The importance of meditative awareness to the Taoist martial artist cannot be overstated. The entire Taoist approach to martial arts rests upon it as its foundation. Most of the time, we operate on a binary mode of perception, fueled by our survival instincts. This leads to a view of reality split into good and bad, past and present, self and other, and so on. This perception leads to hope and fear. We hope to achieve what we perceive as the good. We fear that we will not be able to prevent what we perceive as the bad. It is this binary perception that gives birth to fighting arts – strategies to achieve our hopes and prevent our fears, and to win rather than lose (another product of binary perception).
The way we move shapes the way we interact with and ultimately experience our physical being and environment. For most of us, this process happens under the radar of our consciousness. We generally accept that there are things we can do well, and other things we do poorly, and that’s just the way we are. While it is true that genetics plays a powerful role in what our ultimate potentials may be, we are incredibly adaptable beings, with equally impressive powers for self-transformation.
The highest level of “blending” is to be internally changeable (small, subtle movements that evade an attacker’s force and extend your own into his emptiness.) When mastered, your actions will be so deft that your results will seem like magic. To the extent which you are limited in your ability to change internally, you will need to move more grossly, making larger, more obvious motions through space. In other words, you will have to change externally. This will cause you to waste energy, take longer to complete actions, and require you to be more dynamic. As your skill increases, your changes will occur more within the space you currently occupy and require less displacement of your posture and position, making you more efficient and effective. I call this the spectrum of changeability.
For the purposes of this discussion, I’ve described the particular way that I use some key terms. Violence is sudden change. Combat is a violent relationship (an interaction that involves a series of sudden changes). Combative skill is the ability to adapt to a series of sudden changes while maintaining inner harmony (remaining mentally and physically balanced and whole). In short, our aim is to be changeable.
Although combative relationship is only one aspect of human interaction, it provides a setting for some of the most dynamic changes in relating to others there can be, and therefore, can illuminate many other aspects of human interaction in its lessons.
In Taoist practices, philosophy and physicality are viewed as two sides of the same yin-yang coin. In fact, Tai Chi is often called philosophy in motion, and rightly so. It is through that particular method of movement that we come to a deeper understanding of Taoist philosophy. Likewise, it is from an understanding of Taoist philosophy, that we derive that particular method of movement.
Through most of my journey in the martial arts, I have been trying to embody a quality of action and being, encapsulated in the term changeability. In essence, changeability is the capacity and tendency to harmonize yourself with external forces. This is the essence of Taoist martial arts, such as Tai chi and Bagua. The theory of this approach is that, by harmonizing with external forces, you can redirect them to your benefit, with the primary goal of maintaining your centeredness (a term referring mainly to your mental and physical balance and integration).
Zhan Zhuang, or standing post, is an ancient practice that “internal” martial artists use as a means to achieve a wuji state. In other words, one can achieve a neutral and centered state in which the yin and yang aspects within ones body and mind become balanced in stillness, and from which one is prepared to move and act according to the taiji principle, that is, to move and act in total harmony with both one’s internal workings and the external forces with which one comes into contact.
When observing Taoist martial arts, one may notice a single repeated shape: the circle. Contrary to how it may seem, this is not merely to give movements grace or beauty. The shape is employed for utilitarian purposes; the beauty perceived by an observer of the movements arises from the harmony they attain through expressing natural laws.
One aspect of the significance of circles is that circles have no stops and no starts, and are equal on all sides. A circle is constantly, gradually changing direction. This constant change of direction means that the Taoist martial artist never encounters opposing force head-on. It also makes any force he applies to his opponent very difficult to resist because the moment the opponent resists in one direction, his force is moving in another. To accomplish this, the circle must begin in our intention and awareness. No straight lines in our minds or movements, and no corners. Over becomes down – which becomes under – which becomes up – and so on.
If one part of the circle moves, the entire circle is set in motion. There is no segmentation or disconnection in a circle. When one side moves down, the other moves up. When one side moves forward, the other moves back, etc. In this way, circular motion connects and employs our whole body in every movement. When looking at the reciprocal relationship of two sides of a circle, one can clearly see the yin-yang relationship inherent in circular movements.
Yoga has become one of the most popular forms of exercise in recent decades. Despite this popularity, there are still many misconceptions about this excellent method for whole-body fitness.
In the same way that many people still believe that tai chi is “just for old people,” many think yoga is “just for girls.” This probably comes from the misconception that women are more flexible than men – not true! This idea has been perpetuated by culture and has nothing to do with physiology. For that matter, it’s worth dispelling the myth that yoga is about stretching – again, not true! Yes, there is a component of yoga that stretches your muscles and soft tissues, but that is just one piece of the puzzle. Practicing yoga will help you improve your flexibility and maintain a high level of mobility, but it’s the misunderstanding that yoga is about flexibility that keeps many prospective enthusiasts away.
In the past, I’ve talked about four phases of internal development: structure, relaxation/softness, coordination, and intention. While there is a sequential aspect to developing each of these skills, they are more like threads in a cord, each one woven in with the others, strengthening each other, and developing along side each other. While the more physical skills of structure, softness, and coordination are essential, one aspect is more crucial (you could call it the key ingredient): the role of the Mind.