The Role of Continuous Movement in Yang Style T’ai Chi Chuan

~Reprinted from T’ai Chi Magazine Millennial Issue, February 2000


At one time T’ai Chi was known as River Boxing (He Quan). The reason is obvious, even to the non-player. T’ai Chi’s smooth, continuous flowing motions move along like a gentle mountain stream turning and tumbling occasionally but never halting its fluid progress.

And to make progress in this art we often return to the set, as to a favored poem, to refresh our remembrance and to gain new insights.

Each of T’ai Chi’s honorable styles has a unique character. But the definite trait of Yang style is its emphasis on smooth and continuous movement. At first blush this appears relatively simple. Set up your metronome and proceed, keeping at an even pace throughout the form. But in a tighter view we recognize that the task may sound easy but, like that mountain stream, there may be a few slippery rocks to navigate.

After all, our lives are patterns of interruption. To understand and appreciate the genius of T’ai Chi we must first be clear about this point. We get up, gulp breakfast, dash to work, scurry about our tasks, drive home, eat dinner, etc. Overall the pattern may be stable and even habitual but the individual pieces are often disarrayed and jagged. T’ai Chi doesn’t just ask us to be continuous in our movements; we could do that on a treadmill. Rather it asks us to be consciously continuous. The moves are like puzzle pieces. To render them understandable we have to fit them together in just the right configuration. Think about this. Continuous physical actions combined with a continuous awareness and psychical engagement. It’s not an easy task. The beauty is that it’s such a pleasant task.

But why do we resist it so much ? Because continuity contradicts daily life. And there’s more. In Western culture, life is essentially defined as a struggle. Living as we often do, in a continual state of “survivor mode,” we rarely allow ourselves calm, continuous actions. We crave closure, end-points, punctuation β€” a way of knowing that we have achieved fullness.

In approaching continuity we are, in essence, retraining ourselves. T’ai Chi from this standpoint can be conceived as more of an eraser than an addition to our lives. It wipes the board clean and gives us a chance to post some more messages, to ourselves and to the world.

But not all problems with acquisition of T’ai Chi continuity are mental. Some are personal and some are technical. Let’s look at the personal first:

GLITCHES

Every body has a history. Injuries, limitations, habits and even strengths can impede the absolute flow of a living body. T’ai Chi’s goal β€” encompassing, of course, strength, balance, stamina and the “normal” exercise agenda β€” also poses a different criterion: a return to the non-differentiation of childhood, a “face before you were born.” Of course, we can’t return to an embryonic state of blissful uniformity. But the practice of such a state is the physical equivalent of meditation. Indeed, T’ai Chi is often known as “moving meditation” by which, I suspect, most people interpret as “meditation while moving,” something like meditating while on a jet plane. No, it’s fuller than that. T’ai Chi is physical meditation. Meditation where the body leads the quest for continuity and homogeneity and the mind follows (if we can even split the two β€” but for purposes of this essay, it’s all right). And, as Krishnamurti would point out repeatedly, this meditation, if it is true, allows us an opportunity to observe dispassionately the state of our own bodies. And here we see just what there is to see, and the fascination begins.

I have a bad left knee (not, I hasten to assure, from martial arts, but from jumping onto an algae-covered rock at the beach). When I practice the set my hip β€” four years better and certainly good enough, but also four years more habituated to my injury β€” wants to skip over the hard parts. And what are the hard parts? Where the left side bears weight, of course.

I think it will surprise no one who has ever practiced T’ai Chi to know that I have a slight tendency to speed up the set when my left leg has to do the bulk of the work. I think it will also surprise no one to know that every student I’ve ever had also tries to “rush past” the hard spots. This is only natural. But what I find most interesting it that it may literally takes years for the student to recognize this little bit of cheating. The reason is obvious. In daily life we compensate, then try to ignore the slippage of our posture and our movements. What we can’t adapt to in our bodies (injuries, habits, etc.) we mentally accept and then try to hide.

When we attempt, truly attempt, to implement the injunction to move in a flowing, continuous manner we may find to our consternation that it seems almost impossible. What previously seemed a perfectly smooth and uninterrupted performance reveals itself to be a stuttering junker with watered gas in its lines. Not only do we sneak past our physical limitations, but we also hurry past moves we don’t quite understand, actions we think we’ve mastered and therefore take for granted, and a bushel of other “problem spots.” In fact, after examining the set with a frosty eye, we wonder if there are two moves in a row where we can claim anything resembling continuous motion. (If all this sounds, peripherally and suspiciously, like a description of the way we lead our lives in total let us, for the sake of continuity, “rush past” that for now.)

The key to this is to set discouragement aside. You are more continuous when doing T’ai Chi than at other points in life. The set was designed to carry you along like a river (remember T’ai Chi’s other name ?). In daily life, human movement is far more disjointed. Take heart. You are already improving, but the critical eye will forever be ahead of the body. Personal idiosyncrasies are what T’ai Chi addresses best. But to correct them we must first acknowledge their existence.

The point is to understand that T’ai Chi is a systematic approach. The glitches in our movement do no stand alone. Unlike exercises like weight training, we will not isolate and correct them as though they were separate from our whole being. Have faith. The continuity of the set is its own reward. Think of these flaws as corners on a woodworking project and just keep sanding away.

But there are other considerations in this question of continuity. Questions of a more advanced level. One of the most important and interesting of these is

RATE VS. SPEED

All the movements of T’ai Chi are continuous and even. We have established this as a criterion of the set. But it’s not as straightforward as we might first think. The masters who developed the form were clever and thoughtful. They allowed for progress and challenge in the art.

I have seen performances by relatively high level teachers that were perfectly even and yet somehow lacking in T’ai Chi’s special character. Almost as tasteless as watery soup, they disappointed while simultaneously meeting all the standards. The reason? In the effort to make T’ai Chi perfectly smooth, a subtle shift has occurred in all the movements β€” every one of them. The performer had minorly altered the meaning of the actions until all limbs traveled at precisely the same speed. This is the point where we must return to T’ai Chi’s martial background. To perform Brush Knee and Push with both arms traveling at the same speed is practically (in the martial sense) impossible. The arc of the low-blocking hand does not match the action of the Push. It’s only by “welding the arms together” that such a thing can be accomplished and this form of “double weighting” is strictly forbidden in true T’ai Chi.

So what can be the answer? If the limbs move at different rates, how can the set be absolutely consistent? At this point we introduce a concept known as Convergence. Each posture of T’ai Chi is standardized for the sake of practice. In the case of Brush Knee, for example, the lower arm should be at maximum extension approximately when the Push completes its action. The limbs travel at different rates but they converge at the same moment. What you’ve just read is correct: some limbs travel faster than others. We must understand this to know what is really meant by the term “continuous.”

In the clockwork world of T’ai Chi all the wheels, little and big, move at different rates to coordinate each second of time. If this were not so, T’ai Chi would not be a martial art because martial arts cannot act as if the limbs were one unit. If my wrist is grabbed, I must respond immediately with a strike from the free hand while disengaging the captured limb. Should I lock my arms then the control of my wrist is also the control of the free hand.

The mind plays a crucial role here. It must coordinate the movement of limbs traveling along different arcs. It must harmonize movements. When we read a T’ai Chi book and see the postures illustrated we have to understand that these are fixed final positions, snapshots if you will, of motions that a second earlier were widely divergent.

To accomplish this it is recommended that the student look at the form as a series of sections and be absolutely unafraid about taking these sections out of the form and practicing them separately. Focus on the glitches, the speed-ups, the deletions and the abbreviations. Take a phrase like Repulse Monkey and work it for continuity by smoothing out all the rough spots. Then, when you think you’ve improved it a bit, practice Fist Under Elbow and Slanting Flying, the moves immediately preceding and following Monkey. When you’ve done this, return the entire section into the form and, lo and behold, on reaching Fist Under Elbow you will flow into the revamped Repulse Monkey as though water negotiating a crack. You’ve not only solved a problem but you’ve employed T’ai Chi’s method to do it. Nothing trains one to flow better than flowing.

I’ve talked a bit on continuity, how to scrutinize it and how to achieve it. Now I’ll take a moment to consider its worth. Why is continuity so important? Why is it stressed? The immediate answers are fine: To achieve a sense of harmony, to “smooth the Ch’i”, to regulate the system. But let me examine the topic from a more down-to-earth view. What is the use of continuity? And what are its benefits?

Perhaps an analogy works best. Think of the act of lifting a weight. That requires a certain strength. Then think of the same lifting action done with absolute control and slowness. Definitely more difficult. The body that can negotiate all the angles of T’ai Chi without speeding up and relying on jumps and starts is a body that is essentially free to move in space, in any direction, and any impulse of the will. Such a body is closer to that youthfulness which is the goal of all exercise. Would we not trade all the muscular strength of the adult body for the freedom of movement of the child’s as yet untutored and unhampered motion in space. And yet, through T’ai Chi, we strive for this without the child’s unsureness in movement. We refine the connection between body and mind not by desensitizing that precious vehicle, but by using mind and body in perfect harmony to reacquaint us with the meaning of youth and the benefits of experience.

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