A Way of Life
Unlike the external martial arts, tai chi chuan is not about specific striking, kicking, or grappling techniques. For example, boxing has the jab, straight, hook, roundhouse, and uppercut. The various forms of karate and kung fu include numerous types of kicks. Then, there are the grappling arts like aikido and jiu jitsu, which include traps, takedowns, throws, joint locks, and pressure point strikes. Tai chi chuan’s techniques are internal. Unlike the external martial arts, you can’t see tai chi techniques; this is because they are not external. They are internal. Tai chi chuan is about a way of life involving mindful relaxation, investing in loss (absence of aggressive striving or grasping), and humility. It is about internal power generation (chi, qi, Ki) as compared with the muscular force and aggression of external martial arts. Where the external arts teach aggression, the internal arts focus on relaxation of body as well as mind.
Most of this page is on tai chi chuan, but I occassionally mention other internal arts, especially internal wing chun and aikido. These are the only three internal martial arts that have become extremely popular around the world. Others, such as ba gua and hsing yi never became popularized outside of China and are not even popular there anymore.
My tai chi chuan teacher, grandmaster William C.C. Chen trained in a Western boxing gym in the late 50s in order to learn boxing techniques, prior to competing in the Taiwan National Fighting Championships. His son and daughter trained in mixed martial arts in the late 90s and early 2000s in order to compete in mixed martial arts fighting championships. However, all three had already achieved a very high level of tai chi chuan before training in techniques that are usually associated with external arts. What they then did was to apply the depth of their internal training and way of life to the normally external fighting techniques. Because of the high level of internal training that they already possessed, they were able to adopt the use of these strikes, kicks, and grappling techniques and use them in their tai chi chuan. In other words, when they adopted these external techniques, they used them internally. This allowed them to use strikes, kicks, and grappling techniques with lightning speed, which allowed them to win many tournaments and championships.
Most people think tai chi consists of the slow motion forms that are now taught in classes everywhere. However, those forms are just a training tool and only a very small (but absolutely essential) part of the complete martial art of tai chi chuan.
Today, I don’t teach or even practice any martial art. In my younger days, I practiced a few complete martial arts, training almost 20 hours a week for many years; today, my only involvement is the daily practice of two empty hand forms, the tai chi Yang style short form of Grandmaster William C.C. Chen and the internal wing chun form known as siu nim tao.
The non-martial practices I teach in my Mindfulness-Based Self-Compassion course at College of Marin in Kentfield, California evolved from my personal history with the internal martial arts, especially tai chi chuan and to a lesser extent with aikijujutsu, along with some ba qua, hsing yi, and chin na. I had originally discovered the internal martial arts as a result of my fascination with the Kung Fu TV series starring David Carradine in the 1970s.
Tai chi chuan and the other internal martial arts are about practicing a mindfulness-based way of life that revolves around giving 100% to every activity throughout the day without any aggression or grasping. There is no focus on achieving anything. This commonly results in a high degree of success in every endeavor. Even when things don’t go as planned, this approach means that situations that would otherwise be judged as failures are actually appreciated as learning opportunities.
The greatest learning comes from the willingness to lose in various life (and martial) encounters. Traditionally, this was known as being willing to invest in loss. This philosophy and approach to life leads to life mastery.
Any focus on striving, winning, achieving, acquiring, or grasping creates mental and bodily tension, which prevents the cultivation of mindful relaxation, groundedness, internal energy, and of living with inner peace and aliveness.
From this perspective, striving and grasping for a specific result are often counterproductive and in contradiction to any type of mindfulness practice. If you learn how to recognize all the mindless chatter spewed out by the brain and you learn how to mindfully return your attention to your task at hand, you increase your odds of being successful. This is true for work, play, and relationships.
The beauty of living according to tai chi or other internal martial arts principles throughout every daily activity is that it results in healthy habits. Healthy ways to use your body become automatic. There are times, such as during periods of injury or illness, which become more frequent with aging, when this automatic optimization of body mechanics becomes a lifesaver. Fatigue, malaise, injury, and other symptoms tend to reduce awareness, which increases the likelihood of falling and having other bodily mishaps. This mindfulness-based approach, when practiced as a way of life, reduces those mishaps by allowing you to automatically practice good body mechanics and mindful relaxation, even when not feeling well.
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A Lifelong Process
The Yang style short form does not take long to learn. However, my teacher, Grandmaster William CC Chen has been teaching since 1952 and says he is still learning when doing the form every day. Personally, I find doing my two forms each day to be extremely satisfying, in that, I am always learning something new. To a beginner, the form appears the same every day, but once you no longer need to consciously think about the various movements of the forms and their sequence, you will find that new things are learned constantly, and that it continues to influence how you literally move through your day.
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My Tai Chi Form Demo
The form I am doing in this video is the empty hand form of Grandmaster William CC Chen, which is a slightly modified version of the form taught to him in the late 1940s by Professor Cheng Man-Ch’ing in Taiwan. In 1980, I was impressed with Master Chen so much that I gave up everything I had previously learned from Master TT Liang in order to train with Master Chen. In the video below, in order to make it easier to see all my movements, I made them larger than the way I now normally do them. When doing the Yang style tai chi forms or the internal wing chun forms, one should not move the arms. The arms do move, but without external muscle.
Meaning and Purpose
Living my life in harmony with the wu wei (non-doing) principles of Tai chi chuan or internal wing chun provides a sense of meaning and purpose to my life.
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Mindfulness in Motion
This is a way of practicing mindfulness without it seeming like formal practice. Any physical movements can be a source of play, which help us to live in the moment. Forms practice can be a practice of playing with being fully alive, aware, and present throughout the day.
In practicing the solo forms, you learn how to unify the body and mind. For example, every time you open a door, move an object, or even just walk across a room, you learn to play at being in harmony with your moment-to-moment environment.
This mindfulness in motion practice is similar to traditional sitting mindfulness practice, except that you will be getting exercise as you are practicing mindfulness. This is important, given the new information on the dangers of being sedentary and the importance of moving throughout the day as much as possible. Throughout the day, putting your conscious attention on every step and every physical motion, you will gradually reprogram your entire nervous system. Thoughts of all kinds will come into your conscious awareness. As they do, the practice is to consciously return your attention to your physical movements—whatever they are, from moment-to-moment.
Good practices to ask yourself throughout the day, in all physical movements:
- Am I over my center of gravity?
- Am I fully aware of my immediate environment?
- Am I fully present with the activity at hand?
- Is my mind (and intention) in my body-center (rather than in my head)?
- Am I relaxing downward and expanding my spine upward?
- Am I practicing mindful relaxation?
- Is my breathing diaphragmatic?
Cultivation of Awareness
Doing the forms and living the tai chi (or internal wing chun) principles throughout the day helps develop a high degree of awareness—self-awareness and awareness of the immediate environment. This skill results in a greater ability to interact on a high level with others and with the environment.
The art of aikido offers many of the same benefits as those found in the other internal arts. As with the other internal martial arts, in aikido, one never meets force with force or aggression with aggression. All the internal arts are based in internal relaxation and internal energy generation. They all involve putting your mind in your center. By putting your mind in your center, rather than in your head, you can remain calm and grounded even in the midst of an aggressive attack. In fact, in aikido, the harder someone attacks you, physically or metaphorically, the more power you have to use against the attacker. In aikido, more so than almost any other art, attacker and defender are in a relationship.
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All One Smooth Set of Linked Movements
The various movements of the tai chi form are linked together without interruption. In other words, when doing the forms, the body is in continuous movement.
The entire body moves in even the smallest of movements. The head is always energized and moving. There is no such thing as a passive hand, arm, leg, foot, or head. For example, in the movement called brush knee, the left hand could be parrying a kick while the right hand is striking, so, they are both energized and active. The knee of the rear leg turns in, but the foot comes forward in an active way—not dragging forward.
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Appreciation or Gratitude
The increased awareness that is developed through the practice of tai chi as a way of life results in a greater appreciation for daily life experiences. It can become a type of gratitude practice.
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Interpersonal Relationships and Tai Chi
Tai chi is based on the philosophy of wu wei (non-doing or not striving). It is about yielding rather than meeting force with force. It is a practice of going with the flow. This does not mean allowing others to take advantage of your good nature. It is about resilience—the ability to bounce back. When others push against you physically or verbally, you are more likely to have a satisfying and productive exchange when you yield rather than resist. Yielding is not the same as giving up or giving in. Yielding could simply mean listening and reflecting back what the other person said, as opposed to getting defensive. Once you yield in this way, the other person will be considerably more open to hearing your side of the argument. The aggressor very soon loses interest in attacking you when you remain calm and non-defensive. Personally, I have found that this also works when attacked by an aggressive dog; you may sustain a bite, but the dog will not continue to attack a person who is truly calm and assertive. Whereas, an aggressive defense only causes the dog (or person) to become even more aggressive.
Through tai chi chuan and the other internal martial arts, you learn to hold yourself in a more relaxed and open posture—both physically and mentally. This results in others (and animals) feeling safe around you. In addition, holding yourself in this mindful, relaxed stance helps you to feel more open to and accepting of others.
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This mindfulness-based approach to tai chi results in the ability to introspect without judging. When you become aware of self-judging, tai chi allows you to mindfully, physically relax into those harsh, self-critical thoughts. Resistance to and suppression of such thoughts only strengthens them, whereas acceptance of them, learned through the tai chi principle of yielding, results in diminution of self-critical thoughts.
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Mastery of Body Mechanics
Tai chi chuan and internal wing chun teach you how to open a heavy door and lift and lower a heavy object without injury. Mastery of body mechanics will allow you to use your body very efficiently. As you gradually gain experience in tai chi or internal wing chun, you will find yourself automatically using good body mechanics in everything you do, whether opening a heavy door or gardening. Mastery of body mechanics will allow you to avoid many injuries and falls that normally become increasingly common with aging. You will begin to discover the joy in moving the entire body every time you move any part of it. In fact, doing menial, routine tasks becomes stimulating as you become skilled in using tai chi movements to perform those otherwise boring tasks.
- Whenever I pick up a small object from the floor, I use my body as in the movements called Needle at Sea Bottom or Snake Creeps Down.
- Whenever I open or close one of our glass sliders leading to our patio, I use my body as in the movements called Single Whip or Spread Hands Like Fan.
- To put something away on a high shelf, I use my body as in the movements called Fair Lady at the Shuttles or White Crane Spreads its Wings.
- To drag a chair to a slightly different location, I have used Roll Back.
The hands are rotating in each movement and the body center is also rotating. This is similar to the dynamic sphere of aikido, still another internal martial art that I trained in many years ago. Even the big toe is spiraling as it energizes and directs movements.
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Most people associate doing Tai chi with the formal practices. Don’t think of tai chi as something you have to practice. Obviously, the more you practice, the more you learn. But, substitute the word play for practice. I play, using the principles of tai chi every time I open a sliding door, push a shopping cart, walk through a crowded place, open and close kitchen doors and drawers, the refrigerator door, and the oven door.
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Tai chi chuan and internal wing chun teach mindful (energized rather than limp) relaxation on a very deep level, and this includes the ability to relax in the face of physical or verbal aggression. From a relaxed stance, you will be able to respond spontaneously and in a productive way. Anyone can relax while sprawled out on the couch. Internal martial arts teach how to relax in the face of conflict. The tai chi version of relaxation involves a freedom of movement in your body and mind. This freedom is very energizing. When you experience emotional or psychological stress, it kills your life force energy. As you begin to cultivate the deep state of relaxed alertness by practicing the tai chi form, your life force energy wakes up; this is what is referred to as chi.
Much of the stress we live with is the result of lifelong habits of holding various muscle groups tight for self-protection, which is not only dysfunctional, but actually reduces our sense of aliveness and wellbeing. Daily practice of the slow motion tai chi form or the siu nim tao form is a method of learning how to become aware of unhealthy bodily tension and to be able to release it.
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Why Slow Motion?
Just as mindfulness meditation allows you to slow down in order to be able to objectively observe your thought processes, the slow-motion tai chi form allows you to objectively observe even the slightest amount of bodily tension. Learning to deeply relax while simultaneously remaining fully awake and alert is very difficult. As you practice, over time, you will eventually learn to use the applications of each movement in the tai chi form with lightning speed. What allows you to acquire that degree of speed is the deep level of mindful relaxation. Bodily tension interferes with speed.
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Energy is a coordinated combination of several components—mindful relaxation, efficient body mechanics, diaphragmatic breathing, intention, and well timed compression.
It is the slow motion form of tai chi chuan or the siu nim tao form of internal wing chun that allows you to slow down enough to experience this energy. As you do one of these internal forms, you imagine energizing your palms and fingers on all the strikes and then, on all the pulling back moves, the energy returns to the feet. On all the strikes, you want to imagine the fingers getting full, warm, and energized. On all the retreating movements, imagine the energy draining from the fingers and returning to the feet or to your body center (depending on the particular tradition). Imagine the feet being rooted to the ground, which is the source of the energy.
The most difficult concept to learn is that none of the physical movements are done externally. For example, Grandmaster William Chen often says to not lift the arms. What he means is that what actually lifts the arms is the energizing of the palms and fingers. As the fingers fill up, the arms lift, but it is without use of muscle. It is the mind filling the fingers with energy. However, the actual power to energize the palms and fingers comes from the feet. In most cases, the energy to power the right hand results from pressing down with the left foot—specifically the area behind the big toe and the energy to power the left hand results from pressing down with that part of the right foot. Most strikes and kicks as well as moving of heavy doors or furniture is mostly contralateral. The energy from pressing down the foot must be transmitted up through the knee, hip, pelvis, abdomen, chest and finally out the contralateral hand and this needs to happen without losing any energy in that long pathway.
One of the ways to assist in the smooth transmission of energy along that complex pathway results from the entire body moving as one unit all the time. In other words, there is no pause between the various movements of the form. If you were to pause, then the energy from the foot would not make it all the way to the contralateral fingers. Also, good body mechanics, for example, keeping the toe of the weighted foot in vertical alignment with the knee and nose allows for efficient energy transfer.
The breathing is also essential in efficient transfer of energy. Grandmaster Chen refers to parts of each movement of the form as either asleep or awake. In the asleep movements, the diaphragm goes up as you exhale, pushing the air out. On the awake movements, the diaphragm moves down, pulling in a fresh in-breath. Throughout the entire form, you are coordinating the inhalations and exhalations with the movements.
Because there is no resistance in doing the form, the breathing is coordinated with the asleep and awake parts of each movement. However, when you wish to push, pull, lift, or put down a heavy object or open a heavy door, you need to form a compression of the air and the muscles. A grunt is an easy and possibly most effective way to create the compression or energy, but even a grunt is not enough for maximum transfer of energy from the foot to the hand. It is also important to use the concept of awake at those times, which is actually a sudden transfer of energy with coordinated combination of several components—mindful relaxation, breathing, intention, and compression.
One of the most common mistakes is to move the body slightly up and down within each movement when doing the tai chi form. The most efficient transfer of energy occurs by avoiding the use of some of the energy from the foot being used to flex and extend the knees, and to flex, extend, and rotate the hips. Moving up and down slightly seems natural, yet, as soon as you learn to avoid doing that extra movement, you will appreciate much greater energy in your fingers.
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Well-controlled studies in the last ten years have consistently found tai chi to qualify as moderate exercise. The beauty of tai chi as a form of exercise is the way it trains the mind even more than it trains the body. Because of the deep level of physical and emotional relaxation, health and wellbeing improve. Tai chi is not a cure for disease, but it contributes to homeostasis and resilience. This then improves circulation, respiration, and generally reduces physiological stress. Emotional distress contributes to physiological stress, which contributes to health problems and a diminution of wellbeing. The practice of tai chi reduces emotional distress and physiological stress, thereby optimizing homeostasis, health and wellbeing.
Mindfulness practice has traditionally been associated with sitting meditation, because by quieting the body, it is easier to tune in to the workings of the mind and to disentangle from all the mind chatter, so that all that noise can be objectively observed without being caught up in it. Tai chi affords the opportunity to do the same while engaging in the tai chi form, which researchers now consider to qualify as moderate exercise. The latest research reveals a strong association between a sedentary lifestyle and increased morbidity and mortality. Until recently, it was believed that as long as you get in a certain amount of daily exercise, nothing more was required. We now know that even if you are someone who gets in two full hours of daily exercise, if you spend the rest of the day staring at your computer screen, your health will eventually deteriorate as a result of all that sitting.
Tai chi chuan and internal wing chun both provide a way of playfully engaging in virtually every physical action, including simply standing up, sitting down, walking, and moving any object larger than a paper clip. This not only reduces the risk of injury sustained by using the body incorrectly, the playful nature serves to increase energy, wellbeing, and health.
In doing the form, energy is generated from compressing the feet into the floor and then directing that energy into the hands and fingers. Learning how to generate and direct energy through the body provides an opportunity to send it where it is needed. You can test out your new skill by holding a biofeedback thermometer in each hand and then make the temperature go up on one and down on the other.
Increasingly, observational, longitudinal studies prove that physical activity throughout the day does more to prevent cognitive decline in middle age and especially for seniors than any other factor. Tai chi is a good way to take a few minutes, a few times a day, to get valuable physical activity without needing to follow it up with a shower. When the tai chi form is done correctly, very little sweating occurs; this is due to the level of muscular relaxation.
Falls lead to cognitive and general health declines; this is especially true following hip fractures. According to the research, just doing the tai chi form once a day has proven to be the most efficacious exercise we can do for the prevention of falls.
Hundreds of studies on tai chi, published in peer-reviewed journals have provided solid evidence of the health effects of the incorporation of this practice into daily life, such as enhanced balance, agility, proprioception, wellbeing, self-efficacy, cardiovascular and neurological enhancements.
Tai chi increases mind-body awareness, which allows you to detect subtle problems that need attention. The earlier a symptom is detected, the sooner the doctor can test and diagnose you. Every cancer, and most diseases are much easier to treat in the early stages.
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Self-Mastery and Control
Ironically, the more you learn to yield and relax in stressful situations, the more you will actually be in better control over your life. A sense of being in control over your life is one of the attributes of the healthiest and happiest people. Once you begin to incorporate tai chi throughout your daily activities, life will begin to seem easier. Prior to adopting a practice of tai chi, most people try to control various parameters of their lives. Through tai chi, they learn that trying to control a person or a situation results in frustration and a sense of lacking control. Tai chi is about giving up control, which paradoxically helps us to feel more in control.
Anytime we consciously practice a technique of any kind that we believe in, we develop self-efficacy. Just that sense of knowing that we have the power to catalyze a specific, desired physiological change, in and of itself, improves the odds of achieving that goal.
Yet, tai chi offers much more. Although practitioners of Chinese Medicine refer to it as chi, the mindful relaxation, pneumatics and body mechanics of tai chi have allowed those who master it to create remarkable, healthy bodily changes.
One of the most powerful aspects of having psychophysiological self-regulation practices has little to do with the specifics of what we are practicing. This is because just the act of doing something, or having something that we can do, in and of itself, gives us a sense of having greater control over our life. Doing anything is better than doing nothing. It’s not that the specifics of what we practice don’t matter at all. Obviously practicing tai chi is a lot healthier than practicing the use of recreational drugs. Practices like mindfulness and tai chi are particularly healthy, but simply taking action that is in harmony with our self-identified personal values serves to give us a sense of control over our lives.
Self-efficacy is an important component of self-care. It is also an important component of success in every endeavor. If you believe you can succeed in something, and you have the required skills, success is more likely. Without self-efficacy, you are less likely to take the necessary risks that are inherent in achieving success, and if you do take the necessary risks, your lack of self-efficacy will most likely lead to a half-hearted attempt.
The challenge is in finding ways to develop self-efficacy. Achievement of proficiency in any endeavor helps us to cultivate self-efficacy. Because tai chi is so multi-faceted and complex, the learning and achievement of proficiencies is life-long; therefore, self-efficacy is always being developed in new aspects of the art.
In terms of health and wellbeing, not only does self-efficacy lead to healthier behaviors, it improves health and wellbeing in and of itself; it does this by creating a positive, can-do attitude.
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Balance—Physical and Emotional
Virtually all the research shows that tai chi improves balance and coordination. This results in deeper levels of relaxation and confidence, which is due in part to no longer needing to worry about falling. Over time, daily practice of the form reprograms the entire nervous system. This dramatically reduces the chance of tripping and falling, which is why tai chi is so important to learn before old age sets in. Tai chi contributes to mind-body unity and balance.
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Pain and Other Symptoms
The more time we spend focused on whatever it is that we don’t want, the more we will experience it. This is why simple distraction techniques are often enough, especially with acute pain or other uncomplicated symptoms.
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As you learn to form a habit of putting your attention on your walking and on every physical movement, tripping and falling will not be something that applies to you. Studies now show that even for elderly people living with Parkinson’s Disease and other neurological disorders, tai chi can offer some help.
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Coordination of Mind and Body
When you observe someone who has mastered the tai chi form, you will notice that every part of the body moves together. In addition to physiological homeostasis, physical and emotional balance, tai chi engenders mind-body equilibrium.
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Balance of Opposites
Throughout every movement of the form, there is a constant alternation between energizing and relaxing. This balance of opposites practice in the form encourages the same throughout the day. Most activities require energy, which is supplied by food, exercise, and intentionality. Yet, without sleep, none of these activities would be possible. Anxiety is a part of being alive, and one of the best ways to balance it is to take time out every day to do the tai chi form, which is an opportunity to come back to center, to become reinvigorated.
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Translated as Supreme Ultimate Fist, tai chi chuan has traditionally been considered the most sophisticated of all the martial arts, but it is important to know the limits of your skill level. For example, attaining a high level of skill in Tai Chi Chuan for street self-defense against an armed drug addict or any type of attacker intent on doing you harm requires a type of training that includes extensive practice in knife disarms and gun disarms. Very few tai chi masters teach those skills. If you would like that type of training, I recommend going to a Krav Maga school in your area.
Speed is of the essence in real street self-defense and experienced tai chi chuan practitioners who practice the complete martial art (not just the forms and push hands) are unbelievably quick. Unfortunately, with aging or various chronic illnesses, that speed deteriorates.
The good news is that most potentially dangerous situations can be avoided with the cultivation and practice of keen awareness of your immediate environment. By observing the body language and behavior of those in your immediate environment and not taking your eyes off someone you are not sure about, most attacks can be avoided. A keen awareness of your environment at all times may be your best defense. You also need to act on your intuition. For example, if you are walking through a parking garage and someone starts walking toward you in some way that creates fear in you, trust your instincts and immediately walk in the direction of other people without taking your eyes off that person. It is better to end up embarrassed than dead.
Obviously, if anyone physically threatens you, the smartest thing is to hand over your money and whatever else the attacker wants. Self-defense should only be used when the attacker’s intent is to physically harm you or someone with you.
If you are trapped and not able to get away from a potential attacker, do your best to remain calm and to have a respectful conversation with the attacker. Your best chance to calm the attacker down is for you to remain calm, respectful, and verbally communicative while maintaining good eye contact. However, if the attacker is a crazed drug addict, even your full compliance with the attacker’s demands along with a calm and respectful demeanor will not guarantee your safety. If the attacker is intent on killing you, you must yell and fight for your life with whatever skills and object you can pick up and you must do this with lightning speed.
Don’t be an easy mark. An easy mark is someone walking around with certain characteristics: head down, hands in pockets, hands clasped behind back, busy texting, talking, or in some way distracted and not fully alert.
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An Exotic Art Form
I have always enjoyed the exotic nature of Asian martial art forms of self-expression and moving meditation. I find it quite enjoyable to do my tai chi and wing chun siu nim tao forms out in a natural setting.
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Videos of Tai Chi Chuan at the Advanced Level
My tai chi teacher; William C.C. Chen
Grandmaster Chen is most known as the first tai chi teacher to apply the principles of the internal martial art of tai chi chuan to modern methods of fighting. In this video, when he says “no muscle,” he is referring to the fact that the internal martial arts such as tai chi, internal wing chun, aikido, ba qua, hsing-yi, chin na, and other internal martial arts do not rely on external muscular strength. Practitioners of these arts are able to execute techniques with lightning speed as a result of a deep level of bodily relaxation along with exceptional body mechanics.
Below are three videos of tai chi master Adam Mizner. I never met him, but I have included the videos to give you a sense of the lightning speed of tai chi chuan. The focus on letting go of all unnecessary tension is what makes tai chi masters so unbelievably fast. The third of the three Mizner videos below is an interview with him, in which he describes the source of the internal power and speed.
Explication of Tai Chi Chuan by Master Adam Meisner