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Tai chi chuan is a Taoist martial art tradition originating in China that uses energy called chi, philosophical principles from the I Ching, and the physics of the human body to make things happen. I share tai chi with my students by teaching them the form–a series of movements–that my teacher taught to me that his teacher taught him and so on. Generation to generation of teachers handed down the form with little to no change since its founder Yang Lu Chan created it by modifying the form that his teachers taught him.
Each movement in the form corresponds to a hexagram of the I Ching, a system of thought about the way the world works. I Ching hexagrams are six-level symbols of broken and unbroken lines. Broken lines represent the yin-concept, which is associated with feminine, receptive, and yielding energies. Unbroken lines represent the yang-concept, which is associated with masculine, penetrating, and assertive energies. By knowing the hexagram for a movement and applying the six levels to your body from head-to-toe, you have an intellectual understanding your body should be doing at those levels while performing the movement. It’s a choreography that is part of the reason why tai chi is sometimes called a dance.
Although the form is the same, I help each student learn how to perform it based upon their unique body architecture. If you have flat feet, your body will inevitably will step differently than someone who has a developed arch in their foot. Both of you have to learn how to perform the principles embedded in the hexagram for repulse the monkey. Through the practice of the form, each practitioner has the opportunity to learn how the I Ching principles can be embodied through their body. I don’t want my students to be carbon copies of me. I want them to find their own phrasing, their own way of expressing the principles given their instrument–the body.
The tai chi form is practiced relatively slowly. The slow pace allows the practitioner to bring their full attention to each moment within each movement. By being present to/within those moment, we can experience eternity. In slowing down the movement, practitioners are able to experience more fully what is happening in every part of their body. It’s an amazing experience to realize everything your body is doing and communicating when you allow yourself to be receptive to it. This sensitivity is key to the critical consciousness of decolonizing our bodies, minds, and spirits. To know what you feel, you have to be aware of what you feel.
Through practicing the form and learning I Ching, students develop a tai chi vocabulary. Once they have a vocabulary, I introduce push hands practice–a partnered exercise–to give them the opportunity to express the vocabulary in conversation with someone else. In push hands practice, students gain an understanding of their bodies in relationship with the body of another. Their awareness expands from the (intra)personal to the interpersonal. Push hands practice gives us an opportunity to reflect upon how we move and groove in our relationships with others, our tendencies and preferred ways of engaging other people, and how we work within/through conflict.
Because of the desensitization process of imperialist white supremacist capitalist heteropatriarchy, we are not conscious of all the ways we have been socialized to be in relationship to others, work within/through conflict, and handle threats to our positionality. Push hands practice provides a forum to become conscious of this socialization, practice disrupting it, and learn more productive alternatives. Push hands is practice for decolonizing our relationships.