Updated: May 24
Relevance of Martial Arts in Daily Life
Are Martial Arts an outdated remnant of a more barbaric past, now more a form of entertainment, exercise and tool for emotional purge or can Martial Arts have profound and Life-changing effects on one's self-development, growth and everyday life and thus be truly acknowledged as an Art form of the Body and Mind? Is there any use to Martial Arts that translates to functionality in the modern world, such that learning how to punch or kick can help you to do your job better and have better relationships? Aside from the obvious self-defence applications, can that perfectly chiseled punch propel your arm to success, and not just the success marked by the bloodying of your opponent's face, dripping with bloody defeat?
There is a perfectly forged blade that rests by your side sheathed inside its scabbard like a cradle where Tigers go to Rest. No matter how deep the sleep, the Tiger is ready to be drawn like the strike of Thunder. In fact, the deeper the sleep, the deeper and more precisely the blade will cut. To Live the Martial Spirit is to not only be ready for battle at all times but more importantly be ready to Act; to adapt to the moment, at any time. The place where the blade cuts deepest is the place where Tigers play.
How often does the Martial Artist use Martial Art? Ideally rarely but some will tell you it is being used all the time. This is even more ideal.
Tai chi is a Martial Art
Tai chi is widely recognised as a meditative health practice. There is also the common assumption that Tai chi is only for the elderly or people who are ill of health. The main thing to understand is that Tai chi IS very good for your health but the reasons stem from its Martial Roots and not because it is a gentle exercise. Traditionally, Tai chi is in fact a Martial Art and it is practiced with soft and relaxed movements not because it is designed for individuals with weak or frail bodies but because of the underlying physiological mechanisms that Tai chi utilises as part of its profound system of wisdom of the form and function of the human body and how to transform the human body not only for robust health but also for self-defence.
At the foundational level, Tai chi must be practiced to build one's health, strengthen the body and harmonise one's being. There is no sense in learning fast and powerful movements if the body is not strong enough to withstand them and just leads to more disharmony. At the more advanced levels a practitioner can learn the more specific martial aspects of Tai chi, some of which include practicing fast and powerful movements, optimising correct alignment of the body to increase stability and structure as related to subjecting the body to the vigorous stresses of combat. The great thing is that you do not have to learn Martial Tai chi to get the health benefits of the underlying Martial Principles!
When we look at Tai chi practiced for health, the emphasis is on learning how to do the various movements with relaxation. This is not easy or simple because learning how to relax while moving means that you have to delve deep into your own body's short-comings. These short-comings manifest themselves as tension that causes the body to restrict its own movement and thus minimising the body's ability to move quickly, powerfully and unburdened. Additionally, tension in the body has a divisive effect whereby the many parts of the whole are not able to effectively spread the load of work resulting in disproportionate wear and tear and reduced efficiency of movement. A tension-free and unified body is a strong and powerful body. This is the foundation that Martial Tai chi builds upon to generate powerful movements once the body is strong (and relaxed) enough.
To learn how to move in a relaxed way you first need to move slowly and carefully. The slow and controlled movements also allow the practitioner to calm and sharpen the mind and thus involving Mind and Body in all of the movements. Tai chi takes into account and works out all of the aspects of the human being. Living the potential of your whole being is what will help you to Live a whole and happy Life. Being able to Live and enjoy Life is something universally applicable to anyone's Daily Life!
Tai chi, Form and Function and Tai chi Principles
One of the most common issues with Tai chi practice is whereby the practitioner is copying movements but the essence; the substance behind the movements is not there. This 'essence' is comprised of the Tai chi principles which are based on deep wisdom of the form and function of the human body. Learning and memorising the movements of course is necessary to start practice but in order to progress and move further one needs to move beyond memorising movements and start learning the Tai chi principles. What are these principles? We can look at the most fundamental principle: Relaxation.
To perform movements with Relaxation attention is required. There are some very interesting and beneficial effects that manifest when you bring your attention inside; to the body. Normally in everyday life our attention is directed mostly to the outside. If we can direct our attention into the body we can then learn to relax. Relaxation triggers a number of physiological responses in the body. Aside from fostering more efficient movement it also nurtures healthy joints, muscles and tissues. Overall it gives the body the opportunity to recover and heal. Practice for long enough and Relaxation also becomes a form of Strength and Power.
The human body is not only comprised of bones, tissues, organs and muscles but also of the various channels/meridians which are an intricate network of connections through which Qi moves. To get a clear initial glimpse into the role of Qi in the body we can look to a passage from the Huangdi Neijing (The Yellow Emperor's Classic of Medicine): "Qi is the commander of Blood, Blood is the Mother of Qi". Essentially what this passage means is that in the body Qi leads the blood and keeps it moving correctly and blood generates Qi because it is the blood that nourishes the organs which extract Qi from food and store/generate Qi. Other characteristics of Qi are that Qi is Yang and Blood is Yin. Qi is an activating and dynamic substance whereas blood is more a nurturing and nourishing substance. These physiological substances complement each other and work closely together also exemplifying how the more physical systems of the body are entwined and not separate from the more subtle/energetic systems.
Relaxation IS Strength
At the beginning of Tai chi practice the most important thing is to learn how to relax. With time you may notice that there are parts of your body which for the most part have essentially shut down and are coming back to life but not only re-awakening but finding a new life in the discovery of lost functionality. Once this happens enough you will also realise that strength is not just about being able to lift heavy objects and push the limits of a muscle's mechanical ability. Strength is also flexibility, strength is synchronicity (coordination of body parts), strength is synergy (whole body moving/working as one), strength is fast reflexes, strength is a body with a clear connection to your intention and most interestingly of all; Strength is good Qi flow. This is why Relaxation in Tai chi Terms IS Strength and Strength is Relaxation. All of the aspects above are held together by and developed by a good foundation and development of a Relaxed body (and mind). Relaxation is not about falling to the ground where you stand into an inert blob.
On the Mind front, Relaxation is also Strength. To think and see clearly you need to be able to clear your mind. A chaotic mind is a chaotic life. A rigid mind stops us from learning new things and taking on new ideas and adapting to changing situations. A flexible mind can deal with the ongoing flux of Life. This flexibility is a source of strength and an example of Personal Power. As we develop a Relaxed and Strong body, we also develop a Calm and Flexible Mind. With calm we can focus our intention and inner resources towards a particular goal or action and with flexibility we can change direction when needed. A calm mind is a steady hand. And steady hand is a productive Life!
You are your Own Unique Type of Creature
Every creature expresses the Martial Art of its own particular shape and form. As a living being, you are connected to and have a relationship with the environment around you. The various shapes and forms that living beings manifest is testament to one's close connection to the environment. By virtue of the circumstances that gave birth to you, you are a limited edition...and you should find out what makes you so! Martial Art is the recognition of the rawness of being alive; it is the acknowledgement of Life and the acknowledgement of Death. It is a reminder to keep one's senses sharp and body supple. It is a reminder of the urgent demands of Life and the precious, unstoppable flow of Time.
Fish are good at swimming, but they perish on the land. A Rhino is a formidable tank incarnate but it cannot climb a tree to save its life. Has your mind become a Rhino and stubbornly held onto that form? When it comes time to climb the tree will you change form on time? This is Martial Art; To perform an impeccable action with precision. It would not be impeccable if it was not precise and it would not be precise if it was not the action that was required in the moment and within the razor sharp limits of the edges of fleeting time. Sometimes there is time to plan and sometimes there is only time to react and rely on your reflexes. Tai chi Training is training your mind and body to discover the creature that you are and the many potential shapes that you can take. Oftentimes, if you are training yourself carefully, when time time comes, you will surprise yourself and the people around you!
Maybe you do not need to fend off an enemy with your fists but maybe you needed to quickly catch a child who's about to run onto a busy road. Maybe you do not need to yell at the front of a battle formation but maybe you need to voice your opinion amongst a group of your peers. Maybe you need to understand your emotions and the role they play in your relationships. Living the Martial Spirit is not about fighting enemies; it is about understanding yourself, your place in the world and your relationship with it. Just like the praying mantis has mastered the use of its specialised claws to catch its prey; you too realise the need for impeccable action in your life using the tools that you have and refining your use of them. Whether enjoying the sunset with a cup of tea or commanding a team of workers; both are the same.
Tai chi helps you to discover the creature that you are. In every movement you discover more of what it is to be you. Keeping the principles close to your heart and practicing regularly you will see that you are not practicing Tai chi; you are practicing yourself! If you know yourself, you will know what to do. The predatory animals must refine their hunting skills and practice often. The prey animal must practice its sprint. The predator wouldn't be good at hunting if it were not for the expertise of the prey in its ability to flee. The prey wouldn't be good at evading death if it were not for the predator's deadly stalking. Both run together in a spiral of self-perpetuation; they run for long enough in the circle and you can no loner tell who is chasing who and who is running from who.
The modern human has a more comfortable life; the human Spirit needs a dose of danger; otherwise the Spirit becomes Sleepy. When life becomes too easy and too comfortable, this in itself becomes a problem (and the person might not even realise it). For this reason, the human being can take charge of their own spiritual development. Predator and Prey sprint together in a perpetuating cycle of Life and Death; Taking charge for your spiritual development brings you closer to the underlying patterns that shape the phenomena of Daily Life. This changes your values, your actions and the fabric of your being.
A Good Fighter is Never Angry
While the battleground for animals is the literal jungle ruled by the brutal laws of survival, many modern humans live a compartmentalised life whereby the jungle law is not absent but rather masked by the shiny exterior of perfectly angled machinations formed by human ingenuity and each segment of life is neatly wrapped and bar-coded in it's own assembly-lined category. For those living at the battlefronts of Nature, the urgency is immediate. For those shielded inside human-made Oases, the spirit, the spark, may retire to the seductive entrapment of a holiday hammock until it becomes a sleepy net; once a full bodied dream-catcher now a spirit-snare. Of course, the above statements are only a portrayal of either extreme; the spirit may be sleepy regardless of the life one lives and one may have an active spirit in a comfortable life and a sleepy spirit in an active life. At some point though, something needs to shake one from the sleep walk which up to that point had not lead one to walk off a cliff and thus extinguishing any chance for the flame to ignite in the first place.
Lao Zi said: "A good soldier is not violent" (Chapter 68 of the Daode Jing, translated by Gia-fu Feng & English).
Taken in a more literal way, it shows a fighter who is fighting the fight not blinded by anger. There is clarity behind the fight. Looking at it in a broad sense, the person is doing their task without being blinded by their emotions; the spirit is clear and the mind is sharp. Additionally we can consider that violence and spirituality seem to be opposing forces and yet we can see that a spiritual approach to living is not a particular thing that is done but rather how things are done. At any point in your life you may need to be a fighter and you may not have the luxury of not fighting but you can do what is required to be done without being clouded by anger or other emotions. This is not to say that emotions should be suppressed; this is to say that the spirit is bright and can see through the chaotic haze of emotional turmoil and navigate through the stormy waters of the many faces and masks that one takes.
Tai chi practice teaches you how to perfect the body and mind as a fighter; ready for the challenges of daily life. This is because to live a healthy life we need a certain range of motion both in body and in mind. Consider a very old and frail body; the body might be just strong enough to walk upright but as soon as something unexpected happens the body cannot react quick enough and the body is not strong enough to maintain itself upright. A fall occurs and in the process of falling something is broken. Just enough is not enough! A back-up reserve of strength and power is required at all times to handle the flux of every moment. Martial practice through Tai chi is a way of honouring and respecting life by taking your body and mind through the potential ranges of motion of your being. Fear may try to deter you but this is part of the journey.
We can take the example of the Lazy Archer; this archer almost mastered archery and thus decided he did not need to practice as intensely anymore. Each day he would pull the string of the bow a little less and a little less until one day he would pick up the bow and pull the string back only a few centimetres. The arrow would take a sharp plunge to the ground, not even getting enough momentum to embed its point in the soft dirt but the archer was satisfied his skill was in-tact and the training was satisfactory. After years of living this way, when it comes time to pull the string all the way back, likely the string has lost its strength and flexibility and it will snap! If the string doesn't snap, the wooden body of the bow might snap instead!
How it all comes Together
Tai chi practitioners who practice regularly always find it fascinating how Tai chi brings about many positive changes to the practitioner's life simply by repeating the practice. It is like you are given a hammer and a nail and you are instructed to hit the nail and just by repeating this motion, the nail moves into the wood and the result is achieved. The fact that Tai chi principles work by simply repeating them is a testament to the deep knowledge of the human body of which Tai chi is a humble custodian. It is important to note that although this is a simple concept to understand, that of repetition, one must not only repeat the Tai chi principles behind the movements but they also need to be repeated accurately, like an archer trying to hit the target each time. Hitting the target each time perfectly is not as important as trying to hit the target each time. Part of the fun and fascinating journey of Tai chi is working out the principles through dedicated practice. If you are taught the principles it is only the beginning! This is another thing that often fascinates Tai chi practitioners because a Principle Learned is not a Principle worked-out. The working out process makes you realise just how profound the practice is and the inherent understanding of the human body. Working out the principles is working out Yourself.
With Tai chi practice on the physical level we are keeping the body in good condition and making it stronger. The muscles are kept relaxed and flexible, the joints maintain their range of motion, the bones are strong and the body is stable. On the energy level the channels are open and the Qi and blood move well. We have a good reserve of energy and strength to live life and do things. On the mind level the head is clear, eyes are bright and spirit is awake. The emotions are not chaotic and the reflexes are sharp because the spirit is ready and the body is relaxed. This is the harmony one can develop and maintain through Tai chi practice.
Tai chi is a Martial Art. Martial Art is not exclusively about fighting; In the process of training the mind and body through discipline and pushing one's ability to uncharted territory and establishing new borders (and new horizons), one is able to fight. More importantly though, in that process one also grows to understand themselves, the world around them, and how one relates to life. To fight is not in this sense being to referred to as a struggle but more a Dance. In the animal world you can observe that fighting and playing are very closely related; when tigers play their claws are retracted. Join in on the dance! You may bring your blade to the waltz but it may remain sheathed as a Tiger's claws.
When we move our attention inwards we imbue our being with the same brilliant intensity that we focus on the things we do externally. This same brilliance is the lustre of Life. In learning how to look inside, we also learn how to better look outside and how to Live a Better Life. All of this is done by adhering to the deep ancient Wisdom contained in the Martial Art Principles of Tai chi based on the observation of natural Laws and Phenomena as embodied by the Beauty of the Human Body. To Live the Martial Spirit is to Honour your Life and Respect the Power that you and everyone else has Inside them and pulsing within your fingers. How you use it is in your Hands! This is why Tai chi practice is for everyday Life whether you choose the Sword, Bow or or the Pen!