Questions Of Identity

How do we define ourselves as Tai Chi students?

Welcome to The Water Method; thoughts and theories on Tai Chi in the modern world. In today’s post, I’ll be talking about the way we signify ourselves as martial arts, both inside and outside of the training hall.

In the last episode I briefly mentioned some of the ways in which we, as students, choose to show how we are avid Tai Chi practitioners outside of our time practicing. But what is the typical look of a martial arts student when we’re “off duty”? Is it a uniform, emblazoned with club badges and embroidered belts? Is it the hoodie name checking your club that you wear outside of class, to show passersby where you train? Is it the club’s Facebook page that you subscribe to, or its’ Instagram page with you included in the posted photos?

Of course, it doesn’t have to be any of these things, but you can see why people choose the fancy uniform, or the clothing that advertises the club, or taking part in related social media. After all, being able to instantly convey to people your approach to life is something of a challenge; especially when we’re talking about an art that tells us to slowly but surely strip away the inefficient and useless parts of our being. How can you even show something if you’re spending all of your time breaking it down?

Just maybe, we can put the emphasis on something other than the Tai Chi.

There is a theory that I’ve heard whispered in various corners of training rooms, and lurking at the bottom of internet forum conversations, that just maybe those of us in the West look to imitate both the martial art that we’re studying, and the cultural attitudes and preferences that were present in that art’s original home country. And, just maybe, we can put the emphasis on something other than the Tai Chi. In terms of Tai Chi and actually, any form of Kung Fu, there are countless examples of teachers in mainland China who have demonstrated a move or form a couple of times for their students before letting them figure it out themselves, repeating the moves over and over parrot fashion. The student is expected to mimic the move ad infinitum and slowly glean the internal workings over time, without any other assistance.

Often times, the reason for this type of teaching comes down to either a “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” mentality or, much more worse, the age old adage that “it’s always been done this way”. And while that’s what worked in ancient China all of those years ago, if you were to use exercise routines and dietary practices from those days, you would be ignoring years of scientific breakthroughs and continual development – just imagine if we decided to return to the hygiene practices of previous centuries, and I think you’ll see my point.

A strong sense of identity is important to everyone, and the martial arts are big proponents of this, more so than other pursuits. Having a quick hand definition of what a Tai Chi student is does help us, whether we’re explaining to someone what we do, or if we’re looking to shore up our own confidence by leaning on the character traits that we’re supposed to have: dedication, being honourable and focused on something outside of our daily lives. Powerful iconography helps us as well, and the commonly used Yin Yang logo is a great example of how we should be keeping our Taoist beliefs front and centre at all times.

But do we define ourselves too much by our uniforms and our purchases? Is it too easy to put all of our energy into the things that aren’t utterly necessary? I once heard a fellow student talking during a break in a lesson, and she mentioned how she was so busy over the past week that she hadn’t had time to practice her forms, but she did manage to watch a fantastic half hour long documentary about Tai Chi one night. Fortunately, all of this Tai Chi training meant that I didn’t shout at her in a frustrated tone, explaining that she clearly had thirty minutes spare to have worked on her own training. However, I can see her point – to improve, we need to be continually putting in the practice, day in day out, repeating the same movements and patterns over and over until we slowly, incrementally, start to uncover more about the way we move. It’s not always fun, and it’s never quick and easy, so sometimes it feels ok to do something to the side – to still be immersed in Tai Chi even if we’re not actually doing Tai Chi.

There isn’t anything inherently wrong with expressing our support for something that we love.

So, do we define ourselves too much by our outward appearance, and our financial purchases? I could be asking that question about martial arts, or any part of our society really; there isn’t anything inherently wrong with expressing our support for something that we love, and by putting money into whatever industry you respect you are in turn contributing to it in a different way. On the other hand, I’m sure we all know well-meaning people who invest heavily in the training gear, uniforms and books or DVDs before they’re truly committed to the art, and in time those items end up gathering dust somewhere when that person has moved on to another activity.

Well what is the alternative then? It’s not flashy, and it’s not cool. It’s be dedicated, truly focused on one thing at a time. Learn the outline of a form, understand the application of each move, slowly unravel what you’re doing, break everything down. Can you stay interested with just the basics, whether they be basic clothes, a class that runs through the same practices each and every week, or a style that only rewards patience and hard work? If so, then you’ve just described the perfect Tai Chi student.

That brings us to the end of the post; I hope you’ve enjoyed The Water Method and will join me next time for another discussion about the martial arts in the modern world. So until then, be like water.

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