Thursday, April 24, 2014

The Art of Taiji is in Decline

I have been thinking about the point of Olympic advancement and Tai Chi decline. Of course I cannot include the real truth of my longtime association with the first school that I started in; it would be too cruel to that crowd. On one hand I have been the recipient of great generosity and must respect the conditions under which that was given. On the other hand I have trained earnestly at Olympic levels for 20 years with unacceptable results. Of course I blame myself but I also blame the system and methodology. I do not blame the individuals but even to voice an honest assessment of current methods and results publicly would come across as disrespectful. Imagine you had a music teacher who told you that they would teach you everything openly without holding back but only when you were ready. After 20 years you were still playing scales and etudes and were not ready for concertos. I would question the pedagogy. Luckily for musicians there is a well-established pedagogy that reliably leads to Mastery and the same is true in sports. My long time teacher in that school was still doing and teaching Tai Chi at the beginner exaggerated level after 20 years. You see, although the muscles are inside the body or “internal”, wiggling them around or the ability to do isolations is not “Internal”. The thing about useful exaggerations is that they are only useful as long as they are useful.

While I do not believe the necessary advances in methodology and pedagogy will come from neuroscientists and physiologists I do believe that the Tai Chi reformers will use the language and science of those disciplines to formalize and make clear those concepts formerly thought to be bound by Chinese language and culture.

My personal belief is that the Traditional Art of Tai Chi must be preserved. The traditional methods of teaching and learning need to be re-examined. Consider the advances in sports. In Olympic competition all breakthroughs trickle down to the collegiate level within years. High school athletes are competing at levels set by Olympians within a decade. Why don’t we see this sort of progress in Tai Chi? I know people who put that kind of time and energy into their training but they don’t get the results. Clearly, if the Ancients were here, with their skill and ability they could modernize the approach. The safety measure is not to modernize the form but to modernize the training method. I know it is not an Internal Art but in Figure Skating for example you can see physical feats increasing along with artistry, understanding and internal grace. These people retain their skills into old age. Maybe we should look at the physical training techniques, apparatuses and principles discovered by modern sports medicine.

The old training methods were in harmony with a different age. The thing about the Daoist Art of Tai Chi is that it is in harmony with its environment. We live in a modern world. Our spiritual advances are being made in a world of phones and computers in buildings of steel and glass. So our world suggests a different way to achieve balance than the old ways. We do not have the luxury of retiring to a cave or a monastery to study in depth. We must find the opportunity in our world to do so.

The idea that Tai Chi players can achieve Forms, Push Hands and Awareness at the Mastery Level by the standard curricula we commonly see just seems wrong. To hide behind pedigree, lineage, secrecy, flowery New Age language, Cultural or Ancient double speak as an alternative to a clear transmission of the structural mechanics also seems wrong when dedicated, earnest students are practicing 3 to 4 hours a day for 10 to 15 years with very modest results and then to say that it will take 3 lifetimes is again just not adequate. I know it’s not the same but still in music, dance, visual arts, sports or even in MMA there are standards and accountability for achievement and efficacy of training methods. Bottom Line.

Most serious students of Taiji have a deep respect for Chinese culture and the gift of Taiji that it has given the world. Without the study of the Authentic Traditional Taiji and the culture that created Taiji it would be unlikely to progress to the higher levels. The idea that the only way to describe the central and universal concepts of Taiji requires a specific language and that to understand those concepts you need to be a native speaker is silly at best. Nobody can own an idea. Once an idea is at large we may and should try to describe it in numerous ways.

Taiji requires the Physicality of doing it and feeling it inside but it also includes an intellectual component. We should certainly be able to describe clearly in modern language what the methods and the results of Taiji should be. One must get the balance of those two components right or the work will not bear fruit.

Neurophysiology is by definition the study of the nervous system and how it relates to movement. This seems like a useful angle to use when communicating and defining what we feel in the body. Neurophysiology is thousands of years old and permeates all cultures so this is not an attempt to Westernize Tai Chi or Modernize it. It is an attempt to Modernize the Methodology for a Western Society. We await an Avatar with an Intellectual approach and sufficient Taiji skills capable of bridging the gap and willing to tell Truth to Power. Until then the Art of Taiji is in Decline.

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