One of my early Tai Chi teachers once asked us, 'What is it about Tai Chi that makes it Tai Chi?'
Most of us thought we knew the answer but, as various answers were rejected, it became clear that none of us could actually pinpoint what distinguished Tai Chi from anything else.
We came up with many answers, each in turn rejected: Tai Chi is slow, but so is just walking slowly; it is an exercise, but so is football; it is a meditation, but so is Zazen. Tai Chi is relaxing, but so is Yoga; it is Chi Kung, but it is not Wild Goose Chi Kung; it is a martial art, but very different from Karate. Tai Chi is self expression, but it is not dance; it is a breathing exercise, but not Pranayama; it is a method of personal growth, but not Psychoanalysis.
After a while we were all stumped. So what was the answer?
We were told that while all of the above were aspects of Tai Chi, the method (or chuan,) is distinguished by the 'separation of weight' so that we become 'single-weighted.' If what we are doing is not single-weighted, then it is not Tai Chi Chuan.
Single-weightedness is, indeed, one of the fundamental principles of Tai Chi. Hennessey quotes Cheng Man-ching on the matter as follows: 'You must support your entire weight by a single, full leg which is properly rooted. If both legs use energy at the same time you are double-weighted. The double-weighted Horse-stance posture in Shaolin is Tai Chi's most forbidden fault.'
As a consequence, each and every step in the form has to be performed by placing the foot on the floor without committing weight to the step. There is a separation between the step and the subsequent transfer of weight. It is not unlike walking in the dark when not sure if the floorboards under your feet will support your weight. One of Cheng Man-ching's '8 Methods' captures the feeling perfectly. He called it, 'Walking on Ice.' The method involves stepping in such a way as to test the thickness of the ice you walk on. The heel touches down gently and, slowly, more weight is transferred, as if listening for the tell-tale sounds of the ice cracking beneath the foot. By moving in this way, the foot can be retrieved at any time if there is a hole in the ice, or if it does not feel strong enough to take the weight.
Stepping in a single-weighted manner naturally limits the length of the step we can take as we must move the foot keeping the rest of the body still. Maintaining this principle in practice becomes very difficult because we can delude ourselves into thinking we are single-weighted when we are not, especially if there are competing ideas in our minds.
One of my most vivid early Tai Chi memories is of a seminar comprising of different teachers and their students. One well-known teacher believed that in order for the art to be truly martial, a long step was needed. To achieve his impressively long stance, however, he did not appear to be single-weighted.
One my classmates suggested as much to him. He responded by insisting that he was single-weighted and set about proving it by using the normal test, i.e. when the weight is transferred 100% on the back foot, it should be possible for the front foot to be lifted and held just off the ground with nothing else moving.
'Watch,' he commanded as he moved on to his back foot, body tilted forward and bottom sticking out, then lifted his front foot by moving his whole body back about 3 or 4 inches.
'See,' he continued assuredly, 'single-weighted!'
We all looked at each other. What could you say? In his mind, he had moved on to his back foot and lifted the front foot while the rest of the body was still. In our minds, that was precisely what he had not done. He clearly had to adjust by 3 or 4 inches in order to get the foot off the ground.
It is hard to know what to say in such a situation, but it at least offers an example of how easy it is to discount reality in favour of our own perception, especially when we so much want to achieve something.
The temptation to reach beyond a single weighed step is understandable if we have a view of how the form should look, or if a teacher emphasises the point strongly. I heard of one student's difficulty with a Chinese teacher. On stepping into one of the postures, his teacher said:
'Step not long enough.'
He took a longer step next time.
'Not single-weighted,' corrected the teacher.
He took a shorter but single weighted step.
'Step not long enough.'
A no-win situation.
The Squatting Single Whip is another part of the form where the temptation to make the posture look as spectacular as it can be leads to a double-weighted over-long step. Many of us have a problem accepting that our lack of flexibility and strength in our lower body means that the posture is less than elegant looking. The appearance of the Form, of course, is of secondary consideration to the maintenance of principle which should be our first concern. When correctly done, at the deepest point of the squat we should be single-weighted, i.e. we should be able to lift the front foot off the ground the height of 'a grain of rice' and hold it there. Very few of us can do that.
In the Tai Chi Classics moving in a single-weighted way is referred to as 'walking like a cat.' The image is one of a cat stalking its prey, only one paw moving at a time, stealthily closing in. This does not mean we should always walk like this; it has a specialised function and is both time and energy consuming. The normal 'controlled falling' way of walking is more efficient for day to day activities unless you only ever have to walk to your car door.
Of course, as we practice single-weightedness in the Form we see that, in common with all Tai Chi principles, there are deeper levels of understanding. The leg which does not bear the weight must be empty, i.e. relaxed. This is not as easy as may be supposed, as I found out when Mr Liu corrected my posture saying. 'Just because you have all the weight one on foot, it does not mean you are single-weighted. You must relax the unweighted leg as well.'
There is also the issue of pushing with the correct hand when doing push hands. Pushing with the same hand as the leg which carries most of the weight is also considered double weighting, negating all the good work done up to that point in separating weight in the legs.
So bearing in mind all of the above we have an idea of the basic requirement in our practice to keep within the bounds of what Cheng Man-ching and his most senior students would call Tai Chi. Unfortunately, life and Tai Chi is seldom that simple.
A difficulty lies when we hear statements like Dr. Chi Chiang-tao's 'You should practice Tai Chi twenty four hours a day,' or Cheng Man-ching's 'If you can maintain the chi in the tantien, you do not need to bother with the rest of the chuan.' Clearly, these are statements which suggest we can practice Tai Chi without even doing the Form, never mind being single weighted while doing so.
How do we reconcile these statements and the instructions on being single-weighed?
To resolve this problem we have to be clear about whether we are talking about the 'chuan' or the 'essence.' Are we talking about the exercise itself or what comes about by doing it correctly?
The 'essence' is not something easily explainable or conceptualised. It is precisely why we have a 'chuan'or method. We have to have a way to make concrete those often abstract ideas which continually deepen as we study them. Without a method like the Form or Push Hands, we would be unable to explore its properties and so would have to resort to describing the 'fleeting glimpse of its shadow' in terms more poetic than scientific. The Form with its insistence on single-weightedness gives us solid ground from which to venture out in our study of the energy in ourselves and in the world we live in. Even though we are 'beings of chi living in a world of chi,' we need to find some vehicle from which to explore this world and also a way of communicating with others on the same path.
I suppose it cannot be otherwise as, at the deepest level, the study of Tai Chi Chuan is the study of the Tao and, as Lao Tzu, reminds us 'The Tao that can be explained, is not the real Tao.
So where does this leave us in our search for 'the real Tai Chi?' I think the answer may be 'in humility.' It was for some time my fervent belief that, due to the quality of my teachers and the faithfulness of my practice, my way was, if not the only way to 'get it,' then certainly a very superior method.
Now, I am more open-minded. I practice what my teachers have taught and bother others with my opinions less. As my Aikido teacher once said 'If someone says they are a tightrope walker when they are not, then the rope does not wriggle around to knock them off, they will fall off by themselves.'
I like the Sufi parable about the master who wandering beside a lake one day, heard the sounds of the 'walking on water' mantra being chanted incorrectly from an island a little way from the bank. The master, full of compassion for the errant and wishing to teach the correct formula, found a boat and rowed across the water to the island. (He had not yet mastered the method himself and had to make do with the more conventional means of crossing, i.e. a boat.)
Arriving at the camp of a young Sufi novice, he instructed him in the correct words and their order. The novice was delighted at the intervention of so venerable a master and thanked him profusely for taking the time to help. Returning to the boat, the master set out for the bank, rightfully contented at his good deed in helping the young man. Cut short in his thoughts he looked up in astonishment to see the young novice running on the water shouting, 'Master, Master, come back, come back. I've forgotten the words.'
Tai Chi is an art particularly easy to feel superior about. There are few objective signs of achievement but a seemingly universal predilection to tell everybody else how to do it. I would enlarge upon Robert Smith's assertion that 'Americans do not want to learn Tai Chi, they want to teach it,' by saying, 'We Too.'
The confusion and argument over what is correct can be very dispiriting. It is better not to engage in it. Find a teacher you trust and believe in and practice as sincerely as you can. If you still have a body, mind and energy, you will, with sincerity, find your way.
So when is Tai Chi, not Tai Chi?
When you start fighting over it!