Hi everyone, this response is sparked by David's post, but not completely related.
Some further thoughts on why sparring isn’t common in tai chi chuan:
1) We run the risk of never learning softness and thus practicing tai chi as an external art.
2) It’s too dangerous in the early years of tai chi chuan training.
My teacher is of the opinion that whoever created push hands was a genius. Formerly there were a lot of injuries involved in training. Push hands provided a really smart tool for training the things one needs to know to fight well in an internal style without much risk of severe injury.
We know that tai chi chuan combines softness with hardness. Push hands trains the element of softness in a way that sparring does not. Softness can help us gain good skill at push hands— the abilities to listen, stick, connect, follow, and understand. Moreover, push hands trains us to remain calm, relaxed, alert, and flexible.
Sparring has its uses, but I don’t think it’s a good idea until the advanced stages of practice tai chi practice if one really wants to understand the internal elements of the art. It impedes learning softness and good internal skills. How is it detrimental? My teacher has explained that training in sparring too early can reinforce hard tendencies, so while a tai chi chuan practitioner may have gained some skill at using the waist, or using applications to good effect, the execution of their movements will be hard and they will use more stiff strength (hardness) than internal strength. The lingering hardness will prevent them from gaining really high-level skills in listening and understanding, etc.
IMO, if we begin sparring to early, we may never really understand what it means to be soft or how to use softness in combat. We know that people generally will do one of three things in the face of overwhelming threat: fight, flight, or freeze. Training applications slowly, softly, and gently (at first) trains us to remain calm and relaxed about incoming force. Increasing the speed and force gradually over many years trains the nervous system to treat incoming force as information to be processed, instead of a threat to be countered. A strike becomes a trajectory to be altered, in good time, without distress or panic.
When we begin sparring too early, it only reinforces some of the defects of early push hands practice: tension, overextension, and separation. Sparring can be very exciting and stimulating and great fun on the one hand, but we may not notice if and when our adrenaline kicks in and this physiological response can exacerbate the above defects.
Tension can be related to the freeze response or the fight response. Some of us have experienced a momentary freeze during applications practice where the brain suddenly goes out to lunch and the body stops moving. This is very dangerous—if one is frozen, one cannot fight. Ideally, in push hands, our partner is tuned to us enough to use our stopped energy to their advantage if it is safe to do so, or to stop immediately if it’s not safe—as in the case of training split energy on the joints. But in sparring, if one person hasn’t trained listening energy well enough, and the other person freezes because they haven’t trained mental calmness enough, then there will be an unnecessary injury.
Tension can also be a part of the fight response. We know we’re not supposed to really let loose and whale on our practice partners, particularly if we know they cannot counter us. So we can become tense when trying to control an impulse to fight. Better to remain calm and not have to suppress anything.
Overextension of joints, muscles, and ligaments can also be a part of the fight response. Adrenaline allows us to perform amazing feats of strength and speed—but at great cost to our bodies. If we train or spar from a charged up fight response, we may find when we go home that we’ve sprained joints, or torn muscles and ligaments. Sure, this is par for the course in any martial art—but we are trying to reduce the incidence of this sort of injury. It’s less likely to happen when we are relaxed and calm.
It’s also possible to overextend mentally when sparring or pushing from within the fight response. We can easily fixate on our opponent as the enemy or someone who must be beaten. When we define someone that way, we commit the error of predicting their actions instead of really listening to what they are really doing. In this space, we may unwittingly escalate a fight instead of practicing avoidance, deflection, and mercy.
As for fleeing: I’ve never seen anyone run away from push hands or sparring, but I do see people retract their hands, as if from a hot stove, in anticipation of a blow. They anticipate a trap or a push and rush to get out of it too quickly, leaving themselves open for attack because their defending arm has “fled.” For this reason, slow push hands practice is really useful for the early stages of chin na application training. Going back and forth with a partner and trying to lock the joints can be nerve-wracking and distinctly uncomfortable. It requires complete trust in one's practice partner, and going very slowly helps to foster this trust.
For my part, I’m not ready for sparring yet. I can still see the way all three of those defects play out in my push hands and my fellow students’ push hands. I trust that my teacher will teach us to spar when he thinks we’re ready. I am glad that he is taking the time to lay the groundwork and make sure our foundation is solid before he takes that step.
The truth is, the applications are really dangerous, and there’s that saying, “A little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing.” I am gradually learning to be calm, but for now, I don’t trust myself not to freak out during sparring and exhibit one or more of the above problems. I think that all of these things can be categorized as a kind of mental “hardness.” These are patterned responses that lack flexibility, reason, and mental agility. This is the kind of hardness that breaks instead of bending. For tai chi chuan skill, it’s useful to train to dissolve this kind of hardness before going on to sparring. This way, when we get to sparring, we’ll be able to deliver the momentary hardness of a whip, confident that our sparring partners have the skill to dissolve, deflect, or take that kind of blow.
And just for kicks, a small indication of how long traditional training takes: when my teacher began push hands training, he was not permitted to push or to attempt any of the applications for three years. For three years, he did nothing but circle and get pushed around. So at the end of three years he said he had a pretty good understanding of energy. Can you imagine? Three years! I don’t know how long the training took before he was taught sparring. After all, I believe it’s skill at listening, sticking, following, connecting, adhering, and understanding that is the major prerequisite for safe sparring. Three years of not pushing would certainly train those skills. And if he had three years of intense training softer skills before learning to do the applications, then it just emphasizes how very important those softer internal skills are for tai chi chuan mastery.
This is something like what YJ said his grandfather said: Internal martial arts require two things: understanding of energy and good martial techniques. One without the other is not an internal martial art.
[This message has been edited by Kalamondin (edited 03-22-2005).]
[This message has been edited by Kalamondin (edited 03-23-2005).]