Greetings to all, and especially Wushuer, Michael, and Polaris,
I have quite definitive feelings about this, but before I express them further and rehash old posts let me say a few things.
Wushuer, Michael, and Polaris, I think I agree with the intent behind all the words that you three have recently posted; however, I don’t think agree with some of the interpretations you give to the words of others. I also think that many people express some similar thoughts to justify courses of action that I would advise against.
From the first day we begin to practice Taijiquan to the last day, I think we all remain both beginners and experts. On the first day, our teacher will ask us to perform certain movements. Taijiquan is about feelings, not externals. No teacher can be certain of all your feelings, and so you must be the expert in them, even on the first day. No teacher can be certain of the limits of your comfort, flexibility, or strength, and so you must be the expert in these and not try blindly to duplicate the motions of your teacher. If beginners ignore this principle, they risk injury. How low should a posture be held? How long should a stride be? How long should your breath be? Where is the line between “forcing” and reaching for a “natural” ideal? What is insufficiently challenging? Teachers can guide in these things, but the student has to make the final decision.
On our last day or most recent day of practice, we know what we know, but cannot be sure of what lies beyond our knowledge. Even if our teacher says that he or she has no more to teach us, this does not mean there are no other teachers around with something else worth imparting. Unless you know the contours of what you are learning and have “entered the gate,” you must retain much of a “beginner’s mind” and follow instructions without too much questioning.
As a beginner, you must follow your teacher’s instructions even when your “common sense” and “experience” tell you otherwise. As an expert, you must turn your back on your teacher’s apparent “instructions” and follow your own “common sense” and “experience.” I believe that the secret to progressing most efficiently in the art is to know when to adopt which stance.
Polaris, after all is said and done, I have to say that I find your advice more relevant for my experience and what I have seen of the experience of most of my friends. I do not read your words as saying that one should not study more than one style or that one must deny the validity of any of one’s previous learning experiences. I hear you as saying that prematurely mixing things means that one will be acting without guidance. In the guise of learning something new, one may in reality being trying to create a third way which no one has validated before. Many have succeeded in this, but I believe that more have failed. I believe that we all have no choice but to introduce changes into the traditions that we learn, but I believe that less change is much safer than more, unless one aspires to true master-level performance and wants to create something original.
Polaris, the only issue I have with the way you have expressed things is that some might conclude from your words that once you pick a teacher, you must stay with that teacher for 8 to 15 years, come what may. I do not think this is actually your view. Clearly, some people have the misfortune to pick the wrong teacher. A teacher can be wrong for a student for many reasons. He or she can have an incompatible goal, be inaccessible, or even lack knowledge of what the student ultimately wants. This latter is always a problem for beginners, who have little basis to judge the qualifications of teachers to teach whatever it is they might want to learn. Beginners also do not know the right questions to ask and so really cannot make proper sense of any answers offered.
Wushuer, I will let Polaris mostly speak for himself, but I have to say that I did not take his words as any criticism of your actions, but rather as a difference of opinion about what you have stated. I did not think he was accusing you of “teacher shopping” or showing disrespect to your former teachers. What I understood him as saying is that some people approach Taijiquan as a smorgasbord, where they can pick and choose what they want to study and when. By doing this, they unknowingly give disincentives to their teachers to invest in their learning and may also end up subtly corrupting the lessons that they are offered. As an occasional informal teacher, I have definitely experienced this. As has been stated before, why try to fill the cup of someone whose cup is already filled with something else?
I also believe I have seen people approach the Yangs in this fashion. The Yangs seem to feel very strongly about the standards that they teach, but not so strongly about what people choose to learn. Some people seem to expect them to talk in the same way as other teachers and seem closed to the fact that they may deliberately be taking a different approach. If someone does not like the “taste” of this teaching, I have no objection to this; however, if someone rejects it only because it is too “hard,” too “slow,” too “external,” too “big,” not “subtle” enough, or not “martial” enough, I feel saddened by what I usually believe to be misunderstandings. There are many things about the Yangs teaching that I do not find at all unique among the Taiji community I have been exposed to; however, there are certain areas where I believe they differ importantly from certain other teachers.
Wushuer, let me reiterate that I see nothing wrong with any of your training choices, even if I may have chosen a few different specifics. The only areas where we may have some differences is in your statements about the history of Yang Style. I do not so much dispute what you say as the certainty with which you relate certain things.
From what I have read, there is substantial controversy over the precise relationship of the current “Chen” Style to the current “Yang” Style, even though everyone believes that the Chens taught Taijiquan to the Yangs. My personal belief is that no one living knows the true story of the origin of Taijiquan and that the “true” story is likely to be more mundane and less “definitive” than any of the theories commonly circulated. I mention this, because I think it is better to analyze Yang Style on its own merits or lack thereof, than to take Chen Style as a jumping off point. Similarly, I have read at least one notated commentator discuss Wu2 Style as a mere variation of Yang Style and not really a completely separate style. Whether or not this is true, I think that analyzing Wu2 Style only from the point of view of most Yang Style teaching I have experienced or read would lead to bad conclusions.
Michael, I think you talked in one of your posts about all Taijiquan being “good” as long as it conforms to the “principles.” In theory, I cannot disagree with this; however, in practice, I wonder about these “principle.” Can you state what these common principles are that define Taijiquan? Everyone uses the same words, but do they really impart the same meaning to them?
I, like others, have often talked about the Taiji Classics; however, my understanding is that all styles do not define the same body of classics. To the extent the various styles agree on things in the classics, these are usually principles that are accepted by many, many martial arts other than Taijiquan, including so-called external arts. What defines Taijiquan differently from other arts? If there is nothing different, why study Taijiquan at all? One of the references from the “Classics” I frequently recall is the warning about missing the start of the journey by a hair and so missing the destination by a thousand miles. (I hope I am describing this reasonably correctly.)
I would love to find out that there is some overarching principle that unites the disparate practices I have been exposed to, but I have serious doubts about this. Are there not many, many cases where reputable teachers teach incompatible concepts? One person’s force is another person’s powerful technique. Some praise you because your arms in Push Hands feel light; others, because they feel heavy. Some say do the form with alertness; others say to do so as if in a trance or even as if falling asleep. Some say to push with the wrists flexed backwards; others say never to adopt such a position and to let them droop. Lead with the “waist,” lead with the “hips,” or both? Reel silk, or draw silk? Control your breathing, or let it do what it wants? When you issue, should you inhale, exhale, or make sure not to worry about either?
I, personally, am not much interested in pursuing which of such pairs is “correct” in any cosmic sense, but am quite interested in knowing which is correct from the point of view of whatever I am studying at the moment and what the implications of the choices are. I agree with Polaris. I would try to dissuade any student of mine from exhibiting Chen-Style silk reeling if I were trying to show them any of the Yangs’ form (or the Wus’ form). If I were trying to teach certain other Yang forms, I would have no problem with this, but would have to change a great deal of the teaching.
Michael, I have had brief exposure to at least one style of Taijiquan in the Philadelphia area that is not Yang Style, but in which I felt almost completely at home. All the principles made immediate sense to my experiences with the Yangs, except perhaps for a Chen-like emphasis on silk reeling that I find completely absent from the Yangs’ teaching. Some of the principles I learned there I incorporate into my Yang form, since I see no incompatibility. One of the other occasional contributors to this Board has shared some of those experiences and can comment on the commonalities, if he so wishes. Even though the principles and push hands made complete sense, I found the form in this style wildly different from what I am used to. Here and there a posture name was familiar, but the movements and the overall look were quite different from my experience. All in all, different externals covered very similar or identical internals.
On the other hand, I have had substantial experience with Yang Styles where I have known the names and applications of almost every posture, but many, many things were different internally from what the Yangs teach. The same words were often there, but the substance and emphasis were quite different. Not a single posture would be done the same. You could tell which was which from a still photo of almost any end posture. In my view, even the purpose of form study itself is often entirely different.
The vast majority of the folk I have practiced with in such “Yang Style” settings have never heard of the Ten Essentials as such and would not recognize many of the individual ones, except as neat phrases of no greater importance than a hundred others quoted in the Taiji literature. If asked about core Taiji practice principles, they might mention maybe three or four of the Ten Essentials, but none them would be in first or second place. If asked to describe the main skills practiced in push hands drills, they might describe two of the four skills mentioned by the Yangs (probably, sticking and following), and neither of these skills would be high on the list of things to pay attention to. I value these other experiences, respect the martial skills and Taiji knowledge of the teachers and students, but would absolutely disagree that their methods and guiding principles were essentially the same as the Yangs. I am not saying all this to run down these other practices, only trying to show how they are apples and oranges. I could mention a whole raft of things these other practices talk about constantly that the Yangs almost never mention at all.
If I were to restrict myself only to the Preparation Posture (i.e., before any overt movement takes place in the form), I could easily write four paragraphs of differences between the Yangs methods and those of others I have been exposed to. This does not make the Yangs’ methods better, only different. While I have benefited somewhat by being able to compare methods, many others I have seen with similar backgrounds seem more to have suffered from the resulting confusion than benefited from the added perspective. Without a frank acknowledgement of differences and inconsistencies, everything gets muddled. Using the same words to describe different things creates confusion that is hard to dispel. When people have been taught to interpret things in a particular way, it can be extremely difficult to imagine that things can be any other way if one has to refer to the same set of words. If one refuses to look or does not know one needs to look, it can be hard to find.
To be frank, I think I have seen many Yang Stylists do the form, and even before they begin moving, I can see that they are not interpreting the postures or the principles in the way the Yangs teach. I see some of the same folk do the Beginning Posture with an intent that does not intersect mine at all. For some people, this is rightly irrelevant. There is no reason everyone needs to do form the same way or conform to the Yangs’ teachings, the Wus teachings, or anyone else’s. For other people, however, it can be a pity that they do not realize they have taken a fork in a road, for better or for worse.
This does not make what I do right, only different. I frankly have difficulty discussing form or principles with people who do not recognize such differences and insist they are doing the same thing as I am or are pursuing the same principles. (By the way, I am not referring to any of the regular contributors on this Board when I say this.)
In a post a long while ago, I made an analogy with racket sports. I cannot say that squash is better than racket ball or better than tennis; however, if one tries to use the same racket for all three sports, one will not attain a good result. One racket is not inherently more efficient than another in any abstract sense, but they are not freely interchangeable. All three sports have forehands and backhands, but even the techniques and strategies are not freely interchangeable. This is one of the reasons I do not like approaches that talk only about efficiency. Abstract “efficiency” is not the question, but rather efficiency towards what particular goal. Change the goal and you change the criterion for judging efficiency.
Some people have accused me of being closed-minded, and perhaps I am. It is difficult to see oneself as others do. Everyone must choose their own path, but I think they should do so with open eyes.
Wushuer and Michael, let me say once again that I do not object to any of the personal practices you both have described, even within the context of studying with the Yangs or their students. You both have substantial experience and are probably judging correctly what best suits your interests and your development. Where I think I differ is that your words would lead many others to adopt an “expert” view in situations where I think they should retain a beginner’s mind. When it comes to Taijiquan, I think most of us are not good judges of what are good practices and bad ones, even though we are often forced by circumstance to make such judgments.
Mixing teaching is easy to do, but very difficult to do well. Most people who I see readily doing this seem to be leaving much between the cracks without realizing what they are missing. Some of the best learning comes from doing things that do not meet with our initial expectations or inclinations.