Thank you for sharing. You have certainly had access to wonderful individuals and terrific experiences.
My introduction to Taijiquan was in graduate school. I decided to sign up for a Karate class at the university I was studying at. The system I was taught (Tenchi Kenpo) was explained to me as a blending of soft and hard, heaven and earth, curved and straight, Chinese and Japanese. These opposites were supposedly reflected in the name, Tenchi Kenpo, which in Japanese can be interpreted as “heaven and earth ‘boxing’ method” and would be "tian di quan fa" in Mandarin.
Somewhere around the brown or black belt level of the system, we were required to learn a version of the Yang long form and begin push hands patterns based on what I now know to be the Cheng Man-Ch'ing system. Although we did form and push hands, the Taijiquan was not integrated into our sparring practices or self-defense drills that I can recall. Beyond Taijiquan, our system included more throws, chokes, and joint locks than I think is normal for Karate. As we advanced in levels, we also started doing more forms from other Chinese martial arts (e.g., some form of Praying Mantis) than Japanese katas.
As I recall the theory of the founder of the system, who taught my teacher and whom I once met and sparred with, he felt that "square, hard, and 'Japanese'" techniques were easier to learn and allowed one to become proficient in self-defense quicker. With more experience, one learned "more circular, softer, and 'Chinese'" techniques. After one got older and could no longer keep one's techniques at the same level, Taijiquan would then allow one to defend oneself, since strength and speed would be less important. The problem with Taijiquan in his view was that it took 10 (or maybe 5?) years to be practical for self-defense.
As part of the Karate training, I also volunteered to help my teacher with a women’s self-defense class, which was basically a watered down version of our system that focused on situational self-defense.
After I graduated, I dropped practice for about 10 years. When I decided to resume, I thought I would explore more Taijiquan, since the years were now definitely beginning to tell on my body. I first used books and tapes to try to recapture what I had known before, since I was unaware of any teachers in my area. After a while I was able to find a teacher I liked. This was also the first time that I discovered that Taijiquan had such an extensive non-martial dimension.
Since that time I have had major experiences with one other teacher and minor ones with three more. Most of these taught Yang Style. Two have been very eclectic, mixing lots of different approaches. One, who is the most martial and least traditional in his approach, mixes his Taijiquan with Bagua, Aikido, and Xing-Yi, seeing them as essentially the same art and having the same principles. He even sees Taijiquan as applicable to using Filipino fighting sticks and firearms. My main take away from all this is that there are many different approaches and versions of Taijiquan and that many people use the same words to mean different things. I no longer take such terms as “mind,” “relaxation,” “whole body,” and “qi” at face value, now that I have seen people teach almost diametrically opposite methods under these names. This was also why I was curious about your background, since knowing a little bit about it makes it easier to avoid misunderstandings based more in terminology than in fact.
Before I did any Asian martial arts, I wrestled in high school. I participated in a few AAU tournaments beginning as a sophomore and because of some unusual personal circumstances, trained very briefly with an eye to international competition under “Olympic-style” rules. One thing that this taught me was that minor differences in rules make a huge difference in strategy and tactics. As you may or may not know, under some wrestling rules, merely having an opponent turn his back toward the mat is enough to win two points, whether or not you are “in control.” Under the Olympic rules I recall, I was reluctant to launch a Fireman’s carry or a double leg takedown in the same way as under regular “collegiate rules” because of the risk of having my shoulder blades momentarily turned towards the mat.
I have a slight second and third-hand knowledge of some ground techniques and would like to know more. I studied one video that included material on Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and was amazed at how unlike wrestling the techniques and theories were. How could a wrestler ever conceive of lying on one’s back with hands and arms pulled in and legs spread as a defensible “guard” position?
One of my major touchstones for authenticity in Taijiquan is, paradoxically, what I learned from wrestling. I have much sympathy for what you say about the relative fighting skills of wrestlers and many people who teach Taijiquan. I have no problem understanding why people unfamiliar with takedowns or ground fighting have difficulty with someone like Gracie. My experience is that the majority of people who I see doing Taijiquan are interested in it primarily as a leisure activity or exercise. As a result, I do not expect people to be very interested in acquiring or demonstrating specific competitive or martial ability and do not judge the art as a whole by this. Although I personally find the martial side of Taijiquan essential to my understanding and progress, I would have to confess that I do not view myself as even a “weekend warrior.” I try to push hands and explore applications whenever I can, but this is different than sparring regularly, putting on gear, stretching, doing strength training, etc.
I see pursuit of health, performance, competition, combat, and self-defense as all related aspects of Taijiquan that share the same basic principles; however, I believe quite strongly that these different goals require different methods once one goes beyond the basics. Since I am usually dealing with what I perceive to be basics, the distinctions between these usually are not relevant for me. However, if one is talking about whether a particular technique or posture “works” or not, I like to know what context is being addressed. I even make strong distinctions between combat and self-defense, where, for instance, I view “Push” as an excellent self-defense technique, but only a marginal “combat” one. I can also think of many “health promoting” ways to practice Push that I would not consider very effective for either self-defense or combat.
My attraction to the Yangs’ teachings and to the association is that I have found their Taijiquan presented in ways that seemed to fit my needs and aspirations. I went to my first seminar at a time when I was wondering whether Taijiquan was supposed to be essentially either applied Qi Gong, Chinese medicine, and meditation or simply a more introspective and philosophical approach to the same athletic and martial arts principles I had seen elsewhere. I found a very clear and simple approach that seemed to be neither, and this is exactly what I wanted.
I am glad you have chosen to contribute to the discussion board, since you certainly have a perspective that differs from most of the people I have worked with. Thanks again for sharing about your background.