The Speed You Need
In the Tai Chi race, the last one to finish is the winner
by Christopher Dow
Ask the average person what most characterizes Tai Chi Chuan, and they will undoubtedly say: “Slowness.” If you spot someone or a group of people in a park, on the beach, or anywhere else and slowly waving their arms in arcane patterns and taking measured, deliberate steps, you can pretty much bet they’re doing Tai Chi. (We’ll leave out the tragic and all-too-large population of homeless schizophrenics, who also make arcane gestures in parks and elsewhere, following impulses only they can feel.)
The fact that you move slowly during Tai Chi practice has engendered misconceptions—and jokes made on those misconceptions. Indeed, a lot of people, deceived by the slowness, think of Tai Chi strictly as a meditational exercise form and don’t realize that it is a very effective martial art. The main misconception regarding its use as a martial art is highlighted by something told to me by one of my students, Dave Walker. (Student is really a misnomer since now he’s at least as good at Tai Chi as I am.)
As a young man many years ago, Dave joined Yang’s Shaolin Kung Fu Academy in Houston, which was then probably the single-best kung fu school in the area. This isn’t to say that there weren’t other excellent and knowledgeable teachers and schools around there, or even the first. But Yang’s Shaolin Kung Fu Academy’s director, Jeff Bolt, was a high-level student of Yang Jwing-ming, who, for those unfamiliar with him, was named by Inside Kung Fu Magazine as one of the ten most-important kung fu figures of the past century.
Dave came to Jeff’s school after a few years of taking Taekwondo and karate, and when he first asked Jeff what style of kung fu he should learn, Jeff told him, “Tai Chi.” Dave has a stocky body with a naturally low center of gravity that lends itself perfectly to Tai Chi. But when Dave first saw people practicing the Yang Style form, he couldn’t figure out how anyone could fight so slowly and yet prevail. Besides, this was the decade of Bruce Lee and the burgeoning of interest in flashier, more energetic external styles, which appeal to young people who have sufficient flexibility and greater energy to burn. So Dave learned Shaolin Long Fist instead.
Dave quit practicing with Jeff’s group after a few years, and he had no more form(al) training until he and I met around 2000. He expressed an interest in learning Tai Chi, having come to realize over the years that, while you practice Tai Chi slowly, you learn to be able to use it at any speed you need. With his martial arts background, he learned the long form readily. And he practices it slowly, though his execution can be blindingly fast.
The jokes based on the misconception about practice speed can be pretty funny. There was the guy who came home late, and when his wife asked where he’d been, he said he’d stopped to watch three guys attempt to mug a Tai Chi expert. “I’d have been later if I’d stayed around for the whole fight, but it was taking too long, so I came on home.” And then there are humorous YouTube videos showing Tai Chi guys mock fighting—including reactions and appropriately pained facial expressions—in very slow motion.
As Dave learned, there are several good reasons to practice Tai Chi slowly, all interlinked and codependent, yet all independently significant. First we’ll look at basic physical issues. Tai chi is physical exercise as much as it is martial technique or an internal energy enhancer, and it produces definite physical effects. Foremost among the more obvious of these, not counting martial ability, is enhanced stability.
Stability has a couple of major components: balance and leg strength. These two go hand-in-hand. Proper balance obviously requires greater leg strength, but the fact that greater leg strength is fostered by proper balance isn’t as obvious. Improper balance, which is due to incorrect physical alignments, tends to take some of the pressure of standing off of the legs and put it into the muscles and tendons of the back, abdomen, shoulders, and neck, creating a great deal of unnecessary upper body tension as well as instability. The legs become little more than stiff crutches that prop up a stressed-out torso.
Standing with better body alignments allows all of one’s body weight to sink straight down into the legs, hence, there is greater involvement of the leg muscles and, as a result, greater pressure on the soles of the feet. Over time, moving through the form with correct body alignments that reposition the weight of the body directly over and straight down into the pelvis strengthens the legs and feet. As with any leg exercise, this can make your thigh muscles—and the tendons connecting those muscles to your knee—achy. I’ve even heard some people complain that doing Tai Chi or chi kung makes the soles of their feet sore. Perhaps, but the payoff is lessened upper body stress and pain and a more comfortable, stable posture. I’ve experienced all of these leg and sole pains myself at one time or another, but they tend to diminish or vanish entirely. Tai Chi might look relaxed and easy, but that doesn’t mean it never brings discomfort. It is exercise, after all. You just make a peaceful face like it doesn’t hurt or otherwise stress you out: “My god, what move comes next? I’ve forgotten what move comes next!”
Tai Chi imparts both leg strength and balance through its stances and in the way it moves without pause between the postures. Throughout all of these postures and movements, one should retain a sense of sitting flexibly rather than being propped up by two rigidly supporting legs, as just described. In these stances, you flex the knees and lower your sense of weight into the posture, predominantly onto one or the other leg so as not to commit the fault of double-weightedness, always with a sense of sitting. A lowered stance promotes a combined sinking and relaxing sensation—sung—that further increases stability. Stances such as this, supporting correct upper body alignments, put the main work of holding up the body onto the muscles of the thighs, strengthening them and giving the legs a flexible, springing strength in addition to better balance.
Balance goes along with proper body alignments because balance is a product of proper body alignments. As one learns to correctly position one’s upper body over a pelvis supported by a sitting stance itself supported by strong leg muscles, balance naturally accrues. And as greater balance is achieved, turning of the body tends to generate, instead of a feeling of being unbalanced or wobbly, the sensation of Central Equilibrium, which is nothing more than an axis of rotation centered on a balance point. The more refined one’s center of balance, the tighter the radius of rotation of Central Equilibrium. A tighter radius produces greater, faster, and at the same time, more hidden martial effect.
When you first learn Tai Chi, it is difficult to maintain the correct upper body positioning over the pelvis while sinking the postures into the weighted leg. In the beginning, it can only be accomplished by moving slowly and making adjustments over time to your alignments. For example, one learns of the importance of the correct alignment created by slightly tucking the buttocks inward. This causes the tip of the coccyx (tailbone) to point slightly forward.
There are many reasons to do this, but one of the foremost in relation to stability is that you can uses this pointing action when moving from sitting stance into a bow stance—as you might during Brush Knee Twist Step—to help sink and root yourself, even in the midst of movement. You do this by imaging an elastic band strung between the forward-pointing tip of the coccyx and the back of your forward heel. This elastic band contracts as you move from the sitting stance into the bow stance, tending to make you sink and sit into the forward leg in a very stable way instead of onto it in a manner that will potentially overbalance you over your forward foot. Likewise, in sitting stance, the tailbone points at the heel of the weighted leg like it’s elastically pulled toward it.
Related to moving forward and backward from leg to leg are Tai Chi’s stepping patterns, which encourage intentional placement of the feet to take advantage of geometrically stable angles and relationships between the feet. Over time, these stepping patterns become internalized and instinctual, and when they are added to increased leg strength and improved alignments and balance, they lead to even greater stability. And again, the results can be achieved, at least in the beginning, only through slow, deliberate practice that allows one to find the optimum placement of the feet and, over time, to ingrain that stepping pattern into one’s habitual movements.
One positive effect of possessing greater stability is that if you do fall, you’re more likely to collapse rather than crash down. This is a version of Tai Chi’s principle of folding and unfolding—mostly folding, in this instance—instead of rigidly resisting. An even more important result is that stances that sink produce a sensation of rooting one’s energy into the ground, lending even greater stability. For this, don’t think of tendrils snaking downward from the soles of your feet like tree roots. Visualize the sphere of your chi field—your biofield—embedding itself in the Earth’s magnetic field and extending downward, below the surface of the ground—as it actually does. This will produce a sensation of energy expanding out of your feet and into the ground, but this is because the soles of your feet are the only tangible contact with the surface on which you stand, so you tend to feel the energy below them as conical shafts rather than as segments of a spherical field.
All of these effects are possible only because of slow, deliberate movements that train one’s instinctual response in an organized and efficient manner to produce results that, over time, are internalized in one’s daily movement patterns. As this happens, the movements can grow increasingly fast when used martially, but even then, because the body has been trained slowly and deliberately, the operational principle remains based on relaxation, not on muscular contraction. Tai Chi exercises the musculature in a very limited sense, predominantly relegating the use of it to the lower body—legs, hips, and waist—leaving the torso, arms, and neck relatively free of overt muscular exertion.
Instead, Tai Chi exercises the combined system of ligaments, tendons, and fascia. Ligaments connect bone to bone, tendons connect muscle to bone, and fascia are long—and sometimes broad—sheaves or sheets of tendon material that connect muscle groups. If you’ve ever seen Body Worlds, the world-famous traveling exposition of skinned and plasticized bodies, both human and animal, the fascia are those long yellow-white structures that overlay and send runners into the major muscles.
In doing Tai Chi, one attempts to motivate upper body motion through deliberate use of fascia and tendons, adding only enough muscular strength to cap off the movement. Tai Chi often is touted as an elixir of health that imparts longevity. One of the main reasons it seems to do this is that Tai Chi constantly exercises the tendon system, extending, compressing, and twisting the ligaments, tendons, and fascia so that they remain flexible. In most older people, the tendons and fascia have lost their flexibility, causing physical rigidity and lack of mobility. Tai Chi’s constant expansion and contraction of the tendons and fascia, on the other hand, imparts practitioners with more youthful movements, even into advancing age. A Tai Chi Chuanist’s movements produce the exact opposite of the image of the aged person as stiff and tottering. Tai Chi Chuanists aren't necessarily "younger than their age," they just move that way.
Training one’s body to move using the tendons and fascia is impossible to accomplish, at least initially, by practicing with fast movement because fast movement, unless trained correctly, will be exclusively muscular and will not be able to properly engage the fascia. Only slow movement can allow a person to relax the muscles enough to train the fascia and tendons to take over. Gradually, after a period of slow training that thoroughly integrates the entirety of the movement as efficiently as possible, the body learns to use the fascia and tendons instinctively, and at that point, extremely rapid—and precise—movement without muscular tension becomes possible. You can even practice the form at faster speeds without tension and to definite benefit.
Perfecting all the physical aspects of Tai Chi—or attempting to!—requires slowness to allow one to move through the postures with a sensation of sitting, to develop correct alignments, and so forth, but these physical adjustments are not possible without Tai Chi’s mental aspects, which also require slowness in training.
The first principal mental aspect is observational awareness. This isn’t thinking about what you should be doing during a movement, though that is important, but observing how you are doing it, how it feels inside. In other words, you don’t just do the movement, you pay attention to how the movement feels and what it does. You observe your stability and balance and how your stance and alignments affect those. You observe your breathing and how and where you are holding tension. And you observe the running thoughts of your ego mind without latching onto them. Observing in this way allows you to turn attention into intention without the intermediary of secondary purpose (conscious/deliberate thought) and without motivating movement with stress, both of which produce exclusively muscular action.
Instead, you learn to motivate movement with mental impulses based on intention alone. And this brings up the second principal mental aspect. Chi, the Tai Chi Classics proclaim, is motivated by the mind. Indeed, Chi is, I believe, the electromagnetic surges that accompany bioelectrical pulses running along the nerves, and as such, it is under direct control of the mental processes. Muscular action is, as well, but there is a difference. A pulse of chi, being a force that moves concurrently with a nerve impulse, can have an almost instantaneous effect—even while the nerves are only just firing the signals to the muscles to do their biochemical magic of contracting and stretching. This pulse of chi has a pneumatic feel to it and tends to initiate movement in a loose limb without the need to use much muscle. It’s almost as if the limb is instantly inflated like a balloon—or even better, an airbag. By the time you need a little muscle to complete the movement, the nerve impulse has finally activated the muscles involved, bringing them into play.
The idea is that you can think a movement, and it happens, though this thinking is not necessarily a conscious process. A fighter who relies on conscious thought will lose because conscious thought is too slow. Instead, training the body with slow movements builds in an instinctual response that can produce movement that is more accurate as well as far more rapid than thinking can accomplish. At the same time, like conscious thought, it pushes electrical signals back and forth in the body, surging chi with each pulse. It is this chi that you attempt to amplify, not the muscular contractions or expansions of a limb.
It’s a no-brainer that moving slowly is physically more difficult than moving fast. For any given movement, slow speeds increase the duration of muscular exertion, particularly on the legs, and the length of time in which one must maintain balance. And you’re trying to do all that gracefully while keeping a straight face. But it’s very much a brainer that moving slowly also is more difficult on a mental level. It’s mentally challenging to move slowly. Your mind always wants you to speed up your movements, but you control that desire enough to maintain a steady pace. In the process, you strengthen your will power and the powers of your observational awareness. During that slow pace, you further control the desire to move fast by working to calm any nervous tension or kinks in your muscles or joints that, uncorrected, would tend to impede the thoroughness of a movement.
And you work to calm your mind. If you take one second to do one movement, and you think ten thoughts in that second, then if you take ten seconds to do the same movement, you’ll think a hundred thoughts. As each thought has the potential to snatch your attention away from the form, going slowly makes concentration more difficult since you’re having to ignore an exponentially greater number of mental distractions as you go through the postures. If you allow your mind to latch onto these thoughts, you might end up seeing the whole world flash in front of your eyes!
It is practically impossible to completely shut off one’s mental blather, but the idea is that you can choose to not let yourself become attached to the thoughts running through your head. They can become like the background sound of surf to those who live by the sea, always present but rarely noticed. And in the end, the control one gains over the body and mind produce another positive effect: greater emotional control. This is bolstered by the fact that Tai Chi trains one to have some degree of martial capabilities, which tends to empower most people and make them more confident and aware of their surroundings and other people.
Over all, moving slowly lends one greater control over one’s body, mind, and emotions, all in conjunction. This is the secret of Tai Chi’s superiority as a martial art, not its techniques, many of which are shared by numerous external martial styles. The Tai Chi exponent does not rely on techniques to defeat an opponent, though techniques might be used. Instead, the Tai Chi exponent uses a thorough knowledge of self-control gained through slow practice to develop the ability to control others. It is said that Yang Lu-chan was known as the Invincible Yang because he could not be defeated, yet he never seriously injured an opponent—though often they were definitely trying to injure him. That is a perfect example of the nature of the self-control and potential control over others fostered by Tai Chi’s slow and deliberate practice.
And that leads us into situational reasons to perform the Tai Chi set slowly. Most of us have heard Newton’s Third Law of Motion which basically states that for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. The idea is that the more you push against an object, the more you create a counter-movement—such as you also pushing away from the object or feeling a rebound or recoil of some sort—that is of exactly the same force as your push. This illustrates the yin and yang of movement, but the same idea can be applied to slowness and speed: With time, the slower you go during practice, the faster you can go during usage.
This might seem counter-intuitive. Many hard styles of martial arts believe in always practicing at full speed in order to train what might be called a “speed reflex.” If you don’t practicing hitting fast and hard, they say, you won’t be able to hit fast and hard when you need to. But if you practice fast and hard and have not perfected and internalized the proper and complete flow of the movement, the fast movement might actually have defects and blockages that inhibit it from fully carrying out its task quickly, powerfully, and efficiently. And then these defects and blockages get built into the speed reflex like flaws in an otherwise perfect diamond, making it brittle.
Tai Chi takes another approach by using softness, slowness, and deliberateness during practice to set up the proper body alignments and energy channels that will produce an optimum punch, redirection, or other sort of offensive or defensive. With those alignments in place, all that is then required is to unfold or fold the physical body appropriately while simultaneously pulsing a wave of chi energy in tandem with the physical movement. Both movement and energy are focused at the instant of effect—impact or pull, say. In the case of impact, while the shock of the physical impact will remain generally localized, the chi wave will continue on to penetrate the area, causing further disruption inside the opponent. In the case of pulling or some other yin usage, the physical pull terminates, but the chi wave continues to move away from the opponent for a short distance, carrying the opponent along with it something like a slipstream or undertow might.
In fact, Tai Chi’s slowness also improves the speed of a punch in that not only is the punch itself more rapid, it can be delivered at relatively close range and with a seemingly short wind-up. But instead of using a wind-up that draws back then launches forward, Tai Chi employs a spiraling that can be very tight and fast, bouncing the energy from the waist, into the foot, then back up into the body and through the arm to the fist in an instant. This produces a virtual wind-up of eight or ten feet that can impact at very fast speeds in the space of just a few inches. This action is possible because the Tai Chi exponent has done the movements slowly and carefully, observing balance, alignments, application of force, and all the other elements that go into a martial art and exercise form. Also, the slowness of the movements has helped develop the leg muscles, imparting a springiness. Even more, the exponent has striven to perfect these elements and integrate them into his or her natural movement patterns, and then, at slow speeds, applied observational awareness to further polish them and improve the outcome.
Moving slowly is an extremely effective way to train deep and instinctual muscle memory, but it requires a companion component to truly give Tai Chi its Grand Ultimate effects. That companion component is Tai Chi’s other defining characteristic, which is one that most people see but don’t really notice beyond being able to say that Tai Chi is graceful. Tai Chi is graceful not so much because it is slow but because it expresses continuity.
At its basic, continuity can be defined as connections between sequential events. In Tai Chi, continuity begins on a small scale with the smoothness of individual movements. The Tai Chi Classics state that one should strive to eliminate “projections” and “hollows” in one’s movements. This means, simply, trying to move through the postures and transitions without jerkiness, hesitations, weaknesses, or imbalance. Of course, these will always be there, somewhere in the form, even for great masters. After all, we live in a reality in which absolute perfection is not possible. But striving for perfection is still an admirable goal, and great masters are great masters because they have smoothed their projections and hollows to such an extent that they are invisible to most observers.
Over time, the Tai Chi exponent continually strives to smooth the projections and hollows into a steady, continuous movement expressed in unwavering curvilinear patterns. You just can’t achieve this by starting with rapid movement. You have to go slowly and with relaxation because, at fast speeds, you are not able to use observational awareness to see or feel your mistakes, and you’ll gloss over the jerkiness or slur your movements or otherwise err. In doing so, your habitual practice, which should strive toward perfection, instead will build the error into your movement patterns.
The next level of continuity is that one should progress through the form at an even pace, each posture moving at a steady speed, without hesitation or break in the flow of energy, into the next. Usually in Tai Chi, this pace is leisurely, though once one understands the movements through slowness, it is useful to sometimes practice the form at faster speeds because that reveals information about the movements that might be masked by slow pacing. But moving slowly through the postures, connecting one set of smooth movements with the next and so on in a steady progression through the form, trains the body to shift directions and actions as a functional unit, efficiently and without tension, so that if and when the time comes to use the movements rapidly, the body simply reacts as a unit according to the situation.
Steady pacing also has its mental aspect, for it can be a mental challenge to maintain a steady pace throughout the form. There is that already-mentioned urge to constantly speed up that must be conquered. Patience and perseverance are parts of the mental exercise imparted by Tai Chi.
Just as smoothness helps engender pacing, pacing engenders the larger-scale effect of flow. This flow has various elements, all of which become unified and integrated: the sensation of chi flowing or pulsing through the torso and limbs, the sensation of the flow of one’s own larger chi field as felt by the moving limbs, and the sensation of external chi fields as felt by one’s own chi field and skin. These external fields can be the overwhelming magnetic field of the Earth, the lesser biofields of other people and animals, and even electromagnetic fields produced by electrical devices, wiring, and machinery. The sad truth for those of us living with modern technology—from wiring to machinery to electronic communication devices and equipment—is that the electromagnetic fields and pulses they produce often can have a tangible and disruptive effect on human biofields.
Many people like to go out to the country to relax and feel refreshed. They comment on how fresh the air is, how quite things are, how relaxing the scenery is, and how dark the nights are without all those electric lights shining all the time. Each of these elements has positive effects, but there is another, more subtle, reason. In an urban environment, biofields—chi fields—are constantly being bombarded and permeated and agitated not just by naturally produced magnetic and electromagnetic fields but by what amounts to millions of human-generated electromagnetic signals at any given moment. Most of those human-generated fields are relatively short-range signals, though, that become imperceptible once farther away, such as at a remote beach or forest or mountaintop. No wonder we feel better in places like those.
Moving slowly gives one the opportunity to relax one’s body, and once that’s relaxed, to use awareness to observe and sense the circulation of internal energy. This will lead to techniques to augment that energy and impart conscious control over it. And in the doing, one also gains greater awareness of the impact that external energy—positive and negative—has on one’s being. Just as awareness of chi flow leads to control of that flow, awareness of the impact of external energy can lead one to be able to deal with it in beneficial ways. For positive energy, this might be learning to absorb it rather than to reject it out of fear or ignorance. For negative energy, it might be learning to shunt it aside or otherwise deal with it without absorbing it or trying to shove back at it—a strategy that often leads to escalation of the negativity.
Regarding negative energy on a purely physical level—as with an attack—this means redirecting incoming negative force instead of being impacted by it. But the same principle works on intellectual and emotional levels, too. The key is to not allow oneself to become involved in or attached to the negativity, but to try to lead it into emptiness where it has nothing upon which to act. One response to a verbal attack is to argue back, but another is to shrug and turn away. And for an emotional equivalent, try suspending a pillow with one hand and punching it with the other. That’s antagonism meeting sympathy.
And finally, make what you will of these tidbits relating to physics:
The faster that something goes, the less it weighs. Therefore, up to a point, the slower something moves, the more it weighs. Think about the differences in weight of a conscious person, who has internal movement even if they are inert, and an unconscious one. We sometimes refer to the increased sensation of weight in the latter as “dead weight.” Perhaps something like this contributes to the greater sensation of resistance—physical and mental—one feels when moving slowly.
Then there is the law of physics that states that you cannot simultaneously measure both the mass of a particle and its velocity. This indicates that mass and velocity are two sides of the same yin/yang coin. It also implies that using strength (mass) is a more static and less energetically powerful a strategy than using precisely applied movement that carries an energetic charge (velocity) to defeat an opponent.
And last, consider the time dilation that would be experienced by spacefarers traveling near the speed of light. Time becomes subjective for them, and days or weeks or even more lengths of objective time can pass for every hour they travel. This fact has been used to good effect in some science-fiction, though it is more often ignored or circumvented. But there is a Tai Chi—and life—lesson in it: Rapid movement causes you to miss all the details, and as every sage knows, it’s the journey, not the destination, that counts.