Sado, I have no opinion on weight lifting, other than to say that if you lift in a way that decreases flexibility, this would be bad. I would also add that hardness and softness at any moment in time is not really a question of how your body is, but what your body is doing. Also, the most relaxed person can turn rigid upon a single touch. The status of your muscles has only minor relevance. It is what your training or your mind tells your muscles to do that matters more.
Jake, I like what you say about using various approaches to verify the correctness of what you are doing. If considerations of health maintenance, meditation, and martial effectiveness all lead to the same solution, I think one can be confident that that solution is correct.
I also agree with what you said about the necessity of having a "moving root"; however, I have always that that root was a necessary component of proper yielding, as opposed to collapsing. Bamboo will not bend if it is not rooted.
As far as the "soft wrestling approach" is concerned, I do not think root really comes into play. In wrestling, the quality of the contact with the opponent and anticipation of his or her reactions is all important. Contact with the earth is secondary. In fact, I would say most of the time wrestling almost requires you to root relative to the opponent, but float relative to the ground, in T'ai Chi terms.
Wrestlers use all sorts of odd angles if they feel contact with the opponent is under sufficient control or at least accurately assessed. You can drop to your knees, bend forward or backward, or even lie on your stomach. In fact, the ability to sprawl to avoid being tackled is a primary and absolutely critical skill. In such a case, reaction time and the angle relative to the opponent is everything and initial footwork really isn't very important.
Mario, I too have difficulty with the view that T'ai Chi is uniquely soft. My understanding is that traditional Yang Style, and perhaps most T'ai Chi, is soft on the outside and hard on the inside. As a consequence, I would consider a lack of hardness as a significant departure from traditional Yang Style at the very least.
Also, as I understand it, not all kinds of "softness" are acceptable. Yang Zhen Duo has made the point that traditional Yang Style should not be soft-and-mushy (ruan3), but soft-and-yielding (rou2). In his book, he even uses steel (as opposed to rigid iron) as an example of yielding softness.
How the original Chinese characters were designed probably grew mostly out of rebus expediency, rather than deep philosophy or linguistic precision; however, examining the likely "design" logic of a character can often be suggestive of layers of meaning.
According to one source I have, the original character for "ruan" is composed of elements that may have been meant to represent the padding stuffed around the axle of a chariot or carriage to soften the ride. "Rou," on the other hand, is written of elements that could apparently be interpreted in ancient Chinese as representing the thrusting shoots of young woody plants. I therefore find pliable, whiplike bamboo a more suitable image for T'ai Chi than a cotton pillow.
Mario, I would be curious if you (or anyone else who cares to comment) think that relatively high level Karateka and T'ai Chi masters demonstrate essentially the same set of skills. I think the various arts can certainly be complimentary, but I think they are quite different in their interior content. For instance, none of Yang Cheng Fu's Ten Essentials mean much to me from a basic Karate perspective, and I recall learning many Karate techniques that violated them. I would be glad to elaborate if anyone is interested.
You also asked me what I meant by using mind and how doing so in T'ai Chi would be different from what we do in normal work and play. I feel that the important part of T'ai Chi is how our minds learn the patterns of our bodies' movement, which are the most efficient from moment to moment, and how the various parts of the body interact.
Rote learning and repetitive drills often work in much of our daily activities, but I think such strategies are disasterous for T'ai Chi, since they give an illusion of control and understanding. It is our very perceived familiarity with walking that makes T'ai Chi stepping difficult to master or our perceived familiarity with language that makes foreign language learning difficult.
For instance, you mention the importance of flexibility, even more than "softness." I would agree, but I presume by "flexibility" you do not mean an "enhanced ability to contort the limbs," but rather a "specific type of yielding and adapting tendency in physical responses." Such tendencies are controlled, developed, and refined by the mind. There are no sequencies of movements that teach this by themselves.
A T'ai Chi beginner unaware of these possibilities could, for instance, do repetitive "roll back drills" expecting to perfect a new "blocking" technique and completely miss the importance of developing a feel for what roll back energy can be. This feel comes from consciously putting the mind into the body in fairly specific ways. For this reason, I would advise hard stylists beginning T'ai Chi to focus on how they need to use the mind to learn the patterns of the body and how such a requirement may not have existed in their original style.
You mention that we use the mind in work and play. In my work and play, I have many moments where my mind is on autopilot. I look, but I do not see. I listen, but I do not hear. This is the opposite of what I understand to be important about T'ai Chi training. Now, it actually has been quite important to me to use T'ai Chi philosophy in my work. As a result, I actually try to incorporate my versions of listening, transforming (hua), borrowing, seizing, ward off, etc. energies into important work interactions.
I agree, however, with your viewpoint that such mental work is only the beginning. Physical practice is absolutely critical to corroborate, strengthen, and generalize these feelings. In fact, although I believe in the importance of using the mind, I often get the impression my view of "inner" practice, even doing qi gong, is more "physical" and body-centered than many, especially compared to those who approach T'ai Chi from health or meditative viewpoints.
We had the following interchange about muscle groups:
<<< Few other arts concentrate so much on using the hips,
back, legs, and other large muscle groups. >>>
[[[I disagree , wrestling does, judo does, sumo does, boxing does. BJJ does ect... .
each a bit differently according to taste of course...]]]
I think I stated badly what I intended to convey. I agree that large muscle groups are important for these arts/sports and techniques using them are very much addressed. What I meant to state, however, is that these arts/sports do not have as much as T'ai Chi to say about linking large muscle group movement to small movements.
I cannot recall what "BJJ" refers to, but I think I can think of examples in all the other ones you mention where it is in fact important not to use large muscle groups for critical movements. For example, in wrestling and in Sumo, it is important for the arms and hands to be able to do things independently of the torso, because the arms and torso often have different jobs to do.
I think you alluded to a similar thought in mentioning "moving the body as a unit." My view of T'ai Chi is that it teaches to use the entire body to affect the relatively weakest aspect of the opponent's entire body all the time. This is why ward off or roll back are whole-body techniques (with respect both to one's own body and the opponent's) in a way that Karate does not teach. Following these changes from moment to moment is critical to T'ai Chi.
Could you imagine drilling the Fair Lady Works the Shuttle strike and deflection rapidly ten times to one side and then ten times to the other without changing stance? How about ward off? "Ten times to the right and ten times to the left--by the numbers. Now change feet."?? By the way, I am not asserting the inferiority of Karate, just describing ways in which it differs, in my opinion. I also am not describing T'ai Chi power training, which superficially resembles the Karate drills, but seems to me really to have a different spirit.
Mario, if you would not be giving away any competition secrets, I would be curious to know whether your push hands training still includes a fair proportion of set drills. Do you see the fixed-pattern push hand sequences and da lu more as stepping stones to more "sophisticated" moving drills, or to free-style push hands? Do you see any simple relationship or training sequence to qi gong, individual form, fixed-pattern push hands, da lu, standing "meditation" (zhan zhuang), and sparring?
Jake, when you refer to the benefit you have derived from push hands, do you have any preferences as to the specific type of practice, or do you find all equally beneficial?