Tai Chi is viewed by most people as merely a gentle form of exercise. Which, it certainly is. But there's another side to Tai Chi -- the martial art aspect.
I'm familiar with Tai Chi as a martial art because I'm fortunate to have an instructor here in Salem, Oregon who is highly adept at self-defense applications of Tai Chi moves.
Warren Allen came to Tai Chi after a lot of experience in hard style martial arts. So he is able to recognize how Tai Chi can be a soft style martial art like aikido, as contrasted with hard style martial arts like karate.
The Japanese Martial Arts Center has a good definition of hard and soft styles, which basically coincide with external and internal martial arts.
Hard Martial Arts
Hard martial arts are usually synonymous with external martial arts because both focus on physical power. When practicing a hard art, you meet an attack with a forceful opposing attack. Hard arts rely on overpowering the opponent, not just with strength, but also with timing, distance, and angles. That’s true whether you’re engaging in offense, defense, or a combination of both. When you’re sparring in karate and hit your opponent harder than they just hit you, that’s an example of a hard art.
Soft Martial Arts
Soft martial arts are often based on the concept of blending with an opponent’s attack. When you’re attacked, you don’t meet the attack with a block. Instead, you move with it to escape or to improve your position. To win against your attacker, you subdue them before they can attack again. To do this at a high level requires relaxation and a calm perception, qualities that are emphasized in internal martial arts.
I also started my martial arts training in a hard style, Shotokan Karate. After nine years of Shotokan, I started to train in a more eclectic form of karate with Allen at his Pacific Martial Arts studio.
So I have about 12 years of experience with karate, and about 19 years of experience with Tai Chi, which I started learning in 2004 with Allen and have pursued ever since.
Today I took part in a three-hour seminar taught by Allen. Along with four other students, we explored Tai Chi as a soft martial art. All of us had a lot of Tai Chi training.
And all of us found the seminar challenging at times. That's because it is much easier to meet force with force than to respond to force with the above-mentioned blending with an opponent's attack that's the hallmark of soft martial arts.
This is one reason why soft martial arts like Tai Chi are termed "internal." Obviously there is an internal side to karate, just as there's an external side to Tai Chi. It's just a matter of degree.
If someone attacks us, either physically or verbally, the natural initial reaction of most people, me certainly included, is to respond in kind. Thus karate training is more in line with our usual inclination: if a punch is thrown at our head, we deal with it via an equal or greater physical response.
But with Tai Chi as a martial art, the goal is to blend with the force of an attack to defuse and deflect it as smoothly and effortlessly as possible.
I find this highly fascinating, intriguing, and, for sure, difficult. I've gotten fairly good at it, though I have to constantly keep in check my usual inclination to match force with force -- again, whether or not the attack is physical or verbal.
And life itself "attacks" all of us regularly, since problems with our health, work, home, relationships, and other areas need to be dealt with. We can't ignore these problems, but sometimes we react to them with more anxious force than is necessary, rather than handling them as gracefully as possible, seeing them not as a malevolent invading army but as troublesome guests deserving of gentle correction.
For me this is why I enjoy Tai Chi so much. It's essentially Taoism in motion, and I've loved Taoist teachings long before I started to learn Tai Chi.
I have various translations of the Tao Te Ching. The 1972 translation by Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English that I've had since my college days still is my favorite, maybe because it is so familiar to me. Here's a couple of passages that relate to Tai Chi as a martial art.
Yield and overcome;
Bend and be straight;
Empty and be full;
Wear out and be new;
Have little and gain;
Have much and be confused.
The softest thing in the universe
Overcomes the hardest thing in the universe.
That without substance can enter where there is no room.
Hence I know the value of non-action.
Teaching without words and work without doing
Are understood by very few.
Well, I've been trying to understand the Tao Te Ching for most of my life. I'm not sure if I'm any closer to that understanding than I was more than fifty years ago.
But I sure enjoy the searching for Taoist truth. And that's a big reason why I enjoy Tai Chi so much, both in its non-martial and martial forms.