In this series of articles, I give my thoughts on various verses from the Tai Chi Classics. The classics are a series of poems, manuals and instructions left by famous masters of the past. They are heralded as the blueprint for correct Tai Chi instructions and for some, form the bedrock on which they practice their arts. They are, however, somewhat defuse in their meaning and as such, the ‘correct’ interpretation of these texts proves to be the heated subject of many a forum, discussion, and debate. In these articles I give my personal thoughts on their meaning, frames within my own personal context of training and exploring the subject of Tai Chi, both in solo and partner training. Ultimately, I am uninterested in what is the right or wrong translation of meaning, if that translation doesn’t … translate, into real and quantifiable practices.
We start with the Classic which is attributed to the mythical founder of the Taiji system, The Taoist Sage Chang San-Feng. This tome describes the essence of the Tai Chi system and, although likely written much later than Chang San-Fengs time, it contains some excellent instructions on the nature of Tai Chi training. It is a clear guide to the practical considerations of Tai Chi Practice. Here we explore the first lines of the Classic, the subject of lightness and agility while remaining ‘connected’.
A confusing initial line?
For many Tai Chi practitioners around the world, an enormous amount of time is spent on something called ‘rooting’. This is the skill of maintaining positional security, sinking our weight and directing forces acting upon us such that the actor feels as though they are interacting with the ground, rather than.
In most Tai Chi classes I have been in, and around many Tai chi masters, this skill has been a focus. Indeed, it is the subject of competition formats of Tai Chi like ‘fixed step pushing hands’. This idea of rooting has taken such hold of the average Tai Chi practitioners mind that should you adjust your posture with a step, they will often perceive that they have ‘won’ the exchange … because they defeated your ‘root’.
Why then, did the author of this classic, see fit to make the very first line about Agility and lightness? Not heaviness and rooting?
In motion the whole body should be light and agile,
with all parts of the body linked
as if threaded together.
Because ultimately, without lightness and the freedom that it hints towards in the body, there is not opportunity to be heavy.
What it means to be light and agile.
We can think of Agility and lightness as the opposites of Solidity and heaviness, they and the Yang to the Yin, and are one part of an interdependent relationship of qualities. Indeed, in the Tai Chi exponent there is a carefully balancing of the sinking heavy forces and the rising light forces. This balance of sinking and rising produces ‘Zong Ding’ Or trained equilibrium. But, the sinking and rooting side is often so preferenced that the lightness and agility side are neglected by the Taiji Exponent.
To be light and agile is to be free from movement restriction, it is the qualities of openness. This is perhaps why it is placed first in this classic, because so many people are not free in their movement, they are stuck, bound and clumsy. Even in the time of the writing, we can imagine that many people would not have the freedom of movement that the masters of Tai Chi would express. In the modern times this is only compounded by modern lifestyle.
To be light and agile is to create and maintain a feeling of ‘space’ inside the body, to be able to rise or fall from a central equilibrium, to have the option to act in accordance with the moment, without restriction and without inhibition.
To achieve this lightness takes a special focus in our training. A focus that does not relate to the traditional idea of ‘relaxing’ or ‘Softening’ as it is so often sought by the Tai Chi adept. In fact, to create true lightness we must create an intimate relationship with the rising aspect inside our body, this is the interaction of the mass with the earth, and the ‘Ground Reaction Force’ that is provided by the stable base under our feet. This upwards direction is transmitted in the skeleton initially and the ‘rising’ of the bones is often said to be one of the core requirements in a correctly functioning Tai Chi Body.
But also, of great importance is a feeling of Elasticity in the body. Springiness and elasticity, interacting with gravity and the earth produces a highly responsive body that can move with great agility. A body that feels light and ready. It is this creation of the soft, but springy and flexible body that the original authors of this line meant in their laying it first among the various qualities.
For this feeling of lightness to spread throughout the body, we must maintain the second part of the section from the classics which refers to ‘threading the body together’. I call this the Connected Body and it is the linking of the body through association, through tissues and through neurology.
The linking of the body together is also a vital first step in the development of Tai Chi. When we observe older generations of Tai Chi, we note that everything seems to be moving together. It doesn’t look like the more modern competition variations of the forms, where flexibility or depth and length of stance prevails but often it is one part moving without the rest. These old-style experts would move with a type of wholeness that is somewhat difficult to pinpoint. They simply look like everything is moving together as a complete whole and with complete consolidation.
The concept of linking the body together is one that draws attention from anatomy students as much as from Tai chi Practitioners. Some think that the only models we need are the traditional maps of meridians, others think it is the web of fascia throughout the body, still others think it is purely associative and neurological links. The truth of the matter in my opinion is that it is a combination of all of these ideas. The practice of Tai Chi, when performed with the right focus, should be aiming to link the body together, making it work and perform as a single unified whole.
Ultimately, without linking the body lightness cannot occur, and without lightness balance cannot occur, then further without balance … tai chi cannot occur. As with many things in Tai Chi, the interdependence of attributes makes for an interesting practice!
So, we can say that these first two lines point us to an enormous volume of work and study. How does one free the body to become light and agile, while linking it together so that it can move with harmony! That question is where the research and the training begins.