To the novice, learning Taijiquan can be frustrating and confusing process. Session after session the teacher tweaks and adjusts their posture never seeming to be completely satisfied with the result. Where other martial disciplines quickly get down to more obvious fighting techniques, Taijiquan spends what can seem like an inordinately long time moulding the shape of the body before even mentioning any combat possibilities.
|Everything rests on correct structure|
Taijiquan is no different than any other martial art or sport in the fact that to perform at a high level certain obvious aspects of fitness must be trained to increase the potential effectiveness of an individual. Areas that immediately come to mind include strength, speed, power, agility and flexibility; the relative balance of these varies depending upon the nature of the particular discipline – think of the differences between, for instance, a shot putter, figure skater, marathon runner or a combat ready martial artist. Or, to narrow things down, the different reasons modern practitioners train Taijiquan. For instance, one training to develop their self defence capabilities to the maximum; another whose main focus is on training for competition; or a third who is training primarily to enhance their health.
In the final analysis, however, each shares the common goal of achieving optimal physical performance. This can only be reached by addressing the one aspect that underpins everything else: a degree of postural integrity that enables stability and control and from which a practitioner can develop a deep understanding of movement and function. This is the reason why Chen Taijiquan requires learners to pay strict and careful attention on the development of correct body structure. In Chenjiagou Laojia Yilu is called the “gongfu form” and training the form is often referred to as “training the frame.” When we talk about structure we mean both the correct positioning of all the body’s joints and from this the emergence of awareness of the dantian as the body’s centre. The development of this coordinating centre enables the body to generate maximum power and efficiency from each action. The balanced centre harmonises the movement and the function of both upper and lower limbs.
|Chen Xiaoxing - The final goal is the achievement of optimal physical performance|
At the same time it serves to protect the joints and their associated structures. Modern sports coaching approaches have embraced the importance of fully assessing an athlete’s postural alignment before starting any demanding training programme. It takes more energy to move the body when there are postural imbalances. At the same time, performing any explosive movement from a misaligned position inevitably places more stress on the musculature or joints, increasing the risk of injury. Dr Istvan Balyi is acknowledged worldwide as an expert in long term athlete development. In Paradigm Shifts in Coaching, a 2002 article in Faster, Higher, Stronger – the journal of Sports Coach UK – Britain’s premier sports coaching association he wrote the following:
“The kinetic chain is an integrated functional unit, made up of the soft tissue (muscle, ligament, tendon and fascia), neural system and articular system (biomechanics). Each of these systems work independently to allow structural and functional efficiency. If any systems do not work efficiently, compensations and adaptations will lead to tissue overload, decreased performance and predictable patterns of injury… The implications of this are huge. Before training starts, all body and joint alignment, muscle imbalances and flexibility ranges should be evaluated and corrected if necessary. This is preventative sports medicine on the functional side of athletic preparation.”
The idea might represent a paradigm shift in modern sports training, but has been incorporated within Taijiquan’s training method for centuries. In his Ten Essentials of Taiji Boxing Chen Changxing elegantly described the way in which function could be optimised through a balanced posture: “When the moment comes for movement, be like a dragon or a tiger, expressing as fast as lightning, and when the moment comes for stillness, be silent and calm, staying put as stable as a mountain. When still, all parts are still, inside and out, above and below, and without any part feeling out of place. When moving, all parts are moving, left or right, forward or back, and without any part pulling the posture off course.”
What does all of this mean to the typical adult learner of Taijiquan? In a way we could say that what we are trying to do is to simplify our way towards perfection: Practitioners inching their way to superior performance via a process of reduction, simplification and optimisation. Accepting the need to try to remove things first, rather than to add things is a critical principle when looking for improvements. Remove acquired postural imbalances and incorrect movement patterns. Slowly and imperceptibly changing over time as individual inefficiencies are ironed out and the “fat” is trimmed.