Underneath my yellow skin

Taiji Demystified, But Not Defanged

strike a pose!
Not kung-fu fighting.

I was at the bank the other day to straighten out a snafu. As the banker and I waited for the person he was calling to help us, the banker began chitchatting with me. He asked me what I did in my spare time, and I told him I practiced tai chi. He got a strange look on his face, a mixture of bemusement, bewilderment, and intrigue, and I waited to hear what he had to say to my proclamation. After a few seconds, he said, “You mean, the martial art? Like karate?” and did the breaking boards with his hands movements (the stereotypical karate chop) that you see in corny martial arts movies. I could have said, “No, tai chi is an internal martial arts style, and we have no interest in breaking boards with our hands.” I could have said, “Tai chi is good for your mental health as well as your physical health.” I could have said, “Tai chi is excellent for meditation and attaining a peaceful attitude.” I could have said any one of those things, but I didn’t. It’s difficult to adequately explain what it is in five minutes or less. So, I simply nodded and said, “Yes, it’s like that.” He asked what rank I was, and I said we didn’t have ranks or belts. I’ll give him credit. He persisted. He asked if I was an expert or a beginner. I said I was somewhere in between. Then, because I was highly amused by the conversation, I added that I was studying the Sword Form and the Sabre Form. I emphasized that weapons were my thing, and I snickered to myself at the look in the banker’s eyes.

After I left the bank, I thought more about the conversation. I want to emphasize that the banker did an excellent job in helping me with my problem. He was friendly, yet professional, and I’m not upset at his ignorance. I appreciate that he showed an interest when I mentioned taiji, even if it was beyond his ken. However, it underscored how esoteric taiji is to people who don’t practice it. I know, that’s not very insightful because anyone who has a niche hobby knows that people who don’t share the interest won’t know the ins and outs of the hobby. It’s too easy to forget that when you’re surrounded by other practitioners. I go to taiji classes three times a week and have been studying it for eight or nine years, so it’s as natural to me as breathing. The interaction with my banker reminded me that I’m an ambassador for taiji, which is pretty sad as I was the worst student ever for the longest time. One of the reason I started going to class three times a week was so that I’d actually practice on those three days. I didn’t practice at all outside of those classes for more years than I care to admit. I’ve changed that recently, but it’s still a fairly new habit. It’s also not what this post is about.

On the flip side of my banker thinking taiji is like karate are all the people who are squeamish about the fact that taiji is a martial arts. One of my everlasting gripes about how Americans view Asia is that they* think it’s all spiritual and mystical and shit. Asian culture is much richer than that, damn it. It’s similar to being called the model minority. Yes, it’s ostensibly a positive stereotype, but it still doesn’t allow Asians to be fully-rounded people. We are not just Mr. Miyagi, telling young Daniel to wax on and wax off. This is pertinent to taiji because many Americans practice it solely for the meditative benefits. When I mention on Twitter that I’m learning weapons, I get tweets back from women who are uncomfortable with the idea. Same when I say that I have used practice deerhorn knives to walk the circle, a practice from bagua, another martial arts.** Only women, which says something in and of itself. Middle class women are taught to be nice and not associate with anything remotely aggressive. Therefore, some are drawn to taiji because it’s perceived as gentle. Americans like to emphasize the meditative side of taiji, and it’s really easy to be lulled into thinking, “Oh, this is just stretching, like yoga!” Taiji is meditative, but it’s also a martial art, so there are weapon forms. Since it’s taiji, however, it doesn’t look as aggressive, necessarily as other martial arts weapons forms. To me, our Sword Form is as beautiful as it is deadly, and I love learning the applications of each posture.

That’s my favorite part of taiji by far, by the way–the applications. My main reason for learning a martial art was because I wanted to be able to defend myself, but I also wanted something that was an integrated martial art, not simply harnessing external power. After some research, I decided taiji was for me. I knew it would take years until I could actually use it in self defense, but it appealed to me because of the fact that it’s both martial and an art. I didn’t want anything with belts, and I didn’t want to have to wear a uniform. I preferred a female teacher, and I wanted something close to my home. I found all that with my current studio, and I walked in with trepidation. I’m not good at doing new things, and this was very much out of my comfort zone.  I would like to say that I took to it like duck to water, but that would be a lie. Everything in our lineage is based on the Solo Form, and, unfortunately for me, it’s my least-favorite part of taiji. Why? Because it emphasizes the health benefits aspect of taiji over the applications. Don’t get me wrong. I’m glad that taiji is good for my health. I’m glad that I can cover both aerobic exercise and weight-bearing exercise with it (different parts of it, of course). I’m glad that it’s helped me with my depression. I’m glad that I can walk through a crowd of people and instinctively know where the gaps are.

By the way, detour with me for a minute. One thing I truly appreciate about taiji is how it’s helped me with some of my physical and emotional issues. To put it bluntly, I’m a klutz. It’s because I have issues with my body, both with disassociating from it and with hating it, so I tend to treat it as if it doesn’t exist. Therefore, I trip on things or walk into walls on a regular basis. I have bruises on my body more often than not, and I don’t always know how I get them. Taiji hasn’t made me less of a klutz, but it has helped me cut done on the damage. How? Because I relax when I fall, run into things, trip over things, etc., so the impact is minimal. Twice in the last few years, I’ve fallen off a ladder. Both times, I realized that I was going to fall, there was nothing I could do about it, so I relaxed as I hit the ground. Both times, I walked away with nothing more than a bruise.

Emotionally, I’ve learned to be a bit more chill about dealing with negative situations. For example, my mom was here on her yearly visit, and we are like oil and water in terms of day-to-day demeanor. Since I live alone, I don’t talk much if any throughout the day. I like to stay in my own world, only interrupted by my cats. My mom, on the other hand, likes to narrate her thoughts throughout the day. She’ll tell me that she’s thinking of having lunch, but maybe she wants to go to the health center first, but then she has to go to Cub because she’s running out of bread, and she doesn’t like to drive at night, so she would prefer to go while there’s still light out. You can probably guess that I don’t give a shit about any of this, and in the past, I would just snap at her to get her to shut up. I know it doesn’t sound like much, but believe me, it’s annoying as fuck. Anyway, this time, I was able to tell myself, “Just don’t talk” for a second or two after she said whatever it is she needed to say, and when I actually said something, my tone was normal. Mind you, I still had the roiling in my brain, but it wasn’t nearly as bad as it’s been in the past. My mom even commented how nice it was that I was more positive and not as touchy as I used to be.

Again, it’s not that I didn’t have the anger or the nastiness in my brain; it’s that I had enough control not to blurt it out. Most of the time. I wasn’t perfect, but I was able to control myself about eighty percent of the time. This is the thing about the benefits of taiji–they’re not necessarily tangible or concrete. It’s not like other forms of exercise where you can gauge progress by things like, “Oh, this 12-pound weight is getting too light. I should move up to a 15-pound weight soon.” Or, “I used to run a mile in six minutes; now, I can run it in five minutes and fifty-three seconds.” I have to be content with vague-sounding statements like, “I’m less freaked out by unexpected events” and “I take less damage when I fall.” I also can take a look at how far I’ve come in the last eight years and be proud of my progress, even though it’s fairly slow.

In the video above, Master Liang is demonstrating the first section of the Solo Form. It’s graceful, yes, but each posture also has at least one if not several applications. As soon as Julie started teaching me the applications of the postures in the Solo Form, it became more interesting to me. Even my least favorite posture, Cloud Hands (which most people love. It’s the one you see in movies when people are doing taiji because it’s relatively easy to fake) is more tolerable because it has particularly nasty applications. This is something I’ve accepted about myself fairly easily–I love knowing the different ways I can break someone’s bones, even though I have no desire to ever use this knowledge. This is not something I talk about in polite company because as I mentioned above, most people are uncomfortable with this perceived love of violence, especially in a woman. It’s one reason I like my teacher so much–she feels the same and is not apologetic about it at all. She understands that knowledge is power and something to be desired for its own sake. She also stresses that the more lethal you become, the more responsibility you have to keep it in check.

It’s difficult to explain this without sounding like I’m bloodthirsty, which I really am not. I just love the beauty and the elegance of the postures, especially in the Sword Form. That’s really my jam, and I will probably write a whole post on it in the near future. I am comfortable with my love of weaponry, but I also recognize that it’s not something I can talk about with just anyone. That’s why I’m glad that I know people in taiji who feel the same way I do. Which is the point of communities in general–a shared commonality. In the meantime, I’ll enjoy the shocked looks I get from the general public when I mention that I’m a sword aficionado. Apparently, I still have some more evolving to do.


*Yes, I’m American, but for for the sake of clarity, I’m going to refer to Americans as they throughout this post.

**There was a time when I could not meditate, so my teacher had me substitute walking the circle instead.

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