I've been learning Tai Chi for about thirteen years. That makes me a near-beginner in this oh-so-subtle "soft style" martial art. Before taking up Tai Chi I studied "hard style" martial arts for about the same length of time.
So I guess I've reached sort of a balance point.
My previous Tai Chi-related posts are here, on my other blog. For some reason I haven't written about Tai Chi for five years. This hasn't been from a lack of interest. It must be because Tai Chi is something I do and experience much more than I think about it.
Well, lately I've been thinking about what I've learned about flow from my Tai Chi practice. Which is closely related to softness, another core Tai Chi principle.
Probably the most frequent advice I get from my instructor, Warren Allen, is "relax," "softer," and "don't try so hard."
And this is after thirteen years! When I started learning Tai Chi after those karate-focused years of training, Warren said those things way more often. So... some progress.
It's so easy to try too hard. Forcing usually feels more natural than flowing, because we're used to trying to accomplish things through effort, energy, determination, strength.
But what Tai Chi teaches -- this is basically Taoism expressed through physical movement -- is that flowing with someone's movement, even if that movement is a punch to your face, is a highly effective way of dealing with both bodily and psychological situations.
Partly this is due to the weakness of strength and rigidity.
When someone tightens up (again, either physically or mentally), this creates a lever that can be used against them. For example, if someone grabs your wrist with a tight grip, your moving forward, backward, or to the side will take that person in the same direction, since they've connected themselves to you.
This principle is sort of akin to the adage, "the bigger they are, the harder they fall."
Redirecting a punch with a soft, flowing movement will have more of an effect on the person making that strike if it was done with a lot of force, because there is more energy in the punch. Hence, more energy in the redirection.
So if someone is angry with you, responding softly and flowingly (albeit firmly, in a sense; Tai Chi doesn't advocate becoming a limp marshmallow) should result in a better outcome than responding in kind: harshly, strongly, emotionally.
"Better" refers both to how the other person feels and, equally importantly, how you feel.
Probably the most important thing I've learned from my Tai Chi practice is this:
My primary goal throughout my daily life shouldn't be to achieve this or that, because often that isn't under my control. Rather, I need to focus on feeling a sense of flow and softness in whatever I'm doing, rather than a sense of tightness and tension.
I've learned that if I view flowing and softness as a means to an end, this produces rigidity in me, because now I've attached myself to that goal in much the same way someone grabs hold of a person with a strong grip.
It's tough to flow when you're attached to something.
So what works better for me is to view flow as a good in and of itself. If I feel myself getting tight, anxious, upset, or tense, I try (but not too hard!) to relax, let go, flow -- trusting that whatever comes from this will be fine, and without worrying very much about what that whatever might be.
Hopefully I've said something here that can be understood. This is a difficult subject to write about. Like Tai Chi, it is subtle, personal, internal. Regardless, I've enjoyed this attempt to put into words what I've come to feel more than I've thought about it.