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More Learning Tai Chi
further observations and conversations on learning tai chi

The Process of Learning Tai Chi

 

The process of teaching or learning Tai Chi is one of gradual refinement. At first it is a simple case of this goes here and that goes there, and then you face that way and then you step … and then this goes here and that goes there, and then you face that way and then you step … and so on. In the process we teach ourselves the best way of getting the bits and pieces to where they ought to go, and later we might also learn why it is that this and that goes here and there. This process is really is no different to that involved in any other 'art' 'form'. Good art will always demonstrate or showcase the artist's or craftsman's refinement of technique; and the finest forms of art will normally be imbibed with originality or at least a certain style. The greatest works of art are unique, un-do-again-able one offs.

By necessity, just like in all the other arts, the primary method of learning Tai Chi involves much repetition. It is best taught by visual/physical demonstration and in turn learnt at first by imitation and later mastered through repetition. Personal, self-motivated, disciplined, regular practice i.e. repetition, repetition and more repetition!!!

However, no matter how well, proficiently, efficiently, skilfully or with perfect technique and refinement Tai Chi is done and there will never be an end product - like paint on a canvas within a frame.

Is Tai Chi a dance?
If the Tango is more artistic than the jump up and down dance it is only so because the former is more disciplined form of dance than the latter - and consequently it may be justifiably defined as being more refined. However, unlike most other forms of dance there is no accompanying score or musical accompaniment to Tai Chi and even as some kind of shamanistic ballet the dance of Tai Chi enacts or represents no story or examines no particular emotion; and it has no allegory, no moral and no message aside from "go with the flow".
Perhaps then the nearest equivalent of Tai Chi in classical or high art is Ballet. But then again, there is no 'man' Tai Chi or 'lady' Tai Chi and there is no such thing as a pas de deux like there is in ballet; there is just Tai Chi as it is - for everybody.

So, it has no message, it makes no statement, it has no sound and essentially it has no material or physical presence. It can only be done and it only has meaning when you are doing it; and when you are done, again - you end up with nothing to frame - and nothing that you can listen to … or smell or taste to encapsulate, represent or remind you of it. It is what it is. It is, like a lot of art, fundamentally pointless!

It is my feeling that the art that Tai Chi is most akin to is music. Sometimes you may hear just a couple of notes but all at once they 'mean' something. You may not know exactly what the meaning is but most of the time this does not matter anyway. The important thing is you just know it for what it is - and words … and sometimes even meanings just don't matter.

The Yang Long Form is like a Symphony. It is not verse, chorus, middle eight, verse, bridge, chorus; it far more complicated than that. However, its virtue is not per say in its complicatedness but in its dynamics and the demand for virtuosity on the part of the player, for in this masterwork that is The Yang Long Form every instrument is played by just one person. The body is the orchestra.

What are we actually 'listening' to when we are listening deeply to music? We are not just listening to the notes are we? No, we are listening to it all - including the pauses - and we are trying to 'feel' or understand the emotion of the composer; and the music is all that the composer gives us to go on. He/she does not also provide us with a written auto-biography, or paint us a picture as well, or stop the performance to explain some nuance - its just done (played) and then gone.

Before getting on with this newsletter I discussed its potential subject matter with a senior student (a structural engineer named David) who is also a musician. I started by saying that Mark had asked this question, "why the Long Form?" and confessed that at that time I that my only reason was because it is … simply … "long!" I had no sooner said this when David added "so it is worth studying!"

David is now just two or three 'new' postures away from completing the Long Form. I have been meeting with him weekly for more than two years now. He is a quick learner - because he practices every day and thus, each time we meet he has himself taken care of the repetition repetition part of practice and is ready to move on. The most important aspect of this is that I am assured that all that went before has been committed to memory and become cognitive or, as I put it, filed in the riding a bike department of the mind.

New Postures
Each 'new' posture in the Yang Long Form is slightly more difficult than the one that went before - but students are not inclined to give up learning the Long Form not because it is difficult to do but because it is difficult to remember!

The 'mood' of Part One is that it is learnt posture after posture - and the directions faced are not complicated. With just two exceptions, orientation is to the cardinal (NSEW) points.

By the time a student is learning Part Two they are then normally able to absorb or commit to memory sequence after sequence. Many postures are repeated (in and out of sequence) are orientation is more often inter-cardinal (NE, SW and so on). By the end of Part Two the student has learnt all but a handful of the postures needed to complete the Form and whilst these last few 'new' postures are the most physically challenging (each 'new' posture is slightly more difficult than the one that went before. The first is simply raising the forearms, one of the last is Sweep Lotus - a 360degre spin on one foot) the hard part is remembering all that went before.

Part Three is very much a case of remembering sequences of sequences and keeping up that particular form of concentration i.e. just concentrating on what you are doing whilst you are doing it.

It is my feeling that it is the 'mind training' aspect of the Yang Long is that which renders it as a 'complete' or holistic form of self administered therapy and indeed a from of moving meditation.

We are all able to scribble a note on a scrap of paper or bang off an email or text message bereft of punctuation or capital letters and in the circumstances that's OK. However there are some people that choose to learn calligraphy - or write a book. These people are still at liberty to send a text and probably will but they are likely to continue with their studies just because it is a challenge and take pride in their creations. What they do/study/practice/play is perhaps fundamentally pointless but they continue because, one way or another, they enjoy doing it. This is why I do the Yang Long Form and encourage others to do the same. I trust that all of the above adequately answers those questions that you did not ask!

 
So, it has no message, it makes no statement, it has no sound and essentially it has no material or physical presence. It can only be done and it only has meaning when you are doing it; and when you are done, again - you end up with nothing to frame - and nothing that you can listen to … or smell or taste to encapsulate, represent or remind you of it. It is what it is. It is, like a lot of art, fundamentally pointless!
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