evade and displace attacking force, rather than meeting strength with strength.

To be effective in martial arts or combat terms, these skills have to be learned and will not simply emerge from repeat practice of the form. The form is of course of great benefit in itself, in developing body awareness and correct relaxed stances. To learn rooting stances and stability, students need to be very accomplished not only at the form, but also be able to maintain this stability under physical pressure and threat. So combat training in T’ai chi has to be an applied, learnt skill. “Pushing hands”, or Ta’i chi reflex sensitivity training, is a great aid to developing this skill. Here, partners work together, initially in set movement patterns, to feel and sense their partner’s areas of tension and resistance.

The hands are just the contact points to feel these changes in a partner. They are generally not used to “push”. Pushing, if it occurs, should actually come from a relaxed connection to the ground, which is then projected through the body and into your partner’s body. T’ai chi “pushing” is not pushing with arm and upper body strength; it is forwarding energy, springing from a relaxed connection to the ground. Receiving incoming force or attacks, works in the same way. One can displace that force by displacing and subtle shifts in the feet and body. T’ai chi reflex sensitivity training for combat also requires dealing with unexpected unrehearsed attacks, preferably from a variety of opponents, using different types of attack, and even using weapons.

The secret in dealing with these attacks is to remain calm, relaxed and grounded. The other secret is to know how to read an attackers intentions; from attentive observation of their body language, positioning, mood and level of aggression. All these are easier done from contact. But in a real physical conflict, if you are unsure of an attacker’s intentions or level of skill, then initially you use T’ai chi footwork to create a safe distance and a give yourself time to respond. When such skills are mastered to a high level, then you are in a position to be in control of the situation, and can therefore prevent injury to both yourself and even to your attacker, if that is your choice. A true T’ai chi master will try to avoid conflict, and will try to reconcile and to heal, rather than try to kill or injure.

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