It is frequently observed by practitioners of "hard" martial arts such as Taekwondo or Karate that Taijiquan is ineffective as a fighting art . As it is generally taught and practiced today in the West it must be conceded that this is indeed so. As with any martial art, the fault lies not in the substance of the style but rather with the lack of combat realism employed in training methods. The rationale of any kind of training is that one will become skilled at what one practices. If the emphasis in training is on kata, then one will develop skill in form work. if the focus is on fixed-step push-hands, then that is the skill that will emerge after long training. If you break many bricks, you will become a great brick breaker. Nonetheless, there are those who believe that by simply persisting in the practice of solo forms in Taijiquan, over time will come high skill in employing the concepts and techniques of Taijiquan in practical application. Vague and mystical references are made to "internal energy" and "chi"; the lack of any combat realism in training is excused on the basis of Taijiquan's supposed superiority as an "internal" art, and it is claimed that by simply practicing the soft solo exercise, "extreme hardness" will develop. This sort of faith may be admirable but it is quite unrealistic. More importantly, it is based on a faulty premise. In reality, Taijiquan is rarely taught in the West as a fighting art OR as an internal art.
Without delving into the many sociological, psychological and cultural reasons, it must be admitted that the average Taijiquan student in the West has very limited interest in learning Taijiquan for self-defense. Most people take up the practice for spiritual development, health, stress management or relaxation and are attracted to Taijiquan due to it's reputation as an "internal" art. Unfortunately, few individuals ever really learn the true internal aspects of the art. What most people are taught is "softness", which unfortunately has become analogous with "internal". Thus it is assumed by teacher and student that if one practices the external postures while being soft, then one is practicing Taijiquan as an "internal" art. Actually, what one is doing is practicing an external art softly.
While the origins of Taijiquan remain obscure, it's evolution over the past three hundred years has clearly been a response to the recognition of it's therapeutic value. Some recent authors have said that this represents a return to Taijiquan's roots rather than a new direction. Exponents of this view believe that Taijiquan originated as Taoist qigong exercises which were later modified for self-defense purposes as the concept of yin and yang revealed it's usefulness in fighting applications. In any case, it is fair to assume that the continuing development of Taijiquan will likely involve emphasis on it's tremendous healing and health maintenance potential. At the risk of re-inventing the wheel, it would therefore seem prudent to re-examine why Taijiquan gained it's reputation as a healing art in the first place. Part of the answer may be found in the yin-yang theory which is the essence of Taijiquan.
The yin-yang theory holds that everything in nature consists of varying degrees of the positive and negative aspects, and that these two aspects are not oppositional but complimentary. The human central nervous system, which controls all of the body's organic functions, also consists of two complimentary components; The sympathetic nervous system is responsible for stimulating organic functions which are related to "fight or flight" - increased heart rate, increased blood pressure and respiratory rate, secretion of adrenaline, etc.. The parasympathetic nervous system works to induce what has been called the "relaxation response", comprising those organic responses which are the opposite of those generated by the sympathetic nervous system - lowered blood pressure, pulse rate and respiratory rate, suppression of adrenaline secretion, etc.. What we call stress is basically the cumulative result of the acute and chronic effects of an over-stimulated sympathetic nervous system. When this condition exists the nervous system is out of balance; the long term effects of this imbalance are just now beginning to be studied scientifically. The primary effect of the correct practice of Taijiquan is the stimulation of the parasympathetic nerve, which induces the "relaxation response". When this occurs the "fight or flight" response is inhibited, the negative effects of stress are eliminated and balance between the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems is restored. It is the sustained meditative state characterizing Chinese healing methods such as neigong and qigong that accomplishes this balancing in the central nervous system. This strong meditative component is frequently lacking in Taijiquan practice and so individuals believe that they must practice qigong exercises as an adjunct to Taijiquan in order for their training to truly be internal in nature. In reality, correct Taijiquan arguably incorporates the highest level of qigong practice although nowadays people approach them as if they were two different things. Primarily this is because most neigong and qigong methods employ specific internal instructions which require the uninterrupted concentration of the mind, while most people learn Taijiquan by mimicking external movement and then adding on "internal" concepts such as "sinking", "cultivating the chi", etc. Some neigong and qigong methods have distinct value because they are intended to promote healing in specific areas of the body. For example there are various methods for use in healing specific organs such as the kidneys, or to enervate and normalize the function of the endroncrine system. However for a healthy person correctly performed Taijiquan emerging from the concentrated use of the mind will maintain health without reliance on additional internal methods.
It is obviously easier to learn the external postures of Taijiquan than to apply the intense mental concentration which characterizes these and other internal methods. In the final analysis, however, the internal work emerges as the only approach which produces the transformation sought by most people who study Taijiquan. The internal work gives the cerebral cortex the rest it needs to harmonize the body's myriad organic functions, resulting in superb health, and this improved physical condition provides the ideal "environment" for the mind to apply the inner form. This process is the transformation which seems so mystical and elusive- the true harmony of the internal and external aspects, the yin and yang, the mind and body as one.
Sadly, many of the old internal methods of Taijiquan have not been transmitted intact to the present and some aspects of the inner form which have survived have been distorted or diluted due to the cultural gap and language barrier which exists between China and the West. The transmissions of inner form which are most accessible to the average Taijiquan student in the West are contained within what are known as the "taiji classics", a slim and decidedly abstruse assortment of writings which may or may not have been passed down to the present with their originally intended meaning. For the average student, the "classics" nonetheless provide a framework of basic principles, but otherwise are of limited value until one has achieved a certain level of proficiency in the art. This is mainly due to the way that all old martial arts "training manuals" in China were written, ie, they tell the student what he/she should be doing, but not how to do it. The goals of lifelong training are clearly presented, but the tasks that comprise the practical aspects of training are not. Many excellent translations of the "classics" exist, and fresh interpretations appear all the time. Almost without exception, translations of the "taiji classics" simply restate the goals differently; again, no specific methods for achieving those lofty goals are given to the struggling student. With so little practical instruction available the student looks to the "classics" and focuses on the goals of training rather than the work which must be done to reach those goals. A Chinese proverb states, "If you always have one eye on your destination, then you are left with only one eye with which to find your way."
The various methods of inner form which form the core training of the Northern Wu style taijiquan reveal themselves as practical training tools for actualizing the "taiji classics", making the wisdom of the "classics" accessible to all, regardless of one's personal level of development. The techniques serve as a model, always available for reference and mitigating the temptation to simply mimic the external movements of the teacher.
The elucidations of Taijiquan theory and training methods that have have been passed on to me by my lineage teachers are taken directly from the tradition of Northern Wu style taijiquan. Learning and applying these methods resulted in an gradual but steady and ever expanding metamorphosis in my practice of Taijiquan. For those others who have struggled to find a correct path, it is my sincere belief that applying this knowledge to your study will help you to find your way as well.