Trying Tai Chi

Every once in awhile it’s good to be a “white belt” again (no rank, new beginner). I’ve visited self-defense classes taught by instructors whose base arts are different from mine (read more here and here) and a couple of self-defense seminars taught by a sensei from a dojo in our karate organization. It’s been interesting to see the common points and the differences in those one-off self-defense seminars. Often these have little to do with the instructor’s base art. One thing I intend to do more of is to go to one-off workshops introducing martial arts that are not the style of Karate that I study. A few months ago I participated in a Capoeira workshop. Last week I had the pleasure of being introduced to Tai Chi.

As expected, most attendees were elderly. I spotted a seasoned warrior in a 2017 Judo tournament T-shirt and made a mental note to talk to him after the workshop. My daughter, who trains in Karate with me, was by far the youngest in the room, and I was maybe the fourth youngest. I saw a variety of physical challenges that can be accommodated easily by a “soft” art such as Tai Chi. I’ve been known to grumble about adult women not taking interest in martial arts, so I was pleased to see that women were the majority in this workshop. It’s pretty obvious that Tai Chi is the martial art that women are inclined to try!

Our instructor, an amiable young woman ( Dr. Hansie Wong), right from the start made it clear that Tai Chi is a martial art. I know I wasn’t the only one making comparisons to another art during class. After class, the Judo warrior and I talked about our observations with Dr. Wong. She explained to us that the soft arts, like Tai Chi, focus on the internals – breath, center of gravity, flow, whole-body movement, etc. and the “hard” arts like Karate and Judo focus more on the externals. I was quick to point out that in Karate we don’t put much emphasis on the internal aspects of our art when we’re teaching new beginners, but as an advanced student I am now learning more about those internal aspects. The differences in emphasis and curriculum are due to each art’s purpose and philosophy of teaching.

Dr. Wong explained at the beginning of the workshop that Tai Chi is a means of healing one’s own body. The art’s gentle movements are a great way to build and maintain strength, balance, and mobility. Accordingly, the emphasis for new beginners is on breath, flow, awareness of one’s center of gravity, and whole-body movement. The things Dr. Wong emphasized are exactly the things I’m now refining in my Karate, as befits a 1st kyu student. At times the feedback Dr. Wong gave me and other workshop participants sounded quite familiar!

I’ve briefly watched other Tai Chi classes and practitioners before, and can’t help but see some movements in the context of self defense. Certainly I will be exploring possible applications of the movements we learned in the workshop. I also drew parallels – “Oh, that’s hanzenkutsu dachi,” or, “That’s almost like a movement from Kanku Dai kata.” I sometimes had a hard time keeping my body from lapsing into more familiar movements from kata (forms)! And just as with Capoeira, the Tai Chi transitional movements were a little challenging for me because, well, we don’t have those transitions in Karate. Just like almost everyone else in the room, I was learning something new.

One thing that surprised me was qi, or, as we call it in karate, ki. I am a huge skeptic when it comes to ki energy. Now there’s a little chink in my armor. Before Dr. Wong mentioned it to the class at large, I’d felt a bit of what I’d describe as heat in the palms of my hands during a particular movement. As Dr. Wong mentioned to the class moments later, that’s supposed to happen along with that movement. Maybe there’s a purely physiological explanation for it, or maybe it could be ki. I don’t know, but I’m going try to be aware whenever I’m at home practicing Karate. Don’t worry, I’m still going to maintain a healthy skepticism. But maybe, just maybe, there are more things in Heaven and Earth than are dreamt of in my philosophy.

I definitely had takeaways and things to think about after the workshop. I think the biggest takeaway for me from this workshop is encouragement to keep working on the internal aspects of my art. Dr. Wong gave the workshop participants a few interesting little tools for that, and I can incorporate those Tai Chi movements into my warm-up exercises at home. Something that Dr. Wong touched upon was yin and yang in the context of movement. I’ll most definitely look for that in my own art. Such a mental exercise will yield some interesting insights. I was definitely seeing my own art in a new light, but at the same time, I was on familiar territory.

Breathing, balance, smooth transitions, integrating the whole body into each movement, flow… All this is foundational stuff that both karateka and Tai Chi students learn – whether it be right from the start or later on. As the late Grandmaster Remy A. Presas (founder of Modern Arnis, a Filipino martial art) would say, “It’s all de same.” I’ve seen this every single time I’ve gone to a self defense seminar or a one-off martial arts workshop. I can’t wait for the next opportunity to compare and contrast!

Author: Joelle White

I began training in Karate in June of 2014 after a 27 year hiatus.

4 thoughts on “Trying Tai Chi”

  1. Thanks for your report and coming to try something new. I enjoyed reading about your perspective. May you continue to explore the lifelong journey of learning and developing your art!

    1. Thank you so much for teaching, Dr. Wong! I thoroughly enjoyed your class. Thanks also for stopping by and commenting, and for your well wishes!

  2. Nice, balanced article and good to hear you approached things with an open mind.
    Our t’ai chi system (Chen Pan Ling) is one of the few that still teaches the movements with some level of martial intent and there are parallels with other martial arts (karate as you have picked up and Wing Chun is a very complementary system as well).
    Bagua zhang and Xing yi chuan are the other two main internal arts that we teach and are worth exploring as well.
    I enjoy your writing – keep it up!

    1. Thank you, Andrew, for the insight into the systems you mentioned. I very much appreciate your compliments and encouragement. Thanks for stopping by and commenting!

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