A Soft Touch?

Can students of external martial arts truly master the internal styles?

Welcome to The Water Method; thoughts and theories on Tai Chi in the modern world. In today’s post, I’ll be discussing the often heard idea that those with a background in hard styles such as Karate, cannot truly understand and benefit from the internal arts like Tai Chi.

A few months ago, I was in a day long class practising a Yang style fan form with some friends and people I had trained with for a few years. The majority of them had come to Tai Chi with little or no martial arts background, and took to it like most of us would do – with an open mind and willing to take things at face value. The fan forms are a fairly demanding set in the Yang syllabus, being as they require the practitioner to frequently drop into and out of low stances throughout, and often at a fast pace with big, strong movements that give the impression of a Kung Fu form as opposed to a Tai Chi one.

There comes a point where it’s nice to not get battered and bruised after every training session.

During a break, when some people were recovering from these stances and movements, I was talking to a friend about how different these forms were from the sword sets; while also weapons based sequences, these had a graceful, calm feeling running through them. When you’re practising your sword form, you’re more likely to experience a feeling of tranquility than one of focused strength or controlled aggression. It was at this point that he told me about a former master of his, who was of the opinion that anyone from a martial background would inherently struggle to really get to the depths of Tai Chi training, and wouldn’t be able to fully appreciate how to soft and yielding without losing their centre. Which got me thinking.

From my own personal experience, a lot of us come to Tai Chi following years of training in a different martial art, and normally one of the external styles. We’ve had years of punching and kicking, or grappling and throwing, and also years of being punched and kicked, or being grappled and threw; there comes a point where it’s nice to not get battered and bruised after every training session. Which is why we look to the internal arts, where there’s the belief that there’s something more to the obvious strikes and holds that we’ve been doing for so long. To take your time and break down every part of a move, that’s what leads to some real insight if we put in the time and effort, and that’s why so many of us love Tai Chi.

And it’s because of this large contingent of us ex-Karate, ex-Judo, ex-whatever it may be, that confuses me when I still hear that those of us with this background can’t unlock the full power of Tai Chi. I’ve often heard this opinion put forward by those without knowledge of other styles, although the master in question (who shall remain anonymous, since I don’t want to start a Tai Chi scrap) studied Kung Fu before switching to the internal arts. But I want to look at it from the perspective of the martial artists who then came to find Tai Chi, which is funny because coincidentally that’s my background.

In some of the Okinawan Karate styles, the grandmasters used to advise their students to take up Tai Chi as they got older to help preserve their joints and suppleness as they advanced in both skill and years. That way, they could learn to relax their muscles and minds when not drilling their katas, which in turn meant that they were in better shape for when it was kata drilling time. On a similar note, Connor McGregor in the UFC was been quite vocal (which is unlike him) when he started adding Yoga to his regular training routine; since then, many other mixed martial arts fighters have taken to incorporating Yoga or Tai Chi into their setup, for the same reasons as those Japanese masters of old. Also, due to the similarities in stances and movement, being aware of how to throw a solid round kick teaches us a lot about our balance, which saves our Tai Chi instructor from having to go through the very basics with us over and over.

Maybe it’s too late for you to completely empty your cup and start all over from scratch?

So there is the idea that if you’ve already previously done a martial art, you may be cutting yourself off from the inner most secrets of Tai Chi – maybe it’s too late for you to completely empty your cup and start all over from scratch? I know people on both sides of the argument and I without some sort of thoroughly researched experiment to prove or disprove it, I can’t see a hard answer that settles the argument once and for all. But then again, maybe there doesn’t have to be. A lot of us come from martial backgrounds, and many of the Tai Chi masters started with Kung Fu in their early years to get them hooked on the fighting arts in the first place before slowing down and progressing on to the internal styles. Either way, there’s a lot of us with prior knowledge, and even if we can’t reach the highs that others can, that knowledge that we already have can help us grow and develop in ways that they might not.

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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