I love how Tai Chi demonstrates a hugely practical philosophy of life through physical movement. Other activities do this also -- ballroom dancing comes to mind -- but Tai Chi is unique in that it explicitly embodies philosophical Taoist principles.
Tonight, I was paired up with my Tai Chi instructor, Warren, as his class practiced the self-defense application of the Fair Lady movements (with a follow step).
Warren and I have a lot of marital arts experience -- he more than me, naturally. And his Tai Chi background is much deeper than mine. Yet both of us were surprised at what we learned after only a few practice punches that were countered by Fair Lady deflections.
At first I handled Warren's straight right jab with excessive force. My technique was very gentle by traditional karate standards, yet considerably more "yang" (energetic, blunt, rigid) than Tai Chi expects.
"Try being softer," Warren said. "Don't use so much force." I did. And was amazed.
The less effort I put into deflecting a punch, and then controlling Warren's follow-up left cross, the more impressive the result. I'd learned this many times before during other Tai Chi classes, but somehow this evening the lesson came through with unusual clarity.
Meeting force with force is counterproductive. Flowingly redirecting someone's aggressive energy is the best first move. Control follows, as their attack falters by being met with an absorbing response, not a brittle one.
Warren and I played around with various attacking and defending styles. If he punched hard, and I blocked in a similar fashion, we ended up face-to-face. Neither of us had much of an advantage, but since Warren was moving forward with aggressive energy, he was better suited to follow up on the initial punch/block standoff.
This is how fight scenes in Kung Fu movies often look: bam! pow! oof! aiyeeah! Punches and blocks follow each other in rapid fashion. He who moves fastest and strongest wins.
That isn't the Tai Chi way. And by and large, it isn't the best way to handle aggression -- physical, mental, verbal, emotional -- in everyday life.
We found that a hard, brittle, rigid, strong response to an initial attack slowed down the defender. Rather strangely, the faster I moved to handle Warren's first punch, the slower I was able to handle his succeeding punches.
Softness, relaxation, calmness: moving with these "yin" qualities resulted in Warren being controlled to a much greater degree than when I tried to respond to him with the same "yang" energy he aimed at me.
Most of us have a natural inclination to strike back hard when we feel we're being attacked. However, Tai Chi practice demonstrates that this usually is counter-productive. It's better to respond with an inner "OK... no big deal" as you deflect the aggression with a fingertip's worth of effort rather than a strong bunch of muscle.
It isn't always possible to flow with life. Sometimes we need to forcefully interject ourselves into a situation without caring what gets broken. But much of the time we overdo, overtry, overstress.
Before I wrote this post, I checked my Twitter feed and saw that our dance instructor, Lora, had shared a waltz video. These marvelous professional dancers aren't doing Tai Chi, and yet they are.
This is flow. This is Tai Chi. This is life.