For about thirteen years I trained in the external martial art of karate. For the past seventeen years, since 2004, I've trained in the internal martial art of Tai Chi.
Yes, Tai Chi is a martial art. At least, it can be. Tai Chi Chuan is martial. (Chuan is translated as "fist" or "boxing.")
Most Tai Chi instructors aren't interested in the Chuan part, and don't understand it well.
I've been fortunate to learn Tai Chi from someone who started practicing it after many years of hard style martial arts experience, so he is expert in how Tai Chi can be a martial art.
Recently I've been re-reading Ron Sieh's book, "T'ai Chi Chuan: The Internal Tradition." (It wasn't published in 1842, no matter what the Amazon listing says.)
Here's how Sieh describes the external and internal martial arts.
Typically the martial arts are characterized by how they arrive at power: the external, by muscular effort; the internal, relaxed and effortlessly.
All "karates" are considered external, and most of the Chinese arts, plus Judo, Capoeira, and Kali, are lumped into the external category.
T'ai Chi Ch'uan, Hsing I Ch'uan, and Pa Kua are the Chinese internal arts and of course, Aikido is a Japanese art. There is a flow in the internal arts that is missing from the external ones.
In the external there is a quality of fighting, of pushing against the way things are, to change what is happening to better fit our "plan."
In the internal tradition a more inclusive approach is cultivated, a quality of non-interference, of using your opponents' strengths to your advantage without the struggle to change them.
It's much easier to learn an external martial art than an internal one.
Our usual inclination is to use force to accomplish something. Children naturally punch and kick. They don't naturally deflect a blow by smoothly moving their body.
Ron Sieh studied with Peter Ralston, an accomplished master of Tai Chi Chuan. He describes that experience in a Technique chapter.
When I used to box with Peter, he would quickly and impactfully fill any holes I would open. The reason was not necessarily his superior technique but his quality of presence and willingness to play the game.
This was a game in which, when the going got rough, the willingness to be there and deeply feel your own experience "as is" became increasingly hard to do.
Our tendency when "confronted" with pain -- either the pain of getting hit or the unwillingness to play (any game) -- is immediately to jump into our well-practiced and often entrenched sense of defending ourselves, our position, or to space out.
Boxing or playing push hands with Peter made it very clear to me, over and over, that at least in my relationship to Peter, denial didn't work and was a great hindrance. It was also simply bad strategy.
...The centerline is a notion that is important in many martial arts. It is basically the line that runs down the center of our bodies.
...The centerline is that core of the body around which we rotate when we turn the pelvis, whether to dodge a punch, yield to a push, or whatever. In the game of two-person work the centerline is what we should seek out in our partner.
It is often felt as a core which many people have a hard time yielding. Particularly in push hands it is the target.
...We can rotate around our centerline whether it is located centrally or on the left or right half of our body. It is the feeling of centerline that is important.
If pushed in the center of the chest we can, with feeling, move the core around -- we rotate to the left or right of that and swing open like a door on our off-center centerline to accommodate the push.
Those words are difficult to follow if you haven't experienced what Sieh is talking about. This video of Peter Ralston playing at push hands is a much better way to grasp what an internal martial art is all about.
And, by implication, what taking a more flowing, less resistant approach to life as a whole is all about.
Push hands in Tai Chi isn't about winning or losing. It isn't a contest. It's a playful way of putting into practice what otherwise remains an abstraction. Until someone is trying to throw us off balance, we don't know how to respond in a way that, hopefully, enables us to keep our balance and composure.
Peter Ralston is the older guy in the light-colored cap. But you could figure that out just by watching the video, since his Tai Chi skill is considerably greater than the other guy's.
It may not look like Ralston is doing much.
However, if you focus on his core, his centerline, you'll see that he is able to control the other guy with relatively small well-timed moves that look effortless, but take a heck of a lot of training to master.
In push hands a move is released before it becomes a full-on joint lock, takedown, strike, or whatever. So over and over you'll see Ralston releasing moves that, in an actual fight, would appear much more martial.